Disclaimers: In chapter one.
Koda gives the communications handset back to Johnson, who returns to her own sleep, taking the unit with her. The women they have left at Camp Sitting Bull will be safe. Koda has just spoken with her cousin Manny, briefly and in Lakota to avoid detection by the droids.
“Shic’eshi,” she greets him.
“Makshké,” he answers in Lakota.
“Listen, this has got to be quick.. Winan iyoheyapi ekta Mandan—hochoken Tatanka Watanka.”
“Iyeyathi,” he promises.
“Wakan Tanka nici un.”
She paces for a time, restless. The moon is in her blood again this night, and Koda slips quietly across the perimeter of the camp and onto the shore of the frozen lake beyond. She passes Martinez on his sentry rounds, accepting his salute quietly with a murmured acknowledgement and a nod. The feeling of disquieting familiarity with the office of command slips along her veins beside the other summons. It is something, she now knows, she will have to deal with, though when or how is not certain.
Her grandfather would have known how to confront this new aspect of herself. But then again, he would not have needed or wanted to be forewarned. “Well, Tshunkila,” he would have said. “It will come when all such things come--when you have no time for it and when you are not prepared. Any fool can deal with a challenge that comes in broad daylight across an open field. Only a real warrior or a true winan wakan will survive an ambush.”
Fox had been Tunkashila’s name for her then. Fox Ears, her mother had sometimes amended when she found Koda had overheard some dully adult thing that wasn’t “fit” for a child. Mostly about sex, of course, but how many times could you see the stallion stand with the mares and your baby brother out of his diapers, and not figure it out? Then there was the other thing she’d figured out, with no assistance from the horses, and her mother had simply kissed her and said, “Yes, I thought so.” Once, teasing, Tali had sworn she had married Koda just to have a decent mother-in-law.
A yard or so from the edge of the ice, a sandstone outcropping thrusts up through the snow. Koda brushes the powdery new fall off the top of the boulder, clambers up and settles crosslegged, facing north. Between the tops of the pines and the moon, now just off the full, the Northern Lights flare across the sky in ripples of green and blue and gold and lilac. Her grandfather had called them the outrunners of waziya ahtah, the blizzard, but she had pointed to them one night and said, “Wápata, tunkashila.” “Flags?” he had asked, laughing, and she had insisted, “Banners, of many warriors on great horses, wearing gold.” He had looked at her then, long and hard, and she had seen decision form in his eyes. He had said only, “You are the one I will teach.”
He had taught her what she is about to do now. Laying her hands on her knees and closing her eyes, she begins to breathe slowly and deeply. Gradually she becomes aware of the breath as it passes in and out of her lungs, follows the thrum and hiss of her own blood as it beats in throat and ankle. She begins to chant softly to the rhythm of her body’s drum, first in its own tempo, then slowing and feeling her heart slow with it. Hey-ah. Hey-ah. Heeyy-aaahh. It is the blood song, one of the first of her grandfather’s teachings. It can be used to stop bleeding, in human or birthing mare or wire-entangled deer. Or it can be used as she uses it now, to quiet the noise of physical life and let the spirit slip free.
When the chant has slowed almost to stillness, she feels herself rise upward, out of her body, past the trees and the floating banners. Above her the stars flare close and huge, cold as the northern ice below them. And there again is the errant one, the low small sphere pacing its round. Not a meteor, then. It is in part this thing that calls to her, though she cannot tell why. Nor does it hold her long. Across the snow fields she hears again the wolf pack racing under the waning moon, calling to each other in the chase. Calling to her, Tshunka Wakan Winan of the Lakota people, to run with them.
She follows the baying as she slides along the air, miles slipping away under her with a thought. When she finds them, they are a string of dark shadows, moving over the snow in great leaping bounds from north to south across a rise. As she descends, she feels the beginning of the change come over her. Her spine reconfigures itself, hips and shoulders twisting beneath its line. Eyes and ears become almost unbearably keen. She hears each padded footfall as it breaks the crust of the snow, sees each hair in the feathery ruff of each wolf as they streak toward her, never breaking stride.
