Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR
The convoy weaves in and out among the wrecks on Highway 90 like a line of dancers, stately and nimble. The lead Humvee bristles with weapons, a roof-mounted M-60 and an AK in the hands of its gunner, the tail vehicle identically armed. In between, Tacoma drives an open Jeep, Koda in the seat beside him, Maggie Allen in the back with a topo map and a laptop open on the passenger bench beside her. They are moving just fast enough that the odor from the shattered and torn-open derelicts cannot settle about them. Even so, Koda can hear the occasional strangled breath from Maggie. An airborne warrior skims above the stench of death; a foot soldier and a medic spend their lives in its penumbra. In any case, Koda’s mind is on another matter.
A shadow has followed them since they set out from Ellsworth, a shape that glides along just beyond the screen of the treeline, disappearing at intervals where the ground rises or a streambed cuts below the road. The sun, standing down from noon, glints off the new green of leaves, laying long shadows the length tree trunks. The shadow never quite separates itself from them, never comes clear into the light. The wreckage slows the convoy to a pace that a swift four-footed creature might match, and it has paced them tirelessly. Though it is beyond the range of sight recognition, Koda knows it for a manitu, a power. Tacoma does not seem to have noticed, nor has Maggie. The creature’s message is not for them. Dakota simply makes note of the presence and waits for what will come.
"We need to get a dozer out here," the Colonel observes as they veer around yet another overturned eighteen-wheeler, its open door bent back like the lid of a tin can. Its upholstery is streaked white with lime where the carrion birds have perched. Just visible through the spiderweb of cracks in the windshield, an arm picked down to bone angles over the steering wheel. "We can’t get an armored column up this road unless we get some of this mess cleared off."
Tacoma nods as they pass a minivan whose windshield crawls with maggots. He waves a hand at it. "There’s a real morale booster for you. We need a burial detail out here before we bring troops through."
Maggie pauses a moment, her face thoughtful in the rearview mirror, and Dakota knows that she is weighing resources. "All right," she says finally. "Nothing fancy. Just a backhoe and a ditch. Get half a dozen volunteers and promise them . . .whatever bonus you can realistically promise them. We’re as short of perks as we are of time."
Just ahead of them, a fox climbs out the broken window of a car that remains crumpled into the back bumper of a pickup. A scrap of blue cloth still clings to its muzzle as it hops down and disappears into the grass grown tall by the side of the road. Spring thaw has brought the scavengers out to feed. From the corner of her eye, she catches movement of something larger in the rippling stalks, and watches as the fox’s smaller wake veers wide to pass it by.
Something born on Ina Maka, then, physical. Not something purely of the spirit world.
Briefly the shape of Wa Uspewikakiyape floats across her mind, and with it a stab of
grief that remains sharp, even though she has managed to hold it distant from her in the crisis of the coming battle. It is too soon for his return, even should he choose to be reborn again. And, she acknowledges to herself, one of his wisdom has no need to walk the earth another lifetime.
"Tanski? You with us?"
Tacoma’s brow knits in concern for her, and she reaches over to pat his arm. "Present and accounted for, thiblo. Just thinking."
He grins, and she watches the snappy comeback fade before it reaches his tongue. More and more of the Base personnel have begun to exchange knowing glances when she and Kirsten enter a room together; it is, she supposes, something that goes with being a newlywed.
More or less. Formalizing their relationship is something she and Kirsten have not talked about yet, cannot talk about at least until they are past the coming battle. When she had married Tali, fresh out of graduate school, they had gone away to Greece for their honeymoon and had been spared the grins and the elbow jabs of friends and kin. Odd, that her life should have taken a turn for normal in this one small thing amid the wreckage of a world.
She says, "How far out you think we should meet them?"
"Far enough out to give us some maneuvering room between there and the Base." He glances back at Maggie. "Colonel?"
"Fifteen miles. Twenty would be better. There’s a place up past the bridge where the land falls away. They’ll have to come along that stretch strung out on a narrow front. We can control their approach there easier than just about anywhere else."
A shiver passes over Koda’s skin, despite the warmth of the sun. "I know the place you mean. Anything on wheels will have to keep to the highway there."
"Their armor won’t, though."
Koda frowns, an idea forming slowly as the convoy negotiates yet another narrow passage between lines of wrecked vehicles. "We can block them, if we have time," she says. "Or at least slow them down. How many heavy dozers can we get working?"
"Two or three," Tacoma answers. "What d’you have in—oh."
"Exactly." She grins at him.
"Care to share?" Maggie asks, her voice dry.
