Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
CHAPTER FORTY SIX
Kirsten sits cross-legged on the springy, cool grass beneath the heavy boughs of fragrant trees that dot the residential area of the base. At her back, the waters of the stream chuckle merrily as if listening to a joke only they can hear.
The scent of the rendered fat in the bowls before her doesn’t exactly rival perfume, and she resists the urge to sneeze just to get the smell out of her sinuses. She settles for what she hopes is innocuous mouth-breathing instead, flushing slightly at the look she receives from Tacoma. A touch to her knee draws her attention back to Dakota, who is sitting with a bowl of yellow paint cradled in her lap, and a small twig laden with the same held up, elegant eyebrow raised slightly, questioning.
Kirsten nods, almost shyly, and, smiling, Koda brings the loaded twig to her lover’s cheek, painting a design with sure, deft strokes. After several moments, she pulls the brush away and tilts Kirsten’s chin, eyes raking over the design she’s just created. A quick touchup, and she nods, satisfied with her work.
The words bring smiles to the faces of Manny and Tacoma, and a frown of puzzlement to Kirsten’s. "Excuse me?"
Reaching up, Dakota gently touches Kirsten’s face, then lays two fingers on her partner’s chest, right above her heart. "Iktomi zizi." With her free hand, Koda lifts a bowl of clear water and hands it to Kirsten, gesturing for her to look into it.
The surface of the water ripples, and Kirsten watches her reflection waver in it, squinting as the image slowly comes into focus.
An intricate web design covers most of her left cheek. A similar one, though smaller, dots her right. She raises her head slowly, looking up at Dakota, wide-eyed. "A spider? You’re calling me a spider?"
"Iktomi zizi. Yellow spider."
Kirsten’s face wrinkles. "I don’t think I--."
"Hey!" Manny interrupts, chuckling, "I think it’s perfect. Spiders might be small, but some of them can bring down a man, or even a full grown horse with just one bite."
"Yeah, but they’re--."
"Crafty and intelligent," Tacoma intones. "Creators of incredibly complex designs, and absolutely fearless." He grins. "The name fits you perfectly."
Kirsten eyes the three steadily. "Yeah, well just remember something else about us spiders."
"Yeah?" Manny asks. "What’s that?"
"We eat our mates."
There is a moment of absolute silence as her words are absorbed. Then Tacoma and Manny both blush, their copper skin tinting toward tomato red as they break into laughter and smack Dakota on the shoulder with good-natured teasing.
Kirsten looks on, a bit confused with the reaction she’s receiving. It is only when she spies Dakota’s rakish, eyebrow waggling grin that the subtext of her words blooms fully in her mind, and the blush that crawls up from her shoulders is so deep and dark that her pale eyebrows stand out in vivid relief against its heat. "Oh my god," she moans, dropping her face into her hands. "I cannot believe I just said that!!"
Chuckling, Koda rubs her back. "Just relax, love. We know what you meant." After a moment, she eases Kirsten’s hands away from her face and checks to make sure the designs aren’t smudged. "One last thing. Close your eyes."
Said eyes narrow. "Why."
"Relax and just close your eyes. Trust me."
Sighing, Kirsten lets her lids slide closed over her eyes. "I’d better not regret this."
"Just keep ‘em closed." Taking another bowl, this filled with thick black paste, she dips three fingers in, coating them liberally. Lifting her fingers, she tilts Kirsten’s face toward her, then draws them across her lover’s eyes, from temple to temple, creating a crude, but effective black mask. "Ok, you can open your eyes now."
Dakota grins as vivid green eyes open, their color all the more striking when set against the black paint surrounding them, like emeralds in a black-velvet jeweler’s box. "For Wika Tegalega. Look."
Kirsten glances down into the still water, then back up at her lover. "I look like the Hamburgler."
A moment of silence, and then the group roars in laughter. Kirsten merely rolls her eyes. "Can we get on with this, please?"
