CHAPTER SIXTY ONE
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Two tired and footsore women walk side by side, flanked by a tired and footsore dog. The adrenaline that has kept them going for so long is just now beginning to drain away like water through a sieve, leaving them with little energy, and less hope for the success of their mission. Doubts, always present but pushed far back like unwelcome guests, begin to creep into their thoughts. Each woman finds herself wondering, albeit silently, just what they have gotten themselves into and how they can ever hope to prevail against such a force as will be sure to meet them.
Kirsten finally breaks the almost morose silence they’ve slipped into ever since crossing the California border by clearing her throat and smiling wanly as Dakota turns an expectant eyebrow her way. "There’s an army depot near here, isn’t there?"
"Just over that rise," Koda answers, pointing to the breast of a small hill they are heading toward. "It’s small—used to be populated mostly by civilians and a few MPs, but it might have a weapons cache if it hasn’t already been raided. We should probably swing by and see if they’ve got anything to replenish our stock with." They’re almost down to the end of their ammunition, and Dakota privately doubts that the weapons they currently hold will be of any effect against the massive group of androids she’s sure is waiting to welcome them to Westerhaus’ lair.
"I was thinking the same thing," Kirsten agrees, absently fingering the holster strap that holds the pistol to her hip. "We…." Her voice trails off and she looks at the ground beneath her feet, sighing. Gentle fingers slide beneath her chin and lift it until she is meeting those wonderful eyes, so full of concern, and devotion, and love.
"What is it?"
Kirsten hesitates for some moments, trying to order her scattered thoughts; a task that is made a bit more difficult by the presence of her love standing so close. Her thoughts derail further as parts of her body, responding to Koda’s nearness, decide that they’re not tired at all and consider demanding satisfaction, right now, if you please. Deciding on a compromise, Kirsten steps into her lover, sighing with relief as those warm, strong, long arms wrap tightly about her, holding her close and safe. "What is it, canteskuye? What’s troubling you?"
Kirsten remains quiet for a time, absorbing the quiet strength of the woman enfolding her so sweetly. She breathes in Dakota’s scent, stronger now with their exertions, and lets the calmness she feels penetrate her whole body and mind until, at last, she finds her center and begins to relax. "Talk to me, love," Koda murmurs into Kirsten’s hair. "Please."
Taking a deep breath, Kirsten eases herself out of Dakota’s embrace and tilts her chin to meet her partner’s eyes. "It’s just…. We really haven’t talked about what we’re going to find once we get to Westerhaus’ compound. And that’s just what it is. A compound. Guarded by androids at every door, every window, every entrance, every exit, every square inch of space in that place. We can’t just bust in there with the equivalent of two pop guns and a couple of arrows. We’ll be dead in seconds." She abruptly breaks eye contact, instead staring at the laces of her dusty, worn boots. "We’re fools even to try."
"Maybe so," Dakota concedes with a slight shrug of her broad shoulders. "But we’re the only fools with a shot at this, and even if the shot is a million to one against us, it’s still better than anyone else would be able to do."
"Fools walk in where angels fear to tread, huh?" Kirsten jokes.
"Somethin’ like that." She eyes her partner. "As for a plan, well, we’ll figure that out as we get closer and see what we have to work with. Everything’s still a pretty big unknown right now, so let’s give it a little more time, and let the situation help set the plan for us."
"Spoken like a true tactician," Kirsten retorts, but this time, the smile reaches her eyes, causing her lover to return the smile.
Koda chuckles and holds out an arm. "C’mere." As Kirsten willingly flows once again into her embrace, Dakota lifts her hands to cup Kirsten’s warm, soft cheeks as two sets of gemstone eyes meet. "We might be fools, but we’re fools together. As for the rest of it? The world can go hang itself if it doesn’t approve. Alright?"
"Alright," Kirsten replies, nodding slightly within the confines of Dakota’s large hands.
"Good." To seal the deal, Koda tips her head and brushes her lips over Kirsten’s, taking in their softness, tasting their sweetness, feeling their warmth and responsiveness against her own, and soon she is lost in the utter bliss that simply kissing her lover brings to her, chasing doubts, fears, and all other thoughts from her mind. Kirsten moans softly as the kiss deepens, and when the very tip of a tongue tickles against the bow of her upper lip, she immediately grants it access. All too soon, the women break apart by mutual consent, their breathing labored, faces flushed with arousal. "Mm, what you do to me," Dakota breathes into her lover’s ear, giving the lobe a quick suckle before pulling away. "I love you, Kirsten King. Cante mitawa. Ohinniyan. Always."
