Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
Dawn is still several hours away, but Kirsten is wide awake, her lover’s pillow clutched tightly against her chest as she stares at the blackened ceiling above. Her body still hums with the sweet energy of their lovemaking less than half an hour ago, and she already misses Dakota’s passionate presence. “The things you make me feel,” she murmurs into the still, humid air. She remembers the look Koda gave her when she thought she was sleeping. The tenderness and adoration emanating from those magnificent eyes was as palpable to Kristen as a caress, laying itself over the parts of her that were still wounded and raw from a lifetime standing on the outside, and making her feel, for that one wondrous moment in time, whole.
A sinking surge of guilt hits her belly and she rolls from the bed, pushing her lover’s pillow away from her as if she doesn’t deserve the comfort it holds. And in truth, perhaps she doesn’t. Keeping her plans from Dakota was the hardest thing she’d ever done. Compared to that, walking unarmed into Minot had been child’s play. What is it they say? Act first, apologize later, right?
She has the sinking feeling that no amount of contrition will ever make up for her silence of last night and this morning.
Please, God. Let her understand.
Striding into the bathroom, she turns on the tap and stands under the frigid spray, letting the stinging, icy water chase the thoughts and emotions from her. Her face, like her soul, grows stony, and by the time the water is once again silent, she resembles the very androids she is going after.
She dresses quickly and steps into the darkened living room. Koda had left one lamp burning low on the hearth, and its somber light casts Asi’s curled body into flickering shadow. Having gone out earlier with Dakota, he merely looks up at his master, tail thumping companionably against the hearthstone. A slight smile cracks Kirsten’s icy veneer, and squatting, she strokes his noble head, then hugs him close for a moment, allowing herself to enjoy his soft warmth and unwavering affection.
After a long moment, she pulls away and stands, looking down at him. “You be good today, you hear me?”
He looks up at her, slightly outraged, as if “good” isn’t his middle name.
Correctly interpreting the look, Kirsten rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and turns away, grabbing her laptop and the silver case she’s brought with her from the bedroom. Plucking a set of keys from their hook just inside the door, she lets herself out into the cool night.
Feeling a bit like a criminal, she stands at the driveway and looks carefully up and down the street. All is quiet, and dark, and, satisfied, she makes her way toward Koda’s truck. As she reaches the vehicle, a soft voice sounds behind her, causing her to jump and turn, body braced for a fight.
“Jesus, Lieutenant!” she gasps as the tall, muscled and incredibly handsome man steps out from the shadows. “You scared me!”
“Sorry about that, Ma’am,” he replies, touching the brim of his cap in salute and smiling at her.
“What are you doing lurking in the bushes in the middle of the night?”
“Following orders, Ma’am.”
“Orders? Who’s orders?”
“The Colonel’s, Ma’am. I’m part of your night guard.”
Kirsten’s eyes narrow. “Night guard?”
“I see. And does Doctor Rivers know about this?”
The lieutenant’s grin returns. “She does. I just talked to the Doc this morning, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh, you did, did you?” Placing her articles on the hood of the truck, she crosses her arms. “And what did she have to say?”
The grin fades slowly. “Well, Ma’am, she said that if anything happened to you while she was away, she’d flay me alive.”
Kirsten snorts. “Well, I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“So, you’re coming with me.”
Jackson snaps to attention. “Of course, Ma’am. Where are we going?”
Her smile is mystery itself. “Oh…you’ll see.”
Dakota’s Cougar 2 hums along the blacktop leading north from Ellsworth to the ruins of Minot. Cougar 1, leading the convoy, bristles with armament: like all the APC’s in the line, it mounts a machine gun on its roof, minded by a soldier with one hand on its swivel and the other on her own M-16. Cougar 1 also carries a spotter with binoculars, sprouting up out of the moonroof to keep company with the gunner. So far they have met nothing but the empty highway. Almost a meter high, grass grows along the shoulders to the very edge of the asphalt, with here and there a green shoot springing up on the tarmac itself. There are no wrecks here, and no roadkilled four-foots. The whole caravan had almost come to grief within an hour of setting out, when a mother skunk had led her line of five offsping across the pavement in aloof indifference to the trucks, and Tacoma had run Cougar 1 off onto the shoulder with the four following vehicles screeching to a halt bumper to bumper behind it.
