Disclaimers: In chapter one.
Do virgins taste better than those who are not?
Are they saltier, sweeter, more juicy or what?
Do you savor them slowly, gulp ‘em down on the spot?
Do virgins taste better than those who are not?
As she pulls her new truck into Maggie’s carport, Koda finds herself actually humming along with the jaunty tune. And how long has it been, she asks herself, since I’ve done that? The truck, and the truck’s stash of Celtic and Celtic rock discs, are her unexpected inheritance from the Base’s veterinarian, currently missing in action and presumed taken or killed in the last attack on Ellsworth. Dr. LeFleur’s practice has become hers, too, at least temporarily. Koda has spent the morning vaccinating and treating minor injuries and infections among the survivors’ pets and examining the MPs’ canine contingent. It is the closest thing she has had to a normal day’s work since the uprising began.
As the song ends with the vow that “We’ll just have to make sure there’s no virgins at aaaaallllll” and a disappointed dragon, Koda switches off the engine and collects the filled syringes she has brought from the clinic. She doesn’t know when Asi was last vaccinated, doesn’t know when the chance to give him his boosters may come again. Might as well do it while she can.
He greets her at the door with a bark and a furiously wagging tail, rising up on his hind legs to investigate the stranger smells that cling to her shirt, her boots, her jeans. He follows her into the kitchen, snuffling furiously at her heels and at her knees where she has braced the MP’s dogs against her for their shots. He barks again, sharply, and trots over to the table where Kirsten is seated with her laptop. She looks up from her screen and holds out a hand, which he licks with enthusiasm. The blond woman smiles slightly, rubbing his ears in her turn. While it is not the transforming brilliance Koda remembers from the hospital room, even the small upturn of her lips warms Kirsten’s face almost past recognition. And what, wonders Koda, did the dragon answer?
She feels the heat rise in her face at the thought. To cover her embarrassment she says, “It’s good to see you feeling well enough to sit up. I though we’d go ahead and give Asi his boosters while we have the chance, but I seem to have offended him.”
“How’s that?” The smile, miraculously, has not faded.
“Infidelity.” Koda indicates the dog and cat hairs that still cling to her jeans and the sleeves of her flannel shirt. “I’ve been with other critters all morning. Have you had lunch?”
Kirsten shrugs. “I forgot.”
Let’s see what we’ve got, then.” Koda rummages in the fridge for the tub with last
night’s leftover soup and a wedge of cheese; the pantry yields a box of whole wheat
crackers and some canned peaches.
As she is setting the soup to heat, Maggie’s sportscar pulls up behind the dark blue truck. With an odd sense of combined disappointment and relief, Koda sets out a third bowl and adds another measure of coffee to the brewer. As she turns to tend to the soup, Koda catches a glimpse of Kirsten’s face. One instant the smile is still there. In the next, Maggie crosses the space in front of the kitchen window and the smile freezes, shatters, falls from the woman’s face. Almost Koda imagines she can hear the chime of ice shards against the tiles of the floor.
Maggie strides through the door with a burst of the south breeze that has been blowing all morning, sweeping away the clouds. It is cold still but carries with it a hint that somewhere, far away, snow is melting into spring freshets while crooked shoots push up through the earth toward the sun and the year’s turning. Maggie’s jacket is half off before she closes the door behind her with a shove of her foot. She is back in her flight fatigues and boots, and a delighted grin spreads across her face when she sees Koda. “It’s flying weather—no ceiling and visibility all the way to Denver! Want to come up on recon with me?”
“This minute?” Koda asks with an answering smile. “Or do we get to eat our soup?”
Maggie drapes her jacket over one of the chairs and makes for the sink to wash her hands. “After lunch is fine.” She turns to Kirsten. “Dr. King, I’m glad you’re feeling stronger. When the medics give the okay, I’ll be happy to take you up too, if you’d like.”
“Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate the offer.” Kirsten turns back to the data streaming across her screen. The temperature in the room seems to sink to near-polar levels. Maggie darts a puzzled glance at Koda, who shrugs almost imperceptibly. Lunch has become, in the military dialect Koda is rapidly picking up, a Situation.
The next twenty minutes, as conversation fails entirely and the only sounds are the thump of the oblivious Asi’s tail against the floor and the spoons clinking against the soup bowls, are among the most awkward Koda can remember. It feels rather like the preternaturally stretched out time spent in the hall outside Mother Superior’s office in grade school, never quite certain what offense she had committed, never quite sure how to defend herself.
