Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
CHAPTER FORTY THREE
"God! This place stinks!!" Striding across the darkened living room, Kirsten draws aside the heavy, smoke-impregnated curtains, and throws open the large westward facing window. Fresh air flows in on a strong breeze, helping neutralize the stench of unwashed clothes, rancid food, half-empty beer and liquor containers, though doing nothing to touch the foul undercurrent of far more identifiable, and personal, odors permeating the house like a miasma.
Turning, she watches as Koda, seemingly unaffected, casually lights one of the two kerosene lamps she’s brought with her and lifts it in her lover’s direction. "You have a cold or something?" Kirsten asks as she approaches and grasps the lamp’s wire handle. "This place is enough to gag a maggot and you’re not even breathing through your mouth!"
"I’m a Vet. I grew up on a ranch. I have seven brothers." Koda lights the second lamp, her smirk hiding in the shadows sliding over her features.
"Point," Kirsten grants, hefting her lamp and turning in a circle. "Well, this is gonna be fun."
"You take out here and I’ll tackle the bedroom."
Kirsten grins over her shoulder, straight white teeth glittering in the flickering lamplight. "Better you than me."
"Yeah, yeah. Holler if you find anything."
"In this mess? If you hear me holler, it’ll be because a rat just bit me." Shuddering inwardly, she makes her way, with her lamp, to the tiny kitchen. As she advances, she hears her partner’s soft steps retreat, and she silently wishes Koda luck in her quest.
Holding the lantern shoulder high, Koda uses her free hand to push open the door to the bedroom. It gives grudgingly, jammed from behind by gods only know what refuse. The boards groan as she forces her way into the dark, stinking room, and she lifts the light high, scanning the small space with narrowed eyes.
The bed, unmade, sports sheets that she’s quite sure could stand up on their own and dance a jig with the equally offensive pillowcases. The quilt and blanket, lying in a tangled heap on the floor and covered with dried filth that Koda can all too readily identify, are obviously lost causes.
Pushing several glasses onto the carpeted floor where they land with muted thunks, she sets the lamp down amidst the half empty bottles of Ol’ Grandad and Wild Turkey on the small bedside table. Rounding the bed, she lifts the fallen quilt and blanket, shaking them out and turning her head from the stench the covers emit as they’re disturbed. She drops them back down into a heap when nothing is shaken loose.
Walking over to the closet, she shuffles through the few remaining uniforms that hang with military precision on the rail, turning up nothing of interest. A quick pass-through of the bathroom makes her wish she hadn’t, and then she heads back to the nightstand, opening its single drawer with a smooth tug. Her search yields a small bible, well-read, but with nothing pressed between its thin, fragile pages.
With a soft sigh, she replaces the bible, closes the drawer and lifts the lamp, heading back into the living room and closing the bedroom door behind her.
"Anything?" she asks Kirsten as her partner steps out of the kitchen.
"Not unless you want to count the swarm of drunk cockroaches breeding merrily in what’s left of the beer. You?"
"Zip." She takes another quick look around the living room. "There’s no way to tell if he’s been gone hours or weeks in this mess."
"Maybe Maggie and the others have found something by now."
"Maybe," Koda agrees, though it’s clear she doesn’t really believe the word she’s uttered. "Shall we?"
"None too soon for me, thanks."
Dakota, Kirsten, Manny, Andrews, Harcourt, Maggie and several other ‘insiders’ are packed shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip in the Colonel’s small office. Before them, just inside the door, stands Tacoma, a slightly chagrinned expression on his otherwise somber face. "I wish I had better news to report," he intones. "Fact is, it’s just been too dry, and with all the base traffic, trying to track one human male is difficult, to say the least. Especially if he doesn’t want to be found."
"Alright, then. We’ll need to—."
Before she can finish, Maggie is interrupted by the door being flung open, almost sending Tacoma across the room. Kimberly, winded and disheveled, steps through, a mess of slickly printed leaflets in her left hand. "Toller’s gone."
"General Hart’s assistant?" Kirsten asks.
"Yes, Ma’am." Moving fully into the room, she closes the door behind her and tucks a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "I thought that since you guys weren’t having any luck in the search, I’d see if Toller knew where he was. I went over to his house. It was all closed up, which isn’t like him. He must have forgotten to lock the side door, though, because it opened right up." She worries her lower lip for a moment before continuing. "He wasn’t there. His uniforms were gone. His luggage was gone. All that was left behind were these."
