Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha Directed by: TNovan
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
Because of the long break between episodes, these are the events that transpired at the end of Chapter Seven:
After a seeming eternity, her bladder is finally emptied and Kirsten yanks her jeans back up over flesh as warm and as feeling as the inside of a metal freezer door. Taking several careful and agonizing steps away from her midden, she stoops on frozen knees, scoops up a handful of snow, and shoves it into her mouth, sucking and chewing as fast as she is able.
A brilliant spike of pain knifes into her brain, almost toppling her to the ground, but she continues feeding the snow into her mouth, her body desperate for the moisture it offers.
Then she freezes as her implants detect a sound almost directly in front of her.
Just as she shuts the door behind her , Dakota senses something and looks to her left. There, crouched against the building, is a figure. It is short and female-shaped, with pale hair that falls over a high forehead. Moonlight glints off the dark optics and titanium throat-band of an android.
"Bastard!" Koda spits, and raises her gun to fire, setting the sight just between those wide, limpid eyes.
And now, Chapter Eight of The Growing.
"Run run run run run away."
Perhaps it is the way those dark eyes widen at the sight of heróan action quite "undroid" like. Or perhaps it is a sense of familiarity that steals over her senses and makes her hesitate. Whatever the reason, the hesitation costs her dearly as something heavy and blunt connects with the junction of her neck and shoulder, paralyzing her arm and dropping her into the snow as if pole axed.
She fights to keep her eyes open, needing to meet her death head on.
The droid, male this time, looks down at her, its eyes doll-like and expressionless. With a smooth economy of motion, it lifts the uzi itís holding and points it directly between her own eyes.
The voice is female, that much she can tell, but whether issued through living or manufactured vocal cords is another question entirely. One sheís amazed that she even has time to contemplate. The gunís muzzle never wavers, but the finger doesnít tighten on the trigger either, and Koda lets out a small breath, not daring to drag her eyes away from her imminent demise.
Kirsten strides purposefully across the short span separating herself from the action. Simple deduction tells her that the fallen figure is human. It is the only reason the android would have attacked, after all. Reaching them both, she stops and looks down just as the moon sails from behind a lowering cloud.
Pale blue eyes look back at her, and she freezes for a moment as a queer sense of déjà vu settles over her.
Forcing herself to look away, she meets the dispassionate gaze of the android and says the first thing that comes to mind. "Human female."
Taking another look, the android nods in a very human gesture of acknowledgement. "It will be of use to us."
As the droid bends at the waist, preparing to lift the woman, Kirsten again stops it. "I will take this one to the facility. There may be others. She entered from that direction."
After the android is swallowed by the blackness, Kirsten lowers herself into a painful crouch, staring down at the woman in the snow. "Are you crazy?" she hisses. "This place is crawling with androids! What were you thinking?"
Glittering, too-familiar eyes center themselves on her neck, and Kirsten feels an unaccountable blush warm her frozen cheeks. "Iím human," she whispers, her hand drifting up of its own accord to brush against the droid collar at her throat.
"Seems Iím not the only crazy one, then."
The voice is low and melodious, and it hums pleasantly in Kirstenís ears. Her sensitive hearing picks up another sound, and she reaches out, clamping down onto an arm. "Hurry, theyíre coming back. We need to get you inside. Iíll figure out what to do with you after weíre there."
"No time," Koda replies, shaking off the arm and rolling to her feet. "We need to get out of here. Now."
Dark eyes widen in amazement. "You are crazy. Do you have any idea that youíre in the middle of one of the largest android factories in the world?"
"Itís also gonna be one of the flattest android factories in the world in about eight minutes. We need to move."
Kirsten freezes. A feeling very akin to dread pours into her belly. "What? What are you saying?"
Dakota sighs, impatient. "Look, thereís a squadron of F-18ís headed up here from Ellsworth to turn this place into a smoking crater."
"Military! Youíre with the Army?!?"
"Great! Do you have any idea what youíve just done?? Jesus Christ!"
"Listen, I donít make the orders here. I justÖ"
Once again her words are cut off by an irate Kirsten. "Of all the stupidÖ.Jesus! Iíve got to get back inside before itís too late!"
She makes ready to run back into the building, only to be halted in her tracks by a very strong hand clamped around her bicep. "You donít understand. Itís already too late."
Kirsten whirls around, eyes blazing behind her contacts. "Youíre the one who doesnít understand! Your damn planes are going to ruin everything!"
"Theyíre not myódamnit!" Dakota runs after the woman who has so adroitly slipped her grip. Her long legs easily eat up the distance between them, and she lowers a hard hand onto the fleeing womanís shoulder. "Wait a minute! Please!"
They both stop as both heads cock in identical listening postures.
"Theyíre early," Dakota softly intones, her eyes searching the as yet empty sky.
