Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
Kirsten lets herself into a silent house. Tentatively she calls out, “Dakota? Maggie?”” There is no answer except for a soft whine from Asimov. Soundlessly she crosses the hall and flicks the light switch. The warm glow of the lamps with their old-fashioned pleated linen shades reveals books ranked on their shelves, Koda’s copy of Spengler neatly closed on the coffee table. The house smells faintly of lavender and lemon wax, no supper on the stove, no fire on the hearth. She has the place to herself, and is content.
She is accustomed to solitude, needs it from time to time as she needs air. Too much has happened in the last two days—too much just in the hours since setting out on a walk with Asi—to tolerate another human presence with any ease. True, she knows that worry will niggle at the back of her mind until Koda returns safely from her raid on the birthing center, but she also knows that the woman who led the charge across the Cheyenne is more than a match for a couple androids and one or two human stooges. Drifting through the living room, her fingers trail over the venerable edition of The Decline of the West. A bit of history, read in some random book or article and never discarded, drifts up from her memory. The great Oglala war chief, Crazy Horse, took the only scalps in his adult life on a raid against the Crow, sparked by his wild grief over the death of his daughter. And Dakota has adopted his blazons of hail and lightning and red-tailed hawk. A shiver runs over her skin; Tshunka Witco had been born somewhere near the bend of the Cheyenne where they had stood down the android army.
And has, perhaps, named his heir, a century and a half later, in the blood and fire of battle?
It is more mysticism than she can tolerate on an empty stomach. Purposefully Kirsten moves toward the kitchen, Asimov shouldering past her to stand over his bowl, eyes bright, tail wagging like a metronome in 2/4 time.
His nose disappears among the kibble the instant it clatters into the metal dish. Kirsten’s choices are not much more varied. An inspection of the refrigerator produces a container of vegetable soup; a moment’s investigation of the pantry, canned fruit, some beans and corn, onions and potatoes. Meat is becoming scarce. Other protein—milk, cheese, eggs—is growing increasingly rarer. It is a problem that will have to be addressed, but not by her, not this evening, at any rate. There is already too much in line ahead of it.
As the soup heats, Kirsten rummages in the bread box, triumphantly pouncing on the last round of fry bread from a batch Koda had made a few days ago. She ought to leave part of it for Maggie and Koda, but hunger and the strains of the day get the better of etiquette. She lays it directly on the stove surface to heat, flipping it a time or two like a pancake, then carries her meal to the table. For thirty minutes, she promises herself, she will think about nothing but the physical necessity of her hunger, about nothing more important than carrying spoon from bowl to mouth. Finding some purchase on the frictionless surface her emotional life has become can wait until after supper.
An hour later, she sits staring into the fire she has lit for company, her fingers idle on the keyboard of her laptop. She cannot bring herself to concentrate on the strings of figures that march across the plasma screen. The work is urgent as ever; unlike the inhabitants of Rapid City, who have abandoned themselves to the optimistic view that the droids are defeated once for all, Kirsten knows, knows better than any, the danger they and the remainder of surviving humanity still face.
She just cannot persuade herself that she should give it her undivided attention. Not now.
The flames leap before her eyes, and in their orange and scarlet she sees again the fires along the valley in her dream, the streaming hair of the warrior woman she has seen four times now. The first time, the woman blocked her passage as she spiraled down toward death; the second time, and the third and the fourth—the last right there in the clinic, with for godssake who knows who coming and going—she had been more than a fleeting image and a voice. There was a past behind her, a past that Kirsten, in her own strange form, had invaded at some place—a battlefield?—somewhere near a body of water called “Douglass,” or something like it.
Someplace, somewhere, something.
Kirsten makes a small noise of annoyance, and Asi, stretched full length on the warm bricks, glances up at her. She stretches out a foot to scratch his belly, and he subsides. It is bad enough to find herself mooning over dreams; it is worse to find herself tolerating the vagueness of a dozen assumptions that she cannot root in fact. Almost without volition, her fingers begin to drift over her keyboard, spelling out the one name she can remember, seeking its place and time in the real world. With luck, she will find nothing and will be able to consign the entire episode to a traumatized and overactive imagination.
Douglass: Scottish Gaelic. From Dubh—black; dark, and glass—stream, water. 1. The name of a family prominent in Scottish history. 2. The site of one of the twelve legendary battles of King Arthur, said to be located in southwestern Scotland.
And the hero-light shone about you that time I first saw you on the banks of the Dubhglass, anama-chara, and I knew then I would do anything to have you for my soul-friend.
Her mind reels away from that as if she has been struck.. She refuses to lose herself in the fog of Arthuriana, in a fantasy para-historical at best. But it has given her a possible foothold in fact.