As the big male in the lead passes by her, she swings into the line after him. She feels her spine coil and release with each plunge into the snow, feels the power as muscles of hip and thigh lift her free of it again and into the air. Yellow eyes gleam like fireflies around her; the breath of a dozen mouths streams behind her in a plume. It is only gradually that she becomes aware that there is something strange in this running. There is no crashing of underbrush as escaping prey flees before them; her nose catches no scent of elk or deer or antelope.
She senses amusement from the pack leader at her discovery, and something that, had it been a human word, would have been, “Wait.”
A mile further along, she picks up the scent—wolf-like but not, with faint but still perceptible overtones of human. Dog. Male. A ripple of tension runs through the lower-ranking members of the pack behind her, but she senses nothing of threat or fear in the lead male. Instead there is purpose, and the feeling of a task almost completed.
When they come upon him at last he is stretched out along a fallen log in a larch-pine clearing, front paws straight out in front of him, the brush of his tail draped elegantly to one side, facing forward with ears erect. Almost, she thinks, as if he has been waiting for them. And almost—almost he is familiar to her. A big dog, almost as large as the alpha wolf, with silver fur on face and flank, legs and belly, marked with a black saddle and a four-pointed black star between his eyes.
The pack comes to a halt, and the stranger descends to meet them. He sniffs noses with the leader, and they stalk around each other stiff-legged for a moment, tails straight up, hackles rising. Then the dog steps back, lowering his head to make submission. The ritual repeats itself down the line. Then the pack wheels and sets off south again, running under the moon toward the frozen lake and the small band of humans encamped there.
When Koda’s spirit comes again into her body, her muscles are sore, and she is painfully hungry. Sound asleep on the rock beside her is a large silver and black German Shepherd. Levering herself up, she grabs him by the scruff of the neck and gives him a shake. “C’mon, boy,” she says. “Let’s go find something to eat.”
Walking up to the retinal sensor, Kirsten experiences a feeling of terror unknown in her life before this time. If she fails this one simple test, she will be killed outright. No second chances, no recriminations. Dead. As a doornail, as her father has been known to say on occasion. Her analytical mind could never quite make sense of that particular idiom before, but now it seems painfully clear.
Taking hold of a deep breath, Kirsten steps in front of the sensor and prays her contacts will do their job.
The wait seems interminable and she has time to see various scenes of her life flash through her mind in all their Technicolor glory. She hears a soft hum, and has only time enough to think I’m a dead woman before the gate slides noiselessly open and she steps through, unencumbered and still very much alive.
She fights to keep her face, and body, completely without expression as her eyes trail over what she first takes to be scattered hillocks in the snow. It is only on further, seemingly casual, inspection that she notices those hillocks are actually snow-covered bodies, left to die, and freeze, where they have fallen.
Don’t start, K. Don’t stare. You’re an emotionless android. Remember that, or you’ll be joining your frozen friends here.
Thus fortified, she begins the trek across the wide expanse of grounds toward the large, low-slung and windowless building directly ahead. It looks more like a bomb shelter than a business, but given that the facility is, for the most part, a fully self contained unit, and further given that the androids that operated there wouldn’t appreciate an outside view, Kirsten supposes it all makes sense.
A second retinal scanner awaits her at the main entrance to the building, and she isn’t nearly as petrified to step before it. A half-second later, a small beep tells her she’s been processed and her identity accepted. The door hisses open and she slips easily through.
The normalcy of the scene boggles her. For one heart-stopping moment, it seems as if the events of the recent past have been swept clean, like the cobwebs of a nightmare upon full awakening. She could be walking into her own lab, nodding pleasant good mornings to her employees as they bustle by, intent on one task or another. If she looks hard enough, wishes hard enough, she can almost see Peterson, her gangly, nerdish assistant, start toward her in his peculiar, shuffling gait, steaming cup of strong black coffee in one freckled hand.
