The Growing by Sword’n’Quill and T. Novan

the growing

The Growing
Written by: Susanne Beck and T Novan
Directed by: Okasha

CHAPTER ONE
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
1
The tavern is dimly lit, cozy, and smells faintly of wood smoke and evergreen. Still six weeks from Christmas, it is, nonetheless, festooned with sprigs of pine and gaily blinking lights that chase themselves around the walls and rafters in a never ending race.

In deference to the blowing storm outside, the tavern is almost empty. Two couples move slowly across the small dance floor as Randy Travis croons from the juke about old men talking about the weather.

At the far back, where the long, battle scarred bar meets the rear wall, the bartender, a bearish man with a winter-thick beard, sits and thumbs though an old issue of “Detective Thrillers”, his large thumb unknowingly caressing the nearly bare breast of the vixen on the dog-eared cover.

Almost directly across from him, a toothless old codger, well into his cups, lifts his head and stares blearily at the ‘keep through yellowed, rheumy eyes. “Turn on the tube, Harry,” he slurs, toothless mouth working, “I wanna see the game.”

The bartender rolls his eyes and lowers his magazine just enough to pin the old man with a glare. “It’s Wednesday, ya old coot. You know there ain’t no game on.”

“Turn it on anyway. Damn juke’s makin my ears bleed.”

Sighing, Harry tosses his magazine on the bar and stands up, wiping his hands on his too-tight jeans. Reaching up, he twists the knob on the ancient television set sitting on a shelf above the hanging wine glasses that are never used.

The set comes to life gradually, grudgingly, showing fat snowflakes of static with vague, doubled images parading around behind them, incomprehensible to the naked eye. Biting off an oath, Harry twists the channel knob, getting nothing but static all the way across the dial.

“Stupid…tub a’….bolts…” Raising a ham-sized fist, the bartender smacks the side of the set. The picture wavers, then reduces itself to a tiny dot before winking out completely. “Damn it, Clut! Ya made me bust my damn TV.”

“Didn’t make ya do nothin’, Harry. Now get me another drink. I ain’t gittin’ any younger here, ya know.”

“Quit flappin ya gums, old timer. I’ll get to ya.”

Harry turns and looks down to the other end of the bar, where a lone figure sits, clasping a nearly empty bottle of beer in one large hand.

“How bout you, Koda? Want another?”

The figure lifts its head, revealing the face of a stunning woman whose long, dark hair brushes past the shoulders of her oilskin duster. Her smile dazzles the barkeep as she shakes her head slowly. “No thanks, Harry. This one’s fine.”

The ‘keep grunts and turns away, more to slow his racing heart than anything else. He’s never sure why he asks the same question week after week, since he already knows he’ll get the same answer. Dakota Rivers is as sure as clockwork, coming in every Wednesday evening, rain or shine, staying long enough to drink one beer, leaving a large tip, and driving home.

A solitary and quiet woman, she never offers much in the way of conversation, but on the rare nights when alcohol and testosterone mix poorly, she’s always there with a strong hand and a no nonsense glare that stops most fights unborn.

Maybe he asks for that reason, or maybe it’s just so he can see one of her infrequent smiles. Smiles that always make his guts flutter like a butterfly was trapped in his belly, struggling to get out.

Fetching a deep sigh, he reaches under the bar and draws forth a full bottle of Wild Turkey, Old Clut’s drink of choice. As he breaks the seal, the television turns back on again with a loud burst of static, scaring a few more gray hairs into him.

“What the hell?”

The snow obscures the screen for a moment, then clears suddenly, to reveal the face of a teenaged boy.

“That’s Cal Martin’s kid, ain’t it?” Harry asks no one in particular. “What the hell is he doin on TV?”

The boy’s face is battered and bloody, and the few untouched areas are white as chalk. His eyes are wide saucers revealing a soul very close to madness.

“Run!!” he shouts into the camera, body trembling as if he’s holding a live wire. “Get outta here!! They’re killing everybody! They’re….oh God…RUN!!!”

He looks off camera then, and his eyes widen even more. His lips curve and stiffen in a rictus of horror, and a scream, high and breathless, comes up from his very being. He turns and manages a few stumbling steps before an arm darts into the camera’s range and yanks him back by his long, greasy hair.

The scream goes on and on until it is abruptly ended when another arm joins the first and easily snaps his neck. The sound is loud, like a rifle shot, and seems to echo in the suddenly silent air of the bar.

“Jes-us Christ,” Harry breathes as the boy’s lifeless body is indifferently dropped to the ground.

The arms retreat, then reappear, this time attached to the body of a tall, broad-shouldered male. The male turns, faces the camera, and smiles. The picture fades to snow again, blotting out everything but the thin band of silver resting just above the adam’s apple of the smiling killer.

The silence is again broken, this time by the sound of exploding glass as the whiskey bottle Harry has been holding drops from his nerveless fingers to shatter on the floor. The liquid hisses and foams, then goes silent.

Dakota recovers first and strides down the bar until she is opposite the stunned bartender. “Harry?”

When he doesn’t answer, she tries again. “Harry?”

He finally turns, and when he does, his expression is eerily reminiscent of the now dead boy’s. “Was that…?”

“Yeah.”

“But how…?”

Dakota shakes her head. “I don’t know. But I’m gonna try to find out.”

“What are you gonna do?”

Dakota takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly. “First, I’m going to check up on my family.”

Harry’s eyes widen. “Your family? They don’t…?”

“No, but some of their neighbors do, and if what this kid was saying is true….”

“Dear God.”

Dakota’s hand reaches out and manages to clamp onto Harry’s elbow, preventing him from collapsing onto the floor. “Harry, listen to me. We’re not sure what’s going on yet, and yeah, it looks pretty damn bad, but you can’t panic, alright? You need to keep your head on straight. Going nuts or passing out isn’t gonna help anyone, least of all yourself.”

Looking into his shining eyes, Dakota isn’t too sure what, if anything, is getting through, but she feels a little better once she senses the body under her hand firm up slightly. She lets go, cautiously, ready to grab him if it seems like he’s going to fall out again.

“Are you alright?”

Harry snorts. “No. But I guess I’m gonna have to be, huh?” He looks at her with such an expression of naked pleading that her guts twist, deep inside. “What am I gonna do, Koda? What are any of us gonna do…if what he said is true….”

Dakota looks over her shoulder. The tavern is now empty, except for Clut, who is passed out cold on the floor–drunk or in shock, she doesn’t know, and doesn’t really care. “You got a cot back there, right?”

“Yeah, but what…?”

“Look, this is the safest place you can be right now. There’s no windows, and the doors are solid. Just lock up tight, stay in the back, and don’t let anyone in who you don’t know personally, alright? As soon as I make sure my family is safe, I’ll try and make it back here with whatever information I have.” She sighs. “I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can offer right now.”

Harry nods slowly. “Okay, Koda. I can do that.”

Dakota gives him a slight smile. “Good. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Make sure you lock up the minute I leave, and remember, don’t open the door up for anyone, no matter what they say, unless you know them well, alright?”

“Yeah, alright.”

“Take it easy, Harry. I’ll be back soon.”

Walking out into the storm, Dakota waits until she hears the door lock securely, then heads out to her truck.

It is the last time she would see Harry alive.

2

Scrambling around her townhouse, Kirsten quickly throws as many things as she can into a duffle bag. Her computer and other equipment is already packed in her SUV, and all she has to do now is grab some clothes, which are spread all over her home.

She listens to the screaming of sirens that make it sound as if the city was coming down around her. She knows she has to get out and get out fast. As she grabs a heavy coat off the rack by the door, she chastises herself for not having anything ready sooner. She has had a bad feeling for months, and now she knows she had been right all along.

Carefully opening the door, she takes a peek outside to make sure there isn’t anyone in the area. Satisfied it’s safe, she steps outside runs hell-bent-for leather to her truck. Just as she slips the key into the lock, there is the sound of rapid gunfire.

“Oh shit!” The adrenaline courses through her body as she manages to key the truck unlocked and scramble inside. “I gotta get out of here.”

She sits very still, half ducked under the dashboard, and watches as two police cars go by with lights and sirens blazing full tilt. Taking a deep breath, Kristen starts the truck and pulls out of her designated parking space, knowing that she’ll never see the place she calls home again.

She knows the image will forever be burned into her mind as the day her world ended.

Driving slowly down the street, she tries to look as normal as possible, as if anything could be called normal anymore. The last thing she wants to do is call attention to herself. Getting well away from the city is the only hope that she has and she knows it.

Turning left onto a lesser-used street that is—or used to be– mostly small businesses, she hopes that it will keep her out of residential areas and possibly out of their sensors.

She can hear more sirens and something that sounds like muffled pops. Her foot presses down slightly on the accelerator as the realization hits her that it’s probably gunfire.

There is a growl from the backseat and a large German Shepard raises his massive head, resting it on the back of Kirsten’s seat.

“Easy Asimov. It’s okay boy. We’re getting the hell out of Dodge.”

The dog climbs over the back seat and takes his regular place in the front seat across from his favorite human. Kirsten reaches over and gives him a scratch on the head. This simple action makes her feel better than she has in weeks.

Months, if you have to be truthful about it, Kirsten. You knew this was going to happen. You’ve known it for a long time. Maybe since the beginning.

“We’re gonna be okay boy. I promise.”

Whether that promise is for him or for her, she doesn’t know, but the sound of her own voice calms her.

She looks around carefully, noticing that the streets are now deserted. A once thriving, lively community reduced to a ghost town in a matter of hours.

Jesus, save this sinner, now and at the hour of her death. Amen.

She’s not a particularly religious person, agreeing for the most part with the “opiate of the masses” appellation, but grade school catechism makes its presence known at the oddest of moments, and she can’t spare the time to question it right now.

Asimov heaves out a sigh and lays down in the seat, seemingly undisturbed by Kirsten’s nervousness.

As she makes another turn, speeding up to get past a large apartment complex, Asimov raises his head and begins growling in earnest. She’s watching him as he faces the window and barks like mad.

Suddenly the truck impacts with something and Kirsten’s head jerks up as a man, bloody and beaten, rolls onto the hood. He is still alive, panicked, and obviously running for his life.

“Help me!” he screams as he pounds on the windshield with his hand. “For God’s sake, please help me!”

Kirsten slams the brake, causing the man to slide though he manages to hang on by grabbing the windshield wiper. Asimov’s barking grows more intense, and she knows what she has to do. Looking the man directly in the eye she says, “I’m sorry.”

Throwing the truck into reverse, she backs up quickly. The force of the acceleration throws the man from the hood and to the ground. Hitting the gas, she speeds past him. Looking in the rearview mirror she can she three of them moving in on him, one of them pointing a rifle at his head. The blast seems to follow her, her guilt displayed for all in Dolby sound, and she speeds up, headed for the freeway that will take her away from this madness.

3

Dakota’s truck, a decade old campaigner who has been with her since she learned to drive, growls low and moves with confident speed over the packed and blowing snow covering the roads. The sound of the chains rattling as they cut through the icepack can be heard even over the fierce blowing wind.

In this part of South Dakota, where distances between neighbors are oft-times measured in miles instead of yards, or feet, she knows that at the very least, under optimal conditions, it will take her a half hour to reach her parents’ house. With the blizzard, the more likely estimate is forty five minutes, minimum.

She glares at the racked mike of her dashboard CB, listening as static, very much like what was on the television, hisses at her. It is the only response to the constant calls she’s been putting out. Her parents have a big base unit in their home and her youngest brother, Washington, is an absolute radio fiend and is never more than three steps away from it.

“You bastards better not have hurt my family, or I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands.”

It’s pretty impotent, as threats go, but a part of her feels better for having said it. Without bothering to signal, she makes the looping left turn that leads her to her parents’ street, hoping against hope that time is still on her side.

4

After driving for two hours, Kirsten finally feels like she can slow down and take a moment to breathe. Her route has taken her off the freeway and onto two lane state highways, less frequently used and completely desolate in some places. Pulling onto a wide spot in the road, she puts the truck in park and takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

Asimov sits up and looks at her, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth and his ears completely perked up.

“Bet you need a break doncha?” She nods and pats him. “Okay, but make it quick.”

Getting out of the truck and walking around the front, she can see spots of blood on the grillwork. Feeling slightly sick to her stomach, she reaches over and grasps the handle of the passenger door to let the dog out.

Asimov quickly begins scouting for just the right place to take care of business. Kirsten leans against the truck and takes another deep draught of air. Looking up into the night sky, the normal, familiar twinkling of the stars gives her a false sense of security.

“God,” she sighs, looking away to find Asimov sitting in front of her, waiting patiently. “Well pal, it’s just us, and it’s going to be that way for a while I think. We have to lay low while I try and figure out how the hell to stop this damned awful mess.”

Suddenly, all of the adrenalin that had been coursing through her body during her frantic escape from the city is gone, seeping away from her like water through a sieve. A brutal, clawing exhaustion sets in, and she yawns, jaw cracking with the force of it.

Asimov looks at her and whines.

“Tonight, buddy, we sleep in the truck. Tomorrow, we head to the facility and try to get some answers. Sound good to you?”

A soft bark and a happy tail wag is her answer, and she gives him a fond scratch behind the ears for it.

Both crawl into the back of the SUV. Kirsten rests her head on the pillow she’s had since grade school, and Asimov snuggles his warm length all along hers, pressing closely and making contented doggy sounds as his eyes slip slowly closed.

Before she feels completely safe, Kirsten reaches in a duffle bag and removes her gun. She knows it probably wouldn’t stop them but she knows if her aim is good it will slow them down quite a bit.

“Sleep. I need sleep. It’ll all be better in the morning.”

5

Dakota leaves the motor running and the lights blazing as she jumps down from her truck and starts toward the front door.

The lights being on likely saves her life as she is able to see the rifle barrel poke out of one of the front windows seconds before it goes off, bullet piercing the air where she’d been not a split second before.

“Who’s there?” comes the quavering sound of a young man’s voice, caught in a quandary of puberty and terror.

“Damn it, Phoenix, is that you, goober?”

“Koda??”

“Yeah, it’s me. Now do you wanna put that gun away before you blow my head off?”

“Sorry.”

Dakota takes no more than two steps toward the porch when the door flies open and her mother, a short, stocky woman rushes out into the snow, her arms flung open. “Dakota! My daughter, you’re home! I was so worried.”

The younger woman takes her mother into her arms and returns the crushing hug, chilled fingers tenderly stroking the thick, silver threaded black hair that is tied back in a fat braid. “I’m home, Mother. It’s okay, I’m home.”

After a moment, she pulls away, large hands descending on her mother’s broad shoulders. “Let’s get inside. It’s freezing out here.”

“But your truck….”

“Leave it that way for now. We need to talk.”

Stepping inside the huge ranchhouse, she is immediately comforted by the sounds and scents of home, a place she has done no more than visit in the past five years. Her brothers and sisters, seven in this bunch, surround her in a tight press, hugging and touching and talking all at once. Dakota finally wriggles her hands free and holds them up in a gesture of calm.

“One at a time. One at a time.”

They look at her with shining, hopeful faces. Though only the third born, she has always been their rock, and their love for her is boundless. In turn, she is fiercely, utterly, devoted to them, like a mother bear protecting her newborn cubs.

Looking around the room, she notices that two family members are conspicuously absent. “Where’s Father? And Tacoma?”

“They’re both down at the Gregory’s ranch. Kimberly called screaming for help. I couldn’t understand her, and she hung up before I was able to know what was wrong. Your father and brother went out there.”

Dakota stiffens. “How long ago?”

Her mother looks at the clock. “No more than ten or fifteen minutes. With the storm, they probably just got there.” Reaching out, she clamps her daughter’s arm in a very strong grip. “Dakota, what’s going on.”

It’s not a question, and everyone realizes it.

“I wish I could tell you, Mother, but I just don’t know. Something’s happening, something big, I think, but I need more information to go on.”

“I won’t accept that, Dakota,” her mother replies, deep black eyes flashing with a light she knows only too well.

Dakota smiles, just slightly, and lays a gentle hand over her mother’s. “You’ll have to, Mother, if for just a little while longer. I need to get to Father and Tacoma.”

“Are they in danger?”

Dakota considers lying, but in the end, just can’t bring herself to do it. “I don’t know,” she says softly.

Her mother releases her arm immediately, drawing back just a step. “I’ll let it go then. For now. Do what you need to, and bring them both back safely.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Smiling, her mother pulls her head down for a kiss, then releases her. “I know you will.”

Turning to leave, Dakota is surprised when a small missile—in the shape of her youngest brother—launches itself into her arms. “I wanna go with you, Koda! Can I, please?”

She hugs the ten-year-old close against her, taking in his young boy scent. “You can’t, Wash. Not this time.”

“But I wanna! Please??” He draws the last word out and looks at her with big, pleading dark eyes. “Please?”

“Washington.”

The young boy stiffens in his sister’s arms at the sound of his mother’s voice.

“Wash, I need you here to man the CB. You’re the only one who knows how to work the da—ah–darn thing, right?”

Washington reluctantly nods.

“And if I need help with Father and Tacoma, who do you think I’m gonna call.”

“Me?”

“Of course you. You’re the only one I can count on with this, and you know it.”

The boy smiles, his narrow chest puffing out with pride. “I won’t let you down, Koda.”

Grinning, Dakota releases her brother and swats him on the behind, which earns a yelp and a scowl. “See you guys later.”

With a wave and a grin, Dakota is gone.

6

The morning sun shines through the small window into the back of the SUV and directly into Kirsten’s slowly awakening eyes. Yawing, she rolls over to feel a kink in her neck. “Well it’s not my waterbed, that’s for sure.” Lifting her head, she looks to her furry companion. “You okay Asi?”

Wicked fangs gleam in the morning light as Asimov answers her with a healthy yawn.

Rolling to a sitting position, she grabs the atlas from beneath a large pile of her belongings and opens it up to the correct page. “Okay boy,” she comments to a totally disinterested Asimov, “this is where we are now…” She quickly flips the pages, then stops again. “And this is where we need to be. About sixteen hundred miles, give or take a few. Damn. This is gonna be harder than I thought, boy.”

Blowing out a breath, she runs a hand through sleep-tangled hair. “Well, Mom always told me to try looking on the bright side, right? Maybe things will get better as we move west.”

She knows she’s kidding herself. They are everywhere, and no one is safe. Not even her parents, who she knows, deep in her heart, are dead. They had three of those monsters in their house and could never understand Kirsten’s request that they get rid of them. She couldn’t make them understand what she knew. There was no way to make anybody believe it.

She remembers her mother tending her rose garden and her father trimming the hedges, and what she considers an almost idealistic way to grow up. She had been and only child with intelligent, educated, and reasonably well-to-do parents who had encouraged her, giving her all the support she needed to follow her own path, whatever that might be.

She realizes that eventually she will have to go to Georgia to find out if they’re alive, but the incessant ringing of her parents’ phone has given her all the answers that she really needs.

Tossing the atlas into the front she crawls into the driver’s seat and looks over at Asimov. “You don’t want to drive do you?”

The dog squirms in his seat and lays his head down to get some sleep.

“Didn’t think so.”

Starting the truck, she pulls back out onto the road and turns left toward her destination.

7

She knows the roads between the two ranches well, and before too much time has passed, Dakota has parked her truck behind a high bank of snow, lights off, engine shut down to silence. She can see her father’s large, burly body propped against another snowbank overlooking the valley where the ranch house sits sprawled like a dog sunning itself.

She hoots low, twice, using a call learned from the same man propped against the snowbank. A hand is raised, slightly, and she moves forward, taking care to keep her head below the level of the bank. Within seconds, she’s laid out carefully beside her father, whose sheer size dwarfs her own not inconsiderable height, being a couple inches over six feet without her boots on.

Her oldest brother, Tacoma, lays on her other side. He shares his father’s height, but not his girth, instead sporting a swimmer’s build that is all the rage in the few scattered nightclubs around town. Women literally fall over themselves trying to get his attention. Unfortunately for them, he’s as gay as old dad’s hatband.

Still, he doesn’t mind the attention. It’s a source of great teasing in the Rivers’ household.

“Hey,” Dakota whispers to them both. They reply with silent nods. Both are armed. Her father carries a Winchester Black Shadow rifle, and her brother, a Black Shadow pump action shotgun.

Feeling the cold bite into her even through several layers of clothing, she eases her head up just slightly so that her eyes peer over the top of the bank. What she sees causes her jaw to tighten, muscles bunching and jumping.

Ian MacGregor, a big, bluff and kindly Scotsman, lies dead, half on-half off of his large wrap porch, his wide eyes staring blankly into whatever eternity exists for him. His two adult sons, both strapping like their father, lie one to a side of Ian, a gruesome trinity.

Dakota has known them all since she was in the cradle, and the sight of their lifeless bodies twists something deep inside her guts. Her face, likewise, twists, into a grimace she’s not aware of displaying.

The door to the house is splintered to kindling, and if she listens hard enough, she can hear the faint sounds of screaming above the howling of the wind.

“How many?” she asks her father.

“I don’t know,” he replies, shifting his heavy bulk on the packed snow and ice. “Was like this when we came.”

A shadow passes over the threshold, and a moment later, a tall, broad shouldered male strides out into the cold, holding two screaming young girls by their long, dark hair. They’re trying their best to break free, but it’s as if the man doesn’t even notice he’s holding them. The kicks, gouges and punches have absolutely no effect whatsoever.

He turns and faces the house, as if waiting for something within.

Dakota lets out a breath that sounds like a growl and reaches out a hand. Her father hands over his gun willingly. Then she turns to her brother. “Can you still shoot the balls off a gnat at a hundred yards?”

“Yeah,” Tacoma replies with no pride in his voice.

“Trade me, then.”

Grasping the shotgun, she trades for the rifle. Though he knows his father keeps his guns immaculate, he checks the rifle over carefully, a habit he hasn’t lost since his army days, seemingly a lifetime ago. Satisfied, he nods to her, eyebrows raised to his hairline.

“Alright. When I say ‘go’, I want you to wing him. Shoulder, arm, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t hit those girls.”

“But….”

“Listen to me, Tac, cause we don’t have much time. Just get his attention. Make him turn, maybe loosen his grip a little, alright?”

“If you say so, sis.”

“I do.”

Tacoma looks over at his father, who nods. He nods back.

“Okay. I’m ready.”

Taking off her gloves, Dakota flexes her fingers, then eases them around the pump action of the shotgun. “Alright. Ready? Go!”

Tacoma raises up in a perfect marksman’s stance and eases the trigger back.

The sound of the rifle firing is almost insignificant, but the bullet hits its mark, and the man spins. The two girls stumble off their feet, still tethered to this man by their hair. Both scream in agony.

Dakota jumps to her feet, shotgun socketed and ready. “Let them go, you bastard!!”

The last word hangs in the air, only to be obliterated a split second later by the huge roar of the shotgun’s blasting. Most of the man’s face disappears and he topples back into the snow.

“Katie! Kelly! RUN!!!”

They try, but they’re still in the ungiving grip of the man’s hands. Screaming in terror, they finally find the strength to pull away, leaving sizable hunks of red and golden hair behind.

“RUN!!!”

Dakota starts forward, shotgun aimed and ready. Sinking into thigh-deep snow with every step, her gait is slow and plodding. Everything seems preternaturally bright as she moves forward, keeping a wary eye on the fallen stranger.

Not really a stranger, though, is he.

A moment later, a second man darts outside. He’s armed with an uzi, which he immediately fires, spraying bullets all over the compound. Dakota drops into the snow an instant too late. She can feel the hot bloom of pain welling up from her side. She doesn’t know how badly she’s hurt, but her body freezes, stunned, for a brief moment, and she loses her grip on the gun.

“Shit!”

“Dakota!!!”

She can hear the screams of her father and brother, but the sound of Tacoma’s frantic rifle fire is drowned out by the noise of the uzi firing again and again.

“Stay down!!”

She thinks she’s screaming, but the sound is only a gasp. She struggles to move, but the snow has her cocooned and her body still isn’t ready to work the way it should. Long fingers, reddened and chapped from the icy snow and bitter wind, scramble desperately for the gun she’s lost.

“DAKOTA!!!”

Rounds of fire are being exchanged over her head. It sounds like a war zone, and in a way, she muses, that’s exactly what it is. She knows her father and brother are pinned down by the uzi fire. To come forward would be suicide, but she also knows that either one would willingly risk his life for hers. And she would do the same, without hesitation.

Dear God, let them be safe. Please let them be safe. If I have to die, fine. Just…don’t take them too, ok?

Finally! Luck puts her hand in the path of her shotgun, and with a spastic, clamping grip, she drags it through the snow to cradle against her chest. She can’t really feel it; her hands are blocks of wood, but her finger finds the trigger by pure instinct, and she waits, eyes open to whatever fate awaits her.

She can hear footsteps, and knows they’re coming from the wrong direction. Her already tense body tenses even further, causing fresh blood to gush from her wound, staining the snow a garish red.

Snow cone, anyone?

Gallows humor makes its appearance right on time, as always.

A face and the muzzle of an uzi make a simultaneous appearance within Dakota’s reduced field of vision. The face is completely blank; no emotions can be read in those shining, soulless eyes.

She sees him hesitate, and it’s all the opening her body needs. Levering her shotgun’s muzzle up, she pulls the trigger. “Eat shit, you bastard!”

The force of the blast blows him off his feet, and she forces her body to roll up to a seated, and finally standing position. She sways for a moment, then walks steadily toward the prone figure on lying in the deep snow. She can sense her family closing quickly, but this is something she has to do for herself.

White teeth flash in a wolf’s smile and she points the gun downward. “Die, you miserable, stinking piece of shit.”

A pull of the trigger, and the face is totally obliterated. A pump of the action, and she places the muzzle against the shoulder joint. Another blast, and the arm disintegrates from the shoulder. A third blast takes the second arm.

Finally satisfied, she relaxes slightly, still staring down at the mangled figure in the snow.

A warm hand clasps her shoulder, and she turns her head to look up into the concerned face of her father.

“I’ll be alright. Are you guys okay?”

“That was some shootin’, sis,” Tacoma remarks, grinning. Then he notices the blood on her shirt and his smile disappears. “Shit, Koda, you got busted.”

“I’ll live,” she replies dryly, though now that the fight is over, her pain begins to make an appearance. “We need to go up to the house and see if anyone else is still alive.”

Reaching down, her father picks up the uzi, then straightens. “Your brother and I will take care of that. You just get back to your truck and wait for us there.”

Though many years from her childhood, Dakota knows an order when she hears one, and nods. “Yes, sir.”

A rare hint of a smile crosses her father’s handsome face. “You did well, Daughter. I’m proud.”

Funny even after all these years how good that still makes her feel.

Even so, as she watches her father and brother enter the house, she resists going back to the warmth of her truck. Clamping a hard hand on her wound to help staunch the sluggish bleeding, she stares down at her handiwork.

The figure is twitching. The legs are moving in slow motion, like a dog dreaming of chasing butterflies.

That fierce grin comes again, but she doesn’t raise her gun.

Not yet.

Not yet.

“I might not be able to kill you, you bastard, but I can make damn sure you don’t ever hurt anyone again.”

8

(London Bridge is falling down…)

For being the richest man in the world, Peter Westerhaus is hardly your typical breed. At least, your typical breed pre Microsoft era, when the standard of multibillionaires was changed forever.

With his slight, skinny body, and a face sporting a healthy eruption of acne better suited to an adolescence that had gasped its last more than three decades ago, Peter has less in common with the robber barons and steel magnates of old than a hen has with a toothbrush.

But even with his food stained clothes and pungent scent—he takes a bath twice a month whether he needs to or not—he might have been accepted by his contemporaries if he just wasn’t so darned strange.

Eccentric. That’s the word they use these days.

Or is it the word they used to use?

Does it matter, Stan?

Nope, Johnny. Doesn’t matter at all. Not anymore.

Right you are, Stan ol buddy. Right you are.

(…falling down…)

Even so, the wunderkind who had breezed through Harvard at fifteen and then gave MIT a try– until he grew bored in three months and was out-professing the professors– bears little resemblance to the man who now owns the largest corporation in the world.

(…falling down…)

Peter sits in his megalithic office. An office that is so crowded with the latest in up to the nanosecond computer hardware and software that it looks like the cockpit of some fantastically futuristic flying machine rather than the staid walnut-and-teak showpieces of his contemporaries.

Contemporaries? What contemporaries? Ha! Ha! Ha!

A huge, drive-in movie screen sized monitor sits on the desk in front of him. The monitor is dark save for an eerie, endlessly scrolling band across the bottom. It’s an innocuous little band, really. No different from the one that scrolls beneath the picture on CNN or MSNBC and announces the sports scores, the stock market closings, and the weather while some correspondent in some far flung country cheerfully relates the latest death tolls in some war or other.

I’m not gonna look. I won’t and you can’t make me.

Sure ya can, Stanley old sport! Have a look see. Just a little peek. Come on. You know ya wanna.

Shut up, Johnny. I don’t want to look.

Come on….

Nope. If I don’t look, then I can convince myself this is all a dream. Just a nasty nightmare that will eventually go away.

Newsflash for ya, Stan. This is reality. No nightmares here.

Well…I can pretend, can’t I?

Sure ya can, Stan. Suuuure ya can. You just go on and pretend. I’ll be here when you get back from your trip to Fantasy Island.

(…London Bridge is falling down…)

Spinning his chair, Peter looks at the blank, windowless walls of this, his inner sanctum sanctorum. His throne room, if you will.

No nasty toilet jokes if you please, Johnny.

Wouldn’t think of it, Stanley ,m’man. Simply would not think of it.

He stares at the dark paneling, counting knot holes as his brain begins the last chute the chute down the slippery slope they call full-blown insanity, eating of itself in a fine and fitting act of auto-cannibalism.

(…falling down…)

His body does what his mind forbids; his feet scooch along the carpet, turning his chair until it faces forward once again. His eyes sweep left, then right, then left again before settling on the monitor and the scrolling Writ near the bottom.

The words aren’t in any language that he can decipher. Indeed, the characters rolling by in their stately, if horrifying, procession are so alien to him—and indeed to anyone of human ancestry—that his brain cramps and twists, trying to process the view into something it can make sense of.

It gives him a blinding headache.

Understanding the letters isn’t the problem, though, is it Stanley.

When you’re right, Johnny, you’re right.

It’s the words you need to understand. The message, if I may be so blunt.

Blunt away, my friend. Blunt away.

And you already understand the message, don’t you, Stanley. The message is as clear as glass, isn’t it.

(…my…)

And, indeed, Peter has done everything in his power to make that message go away. The wreckage of his once relatively neat office bears mute testament to that fact.

I did everything I could. Everything. You need to be aware of that one little fact, Johnny.

Oh I am, Stanley. I most certainly am. Never let be said that Peter Stanley Westerhaus didn’t Try His Best.

Several of his highly classified—and highly illegal to boot—supercomputers are smashed to bits on the ground, their shattered pieces looking up at him, almost glowering, as if wondering just what they had done to deserve their fate.

In fact, if one were to look beneath the desk, to where the surge protector lies nestled, one would notice that the monitor plug has left its secure haven. As has the plug to the computer currently broadcasting the damnable scrolling message.

And still…

‘And still…’ It always comes back to that, doesn’t it, Stanley. ‘And still…’ If they ever write a book about you, old sock, that phrase will beat out ‘Jesus wept’ for brevity, won’t it.

(…fair…)

It’s true, though. What the voices in his head are telling him is all too true. All he has to do to prove that fact is to raise his eyes, oh say ten degrees, and set his sights on the two dozen or so TV screens broadcasting from every corner of the globe.

They show the same thing over and over again. Scenes from some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare that he put into place simply by saying “yes” instead of “no”.

Dear GOD! What have I done???

(…lady.)

From a corner of his silent office, a soft beep sounds, and yet another monitor comes to life. This one shows the hallways leading to his inner sanctum. Hallways which, up until now, have been as empty as a looted tomb.

They’re coming for you, kid.

“I know. I know! Damnit, I KNOW!!!”

Reaching into his drawer, Peter pulls out a fat handgun, one he’s never had to use. He twirls his chair again until he faces the one and only door in the office. The gun sits limply in his lap.

Oh yeah, that’ll work. Kinda like shooting rain at a flower. You made them almost indestructible, ol kid, ol sock. All part of the plan, remember?

“Fuck the plan!!”

He’ll never leave this office alive, he knows that. And with the realization comes a feeling of almost blessed relief. The irony of being killed by his own creations isn’t lost on him. In fact, it seems a rather fitting punishment for what he’s done.

But still…

Oh, back to that again, are we?

Shut up, Johnny. Just…shut…up.

“I’m forgetting something. I know I am.”

A quick glance at the security monitor shows he’s still got some time left. Not much, granted, but some. And some is a start.

He looks around his office again, and his eyes alight on his personal computer, the only one in the office that was spared his fit of rage earlier. It sits proudly on his secondary desk, as if lording its veritable wholeness over its shattered buddies.

“That’s it!!”

Forcing his body out of the chair, he stumbles over broken computer bits until he’s at the desk housing his computer. It’s booted up and ready for him. A quick flick of the mouse, and the email he had typed earlier is brought to full bloom before his eyes. It’s not much of a letter, no, but he thinks it spells out the whys, wherefores, and by-these-present-know-ye-thises pretty darn well.

Giving himself a sharp nod, he aims the pointer at the “send all” button, only to nearly cancel the damn thing as the soft beeping from the security camera causes him to jump almost a foot in the air. A quick glance at the monitor shows the hallways filled to the brim with advancing enemies.

Breathing heavily, he tosses a hank of stringy, greasy, straw colored hair away from his brow and looks back at the computer. His eyes are round, flat and shining discs set deep in his head. His hands are sweat-slicked and trembling so hard that he misses the “send all” button yet again.

“Come on! Come on, damnit!!”

One final try and he scores a direct hit. The email disappears, to be replaced by a “message sent” notification box.

“Oh, thank God. Thank you, God!”

Getting’ a little foxhole religion, sport? There goes your nomination to the Atheist-of-the-Month Club.

Ignoring the voice, Peter turns away from the computer and returns to his seat. He picks up the gun and stares at it as if it might soon sprout wings and fly away.

What are you gonna do with that, hmm champ? Go out in a blaze of glory? Stiff upper lip and all that rot?

I can’t leave the men behind, sir. You go. I’ll hold the Alamo for all of us. Viva la USA! Hell. Viva la WORLD!

He can hear them now, their booted feet stomping in almost obscenely regulated step as they come closer and closer to their goal.

(London Bridge is falling down…)

Hefting the gun, he points it at the door. He’s surprised, and gladdened, to notice that his hands aren’t shaking anymore. The suddenly wet warmth in the crotch of his pants tells him that his bladder has a different take on the whole situation, but at least his hands haven’t betrayed him.

Betrayed. Funny word, that. That’s what they’ll call you, you know. The Betrayer. Fitting epitaph, don’t you think?

“All I ever wanted to be was accepted. Not popular. No, never that. But just accepted, you know? That’s why I did this. I wanted to help. I wanted to be liked. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?”

“Well, is it?!?!?”

Letting go a small sigh, he shifts his gun’s focus, lifting it and turning the muzzle toward his temple instead.

“I’m sorry. I know that’s not enough, but…for what it’s worth…I am.”

(…my fair lady.)
CHAPTER TWO

“Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go. Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.”
1

When the crowded rooms and the close press of humanity gets to be too much, Dakota escapes to the glassed in porch, closing the door behind her and reveling in the silence of a South Dakota winter evening. It’s snowing again. The flakes, heavy and wet, hiss through the air in a soothing monotone.

It’s been two days since the shooting, and her wound, not much more than a graze, is healing, though still painful.

The storm door squeals in protest as it is opened again, and the floorboards groan out accompaniment as Dakota’s father joins her on the porch. She hears a slight rustle, then the flick of a match being struck against the wooden casement, and soon the air is filled with the sweet smell of pipe tobacco. Its scent brings Dakota back to the days of her childhood when her whole world was the man standing beside her and her only goal in life was to see the light of pride in his eyes. Eyes that are, like hers, a brilliant, pale blue; a queer genetic anomaly going back as long as anyone can remember.

For long moments, the porch is silent save for quiet breaths and the hissing of the snow.

The remnants of the MacGregor family, Kimberly, her two grown daughters and two granddaughters, have taken up residence in a small house just to the west of the main home. Dakota’s mother helps them through their grief as best she can, trying to break through the silent, staring shock that melds them to their beds and chairs; living statues crafted by the hand of a madman.

The rest of the family spends its days huddled around the CB radio, gleaning and hoarding each bit of information the way a prospector pans for gold dust. Wild speculation paints the airwaves in crazy, neon colors. Space aliens have landed in Washington DC. Peter Westerhaus has sold out to certain Middle Eastern interests, handing them the United States on a silver platter. And the most popular: God is using Satan’s tools to cleanse the earth in preparation for the return of His Son.

Each rumor is treated as Gospel truth; examined like a diamond for clarity and flaws, and kept or discarded based on its possible merit.

“Your spirit wanders.”

Shaken from her reverie, Dakota lets out a small sigh, tips her head slightly, and leans a shoulder against the sturdy frame of the porch. She eyes her father directly, taking in his gentle, somber countenance.

“Where will you go?”

“Home. At least, at first. I need to….”

Her voice trails off, but her father nods his understanding.

“And then?”

“South, I think. To Rapid City.”

“To the base?”

“Yes.”

“Very dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Your mother will forbid it.”

Dakota nods, dropping her gaze to the worn boards. “I know that, too.” Her voice is no more than a whisper, its timbre blending with the falling snow.

A soft rustle of cloth eases the silence, and when Dakota raises her eyes, her father is holding an object out to her. Her eyes widen as the significance of the object becomes abundantly clear.

“Your medicine pouch….”

“Take it.”

“But….”

“Le icu wo, chunkshi.”

Reaching out, she allows her fingers to curl around the small, worn pouch. In turn, her father’s warm fingers curl around her own. Their eyes meet. He gives her a rare and precious smile.

“If I were younger, and did not have a family to protect, I would do as you are now, Dakota.” His face sobers and he releases her hand. “Go now. Say goodbye to your brothers and sisters. I will talk to your mother.”

Rising to his feet, he is gone before she can open her mouth to thank him.

2

Twenty minutes later, Dakota stands by her truck, gazing one last time upon her family whose faces are pressed against the large windows, fogging them and making the watching figures dreamy and indistinct.

Her mother’s face is the only one she can see clearly, and her expression is a swirling thundercloud of anger, love, and fear. Her heavy arms are crossed against her ample bosom, and as Dakota meets her eyes, she scowls and turns away.

Clenching her jaw in frustration, Dakota also turns and opens the door to her truck. Before she can step in, her mother comes at her from behind, wrapping her arms around Dakota’s slim waist and pulling her back.

“Yé shni ye, chunkshi. Yé shni ye.”

Dakota turns in her mother’s arms, bringing up chilled hands to cup soft, careworn cheeks. “I have to go, Mother. I need to do this.”

“And I need you here, Dakota. Here, with your family, where you belong.”

“Mother….”

“Wife.”

Dakota’s mother turns to look at her husband, then back at her daughter. “Please. I’m asking you. Stay.”

“Mother, I…can’t.”

The older woman’s face hardens. “Then you are no daughter of mine.” She takes in a breath. “Is that what you want?”

Dakota shakes her head. “No, that’s not what I want at all.”

Her mother smiles, triumphant.

Dakota continues. “But, if that’s how you feel it must be, then there’s nothing I can do to stop you, Mother. This is something I have to do.” Releasing her mother, she steps away. “I love you, Mother. Always.”

A long, tense moment passes between them.

“I need to go.” Dakota’s voice is soft, regretful.

Before she can turn away, her arms are once again filled with the solid, firm body of her mother. They embrace tightly, almost desperately, before finally parting.

Turning quickly, Dakota jumps into her truck, starts it, and drives off, savagely ignoring the tears sparkling in her eyes.

3

“Shit,” Kirsten grumps as her truck, a valiant old campaigner, wheezes its last and coasts to a stop along the curb in a tiny town in western Pennsylvania, completely out of gas. Slamming the steering wheel with one gloved hand, she opens the door and steps out into the cold air, a great deal further from her destination than she’d planned.

The turnpike and vast east-west highways she’d planned to use are almost completely impassible. The news of the uprising had taken the country by sudden storm, and people jumped in their cars with just the clothes on their backs, desperate to flee a hopeless situation.

Some had been murdered where they sat, behind the wheel. Others still had been killed in multi-vehicle pileups or smashed under the wreckage of hurtling semis. She had even passed several hastily erected, and now abandoned, military checkpoints through which ordinary, innocent citizens had been heartlessly mown down by the supposed protectors of their freedom and constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sickened, the young scientist was forced off the highways and onto secondary roads. Even there, signs of death loomed everywhere, and she had spent hours and hours of precious time skirting around roads blocked by smashed cars and shattered bodies.

Until she reached the outskirts of western Pennsylvania and her truck had finally given up the ghost.

She finds herself in a ghost town the likes of which old Spaghetti Westerns were made. There is no sign of life anywhere she looks, and the air as barren save for a howling wind and the rusted protest of a sign hanging from long chains hooked to the eaves of a roof.

Thompson’s Realty, the sign says. A Great Place to call Home.

“Not anymore,” she says, then laughs a little at the poor joke. As if in response, Asimov whines, and she widens the door, beckoning him out.

They both hear the hiss of a startled cat, and before Kirsten can even open her mouth, Asimov is off like a shot, chasing the fleeing feline down the empty street.

“You’d better get your ass back here or I’ll leave without you!” Kirsten shouts, then listens as her words echo off the storefronts that border each side of the street. She waits long enough to realize that her threat has gone unheeded. “Great. Now even my dog doesn’t believe me.”

Turning, her ears pick up another sound. It’s one she can’t quite decipher. Her heart gathers speed and, reaching into the open cab of her truck, she grabs her pistol and hauls it out, aiming in the direction of the sound.

“Who’s there?”

The question echoes, and when it finally dies off, the sound, still indecipherable, is still there. Curiosity sets her feet in motion, heading for a staid, brickfaced church sitting on the corner.

Turning the corner, she stops dead, as the source of the noise becomes readily apparent.

A huge cross dominates the church’s lawn, and upon that cross, two bodies hang, one from each arm. Their faces are purple, their tongues and eyes, protruding. Each head is cocked identically, almost comically, lolling from the stalk of a broken neck.

Both wear a cardboard placard around their necks, each bearing the same crudely written phrase.

REPENT!! FOR THE HOUR OF GOD IS AT HAND!!

“Je-sus.”

Turning away from the gruesome sight, her gaze catches the front of the church. The doors, red as barn paint, have been broken inward and lay shattered and crazy-canted in the vestibule. Unable to help herself, she climbs the steps and enters the church itself, then almost reverses her course as the overwhelming stench of death and decay permeates her nostrils and twists her guts into a heaving uproar.

“Dear God. Oh, Jesus.”

The church must have, at one time, been filled to capacity. Now all that remains are the men, the very old, and the very young. She doesn’t have to look to know that each body bears at least one bullet hole, adult and child alike.

Bodies are stacked in the aisles and pews like cordwood. These people didn’t die easily.

As she looks up toward the altar, she freezes once again, draw dropping silently open like a trap door at the end of well-oiled hinges.

The Lector, clad in a dark, somber suit, lies draped over the altar, half of his head missing. His stiffened fingers curl inward as if trying to form fists of their own volition. A huge, gold-leafed bible, it’s thin pages dotted with blood, lies open before him. He almost appears to be reading it with the one eye he has left.

But even that isn’t the worst atrocity in this room.

No, that honor belongs to the life-sized cross hanging above the altar. Instead of the requisite figure of the crucified Jesus staring up into the Heavens through sorrowing eyes, the Priest, clad in heavy purple, white and gold vestments, hangs, long nails driven through his wrists and feet.

A crude facsimile of the Crown of Thorns—in actuality some barbed wire from the local hardware store—is pressed upon his bald head, and runnels of dried blood paint his face like ruby tears.

Another sign loops around his neck, this time bearing only one word.

HERETIC.

“Oooookay, then. That’s quite enough of this. I think I’d best be going now.”

With deliberate steps, Kirsten turns and walks out of the church as quickly as her feet will carry her. Only when she has turned the corner and is out of sight of the two hanging corpses does she stop, one hand pressed to her chest. Her heart thumps crazily against it as if trying to exit through muscle and bone.

Finally, her breathing and heartrate calm, and she chances a look around. The town is as empty, and as silent, as it was when she first entered. This helps to calm her further.

“Alright then, let’s get down to business.”

4

It is well past midnight, and the only light that glows in the fair-sized ranch house comes from the large and roaring fire in the fieldstone fireplace. The electricity and phones are out, but in South Dakota, in winter, that’s almost a given. An unlit oil lantern sits on a low table that boarders a long, low-slung couch.

Koda sits on the couch, one long leg tucked beneath her, the other thrown casually over the stout wooden arm. With steady hands, she works through a fat stack of glossy photos. Some she lingers over, a smile creasing her face. Others she flips quickly past, pain darkening the blue of her eyes.

On the mantle, a brass clock in the shape of a galloping horse ticks, keeping a time that she senses will no longer be needed in this world.

The last in the stack of pictures comes up, and, smiling, she lifts it closer to her face, placing the others down on the rough-hewn coffee table. The photo is of a slim, beautiful Lakota woman, her coal, almond eyes sparkling with love and laughter. Clad in a white, beaded gown, she grins with mischievous intent as her hands, filled with a large piece of cake dripping with frosting, begin to move forward as if to shove said cake into the face of the picture taker.

“Got me good, didn’t ya,” Dakota whispers, trailing a gentle thumb over the woman’s grinning features. “I miss you.”

Holding the picture to her chest, she unfolds herself and lays full length on the couch, staring into the crackling flames until sleep finally overtakes her.

5

The sound of trashcans rattling in an alleyway almost causes Kirsten’s heart to leap out of her mouth, and she spins, pointing her gun in the direction of the noise. A slat thin, mangy mutt runs out of the alley, grinning at her, and she comes a hairsbreadth away from blowing it to Kingdom Come, Kentucky.

Seeing her, the dog stops and growls, its hackles raising in spiky tufts over bony shoulders, its teeth white and glimmering.

“Nice doggy. Niiiice doggy.”

The dog growls again, dropping low on its haunches and slinking forward.

Kirsten follows its progress with the muzzle of her gun. “Oh, c’mon, pooch, you really don’t want to be doing this.”

The dog, apparently, has a different take on the situation.

“Okay, so you do want to be doing this.” She waggles her gun. “Trust me, there are easier ways to get some dinner, dog. I bet I don’t even taste that good.” She pauses. “Well, figuratively speaking, anyway.”

Continuing its advance, the dog gathers its legs underneath itself, muscles tensing, preparing to leap.

“Aw hell,” Kirsten sighs, her finger tightening on the trigger.

Before either party can move, a blur of black and silver bisects the invisible line between them, and the dog yelps as it is driven away, rolling several times before it lands on its side, chest aspirating weakly like a bellows running out of air.

“Asimov! It’s about time you showed up!”

Asimov looks over his shoulder, tongue lolling.

“Don’t play innocent with me, you flea-bitten throw rug. Now, if you’re done playing with your little friend there, we need to get moving. It won’t stay light forever, ya know.”

Lifting a gigantic paw, Asimov graciously allows his prey to escape, yelping and whining, back into the darkness of the alley from which it came, scrawny tail tucked between its legs.

Sticking the gun into the waistband of her jeans, Kirsten rubs her hands together. “Alright then. First things first. We need to get us some wheels. A van, I think. Will a full gas tank. And keys in the ignition.”

Asimov gives her a look.

“Alright, alright. So I’m a little picky. Is that a crime?”

Rolling her eyes, Kirsten moves down the road, away from the church and its gruesome spectacle. Rounding another corner, her eyes light up as she spies a used car lot. Its red, white and blue pennants flicker and flap in the freshening breeze, displaying their wares in a manic frenzy to no one.

She walks slowly along the sidewalk, looking over the selection—what there is of one. The cars are, for the most part, dusty, dented, and gently rusting as they rest on slowly softening and tread-worn tires. The hand lettered signs, once bright and eye-catching, are now faded and cracked under the harsh mercies of the glaring sun and bitter wind.

Asimov looks up at his mistress and whines.

“I know, boy. We’ll find something. Don’t worry.”

Turning in at the gate, she makes her way into the lot, stepping over several fallen bodies, resolving not to look.

Cordwood, she thinks to herself. Just cordwood, stacks of it, like the stuff that lays outside the cabin on the Cape, waiting for winter.

Near the back of the lot, there is a service bay, and just outside that service bay is a large, white cargo van which looks to be perfect for her needs. It has a few dents, and the driver’s side rocker panel has seen better decades, but the tires look new, and as long as the battery is well juiced, she thinks she can run with it.

As she steps around to the passenger’s side, she stops cold. The body of a young man, barely out of his teens, lays half in and half out of the van. He was obviously once a detailer, since there is a cloth in one hand and a sponge in the other. If not for the now familiar unnatural cock of his head, she would think that he was just resting; taking a break from what she believes has to be one of the world’s most monotonous jobs. His face is young and handsome in a Midwestern, corn-fed way, and the wind whips his curly blonde hair into a halo around his head.

He should be on a football field somewhere tackling behemoths and scoring cheerleaders.

Her eyes begin to well and she wipes at them savagely, unable to spare the time she’d need to mourn.

Not now. Just keep going. You need to keep it together K, or you’re gonna end up just like him.

Taking in a deep breath, she reaches forward and, as gently as she possibly can, eases the young man from his place inside the van. As soon as he is flat on the ground, she stands up and wipes her hands on the fabric of her jeans, then takes the large step up into the van.

The boy has done his job well. The van is immaculately clean inside, and smells fresh despite housing a corpse for God knows how many days. There are two bench seats, one in front, one behind. The rest of the huge van is completely empty. She looks over at the control panel. Though old, the transmission is automatic, and, best of all, the keys are dangling from the ignition. This brings a smile to her face and she turns to look down at the whining dog waiting just outside. “Asimov, I think we’re in business.”

6

The morning dawns bitterly cold and thankfully clear. Dakota has been up for several hours. Her sturdy knapsack is packed to the brim with clothing and non perishable foodstuffs. The fire is out and the hearth has been swept clean of ashes. Dakota’s breath comes forth in frosty plumes as she walks through the rooms of her home saying a quiet goodbye to things she knows she’ll never see again.

Crossing through the living room, she stops at a door just to the left of the stairs leading up to the loft, and twists the knob, entering into another, large and chilled room.

A flick of the switch, and brilliant fluorescent lights flicker and hum to life, powered by the backup generator seated to the rear of the house. The lights reveal a sterile space in white and chrome. Two examination tables sit side by side, their surfaces sparkling and immaculate. Two walls sport inlaid cabinets upon which a wide variety of surgical instruments rest, covered in sterile wrap. A huge autoclave sits in a corner, silent, cold and dark. Along the third wall are several rows of large, wire kennels, stacked three high, and along the forth, four incubators and one warmer bed rest. All are empty.

As a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitation Specialist, Dakota has spent the majority of her adult life in this room, patiently coaxing warmth, food and life back into injured or abandoned animals native to her home state.

If she listens closely enough, she fancies she can hear the meeps, howls, growls, purrs, and screeching cries of each and every animal she has treated here. She has mourned each death and celebrated each second chance at life that her skills, and luck, have been able to grant. Her sharp eyes scan the room, imprinting each piece of equipment, each warm success, each sad defeat, indelibly to memory.

And then, with a soft sigh, she turns to leave, plunging the room into blackness once again.

7

Her truck packed and warming, Dakota makes one last trip, plowing through thigh-deep snow to the back of her sprawling ranch. Her horses have been fed and watered and set free to wander, or to stay, as they will. Her house has been raided of all useful items, and only this one thing is left to do before she can begin her trek into the unknown.

The piled stone marker is covered with snow, a fanciful little hillock protruding from an otherwise flat landscape. Bending down, she carefully brushes the snow away until the rocks are uncovered to her gaze.

The front of the cairn is inlaid with a small, stone marker, carved in loving detail. The marker holds three simple words.

Tali.

mitháwichu ki

Tali.

My wife.

Ungloving her left hand, she brushes the very tips of her fingers against the words, eyes dim with remembering. A long moment is passed in this utter silence, until the sun spreads its rays over the barn and highlights the cairn in lines of dazzling gold.

With a slow blink to clear the tears welling in her eyes, Dakota reaches up and twists the simple gold band from her finger. She stares at it, watching as it sparkles in the newborn sunlight, then she tucks it reverently into a seam in the rocks, drawing her fingers over its warmth one last time before withdrawing.

“I’ll never forget you.”

8

She moves through a world gone all to white. White earth, white sky, bare, snow-covered trees. Ice swirls in netted patterns like her grandmother’s best crocheted tablecloth where the steady thump of the windshield wipers does not reach. Her breath makes a white cloud about her in the unheated cabin of her truck.

White is the color of the north. White is the color of death.

Before her the white road lies unmarked. Ten miles from home, and no traffic has passed here since the snowfall stopped just at dawn. The only sign of life is a line of small four-toed prints running along a barbed wire fence line. A fox, moving fast.

Koda’s gloved fingers curl stiffly about the rim of the steering wheel. Her feet, numb despite three pairs of wool and silk socks and the fleece linings of her boots, somehow manage to find the accelerator and the brake as needed. Snow and ice limit her speed, even with the chains. Which, she thinks, is just as well. She cannot afford an accident.

She can’t afford to turn on the heater, either. It is not that she fears sensors or spy satellites. Her truck’s V-8 will show up in the infrared half the size of Mount Rushmore in any case. She has more than enough gas in her double tanks to make the forty miles to Rapid City and back, taking farm-to-market roads like this one to avoid the Interstate, enough to scout the extent of the devastation in this corner of South Dakota. The trouble is that she has no idea if she will be able to buy or scavenge so much as another drop between now and her return.

Take nothing for granted, her father said as she hugged him good-bye. Trust nothing and no one. Come back safe.

The wound in her side aches with the cold. She holds the pain away from her, just as she does the memories of the night before. There will be a time again for rage, a time for mourning. She cannot afford them now.

Twelve miles, and a sign appears on her right, to the north of the road. Standing Buffalo Ranch, home to Paul and Virginia Hurley and their five kids. The welded pipe gate leans open, the cattle guard clotted with snow. There are no tire marks on the narrow road that leads up to the ranch house and barns, out of sight over a low ridge. Koda can just see the spokes of a generator windmill, its three blades and their hub hung with ice. No tire marks, possibly no electricity. No one out doing anything about it.

She swerves the truck into the turnoff, the chains racketing on the metal grill as she crosses the cattle guard. Beside her on the seat, blunt and angular in its functional ugliness, is the Uzi she took from one of the things that killed the MacGregors. If what she has begun to fear is true, she will not need it. Still, it gives her comfort.

Blasting another of the things to atoms would give her more.

How many dead? How many taken?

She has no answers to those questions.

Why? Dear God and all the saints, spirits of my ancestors, why?

She has no answer to that question, either.

Koda does not realize that she has some spark of hope left until she sees the ranch house door swinging open and the snow in the entryway. The point of light, infinitely small as it is, winks out. Gone. Darkness. The white expanse between house and barn is unmarked. Two vehicles are drawn up in the carport. One is Paul Hurley’s Dodge Ram crew cab; the other is an SUV she does not recognize. She pulls up behind them, crosswise, and waits. There is no movement behind the gauzy front curtains, none behind the smaller window near the driveway where a bottle of Dawn dish soap and a long-handled sponge perch on the sill beneath a gingham ruffle. When she thinks she has waited long enough, she waits as long again. Still nothing.

Slowly Koda takes her hands from the steering wheel. She lifts the Uzi from its resting place beside her and slings the strap crosswise over her left shoulder, maneuvering it past the wide brim of her hat. Briefly she checks the magazine. Very carefully, she eases her door open and slithers down and forward to crouch behind the bulk of the still-running engine. There is a moment when she is, blessedly, almost warm with its heat. Then the wind, not strong but straight off six feet of packed snow and ice, reasserts itself, and her feet remind her that she is standing calf-deep more of the same.

Koda whips from behind the truck and runs low and as fast as the snow will let her for the front porch. She comes up short with her back against the wall, her weapon raised. For the first time she hears a sound from within the house, a small dog barking incessantly, somewhere toward the back and up. She eases through the doorframe and into the front hall. Nothing. Beyond is the living room, where a feathery dusting of snow lies across the dark green carpet and a small aquarium holds angelfish, brilliant and ethereal, suspended like jewels in ice. The dining room, separated from the parlor by an open arch, seems in order, Virginia’s proud collection of majolica serving dishes still stately in their place of honor along the sideboard. Only the CD tower lying across the door to the den is out of place, with its flat plastic cases spilled out beside it.

Koda knows what she will find when she enters the room and has braced herself

for it. Paul Hurley is there, still on the couch in front of the television, empty eyes staring at the ceiling with his head bent back against the cushions at a ninety-degree angle. A Budweiser can tilts floorward in his half-open hand. David, youngest of the five children, lies at his feet, an obscene red blossom of blood and torn flesh in the middle of his back. Shotgun. Eddie, older by five years, sprawls in the lounger, neck broken like his father’s, a bag of potato chips still in his lap.

Cold inside now, no longer feeling the frigid air, Koda takes the can from Paul’s hand and attempts gently to move his fingers. Their rigidity tells her what she already knows must be true. When she turns David over, as much not to have to see the terrible hole in his body as to see his face and know for certain that he is David, he slips from her stiff hands and thumps solidly against the television cabinet. Frozen. Frozen cold and dead.

It is a line from a poem from some forgotten moment of her childhood, lifetimes, eons distant from this time and this place. It goes round in her head, over and over, Frozen. Frozen cold and dead. Her own horror is beyond her understanding. She has seen harder deaths, has dissected human bodies as part of her training. Still the line of the poem goes round, as if to keep her mind from worse things.
Frozen. Frozen cold and dead.

The dog’s yapping is louder here in the den. Koda steps carefully around the coffee table and climbs the stairs, setting her feet soundlessly on the treads. The barking grows clearer with each step, higher and more frantic. At the landing, she has a clear view of the master bedroom through the open door. The blue-and-russet log cabin quilt lies undisturbed, forming an angular pattern with the brass bars of Hurleys’ antique bed. In another room, curlers and makeup litter the dresser. Double closets stand open, with girls’ jeans and sweaters strewn over the floor amid broken glass from a framed poster of Britney Spears that tilts crazily against the wall. There are no bodies in the room, despite the clear signs of a struggle.

The yapping comes from behind a third bedroom door, this one closed. As Koda turns the knob and pushes it open, a small furry body flings itself against her knees, alternately panting and barking. She swings the Uzi behind her back, out of the dog’s reach, and hunkers down to soothe the frantic creature, gently rubbing its ears. “There, fella,” she croons. “There, baby. It’s all right. I’ve got you. There, there.”

As it calms, reassured by her experienced touch and the low monotone of her voice, she ascertains that it is a neutered male Yorkshire terrier, dehydrated and not recently fed. A bedraggled blue bow clinging to a tuft of fur above his eyes matches the polish on his manicured nails. Not a country dog. The tag on his rhinestone-studded collar identifies him as Louie and his mistress as Adele Hurley of Pierre, with address and telephone number.

Which, she notes with an unexpected sense of relief, explains the Suburban.

When she finally enters the room, Louie now quiet at her heels except for a low whine, she finds Adele toppled forward on the rug, the legs of her walker jutting absurdly past her hips. Blood has soaked her short grey hair, stiffened by the freezing cold into scarlet spikes. An elderly man lies half on and half off the bed, his battered skull partly concealed by a fold of the comforter. Clumsy with the bulk of her gloves, Koda removes his billfold from his hip pocket and thumbs through the plasticine card pockets until she finds his driver’s license. He is—he was, she corrects herself–Theodore Hurley, also of Pierre.

Koda knows that Paul’s father is long dead, having attended his funeral three years before. Theodore must have been an uncle.

A search of the rest of the house yields no sign of Virginia or her three adolescent daughters. In the kitchen Koda discovers that the hot tap is dripping and that there is still water from it. Thank you God for propane. She sets about feeding and watering Louie and examining the contents of Virginia’s pantry. As she counts the cans of beans and the Mason jars filled with bright gold and purple preserves, spiced peaches, pickled beets, a shudder creeps over her skin that has nothing to do with the cold. She feels like a ghoul, pawing through the remnants of a woman’s life.

Remnants that will help feed her own family and the refugees gathered in their home. Virginia would not want her good food to go to waste. There will, she tells herself, be no more trips to the Safeway anytime soon.

Koda finds the matches and lights a burner to make herself a cup of the Hurleys’ instant Maxwell House, then lights the oven, leaving it open so the room will warm. She closes the swinging door behind her as she returns upstairs to search the linen cabinet. Five blankets she carries down and sets out on a chair in the den; one, the thickest quilt she can find, she makes into a bed for Louie beside the stove. She is almost comfortable as she sips the dark brew—almost coffee, she thinks wryly– warming her fingers that seem to be gone all to cold bone against the thick earthenware of the cup. Almost she finds herself smiling as Louie turns twice widdershins and thumps down onto the mounded bedspread with a wheezy sigh, full-bellied and secure for the first time in days. Within seconds he begins to snore.

Promising herself another cup before she leaves, Koda pulls her gloves back on and slogs through the snow to the barn. The doors are closed but not locked. When her eyes accustom themselves to the dim light, she finds a pair of Holstein cows and a heifer huddled together amid the hay, their breath making cloudy weather about them. An Appaloosa turns his head toward her expectantly as she approaches his stall; his quarterhorse stablemate, more impatient, whinnies loudly and stamps. She rubs their noses in turn, speaking softly.

Half an hour later, the cows and horses are fed and watered, the stalls mucked out. In the process of finding and dragging out a sack of feed, Koda has also discovered a dozen red hens and a rooster along a shelf in an empty stall. Now, replete, they are back on their perch, clucking softly, settling down once more. Like Louie, they are as comfortable and safe as she can make them.

Only one thing left to do now.

Koda takes the snow shovel from its place against the barn wall and makes her way to the north side of the house, where the sun, when it comes out, will be slow to melt the drifts, where more fall will pile high. With it she digs a shallow trench, long but narrow, under the eaves. The ground beneath is frozen.

One by one, she brings the dead from the house and lays them in all the grave she can make for them. She expects the children to be the hardest. And while her heart clenches as she wraps their bodies, cold as any stone, and bears them out to their burials, it is the old folk who come nearest to breaking it. They should have died in their beds, at home, their children and grandchildren about them. Wise, content in their passing.

Ate, she promises her father as the silent tears spill from her eyes; Ina, my mother: I will not let you die like this.

Gently Koda drops the snow over the bodies; gently smoothes the surface so that there will be no sign of disturbance with the next fall. She turns to go.

It is too stark; there should be some ceremony, some leave-taking. The Hurleys are Irish Catholic, every man jack and woman of them for four generations all the way back to Ellis Island and a thousand years before that. She cannot find their priest in Rapid City and send him back; it is far too dangerous, even if he is somehow still alive. She will have to do, half-heathen that she is.

She searches her memory for the words, and they come to her, the Church’s prayer for those about to step onto the Blue Road of the spirit. She signs a cross above the snow and murmurs, “Go forth, Christian souls, out of this world: in the name of the Father, who has created you; in the name of the Son, who has redeemed you; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies you. Into Paradise may the angels lead you; at your coming may the martyrs receive you, and lead you into the Holy City, Jerusalem. Amen.”

Koda stands a moment more by the grave, head bowed in respect. Then she turns once again to the care of the living.

Back in the house, the second and not nearly so satisfying cup of not-quite-coffee in her hand, Koda wrestles briefly with herself whether to leave the oven on for Louie. She opts for safety and her mother’s training in the end, turns it off, ruffles the sleeping dog’s ears a last time, and returns to her truck. As she swings back out of the driveway, she thumbs her CB on. “Tacoma. Tacoma, come in.”

“Hey, Koda! You comin’ home already? You got a flat? You need me to come help you?”

“Hey yourself, bro. We’ve been there, done that. Mom and Dad need you at home.”

“Yeah, sure.” A whole world of adolescent male discouragement is loaded onto the two words.

Virginia. Charleston. Koda’s hand clenches on the mike. I won’t let that happen to you either, little brother. Not while I live. But she says, steadily, “Is Dad around? Phoenix?”

“I’ll get ‘em. Hang on.”

It is Phoenix who takes the call. “Dad’s out in the barn. What’s up?”

Guardedly, Koda describes what she has found at the Hurley ranch. “It’s the same pattern. Paul and the boys are dead. So are an elderly couple I think were his aunt and uncle. The girls and Virginia are missing. Soon as you can, you and Dad need to come get the food out of the pantry and take the livestock, including a small shaggy dog named Louie.”

“Louie?” There is laughter in Phoenix’s voice.

“Yeah, Louie. Mom’ll like him. There are trailers here; you just need to bring the trucks.”

“Gotcha.”

“And listen. Nobody’s been here since they were killed. If you see more tracks than mine, one set coming and another set going—

“Gotcha again,” he interrupted her. “We’ll be careful. You do the same.”

“Yeah. Later.”

“Later,” he echoes, and breaks the connection.

9

Kirsten pulls along the drop off curb in front of the Shop ‘n Go Market. Jumping out of the van, she walks to the back and opens the large cargo doors, displaying an interior which now has a number of five and ten gallon gas cans, filled to the brim with fuel. Gas had taken her awhile to get, given that without any electricity to power the pumps, she had to resort to siphoning, which left her nauseous and with the foul taste of gasoline in her mouth.

Asimov whines at her from the rear bench seat and she looks at him. “You stay here and guard the truck, boy. No chasing cats, or dogs, or rats, or whatever else strikes your fancy. You just stay here, alright? I’ll be back in a little while.”

The large dog whines again, but finally settles down, propping his big head on the top of the seat and looking at her through soulful brown eyes.

“Not this time, boy. I’m sorry, but I need to move quick and not be chasing you around the store. We’ll be on the road soon, I promise.”

With a long suffering sigh that would do a Jewish mother proud, Asimov seems to accept his mistress’ terms and drops his head off the seat, stretching his body along the back in preparation for a nap.

Nodding in satisfaction, Kirsten steps away from the van and walks toward the wide glass doors of the supermarket. Engaged in her thoughts, she doesn’t stop until forced to do so by a thick sheet of glass pressed tight against her body. Stunned, she takes a step back and stares at the door for a moment, perplexed.

Then she utters a shaky laugh and mentally slaps her head. Without electricity, the automatic doors have become as useful as a flag to a hen. Stepping forward, more cautiously this time as though the doors might suddenly grow fangs and attempt to bite, she wraps a hand around the small handle and pulls. It takes most of her strength, but she manages to bully the door open wide enough to slip through.

And steps immediately back outside again as the high, sweet stench of decaying food and rotting human assaults her senses for the second time that afternoon. It’s a good thing that her stomach is filled with nothing but hunger, or she would be adding to the stench.

Wiping heavily watering eyes with both hands, she takes a few deep breaths of cold, outside air and contemplates her options.

There aren’t many. The next store down is a SavMor Pharmacy, but unless she plans to spend the rest of her time on the road subsisting on cheese crackers washed down by swigs of cherry-flavored laxative, the grocery store is the only game in town.

Reaching into her back pocket, she pulls out a gray bandana, flaps it out, and ties it securely around her nose and mouth. It won’t do much, she’s quite sure, but it’s better than nothing.

She hopes.

Girding her figurative loins, she steps back to the door and once again bullies it open by main strength. Her stomach immediately twists and growls out its outrage as the stench assaults her senses anew, but she silently commands it to shut up, and takes a step forward into the store.

Her gaze is immediately drawn upwards by a large, bright sign that catches the rays of the slowly dying sun.

Wednesdays are Senior Days at Shop ‘n Go! Golden age discounts for our golden age members!

Without looking down, she mentally calculates the days, and a grimace spreads hidden over her face as she realizes that today is Friday. Finally allowing her gaze to lower, she finds herself in the middle of an abattoir.

Elderly men and women had heeded the sign and died in droves. They are scattered through the aisles like fallen trees, still dressed in their Sunday best. A smattering of younger people, mostly adolescent boys and a couple of grown men, lay sprawled out by the cash registers and the manager’s booth. The enemy had caught them unaware and they’d never had time to defend themselves, not that they could have against their inhuman murderers.

The lights flicker and hum, dimming and brightening in a pulsing rhythm courtesy of the backup generator that is obviously breathing its last.

The aisles are so tightly packed with corpses that she’ll never get a cart down any of them. Resigning herself, she grabs two hand baskets and carefully makes her way over and around the dead, searching for what she’ll need to survive the long trip she has ahead of her.

An hour, and five trips later, she’s finally done. Canned goods, dog food, the few fresh vegetables and fruits she could find, water by the gallon, and several butane stoves she found in the clearance aisle share space with the gas cans in the van’s large cargo hold. A quick trip to the neighboring pharmacy, not nearly as crowded with rotting corpses, yielded first aid items, personal care items, and enough narcotics to land her in jail, had there been anyone around to arrest her.

She thinks for a moment, then steps into the cargo hold, grabbing her backpack and pulling out a fresh set of clothes. The ones she’s wearing reek of death and decay, and once she’s stripped them off—wishing mightily for a bath—she tosses them onto the pavement of the lot never to be used again.

Jumping out of the van, she closes the cargo doors, locks them against accidental opening, and returns to the driver’s seat. Asimov wakes up from his nap and jumps into the front seat beside her. Smiling and ruffling his ears, she tosses him a chew-hoof she picked up in the market, starts the ignition, and drives quickly away from the small town, leaving it deserted of the living once again.

10

She returns to a world of undisturbed whiteness. There has been no further snowfall, but neither has any melted. The flat white stretches away in all directions, broken only by fence posts jutting through the drifts at intervals. Icicles hang from barbed wire strung between like Christmas tinsel. The blank sky offers no light, casts no shadows. It is a world of the dead, for the dead.

For the first time, Koda is grateful for the miserable cold. Without it, without the growl of the powerful engine under her truck’s hood, her senses would have nothing to cling to. She has lived on the northern plains all her life, has lived with the winters that come sliding down over open country from the blue pack ice of the Arctic Circle. She has driven snowy roads in the depths of January, when, like now, her truck has been the only moving thing besides the howling wind.

This is different.

She is a woman on whom solitude rests easily. This is not solitude. This is isolation from the very idea of life.

Koda strikes the rim of the steering wheel with the flat of her hand, hard. Damn. Damn again. She hates being helpless before a disaster she does not understand, cannot quite piece together. All right, Rivers. Break it down and sort it out. Treat it as an epidemic. Find patient zero, chart the spread.

She knows her data set is incomplete, but the basic pattern has held true for the MacGregors, for the Hurleys and for all the survivors who have managed to make it to a CB.
Item. The uprising seems to be spread at least across North America. She does not know what has happened in Europe or Africa, Asia or South America. It is fairly obvious that less technologically oriented cultures are likely to have more survivors. At least temporarily.

Item. In all cases the men and boys have been slaughtered, together with the older women. Girls and younger women have disappeared.

Item. Two thousand years ago, the pattern would have been familiar. Kill the men, rape the women, sell the virgin girls as slaves.

Which makes no sense.

Try again.

Foreign attack? South Dakota has been riddled for decades with nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. So has North Dakota. The prospect of mutual assured destruction has kept them in their silos. Could the Defense Department codes have fallen into enemy hands? And if so, which enemy?

And if so, why now?

Abruptly she brakes the truck. There, cut deep in the snow ahead of her, are the tracks of another vehicle. She studies the marks carefully. Wide body. Wide, heavy tires, heavily chained. The asphalt shows through in places where the links have bitten through the ice. A truck of some kind, possibly heavily loaded.

She gets out of the pickup, Uzi slung again over her shoulder. Slowly, she walks up the road between the ruts but sees nothing that can tell her more. No conveniently dropped candy wrappers, no cigarette butts, no beer cans, nothing to tell her whether the occupants of the other truck are human or not. When she has gone a couple hundred yards she gives it up and turns back.

Now what?

She scans the flat landscape in all directions. White drifts, bare trees, the dark lines of fences. In the field to her left, there are humps in the snow that may be hay bales or frozen cattle. Most of her route into Rapid City will be through open country like this. She is a little more than five miles north of Elm Creek. There is a bridge.

The snow lies too deep for her to cut across country. The next intersection with another road is on the other side of that bridge.

She can turn around, or she can go on.

No choice. Back behind the wheel of the pickup, Koda pulls the fleece-lined leather glove off her right hand. Underneath it is another of knitted wool; below that a silk mitt. She turns the key in the ignition, then drives with her left hand. The right rests on the freezing metal grip of the Uzi in her lap.

A mile along she sees the first living thing that has crossed her path since she set out. Far out in a rolling meadow to her left, just this side of a line of trees, there is a spill of black across the snow. It moves, separates, shifts again. Ravens. Her gaze follows the line of the rise. There, high above, another bird soars with its wings held in a shallow V. Its form is black against the sky; in the poor light all she can see is a silhouette. Raptor. Not an owl. Not a falcon by the shape of the wings. Hawk or eagle, then.

The sight warms her slightly from within. She is not quite sure why, except that she is pleased to see other living things in this barren landscape. Going about their lives, unaffected by the disaster that has overtaken their two-legged relations. As she watches, the bird banks and turns south, moving toward the creek, and disappears from sight.

A half mile from the bridge, she is still following the tracks of the unknown vehicle. The road curves here, a long, slow, shallow arc that passes through a stand of lodgepole pine and will put her onto a straight stretch no more than a couple hundred yards from the creek. If there is danger, it will be here.

It is waiting for her at the bridge.

A cold stillness spreads around her heart as Koda takes in the blockade. Two troop-carrier trucks are drawn up across the road, blocking the bridge. Four figures in military green winter fatigues stand in front of them, three of them with M-1’s held ready, the fourth with a mobile launcher on its shoulder and a bandolier of grenades strung across its chest. Even beneath the bulky clothing, she can make out the bulge of pistols at their belts. In her rear view mirror, she sees two more muffled and heavily armed figures step out of the trees and take up position behind her.

There is no hope of driving around them and through the creek. It is too deep at this point, the banks too steep. Koda brakes the pickup halfway between the woods and the barricade. She waits

One of the figures has a bullhorn. The voice that comes through has no human tone, only the flat, tinny quality of the amplifier. “You in the truck. Get out slowly with your hands on top of your head.!”

There are three possibilities. These soldiers may be not be human. They may be marauders set loose by the spreading chaos. Or they may be what they seem.

Deliberately, keeping her right hand in full view through the windshield, Koda slides out, placing both hands firmly on the crown of her Stetson and keeping the door between herself and the soldiers.

“Stand clear of the vehicle!”

Koda hesitates for a heartbeat. Once she is in the open, the Uzi will be in full view. She calculates the odds that she can reach it and take a few of these bastards, if bastards they are, with her before they shoot her down.

Another of the figures steps forward, arm raised. There is a grenade in its hand. “Stand clear NOW!”

The voice is female, deep and furry in the way of the Louisiana bayous. Almost certainly it belongs to a human. Between the soldier’s cap and the high collar that conceals most of her face, Koda can just make out the glint of dark eyes. Warily, stepping sideways, she comes out from behind the door.

She shouts, “You guys wanna introduce yourselves?” just as one exclaims, “Shit! He has a gun!”

The figure with the grenade takes a step forward. “Keep your hands away from your weapon!”

“They are away! Who the fuck are you?”

“We’re the free people of the United States! Take your left hand off your head and unbutton your coat and shirt! Let us see your throat!”

“After you!”

“Do it! Or I’ll frag your truck and incinerate you along with it!”

Non-negotiable. No more time to decide.

The woman brings her hands forward to pull the pin. Before she can reach it, a hawk plunges toward her out of the sky, screaming. It hurtles downward to within inches of her face, pulling up nanoseconds short of collision, talons outstretched to strike. Then it shoots upward again at an almost vertical angle. The woman yells, recoils , waivers and topples backward into the snow, the grenade disappearing somewhere in the drift.

Laughter catches in Koda’s throat as one of the other soldiers raises a gun to shoot at the bird. “No!” she shouts, pulling furiously at the collar of her coat with her right hand, raising her left in a fist. She whistles loud, piercingly. “Wiyo! Wiyo Cetan!”

She whistles three times. At the third, the hawk hovers briefly at her zenith, then stoops again, making straight for Koda. Koda whistles a fourth time, at a lower pitch, and the hawk’s body swings forward. Great wings backing air, it comes to light gently, almost delicately, on her fist. Then, mantling and hissing at the dumbstruck soldiers, it sidesteps its way up her arm to her shoulder. One of its wings strikes Koda’s hat, knocking it off her head, and her hair comes tumbling down. The hawk settles, glaring.

The leader has regained her feet. A wide grin splits her dark face as she opens her own collar, showing unmarked human flesh. “Colonel Margaret Allen, United States Air Force. Pleased to meet you.”
“Dakota Rivers. Lakota Nation.”

The Colonel offers her hand to shake, and Koda takes it. “You a vet?”

“Yeah.”

“I saw your license plate.” Koda follows her gaze back to her truck, where the registration numbers are split by a caduceus overlaying a V. “Figured you were human, but we’re not taking any chances.”

“You from the base?”

The Colonel grimaces. “What’s left of it.” Then, “What are you doing out on the road? You have people in the city?”

Koda shakes her head. “Scouting.”

“With a hawk? That’s a red-tail, isn’t it?”

“Not it. She.”

Another of the soldiers has gotten himself sufficiently together to approach. Koda stares at him. He is the first living man she has seen in three days who is not her kin. Her right hand drops to her waist, near the Uzi. He follows her gaze, then opens the throat of his coat.. “I’m real, too. August Schimmel. That’s a hell of a pet you’ve got there.”

Wiyo mantles again, and Koda smiles. It is not a particularly reassuring smile. “Not a pet. A friend.”

Colonel Allen bends down and retrieves Koda’s hat, hands it to her. “Come on over to one of the carriers where it’s warm. We need to talk.”

Koda nods. As she follows the other woman toward the dark olive trucks, Wiyo leaves her shoulder with a hiss and rises to settle in a bare sycamore by the bridge. The small flicker of hope that had gone out when she found the Hurleys massacred rekindles itself in a far corner of Koda’s mind. There are other people alive, and fighting. She is not alone.
CHAPTER THREE

“I read the news today, oh boy…”
1

Advisors Axe Androids, Heckle Hoaxer

New York (New York Post) The Chairman of the newly developed President’s Committee on Robotics, Howard Mexenbaum, issued a press release today stating that Peter Westerhaus’ revolutionary invention is no more revolutionary “than a child’s Halloween costume.” Mr. Mexenbaum is quoted as saying that “it’s obvious to anyone with two eyes in their head that this android business is a hoax of the highest order. George Lucas showed more ingenuity in stuffing that little man into his R2D2 costume than Westerhaus has yet shown the American people.”

When asked, in a private interview, whether Mr. Mexenbaum had actually seen the android in question, he stated that he had not, but that he had heard reports and that those reports were “virtually unanimous” in their disparagement of Westerhaus’ “invention”.

The press release went on to say that the Committee was drafting a letter to the President asking that the FBI and possibly the CIA open up preliminary investigations on this “modern day P.T. Barnum.”

::flip::

President is “Utterly Convinced”

Washington DC (AP) In a Press Conference in the Rose Garden today, President Hillary Clinton stated that she is “utterly convinced” that Peter Westerhaus’ android inventions are, in fact, “the genuine article.”

In a private meeting with the President earlier today, Westerhaus unveiled two prototypes of his androids, affectionately named C4PO and R2D3 in a sarcastic reply to Howard Mexenbaum’s earlier accusations of huckstering. The President reportedly stood by in awe as the androids walked up to her, shook her hand, greeted her by name, and returned to the side of their inventor. One of the androids apparently asked Ms. President if she would like him to fix the squeaky hinge in the door leading to the Oval Office. It is unknown how she replied.

