Disclaimers: In chapter one.
Please note: There is a Lakota-English translation of the Lakota words used in this episode at the bottom of the page.
The early sun lies lightly on the valley, spreading a transparent wash of gold over the new snow that blankets the meadow to the southeast of the river. From the low bank to the woods, still bare with the lingering cold, it lies porcelain smooth for almost half a kilometer. Branches of beech an sycamore cast their shadows across it in a grey-blue web as delicate as a spider’s. Here and there among the trees, a peeling of bark takes the light in a flash of silver, almost indistinguishable from the occasional glint off metal where the line of soldiers stands along the margin of the trees. Koda can make out the long barrels of the two howitzers drawn up behind them only because she already knows where to look. Below the downslope of the hill where she stands, mist rises off the Cheyenne to curl around the pylons and rails of the narrow bridge, coiling, loosing and coiling again as it spirals across the meadow, breaking like surf where it climbs against the steeply rising piedmont of the Paha Sapa to the northwest. Tacoma and most of their infantry lie concealed in the folds of those basalt ridges. The mist gives them further cover as it seeps by fissure and rock chimney into the badlands, though it cannot hide them from heat or infrared sensors.
By the time the enemy picks them up, though, it should be too late.
“I feel as if I’ve slipped back in time.”
Koda lowers her binoculars and turns to face Maggie. She gestures at her face, with its painted lightning bolt and hailstones, the devices worn almost a hundred and fifty years ago by Tshunka Witco, Crazy Horse of the Oglala. “You mean this?”
Maggie shakes her head slightly. “I mean this.” The sweep of her hand takes in the valley and its troop emplacements open and concealed. “The conventional doctrine of modern warfare is to pound the enemy down with bombs and missiles first. The ground forces only go in when you’re ready to mop up or have to fight house to house. There hasn’t been a true set battle like this in—oh, a century, not since the first of the World Wars.”
“Forward, into the past.” The voice is soft and lightly humorous.
Koda and Maggie both turn startled eyes on Kirsten where she sits in the back of the troop carrier. Her laptop is deployed on the folding table in the center, connected by a rat’s nest of wire and cables to the bank of communications consoles stacked up along and below one of the benches. A small smile starts just at the edges of her mouth, widens as Koda and the Colonel stare. Then she turns demurely back to her readouts, clicking rapidly through a series of equipment checks. “All on line, Colonel,” she says, serious again. “Please try your audio links now, Dakota.”
Koda slips off the hood of her jacket and secures the headset in place. “Tacoma.. Tacoma.. Ayupte.”
“Hau, tanksi. Manah’i blezela.”
She nods to Maggie and Kirsten, both of whom look relieved. They had been concerned that the radio signal might be blocked by the same rock formations that conceal the troops. Runners were not going to work in this kind of fight, not with a river in between them. And line-of-sight signals would only draw the enemy’s attention to the command post, where it was least wanted.
“Wikcemna-topa,” she acknowledges. “Manny.”
“Manah’i hotanka na blezela.”
Koda gives a thumbs-up as Manny breaks the link. He and his squadron of Black Hawks and Apaches wait five miles to the north of their position, set down on a straight stretch of farm road to await Maggie’s signal.
“Jurgensen. Major Jurgensen. Ayupte.”
Frank Jurgensen is a blond Wisonsin farm boy turned Marine Major who has not a drop of Lakota blood. He has not a word of the language, either, except for the half-dozen signals Koda has drilled him in. His answer is awkward but clear: “Ma-na-hee blay-zay-luh.” Then, for a flourish, because he is a Marine, “Wikeem-nah topa.”
“Wikcemna-topa,” she answers. Turning to Kirsten, she smiles briefly. “All good to go. No static, no language problems.”
“Good,” says Maggie. “At least we can get a courier to the guys on this side if we lose the major or he loses his vocabulary list.” To Kirsten, “Are you picking up any of their chatter?”
Kirsten enters a code on the laptop and listens intensely for a moment. “They’re coming straight down the road. They should be getting into the first of the anti-tank mines—“
A sudden soft thump sounds to the northwest where the road winds through a stretch of lava flats. Koda turns on her heel, focusing on a thin column of smoke that rises into the clear air.
“—right about now,” Kirsten finishes. She scowls, adjusting her headset. “They weren’t expecting that. They’ve stopped. An armored personnel carrier hit the mine; the passengers are all dead—they were all human, apparently--and the shrapnel’s taken out a couple droids.”
“That one of yours?” Maggie asks Koda with a grin.
“Mine or Tacoma’s. They—“
“They’re going off road,” Kirsten interrupts.
Maggie shoots Koda a questioning look and she answers, “They can’t go overland in this terrain, Colonel. They’ll have to get back on the highway. Not that it matters.”
A second muffled explosion follows, and a third.
Koda nods, focusing the binoculars, searching for smoke. There is none this time. “Military droids?” she asks Kirsten.
Kirsten holds up her hand for quiet. After a moment she says, “They’re going to stay on the road. They figure we can’t have mined the whole stretch of highway. . .. They’re sorting their troops out. . .. humans in front. . . regular droids off to the side. . . .their armor . . .heavy-duty metalheads last and further out.”
“They’ve sure as hell got their priorities sorted out,” Maggie snorts. “You know, I keep forgetting they’re machines. I keep hating the bastards.”
“I keep hating Westerhaus,” Kirsten bites the words off. “I keep hoping he’s alive.”
Koda opens her mouth to speak, then shuts it abruptly. She still remembers the sharp crack of Kirsten’s hand against General Hart’s cheek upon her arrival at Ellsworth, the sense of contained rage coming off the woman’s skin like heat. Instead she turns her attention back toward the road. It is a matter of minutes before she hears yet another explosion, this one slightly louder, slightly nearer. A second follows, and a third. Then nothing. She says, “They’re through the first stretch of mines. They’ll come on the next in about a mile.”
“Gods, I hope the fog holds,” Maggie mutters. “They’re what, about an hour away?”
