Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha Directed by: TNovan
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
As she stands off to one side with the others, holding her hair back out of her eyes as the beating rotors of the approaching helicopters stir the air into a mini hurricane, Kirsten tells herself that her reasons for being on the landing field are purely scientific. If her heartbeat is slightly faster than normal, it is because she will soon have a working android to examine. The sense of anticipation warming her from within is surely only a scientist’s eagerness when given the experimental opportunity of a lifetime.
And if she finds herself looking for a particular glossy black head that towers above the sea of mostly red and gold, and if she imagines she can see, even from this distance, a pair of piercing eyes that rival the winter sky, well, those things are inconsequential. She is a scientist, and scientists are trained to notice things.
Or so she makes herself believe.
The injured come off the helicopters first, young men and women bleeding their lives away on litters borne up by strong, resolute soldiers who run toward the bright red cross of the hospital double time. The dead follow, pristine white sheets covering their faces. Their entrance onto the base is more stately, as befits their heroic sacrifice.
Three men follow, heavily guarded and chained at the belly, ankles and wrists. Two sport an unkempt jailhouse pallor that is a perfect accompaniment to their frightened, darting eyes and heavily tattooed flesh. The third wears his shame like a shroud. Shoulders slumped, head bowed, he shuffles along staring only at the slush-covered ground beneath his feet, all but cringing at every new sound he hears. Kirsten feels a tiny shard of pity for him, though it’s obvious what he’s done and why he’s chained and guarded so very heavily.
The victims disembark next, their faces displaying a wide range of emotions, from the hollow-eyed pallor of an Auschwitz camp survivor, to a kind of quiet joy, to everything and nothing mixed in between. Those with enough awareness looked around curiously, taking in their new surroundings with a distinct lack of surprise, but with, perhaps, a burgeoning hope that their lot might, indeed, be improving.
A group of ten women, most of them former captives themselves, approach these newly freed survivors, offering soft words, soft expressions, soft touches as they lead the group toward the base hospital and the first step on the road to eventual—much hoped for—recovery.
Last to come off the choppers is a small group of heavily armed men and women, Dakota and the Colonel included, who surround what Kirsten can easily recognize as a fully functioning android bound by titanium chains and cuffs.
Watching, she finds herself biting back a smirk. They might as well have bound the thing with construction paper chains made by first graders for all even titanium will hold against the unsurpassed strength of even a single determined android. The very fact that it has allowed itself to be captured, and chained, and is making no effort to escape to fulfill its obviously prime directive to kill them all gives Kirsten a moment’s pause, though she waves her concerns off for the moment, confident in her ability to have at least that one question answered by the droid itself. Eventually.
She meets the group halfway, nodding to Allen and Rivers and carefully examining the android as it approaches. Through the receiver in her ear, she can hear the almost desperate data streams it is sending out in an attempt to contact others of its kind. This alone is enough to tell her that it is “injured” in some way that is making it difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill its primary mission. Finding the source, and the cause, of the “injury” is, she knows, the first step toward learning how to disable them all.
For the first time since the disaster of Minot, Kirsten allows a shard of hope to enter into the darkened landscape of her thoughts.
“General Hart was kind enough to give me an interrogation room in the brig. If you’ll please follow me.”
Allen gives a quiet nod. Dakota and Manny continue to bracket the android, weapons at the ready, while the rest peel off, headed for some much deserved down time. The Colonel stays with the denuded group, falling into step beside Kirsten as they head for the brig.
“Don’t bother with those,” Kirsten orders, casually waving away the chains Dakota and Manny are preparing to use to strap the android to the chair directly behind the desk she has commandeered. A smile curls her lips as she looks directly into its optical sensors. “If it wanted to kill us, we’d be dead already.” A beat of silence. “Isn’t that right, RJ-252711-RTLL-2199-RC?”
Again, that look of near shock that she’d seen at Minot. Clue or red herring? Without enough evidence to structure a credible hypothesis, she lets the information sit at the back of her thoughts as she continues her visual inspection of the android. Standing, she rounds the desk, seeing the others back off in the periphery of her vision. She feels a little like a star player in a “good cop/bad cop” melodrama of her hardly misspent youth as she stalks the helpless droid, her lips curved in a shark’s feeding-time grin.