It is a dangerous mind trap when there is no hope, and Kirsten only manages to scramble out when she notices the shining silver bands around the necks of what she now recognizes to be androids.
A hard bite to the inside of her cheek jerks her back into reality. With only a slight hitch in her step, she continues forward with all the poise and confidence she can manage. The first of the wireless messages tickles her implants with its stream of incoming data, and within seconds, the building’s entire layout is completely known to her, as if she’d been drawn a map. She finds herself surprised by the low hum of verbal communication between the droids, never having figured that, in the absence of humans, the droids would still resort to speaking to one another aloud. There isn’t much conversation, to be sure, more like the low hive-drone one would hear in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, but it is there nonetheless. It’s very presence is something she’ll have to carefully consider. Help or hindrance, she doesn’t know.
Passing into a long down-slanting hallway, she peers off to the left, where a bank of polarized windows gives her a view into one of what she knows is many “clean rooms” where the droids and their component parts are assembled.
She pauses a moment to wonder at the perfect, robotic efficiency of the androids as they assemble their fellows. There’s not a wasted movement, not a second’s hesitation as they go about their work with a single-minded focus which nothing can interrupt. She can’t help but feel a bit of professional envy as she looks on. The scientist in her admires the extreme proficiency even as the human in her screams out its rage.
With a quick jerk of her head, she draws her eyes away from the scene and continues her walk through the hall. Several more doors, each guarded by the ever-present retinal sensor, bar her way, but she passes each test and is admitted further and further into the true nerve center of the facility.
She passes few androids this deep, and those she does pass don’t give her so much a look as she walks by. She’s been accepted, simple as that, and she suppresses a smirk only by the strongest of will, knowing their efficiency in such matters may, if she is supremely lucky, ultimately be their undoing.
Finally, she reaches her destination. The door slides open and she steps in.
At last, an island of humanity in a sea of androids. The small room smells of stale smoke, stale coffee, stale sweat, and stale food, and she can’t ever remember savoring a scent more than she does at this very moment in time.
Her gaze is caught by a framed picture on the desk, facing outward. A family of four smiles for the camera, their expressions innocent and carefree, their family bond evident beyond their similar looks. The two girls, obviously twins, bear identical gap-toothed grins. Where are they now? Kirsten wonders, drawn to the photo in a way she can’t understand. Dead, most likely. Killed, indirectly, by the very person who likely shot the picture. Their father, the man who sat in this very room controlling this mini empire that churns out death by the hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands. She wonders if he ever understood the irony she sees now, staring into the sweet, innocent eyes of these two girls who will never grow up to have girls of their own.
She shakes her head to dispel the thought, knowing if she freezes now, she’s dead, with the rest of humanity likely following in short order.
Walking over to the battle-scarred desk, she lays her laptop atop it, then slowly circles the room, examining it from every angle by the light of the harsh overhead fluorescents. Bank upon bank of softly humming CPUs, stacked from the cool tiled floor to nearly the ceiling, take up three of the four walls. The front wall is a massive bank of monitors, each tuned to a different part of the facility. Each screen shows the androids hard at work, never wavering from the task of creating others of their kind. Never wavering, never pausing, never stopping; they are relentless in pursuit of their preprogrammed goal.
She returns to the desk, pulls out the chair, and seats herself in its faux-leather comfort. While the desk has seen better decades, the computer is spanking new and top-of-the-line. It is also fully booted and running, though a password prompt blinks at her ominously. She knows she can crack the password easily, but it will likely leave a trace if she forces it.
Contemplative, her gaze settles upon the photograph once again. In a plastic frame, the back of the picture is easily visible. Childish letters are scrawled across the back. Squinting slightly, Kirsten tries to decipher the scribbling.
Happy Father’s Day Daddy! Love, Adam, Ashely and Amber.