"No!" Kirsten shouts, once again shaking off Kodaís strong grip. "I need toÖ."
"You need to go!" Koda replies, grabbing her again. "Now!" Spinning, she all but tosses the woman back the way theyíve come, then sprints after her, gun at the ready. "Donít stop! Keep moving!" Her voice is raised in a shout to be heard over the ever increasing roar of the planes.
Kirsten stumbles and only avoids making a snow angel by the strong grip to the back of her sweater which tears the fabric and almost lifts her off of her feet. "Keep running! Go! Go! Go!"
The door looms in front of her, growing larger with every step she takes. She nearly screams as something that can only be a bullet whines past her ear close enough to make her hair flutter. Then she finds herself face first in the snow as bullets erupt from everywhere at once.
Hearing the firestorm, Andrews flings open the door and rushes out, followed by his compatriots. Bracketing Dakota on either side, they empty their weapons into the darkness as the roar of the planes becomes almost overwhelming.
"We need to leave now, Maíam!" Andrews shouts over the din.
Koda nods to signal her understanding, and, with a final burst of gunfire, turns and heads for the door, the others in tow.
Kirsten turns herself over in the snow just in time to see the barrel of a gun shoved in her face by a very angry looking woman.
"No!" Koda shouts, knocking Johnsonís weapon away just in time. The bullet pierces the ground not more than a foot to the left of Kirstenís arm. "Sheís human!"
Johnson looks stunned, then pales as she realizes what she almost did. Koda shoves her in the direction of the door, then grabs Kirsten and hauls her to her feet. "Move! Now!!"
They can hear the planes directly overhead as they dart into the darkness of the underground tunnel.
The first of the bombs hit as the group thunders down the stairs and into the crew quarters. The entire underground structure shakes and men and women are thrown into walls and over tables as they struggle to move away from the conflagration overhead. Kirstenís knees buckle, but the arm around her waist keeps her from falling. It is all she can do just to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Soaked, freezing, numb and dizzy, survival is the only thing that matters.
The anger will return later, and when it does, Kirsten will give these people a little King-sized conflagration of her own.
Through the swaying bridge and into the crewís quarters they run, resisting the instinctive urge to duck and cover as gigantic explosion after gigantic explosion shudders the underground complex. Itís like being inside of an earthquake.
Kirsten trips going up the first set of stairs. Her weak and numb legs simply do not have the feeling or the strength left to do the job. Instead of falling, however, she is borne up with the tide of bodies running for their lives.
Shooting out of the crew quarters, the group runs into the tunnel and its swaying, never-ending bridge.
Then falls the most titanic explosion yet, seemingly directly overhead. Trapped on the bridge, the group collapses to their knees, grabbing the struts for dear life as it sways alarmingly. A series of massive explosions follow like the finale of a fireworks show. With each concussion, the bridge swings more violently until it is almost sideways. Her half-frozen hands useless, Kirsten wraps both arms around the center strut, placing her face against the icy metal, and holds with all her will.
Ramirez, a young airman, shouts as he is toppled over the guardrail. Dakota and Andrews both manage to snag the young man before he plummets to what likely would be his death.
His fear sweat provides a greasy grip and Koda feels her hand slipping. The bridge rocks again and Andrews loses his grip on the young man, who screams loud and long.
"Goddamnit, Ramirez! Stop kicking!!!" With a grunt, Koda readjusts her grip and manages to keep hold of the panicking airman. "Andrews! Get back up here and give me some help!"
Stumbling to his feet, Andrews manages to shoot an arm out just as another bomb falls and rocks the bridge. "Fuck! Iím losing him! Iím losing him!"
"On three! Pull! One, two, three, NOW!"
With the last of their strength, Koda and Andrews yank Ramirez up and over the guardrails. The young man grunts as he lands on his back, driving the breath from his lungs. Bending over, Andrews grabs the man by the front of his jumpsuit and hauls him to his feet. "Now move! Move!!"
Kirsten feels hands on her arms, and she looks up into concerned blue eyes. Her implants are ringing so loudly that she canít hear what the tall woman is trying to say to her. Even lip-reading is out of the question as the bridge continues to rock back and forth at an alarming rate. She feels her death grip on the strut loosened, and a second later, sheís pulled back to her feet and herded through the tunnel like a steer to market.
Finally outside the interminable tunnel, she sees, for the first time, the objects sharing this underground bunker with her. Long and sleek, they are earthís total destruction in fragile metal shells.
Her eyes go wide with shock, and the anger, so much a part of her anymore, comes roaring back. She turns to the woman behind her, lips spread in a snarl. Though she canít even hear the sound of her own voice, sheís sure itís loud enough to be heard on the moon.
"A nuclear missile silo?!? You brought us into a nuclear missile silo with half the worldís bombs dropping on our heads?!?!?"