“Shit, Cap, you crazy?” Sergeant Greg Townsend had bellowed from two APC’s back, leaning out of the driver’s window, his face beet red from the spring sun and the barely avoided accident.
“Hell, no, city boy.” Tacoma’s laughter had come over the walkie-talkie. “Better to kiss a telephone pole than hit a skunk, any day.”
After that, they had strung out at a safer distance. From the front seat of Cougar 2, Koda can see Larke’s abbreviated ponytail fluttering like a pennant in the wind created by the APC’s speed as he leans his elbows on the roof of the lead vehicle to brace his optics. Regulations be damned, many of the soldiers and airmen of Ellsworth have taken to growing their hair. Only the pilots, whose coiffure has to fit the confines of a helmet, have remained impervious to the new fashion statement.
Closer to, Dakota has a view of Cougar 2’s driver, Catcham, and Joe Poeteet’s camo-clad legs, the top half of their gunner invisible beyond the roof. Most of the time, though, she keeps her elbows propped on her knees, studying the country through her own pair Swarovski 10x50’s. There has been no sign of the enemy, though the tall grass would give ambushers excellent cover. Once she has seen the tall humps of buffalo lumbering along the horizon; twice, small herds of horses who have survived, still patched and shabby looking with the unshed straggles of their winter coats. She feels untethered, somehow, not quite in the present, not sure whether they are moving through the past or the future. It is a sensation that has lingered every since her vision in the sweat lodge, a sense that she is neither who nor where nor when she once was.
All perfectly normal, according to Ate.
“Halfway mark, Ma’am,” Catcham observes, pointing at the odometer. “We’ve been in North Dakota for the last twenty minutes or so.”
Koda nods her thanks. They will bypass Bismarck and Mandan to the east, making
directly for the base. They should arrive in time for a bit of recon, camp for the night and head back tomorrow afternoon with a cargo of whatever small arms they can pick up and a notion of whether or not it is feasible to try to collect a B-52 or so. Maggie has flatly refused to risk her remaining pilots on a scouting mission, no matter how Manny begged or cajoled or argued. Certainly one or two of the behemoths will come in handy if it becomes necessary to destroy yet another Air Force installation. Her cousin’s account of the F-15 fighter over Offut has raised a number of possibilities, all of them unpleasant.
Because if the droids have acquired the ability to strafe them from the air, they have lost their one great advantage in the upcoming confrontation. Their own air power will have to be deployed to counter the enemy craft and will no longer be available to cover the ground forces or even the civilians of Rapid City.
Still less will there be backup for the settlement coalescing around the Rivers’ ranch. No more will there be any defense for them.
Koda thumbs the button on her walkie-talkie. “Yo, thiblo. Seen anything up there yet?”
“Nothing since we took evasive action to get out of the way of Mama Skunk and her family this morning.”
“Evasive action, my ass. We nearly had a pile-up.”
“And you’d rather stink of skunk for the next three weeks? There ain’t that much tomato juice left in the world, sis. Besides, you got it all wrong. That was a squad of indigenous freedom fighters. One cadre and five enlisted, equipped with chemical weapons.”
The radio falls silent, and the miles slip by. The high grass seems to stretch forever, overgrowing the prairie, the pastureland, fields harrowed for the winter before the ice sank into the soil, petrifying it as surely as the passage of uncounted time. This, it comes to Koda, is Ina Maka reclaiming herself, giving birth to a new family of children, winged and four-footed and finned, the standing people and the stones. The only question that remains is how or whether the human two-foots will have a place in the new world. Or no, that is not quite right. The question is whether humans will live free in the universe that their own creations have brought into being. The question is whether they can survive in large enough numbers to create a stable population, and having done so, whether they can live with each other without sinking into tribal warfare.
If they survive this battle, their first priority must be to make contact with other surviving communities and make alliance with them.
Or, the unpleasant thought intrudes, subjugate them.
Do you want to become a conqueror, Dakota Rivers? Do you want Kirsten to become a dictator, the iron fist that forces the population back into technological society at the point of a machine gun?
Well, then, do you want to allow some old coot who thinks he is God’s administrative assistant to “marry” fourteen-year-old girls by the half dozen?
