CHAPTER FORTY NINE
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
The wedge of armor closes inexorably in on the enemy where they stand locked with the first line. The Bradleys swing wide, speeding to block escape off the shoulders of the road, while the crews of the advancing M-1’s crank up the angle of their cannon to lob their shells high and short into the droid tanks. Hatches on the roofs of the Bradleys crack open, sprouting the long tubes of tank-killing missiles. As Tacoma watches, two of the launchers send their warheads streaking toward a single enemy tank, slamming through its armor and sending it up in a ball of fire and smoke. A cannon shell lands short of a second, gouging a crater in the pavement but doing little other harm. A second finds its mark, and a Bradley fragments, spewing glass and bolts, flesh and blood, for a radius of half a hundred meters in all directions. Red spatters cover the tread and turret of one of their own tanks near it; a human crew in that one. An enemy tank flounders as it attempts to turn its guns on the closing force behind it, the turret still mobile but its cannon wedged against the bulk of its neighbor. Its gears snarl like a rabid thing, snared and careless with its pain.
A missile takes one of the Ellsworth Bradleys in the side, tearing open its plating and spinning off the road to tumble down the embankment and come to rest with a final clatter thirty yards away. A second sweeps up from behind to take its place in the wedge, blocking off an APC that suddenly breaks from its hulking companions to attempt to dart through the narrow gaps in Tacoma’s line. The Bradley rams it headon, turning it end for end and slamming it into the path of an enemy M-1 as it attempts to extricate itself from its deadly embrace with one of its own allies. A shell from the center tank in the wedge settles its difficulty, blowing the fuel tanks of both and sending their ammo up in a series of short, sharp explosions that leave the highway pocked with craters and scars on the flanks of friend and enemy alike.
Tacoma, watching, takes a quick count. The enemy are outnumbered and blocked off. It comes to him that the battle is decided; has in truth been decided ever since the enemy took the bait and followed the forward unit onto the highway. It remains only to end it as quickly as may be. Keying his com to universal frequency, Tacoma shouts into the microphone, " Ellsworth, hold your fire! Droid forces, surrender! You are surrounded, with no hope of escape! Humans among you will have the protections of prisoners of war! Androids will be reprogrammed! Surrender now and spare yourselves!"
And, though he does not say so, spare the tanks and fighting vehicles that they may well need another day. No one will be manufacturing any more anytime soon.
There is no response. More quietly Tacoma adds, "You have sixty seconds." He glances down at his watch, and the luminous sweep of the second hand. "Mark. Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. Fifty-seven. . . .."
On thirty, Tacoma raises his hand to signal resumption of the attack. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jackson’s taut face, watching not him but looking beyond for signs of compliance or attack. On twenty-five, Jackson guns the engine, ready to move again. Tacoma’s breath comes short and hard. Please, Ina, let this work. And on twenty, a tank hatch cracks open and two humans climb out, waving a white T-shirt.
A wide grin splits Jackson’s face. "Well dayyyum. And I thought your sister was the magic one."
Tacoma’s pounding heart and lungs slow toward normal. He grins back. "No magic to it. Appeal to enlightened self-interest’ll do it every time." He climbs out of the Jeep and signals the Bradley crews to dismount. "Let’s round ‘em up."
Twenty minutes later, the human prisoners have been separated from the droids, hogtied and deposited by the side of the road for later pickup. The androids, no more than half a dozen, pose a different problem. They stand together, guarded by two troopers armed with grenades. Tacoma glances around the field, where his men and women are busy untangling the traffic snarl and lining up the enemy armor for a run back to the barricades. They cannot spare anyone to stand guard over the droids, cannot leave them unsupervised, either.
"Waste ‘em, Major. You don’t need to keep a promise to no damned metalhead."
Tacoma turns to confront the speaker, a tanker of twenty years and four wars’ experience. "If I do that, then the humans have no way of trusting my word, either. You know the code."
"That was then, Major." There is only weariness in the man’s leathery face; no cruelty, no vengeance. "Now is different."
