Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
“This is it. The end!”
Asi, no sign of belief in his idiot grin or tensely poised body, never takes his eyes off the birch twig in Kirsten’s raised hand. She feints as if to throw it, and his head jerks to follow the movement. His feet, though, remain firmly planted on the tarmac of the Base vet clinic’s parking lot.
“You got it? This is the last one! No more!”
Asi’s ears quiver in anticipation, tail up and alert. If he ‘gets it,’ he gives no sign.
Drawing her arm back as far as she can, Kirsten puts her back into the pitch, sending the much-chewed piece of wood unerringly onto the clinic’s doorstep. “Go!”
Asi leaps to retrieve it, covering the ten yards there and the ten yards back to her in huge, galloping bounds and coming to a skidding halt to drop the stick at her feet. He whines softly, looking up at her face, then fixes his attention once again on her throwing hand. “No, that’s it. Done for the day.” She shakes her head at his expression, which segues from anticipation to incomprehension to utter canine dejection. “And making me feel guilty won’t work, either. How’d you like to go visit the new pup? Since we’re already here?”
Asi does not respond to that, and she ruffles the fur of his neck lightly, tugging at his collar as she moves toward the entrance. “Come on, fella.”
It is purely by chance, of course, that she finds herself just outside the veterinary hospital. Wearied by endless and endlessly futile sifting of code strings for the single line of integers that will shut down the androids once and permanently, she has shut her mathematical conundrums firmly in the house behind her and fled into the open air. It is something she finds herself doing more and more often as the March light warms toward the inevitable spring and the wind softens and veers about into the south. And, purely by chance, her walk has led her here. Her only deliberate choice, she assures herself, has been been to avoid the woods, inhabited as they are by motor-mouthed raccoons and god knows what else. Banshees, maybe.
Fra ghoulies an’ ghaisties,
An’ lang-leggedy beasties,
An’ things that gae bump in the nicht,
Guid Lord, deliver us.
The ancient rhyme says nothing about beasties with long, bushy ringed tails and black masks, but she’s sure the omission is inadvertent.
If they’d only known. . . .
A wailing from hell greets her as she pushes open the door, its chime lost in the howling that rips its way up and down the scale. Asi barks sharply, and Kirsten shushes him. The single person in the waiting room, an airman in a flight suit, leaps to his feet and unzips the side of an over-the –shoulder carrier, nervously adjusting the towel on its floor. “Sorry Ma’am. Callas doesn’t like to have her ears touched.”
As if on cue, Shannon emerges from a treatment room behind the counter, the sound growing louder with her approach. Clinging to the front of her smock with all four feet is a young calico cat, ears folded close to her head and her mouth wide open and yowling like a panther in heat. At least, it is what Kirsten imagines a panther in heat would sound like. She has never actually heard one singing her come hithers.
Claw by sabre claw, Shannon detaches the small creature, and with the aid of her human, carefully backs her into her carrier. An abrupt silence falls, replaced after a moment with a soft rumbling sound. From her pocket Shannon removes a long-snouted tube of ointment and a small plastic bottle of pale yellow liquid. “Here you go, Lieutenant. Tritop in the ears twice a day, Clavamox by mouth likewise. Hydrogen peroxide on the scratches, or wear heavy gloves.”
“Gotcha.” With a long stroke down Callas’ back and a scratch under her chin, the Lieutenant zips her up. “Thanks, Shannon. Ma’am.” He sketches a salute at Kirsten, who acknowledges it after a moment of frozen startlement, then shoulders the carrier and sets off out the door and down the sidewalk at a brisk pace. Kirsten’s eyes follow him as he turns the corner, heading for the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters. Almost no one is driving anymore. It has been days since she has seen anything but an official vehicle on the road; since the attempted assault on the gate, in fact. Conservation is setting in.
“Can I help you, Ma’am? Does Asimov need anything?”
Kirsten, faced with having to explain why she is here, finds herself suddenly embarrassed. She can feel the heat spreading over her face, her annoyance at herself only making it worse. “No, I— That is, we were out for a walk, and—”
“And you wanted to stop by and see the wolf pup?” Shannon grins at her. “It’s okay. You’d be surprised how many people just ‘happen’ to be passing by. Callas and her ear mites were only the second real case I’ve had today.”
“It’s all right? I wouldn’t want to upset the mother or anything.”
“Sure. Asi’d better stay here, though. The only strange males she’s tolerating are human ones.”
Kirsten gives his ears a ruffle. “Sorry, boy. Lie down.”
The big dog folds down on his elbows with obvious reluctance but without argument. With a last glance to make sure he remains, Kirsten follows Shannon through the waiting
area and past the examining rooms and surgery. As they approach the wards, the smell of chlorine reaches her, and she steps lightly into the waiting basin of disinfectant without needing to be reminded.
”She’s in Iso,” Shannon says, leading her down a short corridor toward a closed door. “Go on in.”
The smell of bleach is stronger here, and there is a second dishpan of the pungent liquid to the side of the entrance. Kirsten steps in and out of it almost automatically now, the familiarity of the clinic beginning to fit around her like her skin. And yet it is not the clinic itself, but the presence she feels here, the woman who, even absent, has left something of herself in the calm efficiency with which patients are cared for, in the passionate strength of her own caring.