When asked if she would be the first in line to purchase one of the androids when they became commercially available, the President smiled and said “no, that’s why I have Bill.”

::flip::

Westerhaus Announces Household Robot

New York (AP) Westerhaus Inc. announced today the unveiling of its new home robot, the revolutionary Maid Marian. “We are pleased to offer American householders the greatest time- and labor-saving device since the introduction of the automatic washing machine,” company spokesperson Melinda Deliganis said, “The Maid Marian is a highly programmable model that can take over such tedious jobs as cleaning, cooking and even a limited amount of routine errand-running, such as picking up parcels. She can walk at a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour, and her feet will never get tired!”

Deliganis characterized Microsoft’s crash program to develop a competing product as “irrelevant.” “We have the patents and the proprietary technology. While it is true that the first Maid Marians will be priced in the high-ticket range, we expect demand to be high enough to support a mass-market version within eighteen months.”

::flip::

Bishop Says There Are No Religious Implications

Washington (MSNBC) In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews yesterday, the Right Reverend William S. MacDermott, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States stated flatly that the introduction of android robots “does not pose any theological questions. Does your car pose a theological question?” the Bishop asked rhetorically. “Does your alarm clock? A robot is a machine, property that can be bought and sold. Nuts and bolts and printed circuits. Nothing more.”

Asked to respond to Televangelist Pat Robertson’s claim that the robots are “the work of the devil,” the Bishop referred Matthews to his previous response. “I’ll be surprised if the Rev. Robertson doesn’t have one mowing his lawn by the Fourth of July,” he quipped.

::flip::

Royals to Replace Staff with Bots?

London (Reuters) A spokesperson for Queen Camilla today declined to confirm or deny that Palace maids and other maintenance personnel will be replaced with androids. “Her Majesty welcomes technological change, and as you know has sponsored several scholarships for promising computer-technical students. This has nothing to do with the current nationwide shortage of domestic employees.’

In a related story (A 14) the Palace had “no comment” to Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s remark that His Majesty King Charles is an early, unmarketable Westerhaus test model.

::flip::

Phelps Campaign Interrupts Commendation Ceremony

Minneapolis (CNN) Jedadiah Phelps, the grandson of Fred Phelps, the late Minister of the Westboro Baptist Church, gathered his faithful flock in protest of a commendation ceremony held in Minneapolis today.

Holding handmade signs and shouting “God Hates Droids!”, the group of twenty managed to disrupt the proceedings at least twice before police clad in riot gear ushered them from the premises.

The ceremony, presided over by Mayor Tim “The Rule Man” Taylor, was to commemorate and commend the heroic actions of Android 77-EDY-823 (Eddie) during the recent bout of arson-related fires in the city. Firedroid Eddie, it will be remembered, managed a rescue total of twenty three humans, five dogs, seventeen cats, two birds and one chinchilla during the three day siege.

The mayor….

::flip::

Defense Secretary Announces Android Soldiers

Washington (AP) Secretary of Defense Humberto X. Palacios today announced that initial tests of android infantry soldiers have been “a stunning success. These new models, co-developed by Westerhaus and Boeing Defense Industries, have exceeded all expectations in target recognition, accuracy, versatility in weapons usage and deployment capability. The day is coming when no young American soldier will ever again have to face enemy fire head-on.” Palacios indicated that if these new models perform well in further tests which more closely match actual battlefield conditions, initial deployment could take place as soon as next year.

When asked if these new military androids could pose a danger to the American people, Palacios replied, “These androids will be deployed under very strict, very controlled military situations and will never come into contact with American civilians.”

Dr. Kirsten King, the Government’s top expert in robotics and a noted skeptic of the current “android rage” was unavailable for comment.

::flip::

Android Troops to be Deployed in Gulf

Camp David (Reuters) The Guardian has learned today that President Clinton will order the first deployment of android infantry to the Gulf theater next week. “I inherited this war, as you know,” Ms. Clinton said. “Now I mean to put a stop to it.”

::flip::

Loser Demands Gold Medalist Step Down

Copenhagen (Reuters) Ekaterina Petrovna Schevaryedna, Silver Medalist in the 2012 Winter Olympics, has filed a complaint alleging that Britney Chung, the U. S. skater who glided to a stunning upset over the top-rated Russian in the Women’s Figure Skating last night, should be disqualified. Schevaryedna alleges that her competitor is “not a human at all. She is a robot!”

Olympic officials here issued a brief statement this morning, saying only that Chung has consented to undergo X-ray examination and to submit blood samples. Off the record, one Commissioner quipped, “At least this is easier to deal with than crooked judges.”

::flip::

Android Involved in Assault on Driver

Kalamazoo (MSNBC) Today an android allegedly assaulted the driver of a vehicle which struck it as it was crossing the street in this Midwestern city. Neither the name of the driver nor the model of the android was made public. Details remain spotty.

::flip::

Android Saves New York Child

New York (AP) A seven-year-old child was pulled from the Hudson River today by an android after falling nearly 50 feet into the icy waters below.

The boy, Jake Hamilton, was on a class trip to visit the George Washington Bridge when he climbed a bridge rail and tumbled over. Android XKJ152-67-A-245-TOM witnessed the incident and followed the boy into the river, ultimately saving his life.

“It was scary when I fell,” Hamilton said from his hospital bed where he is still recuperating. “But then it got really black when I got cold in the water. I don’t remember that droid swimming out with me, but I’m really thankful to him.”

According to doctors the boy suffered hypothermia almost immediately due to the freezing temperature of the river. After record-breaking winter weather has hammered the East Coast, officials estimate the water temperature of the Hudson River is between zero and 15 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.

Android TOM said he did not process his actions against his moral coding before taking the plunge. Bain, an exterior bridge worker, was harnessed to the side of the bridge below the point from which the boy fell.

“It seemed the thing to do,” Bain said in a phone interview. “It is against my model’s coding to participate in the loss of human life. Perhaps I did not process the action as negative because I had seen the boy fall. Allowing him to stay in the cold waters would have ended his life cycle. Therefore, I had to act contrary to his death.”

Bain is one of the newer prototype androids, a model XHJ152. He was completing a manual task assignment before his judgment coding was tested.

::flip::

“Why’d you do it, Peter?” Kirsten asks, voice soft as her eyes trace a grainy, newspaper photo of the diminutive Westerhaus dwarfed by the size of the yacht he stands aboard, platinum blondes dripping off of him like voluptuous beads of sweat. “You had it all, and more. Why this? Why now?”

Sighing, she closes the scrapbook and places it atop the dozen others she managed to secret away when she began the run for her life.

She sighs again, clicking off the flashlight in her hand, and slumping back against the seat. The night sky is brilliantly clear, the stars a smattering of jewels thrown across a velvet tapestry by a careless hand. She stares through the windshield into that sky, lost in her own thoughts.

The paper is right, of course. About most things in her life, and the androids especially, Kirsten King is a skeptic of the highest order. The religious zealots and jealous corporations had praised her to the highest Heaven during her first public stands against Westerhaus’ creations. Others had looked at her as if she’d grown a second head. Her peers, mostly, laughed behind their hands and coined her with the affectionate title “Chicken Little”. Not because of any perceived cowardice on her part—there was nothing cowardly about Kirsten King—but because of what they felt to be her sudden propensity toward running around shouting “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

“It fell alright.”

Her voice is unnaturally loud in the absolute silence of the night, and her breath fogs the windshield, rendering her view hazy and indistinct.

Smothering a yawn with her cupped palm, Kirsten stretches out her cramped shoulders and back, rolling her neck from side to side and listening to it crackle with a soft grunt of satisfaction. Behind her, Asimov moans in his doggy dreams and shifts slightly into a more comfortable position.

“Okay, mutt,” she says, turning to look over her shoulder at her slumbering canine companion, “time for you to give up your….”

The sound of shattering glass cuts through the rest of her sentence like a knife. Before she can react, Kirsten feels a hand slip into her hair and pull tightly, slamming her head hard against the window’s support. Her vision lights up with interior stars that swirl in a dizzying pattern before her.

A breath that sounds very much like a scream is forced from her lungs, and her survival instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Her scalp shrieks as she jerks her head away and rolls sideways across the bench seat.

She jerks back as a second arm blasts through the passengers’ side window, splattering her face and clothing with icy shards of safety glass. This time, it’s a definite scream that shoots forth, and Kirsten crab-crawls backward, hands and feet slipping and sliding along the vinyl seat-cover.

Asimov jumps over the seat, snarling, and clamps his huge, dripping teeth into the arm that pokes into the passengers’ side of the truck searching for the door handle.

Pulling her legs out from beneath her dog’s heavy weight, Kirsten reaches for the keys still in the ignition, but before she can grab the switch, her hair is again grabbed and she is hauled bodily across the rest of the seat, slamming against the door hard enough to drive the breath from her lungs and the thoughts from her mind.

The world grays out for a moment, then rushes back with startling clarity.

I’m going to die.

The thought is strangely free of accompanying emotion, and part of her wonders if she’s not dead already, simply existing as some amorphous ghost-thing doomed forever to haunt a truck.

“I don’t believe in ghosts.”

Setting her jaw, she jerks forward again, only to be dragged back when a strong forearm clamps itself against her throat, cutting off her breathing in a savage motion.

Her right arm shoots out, trying desperately to reach the keys, but all she can do is flop her fingers uselessly against the steering wheel. Black roses begin to bloom in her vision, and with all of her strength she tries again.

Nothing.

Her hand rebounds off the steering wheel to land at her side. Her fingers trace along the chilled metal of some object that her oxygen starved brain refuses to identify. Working on blind instinct alone, she grabs the object, hand curling around it naturally. Hefting it, she brings her arm up and across her body and pulls the trigger of the gun in her hand, again and again and again until it only responds with empty, impotent clicks.

In deep shock, and temporarily deafened by her own gun, Kirsten doesn’t realize that the arm around her neck has loosened until her head begins pounding with the rush of life-giving oxygen returning her red blood cells to their normal function.

Her lungs respond automatically, in heaving gasps of fresh, cold air, and even before her second intake of breath, she’s straightened out, dropped the gun, and is reaching for the keys in the ignition. This time, her fingers score a direct hit, and the van starts up with a howling growl.

“Asimov, release!” she shouts as she swings her leg down and jams her foot on the accelerator. Human and canine are driven against the backs of their seats as the van goes from stop to go in what seems to be a nanosecond. The stench of burning rubber accompanies the screech of new Michelins. The van rockets away from the curb, shimmies a bit on a small patch of black ice, then straightens admirably and roars down the street as if being pursued by Lucifer himself.

Her attacker is still hanging on, though now it’s to the doorframe. Shards of safety glass cut cruelly into its unfeeling palms, but it holds on, uncaring. Kirsten knows better than to try and pry the fingers away from the frame. She lacks the strength and leverage it would require, and would further draw her attention away from the road she is blistering down at sixty and still gaining.

A grin devoid of any charm or humor curls her lips as she sees a delivery truck parked against the curb to her left. A quick twist of the wheel, and the van heads in that direction.

“Die, you fucker!!!”

Another jerk of the wheel and the side of the van crashes against the delivery truck and bounces off. It shudders, then sideswipes the truck again, paint and metal screeching their last. The screeching stops as the two vehicles finally separate. The truck remains stationary, rocking on its springs. The van continues forward, now sounding a little worse for wear.

Kirsten chances a look to her left, and crows in delight when the only sign of her inhuman attacker is the two hands it’s left behind, still gripping the window frame hard enough to dent the metal beneath the vinyl and foam padding.

At her side, Asimov yelps, and Kirsten quickly returns her attention to the road just in time to see a moving truck parked crossways along the road, blocking it completely.

“Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…..”

Yanking the wheel hard, she almost overturns the truck as it attempts to turn at a nearly right angle while still doing somewhere close to fifty miles an hour.

“..iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii….”

Going up on two wheels for a terror-filled moment, it finally drops home on all four and continues on at an angle, the truck in its sights and growing larger by the second.

“…iiiiiiiiiiii…”

All four wheels leave the road this time as the van jumps the curb, missing the rear corner of the moving truck by less than the width of a hair.

“..iiiiiiiiiiiit!”

The front wheels land first. Kirsten’s head jerks forward, pounding against the steering wheel and slicing a large gash just above her hairline. Asimov yelps again as he is thrown against the glove compartment, rebounds into the seat, and collapses, panting and whining in pain.

The rear wheels hit then, and Kirsten’s head tips back. A rich fan of bright blood lays itself across the windshield and the ceiling. A second fan joins the first as the van drops down off the curb and shoots down a narrow side street, careening out of control.

The side street widens out, then curves gently, becoming a freeway onramp. Kirsten holds the curve, blinking the streaming blood from eyes big and round and white as saucers. She lets out a breath of relief as the van rockets onto the thankfully empty freeway, then sucks that breath back in as the tires hit another patch of black ice and slide across the lanes as if they’ve suddenly grown skate blades.

The sideways glide, almost balletic really, comes to an abrupt end as the van sideswipes a steel divider, further abusing the already crumpled driver’s side from fender to fender. More metal and paint are sacrificed to the gods of destruction, and the van gradually slows, half on and half off of the smoothly paved freeway.

If finally rolls to a complete stop, and Kirsten sits, staring through the window as her mind tries to wrap itself around the events just preceding. Her hand moves up to wipe her brow. It comes away bloody as she hisses at the sting. “You alright boy?” she asks Asimov. His ears perk, followed by his body as he comes to a sitting position and leans over to lick at her face. It tickles, and she giggles a little before pushing him away. The laugh sounds a little breathless, a little tremulous, and she knows that her system is just waiting out the shock she’s just given it. And if that happens….

Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out another handkerchief, dots gingerly at the blood on her brow, then ties it around her head just below the level of the cut. The mediocre first aid will have to do for now. She can’t spare time for anything else.

The battered van starts forward again, if grudgingly, and soon she’s driving west as if trying to outrun the dawn shading the eastern sky.

2

Setting her hat back on her head, Koda follows Allen to the back of the nearer troop trucks. She swings herself easily up onto the bumper, then ducks through the narrow door. Inside, the carrier has been transformed into a mobile field office. A table has been bolted to the floor between the two long side benches; over their heads—not more than a couple millimeters over Koda’s–a battery-powered fluorescent tube runs almost the length of the compartment.

A topo map of the area is taped by its corners to the table, which also holds a compact laptop no thicker than a weekly newsmagazine. Best of all, a camp stove backed by a wide reflector radiates heat through the entire space. The Colonel unbuttons her heavy parka and drops it onto a folding chair. Koda follows suit, adding hat and gloves to the pile.

The Colonel raises a mug with squadron logo on the side: a bobcat standing on its hind feet and twirling a six-gun in either paw, a crooked, very human grin spread across its whiskered face under a Stetson. Behind it is the shape of a steeply climbing fighter jet, with “Wildcats SR” in looping script across its tail. “Coffee?”

Koda settles on one of the benches, stretching her booted feet out to the stove. “Real?”

“Real.” Allen rummages in a thermal chest under the table and comes up with another cup and a vacuum jug. “Sugar? Creamer?”

“Black, thanks.”

She hands Koda the hot, fragrant drink and settles across from her. She is tall and spare, though not so tall as Koda, with elegant long hands. There is a scattering of grey in her hair, worn natural and close to her scalp. Her only ornament is a single gold ear cuff, also in the form of a bobcat. She smiles faintly, but her eyes remain sharp and more than a little wary. “So,” she says. “Truth or dare time. You want me to go first?”

Koda raises her mug in salute. “Be my guest, Colonel.”

“Maggie.”

“Koda, then.”

Maggie nods, then settles herself, leaning back against the wall of the truck. “Okay.

“We were in the air when we got word of the uprising. We’d only been up about half an hour or so—myself, half a dozen instructors with their student pilots. Flying echelon, doing some formation training on the way up to Minot. We were doing the tour, landings and takeoffs at half-a-dozen bases with mid-air refueling. Standard exercise.”

So they have planes. Koda lowers her eyes as she takes a sip from the cup, not quite quickly enough.

“Right,” Maggie confirms with a negligent wave of her hand. “When we heard, we turned around and put down on a long, straight stretch of farm road a couple miles from here. We found a ranch house that had already been hit. The folks there apparently kept a couple domestic droids, maybe a field hand or two. The men were all dead and the women all gone.”

She pauses, and Koda recognizes that it is her turn. “That’s the pattern we’ve seen. The night it happened, we destroyed a pair of droids that had gone to raid our neighbors’ ranch. We weren’t in time to help the men, but we got the women and girls away from them. Same at another place a few miles up the road, except that the things were long gone.”

“We?”

“My family and I. My dad has a large spread up near the Cheyenne. I have my own place next to it.”

“Can your people hold it?”

“So far.”

“Good. We need to find other resisters, too. Right now, we’re holding about fifteen square miles, closing off the roads and bridges and running a tight perimeter with relay patrols.”
“How many troops?”

Maggie ticked them off. “We have the fighter crews; that’s fourteen of us. Then we have another thirty, weekend infantry we picked up when we went to raid the National Guard armory at Box Elder for vehicles and small arms. Plus survivors and refugees that managed to get away from Ellsworth itself. Sixty-five of us altogether.”

“So what’s going on? It’s not just a mutiny. Hell,” Koda thumped her cup down on the table, sloshing the still-scalding liquid halfway up the side of the mug.” It’s a goddam third-rate science-fiction story: kill the men and carry off Earth’s Fairest Daughters. It’s worse than goddam Fay Wray with the goddam gorilla up on the goddam Empire State Building!”

“You’re right about that,” Maggie says softly. “Most of the men on the base were mutilated.”

Koda draws her breath in sharply, the air hissing between her teeth. “So.”

“But you suspected that, didn’t you?”

“Young, prime males, sure.” Koda shrugs. “Steers go to market; cows and heifers make more steers, with the bull or with the turkey baster. It does, however,” she says very carefully, “seem unlikely that the droids are raising beef. Or long pig.”

“Well, they haven’t eaten anybody yet. I’ve always hated the damn things. Hated the idea of them, the risk they just might not be controllable in a crisis. Hated making them humanoid.” A wry grin splits Maggie’s dark face. “But I don’t think they’ve gotten human enough to turn to cannibalism. No, it’s something else. Want to help us find out what?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Some recon tomorrow, onto the base and maybe into Rapid City.”

It is what she had intended to do in any case. She had not expected to have allies. Koda nods. “Count me in.”

Half an hour later, Koda is back on the road toward the ranch house that serves as the guerilla force’s headquarters, part of the small convoy that has picked up the Colonel and the bridge guards and left others in their place. The driver ahead of her, one Corporal Lizzie Montoya, is a maniac, her tires spraying snow in arcing fountains as she bumps and crunches along through the ice at reckless speed. Koda drives with one foot half on the brake in case Montoya skids off the road or into the lead vehicle. Miraculously, the Corporal does not kill herself or anyone else.

A mile and a half from the bridge, they come to clear pavement, and the sudden change jolts up through Koda’s back and shoulders. Ahead of them on the road, coming nearer, seven huge silver shapes loom against the sky like prehistoric beasts. Wings canted back, bristling with missiles that jut out from underneath their bellies like spines, they might be pterodactyls set down to roost. Movement catches her eye, and Koda glances up.

A hawk glides smoothly across the white sky. Something eases inside Koda, a tension she scarcely has known was there. It is a good sign, she thinks, lelah wakan.

When she takes the turn that leads toward a slim column of smoke to the west, the hawk follows.

3

An old, old song pounds through Kirsten’s head. She navigates the Interstate with the attention of a barrel-rider, avoiding wrecked trucks, spilled cargo, here and there a corpse. As the frozen asphalt stretches out between her van and the city, though, obstacles become fewer. She still passes the occasional abandoned vehicle, doors broken and hanging open like the valves of a plundered clamshell. She has no way of knowing whether the occupants have escaped or been taken. She cannot slow down to find out, cannot concern herself with the wounded or the possibly salvageable. Her own survival is paramount. She tells herself over and over again that this is not the Highway to Hell. Through Hell, maybe, but not to Hell. It is the highway to Minot, North Dakota, and it is already more than all the hell she ever thought she would see.

Keep it simple. Keep it literal.

Somewhere around noon she crosses the thin spike of West Virgina that juts up between Pennsylvania and Ohio. Her forehead and scalp, which have ached dully since her collision with the steering wheel, have begun to itch with the dried blood from her wound. Little flakes sift down every now and then into her eyes, blurring her vision momentarily. Her bladder, in fact her whole abdomen, has felt for the last half hour as though a whole firing squad of porcupines has used her for target practice. For twice that time she has been promising herself to hold on in fifteen-minute increments. Finally, Asimov settles the matter for her, whining piteously and batting at the door handle with one huge paw.

“Okay, boy. I get you. Hang on just a few minutes more.” She reaches over to ruffle his ears and receives an exceptionally slobbery lick in return. “God,” she mutters, “how I do love gratitude.”

Just over the Ohio line, the Interstate dips to pass under a railroad bridge. Kirsten pulls over and ducks into an embrasure between the concrete struts. Asimov finds himself a satisfactory pillar near the further side of the overpass and irrigates it copiously. The puddle steams in the frigid air.

Asimov quarters the patch of highway, nose down and tail stiff, snuffling ecstatically at a sprayed stain on the cement and lifting his leg to obliterate it with one last, joyful squirt. Kirsten allows him to run off some of the stiffness of the hours in the van, stretching her own cramped legs and shoulder at the same time. When the cold begins to seep through her insulated boots, she whistles her dog back to the van. “Asimov, come! Let’s go!”

He wheels to obey, then freezes, ears straight up. He gives two sharp barks, whines and repeats the alarm. Without even thinking, Kirsten grabs the gun off the van’s seat. “What is it, boy? Where?”

Asimov barks yet again, and this time she hears it. Faint at first but coming steadily nearer, the steady whup-whup of a helicopter’s rotor sweeps toward them down the highway.

“Asimov!”

This time her voice is sharp, and he comes to her. Holding his collar with her left hand, her right gripping the automatic, Kirsten crouches down behind the bulk of the van. In her thoughts she makes herself small. Transparent. Not there.

The noise grows louder and louder until it seems to Kirsten that the chopper must be hovering directly above them. Maybe even landing on the tracks over her head. By the sound it is a large craft, a Black Hawk, maybe, or an Apache gunship. Definitely not a two-seater bubble. It is low enough that the rotor wash kicks up snow, making little funnel clouds and eddies in the drifts piled against the sides of the culvert. The racket is deafening.

There are two possibilities. The helicopter may be operated by human soldiers or law enforcement officers. If it is, they might be able to get her to Minot in half a day.

Or the crew may not be human. In that case, she will destroy as many as she can.

Finding out is not worth the risk.

The pitch of the rotor changes, intensifies unbearably for half a minute. Then the sound begins to recede, fading finally somewhere to the west and north of the overpass. Whatever has drawn the pilot’s attention, it is not one more derelict vehicle on the highway. It is only when her heart dislodges itself from her throat and begins to slow that she realizes it has been beating like a trip hammer to the rhythm of the blades. Her mouth feels cotton-dry. From somewhere deep in her mind a childhood memory rises up. Ms. Tannenbaum’s Sunday School class, little Passover lambs molded of papier maché and covered with fringed and curled white tissue paper.

Take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door-frames . . . eat with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in hast; it is the Lord’s Passover. On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn. . .The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.

Somehow the words have remained with her, overlaid by the smell of polymer glue and newsprint on a hot spring morning in Southern California, where her father had been stationed at Thirty-Nine Palms.

Shakily Kirsten gets to her feet and sets down the gun. “Stay, Asimov.”

As he waits patiently, she tops off the gas tank from the jerry cans she has stashed in the back of the van. Then she wets her bandana with as little water as possible and scrubs the dried blood from her forehead. There is a faint tinge of red when she brings it away; she is still bleeding slightly. She ties a fresh strip around her forehead, eats a granola bar while she studies the map. When she is certain the helicopter will not return, she whistles Asimov onto the front seat and sets out again onto the open road.

4

The ranch is good sized, though smaller than her family’s by a good bit. Which isn’t all that surprising, given Clan Rivers has managed to hold on to their piece of land since Time Immemorial, or so it seems.

The main house is a long, rectangular structure with several outbuildings trailing behind like goslings to their mother.

Dakota steps out of her truck into snow that is nearly knee deep, and watches as the others likewise exit their vehicles and head for the promising warmth of the house. She follows along slightly behind, taking careful inventory of those with whom, for better or for worse, she’s thrown in her lot.

For the tough Air Force Colonel, she feels a rather immediate kinship, which gives her pause, given that outside of her family, she trusts very few. While more than intelligent enough to realize that circumstances sometimes make for strange bedfellows, she believes that in this case, perhaps, circumstances have very little to do with things.

The others—those she’s met, anyway—seem capable, and very loyal to their commanding officer.

Her internal musings are interrupted by Montoya, who, with a rakish grin and a flourishing bow, ushers her inside the house. The interior is over warm, given the bitterness of the outside air, and she pauses for a moment as the flush of warming blood hits her tanned skin, painting her in a rosy hue. Montoya notices the flush and, mistaking the reason for it, tips the striking Vet a wink, which is abruptly cut off as cool blue eyes laser into hers.

“I’ll…um…you know…just go over….there….”

The young corporal is gone with a speed that surprises even her commander. Allen tries hard to keep a smile from her lips as she rapidly deduces the reason for the young woman’s alacrity. It’s a failed effort as those same blue eyes move to meet her own, twinkling with wry amusement. Allen covers her mouth and laughs, shoulders shaking with mirth.

“Dakota?”

Koda swings around to see a handsome, well-built man standing just inside the doorway, his dark eyes wide with surprise.

“Manny?”

The young man’s face breaks into a beaming grin and he crosses the room in three long strides, arms wide. The two tightly embrace for long seconds while the others, bemused, look on. Finally, Manny pulls away and looks up. “Damn, woman, when are you gonna stop growing?”

“You’re just shrinking, sprout,” Dakota replies, reaching up and scrubbing her hand over the bristles of his buzz-cut.

Ducking his head, the younger man smiles ruefully and rubs his own hand over his scalp, remembering when his hair was as long, glossy and lush as Dakota’s. Then he stiffens and the smile drops from his face. “Koda? Your family?”

“They’re fine, Manny. As are yours. Mother told me they’d been talking on the CB.”

Manny lets out a breath of relief. “Thank God. I tried to contact them, but the phones are gone.” He looks up at her, face wreathed in sorrow. “I’m sorry about Tali, Koda. She was a good person.” He clears his throat. “I tried to make it for the funeral, but we were on maneuvers.”

Dakota smiles. “It’s okay, hankashi. She knew you loved her, and that’s what counts, right?”

Sighing, Manny nods, then turns at the sound of his commander clearing her throat. A slight blush colors his skin. “Sorry Colonel. This is Dakota, my shic’eshi.”

“Cousin, right?”

The younger man grins. “That’s right. See, you’re learning!”

Allen chuckles.

“We practically grew up together. I haven’t seen her or her family in, what is it now, four years?”

“About that,” Dakota agrees.

“Good. I’m glad I could help get the two of you back together then.” Allen waves at her junior. “Why don’t you show your cousin where she’ll be bunking for the night. We’re leaving for the base first thing in the morning.”

Before Manny can respond, the front door bursts open to admit a florid faced young man wearing Lieutenant’s stripes. “Corporal, that little girl we found, I can’t stop the bleeding.”

Allen nods, already throwing her coat back on. “Alright, let’s see what we can do.”

Dakota steps between the two. Allen looks at her, eyebrow raised.

“Maybe I can help.”

Maggie continues to stare.

“You have any medics?”

Allen shakes her head. “Just pilots. We’ve got basic first aid training, but not much more than that.”

“Then I’m the best you’ve got for now.” She holds up the triage kit she always carries with her. “I know my way around the human body pretty well.”

Allen smiles, relieved. “I’ll take that offer. C’mon.”

5

They walk along a shoveled and salted pathway bracketed by several heavily armed soldiers who take up positions along the walk, ever vigilant for intruders. Bypassing the first small cottage, they come to the second just to its right, and Koda follows the colonel inside.

The house is stuffed to the veritable rafters with hollow-eyed refugees, all women and girl-children. It is very warm inside and smells of despair and too many bodies packed too tightly together. The rescued women shuffle out of their way like zombies, making a path to a door along the narrow hallway. Opening the door, Allen gestures Kota to precede her.

The stench of putrescence is overpowering, but Koda, having smelled far worse in her life, keeps her face carefully neutral as she walks over to the small cot upon which a young girl, no more than four, lays.

Her dark, almond eyes are huge and glassy with a fever that paints clown spots of color high on her already ruddy cheeks. Her long, black hair is matted with sweat and dirt, and she stirs restlessly, further tangling the sheet that tries in vain to cover her tiny body.

“She was found….” Maggie starts, but quiets at Dakota’s upheld hand.

“Hi, sweetheart,” Koda murmurs, looking down into eyes so large that they seem to swallow the youngster’s face whole. “Not feelin’ so good, huh?”

The girl shifts her gaze, not looking so much to Dakota as through her. Deep, dark, and almost insanely calm pools of helplessness and hopelessness sear into the vet, touching off a sparkstone of rage deep inside. She fights it down with everything she has, keeping her gaze gentle and warm as she can make it.

The girl is Cheyenne. This she can tell by the shape of her face and the color of her skin. “My name is Koda,” she murmurs in the girl’s own language. “And I’m going to help make you feel better, okay?”

The girl blinks slowly, a tiny spark of surprise shining in the depths of her glassy, huge eyes.

Dakota responds with a small smile. “Can you tell me your name, little one?”

“He’kase,” the girl whispers, voice cracked and dry. Allen murmurs in surprise. It’s the first time the girl has spoken since they found her two days ago. Dakota shoots the colonel a look, then gazes back down at her tiny patient.

“I’m happy to meet you, He’kase,” she intones softly.

The young girl’s eyes widen as Dakota bends slightly forward, causing her medicine pouch to slip past the buttons of her shirt. A small, pudgy arm reaches up to brush trembling fingers reverently against the deerhide pouch, causing it to swing slightly.

Dakota smiles. “Can you do me a favor, He’kase?”

The little girl nods somberly.

Reaching up, Koda slips the pouch over her head and presses it into the girl’s hand. “Can you keep this safe for me? I don’t want it to get in the way when I look at your leg, okay?”

He’kase nods again, eyes shining with a light that goes beyond the fever eating at her bones. She holds the pouch tight against her chest, covering it with both hands.

“Thank you.”

Stepping down to the foot of the cot, Dakota gently lifts the sheet away from He’kase’s legs. The high, powerful smell of raging infection wafts out from beneath the sheet, causing Maggie to cough softly and turn away for a long moment. She turns back to see Dakota eyeing her, and tries out a weak smile. “I’m okay.”

Dakota looks at her for a moment longer before finally returning her attention to her patient.

He’kase’s left thigh is swollen, taut and shiny. Dakota tenderly unwraps the blood encrusted bandage and pulls it away, exposing the wound. The young girl moans in pain, but keeps remarkably still, her trust in Dakota plainly evident.

There is a grotesque starburst of black, purple, red and green surrounding what can only be a bullet hole, black and charred against her tender flesh. The wound seeps blood and a thick green pus that eats into the flesh beyond.

Dakota feels the rage flash through her again, a raging see of red, but she tamps it down with savage intent, her fingers gentle against He’kase’s skin. She can feel a weak, thready pulse both behind the knee and in the foot, the thinks that there’s a fair chance to save the leg if the wound can be properly drained and cleansed.

After another moment, she replaces the sheet, and smiles up at the somber child. Reaching down, she hefts her kit, unbuckles the straps, and looks inside for what she needs. A vial of clear liquid sits close by a number of syringes. She removes both vial and syringe and sets them on the table next to the cot.

“Sweetheart, I’m going to give you some medicine. It will help take the pain away, and it might make you sleepy, but that’s okay.”

He’kase’s eyes move from the syringe to Dakota and back again. She swallows once, then nods her quiet acceptance. She doesn’t even flinch when the needle pierces her skin and the stinging fluid burns its way into her muscle.

Disposing of the syringe, Dakota walks again to the head of the cot and, smiling slightly, she tenderly brushes the thick, sweaty bangs from He’kase’s forehead. After a moment, the girl’s eyes close and she falls into a deep, troubled sleep, the medicine pouch cradled safely between her hands.

Maggie quietly approaches, laying a hand on Dakota’s shoulder. She can feel the anger coursing through the tall vet, an anger she knows all too well. Straightening to her full height, Dakota looks down at the Air Force Colonel, her face a stony mask.

“We found her inside a ranch house about five miles south of here,” Allen begins. “Her family, what was left of it, were butchered, like cattle.” She takes in a deep breath, then lets it out slowly, trying to cool her own rage. “We found her halfway underneath what we assumed to be her father. He was obviously trying to protect her, and I can only guess that those bastards thought they’d done their job. By the time we got there….” She sighs again. “She was already like this. We did the best we could, but….” Her hands lift, as if in supplication to an uncaring god.

“I’ll need some help.”

“I can….”

“No, you’ve got a camp to run. If you could get Manny? He used to help me in the clinic when he was younger. I don’t think he’s forgotten what to do.”

Maggie nods. “I’ll get him for you right away.”

“Thanks.”

“No,” Allen replies. “Thank you.”

6

The road is clear for the rest of the morning. Toward midday, the sky begin to clear, showing streaks of bright blue through the flat grey of the clouds. The glint of the sun off ice is almost a shock, and Kirsten fumbles one-handed in her pack for her dark glasses. Asimov has stretched out across the bench seat with his hind feet in her lap and is snoring and twitching by turns as he chases rabbits or Frisbees or the neighbors’ female golden retriever in his doggy dreams.

The breaking clouds mean increasing cold come nightfall. She will have to find some better shelter than the van for the night or expend precious fuel to run the heater. She does not particularly care for the idea of sipping Shamrock through a straw again if she can help it. “Damn,” Kirsten mutters to the oblivious Asimov. “I never thought I’d miss Motel 6.”

Or maybe she need not miss it. An empty, deserted motel just might offer possibilities. Better, yet, an abandoned house. She is passing through Ohio farm country, small towns slipping past along the Interstate like beads on a string. Many of these homes, built in the previous century, will have working fireplaces, complete with a couple cords of wood piled outside.

Many of them will be tenanted by the dead, murdered and left where they fell. Kirsten’s hands flex against the steering wheel , tighten. She can deal with death. She has dealt with it. At least here, after several days and nights of snow and ice with the utilities out, the dead will be decently frozen. Grotesque, perhaps; an offense to the eyes but not to the nose and stomach.

For the first time, she spares a thought for her future self. What will she be when the world is set to rights, assuming it can be?

But that one’s easy. Dead, probably.

Dead long before.

At Zaneville, Kirsten turns off the freeway onto state roads. They will be snowed over and more dangerous, will slow her down even more than the sheen of ice on the Interstate. But they will lead her around Columbus and its suburbs in a wide arc to the south. Even more important, they will lead her around Wright Patterson AFB, where droids are likely to be concentrated. Pulling off into the shelter of a derelict Whataburger beside the exit ramp, Kirsten maps out the route she will take, west and south. There are, she notes, a number of state parks associated with early Native American ruins scattered throughout the Hopewell valley. They might be an even better prospect for overnight than deserted farmhouses. Most had cabins, and most of those cabins would have fireplaces or wood stoves. Because they would have been sparsely populated at best at this season, they would have drawn minimal attention from raiders. Certainly there would be no reason for the droids to stake them out or occupy them. The danger, if any, would come from other refugees like herself.

Highway 22 winds through vacant farmland, the fields blanketed with knee-high drifts of snow. The trees stand bare to the winds, skeletal shapes against the western sky as the sun stands down toward evening. Here and there a dark shape perches in the branches, head hunched down into its shoulders; sometimes there are two huddled together. Owls or ravens–she cannot be sure at the distance. Except for the growl of the truck’s engine and Asimov’s occasional whine as a foraging hare makes its way laboriously through the snow, the landscape is utterly silent.

It lulls her as she should not let it, and so she is shocked and momentarily disoriented when she sees the roadblock ahead. The vehicles drawn up on the sides of the pavement are pickups and SUV’s, none of them with flashers or official markings. Among them she can make out burly shapes muffled in two or three layers each of Polartec and down. Some wear balaclavas or ski masks; others have pulled their caps down so far they almost meet the scarves and turned-up collars around their necks. As she slows, Kirsten can see the clouds of mist that rise about them with their breath. One man’s greying eyebrows and beard are stiff with crusted frost. He holds a shotgun braced with its butt against his hip.

Even the most lifelike of the droids do not breathe warm air that clouds with the cold. Humans, then.

There are only two possibilities. These are free people defending their land, or they are the scum that disaster always brings to the surface. If she stops, she may find help.

Or she may be robbed, killed, raped, handed over to the droids. The choices are the same as they were under the railroad bridge.

Without hesitation, Kirsten shoves her foot down hard on the accelerator, and the van, still gaining speed when it crashes through the sawhorse barriers at 80 miles an hour, scatters the startled guards in all directions. From behind her she hears the boom of the shotgun, and a sharp crack that can only be a rifle, but she is already beyond their range. Asimov, rudely awakened by the sudden speed, has regained his balance and is sitting backwards in the front seat, paws draped over the headrest, barking maniacally in her ear. Then the yaps give way to a deep-chested baying that sends atavistic tingles up her spine. “Wonderful, just wonderful,” she mutters. “The Hound of the Baskervilles, alive and well and—what the fuck?!

A moving shape has appeared in her rear-view mirror, hurtling along behind her through the rutted snow. It is close enough that she can see a gun barrel protruding from the passenger window.

“Down, Asimov!” she snaps. “Lie down, now!”

Aggrieved but obedient, he settles once again along the bench seat, his head below the level of the windows.

“Stay!” she orders, and pushes the accelerator clear down to the floor.

The van lurches, half-skidding down the road, spraying snow from its tires in sheeting arcs as high as the roof. A bullet whangs by, hitting the edge of the mirror frame and kicking shards of metal loose to ping against the plexiglass windshield. Spiderweb cracks appear suddenly before her eyes, breaking the flat white expanse before her into a kaleidoscope pattern in monotone. The van buckets and lurches beneath her, so that all her concentration goes into wrestling the steering wheel to keep them from running off the road.

The van sits high off the road. Unless her pursuers are inexplicably stupid or too drunk to think at all, they will eventually start shooting low, for her tires. She cannot afford that. Nor can she risk a hit to the gas cans in the back, which will send her, Asimov and quite possibly the remaining human population of the United States, up in a cloud of greasy smoke.

“Asimov!” she orders. “Play dead!”

Asimov, already denied the canine pleasures of the hunt, glances over his shoulder at her, offended and disbelieving.

“Play dead, dammit!”

With a sigh of almost human frustration, Asimov sags loose-limbed onto the seat as Kirsten brakes abruptly and sends the van into a wild skid that whips it tailpipe first across the opposite lane, hauling so hard on the wheel that her shoulders ache. The truck comes to a stop facing her pursuers, whose pickup swerves wide to avoid her and ends half in and half out of a roadside ditch concealed by the mounded snow. Kirsten pulls the bandage off her head, bringing fresh blood, and slumps across the steering wheel. Her finger presses lightly on the trigger of the gun in her lap.

She hears both doors of the pickup open and close, to the accompaniment of obscenities. Then feet, scrunching through ice and crusted snow.

The latch on her own door clicks, and she can smell burnt cordite. Then a voice. “Oh, hell, Brad. It’s just a girl and her dog. She’s bleeding.” There is another click as Brad opens the passenger door.

Kirsten shoots the first man, angling the barrel of her gun high, to take him in the chest. As she squeezes the trigger, she yells, “Take him, Asimov! Hold!” and feels the dog’s weight launch itself out of the van. A roar fills her ears as a shotgun discharges less than a yard away, followed by an angry, human yell. “Off! Get off me, goddam you!”

Kirsten raises her head, getting a firmer grip on her gun, and slides out of the van. The man she has shot is sprawled on his back, arms flung wide, blood pouring from his mouth into his beard and grey plaid muffler. As she watches, his eyes fix, staring somewhere past her shoulder.

“Steve! Steve? What the fuck’s going on here? Answer—” The voice is suddenly cut off, and Kirsten hears a flurry of movement, ending in a low growl from Asimov.

“Hold, boy!” she calls to him. “Hold!”

“Goddam you, you bitch, what’ve you done to my bro—”

This time Asimov’s growl is deeper as it cuts off the voice. “Good boy, Asimov! Hold!”

Steve has fallen partly onto his rifle. Wishing that she did not have to know his name, Kirsten has to shift him to extract it. A last, wheezing sigh escapes his lungs as she turns him, startling her so that she almost drops the weapon. The man on the other side of the truck, Brad, is yelling again. She wishes that she did not know his name, either.

Very deliberately, not thinking, Kirsten walks around the front of the truck. Asimov’s outsize paws are planted on Brad’s chest, his jaws clamped onto the man’s throat. He has not drawn blood, only snarls and clamps down a little tighter each time his prey cries out. The man’s eyes follow Kirsten’s movements. She sees his death in his eyes.

Slowly, very deliberately, not thinking, Kirsten shoulders the rifle and shoots Brad in the head. Blood blossoms on the snow, unfolding in crimson and scarlet like the petals of a rose. Flower of evil.

Just as deliberately, Kirsten picks up Brad’s 12-guage and lays it on the floor of the van. In the foundered pickup, she finds shells for both the shotgun and the rifle. Two sleeping bags lie rolled up on the back bench; Kirsten takes them. Finally she reaches under the dash and tears out the ignition wires, cutting them off short with a pair of snippers she finds on the console between the seats. It is quicker than shooting out the tires, and it makes less noise.

Her hands are sweating inside her gloves. On her way back to the van she begins to shake. At first it is only a fine shiver, like a chill over her skin. Then reaction takes possession of her, adrenaline rattling her bones together and buckling her knees beneath her. She makes her way around Brad’s corpse and hauls herself back up onto the seat. Asimov follows, and huddles up against her, nudging her shoulder with his nose. He whimpers softly as she gasps, half-choking, for breath.

Part of it, she knows in a rational corner of her mind, is pure physiology. That part will pass if she does not feed it

The other part, which may never pass at all, is that she has just killed two men who were almost certainly innocent of harm.

Because she could not take the chance.

She tells herself she needs to get moving again. The sound of the shots will have carried. When Brad and Steve do not return to their companions promptly, the other men at the barricade will come looking for them. And then they will come looking for her.

She needs to throw them off her trail and she needs to find shelter. And she needs to do both by nightfall. She has perhaps two hours.

When her hands are steady enough, she turns starts the van again, turns carefully so that she does not run over the two dead men, and sets out again toward the south.

7

Several hours later, Dakota leaves her patient’s room, wiping her hands on a towel supplied by her cousin. He’kase is resting comfortably in the care of one of the rescued women who has had some Nurse’s Aide training. Her wound is clean and dry, and antibiotics are pumping their way through her tiny system. In place of the medicine pouch, which again holds its customary place around Koda’s neck, the youngster holds an eagle feather, the sacred icon that Manny has held onto since he was shorn of his flowing locks upon first entering the Air Force.

“Damn, Koda. I forgot how good you were at this stuff.”

“You’re not so bad yourself.”

The cousins share a rueful laugh as they walk through the late November evening, nodding to the soldiers as they pass.

Once inside the main house, Manny takes his leave, scurrying off to the shower.

Maggie looks up from her place at the kitchen table and beckons Dakota over with a smile. A mug of steaming black coffee is already there, as if awaiting her presence. Dakota acquiesces, sitting down with a groan and stretching out her long legs as she lifts the mug to her lips, inhaling the fragrance with a sigh of approval.

“Things went okay?” Maggie guesses from the look on Koda’s face.

“As well as can be expected,” Dakota replies, taking a bracing sip of coffee, letting it warm her from the inside out. “Manny hasn’t lost his touch. He’s got the makings of a damn decent medic.”

“Better that than a pilot,” Maggie jokes.

“Hey!!” Manny yells, filling the doorway with his towel-girded bulk. “I heard that!”

Both women laugh, knowing that the young man before them is as good as it gets when it comes to flying. Absolutely fearless, he can make a jet walk and talk and turn on a dime. He’s one of the best of the best, and everyone knows it.

“Alright, flyboy, get your ass to bed. We’re on the road at 0430.”

Snapping off a crisp salute while still managing to retain the hold both on towel and dignity, Manny grins, winks, and turns back down the hall. The soft click of his door shutting puts paid to the conversation.

Silence falls among them, a soft ethereal mist. Peering at Dakota over the rim of her coffee cup, Allen takes in the sharp, clean lines of her face and the energy that seems to hum around her even now, while sitting quietly apparently lost in thought. It’s a sweet Siren’s song, one that Maggie is in no way adverse to hearing.

“See anything interesting?”

Dakota’s warm contralto rolls over her and Maggie is suddenly glad that her mocha skin hides her flush well.

Though not, perhaps, quite as well as she might have liked, given the sparkle of amusement in the crystal eyes turned her way.

“I might,” she allows, responding to the tease with a small one of her own. A smile curves her lips, and her gaze is bold and direct, though not overly aggressive. To put the cliché into perspective, Maggie Allen is a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t shy about reaching for it. As career Air Force, she’s seen her share of too many wars and too many deaths and when opportunities for warmth and life present themselves on gilt-edged platters, she rarely hesitates.

The silence between them is almost palpable, filling the shadowed and cobwebby corners of the large living area with a turbulent, humming energy.

Their gazes break at the same time. Maggie looks over at a painting hanging above the mantle in the living room. Dakota looks down at her hands. The ring finger of her left hand looks strangely naked; the small band of paler flesh highlighted like an afterimage of a life long past.

Seven years, Dakota thinks, her thumb rubbing over the pale, soft skin. A time for beginnings. A time for endings. A generation. An itch. Seven virtues and seven vices. Paradise and damnation. Confusion? Maybe. Guilt? A little of that, too.

She sighs.

“I have a room to myself in the back of the house,” Allen says, very softly. “One of the perks of being CO.” She smiles a little. “I’d like to share it with you tonight.”

Dakota looks up then, her gaze piercing and direct. The sharply etched plains of her face soften just slightly, and Allen is stunned once again by the woman’s striking beauty.

“I’d like that.”

8

When Dakota next awakens, it’s still dark, and she knows without looking that dawn is a long way off. She stretches slightly, then settles, arms comfortably curled around the warm body in her arms. For a moment, she thinks she’s dreaming, but the hair that brushes against her chest is shorter and coarser than what she’s used to, and the body draped across her is more muscular and compact. It awakens her to the reality of her situation, but the reality is, in truth, not all that unpleasant.

Maggie hums sleepily and, lifting her head just slightly, presses a kiss to the warm, bare breast upon which she is resting her head. “Mmm. Good morning.” Her voice is deep and sleep burred and the sound of it reaches into Koda’s belly and twists it pleasantly.

“It is that.”

“What time is it?”

In an automatic reflex, Dakota looks over at the nightstand, but of course, the clock that stands there is blank without the electricity needed to run it.

“Damn,” Maggie says, chuckling. “Forgot about that.” Reaching across Koda’s body, she picks up the watch she’s left on the nightstand and peers into it through sleep blurred eyes. “0320. Good thing I don’t need much sleep, hmm?”

“You could always grab a little more.”

Maggie laughs, a throaty chuckle. “With you here? Naked? Darling, sleep is the last thing I plan on grabbing.”

A strong hand slides up a muscled thigh, and Maggie slides with it, reaching Dakota’s tempting lips and entangling her own in a deep, luscious kiss. “Dear god, woman,” she pants when she finally pulls away. “I never thought I’d say this to another human being, but you’ve got flying beat by a long mile.”

Dakota’s deep chuckle follows her down to sensual oblivion.
CHAPTER FOUR

“Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream….”
1

Kirsten huddles before the dying fire, watching the play of scarlet and orange amid the black remains of the embers. She is wrapped in her own sleeping bag, shielded from the concrete floor by a pair of thin mattresses pulled off one of the bunk beds. Asimov is stretched out on another with his head in her lap. She rubs his ears absently.

The small cabin is warm. She has before her the prospect of the first comfortable night since the insurrection began. She has a hot meal inside her, even if it was only canned stew set in the ashes, and has cleaned up as best she can with water warmed the same way and a bar of looted soap. She needs to sleep.

Over and over in her mind, Kirsten replays her encounter with the men at the barricade. Over and over she imagines it differently: introducing herself as a refugee fleeing toward her family in Indiana, perhaps. Shaking hands, accepting their hospitality and a temporary alliance. She is almost certain she could have trusted them far enough to set her safely on her way.

And over and over, she imagines what would have happened if she had been wrong. And what would have happened after that, will probably still happen if she doesn’t get through to the droid facility at Minot.

Outside the snow is falling again, hissing softly as it drifts past the windows. It is the one bit of luck she has had today, the new fall obscuring the ruts made by her tires on the deserted roads. The dead men’s companions had not followed her, or if they had, they had set out too late to catch up before the light failed and the clouds closed in again. Rural areas are as dangerous to her as the urban centers. In the cities the droids will still be hunting down humans. In the farm counties, the humans who remain will be defending their homes and families against the droids.

But it’s not that simple. All wars have collaborators. If there are no humans who have been spared as decoys, there will be. If there are none who cooperate for their own safety and their families’, there will be. And she can never, never, take a chance that another person is not a collaborator. Too much rides on her own survival for her to be trusting or merciful.

Kirsten banks the fire and pulls her makeshift bed closer to the hearth. Because there is nothing else to do, she stretches out full length on the mattress, Asimov rousing just long enough to move up beside her. She does not expect to sleep, but can at least allow her aching muscles as much ease as warmth and rest allow.

She moves through a twilight world. All about her the snow lies heavy: on the ground, in the forks of the branches that spread bare above her head. The sky is white, too, the light diffused and dim. Asimov paces at her side, his huge paws spread to carry him across the surface lynx-fashion. Her own feet do not sink into the snow. When she looks down, she sees only a faint, shadowless impression in the crust where she has stepped.

Above her, in the sky over a clearing, a hawk hangs at the hover. It gives one long and ringing cry, then banks and flies off toward what she knows to be the west, though there is no sun to give direction.

Then she sees it, a shape drifting through the trees, keeping pace with her. Kirsten’s heart seems to stop, then slams against her breastbone, but strangely it is not fear that sets her blood to racing. Somewhere deep in her mind is the knowledge that this is something she has searched for, has waited for, longer than she can remember. She tries to call out to whatever it is, but her throat closes around the words.

The ground begins to rise abruptly, and she realizes that she is climbing one of the ancient earthworks that dot the Hopewell Valley. The forest thins as she scales the top, and there laid out before her, stretching away infinitely far into horizonless space, is a long, sinuous mound in the shape of a serpent, coiling and uncoiling, doubling back on itself in rhythmic curves only to spiral outward again. There are tracks here, the prints of a large animal moving swiftly. Kirsten sets out to follow, placing her own feet in the pad marks that somehow remain undisturbed behind her. Asimov lopes along beside her, a strange eagerness in the play of rippling muscle under his black and silver coat.

Then she sees it. Straight ahead, directly in her path where nothing but air had been a nanosecond before, is a wolf. Its fur is covered in rimefrost, and it regards her with eyes of a startling sky-blue.

Its gaze lasts only a moment. Without warning, the ground gives way beneath Kirsten’s feet, and she is falling, falling through space as the stars streak past, plunging into atmosphere finally as clouds billow around her, plummeting toward a black rock island in a mighty river where she will shatter into atoms. For a moment she thinks that she may survive with no more than a few bones broken, or that she can perhaps deflect her trajectory for a landing in that impossibly blue water.

Don’t be a damned idiot, she tells herself. You know you’re going to die.

The rock rises up to meet her, and she strikes with an impact that

jerks her bolt upright in her sleeping bag, to find the hearth still warm and Asimov whuffling softly in his own dreams.

Kirsten’s hands are trembling, and she feels a cold runnel of sweat as it slips between her shoulderblades. “Goddam,” she breathes. “Goddam.” Her heart lays down a rapid, thready beat, counterpoint to the rhythm of her shocked lungs.

What the hell was that?

Who the hell was that?

But she has no answers. She has seen wolves before, camping in Yellowstone with her parents when she was a teenager; she is in no doubt at all that a wolf is what she has dreamed. She tries to call up the Psych 101 lectures that bored her straight into an afternoon nap more often than not, but other than a vague recollection that almost everything, according to Dr. Werbow, signified either sex or death, she cannot connect the blue-eyed wolf with any standard interpretation.

Eventually she steadies and lies down again, yawning. She has no idea where the dream came from, though she is fairly certain that it was not something she ate. Dinty Moore’s psychedelic stew, oh yeah.

She slips off to sleep again with unexpected ease, and does not wake until the morning.

2

The big truck shakes, rattles and rolls as it bounds over the ice rutted roads, last in a fair sized convoy of impressive military vehicles. Manny sits beside his cousin, a military handset in his lap, and a machine pistol at his side. He eyes Dakota at odd intervals, trying to discover without asking exactly what is different about his cousin this morning. She seems…relaxed somehow, as if she’d spent the night….

His eyes widen, but then he gives himself a mental shake.

Nah. Couldn’t be.

Could it?

“See something interesting?”

The low voice startles him, and he blinks, then blushes at being caught out. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he shakes his head in the negative. “Just woolgathering.” He smiles weakly. “Really.”

“Mm hm.”

They both fall silent, listening to the military radio as it crackles out its continuing stream of routine messages from members of the caravan.

Suddenly, the taillights in front of them flash once, twice, then stay on as the troop carrier comes to a quick stop. Koda works her own brakes. The truck wants to skid, but in the end, it behaves and rolls to a stop, front bumper inches away from the rear of the carrier.

The radio crackles to life.

“Chief? You might wanna come look at this.”

“Everybody DOWN!!!”

The sound of gunfire shatters the morning. Dropping the radio, Manny grabs his gun and levers himself outside the passenger door.

Only to duck back inside again in order to keep his head from being blown off of his neck. He stares, wide-eyed, past Dakota and out into the brightness of the morning. His jaw drops. “Great Father, protect us,” he whispers.

Koda turns her head and sees a scene out of an Orwellean nightmare.

A long line of military droids block the roadway and the areas beyond. These are not the generically handsome, lantern-jawed, poster children for America’s Idealized Infantryman that have filled newspapers and news broadcasts to the brim over the past several years. Instead, they resemble nothing so much as a mechanized creature straight out of a 1980’s blockbuster sci/fi action/adventure movie.

Shining a blinding, mirrorlike silver, the only humanoid resemblance is in the head and torso region. The “legs” end below the knees, and are replaced by the thick treads usually seen propelling heavy tanks over uncertain ground. The “arms” end in lethal weaponry currently pointed at the convoy.

Dakota turns to her cousin. “You ever seen them before?”

“No. I heard they existed, but no. Never. Jesus.” He runs a hand over his short, buzzed hair in a gesture of nervousness familiar to Dakota.

The radio crackles to life. Maggie Allen’s voice is terse. “Check off, people!”

“Rivers here, Colonel,” Manny replies, keying the handset.

“Manny? We’re gonna lay down a line of grenade cover. You get the civvie out of here. Go back the way you came and don’t stop until you’re sure you’re out of danger.”

Dakota grabs the radio away from her cousin and holds it up to her mouth. “Sorry, Colonel, but the ‘civvie’ is the one driving this beast, and the only direction I’m going is forward.”

“Dakota!”

“Can’t hear you, Colonel. You’re breaking up.”

“Rivers!!!”

Releasing the talk button, Dakota tosses the handset down on the floorboards at Manny’s feet, pinning her cousin in place with a look. “Don’t even think about it,” she warns.

“Who, me? Not a chance, cuz. I’ve still got bruises from the last time you pounded me, thanks.”

The two listen momentarily to Allen’s increasingly irate squawking.

“She’s gonna bust me down to Airman for this, you know.”

Pulling down the mirrored lenses of her sunglasses, Dakota gives him a look that makes him laugh.

“Alright, I get your point, Koda. So…what do we do now?”

As if hearing the question, the radio crackles back to life. “Alright, listen up, everybody. This means you too, ‘Airman’ Rivers.”

Dakota winces.

Manny gulps.

“Alright, here’s the deal. These bastards aren’t like anything we’ve faced before, and we’re gonna need to be creative in figuring out a way to get past them without getting ourselves fragged to Canada in little pieces. Rule number one, people. No shooting at them. They’re bulletproof and anything you fire at them will ricochet god knows where. We can’t risk it, so put your guns away for another fight, understand?”

Affirmatives buzz across the radio.

“Our friends from the Guard were kind enough to bring along a few little toys we’re going to try out instead, so everybody just sit tight for a bit and I’ll get back to you.”

Since Koda and Manny can see very little from behind the massive troop carrier they are following, they do exactly as Allen suggests and cool their heels while keeping a wary eye on the metallic monstrosities lined up across the roadway and beyond.

A loud, whooshing roar is followed immediately by an explosion so powerful that Dakota and Manny are tossed about like rag dolls as the truck bounces and rolls on its springs.

The shaking no sooner stops gunfire erupts from all around them. The distinctive sounds of bullets hitting the metal of the truck cause the cousins to duck down again. The driver’s side window shatters, raining glass over them both. The roar of gunfire is punctuated here and there by the horrific screams of men and women in agony.

Unable to lay passively by and do nothing, Dakota reaches over and unlocks the passenger’s side door, then begins to crawl overtop of Manny, who grabs her by the waistband of her jeans.

“What the hell are you doing, cuz? They’re killing us out there!!”

“Exactly,” Dylan replies, prying Manny’s hand from her waist and continuing to crawl until she is out of the truck. Coming up onto her haunches, she surveys the damage. Men and women are scattered like tenpins, many of them bleeding their life into the snow and pleading with an uncaring sky to save them. As she watches, a soldier becomes a corpse, jittering like a puppet on the hard-packed snow under the constant, unremitting onslaught of artillery.

Taking in a deep breath, she lowers her head and charges out into the fray. Bullets slice the air around her, but she keeps her head down and keeps running, sinking past her knees in the snow. Reaching the first two injured soldiers, she lowers her arms and grabs them by their jackets, dragging them until she is behind the cover of a military vehicle.

Another whooshing roar sounds from very close by, and the resulting explosion knocks her to the ground. A shadow falls over her, and when she looks up, Manny is there, two more injured soldiers in his grasp. His face is grim, but his eyes are shining.

“Couldn’t let you have all the fun,” he grumbles, voice almost lost within the continuing gun battle.

Getting back to her feet, Koda pounds on the panel of the vehicle before her, then pounds harder when there’s no response. “Watch them!” she commands over her shoulder as she makes her way up to the cab of the vehicle. Two men lay in the cab, dead beyond any possibility of resurrection, destroyed beyond any possibility of recognition.

“Uh…Koda?”

Dakota whirls around. “What?”

“They’re bleeding pretty bad over here. What should I do?”

Koda thinks for a moment. “Pack snow in their wounds. It should slow the bleeding until we can get them under some kind of cover. I need to get my kit.”

“I’ll do it.”

“No. Stay with the injured. I’ll be right back.”

Knowing better than to argue with his cousin, Manny kneels in the snow and begins scooping handfuls of it onto the bleeding chests and bellies and limbs of his comrades, warning himself all the while not to look at their faces. As long as he doesn’t see their faces, he can pretend that they are simply strangers on a battlefield; strangers he will do his best to save.

Dakota makes her way back to the truck and retrieves her kit without much difficulty, but then becomes pinned down by furious gunfire. A man stumbles by, half of his face blown off, a smoking stump where his arm used to be. As she watches, he tumbles into the snow, and dies, open-eyed.

“Koda!”

Ripping her gaze away from the dead soldier, Dakota looks over to Manny, who is frantically compressing the chest of one of the women he’s dragged out of the line of fire. He is looking at Koda through eyes as wide as saucers.

“Hang on! I’ll be right there!”

She’s about to move when her attention is distracted. Looking on, she tracks a shoulder-launched missile as it flies across the gap that separates human from android, and explodes into the noticeably thinned android ranks. A huge fireball erupts, and Koda ducks down, covering her head with both arms as bits and pieces of androids rain down on her like a blazing summer storm. She slams back against the truck just in time to avoid being turned into a stain by a basketball sized lump of molten metal which lands in the snow not more than a foot away. It hisses violently, sending up clouds of vapor as it melts a hole in the snow several feet deep.

“Dakota!!”

Peering through the swirling, dissipating vapor, Koda watches as Manny takes a desperate step toward her position, only to be blown back by a bullet that pierces his arm and drops him to the ground.

“Manny! Hankashi!!! Shit.”

Grabbing her pack, she rushes across the space separating herself from her fallen cousin. Manny is already picking himself up as Koda reaches him. Aiding him to his feet, she looks into his eyes, her own flashing all kinds of warnings. “Damnit, Manny, this is no time to be playing John Wayne. How many times do I have to tell you? You’re no cowboy.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Like you’d just sit by and watch me get almost blown to bits, right?”

Scowling, Koda grabs his arm and turns it over. “You’re lucky. It’s just a graze.”

“Yeah, I know. Stings like fire, though.” He looks to his right. His face crumples. “Oh, holy damn,” he whispers, looking at the carnage lying around him. “Jesus, Koda, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have protected them from the shrapnel.” She looks over at the dead bodies laying in pieces over the snow and closes her eyes tightly for a moment. When she opens them again, they are clear and resolute. “Let’s go find some people we can help.”

3

The sound of men and women screaming and moaning in pain within the close confines of the troop carrier seems to encompass the whole world, and it’s all Manny can do not to jab a knife through his eardrums just to stop the gut-churning noise.

Koda has set up a field hospital, of sorts, within the vehicle, and the most grievously injured patients lay on makeshift cots, bleeding their lives away while the harried vet tries frantically to save them.

The battle outside is slowly winding down. Shoulder fired rockets have done the trick, and the mission has been reduced to a simple mop-up, as if anything about this terrifying monstrosity can be considered as mundane as “simple”.

Unless the androids have buddies out there.

Somewhere.

Manny pushes down a chill that humps up his flesh as he rushes from injured woman to injured man, doing what he can to offer comfort while his cousin goes about the business of patching and stitching. He’s been through war, but it was never anything like this. A pilot sits above it all, like an armored god, dropping his cargo and speeding away, never seeing the damage and pain and misery he causes.

Manny’s reverie is broken by the man before him, lying on a cot and holding the glistening loops of his guts in his hands. His voice, a deep basso, spirals up and up into a castrato’s soprano as he holds a scream that pierces the veil of eternity.

His eyes, though, are dead already, staring through the young pilot as if staring into an infinity worthy of Poe’s worst nightmares.

The woman lying next to him covers her ears and adds a scream of her own. “Oh God, shut him up, please!! PLEASE SHUT HIM UP!!! SHUT HIM UP!!!!”

“Koda!”

Dakota looks up from her place by the side of a young woman whose puckered and twisted face is a horror film’s mask. The young woman is seizing, her body sunfishing and bucking mindlessly, her tongue black and protruding from the charred remains of her mouth. “Give him some Morphine!” the vet shouts over the din.

“I can’t! There isn’t any more!”

“Shit.” She turns to an airman pressed into service as a nurse. “Watch her. I’ll be right back.”

The soldier nods.

The man is still screaming as Koda approaches and looks down into what is left of his belly. His guts roil and twist like snakes in a cave, moving and tumbling over one another as his agonized body writhes on the cot.

“Can you do anything for him?” Manny asks, willing himself not to be sick.

Grabbing her medical kit, Dakota rummages through it, and comes out with a single glass Morphine cartridge. It’s empty, and she throws it down on the ground, where it shatters. Her eyes tell Manny everything he needs to know.

She startles a bit as a surprisingly strong hand, covered in blood and gore, grasps the front of her shirt and twists, pulling her forward slightly. She looks down into the pain-wracked face of the mortally injured soldier. His eyes are very bright, very clear, and almost supernaturally aware.

“Please.”

His strained voice is no more than a breath on the wind.

Dakota looks at the hand gripping her, then into the man’s open wound, a part of her in awe that he’s managed to last this long, then back to his too-bright, too aware eyes. “I can’t save you,” she says, gently as possible. “Your wound’s too severe.”

The man gives a solemn nod, no more than the barest twitch of the muscles in his neck.

“Please,” he breathes again.

Another airman, shot in the groin but currently stable, looks up. “You’re a vet, aren’t you?”

Koda nods.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or anything, but would you let a dying dog suffer the way he is right now?”

Koda stiffens, then relaxes, knowing the man is right. “No. I wouldn’t.”

“Then pardon me if I don’t see the difference here.” The young man gives her a pointed look. “He’s begging you, man! Help him!”

“That’s enough, Roberts,” Manny snaps, chest puffing, shoulders straightening, fists clenching. Dakota’s sure she would smell the testosterone in the air if it wasn’t for the blood and death already polluting it. “Keep it zipped.”

The airman scowls, but holds his peace, slamming his head back down on the rolled uniform jacket he’s using in lieu of a pillow and glaring at the both of them.

Sure that the danger, what there was of it, has, for the moment, passed, Manny looks over to his cousin. Their gazes meet and meld in brief, silent communication. Manny nods, once, then looks away.

Hitching a deep sigh, Koda reaches back into her bag and pulls out a pre-filled syringe. The mortally wounded soldier has his eyes glued to her every move. “You know what this will do,” Dakota says, giving the young man every chance to back out.

He nods, more surely this time.

“And this is what you want.”

“Please.”

Third time pays for all, Dakota thinks as she reaches for the IV tubing, her eyes never leaving the soldier’s.

A second later, it’s done. The man’s grip convulsively tightens on her shirt, then falls away as his eyes, once bright and shining, become flat and dull; the eyes of a discarded doll on a trash heap as large as the world. Dakota closes those eyes gently, then rests her hand briefly on an already cooling forehead, whispering a prayer so ancient it seems inborn rather than taught.

Manny grips her shoulder and squeezes once in comfort. After a moment, Dakota shrugs off the grip and walks across the cramped space to her next patient, never looking back.

4

The air is cold with wind and melting snow, but not too cold to carry the mingled scents of burned wood and living pine needles. Tumbled into random hummocks of brick and charred beams, the remains of the park office lies before her. Those cabins she can see in the dim light are in no better condition, and when the wind shifts slightly, clocking about to the east, she can smell dead flesh among the ashes and the firs. Asimov whimpers softly at her side, and Kirstin stretches out a hand to pat him almost absently.

She has driven now for two days and a night without rest. She needs a place to lie up and sleep, or she will become a danger to herself on the road. Ain’t life a bitch. And then you die. She sighs. It’s the truck or nothing. Kirsten tugs at Asimov’s collar. “Come on, boy. Gotta get some sleep. Both of us.”

She turns back toward the vehicle, glancing up at the clearing sky. It is near dawn, but in the west the stars blaze down with undiminished brilliance. All the hackneyed metaphors—ice, glass, diamonds—march by for inspection, and none is adequate. The stars blaze down, cold and detached as the eyes of angels, so that for the first time Kirsten believes with her heart as well as her scientist’s brain that they truly are lifetimes distant. From somewhere among the trees comes an unidentified grunt. Deer? Bear? Skunk?

The exalted speculations of a moment before come crashing down, and she petrifies there on the edge of day, trying not to make a sound, not to breathe, most of all not to smell attractive to bear or polecat. In the east the stars begin to pale, not so much a dimming of their light as the gradual leaching of the darkness. A white shadow ghosts along the treetops with the rising wind, its wings making no sound as it hunts the last of the night.

Kirsten’s breath catches in her throat, and her belly tightens. Abruptly tensed, the long muscles in leg and back as abruptly relax. She does not fling herself flat, praying not to be noticed. The rational part of her brain, that bit of it not befogged by need for sleep, observes sarcastically that owls do not eat humans and reminds her that pterodactyls are long since stone. Yet death has passed over. Hunting someone else, this time. Next time, maybe her.

Last time, it was her. And the time before and the time before that. She knows she will be prey again.

God, I need to sleep. Afraid of an owl. Next thing you know I’ll be hallucinating.

Above her head, the first rays of the sun strike the tips of pine needles to blazing gold. From somewhere behind her, Kirsten hears the beat of great wings lifting. She turns, and a hawk sweeps past her, all bright bronze and copper, climbing into the dawn. A blood-stopping kreeee-eeeer! rings out over the forest. The hawk cries again, twice, and spirals up toward the strengthening sun and her day’s work.

As Kirsten begins to move back toward her truck, a stray breeze carries a half-charred piece of blue paper between her feet. She jerks away from it, startled, then catches her breath and picks it up. Christ, spooked at a goddam tourist flyer. Gotta get some sleep. Now. Idly, she glances at the brochure in the growing light. It is a map of the park, showing lake, fishing dock, cabins (now deceased) and a network of deep limestone caves underlying the bluff along the river. Phrases register disjointedly in her mind. Walkways. Stairs. Constant 60°Fahrenheit.

Salvation.

“C’mon, Asimov.” She whistles the dog to her, climbs into the truck and heads toward the first prospect of real comfort she has known in days.

An hour later, she has established a camp several hundred feet below the surface of the bluff and half a mile in. Two trips from the van have set her up with a Coleman stove, now heating yet another can of stew because she is ravenously hungry as well as weary, a pile of sleeping bags apiece for Asimov and herself and an electric lantern. For the first time since leaving Washington, she is able to take off her jacket and double layer of sweaters and sit lightly in her shirtsleeves. Her shoulders feel as though half the world has rolled off them to go bouncing down the pale rockflows of the cave. From above her comes a low thrumming sound, almost below the threshold of her hearing, that she knows is the voice of the river, singing.

Singing, singing. . . .singing her to sleep like a mother, rocking her in her rock cradle, loose, light, stoned in her house of stone, the deep waters singing of warmth and refuge and release from pain, singing, singing. . . .

She has just enough presence of mind to turn off the stove before she sinks back onto her bed and into the darkness where there is only the voice of the river, singing the song of the earth, rocking her home, singing and singing now and forever. . . ..

It seems to Kirsten that she has not slept at all. Yet she rises up lightly, easily, borne almost on a breath of air. The small stove no longer burns but still radiates warmth, a visible glow in the darkness around her. That seems strange to her, though not so strange as to be disturbing. Nor is she alarmed that Asimov, too, seems to shed his own light where he lies snoring, lost in dreams.

Kirsten glances down at her hands, and they, too, seem to glow palely. Just under the skin, she sees the outlines of a double spiral and a lightning bolt forming, rising to the surface in red and black and ochre paint. When she raises her hands to her face, she can feel the same sigils taking shape beneath her cheekbones, patterns traceable under her fingers. Her palms are painted with sun and crescent moon. Strangely unalarmed, she turns to see her body still lying where she has left it, sprawled with no particular grace across the blankets.

So. She does not seem to be dead. At least, this is not how she has ever seen the experience described. With no more than a thought, she finds herself kneeling by her body, which is still breathing, the chest rising in deep, slow inhalations. Rising on another thought, she drifts across the rock floor to Asimov, who whimpers softly at the faint ruffling of his fur made by her passing.

Not dead then. But if not dead, what?

She can feel a force, gentle but insistent, pulling her further into the depths of the cave. With a last insubstantial brush at Asimov’s ears, she allows it to draw her as it will. She has no idea how long her journey takes her, or what distance. Where she is there is no time, no space beyond that which surrounds her. Her bare feet skim the limestone floor of the cave without feeling its chill.

Like the walls, like the pillars of calcite that seem to extend upward without end, milk-white as the columns of some great temple, the stone itself is suffused with a soft light. Rising up to the roof, she drifts among colonies of bats in their thousands, tens of thousands perhaps, all lost in their winter’s sleep. Some part of her scientist self remains even now, and she notes that they are Myotis socialis, hanging single file in long, precisely aligned rows, so neatly arrayed that she can see the nose of every bat in each rank. A bat army. Bat Marines. She raises a hand to her forehead in salute and drifts on. She passes lace curtains formed of glittering mica, crosses a pool setting each foot precisely into the surface tension of the water. Always wanted to do that. Move over, Jesus!

The voice of the river becomes louder as she descends into parts of the cave where there is no further human sign. No walkways here, no blank lamps hanging from iron stanchions to mar the beauty of the great vault above her. Effortlessly she glides down the spill of petrified waterfalls, past small pools where eyeless fish swim. With a breath, she ascends sheer walls rising ten meters or more to make her way along a path along the high wall, no more than inches wide. The dust here has not been disturbed for centuries, yet she can make out the marks left by human feet along the ledge. Here the pull is exponentially stronger, and she knows in some part of her soul that the holy one whose footprints she walks in without disturbing a grain of sand came, one day long ago, from the very place where she is going.

She comes upon it suddenly, where the path ends abruptly at a fissure in the sheer wall. Like a breath of smoke she passes through it, to find herself within a geological miracle. The dome is perhaps twelve feet across, and lined from floor to apex with clear crystals. Some are slender as pencils; others as large as her forearm. Energy pulses from them to the rhythm of the water that seems to flow no more than a meter or so above, sometimes slipping lightly over its stone bed, sometimes roaring. In the center of the chamber is a stone slab perhaps a meter high. Around its sides are painted spirals, blazing suns, the forms of bear and wolf, eagle and puma. Carved into its surface are the shapes of hands, one to either side, and a hollow for the back of a human head.

Kirsten understands that it is a place of vision. She understands, too, that it is perhaps mortally perilous.

But danger is irrelevant. She approaches the slab and stretches her incorporeal body out upon it, head in the depression at one end, hands in the carved prints. She is not surprised to find them exactly to her measure.

As she lies there, the voice of the river changes, grows deeper, begins to form words. It is not any language she knows, but she understands its meaning nonetheless. It is the earth herself speaking to her–of violation, of anger, of terrible grief at the murder of her children. Images shift before her eyes so fast that she can barely keep track of them.

The terrible wound of a strip mine gouged out of the sacred Black Hills.

Forests falling to the rasp of saws and lumbering mechanical behemoths.

A yellow butterfly, last of its kind, dying in the summer sun on a strip of asphalt.

Dead buffalo lying skinned in their thousands.

Dead men and dead women, skins bronze and coppery red, lying dead and mutilated across fields of snow and grassy meadows.

A coyote with its rotting foot caught in a trap like a shark’s jaw.

And last, the world she has just left, humans slaughtered by the tens and hundreds of thousands, corpses left frozen in the snow or rotting in the heat of a tropical beach, scavenged by gulls.

And suddenly she finds herself once again on the surface of the world, in the forest now lit by a full moon. The cold does not touch her nakedness, nor the wind burn her skin. Before her stands a woman clothed in fringed buckskin worked with porcupine quills in the shape of a hummingbird across her breast, bands of turquoise and white shell circling her neck and wrists. Her long black hair drifts on the air, framing a face that is old an wrinkled and wise beyond knowing in one instant, young radiantly beautiful the next.

Kirsten folds down on her bare knees before her, wailing soundlessly. What must I do, Mother? It is too much, too much!

Of course it is too much, my daughter, the woman answers. Too much and too long. Yet you will not be alone.

I have Asi.

Him, too. The woman smiles. But not only him. See, and remember when the time is right.

The woman vanishes, and in her place stands the wolf of her dream. Its fur gleams white as the snow it stands in, and its eyes are blue flecked with gold like lapis. Above it circles a red-tailed hawk. Its hunting cry rises into the night and is answered from a half-dozen other circling shapes above. Moonlight glints off their wings like silver.

For time uncounted, Kirsten kneels in the snow looking into the wolf’s blue eyes. It regards her with a cool and level interest, nothing of hostility in it, nor of warmth either. Then it turns and trots into the thicket, followed by the cry of the hawk and the strange birds swarming above them.

And without warning, Kirsten finds herself slamming back into her body with a force that should kill her outright but somehow does not. Her sleeping form jerks once where it lies; Asimov rouses slightly with a grunt and a sound that is not quite a bark. Then he turns and lays his great head on his paws, dreaming peacefully. After that, there is only the dark and the slow, steady beat of her own heart.

5

She sleeps.

And as she sleeps, she dreams.

She is standing in a pure white vista, cold and sharp as the edge of an obsidian knife. Gone are the houses, the trees and the mountains. Gone are the animals of land and sky. The white is everything, and everywhere. Nothing and nowhere. It is the alpha, and the omega.

The bitter wind is a constant shriek, like the souls of the damned in a Hell that really has frozen over.

The tone of the shriek changes, melding, as it will in dreams, into a cry she knows well. Looking up into the vast white sky, she watches, smiling, as a dot on the horizon grows larger and larger still until it is directly overhead, gliding on the currents of the icy air.

Their eyes meet, two wild souls bound by mutual trust and respect, and with no effort at all, Koda is swept up and welcomed into the body of Cetan Tate, an old and cherished friend.

The wind is not so biting now, buffeted as it is by down and feathers. Her vision is sharpened; crisp, like a winter morning after a long spell of snow. As she flies, the mountains thrust up out of the ground, granite giants rising from their winter dens. Trees spring up and gather into communes of forestland, their tips swaying and nodding in the constant wind, speaking to each other in a language as old as time.

Recognizing the landmarks, she knows they are headed north. Land passes beneath them with incredible, heart stopping speed. Mountains rise up and fall away, at times close enough to touch, at others, seeming only a dim memory of a murky past. Forests blend, separate, change, making fanciful patterns in the virgin snow, like clouds marching slowly by on a fine summer day.

After a seeming joyful eternity, Cetan Tate circles once, a wide, looping arc, and gives a piercing cry. When Koda looks down, she recognizes the place beneath immediately. With a silent thank you to her cherished friend, she closes her eyes, and feels a sense of quiet displacement. The feeling is not one of pain, as such, but rather a sorrowful emptiness.

Till we meet again, old friend.

With another cry, the hawk is gone, winging toward the east and a rising sun.

Koda is falling.

When she lands, she knows without looking that she has assumed the form of her dream spirit.

Shugmanitu thanka.

The wolf.

She pads through the snow, a silent shadow. She takes in the beauty and stillness around her, allowing it to calm a soul far too weary for far too long. This dreaming place gives her comfort, and she soaks it up greedily, storing it deep within against the horror that has become her waking reality.

A rock altar comes gradually into view, and she sits on her haunches, waiting for the One she knows has drawn her here.

She feels it then; a warm, comforting sensation that reminds her of childhood and being wrapped by her mother in a woven woolen blanket, warm and safe and very much loved.

The Wise One appears before the stone slab and places a gnarled hand on Koda’s broad head, giving her a fond scratch behind the ears. Koda lowers her eyes in respect. The old woman laughs and tips Koda’s jaw up, and their eyes meet, shining.

Mahka Ina.

Welcome, my child.

As she sees the slow tears wending their way down a much-seamed face, Koda pushes her strong body against the Crone, offering her strength and support as best she can.

Mother, why do you weep?

An abomination has come into my home. My children lie dead in their cradles. If I do not weep, I will destroy the world with my wrath.

What must I do, Mother? How can I help?

Mahka Ina smiles fondly through her tears.

You are precious to me, blessed daughter. So fierce, and so giving. You are my joy. Her countenance sobers. There is one who must be shown the way. She has great knowledge, and with it, great power.

Where is she, Mother? Who is she?

She is running, child. Hunted like prey, by kin and non alike. She seeks answers to the North. You will need to find and protect her. She is the key.

The key to what?

Salvation.

There is a pause as Koda drinks this in. She shakes her great, shaggy head, then meets the Mother’s eyes straight on.

How will I know her?

I have summoned her here. Watch, and see.

With an almost human nod, Koda turns and trots into the woods, silent as a shadow. Once sufficiently hidden, she turns and watches.

She notices first the face and form of the young woman, surely too young and too frail to bear the heavy weight thrust upon her. Hearing gentle laughter in her mind, she chides herself for too-quick assumptions.

The sigils on the woman’s face and hands glow with the touch of the Mother. Koda is intrigued. And when the young woman falls to her knees with a cry of anguish so heart rending that the very forest seems to pause in tribute, Koda is drawn forward as if an unseen tie binds her to the woman whose grief seems to fill the world to the sky and beyond.