“I’m confusing you, aren’t I,” she remarks conversationally, touching it briefly on one shoulder as she circles. “I’m receiving all of your transmissions, but you’re receiving none of mine. What does that make me?” Her smile is almost seductive as she stands before it, one finger rubbing across her full lower lip, as if in serious contemplation. “One of you?” Her smile broadens. “One of them?” One rather elegant hand flips a careless gesture toward Dakota, who stares back, eyebrow perfectly arched, arms folded across her chest. “You can’t tell, can you. You don’t know what the truth is, and that makes things…difficult…for you, doesn’t it.”
The android doesn’t answer, though its fingers twitch on the arms of the chair, much like a nervous suspect who has been brought into the police station for questioning. It is sending out continuous pulses of data, an SOS beacon that Kirsten can read as clearly as if it were printed on a scrolling board in the middle of Times Square. She smiles and, temporarily turning down the heat, returns to her desk and sits down, spreading her hands against the rough wooden top.
“Tell me,” she resumes after a long moment of silence, “why are you breeding humans? What do you hope to gain from this venture?”
The fingers twitch again. “This unit is not programmed to respond in that area.”
“Ah. Just a drone, then. If you can’t tell me why, can you tell me who? Who gave you these orders?”
“This unit is not….”
“…programmed to respond in that area, yes, I understand that.” She sits back in the chair, eyeing the droid. “I can’t help you, RJ-252711, if you don’t help me. You have data circuits that need repairing. I need answers. So….”
The data pulses are almost frantic now, and Kirsten hides a wince as a high pitched squeal of feedback enters her implants and loops through her brain.
“I can help you, you know. You can feel it. You want to trust me, don’t you.” Her voice is soft, seductive.
A louder blast of feedback wings through her and her eyes close for a long moment, willing the pain away. There is something almost…compelling…in the messages traveling along her nerve bundles. She fights off a heaviness, a lethargy that seeps into the very marrow of her bones; a sweet siren’s song to an end she’s sure she’d be better off not knowing.
Dakota notices, and takes one step forward, only to be waved back by Kirsten who straightens and leans forward. “Answer my questions, RJ-252711. Answer my questions and I’ll give you the help you need.”
“Answer me, RJ-252711.”
The android stiffens, all electronic joints locked as a whine emits from its vocal sensors. Subliminal at first, it grows in pitch until the humans present instinctively step back and raise desperate hands to their ears in a fruitless attempt to block out the sound.
Kirsten feels the code as it buzzes along her nerves like electric shock. She tries to raise her hands to snatch at her earpiece and dislodge the implants, but her muscles will not obey her. She cannot speak; only attend, helplessly, as the systems shutdown command speeds its way to her lungs, her heart, her brain. Koda has risen, leaning over the table to grasp her wrist, but she feels nothing, hears nothing as the other woman’s lips form urgent words. Absently, she notes that the improbable blue eyes have gone wide with—fear? Surely not. And surely not for her. That amuses her for some reason, but she cannot laugh, only stare, her own gaze fixed on the wide black pupils that spread and spread like ripples in a midnight pond, and she is drawn into their blackness, falling infinitely down and down, drawn into the deep, into the dark and the silence, falling, falling down the rabbit hole to lose herself in the infinite lightlessness of space beyond the stars.
