CHAPTER FIFTY SEVEN
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Koda stirs her soup slowly, savoring the aroma of parsley and bay. For the first time since her fever broke, she can smell something besides her own tainted breath, and the steam from the dried herbs and reconstituted vegetables is the very perfume of Paradise. The bowl’s warmth also soothes her injured hand, and she shifts her grip to lay her wrist against the heat. That’s not to say that the Vicodin doesn’t help, too. So does the burnished feeling of her clean skin beneath clean clothes. It required a dozen pans of heated snowmelt and almost two hours, but with Kirsten’s help she has at last scrubbed the stink of illness off her.
She glances out the window of the fishing shack to where Kirsten has carried the sleeping bags to lay them in the open on a slab of dry stone. Snow still lies blue in the shadows under the pines, but where the sun strikes it has melted, running down the slope to swell the stream below. Kirsten stands just at its edge, spreading their laundry on a sandstone boulder that juts out into the water, making a narrow rapids. Asi has made himself comfortable on the grass beside her, belly turned up to the summer warmth, tongue lolling. A dark-crested Steller’s jay, its vivid blue a splash of color amid the dark needles of a balsam pine, pries at a cone with its bill, ignoring Wiyo where she floats high above aginst the open sky. Her cry floats down on the breeze, mingling with the song of a cardinal hen and the scolding of a tuft-eared squirrel. It is not a day to stay inside.
Carefully Koda pushes herself up from the edge of the bed. The Levaquin has done its work, and the infection is clearly under control. She is not so sure about her legs. Transferring her spoon to her bowl, she uses her right hand to steady herself as she progresses from bed to table, from table to door, and finally from the door to the trunk of a fallen larch halfway down to the water. She reaches it gratefully, steadying herself again as she sits and gives herself a moment to catch her breath.
I made it, though. Made it without help.
For a moment she simply sits, idly eating the soup and watching Kirsten’s neat, economical movements as she rinses out their spare shirts and underwear in the churning water, slapping them against the rocks, then smoothing them out to dry. In the past months, her skin has tanned to a rich bronze, her hair lightened under the sun and rain to the color and sheen of cornsilk. The waifish prettiness of the Kirsten King she had first met at the Minot android facility has gone, transformed into the taut beauty of a woman at home beneath earth and sky. Almost she could be Lakota.
But she is Lakota. Little by little, she is becoming a walker in two worlds. Kirsten King, President of the United States. Inktomi Zizi, warrior of the Lakota, wife of Tshunkmanitu-wakan Winan. That is something even Themunga will have to acknowledge.
Wanblee Wapka will help. So will Tacoma and her other brothers and sisters. Even Wiyo.
Her soup finished, Koda sets the bowl on the ground and slides down to sit in the grass, her back braced against the log. Lulled by the warmth, she feels her body grow heavy, her eyelids sliding shut. She should get up and go help Kirsten. But maybe a little nap first. Just a little one. Just a. . ..
She wakes to pressure of Kirsten’s body against hers, her still-bandaged left hand held lightly in her lover’s right. The bright head rests just as lightly on her shoulder, and she opens her eyes to its silver-gilt sheen. "Nun lila hopa." She barely breathes the words, not wanting to wake Kirsten. "Nun lila hopa."
"Thank you," Kirsten says quite clearly, and Koda can just see the twitch of her mouth as the corners turn up in a smile. "I’m not asleep."
"You should be, cante sukye. You need rest worse than I do."
Kirsten lifts her head with a sigh. "I’m fine. Really. All it took was a couple nights’ good sleep."
"That was quite a hike." Koda cannot quite picture the map of northern Colorado and is not quite sure she would know Craig if she saw it, but she knows how far they are from the state line here on this mountain. She knows that the country gets no easier for a hundred miles or more. It is mostly vertical, just as this narrow valley is.
Kirsten shrugs. "Piece of cake, compared to that last high pass over the Medicine Bows. I went, I got the stuff, I came back. Nothing to it."