Their eyes meet and lock and hold. Neither notices when Mahka Ina fades from view. The woman’s gaze holds a look that Koda knows well, having seen it in the mirror every morning since the androids seized power.

Hollow. Frightened. Suddenly old beyond telling, as if she stares into eternity. There is a naked vulnerability there, which Koda can’t help but respond to. And yet, if she looks deep enough, she can see a core of steel, a tensile strength not noticed on first glance. Will it be enough? Will it allow her to continue her journey alone until Koda can join her?

I will find you.

Have those eyes, green as the new leaves of spring, brightened just a bit? Has she heard the vow?

As she breaks eye contact and trots back into the forest, Dakota can only hope she has.

I will find you.

I will protect you.

You are not alone.

CHAPTER FIVE
“I hear that voice again. It sings me to sleep. A journey without distance to a goal that has never changed.”
1

Koda comes to full wakefulness quickly and silently. Her dream remains with her even as her body and mind awaken to reality. She smiles as she feels the compact body in her arms, melded against and atop her like a second skin. Reaching up, she strokes the thick, soft black hair, chuckling inwardly as the woman in her arms purrs very much like a cat while trying to burrow further into her embrace, still fast asleep.

After another moment, Dakota slips out from beneath the Air Force colonel and makes her way, still unclothed, to the small, polarized window. The night beyond is crisp, clear, and unremittingly cold. As she peers off to the north, now knowing her destination, she thinks back on the past two days.

As the remains of the military caravan limped toward the base like an injured snake, it was held up by a long line of soldiers armed to the teeth. Koda could hear, via the open mic, the orders of those soldiers, demanding that everyone step out of their vehicles to verify that they were human.

Up to her elbows in a downed airman’s chest cavity, Dakota, of course, refused. When the gun’s muzzle came into view, it was only Manny’s fast reflexes, which had been courted by colleges across the country, and a few Major League teams as well, that saved her from being splattered like an ink blot all over the truck’s interior.

Four heads poked immediately through the truck’s doors, military faces cut from the same cookie cutter mold, down to the deep cleft in their chins. Fortunately for everyone, they immediately relaxed when they realized that Allen was, in fact, telling the truth. Three of the men hopped aboard and began helping the beleaguered vet while the fourth ran back to his mates and ordered the gates opened so the caravan could proceed with all due haste.

Dakota saw very little of the compound itself, though she could smell the thick, acrid smoke that hung in the air like a pall. The base had, thankfully, a fairly modern hospital and several surviving doctors and medics to tend to the men in her care.

The electricity was running, thanks to a small hydroelectric plant on the grounds, and Koda spent the next thirty six hours helping the harried staff tend to the wounds of the injured soldiers.

When she was finally approached by a very insistent Allen, she didn’t fight the firm hand encircling her wrist, or the tug that forced her legs to move away from the patients she was watching over.

She stopped and stared, though, when her first sight of the compound settled over her. It looked like it had been deluged by bombs. Many of the buildings were nothing but still-smoking rubble, and almost all of the uniformed men and women who scuttled about like ants bore some mark of its passing, whether a bandaged appendage, or a shell-shocked expression and deep, hollow eyes.

Mounds of fresh snow covered the bodies of those who would never rise again. Twenty across and at least that many deep, the bodies were watched over by a full military color-guard, honored in the only way they knew.

“C’mon,” Maggie had said, gently tugging Dakota’s arm. “Let’s get you somewhere warm where you can get some food in your belly before you pass out.”

“I’m fine.” Koda’s voice was a distracted mumble as she eyed the hillocks of snow covering the bodies of the fallen.

“You’re as pale as the snow out here, Koda, and your pulse is racing to beat the band. I’ll make it an order if I have to.”

Allen bravely withstood the colorless eyes that came to rest on hers.

“Yeah, I know, you’re a civvie’, but I can be mighty persuasive when I want to be.”

That earned her a smile that, while small, cheered her considerably.

The mess was pretty much what Dakota expected a military mess to be, and she ate her food without really tasting it, just glad to have something warm and substantial in her belly after more than a day of existing on black coffee and nothing else.

The housing was, however, somewhat of a surprise, and when Maggie led her into the small, private cottage, she looked around approvingly, giving the arrangements her first real smile of the day.

A shower had been the first thing on her agenda, though it took almost an hour of scrubbing to get all of the encrusted blood and body fluids removed from her skin and hair.

Clad in a fresh T-shirt and soft sweatpants, she tumbled into the king-sized bed and was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

Maggie had returned late that evening, and when Koda awoke, they fell into an embrace and a loving that was more needing than tender. Primal and passionate, it was the connection of two bodies trying to reaffirm life after having seen so much death.

They had fallen asleep soon after, completely drained of the last of their energy.

2

There is a body in the road. Young, female, bleeding. Unfortunately, despite the presence of half a dozen expectant ravens, it is also still alive. Even with snow falling, Kirsten can see the faint, warding flutter of a hand when one of the birds ventures too close.

Damn. Goddam. I. So. Do. Not. Need. This.

Risky. Way too risky.

Yet even as she begins to steer in an arc that will carry her past on the other side, Kirsten’s foot settles on the brake. Asimov, on the seat beside her, stands to attention, ears pricked forward, tail stiff at half-mast. He whines, low in his throat, and gives a short, sharp bark of alarm.

“Yeah, boy,” she mutters. “I see her.”

For several minutes, Kirsten does just that, examining the scene before her. The woman—no, a girl, slender and still almost flat-chested under the bulk of her jacket, with generic Midwestern features and light-brown hair spilling out from beneath the brim of a knitted cap—lies some ten feet from the verge of the road, in the westbound lane of the Interstate. A wavering line of footprints, now rapidly filling with the new snow, dots the empty field to the north of the road.

Halfway across there are slip marks and a hollow where someone has fallen, presumably the annoyance in front of her. Even at a distance, she can make out a pink tinge to patches of the snow. Closer too, crimson spatters the fresh cover, with a long streak where the girl has skidded and fallen again.

There are half a dozen ways it could be a trap. The girl could be microchipped or wearing a transponder. She might have a weapon under her jacket. There could be droids waiting behind a line of trees that runs along a ridge to the other side of the road. Almost as bad, there might be human predators who have left their latest victim as bait for the next.

As the possibilities sort through her mind, one of the ravens stalks up to the girl on the road, waddling a little on the still-soft surface. Cocking its head, it seems to study her face for a moment, then grasps a strand of her long hair in its bill and tugs. And tugs again, backing up in the snow. The girl thrashes and cries out weakly. “No! Oh, no! Jesus, help me!”

Kirsten has never placed much credence in the idea of a fate worse than death, but being eaten alive qualifies. In spades. She pauses only to check the magazine of her pistol, slides out of the seat and slogs toward the young woman who has suddenly become her unwelcome charge. Less inhibited, Asimov streaks past her and bounds over the girl’s body in a flying arc, landing splay-legged in the middle of the ravens and snapping at the air. The birds, not much impressed, step away from the dog with a haughty stare and ruffle of wing feathers. The girl, though, cries out in terror. “A wolf! Oh my God, noooooo!”

“No he isn’t. He just think he’s one,” Kirsten snaps. She whistles sharply, “Come, Asi!”

The girl turns to look at Kirsten, floundering in the snow. Closer to, Kirsten can see that the right leg of her jeans is ripped and soaked with red, fresh blood pooling and melting the snow where she lies. Her eyes are all pupil, so wide with pain and terror that Kirsten cannot tell what color they are. Scratches streak her face, though they seem superficial, perhaps the result of fleeing through the underbrush of the woods along the ridge. Her left arm lies at a strange angle, either broken or dislocated.

Oh, wonderful, Kirsten thinks. Multiple choice: (a)put her out of her misery; (b), take her with me; or (c) leave her for the ravens.

Leaving her for the birds is not an option. If it were, Kirsten would already be five miles further down the road, five supremely important miles further toward the end of her own journey. Euthanasia by 9mm round? She cannot quite bring herself to do it, at least not without knowing for certain that the life seeping out onto the road at her feet is unsalvageable. All right, then. That leaves (b).

With a sigh, she thumbs on her gun’s safety catch and tucks the weapon into her belt. No good deed ever goes unpunished, she reminds herself, wryly, and this one will probably have an exorbitant cost. Saving this girl’s life, if she can, will make her that much later getting to the manufacturing facility at Minot. And that will almost certainly be paid for in other lives, elsewhere. She has already killed innocent people to get as far as she has. She is not willing to do it again except under circumstances more extreme than this.

She kneels in the snow beside the wounded girl, whose huge black eyes have never left her own. Forcing her voice to the gentleness that always marked her mother’s, Kirsten takes the girl’s hand, lifting it from where it still scrabbles at the snow, fighting for purchase. “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?”

The girl’s only answer is a whimper, deep in her throat. She shrinks away, trying to make herself small, when Kirsten reaches for the zip of her jacket.

“All right,” she says. “My name’s—my name’s Annie. I’m going to look at your leg, if you’ll let me. I’ll try really hard not to hurt you.”

Damn. It’s like talking to a half-feral dog.

You would do this for a dog. Pretend she is one if that’s what it takes. Patience.

“Easy,” she whispers. “Easy, now.”

Without waiting for a response, Kirsten folds the torn denim back from the girl’s thigh. There is a puncture wound, probably a from a large-caliber bullet. The good news, insofar as there is any, is that the blood slowly seeping from its depths is dark, almost black. Venous blood, which means it’s just possible that her new responsibility is not going to bleed to death on her. If the femoral artery had been hit, she would be dead by now. And we would not be having this charming conversation. Unfortunately, she cannot see the exit wound and has no idea how much of the flesh has been torn away in the projectile’s passage. There is no way at all she can deal with the arm until she gets the jacket off, and she cannot do that with her patient lying in the snow.

“Listen to me,” she says gently. “I can’t tend to you like this. I’m going to bring the van over here and lift you into it. I’ve got some medicines and other supplies that will help you. Do you understand?”

Silence. The eyes fixed on her remain huge and black. Kirsten begins to wonder if there’s a concussion along with the other injuries, or if the girl is deaf. But she can speak; that is certain. Damn. “Okay, you don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. Can you raise your raise your hand if you understand me?”

Nothing. Then, very slowly, two fingers rise up out of the snow.

Kirsten lets out a long breath. “Good. I’ll only be gone a minute. This is Asimov.” She points to the dog, where he sits on the girl’s other side, tongue lolling and a happy-idiot expression on his face as he watches the ravens. “He’ll keep the birds away from you. He is not a wolf.” No matter what he might think.

It takes Kirsten more time than she would like to maneuver the truck to within a couple feet of her patient. Once alongside, she slides open the side door and clears out a spot on the floor. Her task is easier than it would have been a few days ago, and she frowns. Her supplies are getting low. She has enough gas in the jerry cans to get her across the rest of Minnesota and half of North Dakota, with maybe a tank and a half to spare. She cannot take this waif with her; neither can she spend much of her precious fuel looking for a safe haven.

In this sparsely populated country, there would have been fewer droids than in the cities. Somewhere she had read—National Geographic? Scientific American? —that there were still bands of Mennonites here on the northern plains who had refused to come out of the nineteenth century even so far as to use electricity, much less modern farm machinery. In the last hundred miles, Kirsten had seen the occasional tracks of a wheeled vehicle, even more occasionally a thin column of smoke from a chimney. Almost any group of survivors ought to be glad of another pair of hands, even if they come accompanied by a young and healthy appetite.

They ought to be willing to take a good, well-trained dog, too.

The idea comes unbidden. It is something she has been trying very hard not to think about, though she has known from the beginning that she cannot take Asimov where she is going. Simply abandoning him is unthinkable, just as leaving him behind had been. Far in the back of her mind is the even harder choice she had known she might face. With a bit of luck, now, it will not come to that.

The thought is almost enough to make her feel kindly toward the Nameless One as she spreads out a sleeping bag, then tops it with a blanket-covered tarp as a makeshift treatment table. Kirsten also lays out a box of bandages; an ampoule of Penicillin, still a staple drug after three-quarters of a century; a 5 cc syringe and a precious vial of Demerol. Perhaps, she thinks, she can leave the drugs, too, with anyone willing to give Asimov a home. Even an aspirin should be worth its weight in diamonds, now.

Worth more. Worth lives to those fortunate enough to have it.

The world has changed irrevocably, and she knows it. Even if she succeeds in stopping the droids, even if there are enough surviving chemists, physicists, microbiologists, AI wonks like herself to rebuild the technology, the life she has known is gone. The social order likely to emerge from the ruins will be radically different, with few men and almost no elders. Nations are destroyed. What will rise in their stead she fears even to imagine. City-states? Tribes? The Empire of Miami?

She gives her head a shake to force herself back to the present. Whatever comes, she probably will not live to see it.

Carefully she lets herself down into the snow next to the Nameless One. “Listen to me,” she says softly. “I’m going to lift you up and back and into the truck. I need you to help me if you can. Do you understand?”

This time there is a nod. Progress.

Kirsten straddles the girl’s body, getting a firm grip under her arms. “Okay, on the count of three.”

Another nod.

At “Three!” Kirsten straightens and heaves, stepping forward in the same motion to sit the girl in the open door of the van. It is easier than she expected, with the Nameless One able to take some of her own weight on her good leg and support herself with her uninjured arm.

After that it is Emergency First Aid 101.

Kirsten cuts away the right half of the girl’s jeans and applies pressure compresses until the wound stops bleeding. The exit hole is larger than the entry, but not measurably worse; not a military round then, or a dum-dum. She pours it full of antiseptic and winds bandages around the leg. The arm is more difficult. An enormous purple bruise and swelling above the elbow indicate a fracture. Kirsten does not have the skill to set the bone, so she splints it with triple thicknesses of cardboard cut from a carton of dog food and straps it to the girl’s side to immobilize it. She replaces the stained blanket under her patient with a fresh one. Finally she pumps 500 units of Penicillin into her. The repairs have taken the better part of two hours. The light is fading as Kirsten reaches for the Demerol.

The girl has borne the pain in silence, all the while watching her with those great dark eyes. Kirsten uncaps another syringe with her teeth and inserts it into the ampoule of painkiller. “I’ll give you something that will make you sleep, now. I can’t promise you’ll feel better when you wake up, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance. We need to find someone I can leave you with, though.” Gently she slides the needle home. “I can’t take you where I’m going.”

“Where’s that?”

The girl’s voice is hardly more than a breath, but it startles Kirsten so that she straightens suddenly. “Well,” she says, after a moment. “So you are going to talk to me.”

“Sorry. I was scared.”

“Of course you were.” Kirsten gives the girl’s unbroken arm an awkward pat. “Can you tell me what happened to you? And what do I call you?”

“Lizzie. Lizzie Granger. My folks call me Elizabeth, but, . . ..” Lizzie chokes suddenly, turning her face away. “Oh God, they’re all dead. My mom, my dad, my baby brother. The Beast’s locusts killed them.”

“Beast? Locusts?”

“The Beast. You know, the Beast. 666.”

“You mean the one from the Bible? The Anti-Christ?” .

“No, no. The one that comes before the Anti-Christ. You’re not a Christian, are you?”

“I was raised Methodist. Does that count?”

“Christian. Gotta be a real Christian.” The girl’s voice is slurring with the action of the Percodan. “Not like me. Not good enough. The locusts came, the ones with faces like men but with lions’ teeth. Breastplates of iron. Stings. Killed them all.”

This is, Kirsten decides, the most bizarre conversation she has had in decades. Not even the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to the door when her dad was stationed in Corpus Christi, the ones who thought the United Nations was the Devil’s own bureaucracy and the flag was an idol, were quite this weird. Droids running out of control and the girl is worried about grasshoppers. Grasshoppers with human faces and metal bodies and . . . oh bloody hell, of course. “Droids,” she says. “You mean droids?”

“Droids,” Lizzie murmurs. “Good droids. Took my cousin and her kids. There was this. Bright, bright light. And the angels. Took them up. To meet. Jesus. In the. Air.” Her voice is fading. “Ran. Scared. Got left. Behind. Left. . . .”

Lizzie’s eyes slide closed and her breathing deepens. It is still faster than it should be, and shallower, but she is in no immediate danger. That will come later.

For all of them.

Kirsten drapes a blanket over the girl’s unconscious form and climbs back into the front seat. She whistles Asimov up beside her, puts the truck in gear and heads again into the west, into the settling darkness.

3

“Go back to sleep. It’s still the middle of the night.”

The soft, deep voice startles Maggie from her rapt, if a bit sleepy, moonlit contemplation of surely the most perfect body that God, in His infinite Wisdom, had ever created. Feeling warmth steal over her face, she’s glad of the darkness. “How did you–?”

“Know you were awake? I have my ways.”

“Mm,” Maggie all-but-purrs. “I’ll testify to that.”

When the expected chuckle doesn’t follow, the Colonel scoots up in the bed until her back is resting against the headboard and the blanket is comfortably wrapped around her chest. There she returns to her inspection, though this time with a more professional eye. She notices the new lines of tension stretched across the broad shoulders and along the column of Koda’s elegant spine. “Is something wrong?” she hazards, knowing it’s a crap shoot as to whether or not she’ll get an answer.

After a long moment of silence, Dakota releases a small sigh, fogging slightly the polarized window. “What are your plans?”

The question pulls the Colonel up short. There are several shades of meaning behind the all too forthright words. “You mean…with my troops?”

Koda nods, still looking out the window. “Yes.”

It’s Maggie’s turn to sigh. “Much as I don’t like it, I think I’m going to have to split them into smaller squads.”

“Why?”

“Well, while you were busy patching and sewing, I was talking to the acting base Commander, Major General Hart. There’s been a small, but steady line of survivors coming in since the ‘incident’, as he calls it. Mostly men and children. Some older women. One or two younger women, but that’s all.” Maggie pauses for a moment, ordering her thoughts. “Word is that the droids are taking the young women, all of child-bearing age, like we guessed, and housing them in the local jails. Nobody knows why, or what they’re doing to them in there. But it can’t be pretty, whatever it is.”

“So you’re going after them. Try to break them out.”

Maggie nods. “That’s the plan, yes.” She looks down at her hands. “Most of the jails down in this part of the state are, as you know, pretty damn small. And it’s a damn sure bet that the droids are armed to their beady glass eyeballs with whatever weapons they can get their hands on. Which means that if we send out huge squads, they’ll likely shoot the prisoners before we can even break through the front door. With fewer people, we just might be able to do it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Maggie’s mouth drops open in shock. Koda turns from the window, giving a little smirk that tells the Colonel that she’s not entirely joking. Maggie can’t help but grin back, that part of her that’s been a soldier since she was a little girl suddenly warming to the challenge. “Well, I’m not exactly used to being this up close and personal with the enemy, but…yeah, it could be fun at that.” With a sexy little smile, she draws the blanket down so that just the tops of her full breasts show. “Care to join me?”

Another question with a variety of meanings.

Koda, regretfully, declines all of the offers. “I need to go north.”

Maggie hides her disappointment. “Worried about your family?”

Shaking her head, Dakota smiles a little. “My family can take care of themselves.”

“Then why north?”

Dakota looks at her so long and so penetratingly that she’s afraid she’s crossed an invisible line. She finds herself holding her breath as she waits for an answer, all the while praising God that this intent, intense woman is on her side.

“I had a dream.” Koda’s voice is only a whisper, but in the otherwise tomb-silent room, Maggie has no trouble hearing the words. The phrase is so incongruous to her that she finds herself flipping back to the age of seven, sitting in the front row of Mrs. Dobbin’s Country Day class and watching the monitor as an ancient, grainy image of a dark-skinned man mouths those same words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Looks like your dream finally came true, Rev. King, Maggie thinks. Thank God you’re not around to see the result.

Pushing the maudlin thought away, she comes back into herself and realizes that Koda is still pinning her with those too-brilliant gemcut eyes. The aura of tension has returned, strumming around the Vet’s body like an electrical charge.

“And in this dream, you’re headed north?”

Koda nods, the tension still swirling around her body. Maggie swears she can feel the fine hairs on her arms prick up.

“It must be very important to you, then.”

Like the breaking of a vacuum seal, the tension immediately dissipates from the room. Maggie knows she’s answered correctly.

Dakota nods. “It is.”

“How far will you go?”

“Very far.”

Maggie stiffens as the answer seeps into her brain, as if by osmosis. “Not Minot.”

Koda nods again.

“Dakota, that’s….”

“Crazy?” The Vet gives a half smile, but her eyes are twin glaciers.

“You know damn well it is,” Maggie replies, letting her anger show. Taking in a deliberate breath, she reins in her legendary temper. “Koda,” she begins again, softly, “this is in no way meant to demean your dream, but you don’t need to go up there. I’m already planning to take a couple of my fighters and blast that damn factory into a mega-mall parking lot. And you know I’ve got the payload to do it.”

“And the humans inside that factory?”

“You actually think they’ve left any alive in there?” Maggie is incredulous. “What would be the point? That whole factory is completely self run. The droids do everything!”

“I can’t take that chance, Colonel,” Koda replies, turning back to the window. “Every human life is precious. Especially now.”

“And what about yours?!” Maggie demands, hands fisted in the blanket.

The Colonel’s answer is a sad smile reflected in the window’s glass.

4

It is a repeating nightmare. Stretched across the road a hundred meters ahead is a line of pickups strung nose to bumper, a steel wall she can neither drive through nor veer around. To the left of the barricade is a six-foot deep concrete-lined drainage ditch. Something metallic and vaguely human-shaped at its bottom glints in the late sunlight, light that also runs along the barrels of the half dozen long guns swinging up to aim at Kirsten and her vehicle. As she begins to brake, she runs through a quick assessment of her options.

The list is very brief. Zero to zero, in fact.

The drainage ditch on one side, with a possibly demolished droid in it—a possibly good sign. A wide gate of welded pipe on the other, topped by a wrought iron sign announcing Shiloh Farm. A bad sign, given that it is closed.

She could throw the truck into reverse at 80 mph and turn around again a half mile up the road. The scopes on several of the rifles make it unlikely, though, that she would get that far without a blown-out tire or punctured gas tank If these are real people, she may be able to talk her way through. Or buy her way out with the supplies and drugs she will not need much longer.

On the other hand, they may well kill her and take them anyway. And that would be a shame.

Kirsten rolls to a stop half a dozen meters from the blockade. Carefully she slides her pistol into her lap. A glance behind the seat tells her that her patient is again sleeping soundly under the effects of the Morphine Kirsten gave her when she changed the dressing on the gunshot wound. Asimov raises his head just high enough to peer over the dashboard, then settles again beside her.

Which is either reassuring or terrifying, depending upon what happens next.

Three of the guards step away from the barricade, stopping halfway to the van. One, a woman by the long, copper-colored braid that shines even against the hunter’s orange of her jacket, shouts, “Unlock your doors! Then put your hands on the steering wheel where we can see them!”

Kirsten pauses only to slip the 9mm into her waistband, where it will remain hidden, however briefly, under the bulk of her down vest. Then she presses the button to pop the locks and places her hands in plain view, clasped on the rim of the wheel.

As they approach again, one of the men pauses to spit out a long stream of caramel-colored liquid, and Kirsten allows herself an infinitesimal measure of relaxation. Droids don’t chew tobacco. Brigands would have shot her already. Unlike the other two, the third member of the group carries no weapon. Shorter than his companions and slightly built, he sports thin white hair combed optimistically over a scalp flushed bright pink with the cold and a week’s genuine human stubble above a Roman collar. Kirsten glances at the perfectly calm Asimov, now sitting straight up in the seat. “Stay, boy,” she mutters. Probably unnecessary; he looks as if he has taken root. Some guard dog.

The priest opens the driver’s door of the van and looks up at her with the clearest grey eyes Kirsten has ever seen. They are like glass, almost, or spring water running over flint pebbles, worn smooth with the stream’s passing. “Good afternoon,” he says pleasantly. His voice is unexpectedly deep and resonant. “I’m Dan Griffin, and my friends here are Toussaint Marchand”—he nods toward the tall man with the shotgun, whose mahogany face barely shows between his muffler and a Navy watchcap pulled down to his eyebrows—”and Caitlin Drummond.” The redhead, obviously.

There is a moment’s pause, and Kirsten realizes she is expected to return the courtesy. The alias comes to her tongue without hesitation. “Annie Hutchinson. Pleased to meet you.”

Her voice is a bit dryer than she intends, and Griffin’s eyes glint in amusement. “I do hope so. Do you have any weapons with you, Annie?” When she does not answer immediately, he adds, “You can tell me about them, or Toussaint and Caitlin can search your van. Let’s do this the easy way, shall we?”

She nods. “In the back. There’s an injured girl, too.”

“Keep your hands on the wheel, please,” he says, and steps back to slide open the side door. There is the sound of his sharply indrawn breath behind her, and a rustle of cloth as he lays back the blanket tucked about the unconscious Lizzie. “What happened?”

“I don’t know exactly. She’s been shot in the leg. The arm’s broken.”

“Yes, I see. How long has she been unconscious like this?”

She can tell the truth or be caught in the lie. “Since I gave her a shot of painkiller. It’s the only thing I could do for the fracture.”

“You’re a medic?”

“My grandmother had diabetes. She couldn’t take the pills.” Kirsten knows that she has answered only half his real question—where did she get the drug?—but he lets it pass.

“All right.” With that, he appears again at the driver’s door. “Now then, Annie, if you and your dog will step down for a bit and let my friends check out what you’re carrying, we can take the young lady here up to the farm and see to her injuries.” As she starts to slide off the seat, he adds, “Oh. And give me your handgun, please.”

Very carefully opening her vest so that he can see her movements, she snaps the safety on and hands the pistol to him, grip first. “How did you know?”

He smiles and nods to the two others, who lower their guns and come to inspect the truck. At her side, Asimov is actually wagging his tail at the stranger. Griffin reaches forward to ruffle the fur of his neck. “Because you’d be foolish not to have a hidden weapon. And you’re not foolish. Come over to the line and have a cup of coffee. And welcome to Shiloh Farm.”

5

“For the last time, Manny, no.”

Manny Rivers’ face, already ruddy, goes a deeper shade of red, becoming nearly plum as his hands fist at his sides and his chest expands enough to put a serious strain on the zipper of his jumpsuit. The other members of the small group fidget nervously. Manny is usually the most placid of men, but when his anger sparks, the results aren’t always pretty.

Taking a quick look at the crowd they were drawing, Dakota signals to her cousin, and the two walk downwind to a relatively empty section of the bombed-out base.

“I’m not the little boy you can boss around anymore, shic’eshi.”

“I know you aren’t, Manny, and I apologize if I’m making you feel that way.”

Manny relaxes a little, but the tension is still plain in the lines on his youthful face. “At least tell me why.”

“Because I need you here.”

“For what? That’s the part you’re not explaining, Koda.”

Mustering what’s left of her patience, Koda pulls a military map out of the generous pocket of her coat. Laying it across some overturned cans, she trails a long finger north along a micro-thin line.

“That’s pretty out of the way,” Manny observes, cocking his head to get a better look.

“Less chance of being detected,” Koda replies. Her finger stops close to the border. “This is the only jail we’ll pass. It’s small, no more than twenty cells, max.”

“You’ve gotta take me, Koda! I’m the best fighter you’ve got. The rest of these guys couldn’t shoot fish in a barrel.”

“Niiice. And you picked them out for me all by yourself, hmm?”

He scowls. “You know what I mean.”

“Once we break those women out, we’re gonna need some temporary place to put them. It’s pretty barren up this way, but I think I know of a good spot or two.”

Manny gives a grudging smile, remembering when he was young, praying for a visit from his older cousin, who would sweep him away in her truck, taking him places where their ancestors had once made a home. They were his favorite times as a boy, and he remembers them fondly still.

Koda looks at him as he remembers, a faint hint of a smile on her face. When he comes back to the present, she nods. “I’ll need to communicate their position to the base somehow so they can be picked up.”

Manny shrugs his shoulders. “So? You’ve got the world’s most powerful satellite phone in your hand there. Where’s the problem?”

“And let every droid east and west of the Mississippi know their position? Think, Manny.”

“So what are you gonna do? Make like in’juns in a John Wayne movie and blow smoke signals from the top of the Black Hills?”

Koda rolls her eyes. “Listen to me, Manny, because I’m only gonna say this once, okay?”

Manny gives a reluctant nod.

“There’s a way I can use this phone and keep the droids from knowing where the women are.”

“How?”

“Uniyapi Lakota.”

Understanding draws over his face like the wakening dawn. His brow is a squiggle of conflicting emotion; part wanting to lift in an admiring grin, part wanting to lower in a defeated scowl.

“I spoke to the base commander this morning. As far as he knows, the droids have never been programmed with the Lakota language. It’ll give us an advantage that we sorely need right now, and before you say anything, I checked. We’re the only Lakota here.” She looks at her cousin for a long moment. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. “Now do you see why I need you here?”

The scowl wins. “I see it. I don’t like it, but I see it.”

“Good.”

“I’m giving you ten days,” he warns, pointing a finger at her. “Ten days, and then I’m getting in my Tomcat and coming after your ass, hear me?”

Folding her map and storing it in her pocket, she nods. He takes a step closer and flings his arms around her, no longer the soldier, the crack pilot, the man, but rather the boy she remembers so long ago clinging desperately to her in a silent plea not to leave. Her own arms gentle themselves around his trim, hard body. She breathes in the warm, familiar scent of him as a guard against the demons of the unknown she will soon face.

All too soon, the moment ends, and by mutual consent, they both step back, neither acknowledging, except in their hearts, the sheen of tears in the other’s eyes.

6

An hour and a half later, Lizzie is sleeping peacefully in the Shiloh infirmary, her arm set and immobilized in cast and sling. She has other refugees for company, one or two with far worse injuries. Kirsten’s handgun, returned to her, rides uneasily at her belt while she spoons up the last of the best vegetable soup she has eaten in her life. For the second time since she began her flight, she feels something close to safe.

Asimov snores on the flagstones of the farm’s common room floor, a paw over his badly scratched nose. Above him, firmly ensconced in the middle of the trestle table, a white-muzzled calico purrs as Father Griffin absently strokes her fur. The two-story tall window of the refectory looks out on a meadow white with new snowfall and a small pond whose ice shimmers with gold, blue and lilac in the late sun.

Dan smiles at her across the table. “More? Or will that hold you till supper?”

Kirsten laughs, pushing the bowl away from her. “Thanks, that will do for the moment. You have no idea how good that tastes after a dozen cans or so of Dinty Moore and Ranch Style Beans.”

Dan says nothing, merely waits. Confession time, huh? Kirsten observes wryly to herself. Not yet. Maybe never. No matter how warm and fuzzy the atmosphere, she cannot forget that she is a danger to every other human she encounters. So is the knowledge she carries. Instead she trails her fingers across the surface of the white pine table in front of her, its knots and whorls so carefully matched that they form a pattern like flowing water. “This is beautiful,” she says. “Do you make furniture here?”

“One of our members is a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Our resident Kabbalist—you’ll meet him at supper.”

“Kabbalist? I thought—I’m sorry, I thought this was a monastery or something.”

“Monks with shotguns?” Dan’s brows rise in mock surprise. “Not that there isn’t a precedent, mind. Go back to the ‘or something,’ though. Shiloh is an intentional community, made up of the lost sheep and farseekers of a dozen traditions. We have pacifists, mystic warriors, celibates, couples and families, Native American shamen and followers of Kali. We look for the things that are common in all our ways and attempt to live as lightly as possible upon our Mother Earth.”

“That’s why you didn’t have any droids.”

“That’s why we didn’t have any droids, and why we’ve survived. Fortunately, we did have excellent communications before the uprising. We can still get what’s left of the Net on satellite and listen in on CB. We don’t broadcast, though.”

“There’s not much left, Dan. Lizzie’s only the third living human I’ve seen between here and Pennsylvania.”

“I know.” Dan’s fingers curl around his mug of tea as if seeking warmth, and Kirsten finds herself mimicking the gesture. “It may be that we won’t be able to recover at all, Annie. We humans may be where the Spotted Owl the Siberian Tiger were twenty years ago. Nobody’s got a breeding program for us, though.”

“It won’t come to that.’ The passion in her voice surprises Kirsten. “It can’t. I won’t—”

“YO! I’M HOME!”

The common room’s door thumps back against the wall and a giant thuds across the floor, shedding muffler, cap, gloves and a double thickness of down jacket as he comes. Kirsten blinks twice, taking in the half-halo of salt-and-pepper curls, still luxuriant around an encroaching bald patch, the snub nose in a wind-burned round face and the whisky-barrel chest connected to it by an Aran-knit collar. It is as though a two-hundred-year-old oak has sprouted feet and invaded the house.

The walking tree makes straight for Dan and bends to brush a light kiss on the other man’s lips. “Hiya, babe. Back with a cuppa.”

Kirsten, bemused, watches the man’s retreating back. “Who’s that? Fangorn?”

“Not quite. Our electrical engineer, Alan Stephanos. My partner.”

“Black sheep?”

“My Bishop thought so, yes.”

Kirsten feels the heat rise in her face. She glances down at the table in embarrassment. A long moment stretches out, becomes painful. Finally she says, “I’m sorry. That was rude. He just didn’t seem to fit—well, the other category.”

“Spirituality? Think worker saint. I met him at a peace march back in ’02.”

“The Iraq war? My father went into Baghdad with the first ground assault.”

Dan nods. “We got busted together. The LA police put us in a ‘free speech pen,’ and Alan just walked up to the fence and kicked it down. Then he flattened the cop that was trying to Mace me and a couple nuns.”

“Assault on an officer?”

“They couldn’t make it stick. He just stepped up to the guy and fell on him. Like a tree, actually.”

“Talking about me, are you?” Alan settles at the table, folding up one beefy joint at a time until he comes to rest on the bench. Absently he scratches the calico’s ears. “Met God while knocking ice off a generator twenty years ago. Talked to him again today, doing the same thing.” His eyes sparkle, meeting Dan’s across the board. Then, “In case he hasn’t already introduced me in absentia, I’m—God damn. God. Damn.”

Alan’s hand remains suspended in midair, halfway across the table toward Kirsten. He is looking at her, though, as if he has just found something unexpected in his boot. Something unpleasant. A snake, perhaps.

“It’s all right.” Dan’s voice is soft. “Your middle name is Anne, isn’t it, Kirsten?”

Shit. Oh, shit shitshitshit.

Tell the truth and shame the devil. Her grandmother had been fond of the saying. Just as a practical matter, Kirsten cannot see how it could make matters worse at this point.

“All right,” she says. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

“Your face has been all over the news at one time or another, you know. Alan, are you going to shake Dr. King’s hand or not?”

“You’re headed for Minot, aren’t you?”

The question hangs in the air above the table, much as Alan’s gesture had done. Duly shaken, the engineer’s hand now engulfs the mug of cooling tea before him. His question, however, shows no sign of withdrawing to a more comfortable distance. Kirsten’s options are limited. Lie, and be caught lying. Tell the truth and bring the good men who have offered her hospitality and at least fleeting respite into even greater danger.

“Kirsten, it’s fairly obvious. There’s nothing else in the region that would be of interest to a cyber-expert like yourself. If you were simply trying to get as far away from Washington as you could, you’d have taken the easier route south.”

Kirsten smiles wryly. “You’re so damn reasonable about it all, Dan. Keep it up and I’ll be confessing all my sins back to hacking the Orange County Republican Party’s bank account when I was in third grade.”

“So young, so gifted, so wicked,” Dan observes piously. “And what did you do with the liberated funds?”

“Gave them to the Sierra Club and the SPCA.”

Alan, who has unwisely taken a mouthful of his tea, snorts and spews. “Jesus, woman. Give a man some warning.” He fishes in his pocket, produces a faded blue bandana and mops his chin. “So getting into a super-restricted top-security shoot-intruders-on-sight droid-manned military facility ought to be a freaking breeze, right?”

Kirsten’s heart slams against her ribs in something close to panic. “Look. It’s obvious; you’re right. I think I ought to go. Now.”

As she begins to push away from the table, Dan says, “Toussaint and Caitlin have already seen you. You can’t protect the community from knowing you’re here, or from guessing where you’re going. We can at least help you get there.”

“No. It’s too dangerous.”

“Kirsten, it’s more dangerous if you go alone. Perhaps none of us here has the knowledge to get onto the base or to know what to do once there, but we can give you an escort. If you’re worried about endangering us—don’t. Increasing your chances of success increases our chances of survival.”

“And just how would you keep us from following you down the road, anyway?” Alan’s level stare is a challenge. “You can make it harder or easier, for all of us. Your choice.”

Kirsten glances from one man to the other. Logically and pragmatically, they are right.

Despite herself, Kirsten feels nothing but relief. She ought to thank them. But she blurts out instead, “Will you take care of Asimov? He can’t go with me.”

“Of course he can stay with us.” Somewhere above them, a bell begins to ring, and Dan sets down his cup. “We’ll put the matter of a convoy to the community after supper. Meanwhile, let’s help set the tables.”

7

She finds herself again in a world of white. Monotonous, perhaps, but expected.

The effect is magnified by the all-white machine humming between her legs. The soldiers call them “stink bugs”, and it’s a more or less apt term, given the military snowmobiles’ reliance on methane as a method of propulsion, together with the wasp-like drone that marks their passing.

Adding to the monotony is the group’s mode of dress. Cammo-white is the call of the day, and Koda can’t help but flash back to a movie she’d once seen as a child. Willie….Somebody, she remembers. Something about a chocolate factory and a young boy who, dressed almost exactly as she is now, gets reduced to his component atoms and flies across the room to materialize inside of a television, a shadow of his former self.

“And here I am, off to rescue the natives of Oompa Loompa Land.”

Her wry thoughts are whipped away by the wind. As she rides on, she smiles, remembering Maggie’s goodbye to her. A quick, if heartfelt hug, a quiet “Be safe.” and it was over. It was as if the woman had read her mind and had given her exactly what she needed.

A shadow crosses over her and, looking up, her smile broadens. Wiyo rides the winds above her, sleek elegance personified.

ANGEL or demon! thou, — whether of light

The minister, or darkness — still dost sway

This age of ours; thine eagle’s soaring flight

Bears us, all breathless, after it away.

The eye that from thy presence fain would stry

Shuns thee in vain; thy mighty shadow thrown

Rests on all pictures of the living day.

The past stares at her through a curtain not quite opaque.

She can smell chalk dust, hear the quiet hum of the clock as it limps its way toward the final bell, and feel the filtered, somnolent sun resting on her shoulder. She can even see Mr. Hancock’s pinched face and the bald pate that shines in the harsh fluorescent lighting of the tiny classroom. He wants her to slip up. She can feel it, just as she can feel the ancient prejudice that runs through his veins like tainted, bilious blood. It is not a new feeling for her, living as she does in a country that proclaims freedom for all but those it has conquered.

She won’t slip, though. She never slips. The hunger of her intellect far outstrips his paltry teaching skills, and he knows it. The anger sharpens the gray of his eyes to flinty chips, and his permanently sour expression becomes more so. Had she been raised any differently, she might feel a spark of bitter pride in his anger. Instead, she feels only sadness.

A piercing cry from high above draws closed the curtain to the past, and Dakota once again looks up, eyes narrowing as Wiyo banks left, flutters, then swings around and low in warning.

“Ho’ up,” she murmurs into the mic at her throat.

Though she wears no stripes on her arm, nor brass on her collar, the soldiers listen as if she does. They split formation, half the group pulling to a smooth stop against the left side of the road, the other half doing the same on the right. As a unit, they unsling their weapons while still astride their snowmobiles, ready and waiting for anything.

Koda lifts an arm, and Wiyo settles on it, folding her wings comfortably as her eyes stare directly forward at a danger only she can see.

“Damn good watchdog you got there, Ma’am,” the young lieutenant on her left comments, voice quiet with awe.

Wiyo, surprisingly, takes no exception to the comment, and Koda smiles a secret grin as the hawk settles more comfortably against her.

A moment later, they all can hear the loud, blatting roar of a truck running out the last of its life as it heads toward them. As the vehicle barrels drunkenly into view, Wiyo lifts easily away, strong wings lifting her once again into the cutting air.

Weapons are immediately raised to high port, zeroing in on the oncoming truck with deadly purpose. Koda raises her arm again. “Steady. Let’s find out who it is, first.”

Not a droid, surely. Dakota can easily see the blood painted across the inside remains of a shattered windshield. And the man, or woman, inside leans like a potato sack against the steering wheel, head bobbing violently with each rut the truck’s bounding wheels hit.

“He’s gonna hit us,” the young lieutenant—Andrews, Koda remembers—softly warns, his hands tightening their grip on his weapon.

“Steady….”

“Ma’am?”

“Steady….”

Then the man, for it is a man, sees them, and his eyes widen to the size of saucers. He yanks the steering wheel sharply to the right, but it’s too late. The front tire catches a patch of black ice, and, sliding, the front bumper plows into the snowbank on the left side of the road. The truck flips, end over end. The weakened, shattered windshield gives way and the man is ejected out into the winter air, a flightless bird with his own peculiar, dying elegance.

The truck ends its own flight smashed against a tree. There isn’t enough gasoline left for an explosion. Instead it shudders, and dies.

Dakota moves first, bounding over the snowbank and racing to the downed man as fast as she can plow through the two feet of snow under her boots. He lies in a bloody heap in the snow, limbs bent in ways human appendages weren’t meant to bend. There are two ragged holes in his heavy parka, each tinged with soot and coated in dark, viscuous blood. His eyes are, surprisingly, open. One is crazy-canted, filled with blood, and staring off to the side. The other, however, is very much aware, and filled with terror.

Discerning the reason for the terror, Koda immediately reaches up and loosens her collar, displaying her bare neck to the man. At her side yet again, Andrews does the same.

The man relaxes slightly. The fear leaches from his eyes, but horror remains. One hand, at the end of a terribly mangled arm, reaches up and grabs the leg of Koda’s pants, spasming into a shaking fist. “D-Daughter,” he rasps, coughing on the blood pooling around his lips. “My daughter. Help—Help my daughter.”

“Where is your daughter?” Andrews asks.

“P-Prison. They—they took her aw—away from me…sh—sh—shot me—tw—twice, couldn’t hold…on….help her….please.”

“We will. We will,” Andrews hastens to reassure. “We’ll help her, buddy. But we gotta help you too. You’re….”

The young lieutenant’s voice trails off as the light and awareness from the man’s good eye slowly fades to a blank, glassy stare.

“Damn. Goddamn.” He looks up as a hand descends on his shoulder, squeezes briefly, and lets go. “This blows, Ma’am.”

“You’re right. It does.” Koda looks down at the corpse lying at her feet. “Let’s cover him with snow. We’ll relay his position back to the base once we’ve gotten the women out, alright?”

After a moment, Andrews nods, his shoulders slumped in a posture of defeat and resignation. “He deserves better. Hell, we all do. But I guess you’re right. It’s the best we can do for now.”
CHAPTER SIX
“Went to a party in the county jail. Prison band was there and they began to wail.”

Supper is done, the tables cleared and pushed to one side of the room. The benches have been dragged into a large circle in front of the hearth, where a fire is blazing behind a six-foot brass wire screen. Asimov and Her Majesty, the calico cat, have taken up wary positions opposite each other on the warm bricks by the poker stand and woodbin.

The community’s two dozen school-age children, almost as quiet, are bent over books and worksheets at a pair of tables near the window. One child with long black braids and coppery skin—boy or girl, Kirsten is not sure—jabs determinedly at the keys of a calculator with the eraser end of a pencil. Another, a pair of headphones bulging under her cotton-blonde hair, conjugates French verbs. Kirsten can just hear her soft murmur: je suis; tu es; vous etes; nous sommes.

In the wake of Armageddon, homework survives.

Only youngsters over sixteen are excused from the drudgery. They sit with their parents in the circle, where firelight and shadow flicker over quietly solemn faces: black, brown, red, white, golden and every shade in between, men and women gathered to debate and decide for their people. For they are a people, Kirsten realizes.

It is an unlikely tribe, held together not by blood or loyalty to any one patch of ground but by common purpose. Unobtrusively, her gaze slides around the circle, from features that would be at home in Iceland to others whose pattern arose below the Sahara. Isolated from the wreckage as they are, she finds some small comfort in the diversity that ensures genetic survival for this group. And if for them, perhaps for others.

She watches as each accepts or declines a chance to stand and speak as a finely carved beech rod passes from hand to hand around the circle. Kirsten is not a social scientist, but her fingers itch to take notes. Shiloh is, apparently, a functioning anarchy: they have no elections, no leader, no council except the entire adult community. There will be no vote. The hundred and eighty adult members will talk the question at hand to consensus, or the proposition will fail.

Now on its second circuit, the staff has made its way more than three quarters of the way around the council. Some have declined to speak; others have taken the floor simply to think out loud and in company; one or two have been frankly suspicious of Kirsten. To them she is The Outside, and her work and reputation ally her with The Government, non-existent though it now is.

A dozen places around the circle from her, a young man accepts the staff and rises to his feet. Long side curls frame a gentle face and dark eyes huge and soft as a deer’s. Micah, the cabinetmaker and Kabbalist. “I will go,” he says simply. “I will not fight or carry a weapon, but I will offer Kirsten whatever protection I can.” He sits down abruptly, almost as if he has found himself unexpectedly in strange territory.

But he has changed the tenor of the discussion. His own sense of purpose sparks determination in others, and the discussion becomes a matter of what the community will do, not what it should. The infirmarian proposes scavenging whatever medicines the party can find between the Farm and Minot. Toussaint volunteers to take the tanker truck in search of gasoline. Others will search abandoned feed stores and perhaps farms. The community needs grain for the livestock as well as seed for planting.

“It’s going to be a safari by the time they get through,” Dan murmurs.

“That’s fine,” Caitlin answers from Kirsten’s other side. Her pale brows furrow on either side of the triple moon—waxing, full and waning—tattooed between them. “We need to gather in what we can, while we can.”

She falls silent when the staff comes round to her husband. Counterpart to her triple moons, Aidan Cameron bears the image of a blazing sun on his brow. He looks, Kirsten thinks, like nothing so much as a Viking, with blond braids falling almost to his belt and bound in leather. When he speaks, though, his voice is pure Highlands. “I will gae likewise,” he says. “And if we find any of the mechanical de’ils, or any who make cause wi’ them—Chlanna nan con thighibha so’s gheib sibh feail—Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh!” He brandishes the staff aloft as if it were a sword, and its polished surface takes the light like steel.

Laughter runs around the circle as Alan stands in his turn, the speaker’s staff reduced to the proportions of a matchstick in his huge paw. “But will the sons of bitches eat the damned indigestible things?” Then he turns serious as he faces the rest of the community. “As you all know by now, ‘Annie’ here is Dr. Kirsten Anne King, one of America’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence and cybertech. What used to be America, at any rate. Right now, she may be the only surviving person who has the knowledge to get into the droid factory at Minot Air Force Base. She is the only person we know of that has some chance of getting the droids under control.”

He pauses, and the fire paints his face in bronze, making great hollows of his eyes. Memory—a history lecture, a visit to a museum, a book, she is not sure–flares for half a second: a disk of beaten gold with human features, dug from the ancient earth of Mycenae. The mask of Agamemnon Wanax, the lord of men. Then it is gone, and Alan Stephanos is a plain man speaking plainly. “I will go, too,” he says. “We may never recover what we have known. We may not even want to have all of it back. But what we have now is intolerable.”

When Alan hands him the staff, Dan says only, “I will go,” and sits down again.

It is Kirsten’s turn. She hates speaking in public, has hated it ever since her second grade teacher’s attempt to cast her as Priscilla Mullins in the Thanksgiving play. She cannot simply pass the staff on, though, unless she is willing to be inexcusably rude. Rude to people who will risk their lives for her and for the goal she has pursued over half a continent.

So she says, “I never expected to have help when I left Washington. Thank you for being willing to take the risks you’ve committed yourselves to. And thank you for taking in Lizzie and Asimov.” She glances toward him where he snores by the fire, and feels her breath catch in her throat. Damn. I will not go mushy. Goddam. “I know they’ll be safe with you.” Then, for lack of anything else, “Thank you again.” She sits down and hands the rod to Caitlin.

The red-haired woman holds it up silently, and when no one claims it to speak again, she stands and turns slowly, holding the eyes of all in the circle. Then she demands, “Shall it be so?”

“Let it be so,” the community answers.

“Well, then. Those who will go with Kirsten, please stay. Whose turn is it?”

“Margot’s,” someone answers, and someone else, more loudly, “Okay, kids.”

They stand with their elders, and an older woman with short-cropped grey hair raises her open hands. In a voice that is low but carries easily, she chants:

“Great Lady: What no human ear can hear, you hear.

What no human eye can see, you see.

What no human heart can bear, you transform.

What no human hand can do, you do.

What no human power can change, you change.

Goddess of love; Goddess omnipotent;

You through whom all power flows;

Queen of Earth and Sky, Creatrix of the Universe:

watch over us until the light once again prevails against the darkness.

O Gracious Goddess, be with us through this night.”

The meeting breaks up quickly after that. A quick tally of volunteers adds up to a dozen who will accompany Kirsten in the morning. Of those twelve, half are foragers who will leave the group when they find supplies; Aidan and Caitlin, Alan and Dan and Micah will remain as her guard. All except Micah will be armed.

When only Dan remains, she whistles to Asimov and takes him outside. Kirsten will spend the night in one of the guest rooms in the common building. She does not allow herself to think that she will never do this again.

Despite herself, though, her throat tightens once again as he quarters the large open space between the porch and the pond, pursuing invisible scent trails and rolling in the ankle-deep snow. On the other side of the frozen water and down the narrow road, lights glimmer in the cabins belonging to the community’s permanent residents. One by one, as she watches, they begin to go out, until there is only a soft glow here and there where a late scholar remains awake over a book or an artisan works on a project that will not let go until morning. Overhead, the stars spill across the sky in their winter brilliance, Rigel and Sirius burning blue against the depths of space. Betelgeuse flares blood-red above them.

Dan’s face is lost in shadow. His breath, though, makes a shimmering nimbus about him. “We’ll keep him safe. If you make it back, he’ll be here waiting for you.”

Kirsten’s answer is less than a whisper. “Thank you,” she says, meaning more.

Thank you for taking care of Asi. Thank you for not pretending I may live through this.

He takes her hand in both of his, squeezing gently. “Sleep peacefully.”

As he moves down the path toward home, his hair remains bright, salt white in the starlight even after the rest of his form is swallowed in darkness. Asimov comes at her call, and together they turn back toward sleep. A foot of so short of the porch, where light from the window still falls on the snow, a line of tracks leads across the front of the building. Long-fingered, the imprint of the paws looks almost like human hands.

Raccoon, she thinks. Odd that the marks were not there when she came out into the night. Odder still that Asimov did not bark.

With a shrug, she steps inside and closes out the dark behind her.

2

“What’s the count?”

“Twenty nine,” Andrews murmurs, pulling the nightscope from his face. “Can’t find one damn metalhead, though. Fuckers don’t put out any heat.”

In the near pitch darkness, the jail rises up before them like an ancient monolith, cold and uncaring, blind and deaf to the suffering within. The structure is tall, but narrow, a finger thrust upward, pointing toward an uncaring heaven. Few lights blaze from within, indicating an independent power source of some type.

“How many do you think there are?” asks a slight red-headed woman who would look more at home sitting behind a desk in Junior-High than clad in an army uniform and toting a rather large automatic weapon.

“Damned if I know. Could be one, could be a hundred.”

“Doubtful.” Dakota gives each of her squad members a look before continuing. “These droids are nothing if not efficient. Two or three of them could easily handle the twenty nine women in there.”

“Two?!” the young woman responds, hefting her weapon. “What the hell are we waiting for, then? Let’s go!”

“Not so fast,” Koda warns, lifting a hand. “They obviously want these women alive for a reason, so they’re likely looking after them with special interest.”

“More droids?”

“More droids. Say six to do the grunt work, and two or three to take care of whatever administrative details droids take care of. And because I’m fond of even numbers, round it up to ten to be on the safe side.”

The woman’s face falls. “Ten. Damn, that’s alotta metalheads in such a small space.”

“Be a lot fewer when we’re done with ‘em,” Andrews growls.

Koda feels the group respond as the energy level cranks up another notch. The men and women around her are almost vibrating with anticipation. The plan, conceived by Maggie while back at the base, is firm and set in everyone’s minds. They have their jobs, they know what to do. Koda gives them all a final, slow look before nodding.

“Stay behind us, Ma’am,” Andrews warns as the squad breaks up into two groups and heads, silent as the night, toward the heavy door at the front of the prison.

Drilling holes through his back with her eyes, Dakota says nothing as she follows along behind the group, staying in the shadows as the plastique is carefully placed and then detonated. With a muted wuff, the door falls inward and, weapons drawn, the soldiers enter the prison two by two.

Two silent human chains flow along the interior walls, like water pouring into a basin.

“Down!” Andrews yells a split-second before gunfire erupts over their heads. As a group, they duck down, grabbing cover where they can find it. Overturned tables, shattered wooden boxes, and other less identifiable objects litter the floor.

“Remember,” Koda cautions as they ready their weapons in preparation for returning fire, “aim at their arms and hands. They can’t fire what they can’t hold.”

The others nod, deferring to her greater experience in fighting these droids.

“And if you can’t get a good shot there, aim for their optical sensors. Should throw their own aim off.”

Using hand signals, Andrews draws the others into position, and with a quiet command into his mic, the squad rises as one and begins the assault. Gunfire explodes in bursts of deathly hail as the soldiers rise from their positions and begin an inexorable march forward.

Two go down. Then a third. But the group marches onward, fingers depressed on the triggers of their high-powered weapons, never giving an inch of ground they’ve gained.

The first wave of droids, four in all, goes down relatively quickly as the group advances upon, and captures, the first set of steel risers that will lead them up to the cells where the women are being kept.

Koda makes it to the third step when something slams into her chest and blows her off her feet. She is driven back, and down, landing on the hard cement floor with a force enough to rob what little breath she has left from her lungs. Her gun flies from her hand, clattering along the rough concrete until it hits a wall and discharges, filling her world with its booming roar.

As she lies, stunned, she watches with something close to clinical interest—shock, she supposes—as Andrews swoops down upon her like some sort of gangly, prehistoric bird, shouting things that she can’t quite get her mind to unravel.

So, this is what dying feels like.

Not too bad, actually.

Andrews’ homely, freckled face looms over her like the pitted moon. His lips continue move in incomprehensible patterns, spitting out syllables she can’t seem to care enough to understand.

Suddenly, her vision is obscured as his body closes down over her. The force of his collapse fires the nerves in her diaphragm, releasing it from its paralysis. She can feel herself taking in great, heaving gasps of air, and the agony of expanding bruised and cracked ribs lets her know that she’s not quite dead yet.

A moment later, her vision clears and it’s his concerned face she sees once again.

“Are you alright?”

Finally, some words that make sense. Taking quick mental stock of her body, she nods.

A smile wreathes his face as he gently helps her to a sitting position. She looks down at her chest. A rather large hole has been ripped through the white flack jacket just below her heart, and she stares down at it with a sense of awed wonder.

“Amazing what they’re doing with ceramics these days, huh?” Andrews asks cheerfully.

“Damn,” is all Koda can think to reply.

Climbing slowly back to her feet, she allows Andrews to steady her as her legs become reaccustomed to the fact that they’re not going to be feeding the buzzards anytime soon.

“M-Maybe you should wait outside, Ma’am,” a concerned Andrews murmurs.

Koda shoots him a look that vaporizes the spit in his mouth. “Chesli.”

“Um—do I wanna know what that means, Ma’am?”

The look comes again.

“Didn’t think so.”

Prudently, the young man turns away for a moment, then back. “They—they’ve cleared the second and third tiers. Hobbs and Jackson have gone to the control room to try and get the doors opened.”

A loud buzz echoes through the building, indicating the venture’s success. Koda starts forward at a run, taking the steps two at a time. Andrews shakes his head and follows.

The scene on the second tier is controlled chaos. Several droids have been temporarily disabled, shoved in a cell, and the door manually locked behind them. Shell-shocked women, shabbily dressed, bruised, and in some cases bloodied, mill about like frightened cattle bound for slaughter. More stream down from the tiers above. Sporadic gunfire erupts, causing the women to scream and the soldiers to look around wildly in the hopes of spotting the remaining, elusive droids before they themselves are spotted.

“Hanson, Siebert and Reeves, start getting these women secure. Johnson and Larke, go on ahead, act as lookouts. Shoot anything that moves.”

Dakota’s orders are crisp and clear. The selected soldiers nod, faces set and grave.

Andrews and Koda spot the shadowed movement from the next tier up at the same time and, pushing soldiers and civilians down and away, begin firing. Two droids advance through the gunfire, mechanical fingers constantly depressed on the uzis they’re carrying. Bullets whiz by like hungry, deadly gnats, ricocheting off the steel of the cell doors.

“Move!” Koda yells to the soldiers guarding the women. “Now!!”

The shout breaks their paralysis and they begin herding the women down the stairs, weapons at the ready.

One droid falls to Koda’s blast to his optical sensors, but the second, continues its advance. Its uzi is firing sporadically now. They can almost feel the heat from the nearly spent weapon from where they stand.

“Die, you motherfucker!!!” Running up several stairs, Andrews pulls the pin on the granade he’s carrying and shoves it down the the tight, metallic singlet the droid is wearing.

Dakota catches the soldier as he leaps backward, and both are driven to their knees by the resulting explosion.

“That was the last one lieutenant!” a feminine voice calls through the smoke and falling debris.

Andrews and Koda come to their feet to the sound of boots hitting the steel steps. Bodies materialize through the smoke as the rest of the prisoners gather on the landing. Koda’s eyes narrow.

“Who are they?”

Martinez looks at the three dirt-covered men who stand in the group with the rest and shrugs. “Found ‘em with the others. They’re human.”

A stone mask drops over Koda’s face as she notices the women shying away from the men in question. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she mutters, half under her breath. Ignoring Andrew’s questioning look, she searches the small crowd. A pair of dark, calm eyes meet her own, and she gestures the woman forward.

Older than the rest by almost a decade, the woman displays an almost regal bearing as she steps up to the vet. “Thank you,” she says in a voice heavy with sincerity.

“You’re welcome,” Dakota replies in kind before looking over her shoulder at the men. “What’s their story?”

“They were here when we were captured.” The woman’s voice is now a flat monotone, devoid of any emotion. “Prisoners, I’d guess.”

“And?” Koda asks, eyebrow raised.

“Our rapists.”

Hissing through his teeth, Andrews raises his weapon and gestures for the others to move away.

“Hold it,” Koda warns, one hand raised. She looks back to the woman. “All of you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they coerced?”

“No. They were quite willing.”

“The bitch lies!” one of the men shouts, struggling against the sudden grips of iron around his biceps. He might as well be tied between a boulder and a mountain for all the good his efforts net him. “She’s lying! Fucking bitch!”

He falls silent when the muzzle of a gun is pressed to his temple. Koda looks over at him, then lets her gaze trail down the line until she spies a young girl of no more than thirteen.

“Her too?”

The woman nods.

“Alright, that’s it,” Andrews growls, aiming his weapon. “Motherfucker dies now.”

“Hold it,” Koda warns again.

“But….”

“Please.”

Slowly, uncertainly, Andrews lowers his weapon, his eyes full of questions.

“Put them in those cells back there,” Koda orders. “One to a cell.”

As the soldiers move to do her bidding, Andrews turns to her, face ruddy with rage. “Why? Why are you letting these scumbags live?!?”

“Live?” Koda shrugs. “Oh, I suppose they’ll live. For awhile, anyway. Till they starve to death from lack of food and water.” Her smile is ice. “There won’t be anyone around to take care of them. Or let them out.”

Her voice carries easily to the men, and they begin their fruitless struggles anew, screaming and pleading for mercy. The pleas are cut short as the heavy steel doors slam shut for the final time.

Then Koda turns back to Andrews. “I think a quick death is too easy for them.” She eyes the woman standing before her. “Don’t you?”

After a moment, a rather predatory smile curves the lips of the woman. She nods as the other women surge forward, calling out their own thanks.

“Alright then. Let’s get the hell outta here.”

3

The convoy prepares to move out just after dawn. The tanker truck—a provisional battering ram, at need—stands in lead position, engine idling and belching fog into the freezing air. A couple pickups follow, one of them carrying Dan and Aidan, a pair of long guns riding in the rack behind the seat, just visible in silhouette. Kirsten’s van takes center position. Caitlin and Alan are immediately behind, with more pickups, the last one a camper packed with a half-dozen extra volunteers and twice as many weapons.

The world is faded to monochrome in the thin light, sky washed blue-white, snow dirty grey where tires and feet have churned its surface. Breath and steam from insulated mugs of coffee hang in the air about the company gathered in front of the common building to see them off. Toussaint and Micah, who seem to have been appointed coordinators of the project by some process unknown to Kirsten, make last minute checks up and down the line, satisfying themselves that weapons, food and other supplies are adequate and in due order.

Kirsten has made her own preparations. Her medicines have been offloaded, as have the cartons of Alpo and empty jerry cans. Their places have been taken by a thermal chest filled with what she has come to think of, reverently, as Real Food, more water, more gasoline. A couple of Pelican cases, no longer hidden under the mounds of other supplies, hold items that should help her get into Minot. The lingering sense that she has forgotten something will not leave her.

Stop it. Stop it, goddam it.

It is not what she has forgotten. It is who she has left behind.

And with him, she has left behind all her life before the uprising. Has abandoned, too, any pleasant fiction that she may just possibly survive. Her journey has been a suicide mission from the beginning.

Her thought is interrupted by the back door slamming open and a small packet thudding onto the truck’s floor. “My books,” Micah says, breathlessly. “I’ll drive if you’d like to keep your hands free.”

For a gun, he means.

“All right.”

Kirsten slides over to the passenger’s side. Micah gives a shout toward the tanker in the lead and swings up into the driver’s seat. A shout comes floating back as he settles himself and buckles the seatbelt. Kirsten says, smiling faintly, “Tell me I didn’t hear that.”

“Okay.” A grin splits Micah’s beard. “You didn’t hear that.”

But it comes again, loud and unmistakable on the clear air, “WAGG-O-O-NNS HO-O-O!” and she stares at him, disbelieving.

“Oh, yeah,” Micah answers her unasked question. “Toussaint is the last living Gunsmoke fan.”

The highway is snow-covered over a layer of ice. The tank truck up ahead takes the brunt of it, breaking a path for the rest. The going is slow, though, and a sense of urgency nags at Kirsten. The world beyond her window is white as far as she can see, wide flat expanses of fallow field, the occasional hump of a hill or low shed covered by the ten-days fall. Drifts lie deep along fence lines, completely burying some of the posts, leaving half a foot of others to jut up out of the snow in long, straight lines.

“Dragon bones,” says Micah, following her gaze.

It has been so quiet for the last several miles that Kirsten starts at the sound of Micah’s voice. “Pardon? Dragons?”

“Or dinosaurs.” Micah takes a sip from his coffee as the pace slows yet again. “I grew up in Lubbock, in the Texas Panhandle. Flattest place on earth. When I was a kid I’d pretend that the oil pumps were velociraptors. In the winter, the snow would drift up around them, and I’d imagine myself digging them up as fossils.” He grins. “Bob Bakker was my hero.”

“Bakker.” Kirsten’s memory jogs. “T. Rex and the meteor—no, wrong. That was Alvarez. Bakker claimed T. Rex was warm blooded and had feathers. He wrote Raptor Red.”

“Oh, yeah. That scene where she and her sister go tobogganing down the hill in the snow was my favorite. Totally cool.”

A common childhood love affair with brontosaurs and iguanadons keeps them talking companionably till noon. They have traveled perhaps forty miles as the road curves, less than half that in straight line distance from the farm. Twice they have had to stop to clear fallen trees from their path; once to push the remains of a two-car wreck off the road. They have been underway at a crawl for a quarter-hour when Kirsten’s stomach growls.

“Me, too,” says Micah.

“I’ll get sandwiches.” As Kirsten climbs over the back of the seat, she glances out the back window of the van. Something is running toward the road from a stand of bare woods, bounding through the snow in great arcing leaps like a fox pouncing on a mouse.

It is much too big to be a fox.

Micah has seen it, too. “Look. There’s a wolf.”

“Yeah, I see. Cheese or peanut butter?”

“Peanut butter. Thanks.”

Kirsten is back in her seat and unwrapping her own lunch when she looks out the window again. “Damn! Godamn!”

“Mmffhhmm?” says Micah around a mouthful of Jiff and grape jelly.

“Goddam it to hell! Stop!”

Honking to alert Dan in front of them, Micah hits the brakes. The van has barely rolled to a stop, Caitlin just managing not to rear-end them, when Kirsten jumps out the door and begins slogging through the knee-high-snow. “Goddam!” she yells, “Goddamit! Goddammittomotherfuckinghell!”

A bark, high-pitched and unmistakably joyful, answers her, and in the next moment Asimov is on her, huge paws planted on her shoulders, yard-long tongue slobbering a greeting. Another bark, this time deafeningly in her face, and he streaks past her, jumping up to take his accustomed place in the van. Kirsten climbs in behind him, mopping at her face with her sleeve. “Dammit, dog! I left all your food back at Shiloh! How the hell did you get loose? What am I going to feed you?”

“It’s okay, you know. We’ll take him back with us.” Micah soothes. “Most feed stores have dog chow. We’ll be able to find something when we get up to Moorhead.”

Kirsten blinks hard, forcing back tears that will embarrass her. Asimov leans against her, whining, and quite without volition, her arm goes around him, holding tight. Micah looks tactfully away and holds up the last few bites of his sandwich. “Hey, boy. Like peanut butter?”

4

Koda’s glance runs around the semi-circle of survivors there in the jail’s guardroom. It is an oddly tidy place: no MacDonald’s wrappers, no Pepsi or Coke cans, no papers piled in multi-colored triplicate on the watch officer’s desk. If not for the ghosts of bloodstains that linger on floor and walls, it would be almost as clean as an examining room. But that had been part of the droids’ appeal: no more mess than a pet rock. She takes a quick tally of the women huddled in one corner—twenty-six.

But no, that’s wrong. There are twenty-five women and one little girl.

A red haze passes over Koda’s mind. There is a legend in the family from generations past, of a white lawman who violated her grandmother’s younger sister. The sister’s husband and his brother had waylaid the deputy one night on a lonely road and left him deep in an abandoned mine shaft with his testicles nailed to a beam. They had also left him a knife, and a choice.

But she has more practical matters before her. She raps out, “Siebert. Hobbs.”

“Ma’am.”

“Find a store with women’s clothing. Bring back something warm for these ladies. White if you can find it.”

“Ma’am.”

“There’s a sports shop two blocks north,” says the older woman who has spoken for the group. “There was, at any rate.” Then, “Who are you?”

“Sorry. These are the free forces of the United States, Colonel Margaret Allen commanding. I’m Dakota Rivers.”

“Oh, thank God,” the woman breathes on a long sigh. “We didn’t know, you see, if there were any survivors at all, much less . . ..” A wave of her hand encompasses the soldiers in the room.

“What’s going to happen to us now?” The speaker is a younger woman, no more than twenty, whose long, pale hair lies perfectly combed across her shoulders. It is not vanity, Koda realizes, but some small snatch at dignity where dignity is impossible.

“We need to get you to someplace safe. You know the area better than we do—where can we leave you when we move out again?”

“There’s the Scout camp.” It is the thirteen-year-old. “No one will be there now. I used to go there every summer, and so did my—” She pauses, swallowing hard, but her eyes are dry. “My two brothers. Brian was an Eagle Scout; he was a counselor.”

Koda silently curses to hell and worse the unknown persons responsible for the disaster. A child ought not to be forced into the emotional wasteland beyond tears. That is the province of adults. She takes a step toward the girl, meaning to hug her, but reads the minuscule flinch in the child’s shoulders, the rejection in her eyes. A touch will break her.

Again the blood-crimson mist filters through Koda’s mind. She wants to kill someone, badly. Her vision narrows, shrinks to a point. This, she thinks, must be what Wiyo feels when she holds at hover before she stoops on her prey. Or the wolf, when she sees the elk flounder in the snow. It is a yearning for hot blood slipping over the tongue that cannot be satisfied by the shattering of cold metal.

She shakes her head to clear it, and her vision returns to normal. “That sounds good. How do the rest of you feel about that?”

There are nods along the line, slow and wary. One woman objects, “No! I have to try to find my family.”

“Honey.” It is the older woman again. “Honey, if your family are someplace safe, you won’t be able to find them. If they aren’t safe—better you don’t.”

“She’s right, you know, ma’am,” Andrews puts in softly. “If your family are alive, the best thing you can do for them is make sure you survive.”

“All right,” says Koda, fishing under her camos for a list she has brought prepared and a pen. She addresses the youngster “Do you—” Then, more gently, “Can I call you something besides ‘you’?”

“Donna.”

“Donna. Do you know how to get to the camp?”

Donna nods.

“Great. Can you show Lieutenant Andrews on the map, please?”

As they spread the unwieldly sheet out on one of the desks, Koda scribbles mifepristone and oxytocin at the top of the priority-1 drugs. “Johnson and Martinez. Find a pharmacy and bring back everything they have on this list. If they have herbal meds, get these, too.” Blue and black cohosh, motherwort, long used by her people to ease delivery or to end an unwanted pregnancy. If this jail is the pattern, every milligram has suddenly become precious.

Johnson scans the list quickly, then meets Koda’s eyes. She salutes. “Right away, ma’am.”

“Hanson. Larke. Food and trucks, per plan. Check the jail garage. See if the sheriff’s vans will do and if you can get anything useful out of their gas pump. Reeves. Collect all the guns and ammo you can find here. Then help Hanson and Larke.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The soldiers scatter to her orders, and Koda marvels at their cohesion. They are a mixture of Air Force, Marines, regular Army, working as smoothly as if they had all been together since basic training. And all of them under the unlikely command of a veterinarian. “Hump it,” she adds. “We move out in an hour and a half.”

In the end, they set out fifteen minutes early, a box truck packed with supplies, and the rescued women riding double and triple behind the soldiers on their snowmobiles. A couple more of the machines have been liberated from the sports outfitters and are now piloted by some of the former captives themselves. A half dozen of the troops have no passengers, ranging loose before and beside the small procession, weapons ready. Koda watches them swing out onto the road, then glides into position at the front. A small warm spot has taken hold somewhere under her rib cage. It is one thing to stop the enemy. It is another to take back what they have stolen. Counting coup.

Koda glances upward, where a hawk keeps pace with them, her rust colored tail spread against the hard blue of the winter sky. Lelah wakan. It is a good sign indeed.

5

Three nights later, they are camped in a stand of woods beside the Lac aux Mortes. The foraging parties have left the convoy at East Grand Forks, just before crossing the Red River. Tomorrow the rest will turn back, and Kirsten will go on to Minot alone

They are still far enough away from the Base to risk a proper campfire. The pines give them shelter from aerial surveillance; infrared sensors will pick up body heat and the residual warmth of engines in any case. Aidan, bowl in hand, scrapes the bottom of the Dutch oven hopefully. “Ochone,” he says. “There’s not a molecule left.”

“Come sit down, Aidan.” Dan pats the fallen log beside him. “We have some convincing to do.”

Kirsten glances around the circle of faces, bright in the firelight, and knows with absolute certainty what is coming. “No,” she says. “Thank you. But no.”

“Kirsten,” says Alan. “It doesn’t make any sense for us to turn back now. At least let us go another twenty-thirty miles with you.”

“And before you say no again,” Caitlin interrupts, warding off her objection, “remember that none of us has any idea what kind of outward perimeter they’re maintaining. If there’s nothing, fine. If they have roadblocks or booby traps, though, you’ll stand a lot better chance if you’re not alone.”

“And a much greater chance of getting you all killed.”

Dan says softly, “It’s a risk we’ll be taking every day of our lives from now on, my dear. It’s no worse with you than anywhere else.”

“Ye’re a canny one,” adds Aidan, “but just one. Muscle helps sometimes, so long as it isna betwixt the ears.”

At Kirsten’s feet, Asimov raises his head and whines. “Hush,” she says, and to Aidan and the others, “No. If they have a defensive line set up, one person stands a better chance of slipping through than half a dozen, not to mention three trucks. I’ll leave the van behind at some point, in any case.”

“You’ll have no way out, then,” Micah objects.

She shrugs. “I scavenged that van. There will be vehicles on the base. I can take one of them.”

Asimov whines again, a deeper sound. “Look, I appreciate it. I really do. But right now I need to take Asi for a walk. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

She calls the dog and escapes into the trees. They are not so thick overhead that they hide the sky, and a full moon shines down, its reflection a luminous mist upon the snow. For the last three days she has hardly taken a breath alone except to sleep. Much as they are concerned for her, much as she values their concern and, she admits to herself, their friendship, she feels crowded, pressed in upon by so many other people.

Too, she wants some time with Asi. This farewell will come no more easily than the first.

The shepherd lopes loose-limbed along beside her, his black and silver mingling with the shadows and the snow. He seems as eager as she is for a respite from the others, and she ruffles the fur of his neck as they walk.

Another ten yards and she picks it up faintly, just on the margins of her hearing, soft footfalls under the trees. On the edge of a small clearing, Asi freezes, coming to a sudden stop with ears forward. Almost imperceptibly, shadow moving upon shadow, the tip of his tail twitches from side to side. Kirsten’s hand goes to her gun.

She stands without breathing for a long moment, as the sounds become less faint, moving nearer. Not human, not droid. Wrong season for bear. Asimov whines again, almost eagerly. Just across the glade she thinks she sees a form moving, pale against the paler reflection of moon off snow. Asi gives a sharp yip, a greeting. There is no answer.

Kirsten takes a step backward, her eyes never leaving the space between the trees where she has sensed movement. “Come on, boy. Time to go back.”
As she steps back again, a wolf paces into the clearing, its coat leached white under the moon. Asimov looks back at Kirsten. Then, as if suddenly slipped off the leash, he crosses the space with a bound, and disappears into the pines. For half a second the wolf remains, staring at Kirsten with eyes that gleam red in the pale light. Then it, too, is gone.

I should go after him, she thinks.

But she does not move, and after a time she turns to make her way back to camp.

Better that he be free.

As she is free. And alone.

6

The moon swings low above the pine trees, framed in the old-fashioned divided window pane. Its brightness hangs in a mist above the snow, a shifting of light and shadow like old ghosts wandering. From somewhere in the woods there comes a deep-throated baying, a sound that seems to begin somewhere down in the vitals of the earth itself, pass up through the crevices of the mountains to find its way at last into a mortal throat . It is answered by a second voice, and a third. Others join in until the sound begins to invade Koda’s bones, sliding along her muscles in a chant older than her people, older than her species. She feels her tendons flex; her spine reconfigures. Smells bring her the history of the past day: sweat, blood, the scent of human mating. Over it all lingers the acrid stench of gunpowder, which is death to her and her kind. Her legs gather under her to flee, and bring her abruptly to her feet and awake before the dying embers in the fireplace, M-16 at the ready.

Dream. Just a dream.

Not quite a dream. The wolf pack, miles away across the hills, still sings as it courses the snow. Close to, she can still smell the black-powder smoke that clings to her clothing. Yet the night is peaceful. The freed captives of Mandan jail sleep quietly in the cabin’s sturdy double bunks, some snoring softly, others whimpering now and again in their sleep. Koda bends to poke at the embers glowing in the grate of the massive fireplace and sets another couple pieces of split oak above them. Built by WPA workers in the 1930’s, Camp Sitting Bull—formerly, judging by the not-quite-obliterated sign over the cabin door, Camp Custer—is low-tech and therefore comfortable this winter’s night.

Koda makes her way, soft-footed, between the tiers of bunks. All is well. Still quietly, she slips outside, not quite knowing why except that there is something that awaits her. The moon is full, bright enough to cast shadows, and she finds her way easily to a stone bench set under the tall pines. From it, she can see smoke curling from the chimneys of three more cabins, one housing more of the freed women, the other two temporary barracks for her troops.

Her troops. She turns that phrase over in her mind, examining it from all angles. She comes from a long line of warriors. Her grandfather’s grandfather followed Tschunka Witco, whom the whites called Crazy Horse, on the Powder River and at the Greasy Grass by the Little Big Horn. A hundred years and more removed, her mother is a cousin of Red Cloud. Battle is in her blood, and she has known it for as long as she can remember knowing anything. More than once as a girl, she cried for the vision that would call her to fight for her nation and her land, to return the sacred Black Hills to a free Lakota people. Yet it has never come, and she has been true—as a healer, as a woman–to those that have.

Her troops. A Lakota chieftain did not command troops. Warriors followed him because he was successful, not because rank or organization compelled them. Despite the cultural dissonance, despite her strictly legal status as a civilian, she knows that she has somehow become a commander and that these men and women following her north into danger are her troops. Andrews may be the nominal leader of the mission, but he defers to her, as do all the others. Some of their respect may reflect the obvious awe in which they hold her top-gun, kick-ass, take-no-prisoners cousin Manny ; some may have rubbed off onto her from the Colonel, who seems to be indistinguishable from God in her squadron’s eyes. But that does not explain the easy companionship or the instant equality she has found with Maggie herself.

It does not explain the familiarity.

Perhaps it is a memory of another time, when she was not Dakota Rivers. Perhaps it is the memory of Ina Maka, Mother Earth herself, seeping into her mind and her bones from this land that has been so long a battleground, so drenched in the blood of the Lakota and other Nations. If she listens with the ears of her spirit, she can almost hear the war cries, the clash of metal; almost she can smell the sweat and blood. Almost, as she looks up at the sky, she can see the stars shift about the pole through the frozen light years. Almost.

As she watches, a silver pinprick of light makes its way across the sky beneath the stars. A meteor, perhaps, flaring as it plunges to earth. Perhaps a satellite, part of another world now, pacing its orbit, or like the meteor, burning in the air.

“My mother used to say a falling star meant a death.”

Koda turns to look up at the speaker. It is Sonia Mandelbaum, the older woman from the jail, now bundled against the cold in Polartec and boots. “Are you having trouble sleeping?’ she asks. “I could get you something for that.”

The woman shakes her head. “No,” she says, “thank you. I’d rather face my ghosts than try to drug them out of existence.”

Koda slides to one side of the bench in invitation, and the woman settles herself, her breath forming a cloud about her. Even in the pale light, Koda can see that her eyes are swollen, the faint glint of frozen crystals on her eyelashes. She is silent for a long moment, her gaze following the path of the meteorite. Then, “Do you understand this?”

“You mean the uprising?”

Sonia nods. “That. And what’s happened to us.”

“The uprising—no. All we do know is that it seems to have been world-wide and coordinated. The other—how much to you feel able to tell me?”

“There’s not much.”

After a time, she goes on, “We had a bakery, my husband and I, with half a dozen employees and a couple droids to clean and do deliveries and run errands. Maid Marians, both of them brand new. Nick always liked to have state-of –the-art equipment.”

“Nick is your husband?”

“Was my husband.” The emphasis is very slight. Sonia pauses, then goes on. “I was finishing a wedding cake. Nick had some French bread just out of the oven and was bagging it. I heard some shouting in the street, and went to the front of the store to look out the window. We’ve had trouble with skinhead demonstrations in Mandan before, some of those ‘Christian Nation’ people from Idaho. Once we had swastikas painted all over the display window. But it wasn’t the brownshirts this time.”

“The droids.” It was not a question.

“The droids. One of ours grabbed Nick from behind and broke his neck.” She makes a snapping motion with her hands. “Just like that. Then they killed Bill and Lalo, who did most of the breads.” Again the snapping motion. “Just like that.”

“But not the women.”

“No, not the women. They herded us into the delivery truck and took us to the jail.”

