Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN
Toward dawn, the big gun falls silent. The fog, rolling in from the stream to the south, blankets the highway and the ground to either side. The figures that emerge from it from time to time to speak to Kirsten, or to Maggie, trail mist through the back door of the command truck, like ghosts with fragments of shroud still clinging to them. At her post , numbers marches across the screen of Kirsten’s computer, tallying their strength, coding the position of their forces. Maggie, beside her, studies a map of the field, searching for the overlooked weakness that may give advantage to the enemy.
Tacoma and his armor have spread out on their left flank, reaching north into the open ground that once was a wheat field. Behind him lie the trenches and barricades that will funnel the enemy into the two-pronged trap so carefully laid for them. On their other flank, behind a rise to the south, Koda holds her force in reserve to hit the droids and their allies from the side and rear once they commit fully to the attack. The task of the center is simple: to take the brunt and hold. If they break the way to Ellsworth lies open, and humanity has no more defense.
Maggie glances at her watch, then looks up to catch Kirsten’s eye. "That’s twenty minutes since they’ve fired. They’re getting ready to move."
"Relay," Kirsten says, and Manny begins to speak quietly into the radio. Kirsten can make out a few of the Lakota words—mazawaka is "gun;" toka, "enemy" --and allows herself a fleeting second of satisfaction as the replies come in. "Han," she says, adding her own sign-off to Manny’s "Hau." Out of the corner of her eye, she catches Maggie grinning at her. For once she does not blush, her answering grin part pride, part the rising excitement that comes with the approach of battle.
"Hoka hey," Maggie says, "you’re learn—" She breaks off abruptly. "I hear them."
Kirsten’s touches a finger to her implants, boosting the volume. The low vibration, felt as much as heard, becomes the crunching of treads on asphalt, the high whine of powerful engines. "It’s their tanks," she says, just as the door bursts open on one of the corporals from the forward barricade.
"Col—I mean General, Ma’am! They’ve got their armor out front."
"We’re on it. Rivers," she raps out. "Tell your cousin we need two of his tank killers on the south side of the road ASAP. Herd them off toward our left flank."
"Ma’am." Manny turns back to the radio, rattling out orders in Lakota, this time too rapid for Kirsten to follow. She concentrates instead on the mounting crescendo of the enemy approach, sorting out the grinding of the armor, the steady stamp of mechanical and human feet. The low "whump!" of the lead tank’s cannon comes a fraction of a second before her own cry, the shock of explosion as the shell plows into the road just ahead of the barrier drowning out her voice.
"Shit!" Maggie swivels in her seat. "Kill the bastards! Now!"
Koda watches the slow approach of the enemy column as it makes its way down the highway toward the center of the battle line. The mist drifts green and eerie in front of her nightscope, allowing her hardly more than a glimpse of the lumbering shapes of tanks and Humvees where the headlights of the troop carriers strike them. The growl of their engines comes to her muffled by the fog, the vibration of their movement a steady rumbling in the earth. Behind them come ranks of marching troops, their height uniform, their guns all canted at identical angles, their step perfectly paced and synchronized. Droid soldiers. And behind them, followed by more heavy vehicles, supply trucks perhaps, come the fully militarized androids, some on treads like the tanks’, others on more human-looking legs with nothing else human about them.
A chill runs down her spine. The charge across the Cheyenne had been easy, the warrior spirit overriding her mind to take possession of heart and body and drive her like an arrow straight at the enemy. Here she must wait until the first blow of the droid advance falls against the Ellsworth center—against Kirsten, against Maggie and Manny—to close from behind in a pincer movement calculated to trap the enemy between their forces.
Then she had run her prey to earth. Now she must lie hidden, stalking silently until the time comes for the killing charge, each move calculated in cold blood to a margin without tolerance. It is the way of the warrior, the way of the cat.
I am on your ground, Igmu-tanka. Teach me patience.
Teach me the cold equations.
