Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha Directed by: TNovan
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
Dawn slowly makes itself visible through the slats of the blinds as she sits, huddled on the lumpy couch, a cup of slowly chilling coffee in her hands and a threadbare military blanket draped over her shoulders. That the coffee is real, and therefore quite welcome, is of little comfort to her this morning—a morning on which she can count upon the fingers of one hand how many hours of sleep she has gotten, and still have enough fingers left to bowl a strike in any smoky ten-pin alley in town.
Sensitive as always to her moods, Asi whines and lifts his massive head from where it is resting in her lap. His head cocks, his eyes giving forth a look so human and so caring that, for a moment, her chest tightens and her eyes sting. But only for a moment.
Smiling at him to show she is fine, she once again lapses into thoughts that have chased each other round and round like a dog its tail for the better part of eight hours. Thoughts that on the face of things make no sense. Just random snatches of words and images glued together without any order or logic that her scientist’s mind can comprehend, rather like a ransom note made from letters and pictures cut out of ladies’ magazines.
“God, I could use a cigarette right about now.” Her voice, hoarse from exhaustion, nonetheless conveys her sentiment perfectly. Though shut of the addiction for five years now, sometimes the urges come at her like a mugger waiting in a blind alley, and right now the mugger is twelve feet tall. And fanged.
She sits quietly, waiting for it to pass, then wonders why she even bothers fighting it. It’s not as if cigarettes cost anything anymore, and after spending the better part of the last one hundred hours literally staring death in the face, the dangers of smoking have lost, so to speak, their power to scare.
She snorts softly. “Sure. I’ll just go into the commissary or whatever they’re calling it these days, grab a few cartons and smoke myself sick.” Raising her coffee cup, she toasts the morning. “Happy days, huh?”
With a small whine, and a louder groan, Asi heaves himself up off the floor and trots, tail wagging wildly, over to the door of the bedroom. A moment later, the door opens and Koda and Maggie, dressed identically in pristine white jumpsuits, step into the living-room, their shoulders brushing casually together. For reasons she can’t fathom, the sight tugs at Kirsten in a most unpleasant way, and she finds she can breathe more easily only when the Colonel has absented herself from the tableau, moving on into the kitchen while the Lakota woman stays behind to scratch a positively ecstatic Azimov behind the ears.
Kirsten takes in the scene as the noises her dog is emitting sound like something heard on a rent-by-the-hour motel’s coin operated television set, and she can’t help but watch wonderingly as graceful, long fingers magically hit every single perfect spot on her normally standoffish canine companion.
As if sensing the rapt attention, Koda looks up from her pleasurable task, and their eyes meet and lock. Kirsten feels the fiery heat of the blush that crawls upward across her skin; embarrassed at being caught staring, embarrassed at the noises her dog is making, embarrassed, most of all, by her attitude of the night before.
It suddenly seems okay, somehow, despite the embarrassment and, if she goes deep enough within to admit it, her remorse. Things seem…possible. As if the chasm between them could be healed as simply as an “I’m sorry” or a “good morning”.
Part of her knows this is true, knows it would take no more than that, and her mouth opens, more ready to say those simple words than she’s ever been ready for anything in her life.
Maggie returns, two cups of steaming coffee in her hands, and the moment is broken like a child’s brightly colored party balloon that drifts too close to the fireplace.
Kirsten turns resentful eyes to the intruder and is met with a friendly smile and a salute from a coffee mug. “Thanks for brewing this.”
“No problem,” Kirsten manages before levering herself up off the couch and giving them the most civil nod she can. “If you don’t mind, now that you’re both up, I’ll shower and get ready for my day.”
“Not at all,” Maggie replies, completely unfazed by Kirsten’s grumpiness. “We won’t be here when you get out. We’re taking down a prison up north.” Her smile turns conspiratorial. “If we’re lucky, we’ll bring back a working droid for you.”
“That’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
Maggie actually laughs at this, though what she could possibly find funny in the situation is something Kristen can’t begin to fathom. “Of course it is. That’s why I’m a soldier.” With a wink and another coffee-cup salute, the young Air Force colonel turns away, leaving Kirsten flat-footed and speechless in the middle of the living room.
Asimov simply whines, tosses himself on the floor, and covers his snout with his massive paws.
The compound huddles low against the snow, its walls seeming to rise out of the drifts piled against them in a seamless extension of the frozen earth. The central building appears to be both Administration and cell block, its colorless concrete block façade broken only by ranks of steel louvers over the high, narrow windows. None of them is open to the fading light. Even those closest to the heavy metal door, which must have been offices or reception rooms for the Corrections Corporation of the Northwest personnel, are shuttered tightly. Coil upon coil of concertina wire tops the eight-foot walls which surround exercise yard and parking lots. Here and there the low sun strikes off its razor edges; the barbs take the light in bursts of flame. The frigid air lies over the jail and its snowy matrix like glass, trapping the evening for all time in its clarity: the rising dark in the east, bands of gold and crimson fading in the west; the land and the double handful of humans crouched in a streambed long since gone to ice to the south.