She flinches as boots crunch through the crusted snow behind them. Koda turns, half rising with her hands on the grips of her gun as Reese passes on his guard round. He is clearly surprised to find them outside in the cold, but much too disciplined to remark on their presence. He salutes, “Ma’am.”

“Carry on.” Koda nods, resisting the urge to return the salute, and settles again on the bench. As footsteps recede down the path toward the next cabin, she says, “They took only the women of childbearing age?”

“Yes. They asked us about when we’d had our last periods when we got to the jail, before they locked us up.” She turns haunted eyes to Koda. “I said last month; it’s been almost a year.”

Very gently, Koda asks, “How did you know that was the right answer?”

“There was one girl who told them she’d had a hysterectomy; I think she was a teacher at the middle school. They took her outside, and we heard her scream. We never saw her again.”

“I see.”

“So I lied. The rapes began the next day.”

Koda’s mind flashes back to her first conversation with Maggie. Slaughter the steers, keep the cows and heifers to make more steers, send the old cows to auction when they can no longer produce calves. But that doesn’t make sense. Droids do not eat.

If not food, then what? Slaves?

That possibility seems no more likely than the first. True, slaves bred to servitude from the womb, who had never known any other life, might be more docile than those taken as adults or even as children, but slaves require a slavemaster. Droids need slaves as little as they need food.

Someone controlling the droids, then?

Koda says, “Flora, did you ever see or hear the droids receive transmissions from anyone?”

“No. After that first day, they never spoke to us. They never spoke to each other at all.”

It is three in the morning and Koda’s head is beginning to ache. She needs coffee; she needs sleep. She will get neither. Tomorrow she and her troops must settle the women in the camp, and the day after they must move out again, toward Minot. “Black helicopters,” she says, suddenly.

“Pardon?” Sonia looks up at her, puzzled.

“Sorry. Twenty years ago, there were a lot of people, especially out in this part of the country, who thought the government was part of some vast international banking conspiracy It was going to take over and create a corporate state with its capital at Zurich. They thought they were being spied on from black helicopters.”

“Do you think that’s what it is?”

Koda stands and stretches; her legs and shoulders feel like lead. Another pinprick of light scuds across the sky as they turn back toward the cabins, and a shiver passes up her spine that has nothing to do with the temperature.

“No,” she says. “I think that whatever it is, is worse than that. Much, much worse.”

7

The whole world seems to hold its breath as the first gray streaks of dawn stand poised to paint themselves over the roof of the earth.

Seated crosslegged on a tallish bolder about a mile from the base, Kirsten faces east and watches as the earth prepares itself to give birth to another day.

Watching sunrises is, she believes, a pastime best left to dreamers and fools, and she considers herself neither. But the odd sense of peace that descends over her makes the break in her fastidious habits worth the effort.

She’s alone now. More alone than she’s ever been, and that thought brings with it a surprising twinge of sadness. Surprising because she’s quite sure that somewhere on some dusty library shelf, there’s a dictionary that sports her picture next to the word “loner”. Born into a family of loners, she’s always figured she came by it honestly. Add to that the fact that it’s hard to make friends when kids your age are sitting in kindergarten learning the pleasures of eating paste while you’re in a fifth grade classroom calculating the square root of pi, and you have the recipe for a person whose mind is her own best company.

When the plague of ’07 hit—the one they called the Red Death—the complete loss of her hearing hardly fazed her. If keeping the noises of the outside world at bay allowed her to delve more deeply into the rigid structure of her private thoughts and aspirations, well, that was pretty much fine by her.

She laughs now as she remembers that day, so many years ago now, when she woke up in the recovery room of Brooke Army Medical Center, able to hear again for the first time in two years. How joyful her parents had been, and how their faces had crumpled as she cried for the loss of her deafness.

“I’m sorry, Mom and Dad,” she says softly into the wakening world. “I know you only wanted what was best for me, and you did a damn good job giving it to me, too. Thank you for that. I appreciate it, and you, more than you’ll ever know.”

As if in answer, the rim of the sun peeks over the horizon, and, surprised, she wipes a dampness from her cheeks.

She laughs again, this time in self derision. “Alright, Kirsten, enough of this foolishness. You’ve got a job to do, and it’s about damn time you started doing it.”

Like a rude guest who’s bound and determined to pull up a chair and stay awhile, the strange, but welcomed, sense of peace travels with her to the back of the van. Opening the doors, she crawls inside the cool dimness, sharp eyes scanning the interior until they light upon the items she needs.

A powerful battery operated lantern lights the dim interior, and she settles once again into her cross-legged position, grabbing a set of carefully packed items and placing them within easy reach around her.

First she pulls out her laptop, the steroidal super-computer some of her staff jokingly named “Arnold”. The joke had to be explained to her before she got it. Movie watching had never been on her top ten list of things to do.

The computer obediently boots up courtesy of a special, long lasting battery and a solar panel tucked into one corner of the cover. Nimble fingers fly over the keyboard, opening a succession of windows more quickly than the human eye could ever hope to follow.

Seconds later, she sits back with a self-satisfied smirk accenting her features, green eyes seeming to glow as the light from the screen flickers across her face. Multiple incomprehensible lines of text are highlighted, but only one blinking and bolded word changes the smirk to a full-out smile on her face.

Active.

She wants to laugh, but holds it in as her quick mind replays the steps necessary to set her plan into motion.

Androids aren’t The Borg. Though each is connected to a massive data hub deep underground in the Silicone Valley, they are no more connected to each other than two refrigerators in two different houses are connected. It was the one concession she was able to receive as the Chairman of the Androids, Robotics and Bionics Administration. And it is a concession that will make her life, what remains of it, a good deal easier.

Though the droids are in no way Borg-like, they do have ways of recognizing one another, and of sending streams of information along pre-set pathways that human beings don’t possess. With that problem in mind, Kirsten drags over a second item; a box about half the size of her laptop.

Carefully opening the lid, she withdraws a second box, this one much smaller than the others. The tiny, plastic-encased hinges give a soft squeal when she pries the lid of this box open to reveal two large, brown contact lenses resting gently in a bed saline solution. Kirsten smiles when they are revealed, touching on the memory of her brief foray into the world of VR.

Her college classmates, all much older than her, seemed addicted to the fantasy of being able to instantly transport themselves into a world of their choosing just for the thinking. Pre-adolescent curiosity drew her into the web, and before she quite knew what was happening, a sizable amount of her scholarship money went towards the purchase of the items she now holds in her hands.

Placing the contacts aside for the moment, she lifts and opens a third, very small, box. Inside this box rests a small, flesh colored button no larger than half the size of the nail on her smallest finger. An earpiece that no audiologist has ever seen, it was used in the world of Virtual Reality to impart a sense of movement and sound to the wearer, taking VR to the bounds of reality none had ever seen before.

For Kirsten, however, the effect had been somewhat different. When combined with the workings of her cochlear implants, the result had been somewhat different than what the makers had doubtless intended. After her initial startlement, she discovered that what she was hearing was the actual wireless data being streamed into the microchip implanted into the ear piece. With a little tweaking, she was able to effect a sort of data translator, and from there on out, she recouped her scholarship losses by developing VR games for her classmates at a substantially reduced cost. She’d quickly become the darling of the Student Union at the ripe old age of fourteen.

Laughing softly, she pulls out the earpiece and slips it into her ear canal. Once it is seated comfortably, she hits a key on her computer. After a moment of disorientation, the signal comes through clearly and she nods, satisfied.

Pressing the key again, she cuts the noise off, then grabs a hand mirror and positions it just so. The contact lenses go in smoothly though her eyes, at first, rebel at the unexpected intrusion. Blinking one last time, she clears her vision and glances into the mirror. A stranger stares back at her. A stranger with the brown, dead dolls’ eyes that mark an android. She shudders at the image, then settles.

Need to get over those whim-whams, little K.

She can almost hear her dad’s voice, as if he were standing right over her shoulder urging her to jump from the highest board at the community pool.

The memory of that gruff, husky voice had helped her through more than a few of life’s little roadblocks. Maybe the magic would hold for one, final try.

Please. Let it hold. Just let me do this one last thing.

Nodding to herself, she lifts one final object from the nest of boxes before her, lifting it to shine in the light, twisting it between her fingers. What should have been a final, tragic insult instead will become, she hopes, her ultimate triumph.

“Here you go, doll,” he said, painted blondes dripping off his arms like water. His insolent smirk made his homely face all the uglier, but the diamond-studded whores didn’t seem to care. “The working microchip is inside. Give it a good, long look-see, and if you can figure it out, call me. We’ll do lunch.”

Laughing heartily, he tossed her a shining, metallic silver strip and walks away, people trailing him like apostles to the One True God.

Though almost loathe to touch the thing, she nevertheless grabbed it from the air and stuffed it into the bodice of her sequined evening gown.

“You’re a real prick, Westerhaus,” she murmurs, coming back to the present. “And I just hope I’ll live long enough to tell you that. And to thank you for this. Right before I shove it up your pockmarked little candy ass.”

Reaching up, she slips the silver collar around her neck and fastens it securely. It’s snug, but not too tight, as if it’s been crafted just for her.

Knowing that little asshole, it probably was.

With a final pat to the collar, she looks back down into the mirror. Her lips form a stunned O as she sees the final results of her handiwork.

“Damn.”

Her soft exhalation briefly fogs the mirror, breaking the spell she’s cast over herself. A small breath of relief, and she looks over at the still blinking monitor.

Active.

With a few quick changes, she’s managed to transform herself from Kirsten King, Doctor of Robotics, to BD-1499081-Z-2A6-13, biodroid currently in service to Chalmatech Pharmaceuticals, the largest drug company in the world.

Biodroids had been the first androids developed by Westerhaus, touted as a superior alternative to animal research. Designed to mimic the human body in every way, including a beating “heart”, breathing “lungs”, measurable “blood pressure” and a body “chemistry” that could mimic any disease known to man, and efficiently and accurately predict the effects of medicines used to fight said diseases, the biodroid was a smashing success.

And it is Kirsten’s ticket onto the base. Her only chance to try and undo the damage Westerhaus has created.

A tightly clenched fist pounded on her leg, and she nodded once, sharply. “Alright. Let’s do it.”
CHAPTER SEVEN
Koda gives the communications handset back to Johnson, who returns to her own sleep, taking the unit with her. The women they have left at Camp Sitting Bull will be safe. Koda has just spoken with her cousin Manny, briefly and in Lakota to avoid detection by the droids.

“Shic’eshi,” she greets him.

“Makshké,” he answers in Lakota.

“Listen, this has got to be quick.. Winan iyoheyapi ekta Mandan—hochoken Tatanka Watanka.”

“Toná?”

“Wikcemna yamni.”

“Iyeyathi,” he promises.

“Pilámayaye.”

“Wakan Tanka nici un.”

She paces for a time, restless. The moon is in her blood again this night, and Koda slips quietly across the perimeter of the camp and onto the shore of the frozen lake beyond. She passes Martinez on his sentry rounds, accepting his salute quietly with a murmured acknowledgement and a nod. The feeling of disquieting familiarity with the office of command slips along her veins beside the other summons. It is something, she now knows, she will have to deal with, though when or how is not certain.

Her grandfather would have known how to confront this new aspect of herself. But then again, he would not have needed or wanted to be forewarned. “Well, Tshunkila,” he would have said. “It will come when all such things come–when you have no time for it and when you are not prepared. Any fool can deal with a challenge that comes in broad daylight across an open field. Only a real warrior or a true winan wakan will survive an ambush.”

Fox had been Tunkashila’s name for her then. Fox Ears, her mother had sometimes amended when she found Koda had overheard some dully adult thing that wasn’t “fit” for a child. Mostly about sex, of course, but how many times could you see the stallion stand with the mares and your baby brother out of his diapers, and not figure it out? Then there was the other thing she’d figured out, with no assistance from the horses, and her mother had simply kissed her and said, “Yes, I thought so.” Once, teasing, Tali had sworn she had married Koda just to have a decent mother-in-law.

A yard or so from the edge of the ice, a sandstone outcropping thrusts up through the snow. Koda brushes the powdery new fall off the top of the boulder, clambers up and settles crosslegged, facing north. Between the tops of the pines and the moon, now just off the full, the Northern Lights flare across the sky in ripples of green and blue and gold and lilac. Her grandfather had called them the outrunners of waziya ahtah, the blizzard, but she had pointed to them one night and said, “Wápata, tunkashila.” “Flags?” he had asked, laughing, and she had insisted, “Banners, of many warriors on great horses, wearing gold.” He had looked at her then, long and hard, and she had seen decision form in his eyes. He had said only, “You are the one I will teach.”

He had taught her what she is about to do now. Laying her hands on her knees and closing her eyes, she begins to breathe slowly and deeply. Gradually she becomes aware of the breath as it passes in and out of her lungs, follows the thrum and hiss of her own blood as it beats in throat and ankle. She begins to chant softly to the rhythm of her body’s drum, first in its own tempo, then slowing and feeling her heart slow with it. Hey-ah. Hey-ah. Heeyy-aaahh. It is the blood song, one of the first of her grandfather’s teachings. It can be used to stop bleeding, in human or birthing mare or wire-entangled deer. Or it can be used as she uses it now, to quiet the noise of physical life and let the spirit slip free.

When the chant has slowed almost to stillness, she feels herself rise upward, out of her body, past the trees and the floating banners. Above her the stars flare close and huge, cold as the northern ice below them. And there again is the errant one, the low small sphere pacing its round. Not a meteor, then. It is in part this thing that calls to her, though she cannot tell why. Nor does it hold her long. Across the snow fields she hears again the wolf pack racing under the waning moon, calling to each other in the chase. Calling to her, Tshunka Wakan Winan of the Lakota people, to run with them.

She follows the baying as she slides along the air, miles slipping away under her with a thought. When she finds them, they are a string of dark shadows, moving over the snow in great leaping bounds from north to south across a rise. As she descends, she feels the beginning of the change come over her. Her spine reconfigures itself, hips and shoulders twisting beneath its line. Eyes and ears become almost unbearably keen. She hears each padded footfall as it breaks the crust of the snow, sees each hair in the feathery ruff of each wolf as they streak toward her, never breaking stride.

As the big male in the lead passes by her, she swings into the line after him. She feels her spine coil and release with each plunge into the snow, feels the power as muscles of hip and thigh lift her free of it again and into the air. Yellow eyes gleam like fireflies around her; the breath of a dozen mouths streams behind her in a plume. It is only gradually that she becomes aware that there is something strange in this running. There is no crashing of underbrush as escaping prey flees before them; her nose catches no scent of elk or deer or antelope.

She senses amusement from the pack leader at her discovery, and something that, had it been a human word, would have been, “Wait.”

A mile further along, she picks up the scent—wolf-like but not, with faint but still perceptible overtones of human. Dog. Male. A ripple of tension runs through the lower-ranking members of the pack behind her, but she senses nothing of threat or fear in the lead male. Instead there is purpose, and the feeling of a task almost completed.

When they come upon him at last he is stretched out along a fallen log in a larch-pine clearing, front paws straight out in front of him, the brush of his tail draped elegantly to one side, facing forward with ears erect. Almost, she thinks, as if he has been waiting for them. And almost—almost he is familiar to her. A big dog, almost as large as the alpha wolf, with silver fur on face and flank, legs and belly, marked with a black saddle and a four-pointed black star between his eyes.

The pack comes to a halt, and the stranger descends to meet them. He sniffs noses with the leader, and they stalk around each other stiff-legged for a moment, tails straight up, hackles rising. Then the dog steps back, lowering his head to make submission. The ritual repeats itself down the line. Then the pack wheels and sets off south again, running under the moon toward the frozen lake and the small band of humans encamped there.

When Koda’s spirit comes again into her body, her muscles are sore, and she is painfully hungry. Sound asleep on the rock beside her is a large silver and black German Shepherd. Levering herself up, she grabs him by the scruff of the neck and gives him a shake. “C’mon, boy,” she says. “Let’s go find something to eat.”

2

Walking up to the retinal sensor, Kirsten experiences a feeling of terror unknown in her life before this time. If she fails this one simple test, she will be killed outright. No second chances, no recriminations. Dead. As a doornail, as her father has been known to say on occasion. Her analytical mind could never quite make sense of that particular idiom before, but now it seems painfully clear.

Taking hold of a deep breath, Kirsten steps in front of the sensor and prays her contacts will do their job.

The wait seems interminable and she has time to see various scenes of her life flash through her mind in all their Technicolor glory. She hears a soft hum, and has only time enough to think I’m a dead woman before the gate slides noiselessly open and she steps through, unencumbered and still very much alive.

She fights to keep her face, and body, completely without expression as her eyes trail over what she first takes to be scattered hillocks in the snow. It is only on further, seemingly casual, inspection that she notices those hillocks are actually snow-covered bodies, left to die, and freeze, where they have fallen.

Don’t start, K. Don’t stare. You’re an emotionless android. Remember that, or you’ll be joining your frozen friends here.

Thus fortified, she begins the trek across the wide expanse of grounds toward the large, low-slung and windowless building directly ahead. It looks more like a bomb shelter than a business, but given that the facility is, for the most part, a fully self contained unit, and further given that the androids that operated there wouldn’t appreciate an outside view, Kirsten supposes it all makes sense.

A second retinal scanner awaits her at the main entrance to the building, and she isn’t nearly as petrified to step before it. A half-second later, a small beep tells her she’s been processed and her identity accepted. The door hisses open and she slips easily through.

The normalcy of the scene boggles her. For one heart-stopping moment, it seems as if the events of the recent past have been swept clean, like the cobwebs of a nightmare upon full awakening. She could be walking into her own lab, nodding pleasant good mornings to her employees as they bustle by, intent on one task or another. If she looks hard enough, wishes hard enough, she can almost see Peterson, her gangly, nerdish assistant, start toward her in his peculiar, shuffling gait, steaming cup of strong black coffee in one freckled hand.

It is a dangerous mind trap when there is no hope, and Kirsten only manages to scramble out when she notices the shining silver bands around the necks of what she now recognizes to be androids.

A hard bite to the inside of her cheek jerks her back into reality. With only a slight hitch in her step, she continues forward with all the poise and confidence she can manage. The first of the wireless messages tickles her implants with its stream of incoming data, and within seconds, the building’s entire layout is completely known to her, as if she’d been drawn a map. She finds herself surprised by the low hum of verbal communication between the droids, never having figured that, in the absence of humans, the droids would still resort to speaking to one another aloud. There isn’t much conversation, to be sure, more like the low hive-drone one would hear in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, but it is there nonetheless. It’s very presence is something she’ll have to carefully consider. Help or hindrance, she doesn’t know.

Passing into a long down-slanting hallway, she peers off to the left, where a bank of polarized windows gives her a view into one of what she knows is many “clean rooms” where the droids and their component parts are assembled.

She pauses a moment to wonder at the perfect, robotic efficiency of the androids as they assemble their fellows. There’s not a wasted movement, not a second’s hesitation as they go about their work with a single-minded focus which nothing can interrupt. She can’t help but feel a bit of professional envy as she looks on. The scientist in her admires the extreme proficiency even as the human in her screams out its rage.

With a quick jerk of her head, she draws her eyes away from the scene and continues her walk through the hall. Several more doors, each guarded by the ever-present retinal sensor, bar her way, but she passes each test and is admitted further and further into the true nerve center of the facility.

She passes few androids this deep, and those she does pass don’t give her so much a look as she walks by. She’s been accepted, simple as that, and she suppresses a smirk only by the strongest of will, knowing their efficiency in such matters may, if she is supremely lucky, ultimately be their undoing.

Finally, she reaches her destination. The door slides open and she steps in.

At last, an island of humanity in a sea of androids. The small room smells of stale smoke, stale coffee, stale sweat, and stale food, and she can’t ever remember savoring a scent more than she does at this very moment in time.

Her gaze is caught by a framed picture on the desk, facing outward. A family of four smiles for the camera, their expressions innocent and carefree, their family bond evident beyond their similar looks. The two girls, obviously twins, bear identical gap-toothed grins. Where are they now? Kirsten wonders, drawn to the photo in a way she can’t understand. Dead, most likely. Killed, indirectly, by the very person who likely shot the picture. Their father, the man who sat in this very room controlling this mini empire that churns out death by the hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands. She wonders if he ever understood the irony she sees now, staring into the sweet, innocent eyes of these two girls who will never grow up to have girls of their own.

She shakes her head to dispel the thought, knowing if she freezes now, she’s dead, with the rest of humanity likely following in short order.

Walking over to the battle-scarred desk, she lays her laptop atop it, then slowly circles the room, examining it from every angle by the light of the harsh overhead fluorescents. Bank upon bank of softly humming CPUs, stacked from the cool tiled floor to nearly the ceiling, take up three of the four walls. The front wall is a massive bank of monitors, each tuned to a different part of the facility. Each screen shows the androids hard at work, never wavering from the task of creating others of their kind. Never wavering, never pausing, never stopping; they are relentless in pursuit of their preprogrammed goal.

She returns to the desk, pulls out the chair, and seats herself in its faux-leather comfort. While the desk has seen better decades, the computer is spanking new and top-of-the-line. It is also fully booted and running, though a password prompt blinks at her ominously. She knows she can crack the password easily, but it will likely leave a trace if she forces it.

Contemplative, her gaze settles upon the photograph once again. In a plastic frame, the back of the picture is easily visible. Childish letters are scrawled across the back. Squinting slightly, Kirsten tries to decipher the scribbling.

Happy Father’s Day Daddy! Love, Adam, Ashely and Amber.

Kirsten smiles.

Returning to the monitor, she types in a string of letters and hits the “enter” button.

“Bingo.”

A welcome screen appears and, smirking, Kirsten prepares to get down to work.

Her heart then jumps into her throat when the door buzzes softly and opens, admitting a male droid. Her implants hum as a long data stream flows into them. The stream abruptly stops and the droid eyes her, clearly expecting a response. She sends a silent thank-you heavenward for her contacts, which, she hopes, hide the deer-in-the-headlights look she’s sure she’s wearing.

“I am a biodroid, IC6-47A, and am not programmed to respond in the way you are expecting.”

If it were possible for an android to show surprise, Kirsten is sure it would be showing some now. After a second’s hesitation, it speaks. “I received no communication that this room was to be occupied. Explain your presence here, BD-1499081.”

Kirsten, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate. “I have not been programmed with the requisite information to aid in assembly of the units. I came to offer my services as a data technician. When I noticed that this office was unoccupied, I set to work. If there is another task that you wish me to perform, I shall comply with your orders to the best of my capabilities.”

Another moment’s hesitation as the android runs the possible responses through its microchip mind. Kirsten fancies that she can almost hear the circuits humming.

“Negative. Continue with your duties here. You will be notified if other tasks require your presence.”

Kirsten returns her attention to the computer screen without acknowledgement, and it is only after she hears the door slip closed that she allows herself to sag against the desk. The taste of fear coats her mouth, high and bright, like copper, or what she imagines copper might taste like. Her heart pounds, and she can feel the tickle of sweat as it beads across her temples and her upper lip.

“Jesus,” she breathes, wiping it away. “That’ll teach you to get cocky, King. Now just get to work.”

Her fingers fly over the keys again, opening and closing screens in the blink of an eye. The database is massive, larger even than she thought it would be. The security is immense and she knows it will take hours, even days, just to break through that alone. Doing it live will assure her nothing but a quick death.

With a deep sigh, she draws her laptop closer and sets it up for a wireless transfer. Downloading the massive database onto her laptop adds time she cannot afford, but she can think of no other options. The codes she needs are buried deep, she knows, and only patience will yield the harvest she’s after.

3

Ten hours later, the download is almost completed, and Kirsten sags back in her chair, resisting the urge to rub her burning eyes. Eyestrain has given her a headache strong enough to fell a moose, and her stomach howls out its emptiness while her kidneys throb and ache like rotting teeth. Grimacing, she damns herself for forgetting the most important thing of all. Androids, no matter how human they seem, have no need for the intake of food or liquids, nor the elimination of same. Not even biodroids, which are the most “human” of all.

Suppressing a groan, she uses the edge of the desk to help push her to feet gone numb with extended inactivity. The world around her grays out momentarily as her head swims and her muscles tremble. Tending since a child toward hypoglycemia, she realizes that ten hours at a computer with nothing to eat or drink has put her in a bad spot.

Stupid, her mind helpfully supplies. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

She grasps the desk tighter as her head spins, and for a long moment, it’s a tossup as to whether or not she’s going to faint. With true desperation, she manages to release her grip long enough to claw open the top drawer of the desk, pawing through assorted pencils, pens and paperclips until her fingers touch what can only be a cellophane wrapper. As she grabs for purchase, the wrapper slips further back into the desk, and she scrapes along the skin of her forearm diving in after it.

Finally, managing to snag the object between two trembling fingers, she yanks back and pulls out her prize; a red and white striped mint.

“Thank you, God,” she whispers, twisting the wrapper off and shoving the hard candy into her mouth. The glucose in the candy hits her system almost immediately, calming the tremors, easing her headache slightly, and lending her a much needed strength. This high won’t last long, and she knows it, but for now, as it’s all she has, it will have to do.

Reaching down, she presses several buttons on her still downloading laptop. Two small chips exit into her hands. After a moment of thought, she reaches down the neck of her shirt and deposits the backup chips into the cups of her bra, shifting slightly to settle them comfortably beneath her breasts.

Then, taking steady, deliberate steps across the office, she stands before the door sensor and continues through the portal as it opens.

It’s as if nothing has changed during her ten hours of isolation, and indeed, nothing has. The same droids stand before the same stations doing the same work in the same manner. While she feels as if shattered glass has replaced her bones and joints, the androids all look newly-minted.

Seeing this and, perhaps, fully realizing its implications for the first time, a depression far blacker than any she’s experienced before hovers over her like a blanket. For the smallest of instants, she struggles with the mighty temptation to just let it fall; to wallow in the solace it seems to offer her.

How can I hope to defeat this? Alone. I’m alone with all this surrounding me. Dear God.

A remnant of a recent dream slides before her eyes and she gazes, from a distance, at the old woman (Goddess? Earth? Who?) she has promised to help. Another memory of childhood hours spent in catechism melds with the vision.

Mother, please take this cup from my lips.

The non-answer is all the answer she needs. She must drink the brew, no matter the bitterness. For one crystal second, she feels a sense of profound empathy with the plight of a man she’s not sure ever existed.

This Savior stuff really sucks.

Cheered by her mind’s wicked turn—sacrilege has always done that for her—she tosses off the threatening depression and continues onward, a new strength to her step and her emotions.

4

“You sure you know where this thing is?”

“Sure, I’m sure.,” Reese answers, consulting his global positioning readout for the hundredth time. “Start poking”—he takes a last look at the sky, turning to take in the whole circle of the horizon—”right about—over—there.” He points to a patch of snow in no way distinguishable from the flat expanse of white that stretches out all about them, unbroken except for the low, dark silhouette of buildings to the north. Minot Air Force Base, probably the most secure military facility in the Western hemisphere, is about to be burglarized by a couple of ragtag platoons strung together from at least three different branches of the armed services, a veterinarian and a dog.

Not for the first time, Koda feels as though she has dropped down the rabbit hole on Alice’s heels. Her universe has become an unstable place where not even an Oxbridge jackrabbit in a Saville Row suit would surprise her. She watches as her soldiers—and there it is again, her soldiers—set to work prodding at the drifts, using tent poles, shovels, their own feet. Koda herself scans the distant buildings through high-powered binoculars, searching for signs of movement, sweeping the sky for the inevitable gunship that should by rights be strafing them to ribbons at this instant.

Nothing.

Nothing on the long ,rippled avenues of unbroken white that her map tells her are Bomber Boulevard and the miles-long runways. Nothing among the hundred and fifty Minuteman III ICBM silos arrayed along their looping tracks, folded and refolded like the guts of some huge animal. Her men are the only moving things against the dead white of the landscape, the only color, the only sound. High above, a solitary hawk etches a spiral against the hard blue sky, riding the thermal created by the base’s presence. Now and again the sun catches the rust-red of her tail feathers as she banks in her turnings, and a high-pitched kreeee-eeeerr spills through the air. The morning holds a strange stillness, as if time has wound down to a crawl.

Absently Koda reaches down to pat the big dog who had become the troop’s mascot overnight. MRE—so christened because he is the only being they have ever met who seems to enjoy the pre-packaged rations—thumps his tail, sweeping out a one-winged snow angel behind him. He, too, is remarkably quiet, all the rambunctiousness run off him the night before. And he, too, seems to be waiting.

A sudden scrape of metal against concrete brings a shout from Andrews. “Got, it, Ma’am!”

MRE at her heels, Koda moves away from the parked snowmobiles to watch as the troops brush the snow from a cement platform perhaps a meter high and ten across, looking for the much smaller personnel hatch that should be somewhere near the perimeter. As expected, the entrance is sealed; a winking green telltale light signals its connection to the rest of the Base’s security system. There is almost certainly a manual lock, too.

“Ma’am?” It is Andrews again.

Without warning, in a single word, the ambush her grandfather had warned her about is upon her. Koda can turn responsibility back to the Lieutenant and walk away from the instinct for command that she now knows to be grappled to her bones. She can deny the power that lures her with the easy excuse of familiarity. Leave the job to professionals.

Or she can give the order that will commit the lives of these men and women to mortal hazard. Once the hatchway is breached, an alarm will flash across monitor screens in the Base’s control rooms, tripping klaxons, giving them away as surely as if they had marched up to the front gate and asked politely to come in. Once into the silo, they will be trapped, easy prey for defenders human or android.

“Reese,” she says. “You’re absolutely sure this is the way your father showed you into the command shelter? Absolutely?”

“Yes’m.” He nods toward the electronic device in his hand. “My dad was a flight commander, and he told us to get in through here if missiles ever came over the Pole. We wouldn’t be allowed in, normally.”

“All right. Hanson.”

“Ma’am?”

“Set the charge.”

“Ma’am!”

Hanson opens a small case he has carried with him ever since Rapid City, extracting a small packet with vari-colored protruding wires. It looks not unlike a spider, and Hanson sets about attaching it to the outside locking mechanism. “One Black Widow Special, coming up!”

The effect is remarkably modest. The plastic explosive emits a muffled thump, a bit of smoke. But when Koda comes up from her crouch, a foot-wide hole gapes in the entry cover, clearly exposing the lever beneath. Hanson reaches into the opening and turns the bar. Reaching for her flashlight, Koda plays the beam down the steeply descending spiral staircase. “Stay,” she says to MRE, and steps carefully into the darkness of the rabbit hole.

5

Were it not for the light of the moon on the mostly virgin snow, the darkness would be complete. No overhead lights, no flickering headlights, not even a flashlight carried loosely by a careless night watchman to bisect the encompassing black.

With a deep, though silent, breath, Kirsten steps forward, tripping the infrared beam and causing the outer door to slide open. The cold hits her immediately and she fights her weakened body’s urge to step back into the warmth of building. Her bladder pangs, its summons unimpeachable, and her course is decided.

Hatless, gloveless, and without more than a simple woolen sweater to protect her from the arctic night, she knows that her needs must be attended to with the speed of lightning, or she’ll join the snow-covered corpses already liberally scattered over the grounds.

One step leads to another, and another. Completely numb, her strides take her along the building’s faux-brick walls as her mind plays over the locations of the security cameras and the blind spots between each. The snow beneath is white and virgin. None have come this way, and this gives her hope as she sticks to the shadows created by the roof’s slight overhang.

She’s not alone. She can feel them out there, somewhere. She can’t see them, can’t hear them, but she knows they’re there, just as she knows that if they choose to, they can see and hear her as if she were standing in the brightest sunshine no more than a foot away.

Her nape hairs stand at stiff attention. Adrenalin floods her body in a fight or flight instinct old as time. Still, her bladder urges her onward and it is only with the strongest of wills that she prevents her numb, wooden legs from shambling into a quick, and deadly, sprint.

Finally, she comes to a spot that her senses tell her will be adequate for her needs. Leaning against the wall for support, her deadened fingers fumble with the button and zipper on her jeans as her bladder gives out its final warning. Hands curled into claws yank her jeans down at the last possible instant, and she can’t help the soft groan that issues from her lips as she finally finds the relief she’s sought.

Her eyes dart furtively, knowing that if she’s caught in this position, her life is forfeit.

6

Koda leads her troops down the spiral stairs of the silo, booted feet clanging on metal risers behind her. It is cold here, brutally cold, surrounded as they are by struts and platforms of reinforced steel that rise up toward them out of the pit like the bones of some Mesozoic beast. Their breath makes a mist about them, shot through with the beams of their torches. Before them, behind them, beside them at every turn looms the hundred-and-fifty-foot bulk of the Minuteman IV missile, set as softly into its cradle of springs and blast absorbers as an egg into isinglass. Under the shell of its nosecone lie multiple warheads, each bearing death in a blaze of light. A shudder passes through her that has nothing to do with the frigid air. Like all the people of the high plains, Koda has known life long of the dragons sleeping beneath her earth, has known that one day fire may rain down from the sky and parch to ashes the land and all its living.

And now the end of days is upon them in truth, and it is nothing foreknown except in the lightly-dismissed rantings of a handful of Luddites and the gut-deep discomfort of folk like her own family. Ambush, just as her grandfather had said.

Three turnings of the stair bring them to a steel door. A keypad is built into its handle; a small glass circle at head height is obviously a retinal scan. Koda steps to one side. “Hanson.”

Hanson rigs the small shaped device in matter of seconds. “Okay folks,” he says, “Black Widow II. Duck and cover.”

The charge is smaller than the one used to break open the hatch above, but here the report of the explosion clangs off the steel plates of floor and ceiling, loose-mounted to survive shock, reverberates off the steel pylons that rock the sleeping monster in its springs, sets their coils to humming. The clatter echoes and reechoes around the length of the missile itself, settles finally like thunder walking over the men and women huddled in the dark, hands clamped futilely against their ears. It is, Koda thinks, like being trapped inside John Bonham’s drumkit about halfway through “Dazed and Confused,” with all the tower amps turned up to max.

When the puff of smoke clears, Koda motions Martinez and Larke forward with their crowbars. More clanging as they work the forked ends of the pries between the door and the jamb, and at last it creaks open. Six feet ahead of them is another entry just like it. In normal use—if nuclear war could be considered “normal,” ever—neither door would open unless the other were closed. The arrangement reminds Koda of the sterile airlocks found in medical labs, sometimes in surgical theaters. She turns to the tapping of a hand against her shoulder to see Hanson mouthing “Ma’am?” at her.

“Go on, do the other one.”

Again the silent goldfish “Ma’am?” and Koda realizes that he is shouting at her. He cannot, obviously, hear her, either.

She points toward the other blast door, and he nods, motioning her and the couple other soldiers who have followed them out of the airlock. He gives the timer an extra sixty seconds, and he and Andrews push the first door almost shut behind them before the charge detonates. This time it is not nearly so painful. Either we’re all stone deaf, or the door did the job. But the ringing in her ears is already less, and she can hear her own voice, high and tinny, yelling, “Come on!” to the men and women behind her.

The second blast door opens onto a long corridor that is nothing but a bridge suspended inside a twelve-foot wide pipe. Koda’s flashlight plays over arm-thick cables hanging from their staples in loops like boa constrictors. The floor of the passage sways beneath their feet, and from somewhere back in the line, Johnson yells “Break step!”

The tunnel seems to go on forever into the darkness, and its swaying beneath her feet calls up childhood panics: her first time on the high diving board with only one way down through an infinity of empty air; daring Phoenix to walk the two-by-four laid over the twenty-foot drop from the hayloft to the barn floor; making her way along an eight-inch wide deer trail after an injured fawn, with sheer rockface to her left and an even sheerer sixty-foot plunge into a frozen creek on the right. She stifles the impulse to run and get it over with.

Showing fear is not an option. Not now; maybe never again.

After what seems like an eon in Purgatory, the tunnel ends at another door. This one, by miracle or negligence, is not locked, and they emerge into the missile crew’s living quarters. They plunge down another three flights of metal stairs, passing the ghostly remains of lives passed here beneath the earth in the imminent expectation of holocaust: beds still neatly made, a table with a game of checkers still half-played. On the bottom floor is a common area with a wide-screen television and disc player; a pool table; a stove and refrigerator; and a wall papered with photographs of families, wives and husbands, parents and children. Koda takes it all in at a glance as they sweep through, heading for yet another stretch of tunnel that will lead them into the command center and ultimately, if Reeves is right, into daylight inside the shelter compound that now serves as the droid factory.

The bridge here sways, too, but it is only a fraction of the length of the distance from the silo to the crew quarters. In the darkness of their approach, Koda can see green and amber telltales winking on control panels and the soft glow of monitor screens. This area must have its own generator, but there is no time to search for a light switch. Guided by the beams from the flashes, they make for the staircase leading upward into the darkness. Koda has her foot on the first step when the field telephone buzzes.

Johnson has the pack. She answers, listens for perhaps five seconds and says, “Ma’am, it’s the Colonel.”

Koda takes the handset. “Rivers. What is it?”

Allen’s voice comes through blurred by distance and thirty feet of earth and concrete. “Abort mission immediately. Return to base.”

“We’re almost into the compound yard, Colonel.”

“I don’t care where you are, Rivers. Get yourself and your people out. Now.”

“I can’t do that, Colonel,” she says quietly. “There’s something or someone here I have to find. We’ve been over this.”

“Goddammit—” Maggie pauses, and when she speaks again, her voice is even. “There are half a dozen F-18’s on their way to bomb Minot right now. I couldn’t talk the Base Commander out of it. The planes were in the air before I knew; they’ve been up for fifteen minutes. Get out. Get out now.”

“Understood. Over and out.” Koda clicks off and hands the set back to Johnson. She turns to the soldiers behind her, their faces in semi-shadow or starkly lit by their torches. “The Colonel informs me that the General at Ellsworth has called an immediate strike on this facility. I intend to go on. The rest of you get topside and prepare to leave the area. If I don’t come back within twenty minutes, or you see or hear the planes coming, get out.”

There is no movement behind her. “Turn around,” she yells. “Go!”

“I volunteer to accompany you Ma’am.” It is Andrews, but his offer is drowned almost immediately in the shouting.

“Yeah!”
“Right on!”

“Me too!”

Oh Christ. There is no time for this. She cannot stop to argue with them. “All right, count off by ones and twos.” They obey her, reluctantly, knowing what she intends. “Now. Ones come with me. Twos prepare vehicles for departure. Make sure you strap MRE in good and tight. Eighteen minutes. Now, let’s go!”

This time they do as ordered, and the thunder of feet in the tunnel carries to her even as she storms up the staircase to the roof of the command center and its hatch. She silently thanks all the gods when the handle turns beneath her hand and she pushes it open onto moonlit snow. Her vision, already dark-adapted, sharpens. She is in an open yard between buildings, punctuated here and there by shadowed hummocks that she realizes must be the frozen corpses of the installation’s human workers. Above, its feathers bleached by the cold light, an owl drifts by on soundless wings.

“Stay here while I scout,” she says, and steps out into the empty space.

7

After a seeming eternity, her bladder is finally emptied and she yanks her jeans back up over flesh as warm and as feeling as the inside of a metal freezer door. Taking several careful and agonizing steps away from her midden, she stoops on frozen knees, scoops up a handful of snow, and shoves it into her mouth, sucking and chewing as fast as she is able.

A brilliant spike of pain knifes into her brain, almost toppling her to the ground, but she continues feeding the snow into her mouth, her body desperate for the moisture it offers.

Then she freezes as her implants detect a sound almost directly in front of her.

8

Just as she shuts the door behind her , Dakota senses something and looks to her left. There, crouched against the building, is a figure. It is short and female-shaped, with pale hair that falls over a high forehead. Moonlight glints off the dark optics and titanium throat-band of an android.
CHAPTER EIGHT
“Run run run run run away.”

Perhaps it is the way those dark eyes widen at the sight of her—an action quite “undroid” like. Or perhaps it is a sense of familiarity that steals over her senses and makes her hesitate. Whatever the reason, the hesitation costs her dearly as something heavy and blunt connects with the junction of her neck and shoulder, paralyzing her arm and dropping her into the snow as if pole axed.

She fights to keep her eyes open, needing to meet her death head on.

The droid, male this time, looks down at her, its eyes doll-like and expressionless. With a smooth economy of motion, it lifts the uzi it’s holding and points it directly between her own eyes.

“Hold!”

The voice is female, that much she can tell, but whether issued through living or manufactured vocal cords is another question entirely. One she’s amazed that she even has time to contemplate. The gun’s muzzle never wavers, but the finger doesn’t tighten on the trigger either, and Koda lets out a small breath, not daring to drag her eyes away from her imminent demise.

Kirsten strides purposefully across the short span separating herself from the action. Simple deduction tells her that the fallen figure is human. It is the only reason the android would have attacked, after all. Reaching them both, she stops and looks down just as the moon sails from behind a lowering cloud.

Pale blue eyes look back at her, and she freezes for a moment as a queer sense of déjà vu settles over her.

Those eyes.

Forcing herself to look away, she meets the dispassionate gaze of the android and says the first thing that comes to mind. “Human female.”

Taking another look, the android nods in a very human gesture of acknowledgement. “It will be of use to us.”

As the droid bends at the waist, preparing to lift the woman, Kirsten again stops it. “I will take this one to the facility. There may be others. She entered from that direction.”

“Acknowledged.”

After the android is swallowed by the blackness, Kirsten lowers herself into a painful crouch, staring down at the woman in the snow. “Are you crazy?” she hisses. “This place is crawling with androids! What were you thinking?”

Glittering, too-familiar eyes center themselves on her neck, and Kirsten feels an unaccountable blush warm her frozen cheeks. “I’m human,” she whispers, her hand drifting up of its own accord to brush against the droid collar at her throat.

“Seems I’m not the only crazy one, then.”

The voice is low and melodious, and it hums pleasantly in Kirsten’s ears. Her sensitive hearing picks up another sound, and she reaches out, clamping down onto an arm. “Hurry, they’re coming back. We need to get you inside. I’ll figure out what to do with you after we’re there.”

“No time,” Koda replies, shaking off the arm and rolling to her feet. “We need to get out of here. Now.”

Dark eyes widen in amazement. “You are crazy. Do you have any idea that you’re in the middle of one of the largest android factories in the world?”

“It’s also gonna be one of the flattest android factories in the world in about eight minutes. We need to move.”

Kirsten freezes. A feeling very akin to dread pours into her belly. “What? What are you saying?”

Dakota sighs, impatient. “Look, there’s a squadron of F-18’s headed up here from Ellsworth to turn this place into a smoking crater.”

“Military! You’re with the Army?!?”

“No, I’m….”

“Great! Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?? Jesus Christ!”

“Listen, I don’t make the orders here. I just…”

Once again her words are cut off by an irate Kirsten. “Of all the stupid….Jesus! I’ve got to get back inside before it’s too late!”

She makes ready to run back into the building, only to be halted in her tracks by a very strong hand clamped around her bicep. “You don’t understand. It’s already too late.”

Kirsten whirls around, eyes blazing behind her contacts. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand! Your damn planes are going to ruin everything!”

“They’re not my—damnit!” Dakota runs after the woman who has so adroitly slipped her grip. Her long legs easily eat up the distance between them, and she lowers a hard hand onto the fleeing woman’s shoulder. “Wait a minute! Please!”

They both stop as both heads cock in identical listening postures.

“They’re early,” Dakota softly intones, her eyes searching the as yet empty sky.

“No!” Kirsten shouts, once again shaking off Koda’s strong grip. “I need to….”

“You need to go!” Koda replies, grabbing her again. “Now!” Spinning, she all but tosses the woman back the way they’ve come, then sprints after her, gun at the ready. “Don’t stop! Keep moving!” Her voice is raised in a shout to be heard over the ever increasing roar of the planes.

Kirsten stumbles and only avoids making a snow angel by the strong grip to the back of her sweater which tears the fabric and almost lifts her off of her feet. “Keep running! Go! Go! Go!”

The door looms in front of her, growing larger with every step she takes. She nearly screams as something that can only be a bullet whines past her ear close enough to make her hair flutter. Then she finds herself face first in the snow as bullets erupt from everywhere at once.

Hearing the firestorm, Andrews flings open the door and rushes out, followed by his compatriots. Bracketing Dakota on either side, they empty their weapons into the darkness as the roar of the planes becomes almost overwhelming.

“We need to leave now, Ma’am!” Andrews shouts over the din.

Koda nods to signal her understanding, and, with a final burst of gunfire, turns and heads for the door, the others in tow.

Kirsten turns herself over in the snow just in time to see the barrel of a gun shoved in her face by a very angry looking woman.

“No!” Koda shouts, knocking Johnson’s weapon away just in time. The bullet pierces the ground not more than a foot to the left of Kirsten’s arm. “She’s human!”

Johnson looks stunned, then pales as she realizes what she almost did. Koda shoves her in the direction of the door, then grabs Kirsten and hauls her to her feet. “Move! Now!!”

They can hear the planes directly overhead as they dart into the darkness of the underground tunnel.

The first of the bombs hit as the group thunders down the stairs and into the crew quarters. The entire underground structure shakes and men and women are thrown into walls and over tables as they struggle to move away from the conflagration overhead. Kirsten’s knees buckle, but the arm around her waist keeps her from falling. It is all she can do just to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Soaked, freezing, numb and dizzy, survival is the only thing that matters.

The anger will return later, and when it does, Kirsten will give these people a little King-sized conflagration of her own.

Through the swaying bridge and into the crew’s quarters they run, resisting the instinctive urge to duck and cover as gigantic explosion after gigantic explosion shudders the underground complex. It’s like being inside of an earthquake.

Kirsten trips going up the first set of stairs. Her weak and numb legs simply do not have the feeling or the strength left to do the job. Instead of falling, however, she is borne up with the tide of bodies running for their lives.

Shooting out of the crew quarters, the group runs into the tunnel and its swaying, never-ending bridge.

Then falls the most titanic explosion yet, seemingly directly overhead. Trapped on the bridge, the group collapses to their knees, grabbing the struts for dear life as it sways alarmingly. A series of massive explosions follow like the finale of a fireworks show. With each concussion, the bridge swings more violently until it is almost sideways. Her half-frozen hands useless, Kirsten wraps both arms around the center strut, placing her face against the icy metal, and holds with all her will.

Ramirez, a young airman, shouts as he is toppled over the guardrail. Dakota and Andrews both manage to snag the young man before he plummets to what likely would be his death.

“Stop kicking!”

His fear sweat provides a greasy grip and Koda feels her hand slipping. The bridge rocks again and Andrews loses his grip on the young man, who screams loud and long.

“Goddamnit, Ramirez! Stop kicking!!!” With a grunt, Koda readjusts her grip and manages to keep hold of the panicking airman. “Andrews! Get back up here and give me some help!”

Stumbling to his feet, Andrews manages to shoot an arm out just as another bomb falls and rocks the bridge. “Fuck! I’m losing him! I’m losing him!”

“On three! Pull! One, two, three, NOW!”

With the last of their strength, Koda and Andrews yank Ramirez up and over the guardrails. The young man grunts as he lands on his back, driving the breath from his lungs. Bending over, Andrews grabs the man by the front of his jumpsuit and hauls him to his feet. “Now move! Move!!”

Kirsten feels hands on her arms, and she looks up into concerned blue eyes. Her implants are ringing so loudly that she can’t hear what the tall woman is trying to say to her. Even lip-reading is out of the question as the bridge continues to rock back and forth at an alarming rate. She feels her death grip on the strut loosened, and a second later, she’s pulled back to her feet and herded through the tunnel like a steer to market.

Finally outside the interminable tunnel, she sees, for the first time, the objects sharing this underground bunker with her. Long and sleek, they are earth’s total destruction in fragile metal shells.

Her eyes go wide with shock, and the anger, so much a part of her anymore, comes roaring back. She turns to the woman behind her, lips spread in a snarl. Though she can’t even hear the sound of her own voice, she’s sure it’s loud enough to be heard on the moon.

“A nuclear missile silo?!? You brought us into a nuclear missile silo with half the world’s bombs dropping on our heads?!?!?”

“Keep moving!” Koda orders, punctuating her shout with a shove to Kirsten’s back which starts her legs moving again.

Another set of steps rises up seemingly to the heavens and, once again, Kristen allows herself to surge along with the tide of humanity. Anything to escape the deathtrap she finds herself in. Even being in a factory full of androids hadn’t scared her this badly.

Up ahead, like a beacon of hope, an open door stands, letting in the meager light of a newly dawned day. Kirsten feels the strength surging into limbs made dead by the cold, and she pushes for the door and freedom.

Suddenly, the light is cut off as the door slams closed, plunging them into darkness once again. A hail goes down the line. “What’s happening?” “What’s going on?” “Hey! Who turned out the lights?”

“Firefight,” Johnson replies, leaning against the now closed door and breathing heavily. “There must be a hundred of ‘em out there!”

Dakota pushes her way to the front of the group. Andrews follows on her heels like a well trained puppy. A quick nod is exchanged before Koda grabs the handle and yanks back hard. The sound of gunfire being exchanged is almost inconsequential compared to what they’ve just been through—small, like the pop-pop-pop of a Daisy air rifle shooting at tin cans in a summer hay field.

Johnson wasn’t far off in her assessment. Dakota eyeballs at least one hundred armed androids firing at her handful of soldiers hunkered down behind a small cement abutment. There is a football-field sized span of distance between the bunker door and the beleaguered squad.

Andrews looks up at her, a question in his eyes. The weight of an unasked for command sits heavy on her shoulders once again—an unwelcome guest with no plans of leaving. Her quick mind sorts through and discards several possible scenarios. Suddenly, she smiles and Andrews’ eyes bug nearly out of his head. “Ma’am?”

“Listen.”

He does.

A slow smile spreads across his face as he hears a telltale whut-whut-whut-whut-whut-whut.

The smile morphs into an outright grin as a squadron of BlackHawk attack helicopters come over the rise like a swarm of black, terminally pissed-off wasps. Fire spits from their gunports and droids scatter like autumn leaves in the snow. Line after line of androids fall, blown to bits by the awesome firepower of the flying destroyers.

The small group trapped behind the abutment cheers as the BlackHawks destroy the final androids, and set down in a clear patch of snow. Their rotors still turn at a brisk clip as the pilots jump down and stride over to the group.

One in particular is very familiar, and as he spots Koda, he gives a big, boyish grin and changes his steps to head in her direction.

“Move out, everyone!” Dakota orders, then steps aside as grateful men and women push past her and into the fresh, open air of a new day.

“Didn’t think I’d let you have all the fun, did ya cuz,” Manny grins, wrapping Koda in a tight embrace.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Manny, I’ll give you that.” Pulling away, she notices her charge leaning heavily against the door. Wet and shivering, Kirsten looks the picture of misery itself and Koda immediately removes her jacket and walks back to her. “Here.” Easing the young woman away from the door, she slips the large coat around her shoulders and pulls it close around the neck. She notices Manny’s stunned look from the corner of her eye, and turns to face him directly. “She’s one of us.”

“Dayum. Good costume!”

Kirsten gives a short nod, too miserable to do anything else at the moment.

From several feet away, a commotion springs up, and before Koda can turn, a black and silver blur bolts past her and drives Kirsten back down into the snow.

“Shit!” Manny yells, reaching for his gun.

“Wait.” Dakota narrows her eyes, then relaxes as she recognizes the dog’s posture. The big dog is all squiggles as he greets his mistress with mighty kisses and soft whimpers. Grabbing him by his heavy ruff, she pulls him back and looks down into the young woman’s slobber covered face. A slight smirk curls her lip. “Friend of yours?”

“Asimov! M-my dog! Where did you find him?”

“Long story,” Koda replies, reaching down and helping the woman to her feet. “C’mon, let’s get you back to the base and into something warm and dry, alright?”

“Ellsworth?”

Dakota nods.

Kirsten’s smile is anything but pleasant. “Lead the way.”

2

After doing an amazing rendition of a mule refusing to follow the carrot, Kirsten manages to convince Manny to set the helicopter down just away from her dilapidated van. The area is swarming with droids drawn to the copter, but the closest is still a good distance away. Koda hops out after Kirsten and pins her cousin with a look. “Get ready to get this beast off the ground in a split second, got me? Even if you have to leave us behind.”

“Can’t promise that, cuz. You just be careful. I’ll be waiting.”

Shaking her head, Dakota trots off after her charge, gun at the ready.

Already at the van, Kirsten yanks the doors open and dives inside, blindly searching for what she needs. Her spare laptop is pulled out first, followed by her eyeglass case, which she slips into one of the myriad of roomy pockets of her borrowed jacket. Her burning, stinging eyes remind her that her contacts are still in place, and with a quick blink, she removes them and tosses them back into their saline bed. The earbud follows.

Before she can reach for the sack containing what’s left of her clothes, she hears a low voice through the ringing still in her ears.

“It’s time to move. Come on.”

Though the voice is perfectly calm, conversational almost, Kirsten can easily detect the subtle undercurrent of urgency, like the hint of oak in a fine white wine. She responds without thinking, backing out of the truck until she is once again standing in knee-deep snow.

“Move. Now. Don’t stop until you’re in the helicopter.”

She can hear them now, all around, offering no attempt at stealth. Her pulse quickens and her legs move into a trot, and then an all-out sprint before she’s even aware she’s running.

Manny is leaning out the side of the helicopter, his SA58 Mini FAL laying down bursts of covering fire. Stopping for a split-second, he reaches out and pulls Kirsten inside before returning to his task, covering his sprinting cousin.

Leaping, Koda dives head first into the chopper, tosses down her spent Uzi, and grabs Manny’s weapon, firing into the thick brush that surrounds the van as Manny jumps into the pilot’s seat and wrestles the BlackHawk skyward. The androids break out of cover by the dozens, all firing their weapons at the swiftly rising chopper. It is only Manny’s excellent skill that keeps them alive and one piece as he dips and dodges in an aerial ballet worthy of Baryshnikov.

Once they’re fully airborne and away from the androids’ deadly menace, only then does Koda allow a small, silent sigh of relief escape from between her lips.

The rest of the trip is made in complete silence.

3

Kirsten jumps from the helicopter before it has even fully touched down, her laptop swinging by her side with each step she takes. Asimov, hackles raised by his mistress’ obvious anger, follows along directly at her heel.

Manny makes as if to take off after the strange, though admittedly attractive, woman, but is stopped by a hand on his shoulder. Looking up at his cousin in question, he notices a familiar little twinkle in her eyes—the same twinkle she’d sport when they were kids, daring him to go on an adventure he knew he’d get his hide tanned for. He’d never been able to resist it then, and becoming an adult hasn’t changed that any.

Relaxing, he follows her lead as they make their way through the knots of soldiers and civilians toward a large, empty hangar.

Kirsten bulls her way through the same throng, her eyes fixed steadily on one person alone. Sebastian Hart, obviously the commander of this base, stands in the middle of a crowd, towering above them all. His uniform is immaculately pressed; the brass polished to a blinding shine. His smile is part politician, part kindly grandfather, and all fake.

She’s met him before, at one or another of the myriad of insufferable cabinet meetings she’d been forced to attend as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Robotics, Bionics and Android Sciences. To her, he was just another military blowhard, willing to do anything with anyone just to get the funding he desired. She trusted him and his cohorts about as far as she could throw a tank.

As she continues to push through a crowd filled with happy pilots celebrating their successful mission, a small part of her recognizes that what she is about to do will likely significantly dampen ebullient spirits. Happiness is an emotion hard to come by lately, and part of her is loathe to put an end to it. Her father’s voice, as it often does now, soothes into her mind, reminding her that winning small battles is nothing if the war itself is lost. And it is that which spurs her on until she is standing in front of the General, eyes flashing.

“General Hart?”

The general looks down at the small, bedraggled woman standing before him. “Yes?”

The smack of palm against flesh is loud in the suddenly silent square. Blinking owlishly, Hart lifts a hand to his lips. It comes away tinged with blood. Asimov growls low in his throat, a warning to the soldiers who are staring at Kirsten as if at a viper poised to strike.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”

Silence answers her.

“You don’t recognize me, do you.”

After a moment, horrified comprehension dawns, and the general pales as his eyes widen still further. “M-Madame Chairman!”

A murmur goes through the crowd.

Kirsten smiles. It’s not a very pleasant one.

“But how…where…when…?”

“I’m curious, General. Did you check to see if there were any human beings left alive in Minot before you decided to blow the base to kingdom come?”

Hart’s face reddens. “Impossible,” he declares flatly. “Minot was an android factory. They would have left no one alive.”

“Mm. That sure, were you? Were you even aware that there were at least a dozen of your own soldiers on that base when you sent those planes up?”

“They were ordered to turn back!”

“And if they refused to obey your orders because, unlike you, they weren’t positive that everyone was dead?”

“Impossible.”

“Oh, very possible, General. I was on that base when you sent your planes in, General Hart. And I would have been blown to bits if your soldiers hadn’t risked their own lives rescuing me.”

The redness drains from the man’s face like water through sand. His normally ruddy cheeks turn a color best suited to curdling milk and his Adams Apple bobs as he takes a hard swallow. “I—didn’t… .”

Kirsten smiles again. “But that’s not even the worst part,” she continues in a conversational tone. “Do you want to guess what the worst part is, General?”

Hart slowly shakes his head.

“The worst part is that in your zeal to destroy a couple of thousand androids, you also destroyed what might have been our only hope to deactivate the several million still left.” She pauses a moment, watching as he lifts a slightly shaking hand to his brow. “The deactivation codes were in the computers on that base, General Hart. Computers which are now in billions of tiny little pieces so small that not all the General’s horses nor the General’s men will ever have the hope of putting back together again.”

“I—I didn’t—think….”

“No, you didn’t did you. You might want to start trying to in the future.”

And with that, Kirsten turns and walks away, leaving the stunned crowd behind.

Manny looks up at his cousin, an almost awed smile on his face. “Wow.”

Koda chuckles in agreement.

“I thought I recognized her. Kirsten King, isn’t it? The robotics guru?” At Koda’s nod, he continues. “Sure looks different without those damned contacts in, that’s for sure.” Then he grins. “The Colonel’s gonna prang when she finds out the good Doctor’s here. They think the same way about those metalheads.” He scratches his head. “Too bad she’s not here.”

“Where is she?” Koda asks, surprised.

“Got called out to escort some civvies in. A couple of them were hurt, from what we heard. She should be back this evening some time.”

Both look on as Kirsten exits the hangar, the crowd easily parting before her as if she bears the Staff of Moses. Koda eyes her cousin. “Looks like I’m pulling some escort duty of my own. Catch you later, huh?”

“I’m headed for the mess. Stop by if you’ve got time later.”

“Will do.”

4

“Dr. King!”

Kirsten stops and whirls, fully prepared to confront this latest interruption of her royal blue funk. She hesitates as she realizes the intruder is the woman who saved her several times already this day. If for no other reason than that, she swallows her temper and even manages to try a smile out for size.

It fits rather poorly.

“Yes….” Kirsten pauses, looking at the insignia on the uniform covering the woman’s rather well-maintained form. “…Lieutenant?”

Koda gives an easy grin. “Just Dakota, or Koda if you prefer. I’m a Vet.”

“Ex-lieutenant, then,” Kirsten replies, smirking.

Koda rolls her eyes. “A Vet as in Veterinarian. I’m not military, ex or otherwise.”

Kirsten’s eyebrows climb into her hairline. “You’re a civilian? Then how…why…?”

Koda sobers. “Let’s just say it was something I had to do.” She looks the smaller woman over carefully, a frown creasing her striking features. “I think maybe a trip to the hospital would be in order. We’ve got a good one on base here and you’ve been out in sub-optimal conditions without adequate clothing for far too long.”

This smile is more genuine, though sorrowfully brief. “You have a gift for understatement.”

“So I’ve been told,” Koda replies in kind.

“Well, I thank you for your generous offer, but I’ll pass right now. My chest is clear and I’m regaining feeling in my limbs, so I think I’m alright for now.”

“Well, then, how about if I get you to a place where you can dry off and warm up?”

Kirsten eyes the tall Vet carefully, her ingrained distrust once again springing to the fore. For Christ’s sweet sake, K, a small corner of her mind clamors, this woman just saved your life, almost at the cost of her own. I really think you can trust her, don’t you?

It’s a bit of a struggle, but she finally gives in to that insistent inner voice and manages a nod at her benefactor. “That’s an offer I’ll be happy to accept.”

“Good,” Koda replies, smiling. “If you’ll follow me?”

5

Kirsten steps into the small, but cozy, house with a sigh of profound relief. Warmth from the heater immediately seeps into limbs just now waking from their frozen sleep. The tingling starts immediately, and she knows that knifing pain is soon to follow, but she keeps her reactions pushed down deep inside, as is her custom when in the presence of others.

Dakota disappears for a moment, returning with a neat stack of dry clothing in her hands. “Bathroom’s right behind that door there,” she gestures as she transfers the small bundle to Kirsten’s arms. “Fresh towels are in the closet, and the shower should even have some hot water left, if you’re so inclined.”

Dakota turns away before Kirsten can say a word, and disappears back into what Kirsten can see from her current vantage point is the bedroom. The door closes softly, leaving Kirsten alone in the short hallway, clothes in her hands and a perplexed look on her face. After a moment, she shrugs and heads into the bathroom.

After so long doing without, the shower is simply much too large a temptation to resist. Turning on the ‘hot’ tap to full blast, she sheds her sodden garments as a warm fog rolls out from the shower to fill the small, tiled room. Adding a little cold to the mix, she turns on the shower itself and steps inside.

The first touch of water on her skin is an almost religious experience—pleasure wrapped around pain wrapped around a feeling of relief so muscle-jarring that her head spins. Bracing herself against the cool tiled wall, she waits for the feeling to pass before grabbing the bar of soap and lathering up. Days of dirt and sweat swirl down the drain, and she wonders for a moment if her anger, and her fear, and every other negative emotion she’s currently harboring as tightly as a miser to his cash, will so be so easily washed away.

It is only when the water starts to go tepid that she drags her weary—yet blessedly clean—body from the shower. The towel is soft and gentle on her skin, and the clothes she slips into, though a bit large, bring with them a comfort of their own simply by being dry.

A quick drag of a comb through her hair, and she leaves the warm, moist haven of the bathroom for the house beyond.

Koda smiles up at her from her place on the tatty couch. Dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans and a simple white T-shirt, she displays a body that, to Kirsten’s scientific eye, is as close to perfection as she’s ever seen. She pauses a moment, wondering at her body’s response to the picture presented, then shoves the thought down with the rest of them, to be explored at a later time.

For the first time in a very long time, she feels that there may actually be a later.

Noticing the odd look directed her way, she summons up a smile in response and continues into the living room, where her meager stockpile of belongings has been carefully set on the coffee table.

“Feeling better?”

“Much, thank you.”

“Good.” Dakota once again looks over the young scientist, taking in the bloom of roses on her cheeks and eyes which, if not exactly sparkling with good humor, have at least lost their haunted dullness. Still, exhaustion has drawn dark, sooty smudges beneath each eye, and Koda spends a moment wondering when it was that she last slept. “You’re probably tired. You’re welcome to the bed, if you’d like.”

“No….thank you, but I need to figure out if I was able to salvage anything from Minot’s computers.” She pulls the two chips from a pocket in the soft sweatpants she’s been given to wear. “I took these with me when I went outside.” Replacing the chips, she picks up her backup laptop and looks to Koda. “Hopefully they’ve got something on them I can use.”

“There’s an office right next to the bathroom, there. It doesn’t have much in it, but you’re welcome to whatever’s there.”

“Thank you.”

“Not a problem.” Dakota rises to her full height, stretching slightly to work out the kinks in a back much abused this day. “I’m headed for the mess. If you’re hungry, I could bring some back for you. It’s military food, but it’s edible.”

Kirsten nod, wondering at the simple, unaffected kindness of this stranger. In her world, offers are made with the expectation of gain. Nothing is for free, and each act of faux-kindness is greed dressed in sheep’s clothing. “Thank you. I…thank you.”

A casual grin leaves Kirsten feeling dazzled. A moment later, Dakota is gone.

Left alone, Kirsten blinks twice to clear her head, and, with a deep sigh, turns and enters the small office. Setting her laptop on the desk, she sinks into a chair that is a little rickety, but serviceable. She rubs her head as her ears continue to ring from the bombs dropped earlier. It is an unfortunate side-effect of her implants, and one she wishes she knew how to correct. For now, she does the only thing she knows will help. Reaching up with both hands, she touches a spot behind her ears, and the world falls away to wondrous silence.

She then boots up her laptop, inserts the chips, and is soon lost in the world of streaming data.

6

“Yo, cuz, I know you’re hungry, but man…eating for two?”

Koda shoots Manny a look over her shoulder and continues to scoop unidentifiable, but presumably edible, substances onto two plates. “I’m getting our guest settled.”

“Ah, the good doctor. Has she warmed up any?”

“Physically.”

Manny laughs softly. “Yeah, she’s a tough nut, that one. And she really hates the press. I remember watching CNN once. Damn, she almost fed a reporter his microphone. Enema style.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that the next time I decide to apply for press credentials,” is Koda’s dry response.

“I’m warnin’ ya, cuz. She may be small, but she’s got brass ones.”

“I’ll…keep that in mind.”

Manny claps his cousin on the back, grinning. “If you’re not doing anything later, drop by rec. We’re getting up a dart game, and I feel the need to pull you in for a ringer. Later, alright?”

“Later.”

7

When Dakota reenters the house, Asi greets her with a soft bark and a furiously wagging tail. Placing the dinner trays on the kitchen table, Koda gives the dog a fond scratch behind the ears before straightening and calling out to Kirsten.

“Guess she fell asleep after all, huh boy?”

Approaching the closed office door, she gives out another soft call, accompanied by a knock. Neither are answered. Turning the knob, she opens the door and enters the room to see Kirsten, quite unexpectedly, wide awake and enraptured by whatever it is that is on her computer screen.

“Dr. King? I have your dinner.”

Still no answer.

Dakota watches for a moment, then crosses the room and lays a gentle hand on the scientist’s shoulder.

Only to pull back and catch a swinging hand a split second away from clouting her across the face.

“Woah. I’m a friend, remember?”

Stone deaf, Kirsten stares up into impossibly blue eyes, trying to ignore the radiant warmth emanating from the large hand encircling her wrist. Dakota’s lips are moving, but Kirsten can’t quite find the wherewithal to decipher what she’s saying.

It is only after the hand releases its grip on her that she is able to gather herself enough to realize what she’s almost done, and why. Flushing, she touches the spots behind her ears, and sounds once again flood into her consciousness.

“You startled me.” She winces internally, part of her wishing that those words didn’t sound quite as accusatory as they do.

“I apologize for that,” Koda replies smoothly. “I didn’t realize you had implants.”

“Well, it’s not exactly something I needed others to know.”

Accepting the rather terse answer, Dakota nods, then gestures to the door. “Your dinner’s in the kitchen.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take it in here. I’m in the middle of some things that I don’t want to leave.”

“No problem. I’ll get it for you and leave you in peace.”

“Thank you.”

8

Several hours later, Kirsten’s body wins the battle it’s having with her mind and, with some resentment, she finally shuts down her laptop. Her work thus far has been far less successful than she’d hoped.

Damn General and his damn bombs. Ten minutes more, an hour at the most, and I would have had those goddamned codes in my hands. Now? I’ll be lucky if I find a goddamned recipe for carrot cake in this goddamned mess.

Heaving a deep sigh, she pushes herself away from the desk and looks through the slats in the blinds covering the office’s only window. Darkness and snow have fallen once again. “Great. Just what the world needs. More snow.”

Stretching, she turns from the window and heads for the door, fully intending to take up Dakota’s earlier offer, if that offer is still on the table. Asi greets her as she steps outside, rubbing his face and body along her own as his tail beats a steady tattoo against the wall.

Kirsten looks over at the bedroom door, surprised to find it closed. “Must be later than I thought.” Listening, she hears quiet murmurs coming from the room in question, then once again damns the acute sensitivity of her implants as those murmurs resolve themselves into something quite a bit more intimate.

The blush starts from the inside, warming her belly before spreading its way up her neck and face until her ears are burning with heat.

“C’mon, Asi,” she grunts, walking over to grab her borrowed coat, “a bit of cold air seems about right right now. Let’s go for a walk.

Asimov happily follows.

9

A burst of warm air greets Kirsten as she pushes open the front door of the Colonel’s house. The luxury of it almost unsettles her, familiar as she has become with the cold and the near offhand acceptance of her own death. She is not yet quite resigned to life, still less to comfort. Like the restoration of her hearing years ago, this seems more an intrusion than a healing. Something she has never asked for. A prosthesis that does not fit, rubbing insidiously against her accustomed rawness. She feels as she believes some death row inmates must when, at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, the phone call from the governor arrives, granting them a temporary reprieve. When you’ve accepted your death, sometimes life doesn’t look all that special.

Asi has no such qualms. He shoulders past her, still shedding snow onto the entryway rug, and makes a dash for the warm tiles of the hearth. At least, she thinks sourly, that is where he comes to a sprawling stop. Perhaps it is only coincidence that the Lakota she-giant with the improbable blue eyes—fullblood, my ass!—sits on the couch with her outsize boots propped on the hassock, strategically placed to deliver a down and dirty belly rub. As if he is reading her mind, Asi rolls over onto his back with a whine and cocks his head up at the woman, tongue lolling. Rivers laughs, lowers one foot, and commences scratching. Asi’s tail thumps.

Sitting beside her is another woman, dressed in flight fatigues and boots, her long, elegant legs crossed before her as she laughs, a low and throaty sound. It seems to Kirsten that the distance between the two women is both entirely decorous and non-existent, as if they have slipped into some Riemannian fold of space-time. Kirsten’s own sense of exclusion is almost palpable, an ache she has known and largely ignored since childhood.

Outside looking in. Again.

Deliberately, Kirsten stamps her feet to dislodge the last clinging snow from her boots, rattling the clasps of her jacket as she hangs it on the old-fashioned hall tree. Nice and noisy. Sister King’s Traveling Resentment and Incoherent Outrage Band, tuning up the drum kit for the concert of the century.

Damn them for snatching her out of the droid factory just as she had come within seconds of having the codes she needed to shut the goddam things down.

BANG!

Damn them for bombing the droid factory in the first place and sending its codes and programs into a cyber-oblivion of melted fiber optics and fused circuit boards.

THUMP!

Damn them because her dog—her dog, goddammit—can’t wait to roll over for that overgrown hyperthyroid bitch in heat.

CRASH!

And damn them for the easy intimacy that is so fucking in-your-face obvious that even she can see it.

CLANG!

“Dr. King? Won’t you join us by the fire?”

The woman rises as Kirsten hesitates in the foyer. Kirsten can see the brass eagles on her lapels; a full Colonel, then. Part of her wants to stamp into the middle of the cozy little scene and haul Asi off to the cramped office where she has been working, space that is at least temporarily hers. Another part simply wants to slink by silently and hope not to be noticed. Neither course is now possible.

“Colonel?” she says, and moves toward the old-fashioned green leather chair that sits at right angles to the couch.

“Maggie Allen,” the other woman answers, extending her hand.

Kirsten accepts the handshake with as much grace as she can muster. “Kirsten King. Pleased to meet you, Colonel Allen.” Then, with an effort, “Dr. Rivers.”

“Evening,” says the veterinarian with a wry smile, continuing to scratch Aimov’s stomach.

From a tray on the weathered oak chest that serves as a coffee table, Allen pours a cup of steaming liquid and hands it to Kirsten. It is a tea, something herbal, with overtones of apple and citrus. The warmth of the cup against her hands is pure pleasure. “Thanks,” she says, because manners dictate that she say something. At her feet, Asimov rolls halfway toward her, whining.

Damn dog wants a goddam harem, she thinks even as she bends to ruffle his ears.

Allen is still standing. Grudgingly, Kirsten takes in her height, the elegant modeling of her head emphasized by her short, natural hair, her long hands unspoiled by rings. The firelight glints off the single ornament she wears, an earcuff in the shape of a bobcat. There is a sense of stillness in her, of sufficiency with not so much as an atom’s excess. Unbidden, something of the warmth that drove her out of the house rises again in Kirsten. She feels the blood spread across her cheeks and hopes that the other woman will attribute it to the steaming liquid she holds to her lips. From beneath her lashes she darts a quick glance at Rivers, who seems to be wholly absorbed in her attentions to Asimov.

Oh great. First a spot of voyeurism, and now the Colonel’s a turn-on. Kirsten drinks and sets down her cup. “Thanks,” she says again. “That’s good.”

Allen’s lips curve up slightly at the corners and for a moment she looks distinctly feline. A bobcat perhaps, or a slender cerval cat, and just as enigmatic. She says, “Dr. King, I want to thank you for what you did.”

Kirsten gives a dismissive wave of her hand, but the Colonel continues. “No, it needs to be said. Of course we’re all grateful for your courage in infiltrating the droid factory. That will be repeated again and again, and I suggest you get used to it. What I’m personally thankful for is your slugging the General in the chops. If you hadn’t, I would have. And I’d be facing a court martial.”

Dakota, who has been giving her entire attention to Asimov, gives a soft snort. Kirsten feels her eyes slide toward the Lakota woman again, taking in the high cheekbones and deep blue eyes, the jeans-clad legs that go on forever. To her chagrin, she also knows that Allen has seen before she can regain control of her face. “I appreciate that, Colonel,” she says evenly.

“I’d have had his hide regardless if any of my people had been harmed,” Allen says, the faintest of emphasis on any. “The General didn’t just bomb the droid codes into oblivion. He nearly killed a couple dozen of my troops, not to mention the chopper squadron Manny Rivers led into Minot to haul their asses out.” The Colonel takes a sip of her own drink and sits down. “Not to mention your own.”

“With respect, Colonel Allen, I’d have been perfectly all right if none of your people had interfered. And I’d have the codes necessary to disable the droids. That’s the real cost of your General’s stupidity, in lives we can’t even begin to count.”

Abruptly Rivers gets to her feet. “I’m going to bed. Good night, Dr. King.” She pauses only to give Asi’s belly a final tickle, then crosses the hallway to the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

“I didn’t mean—” Kirsten begins.

“To offend? But of course you did, Dr. King.” The Colonel’s expression does not change, but Kirsten has the distinct sense that the other woman is suppressing laughter. “Still, don’t be concerned that you’ve chased Dr. Rivers out of the room. She’s faced”—and the smile does break through—”considerably worse than yourself. Good night.”

Halfway across the room, Allen pauses and turns. “When you’re ready to sleep, blankets are in the hall closet. I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with the couch tonight. We’ll try to find better arrangements for you tomorrow.”

Kirsten watches as the Colonel disappears into the bedroom. The sound of soft voices comes to her, blurred, though the door. She raises a hand to turn off her implants, but lowers it after a moment’s hesitation. She cannot follow the words; it is not as if she is eavesdropping. After a time, the strip of light beneath the door goes dark, and the voices fall silent.

Quietly, Kirsten makes up the couch with a pair of blankets she finds in cabinet and turns out the lights. Asi manages to wedge himself onto the cushions beside her, his great head lowered onto his paws. Kirsten stares past him into the dying embers on the hearth, watching as their red glow fades and turns finally to ash. She has the uncomfortable feeling that something vital is hovering just beyond her understanding. She cannot come at it through reason, try as she will. Over and over she turns the question in her mind, looking for even the slightest intellectual purchase. But the answer lies elsewhere, and she does not know how to approach it.

When only ashes remain on the hearth, she sleeps.
CHAPTER NINE
Dawn slowly makes itself visible through the slats of the blinds as she sits, huddled on the lumpy couch, a cup of slowly chilling coffee in her hands and a threadbare military blanket draped over her shoulders. That the coffee is real, and therefore quite welcome, is of little comfort to her this morning—a morning on which she can count upon the fingers of one hand how many hours of sleep she has gotten, and still have enough fingers left to bowl a strike in any smoky ten-pin alley in town.

Sensitive as always to her moods, Asi whines and lifts his massive head from where it is resting in her lap. His head cocks, his eyes giving forth a look so human and so caring that, for a moment, her chest tightens and her eyes sting. But only for a moment.

Smiling at him to show she is fine, she once again lapses into thoughts that have chased each other round and round like a dog its tail for the better part of eight hours. Thoughts that on the face of things make no sense. Just random snatches of words and images glued together without any order or logic that her scientist’s mind can comprehend, rather like a ransom note made from letters and pictures cut out of ladies’ magazines.

“God, I could use a cigarette right about now.” Her voice, hoarse from exhaustion, nonetheless conveys her sentiment perfectly. Though shut of the addiction for five years now, sometimes the urges come at her like a mugger waiting in a blind alley, and right now the mugger is twelve feet tall. And fanged.

She sits quietly, waiting for it to pass, then wonders why she even bothers fighting it. It’s not as if cigarettes cost anything anymore, and after spending the better part of the last one hundred hours literally staring death in the face, the dangers of smoking have lost, so to speak, their power to scare.

She snorts softly. “Sure. I’ll just go into the commissary or whatever they’re calling it these days, grab a few cartons and smoke myself sick.” Raising her coffee cup, she toasts the morning. “Happy days, huh?”

With a small whine, and a louder groan, Asi heaves himself up off the floor and trots, tail wagging wildly, over to the door of the bedroom. A moment later, the door opens and Koda and Maggie, dressed identically in pristine white jumpsuits, step into the living-room, their shoulders brushing casually together. For reasons she can’t fathom, the sight tugs at Kirsten in a most unpleasant way, and she finds she can breathe more easily only when the Colonel has absented herself from the tableau, moving on into the kitchen while the Lakota woman stays behind to scratch a positively ecstatic Azimov behind the ears.

Kirsten takes in the scene as the noises her dog is emitting sound like something heard on a rent-by-the-hour motel’s coin operated television set, and she can’t help but watch wonderingly as graceful, long fingers magically hit every single perfect spot on her normally standoffish canine companion.

As if sensing the rapt attention, Koda looks up from her pleasurable task, and their eyes meet and lock. Kirsten feels the fiery heat of the blush that crawls upward across her skin; embarrassed at being caught staring, embarrassed at the noises her dog is making, embarrassed, most of all, by her attitude of the night before.

It suddenly seems okay, somehow, despite the embarrassment and, if she goes deep enough within to admit it, her remorse. Things seem…possible. As if the chasm between them could be healed as simply as an “I’m sorry” or a “good morning”.

Part of her knows this is true, knows it would take no more than that, and her mouth opens, more ready to say those simple words than she’s ever been ready for anything in her life.

Maggie returns, two cups of steaming coffee in her hands, and the moment is broken like a child’s brightly colored party balloon that drifts too close to the fireplace.

Kirsten turns resentful eyes to the intruder and is met with a friendly smile and a salute from a coffee mug. “Thanks for brewing this.”

“No problem,” Kirsten manages before levering herself up off the couch and giving them the most civil nod she can. “If you don’t mind, now that you’re both up, I’ll shower and get ready for my day.”

“Not at all,” Maggie replies, completely unfazed by Kirsten’s grumpiness. “We won’t be here when you get out. We’re taking down a prison up north.” Her smile turns conspiratorial. “If we’re lucky, we’ll bring back a working droid for you.”

“That’s a very dangerous thing to do.”

Maggie actually laughs at this, though what she could possibly find funny in the situation is something Kristen can’t begin to fathom. “Of course it is. That’s why I’m a soldier.” With a wink and another coffee-cup salute, the young Air Force colonel turns away, leaving Kirsten flat-footed and speechless in the middle of the living room.

Asimov simply whines, tosses himself on the floor, and covers his snout with his massive paws.

2

The compound huddles low against the snow, its walls seeming to rise out of the drifts piled against them in a seamless extension of the frozen earth. The central building appears to be both Administration and cell block, its colorless concrete block façade broken only by ranks of steel louvers over the high, narrow windows. None of them is open to the fading light. Even those closest to the heavy metal door, which must have been offices or reception rooms for the Corrections Corporation of the Northwest personnel, are shuttered tightly. Coil upon coil of concertina wire tops the eight-foot walls which surround exercise yard and parking lots. Here and there the low sun strikes off its razor edges; the barbs take the light in bursts of flame. The frigid air lies over the jail and its snowy matrix like glass, trapping the evening for all time in its clarity: the rising dark in the east, bands of gold and crimson fading in the west; the land and the double handful of humans crouched in a streambed long since gone to ice to the south.

