Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
"What?" Tacoma’s voice hisses with alarm. "Oh, no. Don’t you even—"
"Cover me," Dakota says, getting to her feet and starting toward the house below. Her own rifle slants across her back; she carries the weapon captured from the sentry in full view, its curved magazine marking it as an AK. One of theirs. They will assume she has killed their man for it. Behind her, Tacoma is swearing, violently and very softly. He cannot cover her, and they both know it.
If her plan works, he will not need to.
She is ten yards from the sentry before he sees her. "Hey!" he yells, dropping the stub of his cigarette as he fumbles to being his rifle to bear. "Who’s out there? Identify yourself!"
"Dakota Rivers," she says, moving from the shadow of one vehicle to the next, keeping their metal bulk between her and the guard. "I want to talk to your commander."
"Yeah?" A snort. "You got an appointment? Step out here into the light, or I’ll shoot."
He raises his rifle.
"Put that down, soldier. Go tell your captain there’s somebody to see him."
What he does is of no consequence. His shouting will bring the others out into the open in a moment or two, and that is what she wants. His shouting, or a gunshot.
"Fuck!" he yells, and fires. The shot goes wide, clanging off the armored hide of a Humvee behind her.
Koda brings her own gun to her shoulder and squeezes the trigger gently. The guard drops onto the boards of the porch, screaming. And finally the doors of the house and barn slam open, and men pour out into the night, surrounding her. Just what she wants.
"Good evening, gentlemen," she says, and grins at them.
They are young and grubby and unshaven, most of them half-dressed in camouflage pants or shorts, most of them carrying rifles or pistols pointed at the ground rather than the intruder. Most of them green as the prairie grass that grows in a sea around their camp. One of them sidesteps his way through the parked vehicles to the side of the man doubled over on the porch. "Jem? Jem! You fuckin’ bitch, what’d you do to my brother?"
"Quiet!" The roar comes from the porch, somewhere behind the hapless Jem. An older man steps into the light, his grizzled hair buzz-cut, the planes of his face smooth and sharp in the hard light. "What’s going on here?" Gold maple leaves glint on his squre shoulders, and he holds a nine-millimeter pistol loosely in his hand, not aimed. It does not need to be.
"Major," Koda says, stepping out from among the parked Jeeps. "You’re the commander here?" It is not really a question, only a confirmation. She keeps her eyes on his face, not his gun. If he is going to shoot, she will see it in his eyes.
"Calton," he says. "Ted Calton. Who the hell are you?" He ignores Jem, now being helped to his feet and led away by his brother.
"Dakota Rivers." For a split second his eyes widen; then the steel is back. "You’ve heard of me."
"We’ve heard what happened on the Cheyenne," he acknowledges. "That was good work."
Koda makes a show of looking around her, her finger still light on the trigger of her
weapon. "I don’t see any droids here."
"And you won’t. We’ve destroyed every one we’ve found."
"Good work," she echoes. "Want to do some more of it?"
"We do more of it every day." Calton moves forward, standing on the highest step. "We protect the people and the land around Minot."
"For a price?"
"For a price." Something that is almost a smile touches his mouth. "We can’t patrol and farm, too. The civilians are grateful."
Koda raises her voice to carry to the barn and the men still hovering in the door there. "The droids and their allies are massing around Offut and to the west. We expect them to try to take out Ellsworth, again. If they get through us, they’ll roll over you. We have a common interest."
"Not necessarily. If you stop them, they won’t bother us. If you don’t stop them—well, we don’t have what they want, now do we? No high-powered cyberwonks here."
Cold runs over Dakota’s skin. But of course they know Kirsten is at Ellsworth; the same tales that brought her own name north would have brought Kirsten’s and Maggie’s. Blind Harry’s ballad is sung here, too, for all she knows. "You have lives," she says evenly. "And you have weapons. If those civilians include women, the droids have a use for them, too."
"Breedstock?" Calton snorts. "We’ve heard those stories. What the hell would a droid want with human pussy?"
"More humans. We don’t know why, yet." She raises her voice. "You men! You want your wives and girlfriends, your sisters, shipped off to be bred by the kind of scum the droids keep alive to do their work? We killed the rapists at Mandan when we bombed the droid factory. We just executed a second batch at Ellsworth. How many have you caught?"
A murmur ripples through the knots of men, and a scowl appears on Calton’s face. He glances quickly about the perimeter of the farm buildings; he has to assume that she has men in place to cover her. "We deal with anyone who threatens us. Anyone. Got that?"
Koda grins at him, and again she feels the heat course through her blood. "That B-52 back in the field yours? We have reason to think the enemy may have air power. Got anything to protect you from high-altitude fighters?"