“At regular marching pace, yes. They can go faster if they get all the humans and regular droids up onto vehicles, but from what I’m picking up they don’t have the wheels to do that.” Kirsten pauses, listening. “They know there’s a bridge here. They’re sending out a couple of scouts in a truck.”
“Damn,” Maggie says quietly. “Can you fake their signals, Dr. King? Like all clear, come on?”
“I don’t have the codes for that, Colonel. ”
“All right, we’ll do it the old-fashioned way. Rivers. Tell Dietrich to get half a dozen men down under the bridge. We’re gonna play Billy Goat Gruff when the fuckers show up.”
Koda raises the Major again. “Wichasha sakpe kuta ceyakto. Numpa toka.”
There is a pause, then the double click they have arranged as a signal for “say again.” Koda repeats herself, more slowly. There is a long pause, and the sound of paper rustling. Just as she has resigned herself to English, the Major says. “Hau. Washte,” and the line goes dead.
A moment or two later, she can just see the squad, moving shapes of solid white darting through the fog toward the bridge. As they scramble down the bank to position themselves beneath the span, a Jeep painted in incongruous tropical camo, all deep green and blood-brown, comes to a sudden halt at the other end . Two forms, rifles at the ready, begin to work their way down its length, pausing to look over the railing at ten or twelve feet intervals.
Maggie, like Koda, has her binoculars up. “Can you tell what they are?”
“I’m not getting any signal off them, Colonel,” says Kirsten. “If they’re droids, they’re not talking to each other.”
In the distance, a mine goes off, and a thin curl of smoke rises. The column is closer now, and the sound echoes against the rocks. The two figures on the bridge pause, turning their heads in the direction of the blast. Then they resume their inspection, slowly working their way toward the end where ambush awaits them.
“Come on, come on,” Maggie urges.
The scouts reach the southeast bank and step onto the road. One gestures back toward the river, pointing downward. Then both begin the descent, disappearing into the fog.
The sounds of the struggle come clearly over the water, little muffled by the fog. It is brief, and in when it is over, five men in white camo emerge from beneath the bridge. One breaks away from the others, sprinting for the other side of the river. He picks up a com unit and speaks into it, then drives the jeep off the road and down the sloping bank., to park it somewhere beneath the first pair of pylons. When he reappears he is running flat out, making for the single approach on the southeast side that has been left free of mines.
After that, there is little time to wait. A couple thousand yards from the bridge, the sun catches a glint of metal. Maggie sees it as the same time Koda does. “They’re here.”
Koda smiles slowly, her blood beginning to sing as it slips along her veins. “Hoka hey,” she says “It is a good day to fight.”
“Here they come.”
It is not a sound so much as it is a vibration, a wave propagating through earth and rock. There is a rhythm to it, of booted feet, human and not, tramping up the thin strip of highway, of metal treads crunching their way through snow and biting into the tarmac. From somewhere just out of sight around a basalt outcropping, the sun catches a glint of steel, then another and another as the enemy column winds its way through the maze of low rock walls and shallow gullies.
Koda swings her binoculars back up to try to catch first sight of the approaching force. They emerge between a pair of buttes, foot soldiers in uneven ranks, carrying an assortment of automatic rifles, grenade launchers, shoulder-fired LAAWS rockets. Some are in uniform, some not. “Conscripts?”
Beside her, Maggie scans the oncoming ranks, her mouth tightening. “Can’t tell. We’ll spare them if we can, as long as we can. But we don’t take risks. The first one that fires a shot, we take ‘em out.”
Koda’s com unit crackles to life. She listens briefly, then reports, “Tacoma says the column is about halfway past his position. They have a couple mobile SAM missile launchers and some heavy guns, three howitzers. About fifteen percent of the enemy are the heavy military droids, pretty much what we figured. The rest are half-and-half humans and various domestic models—firedroids, Maid Marians, a few nannydroids. He says there’s one in an old-fashioned parlor-maids uniform, toting an M-16.” She listens again. “They’ve lost what appears to be about a third of their armored vehicles. They still have four tanks that Tacoma can see and a dozen APC’s.”
Maggie nods. “Could be better, but that cuts them down some. Good work with those mines, Rivers.” She turns back to watching the enemy advance. “Tell that cousin of yours to start his engines and stand by. As soon as they get about half the heavy stuff out in the open, they’re all his.”
Koda relays the message swiftly. Like the Colonel, she never takes her eyes from the oncoming troops.
“Dakota?” The voice is Kirsten’s a surprising hint of laughter in it.
“How the hell do you say ‘parlor maid’s uniform’ in Lakota?”
Koda smiles in answer. “Simple. ‘Silly-ass black and white dress with a frilly apron and ribbons.’”
Kirsten laughs briefly, then turns back to her com set. “Okay. An order is going up the line. They’re going to go straight across the bridge. They bought the fake all-clear.”
The human contingent is fully in the open now, strung out along the highway between the bridge and the point where the road emerges from the foothills. A band of general-use droids follows, a few outliers of the military type ranging to the sides of the column. Koda spots the parlor maid, incongruous in its curly blonde doll’s wig and beribboned cap. Another wears a firefighter’s uniform, its blue shirt stained dark brown along its sleeves. Koda’s own blood sounds like a drum in her ears, and she struggles for control of her anger. Fight cold, dammit.
Finally the armor emerges onto the open highway, escorted by a hundred or so of the military droids. Koda locates one of the trucks carrying the SAMS, their launch tubes angled up at the ready. A
pair of tanks follow, their canons swiveled forward. They are close enough now that she can hear the characteristic whine of their engines.
She glances to one side, but all Maggie’s attention is on the advancing enemy below them. “Okay, come on,” the Colonel mutters softly. “Come on, you motherfuckers, come one . . . . come on. . . .come on . . .NOW!”
Koda keys her com and speaks sharply into the mike. “Shic’eshi! Takpaye! Wana!”
An ear-splitting whoop comes back through her earpiece. “Unyanpi! Hoka hey!” Then, still breathlessly but more quietly, “Wikcemna-topa..”
Koda echoes the sign-off, the turns to Kirsten and Maggie. “They’re on their way.”
It seems a lifetime but is perhaps five minutes later that Kirsten raises a hand to her earpiece. “They’re here.”