“How many?” Allen’s voice is no more than a raspy whisper. The heat of their bodies will give them away well before they become audible to sensors at the jail, but habit dies hard.

“Metalheads?” Andrews consults his readouts again. “Colonel, I’m getting only a dozen for sure. There are a couple blips that might be double—say fifteen, max.”

Koda frowns. “That’s not many for a jail this size. There were more than that at Mandan—twice that. Will that thing pick them up if they’re deactivated or on standby?”

“It should, Ma’am.” Andrews points to the LED display, which is broken down into a series of arcane number strings. “It reads off their metal mass, specifically the titanium. It doesn’t pick up their transmissions.”

Allen gives a wry grin. “Yeah. The first models kept picking up filing cabinets and calling them military droids. Goddam near got a couple Marine units fried the first time we used them in Baghdad. The troops steered clear of the “droids” and ran smack into the Republican Guard instead.”

“Okay,” says Koda. With a frozen sycamore twig, she rapidly sketches out the plan of the jail, courtesy of an overflight by one of the gunships that await their signal a couple miles off. “Show us where they are.”

Glancing back and forth between his readout and the diagram, Andrews positions their enemies. Ten in the building, apparently stationed at doors and along corridors; two in what may be the kitchen. The others seem to be a moving patrol, working the perimeter in mathematically precise rounds at equally precise intervals. “With a bit of luck,” he says, “these will be less sophisticated models than we encountered at Minot, with fewer built-in logic branches and more stereotyped responses. No boidroids, no ‘creative’ types with psuedo-HumIntel capacities.”

Allen nods. “Johnson.”

“Ma’am!”

“You’re smallest; there’s a chance you’ll read as a large dog or a deer on their heat sensors. When I give the word, and the patrols are here and here”—Allen jabs the diagram with her white-gloved finger—”you scramble out there and set the charge on the east gate. Then get back around to the south side. Give yourself thirty seconds. Andrews.”

“Colonel?”

“Give me your droid reader. Rivers, you take him and half a dozen others and get through that gate when it blows. Make lots of noise; you’re partly a diversion. While they’re busy with you, I’ll take the rest in through the front. Meet in the middle. Everybody got it?”

Koda nods, and with Andrews and the rest of her troops behind her, begins to move upstream—what would be upstream if the water were not frozen blue to the bottom–under the shelter of the bank. Crawling on hands and knees where the overhang is high enough, humping seal-fashion on knees and elbows where it is not, she breaks trail through the snow for them. White snow, white Arctic camo from head to foot, white breath hovering in clouds about them. White faces, even her own, smeared with grease paint where the ski mask does not cover the skin around the eyes.

White is the color of the North, and in the North there is death. A shiver passes over her that has nothing to do with the temperature. As she looks up, the shadow of an owl passes overhead, great wings spread on the silent air. Without thought, Koda brings a hand to her medicine pouch where it hangs about her neck. Lelah sica. The white owl, Hinhan ska, is an unpropitious sign. Ina Maka, she breathes silently, Mother of us all. Do not let me lead my people into death.

Behind her she hears a muffled curse as someone catches his foot in a root of one of the centuries-old sycamores that line the stream. Someone else sets too much weight on a branch invisible beneath the snow, and she turns to see Larke pitch forward abruptly as it snaps, only to be caught by his belt by the man behind him. No harm done. Koda slows as the creek leads them in a wide curve around to the east of the compound, the light growing dimmer here where night already spreads across the horizon. Peering above the stream bank, she can just see the outline of the wide metal gates that control vehicular traffic in and out of the prison. For several meters in front of it, shallower snow lies in a wide, straight band that must mark the driveway.

Andrews nods as she points to it, and gives a thumbs up. “Gotcha.”

“Straight in when—” Koda breaks off as the com unit at her waist vibrates and buzzes softly. She thumbs it on. “Rivers.”

“Allen. It’s time.” The unit clicks off abruptly.

“. . . the time comes,” Koda continues. “Johnson! Now!”

The woman flings herself up over the stream bank in a gymnast’s clean vault and is on her feet and streaking for the gate before Koda finishes the order. She covers the hundred yards in seconds, plants the charge and sprints for the corner. Thirty interminable seconds later, the plasique goes off with a whump and the clang of metal against metal as the lock blows away from the heavy steel panels.

“Let’s go!”

Koda swings up out of the gully and is running full out even as the echoes of the explosion reverberate against the high walls of the compound. Andrews is beside her, the rest in a tight knot behind. They crash into the gate and keep going. The panels swing back to reveal an empty yard perhaps fifty meters square, the snow stained with grey sludge along the mathematically straight path the sentry droid has followed as it makes its circuit of the wall. A number of trucks are pulled up beneath a carport to one side of the central building, all white except for the CCNW logo of Justice’s scales enclosed within a wreath of laurel leaves. The building itself is white and featureless, its blankness relieved only by the steel-blind windows, its single story sprawling off from its original axis in half a dozen ill-proportioned wings.

The loading bay is at the end of the carport, close but difficult because of its double-door airlock construction. Koda opts for the kitchen entrance instead, cutting across the open space from gate to carport, then hugging the cell-block wall as she leads her unit through the deepening shadows around one wing and across a second yard to another.

“What the fuck?” Andrews mutters. “Where the hell are they?”

“There,” says Koda as they turn the corner of the second wing.

Six droids stand in a perfectly straight line across the service entrance to the prison. All are armed with Uzis and M-16’s.

Bracing her rifle at waist level, Koda stitches a row of holes neatly as her mother’s sewing machine across the middle of one of the droids. It drops its weapon, and Koda raises her own her shoulder to fire straight into its optics, large and luminous in the half-light. Her squad fires beside her in a storm of gunfire. She hears a scream from somewhere to the right but cannot take her attention off her targets long enough to see who is hit. “Grenades!” she yells, plucking one from her belt, pitching forward and rolling in the snow, coming back up with a perfect overhand lob into the middle of the four droids still standing. It explodes like lightning struck too near, but the smell is of gunpowder and hot metal, not the clean ozone of the walking thunder. Two more grenades arc down upon the droids, then two more again, and the step before the kitchen door stands clear except for shrapnel and shards of Lexan, fragments of printed circuits and twisted copper wire scattered over the snow.

“Larke’s hit, Ma’am.”

Andrews, his own sleeve streaked crimson, kneels beside the Corporal where he lies in the in the open yard, a wide scarlet stain seeping through the snow beneath him like the bloom of some exotic flower. The layers of his battle dress are soaked with it. Larke is conscious, but his lips are ashen with pain as much as cold. His wry smile, isolated by the bone-white of his ski mask, seems to Koda the macabre grinning of a skull. “Just a flesh wound, Ma’am.”

Unbidden, her hand goes again to the medicine pouch about her neck, but she says crisply, “Reese. Martinez. Get him up the steps and into the building. As they move to comply, assisted rather too eagerly by the Lieutenant, she adds, “Andrews.”

“It’s only a graze, Ma’am. Just took off a bit of skin.” He pulls down the frayed edge of the tear in his jacket to expose a long, narrow scrape. “Really.”

“You’ll live,” Koda concedes, stepping over the jagged fragments of metal and plastic that are all that remain of their enemies. The entrance, as expected, leads into a large institutional kitchen. Pots and pans hover just above their heads, suspended from the ceiling by stainless steel hooks. Choppers and graters occupy the countertops, together with piles of bowls and spoons. On the stove a huge tub of rice boils energetically, foam overflowing its sides to sizzle on the burner beneath. Its smell recalls her grandmother’s washdays, the stiffly starched blouses and shirts into which she and her brothers had been buttoned every school day of every year until their high school graduations. “Because you must always look better and do better.” Prison uniforms, she and Phoenix had called them.

Reese and Martinez set Larke down on a large central worktable, with his pack under the calf of his injured leg and a stack of clean dishtowels to hand. Quickly but gently, Koda cuts the fabric away from the wound, which lies about a hand’s breadth down from the groin. She folds a pair of towels into a compress and slips it under the exit wound. From the open door she can hear the muffled rattle of gunfire and men shouting. “Andrews,” she says, “Take everyone but Martinez and start moving up the central hall. I’ll be right behind you.”

To Larke she says, “You know what ‘flesh wound’ really means? Severed tendons. Ripped muscle. Shredded veins. Still, you got off fairly light.” She slaps another compress into place on the entry wound and bears down hard on the torn flesh.

Larke gasps, turning even paler. “Oh Lord, Ma’am. You wouldn’t take advantage of a guy when he’s down, would you?”

The attempt at a joke is the best sign from the wounded man yet. “Nope,” says Koda, maintaining pressure with one hand and swinging her rifle back down to the ready with the other. “Martinez is going to do that.” As Martinez’ hand replaces hers, she says, “Press down as hard as you can. Change towels when they get soaked. We’ll be back for you.”

“Got it, Ma’am.”

Koda sprints down the branching hallway, following the increasingly sharp reports of automatic weapons, their own arms and the droids’. As she runs, she can hear the beginning of resistance from the cells she passes, prisoners shouting encouragement to their jailers’ unseen enemies, the sparse metal furniture of the prison banging against walls and doors. Somewhere up ahead the shouting becomes a chant, reverberating rhythmically in the narrow passageways, taking strength from the beat of steel on steel within the cells.

Kill the droids! Kill the droids! Kill the droids!

As she turns a sharp corner, Koda almost slams into Andrews, skews off to the right and slides in beside him and the rest of the unit where they hunker behind a improvised barricade of overturned desks. The space before them is an open intersection where three hallways meet. Two droids, their heads blown to fragments, lie frozen in a bizarre mechanical rigor mortis, joints still bent at elbow and knee. Another form sprawls between them, an enormous charred red hole where its right ribs should be and no arm or shoulder at all. The blood beneath it has already begun to congeal with the cold.

“Johnson?”

“Yeah. She went down just as we got here. The droids are over there—” Andrews points toward a corridor to the right. “—and they’ve got a fifty-caliber. The Colonel and the rest are around the corner to our left. They’ve got a couple injured, but she doesn’t want to call in the gunships yet. We’d lose too many civilians if we did.”

“Damn. We need to get behind them.”

“There’s another entrance over on the other side; we might be able to get through there.”

Koda shakes her head. “That would take too long. There’s a quicker way.”

“Yeah?”

Koda points upward, toward the acoustic ceiling tiles. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”

Andrews’ bright blue eyes take on a sparkle in the midst of his featureless ski mask. “No, Ma’am! Lead the way.”

Koda drags a chair over to a spot beneath a light fixture, climbs up onto it and begins tossing down the large tiles. Wiring runs thickly tangled under the first two; the darkness behind the third glints with the lights’ reflection off the aluminum sheathing of the HVAC ducts. The fourth gives access to the crawl space. “Paydirt,” she observes, turns on her flashlight and pulls herself up and into ceiling and its snarl of pipes and wires.

The going is incredibly slow. The prison is carefully built, and the wire ends she can see are all properly capped. One exception, though, will fry them and the mission with them. Koda squirms forward on her elbows, avoiding as much of the brightly colored strands as she can, lifting her weight gingerly over pipes they cannot afford to break. Behind her she half senses, half hears, her soldiers, some of them slithering along with the ease of rattlesnakes, others with about as much finesse as a bear raiding a dumpster.

“Shhhhh, dammit.”

Reese, two behind her, tries to quiet the others. With the droid’s sensors, though, they cannot be quiet enough. Andrews knows it, too. “We need more cover, Ma’am.”

“Right,” she says. By dead reckoning, they should be over a cell facing the corridor they have just left, some distance behind their abandoned redoubt. “There should be somebody—” she pulls off her mask and pries a tile loose”–right about–here.”

In the dim light of the cell, two startled women stare up at her. One holds the room’s only stool, battered half to splinters where she has been pounding it against the door. The other has a metal bowl in each hand, their unpalatable contents spilled dirty white along the floor. Cymbals.

“We need more noise, please,” Koda says simply. “Cover us.”

The younger woman of the two, perhaps eighteen, loses her frozen expression and bares more teeth than Koda has seen outside an alligator’s mouth. “You got it!”

Koda nods her thanks, and as they push themselves again along the narrow crawlway, the redoubled clamor becomes a vibration in the walls of the prison itself, a low, deep drumming of voices and metal shifting into a simpler, more primal rhythm. Cold creeps along Koda’s spine as the chant pounds through her blood, an echo of war drums pounding down the centuries.

Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!

She hears her men behind her take it up in breathy whispers, keeping with the women’s voices as the mantra spreads, intersecting at first with the earlier chant and running counterpoint to it, then overwhelming the more complicated rhythm with its purer line.

Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!

They have traveled perhaps fifteen meters in little more than half an hour. It feels like an eternity, though. Koda does not panic in elevators, but nor does she have any love of spaces that fit her like underwear. Motioning Andrews and the others to wait, she creeps forward alone for another few meters, pausing every couple of feet to listen with an ear pressed hard against the ceiling struts. Once she lifts a tile a centimeter or so and sees only a darkened cell with a dim form doubled up almost into fetal position; once she freezes like a rabbit who sees an eagle soar above its meadow, straining to pick up the oddly musical electronic tones or voder-generated voices by which the droids communicate with each other. In the end it is the shockingly loud burst of fire from the large-calibre machine gun almost directly beneath her that charts her location for her, and she waves her troops forward.

They drop from the ceiling directly behind the droids, howling. The sound that rips from Koda’s throat is none that she has never made before in her flesh, a full-throated baying that speaks of the spoor tracked to its source, of blood and death. Andrews, plummeting down beside her, screams like a panther as he raises his M-16 and presses the trigger down onto full automatic, spraying destruction across the brilliant metal surfaces of the droids, the dull green walls, the the light fixtures that shatter and fall in minute glass shards like snow. “The gun!” Koda bellows as she braces her own rifle against her hip, raining armor-piercing rounds upon the nightmare things before her. “Get the machine gun, dammit!”

But one of the droids, quicker than the rest, is already turning the heavy weapon to face them. Spinning on her heel, Koda turns her fire on the M-50 and its operator. Andrews takes down the droid sliding into position to reinforce the gunner, the fall of its metal body indistinguishable from the cacophony of battle. Reese, though, darts from behind and charges the machine gun head-on, falling over the barrel and toppling it just as its fire rips through him, spattering blood and gouts of flesh over the walls, the ceiling, his comrades behind him. Andrew screams again and empties his magazine into the droid gunner. Hardly audible through the gunfire and the incessant chanting of the prisoners, Koda hears the clatter of booted feet stampeding across the concrete floor. Allen’s troops, the Colonel herself in the lead and snarling like the bobcat emblazoned on her sleeve, come swarming over the barricade, pinning the droids between the two forces.

It is over, then, in a matter of seconds. As Koda raises her weapon to destroy the last of them, Allen yells, “No, take it!” and swings the butt of her M-16 to send its Uzi skidding down the passageway, out of reach.

Andrews makes a flying tackle that topples the droid, followed by Koda. It bucks under them, its mechanical limbs flailing to throw them off with a strength that is literally inhuman. To Koda it is like nothing so much as her one attempt to ride her grandfather’s bull on a summer day when she was ten. Now as then, she can feel her spine rattle with the frantic twisting beneath her, now as then she can only hold on and try to keep astride. Then two more soldiers are sitting across its legs, keeping them still by their sheer weight, and yet another pair pins its arms.

“Good work, guys,” Allen commends them, panting. She has both hands clamped down on the thing’s wrist, a knee jammed into its elbow. “Somebody get a hand in my pack and take out the shackles. We’re going to take Dr. King a little present.”

Koda, just behind her, fumbles with the zipper and then draws out a length of bright titanium chain attached to a metal belt and four manacles, two each for hands and ankles. The droid fights frantically to break free, striking Ramirez in the jaw with its foot, almost throwing Andrews and Koda astride its back. Limb by limb, though, they struggle to immobilize it, sliding the belt under its waist to fasten in back, bending back the arms to chain each hand to its opposite foot. Just as the last shackle snaps shut, the droid gives up the struggle and lies still.

It is not disabled, certainly not destroyed. Its logic chains have simply returned a null set upon evaluating the possible success of further resistance.

Koda pushes herself up from the steel caracass, suddenly weary beyond telling, and makes her way toward Reese, still slumped across the disabled machine gun. She knows there is no hope of life, yet she kneels and turns him over onto his back gently, not to hurt him further. His blood smears the white of her winter camo, already stained from tending Larke’s wounds. Marked, too, by Reese’s own torn flesh. She feels a void open inside her, black and deep as space beyond the stars. Her fingers clench in the folds of Reese’s clothing, almost as if somehow she could hold him back from this last journey. But his eyes are fixed and vacant. The blood trickling from his mouth has already begun to congeal.

Maggie kneels softly beside her, setting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s tough, leading men to their deaths. Especially the first one.”

Almost as if in a dream, Koda turns toward the other woman. The warrior of only minutes past is gone. Allen’s eyes are huge and sad in the brown face of a grieving Madonna, the face almost of Ina Maka herself. As if from a distance, Koda hears her own voice. “Does it get any easier? Ever?”

“No.” Maggie shakes her head slightly. “It never does.”

A moment of silence stretches out, then Allen squeezes her shoulder gently and asks, “Larke? Martinez?”

“Larke’s hurt. Martinez is taking care of him in the kitchen.”

“Good,” she says. “Very good. Let’s start clearing this place out.”

The chanting of the prisoners has fallen silent. Laying Reese gently down, Koda gets to her feet beside Maggie. “I’ll go check on Larke.”

The Colonel nods. “Make it quick. I’m going to need you when we get these cells open.” Then, more loudly, “Anybody got any idea where they keep the freaking keys?”

Koda sprints down the corridor toward the kitchen. She finds Larke pale as his camouflage but conscious and not in shock. On the floor at Martinez’ feet is a small mountain of bloody and discarded dishtowels. Koda is pleased, though, to see that the compress that he has bound tightly into place is not soaked through. When she lifts it up to check the wound, she can see that the blood that still oozes slowly from the wound is dark, with no evidence of arterial spurting. Larke’s pulse is shallow and faster than she would like, but steady nonetheless. “So how am I doin’ Doc?” he asks with a faint attempt at a smile. “Gonna live?”

Koda tightens the cotton strips that hold the compress in place. “Going to live; going to walk. And you’re going to get to keep everything you were born with, which is more than I can say for a lot of my male patients.”

Martinez starts to snicker, but apparently thinks better of it. “Hey, buddy.” Larke lifts his head slightly to stare at his fellow trooper with mock indignation. “You just remember it could be you lying here next time.” He makes a snipping motion with two fingers of his right hand.

Koda flashes a grin at the Pfc.. “He been giving you a hard time, Martinez?”

“Ma’am, he’s a rotten patient. If he hadn’t made himself dizzy just trying to sit up, he’d have taken off after you and Andrews.”

“Oh, yeah? Ma’am, Leo was gonna help me get up. He wanted to go himself. Told him to go on, but he wouldn’t.”

“And good for you that he didn’t.” She turns to Martinez. “We’re starting to mop up. He stays here.” Koda jabs a long finger at Larke, then at Martinez. “You stay with him and keep an eye on the bleeding. If anything changes, come get me. Otherwise just wait here till we call the choppers in. We’ll take him out to the Medevac on a litter.”

She turns to go, but Martinez touches her sleeve lightly. “Ma’am . . .?”

Koda can see the question in his hazel eyes, pleading with her. She does not want to answer it, but she says, “We lost two. Johnson and Reese. Otherwise, Larke here’s the worst hurt.”

“The droids?”

“All destroyed but one. We’re taking it back to Dr. King to see if she can get any information out of it.”

Martinez’ fists clench once and unclench. “You know, Ma’am, sometimes I wish they were human. It just doesn’t seem fair that they can’t feel anything.”

“I know,” she says quietly. Images of the last week tumble through her mind: the dead Hurley boys; the women from the Mandan jail; the quiet desperation she has sensed in Kirsten King. “We’ll find out who’s behind this. And they will pay.”

“I wanna help collect Ma’am.” Larke adds, just as quietly, and Martinez nods.

“Me, too.”

“There will come a time, I promise you.” Then, more sharply, “For now — Stay. Put. It’ll be maybe half an hour.”

As Koda sprints once again for the central hub of the prison, a speaker over her head crackles a couple times, then sputters fully to life. “It’s on? Yeah, that’s got it. Good.”

Then Allen’s voice comes through, clear and strong. “Attention. Attention, please. This is Colonel Margaret Allen, United States Air Force. A combined services tactical force has destroyed the prison’s android guard contingent and is now in command of this facility. Evacuation of prisoners will begin immediately on a corridor by corridor basis. If you have immediate medical needs, please inform the soldiers who will escort you from your cells to the dining area to await pickup.”

The microphone clicks off, and there is perhaps a second’s silence. Then the prison erupts in sound once again. This time, though, the roar is a cheer, starting deep and sliding up the scale until it pierces the air with the sharpness of a hawk’s cry, the scream of a hunting eagle.

Koda finds the Colonel in what appears to be the central guard station. The intercom equipment occupies one long counter, together with a couple computers and a bank of monitor screens that placidly record the undisturbed snow in most of the prison yards. It is still, strangely, only twilight. The entire operation has taken perhaps an hour. Allen looks up as Koda enters. “Larke?”

“Holding on.” she reports. “Tried to get up, with Martinez aiding and abetting. He’ll be fine, once we get him into a real hospital.”

“Good. The locks here are electronic, and while we don’t have the codes, we do have the emergency switches. I want you to be there as each group comes out, in case we’ve got anything medically urgent on our hands.” Allen pauses a moment, and her voice softens. “You did pretty damn good today, you know. You’re a natural at this.”

“I know,” Koda answers in a voice so low that it is almost a whisper. “It’s something that’s just been—there—all my life. Like a memory, almost.”

“We’ll talk when we get back to base and can have a little quiet,” Allen mumurs. “Meantime—” Her voice sharpens, and she is once again a line officer. “Andrews. Take a couple more troops and accompany Dr. Rivers to A Wing. Give her a hand with anything medical if she needs it. I’m going to go ahead and call that other, overly creative, Rivers of ours to have those birds here in another half hour.”

Koda extracts her emergency kit from her pack and follows Andrews, Ramirez and Hanson as they make their way down Corridor A. The women who come streaming out into the hallway here have little about them of the beaten and terrified prisoners of the Mandan jail. It may be only that they have known for an hour that their rescue is underway and have done what they can both to defy the enemy and to put heart into the soldiers facing the actual battle. One woman, her skin pink with excitement, grabs Andrews by the arms and kisses him soundly, then proceeds to reward Ramirez, Hanson and Koda with equal enthusiasm. When a second makes for the startled Lieutenant, he fends her off gently but firmly as he shepherds her toward the dining room with the rest. “Ma’am, please, time is limited. We appreciate your—ahm, we appreciate your appreciation—but we need to get you the hell out of this place. If you’ll pardon my language. Uh, Ma’am.”

Koda is pleased to see that the women are, superficially, largely uninjured. Most have bruises, some yellow-green with age, others newly crimson. One prisoner has a long but shallow cut down her forearm, and Koda takes a moment to wrap it in Kurlix to await stitching when they reach base. “It’s mah own fault, Doctah,” she says, in a delicate voice that sounds of the Georgia peaches and cream that match her red-blonde hair and ivory skin. “Ah broke the leg off mah stool bangin’ it against the doah. Ah wish it had been ovah one of those bastahdly thing’s heahds.”

Despite herself, a thread of amusement winds its way through Koda’s anger. Move over, Miz Scarlett. Like her own people, the South has always bred its women tough. It is a breeding that will help this woman survive, as it has kept the winan Lakota alive through a century and a half of attempted extermination.

She leaves the latter-day Scarlett with the Colonel and the rest of the troop in the cafeteria, where the soldiers have located clean cups and are passing out water and juice. Allen makes the rounds, speaking with each woman in turn, reassuring, comforting those with haunted eyes, answering what questions she can. One woman, pale and agitated, asks over and over again, “Where are the children? What have they done with the children?”

Koda pauses on her way out to evacuate D Wing as Allen answers, “Ma’am, I’m sorry. As far as we can tell, the droids have killed all the boys they found and kept only the girls past puberty. Were your children with you when you were taken?”

The woman is close to hyperventilating, and Koda kneels down in front of her with the Colonel, capturing her wrist to check her pulse. “Yes! Christ, why is so hard to make you understand!” She chokes for a moment, gasping for breath. “They took my kids with me! Why haven’t you found them? Where are they, damn you?” Her voice rises to a shriek. “Where are they?”

One of the other prisoners comes to sit beside her, putting her arms around the now-weeping woman. “It’s true, Colonel. Deb’s kids were with her when we were caught at the K-Mart. I haven’t seen them since that first day, though.”

“Deb?” Koda asks softly. “We’ll look for your children. We won’t leave, I promise, until we’ve found them or know for sure they’re not here. Can you tell us how old they are? Boys? Girls?”

“Two boys,” the second woman answers. “They were about four, five.”

“Right,” The Colonel rises, motioning to two of her troops who are foraging behind the serving counter. “O’Donnell! Markovic!” she shouts. “Start searching the place for kids. Not the cells, we’ll get all of those—try the garages and offices and tool sheds! Move it out! On the double!”

Koda returns to her task of evaluating the women as they exit the cells. On Wing D, they find a woman together with her young daughter, thirteen at most. The woman’s clothes have obviously not seen the inside of a washing machine in days, perhaps more, but they are intact—no rips, no bloodstains, and her arms and face are equally unmarked. Unlike the others, they seem almost diffident, with none of the lava-hot undercurrent of anger Koda has sensed running thick and murderous below the bravado of the rest of the prisoners. Fear and bewilderment, yes, but no hatred. “I’m Millie Buxton,” the woman introduces herself hesitantly . “My husband is here, too. Have you found him, yet?”

“They never touched you, did they,” a dark-haired woman sneers in passing, before Koda can answer. “Bitch! “Droid lover!”

Andrews blocks the speaker as she moves to spit at the other woman and hustles her along the hallway. Koda says slowly, “No, we haven’t. Was he an employee?”

“A prisoner. Erin and I were visiting when—when—it happened.”

“And you haven’t been harmed?”

“No. Not—I know what she meant, you see. I’ve heard when—” Millie glances back at her daughter—”things happened to the other women. But they left us alone. I don’t know why. I’m just glad because—because of Erin, you see.”

Koda does not see, not quite, but an idea has begun to form. “We’ll find your husband if he’s here, Ms. Buxton.” And to Andrews, more quietly, as the woman falls into step with the rest, “That last wing’s been pretty near silent. All along.”

Andrews nods. “Gotcha. We’ll pick up a couple more guys before we go over there. That’s where we dropped down, isn’t it?”

“That’s where I saw what I’m pretty sure was a man, one time when I lifted up a tile to see where we were. We’d better go cell by cell, there, not spring them all at once.”

“Better see how the Colonel wants to handle them. I’m all for leaving them to starve, but she may have other ideas.”

In the end, there are four. Three are much like their counterparts from Mandan, foul-mouthed and full of bluster. The fourth, though, will not answer them when his cell is opened, remaining curled tightly on top of the blanket with his knees drawn up to his chest. Only the rise and fall of his ribs shows that he is still alive.

“All right,” says Andrews after the prisoner has ignored him three times. “Let’s haul him out.”

“Wait a minute.” Koda walks silently up to the bunk where the man remains unresponsive. “Mr. Buxton?”

Nothing.

“Mr Buxton?” she tries again. “Millie and Erin are worried about you. They’re safe. Whatever deal you made, the droids kept it that far.”

A sound that is not quite a sob, not quite a groan comes from the huddled form on the cot. “Just leave me, please. Or shoot me. Just don’t tell them—please, I don’t want them to know— Tell them I’m dead, please?”

Andrews reaches forward and hauls the man into a sitting position. Unkempt hair falls over a forehead pale with lack of sun and eyes that water with the dim light enters through the half-open door. “Look here, Buxton. You just might get your wish. I don’t know what the Colonel’s going to want to do with you—maybe shoot you on spot, maybe not. If I were you, I’d still want to see my wife and kid one last time. And I sure as hell know they want to see you.”

“Mr. Buxton. Millie and Erin will find out exactly what you’ve done from the other women.” Koda takes a deep breath and forces her voice to remain neutral. “Now, I don’t know whether they’ll forgive you; God knows the rest of these women won’t, and shouldn’t. But it should count for something that you bought your family’s lives. Whatever happens, you can take that with you.”

In the end, he comes with them, still half-unwillingly, his head down. Allen meets them just outside the entrance to the cafeteria and rakes the four men over with fury in her dark eyes. “Just like the other jail. Hold them in that office over there for now.” She points to a small cubicle with a desk and computer and what seem to be endless piles of invoices. “Hanson, if one of these motherfuckers turns a hair wrong, shoot him.”

Buxton raises his head and holds her withering gaze for a moment. “Ma’am, they tell me my wife and daughter are here. Whatever goes down, I’d like to know they’re safe.”

“Hostages for his performance,” Koda says quietly.

“I see.” There is what may be a minuscule softening in Allen’s expression. “We’re taking them back to Base. They’ll have a trial. Andrews, Rivers, come with me. Hanson, you sit on ’em, and sit on ’em tight. They go out on the last chopper where these women won’t have to see their lousy faces.”

“Ma’am.”

Koda and Andrews follow the Colonel back into the cafeteria. From overhead comes the steady whup-whup-whup of approaching helicopters, the noise intensifying until it becomes an unholy clatter as the great blades beat the air. From the doorway, Koda can see their noselights growing larger and larger, finally sweeping the snow before her as the pilots check for obstructions before easing in to a landing. There are at least a dozen; most are Black Hawk and Apache gunships; one is a carrier. The lead bird is another Black Hawk, a red cross painted prominently on its side. The rotor wash kicks up little eddies of snow, sending it spraying outward as the great, grasshopper-like hulks settle, wobbling, into the snow. Just as the high-pitched whine of the engines becomes an almost physical pain, it stops.

“Load up,” yells Allen, and with that the former prisoners are running for the helicopters, clambering in with the help of their crews and the rescue unit. Two corpsmen from the Medevac fetch Larke from the kitchen, Martinez trotting alongside the litter. They load the remains of Johnson and Reese, too, decently wrapped in blankets for their last journey. The captive droid goes with the living prisoners, trussed and hauled along by the manacles that bind him hand and foot.

When all the rest are loaded, Allen hops aboard the Medvac chopper, Koda inches behind her. “Get us in the air, Rivers,” she shouts as the engines once again begin tow whine. “And give me the mike.”

Manny complies, with a wave and a mouthed “Makshké” at Koda.

“Schic’shi,” she answers, too weary to do more than lift a hand as she settles her back against the hull of the chopper. She can feel the vibration of the rotors as they begin to turn, then pick up speed, in every cell of her body. She should move, she tells herself, but her muscles refuse to obey her. The Black Hawk rocks slightly on its wheels, then lifts off with its tail high and its nose low. It is the nature of this peculiar airborne beast that there is nowhere more comfortable than the spot where Koda half-slouches on the deck, unless it is one of the litters suspended on heavy straps from the opposite side of the craft, or the pilots’ seats.

Just audible above the chopper’s racket, she can hear Allen shouting into the mike.

“We’re clear! Send ‘em in!”

Koda closes her eyes as the chopper begins its ascent, banking to the north and west. When she opens them after a moment, she can see the half moon riding high, glinting off the snowscape as it falls away beneath them. The winter stars spangle the night, Orion and his dog, the Bull and the Ram. As she watches, two of the stars seem to move toward them at tremendous speed, and it is only when she sees the green and red lights winking at their wingtips that she recognizes them for what they are.

Then she sees them dip and streak in low above the prison compound they have just left, their afterburners glowing like small suns in the enveloping dark. As they pass, fire blooms behind them, reaching into the night sky in unfolding petals of flame. She nods at Maggie in acknowledgment. Her mind tells her that they have denied a tactical advantage to the enemy, but deep in her soul she knows that the fire is necessary to cleanse the evil of the place. She leans back once more against the vibrating hull of the aircraft and lets the darkness take her.
CHAPTER TEN
As she stands off to one side with the others, holding her hair back out of her eyes as the beating rotors of the approaching helicopters stir the air into a mini hurricane, Kirsten tells herself that her reasons for being on the landing field are purely scientific. If her heartbeat is slightly faster than normal, it is because she will soon have a working android to examine. The sense of anticipation warming her from within is surely only a scientist’s eagerness when given the experimental opportunity of a lifetime.

And if she finds herself looking for a particular glossy black head that towers above the sea of mostly red and gold, and if she imagines she can see, even from this distance, a pair of piercing eyes that rival the winter sky, well, those things are inconsequential. She is a scientist, and scientists are trained to notice things.

Or so she makes herself believe.

The injured come off the helicopters first, young men and women bleeding their lives away on litters borne up by strong, resolute soldiers who run toward the bright red cross of the hospital double time. The dead follow, pristine white sheets covering their faces. Their entrance onto the base is more stately, as befits their heroic sacrifice.

Three men follow, heavily guarded and chained at the belly, ankles and wrists. Two sport an unkempt jailhouse pallor that is a perfect accompaniment to their frightened, darting eyes and heavily tattooed flesh. The third wears his shame like a shroud. Shoulders slumped, head bowed, he shuffles along staring only at the slush-covered ground beneath his feet, all but cringing at every new sound he hears. Kirsten feels a tiny shard of pity for him, though it’s obvious what he’s done and why he’s chained and guarded so very heavily.

The victims disembark next, their faces displaying a wide range of emotions, from the hollow-eyed pallor of an Auschwitz camp survivor, to a kind of quiet joy, to everything and nothing mixed in between. Those with enough awareness looked around curiously, taking in their new surroundings with a distinct lack of surprise, but with, perhaps, a burgeoning hope that their lot might, indeed, be improving.

A group of ten women, most of them former captives themselves, approach these newly freed survivors, offering soft words, soft expressions, soft touches as they lead the group toward the base hospital and the first step on the road to eventual—much hoped for—recovery.

Last to come off the choppers is a small group of heavily armed men and women, Dakota and the Colonel included, who surround what Kirsten can easily recognize as a fully functioning android bound by titanium chains and cuffs.

Watching, she finds herself biting back a smirk. They might as well have bound the thing with construction paper chains made by first graders for all even titanium will hold against the unsurpassed strength of even a single determined android. The very fact that it has allowed itself to be captured, and chained, and is making no effort to escape to fulfill its obviously prime directive to kill them all gives Kirsten a moment’s pause, though she waves her concerns off for the moment, confident in her ability to have at least that one question answered by the droid itself. Eventually.

She meets the group halfway, nodding to Allen and Rivers and carefully examining the android as it approaches. Through the receiver in her ear, she can hear the almost desperate data streams it is sending out in an attempt to contact others of its kind. This alone is enough to tell her that it is “injured” in some way that is making it difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill its primary mission. Finding the source, and the cause, of the “injury” is, she knows, the first step toward learning how to disable them all.

For the first time since the disaster of Minot, Kirsten allows a shard of hope to enter into the darkened landscape of her thoughts.

“General Hart was kind enough to give me an interrogation room in the brig. If you’ll please follow me.”

Allen gives a quiet nod. Dakota and Manny continue to bracket the android, weapons at the ready, while the rest peel off, headed for some much deserved down time. The Colonel stays with the denuded group, falling into step beside Kirsten as they head for the brig.

2

“Don’t bother with those,” Kirsten orders, casually waving away the chains Dakota and Manny are preparing to use to strap the android to the chair directly behind the desk she has commandeered. A smile curls her lips as she looks directly into its optical sensors. “If it wanted to kill us, we’d be dead already.” A beat of silence. “Isn’t that right, RJ-252711-RTLL-2199-RC?”

Again, that look of near shock that she’d seen at Minot. Clue or red herring? Without enough evidence to structure a credible hypothesis, she lets the information sit at the back of her thoughts as she continues her visual inspection of the android. Standing, she rounds the desk, seeing the others back off in the periphery of her vision. She feels a little like a star player in a “good cop/bad cop” melodrama of her hardly misspent youth as she stalks the helpless droid, her lips curved in a shark’s feeding-time grin.

“I’m confusing you, aren’t I,” she remarks conversationally, touching it briefly on one shoulder as she circles. “I’m receiving all of your transmissions, but you’re receiving none of mine. What does that make me?” Her smile is almost seductive as she stands before it, one finger rubbing across her full lower lip, as if in serious contemplation. “One of you?” Her smile broadens. “One of them?” One rather elegant hand flips a careless gesture toward Dakota, who stares back, eyebrow perfectly arched, arms folded across her chest. “You can’t tell, can you. You don’t know what the truth is, and that makes things…difficult…for you, doesn’t it.”

The android doesn’t answer, though its fingers twitch on the arms of the chair, much like a nervous suspect who has been brought into the police station for questioning. It is sending out continuous pulses of data, an SOS beacon that Kirsten can read as clearly as if it were printed on a scrolling board in the middle of Times Square. She smiles and, temporarily turning down the heat, returns to her desk and sits down, spreading her hands against the rough wooden top.

“Tell me,” she resumes after a long moment of silence, “why are you breeding humans? What do you hope to gain from this venture?”

The fingers twitch again. “This unit is not programmed to respond in that area.”

“Ah. Just a drone, then. If you can’t tell me why, can you tell me who? Who gave you these orders?”

“This unit is not….”

“…programmed to respond in that area, yes, I understand that.” She sits back in the chair, eyeing the droid. “I can’t help you, RJ-252711, if you don’t help me. You have data circuits that need repairing. I need answers. So….”

The data pulses are almost frantic now, and Kirsten hides a wince as a high pitched squeal of feedback enters her implants and loops through her brain.

“I can help you, you know. You can feel it. You want to trust me, don’t you.” Her voice is soft, seductive.

A louder blast of feedback wings through her and her eyes close for a long moment, willing the pain away. There is something almost…compelling…in the messages traveling along her nerve bundles. She fights off a heaviness, a lethargy that seeps into the very marrow of her bones; a sweet siren’s song to an end she’s sure she’d be better off not knowing.

Dakota notices, and takes one step forward, only to be waved back by Kirsten who straightens and leans forward. “Answer my questions, RJ-252711. Answer my questions and I’ll give you the help you need.”

“I…am…not…programmed…to…to…to…to…to…”

“Answer me, RJ-252711.”

“…cannot….”

“Answer me.”

The android stiffens, all electronic joints locked as a whine emits from its vocal sensors. Subliminal at first, it grows in pitch until the humans present instinctively step back and raise desperate hands to their ears in a fruitless attempt to block out the sound.

Kirsten feels the code as it buzzes along her nerves like electric shock. She tries to raise her hands to snatch at her earpiece and dislodge the implants, but her muscles will not obey her. She cannot speak; only attend, helplessly, as the systems shutdown command speeds its way to her lungs, her heart, her brain. Koda has risen, leaning over the table to grasp her wrist, but she feels nothing, hears nothing as the other woman’s lips form urgent words. Absently, she notes that the improbable blue eyes have gone wide with—fear? Surely not. And surely not for her. That amuses her for some reason, but she cannot laugh, only stare, her own gaze fixed on the wide black pupils that spread and spread like ripples in a midnight pond, and she is drawn into their blackness, falling infinitely down and down, drawn into the deep, into the dark and the silence, falling, falling down the rabbit hole to lose herself in the infinite lightlessness of space beyond the stars.

How long she falls she does not know nor care. The blackness slips past her as she spirals downward, companied by wind that whispers with the voices of her dead. So precocious . . .. That’s my girl . . .. I worry sometimes . . .. Then there are the other sounds: the staccato rattle of machine gun fire; electronic devices speaking to each other in strange tongues, ditditDAHdit oddly musical as it speeds along the fiberoptics; the thrum of the blood in her veins as it slows, grows sluggish, stops. They ride along the rising wind that carries her spinning toward a point of light star light star bright, infinitesimally small, somehow above her now as she falls upward—and how did that happen, she wonders—with up so floating many bells down and voices are in the wind’s singing, singing its own song now. Its blast strips the flesh from her, whistles through the cage of her bones. Yet it cannot drown out the deep baying of the hunter who runs lithe beside her now along moonlit snow and is gone again in a glimpse of driving muscles rippling under grey fur that turns in upon itself, moebius-like, to become a small pointed face with eyes burning like molten gold out of a black mask. The narrow muzzle opens, and the creature speaks in a voice to silence thunder, one long-fingered hand raised to bar her passage.

Go back. The time is not yet.

But she hurtles past him as the pinprick of light suddenly bursts, brighter than a thousand suns. Pure thought now, with no crude matter to hold her back, she streaks toward its incandescent heart. Out of its center a woman leaps to meet her, brandishing a spear and an oval shield with a boss of bronze. Her naked body is painted with blue spirals and runes of power, and her hair streams behind her like flame. From somewhere behind her comes the slow rhythm of a drum. Her shout rises above its pounding.

Go back. The time is not yet.

The warrior fades, gives way to another woman, this one clothed in scarlet silk that flutters about her like tongues of fire. Her face is serene with age, though the deep furrows at brow and mouth tell of wisdom bought at cost. The drumming grows louder now, but her gentle voice carries easily above it.

Go back. The time is not yet.

Another warrior comes forward, clad in some sort of leather dress with intricate brass armor buckled to her chest. In one hand, she holds a thick, two-edged sword. In the other, a lethal circlet. Her eyes blaze and pierce, their beauty filled with urgency and another, almost overwhelming, emotion she can’t put a name to.

Go back. The time is not yet.

Still she moves forward, helpless to stop her steady advance into the sun.

And out of the heart of that sun a third woman comes striding, dressed in white buckskin with a hummingbird worked in shell beads and quills across her breast. Turquoise and white shell adorn her wrists and her slender neck, hang like stars amid the cloud of her hair. Her feet as she walks beat out the song of the drum, though her moccasins touch nothing more solid than air.

You are astray, my daughter, she says. You must turn back.

Mother, Kirsten wails soundlessly. I have failed.

You have suffered a setback, certainly, the woman acknowledges. Will you let it defeat you, and all my children with it?

I am not strong enough. Not wise enough.

By yourself, you are not. But I have given you companions, for knowledge and for comfort. The woman pauses, smiling. And for something more, if you have the courage to lay hold of the gift. Will you refuse it? Look.

An eddy forms in the brilliance, light swirling like the waters of a whirlpool. An opening appears, and Kirsten finds herself looking down from an infinite distance. A slight figure with pale hair lies sprawled on the floor, its face already waxy with the spirit’s passing. A tall woman, dark, with a cloud of black hair wild about her face, kneels beside her, her fist rising and descending again and again to the rhythm of the drum. It comes to Kirsten that her own body is the drum, the fierce pounding a summons to return. There are words in that calling, but they skim past her awareness to be lost in the light and the voice of the drum.

There is, really, no choice.

I will go back, she says.

The woman’s smile becomes radiant, like the sun, bright beyond comprehension, yet not painful to look upon. A long-fingered hand, smooth, so smooth it is the bottom of a rock-bottomed stream, lays itself upon her and a benediction flows into her soul. It is cool, cool like the spring, like the morning, like the dew that bleeds across her bare ankles as she runs through a clover-filled meadow, a bounding, gray-furred beast at her side, matching her stride for stride, lope for lope.

The massive head turns, and she falls into eyes piercing and clear and blue, blue as the spring, like the morning, like the dew that slides across her naked flesh as she falls and falls and falls until her whole world is falling and nothing but.

Her landing is soft, but she awakens with a gasp and her hand clenched to a chest which is burning and throbbing to the rhythm of a newly beating heart.

Disoriented, she calls out for an anchor.

“Dakota!”

The hoarse call pulls Maggie Allen away from her conversation with a nearby medic. Approaching the bed, she lays a gentle hand on Kirsten’s shoulder and smiles. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Doctor.”

The sudden, absolute silence is something she can control, and Kirsten reaches behind her ear, only to have the motion stopped by Allen.

“Woah, woah, wait a minute there, Doc. You remember what happened, right?”

Easily reading the colonel’s lips, a skill she’s had for longer than she cares to remember, Kirsten nods. “I got caught in a self destruct feedback loop.”

“Exactly. The metalhead is out of the picture, but the base’s audiologist got fragged when the droids went over the wall in the first attack. We don’t know if your implants are still working, and if they are, whether or not that feedback loop is still active. Turn them back on, and you could short circuit yourself all over again.”

Kirsten knows enough military lingo to get a good sense of what Allen is trying to tell her, and nods again. “My computer?”

Reaching down by the side of the bed, Maggie grabs Kirsten’s computer and hauls it onto the bed. “Maybe you better tell me what to do, huh? You’ve had a rough time of it.”

The look she receives causes Maggie to throw her hands up and step back. “You’re the doc, Doc.”

Opening the case, Kirsten boots the machine quickly, pleased to see that it wasn’t harmed in what she is quickly coming to term “the event”. Reaching into one zippered pouch, she pulls out a small wire that ends in an electrode and plugs it into a port in her laptop. The electrode she places behind her left ear, pressing softly until it adheres to her skin. One pale finger depresses the ‘enter’ key, and she watches intently as data streams by in unintelligible—to the normal mortal—strings.

With a satisfied grunt, she ends the program and peels off the electrode before turning on her implants. Sound flows back into her world once again. She smiles, briefly, before slumping back against the wall, suddenly more weary than she can ever remember being. The ache is back in her chest, and it sets off a spasm of coughing that makes her feel as if a giant hand has reached down her throat and is even now tearing her lungs from their moorings. Breath is an elusive beast and her gasps chase after it with all their might, capturing only small slices before it slips away again.

She feels herself pushed back into bed by firm hands as a soft oxygen mask is pressed down over her face. Words, intelligible as an insect’s hum, swirl around her head, but she wastes no energy deciphering their meaning. She knows she’s being chided, in any event.

After another moment, the sweet, cool, dry oxygen flows into her lungs, and her hoarse gasping becomes winded pants, and then, as her constricted breathing passages open up to the size of interstate highways, the quiet inspiration of normal breathing.

Standing above her, Maggie’s shoulders slump in relief. “A little warning before you start playing Superwoman next time would be appreciated, Doctor King.”

“Sorry,” Kirsten replies, hoarse voice muffled behind the oxygen mask.

Maggie blinks, mildly shocked at the apology and the slight blush of embarrassment that dusts the younger woman’s cheeks. “Yes. Well….” She clears her throat. “I’m going to leave you alone for a bit, then. Please, Doctor, have the good sense to stay in this bed for awhile, ok? I’ve heard that bumping noses with the Grim Reaper takes something out of a person. Even a person as self sufficient as you.”

Pulling the mask off of her face, Kirsten nods. “I’ll stay. I could use a nap, anyway.”

“I’d imagine so.” Maggie’s tone is wry, to match the small smirk that curves one corner of her mouth. “I’ll see you later, then.”

She is almost to the door of the small hospital room when Kirsten’s voice reaches her again.

“Colonel?”

“Yes?”

“Dakota…Doctor Rivers…she was the one who saved me, wasn’t she.”

Maggie turns to face her. “It was pretty much a team effort, but yes, she’s the one who figured out what was wrong first and started CPR on you. She also shut off your implants. How did you know?”

Her dreamlike trek into the afterworld is slowly fading from her memory, but certain things stand out with crystal clarity. She also knows, with the same clarity of thought, that the experience is something she is loathe to share. “I just…had a feeling.”

Maggie nods, knowing there’s much more to the story, but accepting the statement at face value. Pulling teeth from a rabid wolf would be a cakewalk compared to getting information this woman. “I’ll tell her you’re awake and doing well when I see her.”

“Thank you.”

“Not a problem.” With a final smile, she exits the room, closing the door softly behind her.

Left alone, Kirsten sinks back into the bed’s soft comfort and stares blankly at the white cork ceiling. The words of the Mother—or whatever it is that the image represents—come back to her as if being whispered just now into her ear.

And for something more, if you have the courage to lay hold of the gift. Will you refuse it?

“What gift?” she asks the ceiling, frustrated. “How can I refuse something if I don’t know what it is?”

But some voice, one that she recognizes comes from within the depths of her own soul, tells her that she already knows the answer to that question, and needs nothing but the courage to listen and understand.

Pondering that voice, she falls into a light, troubled sleep.

3

Koda stretches luxuriously, planting her feet against the front of the tub. Her shoulders, higher than she would like because the damned thing is not made for six-footers, press against its back. Lightly scented with lavender, steam rises up about her, soothing her sore body, easing the soreness that lingers in mind and spirit. For the first time since setting out into the snow and the alien place her world has become, Koda misses her own home. She misses the firm platform bed; she misses the fireplace, larger than most people’s closets; most of all she misses her bath. The tub, almost deep enough to paddle in, long and wide enough to accommodate more than three quarters of her, had been the first renovation she had made to the hundred-year-old house, even before she and Tali had decided to marry.

Sharp and sweet as the lavender, the memory slips into her consciousness:

Late at night, walking Tali into the bath with her hands over those laughing eyes, both of them naked and languorous from lovemaking, leading her down into the warm water where candles float and the scents of rose and lily of the valley mingle in the rising steam.. Tali, laughing still as they pursue each other through the water like otters, rolling and tumbling, declaring that Koda must have been Cleopatra in a past life. “If I had been,” Koda answers,, “I wouldn’t have bartered my kingdom away with men. I’d have ruled alone except for my favorite handmaiden.”

“Me?” Tali asks.

“Who else?” And she draws Tali close, pinching out the candles one by one until a lone flame casts their shadow, also single, on the wall and lights their wet skin like molten gold.

It had been a lifetime ago, in a different world. As surely as if there were an angel with a flaming sword at its gate, Koda knows she can never go back. It is not only that the world has changed. She has changed, become something new, a creature that can no longer live in the environment that gave birth to her. It is time, she tells herself wryly, to recognize that she cannot go back into the trees. Time to come out of the water and grow legs.

Figuratively, that is. This is her second soak, and she estimates that she has at least another fifteen minutes before the water begins to cool. She had taken ten minutes to shower off the dirt and blood, the acrid stench of black powder that clung to clothing and skin alike. Then she had soaked, her wet hair piled up on top of her head. When the first tub had cooled, she had run a second in defiance of all self-discipline and conservation of resources. She rubs now at the sore spot between her shoulders where she can feel the muscles still bunched. Maybe Maggie can get the knots out later. Maggie, of the long, clever hands and many skills.

Maggie had known without being told to snatch up the phone and order in a medic and a portable defibrillator when Kirsten had arrested while probing the captured droid. Koda still was not entirely sure what had happened or how, but she remembered in every cell of brain and body her horror as the self-assured—all right, be honest, the more than slightly arrogant—scientist had turned pale, her lips and eyelids going blue as she slumped over her terminal, her lungs emptying in a sigh as her chest stilled and her pulse grew silent.

Koda’s nerves and muscles had responded before her brain knew what was happening, clearing the airway, starting the regular compressions of the sternum that would keep the failed heart pumping. One-two. One-two. One-two. At some point the count had become Hey-ah, hey-ah, hey-ah, and from somewhere she had heard the deep resonance of her grandfather’s drum as it beat out the rhythm of the blood chant. Her hands and shoulders pressed down and released in perfect synch, precise as the steps of her brother Phoenix as he stamped out the figures of the grass dance, remaining steady even as she felt her own spirit gather and hurtle out of her body in pursuit of the dying woman’s soul.

She had streaked down the spiraling dark after her, howling wordlessly, feeling the insubstantial spine of her spirit form coil and release like a spring as she gave chase. The way had been barred, then, by another in animal form like herself, but still Kirsten had plunged toward the pinprick of brightness that lighted the Blue Road. A woman of power, Koda could walk that path and return, but for someone untrained it led irrevocably into death. Half-panicking then, she had felt herself somehow divided, leaping forward to block Kirsten’s way, warning her back even as she kept pace alongside. Twice, she had been so split, and twice she had failed to catch the other woman’s soul.

Then a blinding light had burst on her just as someone had grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and pushed her out of the way, making room for the defibrillator and the medtechs with it. Her eyes wide and sightless, Koda’s body had reeled backward and collapsed onto the tiles. As Koda hurtled down toward it from an infinite height, she heard Maggie’s low “Damn!” distinct amid the shouts of the medics, then felt the almost physical impact as her spirit slammed back into her flesh with the shock of a meteor burying itself deep in the earth’s rock strata.

Maggie had been holding her when she came to, half in and half out of her lap. Her dark face had been ashen with fear, but she had spoken steadily enough. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Rough landing, that’s all.”

“Hmph,” Maggie had snorted. “I’ve set down easier after one of Osama’s boys tried to put a SAM up my tailpipe.

Koda had gathered her screaming muscles and sat up, only to lower her head into her hands with a groan. The drum was still with her, only this time it was pounding right behind her eyes.

“Doctor Rivers?” Maggie again, formal as always in the presence of subordinates.

“M’okay,” she had said softly, not to reinforce the thunder in her head. “Shamanism 101. Never touch a body whose proprietor is temporarily absent. Bad things can happen.”

“Thought for a moment we had two patients here.” That was the medic, wanting to check her vitals as a pair of orderlies had carried the now steadily breathing Kirsten toward the infirmary. Koda had let him take her blood pressure and her temperature simply because that would take less time than arguing with him.

Then she had headed straight for the bath and the now cooling water.

Carefully, Koda grips the handle on the soap holder and pulls herself up, reaching for the pair of heated towels on the nearby rack. She feels infinitely better, the headache receding now to a dull pain no worse than ordinary tiredness. She needs food. She needs sleep.

She needs to know why Kirsten’s near-death fills her with a terror beyond anything she has ever known.

And she needs to know why that fear is so very familiar, a rooted ache in her heart.

Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related. It is the first teaching of her people. But there is more to it than that. Somehow this woman is part of the hoop of her own life.

She does not yet know how, or why. But she will.

Through lowered lashes Koda gazes at the soft brown globes before her. She runs her tongue over her lips, remembering their velvet smoothness, the firm but yielding texture between her teeth. Her hand moves toward them, hesitates, withdraws. I shouldn’t . I really shouldn’t. It would be too much.

Maggie leans toward her, laughing softly. “Go ahead.”

“No, I really shouldn’t—”

Maggie laughs again, “You know you want it. Go ahead.”

Koda meets the other woman’s eyes, feeling color rising beneath her own cheeks. “Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.” Maggie pushes the wicker basket with the one remaining roll across the table. “I’ve never seen you so starved. Have at it.”

Koda knows she is blushing and not for the first time is glad of the coppery skin that masks her embarrassment. But she takes the bread , breaks it in her fingers and begins to mop up the creamy sauce on her plate. From his place under the table, Asi whines pitifully, pawing at her knee. Koda pauses in her pursuit of the last streaks of gravy just long enough to deposit her chop bone in his dish. “Sorry, fella. I didn’t leave you much.”

“You certainly didn’t.” Maggie rises and begins to collect the frying pan and other utensils, scraping them into the compacter beneath the small sink. “I know I’m a decent cook, but I’m not that good. Battle agrees with you.”

There is silence for a moment. Then Koda says, “It does, you know.” Her voice is very quiet, barely audible even to her own ears.

Maggie meets her eyes across the room. “I do know. Want to talk about it once I get the dishwasher going and we can be comfortable?”

Koda hesitates, then nods. Her plate looks as if it has already been washed. Without warning, her stomach growls again.

“Dessert?” Maggie offers. “I think I still have some frozen berries.”

To hell with embarrassment. “Yes, please. I’m sorry—this isn’t the fighting. It’s being out of the body. Exaggerated hunger is a textbook response.”

Maggie stows the last of the dishes and hits the button. The motor whines, gears grating. The Colonel swears and gives it a smart kick; with a reassuring sound of water jets, it finally turns over. “Don’t know what I’ll do when this damn thing gives out now.” Returning her attention to Koda, she raises an eyebrow. “Textbook. Like the low temperature and blood pressure that had the medic wanting to put you into the hospital, too?”

“Just like that.”

“You know, I don’t think I’d have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Hell, if I’d seen it happen to anyone else, I don’t think I’d have believed it.”

“You should have seen my grandfather conduct a yuwipi. What I did was nothing in comparison.”

“Yuwipi?” Maggie pauses with the freezer door open, a bag of small wild blueberries in her hand.

“A spirit-calling ceremony.”

“Well,” says Maggie. “I’m willing to believe what I see with my own eyes. But if you’re going to do something more flamboyant than take a little stroll in the spirit world or the astral plane or whatever, try to give me five minutes warning next time.”

Koda laughs as she accepts a bowl of berries and they move toward the living room. “Count on it. Just as long as I have a bit of warning myself.”

A quarter hour later, Koda sets her empty bowl on the low chest that serves as a coffee table between sofa and fireplace. Asimov has reclaimed his place on the hearth tiles, lying on this back with his forepaws resting on his chest. His tongue lolls out of his mouth as if in his dreams he is licking some last succulent morsel from his whiskers. His soft snoring mingles with the snap and hiss of burning pine branches. The sleep of the just, Koda notes wryly to herself. She glances at Maggie whose face, underlit by the fire, is a study in bronze and shadow, the only points of brightness the reflected flame in her eyes and the glint off the golden bobcat cuff on one ear. She might be some ancient battle goddess, Koda thinks, African or Egyptian.

Sekhmet the lion-headed, Beloved of Ra her father, the One who holds back darkness, Lady of the scarlet-colored garment, Pre-eminent One in the boat of millions of years. As if from a great distance, almost beyond the range of hearing, there comes the soft sound of a small drum and a silvery tinkling of sistrums. Voices, too, though Koda cannot make out their words. Then the music is gone, and there is only Maggie and the sleeping dog and the light of the fire.

And where, for all the gods’ sake, did that come from? Very deliberately, she leans forward and places both hands on the wrought metal hinges of the chest.

Maggie says nothing until Koda pushes herself back against the sofa cushions with a sigh. Then, “Cold iron?”

“Residual effect. Sometimes you stay a bit sensitive for a while.”

“How long?” Maggie makes a circular gesture with one hand that encompasses a myriad of questions.

How long have you been seeing things?

How long have you been wigging out?

How long will it be before you go entirely round the bend?

But that is unfair. Maggie has been far more accepting than any other person of any race but Koda’s own has ever been. She tries to imagine having this conversation with Kirsten King and cannot. Cold iron, indeed.

She says slowly, “I started—being aware—of things other people couldn’t see or hear when I was six or seven. But my grandfather truly began to teach me when I was twelve, after I had done my hanblecheyapi—my first vision quest. What I saw then led me to be a healer, particularly a healer for the four-footed and winged peoples.”

Maggie nods, setting down her coffee cup. “And you are extremely good at it. If it hadn’t been for your license plate, I would never have suspected that you weren’t an MD. Not after the fine work you did on some of my troops that day we ran into the droids.”

“But, see, that’s not the vision I wanted.” Koda meets Maggie’s dark eyes across the small space between them. “I wanted to be a warrior. More than a warrior–Dakota Rivers, liberator of the Lakota Nation.” She feels one side of her mouth quirk up wryly. “Don’t say it. Grandiosity–pass the Thorazine.”

“No, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Maggie says softly. “Do you know, when I was a little girl I had two heroes. One was Sojourner Truth. The other–” Maggie hesitates for a moment, then goes on. “The other was Joan of Arc. See, there was this old movie on the late, late video one night, called The Messenger. Everybody said it was a terrible film, and they’re probably right. But what I saw in Joan was a woman absolutely possessed by her calling—a woman who needed to be a warrior because that’s what her soul was. And her society wouldn’t let her. She found her way, though, even if she died for it in the end.”

“Because that’s what her soul was.” Koda repeats the words slowly. “That’s exactly how it feels. Like some part of me locked away, trying to get out.”

“And now it is out. How do you feel about that?”

“Relieved.” The word comes to her lips without thought. “Lighter. Like I’ve been wearing boots a size too small, and suddenly I can run barefoot.”

“What about killing? You haven’t blown away anything but droids so far, have you? What happens when it’s another human being aiming an M-16 at you?”

Koda starts to give the easy answer, then checks herself. After a moment she says, “I don’t know. I gave one of the men at the bridge that day an overdose, but he was suffering and beyond saving. That’s different.”

“That’s different, yes. If you’re lucky, the first time you have to kill a man or a woman it will go by so fast you won’t have time to think about it. You have the fighting instinct, and I think that will carry you through. There’s something to be said for losing yourself in the battle.” She pauses. “Rise up like fire, and sweep all before you. That’s in a poem somewhere. What’s harder is to order your own troops into a situation they won’t survive. But that you do know about.”

Reeves. Johnson. More to come.

“I know,” she says softly. “I hate it.”

“And that, my dear, is the price of leadership. Because you are not just a warrior, you are a born leader.” Maggie smiles suddenly. “God, I wish I’d gotten my hands on you ten years ago. You’d be the goddamned youngest brigadier in the Air Force.”

Koda smiles in return, tension she has refused to acknowledge draining out of her muscles. “If you’d gotten your hands on me ten years ago, it would have been fraternization and we’d both have been in trouble.”

“Oh, yeah.” Maggie’s face splits in a grin. “But me, I like trouble.” She rises and moves to extinguish the fire. “And so do you, my dear.

“So do you.”

As Kirsten wakes up from the pleasant grip of a rapidly dissipating dream, she finds herself looking into the very eyes that dominated that dream. The transition is so seamless that she can’t help but smile; a rare and radiant smile that transforms her entire face into something beyond simple beauty.

It’s a smile that Dakota, caught totally unaware, can’t help but respond to, and she wonders at that response, even as she wonders at the less than subtle response of her own body as it notices exactly what a smile does for the woman lying on the pristine white sheets of a narrow hospital bed.

After a long moment, both women realize, simultaneously, that they’re grinning at one another like idiots, and each looks away, smiles slowly fading even as roses of embarrassment bloom on their cheeks.

Kirsten finds the weave of her blanket utterly fascinating and plucks at it as Koda rubs the back of her neck, not quite fidgeting, but close.

“I….”

“Are you….”

Koda chuckles a bit, and steps back. “You first.”

The gaze that meets hers is almost—not quite, but almost—shy, and Koda ponders if this morning of wonders portends an omen of some sort.

“I…just wanted to thank you. For saving my life. I, um….”

“It’s alright,” Koda replies, smiling. “I’m glad I was there to help.” Pausing, she looks the young woman over with a clinical eye. “How are you feeling? Any residual effects?”

“I’m feeling…pretty well, actually.”

“Good, good.”

Silence, dense and uncomfortable, settles over them once again.

“Well, I guess I’d better leave you to your rest. I’ll talk to you later, alright?”

Kirsten smiles. “Alright. And Doctor?”

“Dakota. Please. Just…Dakota.”

Another almost shy smile, and Kirsten nods. “Dakota, then. Thank you, again, for saving my life. I know that sounds painfully inadequate, but….”

“No thanks necessary,” Dakota replies, laying a quick touch on a blanket-covered foot. “I’m glad I was there.” White teeth flash in a brief smile. “Rest up and get stronger, alright?”

“I will. Thanks.”

“No problem.”

As the door clicks softly closed, Kirsten leans her head back into the pillow and once again stares into the blank ceiling, her mind busily replaying her most out-of-character behavior. “Jesus,” she whispers. “What in the hell is happening to me?”

The ceiling, wisely, remains mute.
CHAPTER ELEVEN
Do virgins taste better than those who are not?
Are they saltier, sweeter, more juicy or what?
Do you savor them slowly, gulp ’em down on the spot?
Do virgins taste better than those who are not?

As she pulls her new truck into Maggie’s carport, Koda finds herself actually humming along with the jaunty tune. And how long has it been, she asks herself, since I’ve done that? The truck, and the truck’s stash of Celtic and Celtic rock discs, are her unexpected inheritance from the Base’s veterinarian, currently missing in action and presumed taken or killed in the last attack on Ellsworth. Dr. LeFleur’s practice has become hers, too, at least temporarily. Koda has spent the morning vaccinating and treating minor injuries and infections among the survivors’ pets and examining the MPs’ canine contingent. It is the closest thing she has had to a normal day’s work since the uprising began.

As the song ends with the vow that “We’ll just have to make sure there’s no virgins at aaaaallllll” and a disappointed dragon, Koda switches off the engine and collects the filled syringes she has brought from the clinic. She doesn’t know when Asi was last vaccinated, doesn’t know when the chance to give him his boosters may come again. Might as well do it while she can.

He greets her at the door with a bark and a furiously wagging tail, rising up on his hind legs to investigate the stranger smells that cling to her shirt, her boots, her jeans. He follows her into the kitchen, snuffling furiously at her heels and at her knees where she has braced the MP’s dogs against her for their shots. He barks again, sharply, and trots over to the table where Kirsten is seated with her laptop. She looks up from her screen and holds out a hand, which he licks with enthusiasm. The blond woman smiles slightly, rubbing his ears in her turn. While it is not the transforming brilliance Koda remembers from the hospital room, even the small upturn of her lips warms Kirsten’s face almost past recognition. And what, wonders Koda, did the dragon answer?

She feels the heat rise in her face at the thought. To cover her embarrassment she says, “It’s good to see you feeling well enough to sit up. I though we’d go ahead and give Asi his boosters while we have the chance, but I seem to have offended him.”

“How’s that?” The smile, miraculously, has not faded.

“Infidelity.” Koda indicates the dog and cat hairs that still cling to her jeans and the sleeves of her flannel shirt. “I’ve been with other critters all morning. Have you had lunch?”

Kirsten shrugs. “I forgot.”

Let’s see what we’ve got, then.” Koda rummages in the fridge for the tub with last night’s leftover soup and a wedge of cheese; the pantry yields a box of whole wheat crackers and some canned peaches.

As she is setting the soup to heat, Maggie’s sportscar pulls up behind the dark blue truck. With an odd sense of combined disappointment and relief, Koda sets out a third bowl and adds another measure of coffee to the brewer. As she turns to tend to the soup, Koda catches a glimpse of Kirsten’s face. One instant the smile is still there. In the next, Maggie crosses the space in front of the kitchen window and the smile freezes, shatters, falls from the woman’s face. Almost Koda imagines she can hear the chime of ice shards against the tiles of the floor.

Maggie strides through the door with a burst of the south breeze that has been blowing all morning, sweeping away the clouds. It is cold still but carries with it a hint that somewhere, far away, snow is melting into spring freshets while crooked shoots push up through the earth toward the sun and the year’s turning. Maggie’s jacket is half off before she closes the door behind her with a shove of her foot. She is back in her flight fatigues and boots, and a delighted grin spreads across her face when she sees Koda. “It’s flying weather—no ceiling and visibility all the way to Denver! Want to come up on recon with me?”

“This minute?” Koda asks with an answering smile. “Or do we get to eat our soup?”

Maggie drapes her jacket over one of the chairs and makes for the sink to wash her hands. “After lunch is fine.” She turns to Kirsten. “Dr. King, I’m glad you’re feeling stronger. When the medics give the okay, I’ll be happy to take you up too, if you’d like.”

“Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate the offer.” Kirsten turns back to the data streaming across her screen. The temperature in the room seems to sink to near-polar levels. Maggie darts a puzzled glance at Koda, who shrugs almost imperceptibly. Lunch has become, in the military dialect Koda is rapidly picking up, a Situation.

The next twenty minutes, as conversation fails entirely and the only sounds are the thump of the oblivious Asi’s tail against the floor and the spoons clinking against the soup bowls, are among the most awkward Koda can remember. It feels rather like the preternaturally stretched out time spent in the hall outside Mother Superior’s office in grade school, never quite certain what offense she had committed, never quite sure how to defend herself.

In the end, she gives Asimov his shots while Kirsten holds him, crooning soothing sounds in his ear and rubs his neck.. As she follows Maggie out to her car to head for the flightline, Koda glances back through the window. Kirsten remains seated at her computer as before, one hand absently stroking the dog’s head in her lap. The other props up her forehead as she stares at the screen, her glasses off and her gaze open and unfocused, all the anger gone. It is a curiously vulnerable look, and Koda senses an isolation behind it that is somehow different from her own aloneness—not so much a longing for what has gone but a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of what might be.

Almost she turns back. She knows she will not be welcome, though, not now. The other woman’s defenses are all back up, the barriers impregnable.

Someday, Koda promises herself as she settles into the passenger seat of the elegant little car.

One day.
The plane sits on the apron waiting for them, its canopy up, its ladder down, underwings bristling with missiles. The winter sun gleams off its metal skin, running like liquid silver over the sleek length of the fuselage, striking off the extended wings and the double tail that rises above the afterburners like a pair of ancient banners. The squadron’s gunfighter bobcat is emblazoned in gold and black on both panels, together with the Base’s call letters. Like the fighters parked on the snow bound road the day she first met Maggie and her band of resisters, this machine of titanium and steel and lexan seems somehow alive, a beast of prey lost in time. A frisson that is half fear, half excitement runs along her spine. The warplane is freedom and feral grace, and unrestrained power. It calls to her spirit in the wolf tongue that is as much hers as human speech.

Something of her feelings must show on her face , because Maggie touches her lightly on the shoulder and says, “Oh, yeah. It gets to everybody first time.”

Koda turns to the pilot with a smile. “Even to you?”

“Especially to me. It’s never stopped getting to me.” Maggie’s eyes go soft the way they do in bed, and she says, “The first time I ever saw one of these beasts I wanted to run off into the woods with it and have its cubs.”

“Cubs?”

“Or chicks.” Maggie settles her helmet on her head and motions to the ground crew who have gathered in a sunny spot where the enormous bulk of a C-5 breaks the wind. “Whatever. It’s a primal urge kind of thing.”

The tech chief takes up his place at the foot of the ladder, while the others slip their protective earmuffs into place and the traffic director postions herself to guide the plane onto the runway. Maggie takes a moment to double-check Koda’s flight suit and helmet, adjusts the automatic pistol strapped under her arm. Apparently satisfied, the Colonel gives her a small push. “Up you go.”

The ladder only reaches halfway to the cockpit. From there, Koda finds the hand and foot holds built into the side of the plane and with an upward push maneuvers herself into the rear seat, ducking a little not to hit her helmeted head against the edge of the canopy. She fits into the confined space as if it had been molded to her. As she settles, she takes note of the bank of lights and switches and dials that occupy the control panel. The plane can be flown from her station, but ordinarily the second seat is occupied by the radar intercept officer, and two LED screens and other readouts take up most of the space in front of her. Maggie follows her up, and from her perch on the fixed portion of the wing supervises as Koda secures herself to the ejection seat and straps her oxygen mask into place. She points to a red-lighted button on the panel. “See that?”

Koda nods. The weight of the helmet carries her head forward; is not uncomfortable, exactly, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of a morning after.

“Good. That’s the ejection button. Don’t go anywhere near it unless I tell you to or you know for sure I’m dead or unconscious. Your chute should open automatically in that case, but if it doesn’t”—she reaches for a cord attached to the seat and drapes it over Koda’s shoulder”—”here’s your manual.”

Koda grins up at her. “The things normal flight attendants don’t tell you.”

Maggie snorts, an entire dissertation on commercial aviation in a single sound. She points to a couple toggles by the screens. “There’s your camera switch; I’ll tell you when to turn it on. That’s the zoom—you’ve probably heard that these babies can pick up the dimples on a golf ball. This one can pick up a flea sitting in the dimple of a golf ball. Anything interesting you see on either of these screens—moving blip on the radar, moving anything on the video–you pass it up to me with this. Capiche?”

“Got,” Koda answers.

“Good.” Maggie switches on her mike, gives her a pat on the shoulder and, with grace born of long practice, swings along the fuselage and up into her own seat in front. After a moment or two, Koda’s mike crackles. “You all right back there?”

“Fine.”

“Okay. Let’s take her up.”

As Maggie starts the engines, the Tomcat shudders and begins to vibrate, sending a tingle of excitement through Koda’s nerves. She has flown before and loves it, but has never before felt this sense of intimacy with the craft. Following the hand signals of the traffic director, the plane begins its taxi onto the runway, turning stately onto the long stretch of pavement, making for the northern end. Maggie’s voice comes through the speaker. “Watch your head. I’m putting the lid down.”

As the canopy descends, the plane makes its second turn to face south, into the wind. Maggie kicks the engines in full, and the plane shudders a second time with the force that, once in the air, will send it racing ahead of its own sound. For long moments the plane remains stationary, its power held in check. Then Maggie throws the throttle open, and the jet is streaking down the runway at a speed that presses Koda into her seat and takes her breath away. Her heart pounds against her sternum and shouts to be let out, blood running in her ears with the roar of the Colorado in spring flood. Between one breath and the next, it seems, she feels the nose come up and the lift of air beneath the wings, and they are airborne, climbing steeply into the clear, impossible blue of the afternoon. The ascent goes on and on, leveling out finally when the land beneath is no more than intricate swirls of brown and green and white, with the course of the occasional river cut into it like the trunk of a vast tree, its tributary streams forking off into branches and twigs.

The craft banks into a turn, and sun glints off the wing and the canopy in bursts like small stars gone nova. When they level off again, the wings sweep back close to the body of the plane, like a falcon stooping. All around her now is the open sky, and with it a sense of perfect freedom. There is only herself and the blue air and the wings that carry her.

This must be how it feels to be Wiyo.

The tang of oxygen flowing into her mask brings her out of her reverie, followed closely by Maggie’s voice. “Engage the camera and radar now. We’re going to make a sweep up the Cheyenne and then follow the Missouri into North Dakota..”

Koda thumbs the toggles and stares at the images that rise to her screen. She can make out the rectangular shapes of roofs, outlined in shadow, as they pass over the small villages that dot this part of the state. Beside them stand tall hardwoods, winter-naked, or evergreens with fans of needles spread against the unvarying snow. When she engages the zoom, antennas and chimneys stand out of the snow that blankets the roofs. Once she sees a pair of deer, or elk, perhaps, breaking their way through the snow that covers the main street of a small town. Abandoned cars and farm machinery form mounds in the spaces between the houses, anonymous under the snow.

“See anything?”

“Negative,” she responds. “Mostly snow, apparently abandoned homes, buried vehicles.”

“Hang on, then.”

With no more warning than that, Maggie flips the fighter over in a barrel roll. Koda gasps with surprise, then yells into her mike. “Do that again!”

Maggie rolls the plane twice more, then streaks out of the third flip upside down, with earth turned suddenly to sky and the blue depths of the sky below. Koda feels the adrenaline pouring into her blood, hitting her brain in a rush of pure physical pleasure. . Then they are rightside up again, and Maggie is laughing through the mike. “Liked that, did you?”

“Gods, yes!” she all but yells. “That was wonderful!”

“Okay. Tell me if this gets uncomfortable.”

The fighter begins to climb, straight up, corkscrewing. The ascent becomes a curve becomes a loop, and they are upside down again, sweeping into a descent that has left all sound behind except the low whisper of breath, and Maggie brings them out again into even flight for a space before the plane skims along its upward trajectory for the second time. The G-force holds Koda motionless, back pressed into her cushions, the whole force of their speed against her solar plexus. The sensation rides the thin line between pain and pleasure , pleasure and sensory overload. Then they are plunging down from the sky to skim no more than three or four meters above the snow along a thin flat stretch or road, only to climb again at an impossibly steep angle, reaching toward the edge of the envelope of air that is the first frontier between earth and space. When Maggie levels off again, five miles up, Koda’s breath comes in little gasps and her rational mind has gone AWOL. When a thought finally forces its way upward from the part of her brain that is still functioning, it is sex. It feels like sex. Her blood sings in her veins, her sated muscles hum. I want to have its babies, too. Hatch its eggs. Whatever.

The sensation fades gradually over the next half hour as they quarter the landscape beneath them. Maggie flies a straight-line grid pattern over the ruins that were once population centers, but they can detect no gathering of humans or droids, no movement that is not solitary. Roads have become largely impassible and look fit to remain so till spring thaw. Many will still be blocked then, by storm-felled trees or the tangled remains of accidents. They have been flying for a little more than two hours when Koda picks up a line of—something-–moving on the highway leading south from Bismarck.. She zooms in on it, tweaking the fine focus. “Maggie. Have a look.”

She transfers the image to the pilot’s readout, but she knows already what she sees. It is a column of troops, some droid, some apparently human, preceded by a coterie of snowplows and followed by a contingent of armor. There are personnel carriers, several tanks, a dozen flatbed trucks loaded with something long and rectangular. Construction materials? She tweaks the image again, and the cargo comes into focus. Mobile missile launchers.

“This,” Maggie says dryly, “is not good. I’m gonna take ’em out here and now. Hang onto your hat.”

Maggie kicks in the afterburners, and the Tomcat comes streaking down out of the sky with the sun behind it. Half a mile above the column, she releases a long stick of precision-guided five-hundred pounders, laying them down with mathematical exactitude in the center of the long column, spaced precisely to destroy everything on the road. The explosions are muffled by distance and the roar of the jet’s engines. On the video screen, Koda watches as the mobile launcher swivels on its truckbed to get them in its sights. A puff of smoke in the frigid air, and a long, lean shape rises toward them. Maggie has already seen it; even as Koda forwards the image to the pilot, she feels a faint thump as a Sparrow missile leaves its roost on the plane’s flank and streaks to intercept the enemy fire. The kill is almost instant, a burst of flame and vapor in the cold air. The plane swerves wildly as a second ground-to-air missile passes by without harm, a clean miss.

There is no third try. Maggie turns to makes her second bombing run, and when she slows for the final pass to check and record results, nothing moves along the road at all.

“And that,” she says quietly, “is the end of that.”

The flight back to Ellsworth is swift and straight. When the Tomcat comes once again to rest by its hanger, Koda finds, like a child at the carnival, that she does not want the afternoon to be over. As she climbs down the ladder, she runs her hand over the plane’s sleek skin, all cool steel and titanium belying the fire within.

“In love, are you?” Maggie smiles at her, unstrapping her helmet and tucking it under her arm.

“A little,” she admits. She feels the silly grin spread across her face, and can do nothing to stop it. ‘When can we do it again?”

At that, Maggie laughs outright. “You know, I really do wish I could have gotten my hands on you ten years ago. You’d have made one hell of a pilot. You got the tape?”

Koda hands the Colonel the small cassette with the record of their engagement. It is the first indication they have that humans are collaborating with the droids. It is also the first evidence of large-scale droid movements since the uprising. Serious matters both, and they are on their way to the General with their report without bothering to change their flight suits.

But sheer joy runs in Koda’s veins and will not be denied. “You’d have been a hell of a teacher. But don’t you think one Rivers in your squadron is enough?”

It is a rare warm—if temperatures in the single digits can be considered warm—winter’s morning, and Dakota drives along the snow-packed roads with her window rolled halfway down and her gloved hand curled around the door’s support, long fingers splayed against the roof. She’s humming softly to herself; a song heard, and remembered, from long ago. One of Tali’s favorites, if she recalls correctly.

The truck rattles and buzzes and screeches, but she pays it no mind as her fingers tap out the rhythm of her humming on the salt-dusty roof. Nor does she pay special heed to the scent, old coffee, old sweat, and something high and sour and rank that she doesn’t even want to identify, that emanates from the truck’s interior.

She’s soaring high, caught up in the exhilarating memories of flying with Maggie the day before. The sense of unbounded, heady freedom was something she had only felt during her dream journeys; journeys always taken in a form other than human. The incandescent rush is with her still, and she wraps it around her like a blanket, feeling very much as she did the when she first kissed Tali, behind the stables in the moonlight.

“Kiss? Hell,” she snorts into the truck’s warm cab. “It felt closer to what we did on our wedding night! Jesus.” A pleasant shiver skitters down the length of her spine, and her limbs break out in temporary gooseflesh.

“Ok,” she intones as her inattention to detail almost runs her off the road, “that’s quite enough of that. Mind on the road, Rivers, and outta your pants, if you please.”

