Disclaimers: In chapter one.
The day is gray. Gray clouds, gray snow, gray faces of people walking along shoveled and salted paths. Even Asi’s vibrant coat looks washed out and dull as he plods along behind Kirsten, head bobbing like a tired draft horse on his way to the stables.
An almost pleasant sense of melancholia steels over her and she quickens her step, outpacing her thoughts, content to exist simply for and in this one moment in time. Life passes by, its stories writ large on the faces of the men and women with whom she shares this space.
As she wanders down a ruler-straight path, her steps take her to a scene that stops her, and makes her wish for perhaps the first time in her life that she had been born with the ability to draw. Before her stands a woman of no more than twenty whose life has painted age upon her face and form far beyond her years. Directly in front of her, pressed back to belly, is a girl-child, dirty, bedraggled, and pale as a wraith. The young woman has her arms crossed over the shoulders and chest of the girl in a gesture of desperate possession, as if she is the only thing of worth left in a world gone totally mad. The expression in the woman’s eyes transports Kirsten back in time to when she, herself, was a young girl standing in St. Peter’s in Rome, staring at the Pieta and wondering how simple stone could engender such profound emotions within her.
The child’s soft “hello” brings Kirsten back to the present, and she offers up a smile that is equal parts welcoming and sad.
As if agreeing, Asi sits proudly and offers up a soft chuff, causing the young girl to giggle. “What’s his name?”
The girl looks a little confused. “Asmimoff?”
“That’s pretty close,” Kirsten commends, smiling. “He likes being called Asi.”
“Asi?” The child looks up at her mother for confirmation before returning her attention to the dog. “Asi.”
Asimov gives a louder bark, which makes the girl jump. Her mother tightens her grip, fright winging its way across her haggard face.
“It’s okay,” Kirsten hastens to reassure. “He won’t hurt you. I promise.”
The girl seems convinced. She lifts a small, dirty hand, fingers splayed wide. “Pet?”
Ever the ham, Asimov lifts his left paw, giving the young girl a doggie grin and another soft chuff. Kirsten laughs. “I think he’d like that.”
Responding to the pleading look from her daughter, the woman slowly—surely ice ages have come and gone in less time—relaxes her desperate grip. The child steps forward cautiously. Asi keeps his calm, one paw still raised. The girl takes it gently in both hands, then giggles as Asi covers her face with generous swipes of his tongue. Stepping away, she wipes her face with both hands. “Funny doggie. All wet!” Pulling her hands away from her eyes, she gifts Kirsten with a bright, innocent smile. “What’s your name?”
“Kirsten,” she replies, unable to keep from returning the sweet grin. “What’s yours?”
“Lisa,” the child replies, shyly peering at Kirsten from beneath long, lush lashes. “Can Asi be my friend?”
“Oh sweetheart, of course he can! We come for walks out here almost every day. If it’s okay with your mom, you can walk with us when you see us, ok?”
Lisa’s mother’s expression is pained as her daughter looks to her for approval. “We’ll talk about it tonight, sweetie. Now, we have to go get lunch.”
After a moment, Lisa nods. “Okay,” she replies softly. Turning back, she takes a step forward and wraps small arms around Asi’s neck, squeezing with all her tiny strength. “Bye, bye, doggie,” she whispers into his warm fur. “Bye, bye.”
Tears prick at Kirsten’s eyes and another part of her soul she thought long desiccated comes back to life, and with it, a renewal of her determination to give this child, and all others like her, a better world to grow up in.
As she turns for home, her last vision is a replay of the first. Lisa is back in her mother’s arms, but this time she sees a spark of what she can only call hope shining in twin sets of eyes.
For now, it will have to be enough.
She makes it as far as the door to her temporary home when a note taped to the door brings her up short. Written in a fine hand, the words jump out at her, making her, by turns, determined, angry, then both at once.
“Not this time,” she vows, ripping the paper from the door and crumpling it in one tense fist. “Not this time. C’mon, Asi. We’ve got a party to crash.”
The room is grey as a November day. Grey walls, set off by a tasteful strip of white PVC running along the bottom in lieu of baseboard. Grey carpet, with tone-on-tone USAF logs imposed on diagonally offset laurel wreaths. Grey curtains, likewise. On the wall hang photographs of warplanes based at Ellsworth, the intensely turquoise skies behind and below the airborne Tomcats and SuperHornets virtually the only color in the room. On a table in one corner sits an unwatered Norfolk pine, its pot wrapped in peeling red-black foil and its wilting branches hung with miniature lights and iridescent glass globes, dull in the dim light that penetrates the heavily lined window coverings. The long conference table is grey steel. Its vinyl-upholstered chairs match. Koda has, she thinks wryly, seen cheerier coffins.