Returning to the monitor, she types in a string of letters and hits the “enter” button.
A welcome screen appears and, smirking, Kirsten prepares to get down to work.
Her heart then jumps into her throat when the door buzzes softly and opens, admitting a male droid. Her implants hum as a long data stream flows into them. The stream abruptly stops and the droid eyes her, clearly expecting a response. She sends a silent thank-you heavenward for her contacts, which, she hopes, hide the deer-in-the-headlights look she’s sure she’s wearing.
“I am a biodroid, IC6-47A, and am not programmed to respond in the way you are expecting.”
If it were possible for an android to show surprise, Kirsten is sure it would be showing some now. After a second’s hesitation, it speaks. “I received no communication that this room was to be occupied. Explain your presence here, BD-1499081.”
Kirsten, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate. “I have not been programmed with the requisite information to aid in assembly of the units. I came to offer my services as a data technician. When I noticed that this office was unoccupied, I set to work. If there is another task that you wish me to perform, I shall comply with your orders to the best of my capabilities.”
Another moment’s hesitation as the android runs the possible responses through its microchip mind. Kirsten fancies that she can almost hear the circuits humming.
“Negative. Continue with your duties here. You will be notified if other tasks require your presence.”
Kirsten returns her attention to the computer screen without acknowledgement, and it is only after she hears the door slip closed that she allows herself to sag against the desk. The taste of fear coats her mouth, high and bright, like copper, or what she imagines copper might taste like. Her heart pounds, and she can feel the tickle of sweat as it beads across her temples and her upper lip.
“Jesus,” she breathes, wiping it away. “That’ll teach you to get cocky, King. Now just get to work.”
Her fingers fly over the keys again, opening and closing screens in the blink of an eye. The database is massive, larger even than she thought it would be. The security is immense and she knows it will take hours, even days, just to break through that alone. Doing it live will assure her nothing but a quick death.
With a deep sigh, she draws her laptop closer and sets it up for a wireless transfer. Downloading the massive database onto her laptop adds time she cannot afford, but she can think of no other options. The codes she needs are buried deep, she knows, and only patience will yield the harvest she’s after.
Ten hours later, the download is almost completed, and Kirsten sags back in her chair, resisting the urge to rub her burning eyes. Eyestrain has given her a headache strong enough to fell a moose, and her stomach howls out its emptiness while her kidneys throb and ache like rotting teeth. Grimacing, she damns herself for forgetting the most important thing of all. Androids, no matter how human they seem, have no need for the intake of food or liquids, nor the elimination of same. Not even biodroids, which are the most “human” of all.
Suppressing a groan, she uses the edge of the desk to help push her to feet gone numb with extended inactivity. The world around her grays out momentarily as her head swims and her muscles tremble. Tending since a child toward hypoglycemia, she realizes that ten hours at a computer with nothing to eat or drink has put her in a bad spot.
Stupid, her mind helpfully supplies. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She grasps the desk tighter as her head spins, and for a long moment, it’s a tossup as to whether or not she’s going to faint. With true desperation, she manages to release her grip long enough to claw open the top drawer of the desk, pawing through assorted pencils, pens and paperclips until her fingers touch what can only be a cellophane wrapper. As she grabs for purchase, the wrapper slips further back into the desk, and she scrapes along the skin of her forearm diving in after it.
Finally, managing to snag the object between two trembling fingers, she yanks back and pulls out her prize; a red and white striped mint.
“Thank you, God,” she whispers, twisting the wrapper off and shoving the hard candy into her mouth. The glucose in the candy hits her system almost immediately, calming the tremors, easing her headache slightly, and lending her a much needed strength. This high won’t last long, and she knows it, but for now, as it’s all she has, it will have to do.
Reaching down, she presses several buttons on her still downloading laptop. Two small chips exit into her hands. After a moment of thought, she reaches down the neck of her shirt and deposits the backup chips into the cups of her bra, shifting slightly to settle them comfortably beneath her breasts.