“How many?” Allen’s voice is no more than a raspy whisper. The heat of their bodies will give them away well before they become audible to sensors at the jail, but habit dies hard.
“Metalheads?” Andrews consults his readouts again. “Colonel, I’m getting only a dozen for sure. There are a couple blips that might be double—say fifteen, max.”
Koda frowns. “That’s not many for a jail this size. There were more than that at Mandan—twice that. Will that thing pick them up if they’re deactivated or on standby?”
“It should, Ma’am.” Andrews points to the LED display, which is broken down into a series of arcane number strings. “It reads off their metal mass, specifically the titanium. It doesn’t pick up their transmissions.”
Allen gives a wry grin. “Yeah. The first models kept picking up filing cabinets and calling them military droids. Goddam near got a couple Marine units fried the first time we used them in Baghdad. The troops steered clear of the “droids” and ran smack into the Republican Guard instead.”
“Okay,” says Koda. With a frozen sycamore twig, she rapidly sketches out the plan of the jail, courtesy of an overflight by one of the gunships that await their signal a couple miles off. “Show us where they are.”
Glancing back and forth between his readout and the diagram, Andrews positions their enemies. Ten in the building, apparently stationed at doors and along corridors; two in what may be the kitchen. The others seem to be a moving patrol, working the perimeter in mathematically precise rounds at equally precise intervals. “With a bit of luck,” he says, “these will be less sophisticated models than we encountered at Minot, with fewer built-in logic branches and more stereotyped responses. No boidroids, no ‘creative’ types with psuedo-HumIntel capacities.”
Allen nods. “Johnson.”
“You’re smallest; there’s a chance you’ll read as a large dog or a deer on their heat sensors. When I give the word, and the patrols are here and here”—Allen jabs the diagram with her white-gloved finger—“you scramble out there and set the charge on the east gate. Then get back around to the south side. Give yourself thirty seconds. Andrews.”
”Give me your droid reader. Rivers, you take him and half a dozen others and get through that gate when it blows. Make lots of noise; you’re partly a diversion. While they’re busy with you, I’ll take the rest in through the front. Meet in the middle. Everybody got it?”
Koda nods, and with Andrews and the rest of her troops behind her, begins to move upstream—what would be upstream if the water were not frozen blue to the bottom--under the shelter of the bank. Crawling on hands and knees where the overhang is high enough, humping seal-fashion on knees and elbows where it is not, she breaks trail through the snow for them. White snow, white Arctic camo from head to foot, white breath hovering in clouds about them. White faces, even her own, smeared with grease paint where the ski mask does not cover the skin around the eyes.
White is the color of the North, and in the North there is death. A shiver passes over her that has nothing to do with the temperature. As she looks up, the shadow of an owl passes overhead, great wings spread on the silent air. Without thought, Koda brings a hand to her medicine pouch where it hangs about her neck. Lelah sica. The white owl, Hinhan ska, is an unpropitious sign. Ina Maka, she breathes silently, Mother of us all. Do not let me lead my people into death.
Behind her she hears a muffled curse as someone catches his foot in a root of one of the centuries-old sycamores that line the stream. Someone else sets too much weight on a branch invisible beneath the
snow, and she turns to see Larke pitch forward abruptly as it snaps, only to be caught by his belt by the man behind him. No harm done. Koda slows as the creek leads them in a wide curve around to the east of the compound, the
light growing dimmer here where night already spreads across the horizon. Peering above the stream bank, she can just see the outline of the wide metal gates that control vehicular traffic in and out of the prison. For several
meters in front of it, shallower snow lies in a wide, straight band that must mark the driveway.
Andrews nods as she points to it, and gives a thumbs up. “Gotcha.”
“Straight in when—“ Koda breaks off as the com unit at her waist vibrates and buzzes softly. She thumbs it on. “Rivers.”
“Allen. It’s time.” The unit clicks off abruptly.
“. . . the time comes,” Koda continues. “Johnson! Now!”
The woman flings herself up over the stream bank in a gymnast’s clean vault and is on her feet and streaking for the gate before Koda finishes the order. She covers the hundred yards in seconds, plants the charge and sprints for the corner. Thirty interminable seconds later, the plasique goes off with a whump and the clang of metal against metal as the lock blows away from the heavy steel panels.