The others eventually sober, and Dakota takes back the water bowl with a grin that is slightly abashed. Her face has already been painted with the symbols of Crazy Horse, and the backs of both hands bear stylized wolf prints done in black and red.
A piercing cry spears the silence, and the four of them look up to see Wiyo circling down toward them. With a great beating of wings, she lands upon Koda’s outstretched forearm. A leather pouch dangles from one of her legs, and Kirsten eyes it curiously. "What…?"
"A note," Dakota intuits, using her free hand to untie the simple slipknot. She hands the pouch to Kirsten. "Get it out of there for me, willya?"
The bag’s laces are tight and slippery, but Kirsten finally manages to fumble them open. Upending the small pouch, she shakes out a tiny, tightly rolled slip of paper, which she proceeds to unroll. Without her glasses on, the tiny writing is just one big blur, so she hands the scrap off to Dakota, who peers down at the message while Wiyo looks on, placidly. "It’s from Fenton. He found Toller."
"Oh yeah?" Tacoma asks. "Where?"
"Just outside of Grand Rapids." Dakota raises her eyes from the note. "Dead."
"No shit!" This from Manny, who looks on, wide-eyed. "How?"
"Single gunshot wound to the back of the head."
"Sounds like an execution," Kirsten murmurs. "Did the judge say who he thought did it?"
"He’s guessing androids. There was talk in town about a small group of them in that area over the last week or so."
"Any sign of Hart?"
"Bet the metalheads took him," Manny observes, raking a hand through his hair. "He’s the fucking commander of the base they’re about to attack. Jesus Christ."
Kirsten rubs at the back of her neck. "Well, he’s been kept pretty well isolated from our plans for awhile now, so while it’s not the best news in the world, I’m not sure it’s the worst, either."
"Yeah, but," Manny argues, getting up to pace, "he knows the base layout like the back of his hand, he knows our numbers, our weapons, our strengths, our weak spots, and, worst of all, he knows you’re here. That sound like pretty damn bad news to me."
The young pilot looks over at his cousin, sighs, and sits.
"Alright," Dakota continues, "we’re not even positive that the androids have him, but if they do, it’s a bit late to worry about it now. They’re at our gates, and with or without Hart’s information, they’re gonna be damned tough to fend off. So…we stick to the plan, and see what develops, alright?"
"We should probably let Maggie know," Kirsten replies softly.
"Sounds good." Koda eyes her brother and cousin. "Anything else?"
Both shake their heads in the negative.
"Good." Shifting her gaze, she looks into the golden eyes of her feathered companion. "Thank you, my friend."
Ruffling her wings, Wiyo closes her lethal talons around Koda’s forearm until the needle-sharp points break the skin. Three fat beads of blood well up. Cocking her head, she lets go a loud, almost triumphant cry, then launches herself into the air, wings flapping strongly, elegantly. With a feeling of almost stunned disbelief, Koda looks down in her lap, where two perfect feathers now rest. As she watches, the blood from her arm drips down onto the feathers, anointing them.
"You have been blessed, Tshunka Wakan Winan," Tacoma says, his eyes sparkling reverently, joyfully. "By Ina Maka herself. Surely we are meant to win this fight."
Still staring down at the feathers in her lap, Dakota finds that she can say nothing at all.
Kirsten sits on Maggie’s cot, the blanket tucked drumhead-tight around the narrow mattress, systematically shoving rounds into the spare magazines of her .45. One, already filled, lies beside the weapon on top of her pack. She is halfway through the second, her face frozen in concentration as she thumbs bullet after bullet into their flat carriers. Koda watches her from the desk, where she is marking their force’s final battle positions on a topo map of the ground where they plan to meet the android army. Tacoma has another copy, as does Maggie. Like them, she has no illusion that these are anything but a diagram of their opening gambit; if she had learned nothing else from the battle of the Cheyenne, from her fight with the Minot war leader, she would have learned that battle is unpredictable.
