CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
The night scope shows the mist that surrounds them as green wraiths, the uneven ground beneath their feet as an uncertain patchwork of black and green. Koda can see the man on either side of her and little else. From time to time she catches a glint off the gear of a troop a few feet further down the loose skirmish line, but none of them can spare much attention for anything but the jutting rocks and tussocks of thick grass that can send them tumbling, turn or break an ankle. The one good thing, Koda reflects wryly, is that they do not need to see where they are going. The sound of battle draws them steadily toward the highway, where they will attack the droid army on its vulnerable—and with luck, unsuspecting—flank.
They are perhaps halfway across when the minefield goes up. A collective gasp runs up the line, punctuated by one clear "Jesus god damn!" and a grunt as someone elbows her vocal compatriot in the ribs.
Except as a matter of discipline, the exclamation hardly matters. The roar as half a hundred claymores and as many Bouncing Betties go off in chorus will drown anything but the report of a big gun. In the red-lit chaos ahead of them, Koda can make out the vague shapes of bodies pitched into the air, their severed limbs arcing above them to rain down on their fellows and clatter against the barricade. Others, still apparently on their feet, make for the edge of the highway and relative safety, only to run into a solid line of rifle and small arms fire. The fog muffles their screams to vague cries out of nightmare, distant, contextless.
Without warning, a burst of white light cuts through the mist along the highway, etching the scene for a microsecond into her memory: scattered arms, legs, some human, some not; the asphalt slick with blood; craters gouged into the roadway. And it shows her two things more. Behind the ranks of cannon fodder, the military droids grind inexorably on toward the wall, the hard light from the phosphorus shell sheeting off their metallic hides. And along the edge of the road, a troop stands looking directly toward the gorge, raising his gun to his shoulder.
"Down!" she bellows. "Keep moving!"
Dropping to knees and elbows, she humps her way over the damp earth, crawling a space, then levering herself up to a crouching run. Behind her, where she had stood a handful of seconds before, an M-16 round kicks up the water in a small puddle. A second whistles over her head to land silently in the earth beyond. She jabs the man to her right, harder than she had meant because she cannot judge distance. "Hold fire. Don’t give ‘em our position till we have to. Pass it on." She gives the same message to the sergeant on her left.
The shooter at the edge of the road has apparently been joined by others. Enemy fire quickens, becomes heavier, pelting down on the length of the line. Koda puts her head down and keeps on crawling.
The M-1’s and Bradleys run with their lights high now, lurching over the uneven ground at top speed, spraying dirt from under their treads. Tacoma’s Jeep bucks and yaws in their wake, throwing him alternately against the straps across his chest and the unyielding back of his seat. In the occasional beam of light that rakes over him, he can see the steering wheel spinning under Jackson’s left hand, his right taut-knuckled on the gear shift. It occurs to Tacoma that after this he will never need a chiropractor if he lives to be a hundred and ten. He might never need a dentist either, except for his helmet’s chinstrap. Pitching his voice just under a bellow to make himself heard above the din of the surrounding engines, he yells, "Did you"—thump!—"drive like this"—bang!—"when you went"—slam!—"with Kirsten to"—whump!—"Minot?"
"You kidding, man?" Darius favors him with a thousand-watt grin for a split second, then turns his eyes back to the road. "And have that sister of yours"—he pauses to steer around a large chunk of limestone—"hang me up by my heels and skin me?"
"The General’d—get you—first. Koda’d—just take—your hair!"
A shell from one of the droid tanks sails overhead, to gouge a crater in the field to their right. Turning to look behind, Tacoma can see their halogen lights where they punch through the fog. What he cannot see, and with luck the enemy cannot either, is the other half of his armored cavalry, running dark behind them, ready to cut them off once the lead units lure them onto the Interstate and into the trap that has been laid for them.
"Pull us off when we get to the road," Tacoma shouts. "Get us in under the overpass!"
"You gonna lead from behind?"
"You got it!"
The tanks at the front of the column take a sudden hard left, ploughing their way over the soft shoulder to the highway access road. As they sweep up the on ramp, Jackson steers the Jeep out of the line and into the shelter of the huge struts and pylons holding up the highway above the Elk Creek interchange. The racket as the behemoths lumber up the slope is beyond deafening, and Tacoma hunkers down and covers his ears as they pass. The metal plates above him rattle against their bolts, and it seems to him that every bone in his body hangs loose, clattering against its neighbor. Then the last of them is up and racing west, the whine of their engines fading with their speed.
The silence lasts for perhaps a minute. Tacoma savors it, the first respite they have had since the droid howitzers began their siege. Then, "Here they come," Jackson says quietly.