"Always," Kirsten replies, grazing a kiss over both of Dakota’s cheeks, then one against her incredibly soft lips before stepping away. "Onward and upward, huh?"
"Let’s do it."
When they are halfway up the hill, Dakota halts. Her eyes narrow, and her head tilts in such a way that Kirsten knows to give her time before asking the obvious. When Koda finally turns to her, her eyes are dark, face tense. "You have Asi’s leash handy?"
Looking a little confused, Kirsten feels around her waistpack until she comes up with the requested item and holds it, dangling, for Dakota’s inspection. Koda nods. "Clip it on him."
"Not sure yet. Just keep a firm hold on that leash."
Human and animal exchange puzzled glances, and Asi seems to sigh in resignation as he lifts his chin and allows Kirsten to clip his leash to his collar without much complaint, though he hasn’t been leashed in months. "We’re ready."
With a short nod, Dakota starts ahead, taking the rest of the hill in long, easy strides. Kirsten catches up to her at the top, then pauses as it immediately becomes clear what has caused Dakota’s concern.
Along a pitted, dusty road stand two lines of people, one to a side. Dirty and ragged, they are dressed in varying degrees of black and brown. The women are almost completely covered by thick, dark fabric; only their eyes, hollow and empty, peer out from the barrier of cloth surrounding them. The men are mostly shirtless, with belts of ammunition crisscrossing their chests like modern-day Pancho Villas. And all, from the oldest—a stooped and wrinkled old man easily in his nineties—to the youngest—a girl of three or four—are heavily armed. To the left rise the barbwire tipped fences that circle the Depot, and upon the fence closest to and paralleling the road is a large, white, and crudely lettered sign:
Warriors of the Redeemer
Save for the few who have noticed them, the group’s attention is focused on something on the far side of the fencing; something that Dakota, with her height, can only just see. Her stomach does a slow roll before reluctantly settling.
"What are they looking at?" Kirsten whispers to her. "Can you tell?"
"It’s…." Koda swallows. "…not pretty."
Kirsten turns to her, wide-eyed. "What is it?"
"You’ll see soon enough." Dakota’s face is set in a stony mask. "Whatever you do, don’t react to what you see. Just keep walking, no matter what."
"I don’t understand…."
Koda begins walking again, spine straight as a plumb line, shoulders square, hands prudently away from her weapons, though she can retrieve them in a split second, should she feel the need. Her worn bootheels clack on the broken pavement, drawing the attention of the silent crowd. In twos and threes, heads turn to look at her, and beyond, where Kirsten walks, easily holding a leashed and softly growling Asimov to heel. The young scientist can feel the distrust, the hatred coming off the group of onlookers in waves, pressing up against her like some army of zombies she’d seen on television once upon a time. Goosebumps prickle her skin, and she moves, unconsciously, a step closer to Dakota’s side, almost—but not quite—touching. This close, she can sense her lover’s anger, can all but feel the coiled tension radiating from muscles, and tongue, held tense and still. She takes care to keep her expression neutral, returning hostile glares with mild interest and nothing more. Asi continues to growl, but, to his credit, does not strain at the leash, seeming to realize that doing so could earn him, and his humans, a quick death.
The gauntlet finally comes to an end, but any relief Kirsten might feel in that fact is immediately overridden by the horror now facing her. Her shocked gasp is cut off unuttered by the feel of Dakota’s hot, callused hand on her wrist, clamping like a vice. She wants to look away; even looks of hatred would be welcome over this.
Telephone poles, innocuous reminders of a world gone by, have been turned into crucifixes. Upon them, as far down the road as her eyes can track, hang corpses in various states of decomposition. Nailed above each corpse is a placard, spelling out in bold black lettering the crimes of the executed.
The "adulteress" can be no more than fifteen, and by the swelling in her belly, was at least six months pregnant when she was murdered.
Nearer to the crowd, a crude gallows stands. Three women and one man hang from ropes tied to the crossbeam, heads lolling from broken necks, hands tied behind them, lifeless feet dangling just above the tufts of wild-growing grasses. These corpses are fresh; undoubtedly the reason for the crowd lining the roadway.
Kirsten bites her tongue until she can taste blood, knowing the only things keeping her from being the first American President to open fire on her own citizenry are Asi’s leash and the hand Dakota has clamped over her other wrist. That hand gives the added benefit of keeping her feet steadily moving.
From beside the fence comes a large, shaggy bear of a man sporting a long blonde beard, deep black eyes, and a semi-automatic weapon that he cradles casually in one arm. "Goin’ someplace, Redface?" he asks, smirking as he comes up alongside them.