Calton gestures with his gun. "Go back to your people. Tell ‘em no deal. We stay here
and protect what we’ve got."
"You men!" Koda shouts. "What do you think about that? Are you going to sit here on your butts and miss the chance to get your world back? Or are you coming south with me?"
"I’m going." One trooper, a bit older than most of the others, steps out of the ring of men. Another follows, then three more.
The roar of Calton’s gun splits the night. "The hell you are! Get back in your quarters, all of you! This is my command! As for you—" He lowers the pistol he has fired into the air to aim at Koda. "Get the hell out. While you can."
Carefully Koda raises the gunstrap over her head and lays the AK aside. It seems to her that she hears the breath of every man around her, harsh and rushing like winter wind. She smells their sweat, the fear in some, arousal in others. The flesh of Calton’s face lies lightly on the bone, so that she can almost see through it to the white skull beneath. See his death. "I’ll fight you for them," she says.
"What?" Fear flickers in his eyes, is gone.
"I’ll fight you for your command. You win, you keep your men. I win, they go with me." Her words fall into silence.
"Fight you?" Calton glances at his pistol. "How?"
For answer, Koda bends and draws the knife from her boot-top. The light catches its ten-inch blade, runs along it like quicksilver. "Like this."
He is trapped, and knows it. His eyes widen, then narrow again. He cannot afford hesitation. "All right," he says. Setting the pistol on a windowsill behind him, he draws the knife from his own belt. "Don’t expect me to go easy on you because you’re a woman, though."
Dakota laughs, tossing her blade end for end and catching it again. The men shift to form a ring around them in the open space between the farmhouse and the parked vehicles. Someone brings a kerosene lamp to set at the perimeter of the circle, then another. Their light throws Calton’s shadow and her own huge on the ground, distorted, creatures with impossibly long legs and arms sprouting from attenuated bodies. Slowly they circle each other, Koda keeping her eyes on Calton’s face. His blade glints in her peripheral vision, shines like a beacon to her heightened vision.
He feints, cutting low for the belly, and Koda steps lightly out of his reach, spinning wide to her left. He turns with her, but too slowly, and she whips toward him, her blade opening a gash on his upper arm. His blood runs black in the dim light.
Voices come to her on the wind of her passing, but she does not heed them. "Surrender," she says.
For answer he attempts to close with her again, this time coming on straight at her. She blocks his upward stab with a sweep of her left arm, whirling again out of his reach. Her wrist is cold and wet, but the cut is shallow. It stings, barely perceptible. The blood from Caltons cut, though, falls on the earth in dark spurts. She need only avoid injury, wear him down.
He knows it, too. Fear flickers across his face, is gone. With a yell, he comes in low and fast, butting at her with his head while his knife goes for the tendons in her left leg. She rolls with the blow, planting a foot in his gut to carry him up and over, to land hard on his back behind her. Koda scrambles to her feet, stepping hard on the wrist of his knife hand with the heel of her boot. His fingers open, and she kicks the blade away.
Behind her a cheer starts up, to be abruptly broken off as Calton grabs at her ankle, turning it hard to bring her down with him. She falls halfway across his body, rolls as he surges off his back to pin her, reaching for her throat with both hands. His fingers close around her neck, bearing on her windpipe and the great veins in her neck. Pressing down and back, seeking the leverage that will break her neck, his grip tightens as she gasps for breath, her chest grown suddenly tight. Calton’s face is a grinning skull mask above her. A shadow passes over her eyes, and she brings her knife up between their straining bodies, finds the soft spot just beneath the join of the rib cage. She thrusts straight up, the blade grating on bone, then making easy passage through the soft tissue of liver and lung, cutting upward. For a moment Calton remains above her, his hands tightening convulsively about her throat, bringing on the darkness. Then he collapses across her, blood running from his mouth in a black torrent, and is dead.
Silence holds her. Then she pushes Calton off her to stagger to her feet. His blood stains her hands, her face, her shirt, dark and wet in the dim light.
Then the sound begins, softly at first, the men chanting her name. "Koda. Koda." The murmur becomes a shout, swells, grows to a roar. "Koda! Ko-da! Ko-da!"
She lets it wash over her, drawing strength from it. She raises her head to search the faces around her, mouths straining, eyes wide. These are her men, now. Won in battle, paid for in blood. The thought sends a shiver down her spine, and she throws her head back, howling wordlessly with them.
"Koda! Koda!" It goes on and on, the rhythm carried on stamping feet. Finally she raises an arm to silence them. They quiet gradually, as her senses contract about her, and she is one human woman again, standing in a circle of men who are not entirely sure what has happened to them. "All right," she says quietly. "Get your gear. We’re pulling out now."