Which is, if she is honest with herself, the real reason she is here: that there is no other place she can go which resonates more strongly of Dakota Rivers.
The light in Isolation is dim, and Kirsten almost gasps as she closes the door quietly behind her. Seated in an old fashioned rocking chair next to a bank of cages, a figure sits with head bent, all attention focused on the small bundle in the crook of its left arm, a miniature nursing bottle in its right hand. The clear profile, the cant of the head, the long legs and graceful hands are all Dakota’s. The sight, unexpected as it is, strikes the breath from Kirsten’s lungs and sets her heart to pounding against her sternum like a wild thing against he bars of its prison. Her lips burn at the memory of the fleeting kiss at their parting, fire streaming along the network of her veins into every cell in her body. “Dakota?” she says softly. Then, louder, “Koda? I thought you’d gone.”
“Kirsten?” The figure looks up, turning toward the light from the hallway.
Brown eyes, not blue. Hair just brushing broad shoulders, not quite long enough to braid, not the wild mane that flows halfway down Dakota’s back. Boots and feet too big to be a woman’s, even a woman standing six feet toward heaven.
“Ta- Tacoma? I’m sorry, I thought—” Kirsten takes an involuntary step backward, her face flaming now with embarrassment.
“That I was Koda?” A rueful smile touches his mouth, so like his sister’s that Kirsten is nearly lost again. “People have been confusing us ever since we were small, even in broad daylight.” The pup in his lap whimpers, and he adjusts his hand under the small body, tilting the bottle at a sharper angle. “We used to switch places sometimes. It drove the nuns wild until they finally noticed that our eyes were different.”
“How long did that take? You’d think it was obvious.” He is giving her time to recover, though how exactly he knows of her discomfort is not at all clear. Perhaps all Lakota people are uncannily intuitive.
Or perhaps it’s just the Rivers family.
Tacoma shrugs. “People see what they expect to see. We’re Lakota; Lakotas all have black hair and dark eyes and say ‘How.’ We wore the same dark blue pants and the same shirts starched so stiff you had to wear an undershirt just to keep from being sandpapered. I was in seventh grade and Koda in fifth before they got it figured out.”
A wheezing gurgle startles Kirsten, and Tacoma gently disengages the bottle from the pup’s mouth. “Hold him for a minute while I get a refill, will you? He draws on this thing like an irrigation pump.”
Gingerly Kirsten accepts the small bundle, both hands under his spine. His muzzle is blunt and his ears floppy, eyes just beginning to open the cloudy blue of any infant’s. There is no hint in his round belly and blunt paws of the formidable creature he will be two years from now, no shadow of the power his father had possessed even in the last moments of his life. He makes a small mewling sound, not unlike a kitten, and she presses him close to her body, rocking him gently as she would a human child. “Tacoma,” she says suddenly. “Do wolves ever have blue eyes? When they’re grown, I mean.”
He looks up from mixing the formula, pouring powder and sterile water into a blender that whirrs quietly. “I suppose it’s possible. Huskies have to have gotten their blue eyes somewhere, after all.”
“Have you ever seen one? A wolf with blue eyes?”
“Not in the wild, no.” He does not add, Why do you ask? though the question is in his face as he decants the formula into a newly sterilized bottle.
She has no answer to that question that she is willing to give him; no answer that she is willing to give anyone . I saw one in a dream. I saw those same eyes in your sister’s face. Instead she says, “Can I feed him? I’ve raised orphan puppies before.”
“Sure,” he answers, handing her the bottle. “That’ll give me a chance to check on mama and give her meds.”
“Is she still too sick to nurse him?”
Tacoma hunkers down in front of one of the lower tiers against the opposite wall. “She wants to, and she can care for him otherwise, but she hasn’t enough milk. She was really badly dehydrated when she came in. She’s still on IV’s.” As he speaks, he checks the drip in the long, clear plastic tube that runs from a flaccid plastic bag hooked onto the bars of the cage above. “Time to hang some more Ringer’s on her.”
He removes the empty bag and steps out into the larger ward, pausing without apparent thought to step in and out of the disinfectant. It seems to be something he does the way he breathes, so long accustomed as to be automatic. She is irrationally pleased that she seems to be acquiring the habit herself, almost without having to remind herself. She is fitting in. She is not terribly sure yet what exactly she is fitting into, but she knows in her bones that she has not wanted to fit into anything so badly since she was a child, cut off from the outside world first by her up-the-wall-and-into-the-ozone IQ, then from almost all the rest of it by her deafness. Perversely, the lack of sound had been a comfort, undemanding in its enforced silence.
For the moment, though, she is this small wild thing’s surrogate mother. Kirsten settles herself against the back of the rocker with the pup against her midsection. The chair, which Tacoma had filled to overflowing, very nearly swallows her so that she finds her feet dangling, toes just brushing the concrete floor. She pushes off from it, setting the chair to rocking gently. The pup, gazing up at her with half-closed eyes, perfectly trusting, evokes instincts she would deny possessing, deny with her last breath. Protect. Nurture. Love. He takes the elongated plastic nipple with no more hesitation than if he were snuggled up to his wolf mother herself. He fumbles at it a bit because he still cannot see clearly, gives a couple of smacks and snorts until he gets the suction going. The level of milk in the bottle begins to fall, slowly but steadily..