Tacoma nods, agreeing. He has fought in Kashmir and in the horn of Africa, in Macedonia and Korea. This war is different beyond imagination. A warrior’s honor is still worth preserving. He claps the man on the shoulder. "Thanks, Reilly. All the same, get one of those Bradleys off the road. We’ll pull the wires out of the engine and lock ‘em in it till we get back."
Shaking his head, Reilly moves to obey, and Tacoma turns his attention back to reforming his line. Beside him, Jackson says, "That was a tough one."
"That was a necessary one."
"That’s not in the UCMJ, y’know."
Tacoma gives him a half smile. "Different code. Lakota."
The wedge forms up again, this time pointing east and augmented by the captured armor. By the side of the road, Reilly has a fighting vehicle pulled to the side, its engine on the ground beside it. Not one to do things by halves, Reilly. Tacoma, satisfied with his formation, makes one last circuit to check for external damage. Jackson shadows him, one hand on his sidearm, his eyes on the knot of androids preparing to load into the Bradley. Tacoma gives him a grin. "Relax, Darius. Nothing’s going to hap—"
He never finishes the sentence. With a yell, Jackson springs, flattening him to the tarmac, rolling over and over away from the spot where a spray of M-16 rounds clangs against the side of an APC and the air shudders with the explosion of half a dozen grenades. When the roaring stops, he is lying on his face in the loose dust of the road shoulder, with Jackson on top of him. He lifts his head slightly, gasping for air. "What—What the fuck—was that?"
"Reilly," Darius says shortly. He pushes up to his feet, leaning down to help Tacoma up. "You okay?"
Tacoma takes a quick mental inventory. No blood, nothing broken. "Yeah. Just winded." He grins at Jackson. "Thanks, man."
"Yeah, well." Oddly, Darius does not meet his eyes, finding a sudden interest in the scorched hole in the embankment where Reilly had stood. Reilly himself lies yards off, his rifle gone, his helmet and the back of his head crushed. A pry bar lies among the remains of the droids. "That’s gratitude for you. At least we won’t have to deal with the metalheads now."
"’M fine." Jackson tilts his helmet back, and for a moment his eyes meet Tacoma’s. Fear is there, and relief, and the hint of something else, gone as soon as it appears.
There is no time. But a small warmth has settled in somewhere around Tacoma’s breastbone, something that will bear more attention on the other side of battle. For now he turns back toward the Jeep and says only, "Let’s move ‘em out then. We got work to do."
"Goddammit, Manny, put me down!"
Kirsten’s head, sore but clear, bangs against Manny’s ammunition belt. From her inverted perspective, she can see only the rubble-strewn pavement and the backs of his heels as he jogs away from the breached wall, herself slung over his shoulder like an untidy bedroll.
"In a minute!" he yells, tightening his grip across the back of her knees. "Hang on!"
Swearing, she digs her fingers into the loops of webbing that holds his gear around his waist. A roar like the rush of a great river pounds in her ears. Some of it, she knows, is her own blood; some of it the report and recoil of the big guns at the rear of their line. And some of it is fire. The red sheen on the asphalt, on the heels of Manny’s flashing boots, is not all blood. A wave of heat washes over her from somewhere on her right. Something is burning. Something large.
"Manny--!" She tries again, "Lieutenant Rivers, I order you to put me---"
"—Down. I know. Hold on!"
She thumps against his back as he takes an obstacle at a running leap, then another. I’m going to bust him back to private. I’m going to put him on permanent latrine duty. I’m going to make him peel potatoes right into the next ice age—
From her upended position, she sees a pair of soldiers crouched behind the wreckage of a Humvee, feeding grenades into an array of squat, tubular launchers that slam back against the pavement as the belch out their rounds. Others scramble to assemble an M-60, weighting down the legs of its tripod with the detached wheel of a truck, its tire stripped off. Someone has set up an impromptu med station in the lee of another wreck, Shannon from the vet clinic using the injured troops’ own T-shirts and sleeves to bind off wounds. With a start, Kirsten recognizes the half-burned truck as the command post. She had known they were in trouble, but not just how much. It’s bad, then. It’s really bad. Gods, I wish Dakota—
Were a million miles away and safe. Fat chance.
