Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
For the third time in less than an hour, Dakota looks toward the window, then frowns distractedly before returning to her duties. The base vet might have been an excellent diagnostician, but his office skills were decidedly lacking. She has had to send two sets of volunteers on trips to the nearby towns to raid the vet facilities there and return with any usable supplies they can, and it still isnt close to being enough. As groups of people continue to stream onto the base, they bring their pets with them; pets who have often-times suffered as much, if not more, than their owners. The clinic is bursting at the seams; full of frostbitten dogs, half-mauled cats, dehydrated turtles, constipated snakes, sick birds of all kinds, and a number of more exotic species, along with several army canines who are slowly recovering from injuries suffered during the initial battle with the androids.
With a soft grunt, she tosses the pencil down and pushes away from the desk, running weary fingers through her disordered hair. She checks the window again, then the clock. Something is nagging at her, and has been for the past hour or so, but she cant put a finger on what it is, and that fact is driving her just shy of nuts.
"What?" she barks in response to a light tap on her office door.
The door slowly opens and a curly-mopped young woman pokes her head in, expression slightly nervous. "You asked me to let you know when I walked Condor, Doctor." Condor is one of the army dogs who had taken several bullet wounds to the belly and flank. It has been touch and go with him for the past weeks but he appears now well on the road to recovery. "He did fine. I think he can be discharged in a day or two."
Nodding, Koda forces a smile to her face. "Thank you, Shannon. Youve done very well with him."
The young woman blushes under the quiet praise, then calms, her eyes concerned. "Are you okay?"
"Mm?" Koda drags her gaze away from the window yet again. "Im sorry. What did you say?"
"I asked if you were alright. You seem distracted?"
"Oh." She shakes her head slightly, clearing it. "No. Just," one hand waves toward the paper-strewn desktop, "trying to deal with this mess. I never was all that fond of paperwork."
Shannon brightens. "Well, I might have a solution for that." At Dakotas raised eyebrow, she continues. "I have a friend, Melissa, who used to be an Admin Assistant for Kuyger-Barren-Micholvski, the law firm? Shes been going crazy with nothing to do. Im sure shed be happy to pitch in, if you like."
This time, Kodas smile is more genuine. "I could use all the help I can get."
"Great! Ill let her know tonight."
"Fair enough." Dakota rises from the chair with fluid grace and grabs her Stetson from the coat rack and settles it on her head, sweeping her hair behind her broad shoulders. "Im going for a walk. Hold down the fort, will ya?"
"With pleasure, DocDakota."
Maggie sorts through the folders in her briefcase as she waits for the clock on the wall to tick officially around to 11:00. Like the conference room, like everything else in the Headquarters building, the walls and floors are grey with occasional Air Force blue accents. A silk ficus to one side of the Generals door and a faux pothos ivy under the window offer the only relief. At her workstation, the Generals secretary bites her lip and dabs at a drop of sweat rounding up under her heretofore perfect mascara. Kimberley has always seemed to Maggie to be forty-going-on-twenty-five, with her acrylic nails and seamless make-up, short skirts and years-out-of-fashion high heels. Now her heart-shaped face is pinched with effort as she struggles with an old-fashioned manual typewriter, resurrected from God-knows-what basement or storage building. An equally antiquated adding machine perches on the edge of her desk, the kind with a handle that is pulled after each entry to crank up a sum or tax percentage. Maggie recognizes it only because her accountant grandfather kept one of the things on top of the barristers bookcase in his office, part of a collection that included such other relics as a slide rule and a solid-black metal telephone with a rotary dial that clicked satisfyingly when she stuck her finger into the perforated disk, pulled it around to the stop and watched it spin back..
That had been nearly forty years ago. A lifetime now; an eon. At five she did not go in for elaborate existential metaphors. She is not pleased that she has begun to see them everywhere now.
The sense of temporal dislocation that has plagued her intermittently for the past week has begun to solidify into a reality she is still not quite prepared to face. Finally and irrevocably, the world has changed. The crisis is not temporary, not just a matter of devising a widget or developing an anti-viral, biological or cyber, that will allow the technological world to right itself onto its accustomed axis and go on spinning. Even if Kirsten King manages to cause every last remaining droid to self-destruct in a single ecstatic nanosecond, there is no way to restore much, maybe most, of what has been lost. And here, an icon of that brave new world folding back into its own past, is a goddamed Olivetti typewriter, its uneven clack of metal keys without doubt the harbinger of more and worse to come.
And arent we Ms. Congeniality this morning? Cmon Allen, snap out of it.
Though she has not put it so dramatically to herself, she is here to try to save a mans life. She can afford neither depression nor woolgathering in the middle of such a sensitive rescue operation.
Because we cant afford to lose anybody now. Not even an asinine General who bombs first and asks questions later. Not even couple dozen decent citizens of Rapid City who had come within an angstrom of morphing into an out-of- control mob less than eighteen hours ago. Every asset must be deployed and its utility maximized.
Even General Hart.
The clock hand creeps round to 10:56. The typewriter keys continue to clatter in a spotty rhythm, punctuated by small mewing sounds from the secretary every time she makes a mistake. Not for the first time since she has entered the office, Maggie wonders what the hell there is to type in triplicate these days.
She is on a mission of mercy, she tells herself wryly. She might as well have pity on Kimberley, too.
Aloud she says, "Youll get your computer back. as soon as we have a reliable source of electricity. Sergeant Rivers has gone out to the Red River Co-op wind farm to see if we can move in some of the big generators."