Bursting out of the fog with engines howling, the enemy armor follows their own forces up onto the highway. As the first of them commits to the ramp, Tacoma feels his shoulders go slack with relief. Bait taken.
Perhaps five minutes after the last of them has passed, Tacoma hears the growl of their second unit’s engines. "Here we go," he says, and Jackson keys the engine and the lights, steering the Jeep out onto the access road and into the lead as the half dozen M-1’s speed for the ramp. "Gonna send all those good little droids home to cyber-Jeezus!"
When the smoke from the mines clears, Maggie looks down on a scene straight out of Hieronymus Bosch by Bill Gates. Mechanical body parts litter the highway below the wall: a leg with its struts and dangling wires jutting up out of an asphalt crater here; a head there, recognizably non-human only by the absence of blood; impaled on a spar of steel protruding from the barricade, a hand still clutching an automatic rifle. Fanned out on the margins lie the human casualties, most of them picked off by snipers as they tried to flee. To her right, from the north lip of the gorge which Dakota must cross, she can hear the pop and rattle of rifle fire. Not good. Even in the fog, even with enemy shooters they can pick off by sound, Koda and her troops are at a disadvantage, their whole traverse exposed. And the phosphorus shell would have shown them to their enemies, mercilessly trapped in its glare.
Mentally, Maggie reels through a catalogue of her troops. The worst of the attack is yet to come; the full-bore military droids have halted their advance, but the lull will not last, not beyond the few minutes required for them to assess their losses. She can, perhaps, spare a platoon.
Clambering down from her vantage point halfway up the wall, she snares one of the men crouched at its foot. His helmet shows three stripes; his shirt pocket proclaims him McGinnis, Ralph. "Corporal, I need you to carry a message to Dakota Rivers in the gorge. Can you do it?"
McGinnis’ face, pale beneath its black grease-paint, goes paler still. But he snaps off a salute. "Yes, Ma’am!"
"Good man. Ask her if she needs reinforcing. I can send her a dozen troops if she does."
He salutes again and is gone.
Maggie takes advantage of the momentary calm to walk the length of the barricade again. Supply runners race past her, carrying ammunition and grenades. She is halfway back to her post when she hears the grinding of treads on pavement. Her heart bangs once against her rib cage, then steadies. They will hold because they must. A passing runner carries grenades; she snags a belt of them and a launcher, finds a gap in the wall big enough to admit its muzzle. She loads and waits.
There is no time. Koda has no idea how long she has been humping over the wet earth of the gorge. The new grass, slick with the mist, slides easily beneath her body. The musty scent of sodden vegetation mingles with the sharper smell of black powder and cordite drifting down from the battle. Direct fire from above has tapered off, become sporadic as the enemy has either given up wasting ammunition or has found more immediate matters to occupy them.
Or simply decided to pick them off later, when they come into visible range. They had been on the edge of the burst of light from the Willie Peter, but almost surely the enemy has marked their position. It is not a comforting thought.
From the highway comes the sound of small arms fire and the occasional concussion of a grenade. The mines have gone up in a roar, presumably taking out the first wave of droids. For a moment the fog had glowed red, then settled into its pervasive grey, hiding the road and what she hopes is the successful completion of the first phase of the battle plan.
"Hey, Chief.’ The sergeant appears out of the void to her left, his helmet and night scope protruding over his eyes giving the shape of some early cinematic Martian. His hoarse whisper is the sound of wind in dry grass. "You got any idea where we are?"
"About halfway, I think," she answers. "Ground’s leveling off."
"We need to pick it up, Ma’am. If we’re caught down here once they get past whatever’s keeping ‘em busy up there, or they start picking us up with the infra-red, we’re fucked."
The thought is not new. They need to be in position when the ringer droids blow, and position is within seconds of the highway. "Pass the word down," she says. "Tell the troops to get to their feet. We have to risk it."
"Ma’am." She can just see his form rise and lengthen as she levers herself to her own feet, feeling rather than seeing the woman on the other side of her do the same, the order rippling down the line. She plods on, straining her senses to pick up the breathing of the troops closest to her, the faint variations on grey nothingness where the fog eddies and pools.
She picks up the thudding footfalls from yards away. Half-running, half-stumbling, a man solidifies from the mist, his hands up. "Friendly, Doc! Friendly!"
Her M-16 slaps down into her hands and is leveled at him before the first word is out. The sargeant and the man next to him haul the newcomer down to his knees, pulling back his collar to inspect his neck. It is clean flesh; no silver collar. "Doc Rivers?"
"That’s me." Koda does not lower her weapon.