She grits her teeth and involuntarily tightens her grip on Manny’s belt as another howitzer shell screams overhead. This one lands somewhere beyond the second barrier. To cut off our retreat. Then they’ll get around to finishing us.
Abruptly, Manny comes to a halt and bends at the waist, decanting her gently into a hastily thrown-up bunker of torn metal and sandbags. Maggie looks up from the battered laptop where she is apparently keeping track of her units, holding one half of a pair of headphones tightly to her ear and tapping on the keyboard with the other. When she sees Kirsten, the tightness in her face relaxes visibly. "Are you hurt?"
"Just banged about a bit. Give me—"
She does not even complete the sentence before Maggie shoves the computer into her hands. "Rivers, stay with her. Nice one with the suicide droids," she says, and is up and gone.
The battle has become a siege. It was always intended that it should; Maggie and her forces are the anvil, Koda and her troop, swinging around to flank the enemy from the south, are the hammer. All she has to do, she reminds herself as she pushes the computer into Kirsten’s far more knowledgeable hands and sets herself to make the round of her nest of machine-gunners and snipers, is hold firm. She has enough heavy munitions to stave off the swarming mass of killing machines for half an hour more, perhaps an hour. If the enemy manages to cut Dakota off, if they delay her advance up the embankment and onto the road, she still has a pair of options left. Both are suicide.
Crouching, she watches as the droid line shifts slightly. One of their number, a humanoid model, leans out from between the heavily armored models, aiming a shoulder-held rocket launcher. Before it can bring the tube to bear, a LAAWS fired from one of the upended Humvees behind her finds its mark, leaving a break in the line where the droid had stood. Two of the heavy models go down with it, one smashed to metal flinders, the other decapitated, its sensor array blown straight off its mountings. In some weird cyborg version of spinal reflex, it raises both its arms and sprays 60-caliber rounds across the space separating the two lines, kicking up asphalt pellets from the roadway, clanging off the armor of trucks and personnel carriers. The others join in the barrage, the sound trapped between the two metal barricades that hem them in. From somewhere to her right, Maggie hears a man scream; closer to, she can see another slump against the sandbags of his post, blood and flesh from the melon-sized exit wound in his back spattering the troops next to him.
From behind the wall, she can hear the higher-pitched rattle of M-16’s, the occasional heavier thump of a grenade. Koda must have made her way up to the rim of the embankment, then. That will not take pressure off Maggie’ forces, though. Not yet. Not till Dakota has fought her way past the android contingent set to block her, not till she has gotten p ast the first barricade, over it or around it. Hammer and anvil, with the titanium and steel of the enemy between.
A trooper sprints across the open space between Maggie’s position and Kirsten’s makeshift com center. He dives and rolls under the hail of gunfire, landing half on his face beside her. Levering himself up beside her, he manages a credible salute. "General—Dr. King’s compliments. She says to tell you Major Rivers has neutralized the enemy armor and is on his way back. Instructions?"
"Yeah," she says, a laugh that his half relief, half amusement at the young man’s formality. "Tell him get his ass back here as fast as those tanks’ll go. We need him yesterday."
Koda pulls herself up the slope, using her rifle butt to steady her, hugging the ragged outcrop to keep within the angle of fire raining down on her troops from above. The fog still shrouds them, but only faintly. The freshening wind tears it, whipping it by in tatters. From time to time she catches the glint of metal from above, weapon or droid, she cannot tell. Her men, strung out on the face of the embankment, appear as clotted shadow in the mist, here and there a glimpse of mottled green camouflage or the clear shape of a weapon. And always there is the rattle of automatic fire above her, unremitting. The enemy has only to hold them in the gorge until full light, and they will die.
She cannot allow that to happen. They have to get up and over. Now.