They move to obey, all but one. Tacoma stands before her, his eyes dark. "Are you all
right?" he says. "The blood—"
"Not mine." She glances down at her ruined shirt. "Not most of it, anyway."
"What happened? For a moment there, I didn’t know you."
She meets his gaze steadily, seeing herself though his eyes. The fight, and the kill. "You saw it all?"
"For a moment there, I didn’t know myself," she says slowly. "It’s as though something—slipped. It’s happened a couple times since—since--"
"Since your vision?"
"Yeah. I feel—different. Inside. Things look different. My hearing is different."
"You talked to Ate?"
Her hand makes a small arc in the darkness. "About some of it. This was almost like that time on the bridge. I felt—out of myself, somehow."
Some of the rigidity goes out her brother’s shoulders, and he says," It’s the warrior-gift growing in you. It can be hard to live with." He glances down at Calton’s body. "Did you mean to challenge him all along?"
She shakes her head. "That just happened. But it was so—familiar. Like I’d done it before. Like the knife was part of my arm. It knew what to do. I never thought."
Tacoma gives her shoulders a quick squeeze, stepping away from her as the first of the troopers steps out of the barn, his pack on his back, his rifle slung about his neck. The others follow, coming to stand beside the Jeeps and Humvees. Tacoma’s presence does not seem to surprise them. Like Calton, they must have assumed that Koda had men all around them. Let them continue to assume.
Tacoma steps toward one of the Jeeps, glances at the ignition. "Keys?" he asks the man nearest him.
"In the glove compartment, Sir."
Tacoma fishes for them, finds them. Koda comes to stand by the passenger door and shouts, "All right! We’re moving out! Follow me!"
They cheer again, and again she feels their energy surge within her, obliterating the pain
of her cut, the bruises on her throat. She slips into her seat, and Tacoma steers the Jeep
out onto the road.
Behind them the rest follow, raising a cloud of luminous dust in the moonlight.
The convoy moves swiftly through the night. The full moon rides high in a blaze of stars, bright enough to cast shadows in a world where the glare of civilization no longer rimlights the horizon. Koda dozes fitfully in the lead Jeep, the APC’s from Ellsworth dispersed at regular intervals down the line to ride herd on their new recruits and guard against second thoughts. The tide of adrenaline that carried her through the duel has spent itself, leaving a strange restlessness behind. Her dreams, when she sleeps, are full of drifting voices.
Dawn comes on a chilled breeze as the gates of Ellsworth roll open to receive them. The startled MP salutes as Koda passes, Tacoma returning the gesture with a snap of his own wrist. In the rearview mirror, Dakota can see him counting off the vehicles that follow her in, an easy dozen more than followed her out. The men in the Jeeps and APC’s cheer as they pass the sentry box, honking and waving their rifles in the air.
"Better see the Colonel first," Tacoma says quietly.
Koda rolls her head back, attempting to work the knots out of her shoulders and upper back. "They’re not exactly the supplies we meant to pick up, are they? Try her office first."
They catch Maggie just as she closes the door behind her, probably on her way from her cramped work space cum living quarters to the mess hall for breakfast. Koda watches her back straighten, then stiffen, as she spots the caravan sweeping up the length of the runway toward her, taking in its length and the unfamiliar Minot ID codes on the. Her fists settle on her hips as Tacoma pulls up directly in front of her, her eyebrows rising halfway to her hairline while a smile pulls at her mouth. "Well, now," she says. "Look what the cat dragged in."
Tacoma grins at her as he climbs out of the Jeep. "Thought you’d like ‘em." Turning to the line of Jeeps and troop carriers, he bellows, "Pile out! Form up!"
As the men scramble out of their trucks and prepare to stand the Colonel’s inspection, Dakota levers herself up and out the passenger door, feeling the blood rush into her tingling feet, the ache as the sinews of her joints stretch and flex. The bruises on her neck throb with her pulse.
Maggie flashes her a grin of welcome. Then her eyes widen, raking Koda from the reddening marks on her skin, down the front of her shirt, still stiff with dried blood, to the stained length of torn T-shirt wrapped around her left forearm. "Sorry," she says. "It’s not mine, or most of it isn’t. I haven’t had a chance to wash up."
"I do not," Maggie says precisely, "see any injuries on anyone else. Tell me what I’m missing here."
Koda shrugs. "What’s missing is these men’s former commander."
"You killed him?"
Dakota nods. "It was a fair fight."
"A. Fair. Fight." Maggie lays out each word precisely. "And the prize was his men?"