Protect. Nurture. They are instincts which Tacoma seems to possess without embarrassment. It is not a lack of macho; Christ, she has seen him on the battlefield, spraying death from an M-16 on full automatic, lobbing round after round of explosives into the lines of mixed droid and humans. With a chill that shivers her spine, she remembers the moment when he called in the strike on his own position, and Dakota’s berserkergang that had lifted Maggie, herself, their whole army up and out of themselves and made of their small makeshift force an invincible, unified instrument of one woman’s will.
From the lowest tier of cages across from her comes a shifting of weight, a low, searching whimper. The mother wolf, looking for her cub. Careful not to dislodge the bottle, Kirsten rises from the chair, crosses the space between and lowers herself into a cross-legged position in front of the cage. “Here he is, mama,” she says softly. “I’ve got him. He’s safe.”
Seemingly reassured, the mother settles her head on her paws, her eyes never leaving Kirsten. They are the color of old bronze coins, not blue, but they have in them the courage and the steadfastness of the eyes she has seen in dreams. The eyes that somehow are both a wolf’s eyes and Dakota Rivers’.
“Christ, you’re dumb.” Without realizing it, she has spoken aloud. Pieces of the puzzle fall into place, locking smoothly and without seam. Item: Dakota Rivers has blue eyes. Blue eyes that, strictly speaking, ethnically speaking, she should not have. Item: the wolf of Kirsten’s dreams, or hallucinations or whatever they were, also has blue eyes. Item: Dakota has—her throat tightens with the thought and salt stings her eyes-- or had a somehow intimate and loving relationship with the alpha wolf who was this small scrap’s father. The wolf, obviously, is Dakota’s spirit animal, with whatever that entails for someone who, unlike herself, has been brought up fully accepting that the barriers between the human and non-human worlds are both fragile and fluid. That one can have friends and relations who do not walk on two legs and who do have fur. That one can. . .
Another shiver passes over her, uncontrollable as the thought that spawns it. That one can, somehow, become a non-human being, in spirit and perhaps even . . . But she cannot bring herself even to finish that thought. It is too alien, too far from the familiar terrain of logic, of the physical determinism that has bounded her thought all her thinking life.
And that, in turn, brings her around to a mouthy, cynical raccoon speaking in riddles by a thawing stream. Her spirit animal. A creature who bears the same relation to her that the alpha wolf did to
A creature notorious for curiosity and its long, clever, mischief-making hands. A masked creature, not given to self-revelation. A creature, Dakota had said, whose stock in trade is transformation.
Kirsten can feel that transformation at work in herself, however hard she works to ignore it. She is here on the floor of a veterinary isolation ward with the pungent perfume of Clorox in her nostrils not because she has “just happened” to follow Asi’s pursuit of a birch twig, not even because she has genuinely wanted to visit the wolf mother and her baby. (Maybe even pet them? Make friends as she has with domestic dogs all her life?) She is here because this is Dakota’s place. Here she can be close to the woman whose many skills she is only beginning to understand, and to feelings in herself that she is not anywhere close to beginning to understand. It occurs to her that Tacoma is taking an unusually long time to fetch a bag of saline and a syringe of antibiotic. Perhaps he senses her need—an idea she finds half embarrassing and half comforting—and is too polite to intrude.
Halfway down the bottle, the nipple falls out of the pups mouth. Eyes closed, his head drops back against her arm, himself into a wolf’s dreams. After a few moments, his paws and eyelids begin to twitch, his breath coming in soft whuffles. His mother seems to have dropped off, too, no longer unsure of her infant or her infant’s new nursemaid. Briefly Kirsten considers opening the cage to lay the cub beside her. Discretion, Little K. Discretion is almost always the better part of valor. Common sense almost never kills anybody. Go with the stats. Odd, how she can still hear her father’s voice in her head after all these years, remembered from years when she could not hear at all.
Shifting her legs beneath her, she settles down to wait.
Twice she catches her own head beginning to fall onto her chest. The pup’s contentment and his mother’s calm must be contagious. Twice she pulls herself up, wide-eyed, from the edge of sleep. She cannot think what is keeping Tacoma. Perhaps she should put the pup down and offer to help with whatever it is.
The thought passes, though, as once again the light seems to change around her. She is standing on a green hill far away, distant in time and the stretch of miles. Below her lies a valley dotted with campfires in the dusk, a long white twilight that pales the summer stars. Behind her is her own fire, ringed with stones and set within a grove of birch and ancient oak. A woman stands beside her, tall and slender and naked except for her boots and the high-bossed oval shield, painted with unfurling dragon wings, that leans against her knee. Her right hand holds a spear, butted against the ground; the strap of her baldric defines the valley of her breasts with its own stream of blue and silver. Kirsten takes in the proud body, painted in whorls and starbursts of the same deep blue that matches her eyes, scarred here and there with the marks of battle. The woman’s coppery hair wreathes her head in an intricate arrangement of braids: the mionn, meant to deny an enemy’s hands a hold.