Item: The ancient Celts—the very ancient Celts, ancient enough to be free of the trailing fantasies of Camelot, she is relieved to find--trained the able of both sexes as warriors. Indeed, the greatest of the Celtic arms masters, those who educated heroes such as CuChullain, were women.
Item: The ancient Celts, including the women, fought naked. A brief anecdote relates how Onduava, wife of the martyred Vercingetorix, led the Gaulish women out against Caesar, “and did the Romans great damage before they got their minds back onto the business at hand.” Kirsten finds herself smiling at that, for reasons that are not quiet clear to her. There is something about the humiliation of the Divine Julius at the hands of a woman warrior that pleases her immensely.
Item: The ancient Celts painted, or sometimes tattooed, their bodies with designs in blue woad, a vegetable dye. They wore their hair in a complicated wreath of braids upon going into battle to deny the enemy a handhold. An illustration shows the helmet-like arrangement, with a sort of attenuated, clubbed pony-tail at the crown. Another shows the alternative, hair cropped short and stiffened into spikes like a hedgehog’s with lime. First millennium BCE punk. Move over, Sting.
Item: The ancient Celts were, according to Caesar, great proponents of “manly love.” Though JC does not mention it in his Gallic Wars, the commentator opines that the warrior ethos extended equally to “womanly love.”
Which brings her back to . . ..
Very softly, Kirsten closes the top of her computer, staring into the fire. Which brings her back to that fleeing moment in the hall, the brief brush of Dakota’s lips on hers. Heat rises in her face that has nothing to do with the fire. She knows, in that irrational part of her mind that she does not trust, that she need not fear the kiss means goodbye. Dakota is neither incompetent nor—except when charging across ruined bridges—careless, and Kirsten knows in her bones that the warrior will not fail in her mission.
But if not goodbye . . .. To the best of her knowledge, the Oglala Lakota do not share the French habit of kissing all and sundry, of either gender, with or without provocation or even the benefit of formal introduction.
Her eyes slide closed, almost of their own volition, and she allows herself to remember the brief contact, not in her mind, but on her lips. There is tenderness in its warmth, a promise of passion, yet it makes no demands. It bears no resemblance to anything in her meager experience, which has been limited to one or two awkward couplings in the back of an ancient Bronco, more out of curiosity than emotion. The experience, she had thought at the time, was not what it was cracked up to be.
But this. . .. Her dreams had been passionate, and had left the physical signs of that passion behind on her skin. An image from her dream forms, flickering in the firelight that plays across her closed eyelids. The red woman’s mouth descending on hers, open and sharing, her hair loose about her, her eyes the color of sapphires in the shadow. The light shifts, and the face has changed with it, the skin bronze now, stretched over high cheekbones, long hair like a waterfall of night cascading over broad shoulders. Only the eyes are the same, blue as the evening sky.
Deliberately Kirsten sets down the computer and goes to stand in the hall, in front of the mirror. Her reflection is shadowed by the firelight and the one lamp left burning in the room behind her. She takes in her own features, the corn-silk pale hair, grown past her collar in the past months, the face she has never considered better than plain, her eyes, probably her best feature, huge and dark in the low light. Dakota Rivers is beautiful, tall and graceful and confident.
Everything Kirsten is not.
And yet. . . . She touches her fingers to her lips, almost disbelieving. And yet, it seems, she finds Kirsten desirable, even when she has someone as assured and as elegant as herself for a lover.
The past is the future, Wika Tegalega had said. Her past? Dakota’s? There is nothing in her own that she cares to repeat, certainly not the puerile gropings of her undergraduate days. Dakota’s past is largely unknown, except for those few facts she has let slip, and the loss of Tali, her first love and first wife. Kirsten has nothing to lay alongside that to fit it to her own measure.
She will not allow herself to think that it may be more than desire. To do so would be to give her heart as hostage to fortune, and there is enough of herself at hazard as it is. For a moment longer, she lingers before the mirror. Then carefully, she banks the fire, leaving the lamp lit against Maggie’s return, or Dakota’s.
Asimov beside her, she slips out of her clothes and into the sweat pants and shirt she still wears against the spring chill. She does not know how long she lies awake, but it is long enough to hear the key in the lock and Maggie’s step, lighter than Dakota’s and quicker, on the floor of the entrance hall. The snick of Maggie’s door closing punctuates the silence, and after that, the only sound in the dark is the soft snoring of Asimov where he sleeps on the floor next to the narrow bed. Toward morning, she falls into sleep and into dream.
Dawn has just begun to lighten the horizon when Kirsten rolls from her bed and stretches, feeling oddly refreshed. Oddly, because ever since she’d begun sleeping on the lumpy, pitiful excuse for a mattress, she’s never been even within shouting distance of a good night’s sleep. Of course, it wouldn’t help to grouse about it—aloud, at least. She knows she’s lucky to have a roof over her head. Damn lucky. Many others are making due without even that. Those who are still alive, that is.
