CHAPTER FIFTY TWO
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
"They have heavy guns here, and here, in the valleys." Tacoma points to the rippling contour lines on the ordinance map spread out on the table before them. "And we’ve been taking rocket fire from higher elevations here." He taps the map again, indicating the low hills to the west of the base that gradually rise into the sacred Paha Sapa. "They’re spread out all around us. We can backtrack and return fire, but we have no way of knowing what else they have or where it is. And we’re going to run short of ammo in a very short time."
"We need recon," Manny observes. "Let me take an Apache up, General. Or the Cheyenne—I can get it up high enough, quick enough they won’t be able to hit it."
"Hell," says Tacoma, with a grim smile. "One sight of that thing’d scare the bejesus out of ‘em if they were human."
Manny shoots him an aggrieved look over the bandana that wraps the lower half of his face, even though Maggie suspects he agrees. Goddess knows she does. Soot from the burning HQ building drifts through the air, settling under the canvas flap that constitutes the temporary command post and falling as fine dust on the map. Further away, black smoke pours from a burning fuel tank, shot through with tongues of flame. Its stench, rank with oil and kerosene, comes to them on the thick air. Maggie waves a hand in front of her offended nose and says, "We don’t just need recon. We need aerial fire power."
"And we need it now," Tacoma agrees. "Toller knows the Base as well as Hart. Sooner or later they’ll get the range on the planes."
"Shit." Manny jerks the kerchief of his face. "General, Ma’am—"
"Get suited up," she says tersely. "Meet me on the flightline."
Manny sprints from underneath the makeshift canopy, holding the bandana again over his face. Tacoma watches him go, his eyes troubled. "With respect, General—"
"With respect, Major Rivers. We have two Tomcats fueled and ready. Two planes, two pilots. You’re in charge on the ground as of now. End of discussion."
"You know they’ve probably got anti-aircraft missiles out there."
"They probably do," Maggie agrees. "We’ll just have to dodge them as best we can."
"We’ll do whatever we can to draw their fire, General."
"Within prudence, Major. Within prudence. You’ll be able to see at least one of us. When you do, open up and give ‘em everything you’ve got. Andrews."
"Let’s go." She turns again to Tacoma. "You remember I have to answer to your sister for you. Don’t do anything that’ll lose my hair."
A flash of white teeth is her answer as he turns back to the study of the map, punching coordinates into his hand-held. Maggie races for the Jeep, her flight boots ringing hard on the pavement. Andrews paces her stride for stride. The dash for the flightline is, if anything, more harrowing than the white-knuckle race from the gate, clipping corners and bouncing over speed bumps with the kind of jolt that would knock the doors off a civilian vehicle. She holds fast to the rollbar and mutters a quiet prayer to Yemaya, cc’d to Koda’s Ina Maka.
Let us get there on time. Let us make it into the air.
Halfway there, a mortar shell goes screaming over their heads to land somewhere near a maintenance hangar. A second follows it before Maggie can draw a breath. The twin strikes hit like thunderbolts, blurring out the rattle of the Jeep and its snarling engine in a fog of white noise. Smoke rises from the street that runs along the flightline, and a second column from somewhere on the other side of the row of hangars. Maggie’s heart rises up and lodges in her throat, stifling speech. The enemy have found their range. "Go!" she yells, and Andrews floors the accelerator, rattling her teeth and shaking her bones loose in their sockets. The last half-mile streaks by in a blur, while the rockets begin to fall around the flight line like deadly hail, on ripping into the street just ahead of them, gouging a crater that Andrews barely misses, the tires of the driver’s side skirting its rim by millimeters.
Thirty seconds later, the Jeep skids to a stop on the apron that flanks the main north-south runway. The two Tomcats sit just outside the hangar doors, one with its canopy up, the other, Manny, suited and helmeted at the controls, already closing down. Throwing off her Kevlar vest and field gear as she runs, Maggie snatches her helmet from the waiting tech sergeant, slaps it on her head and scrambles up the ladder into the front cockpit of her craft. She straps in one-handed, fixing her oxygen mask in place, punching in the sequence for the automated systems checks that would normally occupy a quarter hour. Today they will run exactly as long as it takes her to get into position for takeoff. The green and red LED’s dance across the small screen, but the only figures that matter are the ones that tell her that she’s taking off fuel tanks topped off and the readout that confirms the ready status of the missiles that bristle along the undersides of her wings. It comes to her that this may be the last time that she will ever fly, that she has nothing to gain and only time to lose, but habit is too strong, and she continues to follow the check-list even as she shuts down her lexan bubble. The numbers still flickering in front of her, she revs her engines and begins her taxi to the north end of the strip.