With a shock, Kirsten realizes that she, too, is nearly naked. Not just naked but almost identically painted and armed except that she holds a crescent-shaped axe in her left hand, and only a hair’s less high than the woman beside her. The tightness of her scalp tells her that she is likewise crowned with braids, a glance downward that her own hair is black as a raven’s wing. In a language at once musical and harsh, the red woman says softly, “And the hero-light shone about you that time I first saw you on the banks of the Dubhglass, anama-chara, and I knew then I would do anything to have you for my soul-friend.”
“And now that you have me, mo cridh, what will you do with me?”
The other woman’s free hand caresses her shoulder. “Come back to our fire, and I will show you.”
The snap of a closing door brings Kirsten gasping out of her dream. It is one she has dreamed the past night and the night before that, ever since her conversation with the raccoon in the woods. The red woman is one of those who warned her back in her spiral toward death, but the rest is both new and strangely familiar. Before she can make sense of it, a voice cuts through the fog that surrounds her, lightly amused and male. “Sorry to wake you. You three look really comfortable together.”
Tacoma, returning with a bag of Ringer’s and a hypodermic filled with a milky liquid. Kirsten feels her cheeks flame as she remembers twice waking from the dream with her thighs sticky and her heart pounding;. A brief inventory assures her that she has awakened in time to avoid embarrassment, the pup still firmly held against her, still snoring softly. His milky scent comes to her on his breath.
“I guess I just dropped off. Sorry.”
“You needed a break. Here, let’s put the little guy back with his mama. He’ll keep her mind off what I’m doing.” Tacoma hunkers down and snaps open the cage door, waking the mother wolf. He grins. “Go on. It’s okay.”
Kirsten levers herself up onto her knees, careful to hold her small burden steady, leans forward and gently lays him on the blanket beside his mother. Lightly her nose touches Kirsten’s hand, sniffing, then drops to her pup as she begins to bathe him. Kirsten cannot help herself. She reaches forward and strokes the wolf’s beautifully sculpted head, feeling the brittle dryness of her fur, the papery texture of her skin. “She’ll be okay?” It is all she can do to keep the tears from her voice.
”She’ll be okay. She’s reacting well to the drugs and a steady diet. Come summer we should be able to release them.”
With a start, Kirsten realizes how little she knows about Dakota’s brother. “Are you a vet, too?”
He laughs as he straightens up and begins to fasten the bag of Ringer’s to the drip tube, checking the clamp for proper tension. “I’m an engineer, by education if not trade. Comes in handy from time to time--we’ll be bringing a few of those big wind generators for the Base next week.. They won’t feed us, but at least we’ll have refrigeration and lights. And laundry,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. “Manny’s even tireder than I am of washing his socks in the bathroom sink.”
“That’s enough to earn you years of undying gratitude believe me.” Then, coming back to her question, “I just thought--” she makes a gesture that encompasses the ward, the two wolves, his deftness with the trappings of medicine.
“I know. Lots of people think the same thing. It’s just something that comes from growing up in a big family, on a ranch, though.” Tacoma uncaps the syringe with his teeth and, holding the line steady, begins to inject the medication into the IV. “Good old Penicillin. Can’t beat it. You’re an only child, Kirsten?”
She is taken aback. “Does it show?”
“Not really. It’s just that when there are ten of you, like there are of us, you can change a diaper and give a bottle before the training wheels come off your bike. Same with the cats and dogs and cows and horses. We all learned what to do about colic or a breach birth before we quite figured out how the colt got inside his mama in the first place.”
“That young, huh?” She grins at him.
“Oh, even younger than you can imagine.” He returns the smile, looking again so like his sister that Kirsten’s breath leaves her lungs. ‘There’s some coffee if you’d like—“
“Sergeant! Sergeant Rivers!”
The shout interrupts him, repeated to the pounding of feet in the corridor. Shannon bursts through the door, her face and hair wild, “Sergeant—“
“Bleach!” he barks at her, the Master Sergeant suddenly displacing the charming rancher and the rough-and-ready vet with a vengeance.
Shannon hops in and out of the basin with the speed of a Phillipine bamboo dancer. “Sergeant, it’s your cousin, the Lieutenant. He’s out front—“
But Tacoma is gone before the first sentence is out, Kirsten on his heels.
Dark is drawing down as Koda lowers the binoculars from her eyes and nods, satisfied with what she’s seen. The Caresaway Birthing Center is a smallish one-story structure bordered by attractively landscaped grounds that are only now beginning to grow ragged. The facility has two entrances. The rear entrance, for deliveries, is locked from the outside with several lengths of chain and three stout padlocks. The main entrance, at the end of a long, winding pathway, is guarded by a single android bearing a nasty semi-automatic weapon. She briefly considers using Kirsten’s handy little device to gain entry, then discards the idea, not knowing for sure how long it will take to round up the women kept captive inside and not wanting to take the chance of the droids “waking up” in the middle of her evacuation and spraying bullets all over the place.
The minicomp is a comforting weight against her chest, and she finds herself smiling as she thinks back on her parting from Kirsten. The feeling of the kiss still lingers, sparking tiny bits of fire along her nerve endings, like an Independence Day sparkler held in a child’s hand. After hours of thinking about it on the drive up to this place, she still isn’t sure exactly what possessed her to act in such a manner with Kirsten—a woman whose emotional walls are so thick that they likely give the Maginot Line pause. She realizes that if she had stopped to think at that moment, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all. Not because there isn’t an multi-layered attraction there, because there is and it is something she’d admitted to herself quite some time ago.