Koda turns to see the sky above the hilltop swarming with monstrous locusts, the shriek of their turbo engines like the whine of plagues sweeping over the hapless grasslands, the pylons hanging like legs beneath their foreshortened wings bristling with chainguns and Hellfire missiles. They go over in a clamor of blades and the sweep of rotor wash, rattling the branches of the bare tree that spreads above the command post. Straining to see, Koda waves as the lead bird sweeps
……………..over the last of the low hills, giving them their first sight of the battleground. From his side window, Manny picks out the three figures perched on the hillside, one of whom is waving at the mixed squadron of Black Hawks and Apaches as they descend on the enemy advancing toward the narrow bridge. He waves back, knowing she cannot see him, but feeling the tie of blood all the same. The green-lit screens on his console,--one for radar, one for the laser-targeting mechanism-- show the droids and the heavy armor strung out in formation. “Okay, Littleton,” he says to the gunner seated in the nose of the craft below and in front of him. “Start picking your targets. Get the SAM’s first.”
A small white cross, the target indicator, appears above the shape of a launcher truck on the left hand LED screen as the aiming laser locks on; half a second later he feels a whomp! as the Hellfire leaves its perch beneath the port wing. It streaks away above the fog, its contrail curving slightly as its fins maneuver to set a straight course. Suddenly one of the SAMS is away, a blip on the radar screen. Manny leans on the joystick, putting the Apache over hard so that his shoulders ache where they press against his harness, and the missile speeds harmlessly by. On the ground, fire blossoms gold and red where the Hellfire strikes its target, secondary explosions adding to the roiling cloud of flame and smoke as it rises out of the mist and into the clear air. Briefly he notes the blazes set by other hits as he pulls back on the controls, taking them up and over and behind the enemy, and momentarily out of the range of their guns. “Report,” he snaps into his mike. “Any casualties?”
One by one the squadron checks in. Only Andrews reports a hit. “Took a round to the fuselage, Apache One, but we’re good to go.”
“Okay, then. Let’s go back for seconds.”
They swoop down for a second pass over the column, which has almost reached the near end of the bridge. This time Littleton cuts loose with the chain guns, and Manny can see ordinary droids going down along the center of the line, but they seem to be doing very little damage to the military models on the perimeter. He dodges a couple rockets, swerving wildly, tipping the bird almost over on its side. Not for the first time, he wishes he had his Tomcat under him, laying down a long stick of five-hundred-pounders the length of the road and ending the whole fucking mess right then and there. He understands why the brass have decided to hold back on the jets, and he agrees, at least in principle. He just wishes he had that kind of firepower now.
Which does him no good whatsoever. If wishes were buffalo. . ..
The backsweep takes out the second missile launcher and a tank, as well as several armored personnel carrier. And, he notes with satisfaction, any personnel they might have been carrying. Littleton reads his mind. “’Spose we got some of the goddam metalheads with those APC’s, Manny?”
“Let’s hope—“ he breaks off abruptly as Koda’s voice crackles in his earpiece. “Washte, Manny. Ake.”
“What’s that?” asks Littleton.
“She says do it again, bro. So--” he clicks the com through to the other choppers--“we do it again.”
Manny takes the squadron back over the command post hill to loop around for the third pass, waving again at the figures at their below him. There is no chance that they can spot him, but he can see them and know that they are secure, screened as they are by the lines of trees behind and in front of them. It makes a small warm spot in the chill of battle, of affection and pride both. Hell, he admits to himself, he’s even developing a soft spot for the little blonde ice cube.
Not, mind, that way. As far as he’s concerned, she has all the sex appeal of a circular saw. Run into her the wrong way and BZZZZZZZZZ. . . .
He swings the Apache about and comes in low for the third pass, the squadron in loose formation behind him. Off to his right, a Black Hawk takes a direct hit, its fuel tank exploding in billows of smoke and flame still in midair, its fuselage wheeling drunkenly out of the sky to plunge into a company of droids, incinerating them instantly. Littleton lets fly their last two Hellfires, then turns the chaingun and the small-gauge rockets onto the line of foot. One, with a LAAWS tube braced against its shoulder, goes sprawling satisfyingly on the tarmac under the hail of thirty-millimeter rounds. As they sweep up the rise of the piedmont behind, Manny can see another file of armed men and women moving into position down a dry creek bed: Tacoma and the front line of his force, preparing to close the trap they have so carefully set.
Last pass. “Give ‘em the works this time through,” he orders Littleton. “Whatever we’ve got left.”
Manny feels the thump as the rocket tubes discharge the last of the Hydras. “Okay, that’s it. We’re headed—“
The impact jars all his bones together, snapping his jaw shut and bloodying his tongue between his teeth. The Apache seems to hang suspended for a moment, hovering, and almost it feels normal. Then the bird begins to spin laterally, the tail and tail rotor no longer answering to the steering column. “Oh, shit,” Manny says, very softly, just as Littleton yells out, loud enough to hear even over the sudden grating noise of the engines, “We’re hit!”
damn well that’s not normal!” Kirsten exclaims, watching beside Koda as the Apache spins slowly, almost gracefully, on the axis of its mast. “Isn’t Manny in one of the Apaches?”
Koda feels the blood drain from her face, sinking to her heart with the weight of lead. “He’s in that Apache.” She points to the bundle of red-tipped arrows newly painted on the side of the fuselage. “That’s his sign.”
Maggie steps closer to her, gripping her other hand hard. “If anyone can get that bird down in one piece, Manny can.” Kirsten has moved up beside her, too, silently offering her presence. Koda can feel the fear in the other women, resonating with her own. Yet there is comfort there, too.
“I know. He always did manage to walk away from—goddam!” Her voice dies in her throat as the chopper begins to cartwheel, heeling over half onto its side and spinning counterrhythm to its rotor as it falls out of the sky, plunging toward the broad meadow between the bridge and the woods beyond. Koda watches as it descends, not breathing, not daring to breathe, knowing that
he has about as much chance of survival as a goldfish in a shark tank, Manny reflects wryly as he loses control of the Apache altogether and can only fold himself up per procedure and brace for the impact.
