Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha Directed by: TNovan
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
The light from the setting moon shines into the window as Koda wakens and slips out of the too-narrow, too-short bed. Placing her stockinged feed carefully on the floor, she uses the moon’s light and her own uncanny hearing to determine the positions of her two youngest brothers, snoring softly on the floor directly ahead. Housing space being pinched as it is, Phoenix and Washington now share this room, and both had spent the better part of the evening before begging and cajoling their eldest sister to spend her last night at home with them. It took even longer for her to finally give up and agree to use the one bed they both shared, which had, as she’d predicted, made for a mostly sleepless night for her.
Straightening, she suppresses a groan as her stiffened and cramped muscles protest the abrupt change in position. She arches, hearing her spine crack along its length, then freezes as one of her brothers—Phoenix, she thinks—snuffles at the disturbance, turns, and falls back into a deep sleep.
Think I’m gonna need a Maggie Allen special when I get back.
The tiny smirk slides from her face as she realizes that this is the first time she has thought of Maggie in three days.
On the other hand, at odd times during those same days, she’s found thoughts of the scientist, Kirsten King, sliding effortlessly into her mind. Random thoughts, really, nothing very specific. That they’re there at all is somewhat of a surprise to her, however. Surely she has better things to think about than how that radiant smile had transformed the young woman into someone beyond beautiful, or how her eyes sparkled like clear-cut emeralds. Or even how her hair, so reminiscent of the summer sun, might feel to her fingers.
Jesus, Dakota. You already have a woman who shares part of her life, and her bed, with you. Who respects you and cares for you. Why the interest in an arrogant, overbearing, closed minded, closed mouthed scientist who has about as much warmth as a North Dakota winter?
Because, another voice, still her own, tells her, she’s not like that. Not deep inside, where it counts.
Knowing that this internal conflict isn’t something she’s going to resolve any time soon, she pads silently to the window and takes a quick look outside. The fading night is clear as crystal, though she can tell by simply feeling the glass that the warm spell has continued to hold. Traveling should be good.
Turning away from the window, she looks down upon her sleeping brothers. Both sleep like the dead, and the picture clenches a fist in her heart. For the first time, she wonders if leaving is truly the right thing to do. The image of Phoenix, thirteen, and Washington, barely eleven, clutching rifles too big for them and falling silent beneath a hail of android ammunition causes her belly to roil and her palms to become slick with clammy sweat.
Suddenly, the room seems too cramped, and a primitive part of her considers panic. The door slips open and Tacoma comes partway through, a look of concern on his face. The siblings’ eyes meet, and Koda immediately finds herself begin to calm. Releasing a slow breath, she holds up one finger. Tacoma nods and steps back out of the room, leaving the door the tiniest crack open.
Looking down once again, she tries to memorize the shape of their faces, knowing all the while that should she ever see them again, they will have become men instead of the boys who sleep so peacefully before her. Will I even recognize you? Or will you have become strangers to me, merely another face passing by in my life? She wipes a tear from her eye. Please, never let that happen. Please.
Squatting down, she kisses the tips of her fingers, then brushes them lightly against the downy cheeks of her brothers. "I love you," she whispers. "Never forget that. Never."
Coming again to her feet, she pads silently to the door before turning and giving them both one last, lingering look. Then, eyes full, she opens the door and steps through, closing it quietly behind her.
Tacoma meets her in the hallway and slings a gentle arm around her shoulders. "You okay?" he whispers.
Nodding, she gives him a half-smile. "You should have been a shaman."
He laughs softly. "Remember what I told you, tanski. Wakan Tanka had a little mix-up with the two of us. He gave me the warrior vision and you the shaman vision, and we’re stuck walking these paths."
"Not always," she replies, threading an arm around his waist as they start down the long, dark hall. "Not always."
They meet up with a shadowed figure who steps out of his room and stands before them.
"Hey, Houston," Koda whispers, giving him a poke to his thick chest. At sixteen, he stands on the cusp of manhood, and is already showing the stamp of the handsome, rugged man he will shortly become.
"Hau, Koda. Hau Tacoma."
"You remember what I told you, right? If you get even the faintest whiff of trouble, you SOS Ellsworth and there’ll be a squadron of Tomcats here so fast you won’t be able to sneeze."
"Yeah, I remember. I’ll keep an eye out, don’t worry."
"So…I guess this is it, huh? Do you…." He falters for a moment, then regains himself. "Will you come back?"
Reaching out, she places a hand on her younger brother’s shoulder, squeezing it. "I will. When this is over, I will. I promise."
Nodding, he swallows hard, fighting tears they all know are a hairsbreadth from wanting to fall. "We’ll all hold you to that, you know. Both of you."