"Keep moving!" Koda orders, punctuating her shout with a shove to Kirstenís back which starts her legs moving again.
Another set of steps rises up seemingly to the heavens and, once again, Kristen allows herself to surge along with the tide of humanity. Anything to escape the deathtrap she finds herself in. Even being in a factory full of androids hadnít scared her this badly.
Up ahead, like a beacon of hope, an open door stands, letting in the meager light of a newly dawned day. Kirsten feels the strength surging into limbs made dead by the cold, and she pushes for the door and freedom.
Suddenly, the light is cut off as the door slams closed, plunging them into darkness once again. A hail goes down the line. "Whatís happening?" "Whatís going on?" "Hey! Who turned out the lights?"
"Firefight," Johnson replies, leaning against the now closed door and breathing heavily. "There must be a hundred of Ďem out there!"
Dakota pushes her way to the front of the group. Andrews follows on her heels like a well trained puppy. A quick nod is exchanged before Koda grabs the handle and yanks back hard. The sound of gunfire being exchanged is almost inconsequential compared to what theyíve just been throughósmall, like the pop-pop-pop of a Daisy air rifle shooting at tin cans in a summer hay field.
Johnson wasnít far off in her assessment. Dakota eyeballs at least one hundred armed androids firing at her handful of soldiers hunkered down behind a small cement abutment. There is a football-field sized span of distance between the bunker door and the beleaguered squad.
Andrews looks up at her, a question in his eyes. The weight of an unasked for command sits heavy on her shoulders once againóan unwelcome guest with no plans of leaving. Her quick mind sorts through and discards several possible scenarios. Suddenly, she smiles and Andrewsí eyes bug nearly out of his head. "Maíam?"
A slow smile spreads across his face as he hears a telltale whut-whut-whut-whut-whut-whut.
The smile morphs into an outright grin as a squadron of BlackHawk attack helicopters come over the rise like a swarm of black, terminally pissed-off wasps. Fire spits from their gunports and droids scatter like autumn leaves in the snow. Line after line of androids fall, blown to bits by the awesome firepower of the flying destroyers.
The small group trapped behind the abutment cheers as the BlackHawks destroy the final androids, and set down in a clear patch of snow. Their rotors still turn at a brisk clip as the pilots jump down and stride over to the group.
One in particular is very familiar, and as he spots Koda, he gives a big, boyish grin and changes his steps to head in her direction.
"Move out, everyone!" Dakota orders, then steps aside as grateful men and women push past her and into the fresh, open air of a new day.
"Didnít think Iíd let you have all the fun, did ya cuz," Manny grins, wrapping Koda in a tight embrace.
"Youíre a sight for sore eyes, Manny, Iíll give you that." Pulling away, she notices her charge leaning heavily against the door. Wet and shivering, Kirsten looks the picture of misery itself and Koda immediately removes her jacket and walks back to her. "Here." Easing the young woman away from the door, she slips the large coat around her shoulders and pulls it close around the neck. She notices Mannyís stunned look from the corner of her eye, and turns to face him directly. "Sheís one of us."
"Dayum. Good costume!"
Kirsten gives a short nod, too miserable to do anything else at the moment.
From several feet away, a commotion springs up, and before Koda can turn, a black and silver blur bolts past her and drives Kirsten back down into the snow.
"Shit!" Manny yells, reaching for his gun.
"Wait." Dakota narrows her eyes, then relaxes as she recognizes the dogís posture. The big dog is all squiggles as he greets his mistress with mighty kisses and soft whimpers. Grabbing him by his heavy ruff, she pulls him back and looks down into the young womanís slobber covered face. A slight smirk curls her lip. "Friend of yours?"
"Asimov! M-my dog! Where did you find him?"
"Long story," Koda replies, reaching down and helping the woman to her feet. "Címon, letís get you back to the base and into something warm and dry, alright?"
Kirstenís smile is anything but pleasant. "Lead the way."
After doing an amazing rendition of a mule refusing to follow the carrot, Kirsten manages to convince Manny to set the helicopter down just away from her dilapidated van. The area is swarming with droids drawn to the copter, but the closest is still a good distance away. Koda hops out after Kirsten and pins her cousin with a look. "Get ready to get this beast off the ground in a split second, got me? Even if you have to leave us behind."
"Canít promise that, cuz. You just be careful. Iíll be waiting."
Shaking her head, Dakota trots off after her charge, gun at the ready.
Already at the van, Kirsten yanks the doors open and dives inside, blindly searching for what she needs. Her spare laptop is pulled out first, followed by her eyeglass case, which she slips into one of the myriad of roomy pockets of her borrowed jacket. Her burning, stinging eyes remind her that her contacts are still in place, and with a quick blink, she removes them and tosses them back into their saline bed. The earbud follows.