She has beaten it into her student pilots’ heads for a decade and a half. If you’re going to fly, you don’t have options. Do it right. Do it right the first time.
Do it right the last time, too.
With a wave of her hand, she motions Manny into position at her left wing, just to one side and behind. As she turns to make her run, a rocket tears into the tarmac just behind her, and she opens the throttle, no time now for gradually gathering speed, and hurtles down the runway, pulling G’s before she ever reaches the end, Manny streaking along beside her, keeping pace. Then she pulls the nose up, feeling the lift of air beneath her wings and is airborne, climbing almost straight up into the sun.
At 10,000 feet she levels off, scraps of cloud like drifting feathers beneath her where she hangs in silence over the folded valleys and greening fields below. Sun glints off the nose of her plane, catching the edge of the lexan bubble as she banks to sweep in a wide arc south and west. Below her she can make out the rectilinear grid that is Rapid City and the dark ribbon of the highway where they made their stand against the droids a day, a lifetime, ago. She levels her wings and swings back toward Ellsworth, punching the display from the copilot’s monitor forward to her own screen. The radar might not be able to pick up the enemy, but the cameras should be able to find them. Even if the damned metalheads have found some way to shield themselves from long-wave frequencies, even if they can make themselves effectively invisible, they can’t make themselves transparent. If she can find the anomalies, she can bomb them.
And put an end to them once for all.
Far to the east, the sun strikes fire from a streaking silver shape that must be Manny’s Tomcat, turning as she is now to quarter the land beneath them. The gorges and ancient lava flows that spread out between the Base and the Black Hills ripple away beneath her, their shapes flowing across the screen. The camera’s lens, powerful enough to show a single buttercup growing in the summer meadows, singles out nothing of interest. No armored columns, no grinding mass of titanium canon fodder.
The blip appears on her screen without warning, something rising toward her from a winding gorge branching off from the Cheyenne’s south fork. She kicks up the Tomcat’s nose, and a Sparrow air-to-air missile streaks from beneath the left wing, locking onto its target as Maggie climbs and rolls away, sweeping back toward its launch point and punching coordinates into the laser guidance system that will drop 500 pounds of high explosive on the enemy. The offending blip disappears from her readout a half-second before she sends the bomb on its way. With luck, it will take out a whole nest, but it is luck she cannot count on. Neither can she afford to be free-handed with her payload.
Another ground-to-air rocket rises up as she loops back toward Ellsworth from the north, and she dispatches it, and its launcher, as easily as she did the first. There is still no sign of the android force that appeared around the base earlier that morning; the only indication that they were not an hallucination or some weird sort of image projection is the artillery fire that pours down on her ground forces even as she seeks out their operators, and even then, they are evidence of no more than one operator apiece.
What if . . ..?
But that is a fantasy. They have to be here somewhere. Have to be.
If I were a mule, where would I go to get lost? If I were a metal killing machine with printed circuits for brains and copper wire for nerves, where would I go to jam radar and avoid detection by conventional means?
Maggie sweeps low to obtain a clearer image of a line of vehicles on a farm road, but they are only more of the ever-present wreckage of the first days of the uprising. Putting on speed, she climbs again, sweeping up through wispy clouds to the relative safety of the sky. Beneath her, the land rises steadily, from black bedrock deposited by volcanoes when the northern prairies lay beneath an inland sea into the uplift of the Black Hills themselves, sacred ground to the Lakota from time before time.
Where would I go?
There’s gold in them thar hills.
Not gold. Uranium. Vanadium. All of it lying exposed to the sky in the tiers of the huge strip mines gouged out of the earth at the turn of the century, shut down by treaties renegotiated by the Oglala and Northern Cheyenne less than a decade ago and never remdiated.