Dakota continues to walk until she feels a large hand descend on her shoulder, spinning her partway around. "Don’t you walk away from me when I’m talkin’ to you, squaw."
With bared teeth and a ferocious snarl, Asimov leaps at the man, missing his neck by millimeters as Kirsten yanks hard on the leash. The man, red-faced with anger, releases Koda’s shoulder and grabs his gun, aiming it at Asimov’s large head.
Then finds the long muzzle forced up as the muzzle of another gun seats itself neatly against his temple. "I don’t need a reason to pull the trigger, maggot," a low, vibrant voice purrs into his ear. "So don’t even think of trying to give me one." Before he can even think to blink, his gun is easily wrested from his grip and tossed to Kirsten, who grabs it one-handed and aims for the now milling, dangerously murmuring crowd.
"Call your people off," Koda orders, and when he hesitates, pushes the gun more firmly against his head. "Now."
"All of you, get back inside the compound!" he finally yells, seeing from the corner of his eye a long finger begin to tighten against the trigger. "Now!"
Several of the women and men, and most of the children, obediently head for the gate while others unholster their weapons and start for the trio.
"I wouldn’t," Kirsten comments, almost casually, as she aims at the oncoming group.
Several stop, but one man continues forward, smirking. "You wouldn’t hurt women. Or children."
"Why not?" Kirsten asks, voice as flat as dawn-calm lake. "You do."
It is that tone, even more than her words, that confuses him and causes his steps to slow. "You wouldn’t…."
"In a heartbeat."
The man stops and looks askance at his distracted leader. "Moses?"
"Aaron, take the others and get back behind the fence, now."
"Do as I say, damnit!!"
With a last, hard, hateful look at the women, he abruptly spins on his heel and walks toward the gate guarding the compound, waving for the others to join him. They do, thought not without a lot of grumbling and threats muttered beneath their breaths. Finally, the street is empty save for the slowly rotting corpses and the three who stand in the midst of the carnage.
"Well?" the man asks, careful not to move so much as a muscle lest he join the rest of these infidels in their eternal damnation. "What are you gonna do now?"
"We’re goin’ for a little walk," Koda growls into his ear, wrapping her free hand around his neck and pulling backwards. Given the choice between strangulation and having his brains blown out, the man wisely decides to get his legs in motion. Kirsten silently follows, also walking backward as she eyes the murderous glares being thrown her way by the group now safely behind the compound fence.
A mile or so down the road, Dakota finally stops and pushes the man against the tree with a spine-rattling thump. "We’ll be coming back this way, maggot, and when we do, your little wacked out religious commune had better be gone."
"Or what?!" he shoots back defiantly.
The smile he receives would have looked perfectly at home on a shark. "Trust me, little man," Koda replies, patting his furred chest, "you really don’t wanna go there."
"I don’t trust no women," he spits, narrowly missing Dakota’s face. "Especially dirty, heathen squaws." He looks past Dakota, leering. "And their pretty little play toys. How ‘bout it, squaw-lover? You like what this Injun does to you? You make me sick, defiling your race with this dirty, stinking…."
"That’s quite enough out of you, little man," Koda replies smoothly, pulling him up by his matted chest hair.
"Or what?!" he gasps around the pain she’s causing.
Dakota’s right fist lands squarely on his chin. His eyes roll up until only the whites are seen as his knees buckle, dumping him to the ground, out for the count.
"Damn," Kirsten mutters.
"I wanted to do that."
"I’ll let you have the next one, alright?"
Darkness has fallen when Dakota finally leans back against a fallen log, looking over their weaponry by the light of a small, smokeless fire. It’s a meager lot—a few hand grenades, six guns with five boxes of mixed ammunition, assorted knives, and a bow and arrows. Barely enough, she thinks wryly, to knock off a bank, nevermind trying to storm a well-guarded compound. With a soft sigh, she glances over at the closed tent where Kirsten has ensconced herself almost from the moment they had set it up. The young scientist had been unusually quiet since they left the religious killing ground behind; no amount of small talk had been able to spring her loose from whatever dark hell she’d gone into and, after a few failed gambits, Koda decided to give her what she most seemed to need: space.
"Guess it’s just us tonight, guys," she murmurs to the dog lolling by the fire and the hawk perched comfortably on her shoulder. "I hope you have full bellies, cause I’m not in the mood to cook anything." Asi and Wiyo don’t appear to be worried overmuch by the statement and, with another sigh, Koda picks up a cloth and oil and begins cleaning their tiny arsenal.