Before she can reach for the sack containing whatís left of her clothes, she hears a low voice through the ringing still in her ears.
"Itís time to move. Come on."
Though the voice is perfectly calm, conversational almost, Kirsten can easily detect the subtle undercurrent of urgency, like the hint of oak in a fine white wine. She responds without thinking, backing out of the truck until she is once again standing in knee-deep snow.
"Move. Now. Donít stop until youíre in the helicopter."
She can hear them now, all around, offering no attempt at stealth. Her pulse quickens and her legs move into a trot, and then an all-out sprint before sheís even aware sheís running.
Manny is leaning out the side of the helicopter, his SA58 Mini FAL laying down bursts of covering fire. Stopping for a split-second, he reaches out and pulls Kirsten inside before returning to his task, covering his sprinting cousin.
Leaping, Koda dives head first into the chopper, tosses down her spent Uzi, and grabs Mannyís weapon, firing into the thick brush that surrounds the van as Manny jumps into the pilotís seat and wrestles the BlackHawk skyward. The androids break out of cover by the dozens, all firing their weapons at the swiftly rising chopper. It is only Mannyís excellent skill that keeps them alive and one piece as he dips and dodges in an aerial ballet worthy of Baryshnikov.
Once theyíre fully airborne and away from the androidsí deadly menace, only then does Koda allow a small, silent sigh of relief escape from between her lips.
The rest of the trip is made in complete silence.
Kirsten jumps from the helicopter before it has even fully touched down, her laptop swinging by her side with each step she takes. Asimov, hackles raised by his mistressí obvious anger, follows along directly at her heel.
Manny makes as if to take off after the strange, though admittedly attractive, woman, but is stopped by a hand on his shoulder. Looking up at his cousin in question, he notices a familiar little twinkle in her eyesóthe same twinkle sheíd sport when they were kids, daring him to go on an adventure he knew heíd get his hide tanned for. Heíd never been able to resist it then, and becoming an adult hasnít changed that any.
Relaxing, he follows her lead as they make their way through the knots of soldiers and civilians toward a large, empty hangar.
Kirsten bulls her way through the same throng, her eyes fixed steadily on one person alone. Sebastian Hart, obviously the commander of this base, stands in the middle of a crowd, towering above them all. His uniform is immaculately pressed; the brass polished to a blinding shine. His smile is part politician, part kindly grandfather, and all fake.
Sheís met him before, at one or another of the myriad of insufferable cabinet meetings sheíd been forced to attend as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Robotics, Bionics and Android Sciences. To her, he was just another military blowhard, willing to do anything with anyone just to get the funding he desired. She trusted him and his cohorts about as far as she could throw a tank.
As she continues to push through a crowd filled with happy pilots celebrating their successful mission, a small part of her recognizes that what she is about to do will likely significantly dampen ebullient spirits. Happiness is an emotion hard to come by lately, and part of her is loathe to put an end to it. Her fatherís voice, as it often does now, soothes into her mind, reminding her that winning small battles is nothing if the war itself is lost. And it is that which spurs her on until she is standing in front of the General, eyes flashing.
The general looks down at the small, bedraggled woman standing before him. "Yes?"
The smack of palm against flesh is loud in the suddenly silent square. Blinking owlishly, Hart lifts a hand to his lips. It comes away tinged with blood. Asimov growls low in his throat, a warning to the soldiers who are staring at Kirsten as if at a viper poised to strike.
"Do you have any idea what youíve just done?"
Silence answers her.
"You donít recognize me, do you."
After a moment, horrified comprehension dawns, and the general pales as his eyes widen still further. "M-Madame Chairman!"
A murmur goes through the crowd.
Kirsten smiles. Itís not a very pleasant one.
"Iím curious, General. Did you check to see if there were any human beings left alive in Minot before you decided to blow the base to kingdom come?"
Hartís face reddens. "Impossible," he declares flatly. "Minot was an android factory. They would have left no one alive."
"Mm. That sure, were you? Were you even aware that there were at least a dozen of your own soldiers on that base when you sent those planes up?"
"They were ordered to turn back!"
"And if they refused to obey your orders because, unlike you, they werenít positive that everyone was dead?"
"Oh, very possible, General. I was on that base when you sent your planes in, General Hart. And I would have been blown to bits if your soldiers hadnít risked their own lives rescuing me."
The redness drains from the manís face like water through sand. His normally ruddy cheeks turn a color best suited to curdling milk and his Adams Apple bobs as he takes a hard swallow. "IódidnítÖ ."
Kirsten smiles again. "But thatís not even the worst part," she continues in a conversational tone. "Do you want to guess what the worst part is, General?"
Hart slowly shakes his head.