"McGinnis, Ma’am, Third Montana Reserves. General Allen’s compliments, Ma’am,
and do you need any reinforcements? She says to tell you she can spare a platoon."
The droids Kirsten programmed to destroy their own kind have not yet detonated. For the first time, Dakota allows herself to think that they might not. If their destruct program fails, Maggie will need every weapon, every pair of hands she can muster at the wall. She makes her decision almost without conscious thought. "Tell the General we’re doing fine, Corporal. We’ll see her topside."
"Chief." It is the sergeant. "We’re spread thin."
"No." Koda’s voice is firm. "If we take none of the troops from the main front, they’ll have a better chance of holding when we hit the metalheads from the side and drive them against Allen’s line. Tell the General we’re doing well, Corporal. There’s no other message."
"Ma’am." The Corporal salutes and disappears once again into the fog.
"Sergeant," says Koda. "Pass the order to pick up the pace. We need to get at least part way up that slope before they recoup. Continue to hold fire until I say otherwise."
There is a small pause, and Koda shifts the muzzle of her rifle slightly. She cannot tolerate disobedience, or even discussion. Not now.
Even in the fog, though, she can see the sudden grin break across his face. "Ma’am, you got brass ones, if you don’t mind my saying so."
"I don’t mind. Now move it."
The fog swallows him again as he begins to move along the line. They have passed the mid-point; land begins to rise again, punctuated by deep ruts where snow has melted off the flat surface above, cutting down the side of the embankment and carrying gravel and asphalt pellets with it across the winter-bare ground. The treacherous footing slows them. Koda swears softly when her ankle turns, pitching her down on her right hand and knee. Up and down the line, she can hear the crunch of pebbles under boots, the troops’ heavy breathing as they negotiate the ragged slope. To her right, she sees a woman pitch forward onto her face, tripped up by a jagged ridge of flint justting out from earth. The man between them grabs for her, helping her to her feet.
She sees them. Faintly, she sees them. The fog is beginning to thin with the dawn. Carried on a gathering wind, its tendrils whip by her face, scattered in the growing light.
With the realization comes a crack of gunfire from above, the enemy shooting almost straight down on them. There is no point in silence now. "Return fire!" she bellows. "Hose ‘em!"
Up and down the line, the M-16’s open up on full automatic, their rattle punctuated by
the clang of rounds off metal and the sharp, strangled scream of a man going down somewhere to her right. Koda braces her weapon against her shoulder and empties the magazine at the enemy still invisible along the highway shoulder. She wrenches it free, slams in another, and keeps firing as she storms up the slope. Without warning the ground shakes beneath her, tumbling her back onto her butt, and the wave of sound washes over her, huge, apocalyptic, the thunder at the end of the world. Fog glows crimson and burns away, leaving clouds of red-shot black smoke roiling over the battlefront. Kirsten’s trap has sprung.
She scrambles back up onto her feet, seeing for the first time the line of soldiers stretched out along the lip of the rise above her. "Come on!" she yells at her troops. "Take the fuckers down!"
Yelling and whooping, they charge up the slope, into the hell of lead blazing down on them.
Tacoma’s Jeep speeds along amid the thunder of his armored cavalry. The smaller vehicle darts in among the Bradleys and M-1’s, nimble as a dolphin among great whales. The wind of their passage tilts his helmet back on his head, snags his braids from under its rim and sends his loosened hair flying behind. Here on the road, steadily rising as they race west, the low sun has begun to burn through the fog, tingeing the mist with a strange, golden iridescence. Ahead of them, the enemy still runs blind, though the sun will soon show them what even their high-intensity spotlights cannot. Neither will there be any cover for this rear half of his split force, should the enemy have the wit to look behind them. Given a few more minutes, though, that will not matter.
Muffled by mist and distance, the roar of guns comes to them on the wind. "That’s it!" Tacoma yells. He keys his mike and shouts into it. "Slow down! Form a line across the road! Make it tight!"
The behemoths around them lurch as their drivers stand on their brakes. They maneuver the M-1s into a long-legged, inverted V that rapidly becomes a flying wedge in reverse. Bradleys take their places on the on the fringes. There is barely space for an armed infantryman to squeeze between them, no more than a meter from vehicle to vehicle. A second, staggered line closes in behind. Jackson swerves the Jeep to take up the outlier position along the south flank, and the line begins its inexorable grind forward, to take the enemy from behind.
"We got ‘em!" Jackson shouts in his ear above the lower, but still deafening, racket.
"We got ‘em as long as they don’t turn and bust back through!"