The secretary turns to look at her, a spark of something besides irritation in her eyes for the first time since Maggie has entered the outer office. "Hes that really tall Sioux guy, isnt he? Army, not Air Force--the really cute one."
Maggie breathes a mental sigh. She knows exactly whats coming next, and it arrives on schedule as surely as Old Faithful or the Italian trains under Musollini.
". . . really good-looking. Is he single?"
As gently as she can, she answers, "I think so. I dont recall that hes mentioned a
"Oh," the woman says in a small voice. Then, plaintively, "What are we going to do, Colonel Allen? Theres so few men left. Is it going to be like in the Bible, with one man having three or four wives? Wives and concubines? Whats going to happen now?"
With a supreme effort of will, Maggie manages not to grind her teeth. "I dont know, Kimberley. But what were not going to do is fall back into some Bronze Age form of patriarchy. That will not happen. Will. Not. Happen."
"Its happening in town, Colonel. My sister belongs to one of those Bible-believing temples. You know, where the women cant wear pants or make-up and nobody drinks or dances and church goes on for four hours on Sunday. She said the preacher has already got three wives of his own, one of them only thirteen." Kimberley snorts, a sound that reassures Maggie that her considerable good sense has not in fact been a casualty of the uprising. "Says its the will of God, a holy thing. As if." She turns back to her typewriter, rearranging the triple load of paper and Goddess! Maggie stares in wonderment. Is that actually carbon paper? It is.carbons. "Just a dirty old man if you ask me."
Miraculously, the clock hand has arrived at 11:01. Maggie clears her throat, pointing.
Kimberley glances up, then makes a show of checking her appointment book. "Go on in, Colonel."
Maggie gathers her papers, snaps her brief case shut, and escapes.
The South Dakota spring is showing her fickle side again, having just finished dumping a fresh four inches of powdery snow that sparkles in the warming sun like scattered diamonds. The breeze is fresh, and crisp, but lacks the arctic bitterness of true winter, and Koda breathes it in with an absent sense of pleasure.
The streets are, for once, quiet, nearly empty. Far from soothing, however, this causes the nagging feeling in Kodas gut to return. A shadow crosses her path, and she looks up in time to see Wiyo circling low overhead. Her warning cry coincides perfectly with the sound of a single shot, and everything slips into place, clear as crystal. An animals snarl mists the air before her face. She turns and heads for the gate at a dead run, teeth bared, lips twisted as a second and third shot ring out followed by barking, mocking male laughter.
There are several airmen peering through the barred gate at what lies beyond. She ignores this, instead darting to the left and up the fifteen foot guard tower, taking the steps three at a time. Brushing past the startled MP, she circles the tower until she is looking over the grounds just outside the gate.
Three flannel-clad men stand outside a still-running pickup truck, each armed with a scoped rifle. They are clearly drunk and one even leans fully against the trucks fender, his legs no longer able to support him.
"Shoot it again, Frank! Its still movin!"
She follows their sightline to see a she-wolf, slat thin and panting, peering over the snow ridge to the east. The wolf is clearly injured, but still, she doesnt flee. There is a quiet desperation to her darting eyes, moving from the men shooting at her to the men behind the gate. Another shot throws up snow just in front of her muzzle, and she ducks, only to pop up a second later, tongue lolling, eyes rolling.
Wiyo screams overhead, and one of the men lifts rifle and head, shooting into the air. The hawk wheels, unharmed, and screams again.
Without thought, Koda grabs the M-16 from the guards hands and lifts it to high port, staring down the sight with one piercing eye. Caressing the trigger, she stitches a neat line at the shooters feet. He whirls, the barrel of his rifle narrowly missing the man standing beside him. "What the fuck?!?" He narrows his eyes at the womanat least he thinks its a woman, with that hat and that height, who can tell?standing on the guard tower, pointing the business end of an M-16 at him. "Who the fuck are you, bitch?"
"Drop that rifle, or youll never find out."
Her voice is velvet over steel. "Oh yeah."
Summoning his drunken courage, the man does the opposite of what he has been commanded, ponderously lifting his rifle and aiming it at the she-demon on the guard tower.
"I wouldnt," Koda murmurs, her voice just strong enough to prick his hearing.
"Says who, bitch?"
The sound of a dozen M-16s being cocked gives the man an eloquent answer.
Paling noticeably, he lowers his rifle. His friends drop theirs and dive for the ubiquitous safety of the pickup.
"Sergeant!" Koda shouts down to the guard leader.
"Round those three up and take them to the brig."
"For what?!?" the drunken man demands. "You aint got no hold on us! Were on public land!"
"Exactly," Koda hisses, her grin most unpleasant. "Cruelty to animals will do for starters. If that doesnt stick, assault with a deadly weapon."
"You cant !"
"Open the gate!" the Sergeant yells.
Hearing this, the man drops his weapon and runs, jumping into his truck and fumbling for the gearshift.
An M-16 rattles, and the truck suddenly finds itself with two flats and a fractured engine block. The punctured radiator sends up a bellow of steam from beneath the hood and the truck shudders, and dies.
"Come out of there with your hands over your heads! We wont ask you twice!"