Tacoma says, "Tracked vehicles can climb just about anything that’s not vertical, but if we ram a pile of these wrecks into a defensive berm, we can stop the enemy’s wheeled transport cold wherever we want to."
"Or funnel them where we want them," Dakota adds.
Tacoma shoots her a glance warm with appreciation. " And we can direct the tanks, too. Colonel?"
"Sounds good to me. You’re the dirt soldiers."
Koda notices the plural, and it makes a small warm glow somewhere under her sternum. There is a familiarity to the acknowledgement, and a certainty. It fits her, the same way her scalpel fits the shape of her hand, or the tortoiseshell rattle that had been her grandfather’s last gift to her.
The lower west fork of the Cheyenne passes beneath them, the highway curving away from the bridge to pass along the spine of a ridge that falls sharply to the bank of a stream on one side. The water runs parallel to the road for perhaps a mile, with a broad meadow spread out between it and another rise to the south. Koda lays a hand on Tacoma’s arm. "Stop. Stop here."
Tacoma waves to the Humvee gunner ahead of them, then pulls the Jeep over to the side of the road. Koda climbs out and goes to stand by the guardrail, shielding her eyes as she looks over the level space between Highway 90 and the lift of earth not quite a mile away. A line of trees marches along it, and it seems to Koda that something moves in the laddered shadows that spill down its slope, but she cannot be certain.
The Interstate here is almost clear of wrecks, an open stretch between Rapid City and the small towns linked to it by farm-to-market roads. The air above the tarmac seems to shimmer in the sun, and through the rippling heat Dakota catches the glare sun off the metal hides of military droids, the sudden glint of light striking the silver collars of androids marching in uniformed ranks, the tireless crunch of their boots on asphalt a constant grinding that blends with the whine of tanks and the ponderous crawl of big guns. Then time slips back into place, and the vision fades. The road runs empty through the spring fields, overgrown now with grass and self-seeded crops, sprinkled here and there with patches of bright yellow and blue, rose and lavender.
"Tanski?" Tacoma touches her arm. "You okay?"
"Here." Dakota says. "The battle will be here."
"It’s a good place for it," Maggie says, thoughtfully. "We can block this road at two or three places to slow them down and control their options once they get here."
"We need to prevent them from fanning out on the north side of the road," Tacoma says. "Or spilling down over the stream."
"We’ll mine the north side," Koda answers. "Maybe dig some ditches. How wide do they need to be to stop the tanks, thiblo?"
"Maybe ten feet. If we can dig them that deep, with straight sides, they’ll have to go around."
Maggie nods assent. "Get the backhoes out here the minute we get back. Bury the dead as quickly as you can, then start to work on those trenches."
"Spike the bottoms," Dakota says suddenly. "Cut enough brush to camouflage the digging until the enemy is too close to turn back. What have we got besides fuel that will burn?"
"Asphalt. Tar. We repaved the runways just a few months ago, and there were supplies left over."
Tacoma grins. "Thank the gods for government waste. What d’you have in mind, tanksi? Fire the ditches?"
Koda grins in return. "Between the spikes and the fire, we can immobilize anything that tries to cross them. Then we can use shoulder fired anti-tank missiles to explode their fuel and ammo once they’re stuck."
"I like it," says Maggie. "What about the ones that get through?"
"Use the wrecks to funnel them back behind our lines. Surround them, cut them off, and destroy them."
"A strategic retreat could draw them in," Tacoma adds, his dark eyes far away on a battle not yet joined. "Half our armor could fall back maybe five miles toward the Base through the open country. Then the other half could come in behind." He raises his hands and brings them together. "Squeeze ‘em like a python."
"What about this open space here on our right?" Maggie gestures toward the meadow and the treeline in the distance.
"Spike the slope, too," Koda answers. "Tacoma, could we dam up this stream and muddy the ground enough to mire their trucks if they try to leave the road?"
Tacoma leans over the guardrail, staring up and down the narrow watercourse for a long moment. Then he says, "We could dam it, no problem. The question is whether there’s enough water volume. We could probably get a hundred-meter strip nice and wet, though."
"Do it," says Maggie.
Movement behind the trees to the south catches Koda’s eye again. Something is there, pacing, the long shadows rippling with its passage. "But leave it passable on foot," she says, as the image forms in her mind. "For the force we’ll hide behind that rise over there." She turns to meet Tacoma’s gaze, half startled, half admiring. "We’ll block them, draw them in on the left, turn their line, and roll them up from the right and behind. Piece of cake."
"Fuckin’ A better-than-sex cake," Tacoma laughs. Then, as Koda and Maggie both stare at him repressively, "Figuratively speaking, of course."