"We’ll be back, little bro," Tacoma remarks, slapping Houston’s side. "Count on it."
With a final nod, he steps aside, then joins them as they continue their walk down the hallway.
They enter the brightly lit kitchen, then stop in surprise. Themungha stands with her back to them, stuffing the last of some frybread wrapped in wax paper into a large cloth sack. Dusting her hands on the apron she wears, she turns to her children. Her eyes are circled by sooty smudges, betraying a lack of sleep, and her face is set like stone. But she shows them none of her previous anger as she lifts the sack from the counter and hands it to Dakota. "Food. For your journey. Eat it before it gets cold."
Dakota takes the sack, looking at her mother. "Ina, I…."
"No. No more words. They’ve all been said. Now go. Both of you."
Handing the sack to Tacoma, Dakota steps boldly forward and wraps her arms tight around Themungha’s still, stiff form. "I love you, Ina," she whispers into one warm ear. "I will always love you."
After a moment, Themungha softens, returns the hug, then grabs Koda’s face and covers it with small kisses. "I love you, chunkshi. With all my heart." Releasing her daughter, she steps back. "Be safe. Come home."
"I will." It is as solemn a vow as she knows how to give. Without bothering to wipe the tears from her eyes, she turns, grabs the sack from Tacoma’s limp hand, and leaves.
Five minutes later, Tacoma joins her in the truck, tears of his own rolling slowly down his cheeks. Their father stands outside of the driver’s window, bending down to look inside. "Safe journeys to you both. Fight with honor, and come home to us."
"We will, Ate," Tacoma replies.
With a nod, Wanbli Wakpa steps away. Koda starts the truck, and pulls out of the long drive, straining to see through tear-trebled vision. "Let’s get outta here."
Kirsten’s fingers dance lightly over the keyboard, calling up string after string of data, highlighting, selecting, discarding. She has spent sixteen hours a day at the same since she signed herself out of the Base hospital "against the advice of the attending physician" as the CYA-against-torts form so politely phrased it. Sixteen hours a day of searching—no, she amends, excavating—this damned alphanumeric midden of junk code, and she has found not one damned thing to give her a clue to shutting down the damned motherfucking droids. The gentle Methodist minister of her childhood had taught, counter to orthodoxy, that the infinite love of God precluded the existence of hell. Kirsten was one ahead of him there, believing for most of her life that the hellish existence of a large percentage of the globe’s population precluded both the reality and the mercy of God in any measure. Which was a shame, she thinks, because at this moment she would cheerfully spend eternity in the cosmic barbecue pit for the privilege of spitting and roasting the military idiot who had ordered the strike on Minot. With a small sound of disgust, Kirsten saves the mile-long strip of useless code, pops the disc and inserts another. Just in case there’s something there that may prove useful later.
Fat chance of that. Twice nothing is still bloody damn nothing.
From his place under the table, Asi whines, lifting his head to peer at her as she bends over her work at the kitchen table. Absently she reaches down to scratch his ears, and, satisfied that she is well, he subsides again into his sleep. Even with Asi within arm’s reach, the house seems strangely empty. And that, Kirsten reflects, is strange in itself. She has always preferred her own company and her dog’s. Asimov now, Flandry before him, Altair earlier still.
Kirsten has been made at home in what was originally the second bedroom of the house, more recently Colonel Allen’s music-cum-tv room-cum library. The Colonel herself is presently out on one of the reconnaissance missions that have become more and more frequent in the last few days. Even though the Base housing is comfortably away from the flight line, the takeoff noise of a supersonic fighter jet is hard to miss, and she has noted the increasing number of flights and landings, especially at night. The Lakota woman—Dakota, some deep part of her reminds, she asked you to call her Dakota, remember?-- has also gone missing, haring off to see her family according to the Colonel. Dutifully, Kirsten tries to be glad that someone still has a family to go home to.
Still the abrupt departure feels oddly like a slight.
And if that isn’t the silliest thought you’ve had in six months, she scolds herself. You don’t really miss either of them. It’s just a matter of having gotten used to having another human or two about. Any human. Habit, that’s all.
And if she keeps telling herself that enough times, maybe she’ll actually start believing it.
"And won’t that be a joy for all mankind?" She snorts softly. "God, Kirsten. You’re pathetic. Did anyone ever tell you that? Just pathetic."
With a somewhat dramatic shake of her head, she returns her attention to the scrolling alphanumerics on her screen. Nothing. Nothing. More nothing.
Abruptly she pushes her chair away from the table, crosses the room to the coffee maker
and sets a fresh pot to brew. The tile floor is cool under her booted and double-socked feet, despite the central heating. As the coffee maker gurgles and hisses, she leans her back against the edge of the counter and scrubs at her eyes with both hands. Even with her glasses, the endless strings of numbers are starting to blur and run together on the screen as well as in her mind.