Koda doesnt need to see the rest of it. She hands the gun back to the MP with a quiet murmur of thanks, and crosses the tower, pelting down the steps with speed. Running through the gate, she immediately turns toward the ridge, long strides eating up the ground beneath her. The wolf has disappeared behind the ridge, but she doesnt need sight to track her. The scent of blood is heavy in the air, and she can feel the pain radiating from the injured animal, tugging hard at a part of her that is far more kin to the wolf than to any of the humans behind her.
Halfway up the shallow ridge, she deliberately slows her steps, listening as the wolfs panting breaths are interrupted by a weak warning growl.
"Its okay, shugmanitu tanka, its okay. I wont hurt you." She steps carefully upwind so that her scent is carried to the injured animal.
Cresting the ridge, she stops and looks down at the silver-tipped fur and the crimson stain slowly spreading in the snow. Her eyes narrow. This is a wolf she knows; the alpha female of a large pack whose home range covers several hundred miles, from the base to her familys home and beyond. That shes alone and obviously starving is of great concern.
She meets the wolfs eyes, then shifts her gaze abruptly to the side before looking back. After a moment, the wolf does the same, and Koda relaxes, letting go a slow breath that clouds the air between them. She resumes her steps, narrowing the gap between them, then drops gracefully to her haunches, holding out an ungloved hand for the animal to sniff.
A soft whine lets her know shes been accepted, and she spends a long moment unmoving, examining the she-wolf with just her experienced gaze. Beneath dry, brittle and thinning fur, her ribs stand out like dinosaur bones, aspirating weakly with every panting breath. Her tongue is dry, cracked, and bleeding in places, indicating severe dehydration. Blood is pouring from two bullet woundsno more than grazes really, but in her weakened condition they are life-threatening.
Acting on intuition, Koda reaches slowly over and ruffles through the hair on the wolfs belly. The nipples are swollen, reddened and cracked.
An early litter. Shit. Removing her hand, she peers into dark, pain-wracked eyes. "Where are your pups, ina?"
With a soft whine, the she-wolf looks over her shoulder, then attempts to rise. She collapses a second later, all of her energy completely drained.
"Its alright, ina, its okay. Ill find them for you. But first, I need to help you so you can help them, alright?"
Feeling along her ruff, Koda slips an arm under the wolfs proud neck, then gathers her flank and stands, cradling the injured animal easily in her arms.
Too weak to struggle, the wolf gives a soft whine, then collapses back against the strong body holding her.
Koda looks up. The hawk is still circling, wingtips fluttering in the airs heavy currents. "Wiyo! Awayaye!"
With a loud kre-ee-ee, Wiyo circles once more, then comes down to land atop a winter-bare tree, carefully folding her wings behind her and staring straight ahead. "Pilamayaye," Koda shouts to the hawk, nodding once, sharply.
And with that, she turns and heads back to the base using her quickest and smoothest gait.
The room is very much as Maggie has become accustomed to it, grey as the rest of the Headquarters Building except for the framed photographs on the walls. Several show Ellsworths various aircraft in flight against impossibly blue skies: the Tomcat with its delta wings swept back, the sleek B-1, ponderous and old-fashioned B-52s that look like nothing so much as locusts built to cyclopean scale. Others depict Hart in the company of various dignitaries: the most recent with President Clinton, the earliest with her husband during his tenure as Commander in Chief. The fluorescent light illuminates them coldly, chilling the imaged skies and the deep blue of uniforms and the hills that ring the Base. Pulled tightly over the windows, curtain panels barricade the office against the bright spring day of strengthening sun and melting snow that lies just on the other side of the glass. There is a settled stillness here that creeps over Maggies skin like the passing of a ghost.
The room is so quiet that it seems at first that she is alone. Then paper rustles, drawing her eye to the massive desk at one end of the room as the General slowly pages through a stack of reports, pausing to glance at each one while she stands waiting. With a flourish, he initials three of them, consigning them to one neatly squared-off stack, the apparent rejects to another. The neat surface seems somehow empty, and it comes to Maggie that there are several framed photographs missing. Finally, his point made, the General rises, unfolding out of his leather chair with the suddenly stiff joints of an octagenarian. Maggie has never been quite certain whether the old-fashioned gesture is residual gallantry so ingrained that it is intractable, or whether it is a reminder that while she may be an officer, a gentlewoman and a decorated battle ace, she is still a woman and therefore not quite equal to any one of the boys. "Margaret," he says. "Good morning."
"Good morning, Sir," she echoes. A burning begins, deep in her solar plexus, spreading itself along her nerves until her skin feels as though she has taken fire, incandescent in the chill of the long room. Hart has never played power politics adroitly, and this attempt at dominance is almost as crude as his revelation of the one blot he had been able to find on her record. For an instant Maggie wants nothing so much as to turn on her heel and walk out. Leave him for the jackals, damn him. But she cannot do that. Hart has talents that are in short supply.
He is a human being, she reminds herself sternly. Human beings themselves are in short supply, male human beings even shorter. None salvageable can be wasted with impunity.
"Salvageable" being the operative word. One of the matters they must discuss is the trial and subsequent punishment of the rapists from Mandan and Grand Rapids.
Hart gestures toward the comfortable armchair across the desk, then settles back into his own with an attempt at ease that only emphasizes the angularity of his movements. His skin seems faded by more than the sunless months of snow, his features not so much relaxed as given in to the pull of gravity.
Dead man walking.
He says, startling her almost as much as if he truly were dead, "What can I do for you this morning, Colonel?
Maggie snaps open her briefcase, removes a pair of manila envelopes and lays them on the Generals desk, facing him. "Casualty report, sir."