It comes with a crash like thunder walking in the mountains, reverberating in his ears and along his bones. Manny opens his eyes to find the Apache’s nose buried in the snow and himself hanging suspended by his straps just over his control panel. Out the front port he can see two of the rotor blades broken off where they have sliced into the earth The buckle of his harness presses hard into his solar plexus, and he carefully eases himself off the end of his control stick, broken off just below the grip. If not for catching in the buckle, it would presently be jutting out his back ribs. The pressure and the thought both turn his stomach, and he pukes up his guts as he hangs there over the display panels, spattering them and the back of Littleton’s helmet liberally with his breakfast. When the nausea passes, it occurs to him that he needs to get the hell out of here, and he reaches for his boot knife to cut himself out of this witch’s cradle. His right arm does not move.
It doesn’t hurt, particularly, but that doesn’t mean anything. More encouraging is the fact that he cannot see any blood on the sleeve of his flight suit, or any splinters of bone protruding. Okay. Let’s try this. . ..
Twisting his left shoulder and lifting his right leg, he manages to grasp the knife’s hilt and draw it. Carefully he saws himself loose, setting first one foot, then the other, down on the back of his gunner’s seat, gingerly straddling the shattered steering column. Littleton has not moved.
One hand on the altimeter, the other on the fuel gauge to avoid the slick of half-digested egg and cereal, he touches the other man’s shoulder. “Joe. Hey, Joe.”
Pulling off his left glove with his teeth, Manny feels for the pulse where the great veins thrum in the neck, working his fingers down under Littleton’s collar. Nothing.
Shit, again. Sorry, bro.
The door, of course, is stuck.
Of course. Why get lucky now? With the butt of his handgun Manny hammers repeatedly at the lexan of the window until it gives and he can break the jagged pieces out of their steel frame. He slithers out through the too-small opening, pushing stubbornly with his feet and pulling with his good left arm. Somwhere around the halfway mark, the nerves in his dislocated right arm wake up, and he feels himself go light-headed with the pain. His mouth is dry as tinder. Shock.
He can’t afford it. He gives one last shove with all the strength of his back and legs behind it, and suddenly he is free, tumbling out into the snow. Up onto his feet then, and running for the line of the woods and the friendly forces he knows are there, stumbling, his right arm dangling uselessly at his side as a rocket lands less than five meters behind him, picks him up and tosses him over a hump in the ground , and he is sliding, tobogganing down the slope on his back and butt just like he used to do as a kid with Tacoma and Koda streaking along beside him.
He reaches the bottom with a thump and surely he is dreaming because a figure detaches itself from one of the century-old sycamores and comes running toward him, levering him up out of the snow and shoving him forward toward the woods, one foot after the other, head down, breath tearing at his throat and it suddenly comes to him that safety is ten feet in front of him and
he’s going to make it! Koda, look!”
Dakota turns her head to follow Kirsten’s pointing finger. A man has fought his way out of the downed copter, bit by bit wriggling and pushing through one of the windows. Koda puts up her binoculars, desperately attempting to focus on his face. She cannot, but she knows the anatomy of an Apache, and she can see clearly that the broken window is the one above as the copter sits crazily tilted on its nose in the snow. The pilot’s seat.
Thank you, Ina Maka, she breathes silently. She watches, her heart still in her throat as her cousin makes his way drunkenly over the meadow to the woods beyond, then disappears from sight as another soldier emerges to help him to shelter. Aloud she says, “I knew he’d make it. Manny’s just too damn contrary to die.”
“Family trait?” Maggie asks with a cant of her eyebrow.
”Yeah, I guess it is.” Koda cannot stop her mouth from pulling into a grin. “Just got good Lakota genes, that’s all.”
Koda lets out a long, relieved breath and turns her attention back to the battlefield. Even without binoculars, it is evident that the droid army is reforming its column, shifting and eddying around the burned out shells of tanks and APC’s that stand in the roadway. A couple hundred meters from the bridge, one of the few remaining carriers has been pressed into service as a wrecker, nosing the shattered hulks off the tarmac to make way for what is left of the heavy weapons and armor. Fragments of bright titanium litter the shoulders of the road where chaingun and rocket have found their marks; elsewhere the snow is stained red, and the motionless figures torn and twisted into nightmare shapes by slug and shrapnel are of flesh, not metal. The half-melted frame of the downed Black Hawk rests on bare earth where ice and snow have melted away from it, a ring of motionless forms around it. From this distance it is impossible to tell whether they are droid or human. One of the howitzers crawls slowly back into line midway the column, behind the human troops and in front of the military droid contingent. Eerily, it seems to move on its own, its driver invisible behind the housing of the barrel.
Beside her, Maggie observes, “Damn good job, all things considered. That big gun is going to give us some trouble before the day’s over, but things are a lot more equal than they were half an hour ago.”
“We’re losing our cover, Colonel,” Kirsten observes. Except for the lowest elevations , in hollows of ridges and along the river’s surface, the fog has begun to burn away. The meadow between the bridge and the woods gleams in the sudden sun, the snow refracting the light like prisms.
“It’s okay. We’ve almost reached the point where it won’t matter.” Maggie glances over her shoulder at Kirsten, back at her com board, the fingers of one hand pressed behind her ear as if to strengthen the signals she is picking up. “Any change on the other side?”
“Negative, Colonel. They still don’t know we’re here; they think the choppers were a sortie flying out of the Base. No indication they know Manny survived, either.”
Maggie shakes her head, half in perplexity. “Much as I hate the things, there’s something to be said for an enemy that doesn’t think anything it’s not told to think..”
“What’s really interesting,” Koda adds, “is that none of the humans seem to have caught on, either.”
“I think some of them think. They’re just not telling.”
“That does seem likely, doesn’t it? We’ll know for sure where they stand real soon now,” Maggie says thoughtfully. After a long moment she adds, “Go ahead and pass the word to spare them if we can, but anyone or anything that shoots at us is a fair target.”