Shaking her head to clear away thoughts too maudlin for a newly dawning day, she stretches again and runs a hand through her sleep-spiraled hair, setting it somewhat to rights, as snatches of the dreams which kept her company through the night filter through her slowly awakening consciousness.
They aren’t images so much as colors, very much like the dreams she used to have when her deafness had set in so fully that even the memory of human speech seemed a lost and forgotten thing.
The swirling smoke gray of doubt and confusion merging into the bilious green of fear. The deep purple/red of rage lightening into the golden red of passion. The colors, and their attendant emotions, flow in and among and through each other in dizzying kaleidoscope patterns that change with each twitch of her eyes until she is all but screaming for respite.
It comes, then; a deep, Caribbean blue that nurtures and soothes, and settles over her, leaving nothing within untouched.
And, at last, she knows peace.
Asi hears the sounds a split second before she does, and paces to the door, whining and looking back at her with his best beseeching gaze. Kirsten smiles, and feels her pulse quicken in anticipation. The small room is covered in a quick stride, and she yanks the door open, breath already filling her lungs in preparation for speech.
Breath that leaks out slowly when she sees not Dakota, but Maggie standing in the middle of the living room, pulling on her jacket with short, savage motions, her noble brow deeply furrowed with worry.
“She didn’t come home last night,” Maggie bites off, yanking the hem of her jacket down. “I’m going after her. You stay here in case I miss her.”
“She’s back,” Kirsten soothes. “She’s safe.”
Maggie’s head lifts slowly. Her dark eyes dart past Kirsten and to the opened door of the room beyond. A flash of emotion that Kirsten can’t—or won’t—identify crosses her face and is quickly gone. “I see.”
The temperature in the room plummets to sub-arctic temperatures, leaving Kirsten struggling for purchase on this slippery emotional slope. “No!” she finally spits out just as Maggie is beginning to turn away. “She didn’t…I mean, she’s not…I mean….shit.” She sighs, and plays out a hunch. “Could you just…come with me? Please?”
If the spoken word was visible, that particular word, as spoken by Maggie, would be formed from blocks of brittle ice. Kirsten swallows hard, finding herself confronted with a woman very much unlike the one she’s come to know and consider, at least in some ways, a friend. Not lacking in courage, however, she pushes down her unease and faces the Colonel boldly. “Just come. Please?”
“Fine,” Maggie grunts. “Let’s just get this over with quickly. I have things I need to do today.”
“Great! Just let me get my jacket on, and we’re gone.”
The two women step out into the cool dawn. The sky overhead is a pearl gray, and the freshening breeze, while chilled, brings with it the heavy scent of moist earth and growing things. It brings an unconscious smile to Kristen’s face, and an equally unconscious spring to her step as she walks across Maggie’s small lawn and onto the street that will lead them to the vet clinic. Asi bounds ahead, stopping at his usual canine greeting posts and baptizing several newly budding trees. Maggie follows along at a more sedate pace, hands shoved deep in her pockets and eyes fixed to the ground at her feet. She’s feeling out-of-sorts, torn within the space of five minutes between the towering emotions of fear for Dakota’s safety, and a flashing jealousy she’d spent previous hours convincing herself she didn’t possess.
Great, she thinks, giving a soft snort of self-deprecation. I’ve finally gone nuts. Snapping a woman’s head off for absolutely no reason. A woman who, if you’ll remember, just happens to be your Commander-In-Chief. All before breakfast, yet. She snorts again. Great.
Lifting her head, she gazes out over the grounds, toward the hangar where she knows her Tomcat patiently waits. A brief stab of pain twists at her heart, and she wills her gaze away. Damn.
Unaware of Maggie’s turbulent thoughts, Kirsten crosses the last of the ground to the clinic quickly, almost buoyantly, and pulls open the door, taking in the blast of warm, animal scented air with a feeling of true pleasure. Asi rushes inside and assumes his accustomed place on the floor of the waiting room, grabbing a toy from the basket and attacking it with purpose.
Kirsten holds the door until Maggie enters, then follows, taking the lead as she pulls open a second door and walks through into the narrow, pristine white corridor lined with examining rooms on either side. The door at the end of the hall leads to the isolation area, and is presently blocked by the large bodies of Tacoma, Manny and Andrews, who stare, still as statues, through the glass and into the room beyond.
Hearing their entrance, Tacoma turns, smiling in welcome and beckoning them forward. Kirsten reaches the group first, and Manny edges aside, allowing her to fill the space left by his body. As she peers inside, she feels her eyes widen in wonder, even as her heart swells near to bursting.