There has to be some other way to do this besides just going through the columns of numbers and letters. It is not just that visual searches could run on into the next Ice Age at the rate she’s going. It’s that she might actually find, and miss, what she’s looking for in her state of fatigue. If this were Star Trek or Time Enough for Love or any other of her childhood favorites, she would simply ask the computer to find the shutdown code, and the computer would produce it. Given that that’s not going to happen here—let’s try going at it from the other end. Weed out everything that’s not a vital command.
Cup in hand, she sets to work again, sorting out anything that does not fit the parameters of a basic command. It is not quite as simple as it sounds, and she spends the next hour selecting and downloading material that may be useful at some point but is little more than digital garbage now.
Two hours later, she is left with half a dozen files. Of those half dozen, three are passworded, and one is passworded and encrypted.
Yes! She waggles her aching fingers at the screen. Think you’re a match for the Orange County Hacker, do you? Prepare to meet your doom!
Orange County Hacker? Doom? Christ, she thinks, I am terminally punch drunk.
The passwords are moderately difficult to break, but she has them down within half an hour. The encryption key takes longer, but by the time the sun has slipped halfway down the afternoon sky, she has it, too. She hits the Apply button and holds her breath.
The commands scroll down the screen, endless columns of alphanumerics. Somewhere in them, if she is lucky—if the whole human race is lucky—is the code that will shut down the droids and allow the survivors to return the world to something close to normal. It will never be what it was; she knows that. The simple fact that women now outnumber men by perhaps a hundred to one or even more—maybe a thousand to one—will change the way the world goes about its business. Power will be defined differently; used differently. With her heart in her throat, Kirsten retrieves the saved code that shut down the prisoner droid and nearly killed her. She clicks on Find similar and waits, her forehead pressed against her clenched hands.
Please god, any god, all gods, whatever. Let this work.
When she looks up at the screen again, there is a match. Her hands shaking, she watches the symbols stream across the screen, matching her search criterion letter for letter, digit for digit. Then they begin to change: a related command, but different.
Yes. Yes! A small, cautious voice in the back of her mind warns her that this may not be what she is searching for, but she refuses to believe it. The information flows steadily, varying from the prototype command here, identical there. Abruptly it stops.
Kirsten runs the match again, and again the code plays out before reaching the end of the command. Incomplete. Kirsten runs it a third time. Still incomplete. A fourth time. Nothing is different. She has part of the code, no more. She lowers her forehead to her clenched hands again, and silent, bitter tears slip down her cheeks.
After a time, she raises her eyes and turns off the computer. If she does not have the complete code, she has at least a part of it and can perhaps build on that when her mind is rested. She is realist enough to know that she can accomplish nothing of worth in her present state of exhaustion. Rising, she takes her jacket from the row of hooks by the back door and whistles Asi to her side. He all but knocks her down, jostling her against the door frame, as he bounds out onto the carport and down the snow-powdered street, turning to wait for her half a block away, tongue lolling, breath clouding in the frosty air.
Angry at her failure and at herself, refusing to think, Kirsten allows Asimov to choose their itinerary. He leads her through the half-derelict housing section, where vehicles that have not moved since the day of the uprising remain shrouded in snow and abandoned homes stand open to the elements. There has been no time to set them to rights or to reclaim what might be salvaged. No time, and no people. Those that are left have more immediate concerns.
At the end of a cul-de-sac, Asi veers away from the residential area into a strip of woodland growing on the banks of a long, narrow pond. The water, frozen now, gleams in the low sun with swirls of gold and crimson . Fire, Kirsten thinks. Fire in the lake.
Sudden overthrow. Revolution.
As omens go, it is a bit belated.
And no damned use in any case.
Asimov dances ahead of her, running a short distance, turning, barking, running again. Glad to be free of the confines of the house, clearly wanting to play. Too well trained to ignore him, Kirsten picks up a fallen limb a yard long and breaks it over her knee into shorter segments. "Asi!" she calls, "Fetch!"
She pitches the stick ahead of them some fifteen feet, and Asi bounds through the snow after it, for all the world as if it mattered to him. He returns, grinning around the piece of branch, and drops it at her feet, looking up at her expectantly. She picks it up again and feints a throw. He wheels to run but stops in his tracks when she fails to release the stick, looking back at her reproachfully. Twice more she pulls her throw, then sends the improvised toy sailing ahead through the bare trees. Asi follows like a shot, sailing over the small rise that may be only a drift or a may be a massive tree root under the snow and racing down the long line of naked sycamores that mark the edge of the water in warmer seasons. Kirsten slogs after him, clambering over the hump that does indeed feel like ancient, twisted wood beneath her feet. It is knobbed and knotted with age, and it takes all her attention to keep her balance as she climbs cautiously up and over to the other side, stumbling slightly when her foot catches on a protrusion near the ground. She flings out her arms to balance herself, fails, and sprawls in the snow. It is only when she is on her feet again and brushing herself off again that she realizes that Asi is nowhere to be seen.