Then, taking steady, deliberate steps across the office, she stands before the door sensor and continues through the portal as it opens.
It’s as if nothing has changed during her ten hours of isolation, and indeed, nothing has. The same droids stand before the same stations doing the same work in the same manner. While she feels as if shattered glass has replaced her bones and joints, the androids all look newly-minted.
Seeing this and, perhaps, fully realizing its implications for the first time, a depression far blacker than any she’s experienced before hovers over her like a blanket. For the smallest of instants, she struggles with the mighty temptation to just let it fall; to wallow in the solace it seems to offer her.
How can I hope to defeat this? Alone. I’m alone with all this surrounding me. Dear God.
A remnant of a recent dream slides before her eyes and she gazes, from a distance, at the old woman (Goddess? Earth? Who?) she has promised to help. Another memory of childhood hours spent in catechism melds with the vision.
Mother, please take this cup from my lips.
The non-answer is all the answer she needs. She must drink the brew, no matter the bitterness. For one crystal second, she feels a sense of profound empathy with the plight of a man she’s not sure ever existed.
This Savior stuff really sucks.
Cheered by her mind’s wicked turn—sacrilege has always done that for her—she tosses off the threatening depression and continues onward, a new strength to her step and her emotions.
“You sure you know where this thing is?”
“Sure, I’m sure.,” Reese answers, consulting his global positioning readout for the hundredth time. “Start poking”—he takes a last look at the sky, turning to take in the whole circle of the horizon—“right about—over—there.” He points to a patch of snow in no way distinguishable from the flat expanse of white that stretches out all about them, unbroken except for the low, dark silhouette of buildings to the north. Minot Air Force Base, probably the most secure military facility in the Western hemisphere, is about to be burglarized by a couple of ragtag platoons strung together from at least three different branches of the armed services, a veterinarian and a dog.
Not for the first time, Koda feels as though she has dropped down the rabbit hole on Alice’s heels. Her universe has become an unstable place where not even an Oxbridge jackrabbit in a Saville Row suit would surprise her. She watches as her soldiers—and there it is again, her soldiers—set to work prodding at the drifts, using tent poles, shovels, their own feet. Koda herself scans the distant buildings through high-powered binoculars, searching for signs of movement, sweeping the sky for the inevitable gunship that should by rights be strafing them to ribbons at this instant.
Nothing on the long ,rippled avenues of unbroken white that her map tells her are Bomber Boulevard and the miles-long runways. Nothing among the hundred and fifty Minuteman III ICBM silos arrayed along their looping tracks, folded and refolded like the guts of some huge animal. Her men are the only moving things against the dead white of the landscape, the only color, the only sound. High above, a solitary hawk etches a spiral against the hard blue sky, riding the thermal created by the base’s presence. Now and again the sun catches the rust-red of her tail feathers as she banks in her turnings, and a high-pitched kreeee-eeeerr spills through the air. The morning holds a strange stillness, as if time has wound down to a crawl.
Absently Koda reaches down to pat the big dog who ha become the troop’s mascot overnight. MRE—so christened because he is the only being they have ever met who seems to enjoy the pre-packaged rations—thumps his tail, sweeping out a one-winged snow angel behind him. He, too, is remarkably quiet, all the rambunctiousness run off him the night before. And he, too, seems to be waiting.
A sudden scrape of metal against concrete brings a shout from Andrews. “Got, it, Ma’am!”
MRE at her heels, Koda moves away from the parked snowmobiles to watch as the troops brush the snow from a cement platform perhaps a meter high and ten across, looking for the much smaller personnel hatch that should be somewhere near the perimeter. As expected, the entrance is sealed; a winking green telltale light signals its connection to the rest of the Base’s security system. There is almost certainly a manual lock, too.
“Ma’am?” It is Andrews again.