Radioactive ore, huge masses of it, busily throwing off electrons on its own bandwidths. It has been a sore spot with local citizens for years, disrupting the endlessly running talk radio stations, reducing cell phones to sputtering static, interfering with transmissions from civilian aircraft. How much? Maybe enough to mask the output from lesser masses and scramble incoming locator signals, even the special military frequencies.
That’s where I’d go if I were a droid.
Turning south again, she lays down a pattern of sweeps that covers the expanse of more hospitable terrain between the Black Hills and the Badlands to the south and east. Flying with one hand and only half her brain, the years, the decades, of practice more ingrained now even than instinct, she scans the ground beneath her, zooming the camera in on every outcrop she does not recognize, every glint of sun off twisted metal or the rippled surface of a stock tank.
For twenty minutes she flies low and slow. The camera shows her cows grazing, a stallion running with his mares, a coyote arcing up out of the tall grass in pursuit of something invisible beneath its green stalks, one human with a gun who stands transfixed as she passes, not even bothering to run for cover. The mines themselves stand deserted, great open wounds in the Mother’s body, their tiers descending into the earth like the narrowing circles of Dante’s hell. There is no sign of the droids.
Disappointment washes through her, leaving the taste of acid in her mouth. The damned things might as well be invisible. Maybe they are invisible. Maybe her brain has shorted out under the stress of the last several weeks.
Maybe Hart was right. She is not command material, never was.
Maybe she’s not even a goddamned decent pilot.
Banking one more time over the snaking canyons of the badlands, she follows the twisted paths of dry rivers among the bare rock where the relics of eons past lie open to the sun that stands now halfway down from noon, raking the landscape with harsh sidelight. The rocks stand forth like nightmares out of legend; giants turned to stone, Lot’s wife, looking back toward her burning city, transformed to a pillar of salt. Now blindingly bright, now running in shadow, streams that feed into the White River wind through them, the sun striking upward from their surfaces in sheets of light.
And there, in a bend of a narrow stream, the glare off their metal bodies blending with the reflection of the water, they are.
Thousands of them. Motionless, they stand in ranks as stiff as the terra cotta soldiers of Tchin-tsche Huang-ti, as unaware of the heat that beats off the dry rock as the rock itself. As she passes, a shiver of movement runs through them; their sensors are not shut down. But by the time they can react, she is far away again to the west, entering the bomb-release sequence into her console as she loops back. She passes again, high above them this time, laying down the long stick of 500-pounders that will reduce them to shards of molten metal. Her vid shows her the perfect string of explosions that follows in her wake, clouds of smoke and dust rising up out of the canyon, here an overhang toppling onto the wreckage of the droids beneath, there a tower of basalt crashing down.
Hoka hey. It is a good day to kill.
Maggie allows herself a grim smile as she makes a second, then a third, turn to check for enemy till standing. She finds none; nothing on the visual but tumbled stone and scrap metal. Satisfied, she allows relief to break over her and gives her wings a waggle, partly just in case Manny or someone on the ground can see her, partly out of sheer satisfaction. She can feel the knots loosen in her neck and in the muscles along her spine, unraveling like strands of rope.
Mission accomplished. She takes her heading and turns for home.
As the land slips by beneath her, badlands and prairie, she allows her mind to turn to what awaits her on her return. Obviously the droids and their human allies—or perhaps masters? At this point she is not sure what Hart was, dupe or agent, hostage or mole—had meant to pound them senseless with artillery, tear up the runways to ground their air defense, and move in at leisure. Not necessarily in numbers, though. She will need to make the circuit of the Base, spending her remaining missiles on the gun emplacements. They won’t destroy the howitzers or heavy mortars, but they should reduce their crews quite nicely to smithereens. Two keystrokes shift their mode from air-to-air to air-to-ground; the big guns generate enough heat to home them in. Always assuming Manny hasn’t already bombed them right into their next lives.
Q: Where does a bad droid go when it dies?
The joke is as old as Westerhaus’ first military models, a dart aimed at his rival Army contractor. Ancient history now.
Maggie passes over Rapid City, looping around to the north to scan the valleys around Ellsworth. She sees only the river, running gold in the westering sun, the woods, the mass of the Black Hills thrusting up toward the sky. She feels an odd sense of homecoming, partly the welcome she always associates with the completion of a successful mission, partly something she cannot quite name, something that emanates from the sacred ground beneath her. All clear.