The General lifts one of the files, fans the pages with a thumb and then sets it down again. He does not bother to examine it or read the figures in detail. "How bad?"
"A hundred and fifty dead," she replies, her voice tight. "Of those, approximately two thirds were military personnel, the remainder civilian volunteers. The heaviest losses occurred on the far side of the river, among the troops assigned to close on the enemy from the rear."
"Sergeant Rivers contingent?" There is a hint of something in his voice that Maggie cannot quite identify; not anger, precisely, not exactly jealousy. Resentment, perhaps.
"Yes. As youre aware from initial reports, Sir, they came under heavier fire than any of the other units."
Hart simply nods. Whatever he feels or thinks, he is not going to share it with a subordinate who has, in his clear if unspoken view, usurped his position. "Injuries?"
Maggie points toward the other folder. "Eighty percent ambulatory. The remainder include everything from punctured lungs to third degree burns. The medics tell me we may still lose as many as a quarter of them."
"Very good. What else?"
With considerable distaste, Maggie hands him a third, thicker folder. "Incident report. Reports, actually."
"I see. Under control?"
"For the time being."
"What else? How are the prosecutions of the collaborators going?"
Hart regards her without speaking, not giving her an opening. From the far side of the window come the first hesitant notes of a sparrows song to set up a counterpoint to the muffled clack of keys from the secretarys desk. Perhaps she imagines it, but the grey rectangle of the window seems somehow lighter, as if the sun has emerged fully from the cloud cover that dampened the early morning. She suppresses an urge, almost overpowering, to rise and fling back the curtains, to let the day come spilling into the dingy room.
She cannot do it, though, without being rude, almost insubordinate. Hart has a certain entitlement to his gloom; by rights, his depression should be his own affair. Certainly she cannot openly notice it without embarrassing him, and probably herself. More certainly yet, it would bring his resentment firmly down on her and end any chance of cooperation. Indeed, during the course of their conversation, his face has become both more drawn and more remote. A man going through the motions, getting it over with as rapidly as he can.
Getting human beings as far away from him as he can.
"Sir, if we can get back to the incident reports for a moment--?"
"Sir, if youll look at those reports, youll see that a pattern is developing. Its one were not currently equipped to deal with." Maggie replaces the folder in front of him.
After a pause, clearly reluctant, he picks it up again and begins to read, silently and without comment. Several minutes later he puts it down again. His mouth purses into a tight little moue of exasperation; it is the closest he has come to looking like himself since she entered the office. "Will you please tell me, Colonel, why there are three civilian drunks in the Base jail? Have we taken to picking up winos in alleys or good ol boys out on a binge? Surely we can use our resources better than that."
"They were shooting at a wolf, General, right in front of the main gate."
"I see," he says in a voice that makes it clear that he does not. "The United States Air Force is now enforcing environmental regulations?"
"It seems that we may be, Sir, but thats a side issue. The real problem is that these three idiots drew down on our own MPs when Dr. Rivers put a stop to their fun."
"Dr. Rivers. And of course our MPsthey are still our MPs, are they not Colonel?were deployed to back her up."
The words drop like stones into the air, and Maggie feels the heat as it spreads over her face and neck. The men were drunk, disorderly and presented a direct threat to human life, General. It was a reflection, albeit a minor one, of the previous incident at the gate. That one had the potential to develop into a genuine riot. There could have been deathscivilians and our troops, both."
"And your solution to this problem is--?"
And there it is, right in front of her. Maggie mentally crosses her fingers and breaths a small prayer to Kodas Ina Maka. Or anyone else out there whos listening. She will have only one chance. Get it wrong, and there will be no way to put it right. It is only with a conscious effort that she does not draw a deeper and very obvious breath before speaking. Here goes.
"My solution, if we can call it that, has to do with reframing the problem, Sir. What we have in the gate riot, the civilians attempting to appropriate Base housing, the numbskulls
taking potshots at the wildlife, is a breakdown of civil authority. Quite simply, there is none at the moment."
All trace of animation recedes from Harts face. "There is Dr. King. She is, after all, the only surviving Cabinet officer that we know of, de facto President, if she wants to think of herself that way. And according to your report here, she certainly managed to restore order or help restore order in two of these incidents."
Maggie shakes her head. "True. But the most valuable thing she can do right now is continue to search for the code that will disable the androids. Someone is needed immediately. Someone who is an experienced administrator and has the confidence of the townspeople as well as the military."
The General rises to his feet and paces a few feet away, waving her back into her chair when she rises with him. "No, no. Sit down." He turns to face her, hands behind his back but not at ease at all. "And where will we find such a person, Colonel Allen? Am I mistaken when I assume that youor you and Dr. Rivers, or the two of you and Dr. Kinghave someone in mind?"
"I have discussed the matter with Dr. King, yes. As you say, she is the de facto President."
"Sir, we have problems that are not within our military mission to solve. You asked about the trials of the rapists; theyre precisely the kind of thing we dont really have a way to deal with. For instance" she refers to yet another folder"Ive drawn up suggested indictments under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But can welegally, Constitutionallytry these men in a military court?"
"Its the only court we have, Colonel Allen." Harts tone is patient, as if he is explaining the obvious to a rather slow child.
"Which is precisely the problem, Sir. No one has declared martial law. The crimes did not occur on Federal property. They are not Federal offenses, with the exception of collaborating with the enemy and possibly the conspiracy charges. We have them in jail, were organizing their trials, but we have no legal jurisdiction."