Sudden fire blossoms amid the fog, arcing upward to explode just short of the first barricade. Smoke boils up from the ground, mingling with the mist, shot with red and orange as the asphalt burns. Koda’s hands clench around the scope, her fingers fumbling with the knob to sharpen focus. But the mist closes in again over the road, and she never sees the two men who crouch in the drainage ditch, only the muzzle flash as their shoulder launchers kick out armor-killing rockets, and a tank goes up in a ten-meter high flare of diesel fuel that splits the darkness punctuated by smaller explosions as the ammunition explodes still in its magazine, ripping the monster’s steel hide apart from within. Around it movement ebbs and flows, a second tank lumbering up beside it to take lead position and fire, its shell tearing into the berm of wrecked cars, metal shrieking against metal while smaller arms fire peppers the culvert where Tacoma’s men lie hidden.
Again the shoulder launchers spit out their missiles, this time a good ten meters from their first position, and the second tank bursts in a fireball of burning fuel and cannon shells, showering white-hot fragments on the troops behind it.
Koda can just make out the black-painted face of the Minot sergeant beside her. His nod of satisfaction makes a small shift in the darkness about them both. A third vehicle goes up, not a tank by the size of the explosion, and a man’s scream stabs through the fog as yet another rocket streaks down on the column, this one from closer to the barricade, and a third M-1 bursts into flame.
"I think they got one of our guys, Ma’am," the soldier observes quietly.
"I think you’re right. That was a suicide mission."
"But it worked. Look."
On the road, the column halts briefly. A flurry of movement runs along its flank, droids or humans assessing damage, probably, checking the road. Then the tanks’ engines rev and they begin to lumber off the highway, moving onto the shoulder and then over the open field to the north, where Tacoma waits for them.
Koda breaths a long sigh of relief, her breath frosting in the early morning cold. The enemy has taken the bait. It is now a matter of waiting, and the kill.
He walks along the line of his squad, noticing the facepaint on the majority with an interior smile. His mother, he knows, would be furious, offended. These are not our People, he can hear her saying, as if she is even now standing right beside him, how dare they presume to know our Ways?
What she doesn’t know, what she would refuse to acknowledge even if she saw, is that these men and women have adorned their faces with paint for much the same reason Tacoma himself has. For honor. For courage. For hope, and for remembrance. There is no mockery in the eyes that meet his own steadily. Stalwart resolve? Yes. Fear? Oh yes. All of that, and more. Much more.
Andrews looks up at him from his place near a small rock outcropping. His face is a harlequin’s mask of green and orange, and his eyes sparkle with an inner light, his perennial good cheer not failing even in this, their last, desperate attempt at freedom. Tacoma gives him a nod and continues walking the line, murmuring words of encouragement to the men and women who stand guard against what is to come. He steps in next to a small woman who, from behind, looks like a young boy trying on his father’s work clothes. Her helmet is much too large, tending to slip down over her eyes no matter how tightly the chin strap is snapped. She is one of the women rescued from the living hell of the jails, one of the very few who remained behind.
Oh, most had volunteered, quite vociferously, but revenge had been their reason for staying, and despite the temperature at which that particular dish needed to be served, it could only cause more harm than good in the end.
Slate gray eyes stare up at him, and the ex-State Trooper gives him a little grin, her body loose, but ready for any command given. The marks of her abuse still linger in the bruises on her jaw and neck that the jagged lines of red and black paint don’t quite cover. Her gaze, however, is nothing but professional. He finds himself returning the grin. "Doin’ ok?"
"Five by, Cap," she replies softly, reaching up to push the helmet from her brow. "How much longer, do you think?"
"Not much." The howitzer fire flies overhead, but they’ve all become, more or less, used to it. "Just be ready," he says before moving on.
He gets no more than two steps away when his headset crackles. "Yeah?"
Manny’s voice sounds over the less than stellar comm., low-pitched, but with a kernel of excitement ready to bloom. "Hipi. Aka iyiciyapo!"