Fumbling at her belt, Dakota slips one of her two remaining grenades from its loop. She pulls the pin with her teeth, then counts the seconds as the fuse burns down. With a high, wordless scream, she sends it arcing up over her head to land among the enemy on the road above. Its concussion beats at her like great wings flailing the air, but she strains against it, hauling herself to within striking distance of the top as the droids shift and reform. All up and down the length of her skirmish line, other grenades go sailing into the enemy ranks. Through increasing gaps in the fog, she catches sight of her troops. One man, only yards away, sprawls face-down on the earth, his left side soaked in blood, his arm gone. She cannot stop to tend him. She screams again, part anger at her helplessness in the face of his helplessness, part red blind lust for the destruction of those who have killed him. Her second, and last, grenade flies true, gouging out a hole that sends asphalt particles stinging into her face as she crests the top of the ridge. The last of her squad’s grenades explode somewhere down the line. They swarm up over the top, screaming, shooting point-blank into the sensor arrays of the few enemies left standing. All about her lie the broken remains of droids, wire and shattered circuit cards, metal fragments and titanium bolts bright in the sudden sun that breaks upon them as the last of the fog whips away. And there are the wrecks of the droids’ human allies, blood and bone and muscle spattered over half the width of the highway. The air smells of iron.
Down the line from her, her troops set about mopping up anything still functional. At her own feet, a prone droid’s arms make futile paddling motions at its sides, and she places the muzzle of her M-16 carefully against the back plate that covers the power supply. The gun jerks against her elbow. Two rounds, and the thing lies still.
To her left, the bulk of the first barricade wall appears, half of its middle section tumbled to the pavement where the howitzer shell has torn through. From behind it comes the din of battle—the rattle of M-60’s and automatic rifles, the dull whump of grenade launchers. A quick survey of the field shows her no more enemy troops as far as she can see to the east. They are all behind the wall, then. And most of them will be the military models, mindless killing machines, impervious to small arms.
"Where now, Ma’am?"
Their task is to squeeze the enemy between their line and Maggie’s. The men and women trotting toward her down the curve of the road are fewer by a third than those she set out with across the gorge. If she sends them around and through the wall, crashing into the droid’s line from behind, the enemy will simply turn and cut them to pieces. "Sergeant," she says slowly, "How many big guns do you think they have back there?"
"Ma’am?" He blinks into the sun that strikes glare from the broken metal all around them, sweat running down his blackened face into his eyes. "There’s a couple howitzers back there, maybe a couple big mortars, too."
"Good," she says. "Let’s go."
She begins trotting east, toward the back of the enemy line, stepping nimbly as a dancer among the scattered debris. Her troops form a wedge around her, their faces puzzled, as they jog away from the fight. None of them asks what she is about, and for a fleeting moment their obedience frightens her. Behind them the noise of the fight lessens, buffered now by the remains of the barricade and the trees that line the north of the road here. The sergeant, keeping pace with her, pants, "Ma’am. Ma’am. The range is off. We can’t fire those mothers now—we’d hit our own people."
Koda flashes him a grin. "We’re not gonna fire ‘em, Sarge."
"Wha— Oh. Gotcha."
The droids have left no rearguard. Their vehicles, clustered a mile and a half back from the battle line, sit neatly parked across the road, Humvees and troop trucks lined up as carefully as if they were about to stand motor pool inspection. There are no hospital trucks, no rations supply. What the hell did they expect their human troops to run on? But Dakota has no time for the thought. "All right," she says, coming to a halt before one of the APC’s. Her squad form a knot around her, some of them heaving with the effort of the run, others bright-faced and eager. "Anybody here have experience with heavy machinery—cranes, tractors, anything like that?"
A half dozen hands go up: the Sergeant, a couple reservists, armored cavalry that Tacoma had no place for. "Good. You come with me. The rest pile into a couple of these carriers, get the ammo threaded, and get ‘em started. We’ll be back."