"And how will a civil, or civilian, administrator solve this difficulty?"
"Sir, there is currently no legal authority at all in Rapid City. Weve seen the result of that in the attempt of several families to claim vacant Base housing and in a more concerted attempt to force the gates a few nights ago." Harts face remains expressionless. She is not getting through. Play dirty? For an instant Maggie weighs her options, then continues. "Kimberley tells me that polygamy is taking hold in at least one apocalyptic cult in town. Some old coot who fancies himself a prophet is marrying thirteen year old girlsto himself. If thats better than whats happening in the jails, you tell me how."
For an instant the frozen mask drops off Harts face, and fear shows through. Somewhere in upstate New York, with his estranged wife, Hart has twin girls of the same age. There is no way of knowing what has happened to them, but none of the possibilities is good, and all are the stuff of a fathers nightmare. It is their photograph that is missing from the Generals desk, perhaps too painful to look at since the insurrection. Really dirty, Allen. Really dirty. But if it gets results. . . .. With a suddenness that is almost audible, like a gate clanging shut, the rigidity is back. Hart snaps, "Its an atrocity, of course. But at least those young women are accounted for."
Maggie shuffles papers and changes the subject, leaving the unspoken parallel to work as it will in the Generals conscience. "Then theres the matter of the trials, as you say. We need to put together a court that will pass muster with the Constitutiona jury of the offenders peers, or as near as we can get to it, and at the very least a civilian judge or two to sit with a military panel. If we can somehow locate a state district judge, all the better. Somebody has to organize that, and it has to be someone the civilians in Rapid City and the military personnel on the Base both trust to do the job honestly and efficiently. Otherwise we have no Constitution, no law at all except what comes out of the barrel of an M-16."
"Do you have a candidate for this position, Colonel Allen? Your good friend Dr. Rivers, perhaps?"
Maggies face burns as if shes been slapped. But she says, steadily. "No, Sir. I was hoping you would be willing to make use of your good relationship with the civilian leadership in Rapid City and the communitys respect for you to take on the job yourself."
"I see. Arent you forgetting that I made a rather spectacular error in judgment in the bombing of Minot? One that throws your own bombing of civilians into the shade? Dont you think that calls my authority somewhat into question?" She opens her mouth to speak, but he waves her to silence. "Not to mention being publicly backhanded by the charming Dr. King. But all of that opens the way for you, doesnt it, Colonel? Just a matter of time until you have the name as well as the job of commander. Im surprised Dr. King hasnt field-brevetted you General already."
Maggie draws in a long breath, appalled. She feels as though the earth has suddenly dropped away from under her, leaving her suspended ins pace. Stupid. Stupid. Christ, I should have seen it coming.
Very carefully, she says, "Sir, if you had been on the field at the Cheyenne, you would know who will eventually command our forces, not just the Base." She lays the words down one by one, heavy with emphasis, willing him to believe.
"It isnt me."
"Oh, yes, Ive heard about the charge across the bridge. Youve got your Joan of Arc, Colonel, but she has no training and no experience. She may make a charismatic figurehead, but you and I both know that at the end of the day thats not enough." He pauses. "But she has you and her brother to prop her up. Shell pass well enough, no doubt."
With an effort at least as great as the force that propelled her across the ruined bridge in Kodas wake, Maggie manages to get a chokehold on her anger. There seems to be insufficient oxygen in the room; her throat feels so constricted that each word is a struggle. Her vision constricts to pinpoints. "Sir. With respect. You have the administrative experience that no one else surviving can offer. You are respected in the civilian community. Someone needs to hold that community together, or it will collapse into anarchy. And we will waste time and effort we need to spend fighting the droids fighting them instead. You can prevent that."
"Anything I can prevent, Colonel, I can prevent as Commanding Officer of this Base. Is there anything else? If not. . . ." He gestures toward his desk. "Im rather busy, as you see."
It is dismissal. Maggie rises, snapping her attaché case shut. "Thank you for your time, General."
Hart nods, dismissively, and turns back toward his high-backed leather chair in front of the drawn curtains. The sense of failure heavy about her, Maggie makes her way to the door and out into the reception area. Kimberly is missing, probably gone to lunch, and she is glad not to have to make conversation. She has no backup plan; neither, that she knows of, does Kirsten. They will have to identify someone in Rapid City, back up him or her, and hope that persons authority can be made to stick by something besides a bayonet.. Maggie rubs her throbbing temples and strikes out for the Judge Advocates office and the brig once again.
One son-of-a-bitch down, four to go.
"Clamp down on that rate a little. I dont want her fluid overloaded."
The small operating suite is brightly lit; brilliant white on chrome sterility.
Koda and Shannon are dressed in green scrubs, surgical masks hanging from their necks. The she-wolf is on the operating table, only lightly sedated; her weakness and profound dehydration making anaesthesia too risky a proposition.
With a soft grunt of satisfaction, Dakota applies the final bandage to the wolfs flank wound, then strips the bloodied gloves from her hands, tossing them into a nearby red-bagged trash bin. Long fingers trail through the coarse, brittle fur, stopping briefly against a bony chest, feeling the reassuring beat of life beneath bone and skin. "Ive done the best I can, shugmanitu tanka. The rest is up to you now."
"Is that her name?" Shannon asks as she deftly removes the bag of IV fluid from the pole while Dakota gathers the dazed wolf into her arms.