Dakota takes the leaflets from Kimberly’s outstretched hand, riffling quickly through them and glancing at the titles only.
Android = Armageddon
Multiculturalism: Satan’s Garden
Will YOU be among His Saved?
Curling her lip, Koda tosses the pamphlets onto Maggie’s desk where they splay out in a fan of Fundamentalist claptrap. "Answers that question."
"What now?" Kirsten asks, thumbing through the leaflets and wincing at the titles.
"Little weasel’s got family in Grand Rapids," Andrews remarks. "We could--."
"I’m there," Tacoma interrupts, already headed for the door before he’s stopped by his sister’s voice.
He turns, eyebrow raised. The expression is so eerily like that of his sister’s that Kirsten finds herself turning to the woman beside her to make sure she’s still there and not suddenly across the room.
"Look," Koda continues, spreading her hands out on the desk, "I appreciate wanting to find the man, but what I appreciate more is the fact that those androids out there aren’t going to wait for us to do that. We need to start planning for the war that’s just outside our doorstep, and that planning includes everyone in here." Turning her head slowly, she eyes them all, watching as they straighten and seem to throw off the fatigue touching each and every one of them.
"I shall endeavor to track down your vermin and his master." Harcourt’s voice is soft from the corner where he’s been quietly standing throughout the proceedings. He eases his way forward until he is standing before Maggie’s desk. He holds up a hand in the face of Dakota’s immediate objection. "We had a deal, Ms. Rivers, as you’ll recall. I enter and leave when I please, as I please. While I am far too old to be lobbing armaments at the enemy, I am quite experienced in hunting down animals who have gone to ground, as it were." He smiles slightly, and there is something of the predator in it. "Make your plans, prime your trumpets for the walls of Jericho. I shall play my small part through to the end." His own look, diamond hard and razor sharp, cuts off any and all objections at the knees. His smile broadens infinitesimally, showing the points of his canines. "I bid you all adieu, then, and wish you luck." He turns to Dakota. "Should you wish to contact me again, you know where to find me."
With a slight incline of his head, he eases forward as the bodies give way, and slips through the door, leaving everyone to stare, stunned, after him.
"Be right back," Dakota remarks and pushes through the crowd and through the door.
Hearing Koda coming quickly up behind him, he stops, back still turned to her, and surveys the land before him. His voice is soft and contemplative as he recites from a favored poem.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black."
With a smile set on his face and a fine walking stick in his hand, he turns to his listener, eyes seeming to glow with vitality and a surge, seldom seen, of good humor.
"I believe, for my purposes, I shall take the road less traveled. Wouldn’t you agree?"
"I’d rather you didn’t take any road."
"Ah, but where would be the fun in that, Ms. Rivers?"
"This isn’t a game, Fenton."
"True, but it is an adventure, and one which I am uniquely suited to undertake. Androids have no interest in me, an old man well past his prime, and I am more than wily enough to avoid their reach should they change their circuited minds on the matter." In a rare show of warmth, he reaches out and lays a gnarled hand on Dakota’s wrist. "I know the import of hunting down the good general, Dakota. He may hold few secrets, but any secret is one too many if it is given unto the enemy." He squeezes the thick wrist under his hand briefly before drawing away. "We all have our parts to play in this, Ms. Rivers. Allow me the dignity to see mine through, no matter what that end might be."
After several moments of complete silence, Koda finally nods. "You’ll have some help, however."
"I assure you, Ms. Rivers, I am quite capab--."
His discourse is interrupted by a loud whistle, and a moment later fiercely beating wings herald the arrival of Wiyo, who lands easily on Dakota’s wrist. "She can see what you can’t. She can warn you if there’s danger ahead, or behind. She’s a friend. Take her with you, and I’ll feel much more comfortable about letting you go."
The face of granite, the face that has frightened years off of criminals through the decades, dissolves like sugar in water, transforming the harsh planes of his face into soft lines of wonder and joy.
The redtail easily hops from Koda’s wrist to Fenton’s arm, then sidesteps up until she is perched quite comfortably on his shoulder.