Maggie says it for her. “Somebody get me a happy pill. This place would depress goddam Shirley Temple.”
“Never mind goddam Shirley Temple. It depresses me.” Tacoma gives a half-suppressed snort, not unlike a big cat’s disdainful whuffle. “Droids get the psych-ops staff?”
Maggie shakes her head. “Hart got the decorators, years ago. Too touchy-feely.”
“It could be worse,” Koda offers. “It could be pecan laminate and stuffed deers’ heads.”
Tacoma winces visibly as he shrugs out of his jacket and drapes it across the back of a chair about halfway down the table. He has resumed his Army uniform, the brass of his greens newly shined, his campaign ribbons proud in their many colors over his left pocket. Koda knows them as well as he does: the Afghan Meritorious Service Ribbon, bright green with its silver crescent; the Kingdom of Jordan Honor Legion; the Medal for Humane Action; Combat Action Ribbon; Bronze and Silver Stars, both with oak leaf. And there is the one she hates, purple with white edges. Wounded in action, gone missing in the frozen mountains of Panjir for two weeks and more when no one, not his commander, not his family, knew whether he was alive or dead, and neither she nor her father, for all their special skills, had been able to find him in the spirit world. Her eyes meet Tacoma’s as she seats herself across from his place, numbering his honors. Their father, veteran of VietNam, calls the tunic with the array of medals her brother’s scalp shirt, boasting that it is even more lavish than his own.. “Hey,” Tacoma says softly, reaching over the space between to touch her arm, calling her back to the present.
“Hey yourself. You didn’t cut your hair.”
“Not going to.” He grins suddenly at Maggie, now seated beside him. “You able to live with that, Colonel?”
Maggie, in her own spruce blues and even more fruit salad, grins back at him. “We’ll average it. You’ve got enough for Manny, yourself and me put together. Hart’s not going to like it, though.”
“Somebody mention my name?” Manny appears in the doorway, accompanied by two other men. One is in Marine uniform, the other in flannel shirt and jeans. Manny pulls out the chair next to Koda and glances around the room. “No coffee?”
“It’s on its way,’ offers a newcomer, a blond youngster in fatigues whose sleeves carry Corporal’s stripes. “What’s up, Lieutenant?”
Manny shrugs and glances at Allen. “Colonel?”
“Something to do with recon, as I understand it.”
The Corporal is followed by another man in civilian clothes, then by two women with wind-weathered faces. Koda sweeps the company with her eyes, not recognizing individuals but acknowledging the indelible signs of a life lived between earth and open sky. She says, “Everyone here is local, right?”
Nods answer her, responding to more than the single question. Local, and familiar with the countryside.
“Scouts,” she says. “Ground reconnaissance.”
“You’ve stolen my thunder, Dr. Rivers.” Hart stands in the doorway, waving his officers back to their seats as they push their chairs back to stand and salute. “We do need people who know the area to become involved in recon. I’ll be briefing all of you, then asking for volunteers.” He moves to the head of the table, spine stiffly erect, allowing the carts bearing coffee and a projector-cum-laptop to follow him into the room. He motions toward the urn and stack of cups. “Please, help yourselves. We’ve even managed to requisition some doughnuts.”
Must be his own private stash of Krispy Kremes, Koda observes wryly to herself as she fills her cup. She catches Tacoma’s eye as he does the same and feels the thought pass easily between them. He winks at her, snagging a cinnamon cruller for himself and dropping another onto her plate. Wants us bad
When the table has settled, Hart begins. “As you know, we have been fortunate at Ellsworth in that we have been able to repel the initial attacks of the mutinous androids, both military and civilian. We have, of course, suffered extensive casualties, but many of our officer corps have survived and we are still operational. At a reduced level, of course.
“We have also had the benefit of intelligence and reinforcements from the civilian population of the surrounding area.” Hart pauses to smile at Koda and to single out the other ranchers with a nod. When he comes to Tacoma, the smile freezes for a moment, then becomes deliberately brighter. Koda feels a light tap against her boot and looks up at Tacoma’s suspiciously expressionless face. Counting coup.
When the room is dark, the general switches on the projector and fiddles briefly with the focus. The images that gradually form against the wall are night-sight green, but fairly clear for all that:
Troop transport trucks, moving along narrow roads, no more than three or four in a convoy.