Somewhere there has to be a balance between the two, some territory marked by common sense and respect for one’s neighbors and the workings of democracy. And somewhere, on this land that her people have lived on time out of mind, there is the pattern of a new and ancient compact between human and four-foot, human and winged, human and Ina Maka herself. Despite the cloud that shadows the battle to come, she knows that that, nothing less, is the quest that awaits her on the other side of blood and death.
Koda steadies her binoculars and sweeps the horizon for the thousandth time. Move over Galahad, she thinks wryly. Compared to this, the Grail was a slam-dunk.
The first sign of trouble appears some ten miles south of Max, North Dakota, arcing over a shaggy forty-acre pasture from the windbreak along its northern border. The grenade lands some twenty feet in front of Cougar 1, gouging a hole in the tarmac and spraying the lead APC with a rain of melted tar and minute asphalt pellets. Koda has just time to see Cougar 1 veer off the road, Larke raising one arm to shield his face from the spatter of liquefied pavement, and to register the incongruous roar of the explosive when another round impacts the spot they had occupied a fraction of a heartbeat ago.
“Motherfucker!” someone bellows from the truck behind her, and flame from a return round blossoms along the treeline, its glare picking out a flurry of movement in the shadow of the trees. Then nothing.
Tacoma scrambles out of Cougar 1, careful to avoid the recklessly canted driver’s door as it clangs shut behind him. “Two of you come with me! The rest stay with the trucks!”
Not turning to see who follows, he slogs into the grass, still only knee-high by the roadside. With a wave of her hand to Poteet, Koda follows, pausing to exchange a grin with her brother where he holds down the lowest two strands of barbed wire so that they can duck into the sea of waist-high purple-top that was once a cultivated field. Some stalks, grown tall, brush at her face, their deep burgundy seeds shining along their spikes like garnets dangling on golden scepters.
“Spread out.” Tacoma waves them off to either side of him. “Watch your footing. Keep your eyes on that ridge.”
Tacoma sets off through the grass, its deep green parting for him, then closing like a wake behind him. Koda strikes out a few yards to his left, Poteet to the other side. She holds her rifle high, ready to fire without aiming at their attackers’ position, but, like Tacoma, she suspects that they are already gone. They may have simply fled in the face of greater numbers and bigger guns. Or they may have abandoned their position to report to whoever stationed them here.
Which would be a troubling thought all by itself, but Manny’s flight over Offut has only confirmed what they already knew. The remnants of Ellsworth and Rapid City are not the only survivors of the uprising, nor the only armed survivors. The F-15 her cousin met in the sky over Nebraska might have gone east when he outran it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t take off from Minot.
And if it did, we’ve got a whole lot of trouble, right where we don’t need it.
Right when we don’t need it.
Tacoma tops the rise slightly ahead of Poteet and Koda. She watches as he sweeps the
line of sight with the muzzle of his rifle, head up and alert for movement, then drop it to part the grass at his feet.
No one home.
Lowering her gun, she sprints the rest of the way up the side of the windbreak to join her brother. The grass along the ridge lies broken and beaten down where two men have crouched to set up a grenade launcher, its abandoned tube tossed down halfway to the narrow blacktop road blow. By the roadside twin ruts run through the grass and weeds, a partial tire pattern visible where it has been printed in dust on the asphalt.
“Shit,” Koda observes.
Tacoma glances at her sharply, one side of his mouth canting up in a crooked smile. “Oh yeah. This road’s still got enough traffic that they pull off to park. Not good. Not good at all.”
“What now, Cap?” A frown crosses Poteet’s sunburned face. “Any chance these guys are friendlies?”
“Well, they don’t seem to think we’re friendlies, and I’m gonna defer to their opinion until proven otherwise.” He shoulders his rifle and heads back down the slope. “From now on, we keep close, drive fast, and shoot first.”
Bright sunlight streams through the windshield, almost blinding Jackson. Squinting, he flips down the visor, but that action brings no relief. With a grumbling sigh, he turns his head to look at his Commander-in-Chief, who is currently humming a song he can’t begin to identify as the passing wind tousles her golden hair.
“Problem, Lieutenant?” Kirsten asks, not taking her shaded eyes from the deserted access road before her.
“No, Ma’am. Except….”
“Well…could you maybe clue me in as to where we’re going?”
“You’ll know soon enough, Lieutenant. We’re almost there.”