Perhaps it’s because everything about Kirsten King screams “keep out!” in huge neon letters, and Koda has been conditioned from an early age to respect such signs.
Until that one moment in time where she could no more stop her body’s instinctive actions than she could will her heart to stop beating.
With a soft sigh, she relegates those thoughts to the back of her mind where they’ll need to stay until she sees this task she’s set for herself to full completion.
As she watches, a tall man with thick hair and a bushy moustache exits the facility and begins speaking with the android guarding the entrance. Both look up, guns raised, as a herd of winter-thin deer bound from the woods across the neat grounds in huge, panicked leaps.
It is the distraction Dakota needs, and she leaves her tree-lined shelter, darting around the perimeter of the facility until she reaches the west wall. She presses herself tightly against it, feeling the bricks’ chill seeping through her jacket and shirt. To her right, there is a polarized window standing slightly open. She peers carefully through the small slit, and sees that the room beyond is empty and dark.
Sliding careful fingers into the seam, she eases the window open just enough for her to be able to squeeze through. Then, with a soft grunt, she hefts herself up and over the lip of the window and inside the darkened room, freezing the instant her feet touch the heavily carpeted floor. A moment later, she is moving again, silent as a shadow trailing a running man. At the doorway, she pauses again, then slips through and into the empty hallway beyond.
The blueprints she’d downloaded from the computer firmly in her mind, she slides along the hallway wall until she comes to the next doorway. She can hear the muffled sounds of life within: a pen scratching on a piece of paper, the soft hum of medical equipment monitoring and infusing, the deep relaxed breaths of the sleeping and the drugged. She is visible for no more than an instant as she takes in the scene before ducking back out and melding herself to the wall, processing what she’s seen.
Four beds to the left, only to of them occupied. One male to the right, his human status proclaimed by the barren neck that just peeps above the collar of his starched white labcoat. He sits hunched over a desk, writing in a chart. His sandy blonde hair is mussed and lank. His face sports impressive swelling and bruising along his jawline and the one eye she can see.
Taking in a breath, she slips around the doorway and silently moves behind the doctor, squatting on her haunches as she slips a hand over his mouth. “If you want to live,” she hisses in his ear, “don’t scream. Understand?”
The man nods once, quickly.
“Good. I’m gonna ask you some questions. When I take my hand away, I want you to answer me in a whisper, got it?”
“How many women are in this place?”
“Twelve,” he whispers from between swollen and cracked lips.
“Including these two?”
“How many androids?”
There is a long pause. She can feel the surprise and confusion rolling off him in waves.
“Including the one guarding the door?”
“Human males? Excluding yourself?”
“He do this to you?” she asks, trailing a gentle finger against his lumpy jawline.
He flinches, then nods, shamed.
Her lip lifts in a snarl. “Ok,” Koda nods, satisfied. “Aside from these two, are the others able to travel?”
“And these two, could they, if it was an emergency?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Not even if it meant their freedom?”
Another pause. She can feel it as his confusion turns to hope. “I could get them ready.”
“Make it ten and you’ve got a deal.”
“It’ll be done.” A pause. “Who are you?”
And when he turns around, she is gone.
Tacoma bursts from the short corridor into the waiting room, halting so abruptly that Kirsten almost crashes into him. Behind her, Shannon does stumble and steadies herself against Kirsten’s shoulder. “Sorry,” she gasps, just as Tacoma breathes an audible sigh of relief. Over his shoulder, or more properly, around his ribs, Kirsten has a clear view of the parking lot in front of the clinic door. A long-bedded pickup is drawn up in front of the entrance, with the tops of a couple large steel-wire animal carriers showing under the back window and above the fenders. Manny, in civilian jeans and flannel shirt, is easing the tailgate down, one-handed, assisted by the freckle-faced helicopter pilot who joined them on the mad charge across the Cheyenne bridge after the choppers had shot their loads. Andrews, if she remembers correctly, also in mufti.
Kirsten does not know what Tacoma feared, but it is clear that whatever it was, it has not happened. He pushes the door open almost casually. “Yo, Cuz. What you got?”
“Come look,” Manny answers. “We’re gonna need X-rays, stat.”
Kirsten is not “cuz,” but there is no use in being acting President of the United States if you cannot include yourself in an Air Force Lieutenant’s invitation. When she sees what is in the back of the truck, she wishes almost that she had not. “Oh, my God.” Her throat closes on the words.
The larger cage in front holds a bobcat, well-fed and sleek with the winter’s hunting, and, very probably, the chickens and assorted small livestock from deserted farms. All her grace and beauty lie still now, her eyes wide pools of darkness, her tongue lolling from her mouth. Only the heaving of her ribs shows that she lives. Across her right front paw a bloody gash shows white bone and the loose ends of tendons. “What happened to her?” She manages to force out the words. “Was it--?”
“Goddamned leg-hold trap,” Manny finishes the sentence for her, his voice tight with controlled rage. “I had to dart her to get her out. It’s not as bad as it looks, but the sooner we get her cleaned up and some atropine in her, the better.”