"Asi! Asimov! Come!"
"Asi! Come! Now!" Her voice rises and breaks with something near panic.
Still no Asimov, but from some yards ahead and to her left, she hears a high-pitched, plaintive whine. Following his prints, she trails him to the trunk of a huge tree whose bare branches extend almost halfway across the narrow inlet of the pond, where a feeder stream flows into it. He sits beneath the sycamore , staring upward, his tail brushing a half-circle in the loose powder that covers the frozen water. He whines again, this time almost pleadingly.
Twenty feet up, a raccoon sits in the fork of a branch. It is an older male, perhaps a third of Asimov’s size and weight, his fur fluffed about him for warmth. He nibbles delicately at an acorn, holding it with both long-fingered paws as he turns it around and around before his narrow muzzle. He pauses as Kirsten arrives, regarding her with eyes like molten gold from behind his black mask.
Unbidden, images tumble through her mind. A naked woman painted in blue spirals and sunbursts, brandishing a spear and a shield of polished bronze. Another woman, her face printed with the years and with wisdom, enveloped in a billow of vermilion silk like flame. A raised hand of not quite human form, and a voice on the churning wind. Turn back. The time is not yet.
Then they are gone, and she is standing under a tree with a disappointed dog and a raccoon who stares disdainfully down at them both , calmly eating his dinner.
Kirsten whistles, and this time Asimov obeys. They trudge back to the house through the gathering dark, as the eastern sky deepens to ultramarine and a flush of scarlet and purple still colors the west. The cold deepens as the sun slips finally beneath the horizon and the first stars appear. As Kirsten makes the final turn into Maggie’s street, Asimov breaks from her side and goes pelting down the block, baying like the hound of the Baskervilles.
A long-bedded, heavy blue truck is pulled up in the driveway, a blue truck with the insignia of the veterinarian’s V and caduceus just visible in the failing light.
Koda is back.
Without volition, Kirsten’s feet carry her forward at a pace just short of a jog. Her heart picks up its rhythm to match, her mouth suddenly dry. She watches as Koda slides out of the driver’s side of the pickup and is joined by a second figure, taller and broader shouldered, but with much the same erect carriage and proud tilt of the head. With a deliberate effort, Kirsten slows her pace and joins the two new arrivals just as Koda unlocks the kitchen door. Under the carport light, Kirsten can see the striking likeness of their features, and a small unacknowledged fear shrinks in upon itself and dies.
"Hi," she says, as Koda turns to her with a smile. "Welcome back."
"Well, look who the dog dragged in," Koda teases gently, returning the smile as she reaches down to give Asi’s ears a good scratch. Asimov all but turns into jelly, and for the first time, Kirsten finds herself not minding so much that her dog has obviously fallen head over heels in love with this woman.
Much to Asi’s dismay, Koda all too soon retires her hand from scratching duty and lifts it to the doorknob instead. "Let’s get in out of the cold, shall we?"
A blast of warmth and light hits them all as the door swings open and the group steps inside. Asi immediately claims his place in front of the fireplace and begins to attack the large soupbone Maggie had left for him earlier. With a sigh of satisfaction, Koda places her heavy pack on the kitchen table and gestures for her brother to do the same. Then she turns her smile back to the young scientist. "Doctor King, this is my brother, Tacoma. Tacoma, this is Doctor Kirsten King."
With a grin so identical to his sister’s that they could be—and should be—twins, Tacoma holds out a massive hand that gently engulfs Kirsten’s much smaller one. "A pleasure to meet you, Ma’am."
Kirsten utters a sardonic chuckle. "I’d like to think I’m a little young for the ‘Ma’am’ stage, Mr. Rivers, but it’s a pleasure to meet you as well."
"Tell you what. You call me Tacoma, and I’ll drop the Ma’am, alright? Ma’am?"
Charmed, Kirsten’s grin flashes just briefly as she releases Tacoma’s hand. "It’s a deal. Tacoma."
With a respectful incline of his head, Tacoma takes a short step back and looks around. "Nice digs."
"Colonel’s quarters." Koda’s succinct response tells it all. "And don’t get too used to them. You’ll be bunking with Manny."
"Figures," Tacoma replies, smirking. "The regs say that canon fodder like me isn’t adapted to the rarified air of this place." The twinkle in his deep, black eyes lets Kirsten know the joke is old and well loved.