"The worst part is that in your zeal to destroy a couple of thousand androids, you also destroyed what might have been our only hope to deactivate the several million still left." She pauses a moment, watching as he lifts a slightly shaking hand to his brow. "The deactivation codes were in the computers on that base, General Hart. Computers which are now in billions of tiny little pieces so small that not all the Generalís horses nor the Generalís men will ever have the hope of putting back together again."
"No, you didnít did you. You might want to start trying to in the future."
And with that, Kirsten turns and walks away, leaving the stunned crowd behind.
Manny looks up at his cousin, an almost awed smile on his face. "Wow."
Koda chuckles in agreement.
"I thought I recognized her. Kirsten King, isnít it? The robotics guru?" At Kodaís nod, he continues. "Sure looks different without those damned contacts in, thatís for sure." Then he grins. "The Colonelís gonna prang when she finds out the good Doctorís here. They think the same way about those metalheads." He scratches his head. "Too bad sheís not here."
"Where is she?" Koda asks, surprised.
"Got called out to escort some civvies in. A couple of them were hurt, from what we heard. She should be back this evening some time."
Both look on as Kirsten exits the hangar, the crowd easily parting before her as if she bears the Staff of Moses. Koda eyes her cousin. "Looks like Iím pulling some escort duty of my own. Catch you later, huh?"
"Iím headed for the mess. Stop by if youíve got time later."
Kirsten stops and whirls, fully prepared to confront this latest interruption of her royal blue funk. She hesitates as she realizes the intruder is the woman who saved her several times already this day. If for no other reason than that, she swallows her temper and even manages to try a smile out for size.
It fits rather poorly.
"YesÖ." Kirsten pauses, looking at the insignia on the uniform covering the womanís rather well-maintained form. "ÖLieutenant?"
Koda gives an easy grin. "Just Dakota, or Koda if you prefer. Iím a Vet."
"Ex-lieutenant, then," Kirsten replies, smirking.
Koda rolls her eyes. "A Vet as in Veterinarian. Iím not military, ex or otherwise."
Kirstenís eyebrows climb into her hairline. "Youíre a civilian? Then howÖwhyÖ?"
Koda sobers. "Letís just say it was something I had to do." She looks the smaller woman over carefully, a frown creasing her striking features. "I think maybe a trip to the hospital would be in order. Weíve got a good one on base here and youíve been out in sub-optimal conditions without adequate clothing for far too long."
This smile is more genuine, though sorrowfully brief. "You have a gift for understatement."
"So Iíve been told," Koda replies in kind.
"Well, I thank you for your generous offer, but Iíll pass right now. My chest is clear and Iím regaining feeling in my limbs, so I think Iím alright for now."
"Well, then, how about if I get you to a place where you can dry off and warm up?"
Kirsten eyes the tall Vet carefully, her ingrained distrust once again springing to the fore. For Christís sweet sake, K, a small corner of her mind clamors, this woman just saved your life, almost at the cost of her own. I really think you can trust her, donít you?
Itís a bit of a struggle, but she finally gives in to that insistent inner voice and manages a nod at her benefactor. "Thatís an offer Iíll be happy to accept."
"Good," Koda replies, smiling. "If youíll follow me?"
Kirsten steps into the small, but cozy, house with a sigh of profound relief. Warmth from the heater immediately seeps into limbs just now waking from their frozen sleep. The tingling starts immediately, and she knows that knifing pain is soon to follow, but she keeps her reactions pushed down deep inside, as is her custom when in the presence of others.
Dakota disappears for a moment, returning with a neat stack of dry clothing in her hands. "Bathroomís right behind that door there," she gestures as she transfers the small bundle to Kirstenís arms. "Fresh towels are in the closet, and the shower should even have some hot water left, if youíre so inclined."
Dakota turns away before Kirsten can say a word, and disappears back into what Kirsten can see from her current vantage point is the bedroom. The door closes softly, leaving Kirsten alone in the short hallway, clothes in her hands and a perplexed look on her face. After a moment, she shrugs and heads into the bathroom.
After so long doing without, the shower is simply much too large a temptation to resist. Turning on the Ďhotí tap to full blast, she sheds her sodden garments as a warm fog rolls out from the shower to fill the small, tiled room. Adding a little cold to the mix, she turns on the shower itself and steps inside.
The first touch of water on her skin is an almost religious experienceópleasure wrapped around pain wrapped around a feeling of relief so muscle-jarring that her head spins. Bracing herself against the cool tiled wall, she waits for the feeling to pass before grabbing the bar of soap and lathering up. Days of dirt and sweat swirl down the drain, and she wonders for a moment if her anger, and her fear, and every other negative emotion sheís currently harboring as tightly as a miser to his cash, will so be so easily washed away.
It is only when the water starts to go tepid that she drags her wearyóyet blessedly cleanóbody from the shower. The towel is soft and gentle on her skin, and the clothes she slips into, though a bit large, bring with them a comfort of their own simply by being dry.