A second volley rolls over them, louder, more than one cannon this time. Up ahead, a column of roiling black smoke rises above the road, burning fuel. As it coils upward into the thinning fog, the tank’s ammunition goes up in a series of short explosions. There is no way to tell yet if it is one of their own or an enemy. Cannon reverberates around them, rattling the glass in the windshield, shattering the air to echo off the hills that rise, black against the sky, to the north of the highway.
Just ahead of them, the road curves sharply to the right. As they round the bend, Tacoma can see the two lines of armor, his own drawn up in tight formation to block the path westward, the other straggled out across the front, individual units angled to try to wedge their way between their opponents. Some have forced their way so close that they cannot use their cannon or swivel their turrets. Behind the enemy line, the torn hulk of a burning tank lies heaved onto its side, ragged holes in its armored carapace, its treads still running clanking over its wheels. The smoke stinks of diesel fuel and scorched meat.
"Damn, looks like a bunch of dinosaurs fighting!" Jackson shouts. "Those things with horns on their heads!"
Tacoma laughs. "And here comes T. Rex to finish ‘em off!" He thumbs the button on his com. "All units, close in and fire at will--just watch your range!"
Kirsten lies flat on the shoulder of the road, her elbows propping her up, as she methodically searches the thinning fog for more solid patches. The mines have done their work on the first lines of the enemy. The casualties are mostly droids, but the severed fingers of a human hand dangling from a metal strut in the wall testify that humans had been among them. Kirsten has no time for them, no pity. She knows better than most what bargain they might have made, the safety of a family, the remnant of a life, even a life of slavery. Other renegades string out the line on the edge of the gorge, mingled with android troops.
Kirsten picks off another; behind her Manny’s rifle stitches a line of fire up and down the road’s shoulder, steady and careful. From several hundred meters away, her implants pick up the faint whine of the military droids’ motors. They are still waiting, perhaps allowing the Ellsworth forces to expend time and ammunition before closing in for the kill.
Got a surprise for ya, motherfuckers. Any time now. She sights carefully and picks off two more hostiles.
The explosion, when it comes, rattles the scrap metal in the wall that looms above her, and one sniper, less securely perched than he might have been, slips down to land sprawled beside her, shaken loose by the blast. "God damn!" he yells above the echoing blasts. "What the hell was that?"
"Suicide droids!" Manny shouts back. "Takin’ their friends with ‘em!"
Kirsten smiles tightly, feeling the knots in her shoulders relax a minute fraction. The program worked, and however many metalheads come grinding down on them, it will be fewer than it would have been before. Maybe the difference will be enough to make a difference. At least give them a better chance. In the lull that follows, she hears human voices off to her right. Koda’s troops, closing in to trap the enemy between their force and Maggie’s.
The pitch of the droid’s motors changes suddenly. Mingled with their high humming,
Kirsten can make out the tramp of flat metal feet, the snarl of treads biting into the pavement. "They’re coming!" she yells over her shoulder at Manny. "Send someone to tell the General!"
The freshening wind tears at the last rags of the fog. She can see them now, the sun glinting off their titanium hides as they grind toward the barricade. The first volley from their M-60 caliber arms clangs against the wall, a drumming like fist-size hail on the roof. Grenades plow into the pavement ahead of them, some landing in their ranks to knock the droids over onto their sides. The ones on treads cannot rise, and lie with their wheel belts spinning, like upset beetles. Others step or crawl over them, unheeding.
A LAAWs rocket tears into the line, sending bright fragments flying in the growing light, like spray off a fountain. To her right, the snipers on the edge of the gorge pot steadily away at Dakota’s troops as they attempt to scale the slope, but Kirsten can also see that they are beginning to fall in greater and greater numbers before Koda’s advance. So far, so good.
There is a microsecond’s warning, no more, as the howitzer shell screeches toward them. It rips through the barricade to land somewhere in the midst of the line of vehicles drawn up between the two walls, sending metal debris and bodies fountaining into the air, the roar of the explosion rolling on and on, unfolding like the cloud of smoke and flame that billows up from the pavement. A section of the barricade groans, its rammed steel blocks grating against each other, and very slowly, almost gracefully, begins to slide toward the ground. The treaded droids crawl up its slope, followed more slowly by the flat-footed models. Too close. Kirsten swivels her rifle to aim at the optic shield of the nearest, but Manny grabs her belt from behind and jerks her out of the way just as a twisted chunk of steel tumbles down to l and where she had crouched a moment before. A cartwheeling fragment strikes her helmet, and darkness, sudden as thunder, closes in about her.
And once again we come to the end of another episode of The Growing. To those of you still with us, thanks! We hope you’re enjoying reading as much as we’re enjoying writing! If you’re so moved, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org . Until next week, see ya!
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