With that, she sets off at a run toward the hulking shapes she can just make out in the distance, where the fog lingers along the course of a small stream. Two howitzers loom out of the mist, their barrels, huge-seeming as ancient sequoias, canted upward to shorten their range. The squatter shapes of self-propelled mortars hulk beside them. Koda slows, dropping her M-16 from her shoulder into her hands; there may be no guards, but the droids may have left gunners behind. With the thought, the sun glints off the barrel of a weapon aimed from behind the nearer howitzer. She pulls and holds the trigger of her rifle, spraying the pavement, the tread, the armored side of the monster. "Split up!" she yells. "Go around!"
They move to obey, two lines swinging wide to flank the big guns. Koda charges straight for the middle, aiming not for the enemy gunner’s position but for the howitzer itself. A flying leap lands her on its tread, and she pulls herself up its curve, using its metal grips like rungs on a ladder. On top, she clambers past the driver’s perch and scrambles over the main gun mount to the rear. The sniper lies sprawled at the rear of the tread, blood seeping from beneath him. Dakota fires a single shot, straight between his shoulder blades, to be sure. From the end of the line, behind one of the mortars, come two more sharp reports, then silence. "Got ‘em, Ma’am!" a trooper sings out, and a moment later the Sergeant appears atop the other howitzer, making for the controls.
"Okay," Koda shouts. "One operator and a back-up on each of the guns! Let’s go!"
She slips into the driver’s seat aboard the howitzer, taking a moment to study the dashboard. Ignition is no problem; she turns the key and the huge diesel motor under her kicks to life, shaking and shuddering like her grandfather’s ancient John Deere with its front-loader exhaust pipe and its metal bicycle seat. Only bigger. Much bigger. Fit to rattle her teeth loose, she thinks as she straps herself in. Gonna join the Polident crowd way too young, here.
One of the sticks is obviously the gearshift. The smaller one—she shoves it away from her, and the huge barrel over her head begins to descend like a falling tree. "Timber!" somebody shouts, and she gives it an abrupt push in the opposite direction and keeps pushing until it is as near vertical as it will go. Down the line, the other drivers crank their guns up; the barrels will foul each other when they begin to maneuver. "Man, oh, man!" yells the driver of one of the mortars. "If that ain’t the biggest goddam hard-on I ever saw!"
"Dream on!" the Sergeant sings out. "Good to go, Ma’am!"
"All right!" she yells above the din of the engines. "We get back to the line as fast as we can. Then we flatten the bastards!"
Her back-up slides into place behind her, perched between her seat and the tread housing, as she lets out the gearshift and the huge gun lumbers forward. It is not so bad once in motion; maybe just a three-legged mule, not the antique tractor. "You okay back there?" she yells, half-turning her head.
"I’m hangin’, Ma’am!"
"Strap yourself to one of those eye-bolts back there, or you’ll come loose when things get serious. This is not gonna be a joyride!"
It is not. The going is rough for the first several hundred yards as she explores the controls. Slow and awkward, the guns must have been what kept the enemy to its crawling advance, even more than its foot soldiers. Most of those, after all, were droids, who did not need to sleep or eat or fall out to pee. No. They had brought the guns with the idea of laying siege to Ellsworth from a distance, maybe using them to disable the fighter squadrons and bombers before making a direct assault. Damn. Better park the Tomcats out on the runway where they can take off at a minute’s notice. There may be more of these motherfuckers where this one came from. And more droids.
The noise of battle comes to them over the roar of the howitzers’ engines. Most of it is small arms fire, M-16’s and M-60’s. Koda has begun to be able to tell the difference; it is what she does not hear, though, that alarms her. No grenades. No LAAWS.
Nothing left but the little stuff.
She throws the throttle wide open, bracing as the huge gun lurches forward, grinding under its treads the remains of droid and human alike as they round the curve and enter the straight mile of highway remaining between them and the ruined barricade. She can see it clearly, the tumbled wreckage where the wall was breached forming the ramp that let the attackers through. Whether it will hold something as large as the gun, though, is an open question.