A thrill of adrenaline flows through Tacoma’s body, speeding his heart, sharpening his senses until all around him is as keen as a well sharpened blade. He clicks off the com and turns to his troops. "It’s time. Mount up!"
With a silence and a professionalism to please the hardest hearted four star general, the squad eases into their Bradleys, their Humvees, and their tanks. Their engines start, one after another, and with a "Wagons ho!" signal from Tacoma, sitting in his Jeep, they move forward, ready to engage an enemy they cannot see, hear, or smell. The fog seems to move with them like a second army, this one as much enemy as ally.
A mile or so ahead, the Hummers pull off to the side, and heavily armed troops jump off to the right and left, flanking the road and getting quickly into position. The sound of the enemy comes to them then in the clank of rolling metal and the heavy, cloying scent of gun oil.
The Bradleys and the tanks move ahead several yards, then form a line across across the field to the north of the road, behind the carefully camouflaged deadfalls, guns ready. They wait.
Tacoma swings his jeep back around the line and parks to the rear. Hopping out, he nods to the troops manning the vehicles, then breaks off to the right of the road, jumping down onto the embankment and approaching his men. Johnson, Tooms, Carruthers, Chin, and Wayley stand down in the natural ditch, shoulder launchers up and armed. Seven others kneel behind them, boxes of ammunition open and ready. They all meet his gaze steadily. "Hold fire," he says. "Let them come to us."
The second tank round shakes the earth, sending Maggie to one knee as she bolts for the back of the truck. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees Kirsten clutch at her computer just as it slides toward the edge of the folding table that is her station. Manny grabs at laptop and operator both, steadying them against his own stocky bulk. "General, you okay?"
Maggie levers herself up, hardly breaking stride. "I’m fine. Look after Kirsten!" She steps out onto the bumper and takes the drop in one step, feeling her knee fold under her again. Swearing silently, she jogs lopsidedly to the front of the truck. About thirty yards ahead of her, a crater in the pavement smokes with the heat of the tank round. One soldier lies some ten feet to the side, arms and legs bent at impossible angles. All broken. As she approaches, another soldier gently removes the gun from the dead hand and pulls the body to one side.
She has no trouble seeing the hole the shell drilled in the barricade; its metal edges remain white-hot with its passing, glowing like a will-o’-the-wisp in the swirling fog. Lowering her night goggles, she peers through it, watching as first one tank, then another, bursts into flame and dies. Above her, perched precariously among the twisted metal, snipers wait with hands clenched on the grips of their rifles. Until the armor is off the road, they are useless. "Hold your fire!" Maggie yells. "Wait for the droids and traitors!" Then, to a private crouched beside the wall, "Run back and tell Martinez to move up a couple of the machine guns. We might as well make use of this goddam hole!"
The soldier scrambles to obey, and as she sprints for the rear of the column, the forward tanks of the enemy force begin to lurch off the pavement onto the shoulder, spreading out across the field to their north. "Yessss!" Maggie allows herself a small moment of triumph as the whine of their engines dopplers off, then turns back to the task at hand.
The tanks move with remarkable speed for behemoths of their weight and size, and within minutes the last of their bulk disappears to the left. With her night sight, Maggie can make out, dimly in the fog, the advancing ranks of the droid infantry, marching in perfect unison toward the barricade. They do not break step even for the gaping holes left by the tank shells, adjusting their speed automatically to maintain perfect formation. These are the cannon fodder, then, not programmed for differential determination of their situation or independent analysis. Good soldiers. Not a thought in their metal heads to question their orders or to opt for their own survival. Somewhere behind them will be the more advanced models, and somewhere among them, please Goddess, are the self-destruct bombers programmed by Kirsten.
A pair of infantrymen land beside her, each carrying an M-60; a third and fourth drop an ammunition chest between them, then sit on it, panting. "Ma’am. The guns you ordered," one gasps.
Maggie grins at them. "Good. Set them up here, aimed out of this hole. Get as much crossfire as you can. Spray anything that gets in range, once it’s in range."