"Mm? Im sorry?"
"What you called her. Shug mani . Is that her name?"
Koda smiles, slipping backward through the swinging doors and into the recovery area. "Shugmanitu tanka. It means wolf in Lakota."
Shannon blushes, then laughs softly. "Oh." She tips her head toward a large wire kennel separated from the rest, its bottom nested with soft towels. "That one okay?"
"Perfect." Squatting down, Koda slides the barely conscious wolf into the warm nest and ruffles quickly through her fur, checking all wounds for seepage. When all seems well, she peers into her eyes, and nods, satisfied before closing the door and standing back up. She turns to look at Shannon, who is hanging the IV bag on a poll next to the kennel. "I was wondering if you could do me a favor."
"Sure! Name it."
"I know its getting late, but I need you to watch over her for a little while longer for me. Shes got a litter out there somewhere and I need to find them before it gets dark."
Shannons eyes widen in shock. "A litter? So early?"
"Too early," Koda agrees. "But theyre out there. We would never have seen her if they werent."
"Are you sure you can find them?"
"Ill find them." A beat, as she looks at the young woman. "Will you stay?"
"As long as you need me to."
Kodas lips twitch in some semblance of a smile. Its not perfect, but it serves its purpose. "Thanks."
Pulling her heavy coat on directly over her scrubs, Dakota gathers several warm blankets, a basket, and a handful of ChemHeat packs in her arms and heads back outside, the setting sun gilding her in tones of purest gold.
The figures march across the screen in orderly rows, keeping lockstep as the files scroll up and disappear over the top edge. Kirsten thinks of micrographs she has seen of blood cells spilling down through the narrow channel of vein and artery, compact red discs propelled from the conundrum of their origin to the mystery of their destination by the alternating pressure of dystole and systole. She thinks of Disney movies and television science specials, streams of army ants gnawing their way across the forest floor in a pheromone-driven rush from here to there, leaving bare earth in their wake. She thinks of lemmings, diving headlong into the sea.
No meaning in any of it.
There are moments when she is so close to the solutionwhen she knows she is so close to the solutionthat she can almost see the dim shape of it forming on the screen. But something is always missing, something vital, the single segment of code that will turn the string of integers into a signal that, properly transmitted, will stop the droids where they stand. And that, in turn, will free the rest of surviving humanity, both those held in jails and the all rest, held by fear or resolve or instinct for survival to resist their rule.
Kirsten removes her glasses, laying them carefully on the desk, and scrubs at her eyes. She is blind weary, almost literally, with the hours of unbroken attention seated before the computer. Her eyes sting; her back aches; the muscles of thigh and shoulder have twisted themselves into macramé in the four hours she has been staring at the code strings, looking for something that she is beginning to fear is not there. Her mouth tastes of too-strong coffee, reheated once too often. She needs a break.
Deliberately, she snaps the lid of the notebook down and retrieves her glasses. Asimov, who has spent the morning drowsing under the desk, perks up instantly at the small sound, ears up, eyes bright. His tail thumps tentatively against the floor, and he whines softly.
Kirsten reaches down to ruffle his ears. "Yeah, boy. I hear you. Give me a minute, and well go."
She rises, nearly stumbling with the stiffness of her legs. In the bathroom, she splashes cold water over her face, attempting to force her mind back to alertness. It is pain, though, that does the job, the knotted tendons and cramped ligaments in her neck resisting motion as she leans over the basin, then stands almost on tiptoe to reach the mouthwash on the top shelf of the old-style medicine cabinet. She has lived alone so long that she is seldom aware of her lack of inches, but sharing quarters with one six-footer and another woman almost as tall has brought back all the old annoyance at having to stretch for bottles just beyond the tips of her fingers, the indignity of having to stand on chairs to retrieve items from the top shelves of pantry and closet. She swears softly to herself as the bottle slips away from her grasp toward the back of the cabinet, again when it tips forward to land with a muffled thud in the sink.
Par for the course. Nothing else has gone right today, either, least of all her attempt to reconstruct the necessary cyber commands. Deliberately, Kirsten refuses to allow herself to think what will happen if she does not break the code. Failure is not an option.
Ten minutes later, her eyes scrubbed free of grit and the stale coffee-taste replaced by the astringent bite of the mouthwash, she lets herself and Asimov out the front door. Desperate to get as far away as she can from the virtual environment of her computer, she makes for the stand of woods near where she and Koda had met Maggie the evening of the gate riot. The day stands on the edge of spring, though the suns warmth does not yet match its brightness. It lies like pale gold along drifts of new-fallen snow, gilding the dawn side of tall birches and sycamores. Against one bare trunk, a woodpecker hitches its way up the bark, searching for still hibernating insects. High up and far out over the woods, a raven calls, his cries dropping into the soundless air. The streets, which should have been heavily trafficked at mid-day with Base personnel coming home for lunch and pre-school kids playing in the white and winter-brown yards or pedaling their trikes down the sidewalk to the peril of hapless pedestrians, lie deserted and nearly silent. As she follows the curve of the road away from the residential area, she encounters only a single squirrel foraging among the roots of a still-bare oak tree. At the sight of Asi loping toward her, she bottles her tail and scampers up onto an overhanging branch, scolding loudly. Then she, too, falls quiet, darting up into the trees crown until the intruders have passed.