"Mmm," says Koda.
"You never have said just what decided you to go to Craig. Instead of, say, Columbine. Or Steamboat Springs—that’s pretty close, too."
Kirsten does not answer, and Koda begins to think she will not. Then she says, "It was him."
Koda takes note of the unspoken capital H and italics. Him. "Who’s him?"
"Him. My pet delusion."
There is only one male creature that Koda knows of that Kirsten regards, sporadically, as an hallucination. "Your raccoon, you mean? Your spirit animal?"
"Yeah." There is a long pause. Then, "He showed up in a white coat and wrote a
prescription. Dr. Kunz."
The image floats up in her own mind, vivid, of a raccoon in a lab coat, stethoscope slung across his shoulders. With an effort, she keeps her face straight and says seriously, "For the Levaquin?"
"Yeah. And then he told me where to find it. I went, and it was there."
Koda strokes Kirsten’s hair, running the fingers of her good hand through the silky strands. She may be Inktomi Zizi the warrior, but as a Lakota, she is still a work in progress. "You know, you’re going to offend him if you keep calling Wika Tegalega a delusion."
"All right. An hallucination."
"How would an hallucination know where to find the antibiotic?"
"My subconscious, that’s all."
For a long moment, Koda remains silent. She can sense something held back, something besides Kirsten’s ambivalence about her encounter with another walker between worlds. Gently she says, "Do you think Wa Uspewikakiyape was an hallucination?"
"Your wolf? No!" Kirsten’s head comes up sharply. "I mean—I saw him, I—"
"And you saw your raccoon, too, didn’t you? I seem to remember he messed up your shoes in a very visible, tangible way."
Very carefully Kirsten draws away from her, sitting back on her heels so that she can face Dakota. She says, "But it wasn’t just him. There was another—creature. A black wolf, with blue eyes. It pulled me up a snowbank when I twisted my ankle. It brought me a crutch. That’s what St. Bernards do. Not wolves."
"Well, not as a rule," Koda says mildly.
"But they do occasionally, huh? Black, blue-eyed wolves? Lakota shaman wolves."
The breath goes out of Kirsten in a rush. "Oh boy. I’m not sure I-- Shit." She shakes her head as if to clear it. "But that’s normal in your culture, isn’t it? The fox out in the chicken house just may be Aunt Matilda, huh?"
"Great-Aunt Matilda," Koda says solemnly, "is very fond of chicken. But she likes it fried. With gravy."
"You’re laughing at me!"
"No." She reaches out to draw Kirsten close again. "If it’s hard for you now, just let it go. No one’s going to ask you to accept things you’re uncomfortable with. Give it time." Then, "What is it? There’s something else, isn’t there?"
With that, Kirsten turns to her again, her face against Koda’s shoulder, her hand gripping fiercely. Dakota feels her nod, an abrupt movement against her arm. "I didn’t want to tell you when you were so sick. I wanted to wait another day or two."
"Tell me now. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it together." Koda feels Kirsten’s muscles tense under her hand, her whole body going rigid. "Tell me."
"They’re killing babies." It comes out on one breath, desperate as a gasp for air in drowning water. "Newborns, infants, toddlers. They were all tossed out into a pit at the back of the clinic."
"Just babies? No older kids, no adults?"
Kirsten shakes her head violently. "I don’t know. I didn’t see any. But I didn’t stay for a second look, either."
It does not make sense. Not that the general slaughter of the uprising makes any. If you’re going to capture women to breed, go to great lengths to confine and impregnate them, presumably what you want is the babies. Any babies, given that the droids have not been exactly fastidious about the studs. So why destroy the desired product?
Maybe the droids had killed the boys? No livestock breeder keeps excess males. Bull calves become hamburger; all roosters but a few end up in the frying pan.