"Ma’am." The two sitting on the case drop to their knees and set about threading the ammo belts into the guns’ feeders. Maggie slaps a couple shoulders as she rises and moves down the barricade, checking her troops. Except for a couple burns and a few more bruises, the soldier killed by the shell’s concussion is the only casualty so far. The rest hold their posts, guarding their flanks where the barrier curves to the rear. Advantage, good guys. She does not expect it to last.
It does not. From behind the barrier come the sound of shots, fired in single volleys as M-16 shells begin to rain down on troops and vehicles alike. "Shit!" she yells. "Get to cover! They’re firing high!"
Around her soldiers scramble to flatten themselves against the barricade, a few diving under trucks. Behind her the M-60’s open up, and she darts for the command truck, reaching up to grab Manny’s arm as the door flies open and he pulls her up and in. Shells
strike the truck’s roof and bounce off, clattering harmlessly against the armor plating. "Sounds like a hailstorm out there," Manny observes.
"Nah." A wry grin quirks up one side of Kirsten’s mouth. "That’s freakin’ Santa Claus and eight tiny reindeer." Then, to Maggie, "Tacoma’s drawing fire. Nothing’s headed Koda’s way. The guys in the back want to know if they should move up."
"Woman, you pick the damnedest time to develop a sense of humor." Maggie shakes her head at Kirsten. "Tell ‘em come on. All hell’s about to break loose out there."
The battle comes to him as sound. Even through the night-scope, the fog and trees obscure the enemy advance. Tacoma knows when the tanks leave the highway by the suddenly shriller whine of their engines, knows when another of them dies before it can make the descent to the field by the shock of the explosion. He holds his forces ready, waiting silently, their engines cold. Neither noise nor heat will betray their position.
From his vantage point to the side, he hears the grinding of metal treads in the soil, the timbre changing as they begin to crush the woody undergrowth covering the open space
between the field and the treeline where the ranks of armor lie hidden from both sight and heat sensors. The enemy rides without lights, relying, like the Ellsworth force, on night scopes and the sensors feeding data to mechanical brains. The first of the droid tanks pitches into one of the camouflaged trenches with a crash, landing squarely on the clutch of mines awaiting it. The double blast, mines and fuel, shudders through the ground, and a fireball blooms upward into the dark, briefly burning away the fog to illuminate the long barrel of a cannon here, the low curve of a turret there. "Got one," Jackson observes in the momentary silence. His hands lie slack on the Jeep’s wheel, waiting the order to move.
The roar of the explosion drowns the last of his words, and Tacoma can only give a brief thumbs-up signal in reply. In the instant before the fog closes in again and obscures the advancing armor, he counts four more tanks and a pair of Bradleys. About half the enemy cavalry, judging by the noise. A second fireball goes up as one of the two fighting vehicles tips into another deadfall, and Tacoma speaks into his com. " Wana," he says, "Now."
In response, the engines of half a dozen armored units growl to life, and flame bursts from the long muzzles of the two M-1’s in the center of the line. A pair of anti-tank missiles streak upward from their hidden launchers in a steep trajectory, their white contrails pale against the swirling mist. The M-1’s and Bradleys on the flanks, though, skulk silently, holding their fire, hidden in darkness.
An enemy tank shell lands on one of the fighting vehicles, its fuel going up in a torrent of flame, fragments of its steel sheathing clanging against the turret of an M-1 half a hundred yards away. The fire illuminates the tank’s cannon for the instant of its recoil as it returns fire, striking, too, off the taut knuckles of Jackson’s fist as he pounds it in soundless rage against the rim of the steering wheel, his lips moving in curses Tacoma cannot hear above the roar. The concussion from the blast shivers through his bones.
There is no hope that the Bradley’s crew has survived; armored vehicles are death traps under a direct hit.