How long she falls she does not know nor care. The blackness slips past her as she spirals downward, companied by wind that whispers with the voices of her dead. So precocious . . .. That’s my girl . . .. I worry sometimes . . .. Then there are the other sounds: the staccato rattle of machine gun fire; electronic devices speaking to each other in strange tongues, ditditDAHdit oddly musical as it speeds along the fiberoptics; the thrum of the blood in her veins as it slows, grows sluggish, stops. They ride along the rising wind that carries her spinning toward a point of light star light star bright, infinitesimally small, somehow above her now as she falls upward—and how did that happen, she wonders—with up so floating many bells down and voices are in the wind’s singing, singing its own song now. Its blast strips the flesh from her, whistles through the cage of her bones. Yet it cannot drown out the deep baying of the hunter who runs lithe beside her now along moonlit snow and is gone again in a glimpse of driving muscles rippling under grey fur that turns in upon itself, moebius-like, to become a small pointed face with eyes burning like molten gold out of a black mask. The narrow muzzle opens, and the creature speaks in a voice to silence thunder, one long-fingered hand raised to bar her passage.
Go back. The time is not yet.
But she hurtles past him as the pinprick of light suddenly bursts, brighter than a thousand suns. Pure thought now, with no crude matter to hold her back, she streaks toward its incandescent heart. Out of its center a woman leaps to meet her, brandishing a spear and an oval shield with a boss of bronze. Her naked body is painted with blue spirals and runes of power, and her hair streams behind her like flame. From somewhere behind her comes the slow rhythm of a drum. Her shout rises above its pounding.
Go back. The time is not yet.
The warrior fades, gives way to another woman, this one clothed in scarlet silk that flutters about her like tongues of fire. Her face is serene with age, though the deep furrows at brow and mouth tell of wisdom bought at cost. The drumming grows louder now, but her gentle voice carries easily above it.
Go back. The time is not yet.
Another warrior comes forward, clad in some sort of leather dress with intricate brass armor buckled to her chest. In one hand, she holds a thick, two-edged sword. In the other, a lethal circlet. Her eyes blaze and pierce, their beauty filled with urgency and another, almost overwhelming, emotion she can’t put a name to.
Go back. The time is not yet.
Still she moves forward, helpless to stop her steady advance into the sun.
And out of the heart of that sun a third woman comes striding, dressed in white buckskin with a hummingbird worked in shell beads and quills across her breast. Turquoise and white shell adorn her wrists and her slender neck, hang like stars amid the cloud of her hair. Her feet as she walks beat out the song of the drum, though her moccasins touch nothing more solid than air.
You are astray, my daughter, she says. You must turn back.
Mother, Kirsten wails soundlessly. I have failed.
You have suffered a setback, certainly, the woman acknowledges. Will you let it defeat you, and all my children with it?
I am not strong enough. Not wise enough.
By yourself, you are not. But I have given you companions, for knowledge and for comfort. The woman pauses, smiling. And for something more, if you have the courage to lay hold of the gift. Will you refuse it? Look.
An eddy forms in the brilliance, light swirling like the waters of a whirlpool. An opening appears, and Kirsten finds herself looking down from an infinite distance. A slight figure with pale hair lies sprawled on the floor, its face already waxy with the spirit’s passing. A tall woman, dark, with a cloud of black hair wild about her face, kneels beside her, her fist rising and descending again and again to the rhythm of the drum. It comes to Kirsten that her own body is the drum, the fierce pounding a summons to return. There are words in that calling, but they skim past her awareness to be lost in the light and the voice of the drum.
There is, really, no choice.
I will go back, she says.
The woman’s smile becomes radiant, like the sun, bright beyond comprehension, yet not painful to look upon. A long-fingered hand, smooth, so smooth it is the bottom of a rock-bottomed stream, lays itself upon her and a benediction flows into her soul. It is cool, cool like the spring, like the morning, like the dew that bleeds across her bare ankles as she runs through a clover-filled meadow, a bounding, gray-furred beast at her side, matching her stride for stride, lope for lope.
The massive head turns, and she falls into eyes piercing and clear and blue, blue as the spring, like the morning, like the dew that slides across her naked flesh as she falls and falls and falls until her whole world is falling and nothing but.
Her landing is soft, but she awakens with a gasp and her hand clenched to a chest which is burning and throbbing to the rhythm of a newly beating heart.
Disoriented, she calls out for an anchor.
The hoarse call pulls Maggie Allen away from her conversation with a nearby medic. Approaching the bed, she lays a gentle hand on Kirsten’s shoulder and smiles. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Doctor.”