In less than an hour, she’s finished and the small stash of weapons gleams mellowly up at her by the light of the small fire. With a quick shake of her head, as if flinging off unwanted thoughts, she carefully repacks the weapons and ammunition into the bag she’d appropriated for this purpose. Once the bag is packed safely away, she pulls another one free, opening it and dumping out two battered cups and two cloth-wrapped bundles of tea-leaves. Kirsten prefers her tea with a bit less bite, and so Koda has taken to keeping their stashes separate. Taking the small pot from its place on the rocks next to the fire, she pours water over the leaves, then sits back, crossing her long legs and stretching her arms out over the log-cum-backrest as the tea steeps.
Her sharp hearing takes in the sounds surrounding her, knowing she’ll never tire of nature’s music even if she lives to be a hundred and ten. Crickets chirp out the temperature from their hidden beds. Nearby, a shrew scuttles for food, emitting a high-pitched squeak of alarm as the triumphant cry of an owl sounds overhead. Hearing the cry, Wiyo lifts her head from its nest under her wing, sharp eyes scanning the sky before dismissing the threat and tucking her head back down. Asi continues to do his impersonation of a dead cockroach, four paws splayed and all.
With a small chuckle, Koda sits up, grabs another smallish sack and pulls out part of a honeycomb, which she dunks in Kirsten’s hot, steeped tea. She still bears the marks of the bees as they expressed their displeasure in disturbing their hive—part of her is quite convinced that it is a sign from her mother—whose name, in English, is Bee—about what she might expect arriving on the doorstep, a very white, very blonde, very WASPy Kirsten King in tow.
"You’ll just have to deal with it, Ina," she grumbles, stirring the tea with the melting bit of honey until it is all dissolved. Taking the two mugs, she rises gracefully to her feet and looks down at her two friends. "Be good tonight, you hear me? No running off on badgers, wolverines, squirrels, pheasants, or anything else that strikes your predatory little fancy. Got me?"
Asi rolls his eyes and groans before flopping on his belly and putting his snout on his oversized paws, giving her a look that would have shamed any other human. Dakota simply grins and turns to her feathered companion, who is so unimpressed by the speech that she hasn’t even deigned to remove her head from its warm nest beneath her wing. "Alright, then. Sleep well, both of you, and we’ll see you in the morning."
Stopping just inside of the tent-flap, Koda straightens to her full height and stands motionless, content to simply take in the sight of her beloved who is currently scowling at something displayed on her laptop monitor as her fingers dance over the keys. With a soft sigh of frustration, Kirsten yanks off her glasses, then rubs her free hand over her face, muttering incoherently to herself. Dakota catches a few choice epithets and bites the inside of her lip to keep from giving vent to the grin she can feel tugging at her lips and cheeks. Crossing the small space silently, she eases in beside her lover and hands down one of the steaming mugs. "Thought you could use some of this," she says, her voice a low, rumbling purr deep in her chest.
Kirsten’s delighter smile is the shaft of sunlight that breaks through a thick scud of stormy black clouds at sunset. Koda can’t help but respond with a quirky grin of her own. "Looks like you’re really burning the midnight oil here, Ms. President." She glances over at the glowing kerosene lamp hanging from the tent pole. "Literally."
Mug cupped in her hands, Kirsten takes a healthy sip, humming with pleasure as the sweetened liquid slides down her dry, scratchy throat. "Mm," she says finally, voice slightly hoarse from hours of disuse, "just what the doctor ordered."
"The doctor has a couple of other things in mind as well," Koda purrs, coming behind her lover and lowering her long frame until she sits against the back tent wall. Kirsten, facing front, is comfortably ensconced between her legs. Setting her tea to one side, Dakota lifts the hair from Kirsten’s neck and brushes moist lips against the skin so pleasingly exposed to her view.
"Oh, yes," Kirsten groans, arching her neck into Dakota’s attentions. Goosebumps break out along her arms and chest as she feels the tip of her lover’s tongue trace upward along the muscle there. Heat curls in her belly as the shell of her ear is teasingly outlined, then gently bitten. That heat is trebled as Koda runs her left hand slowly down the front of Kirsten’s T-shirt, then tucks under and comes back up, laying her palm flat against the newly burgeoning muscles of Kirsten’s abdomen, long fingers brushing against the undersides of her breasts, then lazily circling responsive nipples. "Very nice," Kirsten whispers as fire races its merry way along her nerve endings, completely obliterating the pounding headache she’d been suffering through not a moment before. "I…"she gasps as her nipples are gently tweaked, "love your prescriptions, Doctor."
"Mm," Koda growls, slipping her free hand into the waistband of Kirsten’s cargo shorts. "I think you’ll like this one even better."
Their tea, lovingly prepared, grows slowly cold.