A shell bursts overhead, its white phosphorus glare burning through the fog to show Tacoma the grinding advance of the enemy armor. One tank, bizarrely, craws over the remnants of another to bridge a deadfall; others batter their way through the woods, crushing trees, root and branch, under their metal hulks. Tacoma shouts into his com, "Willie Peter! They’ve seen us! All units fire!"
The thunder of the cannon rolls over him like a shockwave. An enemy shell gouges out a crater less than fifty feet away from Tacoma’s position, and the Jeep rocks beneath him. A second volley uproots a thirty-foot larch pine, to bring it crashing down on one of the enemy’s Bradleys. The tree, its pitch taking fire from the burning diesel, flames through the fog like a candle.
Another enemy tank succumbs to a deadfall and to the anti-tank missiles from the snipers hidden on the flank. The others go wide to skirt it, swinging back to reform and drive snarling toward Tacoma’s center. He watches them come, gauging their approach to the last second. He can feel Jackson’s eyes on him, taking their own measure. It is an unsettling feeling, one he has no time to analyze. He lets the enemy come on until he can almost make out their shapes, hulking in the mist. "Hektakiyanapepi!" he yells into his mike, then hangs on for his life as Jackson turns the Jeep on its own footprint and falls in behind the armor, now retreating at full speed along the trails already blazed over the rough ground. "Goddam!" Darius yells as they bounce over an axle-shattering outcrop of limestone, a grin splitting the grease paint streaking his face. "This is fun!"
A thunder of bootsoles on pavement announces the arrival of the troops from behind the second barricade. Maggie flings the door wide and jumps down among them, heedless of the hail of bullets pelting down on their position, running with them for relative safety of the wall. "Grenade launchers!" she yells. Get up on the wall and let ‘em have it! Get as many as you can before they hit the mines! We want to save those for the heavy models!"
A dozen soldiers scramble up the irregular pile of metal, finding holds among the dents and the protruding door handles and axles. Maggie gestures toward the top with a sweep of her hand. "Some of you rifles get up there, too! Snipe off any humans you see. Don’t waste your ammo on the metalheads!"
"Ma’am!" a Sergeant salutes and hits the wall, swinging with a gymnast’s skill to a position where she can fire over the top, her platoon swarming up after her to spread out between the grenade launchers. Maggie watches them go, strange green shadows in the light of her night scope, a hand here, a helmet rim there, lit to white glare by the muzzle flashes of their weapons.
"The rest of you, reinforce the flanks! Once they get to the wall they’ll try to go around!"
As they split and sprint for the sides of the highway, Maggie grabs hold of a protruding wheel and levers herself up to a slit in the wall. The mist still swirls thickly along the ground, but overhead she can make out a faint gleam that she is almost sure is a star, Siurius, maybe, well toward its zenith, and another glint, reddish, that may be Betelgeuse. Dawn is perhaps two hours away, and the fog will thicken again as the temperature drops just before sunrise.
The good news is that it should cover Koda’s advance. The bad new is that she won’t be able to see where she’s going. She will have to find her way to the line by sound.
Not that that should be a problem. A grenade sails overhead to land just behind the wall, spraying asphalt and metal fragments upward toward the snipers’ perches. One of the men above her yells "Fuckhead!" and opens up with his own launcher, firing grenade after grenade as a thin wet trickle drips down the wall past Maggie, black in the sheen of her night scope. From both flanks comes the rattle of small arms fire, troops on the flanks making a distraction or picking off humans among the enemy troops. They are few, uniformed no differently than the droids. They give themselves away, though, as they break ranks and split for the edge of the highway, one throwing away his weapon as Maggie watches, and tumbling headlong into the ditch under sniper fire.
No sympathy from you own kind, now, you bastard. Tell your sad story to the Jackal-god. Maggie pulls her handgun from its holster and pots a second would-be deserter as he slithers low along the highway shoulder. The droids advance steadily, stand and fire, march forward, stand and fire. The muzzle flashes of their rifles light the tendrils of fog that curl about them, their crack lost in the thunder of the bigger guns, the unremitting cacophony of the two heavy machine guns. It will not be long now before they step into the field of claymores and Bouncing Betties, and the easy part will be over. She squints into the fog and fires twice more. Another of the enemy slumps down to be trodden underfoot by his mechanical brothers. She begins to back her way down the wall. Time for com check.