The sudden, absolute silence is something she can control, and Kirsten reaches behind her ear, only to have the motion stopped by Allen.
“Woah, woah, wait a minute there, Doc. You remember what happened, right?”
Easily reading the colonel’s lips, a skill she’s had for longer than she cares to remember, Kirsten nods. “I got caught in a self destruct feedback loop.”
“Exactly. The metalhead is out of the picture, but the base’s audiologist got fragged when the droids went over the wall in the first attack. We don’t know if your implants are still working, and if they are, whether or not that feedback loop is still active. Turn them back on, and you could short circuit yourself all over again.”
Kirsten knows enough military lingo to get a good sense of what Allen is trying to tell her, and nods again. “My computer?”
Reaching down by the side of the bed, Maggie grabs Kirsten’s computer and hauls it onto the bed. “Maybe you better tell me what to do, huh? You’ve had a rough time of it.”
The look she receives causes Maggie to throw her hands up and step back. “You’re the doc, Doc.”
Opening the case, Kirsten boots the machine quickly, pleased to see that it wasn’t harmed in what she is quickly coming to term “the event”. Reaching into one zippered pouch, she pulls out a small wire that ends in an electrode and plugs it into a port in her laptop. The electrode she places behind her left ear, pressing softly until it adheres to her skin. One pale finger depresses the ‘enter’ key, and she watches intently as data streams by in unintelligible—to the normal mortal—strings.
With a satisfied grunt, she ends the program and peels off the electrode before turning on her implants. Sound flows back into her world once again. She smiles, briefly, before slumping back against the wall, suddenly more weary than she can ever remember being. The ache is back in her chest, and it sets off a spasm of coughing that makes her feel as if a giant hand has reached down her throat and is even now tearing her lungs from their moorings. Breath is an elusive beast and her gasps chase after it with all their might, capturing only small slices before it slips away again.
She feels herself pushed back into bed by firm hands as a soft oxygen mask is pressed down over her face. Words, intelligible as an insect’s hum, swirl around her head, but she wastes no energy deciphering their meaning. She knows she’s being chided, in any event.
After another moment, the sweet, cool, dry oxygen flows into her lungs, and her hoarse gasping becomes winded pants, and then, as her constricted breathing passages open up to the size of interstate highways, the quiet inspiration of normal breathing.
Standing above her, Maggie’s shoulders slump in relief. “A little warning before you start playing Superwoman next time would be appreciated, Doctor King.”
“Sorry,” Kirsten replies, hoarse voice muffled behind the oxygen mask.
Maggie blinks, mildly shocked at the apology and the slight blush of embarrassment that dusts the younger woman’s cheeks. “Yes. Well….” She clears her throat. “I’m going to leave you alone for a bit, then. Please, Doctor, have the good sense to stay in this bed for awhile, ok? I’ve heard that bumping noses with the Grim Reaper takes something out of a person. Even a person as self sufficient as you.”
Pulling the mask off of her face, Kirsten nods. “I’ll stay. I could use a nap, anyway.”
“I’d imagine so.” Maggie’s tone is wry, to match the small smirk that curves one corner of her mouth. “I’ll see you later, then.”
She is almost to the door of the small hospital room when Kirsten’s voice reaches her again.
“Dakota…Doctor Rivers…she was the one who saved me, wasn’t she.”
Maggie turns to face her. “It was pretty much a team effort, but yes, she’s the one who figured out what was wrong first and started CPR on you. She also shut off your implants. How did you know?”
Her dreamlike trek into the afterworld is slowly fading from her memory, but certain things stand out with crystal clarity. She also knows, with the same clarity of thought, that the experience is something she is loathe to share. “I just…had a feeling.”
Maggie nods, knowing there’s much more to the story, but accepting the statement at face value. Pulling teeth from a rabid wolf would be a cakewalk compared to getting information this woman. “I’ll tell her you’re awake and doing well when I see her.”
“Not a problem.” With a final smile, she exits the room, closing the door softly behind her.