Koda repeats the order into her mike in Lakota, and is relieved to find that the new com officer with Jurgensen’s company is her scapegrace cousin. “That was fast,” she says, after he acknowledges the order and repeats it in English for Major Jurgensen.
He laughs. “Medics got my arm shot full of novocaine and strapped to my side. Mouth works fine, though. We got one happy CO over here now he doesn’t have to worry about his vocabulary list.”
“We’ve got a happy CO over here who’s relieved your worthless butt’s in one piece..”
“She ain’t the only one. Take care, cuz. Wikcemna-topa.”
“Wikcemna-topa,” she signs off.
On the flat ground below, the enemy column has fallen in and is beginning, slowly, to move toward the bridge. Koda catches herself clenching her teeth and deliberately relaxes her muscles as they advance. Come on, come on, come on, she chants silently to herself. When the first of the troops sets foot on the span she feels her spine unwind like an uncoiling spring.
“Okay, that’s it. They’re committed,” Maggie says softly. “Wait till they get that howitzer within ten or fifteen meters of the bridge, then give Tacoma the signal to blow it.”
Koda watches as the enemy troops make the crossing, humans to the fore, keeping to the straight line of unmined highway when they reach the eastern bank.. They are close enough now that Koda can hear the irregular tramp of their feet. Droids next, oddly matched as they are, metal feet ringing against the pavement, following the men and women in front.
The first of the remaining APC’s grinds onto the bridge, followed by the two surviving tanks. The big gun lumbers along, now twenty meters away from the riverbank.
“Almost,” Maggie murmurs. “Almost . . ..”
“Nothing untoward on their com, Colonel,” Kirsten reports. “Situation nominal.”
A long moment’s pause. Then, “Rivers, give the order.”
Koda clicks through to Tacoma. “Wana, thiblo. Ceyakto ihagyeye.”
“Washte,” comes his response, clipped and brief. “Wikcemna-topa.”
A few seconds stretches out, becomes an impossibly long minute, expands into infinity. When it comes, the explosion roars like thunder in the earth, a rumbling under their feet that shakes the rocks of the hill where they stand, sets the branches of the bare tree above them to thrashing. Underneath the moving army, the pylons begin to buckle. A jagged crack splits the asphalt and its concrete bed; the report is sharp as a rifle shot, magnified a thousand times. The span sags in the middle, tipping crazily down toward the water, spilling human and machine alike into the swift current of the Cheyenne. A cloud of dust and smoke boils up from the mist, a dirty grey pall that covers bridge and river, rolling along the meadow to overtake the soldiers who have just crossed, enveloping them, sending them blind and directionless into the minefields that bracket the road and riverbanks. Dulled by fog and distance, the muffled thump of explosions of the anti-personnel charges comes to her where she stands on the hill, interspersed with the screams of the enemy troops. She watches as others plunge toward the water, humans and human limbs and bright machine parts thrown out by the force of the blast. The wind carries the acrid smell of dynamite and plastique, the iron odor of blood. “Washte,” she whispers to herself, and raises her eyes to the foothills of the Paha Sapa where another storm pours down the lava slopes as
Tacoma and his warriors, four hundred of them, swarm down the slope to cut off the enemy’s retreat and push them into their own rearguard and the river. He leaps from rock outcrop to ridge as easily as a mountain cat, half his troops following straight behind, the other half fanning out to block the churned and rutted road. His breath comes easily, his heart beating out the rhythm of the war chant and his blood singing in his veins. He struggles to keep the broad expanse of the field in his view, fighting the predator’s instinct that narrows his vision to the enemy and the clear path to it. From his high ground he can see that Jurgensen’s smaller contingent on the other side of the stream has broken cover from the woods and is charging down on the humans and domestic androids now trapped between them and the minefield laid along the bank. On the near side, the military droids and their vehicles have begun to lose formation and mill about without direction in tight knots whose mechanical drone reaches him even here.
Beneath him the earth shudders, and with a high, whining buzz like all the hornets of the world singing in harmony, an 81-mm mortar shell sails overhead to land with a roar just short of the last few APC’s in the armored column. Earth and spraying snow fountain up from the point of impact in the road, and Tacoma throws himself flat behind a low ridge of black rock, the rest of his contingent following suit as best they can. “You’re too high, man!” he yells into his com. “Just a degree or two shorter!”
The next round arcs down over his position just as the line of mechanical demons sorts itself out. These are not just artificial humans with weapons, tin men with a coder chip for a heart. These are the Pentagon’s best, or worst, only vaguely humanoid, self-propelled multiple weapons systems with real-time self-adapting programs and the resistance of tanks.. Their heads are multiple sensor arrays, optics that span the visible spectrum and beyond into the infrared and ultraviolet, able to locate and map an enemy force by their body heat as well as their shape against the landscape. Their arms and hands are chaingun barrels, the ammunition feed housed in the long rectangle of the titanium thorax.. Some are set on gearboxes with belt drives; others, in a parody of human shape, possess jointed lower extensions ending in smaller treads. They advance with the rhythmical slouching walk of antique zoot-suiters. With a slow grinding of metal limbs, they begin to bear down on the company crouching at the edge of the piedmont, clustered tubes at their arms’ ends spraying death. Tacoma can hear the rounds whining over his head, the sharp crack when one strikes the stone behind him.
Another mortar shell rises to meet them, and this time the shell strikes the margin of their advance. Tacoma yells, “Got ‘em! Mark your baseline!”
In his peripheral vision, he can see a second group moving off, their treads tearing up gouts of snow and earth, to meet the company now deployed across and to either side of the road. There is a certain terrible beauty to them as they begin to move inexorably toward the human lines, sun striking their titanium hides and splintering into sprays of light like shooting stars, even as the gunners hidden in a rock-cut gully figure their speed and the mortar rounds begin to hammer down on them. It is almost, he thinks, like a dance as the droids’ internal computers calculate the rate of fire and the big guns’ range, and they begin to dash forward at broken intervals to put themselves just behind or just in front of the steep arc cut by the artillery fire. Where it strikes them full on, it leaves a row of craters gouged into the earth, ringed in a fine fall of silver ash.