This statement does nothing to calm the fears of a man who has spent the last three plus hours imagining one Doctor Dakota Rivers filleting him with a butter knife and dragging what’s left over shards of broken glass. He seriously, albeit briefly, considers jerking open the door, diving out, and taking his chances with the androids, or whatever other unsavory characters make up this stretch of backwater nowhere. His reverie is disrupted by a gentle pat to the knee.
“Don’t worry, Lieutenant,” Kirsten comments, smirking as she divines his thoughts. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“I, uh, think that’s supposed to be the other way around, Ma’am.”
Kirsten’s laughter is rich and surprisingly uncomplicated, and he decides he likes it, even though, in the end, the privilege of hearing it will likely cost him latrine duty for the rest of his natural life. And beyond.
A short time later, he feels the truck slow, and watches as it pulls to a stop behind a large, thick copse of trees. It’s not what he expected, but years in the military have him prepared for almost anything. “I take it, Ma’am, that you didn’t drive us all the way out here just to commune with nature.”
Kirsten laughs again as she gathers her things. “You guessed right, Lieutenant. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.” She levels her sternest look at him. “Stay in the truck, if you please.”
With a sigh, he gives in to her soft-voiced command, slumping back against the seat and waiting for whatever may come.
‘Whatever’ comes sooner than he expects as he suddenly finds himself staring into a pair of android eyes. The only thing that keeps him from depressing the trigger of his weapon is the smile beneath those eyes; a smile that he has come to be acquainted with these past several hours. He blinks, shakes his head, then blinks again. The vision does not change. “M-Ma’am? Ms. President?”
“In the flesh, so to speak. You like?”
“If ‘like’ suddenly means ‘get the shit scared out of’, then yes, Ma’am, I like.”
Chuckling, Kirsten holds up a hand. “Here, take this.”
The cup of his palm suddenly holds a blob of flesh colored plastic. He looks at her inquiringly.
“Put it in your ear.”
With a bit of skepticism, he does as she asks, surprised to find the device sits easily in his ear canal.
“Good. Can you hear me?”
Kirsten lifts a brow.
“Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but you’re like six inches away. It’d be pretty impossible not to hear you.”
“You have a point,” Kirsten replies dryly. “Hang on a second.” She disappears behind the truck. “Can you hear me now?”
“You sound like one of those old time cellphone commercials, Ma’am.”
“Should I take that as a ‘yes’, Lieutenant?”
Jackson fights the urge to snap off a salute. “Yes, Ma’am. I can hear you fine, Ma’am.”
“Good.” The android face appears in front of Jackson, taking another few years off of his life. “Now, this is what I need for you to do Lieutenant. See those trees over there?”
“I want you to patrol them, but stay hidden. Just beyond them is a small manufacturing plant. I have some business to attend to there. You’ll be guarding my back.”
“With all respect, Ma’am,” he protests, “wouldn’t it be easier to guard your back if I could actually see it?”
Reaching through the rolled down window, Kirsten claps Jackson’s broad shoulder. “Not this time, Lieutenant. I need to do this alone.”
Kirsten’s face goes stony. “No ‘buts’, Lieutenant. I’ve given you a direct order, and I expect you to obey it. Without comment, and without question.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” he shoots back, “but your safety is more important than any order you could give me. I can’t—I won’t let you walk into some unknown structure alone and unprotected.”
“You can, and you will, Lieutenant Jackson.” Taking a breath, she consciously reins in her temper and softens her voice. “Darius, you can’t come with me.”
“Why? Would you just mind telling me that, please, Ma’am? You’ve kept me in the dark for hours now, and I think I at least deserve something! Please?”
She looks at him for a long moment, then nods. “Did you hear the story of what happened at Minot?”
“Bits and pieces. I know you were there to try and get the android code.”
“I was. And if your General Hart hadn’t decided, against all good sense, to bomb the place to smithereens, we might not be in the trouble we’re in right now.” She takes a deep breath, and lets it out slowly, forcefully pushing away the memories of that time. “I have another chance, Darius. Not the same chance, but a good one. And as much as I value your protection, if you come with me, that chance will never be realized. Can you understand?”
“Not really, Ma’am. But…I accept your reasoning. I just—need to help, in some way.”