Koda swings up out of the gully and is running full out even as the echoes of the explosion reverberate against the high walls of the compound. Andrews is beside her, the rest in a tight knot behind. They crash into the gate and keep going. The panels swing back to reveal an empty yard perhaps fifty meters square, the snow stained with grey sludge along the mathematically straight path the sentry droid has followed as it makes its circuit of the wall. A number of trucks are pulled up beneath a carport to one side of the central building, all white except for the CCNW logo of Justice’s scales enclosed within a wreath of laurel leaves. The building itself is white and featureless, its blankness relieved only by the steel-blind windows, its single story sprawling off from its original axis in half a dozen ill-proportioned wings.
The loading bay is at the end of the carport, close but difficult because of its double-door airlock construction. Koda opts for the kitchen entrance instead, cutting across the open space from gate to
carport, then hugging the cell-block wall as she leads her unit through the deepening shadows around one wing and across a second yard to another.
”What the fuck?” Andrews mutters. “Where the hell are they?”
“There,” says Koda as they turn the corner of the second wing.
Six droids stand in a perfectly straight line across the service entrance to the prison. All are armed with Uzis and M-16’s.
Bracing her rifle at waist level, Koda stitches a row of holes neatly as her mother’s sewing machine across the middle of one of the droids. It drops its weapon, and Koda raises her own her shoulder to fire straight into its optics, large and luminous in the half-light. Her squad fires beside her in a storm of gunfire. She hears a scream from somewhere to the right but cannot take her attention off her targets long enough to see who is hit. “Grenades!” she yells, plucking one from her belt, pitching forward and rolling in the snow, coming back up with a perfect overhand lob into the middle of the four droids still standing. It explodes like lightning struck too near, but the smell is of gunpowder and hot metal, not the clean ozone of the walking thunder. Two more grenades arc down upon the droids, then two more again, and the step before the kitchen door stands clear except for shrapnel and shards of Lexan, fragments of printed circuits and twisted copper wire scattered over the snow.
“Larke’s hit, Ma’am.”
Andrews, his own sleeve streaked crimson, kneels beside the Corporal where he lies in the in the open yard, a wide scarlet stain seeping through the snow beneath him like the bloom of some exotic flower. The layers of his battle dress are soaked with it. Larke is conscious, but his lips are ashen with pain as much as cold. His wry smile, isolated by the bone-white of his ski mask, seems to Koda the macabre grinning of a skull. “Just a flesh wound, Ma’am.”
Unbidden, her hand goes again to the medicine pouch about her neck, but she says crisply, “Reese. Martinez. Get him up the steps and into the building. As they move to comply, assisted rather too eagerly by the Lieutenant, she adds, “Andrews.”
“It’s only a graze, Ma’am. Just took off a bit of skin.” He pulls down the frayed edge of the tear in his jacket to expose a long, narrow scrape. “Really.”
“You’ll live,” Koda concedes, stepping over the jagged fragments of metal and plastic that are all that remain of their enemies. The entrance, as expected, leads into a large institutional kitchen. Pots and pans hover just above their heads, suspended from the ceiling by stainless steel hooks. Choppers and graters occupy the countertops, together with piles of bowls and spoons. On the stove a huge tub of rice boils energetically, foam overflowing its sides to sizzle on the burner beneath. Its smell recalls her grandmother’s washdays, the stiffly starched blouses and shirts into which she and her brothers had been buttoned every school day of every year until their high school graduations. “Because you must always look better and do better.” Prison uniforms, she and Phoenix had called them.
Reese and Martinez set Larke down on a large central worktable, with his pack under the calf of his injured leg and a stack of clean dishtowels to hand. Quickly but gently, Koda cuts the fabric away from the wound, which lies about a hand’s breadth down from the groin. She folds a pair of towels into a compress and slips it under the exit wound. From the open door she can hear the muffled rattle of gunfire and men shouting. “Andrews,” she says, “Take everyone but Martinez and start moving up the central hall. I’ll be right behind you.”
To Larke she says, “You know what ‘flesh wound’ really means? Severed tendons. Ripped muscle. Shredded veins. Still, you got off fairly light.” She slaps another compress into place on the entry wound and bears down hard on the torn flesh.
Larke gasps, turning even paler. “Oh Lord, Ma’am. You wouldn’t take advantage of a guy when he’s down, would you?”
The attempt at a joke is the best sign from the wounded man yet. “Nope,” says Koda, maintaining pressure with one hand and swinging her rifle back down to the ready with the other. “Martinez is going to do that.” As Martinez’ hand replaces hers, she says, “Press down as hard as you can. Change towels when they get soaked. We’ll be back for you.”
“Got it, Ma’am.”
Koda sprints down the branching hallway, following the increasingly sharp reports of automatic weapons, their own arms and the droids’. As she runs, she can hear the beginning of resistance from the cells she passes, prisoners shouting encouragement to their jailers’ unseen enemies, the sparse metal furniture of the prison banging against walls and doors. Somewhere up ahead the shouting becomes a chant, reverberating rhythmically in the narrow passageways, taking strength from the beat of steel on steel within the cells.