In the end, she gives Asimov his shots while Kirsten holds him, crooning soothing sounds in his ear and rubs his neck.. As she follows Maggie out to her car to head for the flightline, Koda glances back through the window. Kirsten remains seated at her computer as before, one hand absently stroking the dog’s head in her lap. The other props up her forehead as she stares at the screen, her glasses off and her gaze open and unfocused, all the anger gone. It is a curiously vulnerable look, and Koda senses an isolation behind it that is somehow different from her own aloneness—not so much a longing for what has gone but a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of what might be.
Almost she turns back. She knows she will not be welcome, though, not now. The other woman’s defenses are all back up, the barriers impregnable.
Someday, Koda promises herself as she settles into the passenger seat of the elegant little car.
The plane sits on the apron waiting for them, its canopy up, its ladder down, underwings bristling with missiles. The winter sun gleams off its metal skin, running like liquid silver over the sleek length of the fuselage, striking off the extended wings and the double tail that rises above the afterburners like a pair of ancient banners. The squadron’s gunfighter bobcat is emblazoned in gold and black on both panels, together with the Base’s call letters. Like the fighters parked on the snow bound road the day she first met Maggie and her band of resisters, this machine of titanium and steel and lexan seems somehow alive, a beast of prey lost in time. A frisson that is half fear, half excitement runs along her spine. The warplane is freedom and feral grace, and unrestrained power. It calls to her spirit in the wolf tongue that is as much hers as human speech.
Something of her feelings must show on her face , because Maggie touches her lightly on the shoulder and says, “Oh, yeah. It gets to everybody first time.”
Koda turns to the pilot with a smile. “Even to you?”
“Especially to me. It’s never stopped getting to me.” Maggie’s eyes go soft the way they do in bed, and she says, “The first time I ever saw one of these beasts I wanted to run off into the woods with it and have its cubs.”
“Or chicks.” Maggie settles her helmet on her head and motions to the ground crew who have gathered in a sunny spot where the enormous bulk of a C-5 breaks the wind. “Whatever. It’s a primal urge kind of thing.”
The tech chief takes up his place at the foot of the ladder, while the others slip their protective earmuffs into place and the traffic director postions herself to guide the plane onto the runway. Maggie takes a moment to double-check Koda’s flight suit and helmet, adjusts the automatic pistol strapped under her arm. Apparently satisfied, the Colonel gives her a small push. “Up you go.”
The ladder only reaches halfway to the cockpit. From there, Koda finds the hand and foot holds built into the side of the plane and with an upward push maneuvers herself into the rear seat, ducking a little not to hit her helmeted head against the edge of the canopy. She fits into the confined space as if it had been molded to her. As she settles, she takes note of the bank of lights and switches and dials that occupy the control panel. The plane can be flown from her station, but ordinarily the second seat is occupied by the radar intercept officer, and two LED screens and other readouts take up most of the space in front of her. Maggie follows her up, and from her perch on the fixed portion of the wing supervises as Koda secures herself to the ejection seat and straps her oxygen mask into place. She points to a red-lighted button on the panel. “See that?”
Koda nods. The weight of the helmet carries her head forward; is not uncomfortable, exactly, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of a morning after.
“Good. That’s the ejection button. Don’t go anywhere near it unless I tell you to or you know for sure I’m dead or unconscious. Your chute should open automatically in that case, but if it doesn’t”—she reaches for a cord attached to the seat and drapes it over Koda’s shoulder”—“here’s your manual.”
Koda grins up at her. “The things normal flight attendants don’t tell you.”
Maggie snorts, an entire dissertation on commercial aviation in a single sound. She points to a couple toggles by the screens. “There’s your camera switch; I’ll tell you when to turn it on. That’s the zoom—you’ve probably heard that these babies can pick up the dimples on a golf ball. This one can pick up a flea sitting in the dimple of a golf ball. Anything interesting you see on either of these screens—moving blip on the radar, moving anything on the video--you pass it up to me with this. Capiche?”
“Got,” Koda answers.
“Good.” Maggie switches on her mike, gives her a pat on the shoulder and, with grace born of long practice, swings along the fuselage and up into her own seat in front. After a moment or two, Koda’s mike crackles. “You all right back there?”
“Okay. Let’s take her up.”
As Maggie starts the engines, the Tomcat shudders and begins to vibrate, sending a tingle of excitement through Koda’s nerves. She has flown before and loves it, but has never before felt this sense of intimacy with the craft. Following the hand signals of the traffic director, the plane begins its taxi onto the runway, turning stately onto the long stretch of pavement, making for the northern end. Maggie’s voice comes through the speaker. “Watch your head. I’m putting the lid down.”