Columns of the inhuman soldier-androids, churning along cleared highway surfaces on their caterpillar tracks, slowly but inexorably, never breaking rank, never tiring.
Armored vehicles, their guns at ready, crunching through the snow.
Small groups of men, platoon-size, no more than a dozen at a time, slipping along back roads and game trails, fully outfitted in helmet, backpack and weapons. Shepherded, invariably, by one or two of the military droids ahead, another pair behind.
Koda hears a small hiss of indrawn breath at the last sequence. Across the table from her, Maggie’s face is drawn into a tight mask of anger and disgust. Closer to, Manny’s fists clench against the table. The civilian woman two places down, her skin reddened from years of High Plains wind, her face hard as the bones of the land itself, looks nauseated in the flickering green light. Koda’s own stomach turns over.
“Indeed,” says General Hart as he switches off the projector, and the room lights come back up. “We have not only droids on the move, but we have human collaborators as well. This is something Colonel Allen and Dr. Rivers have encountered, but not quite in this capacity or in these numbers.” He flicks another switch and a map of South Dakota , with Wyoming and Colorado to the south, appears on the wall. “These videos were taken by Colonel Allen and her squadron over the last several days. They show a disturbingly large number of small companies moving toward our position. They seem to come from Warren Space Wing in Wyoming and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Presumably they will rendezvous at some point and position themselves for a second assault on the Base. This is not a favorable development.”
Tacoma waits for recognition, and when Hart nods, continues. “We are assuming from these movements that there is no longer any resistance at Warren or Peterson?”
“Or in between?” Koda adds.
“Sergeant, Doctor—I have no reason to believe that is not correct.” For a moment, Hart’s normally ruddy face is as grey as the light filtering in through the windows. “We have no hope of reinforcement from either of those installations. Nor, I think, of further influx of civilians from the surrounding area. What we have now, is, barring the unexpected, what we will have to face the enemy.”
“We’re outnumbered,” Manny observes.
“And except for air cover, probably outgunned” adds Maggie.
“But not,” Tacoma answers, grinning, “outthought.”
“Also correct, Sergeant.” Hart’s smile is a bit less stiff this time. “Every one of you in this room has immediate and intimate knowledge of the area surrounding
Ellsworth. Some of you, like Mr. Marshak”—he indicates the gentleman in the flannel shirt—“or Mmes. Tilbury-Laduque”—the women ranchers—“have lived and worked in the region for decades. Some, like Marine Ensign Guell and
Corporal Mainz, are local residents who have experience camping or hunting in the vicinity. We need you all, assuming you are willing, to act as scouts—to move out into the countryside and track these units, discover as much
about their movements, and, if possible, their plans, as you can.”
“So why don’t you just bomb the hell out of them?” asks one Ms. Tilbury-Laduque. Her thin face is stark with determination under her graying red hair; the question clearly does not come from cowardice. “It seems to me that human resources are what’s scarcest here.”
“If I may—?” Maggie glances at Hart.
At the general’s nod, she proceeds. “We still have both adequate jet fuel and sufficient munitions to bomb these bastards back to atoms, Ma’am. And we’ll do that if we have to. But it’s the best judgment of this base’s senior officers that for the time being we would do best to conserve those resources for civilian defense. There are a surprising number of survivor enclaves still out there in the countryside who are not equipped to repel, say, an attack by the military-model androids. We need to hold the airborne defenses in reserve for them as long as we can.”
There is a pause, then the rancher nods. “I see. Okay, I’m with you.”
“Me, too,” adds the other Ms. Tilbury-Laduque. Koda feels a tug of memory, brief and poignant, as the woman’s work-roughened hand closes over her partner’s fingers. It is not so sharp as it would once have been, though, and she lowers her eyes to her own hands where a barely perceptible band of lighter skin remains on the third finger of her left hand.
It has become almost a phantom pain, like nerves still wired to the ghost of a missing limb. She has seen it in one or two of Tacoma’s friends who did not come home from battle with all they had left home with and who could or would not be fitted with cyberlimbs or old-fashioned prostheses. She has seen it, too, in her own surgical patients, cows whose hip muscles twitch, attempting to move a leg no longer there, a fox biting at a gangrenous tail she has been forced to amputate. She glances up at Maggie, intent now on the speaker across the table from her, her handsome features animated by an underlying lust for life so strong that Koda cannot begin imagine her dampened by injury or illness. And that, she tells herself, is a dangerous thing not to be able to imagine about a battle-companion, much less a battle-companion who is also a friend.