Left alone, Kirsten sinks back into the bed’s soft comfort and stares blankly at the white cork ceiling. The words of the Mother—or whatever it is that the image represents—come back to her as if being whispered just now into her ear.
And for something more, if you have the courage to lay hold of the gift. Will you refuse it?
“What gift?” she asks the ceiling, frustrated. “How can I refuse something if I don’t know what it is?”
But some voice, one that she recognizes comes from within the depths of her own soul, tells her that she already knows the answer to that question, and needs nothing but the courage to listen and understand.
Pondering that voice, she falls into a light, troubled sleep.
Koda stretches luxuriously, planting her feet against the front of the tub. Her shoulders, higher than she would like because the damned thing is not made for six-footers, press against its back. Lightly scented with lavender, steam rises up about her, soothing her sore body, easing the soreness that lingers in mind and spirit. For the first time since setting out into the snow and the alien place her world has become, Koda misses her own home. She misses the firm platform bed; she misses the fireplace, larger than most people’s closets; most of all she misses her bath. The tub, almost deep enough to paddle in, long and wide enough to accommodate more than three quarters of her, had been the first renovation she had made to the hundred-year-old house, even before she and Tali had decided to marry.
Sharp and sweet as the lavender, the memory slips into her consciousness:
Late at night, walking Tali into the bath with her hands over those laughing eyes, both of them naked and languorous from lovemaking, leading her down into the warm water where candles float and the scents of rose and lily of the valley mingle in the rising steam.. Tali, laughing still as they pursue each other through the water like otters, rolling and tumbling, declaring that Koda must have been Cleopatra in a past life. “If I had been,” Koda answers,, “I wouldn’t have bartered my kingdom away with men. I’d have ruled alone except for my favorite handmaiden.”
“Me?” Tali asks.
“Who else?” And she draws Tali close, pinching out the candles one by one until a lone flame casts their shadow, also single, on the wall and lights their wet skin like molten gold.
It had been a lifetime ago, in a different world. As surely as if there were an angel with a flaming sword at its gate, Koda knows she can never go back. It is not only that the world has changed. She has changed, become something new, a creature that can no longer live in the environment that gave birth to her. It is time, she tells herself wryly, to recognize that she cannot go back into the trees. Time to come out of the water and grow legs.
Figuratively, that is. This is her second soak, and she estimates that she has at least another fifteen minutes before the water begins to cool. She had taken ten minutes to shower off the dirt and blood, the acrid stench of black powder that clung to clothing and skin alike. Then she had soaked, her wet hair piled up on top of her head. When the first tub had cooled, she had run a second in defiance of all self-discipline and conservation of resources. She rubs now at the sore spot between her shoulders where she can feel the muscles still bunched. Maybe Maggie can get the knots out later. Maggie, of the long, clever hands and many skills.
Maggie had known without being told to snatch up the phone and order in a medic and a portable defibrillator when Kirsten had arrested while probing the captured droid. Koda still was not entirely sure what had happened or how, but she remembered in every cell of brain and body her horror as the self-assured—all right, be honest, the more than slightly arrogant—scientist had turned pale, her lips and eyelids going blue as she slumped over her terminal, her lungs emptying in a sigh as her chest stilled and her pulse grew silent.
Koda’s nerves and muscles had responded before her brain knew what was happening, clearing the airway, starting the regular compressions of the sternum that would keep the failed heart pumping. One-two. One-two. One-two. At some point the count had become Hey-ah, hey-ah, hey-ah, and from somewhere she had heard the deep resonance of her grandfather’s drum as it beat out the rhythm of the blood chant. Her hands and shoulders pressed down and released in perfect synch, precise as the steps of her brother Phoenix as he stamped out the figures of the grass dance, remaining steady even as she felt her own spirit gather and hurtle out of her body in pursuit of the dying woman’s soul. She had streaked down the spiraling dark after her, howling wordlessly, feeling the insubstantial spine of her spirit form coil and release like a spring as she gave chase. The way had been barred, then, by another in animal form like herself, but still Kirsten had plunged toward the pinprick of brightness that lighted the Blue Road. A woman of power, Koda could walk that path and return, but for someone untrained it led irrevocably into death. Half-panicking then, she had felt herself somehow divided, leaping forward to block Kirsten’s way, warning her back even as she kept pace alongside. Twice, she had been so split, and twice she had failed to catch the other woman’s soul.