Tacoma inspects the wound carefully, lightly moving the paw back and forward, palpating above the gash. “I think we’ve got one lucky cat here, but we need the radiographs to be certain. Shannon,” he says without looking around, “Set up the X-ray, will you? Dorsal and ventral on the paw. Any other frank injuries?”
This last is directed to Manny, who shakes his head. With his good hand, he pulls forward a second carrier. “This one’s not quite as bad, just embarrassing for the poor guy.”
Kirsten peers past him. Her first thought is that the cage holds a small wolf, her second that this is the biggest fox she has ever seen. He, too, is drugged, though his eyes are not quite so dilated. Even in this state, there is a glint of intelligence in them, and something of the mischief of Wika Tegalega. “Coyote,” Andrews says. “Somehow moved fast enough not to get a foot in the trap. Caught his tail instead.”
“He’s been there longer than Igmú, though. It’s infected,” Manny adds.
Tacoma’s nose wrinkles. The odor is pronounced, even from where Kirsten stands. “Not good,” he says. “Sorry, fella, you may lose some of your brush. We’ll do what we can, though.” Then to Manny again, “ Just these two?”
“There was a badger,” Andrews says quietly. “Too far gone.”
Tacoma swears softly. ‘Any sign of who—“ He breaks off suddenly, his eyes shifting to a large bundle in the corner of the truckbed, then back to Manny again. Something Kirsten does not understand passes between them, clearly as if it had been spoken. Andrews’ face is stiffly, deliberately unexpressive.
The bundle is about the size of a bear, Kirsten thinks. So badly mangled, perhaps, that the men do not want to trouble her tender female sensibilities? But that is nonsense; two of them have grown up in a tradition that honors women warriors, and all three of them were at the Cheyenne, commanded by one woman, led to victory by another. Nothing could offend her sensibilities any worse than the human wreckage at the end of a pitched battle, than what she faced on her flight west before Minot. They have to know that.
The bundle is about the size of a man.
A dead man.
There is nothing to be done for the dead. Aloud she says, “How can I help?”
Tacoma has opened the bobcat’s carrier and is sliding her gently into his arms. Supporting her back and head so that she can breathe more easily, he carries her into the clinic, Kirsten darting ahead to hold the door for him. “Thanks,” he says. “You can help me scrub up the surgery and set out what we’ll need.”
She continues to hold the door as Manny and Andrews between them maneuver the second cage into the waiting room and from there directly into the surgery. Carrying the cat,. Tacoma follows Shannon into X-ray, emerging a moment later and heading directly for the small operating room’s sink. Rolling up his sleeves and scrubbing vigorously up to his elbows, he says, “Let’s see Tshunkmanitu before the drug wears off. If he needs surgery, we can at least start him on antibiotics, knock the infection down some first.”
Ten minutes later, with the bright lamp glaring down on the newly cleaned wound, it is obvious what must be done. The posterior half of the tail hangs by a fragment of crushed bone and little more than ribbons or torn muscle and skin. Tacoma has debrided as much of the dead tissue as he can and flushed the wound with sterile water. “He’d have had himself out of the trap before much longer,” he observes as he strips off his gloves, wads them one into the other along with pus-sodden sponges and tosses them into the red biohazard bin. “He’s going to lose about half that brush. Let’s get the atropine into him and bed him down.”
Tacoma fills a pair of syringes from vials in the refrigerator. One is Clavulin; the other the atropine that will bring the coyote up to consciousness again. “Manny, can you and Kirsten bandage him up? I’ll go take a look at the bobcat’s X-rays.”
Deftly, hardly hindered by his immobilized arm, Manny packs the end of the wound with sponges. A length of Kerlix follows, with bright blue elastic bandage over that. “Just like Coyote,” Manny observes. “In all the old stories, he’s always getting his tail in a crack. That or his—that is, another part of him.”
Kirsten returns his grin as she sprays the table and scrubs it down.. “Did you and Tacoma work with Dakota?”
Manny nods. “I actually got paid. Poor Tacoma just got drafted when she needed someone and he was handy” The coyote’s head suddenly raises up, bright eyes beginning to focus. “Hey, here he comes. Can you lift him?”
Kirsten slides her arms under the animal, no heavier than a medium-sized domestic dog. With Manny holding the door, she walks briskly toward the Iso ward and deposits him in the waiting cage a couple doors down from the mother wolf and her pup. The wolf’s head comes up as they pass, long nose testing the air at the arrival of something canine and male. “Company, girl,” Kirsten says, slipping her arms free and securing the latch.
When they return, Tacoma is working rapidly on the bobcat’s lower leg, just above the ankle joint. This wound is fresher and has not had time to become infected. A pile of bloody sponges sits in their upturned plastic container at one end of the table, beside the bottle of sterile water. “She’s a lucky girl, and we’re a couple lucky nurses,” he says. “The bone’s not broken, and we don’t have to splint it.”
Kirsten watches his deft movements as he swabs and flushes, swabs and flushes the raw flesh. As he reaches for the water, the back of his hand trails gently over the cat’s flank, lingers for a moment on her head. It comes to Kirsten that he has the sort of bond with cats that his sister does with wolves. When he is done he bandages the wound, administers antibiotics and atropine, and himself carries her back toward the ward, murmuring to her softly in Lakota.