A quick drag of a comb through her hair, and she leaves the warm, moist haven of the bathroom for the house beyond.
Koda smiles up at her from her place on the tatty couch. Dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans and a simple white T-shirt, she displays a body that, to Kirstenís scientific eye, is as close to perfection as sheís ever seen. She pauses a moment, wondering at her bodyís response to the picture presented, then shoves the thought down with the rest of them, to be explored at a later time.
For the first time in a very long time, she feels that there may actually be a later.
Noticing the odd look directed her way, she summons up a smile in response and continues into the living room, where her meager stockpile of belongings has been carefully set on the coffee table.
"Much, thank you."
"Good." Dakota once again looks over the young scientist, taking in the bloom of roses on her cheeks and eyes which, if not exactly sparkling with good humor, have at least lost their haunted dullness. Still, exhaustion has drawn dark, sooty smudges beneath each eye, and Koda spends a moment wondering when it was that she last slept. "Youíre probably tired. Youíre welcome to the bed, if youíd like."
"NoÖ.thank you, but I need to figure out if I was able to salvage anything from Minotís computers." She pulls the two chips from a pocket in the soft sweatpants sheís been given to wear. "I took these with me when I went outside." Replacing the chips, she picks up her backup laptop and looks to Koda. "Hopefully theyíve got something on them I can use."
"Thereís an office right next to the bathroom, there. It doesnít have much in it, but youíre welcome to whateverís there."
"Not a problem." Dakota rises to her full height, stretching slightly to work out the kinks in a back much abused this day. "Iím headed for the mess. If youíre hungry, I could bring some back for you. Itís military food, but itís edible."
Kirsten nod, wondering at the simple, unaffected kindness of this stranger. In her world, offers are made with the expectation of gain. Nothing is for free, and each act of faux-kindness is greed dressed in sheepís clothing. "Thank you. IÖthank you."
A casual grin leaves Kirsten feeling dazzled. A moment later, Dakota is gone.
Left alone, Kirsten blinks twice to clear her head, and, with a deep sigh, turns and enters the small office. Setting her laptop on the desk, she sinks into a chair that is a little rickety, but serviceable. She rubs her head as her ears continue to ring from the bombs dropped earlier. It is an unfortunate side-effect of her implants, and one she wishes she knew how to correct. For now, she does the only thing she knows will help. Reaching up with both hands, she touches a spot behind her ears, and the world falls away to wondrous silence.
She then boots up her laptop, inserts the chips, and is soon lost in the world of streaming data.
"Yo, cuz, I know youíre hungry, but manÖeating for two?"
Koda shoots Manny a look over her shoulder and continues to scoop unidentifiable, but presumably edible, substances onto two plates. "Iím getting our guest settled."
"Ah, the good doctor. Has she warmed up any?"
Manny laughs softly. "Yeah, sheís a tough nut, that one. And she really hates the press. I remember watching CNN once. Damn, she almost fed a reporter his microphone. Enema style."
"Iíll be sure to remember that the next time I decide to apply for press credentials," is Kodaís dry response.
"Iím warniní ya, cuz. She may be small, but sheís got brass ones."
"IíllÖkeep that in mind."
Manny claps his cousin on the back, grinning. "If youíre not doing anything later, drop by rec. Weíre getting up a dart game, and I feel the need to pull you in for a ringer. Later, alright?"
When Dakota reenters the house, Asi greets her with a soft bark and a furiously wagging tail. Placing the dinner trays on the kitchen table, Koda gives the dog a fond scratch behind the ears before straightening and calling out to Kirsten.
"Guess she fell asleep after all, huh boy?"
Approaching the closed office door, she gives out another soft call, accompanied by a knock. Neither are answered. Turning the knob, she opens the door and enters the room to see Kirsten, quite unexpectedly, wide awake and enraptured by whatever it is that is on her computer screen.
"Dr. King? I have your dinner."
Still no answer.
Dakota watches for a moment, then crosses the room and lays a gentle hand on the scientistís shoulder.
Only to pull back and catch a swinging hand a split second away from clouting her across the face.
"Woah. Iím a friend, remember?"
Stone deaf, Kirsten stares up into impossibly blue eyes, trying to ignore the radiant warmth emanating from the large hand encircling her wrist. Dakotaís lips are moving, but Kirsten canít quite find the wherewithal to decipher what sheís saying.
It is only after the hand releases its grip on her that she is able to gather herself enough to realize what sheís almost done, and why. Flushing, she touches the spots behind her ears, and sounds once again flood into her consciousness.
"You startled me." She winces internally, part of her wishing that those words didnít sound quite as accusatory as they do.
"I apologize for that," Koda replies smoothly. "I didnít realize you had implants."
"Well, itís not exactly something I needed others to know."