Rummaging through the litter on the table, Koda pulls the food sack her mother had given her. "Let me just split this stuff up."
Tacoma holds up a hand. "No, it’s alright, tanski. I’m gonna have to get re-used to military chow sooner or later. For the sake of my belly, it’s just as well that it be sooner. You keep it."
Unheeding, she pulls out two thick slices of frybread wrapped in wax paper, a packet of meat filling, and hands both over to her brother. "Give one of them to Manny. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it."
"Appreciate it?" Tacoma exclaims, grinning. "He’ll just about have an…." His face turning an even deeper reddish hue, he nearly bites his tongue and gives Kirsten a positively hangdog look. "Um…sorry, Ma’am."
Frozen to the spot, Kirsten shoots her gaze from Tacoma’s mortified look to Dakota. The mirth swimming in those striking eyes almost causes her to lose it and she bites down on the inside of her cheeks hard enough to draw blood just to keep herself from braying laughter like some demented donkey. The slight pain clears her head, and she manages what she hopes passes for a dignified nod. "It’s quite alright, Tacoma. If that food tastes as good as it looks, I can understand the reaction."
Tacoma’s sense of relief is almost palpable as he humbly receives his sister’s food offering and stuffs it into his military pack.
Unable to help herself, Dakota laughs, grabs her brother’s arm and, with the barest ghost of a wink to the onlooking Kirsten, drags Tacoma out of the house and into the dark of the South Dakota night.
An hour or so later, Koda slips quietly into the house. The interior is perfectly dark, save for the sliver of light that slices through the partially opened door to the room Kirsten is using as her office. Silent as a shadow, Koda tracks the light, and peers into the office. Kirsten is sitting at the desk, her head propped up on one closed fist. Her glasses reflect the light from her computer; a light that washes over her face in a seasickness victim’s greenish pallor.
As if sensing Dakota’s presence, Kirsten blinks, then slowly turns her head away from the scrolling lines of formula painting themselves across the display before her. Her welcoming smile is wan and, drawn by that, Koda crosses the threshold and into the room, coming to stand beside the desk.
"Hey. Did you get your brother settled in?"
Dakota smirks. "Oh yeah, he’s settled in alright. When I left, he was busy regaling them with a bunch of ‘flyboy’ jokes he learned in the army."
"Nah. He served with a bunch of them in the wars. It’s like old home week there right about now."
"He’s a nice man."
"Tacoma? He’s alright." Dakota’s smile is fond, and it warms something deep inside Kirsten upon seeing it.
"Is he your only sibling?"
"If only," Dakota replies, laughing softly. "No, I’m one of ten. Tacoma’s the oldest. I’m third in line. I also have an older sister, Virginia."
"Tacoma, Virginia, Dakota…."
"…Washington, Houston, Phoenix, Montana, Carolina, Dallas, and Orlando. My mother’s a geography nut."
"You don’t say." Kirsten’s tone is dry as dust, but her eyes twinkle in a way that is quite attractive to Dakota.
"Oh, I do. Very much so." There is a brief pause. "What about you? Any brothers or sisters?"
A veil drops down over Kirsten’s eyes, leaching out the vibrant green and leaving a muddy brown behind. Koda holds up a hand, even as she takes a step back, fully intending to end the conversation. "No, it’s alright. I’ll…see you tomorrow. Good night."
"I was an only child," Kirsten spits out rapidly, her words as staccato as machine gun fire. She looks on, feeling what can only be relief as Dakota stops her retreat and levels her an unreadable, but not unfriendly, look. "They wanted a big family, but my father had a run-in with an Iraqi landmine and, well…."
"Damn," Koda softly replies.
"Yeah. He was in the hospital for awhile, but things were basically okay after that. I was pretty much spoiled rotten." She gives up a wry smile. "As if you didn’t know that already."
Koda manages, by the skin of her teeth, to remain silent and stone-faced.
Kirsten flushes a little and turns away. The soft, low timbre of Dakota’s voice draws her back.
"You’re gonna be alright."
The expression on Kirsten’s face gives Koda a glimpse of the young woman’s childhood more clearly than any photograph ever could. The naked, aching need for acceptance and reassurance pulls her in like a fish on a line. Her feet pad noiselessly across the floor, and the shoulder suddenly beneath her hand seems as fragile and complex as a bird’s broken wing.
At the touch, Kirsten breathes in, a soft hiss of air between clenched teeth. The gentle grip burns like a brand, soothes like a balm, engendering a paradox of calm and disquiet.
But it’s not disquiet you’re feeling, is it.
It’s time to buck it up and call a spade a spade, little K.
You can’t live this new life you’re trying to forge for yourself with your head buried in the sand, Kirsten. Examine your feelings. Face up to them. And then maybe you’ll actually start living instead of just existing. Think about it.