At the far eastern arc of her circle, she passes over the highway where the wreckage of the battle lies strewn for miles. Her monitor shows her only the tortured metal remains of tanks blown open and burned out from inside, the tumbled length of the first defensive wall. Nothing moves except the wind in the trees. She can go home.
As she banks, the sun glances off something miles up the road to the east. Something bright, something metal.
Maggie pulls back on the stick and streaks for the clouds again, kicking in the afterburners for speed. Once she levels off, she scans the stretch of tarmac that stretches out beneath her.
More droids. Not thousands, perhaps no more than several hundred, marching in a tight column toward Ellsworth. Reserves? Latecomers? She has no way of knowing. Neither has she the firepower to take them out. Manny might, but Manny obviously has not seen them. With luck, they have not seen him, either. She will not break radio silence.
She has only one weapon left. She checks her fuel guage. The Tomcat carries close to 20,000 pounds of jet fuel; close to half that remains in her tanks. Enough for the job.
Her premonition returns to her. With the runways and hangars pounded by enemy guns, this is her last flight. She will make it count.
Carefully she calculates the distance and trajectory to the enemy column and enters the coordinates into the autopilot. Loosing the last of her missiles, she aims the Tomcat’s nose toward the earth with one hand and jerks on the ejection lever with the other.
Nothing happens. The ground rises up at her, the column of droids growing clear in her sight. She pulls the lever again, and again.
On the third try, the bubble pops and she flies free of the plane as it gathers speed in its descent. But the delay has cost her, and her head strikes the canopy, hard, as her seat becomes a projectile. She sees the flash of silver as her Tomcat streaks toward earth, the blue sky above her.
And then the dark comes down.
The night is blue around her, the deep blue of the deepest sea. Overhead the stars dance in stately patterns, throwing off streamers of flame as they spin and whirl, jewels burning cold in shades of amethyst and emerald and sapphire, blazing ruby and topaz with hearts of fire. A breeze slips cool over her face, soothing against her skin. It stirs the pine needles that ring the clear space where she lies, soughing softly.
There are voices in the wind. If she tried, she could make them out. But she is tired, so tired. She lies under a billow of white silk. Perhaps she is dead, and it is her funeral pall.
If she is, she decides, death is not so bad after all. She knows that one leg lies twisted under her and is undoubtedly broken; from the way the blood pounds in her head, that may be broken, too. She can feel the grass through a cool wetness above one ear; more strangeness. Something has apparently happened to her helmet. Perhaps whoever has laid her out has removed it. Odd, though, that she seems to be lying on earth. No coffin, no burial platform, no piled wood. Just the silken pall.
With effort, but with no pain, she turns her head. Just beyond her reach, a large cat sits watching her, fur silver-gilt in the strange not-moonlight that shimmers in the air, eyes deep amber rimmed in shadow. The paler fur on her belly lies in darker swirls, made, Maggie knows, by her nursing young. Elegant in its length, her tail curls about her feet.
You wander, sister, the cat says in the silence, Igmu Sapa Winan.
Where? Maggie answers without sound. And why?
You stand with one foot on the Blue Road. If you wish, you may cross over.
If I wish?
Or not. Do you want me to summon help from your own kind?
Her own kind. She thinks about that for a moment. She knows of only three of her own kind, maybe four, who might hear a call like that. None of whom can be spared from duty.
It would be easy to slip away. A picture forms in her mind, unbidden, of sky-tall trees ringing a lake whose deep purple waters lap at shores dotted with gentians and spurred columbine. As she watches, a winter buck limps up to the shore, blood oozing from a wound in his shoulder, laid open to the bone. Maggie winces for what must be the pain of it, but as he bends to drink, the blood stills. Flesh folds back on itself, skin and fur spreading to cover it, and he stands there whole, sunlight streaming down through the trees about him. A woman stands beside him, her leather dress died green, yellow shells and beadwork running in rows down its length like kernels on an ear of corn. Her black hair spills down her back almost to her knees; silver shines at her ears and wrists.
Mother, Maggie says silently, awe washing through her.
Selu, the woman answers. And this is Ataga’hi, where the hunted may come to be healed. Though you are a warrior and have killed more two-foots than most, you have never harmed one of your four-footed brothers or sisters. Hunters may not come here. Will you drink, Black Cat Woman?