Then a blinding light had burst on her just as someone had grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and pushed her out of the way, making room for the defibrillator and the medtechs with it. Her eyes wide and sightless, Koda’s body had reeled backward and collapsed onto the tiles. As Koda hurtled down toward it from an infinite height, she heard Maggie’s low “Damn!” distinct amid the shouts of the medics, then felt the almost physical impact as her spirit slammed back into her flesh with the shock of a meteor burying itself deep in the earth’s rock strata.
Maggie had been holding her when she came to, half in and half out of her lap. Her dark face had been ashen with fear, but she had spoken steadily enough. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Rough landing, that’s all.”
“Hmph,” Maggie had snorted. “I’ve set down easier after one of Osama’s boys tried to put a SAM up my tailpipe.
Koda had gathered her screaming muscles and sat up, only to lower her head into her hands with a groan. The drum was still with her, only this time it was pounding right behind her eyes.
“Doctor Rivers?” Maggie again, formal as always in the presence of subordinates.
“M’okay,” she had said softly, not to reinforce the thunder in her head. “Shamanism 101. Never touch a body whose proprietor is temporarily absent. Bad things can happen.”
“Thought for a moment we had two patients here.” That was the medic, wanting to check her vitals as a pair of orderlies had carried the now steadily breathing Kirsten toward the infirmary. Koda had let him take her blood pressure and her temperature simply because that would take less time than arguing with him.
Then she had headed straight for the bath and the now cooling water.
Carefully, Koda grips the handle on the soap holder and pulls herself up, reaching for the pair of heated towels on the nearby rack. She feels infinitely better, the headache receding now to a dull pain no worse than ordinary tiredness. She needs food. She needs sleep.
She needs to know why Kirsten’s near-death fills her with a terror beyond anything she has ever known.
And she needs to know why that fear is so very familiar, a rooted ache in her heart.
Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related. It is the first teaching of her people. But there is more to it than that. Somehow this woman is part of the hoop of her own life.
She does not yet know how, or why. But she will.
Through lowered lashes Koda gazes at the soft brown globes before her. She runs her tongue over her lips, remembering their velvet smoothness, the firm but yielding texture between her teeth. Her hand moves toward them, hesitates, withdraws. I shouldn’t . I really shouldn’t. It would be too much.
Maggie leans toward her, laughing softly. “Go ahead.”
“No, I really shouldn’t—”
Maggie laughs again, “You know you want it. Go ahead.”
Koda meets the other woman’s eyes, feeling color rising beneath her own cheeks. “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.” Maggie pushes the wicker basket with the one remaining roll across the table. “I’ve never seen you so starved. Have at it.”
Koda knows she is blushing and not for the first time is glad of the coppery skin that masks her embarrassment. But she takes the bread , breaks it in her fingers and begins to mop up the creamy sauce on her plate. From his place under the table, Asi whines pitifully, pawing at her knee. Koda pauses in her pursuit of the last streaks of gravy just long enough to deposit her chop bone in his dish. “Sorry, fella. I didn’t leave you much.”
“You certainly didn’t.” Maggie rises and begins to collect the frying pan and other utensils, scraping them into the compacter beneath the small sink. “I know I’m a decent cook, but I’m not that good. Battle agrees with you.”
There is silence for a moment. Then Koda says, “It does, you know.” Her voice is very quiet, barely audible even to her own ears.
Maggie meets her eyes across the room. “I do know. Want to talk about it once I get the dishwasher going and we can be comfortable?”
Koda hesitates, then nods. Her plate looks as if it has already been washed. Without warning, her stomach growls again.
“Dessert?” Maggie offers. “I think I still have some frozen berries.”
To hell with embarrassment. “Yes, please. I’m sorry—this isn’t the fighting. It’s being out of the body. Exaggerated hunger is a textbook response.”