The voice fades into nothingness, and Kirsten only realizes her eyes have closed once she opens them. Koda is looking down at her, an odd mix of concern and compassion drawing itself over her arresting features. Kirsten manages to conjure up a bit of a smile, which Koda returns, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.
Examine your feelings. Face up to them.
The voice is pushed away by the sound of her own. "Thank you."
Dakota’s eyebrows lift. "For?"
Kirsten lifts one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Being here, I guess. I sometimes forget what it’s like to have a normal conversation with another human being. Asi is my life, but….he doesn’t do the talking thing real well."
Laughing, Koda releases Kirsten’s shoulder and steps back, providing some needed distance between them both. "Give him a little time. You might be surprised at what he has to say."
Kirsten shoots her an odd look. "If you say so."
"I say so," Koda returns, grinning. And again, the barest ghost of a wink. "See you tomorrow. Sleep well."
"I’ll definitely try. You too."
Once the door is closed again, and Kirsten is alone, she pulls out the feeling of Dakota’s simple touch, wrapping it around her like a warm winter coat. Her eyes slip closed again, and she crosses the boundary between wakefulness and sleep without ever being aware of the change.
In her dream, Koda wanders the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills sacred to her people from the time before time. Its cliffs rise up about her like shadow solidified in stone, their ramparts folded and refolded along the rockface, ledges jutting out at odd angles. Some of those folds mark caves that lead back into the heart of the earth; some shelter springs no deeper than a sheen of sweat on a summer day, others wells whose depths reach down beyond measure. It is the place where the Lakota came forth from the womb of Ina Maka herself, ascending into the light of the Sun for the first time as a human species and a nation. She goes here, paradoxically in a form older yet, one that pads without sound on four feet over the sharply ridged basalt that forms the canyon floor. To her left a bobcat moves like silk over the fissured volcanic rock, her wide paws scarcely touching the surface. The cat’s ears and vibrissae stand stiffly forward, interrogating the night air for sign of prey or menace. On her right paces a cougar, gold-silver in the moonlight, the depths of his eyes spangled with reflected stars.
A fourth goes with them, a smaller being with nimble, clever hands and the black half-mask of a bandit. The cats she knows. Even in her dream, Koda is aware of the bobcat’s human form lying warm beside her under the down comforter. The mountain lion, lean muscles rippling like river water under his fur, is the spirit of her warrior brother, Tacoma. As she puzzles over the fourth, scudding clouds blot out the moon and stars, and thunder rolls down, echoing from cliff to promontory and back like the pounding of the great drum of the Sun Dance. She and the other creatures who accompany her scramble for higher ground, leaping now from ledge to ledge, the unknown fourth keeping pace with the rest. Lightning splits the sky above, and thunder again and again about them until the whole world shakes with it. It splits the shelf where the four have taken refuge, sending it plummeting away from the rockface and them with it, and they are falling, falling into the night, into the unformed world from which they came forth at Ina Maka’s summoning, plunging headlong down and down . . ..
"What the hell?"
Somehow the words penetrate the cacophony of thunder and falling rock. Koda is vaguely aware of Maggie as she rolls over and reaches across her for the switch of the bedside lamp. "Sorry," she adds as the too-bright light stabs at Koda’s eyes and she sits up, half-caught still in her dream.
"Somebody at the door." Maggie slips from beneath the comforter and into the robe she has left folded over the back of a chair. From the bedside table she takes her pilot’s sidearm and slides a round into the chamber with a metallic chunk. "Be right back."
Koda reaches for her own shirt as Maggie closes the door softly behind her. Her mind snaps sharply back into the present as she pads barefoot after the other woman. Pounding on the door at 4:30 in the morning can mean nothing but trouble. A blast of chill air from the open door raises goosebumps on her bare legs as she steps into the entryway. Directly across the hall from her, Asimov stands at guard in the living room door, tail erect. Kirsten holds his ruff with one hand and her .45 in the other. Despite the shadows about her eyes, her gaze is sharp and brittle as obsidian.
Koda flashes her a grin, an acknowledgement of one member of the hunting pack to another. Kirsten bares her teeth slightly in return just as Maggie draws the visitor on the doorstep into the foyer and shuts the door behind him. Bundled to the eyes and further masked by the cloud of his own breath, he snaps a salute at Maggie, then, looking past her shoulder, another at Koda and Kirsten. Maggie herself smiles as she turns to find her unexpected backup behind her. "Go on, Corporal," she says evenly. ‘Dr. Rivers and Dr. King have a stake in this, too."