She has also learned that men and women will follow her, and that still frightens her. It frightens her all the more when one of those women is Kirsten. Perhaps she should feel easier knowing that her lover will be at the command center, guarded by Manny and Andrews and Maggie herself. A part of her mind remains convinced that Kirsten is safest at Dakota’s own side, with love as well as friendship and duty between her and harm.
But that is an illusion, and she knows it. There is no safety anywhere. Not on the battlefield, not off it. They must break the enemy here, and they must break him now. There will be no second chance. I will be here when you return, Puma had said. But prophecy is contingent. None knows that better than Koda.
We could still lose. We could lose it all.
Finished with the map, Koda folds it and slips it into her field pack. "About ready?"
Kirsten shoves the last round home, slipping the full magazines into loops in her belt. She looks up, smiling briefly. "I’m ready." Then, the smile fading, "I’ll be glad when this is over."
"Me, too," Koda says quietly. She rises and shoulders her own pack. One way or another, the world will be a different place in twenty-four hours.
Kirsten follows suit, snapping down the holster on her Colt and lifting her kit by its straps. Her helmet dangles from it by the chinstrap. Her battle dress, like Koda’s own, bears no insignia. No need to advertise their identity to the enemy. Forward parties have already caught and killed half a dozen human spies; it would take only one to recognize her and carry word of Kirsten’s presence to the enemy. They have no way of knowing how many they have missed, any one of whom could betray their strategy to the enemy.
Go to Plan B . . ..
Unfortunately, there is no Plan B. They have not the resources.
A shadow passes across the window, dark in the light of the low sun. Knuckles rap
lightly on the jamb, and Maggie pushes open the door. Like Dakota and Kirsten, she
wears combat fatigues, the bulk of her Kevlar vest showing clearly beneath her tunic, an M-16 slung over her shoulder. A wry smile quirks her mouth upward. "Madam President. Would you like to inspect the troops?"
"No," Kirsten says succinctly. The tension in her voice runs along Koda’s nerves. "Let’s just go."
Maggie’s mouth tightens, her eyes narrowing. "Let’s try that again. Madam President, would you like to inspect the troops?"
Kirsten glances up at the taller woman, her own face set. "I said—"
"Kirsten," Koda says softly. "You are their Commander in Chief."
Koda notes the rise and fall of Kirsten’s shoulders underneath her jacket, hears the breath as it leaves her. "All right. Nothing formal."
Maggie nods. "Nothing formal. They need to see you, though. They need to know you see them."
It is something Koda has learned over the last months, slowly and with reluctance. A commander is as much symbol as leader, as much a fighting band’s faith as its head. The troops who had followed her across the bridge at the Cheyenne had not done it for freedom or democracy or the idea of a state. They had done it for her. Kirsten’s face loses its stubbornness as the realization comes to her as well. "All right," she says again and steps through the door Maggie holds for her.
Over her head, Maggie’s eyes meet Koda’s. "You’ll do," she says, and Koda is not sure whether she means Kirsten or herself. "You’ll do just fine."
Outside, the low sun lays long shadows on the tarmac, fantastic angular shapes that barely suggest the APC’s and Humvees and Bradleys that cast them. The vehicles themselves form a convoy strung out half the length of the runway, most single file. Lead and rear contingents are both armor, tanks and their two mobile howitzers. Personnel carriers cluster in the middle. All along the line, the troops stand at attention, men and women drawn from every branch of service, the reserves, the civilian population. All are well armed, most are, more or less, in uniform. There is no shortage of equipment, only of soldiers to use it.
Parked just outside the office, the Jeep that had once been General Hart’s stands waiting. Its door bears his three stars, or once did. Now all that remains of them is a single star and two splotches of fresh paint. From the front fenders fly miniature flags: the Stars and Stripes from one, the blue Air Force banner from the other. Andrews sits at the wheel. Maggie slips into the front seat beside him, Koda and Kirsten into the back. Just as Kirsten turns to arrange her gear, Koda says, "Stand, cante skuye. Let them see you."