As the canopy descends, the plane makes its second turn to face south, into the wind. Maggie kicks the engines in full, and the plane shudders a second time with the force that, once in the air, will send it racing ahead of its own sound. For long moments the plane remains stationary, its power held in check. Then Maggie throws the throttle open, and the jet is streaking down the runway at a speed that presses Koda into her seat and takes her breath away. Her heart pounds against her sternum and shouts to be let out, blood running in her ears with the roar of the Colorado in spring flood. Between one breath and the next, it seems, she feels the nose come up and the lift of air beneath the wings, and they are airborne, climbing steeply into the clear, impossible blue of the afternoon. The ascent goes on and on, leveling out finally when the land beneath is no more than intricate swirls of brown and green and white, with the course of the occasional river cut into it like the trunk of a vast tree, its tributary streams forking off
into branches and twigs.
The craft banks into a turn, and sun glints off the wing and the canopy in bursts like small stars gone nova. When they level off again, the wings sweep back close to the body of the plane, like a falcon stooping. All around her now is the open sky, and with it a sense of perfect freedom. There is only herself and the blue air and the wings that carry her.
This must be how it feels to be Wiyo.
The tang of oxygen flowing into her mask brings her out of her reverie, followed closely by Maggie’s voice. “Engage the camera and radar now. We’re going to make a sweep up the Cheyenne and then follow the Missouri into North Dakota..”
Koda thumbs the toggles and stares at the images that rise to her screen. She can make out the rectangular shapes of roofs, outlined in shadow, as they pass over the small villages that dot this part of the state. Beside them stand tall hardwoods, winter-naked, or evergreens with fans of needles spread against the unvarying snow. When she engages the zoom, antennas and chimneys stand out of the snow that blankets the roofs. Once she sees a pair of deer, or elk, perhaps, breaking their way through the snow that covers the main street of a small town. Abandoned cars and farm machinery form mounds in the spaces between the houses, anonymous under the snow.
“Negative,” she responds. “Mostly snow, apparently abandoned homes, buried vehicles.”
“Hang on, then.”
With no more warning than that, Maggie flips the fighter over in a barrel roll. Koda gasps with surprise, then yells into her mike. “Do that again!”
Maggie rolls the plane twice more, then streaks out of the third flip upside down, with earth turned suddenly to sky and the blue depths of the sky below. Koda feels the adrenaline pouring into her blood, hitting her brain in a rush of pure physical pleasure. . Then they are rightside up again, and Maggie is laughing through the mike. “Liked that, did you?”
“Gods, yes!” she all but yells. “That was wonderful!”
“Okay. Tell me if this gets uncomfortable.”
The fighter begins to climb, straight up, corkscrewing. The ascent becomes a curve becomes a loop, and they are upside down again, sweeping into a descent that has left all sound behind except the low whisper of breath, and Maggie brings them out again into even flight for a space before the plane skims along its upward trajectory for the second time. The G-force holds Koda motionless, back pressed into her cushions, the whole force of their speed against her solar plexus. The sensation rides the thin line between pain and pleasure , pleasure and sensory overload. Then they are plunging down from the sky to skim no more than three or four meters above the snow along a thin flat stretch or road, only to climb again at an impossibly steep angle, reaching toward the edge of the envelope of air that is the first frontier between earth and space. When Maggie levels off again, five miles up, Koda’s breath comes in little gasps and her rational mind has gone AWOL. When a thought finally forces its way upward from the part of her brain that is still functioning, it is sex. It feels like sex. Her blood sings in her veins, her sated muscles hum. I want to have its babies, too. Hatch its eggs. Whatever.
The sensation fades gradually over the next half hour as they quarter the landscape beneath them. Maggie flies a straight-line grid pattern over the ruins that were once population centers, but they can detect no gathering of humans or droids, no movement that is not solitary. Roads have become largely impassible and look fit to remain so till spring thaw. Many will still be blocked then, by storm-felled trees or the tangled remains of accidents. They have been flying for a little more than two hours when Koda picks up a line of—something-–moving on the highway leading south from Bismarck.. She zooms in on it, tweaking the fine focus. “Maggie. Have a look.”
She transfers the image to the pilot’s readout, but she knows already what she sees. It is a column of troops, some droid, some apparently human, preceded by a coterie of snowplows and followed by a contingent of armor. There are personnel carriers, several tanks, a dozen flatbed trucks loaded with something long and rectangular. Construction materials? She tweaks the image again, and the cargo comes into focus. Mobile missile launchers.
“This,” Maggie says dryly, “is not good. I’m gonna take ‘em out here and now. Hang onto your hat.”