“Believe me,” she replies, relieved beyond measure, “you will be. That earpiece will allow you to hear everything that’s going on. I’ll be able to communicate with you through it, and if I sense any trouble, you’ll be the first to know.”
“I’ll say….” She thinks about it for a moment, then smiles. “Nun lila hopa.”
“Nun lila hopa,” he repeats dutifully. “What does it mean?”
Kirsten blushes faintly. “That doesn’t matter. For our purposes, it means ‘Lieutenant Jackson, your presence is required, NOW!’”
He laughs a little, though his insides are twisted up tighter than a roll of barbed wire and every instinct he possesses is screaming for him to grab her, throw her in the truck, and hightail it back to the base, damn the consequences. Still…. “Okay, Ma’am. I got it.” He looks up at the sky. “How long to you think it’ll take?”
“A few hours, no more. I’ll let you know when I’m headed back, okay?”
“It’s not okay, but I’ll follow your orders, Ms. President.”
Kirsten smiles. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll see you soon.”
A moment later, she’s gone.
“Ho. Ly. Shit.”
Koda stares across the field, in wordless agreement with her brother. Behind them, Larke lets out a long, low whistle. “Dayyyum,” he says. “You didn’t put any funny medicine woman stuff in the water, did you Ma’am?”
“Nope,” she answers, not quite believing it herself. “It’s really there.”
“It” looks like nothing so much as an extraterrestrial grasshopper, from Jupiter maybe, with heavy, drooping wings and squinting compact eyes, squatting in the middle of the prairie that stretches away to the horizon. The curves of the intake turbines of the twinned jet engines, though, just visible above the tall grass, name it for what it is.
“A B-52,” Tacoma adds. “A. Fucking. B-52.”
Slashed across the field from northwest to southeast, the scar of its landing shows bare earth gouged up to either side; a fine dust covers its metal skin from the nose back. The crash, or forced landing, depending on how one views it, is recent; the binoculars show no sign of green sprung up on the low berms ploughed up by the bomber’s skid over the pasture. Koda lowers her optics and says quietly, “Get the Geiger counter, Larke.”
“You think there’s nukes on board, Ma’am?” he asks as he turns back to the line of vehicles parked on the shoulder.
Dakota shrugs. “All we know right now is that if there are, they didn’t go off. What we need to know is whether they’ve been breached.” Larke goes white to the gills, and she adds, “If they’re there at all.”
When he has gone, Tacoma says quietly, “All right, we know someone’s still up at Minot. Someone who’s trying to fly nuclear bombers.”
“Not very successfully, it seems,” Koda answers.
“Not this time. Maybe next.”
Koda nods. “Maybe next, thiblo. Or maybe the time after that. If they have another crew.”
Tacoma looks from the downed plane to his sister and back. He says musingly, “Not likely, is it? I don’t think Ellsworth could muster a full crew for one of those monsters; Manny and Andrews sure as hell aren’t qualified on the heavy stuff, and I doubt the Colonel herself is. And the droids have to have hit Minot even harder than they did us. We got a rogue on our hands, tanski.”
“Take him out?”
“If we can. Or make an alliance. You see a third possibility?”
It’s a no-brainer. “We can’t leave an unknown at our backs. Not this close. Not now.”
Larke arrives with the Geiger counter, and Koda takes it from him. The readout remains at normal levels as she walks it toward the wreckage of the plane. There is no need to check for injured. Once she is within ten meters of the derelict, she sees the white lime left by carrion birds along the edge of the wing; a little closer, and the smell reaches her. Confirmation, if she needs it, that the pilot or pilots did not survive.
Interesting that no one came to bury them. But droids would hardly bother, if droid experiment it was.
On the other hand, a band of marauders—ambitious marauders at that—was unlikely to have sentimental feelings for one another.
Koda snaps the cover over the readout and heads back toward the line of APC’s waiting by the road. “No radiation here. The trouble’s up ahead.” She grins. “Let’s not keep it waiting.”
Uh oh. Not another cliffhanger!! <G> Well, this is a serial, and I figured it’d be best to get back to cliffhangers, just, ya know, to keep you all on your toes and suchlike. Tune in next week, and get unhanged, so to speak. As always, we welcome comments, questions, concerns, and the like. firstname.lastname@example.org. Until Thursday, hasta!
Continued - Chapter 40
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