She is almost to the pavement when she the scream of the howitzer shell streaks over her, its tracer light streaming behind it like a comet’s tail. It slams into the highway just in front of the second wall, sending a wall of flame licking up its metal bulk, setting fire to the paint and traces of gasoline and oil that linger on the wrecked cars. The impact shudders through the ground, tossing soldiers at random ahead of the concussion wave, rocking the command truck on its wheels. For an instant it tilts, poises, and falls with a crash onto its side. A grenade arcs overhead to gouge out a crater, the rear tire of the upended truck spinning in the swirling smoke. Two soldiers flap at the last of the flames with their jackets. The vibration of Maggie’s com unit ceases abruptly as it loses contact with Kirsten’s laptop.
"Goddam!" She half falls, half jumps the rest of the way to the tarmac, feeling her knee give under her again but ignoring it, hurtling across the fifty feet that separate her from the vehicle. At least the gas tank hadn’t blown.
Just as she swings around the corner of the roof, the door opens horizontally, like the hatch of a Normandy Beach landing craft. Manny crawls out, clutching his M-16 and a string of grenades. Kirsten follows, a darker wet streak cutting through the yellow spider traced on her face. A spot of blood beads on her lower lip, probably bitten when she went over with truck and equipment. Her M-16 slants across her back. "GODDAM MOTHRFUCKERS GOT MY COMPUTER!!" she bellows at Maggie.
"Are you hurt?"
"WHERE DO YOU WANT ME TO GO?"
"Just a minute. Are you okay?" Maggie yells back as machine gun fire breaks out behind her.
"I CAN’T HEAR YOU!"
"Manny, is she hurt?"
"Just banged up a bit when the table tipped over," he shouts back. "Computer hit the wall and bounced!"
Kirsten’s eyes dart between them, a frown wrinkling her forehead. She puts a hand to the bone under one ear, then, presses and repeats the gesture on the other side. The frown relaxes. "My implants! Must have gone when I hit my head."
For answer, Kirsten shrugs. "We’re going to have to make do with messengers if we need to talk to the others."
"Where’s Tacoma? Did you hear anything before the rocket hit?"
"Headed back down the highway, with the droid tanks in hot pursuit."
"All right then. Manny, take her back behind the second wall. See if you can get the computer back up."
Kirsten’s face sets. "I. Will. Not. Go. Back," she says, biting each word off. "Tell me where you can use me, or I’ll make my own choice."
Manny shrugs, the rise of his eyebrows visible only in the dim light’s reflection off his facepaint. No help there. She shouts, "Take the right flank. They’ll try to get past us at some point—make sure they don’t!"
With a nod, Kirsten turns to jog over to the group crouched at the south end of the metal wall, Manny on her heels. He glances back briefly, a grin splitting the shadows of his face, fingers snapping to his forehead. "Nice try, General!"
She returns his salute with the one-finger variation. Pausing only to pull one soldier off the line at the wall for a courier, she scrambles back up, aims along the sight of her gun, and resumes shooting.
The battle rolls like thunder down the road, lit by occasional flashes of the big guns. The fog obscures all but the general movement, the enemy advancing, the Ellsworth forces holding. She can feel the tension in the men and women behind her, straining to hear, willing their sight to pierce through the shroud of the fog. She feels it, too, in the taut muscles of her own body, her hands clenched around her binoculars as if they gripped an enemy’s throat.
Deliberately, she allows her grip to slacken, forces the strained tendons in arms and legs to relax. Learn the lesson of the cat. Patience.