There, on the plush mats set carefully on the floor, lies Dakota, sprawled out on her back, ebony hair forming a corona around her head. Lying full length against her is the female wolf, free of IV’s, her massive head tucked in tight against Koda’s left side. And, nestled safely upon the softness of Koda’s shirt covered chest, lies the wolf pup. All are blissfully, deeply asleep.
Kirsten can hear Maggie’s soft gasp in her right ear even as she hears Tacoma begin to whisper in her left.
“She came back really late last night and operated on the bobcat and coyote. They’re both doing very well.”
Kirsten nods with relief.
“Then she sent me and Manny home. Wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we went.” Behind her, she can feel Manny’s silent laughter as Tacoma continues. “We got here about ten minutes ago. All the cages are clean and the animals look fine, so I think she nodded off just a little while ago.”
“Is it safe for her to be like that?” Kirsten asks, a little nervously as she watches the female stir slightly and display wickedly long, wickedly sharp teeth in a large canine yawn before settling back against Dakota’s warm body.
“Oh yeah,” Tacoma replies easily. “She’s safe. She’s with her family.”
She turns her head slowly, meeting Tacoma’s gaze, not exactly sure what she’s expecting to see. Humor over his sister’s eccentricities, maybe? Jealousy, perhaps? But she sees none of those things. The only emotions there are an overwhelming pride and, as he turns back to peer through the window, an adoration one would usually see reserved only for the worship of a higher power.
And suddenly, like the Grinch of that long ago children’s tale, she recognizes, and admits, the swelling in her own chest as she too turns back to the scene in the clinic for exactly what it is.
Simple, and complex, and completely irresistible.
The moment is shattered by the sound of the rear door opening and Shannon, still looking about sixteen hours from rested, stumbling in, dry scrubbing her face and yawning hugely.
Turning quickly, Tacoma bars the way and gently escorts the half-sleeping young woman back the way she came. The others slowly follow, leaving Kirsten to stare at the window, grappling with an emotion, with a revelation, so monumental that it literally steals the breath from her lungs.
I’m in love with her.
Those words go round and round in her mind, each time with a different emphasis until all of them are capitalized and pounding so hard at her heart and head that she fears she’s screaming them at the top of her lungs.
What comes out, however, is the tiniest of whispers, spoken only to an empty, sterile hall. Her breath, as it speaks the words, forms a tiny flower of fog against the glass, misting the scene before her.
“I’m in love with you.”
The waiting room sees three men standing at rigid attention as Maggie, back to the exit door, stares at them, dark eyes snapping. “We need to talk.” Her voice, though soft, carries with it the authority of a god. “Be in my office in two hours.”
And with that, she is gone, leaving the men to sag against the walls and desk of the large room.
“We’re in for it now,” Manny mutters, dragging a nervous hand across the freshly sharpened bristles of his regimental buzz-cut.
“We are truly fucked,” Andrews agrees, his face pale as curdled milk.
“Come on, guys,” Tacoma finally says with a quick glance back down the corridor. “Let’s make ourselves presentable before she hands us our guts on a platter.”
The three men quickly exit, leaving one bewildered woman behind trying to convince herself that she’s still dreaming.
Maggie unlocks the door to her office and turns up the light switch. Overhead, the fluorescent tubes flicker to life, their cold light falling on the spartan desk and metal-frame chairs, leeching the life from the two Guatemalan cutout tapestries of jungle cats worked in scarlet and orange, bright yellow and fuchsia that share the wall with the ubiquitous color photographs of combat aircraft. One of these shows Maggie herself poised on the ladder of her lead plane, the Bobcats logo splendid in orange and gold above her. It, and the tapestries, are the only personal items in the room. All else belongs to the Squadron Leader, not the woman.
Maggie raises the blinds that cover the one window, giving her a view of the flightline close to the hangers. It is not exactly your executive scenic panorama, but its stark shadings of grey pavement and swept-winged silver birds has never failed to please her. Today they are topped by pale sky and white clouds in the same palette, and a part of her longs to cut free of the ground and lose herself in the blue air where cloud tops fall away beneath her like pristine snowfields.
But that is not why she is here today. Sliding open the top drawer of her file cabinet, she withdraws two fat manila folders and lays them on the desk. A third, empty, she takes from a supply cabinet and labels with Tacoma Rivers’ name. He is not, strictly speaking, “her” non-com, but by following his sister to the Base and fighting under Maggie’s command at the Cheyenne, he has made her his commanding officer. And that makes her responsible for him and his actions.
Briefly she glances at her watch. Ten minutes.