Maggie stows the last of the dishes and hits the button. The motor whines, gears grating. The Colonel swears and gives it a smart kick; with a reassuring sound of water jets, it finally turns over. “Don’t know what I’ll do when this damn thing gives out now.” Returning her attention to Koda, she raises an eyebrow. “Textbook. Like the low temperature and blood pressure that had the medic wanting to put you into the hospital, too?”
“Just like that.”
“You know, I don’t think I’d have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Hell, if I’d seen it happen to anyone else, I don’t think I’d have believed it.”
“You should have seen my grandfather conduct a yuwipi. What I did was nothing in comparison.”
“Yuwipi?” Maggie pauses with the freezer door open, a bag of small wild blueberries in her hand.
“A spirit-calling ceremony.”
“Well,” says Maggie. “I’m willing to believe what I see with my own eyes. But if you’re going to do something more flamboyant than take a little stroll in the spirit world or the astral plane or whatever, try to give me five minutes warning next time.”
Koda laughs as she accepts a bowl of berries and they move toward the living room. “Count on it. Just as long as I have a bit of warning myself.”
A quarter hour later, Koda sets her empty bowl on the low chest that serves as a coffee table between sofa and fireplace. Asimov has reclaimed his place on the hearth tiles, lying on this back with his forepaws resting on his chest. His tongue lolls out of his mouth as if in his dreams he is licking some last succulent morsel from his whiskers. His soft snoring mingles with the snap and hiss of burning pine branches. The sleep of the just, Koda notes wryly to herself. She glances at Maggie whose face, underlit by the fire, is a study in bronze and shadow, the only points of brightness the reflected flame in her eyes and the glint off the golden bobcat cuff on one ear. She might be some ancient battle goddess, Koda thinks, African or Egyptian.
Sekhmet the lion-headed, Beloved of Ra her father, the One who holds back darkness, Lady of the scarlet-colored garment, Pre-eminent One in the boat of millions of years. As if from a great distance, almost beyond the range of hearing, there comes the soft sound of a small drum and a silvery tinkling of sistrums. Voices, too, though Koda cannot make out their words. Then the music is gone, and there is only Maggie and the sleeping dog and the light of the fire.
And where, for all the gods’ sake, did that come from? Very deliberately, she leans forward and places both hands on the wrought metal hinges of the chest.
Maggie says nothing until Koda pushes herself back against the sofa cushions with a sigh. Then, “Cold iron?”
“Residual effect. Sometimes you stay a bit sensitive for a while.”
“How long?” Maggie makes a circular gesture with one hand that encompasses a myriad of questions.
How long have you been seeing things?
How long have you been wigging out?
How long will it be before you go entirely round the bend?
But that is unfair. Maggie has been far more accepting than any other person of any race but Koda’s own has ever been. She tries to imagine having this conversation with Kirsten King and cannot. Cold iron, indeed.
She says slowly, “I started—being aware—of things other people couldn’t see or hear when I was six or seven. But my grandfather truly began to teach me when I was twelve, after I had done my hanblecheyapi—my first vision quest. What I saw then led me to be a healer, particularly a healer for the four-footed and winged peoples.”
Maggie nods, setting down her coffee cup. “And you are extremely good at it. If it hadn’t been for your license plate, I would never have suspected that you weren’t an MD. Not after the fine work you did on some of my troops that day we ran into the droids.”
“But, see, that’s not the vision I wanted.” Koda meets Maggie’s dark eyes across the small space between them. “I wanted to be a warrior. More than a warrior--Dakota Rivers, liberator of the Lakota Nation.” She feels one side of her mouth quirk up wryly. “Don’t say it. Grandiosity--pass the Thorazine.”
“No, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Maggie says softly. “Do you know, when I was a little girl I had two heroes. One was Sojourner Truth. The other--” Maggie hesitates for a moment, then goes on. “The other was Joan of Arc. See, there was this old movie on the late, late video one night, called The Messenger. Everybody said it was a terrible film, and they’re probably right. But what I saw in Joan was a woman absolutely possessed by her calling—a woman who needed to be a warrior because that’s what her soul was. And her society wouldn’t let her. She found her way, though, even if she died for it in the end.”