Kill the droids! Kill the droids! Kill the droids!
As she turns a sharp corner, Koda almost slams into Andrews, skews off to the right and slides in beside him and the rest of the unit where they hunker behind a improvised barricade of overturned desks. The space before them is an open intersection where three hallways meet. Two droids, their heads blown to fragments, lie frozen in a bizarre mechanical rigor mortis, joints still bent at elbow and knee. Another form sprawls between them, an enormous charred red hole where its right ribs should be and no arm or shoulder at all. The blood beneath it has already begun to congeal with the cold.
“Yeah. She went down just as we got here. The droids are over there—“ Andrews points toward a corridor to the right. “—and they’ve got a fifty-caliber. The Colonel and the rest are around the corner to our left. They’ve got a couple injured, but she doesn’t want to call in the gunships yet. We’d lose too many civilians if we did.”
“Damn. We need to get behind them.”
“There’s another entrance over on the other side; we might be able to get through there.”
Koda shakes her head. “That would take too long. There’s a quicker way.”
Koda points upward, toward the acoustic ceiling tiles. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”
Andrews’ bright blue eyes take on a sparkle in the midst of his featureless ski mask. “No, Ma’am! Lead the way.”
Koda drags a chair over to a spot beneath a light fixture, climbs up onto it and begins tossing down the large tiles. Wiring runs thickly tangled under the first two; the darkness behind the third glints with the lights’ reflection off the aluminum sheathing of the HVAC ducts. The fourth gives access to the crawl space. “Paydirt,” she observes, turns on her flashlight and pulls herself up and into ceiling and its snarl of pipes and wires.
The going is incredibly slow. The prison is carefully built, and the wire ends she can see are all properly capped. One exception, though, will fry them and the mission with them. Koda squirms forward on her elbows, avoiding as much of the brightly colored strands as she can, lifting her weight gingerly over pipes they cannot afford to break. Behind her she half senses, half hears, her soldiers, some of them slithering along with the ease of rattlesnakes, others with about as much finesse as a bear raiding a dumpster.
Reese, two behind her, tries to quiet the others. With the droid’s sensors, though, they cannot be quiet enough. Andrews knows it, too. “We need more cover, Ma’am.”
“Right,” she says. By dead reckoning, they should be over a cell facing the corridor they have just left, some distance behind their abandoned redoubt. “There should be somebody—“ she pulls off her mask and pries a tile loose“--right about--here.”
In the dim light of the cell, two startled women stare up at her. One holds the room’s only stool, battered half to splinters where she has been pounding it against the door. The other has a metal bowl in each hand, their unpalatable contents spilled dirty white along the floor. Cymbals.
“We need more noise, please,” Koda says simply. “Cover us.”
The younger woman of the two, perhaps eighteen, loses her frozen expression and bares more teeth than Koda has seen outside an alligator’s mouth. “You got it!”
Koda nods her thanks, and as they push themselves again along the narrow crawlway, the redoubled clamor becomes a vibration in the walls of the prison itself, a low, deep drumming of voices and metal shifting into a simpler, more primal rhythm. Cold creeps along Koda’s spine as the chant pounds through her blood, an echo of war drums pounding down the centuries.
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!
She hears her men behind her take it up in breathy whispers, keeping with the women’s voices as the mantra spreads, intersecting at first with the earlier chant and running counterpoint to it, then overwhelming the more complicated rhythm with its purer line.
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!
They have traveled perhaps fifteen meters in little more than half an hour. It feels like an eternity, though. Koda does not panic in elevators, but nor does she have any love of spaces that fit her like underwear. Motioning Andrews and the others to wait, she creeps forward alone for another few meters, pausing every couple of feet to listen with an ear pressed hard against the ceiling struts. Once she lifts a tile a centimeter or so and sees only a darkened cell with a dim form doubled up almost into fetal position; once she freezes like a rabbit who sees an eagle soar above its meadow, straining to pick up the oddly musical electronic tones or voder-generated voices by which the droids communicate with each other. In the end it is the shockingly loud burst of fire from the large-calibre machine gun almost directly beneath her that charts her location for her, and she waves her troops forward.
They drop from the ceiling directly behind the droids, howling. The sound that rips from Koda’s throat is none that she has never made before in her flesh, a full-throated baying that speaks of the spoor tracked to its source, of blood and death. Andrews, plummeting down beside her, screams like a panther as he raises his M-16 and presses the trigger down onto full automatic, spraying destruction across the brilliant metal surfaces of the droids, the dull green walls, the the light fixtures that shatter and fall in minute glass shards like snow. “The gun!” Koda bellows as she braces her own rifle against her hip, raining armor-piercing rounds upon the nightmare things before her. “Get the machine gun, dammit!”