One about to be answered. Koda waves the mortars on either end to go around the wall, and they break off to comply. Setting her teeth, she pulls back on the joystick, slowing the howitzer as it finds its traction in the crumpled metal beneath it. The bulldozers have done their work, though, and after a split second in which the gun seems to sink, and Koda’s heart with it, its treads bite into the steel slope and propel it up and over, spilling it out onto an even steeper angle on the other side. Koda stands frantically on the brakes, her breath stopped in her throat, the weight of her back-up thrown sharply against her shoulders, the barrel of the howitzer wobbling visibly above her head.
And then they are on the level pavement, lurching toward the battle, which seems to be concentrated behind the remains of the Ellsworth vehicles. With a stab of fear, she recognizes the command truck, overturned and half-burnt, black smoke still billowing out of it. But I would know, dammit. I know I would know.
Swinging around the wreckage, she can make out the fight now, only half a mile distant, backed up against the second barrier wall. The droids seem to be almost entirely the military models, the humans invisible behind bunkers of sandbags and overturned APC’s and Humvees. "Here we go!" Koda shouts, shoving the gearshift forward into first.
Kirsten shoves her laptop aside—it has long since ceased to be useful in any case—and grabs her rifle. The monsters lumbering onto the battlefield are nightmare come to life: enormous snouts uplifted in wrath, impervious metal hides clanging as rounds glance off them to ricochet and scatter among the droids. For a moment a flash of memory crosses her mind: Micah and his oil-pump dinosaurs on the flat plains of the Texas panhandle, their kin come suddenly to life here in the north where the wide salt sea drew so many of them into its sands.
"Goddam." Manny, beside her, fumbles in his pack for the last of his grenades. "They’ve brought up their field guns."
Recognition snaps into place. These are nothing out of her schoolday dreams. This is the enemy’s final assault on their depleted troops, the last blow that will smash their already broken lines. Grimly she shoves the last magazine into place on the stock of her M-16. What was it Leonidas had said there in the Hot Gates when the Persians demanded his weapons? Oh yeah. Come and get them.
Come and get me, fuckers. I’m not going down easy.
Lying flat, Kirsten sights along the barrel of her gun. Beside her, Manny pulls the pin of a grenade and cocks his arm back. Kirsten squints, her finger tightening—
With a cry that is not quite a shout of triumph, not a scream of fear, either, she lunges to her feet, knocks Manny down, and tosses the grenade clear of the oncoming howitzer, into a mass of milling droids that seem suddenly to have lost their bearings, a tangled mass like a circle dance that has lost the music.
"Look who’s driving, Manny! It’s the goddam cavalry!"
From the corner of her eye, Koda catches a flurry of movement behind one of the upended Humvees, a pale blonde head and a dark one. A wash of relief goes through her, so strong it almost rocks her where she sits. Safe.
A grin, feral as a wolf’s, pulls her lips back from her teeth as she swings the gun around on its footprint and plows it into the nearest pack of droids. Their metal hides crunch and pop as she pulls back on the stick, raising the front of her gun carriage to slam down on them, grinding them under the treads that loop inexorably on and on, carrying her over the wreckage and into the next squad of them, even as they raise their arms and begin to empty their magazines at her, spraying lead over the housing of the engine and the treads, shooting indiscriminately to kill her or disable the howitzer itself.
All along the battle front, the droids turn to face the new attack, tangling in knots around each of the four field guns. One of the mortar drivers slumps in his seat, only to be pulled aside as his second slips into his place and charges into a line of droids near the end of the wall. Koda swerves again to mow down a contingent that has turned, running as best their mechanical legs will take them, for the breach in the first wall, then takes another clutch as they split off from the main body and make for the edge of the road. The grinding of the guns treads brings with it a fierce joy, part battle-lust, part relief, part astonishment at her own competence. But you have done this before, a laughing voice says in her head. We did not meet for the first time, there beyond the trees.