Without warning, in a single word, the ambush her grandfather had warned her about is upon her. Koda can turn responsibility back to the Lieutenant and walk away from the instinct for command that she now knows to be grappled to her bones. She can deny the power that lures her with the easy excuse of familiarity. Leave the job to professionals.
Or she can give the order that will commit the lives of these men and women to mortal hazard. Once the hatchway is breached, an alarm will flash across monitor screens in the Base’s control rooms, tripping klaxons, giving them away as surely as if they had marched up to the front gate and asked politely to come in. Once into the silo, they will be trapped, easy prey for defenders human or android.
“Reese,” she says. “You’re absolutely sure this is the way your father showed you into the command shelter? Absolutely?”
“Yes’m.” He nods toward the electronic device in his hand. “My dad was a flight commander, and he told us to get in through here if missiles ever came over the Pole. We wouldn’t be allowed in, normally.”
“All right. Hanson.”
“Set the charge.”
Hanson opens a small case he has carried with him ever since Rapid City, extracting a small packet with vari-colored protruding wires. It looks not unlike a spider, and Hanson sets about attaching it to the outside locking mechanism. “One Black Widow Special, coming up!”
The effect is remarkably modest. The plastic explosive emits a muffled thump, a bit of smoke. But when Koda comes up from her crouch, a foot-wide hole gapes in the entry cover, clearly exposing the lever beneath. Hanson reaches into the opening and turns the bar. Reaching for her flashlight, Koda plays the beam down the steeply descending spiral staircase. “Stay,” she says to MRE, and steps carefully into the darkness of the rabbit hole.
Were it not for the light of the moon on the mostly virgin snow, the darkness would be complete. No overhead lights, no flickering headlights, not even a flashlight carried loosely by a careless night watchman to bisect the encompassing black.
With a deep, though silent, breath, Kirsten steps forward, tripping the infrared beam and causing the outer door to slide open. The cold hits her immediately and she fights her weakened body’s urge to step back into the warmth of building. Her bladder pangs, its summons unimpeachable, and her course is decided.
Hatless, gloveless, and without more than a simple woolen sweater to protect her from the arctic night, she knows that her needs must be attended to with the speed of lightning, or she’ll join the snow-covered corpses already liberally scattered over the grounds.
One step leads to another, and another. Completely numb, her strides take her along the building’s faux-brick walls as her mind plays over the locations of the security cameras and the blind spots between each. The snow beneath is white and virgin. None have come this way, and this gives her hope as she sticks to the shadows created by the roof’s slight overhang.
She’s not alone. She can feel them out there, somewhere. She can’t see them, can’t hear them, but she knows they’re there, just as she knows that if they choose to, they can see and hear her as if she were standing in the brightest sunshine no more than a foot away.
Her nape hairs stand at stiff attention. Adrenalin floods her body in a fight or flight instinct old as time. Still, her bladder urges her onward and it is only with the strongest of wills that she prevents her numb, wooden legs from shambling into a quick, and deadly, sprint.
Finally, she comes to a spot that her senses tell her will be adequate for her needs. Leaning against the wall for support, her deadened fingers fumble with the button and zipper on her jeans as her bladder gives out its final warning. Hands curled into claws yank her jeans down at the last possible instant, and she can’t help the soft groan that issues from her lips as she finally finds the relief she’s sought.
Her eyes dart furtively, knowing that if she’s caught in this position, her life is forfeit.
Koda leads her troops down the spiral stairs of the silo, booted feet clanging on metal risers behind her. It is cold here, brutally cold, surrounded as they are by struts and platforms of reinforced steel that rise up toward them out of the pit like the bones of some Mesozoic beast. Their breath makes a mist about them, shot through with the beams of their torches. Before them, behind them, beside them at every turn looms the hundred-and-fifty-foot bulk of the Minuteman IV missile, set as softly into its cradle of springs and blast absorbers as an egg into isinglass. Under the shell of its nosecone lie multiple warheads, each bearing death in a blaze of light. A shudder passes through her that has nothing to do with the frigid air. Like all the people of the high plains, Koda has known life long of the dragons sleeping beneath her earth, has known that one day fire may rain down from the sky and parch to ashes the land and all its living.