Maggie kicks in the afterburners, and the Tomcat comes streaking down out of the sky with the sun behind it. Half a mile above the column, she releases a long stick of precision-guided five-hundred pounders, laying them down with mathematical exactitude in the center of the long column, spaced precisely to destroy everything on the road. The explosions are muffled by distance and the roar of the jet’s engines. On the video screen, Koda watches as the mobile launcher swivels on its truckbed to get them in its sights. A puff of smoke in the frigid air, and a long, lean shape rises toward them. Maggie has already seen it; even as Koda forwards the image to the pilot, she feels a faint thump as a Sparrow missile leaves its roost on the plane’s flank and streaks to intercept the enemy fire. The kill is almost instant, a burst of flame and vapor in the cold air. The plane swerves wildly as a second ground-to-air missile passes by without harm, a clean miss.
There is no third try. Maggie turns to makes her second bombing run, and when she slows for the final pass to check and record results, nothing moves along the road at all.
“And that,” she says quietly, “is the end of that.”
The flight back to Ellsworth is swift and straight. When the Tomcat comes once again to rest by its hanger, Koda finds, like a child at the carnival, that she does not want the afternoon to be over. As she climbs down the ladder, she runs her hand over the plane’s sleek skin, all cool steel and titanium belying the fire within.
“In love, are you?” Maggie smiles at her, unstrapping her helmet and tucking it under her arm.
“A little,” she admits. She feels the silly grin spread across her face, and can do nothing to stop it. ‘When can we do it again?”
At that, Maggie laughs outright. “You know, I really do wish I could have gotten my hands on you ten years ago. You’d have made one hell of a pilot. You got the tape?”
Koda hands the Colonel the small cassette with the record of their engagement. It is the first indication they have that humans are collaborating with the droids. It is also the first evidence of large-scale droid movements since the uprising. Serious matters both, and they are on their way to the General with their report without bothering to change their flight suits.
But sheer joy runs in Koda’s veins and will not be denied. “You’d have been a hell of a teacher. But don’t you think one Rivers in your squadron is enough?”
It is a rare warm—if temperatures in the single digits can be considered warm—winter’s morning, and Dakota drives along the snow-packed roads with her window rolled halfway down and her gloved hand curled around the door’s support, long fingers splayed against the roof. She’s humming softly to herself; a song heard, and remembered, from long ago. One of Tali’s favorites, if she recalls correctly.
The truck rattles and buzzes and screeches, but she pays it no mind as her fingers tap out the rhythm of her humming on the salt-dusty roof. Nor does she pay special heed to the scent, old coffee, old sweat, and something high and sour and rank that she doesn’t even want to identify, that emanates from the truck’s interior.
She’s soaring high, caught up in the exhilarating memories of flying with Maggie the day before. The sense of unbounded, heady freedom was something she had only felt during her dream journeys; journeys always taken in a form other than human. The incandescent rush is with her still, and she wraps it around her like a blanket, feeling very much as she did the when she first kissed Tali, behind the stables in the moonlight.
“Kiss? Hell,” she snorts into the truck’s warm cab. “It felt closer to what we did on our wedding night! Jesus.” A pleasant shiver skitters down the length of her spine, and her limbs break out in temporary gooseflesh.
“Ok,” she intones as her inattention to detail almost runs her off the road, “that’s quite enough of that. Mind on the road, Rivers, and outta your pants, if you please.”
Looking up into the pristine winter sky, she sees a large flock of birds pacing her truck. The flock is suddenly split almost directly down the middle, and wheels off to the left and to the right as another airborne object dives down through the vacated space like a star falling from the heavens.
Koda’s face splits into a grin as the dive bomber levels out and casts its shadow along the unbroken snow just to the right of her truck. “Welcome back, old friend.”
As if hearing her, Wiyo’s call pierces the silence of the still morning as the red-tail glides on currents of air, shadowing Dakota’s return to the place of her birth.
Still grinning, she turns left over the cattle-guard that marks the entrance to her parents’ property and starts down the long, snow covered and ruler-straight road that will lead her to the family compound. She is being watched, she knows, by creatures human and non, but she senses no danger from the watching, and so continues on, still humming.
Off in the distance, to her left, she sees a white mist rising. It’s either a vehicle moving in her direction, or….
“Ah,” Koda says, laughing as the mist resolves itself into something easily recognizable. Her laughter is rich and full-bodied, breathing life into the woman she had once been and might yet be again.
The herd moves closer, with Wakinyan Lutah, her huge blood bay stallion, leading them. His black mane flutters like a war banner as he approaches the fence and rears, slashing forefeet pawing at the air, clots of snow flinging from his well-shod hooves.