She uses half the time to review the contents of yet a fourth folder, the medical report detailing the manner and cause of death of one William Dietrich, late of Rapid City, South Dakota, currently a pain in Maggie’s official posterior. According to the examining physician, a single 9 mm round had entered the frontal bone of Dietrich’s skull, rather neatly on the medial line between the orbital ridges. It had exited rear, carrying with it a large portion of the late Mr. Dietrich’s cerebrum and cerebellum and an even larger piece of his occipital plate. Death had been instantaneous, not attributable to accident or to suicide.
In plain language, Manny had potted the bastard right between the eyes, blowing his brains out. The said bastard had been dead before he hit the ground.
The body has not been returned to the family because no information is available on Mr. Dietrich’s residence or relations. He carried no identification and is not listed in the Rapid City telephone directory. Maggie makes a note to question the three yahoos presently repining in the brig for shooting at the wolf. Statistically, they are unlikely to have known the late Mr. Dietrich. On the theory that one sadistic thug is likely to know other sadistic thugs, it is the best that anyone has come up with yet.
A shadow passes over her window. Maggie looks up in time to catch a glimpse of three men in uniform, two blue and one green. When the knock comes a few seconds later, she stands in front of her desk, claiming the available space for herself except for a narrow strip at the front of the small room. She lets them wait long enough to knock a second time, then raps out, “Come in!”
They file in one by one, saluting sharply, then tucking their caps under their left arms. “Ma’am.” She acknowledges them briefly, and then, because there is no choice, they form a line along the concrete wall: Sergeant Tacoma Rivers, United States Army on the end; his cousin Lieutenant Manuel Rivers, USAF in the middle, Lieutenant Bernard Andrews, also USAF, nearest the door. All three pairs of eyes seem fixed on some point behind and about two feet above her head. All three are stiff and straight as wooden soldiers.
She lets the silence spin out for a full minute while she stares at them, then says very quietly, “I have before me on my desk the medical account of the violent death of Mr. William Dietrich, civilian citizen of Rapid City. He died of a single gunshot to the head. However this happened, we now have a potential crisis developing between the townspeople and the personnel of this base. I do not need—I hope I do not need—to remind you of the recent unfortunate occurrences at the gate of this installation, or why this shooting is not just A Bad Thing but a Very. Bad. Thing.”
”No, Ma’am,” Andrews says stiffly.
Maggie takes two steps to stand directly in front of him. She snaps, “Did I ask you a question, Lieutenant?”
His Adam’s apple dips visibly under the knot of his tie. “No, Ma’am.”
She begins to pace the line deliberately, looking each man up and down from the toes of his mirror-shined boots to the top of his head. Finally she says, “Lieutenant Rivers. Explain what you and Lieutenant Andrews were doing in the woods the day Mr. Dietrich was shot.”
“Ma’am, “ he says. “We were looking for illegal leg-hold traps we believed had been set in the area.”
“To disable them, Ma’am. Also to assist any animals we might find caught in them, Ma’am.”
“What made you think you might find illegal trapping devices or injured animals in the area?”
Anger flares in Manny’s eyes, white hot. Maggie ignores it. “Well?”
“Ma’am. My cousin, Dr. Rivers, found a grown male wolf in a similar trap the day before. He was moribund and had to be euthanized, Ma’am.”
“So you set out in search of more.”
“That is correct, Ma’am.”
Maggie has heard, in monosyllables from Koda, in more detail from Kirsten, of finding the maimed and suffering alpha wolf in the trap. She suspects that she has nowhere near the whole story, nor does she wish to violate Koda’s privacy by pushing for more information from others. She says, “What did you find?”
“Ma’am. We collected four empty leg-hold traps of varying sizes. In addition, we found one live coyote with a mangled tail, one live bobcat with an injured foreleg and paw, and one badger only barely alive, suffering from shock and advanced infection.”
“And what action did you take?”
“Lieutenant Andrews and I recovered the injured coyote and bobcat, euthanized the badger and transported the surviving animals to the Ellsworth veterinary facility, where they were treated, Ma’am.
“Tell me how Dietrich got into the picture.”
Andrews’ eyes have not moved from the spot on the wall above her head. “He approached the trap containing the bobcat as we were attempting to release her, Ma’am.”
“On foot or in a vehicle?”
“On foot, Ma’am.”
”Deer rifle, Ma’am.”
“Did he threaten you or Lieutenant Rivers?
“Verbally or with the gun?”
“What did he say?”
“He told us to leave his traps the hell alone, Ma’am. He called us thieves.”
“I said that leg-hold traps are illegal, and that we were removing the animals for treatment.”
“And?” Maggie barks. “Do I have to pry this out of you with a crowbar, Andrews?”