"Now this isn’t a gift, so don’t be thinking you’re gonna be taking her home to live with you, you old codger. When you’ve done what you set out to do, set her free. I may have need of her yet."
Harcourt chuckles, enjoying the feel of the weight on his shoulder and the odd sense of comfort it brings him. "Not to worry, Ms. Rivers. This bird knows who she belongs with." His smile falls away, and he inclines his head respectfully. "Thank you, Dakota. You’ve given me a companion beyond price."
Reaching out, she takes his hand and squeezes the gnarled fingers warmly. "Good luck to you, my friend."
"And to you as well. May we meet again under better circumstances."
With a last nod and a fleeting smile, he turns from her to begin his journey. She watches him until he rounds the curve leading to the gate, then makes her way back to Maggie’s office, and the problems within.
Kirsten watches as the civilian population of Ellsworth files into the Base theater. Their number has held steady over the last several weeks, since sealing the gates to all but authorized traffic. Still, they number close to three hundred. About half are women rescued from the droid breeding facilities. The remainder consist of families in various configurations; in the first row an elderly couple accompanied by two toddlers shuffles sideways past a pair of young fathers holding hands with their three pigtailed daughters between them. They take their places beside a middle-aged woman and a teenaged girl with a face that is a mirror image of her own and eyes dead and dull as granite. They greet each other with quiet nods, subdued and somber. Though information about the approaching enemy has been closely guarded, they must know that a crisis is at hand. Koda’s return with a strange warband will not have gone unremarked, nor the suddenly increased number of Tomcat flights taking off for day-long missions to unspecified destinations. The Base is a small town, with a small town’s instant transmission of gossip.
Maggie, standing beside her on the small stage, says softly, "They know."
"They’d be fools not to," she answers. "Nobody’s ever thought the droids would give up. Ellsworth is a prime target."
Maggie flashes her a grin. "Our defenses are good. Better since your little excursion."
"Flattery will get you nowhere." Kirsten returns the grin, showing her teeth. "You’re still Base Commandant, General Allen."
The promotion cannot have been unexpected, but Maggie stares at her wide-eyed for a moment, the breath gone out of her. Before she can speak, Kirsten says flatly, "It gets worse. You’re Air Force Chief of Staff, as of now. If we make it through this upcoming fight, we’re going to have to start looking for and organizing other surviving forces. Persuade them if we can, appropriate them if we have to."
"Like Koda ‘appropriated’ the Minot militia?"
Kirsten nods. "We do what we have to. We’re not going to come out of this with the same kind of society we had going in. At least for a while, we’re going to have to be the biggest, meanest, most ruthless dog in the junkyard. Because that’s what we’re going to have to deal with—junkyard dogs.’
"Some of them rabid."
"Some of them rabid," she affirms. "And some of them we’ll have to deal with as we would with rabid dogs."
At the back of the auditorium, Andrews pulls the double doors closed and turns to wave at the stage. All in.
"You sure you don’t want to do this?" Maggie asks Kirsten.
"Positive. It’s your Base. I’m just the civilian authority."
"Okay, then." Maggie steps forward to the podium, flanked on one side by the Stars and Stripes, on the other by the blue Air Force banner. She taps the mike softly and says, "Is this thing working? Can you hear me?"
A murmur of assent comes in answer, and Kirsten notes the rise in her shoulders as she takes a deep breath. She has just made Maggie the supreme uniformed authority in what remains of the United States. Which is only fair, she thinks, if I have to be President. Serves her right.
But that is not the only change that needs to be made. It is becoming increasingly clear that Koda’s position with the troops will have to be formalized, some title found that she will accept. "First Lady" sure as hell isn’t going to do it. Suppressing a smile, she turns her attention back to Maggie.
". . .some cause for concern," the new General says quietly. "General Hart has gone missing, and our efforts to find him have so far been unsuccessful. We do not know whether he left of his own free will, nor do we know whether he is safe, or even alive. I urge anyone who may have any information about the General to share it with the MP’s and help us to find him.
"Now. The real reason we asked you to come here. As most of you know already, the droids have regrouped since their last attack on Ellsworth. They are currently gathering troops and materiel at locations to the south and west of us. We have every reason to believe that they will attack Ellsworth again."