For a moment it seems that Kirsten will demur. But she faces front, one hand on the rollbar, as the Jeep begins to roll. A ripple precedes them up the line, hands raised to salute. Koda watches as Kirsten smiles and acknowledges the gesture, her own back straight as a young birch tree, all traces of anger and tension gone from her face. It comes to Koda that Kirsten has a true gift for leadership, one very different from her own. Her lover’s wildness is all for her, nothing that near-strangers or even friends will ever see. To them she is a still point of order in chaos; a fragment rationality in a spinning vortex of dementia. She is the center that will hold against the circling dark.
The Jeep comes to the end of the line, the rear brought up by one of the howitzers. Then it swings back to take its place in the middle of the column, and the line of vehicles shudders into motion.
"Here we go," Kirsten says, taking her seat. In her eyes, apprehension shadows her pride in the moment, and Koda knows what she fears.
"Here we are," she answers, taking her hand. "Always."
"It’s a good thing they already know we’re coming," Kirsten shouts into Koda’s ear, "because this is sure as hell no sneak attack."
Koda grins and nods, not even attempting speech. Before and behind them, the Bradleys and howitzers, the mortars and the other tracked vehicles crunch along the asphalt. The tanks’ characteristic shrill whine carries on the evening air like the howl of lost souls, punctuated only by the whup-whup of a pair of low-flying Apache choppers scouting the margins of the road. The air chills as they pass, blue with dusk, shadows fading into the oncoming night. Stars hang low on the eastern horizon before them; behind them the scudding clouds flame gold and crimson as the sun slips below the edge of the world. To either side of the road, barriers of derelict cars and trucks loom high, broken shapes out of nightmare bulldozed into place to funnel the enemy advance between Tacoma’s forces and Maggie’s. Also along their flanks, invisible now under brush and rubble, ten-foot wide trenches run from the pavement into the trees that line the road. If the enemy follows the battle plan hammered out by the Ellsworth officers—if the enemy can be forced to follow it--the ditches will trap and incapacitate the droids’ armor. At intervals, two-and-three man teams peel off the line of march to take stations, in the woods or behind rocks, where they can lob armor-piercing missiles into the mired tanks from shoulder launchers.
Koda fastens the chin strap of her helmet, pulling it tight and checking the adjustment of the night sight. She does not lower it yet; there is little to see now save the bulk of the APC lumbering along ahead of their Jeep, the heaps of wrecked metal looming on either side at irregular intervals. Beside her, Kirsten does likewise, her lover’s smaller hand seeking hers again. They will separate soon, Koda to lead her detachment into its position on the south flank, hidden from the road, Kirsten to remain with Maggie among at the command post personnel as communications chief. It is not a position of safety; Maggie will have charge of the center, where the enemy attack will fall hardest. In the dark, in her own mind, she tries to find reassurance in Kirsten’s vision, in Puma’s promise that she would be here, on this ground, at Koda’s return.
But this is a return, now, and Puma is a warrior spirit. It is battle that waits. There is no guarantee of ever coming here again.
Neither is there any guarantee of leaving.
As they pass the ten-mile mark out of Ellsworth, the pace of the column picks up, the whine of the tanks suddenly diminishing. Kirsten’s fingers tighten around her own; Tacoma has left the interstate with the armor squadron, gone to take up position in the thickening dark to the north of the road, where they will both protect the flank of the main force and, with luck, draw the enemy tanks and Bradleys into a death trap.