Her laugh is that of a young girl; boundless, full of life, and joy. Pulling over to the side of the road, she jumps out of the truck before it has come to a complete stop, striding across the road even as the heavy beating of air above her head almost knocks her hat off.
Wiyo lands on the top rung of the fence and proceeds to strut across it and back, like a miniature general before a platoon.
Wakinyan Lutah rears again, slashing hooves coming perilously close to the red-tail. Wiyo stares at him, completely unperturbed, and settles her wings more comfortably over her back before resuming her walk along the fence.
“C’mere ya big baby,” Koda says, rolling her eyes and holding her hand out over the fence.
Nervously eyeing the red-tail (Dakota believes she can see the proud gleam in Wiyo’s eye even from where she’s standing), the stallion sidesteps closer to the fence until he is able to nudge Koda’s hand with his nose, whuffling a great, warm breath into her palm.
“Hey, boy,” Koda says fondly, rubbing his nose and that spot between his ears that has him all but groaning in ecstasy. His coat is winter thick and gleams in the winter sunlight like freshly spilled blood. The comparison causes Dakota to wince and swallow hard as it dredges up memories best left buried until she has time to dissect them.
After a moment, Wakinyan backs up and tosses his head in an unmistakable invitation.
When Dakota doesn’t respond to his satisfaction, he whickers, tosses his great head again, and paws at the snow, digging deep ruts into the frozen ground beneath. Breath streams from his nose in foggy jets.
Unhappy with the sudden wind that ruffles her feathers, Wiyo hops onto Koda’s forearm, then sidesteps up to her shoulder and expresses her displeasure with a loud hiss. These two are rivals of old, and Koda can’t help but chuckle at their long familiar, and much beloved, antics.
After the stallion gives a final call, Koda shakes her head and sighs. “Oh, alright,” she says, sounding more aggrieved than she really is. After taking one last look over her shoulder at the truck parked by the side of the road, she hitches in a breath and vaults over the fence, dislodging the red-tail, who hisses again and beats at the air with her huge wings, taking low flight.
Wakinyan nods his head, shaking out his mane.
Another deep breath, and she vaults aboard the stallion’s broad, muscular back, threading her fingers firmly in his mane. A light touch of her heels to his flank, and he wheels, and takes off, flying across the snow-packed ground, the herd following close behind.
Dakota whoops with pleasure. Her hair, exactly matching the color of her horse’s mane, streams behind her in inky waves, her eyes flash, and her full, perfect lips split in a wide, take-no-prisoners grin. Her spirit soars as the land passes beneath her in a blur of white on white, and she feels a sense of connectedness that has been absent for a long, long time.
She is wild.
She is free.
She is home.
With a grunt of frustration, Kirsten wrings the glasses from her face and tosses them on the battle-scarred desk upon which her computer rests. Hours upon hours upon hours of searching and nothing worth a fart in a windstorm to show for it.
Leaning back in her chair, she rubs a numb hand over weary eyes, then looks down at Asi, who lifts his head and thumps his tail in a canine hello. The house is quiet, almost sterile in a way that only military housing can sometimes be. Outside the window, the afternoon is crisp, clear, and blessedly sunny. Looking upon the colorful parade of passers by, she once again feels that unwanted but familiar sense of dispossession and dislocation. On the outside looking in. Again.
It doesn’t have to be that way, Little K. Her father’s voice intrudes into her thoughts, frustrating her with its always maddening logic. Nothing’s keeping you locked inside. Nothing except you.
“Shut up, Dad,” she mutters, pinching the bridge of her nose where a headache threatens to erupt. “Just…shut up. Please.”
She realizes that that little internal thought masquerading as her father’s voice might have a point, though. Perhaps some fresh air would do her good, a distraction that might help her subconscious continue to unravel the mystery of the code on its own with no further help from her.
“Worth a shot, anyway,” she comments to the bare walls surrounding her. They, as is their lot, stare back mutely, neither condemning nor condoning.
Rising to her feet, she steps from the room and into the short hallway. Quite without meaning to, she finds her glance drawn into the open portal of the master bedroom. There, draped across the comforter, lays the Colonel’s robe, and casually draped across that is the very shirt Kirsten had seen Dakota wear the day before.
The simple, careless, wholly domestic intimacy of the vision twists something deep inside, and although she’s completely unaware of the sneer that twists her features, a mirror would tell her that it is, in fact, there.
We’re not going there. Not even partway. She deliberately turns her attention away. Air. That’s what you need. Fresh air, and sunshine, and…damn! Tears sting her eyes, liquid accusations that she rubs away with a savage forearm, denying all they might stand for.
“Let’s go, Asi. Time for a walk.”