A murmur runs through the crowd, quickly stilled. Maggie continues, "So we’ve asked you here, President King and I, to offer you a choice. Anyone who wishes to leave the Base should be packed and ready and at the gate tomorrow morning at eight. A bus will be made available to take you into Rapid City. Unfortunately, we cannot spare either the personnel or the vehicle to take you further. If you wish to leave the area entirely, we suggest that you go into North Dakota, then east. You will have a better chance of avoiding the enemy if you move in that direction. Lieutenant Andrews—he’s the redhead over there—will have a list for you to sign as you leave here tonight, so the bus driver will know who and how many to expect.
"On the other hand, you are welcome to stay on Base if you prefer. The only condition is that able-bodied adults must serve in support capacities to free up as many troops as possible for fighting. We will need you as cooks, messengers, orderlies, clerks. Someone will have to set up a child-care center. Lieutenant Rivers has the list where you can sign up for the job you prefer. We’ll give you your first choice if we can, but there are no guarantees." She pauses a moment. "Are there any questions?"
The grandfather in the first row stands. "Will you be able to defend Rapid City?"
"We will have a fighter designated to attack troops that may approach you from the west. But that protection will be minimal. We are not prepared for urban ground fighting. We don’t have the numbers for it."
A ripple of sound runs through the audience again. Here and there faces go grey; not all had realized the gravity of their situation. A woman in the last row speaks for all of them. "Is there anyplace that’s safe? Or safer?"
"No, ma’am. There isn’t."
A silence falls, then. Maggie waits at the podium, but no one has anymore questions. After a moment, people begin to move out. Most, Kirsten notes with satisfaction, pause to sign Manny’s list; perhaps a dozen opt to evacuate.
She moves to stand beside Maggie. "That was a dose of reality."
"Oh, yeah. They knew there was a problem. This was just the first time somebody official said it."
"How long do we have?"
"Maybe a week. They’re not moving yet, but the recon flyer that came back about an hour ago says their numbers have doubled in just a couple days. Not good."
Not good at all. Kirsten says, "I’m going back to the house. See if I can turn up anything else on the code."
It is an unlikely hope, and they both know it. When Kirsten leaves the auditorium, Maggie is poring over the lists with Manny and Andrews. Past the veterinary clinic, past the stand of woods to the west of the street that leads to the residential section, strings of code run through her head. All futile; she’s been there before and come away empty. At the curve of the road, a rustle in the tree above her catches her eye, startling her out of the endless loops of binary. Sitting in the fork of the trunk, regarding her with eyes like onyx, is a large raccoon. "Yo, Madam President," he says. "How’s it hanging?"
Kirsten stares for a moment at the masked face a foot above hers, the snap of mockery plain in the dark, bright eyes. Tega’s long fingers lie interlaced against his chest; replete and self-satisfied, he grins down at her. After a moment she says, "I don’t talk to hallucinations. Go away."
"Hallucinate this," he says amiably, and drops a small bird’s egg to splatter against her boots.
The yellow stain on the sidewalk looks very real. So does the sticky mess running down the laces of her Timberlands. She looks from her fouled hikers to the raccoon and back. "Damn," she says. "You didn’t have to do that. That was going to be a bird."
"No, it wasn’t. Those eggs were orphans." Tega’s tongue runs the circuit of his muzzle.
"You mean you—no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know."
"As Madam President wishes." Delicately, Tega picks a small brown and grey feather from his ruff and looses it to fall floating down to join the broken egg. "I do pride myself on my table manners."
Kirsten looks furtively around her. The street and sidewalk are both deserted at this hour, the folk who will stay sitting down to their suppers, those who will leave in the morning no doubt packing. It will not do to be seen talking to a raccoon in a tree. "You’re going to get me locked up if anybody sees us. Wearing one of those jackets with the extra long sleeves."
"You wouldn’t be the first Great White Father—or Mother—to be a few kilowatts shy of a glimmer. Now among the Real People, that’d make you a holy woman. I don’t suppose you feel particularly holy?"
‘Holy--? Look, dammit. I’m a scientist. I believe in what I can see or calculate. I don’t believe in—" Kirsten makes a dismissive, circular gesture with one hand—"all this—this mumbo-jumbo. I don’t believe in you. You’re something I ate."