But one of the droids, quicker than the rest, is already turning the heavy weapon to face them. Spinning on her heel, Koda turns her fire on the M-50 and its operator. Andrews takes down the droid sliding into position to reinforce the gunner, the fall of its metal body indistinguishable from the cacophony of battle. Reese, though, darts from behind and charges the machine gun head-on, falling over the barrel and toppling it just as its fire rips through him, spattering blood and gouts of flesh over the walls, the ceiling, his comrades behind him. Andrew screams again and empties his magazine into the droid gunner. Hardly audible through the gunfire and the incessant chanting of the prisoners, Koda hears the clatter of booted feet stampeding across the concrete floor. Allen’s troops, the Colonel herself in the lead and snarling like the bobcat emblazoned on her sleeve, come swarming over the barricade, pinning the droids between the two forces.
It is over, then, in a matter of seconds. As Koda raises her weapon to destroy the last of them, Allen yells, “No, take it!” and swings the butt of her M-16 to send its Uzi skidding down the passageway, out of reach.
Andrews makes a flying tackle that topples the droid, followed by Koda. It bucks under them, its mechanical limbs flailing to throw them off with a strength that is literally inhuman. To Koda it is like nothing so much as her one attempt to ride her grandfather’s bull on a summer day when she was ten. Now as then, she can feel her spine rattle with the frantic twisting beneath her, now as then she can only hold on and try to keep astride. Then two more soldiers are sitting across its legs, keeping them still by their sheer weight, and yet another pair pins its arms.
“Good work, guys,” Allen commends them, panting. She has both hands clamped down on the thing’s wrist, a knee jammed into its elbow. “Somebody get a hand in my pack and take out the shackles. We’re going to take Dr. King a little present.”
Koda, just behind her, fumbles with the zipper and then draws out a length of bright titanium chain attached to a metal belt and four manacles, two each for hands and ankles. The droid fights frantically to break free, striking Ramirez in the jaw with its foot, almost throwing Andrews and Koda astride its back. Limb by limb, though, they struggle to immobilize it, sliding the belt under its waist to fasten in back, bending back the arms to chain each hand to its opposite foot. Just as the last shackle snaps shut, the droid gives up the struggle and lies still.
It is not disabled, certainly not destroyed. Its logic chains have simply returned a null set upon evaluating the possible success of further resistance.
Koda pushes herself up from the steel caracass, suddenly weary beyond telling, and makes her way toward Reese, still slumped across the disabled machine gun. She knows there is no hope of life, yet she kneels and turns him over onto his back gently, not to hurt him further. His blood smears the white of her winter camo, already stained from tending Larke’s wounds. Marked, too, by Reese’s own torn flesh. She feels a void open inside her, black and deep as space beyond the stars. Her fingers clench in the folds of Reese’s clothing, almost as if somehow she could hold him back from this last journey. But his eyes are fixed and vacant. The blood trickling from his mouth has already begun to congeal.
Maggie kneels softly beside her, setting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s tough, leading men to their deaths. Especially the first one.”
Almost as if in a dream, Koda turns toward the other woman. The warrior of only minutes past is gone. Allen’s eyes are huge and sad in the brown face of a grieving Madonna, the face almost of Ina Maka herself. As if from a distance, Koda hears her own voice. “Does it get any easier? Ever?”
“No.” Maggie shakes her head slightly. “It never does.”
A moment of silence stretches out, then Allen squeezes her shoulder gently and asks, “Larke? Martinez?”
“Larke’s hurt. Martinez is taking care of him in the kitchen.”
“Good,” she says. “Very good. Let’s start clearing this place out.”
The chanting of the prisoners has fallen silent. Laying Reese gently down, Koda gets to her feet beside Maggie. “I’ll go check on Larke.”
The Colonel nods. “Make it quick. I’m going to need you when we get these cells
open.” Then, more loudly, “Anybody got any idea where they keep the freaking keys?”
Koda sprints down the corridor toward the kitchen. She finds Larke pale as his camouflage but conscious and not in shock. On the floor at Martinez’ feet is a small mountain of bloody and discarded dishtowels. Koda is pleased, though, to see that the compress that he has bound tightly into place is not soaked through. When she lifts it up to check the wound, she can see that the blood that still oozes slowly from the wound is dark, with no evidence of arterial spurting. Larke’s pulse is shallow and faster than she would like, but steady nonetheless. “So how am I doin’ Doc?” he asks with a faint attempt at a smile. “Gonna live?”
Koda tightens the cotton strips that hold the compress in place. “Going to live; going to walk. And you’re going to get to keep everything you were born with, which is more than I can say for a lot of my male patients.”