Accepting the rather terse answer, Dakota nods, then gestures to the door. "Your dinnerís in the kitchen."
"If you donít mind, Iíll take it in here. Iím in the middle of some things that I donít want to leave."
"No problem. Iíll get it for you and leave you in peace."
Several hours later, Kirstenís body wins the battle itís having with her mind and, with some resentment, she finally shuts down her laptop. Her work thus far has been far less successful than sheíd hoped.
Damn General and his damn bombs. Ten minutes more, an hour at the most, and I would have had those goddamned codes in my hands. Now? Iíll be lucky if I find a goddamned recipe for carrot cake in this goddamned mess.
Heaving a deep sigh, she pushes herself away from the desk and looks through the slats in the blinds covering the officeís only window. Darkness and snow have fallen once again. "Great. Just what the world needs. More snow."
Stretching, she turns from the window and heads for the door, fully intending to take up Dakotaís earlier offer, if that offer is still on the table. Asi greets her as she steps outside, rubbing his face and body along her own as his tail beats a steady tattoo against the wall.
Kirsten looks over at the bedroom door, surprised to find it closed. "Must be later than I thought." Listening, she hears quiet murmurs coming from the room in question, then once again damns the acute sensitivity of her implants as those murmurs resolve themselves into something quite a bit more intimate.
The blush starts from the inside, warming her belly before spreading its way up her neck and face until her ears are burning with heat.
"Címon, Asi," she grunts, walking over to grab her borrowed coat, "a bit of cold air seems about right right now. Letís go for a walk.
Asimov happily follows.
A burst of warm air greets Kirsten as she pushes open the front door of the Colonelís house. The luxury of it almost unsettles her, familiar as she has become with the cold and the near offhand acceptance of her own death. She is not yet quite resigned to life, still less to comfort. Like the restoration of her hearing years ago, this seems more an intrusion than a healing. Something she has never asked for. A prosthesis that does not fit, rubbing insidiously against her accustomed rawness. She feels as she believes some death row inmates must when, at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, the phone call from the governor arrives, granting them a temporary reprieve. When youíve accepted your death, sometimes life doesnít look all that special.
Asi has no such qualms. He shoulders past her, still shedding snow onto the entryway rug, and makes a dash for the warm tiles of the hearth. At least, she thinks sourly, that is where he comes to a sprawling stop. Perhaps it is only coincidence that the Lakota she-giant with the improbable blue eyesófullblood, my ass!ósits on the couch with her outsize boots propped on the hassock, strategically placed to deliver a down and dirty belly rub. As if he is reading her mind, Asi rolls over onto his back with a whine and cocks his head up at the woman, tongue lolling. Rivers laughs, lowers one foot, and commences scratching. Asiís tail thumps.
Sitting beside her is another woman, dressed in flight fatigues and boots, her long, elegant legs crossed before her as she laughs, a low and throaty sound. It seems to Kirsten that the distance between the two women is both entirely decorous and non-existent, as if they have slipped into some Riemannian fold of space-time. Kirstenís own sense of exclusion is almost palpable, an ache she has known and largely ignored since childhood.
Outside looking in. Again.
Deliberately, Kirsten stamps her feet to dislodge the last clinging snow from her boots, rattling the clasps of her jacket as she hangs it on the old-fashioned hall tree. Nice and noisy. Sister Kingís Traveling Resentment and Incoherent Outrage Band, tuning up the drum kit for the concert of the century.
Damn them for snatching her out of the droid factory just as she had come within seconds of having the codes she needed to shut the goddam things down.
Damn them for bombing the droid factory in the first place and sending its codes and programs into a cyber-oblivion of melted fiber optics and fused circuit boards.
Damn them because her dogóher dog, goddammitócanít wait to roll over for that overgrown hyperthyroid bitch in heat.
And damn them for the easy intimacy that is so fucking in-your-face obvious that even she can see it.
"Dr. King? Wonít you join us by the fire?"
The woman rises as Kirsten hesitates in the foyer. Kirsten can see the brass eagles on her lapels; a full Colonel, then. Part of her wants to stamp into the middle of the cozy little scene and haul Asi off to the cramped office where she has been working, space that is at least temporarily hers. Another part simply wants to slink by silently and hope not to be noticed. Neither course is now possible.
"Colonel?" she says, and moves toward the old-fashioned green leather chair that sits at right angles to the couch.
"Maggie Allen," the other woman answers, extending her hand.
Kirsten accepts the handshake with as much grace as she can muster. "Kirsten King. Pleased to meet you, Colonel Allen." Then, with an effort, "Dr. Rivers."
"Evening," says the veterinarian with a wry smile, continuing to scratch Aimovís stomach.