Looking up into the pristine winter sky, she sees a large flock of birds pacing her truck. The flock is suddenly split almost directly down the middle, and wheels off to the left and to the right as another airborne object dives down through the vacated space like a star falling from the heavens.

Koda’s face splits into a grin as the dive bomber levels out and casts its shadow along the unbroken snow just to the right of her truck. “Welcome back, old friend.”

As if hearing her, Wiyo’s call pierces the silence of the still morning as the red-tail glides on currents of air, shadowing Dakota’s return to the place of her birth.

Still grinning, she turns left over the cattle-guard that marks the entrance to her parents’ property and starts down the long, snow covered and ruler-straight road that will lead her to the family compound. She is being watched, she knows, by creatures human and non, but she senses no danger from the watching, and so continues on, still humming.

Off in the distance, to her left, she sees a white mist rising. It’s either a vehicle moving in her direction, or….

“Ah,” Koda says, laughing as the mist resolves itself into something easily recognizable. Her laughter is rich and full-bodied, breathing life into the woman she had once been and might yet be again.

The herd moves closer, with Wakinyan Lutah, her huge blood bay stallion, leading them. His black mane flutters like a war banner as he approaches the fence and rears, slashing forefeet pawing at the air, clots of snow flinging from his well-shod hooves.

Her laugh is that of a young girl; boundless, full of life, and joy. Pulling over to the side of the road, she jumps out of the truck before it has come to a complete stop, striding across the road even as the heavy beating of air above her head almost knocks her hat off.

Wiyo lands on the top rung of the fence and proceeds to strut across it and back, like a miniature general before a platoon.

Wakinyan Lutah rears again, slashing hooves coming perilously close to the red-tail. Wiyo stares at him, completely unperturbed, and settles her wings more comfortably over her back before resuming her walk along the fence.

“C’mere ya big baby,” Koda says, rolling her eyes and holding her hand out over the fence.

Nervously eyeing the red-tail (Dakota believes she can see the proud gleam in Wiyo’s eye even from where she’s standing), the stallion sidesteps closer to the fence until he is able to nudge Koda’s hand with his nose, whuffling a great, warm breath into her palm.

“Hey, boy,” Koda says fondly, rubbing his nose and that spot between his ears that has him all but groaning in ecstasy. His coat is winter thick and gleams in the winter sunlight like freshly spilled blood. The comparison causes Dakota to wince and swallow hard as it dredges up memories best left buried until she has time to dissect them.

After a moment, Wakinyan backs up and tosses his head in an unmistakable invitation.

When Dakota doesn’t respond to his satisfaction, he whickers, tosses his great head again, and paws at the snow, digging deep ruts into the frozen ground beneath. Breath streams from his nose in foggy jets.

Unhappy with the sudden wind that ruffles her feathers, Wiyo hops onto Koda’s forearm, then sidesteps up to her shoulder and expresses her displeasure with a loud hiss. These two are rivals of old, and Koda can’t help but chuckle at their long familiar, and much beloved, antics.

After the stallion gives a final call, Koda shakes her head and sighs. “Oh, alright,” she says, sounding more aggrieved than she really is. After taking one last look over her shoulder at the truck parked by the side of the road, she hitches in a breath and vaults over the fence, dislodging the red-tail, who hisses again and beats at the air with her huge wings, taking low flight.

“Ready, goober?”

Wakinyan nods his head, shaking out his mane.

“Alright, then.”

Another deep breath, and she vaults aboard the stallion’s broad, muscular back, threading her fingers firmly in his mane. A light touch of her heels to his flank, and he wheels, and takes off, flying across the snow-packed ground, the herd following close behind.

Dakota whoops with pleasure. Her hair, exactly matching the color of her horse’s mane, streams behind her in inky waves, her eyes flash, and her full, perfect lips split in a wide, take-no-prisoners grin. Her spirit soars as the land passes beneath her in a blur of white on white, and she feels a sense of connectedness that has been absent for a long, long time.

She is wild.

She is free.

She is home.

With a grunt of frustration, Kirsten wrings the glasses from her face and tosses them on the battle-scarred desk upon which her computer rests. Hours upon hours upon hours of searching and nothing worth a fart in a windstorm to show for it.

Leaning back in her chair, she rubs a numb hand over weary eyes, then looks down at Asi, who lifts his head and thumps his tail in a canine hello. The house is quiet, almost sterile in a way that only military housing can sometimes be. Outside the window, the afternoon is crisp, clear, and blessedly sunny. Looking upon the colorful parade of passers by, she once again feels that unwanted but familiar sense of dispossession and dislocation. On the outside looking in. Again.

It doesn’t have to be that way, Little K. Her father’s voice intrudes into her thoughts, frustrating her with its always maddening logic. Nothing’s keeping you locked inside. Nothing except you.

“Shut up, Dad,” she mutters, pinching the bridge of her nose where a headache threatens to erupt. “Just…shut up. Please.”

She realizes that that little internal thought masquerading as her father’s voice might have a point, though. Perhaps some fresh air would do her good, a distraction that might help her subconscious continue to unravel the mystery of the code on its own with no further help from her.

“Worth a shot, anyway,” she comments to the bare walls surrounding her. They, as is their lot, stare back mutely, neither condemning nor condoning.

Rising to her feet, she steps from the room and into the short hallway. Quite without meaning to, she finds her glance drawn into the open portal of the master bedroom. There, draped across the comforter, lays the Colonel’s robe, and casually draped across that is the very shirt Kirsten had seen Dakota wear the day before.

The simple, careless, wholly domestic intimacy of the vision twists something deep inside, and although she’s completely unaware of the sneer that twists her features, a mirror would tell her that it is, in fact, there.

We’re not going there. Not even partway. She deliberately turns her attention away. Air. That’s what you need. Fresh air, and sunshine, and…damn! Tears sting her eyes, liquid accusations that she rubs away with a savage forearm, denying all they might stand for.

“Let’s go, Asi. Time for a walk.”

Asi streaks by her like a bullet, dancing and panting at the doorway as his favorite word is spoken. His antics draw a reluctant chuckle from Kirsten, and, with the sense almost of taking a dare, she grabs one of Dakota’s jackets from its post on the coat-rack. Lighter than heavy, military-issue parka she had been wearing, it also brings with it a sense of…comfort? The scent of the woman who had previously worn it permeates the cloth, and Kirsten wraps it around her in a moment of pure—and exceedingly rare—self indulgence.

Asimov’s impatient whine draws her from this reverie, and she quickly twists the doorknob. Asi bolts out before the door is more than partly opened, barking and kicking up huge fans of snow in a burst of wholly canine energy.

Kirsten follows behind at a more leisurely pace, accepting and returning smiles and nods from the soldiers and civilians passing by. Without thought, she allows her feet to take her where they will. Asimov, his burst of hyperactivity quelled for the moment, returns to her and follows along, glued to her heel.

As she walks, her gaze darts here and there, capturing isolated images that fit, like puzzle pieces, into a greater tableau.

A group of soldiers, armed to the teeth, drilling in precision step.

A small group of children—far too small, now—preparing for a battle of their own, with snowballs and snowforts instead of bullets and battlements.

Uniformed young men, bearing the scars of an undeclared war, limping along shoveled paths.

Civilian-clad young women, bearing the scars of the same undeclared war, shuffling along those same paths, their gazes lost and frightened and alone.

Others, seemingly unaffected, pass quickly by, laughing and joking with friends newly met. Kirsten yearns to scream at them, to tell them to stop, to have respect for the hurt and the grieving and the dead. The dead, who are now no more than mounds of slowly melting snow, watched over by an honor guard and a tattered flag.

Holding back her anger by the barest of frayed threads, she continues her walk past row upon row of military housing. The faces that stare back at her through heavy glass tell tales of their own, and for the first time, she feels a sense of kinship with these people, these strangers, these survivors of a war none had asked for and all had suffered through.

Another first—she admits, even if only in the tiniest corner of her heart, that perhaps it has been her own pride that has fueled her anger and frustration. Perhaps it is her own savage joy at being proven right all along, and her need to stand upon those unoffered laurels, and in so standing, further prove herself savior of this newly begotten world that has alienated her from the very people she is trying to save.

It’s not that her pride, her need to point her finger into the face of humanity and shout “I told you so!”, is a deliberate attempt to prolong suffering as a form of payback for the laughter that’s followed her these last years. No, nothing so vile as that.

But still….

Most of her turns its internal back on these newfound revelations in a sort of primative self-defense mechanism. Self-blame is an emotion this world can ill-afford.

But still….

Resolving to think on this later, she abruptly turns and begins the trek back to her temporary home, her agile mind already returning to the problem of the code, the code, that damnable code.

Grunting softly, Koda lowers her weary body onto the top support of the corral fence, hooking one leg behind the middle support and resting gloved hands against thighs tense and more than a bit sore. The warm spell has continued, making spring a promise instead of a fantasy dreamt only by poets. Stripped of her heavy jacket, she sits at ease in a down-filled vest, flannel shirt, and jeans. Well-sprung cowboy boots are clotted with mud and snow and muck and will need to come off before she gets within shouting distance to the family home. She smiles, all but hearing her mother’s warning tones.

To the west, the sun is preparing to set beyond winter-bare trees. The sky is a riot of color and the clouds are gilded with rose and purple and gold.

It is a peaceful time that appeals to her need for solitude.

For the past three days she has been immersed in the concerns and troubles of her immediate family and neighbors. Her family’s huge ranch has become a haven for the dispossessed. Orphans, widows, widowers, and the occasional full family unit now take up residence on the three thousand acre spread. The house and all its outbuildings are jammed with grieving people, each with a story to tell. Koda believes she’s heard them all, most more than once. A new oral tradition is forming, a history kept in the mind and on the tongue, like the history of old. Her oldest sister, Virginia, has already set several of the stories to song as a way of remembering. It is the way of their people, a way of making sure that these stories are never forgotten.

For the past seventy two hours, her mother has stuck to her as if glued, finding reasons to touch her, to hug her, to simply look at her through deep, fathomless eyes.

“The prodigal daughter returneth home,” Koda says softly, a wry laugh escaping into the slight breeze.

An answering cry sounds from overhead, and bare moments later, Wiyo lands on the fence next to her, settles her feathers, and looks up at her, head cocked inquisitively.

“Good hunting?” Koda asks, grinning at her friend.

Wiyo sidles closer until they are touching, then settles and begins to preen. Dakota feels tears sting her eyes at the simple, and sacred, beauty of the moment. It is something she will profoundly miss when she leaves again, quite probably for the last time.

Blinking those tears away, she looks back at the setting sun, and all that surrounds her. This is her home, the place where her soul knows its only peace. And yet, to be who she must, to become who she will, she must leave both it and the peace it offers behind.

She senses the presence behind her a split second before a light touch descends on her shoulder.

“Han, thiblo.”

A deep laugh sounds behind her as Tacoma moves to the fence. “Those eyes in the back of your head have grown larger, I see. Hau, tanski. Hau, Wiyo.”

The redtail cocks a disinterested eye toward the large man before returning to her preening.

“Beautiful evening,” Tacoma remarks, leaning forward to rest his forearms against the top rail.

“That it is,” Koda agrees. With the sound of thunder, the herd comes over the ridge and runs by, Wakinyan leading them. The herd’s size has nearly doubled in the weeks Koda has been away, and she looks on, impressed. “He covering them all?”

“Oh yeah. He’s gonna be one happy boy come spring.”

Koda shoots him a look before returning her attention to the setting sun.

The two sit in companionable silence until the sun disappears behind the horizon and twilight descends, bringing with it a soft peace of its own.

Finally, Tacoma speaks. “I’m coming with you, you know.”

Shifting on the fence rail, Koda looks down at her brother. “What?”

“When you leave. I figure that’s gonna be either tomorrow or the day after. I recognize the signs.”

“What signs?!”

Tacoma grins, a touch smugly. “How long have I known you? You’re as restless as a cougar in heat, tanski. You love this.” A large hand splays, indicating the ranch. “But your soul is calling you elsewhere.”

Koda dips her head, a touch embarrassed at being so easily read. Tacoma chuckles softly, soothing her with a light touch to her broad back.

“You always were a wandering spirit,” he continues, tone reflective. “It surprised the hell out of me when you bought the ranch down the road and settled in.”

“Tali,” Koda answers, her own voice quiet as her brother’s. “She was happy here. And I…a big part of me was too.” A pause, then softer still, “Still is.”

“But that other part, it’s gotten bigger, hasn’t it.”

Koda nods.

“You’ve changed, tanski.” Tacoma holds up a hand. “No, no, not in a bad way. It’s just….” He sighs, trying to put his thoughts into words. “Ina always said that you were born winyan.”

Dakota turns wide eyes to him, and he laughs.

“No, not to your face. You got into far too much mischief for her to ever let you know that out loud. But she’s always been proud of you. Ate too. And you know the younger ones worship you. Hell, even I do.”

Feeling a hot blush coming on, Koda turns away, glad for the evening breeze which has sprung up with the setting of the sun. It cools her skin, but does nothing for the rapid beat of her heart.

Caught up in his own thoughts, Tacoma doesn’t notice—or has the sense, at least, to pretend he hasn’t. “As I said, you were always self-possessed and mature, even when you were a wild child.” He laughs, remembering. “Which was most of the time. But now…now you have… wakhan. I can feel it coming off of you, even when you’re sitting still, like now. It’s just….” Head lowered, he sighs again. “I wish I had better words to explain.”

“I’ve experienced many things in these past weeks,” Koda replies, still looking to the horizon.

“I’ve heard the stories. Though I assume you edited them for Ina and Ate. Ina especially.”

Koda turns finally to look at him. “Wouldn’t you?”

The two siblings share a quiet laugh.

Dakota sobers. “There’s a great battle coming, thiblo. I can feel it here.” She pounds her thigh. “In my bones.”

“Not here.” Tacoma indicates the ranch again.

“No. This place is safe enough. For now at least.”

“Ellsworth, then?”

“I believe so. I don’t know how I know, I just know that I do.”

“Which is why I’m coming with you.”

Koda rounds on him again. “No, Tacoma. You can’t. You need….”

“To stay here?” His voice is strong, steady, and brooks no contention. “You yourself just admitted that this place is safe.”

“For now, I said.”

“For now,” he concedes. “But it’s as well guarded as any army camp, Dakota. You’ve seen it with your own eyes. We’ve got enough weapons and ammunition to last us for years, if need be, and everyone on this ranch, from the youngest on up, knows how to use them.”

“But….”

“No buts. I am Tacoma Rivers, Staff Sergeant in the US Army. I am a Lakota warrior. I can no more stand by than you can. If there is to be a battle, I mean to be there.”

“Ina will never let that happen.”

“Ina doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I am wichasha. I run my own life, and rule my own destiny.”

“And cower like a hokshila when Ina shoots one look at you,” Koda replies, smirking.

Tacoma can’t help but laugh, knowing his sister’s words for truth. Their mother runs the house with an iron fist, and no one dares deny her reign, not even her husband.

“I need to do this, Dakota,” he says finally. “No matter what, I need to do this.”

Taking her brother’s hand in hers, she gives it a firm squeeze, and looks deep into his eyes. “I know.”

Falling silent again, both turn to the sliver of the moon as it rises over the skeletons of trees as old as time.

“No. You won’t go. I forbid it.”

“Ina.”

“Mother.”

“No. This discussion is finished. Now leave me, both of you. I have dinner to prepare.”

Stepping away from the juggernaut who is their mother, Tacoma shoots a pleading look to Koda, who rolls her eyes and steps forward, careful not to touch. “Ina, please.”

Themungha whirls, eyes fierce and filled with tears she won’t allow to fall. “I told you to leave me be, Dakota.”

“I can’t do that, Mother. I won’t do that.”

“Who is winyan here?” she demands, her brow like thunderheads amassing before a storm.

“We both are.” Her eyes soften. “Please, Ina. We need to talk about this.”

Sighing, Themungha looks at her daughter, then past her to where several not-quite familiar faces stare back with varying degrees of discomfiture. “Go on with you!” she demands, scowling and flapping her arm at them. “I’ll let you know when the meal has been prepared.”

The small group scatters like startled quail, leaving only mother, daughter, and son behind.

“Start talking.” Arms folded across her chest, Themungha is a formidable sight. Tacoma swallows hard, but Dakota refuses to be cowed.

“I’ll talk only when you are ready to listen to my words, Ina.”

The thunderheads reappear, then scatter. Proud neck unbent, Themungha nevertheless lets her daughter know by her body language that she’s ready to listen.

“The danger. It isn’t over, Ina.”

“All the more reason you are needed here, Dakota. To protect your thihawe. There is no greater need than that.”

“Our family is protected, Ina. I have seen it. I have spoken with our neighbors, the men and women and children who have come to live here. They will protect this place, and everyone in it, with their lives.”

Themungha’s voice carries with it deep, biting sarcasm. “Oh, and you are demanding that they do what you will not?”

“I demand nothing from them, Ina. They do what they do of their own free will. As I do. As Tacoma does.”

“And that is supposed to make me feel better?” her mother shouts, all but shaking the rafters. “That they will stay and fight, and you will run?”

“I’m not running, Mother. You know this.”

“All I know is what I see. You are leaving us to defend ourselves while you go who knows where and take my oldest son with you.”

Tacoma steps in, his voice even, but firm. “I would go with or without Dakota, Mother.”

Themungha turns to her son, tears finally spilling over onto her rounded cheeks. “Takuwe?”

“Because I am needed.”

“You are needed here!”

Tacoma shakes his head, saddened by his mother’s tone, yet resolute. “I am needed there more.”

Themungha turns away, her face and almost ugly in its anger. “Let the washichun take care of himself.”

“Ina!” Tacoma gasps.

She rounds on them both. “It’s true!” she shouts again. “Where were they when our land was stripped from us? Where were they when our women were raped and our men were slaughtered like sheep? Where?!?”

“Not even born,” Dakota replies, her voice flat and devoid of any emotion. Tacoma stares on, shocked at his mother’s sudden bigotry.

“Oh?” Themungha retorts. “And I suppose it was ghosts who sent you home battered and bloody from school? It was ghosts who spat in your face when you walked into town? Who called you names that took the light out of your eyes and put a stone mask on your face instead? Was it, chunkshi?”

“You know it wasn’t, Ina.”

With a savage nod of her head, Themungha puts her hands on ample hips and stares at them both, obviously believing the matter decided to her satisfaction.

“Mother,” Dakota begins softly. “You raised me to be the woman I am. A woman who will fight for what is right, and just, and good. There are thousands of innocent women and children trapped in prisons all over this country. Thousands more wander, lost and alone, and in fear for their lives. If I turn my back on them because they are not Lakota, I am no better than the people who beat and spit on me because I am.” Lowering her head just slightly, she levels her gaze into her mother’s bottomless eyes. “Is that the woman you raised me to become?”

She sighs when there is no answer.

“If so, then I’m sorry I failed you, Ina.” Turning to Tacoma, she says, “I’ll be leaving at sunrise. With you or without you.”

“I’ll be there,” Tacoma replies.

After a last, long look at their mother, brother and sister turn away and leave the room.

When they are gone, Themunga’s face crumples. Her body shakes with sobs finally released. A soft tread heralds the entrance of Wanbli Wakpa, who approaches his wife and wraps her tenderly in his massive arms. Stroking her hair, he comforts her as best he can, knowing it can never be enough.
CHAPTER TWELVE
The light from the setting moon shines into the window as Koda wakens and slips out of the too-narrow, too-short bed. Placing her stockinged feed carefully on the floor, she uses the moon’s light and her own uncanny hearing to determine the positions of her two youngest brothers, snoring softly on the floor directly ahead. Housing space being pinched as it is, Phoenix and Washington now share this room, and both had spent the better part of the evening before begging and cajoling their eldest sister to spend her last night at home with them. It took even longer for her to finally give up and agree to use the one bed they both shared, which had, as she’d predicted, made for a mostly sleepless night for her.

Straightening, she suppresses a groan as her stiffened and cramped muscles protest the abrupt change in position. She arches, hearing her spine crack along its length, then freezes as one of her brothers—Phoenix, she thinks—snuffles at the disturbance, turns, and falls back into a deep sleep.

Think I’m gonna need a Maggie Allen special when I get back.

The tiny smirk slides from her face as she realizes that this is the first time she has thought of Maggie in three days.

On the other hand, at odd times during those same days, she’s found thoughts of the scientist, Kirsten King, sliding effortlessly into her mind. Random thoughts, really, nothing very specific. That they’re there at all is somewhat of a surprise to her, however. Surely she has better things to think about than how that radiant smile had transformed the young woman into someone beyond beautiful, or how her eyes sparkled like clear-cut emeralds. Or even how her hair, so reminiscent of the summer sun, might feel to her fingers.

Jesus, Dakota. You already have a woman who shares part of her life, and her bed, with you. Who respects you and cares for you. Why the interest in an arrogant, overbearing, closed minded, closed mouthed scientist who has about as much warmth as a North Dakota winter?

Because, another voice, still her own, tells her, she’s not like that. Not deep inside, where it counts.

Knowing that this internal conflict isn’t something she’s going to resolve any time soon, she pads silently to the window and takes a quick look outside. The fading night is clear as crystal, though she can tell by simply feeling the glass that the warm spell has continued to hold. Traveling should be good.

Turning away from the window, she looks down upon her sleeping brothers. Both sleep like the dead, and the picture clenches a fist in her heart. For the first time, she wonders if leaving is truly the right thing to do. The image of Phoenix, thirteen, and Washington, barely eleven, clutching rifles too big for them and falling silent beneath a hail of android ammunition causes her belly to roil and her palms to become slick with clammy sweat.

Suddenly, the room seems too cramped, and a primitive part of her considers panic. The door slips open and Tacoma comes partway through, a look of concern on his face. The siblings’ eyes meet, and Koda immediately finds herself begin to calm. Releasing a slow breath, she holds up one finger. Tacoma nods and steps back out of the room, leaving the door the tiniest crack open.

Looking down once again, she tries to memorize the shape of their faces, knowing all the while that should she ever see them again, they will have become men instead of the boys who sleep so peacefully before her. Will I even recognize you? Or will you have become strangers to me, merely another face passing by in my life? She wipes a tear from her eye. Please, never let that happen. Please.

Squatting down, she kisses the tips of her fingers, then brushes them lightly against the downy cheeks of her brothers. “I love you,” she whispers. “Never forget that. Never.”

Coming again to her feet, she pads silently to the door before turning and giving them both one last, lingering look. Then, eyes full, she opens the door and steps through, closing it quietly behind her.

Tacoma meets her in the hallway and slings a gentle arm around her shoulders. “You okay?” he whispers.

Nodding, she gives him a half-smile. “You should have been a shaman.”

He laughs softly. “Remember what I told you, tanski. Wakan Tanka had a little mix-up with the two of us. He gave me the warrior vision and you the shaman vision, and we’re stuck walking these paths.”

“Not always,” she replies, threading an arm around his waist as they start down the long, dark hall. “Not always.”

They meet up with a shadowed figure who steps out of his room and stands before them.

“Hey, Houston,” Koda whispers, giving him a poke to his thick chest. At sixteen, he stands on the cusp of manhood, and is already showing the stamp of the handsome, rugged man he will shortly become.

“Hau, Koda. Hau Tacoma.”

“You remember what I told you, right? If you get even the faintest whiff of trouble, you SOS Ellsworth and there’ll be a squadron of Tomcats here so fast you won’t be able to sneeze.”

“Yeah, I remember. I’ll keep an eye out, don’t worry.”

“Alright, then.”

“So…I guess this is it, huh? Do you….” He falters for a moment, then regains himself. “Will you come back?”

Reaching out, she places a hand on her younger brother’s shoulder, squeezing it. “I will. When this is over, I will. I promise.”

Nodding, he swallows hard, fighting tears they all know are a hairsbreadth from wanting to fall. “We’ll all hold you to that, you know. Both of you.”

“We’ll be back, little bro,” Tacoma remarks, slapping Houston’s side. “Count on it.”

With a final nod, he steps aside, then joins them as they continue their walk down the hallway.

They enter the brightly lit kitchen, then stop in surprise. Themungha stands with her back to them, stuffing the last of some frybread wrapped in wax paper into a large cloth sack. Dusting her hands on the apron she wears, she turns to her children. Her eyes are circled by sooty smudges, betraying a lack of sleep, and her face is set like stone. But she shows them none of her previous anger as she lifts the sack from the counter and hands it to Dakota. “Food. For your journey. Eat it before it gets cold.”

Dakota takes the sack, looking at her mother. “Ina, I….”

“No. No more words. They’ve all been said. Now go. Both of you.”

Handing the sack to Tacoma, Dakota steps boldly forward and wraps her arms tight around Themungha’s still, stiff form. “I love you, Ina,” she whispers into one warm ear. “I will always love you.”

After a moment, Themungha softens, returns the hug, then grabs Koda’s face and covers it with small kisses. “I love you, chunkshi. With all my heart.” Releasing her daughter, she steps back. “Be safe. Come home.”

“I will.” It is as solemn a vow as she knows how to give. Without bothering to wipe the tears from her eyes, she turns, grabs the sack from Tacoma’s limp hand, and leaves.

Five minutes later, Tacoma joins her in the truck, tears of his own rolling slowly down his cheeks. Their father stands outside of the driver’s window, bending down to look inside. “Safe journeys to you both. Fight with honor, and come home to us.”

“We will, Ate,” Tacoma replies.

With a nod, Wanbli Wakpa steps away. Koda starts the truck, and pulls out of the long drive, straining to see through tear-trebled vision. “Let’s get outta here.”

Kirsten’s fingers dance lightly over the keyboard, calling up string after string of data, highlighting, selecting, discarding. She has spent sixteen hours a day at the same since she signed herself out of the Base hospital “against the advice of the attending physician” as the CYA-against-torts form so politely phrased it. Sixteen hours a day of searching—no, she amends, excavating—this damned alphanumeric midden of junk code, and she has found not one damned thing to give her a clue to shutting down the damned motherfucking droids.

The gentle Methodist minister of her childhood had taught, counter to orthodoxy, that the infinite love of God precluded the existence of hell. Kirsten was one ahead of him there, believing for most of her life that the hellish existence of a large percentage of the globe’s population precluded both the reality and the mercy of God in any measure. Which was a shame, she thinks, because at this moment she would cheerfully spend eternity in the cosmic barbecue pit for the privilege of spitting and roasting the military idiot who had ordered the strike on Minot. With a small sound of disgust, Kirsten saves the mile-long strip of useless code, pops the disc and inserts another. Just in case there’s something there that may prove useful later.

Fat chance of that. Twice nothing is still bloody damn nothing.

From his place under the table, Asi whines, lifting his head to peer at her as she bends over her work at the kitchen table. Absently she reaches down to scratch his ears, and, satisfied that she is well, he subsides again into his sleep. Even with Asi within arm’s reach, the house seems strangely empty. And that, Kirsten reflects, is strange in itself. She has always preferred her own company and her dog’s. Asimov now, Flandry before him, Altair earlier still.

Kirsten has been made at home in what was originally the second bedroom of the house, more recently Colonel Allen’s music-cum-tv room-cum library. The Colonel herself is presently out on one of the reconnaissance missions that have become more and more frequent in the last few days. Even though the Base housing is comfortably away from the flight line, the takeoff noise of a supersonic fighter jet is hard to miss, and she has noted the increasing number of flights and landings, especially at night. The Lakota woman—Dakota, some deep part of her reminds, she asked you to call her Dakota, remember?– has also gone missing, haring off to see her family according to the Colonel. Dutifully, Kirsten tries to be glad that someone still has a family to go home to.

Still the abrupt departure feels oddly like a slight.

And if that isn’t the silliest thought you’ve had in six months, she scolds herself. You don’t really miss either of them. It’s just a matter of having gotten used to having another human or two about. Any human. Habit, that’s all.

And if she keeps telling herself that enough times, maybe she’ll actually start believing it.

“And won’t that be a joy for all mankind?” She snorts softly. “God, Kirsten. You’re pathetic. Did anyone ever tell you that? Just pathetic.”

With a somewhat dramatic shake of her head, she returns her attention to the scrolling alphanumerics on her screen. Nothing. Nothing. More nothing.

Abruptly she pushes her chair away from the table, crosses the room to the coffee maker and sets a fresh pot to brew. The tile floor is cool under her booted and double-socked feet, despite the central heating. As the coffee maker gurgles and hisses, she leans her back against the edge of the counter and scrubs at her eyes with both hands. Even with her glasses, the endless strings of numbers are starting to blur and run together on the screen as well as in her mind.

There has to be some other way to do this besides just going through the columns of numbers and letters. It is not just that visual searches could run on into the next Ice Age at the rate she’s going. It’s that she might actually find, and miss, what she’s looking for in her state of fatigue. If this were Star Trek or Time Enough for Love or any other of her childhood favorites, she would simply ask the computer to find the shutdown code, and the computer would produce it. Given that that’s not going to happen here—let’s try going at it from the other end. Weed out everything that’s not a vital command.

Cup in hand, she sets to work again, sorting out anything that does not fit the parameters of a basic command. It is not quite as simple as it sounds, and she spends the next hour selecting and downloading material that may be useful at some point but is little more than digital garbage now.

Two hours later, she is left with half a dozen files. Of those half dozen, three are passworded, and one is passworded and encrypted.

Yes! She waggles her aching fingers at the screen. Think you’re a match for the Orange County Hacker, do you? Prepare to meet your doom!

Orange County Hacker? Doom? Christ, she thinks, I am terminally punch drunk.

The passwords are moderately difficult to break, but she has them down within half an hour. The encryption key takes longer, but by the time the sun has slipped halfway down the afternoon sky, she has it, too. She hits the Apply button and holds her breath.

The commands scroll down the screen, endless columns of alphanumerics. Somewhere in them, if she is lucky—if the whole human race is lucky—is the code that will shut down the droids and allow the survivors to return the world to something close to normal. It will never be what it was; she knows that. The simple fact that women now outnumber men by perhaps a hundred to one or even more—maybe a thousand to one—will change the way the world goes about its business. Power will be defined differently; used differently. With her heart in her throat, Kirsten retrieves the saved code that shut down the prisoner droid and nearly killed her. She clicks on Find similar and waits, her forehead pressed against her clenched hands.

Please god, any god, all gods, whatever. Let this work.

When she looks up at the screen again, there is a match. Her hands shaking, she watches the symbols stream across the screen, matching her search criterion letter for letter, digit for digit. Then they begin to change: a related command, but different.

Yes. Yes! A small, cautious voice in the back of her mind warns her that this may not be what she is searching for, but she refuses to believe it. The information flows steadily, varying from the prototype command here, identical there. Abruptly it stops.

Kirsten runs the match again, and again the code plays out before reaching the end of the command. Incomplete. Kirsten runs it a third time. Still incomplete. A fourth time. Nothing is different. She has part of the code, no more. She lowers her forehead to her clenched hands again, and silent, bitter tears slip down her cheeks.

After a time, she raises her eyes and turns off the computer. If she does not have the complete code, she has at least a part of it and can perhaps build on that when her mind is rested. She is realist enough to know that she can accomplish nothing of worth in her present state of exhaustion. Rising, she takes her jacket from the row of hooks by the back door and whistles Asi to her side. He all but knocks her down, jostling her against the door frame, as he bounds out onto the carport and down the snow-powdered street, turning to wait for her half a block away, tongue lolling, breath clouding in the frosty air.

Angry at her failure and at herself, refusing to think, Kirsten allows Asimov to choose their itinerary. He leads her through the half-derelict housing section, where vehicles that have not moved since the day of the uprising remain shrouded in snow and abandoned homes stand open to the elements. There has been no time to set them to rights or to reclaim what might be salvaged. No time, and no people. Those that are left have more immediate concerns.

At the end of a cul-de-sac, Asi veers away from the residential area into a strip of woodland growing on the banks of a long, narrow pond. The water, frozen now, gleams in the low sun with swirls of gold and crimson . Fire, Kirsten thinks. Fire in the lake.

Sudden overthrow. Revolution.

As omens go, it is a bit belated.

And no damned use in any case.

Asimov dances ahead of her, running a short distance, turning, barking, running again. Glad to be free of the confines of the house, clearly wanting to play. Too well trained to ignore him, Kirsten picks up a fallen limb a yard long and breaks it over her knee into shorter segments. “Asi!” she calls, “Fetch!”

She pitches the stick ahead of them some fifteen feet, and Asi bounds through the snow after it, for all the world as if it mattered to him. He returns, grinning around the piece of branch, and drops it at her feet, looking up at her expectantly. She picks it up again and feints a throw. He wheels to run but stops in his tracks when she fails to release the stick, looking back at her reproachfully. Twice more she pulls her throw, then sends the improvised toy sailing ahead through the bare trees.

Asi follows like a shot, sailing over the small rise that may be only a drift or a may be a massive tree root under the snow and racing down the long line of naked sycamores that mark the edge of the water in warmer seasons. Kirsten slogs after him, clambering over the hump that does indeed feel like ancient, twisted wood beneath her feet. It is knobbed and knotted with age, and it takes all her attention to keep her balance as she climbs cautiously up and over to the other side, stumbling slightly when her foot catches on a protrusion near the ground. She flings out her arms to balance herself, fails, and sprawls in the snow. It is only when she is on her feet again and brushing herself off again that she realizes that Asi is nowhere to be seen.

“Asi! Asimov! Come!”

No answer.

“Asi! Come! Now!” Her voice rises and breaks with something near panic.

Still no Asimov, but from some yards ahead and to her left, she hears a high-pitched, plaintive whine. Following his prints, she trails him to the trunk of a huge tree whose bare branches extend almost halfway across the narrow inlet of the pond, where a feeder stream flows into it. He sits beneath the sycamore , staring upward, his tail brushing a half-circle in the loose powder that covers the frozen water. He whines again, this time almost pleadingly.

Twenty feet up, a raccoon sits in the fork of a branch. It is an older male, perhaps a third of Asimov’s size and weight, his fur fluffed about him for warmth. He nibbles delicately at an acorn, holding it with both long-fingered paws as he turns it around and around before his narrow muzzle. He pauses as Kirsten arrives, regarding her with eyes like molten gold from behind his black mask.

Unbidden, images tumble through her mind. A naked woman painted in blue spirals and sunbursts, brandishing a spear and a shield of polished bronze. Another woman, her face printed with the years and with wisdom, enveloped in a billow of vermilion silk like flame. A raised hand of not quite human form, and a voice on the churning wind. Turn back. The time is not yet.

Then they are gone, and she is standing under a tree with a disappointed dog and a raccoon who stares disdainfully down at them both , calmly eating his dinner.

Kirsten whistles, and this time Asimov obeys. They trudge back to the house through the gathering dark, as the eastern sky deepens to ultramarine and a flush of scarlet and purple still colors the west. The cold deepens as the sun slips finally beneath the horizon and the first stars appear. As Kirsten makes the final turn into Maggie’s street, Asimov breaks from her side and goes pelting down the block, baying like the hound of the Baskervilles.

A long-bedded, heavy blue truck is pulled up in the driveway, a blue truck with the insignia of the veterinarian’s V and caduceus just visible in the failing light.

Koda is back.

Without volition, Kirsten’s feet carry her forward at a pace just short of a jog. Her heart picks up its rhythm to match, her mouth suddenly dry. She watches as Koda slides out of the driver’s side of the pickup and is joined by a second figure, taller and broader shouldered, but with much the same erect carriage and proud tilt of the head. With a deliberate effort, Kirsten slows her pace and joins the two new arrivals just as Koda unlocks the kitchen door. Under the carport light, Kirsten can see the striking likeness of their features, and a small unacknowledged fear shrinks in upon itself and dies.

“Hi,” she says, as Koda turns to her with a smile. “Welcome back.”

“Well, look who the dog dragged in,” Koda teases gently, returning the smile as she reaches down to give Asi’s ears a good scratch. Asimov all but turns into jelly, and for the first time, Kirsten finds herself not minding so much that her dog has obviously fallen head over heels in love with this woman.

Much to Asi’s dismay, Koda all too soon retires her hand from scratching duty and lifts it to the doorknob instead. “Let’s get in out of the cold, shall we?”

A blast of warmth and light hits them all as the door swings open and the group steps inside. Asi immediately claims his place in front of the fireplace and begins to attack the large soupbone Maggie had left for him earlier. With a sigh of satisfaction, Koda places her heavy pack on the kitchen table and gestures for her brother to do the same. Then she turns her smile back to the young scientist. “Doctor King, this is my brother, Tacoma. Tacoma, this is Doctor Kirsten King.”

With a grin so identical to his sister’s that they could be—and should be—twins, Tacoma holds out a massive hand that gently engulfs Kirsten’s much smaller one. “A pleasure to meet you, Ma’am.”

Kirsten utters a sardonic chuckle. “I’d like to think I’m a little young for the ‘Ma’am’ stage, Mr. Rivers, but it’s a pleasure to meet you as well.”

“Tell you what. You call me Tacoma, and I’ll drop the Ma’am, alright? Ma’am?”

Charmed, Kirsten’s grin flashes just briefly as she releases Tacoma’s hand. “It’s a deal. Tacoma.”

With a respectful incline of his head, Tacoma takes a short step back and looks around. “Nice digs.”

“Colonel’s quarters.” Koda’s succinct response tells it all. “And don’t get too used to them. You’ll be bunking with Manny.”

“Figures,” Tacoma replies, smirking. “The regs say that canon fodder like me isn’t adapted to the rarified air of this place.” The twinkle in his deep, black eyes lets Kirsten know the joke is old and well loved.

Rummaging through the litter on the table, Koda pulls the food sack her mother had given her. “Let me just split this stuff up.”

Tacoma holds up a hand. “No, it’s alright, tanski. I’m gonna have to get re-used to military chow sooner or later. For the sake of my belly, it’s just as well that it be sooner. You keep it.”

Unheeding, she pulls out two thick slices of frybread wrapped in wax paper, a packet of meat filling, and hands both over to her brother. “Give one of them to Manny. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

“Appreciate it?” Tacoma exclaims, grinning. “He’ll just about have an….” His face turning an even deeper reddish hue, he nearly bites his tongue and gives Kirsten a positively hangdog look. “Um…sorry, Ma’am.”

Frozen to the spot, Kirsten shoots her gaze from Tacoma’s mortified look to Dakota. The mirth swimming in those striking eyes almost causes her to lose it and she bites down on the inside of her cheeks hard enough to draw blood just to keep herself from braying laughter like some demented donkey. The slight pain clears her head, and she manages what she hopes passes for a dignified nod. “It’s quite alright, Tacoma. If that food tastes as good as it looks, I can understand the reaction.”

Tacoma’s sense of relief is almost palpable as he humbly receives his sister’s food offering and stuffs it into his military pack.

Unable to help herself, Dakota laughs, grabs her brother’s arm and, with the barest ghost of a wink to the onlooking Kirsten, drags Tacoma out of the house and into the dark of the South Dakota night.

An hour or so later, Koda slips quietly into the house. The interior is perfectly dark, save for the sliver of light that slices through the partially opened door to the room Kirsten is using as her office. Silent as a shadow, Koda tracks the light, and peers into the office. Kirsten is sitting at the desk, her head propped up on one closed fist. Her glasses reflect the light from her computer; a light that washes over her face in a seasickness victim’s greenish pallor.

As if sensing Dakota’s presence, Kirsten blinks, then slowly turns her head away from the scrolling lines of formula painting themselves across the display before her. Her welcoming smile is wan and, drawn by that, Koda crosses the threshold and into the room, coming to stand beside the desk.

“Hey.”

“Hey. Did you get your brother settled in?”

Dakota smirks. “Oh yeah, he’s settled in alright. When I left, he was busy regaling them with a bunch of ‘flyboy’ jokes he learned in the army.”

Kirsten winces.

“Nah. He served with a bunch of them in the wars. It’s like old home week there right about now.”

“He’s a nice man.”

“Tacoma? He’s alright.” Dakota’s smile is fond, and it warms something deep inside Kirsten upon seeing it.

“Is he your only sibling?”

“If only,” Dakota replies, laughing softly. “No, I’m one of ten. Tacoma’s the oldest. I’m third in line. I also have an older sister, Virginia.”

“Tacoma, Virginia, Dakota….”

“…Washington, Houston, Phoenix, Montana, Carolina, Dallas, and Orlando. My mother’s a geography nut.”

“You don’t say.” Kirsten’s tone is dry as dust, but her eyes twinkle in a way that is quite attractive to Dakota.

“Oh, I do. Very much so.” There is a brief pause. “What about you? Any brothers or sisters?”

A veil drops down over Kirsten’s eyes, leaching out the vibrant green and leaving a muddy brown behind. Koda holds up a hand, even as she takes a step back, fully intending to end the conversation. “No, it’s alright. I’ll…see you tomorrow. Good night.”

“I was an only child,” Kirsten spits out rapidly, her words as staccato as machine gun fire. She looks on, feeling what can only be relief as Dakota stops her retreat and levels her an unreadable, but not unfriendly, look. “They wanted a big family, but my father had a run-in with an Iraqi landmine and, well….”

“Damn,” Koda softly replies.

“Yeah. He was in the hospital for awhile, but things were basically okay after that. I was pretty much spoiled rotten.” She gives up a wry smile. “As if you didn’t know that already.”

Koda manages, by the skin of her teeth, to remain silent and stone-faced.

Kirsten flushes a little and turns away. The soft, low timbre of Dakota’s voice draws her back.

“You’re gonna be alright.”

The expression on Kirsten’s face gives Koda a glimpse of the young woman’s childhood more clearly than any photograph ever could. The naked, aching need for acceptance and reassurance pulls her in like a fish on a line. Her feet pad noiselessly across the floor, and the shoulder suddenly beneath her hand seems as fragile and complex as a bird’s broken wing.

At the touch, Kirsten breathes in, a soft hiss of air between clenched teeth. The gentle grip burns like a brand, soothes like a balm, engendering a paradox of calm and disquiet.

But it’s not disquiet you’re feeling, is it.

Shut up.

It’s time to buck it up and call a spade a spade, little K.

Shut. Up.

You can’t live this new life you’re trying to forge for yourself with your head buried in the sand, Kirsten. Examine your feelings. Face up to them. And then maybe you’ll actually start living instead of just existing. Think about it.

The voice fades into nothingness, and Kirsten only realizes her eyes have closed once she opens them. Koda is looking down at her, an odd mix of concern and compassion drawing itself over her arresting features. Kirsten manages to conjure up a bit of a smile, which Koda returns, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

Examine your feelings. Face up to them.

The voice is pushed away by the sound of her own. “Thank you.”

Dakota’s eyebrows lift. “For?”

Kirsten lifts one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Being here, I guess. I sometimes forget what it’s like to have a normal conversation with another human being. Asi is my life, but….he doesn’t do the talking thing real well.”

Laughing, Koda releases Kirsten’s shoulder and steps back, providing some needed distance between them both. “Give him a little time. You might be surprised at what he has to say.”

Kirsten shoots her an odd look. “If you say so.”

“I say so,” Koda returns, grinning. And again, the barest ghost of a wink. “See you tomorrow. Sleep well.”

“I’ll definitely try. You too.”

“Thanks. Night.”

Once the door is closed again, and Kirsten is alone, she pulls out the feeling of Dakota’s simple touch, wrapping it around her like a warm winter coat. Her eyes slip closed again, and she crosses the boundary between wakefulness and sleep without ever being aware of the change.

In her dream, Koda wanders the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills sacred to her people from the time before time. Its cliffs rise up about her like shadow solidified in stone, their ramparts folded and refolded along the rockface, ledges jutting out at odd angles. Some of those folds mark caves that lead back into the heart of the earth; some shelter springs no deeper than a sheen of sweat on a summer day, others wells whose depths reach down beyond measure. It is the place where the Lakota came forth from the womb of Ina Maka herself, ascending into the light of the Sun for the first time as a human species and a nation. She goes here, paradoxically in a form older yet, one that pads without sound on four feet over the sharply ridged basalt that forms the canyon floor. To her left a bobcat moves like silk over the fissured volcanic rock, her wide paws scarcely touching the surface. The cat’s ears and vibrissae stand stiffly forward, interrogating the night air for sign of prey or menace. On her right paces a cougar, gold-silver in the moonlight, the depths of his eyes spangled with reflected stars.

A fourth goes with them, a smaller being with nimble, clever hands and the black half-mask of a bandit. The cats she knows. Even in her dream, Koda is aware of the bobcat’s human form lying warm beside her under the down comforter. The mountain lion, lean muscles rippling like river water under his fur, is the spirit of her warrior brother, Tacoma. As she puzzles over the fourth, scudding clouds blot out the moon and stars, and thunder rolls down, echoing from cliff to promontory and back like the pounding of the great drum of the Sun Dance. She and the other creatures who accompany her scramble for higher ground, leaping now from ledge to ledge, the unknown fourth keeping pace with the rest. Lightning splits the sky above, and thunder again and again about them until the whole world shakes with it. It splits the shelf where the four have taken refuge, sending it plummeting away from the rockface and them with it, and they are falling, falling into the night, into the unformed world from which they came forth at Ina Maka’s summoning, plunging headlong down and down . . ..

“What the hell?”

Somehow the words penetrate the cacophony of thunder and falling rock. Koda is vaguely aware of Maggie as she rolls over and reaches across her for the switch of the bedside lamp. “Sorry,” she adds as the too-bright light stabs at Koda’s eyes and she sits up, half-caught still in her dream.

“What–?”

“Somebody at the door.” Maggie slips from beneath the comforter and into the robe she has left folded over the back of a chair. From the bedside table she takes her pilot’s sidearm and slides a round into the chamber with a metallic chunk. “Be right back.”

Koda reaches for her own shirt as Maggie closes the door softly behind her. Her mind snaps sharply back into the present as she pads barefoot after the other woman. Pounding on the door at 4:30 in the morning can mean nothing but trouble. A blast of chill air from the open door raises goosebumps on her bare legs as she steps into the entryway. Directly across the hall from her, Asimov stands at guard in the living room door, tail erect. Kirsten holds his ruff with one hand and her .45 in the other. Despite the shadows about her eyes, her gaze is sharp and brittle as obsidian.

Koda flashes her a grin, an acknowledgement of one member of the hunting pack to another. Kirsten bares her teeth slightly in return just as Maggie draws the visitor on the doorstep into the foyer and shuts the door behind him. Bundled to the eyes and further masked by the cloud of his own breath, he snaps a salute at Maggie, then, looking past her shoulder, another at Koda and Kirsten. Maggie herself smiles as she turns to find her unexpected backup behind her. “Go on, Corporal,” she says evenly. “Dr. Rivers and Dr. King have a stake in this, too.”

“Yes’m,” he says, averting his eyes carefully from Koda’s bare legs and Kirsten’s neat figure, which is covered but is not hidden by her form-fitting thermals. He appears to be addressing the hall tree with its array of hats and jackets. “The General’s compliments Ma’am. There will be a meeting of all staff and senior officers at Wing Headquarters at oh-five-hundred. A number of small forces appear to be moving north from Peterson at Colorado Springs and from the Space Wing at Warren. Threat assessment and response to be discussed.” The trooper salutes yet again. “Ma’am.”

“Thank you, Corporal. My compliments to the General, and I’m on my way.”

Maggie shuts the door behind the courier and turns to Koda and Kirsten with a smile. “Thanks for the backup.” Her eyes become suddenly solemn. “This is the way it’s going to be from now on, you know,” she says softly. “Every unknown person will represent a possible danger. Everything unexplained will be potentially lethal until it is either explained or neutralized.” The Colonel’s gaze shifts to Kirsten. “Women will hold most of the positions of authority in whatever society we have left. We will occupy most of the professions that survive. We will do most of the fighting until the droids are contained. After that happens, we’ll still do most of the fighting—against other women, most likely—and the nation building. The rest of our lives will look a whole lot like tonight.”

A tight smile pulls at Kirsten’s mouth, but there is no irony in her voice. “Forward—into the past.”

“Back to the beginning,” Koda murmurs. And her dream is with her again, the landscape of first creation before humans grew away from Ina Maka and her other children and power belonged to her and her daughters only. With the eyes of vision Koda watches as Kirsten fades, to be replaced by a woman in a brief leather skirt and halter and a towering mask with a bird’s face and a mane of grass and feathers. When she tears her eyes away, Maggie is gone, too, her form melted into the shape of a woman with golden skin and knives glittering in either hand. Between one breath and the next the images vanish, and she is standing in the hallway with two other half-clothed women, cold and in need of coffee. “I’ll make breakfast,” she says, and follows Maggie back to the bedroom to dress.

Fifteen minutes later, Maggie pulls out of the drive with an insulated mug of coffee and a slice of Themungha’s fry bread wrapped around a scrambled egg. Koda can hear water splashing in the bathroom a couple yards down the small cross-hall that connects the entrance to the back of the house as Kirsten showers, and a hint of Maggie’s lavender-scented soap mingles with the aromas of dark-roasted Columbian coffee and melting butter. Koda sets out more of Themunga’s frybread, together with the fresh milk and eggs her mother has sent with her. The eggs are brown, and while Koda’s scientific mind knows very well that their shells merely reflect the color of the hens who laid them, she cannot quite shed her mother’s utter conviction that they are somehow tastier and more nutritious than the white variety. A psychologist might put that down to her mother’s feelings about race, she muses, but she knows too many white farmers and ranchers who are equally convinced. Face it, she tells herself as she sets to chopping sweet onion and tomato, they are better, and there’s no particular reason why.

The rich aroma of sautéd onion and tomato wafts into Kirsten’s room as she pulls on her boots and sweater, mingling in an odd harmony with the herbal soap whose fragrance lingers on her skin. It reminds her, a little, of weekend forays across the border into Tijuana and the exotic prizes waiting in the open air markets for a ten-year-old child with too little companionship and perhaps too much imagination. It reminds her, too, of Twenty-Nine Palms and Los Jacales, the tiny but imcomparable Mexican restaurant just outside the base where she and her parents had breakfast every Sunday. The memory is a small pang in her heart, almost physical, sharper than the ache left by the defibrillators and the bruises that linger on her chest. Carefully she removes a small woven straw box from the pants she wore the previous day and transfers it to her pocket. Guatemalan worry dolls, nearly twenty years old now, bought for her one bright summer day by her father. She still remembers the names she gave each of them, the stories she built about each bright thread-wrapped figure.

They are one of her few remaining material links to the past. Oddly, they seem now as much a talisman of the future as a relic of her childhood. The indigenous peoples they represent, the traditional societies, have the best chance of survival now. As she opens her door and steps into the hall, it comes to her that somehow in the last few days the past has loosened its hold on her. Or she on it; she is not quite sure which it is. For the first time since her flight from Washington, the future has a habitation and a name. It is not just that the earth has not, despite the horror, ground to a halt in its orbit. Somewhere in the depths of her mind is the recognition that, against all odds, she may somehow live to see the birth of a new and very different world.

And that may not be a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

She has Asi, whose return she would call miraculous if she were inclined to believe in miracles. And she has—no, not friends exactly—colleagues and companions who share her purpose. “Morning,” she says to one of them as she steps into the kitchen. The window over the sink frames a square of black sky, and she winces. “Middle of the night. Whatever.”

Dakota turns her attention briefly from the stove to smile at her. “Morning. Breakfast’s almost ready.” She nods at the table, where a cup of coffee already steams on one of the two placemats. “Have a seat.”

Kirsten shovels sugar into her cup, together with a generous dollop of cream. The adrenaline rush of an hour ago is gone, and she can feel reaction beginning to set in, her blood sugar starting to slide. The caffeine and glucose hit her system like a thunderbolt, finishing the job the hot water has begun. From underneath her lashes, she watches the other woman as she prepares their meal, moving around the room with the abrupt, angular grace of one of the great predators—a cheetah, perhaps, or a wolf. She wears the same plaid flannel shirt she had on earlier, but now it is tucked neatly into the waistband of the jeans that do little to conceal the taut elegance of her legs. Her hair, which had flowed over her shoulders like a river at midnight, is now caught back with a rubber band. It still sets off the sharp planes of her cheekbones and forehead, the generous lines of her mouth, the inexplicable blue eyes.

Kirsten feels heat rising in her cheeks that has nothing to do with the coffee or its effects. She feels suddenly disoriented, as if the room had suddenly turned itself upside down to leave her hanging weightless from the ceiling. To cover her confusion, she asks, “What do you think is going on?”

Dakota—Koda—gives the thickening eggs a stir and slaps two rounds of frybread down on the stove’s surface to heat. “The droids have to take us out if they can. There’s too much still functional. We’ve raided them successfully–” With a swift movement of her bare fingers, she turns both pieces of bread. “—and that makes us too big a threat for them to leave alone.”

“So those small groups the Corporal was talking about are likely to join up and attack the base again?”

“If we sit still for them.” Koda dishes up the eggs onto the frybread, rolls them up and drops them onto warmed plates. “My guess is we won’t.”

“At least the number of the military models is limited. That’s some small comfort.”

“Not enough to make up for bombing the factory, though.” Koda sets down the plates and takes a seat. Her eyes meet Kirsten’s across the table. “If not for that—”

“I’d have more than the partial code. It might all be over.” She holds that intense blue gaze, unwilling to be less than honest. “Look, I come from a military family. You don’t have to explain the brass’ fuck-ups to me. It’s par for the course.”

Koda nods. “Tacoma has some stories that would curl your hair. Insufficient ammunition, garbled orders.”

Kirsten reaches for a fork, then stops as Dakota picks up her roll taco-style and bites into it. Following suit, she reaches for a napkin as butter runs down her chin. “Good,” she says. You’re a good cook.”

“Not especially. I grew up helping my mother get meals for a large family. Lots of practice is all.”

From underneath the table, Asi whines, and Kirsten pinches a bit off the end of her roll. Koda does the same, dropping the bite into his bowl. It disappears in less than a nanosecond. Dakota grins. “Spoiled.”

“Rotten,” Kirsten agrees, breaking off a second morsel. It vanishes from her fingers in even less time. “You going to the clinic again today?”

“For the morning, anyway. You?”

“Work on the code till it drives me nuts. Take Asi for a walk till I can think straight again.”

“Anything I can get you that would help? Discs, a printer–?”

Kirsten shakes her head and pushes her chair away from the table. “I had a good supply in my truck.” As she rises, an odd thought strikes her, and she asks, “Animals mean something in your traditions, don’t they? Symbolically, that is.”

The Lakota woman’s withdrawal is both instant and almost imperceptible. There was a time, Kirsten thinks, when I wouldn’t have noticed that. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful. Asi found a raccoon yesterday, and I just thought it was odd. Don’t they hibernate?”

“No, not exactly. They sleep a lot, living off their fat. They come out of their dens to feed periodically, though.”

“So it doesn’t necessarily mean the cold is going to let up some?” Shift the context. For some reason it is important to her not to offend this woman. “I’ve never seen so damned much snow in my life.”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

Kirsten shrugs and moves toward the door. “Too bad.”

Koda’s voice stops her where she stands. “It means disguise, Kirsten, and the need to let go of old identities. It means transformation.”

And it is with her again, that long spiraling plunge toward death and the deep baying of the hunter who runs lithe beside her, a glimpse of driving muscles rippling under grey fur that turns in upon itself, moebius-like, to become a small pointed face with eyes burning like molten gold out of a black mask. The narrow muzzle opens, and the creature speaks in a voice to silence thunder, one long-fingered hand raised to bar her passage.

Go back. The time is not yet.

Her heart pounds in her chest like a trip hammer; sweat prickles along her skin. The time is not yet.

“Thank you,” she says, and flees.

Again.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN
The day is gray. Gray clouds, gray snow, gray faces of people walking along shoveled and salted paths. Even Asi’s vibrant coat looks washed out and dull as he plods along behind Kirsten, head bobbing like a tired draft horse on his way to the stables.

An almost pleasant sense of melancholia steels over her and she quickens her step, outpacing her thoughts, content to exist simply for and in this one moment in time. Life passes by, its stories writ large on the faces of the men and women with whom she shares this space.

As she wanders down a ruler-straight path, her steps take her to a scene that stops her, and makes her wish for perhaps the first time in her life that she had been born with the ability to draw. Before her stands a woman of no more than twenty whose life has painted age upon her face and form far beyond her years. Directly in front of her, pressed back to belly, is a girl-child, dirty, bedraggled, and pale as a wraith. The young woman has her arms crossed over the shoulders and chest of the girl in a gesture of desperate possession, as if she is the only thing of worth left in a world gone totally mad. The expression in the woman’s eyes transports Kirsten back in time to when she, herself, was a young girl standing in St. Peter’s in Rome, staring at the Pieta and wondering how simple stone could engender such profound emotions within her.

The child’s soft “hello” brings Kirsten back to the present, and she offers up a smile that is equal parts welcoming and sad.

“Pretty doggie.”

As if agreeing, Asi sits proudly and offers up a soft chuff, causing the young girl to giggle. “What’s his name?”

“Asimov.”

The girl looks a little confused. “Asmimoff?”

“That’s pretty close,” Kirsten commends, smiling. “He likes being called Asi.”

“Asi?” The child looks up at her mother for confirmation before returning her attention to the dog. “Asi.”

Asimov gives a louder bark, which makes the girl jump. Her mother tightens her grip, fright winging its way across her haggard face.

“It’s okay,” Kirsten hastens to reassure. “He won’t hurt you. I promise.”

The girl seems convinced. She lifts a small, dirty hand, fingers splayed wide. “Pet?”

Ever the ham, Asimov lifts his left paw, giving the young girl a doggie grin and another soft chuff. Kirsten laughs. “I think he’d like that.”

Responding to the pleading look from her daughter, the woman slowly—surely ice ages have come and gone in less time—relaxes her desperate grip. The child steps forward cautiously. Asi keeps his calm, one paw still raised. The girl takes it gently in both hands, then giggles as Asi covers her face with generous swipes of his tongue. Stepping away, she wipes her face with both hands. “Funny doggie. All wet!” Pulling her hands away from her eyes, she gifts Kirsten with a bright, innocent smile. “What’s your name?”

“Kirsten,” she replies, unable to keep from returning the sweet grin. “What’s yours?”

“Lisa,” the child replies, shyly peering at Kirsten from beneath long, lush lashes. “Can Asi be my friend?”

“Oh sweetheart, of course he can! We come for walks out here almost every day. If it’s okay with your mom, you can walk with us when you see us, ok?”

Lisa’s mother’s expression is pained as her daughter looks to her for approval. “We’ll talk about it tonight, sweetie. Now, we have to go get lunch.”

After a moment, Lisa nods. “Okay,” she replies softly. Turning back, she takes a step forward and wraps small arms around Asi’s neck, squeezing with all her tiny strength. “Bye, bye, doggie,” she whispers into his warm fur. “Bye, bye.”

Tears prick at Kirsten’s eyes and another part of her soul she thought long desiccated comes back to life, and with it, a renewal of her determination to give this child, and all others like her, a better world to grow up in.

As she turns for home, her last vision is a replay of the first. Lisa is back in her mother’s arms, but this time she sees a spark of what she can only call hope shining in twin sets of eyes.

For now, it will have to be enough.

She makes it as far as the door to her temporary home when a note taped to the door brings her up short. Written in a fine hand, the words jump out at her, making her, by turns, determined, angry, then both at once.

“Not this time,” she vows, ripping the paper from the door and crumpling it in one tense fist. “Not this time. C’mon, Asi. We’ve got a party to crash.”

******

The room is grey as a November day. Grey walls, set off by a tasteful strip of white PVC running along the bottom in lieu of baseboard. Grey carpet, with tone-on-tone USAF logs imposed on diagonally offset laurel wreaths. Grey curtains, likewise. On the wall hang photographs of warplanes based at Ellsworth, the intensely turquoise skies behind and below the airborne Tomcats and SuperHornets virtually the only color in the room. On a table in one corner sits an unwatered Norfolk pine, its pot wrapped in peeling red-black foil and its wilting branches hung with miniature lights and iridescent glass globes, dull in the dim light that penetrates the heavily lined window coverings. The long conference table is grey steel. Its vinyl-upholstered chairs match. Koda has, she thinks wryly, seen cheerier coffins.

Maggie says it for her. “Somebody get me a happy pill. This place would depress goddam Shirley Temple.”

“Never mind goddam Shirley Temple. It depresses me.” Tacoma gives a half-suppressed snort, not unlike a big cat’s disdainful whuffle. “Droids get the psych-ops staff?”

Maggie shakes her head. “Hart got the decorators, years ago. Too touchy-feely.”

“It could be worse,” Koda offers. “It could be pecan laminate and stuffed deers’ heads.”

Tacoma winces visibly as he shrugs out of his jacket and drapes it across the back of a chair about halfway down the table. He has resumed his Army uniform, the brass of his greens newly shined, his campaign ribbons proud in their many colors over his left pocket. Koda knows them as well as he does: the Afghan Meritorious Service Ribbon, bright green with its silver crescent; the Kingdom of Jordan Honor Legion; the Medal for Humane Action; Combat Action Ribbon; Bronze and Silver Stars, both with oak leaf. And there is the one she hates, purple with white edges.

Wounded in action, gone missing in the frozen mountains of Panjir for two weeks and more when no one, not his commander, not his family, knew whether he was alive or dead, and neither she nor her father, for all their special skills, had been able to find him in the spirit world. Her eyes meet Tacoma’s as she seats herself across from his place, numbering his honors. Their father, veteran of VietNam, calls the tunic with the array of medals her brother’s scalp shirt, boasting that it is even more lavish than his own.. “Hey,” Tacoma says softly, reaching over the space between to touch her arm, calling her back to the present.

“Hey yourself. You didn’t cut your hair.”

“Not going to.” He grins suddenly at Maggie, now seated beside him. “You able to live with that, Colonel?”

Maggie, in her own spruce blues and even more fruit salad, grins back at him. “We’ll average it. You’ve got enough for Manny, yourself and me put together. Hart’s not going to like it, though.”

“Somebody mention my name?” Manny appears in the doorway, accompanied by two other men. One is in Marine uniform, the other in flannel shirt and jeans. Manny pulls out the chair next to Koda and glances around the room. “No coffee?”

“It’s on its way,” offers a newcomer, a blond youngster in fatigues whose sleeves carry Corporal’s stripes. “What’s up, Lieutenant?”

Manny shrugs and glances at Allen. “Colonel?”

“Something to do with recon, as I understand it.”

The Corporal is followed by another man in civilian clothes, then by two women with wind-weathered faces. Koda sweeps the company with her eyes, not recognizing individuals but acknowledging the indelible signs of a life lived between earth and open sky. She says, “Everyone here is local, right?”

Nods answer her, responding to more than the single question. Local, and familiar with the countryside.

“Scouts,” she says. “Ground reconnaissance.”

“You’ve stolen my thunder, Dr. Rivers.” Hart stands in the doorway, waving his officers back to their seats as they push their chairs back to stand and salute. “We do need people who know the area to become involved in recon. I’ll be briefing all of you, then asking for volunteers.” He moves to the head of the table, spine stiffly erect, allowing the carts bearing coffee and a projector-cum-laptop to follow him into the room. He motions toward the urn and stack of cups. “Please, help yourselves. We’ve even managed to requisition some doughnuts.”

Must be his own private stash of Krispy Kremes, Koda observes wryly to herself as she fills her cup. She catches Tacoma’s eye as he does the same and feels the thought pass easily between them. He winks at her, snagging a cinnamon cruller for himself and dropping another onto her plate. Wants us bad When the table has settled, Hart begins. “As you know, we have been fortunate at Ellsworth in that we have been able to repel the initial attacks of the mutinous androids, both military and civilian. We have, of course, suffered extensive casualties, but many of our officer corps have survived and we are still operational. At a reduced level, of course.

“We have also had the benefit of intelligence and reinforcements from the civilian population of the surrounding area.” Hart pauses to smile at Koda and to single out the other ranchers with a nod. When he comes to Tacoma, the smile freezes for a moment, then becomes deliberately brighter. Koda feels a light tap against her boot and looks up at Tacoma’s suspiciously expressionless face. Counting coup.

“Lights, please.”

When the room is dark, the general switches on the projector and fiddles briefly with the focus. The images that gradually form against the wall are night-sight green, but fairly clear for all that:

Troop transport trucks, moving along narrow roads, no more than three or four in a convoy.

Columns of the inhuman soldier-androids, churning along cleared highway surfaces on their caterpillar tracks, slowly but inexorably, never breaking rank, never tiring.

Armored vehicles, their guns at ready, crunching through the snow.

Small groups of men, platoon-size, no more than a dozen at a time, slipping along back roads and game trails, fully outfitted in helmet, backpack and weapons. Shepherded, invariably, by one or two of the military droids ahead, another pair behind.

Koda hears a small hiss of indrawn breath at the last sequence. Across the table from her, Maggie’s face is drawn into a tight mask of anger and disgust. Closer to, Manny’s fists clench against the table. The civilian woman two places down, her skin reddened from years of High Plains wind, her face hard as the bones of the land itself, looks nauseated in the flickering green light. Koda’s own stomach turns over.

“Indeed,” says General Hart as he switches off the projector, and the room lights come back up. “We have not only droids on the move, but we have human collaborators as well. This is something Colonel Allen and Dr. Rivers have encountered, but not quite in this capacity or in these numbers.” He flicks another switch and a map of South Dakota , with Wyoming and Colorado to the south, appears on the wall. “These videos were taken by Colonel Allen and her squadron over the last several days. They show a disturbingly large number of small companies moving toward our position. They seem to come from Warren Space Wing in Wyoming and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Presumably they will rendezvous at some point and position themselves for a second assault on the Base. This is not a favorable development.”

“General.”

Tacoma waits for recognition, and when Hart nods, continues. “We are assuming from these movements that there is no longer any resistance at Warren or Peterson?”

“Or in between?” Koda adds.

“Sergeant, Doctor—I have no reason to believe that is not correct.” For a moment, Hart’s normally ruddy face is as grey as the light filtering in through the windows. “We have no hope of reinforcement from either of those installations. Nor, I think, of further influx of civilians from the surrounding area. What we have now, is, barring the unexpected, what we will have to face the enemy.”

“We’re outnumbered,” Manny observes.

“And except for air cover, probably outgunned” adds Maggie.

“Correct.”

“But not,” Tacoma answers, grinning, “outthought.”

“Also correct, Sergeant.” Hart’s smile is a bit less stiff this time. “Every one of you in this room has immediate and intimate knowledge of the area surrounding Ellsworth. Some of you, like Mr. Marshak”—he indicates the gentleman in the flannel shirt—”or Mmes. Tilbury-Laduque”—the women ranchers—”have lived and worked in the region for decades. Some, like Marine Ensign Guell and Corporal Mainz, are local residents who have experience camping or hunting in the vicinity. We need you all, assuming you are willing, to act as scouts—to move out into the countryside and track these units, discover as much about their movements, and, if possible, their plans, as you can.”

“So why don’t you just bomb the hell out of them?” asks one Ms. Tilbury-Laduque. Her thin face is stark with determination under her graying red hair; the question clearly does not come from cowardice. “It seems to me that human resources are what’s scarcest here.”

“If I may—?” Maggie glances at Hart.

At the general’s nod, she proceeds. “We still have both adequate jet fuel and sufficient munitions to bomb these bastards back to atoms, Ma’am. And we’ll do that if we have to. But it’s the best judgment of this base’s senior officers that for the time being we would do best to conserve those resources for civilian defense. There are a surprising number of survivor enclaves still out there in the countryside who are not equipped to repel, say, an attack by the military-model androids. We need to hold the airborne defenses in reserve for them as long as we can.”

There is a pause, then the rancher nods. “I see. Okay, I’m with you.”

“Me, too,” adds the other Ms. Tilbury-Laduque. Koda feels a tug of memory, brief and poignant, as the woman’s work-roughened hand closes over her partner’s fingers. It is not so sharp as it would once have been, though, and she lowers her eyes to her own hands where a barely perceptible band of lighter skin remains on the third finger of her left hand.

It has become almost a phantom pain, like nerves still wired to the ghost of a missing limb. She has seen it in one or two of Tacoma’s friends who did not come home from battle with all they had left home with and who could or would not be fitted with cyberlimbs or old-fashioned prostheses. She has seen it, too, in her own surgical patients, cows whose hip muscles twitch, attempting to move a leg no longer there, a fox biting at a gangrenous tail she has been forced to amputate. She glances up at Maggie, intent now on the speaker across the table from her, her handsome features animated by an underlying lust for life so strong that Koda cannot begin imagine her dampened by injury or illness. And that, she tells herself, is a dangerous thing not to be able to imagine about a battle-companion, much less a battle-companion who is also a friend.

“I’ll do it,” says Manny, glancing up at Maggie.

“So will I,” adds the Colonel. “I’d like to have some of the same troops that have been with me from the mutiny, General. They may not be strictly local, but they’ve had experience in skirmish encounters and in liberating civilians. We may run into caches of prisoners along the way, too.”

“Anything you need, Colonel.” Under his standard-issue smile, Hart looks relieved. “This operation is in your hands. What about the rest of you? Are you with Colonel Allen, Sergeant Rivers?”

“Of course.” Tacoma grins. “Anyone who can handle Flyboy here”—he gestures toward his cousin—”has my utmost respect.”

“Doctor?”

Koda nods her assent and watches as the rest repeat the gesture. There is a strange sense of slippage in her mind, as if time has somehow faulted and folded back upon itself. Scouts for the U. S. Army—”friendlies” cooperating in their own ultimate destruction as the Plains grew barren not only of the buffalo but of the human nations who lived with them and by them.

She feels her hands clench like Manny’s. Never again. It will be different this time. With the thought comes the recognition—the unshakable certainty that she has come to recognize as the mark of spiritual knowledge—that the world has changed irrevocably. Whatever she, and Manny with her, and Tacoma, help to bring to birth out of the wreckage of the old order will resemble nothing that has gone before.

Lakota oyate.

A Lakota nation, but not only a nation of Lakota. It is the time of the White Buffalo, the return seen, if seen unclearly, by the Paiute holy man Wovoka, the fulfillment of prophecy.

She blinks to clear the thought, and finds Manny looking at her oddly. The General has resumed his briefing, something about forming small parties and communications problems. “Koda?” Her cousin’s voice is very soft. “You with us?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.”

His face is a question. Tacoma, across the table, is watching her intently. “I’m fine,” she repeats. “Later.”

Without warning, the door opens. Kirsten stands framed in the opening, Asimov alert beside her. Her face is white with the rage that flares in her eyes, colder than the wailing heart of a blizzard. She says nothing. Sound dies in the room as all eyes at the table turn toward her.

After an awkward moment, Hart breaks the silence. “Dr. King, are you looking for someone? My secretary can direct you, if you’ll excuse us?”

Still Kirsten says nothing. Koda can feel the anger as it comes off her in waves, almost palpable in its strength. And with it there is a power she has not felt in the other woman before, something similar to the force she has sensed in Maggie. For a moment she is absurdly relieved that Kirsten is not holding a weapon. There is an authority in her that Koda has never seen before, not even in the moment when she stalked up to Hart and struck him across the face after the bombing of Minot.

Ithanchan winan. The thought comes unbidden. This woman is a chief.

Koda starts to push her chair back and rise to her feet, but Tacoma is there before her. Straight as a birch tree, he snaps to attention and salutes the woman in the doorway. Eyes on Kirsten, he stands motionless.

Manny follows by a heartbeat, then Allen. “Madame Secretary,” the Colonel says pointedly.

The Marine and the Corporal are on their feet, then, together with the civilians. Koda’s heart rises and lodges somewhere in her throat. Finally Hart does what he must. He moves away from the wall and salutes. “At your service, Ma’am.”

Kirsten holds them all with her eyes for a moment longer. Then she gives a brief wave of her hand. “At ease.”

Hart pulls out his own chair at the head of the table for her, and Kirsten makes her way toward the front of the room. Asi paces with the dignity of a wolf beside her, for once ignoring his new friends. Koda’s memory flashes on her first meeting with the big dog in the snowy clearing, his formal pose atop the log suddenly connecting with an image older by thousands of years, the jackal-god stretched out on a mastaba bench before the shrine of Pharaoh. Anubis the Watcher. Guardian of the King.

Quietly Kirsten takes her seat, Asimov still standing at her side. “Thank you, General Hart,” she says. “Please begin the briefing.”

Koda watches as Tacoma struggles manfully not to grin, gives up and coughs, turning his face away from the defeated General. The sparkle in his eyes is contagious, though, and it spreads up and down the table like February sun on new-melted springwater. The General is visibly relieved when he is able, finally, to order the lights off and run the video again. As it plays a second time, Koda memorizes the terrain; shapes of hills, angles of the moon, bare trees lining a rise against the sky, the course of a freshening stream, contours of barren fields where the dark earth begins to break through the blanket of snow.

When it is over, the Colonel reviews the information that cannot be gotten onto film, and Kirsten listens without comment. When Maggie falls silent, she says, “General, is it your estimation that this base is the only regional defense installation still operable in this area?”

“Ma’am, it is.” He gestures back toward the map. “If Ellsworth goes under, the droids will not only have access to all our remaining armaments but will be able to overcome any resistance the surviving civilian population can offer. So far they have no air power, possibly because other installation commanders have disabled their planes; possibly because some, like Colonel Allen and her squadron, were in the air at the time of the mutiny; possibly because some aircraft were destroyed in the fighting. Possibly, too, because they have no human pilots, and none of the military droids, that I’m aware of, are programmed to fly. We can’t allow those assets to fall into their hands. Nor can we abandon our remaining civilian population.”

“I agree.” Kirsten glances down the table at volunteers that are suddenly hers, her gaze lingering on Koda for an infinitesimal fraction of a second before moving on. Again there is that small, phantom pain in her heart, coupled with a sense of finality. It is not just the world that has changed, she realizes. It is my world, and the change is forever.

“Colonel.”

“Ma’am.”

“Organize your scout parties. Put me on one of them.”

All hell breaks loose. Koda finds herself wanting to shout with the rest, but clamps her teeth shut on words she knows will be useless.

“Dr. King—”

“Madame Secretary—”

“Ma’am, beg your pardon, but you can’t go. You’re too valuable to risk.” Hart wins out above the clamor. “You’re the only one who has any hope at all of shutting these godammed—I beg your pardon, Ma’am—these droids down. I can’t allow—that is, you can’t put yourself in danger.”

“It’s not for you to allow or not, General.” Koda speaks softly but firmly. “Dr. King fought her way—alone—from Washington all the way to Minot to get the shut-down code for the droids. She infiltrated the Base there and successfully passed herself off as a droid.” She hesitates for a moment, weighing her words, but there is no further virtue in diplomacy. “But for the destruction of Minot, her mission would have succeeded, and we would not presently be facing a second attack.”

For the first time since entering the room, Kirsten smiles, a slight lift of the corners of her mouth. It takes Koda between one breath and the next and almost stops her heart. She can count on one hand—maybe one finger—the times she has seen that expression on the other woman’s face.

“Not quite alone.” Gently Kirsten ruffles Asi’s ears. “Can you understand droid-to-droid transmissions, General?” When he does not answer, she says, “I can. We can’t afford for me not to go.”

There is a an uncomfortable silence. “I am going,” Kirsten repeats. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Oh, ma’am, you certainly do,” Manny says on an outrush of breath that is not quite laughter. “No offense, but God missed the target when you weren’t born a Lakota.”

*******

A blast of static comes across Dakota’s earpiece. “…Tshunka…20…come back?”

She taps the earpiece, wincing as it lets off another, louder, blast of static. “Tacoma, is that you?”

“Han…your 20? GPS…fucked …can’t…you.”

Koda looks down at her own unit, frowning as snow and wavery lines cross through the normally steady display. She cocks a look to Manny, who shakes his head.

“Maybe the metalheads are screwing with the signal?” he asks.

“Doubtful,” Kirsten responds. “They might have advanced technologies, but even they need to rely on the GPS to fix a firm position. Most likely, the problem is with the satellites themselves. With no one around to monitor them, their orbits are starting to decay. Pretty soon these units will make attractive paperweights for all the good they’ll be.”

“Cheery thought,” Manny mutters half under his breath.

Another blast of static makes its way into Dakota’s brain. “…Tshunka…20….”

“Keep your pants on, thiblo. We’re working on it.”

Slipping the communications piece from her ear, Koda looks around, trying to manually triangulate their position by known landmarks. Darkness, and the fact that they’ve traveled several miles in that dark, most of them on foot—actually by snowshoe (and trying to teach Kirsten, a city girl at heart with an aversion to snow and anything associated with it, how to snowshoe is a story in and of itself), makes this a difficult task at best.

“Tell him that we’re halfway between the big rock and the tree that looks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, two steps off the nearest cow path.”

Feeling her jaw drop, Koda slowly turns her head until Kirsten’s stone, black streaked, face is perfectly in her sites.

Manny, just as shocked, voices what Koda cannot. “Did…did you just crack a joke? Ma’am?”

Green eyes blaze from blackface, and Manny gulps. Hard.

“Didn’t think so, Ma’am.”

Koda clamps her jaw shut and settles for shaking her head. She scans the area ahead and, once she has their position firmly in her mind, slips the communications piece back in her ear and, through the static, relays that position in Lakota to her brother.

Satisfied with her response, Tacoma cuts communication and the world around Dakota falls back into blessed quiet. In the silence, she notices Kirsten staring blankly into the distance, her expression intent. Closing the distance between them, Dakota stops just outside the other woman’s body-space and waits patiently.

Sensing Dakota’s presence, Kirsten blinks, draws back into herself, and gives the tall woman a questioning look.

“Hear anything?”

“Garbled,” Kirsten replies, slipping the bud from her ear. “They’re definitely headed this way, though.” She looks around, then back at Koda. “It would make sense, if they’ve got humans with them, to take a main road, even if it hasn’t been plowed. Are there any of those near here?”

“About ten paces directly ahead. A main highway.”

“That close, huh?”

Koda grins, a flash of pure white against the black greasepaint on her face. “We’ll be long gone before they get within sniffing distance.”

As Kirsten nods her understanding and replaces her earbud, Koda sobers. She opens her mouth as if to speak, then closes it, unable or unwilling to risk this new bit of warmth between them.

Kirsten notices. “What is it?”

Koda takes in a deep breath, considering her words. “I believe…in being prepared. I know this is just a recon mission, but something unexpected could happen, and if it does….”

Kirsten bristles. “I assure you, I’m perfectly capable of handling….”

“It’s not that,” Koda replies, holding her hand up. “It’s….” Pausing, she fights for words again. “Look, if we need to shoot up some of those drones, and you’re tapped into one of them at the time, I don’t think Manny and I can keep you alive long enough for the others to get here and get us back to base.”

A smile comes unbidden to Kirsten’s lips. She feels a wash of tenderness so foreign to her that for a moment, she’s taken aback by the strength of that simple, undeniably powerful emotion. “I’ll be okay,” she assures softly, reaching out one gloved hand to touch, only briefly, Koda’s strong wrist. “The problem’s been corrected. I won’t be getting caught in any more self destruct feedback loops. I promise.”

Koda looks deep into Kirsten’s eyes, twin sparks of high color among the monochrome of lampblack and full moon. Her memories guide her spirit to the beat of the drums, to the pulse of the ether, the brightness of the Star-that-has-no-Name, and the ever-present pull of the seductive wind.

“The time is not yet,” she whispers.

Kirsten freezes, a living statue in a land humanity has forsworn. “What?”

The soft voice shakes her from her memories. “Nothing. It was….”

The words on the tip of Kirsten’s tongue dry out as several streams of data pour into her implants. She cocks her head, still looking at Dakota. “They’re headed this way. Ten armored military droids, twenty two regulars, almost fifty humans traveling on foot…or treads…or…whatever. They’re picking up more as they move along. They’re broadcasting everywhere. I can hear chatter from at least seven more groups nearby.”

“This isn’t good,” Manny mutters, his eyes darting, trying to look everywhere at once.

“Strengths?” Koda asks, tightening her grip on her weapon.

“Don’t know yet. They’re definitely heading for the base, though.”

“And the humans. Coerced or voluntary?”