“No, Ma’am.” Andrews turns a florid scarlet under his freckles. “He said we were a couple of bleeding-heart candy-ass tree-hugging queers out to steal a real man’s livelihood, and we’d better get out of there before he shoved his gun—that is, Ma’am—”
Almost Maggie takes pity on him, but she cannot afford to. “Shoved his gun, Lieutenant””
“Uh, up our, uh backsides, Ma’am. And blow our lousy yellow guts to hell.” The blush deepens to crimson, spreads down the young man’s neck. “Ma’am.”
“Answer me carefully, Lieutenant. Did you see or otherwise perceive any indication that Mr. Dietrich was impaired in any way?”
“Do you mean, like was he drunk, Ma’am?”
“Not that I could tell, Ma’am. He didn’t have any liquor on him, and I couldn’t smell any.”
“No, Ma’am. No smell and nothing found on him, uh—later.”
“Who shot him?” Maggie leans back on her heels, sweeping the line with her eyes.
“I did, Ma’am,” Manny answers.
“He threatened us with his rifle, Ma’am.”
“Before or after his verbal threat?”
“After, Ma’am. He pointed the weapon directly at Lieutenant Andrews.”
“Why did you have a gun? Did you expect to encounter someone?”
“We had two guns, Ma’am, a handgun with me and a rifle in the truck. We took them for personal safety and because we feared we might find animals who could not be helped.”
“You shot Dietrich with the handgun?”
“As a direct response to a threat to the life and well-being of Lieutenant Andrews?”
“Are you prepared to testify to that under oath in a military court?”
Finally, she turns her attention to Tacoma. “Sergeant Rivers.”
“Really simple—what did you know, and when did you know it?”
Unlike his cousin’s, Tacoma’s eyes are cold with anger. “I knew that Lieutenants Rivers and Andrews were going out to check for other traps and other animals, Ma’am. I did not know that they had encountered anyone or that anyone had been shot until they returned.”
“But you feared something might have happened, did you not? You reacted rather strongly when you were told Lieutenant Rivers had returned, isn’t that so?”
“Yes, Ma’am. As you know, Ma’am, leg-hold traps and trapping are illegal.”
“But ingrained in the local culture?”
“In parts of it, Ma’am.”
“In the light of which—does any of you gentlemen have any idea how difficult this is going to make our relations with the locals? We have had two near riots in the last week and a half. Now two Air Force
officers stationed on this Base have killed a civilian. Unfortunately, you also killed him with no other witnesses present.”
“We have a witness, Ma’am.”
That is Tacoma. Maggie turns slowly on her heel, facing him. “What? Are you telling me that there was someone else present that YOU HAVEN’T BOTHERED TO TELL ME ABOUT?” Maggie’s roar hurts her throat and threatens to shake the window pane. She hopes, very sincerely, that it hurts these three men’s ears. Andrews, she is gratified to see, actually flinches.
Tacoma continues to stare straight ahead. ‘We have the body of Igmu Tanka Kte, Ma’am. The wolf caught in the trap. Lieutenant Rivers brought it back. It’s in the freezer at the veterinary clinic.”
“And how,” she asks more quietly, “does this establish that Lieutenant Rivers fired in self-defense or the defense of Lieutenant Andrews?”
“It doesn’t, Ma’am. It does establish that Dietrich was a criminal, and an extremely vicious one. It establishes that he would have a reason to harm someone who could connect him to his criminal activity. In my opinion, Ma’am.”
“Well,” Maggie at last allows her voice to soften slightly. “It’s certainly good public relations from our perspective. Good thinking to bring back the wolf’s body.” A thought strikes her. “Does your sister know it’s in the clinic?”
“Not yet, Ma’am. The freezer is locked. There are two keys. Both are in my pocket.”
“Good. For God’s sake, don’t let her find out the hard way.”
“No, Ma’am. I won’t.”
For the first time, Maggie steps behind her desk, giving her three stiff-spined wooden soldiers room to breathe. “I am going to recommend a formal hearing, at which you will be asked to restate what you have told me here, under oath. For now—get out of my sight. And keep your goddammed noses clean. Dismissed.”
They stiffen even further, if that is possible. Then they are gone, leaving her to write her recommendations, by hand, in triplicate. It is going to be a long afternoon.
Maggie reaches for her pen, and her bottle of aspirin, and begins.
Numbers. Numbers. There is some quotation from her Sunday school days that the phrase half recalls, but Kirsten cannot quite bring it to mind. Something about someone’s feast. Something about the hand writing on the wall—doom and destruction and more doom. The partial code string that she fed into the miniature transponder Dakota had carried in her raid on the birthing center seems a long-ago triumph, insignificant when laid alongside the measure of their true need.
Numbers. More numbers.