The moon is up, just off the full. A stiff wind blows from the south, and clouds scud across its face, narrow ribbons of black and silver. Suddenly Kirsten turns, her profile rimlit in the pale light, her pointing finger tracking something moving along the treeline. As Koda’s gaze follows, she can make out a white shape beyond the reach of the branches, propelled by slow, deep wingbeats. Owl. The moonlight strikes silver from its feathers, ripples over the fan of its pinions where they spread out like fingers at the ends of its wings. Though it does not call, a shiver passes through her, chill along her skin. There will be death tomorrow; she needs no omen to tell her that.
With the armor gone, the convoy picks up speed. The barricades grow fewer as they approach the place where they will deploy in preparation to meet the enemy, and the last mile or so of road lies open and unobstructed to give their own forces room to fall back. Kirsten no longer needs to shout to be heard. "We’re almost there."
Koda turns to face her. The moon is higher now, and the fear in Kirsten’s eyes shows plain. She does not fear for herself; no woman who could be intimidated by a mere army could have made her way across a continent alone, could not have gone cold-bloodedly, twice, into the heart of the enemy stronghold. The fear is for the world they will leave behind them if they fail. It is also, she knows, for her, Dakota.
There are no words to answer it. Her own fears have burned themselves clean: for Kirsten, for Tacoma, for the men and women whose lives are in her hand.
She touches a finger to one of the hailstones painted on her face. Hoka hey, Tshunka Witco. It is a good day to die.
It is a better one to live.
Ahead of them, the APC’s slow even further and begin to fan out across the width of the interstate. Andrews brings the Jeep to a halt beside the truck that will house the command post, parked now facing back the way they have come so that Maggie, Kirsten and their staff will be able to see out the open back. Kirsten’s hand tightens on Koda’s almost convulsively. They will separate here.
Maggie gets out of the Jeep and begins to move toward the line of APC’s disgorging their loads of troops. Koda can hear the rattle of their gear as they jump to the pavement, the occasional "Moth-er-fuck!" as someone drops a piece of equipment or jostles the soldier ahead. She will have to sort out her own squad and lead them into position behind the rise that lifts dark against sky to the south. Andrews has also found urgent business ahead, leaving Koda and Kirsten a small moment of privacy in the midst of chaos.
"Dakota—" Kirsten breaks off, her voice catching. Then, "Be safe."
Koda lays a hand on the other woman’s cheek, feeling the helmet strap under her palm. Awkwardly, because the night sights project from above the rims of their helmets, she bends and kisses Kirsten gently. "Till morning," she says. "This is the easy part."
"I know," Kirsten answers. "I’ll just be glad when we’re through it." Under her hand, Koda feels her lover’s mouth quirk up in a wry smile. "Can’t wait to get to that hard stuff."
Koda kisses her again, lingeringly, and turns to go. Before she can move from where she stands, a whistling howl splits the air above them, a metallic shriek that is followed by another and another. Koda tracks the sound as it dopplers down the highway. A mile beyond them to the west, a flame-shot cloud rises from the pavement, roiling with the violence of the explosion. A second flares just beyond it, and a third.
"What the hell was that?" Kirsten demands of the sudden silence.
Maggie appears again beside them. "Howitzers." Even in the darkness, her grin is visible. "We just got lucky. The bastards are overshooting us."
Kirsten walks the line in the darkness, feeling as much as seeing the mass of the metal wall thrown up across the width of the interstate. The moon gives light enough to make out the crumpled metal rammed into barricades; here and there it glints off chrome trim or the arc of a hubcap. Here and there, too, it catches the shape of an M-16, where a soldier crouches at one of the firing slits left open or perches six feet up, straining to catch some glimpse of the enemy. They nod and salute as she passes, their movements visible only in the shift of shadow. At the other wall, the one a hundred yards behind this one, Maggie is doing the same thing, checking their defenses, rallying morale. In the hollows of culvert and the drainage ditch that runs along the road, soldiers crouch with grenade launchers held ready. Ideally, the enemy will not breach the first barricade. Practically, they are certain to do so. And when they do, they will be trapped between the two barriers, caught in crossfire from three directions. Kirsten cannot see the ambushers, but is aware of their eyes on her as she moves. The howitzer shells still scream overhead at regular intervals, still landing well behind them.