“I don’t know that yet either,” Kirsten bites off, shaking her head. “No real mention of them in the routine communications I’m picking up.”

Manny steps forward. “As much as I don’t believe I’m saying this, Koda, I think we should treat them like unfriendlies no matter what their circumstances.”

Kirsten gazes over at him, shocked. “Is that what they’re teaching you in the military these days?”

“No, Ma’am,” Manny replies, spine so straight it crackles. “Exactly the opposite, in fact. But right now, I don’t think we can afford to take any chances. Ma’am.”

Dismissing him with a look, Kirsten concentrates on the chatter coming over her implants. Koda flips on her com unit and quietly relays Kirsten’s reports to Tacoma in Lakota. When she’s done, she looks back to Kirsten. “Any more info?”

“Nothing specific. They’re still headed this way. If the GPS was working, I could tell you exactly how far.”

“It’s alright.” Grinning, she hefts a large and heavy sack and slings it over her back. “Manny, stay here and keep an eye out. I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Wait! Where are you….” Kirsten cuts off her own words as she realizes she’s speaking to thin air. She turns to Manny. “Where is she going?”

Manny smirks, then shrugs. “Dunno. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. Dakota’s real good at taking care of business. And herself.”

Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Kirsten stares down the most likely path of Koda’s disappearance. “Yes,” she comments softly, more to the air than the man standing just a few paces away. “Yes, I suppose she is.”

The time is not yet.

*******

Having been taught to snowshoe as soon as she had learned to walk, Dakota moves effortlessly across the snowy plain, leaving no discernable tracks behind. Headed south, away from the droids and their human collaborators (or captives, if one possesses a glass-half-full attitude), she parallels the road for a little over two miles, then back, and back again, until she comes to the perfect spot. Moonlight glints off perfect white teeth as she surveys her surroundings. She knows this particular stretch of road very well. Long, straight, and utterly monotonous, it’s exactly what she needs.

Slinging the pack away from her body, she unzips the front and reaches inside, gloved fingers gingerly clamping onto a thick metal container. Pulling it out, she sets the pack on the snow, then unscrews the lid of the container and reaches inside. She removes a flat metallic disc the same size and shape as an old-time DVD. Military technology had escalated to stratospheric heights during and after the last of the Great Wars, and the device she holds in her hand is one such example. An anti-tank mine, it is much smaller, much lighter, much more accurate, and much deadlier than the mines of old. Placed correctly, it will allow the humans and non-military droids to step directly on it without tripping the trigger.

Such will not be the case when the heavy treads of a military android descend.

Calmly, and with precision, Koda places her stash of mines, ten in all, into the natural cracks and divots of the snow and ice that packs the road. Sweat pours liberally from her face and her breath comes in soft pants of mist. She works freely and easily. Nature, even in the deep of an icy night, flows over, around, and through her, accepting her as its own, even in her destructive task. A sharp wind cuts across the naked flesh of her face, but she pays it no mind, intent on her work and the ebb and flow of life around her.

An hour later, she steps back and, hands on hips, views her work by the light of the moon. A grunt of satisfaction, and she zips her pack, reseats the straps across her broad shoulders, and turns back the way she came.

******

A soft owl’s hoot brings Manny to instant attention. When the sound is repeated, he hoots back, which catches Kirsten’s attention. Slipping the bud from her ear, she turns in Manny’s direction and is almost launched into orbit when the empty space of a split-second ago is suddenly filled by Dakota’s very living presence. “Holy Jesus,” she breathes, holding a hand up to her chest. “You just scared the crap out of me.”

“Sorry,” Koda replies, contrite. She glances at Manny. “All quiet?”

“Clear blue.”

“Good.” Back to Kirsten. “Anything else on the targets?”

Recovering, Kirsten nods. “Still headed this way. I was able to do some triangulation. They’re about five miles out now, give or take a few hundred feet. They’ve picked up two passengers. One regular droid, one human.”

“Anything from the other groups?”

“I’m picking up two other definites. Both smaller than the one we’re tracking now. Maybe twenty or thirty in each party, mostly regular droids and a few humans here and there. Nothing more specific than that.”

“How far out?”

“Ten, maybe fifteen miles. Both headed east-southeast, toward Ellsworth. At the rate they’re traveling, they’ll probably join up about six miles east of here.”

Koda nods, intuition satisfied. “I know the place.” She spares them both a pointed glance. “Ready to haul out?”

Kirsten straightens. “Where are we going? And where did you go?”

“Left a few surprises for our friends,” Koda replies, grinning.

“Surprises?”

“Land mines.” Kirsten’s exclamation is forestalled by an upraised hand. “Anti-tank mines. Any humans in the group will pass over them without a problem. These little gifts are for the military droids.”

Kirsten looks unconvinced.

“We either get them now, away from innocent lives, or we’ll have to deal with them later when there’s no choice in the matter.”

Looking down at her feet, Kirsten nods. The image of the two men she’s killed flashes in front of her and she finds herself clenching jaws and fists to keep it pushed down, far down out of sight and mind and thought.

Sensing Kirsten’s inner turmoil, Koda takes a step closer. “You alright?” The gaze that meets hers is clear and direct, but she can see the fight within and again it calls to her. “Is there something I can….”

“No,” Kirsten interrupts, back in full control. “It’s nothing.” Her shoulders square and set. “I’m ready to move out when you are.”

“Let’s go then.”

******

“Ouch! God…damnit!”

From her point position, Koda easily hears Kirsten’s pained cry and hurries back to investigate. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Cramp,” Kirsten bites out, snatching off a glove with her teeth and reaching down to work frozen fingers into an equally frozen knot of muscle in her calf. “Damn snowshoes. Should have left them to the rabbits, where they belong.”

“Hang on, hang on.” Tossing her weapon to Manny, Koda gets down on one knee and gently displaces Kirsten’s stiff, digging fingers. “Take some deep slow breaths. In and out. In and out.”

“I already know how to breathe,” Kirsten snaps. “Been doing it since I was a baby.”

“Just do it,” Koda orders, working her fingers into the thick straps of knotted muscle.

Startled by Koda’s uncharacteristic display of temper, Kirsten complies. Under the onslaught of Dakota’s skilled hands, the cramp gradually loosens.

Only to seize up again, hard enough to cause her leg to buckle. Saved from an ignominious topple onto her backside by Koda’s strong arm, she tenses, then relaxes as she finds herself half carried-half dragged a few steps back to where a flat-topped rock juts out from its bed of snow. With a soft grunt of pain, she lowers herself onto the rock, not protesting as her boot is removed and her triply socked foot is grabbed and manipulated until her toes point almost toward her chest. This eases the tension on her calf somewhat, and when Dakota’s fingers return to the knotted muscle, it begins to loosen in a way that Kirsten knows will be lasting.

As the cramp starts to relax, the rest of her does as well, as the stress and the hours without sleep begin to catch up with her. Her chin dips and her eyes find themselves gazing at the very top of Koda’s uncovered head. The moonlight brings out the bluish highlights in her deep black hair and Kirsten, to her private horror, watches as her own hand lifts from its place on her lap and reaches out to brush gently against the shining mass. It is just the briefest of touches, but it lingers sweetly in some deep part of her that isn’t hotly debating between crawling beneath the very rock she’s sitting on and—the current frontrunner—running as fast and as far as she can and not stopping until she reaches, say, Outer Mongolia.

Manny notices and quickly looks away, suspecting that he’s unintentionally intruding on a very private moment.

As quickly as it’s come upon her, the panic fades away at the sight of arresting blue eyes and a sweetly crooked smile that now fills her field of vision. There is no judgment to be seen in Koda’s striking features. Only kindness, compassion, and caring. “Better now?” Koda asks, her voice low and soft.

Kirsten clears her throat, suddenly aware of its dryness. “Yes.” She swallows. “Much. Thank you.”

“Anytime.” A canteen is thrust into Kirsten’s hands. “Here. Drink this. You’re dehydrated.”

“You mean it wasn’t the snowshoes?”

“A little of both, maybe,” Dakota concedes, slipping the heavy boot back over Kirsten’s foot, fastening it securely, then rising to her full height. “Take a little more. Yeah, that’s it. We’ve still got a few hours ahead of us, if you think you’re up to it.”

With a nod, Kirsten hands back the canteen and gets back up on legs that are steady and blessedly pain free. “I’m up to it. Let’s get going.”

With an amused glance at her cousin, Koda starts out after the fully recovered and determined young woman striding ahead.

Manny just rolls his eyes and follows along.

*******

A chill wind, heavy with the scent of snow, cuts sharply through the small grove of trees. The winter-bare limbs rattle like the bones of a hundred skeletons in a hundred closets. At the sound, Dakota looks up from her task of planting the last of the anti-tank mines. The sky is thick with turbulent clouds, angry in a way she knows all too well.

Manny follows her glance upward, wincing. “Shit. Base said no weather tonight.”

“Probably fucked up those satellites too,” Koda grunts, turning back to her work.

“I’m guessing this is a bad thing,” Kirsten remarks, walking over from her spot a few yards away.

“Depends on your definition of ‘bad’,” Dakota deadpans, not looking up from her precise placing of the mine beneath the snow.

The barest glint of a smirk sharpens Kirsten’s eyes. “Would you like the Mirriam-Webster-Turner version, or would you be content with the Oxford Condensed Unabridged?”

Manny’s slow motion head turn is the stuff of old-time silent movie classics and Kirsten enjoys every second of it. She’s not exactly sure why she derives such pleasure from getting this brash young pilot’s goat. Perhaps it’s her way of telling him that she will be accepted on her own terms. Why she desires acceptance from a man who is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger is another question she doesn’t have an answer for.

Deer in the headlights, she thinks, raising an eyebrow and daring him to respond. And he looks as if he’s going to, right up until the time that both his military training and the realization of exactly who she is conspire to ambush him. His snappy comeback dies on his lips, and he turns away, pretending to study the roiling sky.

Perfectly aware of the little drama taking place mere feet away, Koda takes her time placing the last mine. Rising, she casually dusts her gloves off on her thighs, then gives Kirsten a deliberately pointed look before clapping her cousin on the back. “Alright, flyboy. Time to make tracks.”

“Bless you,” Manny half whispers before looking through the copse of trees directly ahead. “Uh oh.”

Koda looks up just in time to see the heavy squall move toward them with the speed of an oncoming train. “Shit.” She glances over her shoulder. “Kirsten, grab my pack. Don’t let go no matter what, understand?”

“Whiteout!” Manny shouts just as the storm descends, bathing them in a world of blinding, pure white.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Kirsten becomes immediately disoriented as the howling wind whips the snow around her face and body, blinding her completely, and stinging the exposed areas of her skin like a studded whip. “Dakota!”

“It’s alright! You’re safe!” Koda shouts to be heard above the shrieking wind. Reaching out blindly, she manages to capture Kirsten’s arm and she pulls the other woman forward and tight against what little shelter her larger, longer body can offer. “Don’t let go!”

“Not on your life!”

A massive bolt of lightening splits the sky, and the resulting crack of thunder shakes the earth around them with brutal force. Kirsten’s implants howl in outrage and she lifts her free hand to her forehead, trying fruitlessly to numb the spike of pain chiseling itself into her skull. The air stinks of burning rubber, and she can taste metal in the back of her mouth. Thunder? In the middle of a snowstorm? What the hell??

“Manny! Get us out of here!”

“Any suggestions? I’m blind here!”

“Shit!” She turns her head slightly to the side. “Kirsten, can you move?”

“Yes! I’m fine!”

“Come with me, then! Manny, stay close!”

“Like flies on horseshit, cuz!”

With determined steps, Dakota leads her small group forward, eyes straining to see through the lashing snow. It’s absolutely useless, and the only thing she can rely on are the instincts she’s honed through her life on this land.

When lightning again splits the sky, she uses that same instinct to pull Kirsten to the side and shield her with her own body a split second before the scraping, brittle branches of a giant tree crash down, dealing her a glancing blow on the shoulder.

“Jesus!” Kirsten shouts. “What was that?”

“Tree! Keep moving!”

“Tree?!? We’re in a whole forest of trees!! What if we wind up running into them?!?”

“We’ll all get bloody noses! Now move!”

Not moving isn’t really an option as Kirsten feels herself being pulled forward by the strength of Dakota’s inexorable grip. Her mind rebels against the less than gentle handling, but her body knows a good deal when it senses one, and moves her along complacently.

A chant to the Mother soft upon her lips, Dakota continues to use blind instinct to lead her party out of the dangerous woodland as lightning and thunder continue to do battle around them.

Then comes a flash of light and a loud coughing sound that is neither lightning nor thunder. “The mines.” Koda remarks, still moving them through the thick grove of trees with uncanny precision and not a little stealth.

“Hoo yah!” Manny yells from his place glued to her right side. “Die, you motherfuckers!”

A second, third, and fourth explosion follow in quick succession. With a soft cry, Kirsten falls to her knees, arms wrapped around her head as the feedback of the dying droids—sounding amazingly like human screams—sears through her implants, robbing the strength from her body and the thoughts from her mind.

Koda stops immediately and squats down on her haunches, barely able to see the other woman’s pain wracked face even from scant inches away. She grabs Kirsten’s shoulders tight in her hands and barely keeps herself from shaking the young woman like a rag doll. “What is it?!? What’s wrong?!?”

Kirsten’s mouth is frozen in a rictus of absolute agony, and Dakota divines the problem immediately. “Turn them off!” she all but screams. “Turn them off!!”

If Kirsten can hear her, she gives no sign. A keening moan continues uninterrupted from the very back of her throat as her body rocks in an instinctive attempt at self-comfort as old as time. Squinting through the hard-driving snow, Dakota unwraps Kirsten’s arms from around her head and, praying silently that she’s doing the right thing, feels for the tiny bumps behind each of the young scientist’s ears. With deft, gentle pressure, she presses inward. Relief flows through her in a tangible wave as Kirsten’s body begins to relax almost immediately, slumping weakly against her. Pulling off a glove with her teeth, Koda raises a warm palm to Kirsten’s chin, tilting the other woman’s gaze up to meet her own. Her mouth carefully forms one word. “Better?”

After a moment, Kirsten nods. “Much. Thank you.”

Koda can’t help the smile that spills out, and Kirsten responds with one of her own, all the more glorious for barely being seen, like the tantalizing flash of a deeply desired gift.

Another moment goes by, the sounds of exploding landmines slashing through the air around them. Releasing Kirsten’s chin almost reluctantly, Dakota slips her glove back on and looks carefully at Kirsten, asking a question in her eyes. Kirsten nods and, with a deep breath, Koda rises, pulling the other woman up with her and holding her until Kirsten is more or less steady on her feet.

Kirsten moves up to turn her implants back on, only to be stopped by Koda, who catches her hand and curls it firmly around her bicep. Understanding the silent message, Kirsten gives another nod and begins walking forward in step with her companion. Effectively blind, and now completely deaf, she has no choice but to trust the tall Lakota woman who has, for the second time this day, saved, if not her life, at least her sanity.

Trust is the one emotion she has never, truly, felt able to give anyone. But in the end, and with this woman, she relinquishes the fetters in her soul without a second’s hesitation. There is something very freeing in this simple, if profound, act, and in this giving, she finds herself changed in a way she could never have predicted.

******

When the explosions start, Tacoma immediately clicks his comm. unit, then winces as static crackles directly into his ear. Undeterred, he clicks the unit again and again, willing to hear his sister’s voice through the interference. “Tanski, come in. Dakota, if you hear me, come in.”

As more explosions rip through the night, Tacoma looks over at the Colonel with wide eyes. She holds a hand out. “Let me try.”

Slipping the earpiece from his ear, Tacoma hands the unit over to Allen. She situates the piece, then clicks to open transmission. “Allen to Rivers. Allen to Rivers. Do you read me. Over.” Static answers her, and she tries again. “Allen to Rivers. Dakota, Manny, damn it, if you’re receiving me, answer.”

Nothing.

She shoots a quick look over her shoulder. “Mendoza, do you have a fix on their position?”

The young corporal looks at her with a hangdog expression. “No, Ma’am. Nothing but interference across the board.”

“Shit.” Allen’s epithet was softly spoken, but Tacoma’s sharp hearing picked it up, and he shared with her a brief look of concern and commiseration. “Allen to Rivers. Dakota, can you read me.”

Another moment passes in silence.

Tacoma shoulders his weapon and straightens his jacket.

“What are you doing?” Allen asks, eyes narrowed.

“I’m gonna find them. Now.”

“Wait.” She doesn’t back down from the tall man’s fierce glare. Swallowing her Colonel’s pride, she deliberately softens both face and voice. “Please, wait. You don’t even know where they are!”

“She’s my tanski. My sister. I don’t need a map. I just need this.” A meaty fist thumps against his heart. “I’ll find them.”

Static crackles. And then….

“…ta he…rea…u.”

“Dakota! Dakota, can you read me? Come back.” She knows her voice has a note of rather obvious desperation in it, but she can’t seem to dredge up the will to care.

Tacoma freezes, turns, and looks back at the Colonel, who nods and beckons him back while listening through the static to Koda’s broken words.

“…read…Colonel…t….”

“Dakota, you’re breaking up. Listen to me. We can hear explosions coming from your last noted position. Are you okay?”

“…fine….mines….we’re….”

Allen’s eyes widen. “Excuse me? I didn’t copy. Did you say ‘mines’?”

The static clears for one miraculous moment. “I said mines, Colonel. Anti-tank mines.”

“But where? How?”

“From the supply sergeant at the base. Now if you’ll excuse me….”

“Wait a minute!” Maggie yells as Tacoma hides a chuckle behind a faked cough. “You’re saying you took anti tank mines from the base? Do you know how dangerous that was?!? You could have been killed!!”

Dakota’s return transmission is succinct. “I do, we weren’t, they worked, and with all respect, Colonel,” Dakota deliberately emphasizes Maggie’s title, “yell at me later. We’re in the middle of a white-out here and I need to get my team to safety. Rivers out.”

Allen looks down at the dead comm. link in her hands, then up at Tacoma, whose dark eyes are shining with mirth.

“Do you find this in the least funny, Sergeant?” she snaps.

Tacoma sobers slightly. “Respectfully, Colonel, this is Dakota we’re talking about. No one commands her.” A slight smirk curves his lips. “Unless she wants them to, of course.”

Allen simply glares.

********

Dakota continues forward as she clicks the comm. link closed. Manny, who has heard the entire conversation, turns his head in her direction, though the snow is still far too furious for him to clearly see her, only half a foot away. “Ooooh, she’s not gonna like that, cuz.”

“Let her fire me if she wants to,” Koda mutters in return, trying fruitlessly to peer through the swirling snow. “I just want this damn squall to stop.”

As if only awaiting those very words, the snow does just that. It doesn’t just taper off. It stops completely, vanishing as if it had never been.

Manny comes to a halt and blinks. The abrupt end of the storm reveals their APC not more than ten feet away, blanketed in at least eight inches of newfallen snow. “Holy Mother,” he breathes before turning to his cousin, eyes wide as saucers. “I can’t believe you just did this. I knew you were half Hupaki glake. I fucking knew it!”

Koda rolls her eyes at him. “You’ve got the ears for one.”

Blushing slightly, Manny instinctively reaches up for the aforementioned appendages. “Not fair.”

“Take that up with Makha Ina. Right now, I just want to get home. You drive.”

“You got it, cuz.”

She looks to Kirsten, who is staring at her with an odd expression on her face. “What? What is it?”

Reaching up to turn her implants back on, she removes the ear bud from her ear and takes a step closer to Dakota. “You’re bleeding.”

Koda looks down, for the first time noticing the red stain covering much of her left chest. Her cammo suit is raggedly torn and fresh blood oozes slowly from the hole. “Oh. It’s just a scratch.”

“How did it happen?”

“From the tree that fell. I think.”

Their eyes meet. “The one that would have hit me if you hadn’t shielded me with your body. Why did you do that?”

Koda shrugs. “Because I could.” It is a simple reply, and the truth of it shines through in her words, and eyes, leaving Kirsten to look at her in wonder.

Manny ends the moment with a quick toot of the horn. “Come on, guys! Time’s a’wasting.”

As Koda starts forward, more blood flows from the wound, soaking her cammos. Kirsten stops her with a touch to the wrist.

“That’s more than a scratch. Sit in the back with me. I’ll tend it as we’re driving back to the base.”

“It’ll be fine,” Koda demurs. “It can wait.”

“Please.”

One simple word, so softly spoken, opens up a side of the young scientist that Dakota had long suspected was there, but had never really seen. Until now. She smiles, a cockeyed half-grin that Kirsten privately finds rather attractive. “Okay.”

******

“Geez, Manny!” Koda hisses as the APC hits yet another deep rut, bouncing its occupants, particularly the ones in the back seat, around like rag dolls. “We’re not at the local tractor pull, you know.”

“Sorry, cuz. The roads are a bitch out here. I’m doing my best.”

“It’s alright. Just…try to be a little smoother.”

“You got it.”

Kirsten pulls up the heavy first-aid kit from its place bolted to the floorboards of the armored vehicle. Popping the clips, she opens the metal lid and peers inside. Her hands set upon a pair of bandage scissors, and she pulls them out, then looks up at Dakota. “If you can unzip your cammos, I’m going to have to cut your thermals away from the wound.”

Nodding, Koda unzips the suit to just above her navel.

Kirsten quickly averts her gaze as she gets an unexpected view of Dakota’s small, firm breasts, clearly outlined against the thin, skin-tight fabric. She can feel her face go a flaming red and guesses Koda can likely feel the heat of it from her place against the opposite door. “I…um….”

“It’s ok,” Koda replies softly, smiling. “Like I said, this can wait.”

“No.” Kirsten clears her throat and tries again. “No. I can….” Forgoing any further attempts at talking, she grabs the proverbial bull by the horns, reaches for the neckline of Dakota’s thermals, and gently cuts down to mid chest. Peeling the blood-sodden fabric away, she exposes the deep, sluggishly bleeding cut. She then tracks up to meet Koda’s eyes. “It’s um…
it’s….”

“On my breast. I know.” She smiles again. “If you can wet down a bandage, I’ll get some of this blood off, then tape a pressure dressing to it. It’ll hold until we reach base.”

“I’ll do it,” Kirsten replies firmly, trying desperately to rein in her professional demeanor, which seems to have fled with the rest of her common sense. God, you’d think I was some giddy schoolgirl. Get your act together, Kirsten. You offered to help. So help. Think about her breasts later.

And she would. Of that, she was sure.

Forcing her hands to remain steady, she uncaps a bottle of sterile water and wets a dressing sponge with it. She begins to blot at the wound, though the task is made harder by the fact that she has nothing to purchase on. Manny driving them like he’s riding a steer in a rodeo doesn’t help matters any.

Finally, blessedly, most of the blood is cleaned away. Kirsten then unwraps a sterile 4X4, doubles it, then doubles it again and presses it tight against the wound. The APV chooses this moment to hit its biggest rut yet, and in pure instinct, Kirsten lifts her free hand and cups Koda’s entire breast in order to maintain pressure on the wound.

“I guess this means we’re married now.”

The amusement in the low voice causes Kirsten to realize the positioning of her hands, and she looks up at Koda with something very akin to horror blazing from her features.

Dakota can’t help the soft laugh that escapes. “Relax,” she soothes. “You’re doing a good job.”

Kirsten’s fiery blush deepens.

Koda rolls her eyes. “Breathe,” she orders softly. “I can’t have my nurse passing out on me like this. What would people think?”

The vehicle hits yet another rut and Kirsten, already off balance, falls forward, diving nose first into Koda’s warm cleavage. Dakota’s arms come around her instinctively, protecting her from further jostling as the APV stutters and bucks its way down the unplowed road.

“Could this possibly get any worse?” comes the plaintive wail from between her breasts.

Koda laughs out loud. “Well, we could be walking.”

*******

Wearing a freshly pressed jumpsuit she got from the base hospital, Koda steps quietly into the darkened, cool house. Her head is lightly buzzing from the four or five shots of pure octane that her brother and cousin had all but poured down her throat in celebration. Of what, she still isn’t quite sure, but their good spirits and warm companionship was a fine enough inducement to stay. Her wound is neatly stitched and dressed, and quite complacent beneath the numbing weight of the alcohol she’s consumed.

The light from the fireplace leads her through the darkened kitchen and into the living room. Asi’s tail thumps against the tattered rug, but he doesn’t remove his head from its resting place atop Kirsten’s thigh. The woman in question is sprawled along the couch, her head lolling against one ragged arm, a thick—and doubtless dry as dust—robotics tome resting, spine up, on her chest. Her glasses hang askew on her face, and she is lightly snoring, obviously deeply asleep.

Coming closer, Dakota squats on her haunches and lays a hand in Asimov’s warm fur, stroking it as she gazes down at Kirsten, watching the firelight as it plays over her spun-gold hair. She follows one tendril that lays across one twitching eye, caught up in thick, dusky lashes. The face she looks upon is that of an innocent untouched by the ravages of war or time. It is a kind face, a compassionate face imbued with an innate goodness that the young scientist tries so hard to conceal.

With infinite tenderness, she gently sweeps the tendril loose of its confinement, smiling as Kirsten’s nose twitches briefly, before relaxing once again beneath the weight of her slumber.

A soft footfall sounds, and Koda looks up to see Maggie, her well-worn robe casually belted at the waist. Her face is solemn, brown eyes intent on Koda’s face.

“She’s getting inside, isn’t she.”

Though the words carry with them a faint accusation, the tone itself is soft, perhaps even warm. Koda chooses to keep silent, well knowing that her face speaks a truth mere words can’t convey.

“Thought so,” Maggie responds in a whisper, walking over to the foot of the couch and staring down at the almost fragile looking woman taking up its length. “Sparks like that don’t fly for nothing.”

“Sparks?”

Maggie’s smile, when it comes, is wry. “Yeah.” As she swallows, a brief look of sadness crosses her features, and is gone.

“Maggie, I….”

Allen lifts a hand. “Don’t say it, Koda. Don’t say that you’re sorry.”

Rising gracefully to her feet, Dakota grasps the upraised hand and pulls it gently to her chest. “I wasn’t.” She pins Maggie with her eyes. “I’m not.”

That brief, sad smile flashes but a moment as Maggie lifts her free hand and tenderly trails it against Dakota’s warm cheek.

“C’mon,” she intones softly. “Let’s go to bed.”

******

The General’s conference room is still grey, but this time, at least, the coffee arrives promptly. As steam curls up from the mug before her, Koda is pleased to note that it is also hot. Kirsten’s sudden status as possible Commander-in-Chief of whatever is left of the armed forces may not make Amtrak run on time—has not made the trains run at all, in fact– but it has had an immediate and positive effect on the Base’s coffeemakers.

Kirsten has taken her seat at the head of the table without question this time, Hart claiming the second-ranking chair at the foot. Otherwise the seating arrangement reflects the tension that has been building in the room for the past two hours. One side is wall-to-wall brass: Air Force Light Colonels, Majors, a stray Captain to fill out the line. Like Hart, they are all in formal uniform, all of them bristling with theatre ribbons and good conduct medals. Studying the decorations surreptitiously as she sips her coffee, Koda counts the presence of only one pair of pilot’s wings and zero Purple Hearts. Desk jockeys and rearguards.

Facing them across the table are the scouts who have just returned from the prospective battleground, Tacoma and Manny in unmarkedand rankless fatigues, the rest in an assortment of jeans and work shirts. One of the Majors—Grueneman, H., according to hisname tag—darts his eyes repeatedly from Koda to Tacoma. She has no need of her shamanic talent to know what he is thinking: they look just like identical twins, but they can’t be. There is, too, something of the offended grade school principal in the down-the-nose-on-a-long-slalom look that lingers on Tacoma’s hair, caught back like her own with a beaded band at the nape.

Definitely not regulation.

Live with it, asshole. If you want Lakota allies, accept Lakota customs. Koda sips at her coffee and winks slyly the next time Grueneman, H. allows his eyes to wander to her and her brother.

The Major averts his gaze instantly, and Koda turns her attention back to Maggie Allen. The Colonel stands at the front of the room, marking the positions of enemy units on a holographic topo map. Its contours are dotted with small red laser x’s that show a clear pattern of convergence upon Ellsworth, troops grinding south from Minot, north from Warren and Offut. A scattering of green circles represents possible disposition of Ellsworth’s own assets, mostly ground and mechanical forces with a couple squadrons of Black Hawks and Apaches to back them up from the air.

“That’s an extremely conservative strategy, Colonel,” Hart observes. “We do have an operational fighter squadron. Counting Lieutenant Rivers and yourself, we have a good dozen pilots. Why not simply bomb these columns?”

Maggie turns from rearranging red and green marks on the screen to answer the Base commander. “It is conservative, General. ‘Conservative’ as in preserving our assets. I would prefer to hold our air power back to use as a last resort.”

“What aircraft do the droids have, Colonel?” Kirsten’s question is quiet, but it draws the immediate attention of the entire assembly. “It’s my understanding that they have no fighters and no air transport. And they would have no one to fly them if they did.” Her attention shifts, then, and her green eyes flash, for an instant feral as a hunting cat’s. “I can tell you for certain, General, that no military droids were ever programmed to operate aircraft or airborne weapons systems. I fought your own Air Force Chief of Staff over that in the House Armed Services Committee.

“I won.”

“All the more reason to take advantage of –well, our advantage.” Grueneman, H. has found his voice. “There is a limited time remaining in which we can expect our satellite-guided systems to continue to function. We might as well make use of them while we can.”

“What about outlying civilian communities?” asks Lorena, the redheaded Ms. Tilbury-Laduque. “The jets are the only way help can reach them in time if they’re attacked.”

“Risk them—waste the ammo—waste the fuel—and they’ll be entirely on their own.,” her partner adds.

“Ma’am, we’re at war,” says Hart. “Under these circumstances, the armed forces’ first duty is to preserve itself and the government.”

“No.1” Kirsten is on her feet, hands flat on the surface of the table. Her mouth is straight and tight,; the effort the other woman is making to keep her voice even is almost palpable. “Don’t you understand? There is no government at the moment. By itself Ellsworth”—a wave of her hand encompasses the base—”is not a viable unit. The population is skewed in half a dozen ways that mean it can’t survive except as part of a wider social spectrum. Protecting those outlying communities has to be our first priority, not our last.”

“I agree with Dr. King, General,” Maggie says quietly. “Let’s use our planes if we need them, but only if we can’t get the job done otherwise. The droids do have SAMs; we don’t’ want to risk a shoot-down unnecessarily.”

“All right.” Hart leans back in his chair, stretching his legs under the table. “Let’s game it out without the air cover.”

Maggie turns once again to the holoboard. “We have enemy units coming in here, here, here.” She highlights the red X’s with a pointer. “From what we’ve picked up from their communications and can guess by the routes they’re taking, they’ll converge in force here—in the foothills just north and east of the base.”

“They’ll have to cross the Elk Creek branch of the Cheyenne,” Tacoma observes. “There’s only one bridge.”

Maggie flashes him a grin. “There’s only one bridge. We split our forces. One party waits for them here, on the south bank. The land is rough, with plenty of cover, including some wooded areas. The other party—” she pauses, a good teacher waiting for her students to supply the answer.

“The other party,” Koda answers slowly, “gets into position behind them before they arrive. We squeeze them between the two forces and the river. Dr. King can monitor the androids’ communications. Manny and Tacoma and I can relay the information without worrying about interception.”

“Classic pincer,” observes Grueneman.

“Not quite,” Manny counters. “When do we blow the bridge?”

“On my order, Lieutenant,” says Hart. He gives Allen a nod and a complacent smile. “It’s a good plan, Colonel, assuming we can get by without committing our air superiority.”

An awkward silence falls in the room. Kirsten breaks it. “You mean to command the operation personally, General?”

“Why, yes.”

“After your brilliant success at Minot?” she spits. “General, your leadership is what got us where we are now.”

It seems to Koda that the temperature in the room drops a good ten degrees. The silence that follows is glacial. The muscles around Tacoma’s mouth twitch almost imperceptibly; Lorena Tilbury-Laduque coughs sharply and covers the lower half of her face with a well-faded bandana. Without sound, Manny’s lips form the words, “Holy Ina Maka, Mother of God.”

The quiet stretches out interminably. Finally, Hart draws a long breath and says quietly. “Very well, Dr. King. Allow me to recommend Lt. Colonel Frank Maiewski.”

Maiewski, Koda notes, is the one pilot. He turns an unattractive shade of fuschia, bright pink scalp showing through thinning hair. “General, thank you, but I don’t believe—”

“Colonel Allen has rank,” Kirsten observes quietly.

“And experience,” adds Manny. “We spent the first week after the uprising fighting these things out in the countryside.”

The General’s mouth curves upward in an expression that stiffens Koda’s spine and sets off alarms all along her nerves. That’s how a snake would look if it could smile. Beside her, Tacoma has picked up on it, too; he turns to stare straight at Hart. His fingers, spread flat on the table, twitch as if trying to form themselves into fists. But Hart says only, “Colonel? Are you up to the job?”

Maggie’s own face has gone grey. But her voice is steady when she answers. “I will be happy to accept whatever assignment you or Dr. King gives me , Sir.”

“All right. You’re in command of this operation. Just be sure of your targets this time.” Hart pushes out his chair and rises.
“Half hour break.”

The Colonel remains standing by the holo screen as the other officers and civilians file out. Koda is the last to go; just short of the door, though, Maggie calls her back. “Dakota.”

Koda stops and shuts the door. Her voice is soft. “What’s wrong?”

“Hart.” Maggie lays down her pointer, making an oddly pleading gesture toward the General’s now empty seat. “There’s something you need to know.”

Be sure of your targets. It had been a threat. Missed targets. With a sudden sense of conviction, Koda knows what Maggie is about to say. Damn the bastard.

Aloud she says, “No. There’s nothing I need to know.”

“Yes, there is. Dr. King needs to know, too.”

Koda speaks levelly, acknowledging what she knows is coming, denying nothing. “You hit the wrong target once.”

“Oh, not just the wrong target.” Maggie crosses the room and opens a pair of the grey-on-grey curtains. Thin grey light shines in, muted by cloud cover and dirty snow. “I hit the wrongest target there is.”

“Civilians?”

“A village in the Panjir. Farmers and goatherders. Old women. Kids.” Her voice hardens. “Half a dozen five-hundred pounders right on top of them. No goddamned excuse at all.”

Koda says very carefully. “It’s not the first time such a thing has happened. It won’t be the last.”

“No, it’s not. But those other times I wasn’t responsible. This time I was.” Maggie turns to meet her eyes. “I should have left the service after that, but I didn’t. I still loved it too much—the flying, the feeling of power.”

And you’ve demanded perfection of yourself ever since. “Maggie?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve seen you in the field. I trust you, and so do the troops.”

“Thanks.” A small smile twitches at Maggie’s mouth. “You have the talent to be one of the best fighters I’ve ever met. If I’ve taught you anything, I can be proud of that.”

Koda opens the door. “Not just that. Would you like me to tell Kirsten you’d like to speak to her?”

“Please.”

Koda nods, steps into the corridor and, very softly, closes the door.

*******

Koda slips quietly out of her sleeping bag, careful not to disturb Maggie or Kirsten, still stretched out on the floor of the troop carrier on either side of her. Kirsten does not wake, but murmurs in her sleep, reaching out toward the now-empty space where Koda had been a moment ago. She misses Asi. With the thought a twinge of—what? Not guilt, exactly, not quite regret either—passes through Koda. The dog had howled and flung himself against the gate of the clinic kennel when they had turned to leave him not quite day ago. Hidden behind her darkened lenses, Kirsten’s eyes had been red and swollen for the next twelve hours. “Allergies,” she had claimed, but even with a warming breeze from the south, it is still too early for the spring miseries of blowing pollen.

In the light of the small ceramic heater, Koda begins to pull on her battle dress over her thermals. Because she and Kirsten will be stationed with the com unit back in the woods that crown a rise behind the intended battle line, her Arctic white camo is streaked in the grey-brown of bare branches, the spider tracery of dead grass. She is not sure, exactly, of the time, but even here in the enclosed warmth of the truck, she can smell the changes that come with the wind that rises before dawn, bearing with it the hint of far places where the snow has loosed its grip on the land. Places, even, where ice never clamps down upon the earth at all, and winter means relief of pounding heat.

Heraklion.

The thought comes to her with the vivid urgency of a child’s wish. If I live through this—if any of us live; if there is anything human left at all—someday I want to go back to Crete and lie on the beach in Heraklion.

She can see it still, the white sand and the thousand-year-old Byzantine domes whitewashed to perfect brightness under the white glare of the sun; the white wings of gulls dipping and wheeling above the impossible deep blue of the water that stretches on and on to the horizon.

For an instant it seems to her that time slips, and she is looking out over the curling breakers at strong brown arms and legs flashing in the surf as a dolphin arcs above the water’s surface and the spray off its sleek form catches the light like a shower of falling stars. The angle of the sun shifts, and the swimmer is no longer Tali, but a fair-haired woman whose face she cannot see. The ancient monastery that broods down from the sea-cliff has acquired fluted columns and a marble altar that smokes with incense, the sharp smell of myrrh sliding along the salt air. And the sun dips again, and there is nothing but the white beach and the woman whose hair gleams like cornsilk, calling to her from the water where the dolphins leap under the endless sky.

Koda shakes her head to clear it, reaching for her sidearm and cinching down the straps that hold the shoulder holster in place against her side. The images carry the feel of truth, but she cannot spare the attention now to sort past from future, desire from fate.

Carefully she steps between the two women and lets herself out the insulated flap at the back of the truck. The plastic sheeting clacks softly behind her as she steps onto the rear bumper, then jumps lightly onto the snow beneath. The night is clear. The moon rides high above the bare limbs of beech and sycamore, its reflection on the snow casting ghost light about her feet. The light wind creaks among the branches, unfurls the frost of her breath in streamers.

In an hour or a little more, she knows, the sun will rise, and the quiet woods and fields in this lonely corner of South Dakota will explode with the noise of battle. The thought does not frighten her; she has spent the last weeks with a gun scarcely out of her hand. She has condemned men to the slow death of thirst and starvation in the Mandan jail; has blown gods know how many androids into electronic oblivion; killed a man with her own hands. There will be nothing new to her in the violence to come. The difference tomorrow will be in her assigned role as communicator to the divided wings of the troops gathered here to close, at the appointed time, on the enemy force.

And there is Kirsten, whose safety will be her primary responsibility, on whose skills their survival beyond tomorrow may well depend.

Without sound, two shadows separate themselves from the trees behind the line of trucks and move toward her. One, tall and bareheaded, is her brother; the other, shorter and stockier, is Manny. “Hau, tanski,” Tacoma greets her.

“Han, thiblo. Shick’shi.”

Tacoma draws a small leather bag out of his jacket. From it he takes a bundle of dried sweetgrass and sage tied with a red thread and half a dozen packets of folded buckskin. Carefully he lays them out on the truck’s wide bumper. “I’m glad you’re up.” A grin lights his face. “Or did you already know we were coming?”

She smiles in return. “I should have.”

“Other things on your mind?” Manny nods toward the truck.

“Han. It’s not good for so much to depend on one person.”

“No,” her brother agrees quietly. “But she’s our best bet to stop the droids. You’re our best bet to keep her alive to do it. That is not in question.”

“It ought to be.”

“No. It shouldn’t.” Manny gestures back toward the stretch of highway where a squadron of Black Hawks and Apaches are parked. “You’ve got to know that my orders are to get you two out of here safely if it all goes to hell when the sun comes up.”

“Damn it, Manny—”

“And I don’t want any argument from you or Dr. Ice Maiden if it comes to that. There won’t be time—oh, damn,” he says very softly.

Silhouetted by the faint glow of the heater, Kirsten stands holding the open flap above them. There is no chance at all that she has not heard Manny’s reference to her, and Koda can almost feel the heat of embarrassment radiating from him. But Kirsten speaks evenly, looking down at the small packets on the bumper. “I’m sorry, I’ve interrupted you. I’ll go out the other way.”

“No.” It is Tacoma, his voice firm. “Please join us.” He reaches up to hand her down, and after a moment’s hesitation, she accepts. “You’re a warrior, too.”

Kirsten stands motionless for a moment, then says softly, “Thank you. I’m honored.”

Tacoma hands Koda the sweetgrass bundle, and shielding a match with his big hands, carefully lights it. Smoke billows up from the herbs, and, closing her eyes, Koda waves it toward her, over her head and shoulders, breathing in its fragrance. Calm settles over her, a stillness that begins just under her heart and ripples outward until mind and body alike are quiet. She passes the smudge stick to Tacoma, who repeats the ritual before handing it to Kirsten. Her face pale as the snow, Kirsten follows their example, bowing her head in reverence as the peace of the ritual takes possession of her. When Manny has completed the purification, Tacoma gently opens the small leather bundles. Five packets hold finely ground colors: white an black and red; red and yellow ochre. In the sixth is a knob of rendered buffalo fat.

Tacoma dips a finger in the tallow and mixes it with a sprinkling of the red ochre. Carefully he draws a blazing sun on his forehead and the pug marks of a large cat on either cheek. Manny follows suit, marking his face with black arrows tipped in red.

Kirsten, who has watched with a look of rapt attention, accepts a bit of the fat from the bundle as Manny offers it to her, together with some of the red and black pigment. There is unexpected certainty in her movements, and Koda stifles the impulse to offer help. Deliberately, precisely, the other woman traces a double spiral in red on the back of each of her hands, a black lightning bolt down her cheek.. When she has finished, she turns to offer the paints to Koda.

Tacoma’s hand intercepts them. “Let me.”

Koda opens her mouth to protest, but Tacoma says, very gently. “No, tanski. Tshunka Wakan Winan. Let me.”

A tightening in her solar plexus sends alarm along her nerves, something near panic screaming down her blood. The calm of a few moments before is shattered, its fragments falling about her in brittle shards. All unexpectedly, she has arrived at a moment of crisis, something she knows she is not prepared for, something there is no way to prepare for. Her mouth goes dry as cotton, and her tongue feels thick and unwieldly as she forms the simple word she does not want to speak and knows she must speak. “Ohan.”

No sound carries her consent, and she repeats, whispering. “Ohan.”

“Washté,” Tacoma answers quietly, and begins to mix white pigment in his hand.

Koda feels the pressure of his finger as he draws a jagged lightning bolt from her hairline to her chin. She swallows hard against the fear that rises in her, knowing somehow what is coming. When her brother begins to dot the paint onto her cheeks, she grabs his wrist. “Tacoma, no!”

He makes no effort to resist her, but says quietly, “It is right.”

The night has begun to fade around them, and she can see her brother’s eyes. They are a warrior’s, deep brown and steady, but there is a spark of the shaman’s gift in them as well. He says again, “It is right.”

She submits, then, allowing him to paint on her face the symbols that Tshunka Witco of the Oglala, Crazy Horse, saw when he cried for a vision. Ina Maka, she prays silently as a weight settles across her shoulders, a weight that now only death will lift from her. Mother of us all, help me to carry this burden and not to fail.

Above her in the fading darkness she hears the high scream of a hawk. Just as the sun clears the horizon, a red-tail settles in the bare sycamore above her. Crazy Horse had worn a red-tailed hawk in his hair. Wiyo, though, looks down at her with a clear golden gaze that is somehow both loving and pitiless. It is validation of her office, and completion.

Tacoma follows her gaze as she looks up at the hawk. “Hoka hey,” he says. “It is a good day.”

“It is a good day,” Kirsten echoes him. “A good day to fight.”
CHAPTER FIFTEEN
The early sun lies lightly on the valley, spreading a transparent wash of gold over the new snow that blankets the meadow to the southeast of the river. From the low bank to the woods, still bare with the lingering cold, it lies porcelain smooth for almost half a kilometer. Branches of beech an sycamore cast their shadows across it in a grey-blue web as delicate as a spider’s. Here and there among the trees, a peeling of bark takes the light in a flash of silver, almost indistinguishable from the occasional glint off metal where the line of soldiers stands along the margin of the trees.

Koda can make out the long barrels of the two howitzers drawn up behind them only because she already knows where to look. Below the downslope of the hill where she stands, mist rises off the Cheyenne to curl around the pylons and rails of the narrow bridge, coiling, loosing and coiling again as it spirals across the meadow, breaking like surf where it climbs against the steeply rising piedmont of the Paha Sapa to the northwest. Tacoma and most of their infantry lie concealed in the folds of those basalt ridges. The mist gives them further cover as it seeps by fissure and rock chimney into the badlands, though it cannot hide them from heat or infrared sensors.

By the time the enemy picks them up, though, it should be too late.

“I feel as if I’ve slipped back in time.”

Koda lowers her binoculars and turns to face Maggie. She gestures at her face, with its painted lightning bolt and hailstones, the devices worn almost a hundred and fifty years ago by Tshunka Witco, Crazy Horse of the Oglala. “You mean this?”

Maggie shakes her head slightly. “I mean this.” The sweep of her hand takes in the valley and its troop emplacements open and concealed. “The conventional doctrine of modern warfare is to pound the enemy down with bombs and missiles first. The ground forces only go in when you’re ready to mop up or have to fight house to house. There hasn’t been a true set battle like this in—oh, a century, not since the first of the World Wars.”

“Forward, into the past.” The voice is soft and lightly humorous.

Koda and Maggie both turn startled eyes on Kirsten where she sits in the back of the troop carrier. Her laptop is deployed on the folding table in the center, connected by a rat’s nest of wire and cables to the bank of communications consoles stacked up along and below one of the benches. A small smile starts just at the edges of her mouth, widens as Koda and the Colonel stare. Then she turns demurely back to her readouts, clicking rapidly through a series of equipment checks. “All on line, Colonel,” she says, serious again. “Please try your audio links now, Dakota.”

Koda slips off the hood of her jacket and secures the headset in place. “Tacoma.. Tacoma.. Ayupte.”

“Hau, tanksi. Manah’i blezela.”

She nods to Maggie and Kirsten, both of whom look relieved. They had been concerned that the radio signal might be blocked by the same rock formations that conceal the troops. Runners were not going to work in this kind of fight, not with a river in between them. And line-of-sight signals would only draw the enemy’s attention to the command post, where it was least wanted.

“Wikcemna-topa,” she acknowledges. “Manny.”

“Manah’i hotanka na blezela.”

Koda gives a thumbs-up as Manny breaks the link. He and his squadron of Black Hawks and Apaches wait five miles to the north of their position, set down on a straight stretch of farm road to await Maggie’s signal.

“Jurgensen. Major Jurgensen. Ayupte.”

Frank Jurgensen is a blond Wisonsin farm boy turned Marine Major who has not a drop of Lakota blood. He has not a word of the language, either, except for the half-dozen signals Koda has drilled him in. His answer is awkward but clear: “Ma-na-hee blay-zay-luh.” Then, for a flourish, because he is a Marine, “Wikeem-nah topa.”

“Wikcemna-topa,” she answers. Turning to Kirsten, she smiles briefly. “All good to go. No static, no language problems.”

“Good,” says Maggie. “At least we can get a courier to the guys on this side if we lose the major or he loses his vocabulary list.” To Kirsten, “Are you picking up any of their chatter?”

Kirsten enters a code on the laptop and listens intensely for a moment. “They’re coming straight down the road. They should be getting into the first of the anti-tank mines—”

A sudden soft thump sounds to the northwest where the road winds through a stretch of lava flats. Koda turns on her heel, focusing on a thin column of smoke that rises into the clear air.

“—right about now,” Kirsten finishes. She scowls, adjusting her headset. “They weren’t expecting that. They’ve stopped. An armored personnel carrier hit the mine; the passengers are all dead—they were all human, apparently–and the shrapnel’s taken out a couple droids.”

“That one of yours?” Maggie asks Koda with a grin.

“Mine or Tacoma’s. They—”

“They’re going off road,” Kirsten interrupts.

Maggie shoots Koda a questioning look and she answers, “They can’t go overland in this terrain, Colonel. They’ll have to get back on the highway. Not that it matters.”

A second muffled explosion follows, and a third.

“Off-road mines?”

Koda nods, focusing the binoculars, searching for smoke. There is none this time. “Military droids?” she asks Kirsten.

Kirsten holds up her hand for quiet. After a moment she says, “They’re going to stay on the road. They figure we can’t have mined the whole stretch of highway. . .. They’re sorting their troops out. . .. humans in front. . . regular droids off to the side. . . their armor . . .heavy-duty metalheads last and further out.”

“They’ve sure as hell got their priorities sorted out,” Maggie snorts. “You know, I keep forgetting they’re machines. I keep hating the bastards.”

“I keep hating Westerhaus,” Kirsten bites the words off. “I keep hoping he’s alive.”

Koda opens her mouth to speak, then shuts it abruptly. She still remembers the sharp crack of Kirsten’s hand against General Hart’s cheek upon her arrival at Ellsworth, the sense of contained rage coming off the woman’s skin like heat. Instead she turns her attention back toward the road. It is a matter of minutes before she hears yet another explosion, this one slightly louder, slightly nearer. A second follows, and a third. Then nothing. She says, “They’re through the first stretch of mines. They’ll come on the next in about a mile.”

“Gods, I hope the fog holds,” Maggie mutters. “They’re what, about an hour away?”

“At regular marching pace, yes. They can go faster if they get all the humans and regular droids up onto vehicles, but from what I’m picking up they don’t have the wheels to do that.” Kirsten pauses, listening. “They know there’s a bridge here. They’re sending out a couple of scouts in a truck.”

“Damn,” Maggie says quietly. “Can you fake their signals, Dr. King? Like all clear, come on?”

“I don’t have the codes for that, Colonel. ”

“All right, we’ll do it the old-fashioned way. Rivers. Tell Dietrich to get half a dozen men down under the bridge. We’re gonna play Billy Goat Gruff when the fuckers show up.”

Koda raises the Major again. “Wichasha sakpe kuta ceyakto. Numpa toka.”

There is a pause, then the double click they have arranged as a signal for “say again.” Koda repeats herself, more slowly. There is a long pause, and the sound of paper rustling. Just as she has resigned herself to English, the Major says. “Hau. Washte,” and the line goes dead.

A moment or two later, she can just see the squad, moving shapes of solid white darting through the fog toward the bridge. As they scramble down the bank to position themselves beneath the span, a Jeep painted in incongruous tropical camo, all deep green and blood-brown, comes to a sudden halt at the other end . Two forms, rifles at the ready, begin to work their way down its length, pausing to look over the railing at ten or twelve feet intervals.

Maggie, like Koda, has her binoculars up. “Can you tell what they are?”

“I’m not getting any signal off them, Colonel,” says Kirsten. “If they’re droids, they’re not talking to each other.”

In the distance, a mine goes off, and a thin curl of smoke rises. The column is closer now, and the sound echoes against the rocks. The two figures on the bridge pause, turning their heads in the direction of the blast. Then they resume their inspection, slowly working their way toward the end where ambush awaits them.

“Come on, come on,” Maggie urges.

The scouts reach the southeast bank and step onto the road. One gestures back toward the river, pointing downward. Then both begin the descent, disappearing into the fog.

The sounds of the struggle come clearly over the water, little muffled by the fog. It is brief, and in when it is over, five men in white camo emerge from beneath the bridge. One breaks away from the others, sprinting for the other side of the river. He picks up a com unit and speaks into it, then drives the jeep off the road and down the sloping bank., to park it somewhere beneath the first pair of pylons. When he reappears he is running flat out, making for the single approach on the southeast side that has been left free of mines.

After that, there is little time to wait. A couple thousand yards from the bridge, the sun catches a glint of metal. Maggie sees it as the same time Koda does. “They’re here.”

Koda smiles slowly, her blood beginning to sing as it slips along her veins. “Hoka hey,” she says “It is a good day to fight.”

“Here they come.”

It is not a sound so much as it is a vibration, a wave propagating through earth and rock. There is a rhythm to it, of booted feet, human and not, tramping up the thin strip of highway, of metal treads crunching their way through snow and biting into the tarmac. From somewhere just out of sight around a basalt outcropping, the sun catches a glint of steel, then another and another as the enemy column winds its way through the maze of low rock walls and shallow gullies.

Koda swings her binoculars back up to try to catch first sight of the approaching force. They emerge between a pair of buttes, foot soldiers in uneven ranks, carrying an assortment of automatic rifles, grenade launchers, shoulder-fired LAAWS rockets. Some are in uniform, some not. “Conscripts?”

Beside her, Maggie scans the oncoming ranks, her mouth tightening. “Can’t tell. We’ll spare them if we can, as long as we can. But we don’t take risks. The first one that fires a shot, we take ‘em out.”

Koda’s com unit crackles to life. She listens briefly, then reports, “Tacoma says the column is about halfway past his position. They have a couple mobile SAM missile launchers and some heavy guns, three howitzers. About fifteen percent of the enemy are the heavy military droids, pretty much what we figured. The rest are half-and-half humans and various domestic models—firedroids, Maid Marians, a few nannydroids. He says there’s one in an old-fashioned parlor-maids uniform, toting an M-16.” She listens again. “They’ve lost what appears to be about a third of their armored vehicles. They still have four tanks that Tacoma can see and a dozen APC’s.”

Maggie nods. “Could be better, but that cuts them down some. Good work with those mines, Rivers.” She turns back to watching the enemy advance. “Tell that cousin of yours to start his engines and stand by. As soon as they get about half the heavy stuff out in the open, they’re all his.”

Koda relays the message swiftly. Like the Colonel, she never takes her eyes from the oncoming troops.

“Dakota?” The voice is Kirsten’s a surprising hint of laughter in it.

“Yeah?”

“How the hell do you say ‘parlor maid’s uniform’ in Lakota?”

Koda smiles in answer. “Simple. ‘Silly-ass black and white dress with a frilly apron and ribbons.'”

Kirsten laughs briefly, then turns back to her com set. “Okay. An order is going up the line. They’re going to go straight across the bridge. They bought the fake all-clear.”

The human contingent is fully in the open now, strung out along the highway between the bridge and the point where the road emerges from the foothills. A band of general-use droids follows, a few outliers of the military type ranging to the sides of the column. Koda spots the parlor maid, incongruous in its curly blonde doll’s wig and beribboned cap. Another wears a firefighter’s uniform, its blue shirt stained dark brown along its sleeves. Koda’s own blood sounds like a drum in her ears, and she struggles for control of her anger. Fight cold, dammit.

Finally the armor emerges onto the open highway, escorted by a hundred or so of the military droids. Koda locates one of the trucks carrying the SAMS, their launch tubes angled up at the ready. A pair of tanks follow, their canons swiveled forward. They are close enough now that she can hear the characteristic whine of their engines.

She glances to one side, but all Maggie’s attention is on the advancing enemy below them. “Okay, come on,” the Colonel mutters softly. “Come on, you motherfuckers, come one . . . . come on. . . .come on . . .NOW!”

Koda keys her com and speaks sharply into the mike. “Shic’eshi! Takpaye! Wana!”

An ear-splitting whoop comes back through her earpiece. “Unyanpi! Hoka hey!” Then, still breathlessly but more quietly, “Wikcemna-topa..”

Koda echoes the sign-off, the turns to Kirsten and Maggie. “They’re on their way.”

It seems a lifetime but is perhaps five minutes later that Kirsten raises a hand to her earpiece. “They’re here.”

Koda turns to see the sky above the hilltop swarming with monstrous locusts, the shriek of their turbo engines like the whine of plagues sweeping over the hapless grasslands, the pylons hanging like legs beneath their foreshortened wings bristling with chainguns and Hellfire missiles. They go over in a clamor of blades and the sweep of rotor wash, rattling the branches of the bare tree that spreads above the command post. Straining to see, Koda waves as the lead bird sweeps over the last of the low hills, giving them their first sight of the battleground. From his side window, Manny picks out the three figures perched on the hillside, one of whom is waving at the mixed squadron of Black Hawks and Apaches as they descend on the enemy advancing toward the narrow bridge. He waves back, knowing she cannot see him, but feeling the tie of blood all the same. The green-lit screens on his console,–one for radar, one for the laser-targeting mechanism– show the droids and the heavy armor strung out in formation.
“Okay, Littleton,” he says to the gunner seated in the nose of the craft below and in front of him. “Start picking your targets. Get the SAM’s first.”

“Gotcha, bro.”

A small white cross, the target indicator, appears above the shape of a launcher truck on the left hand LED screen as the aiming laser locks on; half a second later he feels a whomp! as the Hellfire leaves its perch beneath the port wing. It streaks away above the fog, its contrail curving slightly as its fins maneuver to set a straight course. Suddenly one of the SAMS is away, a blip on the radar screen. Manny leans on the joystick, putting the Apache over hard so that his shoulders ache where they press against his harness, and the missile speeds harmlessly by.

On the ground, fire blossoms gold and red where the Hellfire strikes its target, secondary explosions adding to the roiling cloud of flame and smoke as it rises out of the mist and into the clear air. Briefly he notes the blazes set by other hits as he pulls back on the controls, taking them up and over and behind the enemy, and momentarily out of the range of their guns. “Report,” he snaps into his mike. “Any casualties?”

One by one the squadron checks in. Only Andrews reports a hit. “Took a round to the fuselage, Apache One, but we’re good to go.”

“Okay, then. Let’s go back for seconds.”

They swoop down for a second pass over the column, which has almost reached the near end of the bridge. This time Littleton cuts loose with the chain guns, and Manny can see ordinary droids going down along the center of the line, but they seem to be doing very little damage to the military models on the perimeter. He dodges a couple rockets, swerving wildly, tipping the bird almost over on its side. Not for the first time, he wishes he had his Tomcat under him, laying down a long stick of five-hundred-pounders the length of the road and ending the whole fucking mess right then and there. He understands why the brass have decided to hold back on the jets, and he agrees, at least in principle. He just wishes he had that kind of firepower now.

Which does him no good whatsoever. If wishes were buffalo. . ..

The backsweep takes out the second missile launcher and a tank, as well as several armored personnel carrier. And, he notes with satisfaction, any personnel they might have been carrying. Littleton reads his mind. “‘Spose we got some of the goddam metalheads with those APC’s, Manny?”

“Let’s hope—” he breaks off abruptly as Koda’s voice crackles in his earpiece. “Washte, Manny. Ake.”

“Hau. Wikcemna-topa..”

“What’s that?” asks Littleton.

“She says do it again, bro. So–” he clicks the com through to the other choppers–“we do it again.”

Manny takes the squadron back over the command post hill to loop around for the third pass, waving again at the figures at their below him. There is no chance that they can spot him, but he can see them and know that they are secure, screened as they are by the lines of trees behind and in front of them. It makes a small warm spot in the chill of battle, of affection and pride both. Hell, he admits to himself, he’s even developing a soft spot for the little blonde ice cube.

Not, mind, that way. As far as he’s concerned, she has all the sex appeal of a circular saw. Run into her the wrong way and BZZZZZZZZZ. . . .

He swings the Apache about and comes in low for the third pass, the squadron in loose formation behind him. Off to his right, a Black Hawk takes a direct hit, its fuel tank exploding in billows of smoke and flame still in midair, its fuselage wheeling drunkenly out of the sky to plunge into a company of droids, incinerating them instantly. Littleton lets fly their last two Hellfires, then turns the chaingun and the small-gauge rockets onto the line of foot. One, with a LAAWS tube braced against its shoulder, goes sprawling satisfyingly on the tarmac under the hail of thirty-millimeter rounds. As they sweep up the rise of the piedmont behind, Manny can see another file of armed men and women moving into position down a dry creek bed: Tacoma and the front line of his force, preparing to close the trap they have so carefully set.

Last pass. “Give ‘em the works this time through,” he orders Littleton. “Whatever we’ve got left.”

Manny feels the thump as the rocket tubes discharge the last of the Hydras. “Okay, that’s it. We’re headed—”

The impact jars all his bones together, snapping his jaw shut and bloodying his tongue between his teeth. The Apache seems to hang suspended for a moment, hovering, and almost it feels normal. Then the bird begins to spin laterally, the tail and tail rotor no longer answering to the steering column. “Oh, shit,” Manny says, very softly, just as Littleton yells out, loud enough to hear even over the sudden grating noise of the engines, “We’re hit!”

“I know— damn well that’s not normal!” Kirsten exclaims, watching beside Koda as the Apache spins slowly, almost gracefully, on the axis of its mast. “Isn’t Manny in one of the Apaches?”

Koda feels the blood drain from her face, sinking to her heart with the weight of lead. “He’s in that Apache.” She points to the bundle of red-tipped arrows newly painted on the side of the fuselage. “That’s his sign.”

Maggie steps closer to her, gripping her other hand hard. “If anyone can get that bird down in one piece, Manny can.” Kirsten has moved up beside her, too, silently offering her presence. Koda can feel the fear in the other women, resonating with her own. Yet there is comfort there, too.

“I know. He always did manage to walk away from—goddam!” Her voice dies in her throat as the chopper begins to cartwheel, heeling over half onto its side and spinning counterrhythm to its rotor as it falls out of the sky, plunging toward the broad meadow between the bridge and the woods beyond. Koda watches as it descends, not breathing, not daring to breathe, knowing that he has about as much chance of survival as a goldfish in a shark tank, Manny reflects wryly as he loses control of the Apache altogether and can only fold himself up per procedure and brace for the impact.

It comes with a crash like thunder walking in the mountains, reverberating in his ears and along his bones. Manny opens his eyes to find the Apache’s nose buried in the snow and himself hanging suspended by his straps just over his control panel. Out the front port he can see two of the rotor blades broken off where they have sliced into the earth The buckle of his harness presses hard into his solar plexus, and he carefully eases himself off the end of his control stick, broken off just below the grip. If not for catching in the buckle, it would presently be jutting out his back ribs.

The pressure and the thought both turn his stomach, and he pukes up his guts as he hangs there over the display panels, spattering them and the back of Littleton’s helmet liberally with his breakfast. When the nausea passes, it occurs to him that he needs to get the hell out of here, and he reaches for his boot knife to cut himself out of this witch’s cradle. His right arm does not move.

Shit.

It doesn’t hurt, particularly, but that doesn’t mean anything. More encouraging is the fact that he cannot see any blood on the sleeve of his flight suit, or any splinters of bone protruding. Okay. Let’s try this. . ..

Twisting his left shoulder and lifting his right leg, he manages to grasp the knife’s hilt and draw it. Carefully he saws himself loose, setting first one foot, then the other, down on the back of his gunner’s seat, gingerly straddling the shattered steering column. Littleton has not moved.

One hand on the altimeter, the other on the fuel gauge to avoid the slick of half-digested egg and cereal, he touches the other man’s shoulder. “Joe. Hey, Joe.”

No answer.

Shit.

Pulling off his left glove with his teeth, Manny feels for the pulse where the great veins thrum in the neck, working his fingers down under Littleton’s collar. Nothing.

Shit, again. Sorry, bro.

The door, of course, is stuck.

Of course. Why get lucky now? With the butt of his handgun Manny hammers repeatedly at the lexan of the window until it gives and he can break the jagged pieces out of their steel frame. He slithers out through the too-small opening, pushing stubbornly with his feet and pulling with his good left arm. Somwhere around the halfway mark, the nerves in his dislocated right arm wake up, and he feels himself go light-headed with the pain. His mouth is dry as tinder. Shock.

He can’t afford it. He gives one last shove with all the strength of his back and legs behind it, and suddenly he is free, tumbling out into the snow. Up onto his feet then, and running for the line of the woods and the friendly forces he knows are there, stumbling, his right arm dangling uselessly at his side as a rocket lands less than five meters behind him, picks him up and tosses him over a hump in the ground , and he is sliding, tobogganing down the slope on his back and butt just like he used to do as a kid with Tacoma and Koda streaking along beside him.

He reaches the bottom with a thump and surely he is dreaming because a figure detaches itself from one of the century-old sycamores and comes running toward him, levering him up out of the snow and shoving him forward toward the woods, one foot after the other, head down, breath tearing at his throat and it suddenly comes to him that safety is ten feet in front of him and he’s going to make it! Koda, look!”

Dakota turns her head to follow Kirsten’s pointing finger. A man has fought his way out of the downed copter, bit by bit wriggling and pushing through one of the windows. Koda puts up her binoculars, desperately attempting to focus on his face. She cannot, but she knows the anatomy of an Apache, and she can see clearly that the broken window is the one above as the copter sits crazily tilted on its nose in the snow. The pilot’s seat.

Thank you, Ina Maka, she breathes silently. She watches, her heart still in her throat as her cousin makes his way drunkenly over the meadow to the woods beyond, then disappears from sight as another soldier emerges to help him to shelter. Aloud she says, “I knew he’d make it. Manny’s just too damn contrary to die.”

“Family trait?” Maggie asks with a cant of her eyebrow.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Koda cannot stop her mouth from pulling into a grin. “Just got good Lakota genes, that’s all.”

Koda lets out a long, relieved breath and turns her attention back to the battlefield. Even without binoculars, it is evident that the droid army is reforming its column, shifting and eddying around the burned out shells of tanks and APC’s that stand in the roadway.

A couple hundred meters from the bridge, one of the few remaining carriers has been pressed into service as a wrecker, nosing the shattered hulks off the tarmac to make way for what is left of the heavy weapons and armor. Fragments of bright titanium litter the shoulders of the road where chaingun and rocket have found their marks; elsewhere the snow is stained red, and the motionless figures torn and twisted into nightmare shapes by slug and shrapnel are of flesh, not metal.

The half-melted frame of the downed Black Hawk rests on bare earth where ice and snow have melted away from it, a ring of motionless forms around it. From this distance it is impossible to tell whether they are droid or human. One of the howitzers crawls slowly back into line midway the column, behind the human troops and in front of the military droid contingent. Eerily, it seems to move on its own, its driver invisible behind the housing of the barrel.

Beside her, Maggie observes, “Damn good job, all things considered. That big gun is going to give us some trouble before the day’s over, but things are a lot more equal than they were half an hour ago.”

“We’re losing our cover, Colonel,” Kirsten observes. Except for the lowest elevations , in hollows of ridges and along the river’s surface, the fog has begun to burn away. The meadow between the bridge and the woods gleams in the sudden sun, the snow refracting the light like prisms.

“It’s okay. We’ve almost reached the point where it won’t matter.” Maggie glances over her shoulder at Kirsten, back at her com board, the fingers of one hand pressed behind her ear as if to strengthen the signals she is picking up. “Any change on the other side?”

“Negative, Colonel. They still don’t know we’re here; they think the choppers were a sortie flying out of the Base. No indication they know Manny survived, either.”

Maggie shakes her head, half in perplexity. “Much as I hate the things, there’s something to be said for an enemy that doesn’t think anything it’s not told to think..”

“What’s really interesting,” Koda adds, “is that none of the humans seem to have caught on, either.”

“You think?”

“I think some of them think. They’re just not telling.”

“That does seem likely, doesn’t it? We’ll know for sure where they stand real soon now,” Maggie says thoughtfully. After a long moment she adds, “Go ahead and pass the word to spare them if we can, but anyone or anything that shoots at us is a fair target.”

Koda repeats the order into her mike in Lakota, and is relieved to find that the new com officer with Jurgensen’s company is her scapegrace cousin. “That was fast,” she says, after he acknowledges the order and repeats it in English for Major Jurgensen.

He laughs. “Medics got my arm shot full of novocaine and strapped to my side. Mouth works fine, though. We got one happy CO over here now he doesn’t have to worry about his vocabulary list.”

“We’ve got a happy CO over here who’s relieved your worthless butt’s in one piece..”

“She ain’t the only one. Take care, cuz. Wikcemna-topa.”

“Wikcemna-topa,” she signs off.

On the flat ground below, the enemy column has fallen in and is beginning, slowly, to move toward the bridge. Koda catches herself clenching her teeth and deliberately relaxes her muscles as they advance. Come on, come on, come on, she chants silently to herself. When the first of the troops sets foot on the span she feels her spine unwind like an uncoiling spring.

“Okay, that’s it. They’re committed,” Maggie says softly. “Wait till they get that howitzer within ten or fifteen meters of the bridge, then give Tacoma the signal to blow it.”

Koda watches as the enemy troops make the crossing, humans to the fore, keeping to the straight line of unmined highway when they reach the eastern bank.. They are close enough now that Koda can hear the irregular tramp of their feet. Droids next, oddly matched as they are, metal feet ringing against the pavement, following the men and women in front.

The first of the remaining APC’s grinds onto the bridge, followed by the two surviving tanks. The big gun lumbers along, now twenty meters away from the riverbank.

“Almost,” Maggie murmurs. “Almost . . ..”

“Nothing untoward on their com, Colonel,” Kirsten reports. “Situation nominal.”

A long moment’s pause. Then, “Rivers, give the order.”

Koda clicks through to Tacoma. “Wana, thiblo. Ceyakto ihagyeye.”

“Washte,” comes his response, clipped and brief. “Wikcemna-topa.”

A few seconds stretches out, becomes an impossibly long minute, expands into infinity. When it comes, the explosion roars like thunder in the earth, a rumbling under their feet that shakes the rocks of the hill where they stand, sets the branches of the bare tree above them to thrashing.

Underneath the moving army, the pylons begin to buckle. A jagged crack splits the asphalt and its concrete bed; the report is sharp as a rifle shot, magnified a thousand times. The span sags in the middle, tipping crazily down toward the water, spilling human and machine alike into the swift current of the Cheyenne.

A cloud of dust and smoke boils up from the mist, a dirty grey pall that covers bridge and river, rolling along the meadow to overtake the soldiers who have just crossed, enveloping them, sending them blind and directionless into the minefields that bracket the road and riverbanks.

Dulled by fog and distance, the muffled thump of explosions of the anti-personnel charges comes to her where she stands on the hill, interspersed with the screams of the enemy troops. She watches as others plunge toward the water, humans and human limbs and bright machine parts thrown out by the force of the blast.

The wind carries the acrid smell of dynamite and plastique, the iron odor of blood. “Washte,” she whispers to herself, and raises her eyes to the foothills of the Paha Sapa where another storm pours down the lava slopes as Tacoma and his warriors, four hundred of them, swarm down the slope to cut off the enemy’s retreat and push them into their own rearguard and the river.

He leaps from rock outcrop to ridge as easily as a mountain cat, half his troops following straight behind, the other half fanning out to block the churned and rutted road. His breath comes easily, his heart beating out the rhythm of the war chant and his blood singing in his veins. He struggles to keep the broad expanse of the field in his view, fighting the predator’s instinct that narrows his vision to the enemy and the clear path to it.

From his high ground he can see that Jurgensen’s smaller contingent on the other side of the stream has broken cover from the woods and is charging down on the humans and domestic androids now trapped between them and the minefield laid along the bank. On the near side, the military droids and their vehicles have begun to lose formation and mill about without direction in tight knots whose mechanical drone reaches him even here.

Beneath him the earth shudders, and with a high, whining buzz like all the hornets of the world singing in harmony, an 81-mm mortar shell sails overhead to land with a roar just short of the last few APC’s in the armored column. Earth and spraying snow fountain up from the point of impact in the road, and Tacoma throws himself flat behind a low ridge of black rock, the rest of his contingent following suit as best they can. “You’re too high, man!” he yells into his com. “Just a degree or two shorter!”

The next round arcs down over his position just as the line of mechanical demons sorts itself out. These are not just artificial humans with weapons, tin men with a coder chip for a heart. These are the Pentagon’s best, or worst, only vaguely humanoid, self-propelled multiple weapons systems with real-time self-adapting programs and the resistance of tanks.. Their heads are multiple sensor arrays, optics that span the visible spectrum and beyond into the infrared and ultraviolet, able to locate and map an enemy force by their body heat as well as their shape against the landscape.

Their arms and hands are chaingun barrels, the ammunition feed housed in the long rectangle of the titanium thorax.. Some are set on gearboxes with belt drives; others, in a parody of human shape, possess jointed lower extensions ending in smaller treads. They advance with the rhythmical slouching walk of antique zoot-suiters. With a slow grinding of metal limbs, they begin to bear down on the company crouching at the edge of the piedmont, clustered tubes at their arms’ ends spraying death. Tacoma can hear the rounds whining over his head, the sharp crack when one strikes the stone behind him.

Another mortar shell rises to meet them, and this time the shell strikes the margin of their advance. Tacoma yells, “Got ‘em! Mark your baseline!”

In his peripheral vision, he can see a second group moving off, their treads tearing up gouts of snow and earth, to meet the company now deployed across and to either side of the road. There is a certain terrible beauty to them as they begin to move inexorably toward the human lines, sun striking their titanium hides and splintering into sprays of light like shooting stars, even as the gunners hidden in a rock-cut gully figure their speed and the mortar rounds begin to hammer down on them.

It is almost, he thinks, like a dance as the droids’ internal computers calculate the rate of fire and the big guns’ range, and they begin to dash forward at broken intervals to put themselves just behind or just in front of the steep arc cut by the artillery fire. Where it strikes them full on, it leaves a row of craters gouged into the earth, ringed in a fine fall of silver ash.

Tacoma watches them come on, inexorable and unthinking, counting off the seconds until they come within reach of smaller weapons. Gaps appear in their ranks, kill after kill, and still they come on. Softly Tacoma speaks into his com, “Almost, almost; all units hold your fire; remember not to waste bullets on these tin cans.”

Come on, you motherfuckers, come on. It is almost a prayer.

“Thiblo!” His com crackles to life. “Wana! Khuteye!”

“All right!” Tacoma bellows. “Give ‘em hell!” Twisting his neck to look behind, he can just see the blunt ends of the launchers as they empty their load straight into the line of oncoming droids, the LAAWS rockets and grenades striking their targets straight on, blasting off heads with their sensor arrays, tearing huge holes in the magazines where chest and abdomen should be.

Koda cannot see individual droids fall, but she does see the sudden flares as the explosives strike their targets, the wavering of the line as they re-form and begin to advance more slowly on the ridge where her brother’s troops lie in wait. They do not waver. The rattle of gunfire and the deeper voice of the mortars comes to her sharply, refracted off the water’s surface and the lift of rock to the northwest.

“Kirsten, are you getting anything?”

Seated in the back of the truck, Kirsten adjusts controls on two of her units, listening intently. “Negative. There’s no pullback order yet.”

Beside her, Maggie lowers her own field glasses and remarks, “You know, this plan depends on those damned things working the way they’re supposed to. If their “save your own metal ass” code doesn’t kick in fairly soon, we’re fucked.”

Koda trains her own binoculars on the field below her. Remains of droids litter the field behind their line, their bright fragments taking the sunlight in among the mangled remains of APCs and troop transports. After what seems an eternity, the advance on her brother’s position seems to slow as the droids’ line shortens, begins to take longer and longer to straggle back into order after each wave of rocket fire. The mortars continue to hail destruction down on them.

“They’ve got to run out of ammo fairly soon,” says Koda.

Maggie’s mouth crooks up in a wry smile. “Them or us?” Then she says, “The good news is on the other bank. Have a look.”

Closer to, to the southeast of the river, Jurgensen’s men are pressing what remains of the enemy humans and household androids steadily back toward the water. Remains both metal and human lie scattered over the meadow, the latter identifiable by red stains spreading in the snow around them. Here and there a human form kneels with its hands tied behind its back; surrendered prisoners left behind the advancing line to await either death at their allies’ hands or judgement at their captors’. No one can be spared to escort them to the relative safety of the woods.

“There goes the Geneva Convention,” Koda observes.

Maggie pauses, sweeping the field with her binoculars. “I expected more would give themselves up. I don’t like it that we have this few. I don’t like it at all.”

“What the hell is in it for them? The bastards at the jail collaborated to save their lives, but these—”

“Threats. Promises.” Maggie interrupts her. “Hatred. Any of those –”

An exclamation from Kirsten interrupts her. “That’s it! There’s the code for retreat. They’re going to pull back toward the river and try to lure our forces out.”

Koda sees the faint hollowing of Maggie’s chest, even under layers of thermal insulation, as the Colonel breathes a relieved sigh. “Good. Thank god the son-of-a-bitch who programmed those damned things never had an original tactic to his name.”

Kirsten, though, shakes her head. “Somebody did. They’re not just going to pull back. They’re going to try to cross the river.”

“Shit,” Maggie says quietly. Following her gaze, Koda sees what the other woman dreads. Their own forces have pressed the enemy back up against the water and the minefields on the near bank. If the droids cross the remnants of the bridge, the best defense will be the guns hidden in the woods. They are not precision instruments. Their own troops may die, indiscriminately.

A movement above the treetops draws her eye. High up, no more than a shadow against the blue depths, a hawk rides a thermal, spiraling outward in widening circles. Her scream comes to them on the wind, high and piercing and Tacoma turns his head to see one of his men go down, a spatter of blood and brain where his head had been.

A ripple seems to go through the ranks of the droids, and they turn without warning, beginning to make their way back toward the bridge at speed. A flurry of mortar rounds lands short, sending up a cloud of dirt and snow, but knocking over no more than a half dozen of the enemy. Two of them lever themselves up, their joints stiff , and begin to grind their way back toward the river, following the rest.”

“Goddam!” Tacoma springs to his own feet, yelling to the squads behind him. “They’re headed back toward the bridge!
They’re going to try to cross!” Then into his com, “Recalibrate! They’re retreating!”

“Got it,” the gunner answers through a crackle of static. “I’m gonna put up a spotter. Give me some distance between you and them.”

“You keep firing as long as you have ammo! Never mind where anyone is!”

“Sarge—”

“Goddammit, you keep shooting, you hear me? They don’t have the ordnance to deal with those things on the other side! We gotta get ‘em before they make the crossing! You got that, goddammit?”

“Got,” says the gunner, meekly. A half second later, a mortar round comes flying over Tacoma’s head, landing in the rear rank of the now retreating droids. It leaves a quite satisfactory hole where a half dozen of them had been.

Tacoma’s world shrinks then to a small sphere of space where the only sound is a cacophony of explosions: mortars, grenades, shoulder-fired rockets going off all about him. His actions become mechanical, repeated by troops up and down the length of the line. There are fewer than there were before; as near as he can tell, he has lost a quarter of his troops. A straggle of men and women, some of them hobbling, others trailing bloody arms and legs, stumbles forward from the position they have held across the road. Load, raise the launcher, fire.

Load, raise the launcher, fire. Over and over again.

And always the retreating backs of the enemy, spattered with earth and snow as they go down one after the other onto the rutted ground. The advance of his men, step by step, leaves fresh blood in the snow.

Some of it is h is own. Something, he is not quite sure what, has struck him on the forehead. Without breaking stride, he raises his hand to swipe at the blood pouring into his eyes. And he keeps moving without thought.

Load.

Raise the launcher.

Fire.

Over and over again.

“What the hell’s that?”

Koda swings the M-16 riding her shoulder down into position and raises her binoculars. A plume of dust from the rutted and drying road appears halfway down the hill where the command post stands, curving and backswitching as the path makes its crooked way up the slope. “It’s a couple Jeeps, I think.”

Maggie turns her attention from the field of battle to scan the newcomers. “It’s a couple Jeeps full of idiot flyboys.”

As the small convoy comes into closer focus, Koda can make out the unmistakable freckled face of Andrews at the wheel of the first vehicle. He has not bothered to change out of his flight suit or helmet and handles the bucking Jeep with much the same offhand élan as his Black Hawk.; some of the other pilots have changed into standard ground combat head buckets, but not bothered with the rest of their gear. The vehicles bristle with armaments: an M-60 apiece, grenade launchers, LAAWS.

“Just can’t leave well enough alone,” Maggie remarks tartly, but there is pride in her voice as much as exasperation.

“You lead by example, Colonel,” Kirsten says quietly. Koda turns swiftly to look at her, but there is no irony in the other woman’s face. That pleases her, in a quiet way she cannot now take time to analyze.

Maggie, too, has taken it as the compliment intended. She grins. “Never did know when to quit.”

One more steep climb, and the Jeeps pull, brakes squealing, into the small flat space where the troop carrier cum com center sits. He climbs out and salutes smartly, somehow managing to cover Maggie, Koda and Kirsten all in the gesture. “The Third Damn Fools, reporting for duty, Ma’am.”