Martinez starts to snicker, but apparently thinks better of it. “Hey, buddy.” Larke lifts his head slightly to stare at his fellow trooper with mock indignation. “You just remember it could be you lying here next time.” He makes a snipping motion with two fingers of his right hand.
Koda flashes a grin at the Pfc.. “He been giving you a hard time, Martinez?”
“Ma’am, he’s a rotten patient. If he hadn’t made himself dizzy just trying to sit up, he’d have taken off after you and Andrews.”
“Oh, yeah? Ma’am, Leo was gonna help me get up. He wanted to go himself. Told him to go on, but he wouldn’t.”
“And good for you that he didn’t.” She turns to Martinez. “We’re starting to mop up. He stays here.” Koda jabs a long finger at Larke, then at Martinez. “You stay with him and keep an eye on the bleeding. If anything changes, come get me. Otherwise just wait here till we call the choppers in. We’ll take him out to the Medevac on a litter.”
She turns to go, but Martinez touches her sleeve lightly. “”Ma’am . . .?”
Koda can see the question in his hazel eyes, pleading with her. She does not want to answer it, but she says, “We lost two. Johnson and Reese. Otherwise, Larke here’s the worst hurt.”
“All destroyed but one. We’re taking it back to Dr. King to see if she can get any information out of it.”
Martinez’ fists clench once and unclench. “You know, Ma’am, sometimes I wish they were human. It just doesn’t seem fair that they can’t feel anything.”
“I know,” she says quietly. Images of the last week tumble through her mind: the dead Hurley boys; the women from the Mandan jail; the quiet desperation she has sensed in Kirsten King. “We’ll find out who’s behind this. And they will pay.”
“I wanna help collect Ma’am.” Larke adds, just as quietly, and Martinez nods.
“There will come a time, I promise you.” Then, more sharply, “For now -- Stay. Put. It’ll be maybe half an hour.”
As Koda sprints once again for the central hub of the prison, a speaker over her head crackles a couple times, then sputters fully to life. “It’s on? Yeah, that’s got it. Good.”
Then Allen’s voice comes through, clear and strong. “Attention. Attention, please. This is Colonel Margaret Allen, United States Air Force. A combined services tactical force has destroyed the prison’s android guard contingent and is now in command of this facility. Evacuation of prisoners will begin immediately on a corridor by corridor basis. If you have immediate medical needs, please inform the soldiers who will escort you from your cells to the dining area to await pickup.”
The microphone clicks off, and there is perhaps a second’s silence. Then the prison erupts in sound once again. This time, though, the roar is a cheer, starting deep and sliding up the scale until it pierces the air with the sharpness of a hawk’s cry, the scream of a hunting eagle.
Koda finds the Colonel in what appears to be the central guard station. The intercom equipment occupies one long counter, together with a couple computers and a bank of monitor screens that placidly record the undisturbed snow in most of the prison yards. It is still, strangely, only twilight. The entire operation has taken perhaps an hour. Allen looks up as Koda enters. “Larke?”
“Holding on.” she reports. “Tried to get up, with Martinez aiding and abetting. He’ll be fine, once we get him into a real hospital.”
“Good. The locks here are electronic, and while we don’t have the codes, we do have the emergency switches. I want you to be there as each group comes out, in case we’ve got anything medically urgent on our hands.” Allen pauses a moment, and her voice softens. “You did pretty damn good today, you know. You’re a natural at this.”
“I know,” Koda answers in a voice so low that it is almost a whisper. “It’s something that’s just been—there—all my life. Like a memory, almost.”
“We’ll talk when we get back to base and can have a little quiet,” Allen mumurs. “Meantime—“ Her voice sharpens, and she is once again a line officer. “Andrews. Take a couple more troops and accompany Dr. Rivers to A Wing. Give her a hand with anything medical if she needs it. I’m going to go ahead and call that other, overly creative, Rivers of ours to have those birds here in another half hour.”
Koda extracts her emergency kit from her pack and follows Andrews, Ramirez and Hanson as they make their way down Corridor A. The women who come streaming out into the hallway here have little about them of the beaten and terrified prisoners of the Mandan jail. It may be only that they have known for an hour that their rescue is underway and have done what they can both to defy the enemy and to put heart into the soldiers facing the actual battle. One woman, her skin pink with excitement, grabs Andrews by the arms and kisses him soundly, then proceeds to reward Ramirez, Hanson and Koda with equal enthusiasm. When a second makes for the startled Lieutenant, he fends her off gently but firmly as he shepherds her toward the dining room with the rest. “Ma’am, please, time is limited. We appreciate your—ahm, we appreciate your appreciation—but we need to get you the hell out of this place. If you’ll pardon my language. Uh, Ma’am.”