“I’ll do it,” says Manny, glancing up at Maggie.
“So will I,” adds the Colonel. “I’d like to have some of the same troops that have been with me from the mutiny, General. They may not be strictly local, but they’ve had experience in skirmish encounters and in liberating civilians. We may run into caches of prisoners along the way, too.”
“Anything you need, Colonel.” Under his standard-issue smile, Hart looks relieved. “This operation is in your hands. What about the rest of you? Are you with Colonel Allen, Sergeant Rivers?”
“Of course.” Tacoma grins. “Anyone who can handle Flyboy here”—he gestures toward his cousin—“has my utmost respect.”
Koda nods her assent and watches as the rest repeat the gesture. There is a strange sense of slippage in her mind, as if time has somehow faulted and folded back upon itself. Scouts for the U. S. Army—“friendlies” cooperating in their own ultimate destruction as the Plains grew barren not only of the buffalo but of the human nations who lived with them and by them.
She feels her hands clench like Manny’s. Never again. It will be different this time. With the thought comes the recognition—the unshakable certainty that she has come to recognize as the mark of spiritual knowledge—that the world has changed irrevocably. Whatever she, and Manny with her, and Tacoma, help to bring to birth out of the wreckage of the old order will resemble nothing that has gone before.
A Lakota nation, but not only a nation of Lakota. It is the time of the White Buffalo, the return seen, if seen unclearly, by the Paiute holy man Wovoka, the fulfillment of prophecy.
She blinks to clear the thought, and finds Manny looking at her oddly. The General has resumed his briefing, something about forming small parties and communications problems. “Koda?” Her cousin’s voice is very soft. “You with us?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.”
His face is a question. Tacoma, across the table, is watching her intently. “I’m fine,” she repeats. “Later.”
Without warning, the door opens. Kirsten stands framed in the opening, Asimov alert beside her. Her face is white with the rage that flares in her eyes, colder than the wailing heart of a blizzard. She says nothing. Sound dies in the room as all eyes at the table turn toward her.
After an awkward moment, Hart breaks the silence. “Dr. King, are you looking for someone? My secretary can direct you, if you’ll excuse us?”
Still Kirsten says nothing. Koda can feel the anger as it comes off her in waves, almost palpable in its strength. And with it there is a power she has not felt in the other woman before, something similar to the force she has sensed in Maggie. For a moment she is absurdly relieved that Kirsten is not holding a weapon. There is an authority in her that Koda has never seen before, not even in the moment when she stalked up to Hart and struck him across the face after the bombing of Minot.
Ithanchan winan. The thought comes unbidden. This woman is a chief.
Koda starts to push her chair back and rise to her feet, but Tacoma is there before her. Straight as a birch tree, he snaps to attention and salutes the woman in the doorway. Eyes on Kirsten, he stands motionless.
Manny follows by a heartbeat, then Allen. “Madame Secretary,” the Colonel says pointedly.
The Marine and the Corporal are on their feet, then, together with the civilians. Koda’s heart rises and lodges somewhere in her throat. Finally Hart does what he must. He moves away from the wall and salutes. “At your service, Ma’am.”
Kirsten holds them all with her eyes for a moment longer. Then she gives a brief wave of her hand. “At ease.”
Hart pulls out his own chair at the head of the table for her, and Kirsten makes her way toward the front of the room. Asi paces with the dignity of a wolf beside her, for once ignoring his new friends. Koda’s memory flashes on her first meeting with the big dog in the snowy clearing, his formal pose atop the log suddenly connecting with an image older by thousands of years, the jackal-god stretched out on a mastaba bench before the shrine of Pharaoh. Anubis the Watcher. Guardian of the King.
Quietly Kirsten takes her seat, Asimov still standing at her side. “Thank you, General Hart,” she says. “Please begin the briefing.”
Koda watches as Tacoma struggles manfully not to grin, gives up and coughs, turning his face away from the defeated General. The sparkle in his eyes is contagious, though, and it spreads up and down the table like February sun on new-melted springwater. The General is visibly relieved when he is able, finally, to order the lights off and run the video again. As it plays a second time, Koda memorizes the terrain; shapes of hills, angles of the moon, bare trees lining a rise against the sky, the course of a freshening stream, contours of barren fields where the dark earth begins to break through the blanket of snow.
When it is over, the Colonel reviews the information that cannot be gotten onto film, and Kirsten listens without comment. When Maggie falls silent, she says, “General, is it your estimation that this base is the only regional defense installation still operable in this area?”