Several hours later, Dakota returns to the tent, new mugs of tea in tow. From her place sprawled across their joined sleeping bag, Kirsten grins up at her tall lover, taking in Koda’s state of dishevelment with a sense of giddy pleasure. Her hair, normally immaculate, is wild and her T-shirt, the only article of clothing she’s wearing, is both inside out and backward. An arrogantly raised eyebrow is the response to her giggle. Quickly rolling herself up to a sitting position, she reaches out to grab the tea mug thrust in her direction. She sips her drink as she watches Dakota remove her shirt and toss it indifferently away, almost giving her lungs an impromptu shower as she watches that magnificent body revealed once again.
"You okay?" Koda asks, lowering herself to sit crosslegged on the sleeping bag and cradling her own mug in her large hands.
"Uh…yeah. Good tea."
"Secret family recipe," Dakota replies, smirking.
"Mm. It appears," Kirsten retorts, giving her lover’s bee-stung hands a significant look, "your ‘secret family’ didn’t appreciate their hive being raided."
Koda shrugs, unrepentant. "I’ve had worse."
"I’m sure you have." She lifts the mug in tribute. "Thank you."
"My pleasure. So…what were you scowling about earlier?" She gestures to the laptop which is currently displaying a colorful aquarium scene.
The question earns another scowl as Kirsten uses her free hand to nudge the touchplate on the computer, erasing the screensaver and replacing it with sets of lines that look very much like…
"Blueprints?" Koda asks, impressed.
"Yeah. Westerhaus’ offices. For whatever good it’ll do us."
"How did you get a hold of them? Your other computer was trashed, wasn’t it?"
"Wasn’t that hard," Kirsten replies offhandedly. "The idiot hasn’t shut his servers down, and since I’ve been known to hack into a box or two in my time…." Though her words bespeak pride, the expression on her face is anything but. She sighs, staring at the diagrams on the screen. "This isn’t going to be easy."
"Have you been there before?"
"Once, yeah. Publicity tour, all the way. Shiny happy people building shiny happy robots using shiny happy equipment. It was like touring the PJ factory in Paterson. I needed a Dramamine just to make it through the presentation."
"I take it you weren’t impressed."
Kirsten barks out a laugh. "That would be putting it mildly, yes." She lifts a hand, pointing to the screen. "These are the specs for the first floor, the only place anyone who isn’t in Westerhaus’ back pocket gets to see. The real work goes on below ground."
"How many levels?"
"Eight," Kirsten replies, flipping rapidly through the sets of prints. "Computer central is on six. The juice that one floor alone pulls in one day would light up San Francisco for a year."
"How is it protected?"
"Doors every ten feet. Solid steel. Cameras every couple of feet. He has a security force of two hundred androids and a few dozen worker bees just staring at the video. The only way through is to be cleared by a visual, retinal and DNA scan."
"Doesn’t pull any punches, does he."
"Not even in his dreams." She turns slowly to her lover. "Dakota, there’s no way in Hell we’re gonna make it through all that."
"We’ll find a way."
"These blueprints are a start."
Dakota bolts upright from her place on the makeshift bed. Her heart is racing to beat Wiyo, and her bare flesh is greasy with sweat. Breath leaves her lungs in steam-engine puffs as she raises a less than steady hand to her brow, wanting to wipe away images far too realistic for a simple nighttime dream. Steadying her breath and willing her heart-rate to calm, she turns her head slightly to see Kirsten curled beside her, still deeply asleep. Her hand is more steady now as she lowers it to stroke a wisp of tousled bang from her lover’s forehead. Her thumb lingers, tracing the unlined, warm, and silken skin with a light, tender touch. Dawn’s light has touched the tent’s interior, and in it, she looks at Kirsten, memorizing her features; the beauty of her golden hair, the innocence of her sleeping face, the newly-born muscles that curve and stretch the soft, tanned skin.
Lowering herself slowly, silently, she brushes a kiss against her lover’s lips, then pulls away, wiping a single tear that trails down her cheek. "Cante mitawa," she whispers. "My heart. I love you. Never forget that. Never."
And that, dear reader, is the end of this evening’s episode of The Growing. For the next two weeks, we’re going to be doing something a little bit different. Not much, but a little. See, we’re a couple of paragraphs away from putting "The End" on this story, so the next two updates will be long ones, since they’re so full of action that there’s no real good place to cut them down into "episode-sized bits", as it were. Next week’s episode will be around thirty or so pages, and the conclusion will be around that as well, give or take a few.
Thanks to those of you who stuck with us so far, and to all, it’d probably be best to fasten those seatbelts, cause the ride just got bumpier. <weg> firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 62
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