Koda is pleased to see that the women are, superficially, largely uninjured. Most have bruises, some yellow-green with age, others newly crimson. One prisoner has a long but shallow cut down her forearm, and Koda takes a moment to wrap it in Kurlix to await stitching when they reach base. “It’s mah own fault, Doctah,” she says, in a delicate voice that sounds of the Georgia peaches and cream that match her red-blonde hair and ivory skin. “Ah broke the leg off mah stool bangin’ it against the doah. Ah wish it had been ovah one of those bastahdly thing’s heahds.”
Despite herself, a thread of amusement winds its way through Koda’s anger. Move over, Miz Scarlett. Like her own people, the South has always bred its women tough. It is a breeding that will help this woman survive, as it has kept the winan Lakota alive through a century and a half of attempted extermination.
She leaves the latter-day Scarlett with the Colonel and the rest of the troop in the cafeteria, where the soldiers have located clean cups and are passing out water and juice. Allen makes the rounds, speaking with each woman in turn, reassuring, comforting those with haunted eyes, answering what questions she can. One woman, pale and agitated, asks over and over again, “Where are the children? What have they done with the children?”
Koda pauses on her way out to evacuate D Wing as Allen answers, “Ma’am, I’m sorry. As far as we can tell, the droids have killed all the boys they found and kept only the girls past puberty. Were your children with you when you were taken?”
The woman is close to hyperventilating, and Koda kneels down in front of her with the Colonel, capturing her wrist to check her pulse. “Yes! Christ, why is so hard to make you understand!” She chokes for a moment, gasping for breath. “They took my kids with me! Why haven’t you found them? Where are they, damn you?” Her voice rises to a shriek. “Where are they?”
One of the other prisoners comes to sit beside her, putting her arms around the now-
weeping woman. “It’s true, Colonel. Deb’s kids were with her when we were caught at the K-Mart. I haven’t seen them since that first day, though.”
“Deb?” Koda asks softly. “We’ll look for your children. We won’t leave, I promise, until we’ve found them or know for sure they’re not here. Can you tell us how old they are? Boys? Girls?”
“Two boys,” the second woman answers. “They were about four, five.”
“Right,” The Colonel rises, motioning to two of her troops who are foraging behind the serving counter. “O’Donnell! Markovic!” she shouts. “Start searching the place for kids. Not the cells, we’ll get all of those—try the garages and offices and tool sheds! Move it out! On the double!”
Koda returns to her task of evaluating the women as they exit the cells. On Wing D, they find a woman together with her young daughter, thirteen at most. The woman’s clothes have obviously not seen the inside of a washing machine in days, perhaps more, but they are intact—no rips, no bloodstains, and her arms and face are equally unmarked. Unlike the others, they seem almost diffident, with none of the lava-hot undercurrent of anger Koda has sensed running thick and murderous below the bravado of the rest of the prisoners. Fear and bewilderment, yes, but no hatred. “I’m Millie Buxton,” the woman introduces herself hesitantly . “My husband is here, too. Have you found him, yet?”
“They never touched you, did they,” a dark-haired woman sneers in passing, before Koda can answer. “Bitch! ‘Droid lover!”
Andrews blocks the speaker as she moves to spit at the other woman and hustles her along the hallway. Koda says slowly, “No, we haven’t. Was he an employee?”
“A prisoner. Erin and I were visiting when—when—it happened.”
“And you haven’t been harmed?”
“No. Not—I know what she meant, you see. I’ve heard when—“ Millie glances back at her daughter—“things happened to the other women. But they left us alone. I don’t know why. I’m just glad because—because of Erin, you see.”
Koda does not see, not quite, but an idea has begun to form. “We’ll find your husband if he’s here, Ms. Buxton.” And to Andrews, more quietly, as the woman falls into step with the rest, “That last wing’s been pretty near silent. All along.”
Andrews nods. “Gotcha. We’ll pick up a couple more guys before we go over there. That’s where we dropped down, isn’t it?”
“That’s where I saw what I’m pretty sure was a man, one time when I lifted up a tile to see where we were. We’d better go cell by cell, there, not spring them all at once.”
“Better see how the Colonel wants to handle them. I’m all for leaving them to starve, but
she may have other ideas.”
In the end, there are four. Three are much like their counterparts from Mandan, foul-mouthed and full of bluster. The fourth, though, will not answer them when his cell is opened, remaining curled tightly
on top of the blanket with his knees drawn up to his chest. Only the rise and fall of his ribs shows that he is still alive.
”All right,” says Andrews after the prisoner has ignored him three times. “Let’s haul him out.”
“Wait a minute.” Koda walks silently up to the bunk where the man remains unresponsive. “Mr. Buxton?”
“Mr Buxton?” she tries again. “Millie and Erin are worried about you. They’re safe. Whatever deal you made, the droids kept it that far.”