“Ma’am, it is.” He gestures back toward the map. “If Ellsworth goes under, the droids will not only have access to all our remaining armaments but will be able to overcome any resistance the surviving civilian population can offer. So far they have no air power, possibly because other installation commanders have disabled their planes; possibly because some, like Colonel Allen and her squadron, were in the air at the time of the mutiny; possibly because some aircraft were destroyed in the fighting. Possibly, too, because they have no human pilots, and none of the military droids, that I’m aware of, are programmed to fly. We can’t allow those assets to fall into their hands. Nor can we abandon our remaining civilian population.”
“I agree.” Kirsten glances down the table at volunteers that are suddenly hers, her gaze lingering on Koda for an infinitesimal fraction of a second before moving on. Again there is that small, phantom pain in her heart, coupled with a sense of finality. It is not just the world that has changed, she realizes. It is my world, and the change is forever.
“Organize your scout parties. Put me on one of them.”
All hell breaks loose. Koda finds herself wanting to shout with the rest, but clamps her teeth shut on words she knows will be useless.
“Ma’am, beg your pardon, but you can’t go. You’re too valuable to risk.” Hart wins out above the clamor. “You’re the only one who has any hope at all of shutting these godammed—I beg your pardon, Ma’am—these droids down. I can’t allow—that is, you can’t put yourself in danger.”
“It’s not for you to allow or not, General.” Koda speaks softly but firmly. “Dr. King fought her way—alone—from Washington all the way to Minot to get the shut-down code for the droids. She infiltrated the Base there and successfully passed herself off as a droid.” She hesitates for a moment, weighing her words, but there is no further virtue in diplomacy. “But for the destruction of Minot, her mission would have succeeded, and we would not presently be facing a second attack.”
For the first time since entering the room, Kirsten smiles, a slight lift of the corners of her mouth. It takes Koda between one breath and the next and almost stops her heart. She can count on one hand—maybe one finger—the times she has seen that expression on the other woman’s face.
”Not quite alone.” Gently Kirsten ruffles Asi’s ears. “Can you understand droid-to-droid transmissions, General?” When he does not answer, she says, “I can. We can’t afford for me not to go.”
There is a an uncomfortable silence. “I am going,” Kirsten repeats. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Oh, ma’am, you certainly do,” Manny says on an outrush of breath that is not quite laughter. “No offense, but God missed the target when you weren’t born a Lakota.”
A blast of static comes across Dakota’s earpiece. “…Tshunka…20…come back?”
She taps the earpiece, wincing as it lets off another, louder, blast of static. “Tacoma, is that you?”
“Han…your 20? GPS…fucked …can’t…you.”
Koda looks down at her own unit, frowning as snow and wavery lines cross through the normally steady display. She cocks a look to Manny, who shakes his head.
“Maybe the metalheads are screwing with the signal?” he asks.
“Doubtful,” Kirsten responds. “They might have advanced technologies, but even they need to rely on the GPS to fix a firm position. Most likely, the problem is with the satellites themselves. With no one around to monitor them, their orbits are starting to decay. Pretty soon these units will make attractive paperweights for all the good they’ll be.”
“Cheery thought,” Manny mutters half under his breath.
Another blast of static makes its way into Dakota’s brain. “…Tshunka…20….”
“Keep your pants on, thiblo. We’re working on it.”
Slipping the communications piece from her ear, Koda looks around, trying to manually triangulate their position by known landmarks. Darkness, and the fact that they’ve traveled several miles in that dark, most of them on foot---actually by snowshoe (and trying to teach Kirsten, a city girl at heart with an aversion to snow and anything associated with it, how to snowshoe is a story in and of itself), makes this a difficult task at best.
“Tell him that we’re halfway between the big rock and the tree that looks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, two steps off the nearest cow path.”
Feeling her jaw drop, Koda slowly turns her head until Kirsten’s stone, black streaked, face is perfectly in her sites.
Manny, just as shocked, voices what Koda cannot. “Did…did you just crack a joke? Ma’am?”
Green eyes blaze from blackface, and Manny gulps. Hard.
“Didn’t think so, Ma’am.”
Koda clamps her jaw shut and settles for shaking her head. She scans the area ahead and, once she has their position firmly in her mind, slips the communications piece back in her ear and, through the static, relays that position in Lakota to her brother.
Satisfied with her response, Tacoma cuts communication and the world around Dakota falls back into blessed quiet. In the silence, she notices Kirsten staring blankly into the distance, her expression intent. Closing the distance between them, Dakota stops just outside the other woman’s body-space and waits patiently.