"Themunga makes a chocolate better-than-sex cake that’ll melt in your mouth," Dakota elaborates, noting Maggie’s puzzled frown. "Only she calls it a not-quite-as-good-as-sex cake." She pauses a moment. Then, careful to keep her face straight, "We’re a big family."
"I noticed," her friend says wryly. Then, "What about the ground over there? How big a flanking force can we put behind that rise?"
Again the movement catches her eye, and Koda says, "I’ll go scout it."
Tacoma motions to one of the gunners from the lead Humvee. "Take an escort."
She shakes her head. "No need. Back in a flash."
With that she is gone down the slope, jogging over the matted grasses that spring under her feet. At the base, she leaps the stream easily as a deer, landing lightly on the far bank and sprinting across the meadow. Grasshoppers whirr out of her way; once she starts a young rabbit from its form, and ground squirrels, chittering, dive into their holes as she flies past them. Her feet seem to brush the ground only briefly; she is lighter than air, barely ruffling the grass as she passes. The sense of presence grows stronger as she approaches the fold of land with its crown of trees, stillness settling over her even as she reaches the foot of the rise and begins the ascent, leaping from rock to rock up its stony side.
At the top, she pauses, looking around her. The top of the knoll is perhaps a hundred feet
wide, dropping down perhaps a third of the distance on the other side to a broad meadow. Sycamore and cottonwoods grow thickly along the spine, once, perhaps, planted as a windbreak before so many family farms failed in the second half of the past century and the Dakotas’ population bled away to the cities. In their cover, and on the field below, it should be possible to hide several hundred lightly armed fighters, far more than she will have at her disposal. And where, she wonders, does that come from? Who’s decided I’m the one to lead the ambush battalion?
Why, you have, of course.
Dakota wheels around, scanning the trees and the underbrush that grows thick beneath their branches, but there is no one. The voice is everywhere and nowhere, a ripple of laughter in her mind. The manitu.
Drawing her own silence around her then, Koda waits for the being to make itself known.
Or herself. She can sense that it is female in the current of savage tenderness that flows about it, running above the wild abandon of the hunt, the burst of joy at the kill. With a start, she recognizes the blood hunger as her own, the savage pulse in her own veins as she fought an alpha and killed him. My band now. My pride.
For what seems an eternity, the voice does not speak to her again. She can feel eyes on her, though, from somewhere within the trees. Watching. Waiting. Testing her patience. Finally the vigilance relaxes, and the thought comes to her, Oka was right. You have the makings of a warrior.
She gives a start, at that. Oka, Singer, is Wa Uspewikakiyape’s true name, the name by which his own people knew him. The name by which only Dakota among the two-footed has ever known him. I give you his greetings, the silent voice goes on. He has taken his place at the council fire in the other side camp. He will not walk the Red Road again.
I miss him, she says without sound.
You grieve because you love. That is as it should be.
Again, silence falls, and Dakota waits. It is not her place to hurry an elder, or to speak before spoken to. After a time, the light shifts among the trees, shadows rippling with the movement of a long body as it walks between them. Koda catches the sheen of sun off golden fur, the twitch of the end of a long tail. Igmu Tanka. At the thought, a puma steps out of the woods and comes to sit in the center of the small glade, gazing up at Koda with eyes like molten bronze. Round patches of fur show dark against her belly. She has cubs.
Ina, Koda acknowledges.
And I must kill something for them by nightfall, comes the answer, and with it the taste of hot blood. As you must kill for your own.
A pang stabs through Koda’s heart. I have no cubs. My child died with my beloved.
Igmu Tanka nips at a bit of twig caught in the fur of her shoulder. There are cubs, and there are cubs. Those for whom you are responsible are not of your body, yet they are yours nonetheless.
My responsibility is to fight this battle.
Your responsibility is to fight this battle, and others. And then it will be your responsibility to rule.
Rule? But Kirsten—
Is Chief. You are something new.
I don’t understand.
You don’t need to, not yet. I have something to tell you: do not hesitate to flee when the time comes. Victory will follow you.
Koda feels her brows knit. I don’t—
Understand. That does not matter. What matters is that you should obey my younger sister when she gives you an order. For the sake of all the People, two-footed, four-footed, winged and creeping, you must do what you least wish to, when you least wish to.
I will be here waiting when you return.
With that, the puma turns and pads back into the trees. Koda follows her movements until she is lost in shadow, then turns back toward the road and the burden laid on her.