Asi streaks by her like a bullet, dancing and panting at the doorway as his favorite word is spoken. His antics draw a reluctant chuckle from Kirsten, and, with the sense almost of taking a dare, she grabs one of Dakota’s jackets from its post on the coat-rack. Lighter than heavy, military-issue parka she had been wearing, it also brings with it a sense of…comfort? The scent of the woman who had previously worn it permeates the cloth, and Kirsten wraps it around her in a moment of pure—and exceedingly rare—self indulgence.
Asimov’s impatient whine draws her from this reverie, and she quickly twists the doorknob. Asi bolts out before the door is more than partly opened, barking and kicking up huge fans of snow in a burst of wholly canine energy.
Kirsten follows behind at a more leisurely pace, accepting and returning smiles and nods from the soldiers and civilians passing by. Without thought, she allows her feet to take her where they will. Asimov, his burst of hyperactivity quelled for the moment, returns to her and follows along, glued to her heel.
As she walks, her gaze darts here and there, capturing isolated images that fit, like puzzle pieces, into a greater tableau.
A group of soldiers, armed to the teeth, drilling in precision step.
A small group of children—far too small, now—preparing for a battle of their own, with snowballs and snowforts instead of bullets and battlements.
Uniformed young men, bearing the scars of an undeclared war, limping along shoveled paths.
Civilian-clad young women, bearing the scars of the same undeclared war, shuffling along those same paths, their gazes lost and frightened and alone.
Others, seemingly unaffected, pass quickly by, laughing and joking with friends newly met. Kirsten yearns to scream at them, to tell them to stop, to have respect for the hurt and the grieving and the dead. The dead, who are now no more than mounds of slowly melting snow, watched over by an honor guard and a tattered flag.
Holding back her anger by the barest of frayed threads, she continues her walk past row upon row of military housing. The faces that stare back at her through heavy glass tell tales of their own, and for the first time, she feels a sense of kinship with these people, these strangers, these survivors of a war none had asked for and all had suffered through.
Another first—she admits, even if only in the tiniest corner of her heart, that perhaps it has been her own pride that has fueled her anger and frustration. Perhaps it is her own savage joy at being proven right all along, and her need to stand upon those unoffered laurels, and in so standing, further prove herself savior of this newly begotten world that has alienated her from the very people she is trying to save.
It’s not that her pride, her need to point her finger into the face of humanity and shout “I told you so!”, is a deliberate attempt to prolong suffering as a form of payback for the laughter that’s followed her these last years. No, nothing so vile as that.
Most of her turns its internal back on these newfound revelations in a sort of primative self-defense mechanism. Self-blame is an emotion this world can ill-afford.
Resolving to think on this later, she abruptly turns and begins the trek back to her temporary home, her agile mind already returning to the problem of the code, the code, that damnable code.
Grunting softly, Koda lowers her weary body onto the top support of the corral fence, hooking one leg behind the middle support and resting gloved hands against thighs tense and more than a bit sore. The warm spell has continued, making spring a promise instead of a fantasy dreamt only by poets. Stripped of her heavy jacket, she sits at ease in a down-filled vest, flannel shirt, and jeans. Well-sprung cowboy boots are clotted with mud and snow and muck and will need to come off before she gets within shouting distance to the family home. She smiles, all but hearing her mother’s warning tones.
To the west, the sun is preparing to set beyond winter-bare trees. The sky is a riot of color and the clouds are gilded with rose and purple and gold.
It is a peaceful time that appeals to her need for solitude.
For the past three days she has been immersed in the concerns and troubles of her immediate family and neighbors. Her family’s huge ranch has become a haven for the dispossessed. Orphans, widows, widowers, and the occasional full family unit now take up residence on the three thousand acre spread. The house and all its outbuildings are jammed with grieving people, each with a story to tell. Koda believes she’s heard them all, most more than once. A new oral tradition is forming, a history kept in the mind and on the tongue, like the history of old. Her oldest sister, Virginia, has already set several of the stories to song as a way of remembering. It is the way of their people, a way of making sure that these stories are never forgotten.
For the past seventy two hours, her mother has stuck to her as if glued, finding reasons to touch her, to hug her, to simply look at her through deep, fathomless eyes.
“The prodigal daughter returneth home,” Koda says softly, a wry laugh escaping into the slight breeze.
An answering cry sounds from overhead, and bare moments later, Wiyo lands on the fence next to her, settles her feathers, and looks up at her, head cocked inquisitively.
“Good hunting?” Koda asks, grinning at her friend.
Wiyo sidles closer until they are touching, then settles and begins to preen. Dakota feels tears sting her eyes at the simple, and sacred, beauty of the moment. It is something she will profoundly miss when she leaves again, quite probably for the last time.