Sensing Dakota’s presence, Kirsten blinks, draws back into herself, and gives the tall woman a questioning look.
“Garbled,” Kirsten replies, slipping the bud from her ear. “They’re definitely headed this way, though.” She looks around, then back at Koda. “It would make sense, if they’ve got humans with them, to take a main road, even if it hasn’t been plowed. Are there any of those near here?”
“About ten paces directly ahead. A main highway.”
“That close, huh?”
Koda grins, a flash of pure white against the black greasepaint on her face. “We’ll be long gone before they get within sniffing distance.”
As Kirsten nods her understanding and replaces her earbud, Koda sobers. She opens her mouth as if to speak, then closes it, unable or unwilling to risk this new bit of warmth between them.
Kirsten notices. “What is it?”
Koda takes in a deep breath, considering her words. “I believe…in being prepared. I know this is just a recon mission, but something unexpected could happen, and if it does….”
Kirsten bristles. “I assure you, I’m perfectly capable of handling….”
“It’s not that,” Koda replies, holding her hand up. “It’s….” Pausing, she fights for words again. “Look, if we need to shoot up some of those drones, and you’re tapped into one of them at the time, I don’t think Manny and I can keep you alive long enough for the others to get here and get us back to base.”
A smile comes unbidden to Kirsten’s lips. She feels a wash of tenderness so foreign to her that for a moment, she’s taken aback by the strength of that simple, undeniably powerful emotion. “I’ll be okay,” she assures softly, reaching out one gloved hand to touch, only briefly, Koda’s strong wrist. “The problem’s been corrected. I won’t be getting caught in any more self destruct feedback loops. I promise.”
Koda looks deep into Kirsten’s eyes, twin sparks of high color among the monochrome of lampblack and full moon. Her memories guide her spirit to the beat of the drums, to the pulse of the ether, the brightness of the Star-that-has-no-Name, and the ever-present pull of the seductive wind.
“The time is not yet,” she whispers.
Kirsten freezes, a living statue in a land humanity has forsworn. “What?”
The soft voice shakes her from her memories. “Nothing. It was….”
The words on the tip of Kirsten’s tongue dry out as several streams of data pour into her implants. She cocks her head, still looking at Dakota. “They’re headed this way. Ten armored military droids, twenty two regulars, almost fifty humans traveling on foot…or treads…or…whatever. They’re picking up more as they move along. They’re broadcasting everywhere. I can hear chatter from at least seven more groups nearby.”
“This isn’t good,” Manny mutters, his eyes darting, trying to look everywhere at once.
“Strengths?” Koda asks, tightening her grip on her weapon.
“Don’t know yet. They’re definitely heading for the base, though.”
“And the humans. Coerced or voluntary?”
“I don’t know that yet either,” Kirsten bites off, shaking her head. “No real mention of them in the routine communications I’m picking up.”
Manny steps forward. “As much as I don’t believe I’m saying this, Koda, I think we should treat them like unfriendlies no matter what their circumstances.”
Kirsten gazes over at him, shocked. “Is that what they’re teaching you in the military these days?”
“No, Ma’am,” Manny replies, spine so straight it crackles. “Exactly the opposite, in fact. But right now, I don’t think we can afford to take any chances. Ma’am.”
Dismissing him with a look, Kirsten concentrates on the chatter coming over her implants. Koda flips on her com unit and quietly relays Kirsten’s reports to Tacoma in Lakota. When she’s done, she looks back to Kirsten. “Any more info?”
“Nothing specific. They’re still headed this way. If the GPS was working, I could tell you exactly how far.”
“It’s alright.” Grinning, she hefts a large and heavy sack and slings it over her back. “Manny, stay here and keep an eye out. I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Wait! Where are you….” Kirsten cuts off her own words as she realizes she’s speaking to thin air. She turns to Manny. “Where is she going?”
Manny smirks, then shrugs. “Dunno. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. Dakota’s real good at taking care of business. And herself.”
Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Kirsten stares down the most likely path of Koda’s disappearance. “Yes,” she comments softly, more to the air than the man standing just a few paces away. “Yes, I suppose she is.”
The time is not yet.
Having been taught to snowshoe as soon as she had learned to walk, Dakota moves effortlessly across the snowy plain, leaving no discernable tracks behind. Headed south, away from the droids and their human collaborators (or captives, if one possesses a glass-half-full attitude), she parallels the road for a little over two miles, then back, and back again, until she comes to the perfect spot. Moonlight glints off perfect white teeth as she surveys her surroundings. She knows this particular stretch of road very well. Long, straight, and utterly monotonous, it’s exactly what she needs.