Clearly the droids are not eating the babies. Breeding slaves, maybe? But for whom? Slaves would not be culled by gender; every society that has ever bought and sold humans has valued strong male workers. Has valued breeding females, too, so at least that part fits. But if slaves, where is that market? Who are the buyers?
Finally she says, "I don’t understand it, cante sukye. I don’t understand it at all." A shiver passes over her skin. Shadows have lengthened; the sun has dropped below the tops of the trees. "Let’s go inside. It’s getting cold out here."
"Now I remember why I’ve always hated shopping."
Koda picks her way through the remains of a sporting goods store, stepping carefully through the spilled tennis and golf balls scattered across the floor. Against the walls, the locked cabinets that once held guns have been broken open, their sliding lexan doors in shards behind the counters. In one dark corner stands a rack that once held basketball jerseys, judging by the scraps of brightly-colored mesh now piled beneath it. From somewhere behind it comes a rustle and the sound of small feet scrabbling on the floor tiles, punctuated by grunts and a threatening hiss. Asi gives a pleading whine, his head up, tail straight as a standard.
"Possum," says Kirsten from behind a counter that still stands largely intact, "Mama Possum." The drawers have been thoroughly looted of ammunition, gun oil and other useful items. Her head appears above the glass top of the display case, and she aims a frown at Asi. "Don’t even think about it, Deppity Dawg. You don’t need to get chewed up again." Asi whines again but stands down, leaving the store’s residents in peace. Returning to her rummaging under the counter, Kirsten adds, "At least you could find stuff to fit. ‘Petite’ is a lot larger than it used to be."
"Small but mighty." Koda flashes her a grin. "What hasn’t been carted off or ruined by the weather has been co-opted by the critters." Still, this modest strip mall is tame compared to the sprawling wreckage of the Wal-Mart on the north side. At least one pack of coyotes had moved in, denning among the fallen I-beams and the slabs of collapsed ceiling, sharing their quarters, judging by the limewash on the walls and the castings on the floor, with a pair of owls and innumerable mice and rats. They have assiduously avoided the business district with its tall office towers rearing up against the purple-grey bulk of the mountains and the sprawling Temple complex, all of which offer prime opportunities for armed bands to fort up. After The Elk Mountain Incident, which has permanently acquired capital letters after the manner of The Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge or The Ox-Bow, Koda will be perfectly happy if they never see another human between now and their return to Ellsworth.
Sifting through the wreckage of the office, no more than a corner set off by faux pecan panels, Koda, pockets a pair of serviceable pencils and an old-fashioned red plastic grade-school sharpener. A pack of lithium batteries also goes into her pockets, together with a small handheld that looks as though it might be functional. Kirsten has taken to keeping a general log of their journey on her laptop, but other information, such as animal population and migration, the water volume of streams that no longer feed cities, needs to be recorded, too. This world is not the world she grew up in, may become something far different than any has ever imagined.
But for now, she will settle for small things that make their journey less arduous. Which
means that they probably need to move on, to see if they can find a part of the city less
devastated. In the scatter of papers, she shuffles aside a photograph of a trio of small girls, grinning up at the camera from their swings, their twin blonde pony tails brushing their shoulders. Two are twins. The third is perhaps a year older. To their right, a cocker spaniel makes a fourth to their number, the same grin, the same tumble of bright gold from crown to collarbone. Something is scrawled across the bottom of the picture in a hand too shaky to be legible, but it looks like numbers. Koda turns her attention to the tall free-standing gun safe, which might hold something useful if she can open it. A second scrap of paper with numbers along the bottom catches her eye in the debris on the floor. 12-28-something. The combination? She should be so lucky. She picks it up, though, carefully dusting it off.
Not the combination. Another photo, this one of a dark-eyed toddler on a red tricycle, a motorcycle cap pulled over his forehead as he leans over the handlebars. 12-30-2015.