Tacoma watches them come on, inexorable and unthinking, counting off the seconds until they come within reach of smaller weapons. Gaps appear in their ranks, kill after kill, and still they come on. Softly Tacoma speaks into his com, “Almost, almost; all units hold your fire; remember not to waste bullets on these tin cans.”
Come on, you motherfuckers, come on. It is almost a prayer.
“Thiblo!” His com crackles to life. “Wana! Khuteye!”
“All right!” Tacoma bellows. “Give ‘em hell!” Twisting his neck to look behind, he can just see the blunt ends of the launchers as they
empty their load straight into the line of oncoming droids, the LAAWS rockets and grenades striking their targets straight on, blasting off heads with their sensor arrays, tearing huge holes in the magazines where chest and abdomen should be. Koda cannot see individual droids fall, but she does see the sudden flares as the explosives strike their targets, the wavering of the line as they re-form and begin to advance more slowly on the ridge where her brother’s troops lie in wait. They do not waver. The rattle of gunfire and the deeper voice of the mortars comes to her sharply, refracted off the water’s surface and the lift of rock to the northwest.
“Kirsten, are you getting anything?”
Seated in the back of the truck, Kirsten adjusts controls on two of her units, listening intently. “Negative. There’s no pullback order yet.”
Beside her, Maggie lowers her own field glasses and remarks, “You know, this plan depends on those damned things working the way they’re supposed to. If their “save your own metal ass” code doesn’t kick in fairly soon, we’re fucked.”
Koda trains her own binoculars on the field below her. Remains of droids litter the field behind their line, their bright fragments taking the sunlight in among the mangled remains of APCs and troop transports. After what seems an eternity, the advance on her brother’s position seems to slow as the droids’ line shortens, begins to take longer and longer to straggle back into order after each wave of rocket fire. The mortars continue to hail destruction down on them.
“They’ve got to run out of ammo fairly soon,” says Koda.
Maggie’s mouth crooks up in a wry smile. “Them or us?” Then she says, “The good news is on the other bank. Have a look.”
Closer to, to the southeast of the river, Jurgensen’s men are pressing what remains of the enemy humans and household androids steadily back toward the water. Remains both metal and human lie scattered over the meadow, the latter identifiable by red stains spreading in the snow around them. Here and there a human form kneels with its hands tied behind its back; surrendered prisoners left behind the advancing line to await either death at their allies’ hands or judgement at their captors’. No one can be spared to escort them to the relative safety of the woods.
“There goes the Geneva Convention,” Koda observes.
Maggie pauses, sweeping the field with her binoculars. “I expected more would give themselves up. I don’t like it that we have this few. I don’t like it at all.”
“What the hell is in it for them? The bastards at the jail collaborated to save their lives, but these—“
“Threats. Promises.” Maggie interrupts her. “Hatred. Any of those –“
An exclamation from Kirsten interrupts her. “That’s it! There’s the code for retreat. They’re going to pull back toward the river and try to lure our forces out.”
Koda sees the faint hollowing of Maggie’s chest, even under layers of thermal insulation, as the Colonel breathes a relieved sigh. “Good. Thank god the son-of-a-bitch who programmed those damned things never had an original tactic to his name.”
Kirsten, though, shakes her head. “Somebody did. They’re not just going to pull back. They’re going to try to cross the river.”
“Shit,” Maggie says quietly. Following her gaze, Koda sees what the other woman dreads. Their own forces have pressed the enemy back up against the water and the minefields on the near bank. If the droids cross the remnants of the bridge, the best defense will be the guns hidden in the woods. They are not precision instruments. Their own troops may die, indiscriminately.
A movement above the treetops draws her eye. High up, no more than a shadow against the blue depths, a hawk rides a thermal, spiraling outward in widening circles. Her scream comes to them on the wind, high and piercing
and Tacoma turns his head to see one of his men go down, a spatter of blood and brain where his head had been. A ripple seems to go through the ranks of the droids, and they turn without warning, beginning to make their way back toward the bridge at speed. A flurry of mortar rounds lands short, sending up a cloud of dirt and snow, but knocking over no more than a half dozen of the enemy. Two of them lever themselves up, their joints stiff , and begin to grind their way back toward the river, following the rest.”
“Goddam!” Tacoma springs to his own feet, yelling to the squads behind him. “They’re headed back toward the bridge! They’re going to try to cross!” Then into his com, “Recalibrate! They’re retreating!”
“Got it,” the gunner answers through a crackle of static. “I’m gonna put up a spotter. Give me some distance between you and them.”
“You keep firing as long as you have ammo! Never mind where anyone is!”
“Goddammit, you keep shooting, you hear me? They don’t have the ordnance to deal with those things on the other side! We gotta get ‘em before they make the crossing! You got that, goddammit?”
“Got,” says the gunner, meekly. A half second later, a mortar round comes flying over Tacoma’s head, landing in the rear rank of the now retreating droids. It leaves a quite satisfactory hole where a half dozen of them had been.
Tacoma’s world shrinks then to a small sphere of space where the only sound is a cacophony of explosions: mortars, grenades, shoulder-fired rockets going off all about him. His actions become mechanical, repeated by troops up and down the length of the line. There are fewer than there were before; as near as he can tell, he has lost a quarter of his troops. A straggle of men and women, some of them hobbling, others trailing bloody arms and legs, stumbles forward from the position they have held across the road. Load, raise the launcher, fire.
Load, raise the launcher, fire. Over and over again.
And always the retreating backs of the enemy, spattered with earth and snow as they go down one after the other onto the rutted ground. The advance of his men, step by step, leaves fresh blood in the snow.
Some of it is h is own. Something, he is not quite sure what, has struck him on the forehead. Without breaking stride, he raises his hand to swipe at the blood pouring into his eyes. And he keeps moving without thought.
Raise the launcher.
Over and over again.
“What the hell’s that?”
Koda swings the M-16 riding her shoulder down into position and raises her binoculars. A plume of dust from the rutted and drying road appears halfway down the hill where the command post stands, curving and backswitching as the path makes its crooked way up the slope. “It’s a couple Jeeps, I think.”