An hour later the clinic begins to settle for the night. All the patients are fed, cages cleaned, meds given, dressings changed. Shannon, so bone-weary she can hardly stand, has gone home. Released from his discipline, Asimov sits possessively at Kirsten’s feet in the waiting room. Manny, fishing in his pocket for the truck keys, prods Andrews where he dozes on a bench. “Hey, bro, c’mon. Let’s go home to a deee-lish-us bowl of chicken noodle soup.” And to Kirsten, “You want us to drop you and Asi off at the Colonel’s?”
“Thanks,” she says. Then, very evenly, “In a moment. First I want to know what’s in that bundle in the back of the truck. I like to know who I’m riding around with.”
Again, the covert glances: Andrews to Manny to Tacoma and back.
“I’d like an answer, please.” Kirsten says.
Manny sits down with a sigh, his stocky bulk folding up joint by joint. “It’s the trapper. He was out checking his lines.”
“He drew on Manny,” Andrews says. “It was self-defense.”
Kirsten turns to Tacoma, “You knew about this?”
Tacoma runs his hands through his hair and over his face. “I was afraid something like this might happen, yeah.”
“You thought something had happened to Manny when Shannon came running back to the Iso ward, didn’t you?”
Tacoma nods. “He can’t carry a rifle with his busted shoulder. Look, a trapper is by definition a criminal. It’s not something kinder, gentler people do.”
“Nothing’s wrong with my trigger finger, thank you very much.” Manny pats the bulge at his waist that Kirsten realizes belatedly is a handgun.
The face of the corpse, when Tacoma unwraps it, is familiar even in the failing light. Except for the bullet hole in his forehead, Bill Dietrich looks exactly as he did the night he and a mob behind him tried to force their way onto the Base. Fleetingly, Kirsten regrets that she did not shoot him on the spot.. “All right,” she says. “Take him over to the morgue. Someone can notify his family, if he has one, in the morning. There’ll have to be some sort of inquest. I’ll talk to the Colonel about it tonight.” She reels off the orders as if she has been giving them all her life.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Manny says. There is a suspicious glint in his eye. “Anything else?”
“Yes.” Kirsten opens the passenger door to the front seat, and Asi hops up, settling in the middle. “Take me back to—“ She hesitates momentarily. “Take me home.”
Koda slips back into the darkened, empty room and pauses a moment to consider her options. She knows that down the hall, past the “special care” suite she has just returned from, there are ten birthing rooms, five to a side. Along the other hallway, there are two Jacuzzis used for relaxation, and two “birthing tubs” for water births. At the very end of the hallway is a large, family style kitchen. The two wings sprout from a central core, a square area housing a reception/admitting desk and a waiting area with comfortable couches and a communal television.
Kitchen first, I think.
A noise stays her feet and she listens carefully to she sound of heavy footfalls, nearly inaudible against the thick carpeting of the hallways. Her nose twitches as she scents a noxious cloud of heavy body odor capped by an overly flowery men’s cologne. Reaching under her jacket, she removes the automatic pistol from its shoulder holster and grips it, muzzle down, barrel pressing against her palm. As the footsteps become closer, white teeth glitter in the gathering darkness.
She waits for the man to pass—it is indeed the bushy haired stranger who had stepped out to speak to the android—and just as his shoulders clear the doorway, she steps in behind him, raises the pistol, and cracks the stock against the back of his head. He falls like a stone, and she catches him under the armpits and drags him into the darkened room.
Settling him on his stomach and turning his head to the side, she pulls out a roll of duct tape, placing a piece over his mouth, and wrapping first his wrists, and then his ankles together, binding him securely. Rising fluidly to her feet, she holsters the gun, knowing it won’t be needed further, and walks back to the doorway, peering both ways down the brightly lit hall.
The hall is empty. Pulling the minicomp from her pocket, she slips back out into the hallway and turns left. Long, unhurried strides take her down the short side of the hallway and into the reception area. The area is empty and quiet. Its cheery décor comforts none.
Stopping at an endtable scattered with parenting magazines slipping rapidly out of date, she pops open the minicomp’s protective lid and sets it down. With a crossing of mental fingers, she presses the tiny power button, and waits—expecting what, she’s not exactly sure.
No flashing lights, no screaming sirens, no humming, no martial music piped from infinitesimal speakers.
She waits another moment, pushing down a temptation to give the thing a whack to get it going. She lets go a soft sigh instead. “Guess I’ll have to do this the hard way, then,” she mutters to herself, hand stealing to the gun at her side—a gun that she knows will be less than useless against the androids. “Ah well. Here goes nothing.”
She heads down the hallway, gun cocked and ready, only slowing when she spies a something rather strange. As she closes in, slowly, she recognizes it as a hand, fingers slightly cupped as if reaching for something, peeping out from one of the doorways. As she approaches, the hand doesn’t move and, unable to hold back her curiosity any longer, she rounds the doorway and stares into the blank eyes of an android frozen in mid step.
A smile slowly spreads across her face. With one long finger, she gently pushes against the chest of the android. It rocks in place like an inanimate object, then settles, making no independent movement of its own. “Ohhhh, Kirsten,” she breathes, grinning. “Very nice. Very nice indeed.”