Koda raises her optics again, trying to pick out recognizable shapes along the enemy front. Far from dissipating, the mist begins to thicken, the air taking on a distinct chill through the layers of her shirt and camo jacket. It is perhaps an hour to dawn. Her force will need to move soon.
Beside her, Sergeant Beaufort echoes her thought. "If we’re gonna surprise those bastards, we better get about it. Sun comes up, we might as well send out announcements."
Koda nods. "Form the line. Be ready."
Behind her, she hears the clatter of gear shifted into place, slides pumping rounds into the chambers of sidearms, magazines snapped into the grips of the M-16’s. She can feel the frustration dissipate, replaced with the more subtle tension that is half excitement, half fear. She keys her com, but before she can speak the shriek of a howitzer shell splits the night, its arc etched crimson against the darkness. The earth trembles with the explosion, a rippling pulse that spreads through rock and fog and flesh. It booms, too, through the speaker in her hand, punctuated by a muffled shout, then a distinct "Shit!" Kirsten’s voice.
Koda’s heart clenches in her chest. She stabs at the transmit button repeatedly. "HQ. Come in. Come in. Kirsten! Answer!"
She is not dead. I would know.
It is what she does not know that frightens her. "All right!" she shouts, stepping up to the crest of the ridge. "Move out!"
Kirsten crouches among the snipers strung out in a line from the south end of the wall to the drainage ditch beside the road. The tramping of mechanical feet, marching in inhumanly perfect unison, comes to her as a steady drumbeat, a vibration through her bones. Grenades rain down on them from behind the barricade, but do not slow them. They are not programmed to tend their fallen companions; their survival overrides, designed to remove them from a hopeless situation, will not kick in until they are trapped between competing priorities. Walking into a minefield or getting picked off by snipers, for instance.
Underneath their steady cadence, perhaps audible to no one else, the steady grinding of treads comes to her. Not so heavy as the tanks, nor even Bradleys; the next wave to break against their defenses will be the heavy-duty military droids.
And with them, the counterprogrammed models whose mission is to destroy their own kind. Please-- Kirsten stumbles over the prayer. She is a scientist, agnostic, does not believe in the god of her childhood, perhaps never did. She bites her lip, drawing blood salt on her tongue. Listen, Ina, Tega, Wa Uspe—Uspewika—Whothehellever. Listen. We need help. Not just for us. For all the earth. If you have a stake in this, too—then let the goddamned things blow up on schedule. Please.
A ripple of laughter runs through the back of her mind, partly human, partly not. Appealing to enlightened self-interest, are you? Fight without attachment, Iktomi Zizi of the Lakota. Trust your actions and move on.
For instance, you might blow away a couple of droid sympathizers—right--about—now.
The first rank of the enemy steps into the minefield. The roar of multiple explosions echoes off the metal barricade, doubling and redoubling as smoke, laced with fire, billows out into the mist and pieces of fragmented droid clang off the wall to take down more of their comrades on the rebound. Kirsten cannot make out individual figures, but she can see, green in her night sight, swirls of motion where intact droids or their human allies have broken formation to veer away to the side of their inexorably advancing column. Kirsten aims into the middle of one such vortex and is rewarded with a man’s scream, high-pitched and cold with his death. She seeks a second target and finds it as a soldier stumbles blindly into their position; she fires point-blank into his face and shoves the body aside with her rifle’s butt.
From the ditch come sounds of a brief struggle, then two shots, then more fire into the mist. Behind her, Manny alternately swears and shoots, swears and shoots again. "Don’t let ‘em get down into the pasture! Koda won’t be able to see the bastards coming—they’ll give away her position!"
Kirsten’s world shrinks to the small space before her, where the mist hides an enemy she cannot see. She fires until her magazine is empty, shoves another one home keeps firing.
There is only the enemy and her finger on the trigger.
She kills coldly, human and nonhuman alike. Without attachment.
Battle’s getting tense. Can ya feel it? Huh? Huh? Can ya? <G> See you next week, fellow Growers! email@example.com
Continued - Chapter 48
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