Not a combination. A date. Retrieving the picture of the three girls, she lays it on the desk next to this one. Same handwriting. Same date. Not a birthday, then, especially since the girls on the swings wear shorts and sandals, their feet skimming green grass. The date is the second or third of the uprising; for these children, it can mean only one thing. DOD. Date of death.
Not only one thing. Date of death, date of disappearance.
"Kirsten," she says quietly, not turning away from the cubicle. "How old were the oldest children you saw in Craig?"
For a long moment there is silence. Then Kirsten says, quite evenly, "Toddlers. Maybe two and a half. Three, maybe. Why?"
"Come here, would you?"
Kirsten’s feet make small rustling noises in the litter as she picks her way toward the corner. As she comes to stand by Koda, she says, "What is it?"
"These photos. Look at the dates. Look at the kids."
For a long moment, Kirsten does not answer. Then she says, "The droids were taking them alive, then killing them. I don’t get it. Why?"
"They were using jails, maternity centers, clinics. There used to be a Planned Parenthood branch in this part of Salt Lake. I think we should go check it out."
In the harsh light of the flash, the revulsion on Kirsten’s face is clear. After a moment, though, she says. "You’re right. It may not help us turn the goddammed things off, but—" Her hand makes small, loose circles in the air.
"There’s always the possibility we’ll find some kids alive," Koda says gently. "Not much, but some."
"Even if we can just figure out why—"
"That’ll be a start." Koda adjusts her pack to lie more comfortably around her waist and shoulders her rifle. "Let’s go."
"Looks like. Big one." Dakota kicks at one end of a broken and charred two-by-four that protrudes from the rubble of roofing shingles and drywall, jagged chunks of concrete block and aluminum siding. Pink fiberglass insulation protrudes from between shattered boards and wall panels, threaded through with bright strands of color-coded wiring. Behind the ruined front of the Salt Lake Birthing Center, the rear half of the building still stands, its framing studs and walls stained black with smoke. Asi quarters the edge of the wreckage, whining.
"Look how bright that insulation is. This is recent."
Koda’s gaze returns to the cotton-candy mass of fiberglass sandwiched between a collapsed wall and fallen acoustic tiles. It is as shockingly pink as the day it came off the roll, unweathered by snow or desert heat. Slowly, she turns through a full circle. A McDonald’s across the street is similarly ruinous, but its garish plastic furniture, tumbled out onto the restaurant’s parking lot, is faded to pale sherbet colors, orange and lime and raspberry. The electronics factory outlet next to it stares out onto the asphalt through empty windows, only a few shards of glass still clinging to the frames. It would have been one of the first stores to be looted, by people in desperate need of communications gear or by conventional thieves with no idea of the scope of the collapse in progress. "You’re right," she says quietly. "Check it out?"
For answer, Kirsten nods, revulsion clear on her face and in her meticulous steps amid the wreckage, avoiding contact even with the leather of her boots where she can. Koda herself goes warily, picking out a path down what might have been a paved walkway before the blast that tumbled half the clinic’s front onto it. It takes her onto a tiled surface, perhaps once the clinic’s reception area, with darkened halls opening off it. Open now to the weather and to scavengers human and otherwise. Tucked well back in the exposed rafters between ceiling and roof, a wren has built her barrel-shaped nest, and a spattering of guano on the pale terrazzo bears witness to the colony of bats with which she shares her space. The sharp smell of ammonia rises from it, and Koda covers her nose and mouth with one hand. One corridor seems to be lined with various labs and exam rooms; another with recovery cubicles separated only by grey and tattered curtains. Still a third leads off to service areas; through an open door at its end, Koda can see the shape of a large, aluminum-topped worktable with industrial sized pots and pans hung on a rack above it. No sign of the obstetric wards and surgeries; they must have been in the wing brought down by the blast.
"Look," Kirsten says from behind her. "On the wall behind the desk."