My people, are they safe?
For answer, then, she rises up and steps carefully toward the lake. The grass bends gently under the pads of her feet, and she is not surprised to find that her spine has shifted so that she does not stand erect. Her ears, inhumanly sharp, take in the murmur of small life around her, the calls of birds like music. The water, when she bends to lap, slips cool across her tongue, and she drinks her fill, life pouring back into her, and purpose with it.
Then she is back in her own body, and she gasps as sensation floods back into her from cracked bone and torn muscle. The puma, though, still regards her quietly. I will call, she says.
For an instant, Maggie thinks she is seeing double. A second great cat stands beside the first, gazing at her with eyes of warm brown. And there is a bobcat, too, grinning at her with open mouth.
Hang in there, he says. We’re on our way.
The blue begins to fade to black about her. The puma fades with it, a liquid shadow in
the night. Pain from her leg rises about her on a swelling tide, bringing its own darkness with it. Just, she says to the wind as words begin to desert her altogether. Just move your asses.
The antelope crashes through the undergrowth, plunging through the copse that borders the open prairie to the east. Koda follows, making no effort now to be silent, her hat scraped off her head somewhere back there where she first entered the strip of woodland, her bow in her right hand, arrow nocked. Ahead of her, the young male’s rump patch flashes white, and she sweeps low branches away from her face as she fights her way through the whip-like saplings after him. Sweat runs stinging into her eyes, blurring her vision, but she cannot pause to wipe it away. If she can just keep in range, she will have him when he breaks from cover on the other side.
The wood is wider than she had first thought, and she slides down a steep bank toward a stream, bracing her feet against a fall like a skier. The antelope, ahead of her, splashes through the water and is up the other side before she can draw back her arrow. Neither is there time to unsling her rifle and aim; by the time she has it into position, he will be on open ground again. Pronghorn can sprint at speeds approaching seventy miles an hour, fast as a cheetah. If she is too far behind when they reach the edge of the grass again, she will lose him altogether. She crosses the ankle-deep brook in two strides, scrabbling for an instant on both knees and one hand as she races up the limestone outcrop opposite, ignoring the sudden burn as she scrapes her palm against the rock. Her heart slams against her breastbone, and her breath comes in short, panting gasps. She has run the better part of two miles, about half of it flat out, since cutting the yearling out of a bachelor herd. The meat will let them save their packed rations against emergencies, gain them another day or two. And Asi, held back by main force from following the chase, will appreciate his share.
The sun breaks through where the wood begin to thin, the pronghorn sprinting now nimbly through the mould and leaf litter that carpets the ground between the trunks of pine and aspen, gaining speed. With a last burst of speed Koda throws herself after him, even as he breaks from the trees and is gone. Koda swears under her breath, what she has of it, and follows, her blood not ready to give up even though her brain tells her that the antelope is already beyond range.
Somewhere just ahead of her, the crack of gunfire shatters the still afternoon air. Abruptly, Koda pulls up just short of the edge of the trees, unstringing her bow and sheathing it and its arrow even as she shrugs her rifle off her shoulder and into her hands. Carefully she steps to the edge of the treeline, keeping a pine trunk between herself and whoever has fired the shot. Squinting into the sun, she can make out only the rippling billows of short grass, interspersed here and there with clumps of scarlet sage and mountain globemallow, thick with rose-colored blooms. Behind a screen of the tall spikes, something moves. Something large, bending down now toward something else on the ground.
Koda steps away from cover, gun leveled. She is not quite prepared to kill another human for her supper, but neither is she prepared to give it up without protest. Not when she has done the work, not when she has given fair chase. Keeping the muzzle of her gun pointed toward whatever or whoever crouches on the other side of the dense shrubs, she gathers her breath and bellows, "Hey! You over there! Stand up! Slow! Or I’ll shoot!"
Two seconds pass. "Now!" she yells, and pumps a round into the ground at her feet. "Next one won’t be a warning!"
Another week, another cliffhanger. <G> Hope you enjoyed this week’s effort. We know there wasn’t a whole lot of Koda and Kirsten, but from now on, there will be, promise. Till next week, ciao! firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 53
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