Blinking those tears away, she looks back at the setting sun, and all that surrounds her. This is her home, the place where her soul knows its only peace. And yet, to be who she must, to become who she will, she must leave both it and the peace it offers behind.
She senses the presence behind her a split second before a light touch descends on her shoulder.
A deep laugh sounds behind her as Tacoma moves to the fence. “Those eyes in the back of your head have grown larger, I see. Hau, tanski. Hau, Wiyo.”
The redtail cocks a disinterested eye toward the large man before returning to her preening.
“Beautiful evening,” Tacoma remarks, leaning forward to rest his forearms against the top rail.
“That it is,” Koda agrees. With the sound of thunder, the herd comes over the ridge and runs by, Wakinyan leading them. The herd’s size has nearly doubled in the weeks Koda has been away, and she looks on, impressed. “He covering them all?”
“Oh yeah. He’s gonna be one happy boy come spring.”
Koda shoots him a look before returning her attention to the setting sun.
The two sit in companionable silence until the sun disappears behind the horizon and twilight descends, bringing with it a soft peace of its own.
Finally, Tacoma speaks. “I’m coming with you, you know.”
Shifting on the fence rail, Koda looks down at her brother. “What?”
“When you leave. I figure that’s gonna be either tomorrow or the day after. I recognize the signs.”
Tacoma grins, a touch smugly. “How long have I known you? You’re as restless as a cougar in heat, tanski. You love this.” A large hand splays, indicating the ranch. “But your soul is calling you elsewhere.”
Koda dips her head, a touch embarrassed at being so easily read. Tacoma chuckles softly, soothing her with a light touch to her broad back.
“You always were a wandering spirit,” he continues, tone reflective. “It surprised the hell out of me when you bought the ranch down the road and settled in.”
“Tali,” Koda answers, her own voice quiet as her brother’s. “She was happy here. And I…a big part of me was too.” A pause, then softer still, “Still is.”
“But that other part, it’s gotten bigger, hasn’t it.”
“You’ve changed, tanski.” Tacoma holds up a hand. “No, no, not in a bad way. It’s just….” He sighs, trying to put his thoughts into words. “Ina always said that you were born winyan.”
Dakota turns wide eyes to him, and he laughs.
“No, not to your face. You got into far too much mischief for her to ever let you know that out loud. But she’s always been proud of you. Ate too. And you know the younger ones worship you. Hell, even I do.”
Feeling a hot blush coming on, Koda turns away, glad for the evening breeze which has sprung up with the setting of the sun. It cools her skin, but does nothing for the rapid beat of her heart.
Caught up in his own thoughts, Tacoma doesn’t notice—or has the sense, at least, to pretend he hasn’t. “As I said, you were always self-possessed and mature, even when you were a wild child.” He laughs, remembering. “Which was most of the time. But now…now you have… wakhan. I can feel it coming off of you, even when you’re sitting still, like now. It’s just….” Head lowered, he sighs again. “I wish I had better words to explain.”
“I’ve experienced many things in these past weeks,” Koda replies, still looking to the horizon.
“I’ve heard the stories. Though I assume you edited them for Ina and Ate. Ina especially.”
Koda turns finally to look at him. “Wouldn’t you?”
The two siblings share a quiet laugh.
Dakota sobers. “There’s a great battle coming, thiblo. I can feel it here.” She pounds her thigh. “In my bones.”
“Not here.” Tacoma indicates the ranch again.
“No. This place is safe enough. For now at least.”
“I believe so. I don’t know how I know, I just know that I do.”
“Which is why I’m coming with you.”
Koda rounds on him again. “No, Tacoma. You can’t. You need….”
“To stay here?” His voice is strong, steady, and brooks no contention. “You yourself just admitted that this place is safe.”
“For now, I said.”
“For now,” he concedes. “But it’s as well guarded as any army camp, Dakota. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. We’ve got enough weapons and ammunition to last us for years, if need be, and everyone on this ranch, from the youngest on up, knows how to use them.”
“No buts. I am Tacoma Rivers, Staff Sergeant in the US Army. I am a Lakota warrior. I can no more stand by than you can. If there is to be a battle, I mean to be there.”
“Ina will never let that happen.”
“Ina doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I am wichasha. I run my own life, and rule my own destiny.”
“And cower like a hokshila when Ina shoots one look at you,” Koda replies, smirking.
Tacoma can’t help but laugh, knowing his sister’s words for truth. Their mother runs the house with an iron fist, and no one dares deny her reign, not even her husband.
“I need to do this, Dakota,” he says finally. “No matter what, I need to do this.”