“Because that’s what her soul was.” Koda repeats the words slowly. “That’s exactly how it feels. Like some part of me locked away, trying to get out.”
“And now it is out. How do you feel about that?”
“Relieved.” The word comes to her lips without thought. “Lighter. Like I’ve been wearing boots a size too small, and suddenly I can run barefoot.”
“What about killing? You haven’t blown away anything but droids so far, have you? What happens when it’s another human being aiming an M-16 at you?”
Koda starts to give the easy answer, then checks herself. After a moment she says, “I don’t know. I gave one of the men at the bridge that day an overdose, but he was suffering and beyond saving. That’s different.”
“That’s different, yes. If you’re lucky, the first time you have to kill a man or a woman it will go by so fast you won’t have time to think about it. You have the fighting instinct, and I think that will carry you through. There’s something to be said for losing yourself in the battle.” She pauses. “Rise up like fire, and sweep all before you. That’s in a poem somewhere. What’s harder is to order your own troops into a situation they won’t survive. But that you do know about.”
Reeves. Johnson. More to come.
“I know,” she says softly. “I hate it.”
“And that, my dear, is the price of leadership. Because you are not just a warrior, you are a born leader.” Maggie smiles suddenly. “God, I wish I’d gotten my hands on you ten years ago. You’d be the goddamned youngest brigadier in the Air Force.”
Koda smiles in return, tension she has refused to acknowledge draining out of her muscles. “If you’d gotten your hands on me ten years ago, it would have been fraternization and we’d both have been in trouble.”
“Oh, yeah.” Maggie’s face splits in a grin. “But me, I like trouble.” She rises and moves to extinguish the fire. “And so do you, my dear.
“So do you.”
As Kirsten wakes up from the pleasant grip of a rapidly dissipating dream, she finds herself looking into the very eyes that dominated that dream. The transition is so seamless that she can’t help but smile; a rare and radiant smile that transforms her entire face into something beyond simple beauty.
It’s a smile that Dakota, caught totally unaware, can’t help but respond to, and she wonders at that response, even as she wonders at the less than subtle response of her own body as it notices exactly what a smile does for the woman lying on the pristine white sheets of a narrow hospital bed.
After a long moment, both women realize, simultaneously, that they’re grinning at one another like idiots, and each looks away, smiles slowly fading even as roses of embarrassment bloom on their cheeks.
Kirsten finds the weave of her blanket utterly fascinating and plucks at it as Koda rubs the back of her neck, not quite fidgeting, but close.
Koda chuckles a bit, and steps back. “You first.”
The gaze that meets hers is almost—not quite, but almost—shy, and Koda ponders if this morning of wonders portends an omen of some sort.
“I…just wanted to thank you. For saving my life. I, um….”
“It’s alright,” Koda replies, smiling. “I’m glad I was there to help.” Pausing, she looks the young woman over with a clinical eye. “How are you feeling? Any residual effects?”
“I’m feeling…pretty well, actually.”
Silence, dense and uncomfortable, settles over them once again.
“Well, I guess I’d better leave you to your rest. I’ll talk to you later, alright?”
Kirsten smiles. “Alright. And Doctor?”
“Dakota. Please. Just…Dakota.”
Another almost shy smile, and Kirsten nods. “Dakota, then. Thank you, again, for saving my life. I know that sounds painfully inadequate, but….”
“No thanks necessary,” Dakota replies, laying a quick touch on a blanket-covered foot. “I’m glad I was there.” White teeth flash in a brief smile. “Rest up and get stronger, alright?”
“I will. Thanks.”
As the door clicks softly closed, Kirsten leans her head back into the pillow and once again stares into the blank ceiling, her mind busily replaying her most out-of-character behavior. “Jesus,” she whispers. “What in the hell is happening to me?”
The ceiling, wisely, remains mute.
For Linda, with love.
Continued - Chapter 11
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