Kirsten grimaces at Manny, walking beside her. "I’m beginning to think they’re just trying to keep us awake."
The light gleams off the glass of his night scope as he nods. "Weakens morale. Or maybe they’re just trying to cut off our retreat by tearing up the road."
"Or maybe they’re just dumb. They’ve got to wonder why we’re not shooting back."
"Goddam metalheads. Who the fuck’s in charge over there, anyway?"
"Or what’s in charge."
"Yeah." Manny pauses a moment, listening. "Here comes another one."
The round shrieks as it flies over them, landing with force that shakes the ground beneath them where they stand, half a mile away. With the wall behind them, she cannot see the fireball rise. "Good thing we don’t plan on retreating. Maybe they’ll run out of ammo eventually."
"Nah. Ammo, small arms, they’re just like us. They’ve got more stuff than they have troops to shoot it."
Kirsten gives him a wry grin. "Well," she says, "that’s a comfort."
Koda moves among her troops, stepping without sound over the springy new grass that carpets the meadow below the rise that shields them from the interstate. She does not speak to them, but touches a shoulder here, an arm there, letting them feel her presence and her concern. They will not let her down; she must help them know that she will not fail them.
Just like an old war movie, she thinks with a fleeting bit of self-mockery. Patton, maybe or Prince Hal moving among his men before Agincourt, pretending to be a common soldier.
Except that she knows that it comes from no film, nor from any history book. This is instinct with her. Memory. She has never doubted that she was born to be a shaman. Has never doubted, either, that she required every moment of learning and practice her father and grandfather demanded of her. Her leadership has come to her as easily as her breath, and that frightens her.
Because I don’t know what I don’t know. And what I don’t know can get us all killed.
She shivers a little in the night wind. Another of the seemingly interminable hail of howitzer rounds passes to the north of her position, to impact somewhere on the other side of the main force’s position on the highway. Either they cannot find their targets or the Ellsworth force is within the big guns’ minimum range.
Or they want us to think we are. Spook us bad.
She completes her round of her squadron, finally settling on a rocky outcropping where she can just see over the crest edge of the embankment. The hollow beyond is lost in shadow. In the moonlight, she can just make out the irregular shapes that she knows to be the barricades and the strings of empty vehicles behind the second one. Kirsten will be there, operating the main communications net. It ought to be a place of greater safety, but Koda knows that it is not. None of them is any safer than any other, which is to say that none of them is safe at all.
The moon climbs as she watches, the stars pacing across the sky in their myriads. Ares the ram, Taurus the bull, constellations of spring, both associated with the turning of the seasons and the time of planting from time immemorial. Both, in their own time, gods who saw the rise of civilization and who may now see its ending.
The sweet scent of the grass comes to her, mingled with the sharper tang of gun oil. Above her, the sound of a thousand voices skims the air, and she looks up to see a wedge of geese pass before the moon, followed by another and another, the flocks arrowing north to the tundra’s edge to mate and rear their young. In the fall, their passage will blacken the sky as they fly south, fearing none but eagles, their human predators all but vanished.
A hand tugs at her sleeve, and she turns to find one of the Minot men just below her. "Ma’am, look," he whispers.
Koda follows his pointing finger to the meadow behind them. Fog is rising, billowing up from a small branch of the Cheyenne. "Damn," she says quietly. "God damn."
And that’s the end of another chapter of The Growing. For those of you who were at the Burbank Con and saw Renee’s play, that was some piece of acting, huh? Wow. I’m still stunned by it. It was wonderful! Anyway, any comments, questions, concerns gratefully received at firstname.lastname@example.org . Until next week!
Continued - Chapter 47
Return to The Growing Main Page
Return to The Bard's Corner