"Yes’m," he says, averting his eyes carefully from Koda’s bare legs and Kirsten’s neat figure, which is covered but is not hidden by her form-fitting thermals. He appears to be addressing the hall tree with its array of hats and jackets. "The General’s compliments Ma’am. There will be a meeting of all staff and senior officers at Wing Headquarters at oh-five-hundred. A number of small forces appear to be moving north from Peterson at Colorado Springs and from the Space Wing at Warren. Threat assessment and response to be discussed." The trooper salutes yet again. "Ma’am."
"Thank you, Corporal. My compliments to the General, and I’m on my way."
Maggie shuts the door behind the courier and turns to Koda and Kirsten with a smile. "Thanks for the backup." Her eyes become suddenly solemn. "This is the way it’s going to be from now on, you know," she says softly. "Every unknown person will represent a possible danger. Everything unexplained will be potentially lethal until it is either explained or neutralized." The Colonel’s gaze shifts to Kirsten. "Women will hold most of the positions of authority in whatever society we have left. We will occupy most of the professions that survive. We will do most of the fighting until the droids are contained. After that happens, we’ll still do most of the fighting—against other women, most likely—and the nation building. The rest of our lives will look a whole lot like tonight."
A tight smile pulls at Kirsten’s mouth, but there is no irony in her voice. "Forward—into the past."
"Back to the beginning," Koda murmurs. And her dream is with her again, the landscape of first creation before humans grew away from Ina Maka and her other children and power belonged to her and her daughters only. With the eyes of vision Koda watches as Kirsten fades, to be replaced by a woman in a brief leather skirt and halter and a towering mask with a bird’s face and a mane of grass and feathers. When she tears her eyes away, Maggie is gone, too, her form melted into the shape of a woman with golden skin and knives glittering in either hand. Between one breath and the next the images vanish, and she is standing in the hallway with two other half-clothed women, cold and in need of coffee. "I’ll make breakfast," she says, and follows Maggie back to the bedroom to dress.
Fifteen minutes later, Maggie pulls out of the drive with an insulated mug of coffee and a slice of Themungha’s fry bread wrapped around a scrambled egg. Koda can hear water splashing in the bathroom a couple yards down the small cross-hall that connects the entrance to the back of the house as Kirsten showers, and a hint of Maggie’s lavender-scented soap mingles with the aromas of dark-roasted Columbian coffee and melting butter. Koda sets out more of Themunga’s frybread, together with the fresh milk and eggs her mother has sent with her. The eggs are brown, and while Koda’s scientific mind knows very well that their shells merely reflect the color of the hens who laid them, she cannot quite shed her mother’s utter conviction that they are somehow tastier and more nutritious than the white variety. A psychologist might put that down to her mother’s feelings about race, she muses, but she knows too many white farmers and ranchers who are equally convinced. Face it, she tells herself as she sets to chopping sweet onion and tomato, they are better, and there’s no particular reason why.
The rich aroma of sautéd onion and tomato wafts into Kirsten’s room as she pulls on her boots and sweater, mingling in an odd harmony with the herbal soap whose fragrance lingers on her skin. It reminds her, a little, of weekend forays across the border into Tijuana and the exotic prizes waiting in the open air markets for a ten-year-old child with too little companionship and perhaps too much imagination. It reminds her, too, of Twenty-Nine Palms and Los Jacales, the tiny but imcomparable Mexican restaurant just outside the base where she and her parents had breakfast every Sunday. The memory is a small pang in her heart, almost physical, sharper than the ache left by the defibrillators and the bruises that linger on her chest. Carefully she removes a small woven straw box from the pants she wore the previous day and transfers it to her pocket. Guatemalan worry dolls, nearly twenty years old now, bought for her one bright summer day by her father. She still remembers the names she gave each of them, the stories she built about each bright thread-wrapped figure.
They are one of her few remaining material links to the past. Oddly, they seem now as much a talisman of the future as a relic of her childhood. The indigenous peoples they represent, the traditional societies, have the best chance of survival now. As she opens her door and steps into the hall, it comes to her that somehow in the last few days the past has loosened its hold on her. Or she on it; she is not quite sure which it is. For the first time since her flight from Washington, the future has a habitation and a name. It is not just that the earth has not, despite the horror, ground to a halt in its orbit. Somewhere in the depths of her mind is the recognition that, against all odds, she may somehow live to see the birth of a new and very different world.
And that may not be a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
She has Asi, whose return she would call miraculous if she were inclined to believe in miracles. And she has—no, not friends exactly—colleagues and companions who share her purpose. "Morning," she says to one of them as she steps into the kitchen. The window over the sink frames a square of black sky, and she winces. "Middle of the night. Whatever."
Dakota turns her attention briefly from the stove to smile at her. "Morning. Breakfast’s almost ready." She nods at the table, where a cup of coffee already steams on one of the two placemats. "Have a seat."