Kirstens hearing loss has left her adapted to silence. Preferring, it even. For the first time, it occurs to her to wonder how others will deal with a world free of blaring automobile horns and ever present radio and television. A world where human voices are swallowed up not by ambient clatter but by the depths of silence.
A fragment of an antique song drifts through her mind:
Hello, darkness, my old friend.
Ive come to talk to you again
About a vision softly creeping
That left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sounds of silence.
Except, of course, she is a scientist. She does not deal in visions. Just the facts, maam.
Just the facts, and preferably the numbers. If its quantifiable, it can be trusted. Anything else veers off into the realm of unpredictable emotions and their generally messy effects. Better to keep things orderly.
There is order somewhere in their present situation, even though it is not presently discernable. Someone, somehow, has a reason for turning the droids loose on the remainder of the human race. When that reason is found, motives will become understandable and guilt can be reliably assigned.
She shakes her head to clear her thoughts. She has not come out into the fresh air to keep worrying the problem, turning it over and over, trying to rearrange it like a Rubik Cube until questions and answers all match up. Deliberately forcing her mind away from the droids, she searches the snow cover for a length of fallen branch long and heavy enough to throw well but not too heavy for a round of fetch. Finding one, she brushes the leaf mould off it, and, whistling, pitches out far ahead of her. Asi is off after it in a nanosecond, bounding into the trafficless street and returning at a dead gallop, ears laid back and tail straight out like a rudder, to drop it at her feet and quiver with eagerness to do it again.
When they reach the benches, Kirsten sails the stick off over the incline leading up from the woods, and Asi plunges down it , sliding and slipping in the snow and thewet earth beneath it. Kirsten follows more carefully, having no desire to add bruises on top of her existing sore spots. Neither does she want to have to wash her clothes out by hand. Maggies machine runs only on full loads now, and only for things, like sheets and jeans, that cannot reasonably be hand laundered. The bathroom has begun to take on the aspect of a dorm room, socks and underwear in three sizes apiece draped over the shower rails and towel rings.
A small stream flows over the flat ground between the street and the wood, and Kirsten follows it into the trees. Most are still bare, but the ice has begun to melt, and here and there along low hanging braches, she can make out the swollen buds of leaves to come. The stream has thawed entirely, and it murmurs softly as it winds between its dark banks, spilling here and there into a low waterfall, spreading out to hardly more than a film over the petrified fans of ancient lava flows.
Asi is quiet now, pacing beside her. There is no room here where the trees crowd close to keep up their game, and somehow the boisterousness of it seems inappropriate, like laughing in church. Weaving her way between gnarled roots and under low branches that will trail their leaves in the water come summer, her eye is caught by a sudden movement some ten feet ahead of her. She freezes where she stands, and Asi with her.
Apparently oblivious of her presence, a raccoon sits on his haunches at waters edge, dabbling with both hands in the stream. Kirsten knows that the myths are myths; he is not washing up before lunch, or, for that matter, washing his lunch before lunch. More likely he is searching for his meal, small fish or aquatic insects, perhaps even freshwater mussels. Soundlessly, so as not to disturb him, Kirsten sinks down upon one of the sycamore roots, leaning back against the trunk to watch. She keeps her hand on Asis collar, but he has shown no inclination to harass the raccoon. Which is odd, she thinks, but certainly convenient.
For long minutes she watches him, the sun striking coruscating brilliance from the clear water through the gently swaying branches. He seems to be out of luck, for he catches nothing that she can see. Yet he continues his search below the surface, patiently, his eyes taking the errant sunlight like dark rounds of Baltic amber.
She is not sure when or how it happens. Nor has she any idea how long she has sat
watching the steady, repetitive motions of the creatures search. She only knows that somehow the light has changed around her. The intermittent fall of sunlight through the branches has become a steady, golden glow without visible source. Colors have grown deeper, the pale grey water become vivid blue, the rough grey bark of her sycamore a rich and varied umber. The sky, where she can see it between the forking trunk of her sycamore, has turned the impossible shade of perfect turquoise, clouds like feathers drifting lightly along under its canopy. Beside her, Asi has fallen still, whuffling softly in his dream.
With a lunge almost too fast to see, the raccoon splashes into the stream and emerges with a small silver fish, still wriggling, in his mouth. On the bank again, he shakes the water from his coat, and, quiet deliberately, begins to clamber over the uneven ground directly toward Kirsten herself. Kirsten holds herself motionless, scarcely breathing. Part of her mind is screaming that this is abnormal behavior, and that she is about to be bitten by a rabid animal. The other part waits in stillness, a frisson running over her skin like electricity. She does not know what is about to happen, but even she knows magic when she sees it. Asi never stirs.
When the raccoon is no more than a yard from her, he sits back on his haunches again. Golden eyes never leaving hers, he takes the fish from his mouth with one long-fingered hand and calmly bites its head off. He chews thoughtfully, swallows, and says, "Well damn, it took you long enough. What kept you?"
For a moment the tingle of anticipation turns to real fear. Nothing in her zoology courses has prepared her for talking animals. She is either mad or dreaming.
Or she was right the first time, and it is magic.
She says, "What do you mean, long enough? Do you have any idea what Ive been doing the last three months? Its not like we had an appointment."
"Oh, we had an appointment, all right. You just didnt know it."
"Not any appointment I made. I dont pencil hallucinations into my schedule."
"I am not," the raccoon says, enunciating very carefully, "an hallucination."