A sound that is not quite a sob, not quite a groan comes from the huddled form on the cot. “Just leave me, please. Or shoot me. Just don’t tell them—please, I don’t want them to know— Tell them I’m dead, please?”
Andrews reaches forward and hauls the man into a sitting position. Unkempt hair falls over a forehead pale with lack of sun and eyes that water with the dim light enters through the half-open door. “Look here, Buxton. You just might get your wish. I don’t know what the Colonel’s going to want to do with you—maybe shoot you on spot, maybe not. If I were you, I’d still want to see my wife and kid one last time. And I sure as hell know they want to see you.”
“Mr. Buxton. Millie and Erin will find out exactly what you’ve done from the other women.” Koda takes a deep breath and forces her voice to remain neutral. “Now, I don’t know whether they’ll forgive you; God knows the rest of these women won’t, and shouldn’t. But it should count for something that you bought your family’s lives. Whatever happens, you can take that with you.”
In the end, he comes with them, still half-unwillingly, his head down. Allen meets them just outside the entrance to the cafeteria and rakes the four men over with fury in her dark eyes. “Just like the other jail. Hold them in that office over there for now.” She points to a small cubicle with a desk and computer and what seem to be endless piles of invoices. “Hanson, if one of these motherfuckers turns a hair wrong, shoot him.”
Buxton raises his head and holds her withering gaze for a moment. “Ma’am, they tell me
my wife and daughter are here. Whatever goes down, I’d like to know they’re safe.”
“Hostages for his performance,” Koda says quietly.
“I see.” There is what may be a minuscule softening in Allen’s expression. “We’re taking them back to Base. They’ll have a trial. Andrews, Rivers, come with me. Hanson, you sit on ’em, and sit on ’em tight. They go out on the last chopper where these women won’t have to see their lousy faces.”
Koda and Andrews follow the Colonel back into the cafeteria. From overhead comes the steady whup-whup-whup of approaching helicopters, the noise intensifying until it becomes an unholy clatter as the great blades beat the air. From the doorway, Koda can see their noselights growing larger and larger, finally sweeping the snow before her as the pilots check for obstructions before easing in to a landing. There are at least a dozen; most are Black Hawk and Apache gunships; one is a carrier. The lead bird is another Black Hawk, a red cross painted prominently on its side. The rotor wash kicks up little eddies of snow, sending it spraying outward as the great, grasshopper-like hulks settle, wobbling, into the snow. Just as the high-pitched whine of the engines becomes an almost physical pain, it stops.
“Load up,” yells Allen, and with that the former prisoners are running for the helicopters, clambering in with the help of their crews and the rescue unit. Two corpsmen from the Medevac fetch Larke from the kitchen, Martinez trotting alongside the litter. They load the remains of Johnson and Reese, too, decently wrapped in blankets for their last journey. The captive droid goes with the living prisoners, trussed and hauled along by the manacles that bind him hand and foot.
When all the rest are loaded, Allen hops aboard the Medvac chopper, Koda inches behind her. “Get us in the air, Rivers,” she shouts as the engines once again begin tow whine. “And give me the mike.”
Manny complies, with a wave and a mouthed “Makshké” at Koda.
“Schic’shi,” she answers, too weary to do more than lift a hand as she settles her back against the hull of the chopper. She can feel the vibration of the rotors as they begin to turn, then pick up speed, in every cell of her body. She should move, she tells herself, but her muscles refuse to obey her. The Black Hawk rocks slightly on its wheels, then lifts off with its tail high and its nose low. It is the nature of this peculiar airborne beast that there is nowhere more comfortable than the spot where Koda half-slouches on the deck, unless it is one of the litters suspended on heavy straps from the opposite side of the craft, or the pilots’ seats.
Just audible above the chopper’s racket, she can hear Allen shouting into the mike.
“We’re clear! Send ‘em in!”
Koda closes her eyes as the chopper begins its ascent, banking to the north and west. When she opens them after a moment, she can see the half moon riding high, glinting off the snowscape as it falls away beneath them. The winter stars spangle the night, Orion and his dog, the Bull and the Ram. As she watches, two of the stars seem to move toward them at tremendous speed, and it is only when she sees the green and red lights winking at their wingtips that she recognizes them for what they are.
Then she sees them dip and streak in low above the prison compound they have just left, their afterburners glowing like small suns in the enveloping dark. As they pass, fire blooms behind them, reaching into the night sky in unfolding petals of flame. She nods at Maggie in acknowledgment. Her mind tells her that they have denied a tactical advantage to the enemy, but deep in her soul she knows that the fire is necessary to cleanse the evil of the place. She leans back once more against the vibrating hull of the aircraft and lets the darkness take her.
Continued - Part 10
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