And now the end of days is upon them in truth, and it is nothing foreknown except in the lightly-dismissed rantings of a handful of Luddites and the gut-deep discomfort of folk like her own family. Ambush, just as her grandfather had said.
Three turnings of the stair bring them to a steel door. A keypad is built into its handle; a small glass circle at head height is obviously a retinal scan. Koda steps to one side. “Hanson.”
Hanson rigs the small shaped device in matter of seconds. “Okay folks,” he says, “Black Widow II. Duck and cover.”
The charge is smaller than the one used to break open the hatch above, but here the report of the explosion clangs off the steel plates of floor and ceiling, loose-mounted to survive shock, reverberates off the steel pylons that rock the sleeping monster in its springs, sets their coils to humming. The clatter echoes and reechoes around the length of the missile itself, settles finally like thunder walking over the men and women huddled in the dark, hands clamped futilely against their ears. It is, Koda thinks, like being trapped inside John Bonham’s drumkit about halfway through “Dazed and Confused,” with all the tower amps turned up to max.
When the puff of smoke clears, Koda motions Martinez and Larke forward with their crowbars. More clanging as they work the forked ends of the pries between the door and the jamb, and at last it creaks open. Six feet ahead of them is another entry just like it. In normal use—if nuclear war could be considered “normal,” ever—neither door would open unless the other were closed. The arrangement reminds Koda of the sterile airlocks found in medical labs, sometimes in surgical theaters. She turns to the tapping of a hand against her shoulder to see Hanson mouthing “Ma’am?” at her.
“Go on, do the other one.”
Again the silent goldfish “Ma’am?” and Koda realizes that he is shouting at her. He cannot, obviously, hear her, either.
She points toward the other blast door, and he nods, motioning her and the couple other soldiers who have followed them out of the airlock. He gives the timer an extra sixty seconds, and he and Andrews push the first door almost shut behind them before the charge detonates. This time it is not nearly so painful. Either we’re all stone deaf, or the door did the job. But the ringing in her ears is already less, and she can hear her own voice, high and tinny, yelling, “Come on!” to the men and women behind her.
The second blast door opens onto a long corridor that is nothing but a bridge suspended inside a twelve-foot wide pipe. Koda’s flashlight plays over arm-thick cables hanging from their staples in loops like boa constrictors. The floor of the passage sways beneath their feet, and from somewhere back in the line, Johnson yells “Break step!”
The tunnel seems to go on forever into the darkness, and its swaying beneath her feet calls up childhood panics: her first time on the high diving board with only one way down through an infinity of empty air; daring Phoenix to walk the two-by-four laid over the twenty-foot drop from the hayloft to the barn floor; making her way along an eight-inch wide deer trail after an injured fawn, with sheer rockface to her left and an even sheerer sixty-foot plunge into a frozen creek on the right. She stifles the impulse to run and get it over with.
Showing fear is not an option. Not now; maybe never again.
After what seems like an eon in Purgatory, the tunnel ends at another door. This one, by miracle or negligence, is not locked, and they emerge into the missile crew’s living quarters. They plunge down another three flights of metal stairs, passing the ghostly remains of lives passed here beneath the earth in the imminent expectation of holocaust: beds still neatly made, a table with a game of checkers still half-played. On the bottom floor is a common area with a wide-screen television and disc player; a pool table; a stove and refrigerator; and a wall papered with photographs of families, wives and husbands, parents and children. Koda takes it all in at a glance as they sweep through, heading for yet another stretch of tunnel that will lead them into the command center and ultimately, if Reeves is right, into daylight inside the shelter compound that now serves as the droid factory.