Kirsten shovels sugar into her cup, together with a generous dollop of cream. The adrenaline rush of an hour ago is gone, and she can feel reaction beginning to set in, her blood sugar starting to slide. The caffeine and glucose hit her system like a thunderbolt, finishing the job the hot water has begun. From underneath her lashes, she watches the other woman as she prepares their meal, moving around the room with the abrupt, angular grace of one of the great predators—a cheetah, perhaps, or a wolf. She wears the same plaid flannel shirt she had on earlier, but now it is tucked neatly into the waistband of the jeans that do little to conceal the taut elegance of her legs. Her hair, which had flowed over her shoulders like a river at midnight, is now caught back with a rubber band. It still sets off the sharp planes of her cheekbones and forehead, the generous lines of her mouth, the inexplicable blue eyes.
Kirsten feels heat rising in her cheeks that has nothing to do with the coffee or its effects. She feels suddenly disoriented, as if the room had suddenly turned itself upside down to leave her hanging weightless from the ceiling. To cover her confusion, she asks, "What do you think is going on?"
Dakota—Koda—gives the thickening eggs a stir and slaps two rounds of frybread down on the stove’s surface to heat. "The droids have to take us out if they can. There’s too much still functional. We’ve raided them successfully--" With a swift movement of her bare fingers, she turns both pieces of bread. "—and that makes us too big a threat for them to leave alone."
"So those small groups the Corporal was talking about are likely to join up and attack the base again?"
"If we sit still for them." Koda dishes up the eggs onto the frybread, rolls them up and drops them onto warmed plates. "My guess is we won’t."
"At least the number of the military models is limited. That’s some small comfort."
"Not enough to make up for bombing the factory, though." Koda sets down the plates and takes a seat. Her eyes meet Kirsten’s across the table. "If not for that—"
"I’d have more than the partial code. It might all be over." She holds that intense blue
gaze, unwilling to be less than honest. "Look, I come from a military family. You don’t
have to explain the brass’ fuck-ups to me. It’s par for the course."
Koda nods. "Tacoma has some stories that would curl your hair. Insufficient ammunition, garbled orders."
Kirsten reaches for a fork, then stops as Dakota picks up her roll taco-style and bites into it. Following suit, she reaches for a napkin as butter runs down her chin. "Good," she says. You’re a good cook."
"Not especially. I grew up helping my mother get meals for a large family. Lots of practice is all."
From underneath the table, Asi whines, and Kirsten pinches a bit off the end of her roll. Koda does the same, dropping the bite into his bowl. It disappears in less than a nanosecond. Dakota grins. "Spoiled."
"Rotten," Kirsten agrees, breaking off a second morsel. It vanishes from her fingers in even less time. "You going to the clinic again today?"
"For the morning, anyway. You?"
"Work on the code till it drives me nuts. Take Asi for a walk till I can think straight again."
"Anything I can get you that would help? Discs, a printer--?"
Kirsten shakes her head and pushes her chair away from the table. "I had a good supply in my truck." As she rises, an odd thought strikes her, and she asks, "Animals mean something in your traditions, don’t they? Symbolically, that is."
The Lakota woman’s withdrawal is both instant and almost imperceptible. There was a time, Kirsten thinks, when I wouldn’t have noticed that. "I don’t mean to be disrespectful. Asi found a raccoon yesterday, and I just thought it was odd. Don’t they hibernate?"
"No, not exactly. They sleep a lot, living off their fat. They come out of their dens to feed periodically, though."
"So it doesn’t necessarily mean the cold is going to let up some?" Shift the context. For some reason it is important to her not to offend this woman. "I’ve never seen so damned much snow in my life."
"No, I’m afraid not."
Kirsten shrugs and moves toward the door. "Too bad."
Koda’s voice stops her where she stands. "It means disguise, Kirsten, and the need to let go of old identities. It means transformation."
And it is with her again, that long spiraling plunge toward death and the deep baying of the hunter who runs lithe beside her, a glimpse of driving muscles rippling under grey fur that turns in upon itself, moebius-like, to become a small pointed face with eyes burning like molten gold out of a black mask. The narrow muzzle opens, and the creature speaks in a voice to silence thunder, one long-fingered hand raised to bar her passage.
Go back. The time is not yet.
Her heart pounds in her chest like a trip hammer; sweat prickles along her skin. The time is not yet.
"Thank you," she says, and flees.
And we finally arrive at the end of yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of Koda and Kirsten. Will Kirsten keep running away from the obvious? Will Dakota finally get hit by the clue bus? Tune in next week for more exciting adventures of The Growing!
Thanks, as always, for the absolutely generous feedback you’ve been doling out each week. If you feel the urge to add more, please drop us a line at email@example.com . Till next week!
Continued - Chapter 13
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