From a tray on the weathered oak chest that serves as a coffee table, Allen pours a cup of steaming liquid and hands it to Kirsten. It is a tea, something herbal, with overtones of apple and citrus. The warmth of the cup against her hands is pure pleasure. "Thanks," she says, because manners dictate that she say something. At her feet, Asimov rolls halfway toward her, whining.
Damn dog wants a goddam harem, she thinks even as she bends to ruffle his ears.
Allen is still standing. Grudgingly, Kirsten takes in her height, the elegant modeling of her head emphasized by her short, natural hair, her long hands unspoiled by rings. The firelight glints off the single ornament she wears, an earcuff in the shape of a bobcat. There is a sense of stillness in her, of sufficiency with not so much as an atomís excess. Unbidden, something of the warmth that drove her out of the house rises again in Kirsten. She feels the blood spread across her cheeks and hopes that the other woman will attribute it to the steaming liquid she holds to her lips. From beneath her lashes she darts a quick glance at Rivers, who seems to be wholly absorbed in her attentions to Asimov.
Oh great. First a spot of voyeurism, and now the Colonelís a turn-on. Kirsten drinks and sets down her cup. "Thanks," she says again. "Thatís good."
Allenís lips curve up slightly at the corners and for a moment she looks distinctly feline. A bobcat perhaps, or a slender cerval cat, and just as enigmatic. She says, "Dr. King, I want to thank you for what you did."
Kirsten gives a dismissive wave of her hand, but the Colonel continues. "No, it needs to be said. Of course weíre all grateful for your courage in infiltrating the droid factory. That will be repeated again and again, and I suggest you get used to it. What Iím personally thankful for is your slugging the General in the chops. If you hadnít, I would have. And Iíd be facing a court martial."
Dakota, who has been giving her entire attention to Asimov, gives a soft snort. Kirsten feels her eyes slide toward the Lakota woman again, taking in the high cheekbones and deep blue eyes, the jeans-clad legs that go on forever. To her chagrin, she also knows that Allen has seen before she can regain control of her face. "I appreciate that, Colonel," she says evenly.
"Iíd have had his hide regardless if any of my people had been harmed," Allen says, the faintest of emphasis on any. "The General didnít just bomb the droid codes into oblivion. He nearly killed a couple dozen of my troops, not to mention the chopper squadron Manny Rivers led into Minot to haul their asses out." The Colonel takes a sip of her own drink and sits down. "Not to mention your own."
"With respect, Colonel Allen, Iíd have been perfectly all right if none of your people had interfered. And Iíd have the codes necessary to disable the droids. Thatís the real cost of your Generalís stupidity, in lives we canít even begin to count."
Abruptly Rivers gets to her feet. "Iím going to bed. Good night, Dr. King." She pauses only to give Asiís belly a final tickle, then crosses the hallway to the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
"I didnít meanó" Kirsten begins.
"To offend? But of course you did, Dr. King." The Colonelís expression does not change, but Kirsten has the distinct sense that the other woman is suppressing laughter. "Still, donít be concerned that youíve chased Dr. Rivers out of the room. Sheís faced"óand the smile does break throughó"considerably worse than yourself. Good night."
Halfway across the room, Allen pauses and turns. "When youíre ready to sleep, blankets are in the hall closet. Iím afraid youíll have to make do with the couch tonight. Weíll try to find better arrangements for you tomorrow."
Kirsten watches as the Colonel disappears into the bedroom. The sound of soft voices comes to her, blurred, though the door. She raises a hand to turn off her implants, but lowers it after a momentís hesitation. She cannot follow the words; it is not as if she is eavesdropping. After a time, the strip of light beneath the door goes dark, and the voices fall silent.
Quietly, Kirsten makes up the couch with a pair of blankets she finds in cabinet and turns out the lights. Asi manages to wedge himself onto the cushions beside her, his great head lowered onto his paws. Kirsten stares past him into the dying embers on the hearth, watching as their red glow fades and turns finally to ash. She has the uncomfortable feeling that something vital is hovering just beyond her understanding. She cannot come at it through reason, try as she will. Over and over she turns the question in her mind, looking for even the slightest intellectual purchase. But the answer lies elsewhere, and she does not know how to approach it.
When only ashes remain on the hearth, she sleeps.
Okay, yeah, we havenít exactly left Koda and Kirsten (Kirsten especially) in a real good place here. But as a wise, leather-attired woman has known to have said once in awhile, "Everything happens for a reason." Kirstenís pretty closed off right now (wouldnít you be?), but that will change in the succeeding episodes. Promise.
On a more serious note, I would like to thank all of you for your warmth and support during my expected/unexpected bout with surgery. I was actually supposed to have had the surgery this past Monday, 3/3, but events conspired to make it rather emergent. So thanks!
If you feel moved to feed us back on what youíve read today, please feel free. email@example.com.
See ya next week! - Continued Chapter 9
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