A somber, thoughtful Dakota opens the door to the house and steps inside, more by rote than conscious act. Padding softly through the kitchen, gaze turned more inward than out, she stops upon sighting Kirsten. Sitting on the tattered sofa, her legs tucked up under her, the young scientist stares into the monitor of her laptop as her agile, graceful fingers fly over the keyboard. The window across the room is open, and from it, a shaft of sunlight lances in, gilding her in pure gold, her hair a halo that quickens the pace of Koda’s heart. The love she feels for this woman is so strong, and so pure that it hurts, deep within, like a tight band across her chest.
Quite without her permission, her mind drifts back to her conversation with Igmu Tanka, and she finds herself comparing this new love with the one she lost so long ago, comparing Tali’s dark, reed-slender lines with Kirsten’s golden, muscled curves, Tali’s quiet sweetness with Kirsten’s mercurial intelligence, passion, and deeply hidden pain. What paths, she wonders, would her life have taken had Tali not been taken so quickly from her?
"You have the makings of a warrior," Igmu Tanka had said. Would Tali have appreciated this growth in her, accepted it as simply and wholeheartedly as Kirsten does? Perhaps, she thinks. Tali had a good heart, a good soul. But she valued constancy in her life; the safety and security of knowing that each day would be much the same as the last. Family was the most important thing to her. Their loving was gentle, and quiet, fulfilling and comfortable. She gazes at Kirsten again, remembering their joining of last night. Her blood stirs hot in her veins and she moans softly. Kirsten accepted the raw desire, the deep passion in her. More than that, she embraced it, craved it with as much fire as Koda herself.
Tali was the love of who I was, Dakota realizes, with something akin to shock. But she, she is the love of who I am becoming; the woman I am meant to be.
At that very moment, Kirsten, who has turned her implants off for convenience’s sake, turns her head and locks eyes with her lover. Koda finds herself falling into the sunlit green of her direct, loving gaze, her sprit separating from her body seamlessly, painlessly as the world around her tunnels and rushes past, unacknowledged.
She’s running through a jungle thick with moisture and the scent of the earth. Broad green leaves caress her face as she passes, coating her with their moisture as her heartbeat, loud in her ears, sets her pace. Her spirit is filled with an almost savage joy as she runs, her feet light on the ground cover, her pace easy and relentless. She is the hunter, and her prey is very close. She can smell blood and earth, and a predator’s smile breaks over her face, turning her eyes to molten silver.
A sunlit clearing of deep green grass suddenly appears, and she stops, blood thrumming, as a woman, dappled green and gold, rises from her crouch, swaying to the tempo that Koda’s heart has created. Her hands reach out, gracefully beckoning, and Koda heeds their call, running to her, merging with her. They are one body, one spirit, one essence, writhing, pulsing in an ecstasy neither has ever known.
They explode then, their atoms scattering through space, and reforming randomly as the earth spins above them, blue and green and glowing, lit behind from the sun. Their combined heartbeat fades, to be replaced by the squalling of an infant breathing her first, then by the triumphant yowl of a hunting cat, until finally, it becomes the howl of the wolf going on and on and on until it is everywhere and everything.
Dakota comes back to herself as she is pulling away from Kirsten’s soft, swollen lips. They collapse against one another, panting breaths mingling, hearts thundering against their bony cages.
"Dear God," Kirsten whispers when she finally has the breath to speak.
Cupping her lover’s cheek, Koda stares down into her eyes, so green and shining. "Did you…?"
"Feel that? God, yes. It was the scariest, most wonderful thing I ever felt in my life."
A sudden wave of dizziness rolls over her, and her knees give out, dumping her less than gracefully back onto the couch. Dakota follows her down, squatting between her splayed legs and grasping her hands gently, chafing them with concern as she looks into clouded green eyes.
"Are you okay?"
Though she can read her lover’s lips easily, Kirsten suddenly craves the sound of her voice, and, pulling one hand away from its warm nest, thumbs her implants back on.
"I’m—." She lets out a breath, long and shaky, almost, but not quite, a laugh. "I’m…not sure. I think I may be…taking a little vacation from reality."
Cocking her head slightly, Koda narrows her eyes, all but pinning Kirsten to the couch with the strength of her gaze. "Explain."
"That’s just the problem," Kirsten replies, tucking her free hand under the thick fall of her hair and rubbing at the back of her neck, where a mountain of tension has suddenly decided to take up residence. "I don’t know if I can."
"Try." Koda’s voice is soft and soothing, and Kirsten clings to its timbre like a lifeline.
"Remember when I told you about my raccoon visitor?" she begins, blushing slightly. "The one that wasn’t really there?"