Slinging the pack away from her body, she unzips the front and reaches inside, gloved fingers gingerly clamping onto a thick metal container. Pulling it out, she sets the pack on the snow, then unscrews the lid of the container and reaches inside. She removes a flat metallic disc the same size and shape as an old-time DVD. Military technology had escalated to stratospheric heights during and after the last of the Great Wars, and the device she holds in her hand is one such example. An anti-tank mine, it is much smaller, much lighter, much more accurate, and much deadlier than the mines of old. Placed correctly, it will allow the humans and non-military droids to step directly on it without tripping the trigger.
Such will not be the case when the heavy treads of a military android descend.
Calmly, and with precision, Koda places her stash of mines, ten in all, into the natural cracks and divots of the snow and ice that packs the road. Sweat pours liberally from her face and her breath comes in soft pants of mist. She works freely and easily. Nature, even in the deep of an icy night, flows over, around, and through her, accepting her as its own, even in her destructive task. A sharp wind cuts across the naked flesh of her face, but she pays it no mind, intent on her work and the ebb and flow of life around her.
An hour later, she steps back and, hands on hips, views her work by the light of the moon. A grunt of satisfaction, and she zips her pack, reseats the straps across her broad shoulders, and turns back the way she came.
A soft owl’s hoot brings Manny to instant attention. When the sound is repeated, he hoots back, which catches Kirsten’s attention. Slipping the bud from her ear, she turns in Manny’s direction and is almost launched into orbit when the empty space of a split-second ago is suddenly filled by Dakota’s very living presence. “Holy Jesus,” she breathes, holding a hand up to her chest. “You just scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry,” Koda replies, contrite. She glances at Manny. “All quiet?”
“Good.” Back to Kirsten. “Anything else on the targets?”
Recovering, Kirsten nods. “Still headed this way. I was able to do some triangulation. They’re about five miles out now, give or take a few hundred feet. They’ve picked up two passengers. One regular droid, one human.”
“Anything from the other groups?”
“I’m picking up two other definites. Both smaller than the one we’re tracking now. Maybe twenty or thirty in each party, mostly regular droids and a few humans here and there. Nothing more specific than that.”
“How far out?”
“Ten, maybe fifteen miles. Both headed east-southeast, toward Ellsworth. At the rate they’re traveling, they’ll probably join up about six miles east of here.”
Koda nods, intuition satisfied. “I know the place.” She spares them both a pointed glance. “Ready to haul out?”
Kirsten straightens. “Where are we going? And where did you go?”
“Left a few surprises for our friends,” Koda replies, grinning.
“Land mines.” Kirsten’s exclamation is forestalled by an upraised hand. “Anti-tank mines. Any humans in the group will pass over them without a problem. These little gifts are for the military droids.”
Kirsten looks unconvinced.
“We either get them now, away from innocent lives, or we’ll have to deal with them later when there’s no choice in the matter.”
Looking down at her feet, Kirsten nods. The image of the two men she’s killed flashes in front of her and she finds herself clenching jaws and fists to keep it pushed down, far down out of sight and mind and thought.
Sensing Kirsten’s inner turmoil, Koda takes a step closer. “You alright?” The gaze that meets hers is clear and direct, but she can see the fight within and again it calls to her. “Is there something I can….”
“No,” Kirsten interrupts, back in full control. “It’s nothing.” Her shoulders square and set. “I’m ready to move out when you are.”
“Let’s go then.”
From her point position, Koda easily hears Kirsten’s pained cry and hurries back to investigate. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Cramp,” Kirsten bites out, snatching off a glove with her teeth and reaching down to work frozen fingers into an equally frozen knot of muscle in her calf. “Damn snowshoes. Should have left them to the rabbits, where they belong.”
“Hang on, hang on.” Tossing her weapon to Manny, Koda gets down on one knee and gently displaces Kirsten’s stiff, digging fingers. “Take some deep slow breaths. In and out. In and out.”
“I already know how to breathe,” Kirsten snaps. “Been doing it since I was a baby.”
“Just do it,” Koda orders, working her fingers into the thick straps of knotted muscle.
Startled by Koda’s uncharacteristic display of temper, Kirsten complies. Under the onslaught of Dakota’s skilled hands, the cramp gradually loosens.