Maggie turns her attention from the field of battle to scan the newcomers. “It’s a couple Jeeps full of idiot flyboys.”
As the small convoy comes into closer focus, Koda can make out the unmistakable freckled face of Andrews at the wheel of the first vehicle. He has not bothered to change out of his flight suit or helmet and handles the bucking Jeep with much the same offhand élan as his Black Hawk.; some of the other pilots have changed into standard ground combat head buckets, but not bothered with the rest of their gear. The vehicles bristle with armaments: an M-60 apiece, grenade launchers, LAAWS.
“Just can’t leave well enough alone,” Maggie remarks tartly, but there is pride in her voice as much as exasperation.
“You lead by example, Colonel,” Kirsten says quietly. Koda turns swiftly to look at her, but there is no irony in the other woman’s face. That pleases her, in a quiet way she cannot now take time to analyze.
Maggie, too, has taken it as the compliment intended. She grins. “Never did know when to quit.”
One more steep climb, and the Jeeps pull, brakes squealing, into the small flat space where the troop carrier cum com center sits. He climbs out and salutes smartly, somehow managing to cover Maggie, Koda and Kirsten all in the gesture. “The Third Damn Fools, reporting for duty, Ma’am.”
Maggie looks them up and down with a drill sergeant’s scowl. “You can’t leave well enough alone, huh? Just gotta get in there and mix it up mano a mano.”
“Goddam Hallelujah Chorus,” she says. “Okay, here’s the deal—“
“Colonel!” Kirsten’s voice cuts through the banter. “The droids are almost to the bridge head. Sergeant Rivers just came through on clear. He’s going to try to get in front of them but doesn’t think he can hold all of them.”
Instantly serious, Maggie snaps, “And—“
“He requests covering fire from the mortars back in the woods.”
Maggie’s face goes grey. Then, quietly, “Tell Jurgensen to shell what’s left of the bridge. We’ll try that first.”
Kirsten turns back to her mike, speaking into it in English. The battle has reached the melee stage; strategic surprise is no longer possible. Fear catches at Koda’s throat. Shelling the bridge is a stalling tactic, a forlorn hope. Its complete destruction would require a howitzer, a bigger gun than they have, with a range too long for the relatively confined space of the valley below. Without speaking she turns her field glasses on the fight at the northwest end of the bridge. A company of the heavy military-model droids grinds its way slowly toward the bridgehead, flanked on one side by a much smaller human force that ducks and runs and ducks again, firing off grenade launchers and shoulder rockets at every possibly opening. The troops on the southeast side are completely engaged with the remnants of the human and domestic droid forces; they cannot spare a squad.
She searches the forces on the far bank, looking for one man. Tacoma is down there. She knows it. She cannot make out his face or tell one shape from another under the camo and the layers of Polartec and thermal nylon, but there is one soldier out front and to the side that she knows with utter certainty is her brother.
Her brother Tacoma, who has just called down a strike on his own position.
A red haze passes over her eyes. Her vision narrows to that one point where she knows he runs along the basalt table, sprawling where he can behind a low rise, heaving up the tube of his grenade launcher to fire when feasible. Impossibly keen, her ears bring her the clang of M-16 rounds on the metal skin of the droids on the near side; the scream of a soldier suddenly shot in the gut, doubling over in pain as his lifeblood runs out between his fingers. The hot metallic smell comes to her on the wind. Hardly aware of what she does, she passes her tongue over her teeth, tasting the richness of the odor.
With movements that seem ponderous, she slips loose of her rifle, lets the binoculars fall from her hand to go tumbling down the slope of the hill. Two long strides carry her to the back bumper of the last Jeep, another into the driver’s seat. Human voices batter at her, shouting, a jumble of words that she neither heeds nor cares to.
And she is bouncing down the hill in the Jeep, accelerator to the floor on a forty-degree downslope that probably ought to send her flying hood over tailpipe, but somehow she manages to keep the damn donkey of a machine on the road. There are other people in it with her, hanging on for their lives, a tall lean dark-faced woman yelling something into her ear and a smaller one with hair that burns like white flame in the sunlight shrieking unintelligibly, and behind her she hears the roar and clatter of other engines as they speed down the hill straight toward the fighting, toward the near end of the bridge. As she pulls the vehicle onto the flat meadow at the foot of the rise the first of the mortar shells streaks toward the far bridgehead, landing just short of the northwest bank and impacting the shattered concrete with a roar and a cloud of grey-white dust that clears to show a few large pieces of the bridge smashed to smaller pieces but not much effect otherwise. A second shell screams over, and another and another.
In the narrow focus of her vision, Koda can see a figure scrambling out onto the spars of half-collapsed asphalt and cement where broken slabs jut up against each other at unlikely angles like some strange rock formation on a sea-beaten coast. She shifts gears and sets the Jeep straight for the near end, steering her way somehow through grenade craters and over the splintered remains of droids. Her helmet flies off her head, and her hair unfurls behind her with her spped. A huge shout goes up around her, but she pays no attention, noting only out of the edges of her sight a convoy no larger than the one she leads, streaking down on the battle out of nowhere, spilling out of the Black Hills, truck-mounted machine guns spraying bullets that bounce harmlessly as pebbles off the titanium hides of the androids.
Just short of the near end of the bridge Koda stands on the brakes, bringing the Jeep to a shuddering halt that nearly throws her free. Snatching a belt of grenades and a launcher from the back of the vehicle, she speeds for the bridge, her eyes on that lone figure now firing on the advancing droids from the meager cover of a broken pylon. Behind her someone is shouting CEASEFIRECEASEFIREDAMMIT, and the broken structure shakes beneath her as she leaps from concrete boulder to concrete boulder, grasping an upright length of rebar to steady herself as she plants her feet and fires. She pushes off from her position, finds footing again a meter ahead, fires again, catches a foot in a cage of steel supports and shakes herself free to kneel and fire yet again on the advancing metal demons. Dimly she is aware of voices behind her, screaming out her name, a warcry, curses, she cannot tell and does not care. She feels the recoil of weapons loosed behind her, though, and knows that more of the droids are going down than she can reasonably account for. Thank you Ina Maka the thought winds through her mind, never touching the part of her brain that drives her feet forward, powers her arms through the routine of load, life and fire again and again as the droids clustered at the far end of the bridge go down, crashing into those pressing forward behind them, some of those behind falling forward to strike the ruins of the span and tumble down into the metal-clotted water below.