Taking her brother’s hand in hers, she gives it a firm squeeze, and looks deep into his eyes. “I know.”
Falling silent again, both turn to the sliver of the moon as it rises over the skeletons of trees as old as time.
“No. You won’t go. I forbid it.”
“No. This discussion is finished. Now leave me, both of you. I have dinner to prepare.”
Stepping away from the juggernaut who is their mother, Tacoma shoots a pleading look to Koda, who rolls her eyes and steps forward, careful not to touch. “Ina, please.”
Themungha whirls, eyes fierce and filled with tears she won’t allow to fall. “I told you to leave me be, Dakota.”
“I can’t do that, Mother. I won’t do that.”
“Who is winyan here?” she demands, her brow like thunderheads amassing before a storm.
“We both are.” Her eyes soften. “Please, Ina. We need to talk about this.”
Sighing, Themungha looks at her daughter, then past her to where several not-quite familiar faces stare back with varying degrees of discomfiture. “Go on with you!” she demands, scowling and flapping her arm at them. “I’ll let you know when the meal has been prepared.”
The small group scatters like startled quail, leaving only mother, daughter, and son behind.
“Start talking.” Arms folded across her chest, Themungha is a formidable sight. Tacoma swallows hard, but Dakota refuses to be cowed.
“I’ll talk only when you are ready to listen to my words, Ina.”
The thunderheads reappear, then scatter. Proud neck unbent, Themungha nevertheless lets her daughter know by her body language that she’s ready to listen.
“The danger. It isn’t over, Ina.”
“All the more reason you are needed here, Dakota. To protect your thihawe. There is no greater need than that.”
“Our family is protected, Ina. I have seen it. I have spoken with our neighbors, the men and women and children who have come to live here. They will protect this place, and everyone in it, with their lives.”
Themungha’s voice carries with it deep, biting sarcasm. “Oh, and you are demanding that they do what you will not?”
“I demand nothing from them, Ina. They do what they do of their own free will. As I do. As Tacoma does.”
“And that is supposed to make me feel better?” her mother shouts, all but shaking the rafters. “That they will stay and fight, and you will run?”
“I’m not running, Mother. You know this.”
“All I know is what I see. You are leaving us to defend ourselves while you go who knows where and take my oldest son with you.”
Tacoma steps in, his voice even, but firm. “I would go with or without Dakota, Mother.”
Themungha turns to her son, tears finally spilling over onto her rounded cheeks. “Takuwe?”
“Because I am needed.”
“You are needed here!”
Tacoma shakes his head, saddened by his mother’s tone, yet resolute. “I am needed there more.”
Themungha turns away, her face and almost ugly in its anger. “Let the washichun take care of himself.”
“Ina!” Tacoma gasps.
She rounds on them both. “It’s true!” she shouts again. “Where were they when our land was stripped from us? Where were they when our women were raped and our men were slaughtered like sheep? Where?!?”
“Not even born,” Dakota replies, her voice flat and devoid of any emotion. Tacoma stares on, shocked at his mother’s sudden bigotry.
“Oh?” Themungha retorts. “And I suppose it was ghosts who sent you home battered and bloody from school? It was ghosts who spat in your face when you walked into town? Who called you names that took the light out of your eyes and put a stone mask on your face instead? Was it, chunkshi?”
“You know it wasn’t, Ina.”
With a savage nod of her head, Themungha puts her hands on ample hips and stares at them both, obviously believing the matter decided to her satisfaction.
“Mother,” Dakota begins softly. “You raised me to be the woman I am. A woman who will fight for what is right, and just, and good. There are thousands of innocent women and children trapped in prisons all over this country. Thousands more wander, lost and alone, and in fear for their lives. If I turn my back on them because they are not Lakota, I am no better than the people who beat and spit on me because I am.” Lowering her head just slightly, she levels her gaze into her mother’s bottomless eyes. “Is that the woman you raised me to become?”
She sighs when there is no answer.
“If so, then I’m sorry I failed you, Ina.” Turning to Tacoma, she says, “I’ll be leaving at sunrise. With you or without you.”
“I’ll be there,” Tacoma replies.
After a last, long look at their mother, brother and sister turn away and leave the room.
When they are gone, Themunga’s face crumples. Her body shakes with sobs finally released. A soft tread heralds the entrance of Wanbli Wakpa, who approaches his wife and wraps her tenderly in his massive arms. Stroking her hair, he comforts her as best he can, knowing it can never be enough.
And here we are at the end of another episode. We hope you all continue to enjoy. Feedback is, as always, gratefully appreciated. Drop us a line, if you like, at email@example.com. See you next week!
Continued - Chapter 12
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