For a fraction of a second, the puma’s face passes before her, eyes golden with the sun that now shines full on the field before her. Then it is gone, replaced with the enemy who fall beneath her, noticeably fewer now, their fire slackening. A little more to do, and all is done.
Behind the barriers, Maggie’s forces have gathered themselves, raining their last grenades and LAAWS rockets into the droids’ rear, driving them toward the crushing treads of the guns. Above the racket of the engines and the slackening gunfire, roaring down on them from beyond the western wall, comes the high whine of tank engines and the rattle of treads on pavement: an armored column bearing down on them. Tacoma returning? Or droids? She has no way of knowing. Driving hard to intercept a line of stragglers making for the ramp, Koda cuts them off just as one of them raises its arm, raking the side of the howitzer with rounds that sing by like hornets. Dakota feels her second slump against her back, wet warmth gushing down her back and legs. Something impacts her right arm just behind the wrist, and her hand on the stick goes limp. Swearing, she shifts slightly to get a grip on it with her left, still feeling nothing as a red stain soaks into sleeve of her shirt and spreads, wetting her pants leg where the arm lies useless
With a crash the returning tanks hump up onto the pavement from their detour around the back wall, Tacoma riding outlier in his Jeep beside them. A great relief washes through Koda, and she lets her gun grind to a halt as she watches the armored behemoths stream by her now, chasing down the few enemy left as they attempt to flee.
It is over.
The pain of her arm slams into her, then, taking her breath away. Maggie emerges from behind her bunker, Kirsten and Manny from theirs, making for her where she still perches above them on the gun carriage. Awkwardly she releases her harness, sliding out from under the dead weight behind her, and begins the climb down. Halfway to the pavement she slips, but Kirsten’s hands are there to receive her, steadying her as she finds her feet. All around them lies the wreckage of the droid army, with much of their own. Victory has come at cost, cost they may not be able to recover.
Kirsten’s voice, sharp with alarm, cuts into her thought, and she musters a smile for her lover. "Hey," she says softly. "It’s only a flesh wound."
A frown knits Maggie’s brows. "Let’s see." She continues to scowl as Koda peels back the sleeve of her shirt, carefully turning the arm to see the wound more clearly. The frown relaxes. "You’re right, nothing broken. Let’s get you to Shannon."
"No," she says, with a wave of her good hand. "I need to help with the wounded—"
"Which you can’t do with a bum wrist. Come on, cuz." Manny takes her by her good elbow, firmly propelling her in the direction of the aid station. "Let Shannon bandage that and get some Novocaine into it."
Kirsten says quietly, "Koda, please. You can’t go bleeding on your patients." Dakota gives her a long, look, taking in the toll of battle printed on the dark flesh under Kirsten’s eyes, in the haunted gaze that turns on her with both relief and hunger.
It is easier not to resist. Taking off her helmet, she lets her hair spill down her back, the two hawk feathers brushing the side of her face. From above her comes a scream, fierce and high, and she looks up to see broad wings spread against the blue, copper-colored tail catching the light. "Look," she says. "Wiyo."
"She agrees with me," Kirsten says steadily.
With her good hand, Koda runs a finger down Kirsten’s cheek, tracing the spider shape painted there. "Iktomi Zizi. Cante sukye."
At that, Maggie lays a firm hand on Manny’s arm and steers him down the line to check on the troops, the injured and the dead. Around her, the men and women of Ellsworth are beginning to deal with the aftermath of battle, gathering up the wounded and dead. Gently, Kirsten laces her fingers through Koda’s. "Let’s go home," she says. "This is over."
"Over," Koda echoes. A chill runs down her spine. "For now."
Without further protest, she allows Kirsten to lead her to the medical station, and from there to an APC with other wounded. She will tend them when they reach the Base.
For now, she braces herself against the cold metal side of the truck, and holds tightly as she can to Kirsten beside her.
Now and forever.
And with that, THIS battle is over. Will there be another? What happens from here? Well, you’ll just have to tune in next week to find out, won’t you? <G> firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 50
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