There are fewer and fewer of them standing between her and the hills beyond, and finally there are none. She stares into a face inches from hers, her fingers caught up in gentle hands as a voice says, again and again, “Tanksi? Tanski! Koda, you in there? Answer me!”
Slowly the world takes shape around her. She is looking into the deep brown of her brother’s eyes, blurred where blood has run into them and carried streaks of his warpaint down his face in runnels crusted with dust and minute grains of cement. There is a strange silence, no more shooting, no more shouting. She can hear the force of the current as the Cheyenne finds its way in small rapids around the debris that juts out of the water.
Gingerly she glances around her. Andrews perches on a slab of concrete, teeth clenched, grimly cutting his left boot away from an ankle already swollen half again its size. I need to get up and tend to that, she thinks dimly. Maggie, beside her, leans on the tube of a rocket launcher, favoring her right foot. There is a streak of bright blood on the leg of her pants above it, but her face is clear and bright. Kirsten, face pale as her hair, rubs at her shoulder where the end of a grenade launcher is printed into the padded fabric of her jacket.
Koda’s eyes return to her own hands, scraped raw and bloody in her scramble across the ruins of the bridge. Gently she looses them from Tacoma’s grasp and looks around her, taking in the battlefield with its scattered dead and the deliberate movements of survivors walking among the fallen, looking for wounded.
She glances back at Maggie, then at her brother again. “We won?”
Yeah,” he says, slipping his hands under her arms and levering them both to their feet. Even at her height, he is taller still as she gazes up at him. Slowly he turns her to face the others. Somehow she cannot seem to find her boundaries; some part of her is still Koda Rivers, but she feels herself spread thin, strung out, strands of her substance mingled with her brother’s, Maggie’s, Kirsten’s, the thoughts of Andrews on his perch and the men still scattered on the field beyond.
“That’s the goddammedest thing I ever saw, Ma’am, like something out of a storybook,” Andrews says, images tumbling through his mind of Lancelot stampeding across an English meadow toward a dragon, a Greek general in a mountain pass called the Hot Gates, a long haired man in a kilt, wild with freedom, brandishing a sword almost as tall as himself.
Maggie shoots him a sharp glance, more than half-amused at the blatant hero-worship, but why the hell not, it’s the bravest thing she’s ever seen in her own life. She tells herself that the pride she feels in this woman is totally irrational; she has not had the teaching of her, and yet the pride is there. Pride and regret both. She glances briefly upward, to the high reach of sky where the hawk still circles, and knows that an ending has been reached; an ending that, like the rising circles of the red-tail’s spiral, is also a beginning. She lets her rocket launcher fall among the tumbled wreckage of the bridge and steps forward to put an arm around Koda’s shoulders. “You were born for this,” she says simply.
Koda’s eyes are still wide, still not focused entirely on the reality in front of her. She says, “You’re the commander. You followed me.”
Maggie feels her mouth stretch into a grin. “Well, you didn’t exactly give us a choice. You were out front and running away without a word; we had to follow or be left behind.”
The words echo in Kirsten’s mind, left behind, left behind, alone. And suddenly she knows, directly, the same way she knows that her side hurts where she has pulled a muscle in the mad dash for the Jeep and then the insane stumble over the wreckage of the bridge firing a weapon she’s barely touched before, that she is not alone,. From somewhere in the depth of her mind an image forms, a dark-haired woman in a beaded dress, promising. . .promising, it seems, this woman who has just pulled them all out of themselves and drawn from them a courage and a passion they never new was in them. Drawn them straight into the heart of the flame and through it, to come out tempered steel on the other side. “Hey,” she says, quietly, moving to support Koda on her other side. “Let’s get you out of here and get your hands tended to.”
Koda feels their arms around her, Tacoma still half-holding her up from behind, and they begin to make their slow progress back toward the southeast end of the bridge. It was easier, she thinks, when she was not thinking at all; a couple times she stumbles and nearly falls to hands and knees on the jagged concrete. Somewhere someone is shouting. The sound starts small, one man , and then another joining him, and another until it seems the whole small army is yelling, some of them waving their weapons in the air in a decidedly dangerous fashion. It seems odd that Maggie does not have something sharp to say about that. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “What the hell’s with all the noise?”
“You are,” Kirsten says quietly. “Wave at them.”
“Huh?” This makes no sense. I am not drunk. I may, however, be losing my mind. The thought is surprisingly clear.
“Wave, “ Maggie repeats from her other side. “They’ve fought like the devil themselves. They deserve the acknowledgement.”
Koda raises her arm from Maggie’s shoulders and waves at the troops. Their cheering—because that’s what it is, she suddenly realizes—goes on and on and on. Finally her arm will no longer hold itself up, and her knees buckle with sudden weariness. “I’m sorry, I can’t do anymore,” she says.
Maggie bears her up again, Kirsten still firm on the other side. “Come on, “ she says in her best no-backtalk scientist voice. “Let everyone else take a turn at being a hero. Time for you to rest.”
And that, dear reader, is the end of our tale for this week. Hope you enjoyed! If so moved, drop us a line and let us know how we’re doing! email@example.com. See you next week!!
Hau------------------------------------(Male speaker) hello; yo!; greetings!;yes; gotcha
Tanski---------------------------------(Male speaker) younger sister
Manahi’ blezela----------------------I hear you clearly.
Whichasha sakpe kuta ceakto-------(Get, send) half a dozen men down to the bridge!
Numpa toka.---------------------------Two enemies.
Shic’eshi--------------------------------(Male speaker’s) femaile cousin
Unyapi!----------------------------------Here we come!
In Maka----------------------------------Earth Mother; the Creatrix
Ceyakto thagyeye-----------------------Destroy the bridge,
Khuteye!----------------------------------Fire! Shoot them!
Continued - Chapter 16
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