Koda looks more closely, squinting at what she had at first thought to be smoke stain. The streaks show a more regular pattern, though, letters scratched out with the end of a
charred stick. Some have faded to illegibility; others are faint angular shapes, parts missing where the stick has skipped over the rough surface of the concrete block. B-b- -il-e-s.
"B-b," she says. "Baby—"
"Killers," Kirsten finishes for her. "It’s just like that clinic in Craig."
Koda nods. "Let’s have a look at the pharmacy and get going, then. There’s somebody in the neighborhood that’s armed. They may not want company." She steps around a fallen chair and heads briskly for the lab corridor.
Kirsten, though, remains rooted where she stands. "We have to check."
Caught. "There’s no place here to bury bodies, cante sukye," Koda says softly. "The clinic backs right up to whatever is in that office strip behind it. We won’t find anything."
"I saw an incinerator chimney when we came in."
So had Koda. Its squat black shape had jutted up against the clean blue sky, an obscenity in the light of day. The memory of her lover’s face, pinched and white, as she told of finding the corpse-filled trenches in Craig is something that will stay with Dakota as long as she lives. That, and the nightmare-filled nights that followed, Kirsten tossing and crying out in her sleep. "All right," she says. "You stand watch here. I’ll go have a look."
"I’m coming with you."
"It’s going to be nothing, or it’s going to be bad. If it’s bad, it can’t be any worse than those graves in Craig. I’m coming."
Koda holds her ground for an instant, then stifles her protective instincts and gives way. "All right," she says. "Let’s go."
The incinerator stands to one side of the main building, its red biohazard sign still bright in the afternoon sun. The stench of charred flesh still lingers about it, even to Koda’s human nostrils. It must, she thinks, be overpoweringly strong to Asi, where he stands at attention ten feet away, ears forward, legs stiff, issuing short, sharp barks of alarm despite Kirsten’s order to be silent. Foulness hangs over the place like a cloud.
The furnace has two doors, a larger one above for the burn chamber, a smaller below for scraping out the ash. Neither yields to Koda’s determined pulling, and she returns to the wreckage in front to scavenge a yard-long length of rebar. It makes an admirable pry, and she wedges it under the handle of the upper door, turning it fairly easily on the second effort. The door swings open on blackness and the stench of death, but the oven holds no bones, no infant corpses. Kirsten leans over her shoulder, peering into the shadow. It seems to Koda that the sound of her lover’s breathing has slowed; no demons here to haunt her nights. "Okay," she says. "Nothing here. Let’s—"
"Check the bottom," Kirsten says steadily.
Ash lies thick in the compartment below the burn chamber, black and stinking of grease. Dakota scrapes it out onto the concrete platform with the end of the rebar. Scattered throughout it are small flakes of white, bigger than the grain of the ash. "Bone," Kirsten says, her voice expressionless. "That’s what that is, isn’t it?"
Koda nods, her teeth clenched. If she opens her mouth, she will vomit. After a moment, she breaks apart a clod of ash, freeing larger fragments of calcified bone. One larger piece still keeps its shape; half a vertebra, its spur still jutting out from the half-ring that once surrounded the spinal cord. The whole piece is less than an inch long.
"Now we know." Kirsten’s voice is scarcely more than a whisper.
Koda forces herself to speak around the constriction in her throat. "Now we know."
She feels Kirsten’s hand settle on her shoulder, warm and alive. A lifeline. "And we know someone else is fighting them, too. That’s a good thing."
Suddenly it seems as if the buildings around her, the mountains around them, will fall on her at any moment. She levers herself to her feet, glancing up at the sun. "Let’s get out of here. We can be in the foothills again by nightfall."
They make the trek out of the city in silence, hands joined, Asi quiet beside them. A long-forgotten phrase slips through her mind, from the mission school decades, eons ago. "And the Lord God rained fire and brimstone on the cities of the plain, fire from heaven." Koda does not look back, lest she turn to stone.
Another episode comes to an end. Thanks to everyone who’s been hanging with us. You make it a pleasure to write each week. firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 58
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