Her grin falls away as she hears a gasp, and she pivots, gun instinctively at the ready. Two hugely pregnant women scream and duck, throwing their arms in front of their faces.
Koda quickly holsters her weapon and shows them both her empty hands. “It’s ok,” she sooths. “I’ve come to get you out of here.”
The taller of the two women slowly removes her hands and peers at Dakota. “Really?” Her voice is high-pitched and full of doubt.
“I’m sure,” Koda replies, slowly and deliberately reaching for the collar of her jacket and separating it to show her neck. “I’m a friend.”
Slowly, more or less assured by the absence of a droid collar, the women come to their feet. The taller one steps forward, then flinches back at the sight of the android, shooting Koda a mistrustful gaze.
“It’s okay,” Dakota replies in response. “It’s temporarily out of commission.”
Like skittish animals, both women step forward until they are within arms length of the droid. They stare at it, wide eyed, then turn those stares to Dakota. “You do this?”
“I had a little help,” she responds warmly.
“Damn,” the shorter woman—little more than a girl, really, with wildly dyed hair and multiple facial piercings—breathes. “Far out.”
“If you can help me get the others,” Koda intones. “We don’t have much time.”
“Wha--?” The younger woman blinks. “Yeah, they’re all in the kitchen. We just came out ‘cause we heard a noise.”
“Alright, then, let’s get everybody rounded up. I don’t know how long it’s going to stay like that.”
Three minutes later, Koda is hustling the women, all very pregnant, down the long hall and back into the waiting area. Scooping up the minicomp, she slips it into her pocket and levels the group with an intense glance. “Ok, everybody stay here. I’ll be back in a minute, alright?”
The silent women stare back at her. A few nod. The rest only stand frozen, torn between the polar extremes of fear and hope.
“Be right back.”
Dakota pelts down the hall until she comes to the special care unit. The doctor is almost in the doorway, two groggy women at his side. “Thank God,” he says upon seeing her. “You’re going to have to help me with this one. She began having contractions as soon as I turned her infusion off.”
“Will she lose the baby?”
“She might, if we can’t keep her on the medication.”
“Alright. Does that pump run on a battery?”
Nodding, Koda brushes by the small group and deftly unclamps the pump from the pole. Wrapping the cord around the clamp, she pulls down the bag of fluid, walks back to the woman, and reconnects the tubing to the IV still in her arm. “Rate?”
“Are you a Nurse?” the doctor asks, surprised.
“Um, fifty cc per hour.”
“Fine.” Within seconds, the meds begin once again infusing into the pain-wracked woman. A moment later, she straightens with relief. “Bless you,” she whispers, then nearly collapses as a wave of weakness overtakes her.
“Hold this,” Koda orders, all but tossing the pump to the startled doctor, while steadying the woman with her free hand. Then, in a smooth motion, she tucks her other arm beneath the woman’s knees and lifts her into her arms. “Let’s go.”
Supporting the second woman with an arm around her waist, the physician hurries after Dakota, the pump tucked against his body and the tubing stretching taut between them.
They reach the reception room quickly to find the rest of the group in the same positions Dakota had left them in. Giving them a nod, Koda leads the pack to the front door. Through the glass, she can see the second android standing motionless on the tiny porch. She pushes the door open, and when this action garners no response from the droid, she breaths another silent sigh of relief, and steps through.
“You,” she orders over her shoulder to the punk-haired girl. “Grab that gun. It can’t hurt us without its weapon. Not once we get far enough away.”
“Right on.” The woman does as ordered, then, for good measure, gives the android a mighty heave, sending him toppling from the porch and into the snow where it once again settles, motionless. “Take that, you fucking tin-plated shitheap! Hah!”
“Alright, all of you, let’s go. Walk as fast as you can. Transportation’s just beyond that tree line. Move.”
A moment later, the troop carrier comes into view, and the women break into a run, babbling with excitement and happiness. Koda tosses the keys to one of the women and orders her to unlock the rear door. That done, the women file inside, sliding along the bench seats that line the vehicle. Koda gestures for the doctor to enter, then lays her bundle in the aisle between the seats.
Finished with her task, she looks at the shining faces of the women. “Alright, we’re moving out. This isn’t the most comfortable truck you’ve ever ridden in, but I promise to be as gentle as I can with it, ok?”
The women nod. From the back, a soft voice asks, “Who are you?”
She smiles tightly. “A friend. Now hold on. We’re out of here.”
Slamming the door and locking it tight, she moves alongside the carrier to the driver’s side door. As she’s about to slip inside, she hears the long, mournful howl of a wolf. Tears immediately sting her eyes, and she swipes them away with an angry hand.
“I miss you, my friend,” she whispers into the chilled air.
The howl follows her, filling her ears and soul as she climbs into the truck and drives away.
And yet another episode of The Growing comes to its end. We hope you’re enjoying and thank those of you still along for the ride. And a long ride it is, too! It’s already been six months. Can you believe it? Six months for a first kiss. No, it won’t be that long for a first everything else. Promise. <G> Thanks to everyone for their wonderful notes. They’re keeping us smiling and determined to continue to put out the best we can offer. email@example.com
Continued - Chapter 22
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