Tega bares his teeth again, white and sharp as lancets. "Don’t even think it, schweetheart."
"Don’t be absurd!" she snaps back. "You’re not edible."
"Ah, dere ve haff it." Tega leans back against the tree trunk with his hands once again folded over his midsection. He sounds, to Kirsten’s ears, like a Viennese psychiatrist in a bad TV drama. "Kultural differencesss." Absurdly, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses has appeared perched just behind the black button of his nose.
"Cultural—" she repeats blankly. "What are you talking about?"
"I’m talking about Kirsten King, P. H. of D., President of the U. S. of A., wearing buckskin and feathers and opening the Sun Dance. How does that grab you?"
A flash of memory, involuntary and unconcealable: the slanting scars on Tacoma Rivers’ chest, the same scars on his father’s and cousin’s, and her own distaste. She had not been quick enough to keep Tacoma from reading her face; she is not quick enough to evade Tega’s eyes now. "It-- All right. It makes me uncomfortable. Not the buckskin and feathers; I’d be honored to wear Dakota’s traditional dress. It’s—it’s just—"
"The blood, the mutilation, the primitiveness of it all?"
Her own blood rises hot in Kirsten’s face; she feels the blush spread from her neck up to her forehead. "It’s-- Yes. It’s not—" The word she needs will not come. Perhaps it does not exist. She says, "It’s not quantifiable. Not—containable. It could get out of hand."
"Oh, it could. Not to mention what could happen when people start up with the Ghost Dance again and all those dead Injuns born into white skin wake up and realize who they really are. That could get waaaayyy out of hand. You just can’t let it get out of your hand."
Not for the first time, Kirsten wonders if her mind has shattered under stress. "I don’t see what that has to do with me. Dakota’s a medicine woman, I know that, I respect that—"
A hoot of laughter, strangely not human, comes from the tree above her, and Tega leans back, holding his sides. "Medicine woman! You silly girl, you’re marrying the fuckin’ Pope! Get used to it!"
"That’s crazy! You’re crazy!" Kirsten hisses. "I’m crazy for thinking I’m having a conversation with a—a—talking raccoon with perverted dietary habits!"
Tega turns suddenly serious. "Oh, you’re crazy all right. No sane woman would get herself into—and out of—the tightest droid facilities on the continent. No sane woman would try to put this wreck of a society back together. Now would she?"
"I had to! I’m the only one who could do that! The droid part, I mean."
"True," says Tega. "And you, and Dakota with you, are the ones who will lay down the pattern for the New World Order." Kirsten can hear the capitals as his eyes dance behind their ridiculous lenses. "A mixed culture, where even white boys do the Sun Dance. And a blonde Lakota woman opens the ceremony beside the Medicine Chief of the whole nation."
Kirsten head spins. Almost she can see it, herself in braids, carrying a hawk’s wing fan,
stamping out the rhythm of the drums at the head of a line of women, all in Native dress, their skins and hair all the colors of the human spectrum. Behind them, making the circuit of the dancing ground, come the men with wreaths of spruce crowing their long hair, eagle-bone whistles between their lips. Among them are Andrews and Darius. And the implication hits her like the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs.
"That means—we’re going to survive! Gods--!"
Before her, Tega begins to fade, the rough texture of the bark becoming visible through his rough fur. Only his voice remains, becoming fainter and fainter. "Remember: the past is the future, the future is the past. Round and round she goes. . . little wheel, spin and spin . . .round and round . . . and where she stops. . . nobody. . .knows. . . ."
And Kirsten is alone, standing on the empty sidewalk, staring up at the empty fork of the tree. She swallows hard; her throat is painfully dry. I need a drink, she thinks. I need a drink bad. Swiftly, almost running, she sets off for the relative security of home and Asi.
To everyone reading, HAPPY NEW YEAR!! Today marks exactly a year since we’ve started posting The Growing on Thursday nights. We hope we’ve helped make those evenings a bit more fun. <G>
This story is nowhere near done, but we’re going to take our customary TWO EPISODE break (having worked non stop on these updates through the holiday season, I think we deserve a little bit of a break, so we’re taking one. <G>) We will be back with the next update on Thursday, January 22, 2004. Until then, have a healthy, safe, and prosperous new year! firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 44
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