"Them and their equipment. At least, they seemed to think so."
"They’re from Minot?"
"They’re what’s left of it. They were fighting droids and running a protection racket while they were at it." Koda turns slightly to watch as they form ranks, straggling into line under the whip of Tacoma’s voice. "They had ambitions. They tried to get a B-52 operational. It crashed."
The blood leaves Maggie’s face, leaving her skin grey. "Gods. They could have blackmailed the whole damn country, what’s left of it. We don’t need loose nukes."
"We need to get control of those bombs." Koda swipes a hand over her face, and stares at her palm when it comes away red. There is blood even in her hair. " Not today, not this side of battle. But before someone else gets ideas."
"You need to get a shower and go to bed," Maggie says flatly. "Anything else can wait."
"No argument. Larke!"
The Corporal double-times it from one of the mid-line APC’s. "Ma’am."
"Drive Dr. Rivers home. Don’t let her argue with you."
Larke glances from the Colonel to Koda and back again. "Yes Ma’am. To the best of my ability, Ma’am."
"Have mercy on him," Maggie says pointedly. "We’ll talk later."
Koda cannot quite bring herself to order Larke to disobey his Colonel. She does not particularly want to go back to the house, though, doubts she can sleep with the strange energy that hums through her. A part of her still lingers in the night just past, in the ring of fire and shadow where she killed a warlord for his command. Or, more accurately, the fight has stayed with her, a humming in her blood. It is something she has never felt before, yet it seems familiar. She could name it, if only she could find the word on her tongue.
"Ma’am? Doctor Koda?"
Larke holds the passenger door for her. She is not sure whether it is archaic courtesy or whether he can think of no other polite way to get her to move. Surrendering, she folds back down into the seat she has occupied for most of the past eight hours and lets him steer the Jeep for home.
Over the mile’s distance from flightline to officer’s housing, soldiers salute her as she passes. That, too, seems strangely familiar. She waves briefly back, noting with satisfaction that Shannon is turning the sign on the clinic door to OPEN as they drive by without stopping, her own insistence dying in her throat. As they round the former parade ground, now thick with rough wooden markers for the dead of the Cheyenne, she makes note of three new plots of disturbed earth. There is no memorial for them.
The house, when she enters, is chill and empty. Asimov must be out with Kirsten, wherever she is. Her absence is a dark void inside Koda, and the sharpness of her disappointment gnaws at her.
Kirsten could not have known that she would return early. She had not known it herself.
She sheds her clothes in the hall and heads for the shower.
Kirsten pushes open the kitchen door, feeling pleasantly warm and loose from the half-mile run from the woods to the officers’ housing section. Asi, not at all tired from the exercise, gives a high, loud yip as he shoulders past her, sending the door banging against the wall next to the fridge, and dances across the tiles to his empty bowl.
"All right. All right. It’s coming."
She rummages about in the pantry, looking for the Base’s last surviving box of Milk-Bones. The ancient pipes in the wall hum and thump with water; Maggie must have come in for a shower and change of clothes. With the thought comes disappointment. Koda is not due back from Minot for at least another day, assuming everything goes well. And when, she reflects, was the last time everything went smoothly? Sometime in a past life, when she was a Washington wonk and had barely heard of South Dakota, still less of a woman named Dakota River
Asi yelps again, louder and more urgently. Kirsten stifles a surge of guilt at the thought that the big dog—the big baby, truth be told—has missed her so badly, even though he clearly has not lacked for attention. "Think of it as gaining a second mother," she says as she finds the box and rips it open. "Twice the attention, twice the walks. Twice the flea baths."
She turns to toss him the treat, but he is no longer there. From the hallway comes the sound of whining, the sharp click of his nails on the hardwood floor. Frowning, she sets the box on the counter and follows just in time to see him fling his whole weight against the bathroom door, shaking it on its aged hinges. From deep in his throat comes a howl like the winter wind over snow, and Kirsten’s breath catches in her throat, then resumes on a sigh of relief. On the floor, piled in careless abandon, lie a pair of jeans, a shirt, underclothes. The flannel shirt, in Black Watch tartan, she recognizes as Koda’s. "Easy, boy," she says, pulling at Asi’s scruff, and lays her free hand on the knob. She grins. A shower a deaux is just what Dr. King would have ordered for herself had she known her lover was home early. Asi batters at the door a second time, and in a shaft of light from the lamp in the front room she sees what Asi has smelled since they came through the kitchen door. Almost all of the shirt, and both legs of the jeans, are soaked stiff with something half-dried, something the color of rust. The sharp scent of iron rises from them.
"Koda!" she screams, and throws herself against the door.
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Continued - Chapter 42
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