"He wasn’t really there again today." She laughs. It’s a dry, almost bitter sound. "Sitting in a tree just as big as life." She shakes her head. "A full blown visual and auditory hallucination that I would have heard even with my implants off."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, he had a lot to talk about, most of it put-downs." The laugh sounds again, though a bit more genuine this time. "I can’t even manage to come down with your garden variety delusions of grandeur. Noooo, I have to hallucinate a wise-cracking vermin with a nasty attitude who seems to find my general ineptitude with life quite amusing." Closing her eyes, she hangs her head, her chin not quite touching her chest. "When he’s not getting his jollies out of dropping eggs on me, that is."
Koda’s eyes dart over to where Kirsten’s boots stand at the foot of the couch. With a small smile, she notes the dry streaks of yellow on the laces. Her suspicion fully confirmed, she releases Kirsten’s hand and, reaching up, gently cups her lover’s cheek, her strong thumb tenderly tracing over the baby soft skin. She remains silent, allowing Kirsten the much needed time to process her thoughts.
Deep green eyes finally raise and open, and Koda feels, once again, that sense of temporal dislocation. This time, she fights the urge, biting down on the inside of her lip until the feeling passes and she is firmly in control of her spirit. This is not good, she thinks, before Kirsten begins speaking, and she turns her attention to that instead.
"I feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole. Just when I think life is making sense, things start spinning out of control. And sometimes I think that if I just close my eyes real tight, maybe I’ll wake up and find this has all been a dream."
"Do you want it to be a dream?" Dakota’s voice is steady and soft, but Kirsten has no trouble seeing the unease in her striking eyes.
Without thought, she takes the hand cupping her face and brings it to her lips, brushing a kiss against the warm knuckles. "Not even one second of it. I should hate myself for feeling this way. It’s so damn selfish. But if none of this had ever happened, I would never have met you, and that is something I would never want to change. No matter what."
"Nor would I."
The two embrace and hold each other tightly for a very long moment before Koda pulls, with reluctance, away. "For what it’s worth, love, you’re not crazy, ok?"
Kirsten looks up at her, clearly wanting, needing to believe, but, equally clearly, not believing—not entirely, at any rate.
"Maybe…." Koda’s throat clicks audibly as she swallows. After a split second of hesitation, she gives voice to the thought plaguing her for the past several days. "Maybe you should go off base until all this is over. My parents would keep you safe, and I’m sure by now the entire family is dying to meet you."
Kirsten’s eyes widen as her jaw sets. Koda fancies she can feel the anger building in the smaller woman, and she winces internally.
"I--," Kirsten begins. "You--. You want to send me away?!? I can’t—you really do think I’m losing it, don’t you!" She gathers her legs, beginning to stand, but Koda holds tight to her waist, pulling her in again. "Let me go."
"Damnit, Koda! I said--."
"Listen to me, Kirsten!" She pulls back just enough to meet her lover’s blazing eyes. "It’s not you! I don’t think you’re crazy! You’re saner than anyone I know! It’s me! Don’t you see it?! I can’t lose you! Kirsten, I…can’t…lose…you!"
The hoarseness of Dakota’s voice finally filters through the red heat of Kirsten’s anger, and she relaxes against the large, trembling body holding her with desperation. "What—What did you say?"
"I can’t lose you," Koda repeats, voice muffled against the fabric of Kirsten’s t-shirt. "Not now. Not ever." Her hands tighten and tangle in the cloth, pulling her lover so tightly against her that not a molecule of air can pass between them. Kirsten can feel her breaths, tight and raspy, against her chest, and her arms close instinctively about Dakota’s broad shoulders, giving what comfort she can.
She’s scared! Kirsten realizes. For me! Dear God…! With a feeling of wonder, she slowly rocks the body half in her arms, her restless hands smoothing over Koda’s thick, shining hair as she replays her lover’s words to her over and over. Finally, slowly, she pulls back, and tips Dakota’s chin so that their eyes meet. "I’m not going anywhere," she says firmly, with finality. "Not without you. We started this together, and we’ll end it together, or not at all. Understand me?"
After a moment, Dakota nods.
"I can’t lose you either, my love. Not when I’ve just found you. I—I can’t ask you not to do what you do best out there, once this war finally starts. What I can ask is that you come back to me, whole and healthy. Be careful. Okay? For us?"
They embrace again, tightly, and this time, neither is inclined to pull away for a very, very long time.
And so we’ve come to the end of another episode. The battle is coming soon. Can you hear the tanks? The munitions? It’s coming. Be ready. firstname.lastname@example.org . Until next week.
Continued - Chapter 45
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