Numbered, that was it. Weighed and. . . something else. It is not just the seeming snipe hunt her quest for the code has become. Her concentration is off, her mind and body restless with thoughts she has never entertained before, her emotions a hopeless knot of desire and disbelief, She does not have time to untangle them; even if she achieved the perfect clarity of the enlightened this instant, understanding thudding its way into her head like Newton’s apple, it will not matter in the least if she cannot find a means to destroy the androids before they can destroy the remainder of humanity.
She rises, stretches and rubs at her eyes. Stiffly, because she has scarcely moved for the last two hours, she makes her way into the kitchen and sets water to boil for tea. Asi follows her hopefully, making first for his dish, and, when Kirsten fails to respond with a scoop of kibble, for the door, pawing at it gently. She hates keeping him confined, but will not let him out unsupervised. Not where there are idiots with rifles who use wolves and other creatures for target practice. “Later, boy,” she says. “I promise.”
Tea made, Kirsten drifts reluctantly back to her worktable. More than once the thought has come to her that the answer is not in the materials she has salvaged from Minot after all, that her frozen trek across the Northern Plains might as well have been cut short at Shiloh, might as well never have been ventured at all.
Except that, had she not pressed on, not made the attempt, she never would have come to this place, where Dakota is. And with that thought comes a feeling of unease, clear and present as her earlier conviction that Koda had returned safely from her raid. It has been there at the back of her mind for hours, unformed, unacknowledged, no more than half-conscious, inescapable. Kirsten has never credited the idea of intuition—a matter, clearly, of unconsciously processed subliminal clues—much less admitted to having any herself. Yet the certainty that something wrong has been worming its way inexorably into her attention all morning. A forboding.
She makes a determined effort to set it away from her. Shades of the banshees, King. Next you’ll be conjuring up your great-great-great-to-the-twenty-third grandma-the- druidess and prattling about the Sight.
Or worse, you’ll be paying attention to run-off-at-the-mouth raccoons who think they’re the freaking Oracle of Deliphi.
The rationalizing does no good. The feeling persists, focuses. Something to do with Dakota. Not physical danger, not violence, but a threat nonetheless.
Kirsten does not know which is more unsettling; that the feeling exists or that she cannot quite pin it down. She toggles the data files up onto the plasma screen again, attempting to lose her unease in the inexorable march of figures scrolling down from the top into useless oblivion.
Numbers, numbers. All of them useless.
Halfway through a set, Asimov whines and levers himself up from the residual warmth of the hearth, making for the front door at a trot. His high, sharp bark comes at the same instant as the knock. Kirsten follows him into the hall, sudden fear drying her mouth. She flings open the door before the knocker can descend a second time.
“Dakota?” She blurts the name before she can think, knowing full well that, like herself, Dakota has a key. Knowing that, bred to country hospitality as she is, the veterinarian-cum-rancher seems to regard the front door as the ‘company’ entrance.
“Is Koda here?” The words stumble over her own, echoing her own anxiety.
Kisten stares up at Tacoma, whose face registers confusion as well as apprehension. Her voice sounds high and strained in her own ears. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t find Koda.” Tacoma says. “I was hoping she was here.”
Kirsten opens the door wide, inviting him in. ‘What is it?” she repeats. “What’s happened.?”
Tacoma moves past he, into the living room, Asi on his heels. “Nothing, yet. But I need to talk to her.”
“She’s not at the clinic?”
“I’ve just come from there. She’s not with the Colonel, she’s not at the Base hospital, she’s not at the Judge Advocate’s Office. I thought she might be with you.”
“Oh.” I thought she might be with you. For some reason, she cannot quite get past that assumption to ask the obvious questions. It makes a small warm spot somewhere around her solar plexus; spreads, rising into her face. Hastily, before he can see, she says, “I’ll get you something to drink.”
When she comes back with a second cup of tea a moment later, Tacoma has taken off his jacket and is sitting on the couch. His head is bowed, the cool light picking out his profile against the pale sky framed in the window. Asi, as comfortable with him as with his sister, sprawls at his feet, one big hand absently ruffling the fur on the dog’s neck. For some reason, that strikes her with a force greater than anything Tacoma has said. She has never seen him with an animal before when he was not entirely present, his attention as fully engaged as with a human. The chill is back.
He hardly notices her when she sets the cup down in front of him, forcing her voice to calm. “What is it? Tell me.”
Tacoma picks up the cup in both hands but does not drink. “I need to talk to her,” he repeats. “I’ve done something she—” He breaks off, and for a moment Kirsten thinks has said all he will. Then, “It’s something I had to do. But it’s going to hurt her.”
For a moment, the image of the woman asleep with the wolves flashes across Kirsten’s mind. She knows that Dakota had gone to them for healing; but she knows, too—no, dammit, she feels—the pain that had driven her to it. “I’ll help if I can,” she says carefully. “But I can’t help with what I don’t know.”