"Then what are you? A dream? Something I ate?"
The raccoon pauses with the fish halfway to his mouth again. "What do I look like, you idiot human? Chopped liver?"
"You look like"
"I," he interrupts, speaking with extreme dignity, "am Wika Tegalega."
He waits, as though he expects the name to mean something to her. When the silence threatens to become awkward, she says, "Pleased to meet you. Kirsten King, here."
"I know that. Since you apparently dont speak Real Human yet, Ill tell you what my name means. Its Magic One with Painted Face. You can call me Tega. Im your spirit animal."
"Your spirit animal. Your guide. Think of me as your guardian angel if you have trouble getting your head around a Real People idea."
"Aaallll riiight," she drawls. "So what did I do to acquire a spirit animal?. Or guardian angel? Or whatever?" She makes a dismissive gesture with one hand. "In case you havent noticed, I have a guardian animal. He chases the likes of you up trees."
The raccoon shows all his teeth, which are very white and very sharp and very many, in what would be a grin if he were human. There doesnt seem to be anything humorous in it now, though. "Him and whose army? Looks like tomorrows stew to me."
"What!" She starts to stand, to escape from this surreal conversation, but finds that her muscles will not obey her. It is not paralysis; it is mutiny by her own body, acting on its own wisdom.
"Okay. Look, Im sorry. Nobodys going to eat your mutt." Wika Tegalega raises the fish to his mouth again, then holds it out to her. "Want some?"
Kirsten may not be able to get to her feet and bolt, but she can still cringe. "Uh, no. No, thank you."
Tega tilts his head to one side as if to say "Your loss" and takes another bite. Scales and bones make small, metallic crunching sounds between his teeth as he chews. Kirsten shudders.
"Good," he says, running his tongue around his muzzle. "Sure you dont want some?"
A sense of familiarity has begun to grow on Kirsten. Gingerly she sorts through her memories of her near-death, caught in the downward spiral of a self-destructing android, the code that burned its circuits searing destruction along her own nerves. There had been a red-haired woman warning her back toward life; that she remembered. And there had been another woman, older, clad in vermilion robes that blew about her stooped body and a cap of the same color above her wizened, nut-brown face. And there had been a shape like this creature, holding up a long-fingered hand like a benediction, speaking above the howl of the vortex that threatened to consume her: Go back. The time is not yet.
"You were there!" she blurts. "The time I almost died!"
"I was there," he acknowledges.
"So what are you doing here now? Am I" she lets the question trail off in a shiver of unadmitted fear. She cannot let herself go now. Not with the work she has yet to do, not with the first real friend she has ever made in her life. Real friends, she corrects, though one isshe searches for a word that is not too extravagantspecial.
"Ahh," Tega says. "So youve gotten around to telling yourself the truth. Some of it, at least."
What? You mean aboutabout--?"
"About Dakota Rivers. Your friend."
"Well, Ive never really had one before. Its a new experience."
Crunch goes another mouthful of bones and scales. "Its even newer than you think, and older, too. Do you want me to tell your future? Your past? Cross my paw with mussels and Wika Tegalega will Reveal All." The raccoon has no eyebrows, but the stripes around his eyes waggle lecherously.
Kirsten sniffs. "I know my past, thank you very much. And if any of us have any future at all, it will be what we make it. I dont need a talking four-footed bandit with a bushy tail to tell me that."
Crunch again. "All right." Tega shrugs, a very human gesture. "But Ill tell you this anyway. Think Moebius strip."
"Moebius strip. You know, one of those little thingies you made back in grade school. Twist the loop and glue it together so it only has one surface. Neat trick, actually."
"I know what a Moebius strip is, dammit. Im a scientist. Why should I think about one now?"
The last of the fish disappears and a faraway look comes into Tegas eyes. "Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows. The front is the back, the past is the future. Round and round, life after death after life. What has been, will be. And there is nothing new under the sun."
Kirsten frowns, at the cryptic words, and at the chill that passes over her skin. Someone walking on my grave, her grandmother had always said. "I dont understand."
"No, of course not." The remote gaze has gone, and the raccoons eyes are on her face, here and now. "Not yet. But you will."
"I" Kirsten is not quite sure what she means to say. Demand an explanation? Deny causality? Proclaim her belief in a random universe of random events without pattern that sometimes just happen to give the illusion of purpose?
"You will," Tega repeats. "What you need to know now is that three drunken idiots with their brains in their tiny, tiny balls have just shot a she wolf at the gate. Koda is caring for her at the clinic and will need to go search for her pups. She needs your help."
"What? How can I--?"
"Go to her. Go now." Tega drops to all fours again, the non-human grin splitting his face. "Hasta la vista, baby."
The golden light fades, and Kirsten finds herself sitting once again on an ordinary root in an ordinary wood with ordinary snow powdering the ground. A dream, thats all. An extremely vivid dream, but just a dream.
She rises and stretches, Asi with her. "Cmon, boy, lets" She stops, frozen, in mid-sentence. Printing the snow in front of her, one string coming and another going, are the marks of long-fingered hands and agile feet. A raccoons tracks.
"Come, Asi!" she cries, and begins to run.
Actions starting to heat up now. Actually, the next few chapters have been my favorite to write (and read) so far. Spring has finally made inroads into the molasses factory, as you will see next week in Episode Twenty. Until then, have a great week, have fun, and drop a line! firstname.lastname@example.org. See you Thursday!
Continued - Chapter 20
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