The bridge here sways, too, but it is only a fraction of the length of the distance from the silo to the crew quarters. In the darkness of their approach, Koda can see green and amber telltales winking on control panels and the soft glow of monitor screens. This area must have its own generator, but there is no time to search for a light switch. Guided by the beams from the flashes, they make for the staircase leading upward into the darkness. Koda has her foot on the first step when the field telephone buzzes.
Johnson has the pack. She answers, listens for perhaps five seconds and says, “Ma’am, it’s the Colonel.”
Koda takes the handset. “Rivers. What is it?”
Allen’s voice comes through blurred by distance and thirty feet of earth and concrete. “Abort mission immediately. Return to base.”
“We’re almost into the compound yard, Colonel.”
“I don’t care where you are, Rivers. Get yourself and your people out. Now.”
“I can’t do that, Colonel,” she says quietly. “There’s something or someone here I have to find. We’ve been over this.”
“Goddammit—“ Maggie pauses, and when she speaks again, her voice is even. “There are half a dozen F-18’s on their way to bomb Minot right now. I couldn’t talk the Base Commander out of it. The planes were in the air before I knew; they’ve been up for fifteen minutes. Get out. Get out now.”
“Understood. Over and out.” Koda clicks off and hands the set back to Johnson. She turns to the soldiers behind her, their faces in semi-shadow or starkly lit by their torches. “The Colonel informs me that the General at Ellsworth has called an immediate strike on this facility. I intend to go on. The rest of you get topside and prepare to leave the area. If I don’t come back within twenty minutes, or you see or hear the planes coming, get out.”
There is no movement behind her. “Turn around,” she yells. “Go!”
“I volunteer to accompany you Ma’am.” It is Andrews, but his offer is drowned almost immediately in the shouting. “Yeah!” “Right on!” “Me too!”
Oh Christ. There is no time for this. She cannot stop to argue with them. “All right, count off by ones and twos.” They obey her, reluctantly, knowing what she intends. “Now. Ones come with me. Twos prepare vehicles for departure. Make sure you strap MRE in good and tight. Eighteen minutes. Now, let’s go!”
This time they do as ordered, and the thunder of feet in the tunnel carries to her even as she storms up the staircase to the roof of the command center and its hatch. She silently thanks all the gods when the handle turns beneath her hand and she pushes it open onto moonlit snow. Her vision, already dark-adapted, sharpens. She is in an open yard between buildings, punctuated here and there by shadowed hummocks that she realizes must be the frozen corpses of the installation’s human workers. Above, its feathers bleached by the cold light, an owl drifts by on soundless wings.
“Stay here while I scout,” she says, and steps out into the empty space.
After a seeming eternity, her bladder is finally emptied and she yanks her jeans back up over flesh as warm and as feeling as the inside of a metal freezer door. Taking several careful and agonizing steps away from her midden, she stoops on frozen knees, scoops up a handful of snow, and shoves it into her mouth, sucking and chewing as fast as she is able.
A brilliant spike of pain knifes into her brain, almost toppling her to the ground, but she continues feeding the snow into her mouth, her body desperate for the moisture it offers.
Then she freezes as her implants detect a sound almost directly in front of her.
Just as she shuts the door behind her , Dakota senses something and looks to her left. There, crouched against the building, is a figure. It is short and female-shaped, with pale hair that falls over a high forehead. Moonlight glints off the dark optics and titanium throat-band of an android.
“Bastard!” Koda spits, and raises her gun to fire, setting the sight just between those wide, limpid eyes.
And that’s the end of another week’s episode here on The Growing! Pretty crappy thing to be ending there isn’t it. <G> But, that’s why we call this a Serial, donchaknow.
Here’s also a note to tell you that we are going to take our week seven hiatus at this point and take a couple of weeks off to catch up and whathave you before we continue on with things. Rest assured that episodes eight, nine and ten are completely written and the next episode will be posted after a two week break.
Until then, thanks for reading! firstname.lastname@example.org for any feedback and/or threats you care to send our way.
Continued - Part 8
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