Only to seize up again, hard enough to cause her leg to buckle. Saved from an ignominious topple onto her backside by Koda’s strong arm, she tenses, then relaxes as she finds herself half carried-half dragged a few steps back to where a flat-topped rock juts out from its bed of snow. With a soft grunt of pain, she lowers herself onto the rock, not protesting as her boot is removed and her triply socked foot is grabbed and manipulated until her toes point almost toward her chest. This eases the tension on her calf somewhat, and when Dakota’s fingers return to the knotted muscle, it begins to loosen in a way that Kirsten knows will be lasting.
As the cramp starts to relax, the rest of her does as well, as the stress and the hours without sleep begin to catch up with her. Her chin dips and her eyes find themselves gazing at the very top of Koda’s uncovered head. The moonlight brings out the bluish highlights in her deep black hair and Kirsten, to her private horror, watches as her own hand lifts from its place on her lap and reaches out to brush gently against the shining mass. It is just the briefest of touches, but it lingers sweetly in some deep part of her that isn’t hotly debating between crawling beneath the very rock she’s sitting on and—the current frontrunner—running as fast and as far as she can and not stopping until she reaches, say, Outer Mongolia.
Manny notices and quickly looks away, suspecting that he’s unintentionally intruding on a very private moment.
As quickly as it’s come upon her, the panic fades away at the sight of arresting blue eyes and a sweetly crooked smile that now fills her field of vision. There is no judgment to be seen in Koda’s striking features. Only kindness, compassion, and caring. “Better now?” Koda asks, her voice low and soft.
Kirsten clears her throat, suddenly aware of its dryness. “Yes.” She swallows. “Much. Thank you.”
“Anytime.” A canteen is thrust into Kirsten’s hands. “Here. Drink this. You’re dehydrated.”
“You mean it wasn’t the snowshoes?”
“A little of both, maybe,” Dakota concedes, slipping the heavy boot back over Kirsten’s foot, fastening it securely, then rising to her full height. “Take a little more. Yeah, that’s it. We’ve still got a few hours ahead of us, if you think you’re up to it.”
With a nod, Kirsten hands back the canteen and gets back up on legs that are steady and blessedly pain free. “I’m up to it. Let’s get going.”
With an amused glance at her cousin, Koda starts out after the fully recovered and determined young woman striding ahead.
Manny just rolls his eyes and follows along.
A chill wind, heavy with the scent of snow, cuts sharply through the small grove of trees. The winter-bare limbs rattle like the bones of a hundred skeletons in a hundred closets. At the sound, Dakota looks up from her task of planting the last of the anti-tank mines. The sky is thick with turbulent clouds, angry in a way she knows all too well.
Manny follows her glance upward, wincing. “Shit. Base said no weather tonight.”
“Probably fucked up those satellites too,” Koda grunts, turning back to her work.
“I’m guessing this is a bad thing,” Kirsten remarks, walking over from her spot a few yards away.
“Depends on your definition of ‘bad’,” Dakota deadpans, not looking up from her precise placing of the mine beneath the snow.
The barest glint of a smirk sharpens Kirsten’s eyes. “Would you like the Mirriam-Webster-Turner version, or would you be content with the Oxford Condensed Unabridged?”
Manny’s slow motion head turn is the stuff of old-time silent movie classics and Kirsten enjoys every second of it. She’s not exactly sure why she derives such pleasure from getting this brash young pilot’s goat. Perhaps it’s her way of telling him that she will be accepted on her own terms. Why she desires acceptance from a man who is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger is another question she doesn’t have an answer for.
Deer in the headlights, she thinks, raising an eyebrow and daring him to respond. And he looks as if he’s going to, right up until the time that both his military training and the realization of exactly who she is conspire to ambush him. His snappy comeback dies on his lips, and he turns away, pretending to study the roiling sky.
Perfectly aware of the little drama taking place mere feet away, Koda takes her time placing the last mine. Rising, she casually dusts her gloves off on her thighs, then gives Kirsten a deliberately pointed look before clapping her cousin on the back. “Alright, flyboy. Time to make tracks.”
“Bless you,” Manny half whispers before looking through the copse of trees directly ahead. “Uh oh.”
Koda looks up just in time to see the heavy squall move toward them with the speed of an oncoming train. “Shit.” She glances over her shoulder. “Kirsten, grab my pack. Don’t let go no matter what, understand?”
“Whiteout!” Manny shouts just as the storm descends, bathing them in a world of blinding, pure white.
Insert scary music of your choice here, folks! So ends another episode in the life of Dakota, Kirsten and assorted characters. Hope you enjoyed! Drop a line if you’re in the mood. We love hearing from you. firstname.lastname@example.org Until next week!
Continued - Chapter 14
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