Tacoma shakes his head, his hair coming lose from its thong at the nape of his neck and spreading across his shoulders like a mane. After a moment he says, “You were with her when she found Igmu Tanka Kte.”
“The wolf. The one caught in the trap.”
“The pup’s father.”
“The pup’s father. You’ve probably heard that a lot of Native American people have special relationships with certain four-legs or winged ones.”
Try a raccoon with an attitude problem. But this isn’t about her, and aloud she says, “I’ve heard about it.”
“Most people call them totems.” A wave of his hand dismisses the word and the idea. “Sometimes they just come to us in dreams, or visions. Sometimes there’s a living animal that is the embodiment of that dream spirit.”
“And that wolf was—“
“Koda’s friend. Not a spirit, not Wolf-with-a-capital-W, but a living companion as individual as you are. A person.” He takes a sip of the tea. “Most whites wouldn’t understand that. I think you do.”
Running her own hand over Asi’s ruff, she speaks around the lump in her throat. “Yes. I think I do.”
“So you see, what I did—what Manny and Andrews and I did—we brought his body back when we went out to check the traps.”
“But what’s—” She breaks off. “Dakota doesn’t know that.”
“She doesn’t know that.” Tacoma confirms. “She doesn’t know he’s in the freezer at the clinic, either.”
A shiver passes over Kirsten’s skin. She knows, having lost her first shepherd to dysplasia and her second to a drunken bastard speeding down the street at Thirty-Nine Palms, that veterinarians routinely freeze the bodies of their deceased patients if the owner wants to bury the animal at home. She had helped carry the cold, cold box containing the body of Flandry into the small garden behind the family house at the Marine base the year after she lost her hearing, the silence as dead in her heart as in her ears. “You brought him back to bury?” But she knows that is wrong as soon as the words leave her lips.
“No.” Again a shake of his head, and again it strikes Kirsten how much he reminds her of a big cat. “I brought him back because he—his body—is witness to what Dietrich was.”
“To save Manny’s butt,” she says bluntly.
“To save Manny’s butt,” he confirms. “And to show exactly why we have to keep enforcing the laws against the trapping and indiscriminate killing of other living nations, even when we’re in the middle of a crisis that could wind up destroying us all. It’s about how we survive, not just if we survive.”
“Look,” Kirsten says sharply. “I understand what you did. I understand why you need to tell Dakota before she forgodsake opens up the freezer and finds him without warning. But you’re sounding like someone who’s going to be shot at dawn. Give me some help here. What’s the real problem?”
“The real problem—the real problem is that it’s a desecration. A desecration of the body of someone my sister loves.” He pauses, glancing at her face to see if she is following him at all.
She is not, not entirely, but she says, “Go on.”
“It’s how we Lakota deal with our dead,” he says. “You’ve seen pictures, maybe in movies, of our traditional burial platforms?”
“Like scaffolds? Out in the open?”
“Like that. It’s illegal to bury humans that way, now, because of health regulations. At least, it was.” A ghost of a smile touches his face, so like his sister’s except for the dark eyes. “But traditional people have always seemed to find a way to get around the law. You’d be surprised how many empty coffins you’d find if you dug up a cemetery on one of the old reservations.”
“But doesn’t that leave the body unprotected?”
Tacoma nods. “The whole idea is to leave the body unprotected. To give it back to the earth and the creatures it sustains.”
“Just as other creatures have sustained our lives by their deaths. The body goes back to mitakuye oyasin—to all our relations.”
Kirsten tries to imagine leaving Flandry’s body in the street where he lay bleeding in the street, or even in the open where crows and weasels and other scavengers could tear at it. She cannot. Because what I did for him was right—for me For someone whose beliefs and customs were different, giving a beloved friend to a hole in the earth would seem as wrong as leaving his body in the open would to her. Just as painful. Aloud she says, “You have to tell her.”
“I have to tell her. But first I have to find her.”
“I’ll help. Let me get my jacket, and—“
She is not halfway to her feet when the front door slams open against the wall of the entryway. Boots echo sharply on the floorboards. Dakota Rivers stands in the archway that opens into the room, her hair loose about her face, her chest heaving. Her blue eyes are as cold as the dark between the stars. “There you are,” she says in a voice colder still. “Goddam you , what have you done?”
And there you have it, dear reader, an admission, and a cliff-hanger all in one! I’m afraid this cliffhanger will have to suit ya’ll for awhile because some stuff in RL has conspired to get both of us where it hurts, and there will be another two week delay in the posting of new episodes. Hang in there with us, though, because this ride is just beginning. Drop a line if you’d like. firstname.lastname@example.org Until next time, be well.
Continued to Chapter 23
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