Maggie looks them up and down with a drill sergeant’s scowl. “You can’t leave well enough alone, huh? Just gotta get in there and mix it up mano a mano.”

“YES, MA’AM!”

“Goddam Hallelujah Chorus,” she says. “Okay, here’s the deal—”

“Colonel!” Kirsten’s voice cuts through the banter. “The droids are almost to the bridge head. Sergeant Rivers just came through on clear. He’s going to try to get in front of them but doesn’t think he can hold all of them.”

Instantly serious, Maggie snaps, “And—”

“He requests covering fire from the mortars back in the woods.”

Maggie’s face goes grey. Then, quietly, “Tell Jurgensen to shell what’s left of the bridge. We’ll try that first.”

Kirsten turns back to her mike, speaking into it in English. The battle has reached the melee stage; strategic surprise is no longer possible. Fear catches at Koda’s throat. Shelling the bridge is a stalling tactic, a forlorn hope. Its complete destruction would require a howitzer, a bigger gun than they have, with a range too long for the relatively confined space of the valley below. Without speaking she turns her field glasses on the fight at the northwest end of the bridge. A company of the heavy military-model droids grinds its way slowly toward the bridgehead, flanked on one side by a much smaller human force that ducks and runs and ducks again, firing off grenade launchers and shoulder rockets at every possibly opening. The troops on the southeast side are completely engaged with the remnants of the human and domestic droid forces; they cannot spare a squad.

She searches the forces on the far bank, looking for one man. Tacoma is down there. She knows it. She cannot make out his face or tell one shape from another under the camo and the layers of Polartec and thermal nylon, but there is one soldier out front and to the side that she knows with utter certainty is her brother.

Her brother Tacoma, who has just called down a strike on his own position.

A red haze passes over her eyes. Her vision narrows to that one point where she knows he runs along the basalt table, sprawling where he can behind a low rise, heaving up the tube of his grenade launcher to fire when feasible. Impossibly keen, her ears bring her the clang of M-16 rounds on the metal skin of the droids on the near side; the scream of a soldier suddenly shot in the gut, doubling over in pain as his lifeblood runs out between his fingers. The hot metallic smell comes to her on the wind. Hardly aware of what she does, she passes her tongue over her teeth, tasting the richness of the odor.

With movements that seem ponderous, she slips loose of her rifle, lets the binoculars fall from her hand to go tumbling down the slope of the hill. Two long strides carry her to the back bumper of the last Jeep, another into the driver’s seat. Human voices batter at her, shouting, a jumble of words that she neither heeds nor cares to.

KODANOSTOPWAITDAMMIT

MAAMYOUCANTDOTHAT

ATLEASTWAITFORMEYOUIDIOT

And she is bouncing down the hill in the Jeep, accelerator to the floor on a forty-degree downslope that probably ought to send her flying hood over tailpipe, but somehow she manages to keep the damn donkey of a machine on the road. There are other people in it with her, hanging on for their lives, a tall lean dark-faced woman yelling something into her ear and a smaller one with hair that burns like white flame in the sunlight shrieking unintelligibly, and behind her she hears the roar and clatter of other engines as they speed down the hill straight toward the fighting, toward the near end of the bridge. As she pulls the vehicle onto the flat meadow at the foot of the rise the first of the mortar shells streaks toward the far bridgehead, landing just short of the northwest bank and impacting the shattered concrete with a roar and a cloud of grey-white dust that clears to show a few large pieces of the bridge smashed to smaller pieces but not much effect otherwise. A second shell screams over, and another and another.

In the narrow focus of her vision, Koda can see a figure scrambling out onto the spars of half-collapsed asphalt and cement where broken slabs jut up against each other at unlikely angles like some strange rock formation on a sea-beaten coast. She shifts gears and sets the Jeep straight for the near end, steering her way somehow through grenade craters and over the splintered remains of droids. Her helmet flies off her head, and her hair unfurls behind her with her spped. A huge shout goes up around her, but she pays no attention, noting only out of the edges of her sight a convoy no larger than the one she leads, streaking down on the battle out of nowhere, spilling out of the Black Hills, truck-mounted machine guns spraying bullets that bounce harmlessly as pebbles off the titanium hides of the androids.

Just short of the near end of the bridge Koda stands on the brakes, bringing the Jeep to a shuddering halt that nearly throws her free. Snatching a belt of grenades and a launcher from the back of the vehicle, she speeds for the bridge, her eyes on that lone figure now firing on the advancing droids from the meager cover of a broken pylon. Behind her someone is shouting CEASEFIRECEASEFIREDAMMIT, and the broken structure shakes beneath her as she leaps from concrete boulder to concrete boulder, grasping an upright length of rebar to steady herself as she plants her feet and fires.

She pushes off from her position, finds footing again a meter ahead, fires again, catches a foot in a cage of steel supports and shakes herself free to kneel and fire yet again on the advancing metal demons. Dimly she is aware of voices behind her, screaming out her name, a warcry, curses, she cannot tell and does not care. She feels the recoil of weapons loosed behind her, though, and knows that more of the droids are going down than she can reasonably account for.

Thank you Ina Maka the thought winds through her mind, never touching the part of her brain that drives her feet forward, powers her arms through the routine of load, life and fire again and again as the droids clustered at the far end of the bridge go down, crashing into those pressing forward behind them, some of those behind falling forward to strike the ruins of the span and tumble down into the metal-clotted water below.

There are fewer and fewer of them standing between her and the hills beyond, and finally there are none. She stares into a face inches from hers, her fingers caught up in gentle hands as a voice says, again and again, “Tanksi? Tanski! Koda, you in there? Answer me!”

Slowly the world takes shape around her. She is looking into the deep brown of her brother’s eyes, blurred where blood has run into them and carried streaks of his warpaint down his face in runnels crusted with dust and minute grains of cement. There is a strange silence, no more shooting, no more shouting. She can hear the force of the current as the Cheyenne finds its way in small rapids around the debris that juts out of the water.

Gingerly she glances around her. Andrews perches on a slab of concrete, teeth clenched, grimly cutting his left boot away from an ankle already swollen half again its size. I need to get up and tend to that, she thinks dimly. Maggie, beside her, leans on the tube of a rocket launcher, favoring her right foot. There is a streak of bright blood on the leg of her pants above it, but her face is clear and bright. Kirsten, face pale as her hair, rubs at her shoulder where the end of a grenade launcher is printed into the padded fabric of her jacket.

Koda’s eyes return to her own hands, scraped raw and bloody in her scramble across the ruins of the bridge. Gently she looses them from Tacoma’s grasp and looks around her, taking in the battlefield with its scattered dead and the deliberate movements of survivors walking among the fallen, looking for wounded.

She glances back at Maggie, then at her brother again. “We won?”

Yeah,” he says, slipping his hands under her arms and levering them both to their feet. Even at her height, he is taller still as she gazes up at him. Slowly he turns her to face the others. Somehow she cannot seem to find her boundaries; some part of her is still Koda Rivers, but she feels herself spread thin, strung out, strands of her substance mingled with her brother’s, Maggie’s, Kirsten’s, the thoughts of Andrews on his perch and the men still scattered on the field beyond.

“That’s the goddammedest thing I ever saw, Ma’am, like something out of a storybook,” Andrews says, images tumbling through his mind of Lancelot stampeding across an English meadow toward a dragon, a Greek general in a mountain pass called the Hot Gates, a long haired man in a kilt, wild with freedom, brandishing a sword almost as tall as himself.

Maggie shoots him a sharp glance, more than half-amused at the blatant hero-worship, but why the hell not, it’s the bravest thing she’s ever seen in her own life. She tells herself that the pride she feels in this woman is totally irrational; she has not had the teaching of her, and yet the pride is there. Pride and regret both. She glances briefly upward, to the high reach of sky where the hawk still circles, and knows that an ending has been reached; an ending that, like the rising circles of the red-tail’s spiral, is also a beginning. She lets her rocket launcher fall among the tumbled wreckage of the bridge and steps forward to put an arm around Koda’s shoulders. “You were born for this,” she says simply.

Koda’s eyes are still wide, still not focused entirely on the reality in front of her. She says, “You’re the commander. You followed me.”

Maggie feels her mouth stretch into a grin. “Well, you didn’t exactly give us a choice. You were out front and running away without a word; we had to follow or be left behind.”

The words echo in Kirsten’s mind, left behind, left behind, alone. And suddenly she knows, directly, the same way she knows that her side hurts where she has pulled a muscle in the mad dash for the Jeep and then the insane stumble over the wreckage of the bridge firing a weapon she’s barely touched before, that she is not alone. From somewhere in the depth of her mind an image forms, a dark-haired woman in a beaded dress, promising. . .promising, it seems, this woman who has just pulled them all out of themselves and drawn from them a courage and a passion they never knew was in them. Drawn them straight into the heart of the flame and through it, to come out tempered steel on the other side. “Hey,” she says, quietly, moving to support Koda on her other side. “Let’s get you out of here and get your hands tended to.”

Koda feels their arms around her, Tacoma still half-holding her up from behind, and they begin to make their slow progress back toward the southeast end of the bridge. It was easier, she thinks, when she was not thinking at all; a couple times she stumbles and nearly falls to hands and knees on the jagged concrete. Somewhere someone is shouting. The sound starts small, one man, and then another joining him, and another until it seems the whole small army is yelling, some of them waving their weapons in the air in a decidedly dangerous fashion. It seems odd that Maggie does not have something sharp to say about that. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “What the hell’s with all the noise?”

“You are,” Kirsten says quietly. “Wave at them.”

“Huh?” This makes no sense. I am not drunk. I may, however, be losing my mind. The thought is surprisingly clear.

“Wave, ” Maggie repeats from her other side. “They’ve fought like the devil themselves. They deserve the acknowledgement.”

Koda raises her arm from Maggie’s shoulders and waves at the troops. Their cheering—because that’s what it is, she suddenly realizes—goes on and on and on. Finally her arm will no longer hold itself up, and her knees buckle with sudden weariness. “I’m sorry, I can’t do anymore,” she says.

Maggie bears her up again, Kirsten still firm on the other side. “Come on, ” she says in her best no-backtalk scientist voice. “Let everyone else take a turn at being a hero. Time for you to rest.”
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
The room is as dark as guilty secrets. Only the faint light from the hallway enters, laying a wedge-shaped pattern across the carpet. It reaches the very edge of the bed and goes no further, as if afraid to disturb the vigil being kept above.

Kirsten sits on a chair that has seen better decades, staring down at Koda, who is so deeply unconscious that she appears, for all the world, dead. Only the slight rise and fall of her chest reassures her silent watcher. Heavily bandaged hands lay quiescent on the dark coverlet, as still as the body that bears them.

Dakota looks small, almost fragile as she lies so still, a lost and broken child in her parents’ bed. Kirsten swallows the lump in her throat, blinking to cast away the vision. She looks up, startled, at a soft sound from the doorway.

Maggie enters, bearing two steaming mugs. Smiling slightly, she walks to Kirsten’s side and hands her one. “Thought you could use this.”

Kirsten takes the offered mug eagerly, wrapping her chilled hands around it and inhaling the comforting aroma with a sigh of pleasure. “Thank you. This is perfect.” Taking a small sip, she lets the coffee roll over her tongue, savoring it for a timeless moment before swallowing. “Bless you, Colonel,” she breathes. “This is just what the doctor ordered.”

“Seeing as you’re sitting in my bedroom,” Maggie replies, smirking, “I think we could dispense with the formalities, don’t you?”

Kirsten glances up, the expression of a guilty child plain upon her face. She begins to rise, but Maggie motions her back down. “No. It’s alright. Stay.” Her smirk softens into a true smile. “I have a strange sense of humor, sometimes.”

Nodding, Kirsten returns the smile with a hesitant one of her own. The space between them is like a chasm; one which she suddenly wishes she could cross.

If she only knew how.

Maggie lowers herself to perch casually on the lower corner of the large bed. Koda doesn’t twitch. The Colonel captures Kirsten in her steady regard. “You were pretty impressive out there,” she murmurs. “Didn’t know you could handle a grenade launcher.” Her lips twitch with a smirk just dying to come out. “Learn that in Bionics 101?”

This time, Kirsten gets the joke and chuckles, saluting Maggie with her mug. Her grin fades. “Absolute terror,” she amends, looking back down at the still figure on the bed. “It was like…I don’t know…like I knew what she was going to do before she did it. And I knew that I wasn’t going to be left behind.” She swallows hard, vision trebling as some strange almost-memory steals through her consciousness like a thief in the night. “Not again.”

Maggie raises an eyebrow in silent inquiry. Kirsten shakes off both the question and the strange feeling with a deliberate closing of her eyes. When she opens them again, she is more her old self—more or less. Her smile, when it comes, is natural, unbidden. “She was a sight to see, though, wasn’t she?”

“That she was,” Maggie replies. “I had myself half-convinced I was watching some old Audy Murphy flick.” A frown creases her forehead. “The top-kick in me is furious with her. It was completely foolhardy and dangerous in the extreme.” The frown disappears as she shrugs. “But it worked, and we’re alive to tell the tale. And I guess that’s all that really matters in the end anyway.”

“So that means you won’t take it out of her hide later?” Kirsten queries with a small smirk of her own.

Maggie snorts. “As if I could.”

Kirsten sobers, looking back down at the bed. “There will be a later, though, right?” She looks up, startled once again, this time by the warm hand that clasps her wrist.

“There will be,” she affirms in a tone that brooks no dissent. “Things like this…take a lot out of her. Almost everything, I think.” She looks down at Koda, her smile warm and affectionate. The adoration on her face causes Kirsten a brief stab of discomfort before she pushes it savagely away. “She just needs some time to get those batteries of hers recharged, and she’ll be good as new.”

When Maggie releases her wrist, Kirsten lifts her arm to finish the last of her coffee. Then she makes as if to rise. “I’ll…um….”

“No. Stay.”

Kirsten looks at her, eyes slightly widened.

Maggie smiles. “Stay. I need to go tell everyone that she’s doing well, and debrief the General as well. I don’t expect to be back until morning, at least. And….” She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, opting for the truth, even though the words are like shards of glass in her mouth, “I think she knows you’re here, and I think that’s very important to her.”

“But….”

“Please.”

Keeping her emotions under tight control, Maggie rises gracefully from her perch on the bed and quickly strides across the room. A soft voice halts her in her tracks.

“Maggie?”

She doesn’t, can’t, turn, but Kirsten knows she’s listening.

“Thank you.”

Unable to speak for fear her voice will betray her, Maggie settles for a nod, and continues out of the room.

*******

Eyes closed, Koda finds herself floating on a current of…something. Air, water, she can’t tell which, nor does she especially care. It is neither hot nor cold, and the breeze—or at least what she thinks is a breeze—carries with it the scent of spring and sunshine and gentle summer rains.

An undercurrent is the sea, and the earth, fecund and moist as if from a fresh turning. Maternal, almost. Ripe with the promise of birth and rebirth.

Secret smells.

Good smells.

“Must be what it feels like in the womb,” she whispers, loathe to open her eyes lest it shatter the peace she feels.

A warm wave of gentle laughter rolls over her like far-off summer thunder. “Your wisdom grows, Tshunka Wakan Wacignuni.”

Finally giving in to the inevitable, Dakota opens her eyes, and finds herself bathed in the affectionate regard of Ina Maka. “Wandering Wolf?”

The Great Mother spreads her arms wide. “Apt, don’t you think?”

Koda looks around her. An infinity of colors swirl and dance to the rhythm of what she recognizes as the earth’s very heart. Its beauty is far beyond anything she’s ever seen and her very soul aches in sweet recognition. “I suppose,” she murmurs, entranced. “What is this place?”

“It is known to many by many different names. I prefer to call it Thamni Ina.”

“The Mother’s Womb.”

“Exactly. It is a place of healing. And of rest. You are always welcome here, Wacignuni.”

“It’s so beautiful….” Her tone is one of reverent awe, and part of her, raised by man, tries to hide her face, feeling cowed, insignificant, unworthy of such an honor. “Ina Maka, I….”

“Shh,” is the reply as the Mother rests a warm hand over Koda’s eyes, gently closing them. “Rest, Daughter. Regain your strength. You will need it for the journey yet to come.”

Unable to fight against the overwhelming pull, Dakota surrenders into the Great Mother’s embrace. Joy suffuses her as the energies of earth and tide combine to flow over and through her like a river over burnished stones. She cries out in ecstasy, and her voice is swallowed up, becoming one with the swirling energies, her voice, and her joy, now and forever a part of the eternal dance.

*******

Hearing a soft moan, Maggie blinks tired eyes and closes the book she’s been trying, for the past hour, to read. A smile transforms her face as she notices Koda’s eyelids begin to twitch–the first sign of life she’s shown in days.

She eases herself onto the bed, touching Dakota’s forearm so that, should she waken quickly, she won’t dislodge the IV snaking from a plump vein in her forearm.

Arctic blue eyes flutter open, their color warming to a deep, vibrant blue as they set upon Maggie’s smiling, handsome face.

“Welcome back,” Maggie murmurs, gently squeezing the wrist in her grasp.

“How….” Clearing her throat of the rusty hinges stuck there, she tries again. “How long?”

“Three days.”

Dakota’s eyes widen slightly, then she looks away, noticing for the first time the body that shares her sleeping space.

Kirsten is curled up in an almost fetal ball, facing away and deeply asleep.

Koda turns startled eyes back to Maggie, who smiles. “We’ve been taking turns keeping watch. How are you feeling?”

Dakota takes careful stock of her body. All in all, she feels much better than she has any right to. Her hands itch like fire, but that’s to be expected, she imagines. All that is left from her battle is a slight sense of tiredness—strange after three days of sleep. Her body is too well aware of the small form pressed against its length, and she fights down the urge to snuggle into it, to give in to the implicit comfort and welcome offered—even with Kirsten turned away. Instead, she blinks, and casts a smile to Maggie. “I’m ok. You?”

“Aside from a few bumps and bruises, fine,” Maggie replies, shrugging. “Same with our intrepid doctor over there.”

“The others?”

Maggie’s expression becomes somber. “We lost ninety eight. About twenty or so sustained serious wounds. Two or three others are touch and go, but the docs think they’ll pull through…eventually.”

“Damn,” Koda whispers, eyes closing against the ache of so many gone.

Maggie strokes the soft skin of Koda’s arm, offering the only comfort she can. Part of her longs to tell the grieving woman how her actions saved the lives of ten times that many, but she stills her tongue, knowing that to Dakota, as with herself, those words would only be useless platitudes falling on deaf ears.

Koda opens her eyes again, emotions trapped behind the stony mask she now wears. “My brother?”

“Is fine. Manny snapped his collarbone and cracked a couple of ribs, but he’s doing okay also. Andrews earned himself a broken ankle and a trip to the OR. Can’t stand his crutches, but he’s gonna have to learn to deal.”

“Alright.” Dakota nods once, an almost savage gesture that flicks the heavy bangs from her forehead and resettles them, haphazard, against her face. Though her palms are still heavily bandaged, her fingers are free, and those fingers reach for the IV tubing at her wrist.

“Dakota, don’t….do that,” Maggie finishes with a sigh as the woman in question sits up and efficiently removes the IV catheter from her arm, pressing down to stop the minute flow of blood dotting the wound.

“I’m fine,” Koda remarks, swinging long legs over the side of the bed and steadying herself for a moment before she plants her feet and stands. There is a brief instant of dizziness as her body once again becomes accustomed to being vertical after three days horizontal.

Once the dizziness abates, she strides around the bed with sure steps, reaching the bureau and pulling out a tattered sweatshirt and jeans with holes in the knees. Dressed, she runs negligent fingers through her thick hair, settling it somewhat as she turns to Maggie. “The bodies. Where are they being kept?”

“They’ve set up a second morgue in one of the hangar bays. You’ll see the honor guard outside. The payloaders are getting ready to dig in a few hours.”

Nodding, Koda circles the bed and stops before Maggie, who is still sitting. Her eyes are somber, set, serious. “Thank you. For keeping watch.”

Maggie’s smile is small, but it’s there. “It was no hardship, believe me.” She pauses, the smile slipping from her face. “Thank you.”

A brow raises.

“For saving our lives. And, very likely, the lives of everyone here.”

The Colonel feels only a brief touch to her shoulder before Koda turns to leave. “I didn’t do it alone,” Dakota replies softly as she exits the room.

“No,” Maggie murmurs to the empty air, “but if you hadn’t started it, it wouldn’t have been done at all.”

******

With the temperature hovering in the lower 50s, Dakota slips out into the fresh air without a coat for the first time in over half a year. For a brief moment, she turns her face up toward the sun, accepting its warmth. Such welcome heat, however, does little to banish the chill she feels in her soul; a chill compounded by each of the lives lost in the battle of the Cheyenne.

As she lowers her chin, her eyes catch the sunlight winking off the top of a hulking aircraft hanger in the near distance, visible over the top of the young pines dotting Maggie’s small lawn. She sets her feet in that direction and begins to walk.

As her long legs take her effortlessly from the tree-lined residential district and into the base proper, she takes in the sights, which include many faces she doesn’t recognize.

Which, she realizes, isn’t all that unusual, given the size of the base and the fact that she’s only explored small parts of it during her short stay here. Still, it’s almost as if with the winning of this latest battle, survivors have started crawling out of the woodwork, feeling just now safe enough to approach and be welcomed into what is swiftly becoming a teeming community.

As she watches, two groups of fifty or more lumber through the massive gates, some walking, some riding in decrepit vehicles, all with possessions strapped to their backs and the same look of hollow-eyed dread and merciless hope coloring their features.

The scene brings to her mind something she’d seen in history class once, a picture of destitute farmers fleeing the dust bowl, all of their worldly possessions strapped to backs, horses and trucks that looked like they would go another mile before quitting completely.

“‘Give me your tired, your poor,'” she whispers, watching them stream onto the base, “‘your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.'”

A passing man hears her whisper and gives her a strange look. She returns it with a steely glare, complete with raised eyebrow. He quickly finds something else to capture his attention, scurrying away like a rat after cheese.

As she continues on her way, she begins to notice things that raise the hackles on the back of her neck. Ahead, two middle-aged women argue over what looks to be a basket of half-rotten fruit. Their arms swing in wild gesticulations, and Dakota knows it’s only a matter of time before one of those wild swings catches, starting an all-out scrap.

Off to her left, in the middle of the street, two men are brawling like a couple of overweight, over-the-hill boxers. They’re quite obviously drunk as skunks. One man’s nose is a bloody mess. The other has one eye puffed up to the size of a cue ball. A full bottle of cheap booze lies shattered on the ground between them, the glass shards shining like trumpery diamonds.

A uniformed MP stands to one side, her face a mask of indecision. Koda can almost read her thoughts.

These are civilians.

Who has jurisdiction over them?

Should she intervene?

Or should she simply stand by and let them decide the outcome?

“Great,” Dakota mutters, half under her breath. “Looks like the honeymoon is over.”

Just as she’s about to head in that direction, both men go down, either too drunk or too injured to continue. The MP stares dumbly down at them before raising her head and shooting Koda a pleading look. Dakota shrugs in reply, as unsure of the current legal situation as the MP. A uniformed man bearing the rank of Major runs toward the scene, and Dakota moves on, content for the moment to let events play out as they will without her direct intervention.

She knows, however, that changes are going to need to be made. And soon.

*******

“Doctor Rivers!” the young man calls out, snapping to full attention so quickly that his spine fairly creaks with the effort.

Koda looks over the young private, remembering him as one of Tacoma’s advance machine gunners who had charged a group of retreating droids, disabling several and getting winged in the neck for his troubles. “Private Holloway. How’s the neck?”

A rosy flush spreads over the Private’s fair features at the realization that this beautiful woman—who he had seen doing things on the battlefield that even the most courageous of his buddies would never even attempt—knows his name.

“Ma’am!” he shouts, straightening even further. “Just fine, Ma’am!”

Biting her cheeks to keep a smile from coming to her lips at the young man’s earnestness, she settles instead for a brisk nod. “Good to hear, Private. Permission to enter?”

“Ma’am, yes, Ma’am!”

“Thank you, Private.”

“Ma’am?”

Dakota turns, leveling her gaze at him and causing his blush to deepen. He holds an arm out, a facemask dangling from his hand. “You…um…might want to use this, Ma’am.”

Koda smiles. “Thanks, but…I’ll be okay.”

With a final nod, she leaves him standing at his post, and enters the cavernous hanger. The interior is dim, cool, and ripe with the high, sickly sweet stench of death and decay. It’s a scene she’s known most of her life, and while it will never replace a fine cologne, her stomach no longer folds in upon itself when she detects it.

Standing at the entrance, she lets her gaze glide over the neat rows of corpses wrapped in sheets—the supply of bodybags having been decimated after the first conflict—and covered by American flags.

So many rows. So many bodies. So much courage, and honor, and loyalty left to rot beneath a flag whose meaning has been forever changed. So much blood. So much grief. So much loss.

Silent as a shadow, she glides between the rows, reading each name and committing it to memory. Here and there she stops to touch a marble hard wrist, a frozen cheek, a statue’s foot, honoring these brave men and women as best she can and thanking them for their sacrifice.

“Wakhan Tanka,” she murmurs, breath a freshet fogging the air before her, “guide these souls and keep them. Ina Maka, give them comfort, hold them close. Honor them as they have honored us. Keep them safe. Give them peace.”

A shadow falls across the last body, and Dakota looks up to see her brother standing at the entrance to the morgue, posture ramrod stiff, medals, buttons and boots polished to a high-gloss shine. His face is a granite mountain, but his eyes…to Koda, who knows him well, they are grief writ large and black. A scuff of rubber on cement, and a small squad of litter bearers form rank behind him, faces and bearings so identical that they look as if they’ve rolled fresh from an assembly line.

Dakota crosses the floor, narrowing the distance between then until there is none. His hand is warm and dry as it engulfs her own, and it bears a minute, internal tremor signaling the grief his face tries to mask. They share a look of complete understanding. Their troops. Their responsibility. Their blood on hands that will never be clean.

“Hoka hey,” she whispers, eyes bright and shining with unshed tears.

The granite splits for just a moment, letting the tiniest of smiles curve the corner of his mouth. Joined hands lift and he briefly strokes her cheek with the back of his knuckles, thanking her, loving her. “Hoka hey.”

The sound of a payloader’s engine coming choppily to life breaks the moment.

Somewhere in the distance, a lone bugler plays Taps.

******

This time, Dakota accepts the sun’s welcoming warmth as she steps out of the hangar and into the brightness of the day. Her soul, if not at peace, is at rest for the moment, and she leaves the task of burial to the others as she allows her feet to take her where they will.

Her stride is long, easy, and unhurried as it takes her out of the base proper, past rows of abandoned military vehicles standing in formation like the army toys of a giant child who’s gone to bed. It’s a melancholy sight, bringing to mind things taken for granted in a past that will never be again. Pushing those thoughts from her mind, she strolls back into the residential area, purposefully steering clear of Maggie’s home, not ready to return there just yet.

She watches idly as several families, and parts of families, take over abandoned military housing, moving in their meager belongings while casting furtive glances over their shoulders, as if expecting such a windfall to be snatched from their grasps without so much as a “how d’ye do”.

She shakes her head as she passes a ramshackle, half-bombed out house on a prime corner lot, looking on through narrowed eyes as two families nearly come to blows over its possession. This time, the MPs are quick to step in and separate the feuding families, though not without receiving the sharp side of several tongues in rapid succession.

“We need a census taker,” she mutters, watching as a group of strangers, attracted by the impending brawl, gather on the corner like rubberneckers at a highway accident. She doesn’t recognize one face, and that puts her hackles up again.

There is a bad feel to this crowd, a nameless, pointless, directionless anger simmering just under the surface, lacking only the spark needed to burst into full flame.

That spark comes in the form of a well armed squad of uniformed men and women marching toward the disturbance in lock-step. The crowd scatters and reforms—oil sitting on the surface of a storm-tossed pond. Several men, and some women too, heft fist sized rocks and stare at the oncoming soldiers from beneath lowered brows.

A young Sergeant moves forward with confident steps, hand on her gunbutt. “Come on, folks, go back to your homes. Break it up.”

“Make us!” shouts an anonymous voice in the milling throng.

The young woman squares her shoulders, eyeing the crowd with a level stare. “I’m asking you again. Please clear the area and return to your homes.”

“Who died and made you God?” Another anonymous voice, stirring the crowd.

“Clear the area!”

Dakota is running before the first rock clears the crowd. It deals the sergeant a glancing blow on the shoulder, causing her squad to draw their weapons and advance on the group. A few more rocks fly; furtive, like the first raindrops preceding a torrential summer squall.

Koda is able to grab onto a beefy man just about to launch a good-sized rock. Her palm screams its displeasure as she clamps down on his wide wrist and squeezes hard.

“What the fuck?!?” The man rounds on her, fully intending to use his free hand, now cocked into a ham-sized fist, to turn her face into pop-art sculpture. Suddenly, his eyes widen and his arm drops back to his side, unnoticed, as he stares over Dakota’s right shoulder.

Taken aback by the abrupt change, Dakota turns even as she keeps her grip on the man’s wrist. Before her, the crowd parts like the Red Sea before Moses, admitting five-feet-five-inches of pure attitude.

“Excuse me,” Kirsten growls, hands on hips, green eyes flashing fury. “Would someone like to tell me what the hell is going on here??” Asi, ever Kirsten’s shadow, adds his opinion to the mix, growling low in his throat as he sits at Kirsten’s side, ruff standing up in spiky threads.

A hive-drone murmur sweeps its way through the crowd. Snippets of conversation stand out here and there, and Koda listens with half an ear, an ever-widening smirk on her face.

“…King…”

“…robotics lady….”

“…saw her on TV just last month!”

“…great….”

“…can’t believe….”

“…shorter than she is on television!”

Dakota bites back a smile at that remark, watching as one of the MPs moves stiffly forward, as if drawn to Kirsten simply by the strength of her aura. Kirsten’s cool voice carries easily through the still air. “Mind telling me what’s going on, Corporal Hill?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Both sets of subjects were attempting to forcibly procure this family dwelling when….”

“English please, Corporal. I left my military law dictionary in my other coat.”

Snickering is heard from the crowd, and a slow flush creeps up the young Corporal’s neck and dusts his cheeks with clown spots of crimson. “Ma’am. Corporal Smythson and myself were patrolling this sector when we came upon these two families,” a crisply uniformed arm gestures in the direction of the families in question, “fighting over this house. As we attempted to intervene, a crowd began to gather. Sergeant Li and her squad then approached from the south and asked the crowd to disperse. They refused.”

“Damn right we refused!” a middle aged man yells. “We’re not a bunch of jarheads you can get just bully around! We’ve got rights, you know!”

Kirsten turns to Li. “Is that when you pulled your gun, Sergeant?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“And when did you pull your gun, Sergeant?”

“When the rock hit me, Ma’am.”

Kirsten is taken aback. “Rock?”

“Yes, Ma’am. That rock.”

Following the direction of Li’s pointing finger, Kirsten spies the crumbling chunk of gravel at the Sergeant’s feet. She looks up slowly, lancing her gaze out over the crowd.

A dozen rocks leave a dozen suddenly limp hands, hitting the ground in sodden thumps.

Kirsten bares her teeth in a parody of a smile. “So,” she begins, voice soft, lethal, “these are your ‘rights’, hmm? I wasn’t aware that the right to assault someone was in our Constitution. Would anyone like to point it out to me?”

“They’ve got guns,” one man mutters, gesturing toward the soldiers.

Kirsten turns her full attention on the speaker. He pales appreciably.

“Did they pull them? Threaten you in any way?” She holds up on hand. “Before that rock was thrown?”

The man drops his gaze and stares down at his feet. “Well….”

“I’m sorry, did you say something? I couldn’t hear you.”

The man raises his eyes, expression belligerent. “They were gonna.”

“Ohhhh,” Kirsten replies, nodding wisely. “They were going to. And you know this…how? Telepathic, are you? Maybe you could tell us when the droids are going to strike again. We could use a man with your talents.”

The man flushes brick red as some in the crowd catcall and elbow one another. Kirsten’s impenetrable gaze sits heavy upon him, and he finally has no choice but to drop his eyes, sagging visibly like a balloon with a slow leak.

Kirsten scans the rest of the group. “Anyone else have anything insightful to add?”

Feet shuffle. Heads hang. Crickets chirp.

“Alright, then. I’d suggest all of you go back to your homes and stop acting like idiots. Or better yet, go on over to the parade grounds and watch as a hundred soldiers, just like the ones you’re attacking here, get put into the ground for giving their lives so that you could stand around here acting like idiots.” She pauses for just a moment, letting her words sink in. “Am I making myself clear to everyone?”

The only sound heard is the shuffling of feet.

“Good. Then get the hell out of here. You’re using up all the good air.”

As the crowd, grumbling and shame-faced, begins to wander away, Asi takes that as a signal that his ‘guard dog’ duties are over for the nonce, and only then does he notice Dakota standing several yards away, looking on. Yodeling in canine joy, he tears off after her, his tail wagging so hard that it twists his body into all sorts of interesting shapes. Koda braces for the impact and catches his furry body as he all but launches himself into her arms, covering her face and any exposed skin he can reach with giant swipes of his tongue.

Chuckling, Dakota presses him back and scratches behind his ears with deep affection. She stills as she feels eyes upon her, the gaze’s weight as palpable as a caress. Straightening slowly, she turns her head until Kirsten’s brilliant smile comes into view. She swears she can feel her heart fluttering in her chest and wonders at the seemingly autonomic response to something simple—albeit beautiful—as a smile. She notes another instinctive response as she responds to Kirsten’s smile with one of her own—one that stretches her facial muscles in ways they haven’t been stretched in quite some time.

Asi a shadow at her side, she allows her long stride to eat up the distance between them until she comes to a stop no more than a foot away. The smile is still there as she gazes down into mesmerizing green eyes. “Hey.”

Kirsten touches Koda’s wrist briefly before dropping her hand away. “Hey. It’s good to see you awake. How’re you feeling?”

“Refreshed. You?”

“A little sore for a few days, but now? Pretty much back to my old self.” Her lips twist in smirk of self deprecation. “As you can see.”

Koda looks around a the now emptied street, then over at the MPs who are in amicable discussion with the two families who had started the confrontation. “Good work.”

Kirsten looks at Koda carefully, sure she’s being teased. When she realizes that the vet is serious, she blushes. “Yeah, well…my legendary temper has to be good for something, huh?”

“I think you were in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills,” Koda replies seriously. “At the very least, you prevented a riot, and likely saved some lives as well.”

Kirsten looks down at her hands. “Well, I….”

“False modesty is something I hope we can leave in the past, where it belongs.”

That stings, and, realizing it, Koda softens her voice and eyes. Reaching out, she gently grasps Kirsten’s shoulder. “You did very well out there today. You did something that none of us could have done. That’s a good thing, okay?”

Nodding, Kirsten manages a smile. “Okay.”

Koda rubs her hands together. “So, where were you off to before stopping in to play referee?”

Kirsten shrugs. “Just out getting some fresh air. Nowhere in particular.”

“Thank you for watching over me.”

Kirsten’s smile is shy. “You’re welcome. Even though Maggie told me not to be, I was still kinda worried.”

Koda notes Kirsten’s use of Maggie’s name without comment. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“I’m not,” Kirsten replies, laughing suddenly. “You saved our lives with that suicidal charge of yours. I’d much rather be worried than dead, thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome,” Dakota retorts, smirking. Then she executes a rather presentable bow. “Would you do me the honor of dining with me at the mess hall? I’ve heard that the mystery meat is even more mysterious than usual today.”

Kirsten bats her lashes, a true Southern Belle. “Why Doctor Rivers, I’d be delighted.”

Dakota cocks her arm. Kirsten slips her hand through, and the two of them make their slow way to the mess.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Maggie hauls her briefcase out of the trunk of her car, feeling the pull on shoulder and hip joints not yet recovered from the recent battle. “The late unpleasantness,” as some wag has christened it, apparently permanently. The dead have been buried, their own on one end of the old parade ground—as Kirsten put it rather forcefully to General Hart, there won’t be any more parades at Ellsworth anytime soon—the enemy in trenches beneath the broad meadow where the battle was fought. What remains of the droids and their vehicles has been gathered and sorted, to be scavenged for metal and usable parts. One engineering party is hard at work rebuilding the bridge. Another, under Tacoma Rivers and a handful of techs, has set out for the wind farm outside Rapid City, to study the feasibility of relocating two or three of the huge generators to the Base.

Life, she thinks wryly, getting back to normal.

Except, of course, that nothing is normal.

The unaccustomed pressure of a pair of Ace bandages around her right foot and calf remind her constantly of the graze she got off an M-16 round in that insane charge across the pile of rubble that had been the Cheyenne bridge. So does the limp. And there was “normal” for you: she, an F-14 Tomcat squadron leader, commanding dirt soldiers in the sort of battle that had not been fought in a century, abandoning that command to charge straight into hand-to-hand combat with the enemy on the heels of a for-gods’-sake veterinarian with a civilian cyberwonk as her right-hand buddy. A fragment of antique song comes to her, a whisky-roughened voice interspersed with the occasional bleat of a harmonica. Oh, yeah, the times they are very definitely a-changing..

She unlocks the kitchen door and swings the briefcase over the threshold, plunking it down just inside the door. Nothing, she reflects, is more indicative of those changing times than the half-ton load of books in that satchel. She has not carried around so much actual print and paper since her cadet days at the Academy. Even then, most of her courses and almost all of her entertainment came in CD jewel cases. But electricity is now at a premium or will be shortly—hence the raid on the wind farm—and computer use rationed to those who cannot make do without it.

Which means the medics, and the techs whose urgent job it is to convert airborne navigation and targeting systems from satellite-dependent GPS to old-fashioned radar and laser options. And, of course, Kirsten King.

Something savory is roasting in the oven; something with onions and—sage?—and a hint of other herbs. The oven light shows her the last of the chickens from her deep freeze, running with golden juices and browning nicely in a nest of potatoes and carrots. The silence in the house, though, and most of all the conspicuous absence of Asimov, tells her that Koda and Kirsten are out.

Out, and together. They have seldom been separated since Koda came out of her fatigue-induced stupor on the third day after the fighting at the Cheyenne.

And you know where that’s going, Maggie m’girl, she reflects as she slips out of her uniform jacket and runs water into the kettle for tea. A blind woman could see the inexplicable bond that had—no, not formed, because that would imply that it was something that had a definable beginning—manifested between the two women, simply asserted itself as fact without any of the accustomed preliminaries. If she were honest with herself, she would acknowledge that she had seen it when Koda brought the scientist back from Minot.

And as long as she is being honest with herself, she might as well acknowledge that while she loves Koda and is aware that Koda loves her, it is not the same emotion that has been present from first meeting between Kirsten and Dakota. Because Maggie knows that her deepest passion is not and never will be for another person. If forced to choose between Koda and her freedom—her Tomcat and the blue intoxication of the sky, skimming its depths like a dolphin in the wine-dark sea—she will slip loose onto the currents of the air, like the flight-born thing she is.

And if there is sorrow in the recognition, as long as she is being honest with herself, she might as well admit that there is something of relief, too. She will miss the love-making, but her bond with Koda can shift smoothly into friendship. There will be regret, yes. But there will not be the heart-tearing grief she senses would consume Kirsten or Koda should either lose the other, even now.

While the tea is steeping, she unpacks the tomes—there really is no other word for books and loose-leaf binders half as thick as a foundation slab—she has brought home with her. One is embossed in gold: Uniform Code of Military Justice. The rest are the familiar rawhide leather law books with red and black bands on the spines, thick with case histories and precedents of both civil and military law.

Bet there’s nothing quite like what we’ve got here, though.

Nor anything like a flygirl turned dirt commander turned Judge Advocate, either.

Little as she likes him, Maggie is worried about Hart. She folds back the cover of her long-unused clipboard, and makes a note to speak to Maiewski about their superior. His exclusion from the battle of the Cheyenne seems to have shrunk him; there is a grey cast to his skin, and his cheeks seem sunken in upon the bones of his skull. As from this morning, he has also delegated to her the legal proceedings against the prisoners taken in Rapid City. There are none from the Cheyenne fight, and that is just as well. However the probabilities might weigh against all of the human collaborators just happening to have immediately fatal wounds, and however that might or might not jibe with the laws of civilized warfare, it would be worse to have to try and legally execute them by the dozens. Better that they die on the field, in the fire of battle, than coldly against a barracks wall.

Sipping at her tea, she spends the next hour making notes. When she has finished her preliminary search of possible charges, she has five to lay against the rapists, singly or in combination:

Item: Article 120. Rape and Carnal Knowledge

(a) Any person subject to this chapter who commits an act of sexual intercourse with any person, whether male or female, by force and without consent, is guilty of rape and shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.

(b) Any person subject to this chapter who, under circumstances not amounting to rape, commits an act of sexual intercourse with a person not his or her spouse who has not attained the age of sixteen years, is guilty of carnal knowledge and shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

(c) Penetration, however slight, is sufficient to complete either of these offenses.

Item: Article 128 Assault

(a) Any person subject to this chapter who attempts or offers with unlawful force or violence to do bodily harm to another person, whether or not the attempt or offer is consummated, is guilty of assault and shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

(b) Any person subject to this chapter who—

(1) commits an assault with a dangerous weapon or other means or force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm; or

(2) commits an assault and intentionally inflicts grievous bodily harm with or without a weapon, is guilty of aggravated assault and shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

In the margin by Article 120, she scrawls: MAIN INDICTMENT, in forceful block letters. Assault will be a lesser included charge. Very carefully she underlines the penalty for rape: for three of the Rapid City men, she can cheerfully ask that they pay with their lives. The fourth— She frowns as she remembers Buxton’s abject shame, the guardhouse staff reports that he is sleeping little and eating less. Death might be a mercy for him.

Maggie is not at all sure she wants to be merciful. She makes a note to set him under a suicide watch. Then, reluctantly, finally giving a name to her own uneasiness about the man, she scribbles a reminder to herself to set up a second, less obvious, on Hart.

Briefly, she rises to check supper. Koda and Kirsten are not back, but the chicken is done. She sets it, covered, on the stove’s smooth cooking surface to await their return, then goes back to her newly-assigned lawyering.

Item: Article 104. Aiding the Enemy

Any person who—

(1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money or other things; or

(2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly; shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

Item: Article 105: Misconduct as Prisoner

Any person subject to this chapter who, while in the hands of the enemy in time of war—

(1) for the purpose of securing favorable treatment by his or her captors acts without proper authority in a manner contrary to law, custom or regulation, to the detriment of others of whatever nationality held by the enemy as civilian or military prisoners; or

(2) while in a position of authority over such persons maltreat them without justifiable cause; shall be punished as a court-martial shall direct.

Maggie sets down her pen and glances out the window. The sky is beginning to fade, the blue leeching out of the east as the sun drops toward the horizon. The light still lingers on the crowns of the young pines in her yard, caught like diamonds in the fall of melted snow, drop by drop, from its branches. Winter is beginning to break; the wind that soughs among the long green needles sits in the south. It will be the first spring in centuries in which humans will not interfere appreciably with the natural cycle of life and death, slayer and slain, in this part of the world.

Possibly not in any part of the world.

For a moment her neat kitchen falls away, and she looks down from an immense height on a sun-drenched plain. From horizon to horizon, the herds fill her sight: impala and springbok, oryx and gazelle. Along the flanks, seen only in the sinuous ripple of tall grass, lion and leopard stalk their prey. It is this earth, molded into her very bones, that calls to her, even as she knows that the template of the Black Hills, layer upon layer of molten rock and sediment, is somehow laid down in the double spiral of Koda’s heritage.

It is a call she is not free to answer, not in this lifetime. She shakes her head slightly, bringing time and place into focus once again. But the sense of hovering on the imminent edge of a new world lingers, and with it the sense of multiple possibilities. Choose one path and pursue it to awaiting fate; choose another and alter the woven strands of karma.

Even the droids, it seems, intended to remake the world in the image of—what? Something that required breeding human beings, hence the preservation of women of childbearing age and a small number of men to sire young. Herd bulls. But nothing she had encountered so far explained why the droids set out to breed their human cattle or why young children had apparently been taken alive. Which was another question—where? Into slavery? Droids hardly needed slaves; they could always replicate themselves, or at least they had been able to until the destruction of the Minot facility. Food? Droids did not eat. Nor, as far as anyone could tell, was there any surviving market on earth for either slaves or long pig. She and Koda had gone fruitlessly around the subject, around and around again. Some piece of the puzzle was missing, something vital.

Damn. Her mind had begun to run in the same endless loop, again. Stop that.

Perhaps one of the prisoners would be able to supply the one fact that would make sense of all the rest. She was far from certain that they knew their own role, beyond the obvious, in the droids’ purposes. Still, they might not know what they knew. The questioning would have to be a careful process.

The immediate purpose at hand was to bring a handful of collaborators to justice. Collaborators who had viciously and willingly abused their fellow prisoners at the behest of their captors. It was not necessary to know what the droids had meant to achieve; only that the accused had co-operated with them.

Which brought her to the final charge:

Item: Article 81. Conspiracy.

Any person subject to this chapter who conspires with any other person to commit an offense under this chapter shall, if one or more of the conspirators does an act to effect the object of the conspiracy, be punished as a court-martial may direct.

Whether the droids could be counted as “persons” for the purposes of the statute was unclear, but it ought to be possible to show that the rapists had shared a common, explicit intent.

Rape, cooperating with the enemy, conspiracy to tie it all together and make it tidy. Justice would be done.

Satisfied, Maggie closes her clipboard and moves the books off the kitchen table. Making her way through the house, she switches on the CD player—a frivolity, perhaps, but one she feels she has earned—detouring to undress and hang up her uniform. In the bathroom, she runs the tub full of hot water, adds myrrh-scented bathsalts, and gently eases herself into the steaming comfort. As she drowses, the music comes to her, weaving sinuously in and out among her half-conscious thoughts. It is an old song, and a sweet one:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley sage, rosemary and thyme.

Give my regards to one who lives there.

She once was a true love of mine.

She would take her pleasures where she found them, let them go when she must. Her regrets, if regrets she had, would never be for missed opportunities.

*******

“Take the IV out as soon as he shows signs of coming around, then get him out of the kennel and try and walk him. We’ll see how the pins hold.”

“Will do, Doctor.”

“Thanks,” Koda replies to the young tech, smiling as she wipes her hands off on a towel. She has spent the past several hours putting the fractured pelvis of a young army dog back together. Rex, the dog in question, had been hit by an old, rattling truck driven by a newcomer. The surgery was grueling, but nothing that she hadn’t done before; several times, unfortunately. “And Keisha?”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“It’s Dakota. Let the old-timers in the M*A*S*H tents stick to their titles if they want to okay?”

The young woman smiles shyly, charmed by this beautiful, if imposing, woman. She nods, taking the towel from Koda and tossing it into the hamper.

“Good. I’m gonna get some fresh air. Send someone to get me if he looks like he’s in trouble.”

“Will do.”

After a final check on the dog, who is still sleeping off his anaesthesia, Koda turns and leaves the small clinic, stepping into the bright sunshine. Despite the long hours in surgery, she feels refreshed, at peace with herself in a way that has eluded her since the battle. Perhaps it is because she has spent her time doing something known and loved. Perhaps it is because she has saved a life instead of taken one. Perhaps it is both of those things, and none of them. Whatever the reason, she welcomes the feeling as she starts down the walk toward the base proper, lunch the only thing on her mind.

Until, that is, she sees a flash of gold in the near distance, and without conscious thought, aims her steps in that direction.

Her subconscious suspicions are confirmed as Kirsten comes into full view, standing in the ‘picnic area’ and chatting with two people who could have come straight out of the Teutonic Bible. Long and lean, with cornsilk hair, pale blue eyes and pale skin, they are poster children for the Aryan race. The man has his arm around the woman’s waist, his hand gently cupping what she can see as the telltale bulge of a six-month pregnancy.

The man is the first to see her. His eyes widen, and a smile filled with awe curves his lips, displaying perfect, snow-white teeth. Reacting to the abrupt shift, Kirsten turns her head, then adds her own smile to the mix as she spies Dakota approaching.

“I saw you!” the man exclaims in lightly accented English. “Leading the charge on that bridge! It was…amazing!”

“It was needed,” is Koda’s curt reply as she nods to the group and comes to stand beside Kirsten. Asi, ever the pleasure hound, squeezes his massive body between them, and tucks his cold, wet snout beneath Koda’s hand in the universal signal for “Pet me and make it snappy.”

With a roll of her eyes, Dakota indulges the pushy canine while looking expectantly at Kirsten, who suddenly snaps out of the fog of attraction and remembers her manners. “Oh! Yes. Franz and Anna, this is Dakota Rivers. Dakota, this is Franz Dorfmann, and his wife Anna. They were part of the group that came over the ridge near the end of the battle.”

“Pleased to meet you both.”

“It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” Anna replies, taking Koda’s hand in a surprisingly strong grip. “You very likely saved our lives out there. A simple thank you seems less than adequate, somehow.”

“It was a group effort,” Koda replies. “But…you’re welcome. Glad I could help.”

Sensing Koda’s discomfort, Kirsten tactfully steers the conversation in another direction. “Franz and Anna were telling me an interesting story as you walked up. I think it’s one you should hear.”

Anna looks to her husband, who nods and returns his attention to Dakota. As he removes his arm from around his wife’s waist, Koda notices his hands are long-fingered, sensitive, like a those of a concert pianist. She can almost see him sitting behind the staid grains of a Steinway channeling Mozart well enough to make the very gods weep.

“I am…a software engineer,” he begins, folding his hands and looking down at them. “My company has a defense contract with your government’s military. All very classified, except, I guess, not so much anymore.” His smile is wry. “Two weeks ago—maybe three now, I seem to have lost track of time—we were in our hotel room when we were awakened by the sounds of screaming. And then gunfire. We thought, perhaps, a robbery. All those stories of American violence.” He eyes them both from beneath fair lashes, assuring them silently that his words are spoken in jest.

Looking back down at his clasped hands, he continues. “All at once, our door burst open and two heavily armed men came through.”

“Men?” Koda asks, surprised. “Not androids?”

“Men,” Franz confirms. “In military uniforms, with rank and insignia removed.” He shakes his head slowly, as if waking from a perplexing dream; or a nightmare. “At first I thought…terrorists? Because of the sensitive nature of my company’s business, you understand.”

“Mm.” She doesn’t press him, not yet, though the opening is large enough to drive a squadron of tanks through. Her well developed sixth sense is jangling furiously, telling her that whatever it is that this man is hiding, it may well be something they can use in the future. Until then…. “It wasn’t terrorists.”

“Not in the conventional sense, no.” He pinches the bridge of his nose between two fingers, the stress of this retelling evident in the gesture. “In any event, the men entered. One grabbed my wife from the bed. The other put his gun to my head and appeared ready to pull the trigger. It was…quite terrifying.”

“My husband has a gift for understatement,” Anna remarks, threading her arm through his and leaning against his body. “I was quite sure we were breathing our last. I managed to break free from the man holding me—he stank of tobacco and sweat, I remember that—and jumped back on the bed, landing on top of my husband. I must have jostled the gun or something because there was a shot, but Franz wasn’t harmed.”

“Another man walked in then,” Franz continues, “followed by an android. I could tell it was an android by the silver band around his neck. That was the only way I could tell. The likeness to a human male was extraordinary. I don’t believe we have that model in Germany.” He smiles then, but it looks more like a grimace.

Clearing his throat, he continues. “They tried to take Anna from me again, but she fought them, and they began to handle her roughly.” He winces, remembering the repeated blows raining down upon her soft flesh and his own inability to stop them. Anna responds by going to her tiptoes and placing a soft kiss on his stubbled cheek. He smiles down at her with great affection and love. “My Anna,” he whispers. “Such a fighter.”

Anna returns the smile, then looks over at her avid listeners. “The android pulled the man off of me and threw him across the room, like he was a doll.” Her eyes close briefly. “I heard his neck snap. It was a sound I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

Kirsten nods in empathy, having more than her own store of things she’ll never forget. “What happened then?” she asks softly.

“The android was looking down at me,” Anna continues, voice little more than a whisper, gaze dim with memories. “His eyes…so cold…so cold.”

Franz steps in. “The third man approached, his hands raised like this.” He demonstrated, arms raised, palms out in a gesture of placation. “He apologized for the ‘misunderstanding’, as he called it. Said there had been a big mistake.”

Koda smothers a snort of derision behind a cough. Kirsten eyes her knowingly.

“He said that Anna was…needed—for what, he refused to say. He told me that if I allowed her to go with them, my life would be spared and I could join her. I agreed.” His looks up, eyes beseeching. “What else could I do? They had guns.”

“Where did you wind up?” Koda asks, cutting to the chase.

“I’m not sure I know the word for it in English,” Franz explains. “It was like a hospital, but not.”

“An Urgent Care Center?” Kirsten asks.

Franz looks at his wife, who translates the phrase into German. He shakes his head in the negative. “No, not that. It was more…where women go to give birth, but not a hospital. I wish I….”

“A birthing center,” Koda hazards.

“Yes! Exactly right! We were taken there by bus. It was a short trip, perhaps an hour. No more.”

“Do you remember the name of it?” Kirsten asks.

“No, I’m sorry, I never saw a name,” Franz replies, crestfallen. “I could, perhaps, describe the building, but….”

“That’s alright.” Kirsten waves him off for the moment. “What happened next?”

“As we were being taken out of the bus, I began to have cramps. I thought I was losing my baby.” Her hands move instinctively to cup the bulge of her pregnancy. “I was terrified.”

Franz pulls his wife in close, holding her in a warm and supportive embrace. She rests her head on his shoulder, accepting and relishing the calm, quiet support. “They took me to an examination ward right away,” Anna continues. “There were four others like myself in the ward. Franz was the only man. They let him stay because I screamed so loudly, I think.”

Laughing softly, Franz presses a kiss into Anna’s hair, then releases her and stretches his arms. “You did scream, my love. I feared for the windows.”

“I’m guessing things turned out alright,” Kirsten mentions, nodding toward Anna’s pregnant belly.

“Oh yes. There was a doctor there. A human doctor. Doctor Hoek, an obstetrician. He told me the cramping was a result of stress, but that my baby was fine. I was so relieved.”

“Did he tell you why you were there?” Koda asks, cutting to the chase once again.

“No,” Franz replies. “I asked, but he wouldn’t say.”

“Wouldn’t? Or couldn’t?”

“A little of both, perhaps. I think, maybe, that he feared saying anything that could be overheard more than anything else.”

“How did you escape?”

Franz smiles. “He left the door unlocked when he left that evening. He might have done it on purpose. Anna believes so.”

“Yes, I do. He let you stay with me. He didn’t have to do that.”

“There wasn’t anyone left to watch over you?” Kirsten asks, surprised.

“A human female. She was asleep in a chair. I don’t think they were worried about escape. We were all women in danger of losing our babies, after all. How could we run?”

“So you left.”

“Yes,” Franz replies. “I asked the others to join us. Begged them, even. But they refused.” He nods at the looks of surprise on the faces of his listeners. “They were like sheep, afraid to break away. Finally, I gave up. I wouldn’t risk Anna’s safety on their stubbornness. We saw the chance, and we took it. We ran.”

“And we kept on running,” Anna adds. “I was still cramping, but I didn’t care. I kept running, and running, and running. When I couldn’t, Franz carried me through the snow and the woods. We were lost and we were cold, but we were also free, and that was more important than anything in the world.”

“We were rescued the next afternoon by a group heading for this base, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Do you think you could find that place again?” Koda asks.

“I wouldn’t want to,” Franz exclaims.

“I realize that, but do you think you could?”

“I doubt it. I never saw a name, and I’ve never been to this part of America before.” He looks down from Koda’s intense gaze. “I suppose, with a map….”

“Let’s go, then.”

*******

“Okay,” Maggie says, leaning over the back of the MP’s chair, careful not to bump against the precariously high stacks of files or the small mountain range of blank forms that marches along the narrow shelf of built in desk that occupies two walls and crowds up against the bank of twelve-inch monitors. She has been in any number of closets larger than this cramped guardroom. ” Two down. That leaves us who?”

“McCallum and Buxton, Ma’am.”

“McCallum’s our little jewel, isn’t he?”

“Oh, yeah.” The guard punches code into his keyboard, and the cell monitor comes to life. Major Leonard Boudreaux of the Base Comptrollor’s Office, a paralegal in his pre-CPA misspent youth, perches uncomfortably on the edge of the single chair, urgently taking notes. His long face is drawn down with the effort, distaste or both; a thin film of sweat sheens his balding scalp. Boudreax’s lips are pinched above a sharp chin, nostrils drawn in as if he smells something disagreeable. Maggie can see McCallum’s mouth moving, but the audio is muted to preserve attorney-client privilege. The prisoner’s big hands saw the air as he makes his point, fist pounding into palm to drive it home. “He doesn’t want anything to read, isn’t interested in any kind of video that we can let him have—”

“Let me guess,” Maggie interrupts dryly. “He wants porno?”

The MP nods. “And when we tell him he can’t have it, he just lies there on his bunk and jerks off for the camera. Especially when he knows a woman’s got the guard duty.”

“Nice.”

“Classic sex offender. He’s let a couple things slip when we bring him his meals. He’s done time for rape before.”

“Surprise, surprise.” She straightens up, rubbing the back of her neck. A trip hammer pounds in her head, keeping the metaphorical headache company. “Send them on into the interrogation room when Boudreaux’s ready. I’ll wait there.”

The interrogation room is equally cramped—a small table, four chairs, the single overhead light with its metal shade. A brief review of her notes on the other two accused offers no inspiration. Another folder holds transcripts of interviews she has conducted with the women of the Mandan and Rapid City jails.

Q: Would you state your name for the record, please.

A. Cynthia F******

Q: What is your profession, Ms. F******?

A: I am—that is, I was—a kindergarden teacher.

Q. Ms. F******, how did you come to be imprisoned in the CCA facility in Rapid City?

A. I was taken prisoner in the droid uprising.

Q: Can you tell us what happened?

A; Droids attacked the school where I worked. They killed all the adult men on the staff, and all the women older than forty or so.

Q: What about the children?

A: They—they—I’m sorry. . . .

DEAD AIR ON TAPE: 2.6 MINUTES

Q: Can I get you anything, Ms. F******?

A: No, I’m all right. I can– What did you ask?

Q: What happened to the children?

A: They—the droids—they killed all the older kids, the fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

Q: The others?

A: I don’t know. They—took them—off—somewhere. I don’t know where

Q: And what happened to you?

A: They took me and all the other younger women to the jail..

DEAD AIR ON TAPE: 1.2 MINUTES

A (continued): There were some men in the prison. They raped us.

The accounts have been remarkably consistent. So have the interviews, so far, with their assailants.

One of the two men Maggie has already had the displeasure of talking to had been up for minor drug dealing; the other for a convenience store robbery. Both, ably advised by Boudreaux, had gone stone mute except for brief, formulaic assertions of their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. According to the Rapid City prison records, McCallum is the only one of the four actually convicted on sex charges: two counts of rape, another of possessing and offering for sale pornographic materials depicting minors He is unlikely to be any more fruitful than the others, assuming that Boudreaux is able to get his swaggering machismo under control. Her best hope is Buxton, who seems to be ashamed of his actions and who has no prior history of violence. He had been en route to a federal prison for tax evasion when the uprising occurred. Always assuming, of course, that any of them know anything at all about the droids’ purposes.

A thump of boot soles on concrete and the jingle of manacles announces McCallum’s progress down the hall. Maggie clears the table of all save one notepad and pen, tilting the lampshade so that her face is half in shadow. The door opens to admit McCallum, Major Boudreaux and an MP who promptly takes his station by the door jamb. His name tag identifies him as Corporal Esparza, George. Maggie says, “Sit down, Major. And Mr.”—she makes a show of checking the printouts in front of her “Eric McCallum, is it?”

McCallum sets his elbows on the table, clasping his hands in front of him. A skull and crossbones earring dangles from one ear; a tattooed crown, impaled by a cross, adorns his left forearm. The words “DIE MOTHERFUCKER” march across his knuckles, an amateur prison job done by incising the skin and rubbing ball point ink into the cuts. “Let’s ut to the chase here, why don’t we? You want something I’ve got; I want something you can do for me. How about it?”

Maggie ignores him. Instead she addresses Boudreaux. “Major, your client has been advised of his rights, has he not? He is aware that this interview is being recorded and that anything he volunteers can and will be used against him in a court of law?”

Boudreaux’s thin face acquires a resigned look, dark eyebrows reaching up his forehead to chase his long-departed hairline. “He knows, Colonel. He knows he cannot be compelled to give testimony against himself. He is pursuing his present line of inquiry against counsel.”

“Is that true, Mr. McCallum? Major Boudreaux has advised you that you have the right to remain silent? That you have the right not to answer any questions except upon the advice of your legal representative?”

“Lady,” McCallum says, “I have heard that bullshit so many times I could say it in my sleep. Let’s deal.”

Maggie ignores his second offer. “And Major Boudreaux has informed you that under military law you face a possible death sentence if you are convicted of the crime of rape, or of aiding the enemy, or both?”

The muscles around the man’s mouth tighten., accentuating the rawboned line of his jaw. His eyes, already narrow with the light directed into his face, become mere slits. “Why do you think I want to cooperate? You get me off, I give you information about the droids. Everybody’s happy.”

“And what information do you have that would be worth sparing your life, Mr. McCallum?”

“Excuse me,” Boudreaux interrupts. “Look,” he says, addressing McCallum, “I already warned you about saying anything at all. You didn’t listen. But any answer at all to that question will almost certainly make you guilty of the conspiracy charge and aiding the enemy.”

“Big fucking deal,” McCallum snorts. “And how many of them bitches is gonna testify I screwed ‘em against their will? By the time they get through with that, the rest won’t fucking matter.”

Q: Please state your name for the record.

A: Inez C*****.

Q: What is your profession, Ms. C*****?

A: I’m a nurse—an LVN.

Q: Ms. C*****, were you one of the women imprisoned in the Corrections Corporation of America facility in Rapid City?

A: I was.

Q: And how did you come to be there?

A: The droids took several women there from the hospital.

Q: Can you describe conditions there?

A: We were kept two to a cell. They fed us twice a day—rice, potatoes, starchy stuff.

Q: Did you have any medical care?

A: They asked us when we’d had our last periods. They took our temps every day.

Q: Do you know why they did that?

A: They never said, but it was obvious that they were trying to keep track of ovulation cycles.

“Mr McCallum,” Maggie says, “I think you had better understand something. I’m not your prosecutor. I’m setting up the tribunal to try you and your co-defendants and am gathering preliminary information. Whether or not to grant clemency will be entirely up to the jury and the judges.” She straightens the already perfectly neat arrangement of papers and pens in front of her. “What I can do is make a recommendation. You won’t get any promises, not at this level.”

“Listen, bitch.” McCallum surges to his feet, pushing his chair back so hard it rocks on its legs. The MP darts forward to catch it, grabbing the prisoner by the arm. Boudreax half rises, then subsides when it is clear that the officer has him. McCallum glances toward the door, and Maggie can almost see him computing the odds of getting to it and out. Then he, too, settles back into his seat. His face has not lost its snarl, nor has Maggie taken her hand off her sidearm.

“Listen, Colonel,” he repeats. “You got no right to try me at all. The Constitution says I got a right to a speedy trial by my peers. My peers ain’t no goddam military kangaroo court .”

“True,” she answers drily. “The problem, Mr. McCallum, is that your only available ‘peers’ are facing charges similar to your own. The fact is, we’re the only law in town, and if you want to deal with the law, you’re going to have to deal with us.” She gives him a small, tight smile. ” Make your argument, though. If you persuade us we can’t hold you, we might just have to turn you loose. Right into the waiting hands of your victims.”

“You can’t do that!”

Maggie says nothing. She opens a manila folder prominently labeled with McCallum’s name, makes a notation, closes it again.

“She can’t do that!” McCallum turns to Boudreaux. “She can’t! It violates my right to due process!”

Boudreaux develops a sudden interest in the toes of his shoes. “Actually, Mr. McCallum, the Base authorities can hold you, or they can release you. There really aren’t any facilities for long- or even medium-term incarceration here. If you satisfy the Acting Judge Advocate’s office that there is no grounds on which to hold you—” he shrugs—”they will doubtless release you. What happens after that is your own responsibility.”

“And before you start telling us again what we can’t do,” Maggie adds, “I suggest you start spelling out what you can do for us. Because that is your best, probably your only, chance of saving your lousy life.”

McCallum glances at Boudreaux. “I wanna talk to my counsel here. Privately.”

Boudreaux glances at Maggie in his turn, his eyes wide as his hornrims will allow. She says, “Officer, shackle Mr. McCallum here to the table leg. Counsel, if I were you, I’d get out of arms’ reach.”

When the MP has the prisoner secured to the table, which is itself firmly bolted to the floor, Maggie slips quietly into the hall, taking her files with her. The MP follows and takes up station by the door.

“Esparza, if you hear even a whisper that sounds wrong to you, you give a yell and get back in there. I’ll be right behind you. Meantime, I’m going to get me a breath of real air.”

“Yes’m. It was close in there.”

“It was nasty in there, Corporal. The bastard’s a psychopath.”

******

Maggie lets herself out of the building into a day just on the cusp of spring. Melting ice makes runnels of brown water in the gutter that runs along the street that separates the brig from the old parade ground; by the steps of the building, a few blades of dessicated, grey-brown grass push up through the receding snow. The sun rides higher in the sky, veiled from time to time by cumulus clouds blowing northward on a warming breeze. If she were poetical, Maggie thinks, she would draw a metaphor out of that. Life returning. Springtime renewal. The beginning of a new cycle.

But the past months are too much with her. Too much is unexplained, too much beyond repair. To her the widening circles of snow melt over the lawn look like wounds, the transparent edges the dissolving margins of necrosis.

And there is, as yet, no medicine for this hurt, not in the pharmacology, not even, yet, in the spiritual power that has begun to make itself all but visible in Dakota Rivers. Maggie is a skeptic; a realist. Being a realist, unfortunately, sometimes forces one to recognize an uncomfortable and unprepared-for truth.

One of which, much as she hates to admit it, is that pond scum eating coprophage that he is, McCallum has a point. There is presently no adequate judicial mechanism to deal with him or with others like him. Hell, there’s no way to deal with a pickpocket beyond a person’s own fists. Or, more frighteningly, a person’s own gun.

It is not that the evidence is lacking. She opens her folder again, to remind herself why it is important to find a way to do justice, not just vengeance. The printed words convey so little of the timbre of the voices that spoke them, the emphases, the empty spaces that represent a woman’s struggle for control and coherence.

Her memory is not so handicapped. She will hear these cadences, these halting phrases, in her head until she dies.

Q: Please state your name for the record.

A: Monica D********

Q: What is your profession, Ms. D********

A: I’m—that is, I was—an artisan. I made jewelry.

Q: You were among the women liberated from the Rapid City CCA facility?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me how that happened?

A: I was in my studio when the riot broke out. I hid in a storeroom in the back, under a tarp.

Q: They found you?

A. They set the studio on fire with my blowtorch. I ran out when I couldn’t stand the smoke any more.

Q: What happened at the jail?

A: I was raped. We all were. Almost all.

Q. Do you know why?

DEAD AIR ON TAPE: 1.4 MINUTES.

Q: Can I get you something, Ms. D********? Water? Tea?

A. No. No, thank you.

Q: Let me put it a bit differently. Did the—the men who assaulted you—ever give you any reason for it?

A: Reason! <laughter> Reason!

Q: Ms. D********, I’m sorry, but I do need to ask. Did any of the men ever say anything that might tell you, and us, why the droids instigated the attacks?

A: No.

Q: Did the droids ever discuss the matter in your presence, or did you overhear anything that might indicate what their purpose was?

A: No.

Q: Can you come to any conclusion, given what you know, why they might have wanted to salvage and impregnate women of childbearing age?

A: No. Please, I can’t anymore . . . .

“Colonel.” The Corporal’s voice interrupts her memory. “The Major says they’re ready.”

Reluctantly Maggie levers herself up, feeling the persistent soreness in her right leg where the bullet grazed her. She wants nothing more than to be done with McCallum and all he represents, but she sees no prospect of that in any immediate, realistic future. She dusts a bit of soil and leaf mould off the seat of her uniform. “Coming,” she says.

Both men are seated when she re-enters the room. Only Boudreaux rises at her return, but something in the set of McCallum’s back is less defiant. Maggie glances at the Major and receives an almost imperceptible nod. She seats herslf at the table across from the prisoner and switches on a small recorder, stating her name and the names of those present, the date and time. Then she says, “Talk.”

McCallum shoots his legal representative a quick look; Boudreaux stares stonily back. After a moment he says, “All right. You wanted to know what the droids were up to. I can tell you.”

Maggie does not unbend by an ångstrom. “We’re waiting, Mr. McCallum.”

His knuckles go white under their tattoos, but he looks her straight in the eye. “You remember that the Jews and the A-Rabs never bought none of the domestic models, right? Just the heavy-duty military droids that don’t really look like humans.”

“I remember something about it,” Maggie answers, frowning. “Get to the point.”

“I am getting to the fucking point, you—” McCallum catches himself and glances down, away from Maggie’s hard stare. “They didn’t buy the MaidMarians and that junk because they’re imitation humans, get it? They’re images. And the Jew god and the A-Rab god Allah don’t want no images. The ones that are serious about it won’t even paint a goddam flower, much less somebody’s face.”

“I remember,” Maggie repeats. “Get—

“—to the fuckin’ point. I hear you.”

“Now.”

“So the goddam Jews and the goddam A-Rabs don’t got nothing but the military droids. They can control them all through their guvmint, their buncha fag princes royal families. And they can use those droids to control all the rest.” He looks up expectantly, as if every word he has said is self-explanatory.

Maggie waits.

“So they got the oil, right? And now they want to control all the rest of the world, so they use the drods to kill all us American and European Aryans off and probably the sp- uh, Hispanics and Ornamentals, too. That just leaves the Semite race alive.”

“That tattoo you’ve got there,” Maggie says, pointing to the impaled crown and cross. “That’s the Church of Jesus Christ Aryan, isn’t it? That bunch up of Neo-Nazis up in the hills in Montana?”

“Nazis?” The man’s voice climbs in genuine outrage. “Fuck, no! Old Schickelgruber himself was a Jew! Why the fuck you think he couldn’t make the Thousand Year Reich last even twenty? Naw.” He looks as though he wants to spit, glances around him and thinks better of it. “We’re White Nationalists. We’re Christians. That’s different.”

“I see.” Maggie steeples her fingers, willing herself to patience. If there is some chance, some minuscule chance, that this racist idiot has some clue about what has happened to the world, she is duty bound to hear it, even if McCallum makes her skin crawl. She promises herself a long, hot bath with double the lavender she ordinarily uses. “So why, having destroyed your Master Race, do these people want to breed more of you? How does that fit with your theory.”

McCallum leans across the table confidentially. It takes all Maggie’s willpower not to draw back. “They want to live forever.”

This is too much for Boudreaux. Even though he is an auditor, and, in Maggie’s view therefore used to lies, he apparently cannot quite stifle the sudden constriction in his throat. He covers his mouth and transforms the laugh into a cough. “Sorry, Colonel. Something caught in my throat.”

Damn right. Like this preposterous story. Aloud she says, “And this has what to do with—” A wave of her hand encompasses the whole horror of the jails, the apparent breeding program, McCallum’s place in it.

“Spare parts. They grow the kids, see, then harvest their organs when they need ‘em. Replace a heart, replace a liver, a kidney—the bastards’ll never die. Just keep getting replacements

“Forever.”

There is a certain nasty plausibility to the story, if one begins with a certain mindset. Maggie can remember hearing news reports of Mexican paisanos and Columbian farmers attacking evangelical missionaries because they believed the americanos had come to steal their children to sell for parts on the medical black market. Prejudices never die, she reflects, just attach themselves to new and different “others.”

“This was told to you? By whom?”

“Ah hell! Hell no, lady, they wouldn’t tell us that! What white man’d want his little kid cut up for parts?”

“So you did it because….?”

“To save my fuckin’ skin, why do you think? Think I enjoyed ramming those bitches?” He manages a quite convincing shudder. “Man, not more’n half of ‘em was white! Think I wanna pollute myself that way?”

Maggie manages to keep her thoughts to herself and her fist out of his lying teeth. She says, “So how did you find this out?”

McCallum’s face relaxes into bland sincerity. His eyes gaze straight into hers. “Because I overheard two of the droids talking. They do , y’know. Said the E-Mir would be pleased with them. Said the kids would be ready for harvest in four-five years.”

“I see. That’s your story.”

“That’s what happened!”

“And you want clemency on the basis of your testimony?”

“I deserve clemency. I told you why the metalheads were up to it. You owe me.”

Maggie presses the control buttons on the recorder, and a printer across the room spits out a couple pieces of paper. Boudreaux brings them to her, and she reads them through without comment. Then she sets them in front of Boudreaux. “Sign.”

Laboriously, he reads it though, the holds out his hand for a pen. Maggie hands him a soft-tip, and he laboriously scrawls out EMcCallum across the bottom of the page.

When he is finished, Maggie reclaims the pen, touching it gingerly only with her fingertips. She jerks her head in the direction of the cells. “Lock him back up.”

“Hey! We got a deal,” McCallum objects.

“We got a deal,” Maggie repeats. “You tell us what you know, we take it under advisement. No promises.” To the MP she says, “Lock him up.”

Maggie picks up her folders and the recorder and pushes her way out of the room and all but runs out into the evening air. She has never felt so dirty.

She needs a bath. She needs a long talk with Dakota and with Kirsten, too. Hot water. Lavender salts. Clean.

She switches her brief case to her good left hand and sets out for home.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Kirsten removes her glasses and rubs at eyes far past weary. The past twelve hours have been spent studying line after line of code that marches across her monitor like a parade of ants to a picnic. Still, the day has been somewhat productive. She’s managed to weed out all but two groupings, each similar in form, if not content. Somewhere within this mess of binaries, she knows the answer, or at least part of it, will be found. For all that, however, she’s not even close to being out of the woods. It’s as if the scrolling numbers are all the words to War and Peace.

With no capital letters.

Or punctuation.

Or spaces indicating where one word ends and the next begins.

In Russian.

And she can’t read Russian.

She doesn’t hear the clatter of her glasses hitting the far wall and coming to rest in a forlorn twist of glass and metal atop the threadbare carpet. With her implants switched off, her world is blessedly silent. Not that there would be anything to disturb the silence if her implants were on, of course. Maggie and Dakota had left the house early this morning; the Colonel undoubtedly off making the world—or what remains of it—safe for Democracy, and Koda tending to the animals thrust suddenly into her more-than-capable hands.

Or maybe not, she thinks as she lifts her head and takes a deep breath through her nose. The scent that lingers there takes her back to a time of cold winters and warm blankets, the love of her family, and the adventures of Katrina Callahan—Intergalactic Cop. A smile steals unnoticed over her face. Mmm. Chicken soup. My favorite.

Casually flipping her implants back on, she listens expectantly for the sounds of life within the house, then frowns, disappointed. Beyond her half-closed door, it’s as silent as a tomb. With a soft sigh, she pushes back from the desk and rises somewhat stiffly to her feet, shaking her legs to restore some feeling into the seemingly deadened nerves.

Padding softly across the small room, she peeks through the opening, smiling in surprised delight at the sight of Dakota propped on the couch, face mostly hidden behind the cover of a thick book. Asi lays sprawled half-across her lap, blissfully asleep. The scent of simmering soup is much stronger here, and she takes it in on a satisfied breath, squinting slightly to catch the title stamped into the thick leather hide of the book Koda holds.

Der Untergang des Abendlandes by Otto Spengler.

“Wow,” Kirsten remarks softly, “and they call me an egghead.”

So confident that her remark was unheard, she almost misses the brief flash of pain that crosses Dakota’s striking features as she looks up from her book. She masks the expression quickly, but Kirsten feels her heart plummet somewhere in the region of her stomach and she takes an involuntary step forward, arms at her sides, palms outspread. “I’m….”

“It’s okay,” Koda intones, pulling up a genuine smile. “Taking a break?”

“Kinda,” Kirsten replies, relieved. “That soup smells delicious.”

“Unfortunately, it’s got several hours to go yet. I just put it on.”

“Ah well. There’s always the mess.”

The women exchange quiet laughs.

Approaching the couch, Kirsten looks down at her dog, who looks up at her without a care in the world. His tail beats a lazy tattoo against the arm of the sofa as his head continues to rest across the top of Koda’s thighs. “You’re a slut, you know that?”

Dakota laughs as Asi gives Kirsten a rather affronted look but deigns not to move from his appointed spot. Rolling her eyes—and secretly envying Asi his prime location—Kirsten perches on the couch’s other arm, peering again at the thick tome in Koda’s hands. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone read an actual book for pleasure.”

Looking down at the book in question, Koda lifts one broad shoulder in a shrug. “Disktexts never were my thing. I like the feel of a book in my hands.”

Kirsten nods, though she really can’t relate. She can, and has, read books when she must, but to her nothing compares with a minidisk filled to the byte with her favorite literature. She smiles. “In German, too. I’m impressed.” She touches the book’s binding. “How many languages do you know?”

“Twelve,” Koda replies, “though I can’t really take credit for most of them. Tali had a Master’s in Linguistics and Foreign Languages.” She smiles slightly, sweet memories surrounding her. “It got to be that if I wanted to talk to her at all, I’d have to learn the language she was currently studying.”

“Tali?”

The look of pain flashes briefly again, then is gone. “My wife.”

“Wife?” Kirsten echoes, stunned. A barrage of emotions run through her, none staying long enough for her to identify, though she knows that a bit of anger, shock, and disbelief are somewhere in the mix.

“She died seven years ago. SARS IV.”

“Oh, Dakota. I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks,” Koda replies, noting the obvious sincerity in the smaller woman’s tone. She hesitates a moment, then deliberately lowers another internal wall, needing to share some part of herself with this woman she is quickly coming to cherish. “We married when we were sixteen.”

“Sixteen?” Kirsten asks, though her voice is hesitant. She is fully aware of the precious gift she is about to receive, and is loath to have that gift taken back due to an inauspicious interruption on her part. To her vast relief, however, Koda doesn’t seem to mind.

“A little young, I know, but it was pretty much expected.” At Kirsten’s questioning look, she continues. “We grew up together. Her family owned the ranch next to ours, and we were born only three weeks apart. We were best friends from the cradle on, and when I got old enough to know what love was, I knew that I loved her.” Her sudden smile is lopsided and fond. “When I asked for her hand, let’s just say that no one was surprised.”

“It sounds like something out of a Fairy Tale,” Kirsten remarks quietly.

Koda laughs softly. “Maybe a little, yeah.” Her voice becomes serious. “We went off to school the week after we got married. We were both accepted at UPenn, on scholarship. I went to the Vet school, she studied linguists and foreign languages. When we graduated, we moved back here and refurbished our home. I had my clinic and rehab center, she had her students, and we had each other.” She pauses for a moment, her thumb rubbing on the book’s worn spine. “We were happy.”

Kirsten lays one hand almost reverently on Koda’s bowed head, brushing her palm against the silken strands of her thick, jet hair. “How…how did she get sick?”

“As near as anyone could tell,” Koda begins, comforted by the stroking hand, “it was a student who’d just come back from Asia. The epidemic was just starting up at that time, and quarantines weren’t in force. She went to school hale and healthy one morning, and was hooked up to a ventilator that same night.”

“But the treatment…!”

Koda shakes her head. “She wouldn’t take it.”

“Wouldn’t–? But why?”

As Koda looks up, Kirsten reads the answer within the fathomless grief in those too-blue eyes before Dakota even speaks a word.

“She was pregnant.”

*******

Ellsworth is a large installation, and as Maggie makes her way from the brig back toward the base housing and home, the pain in her leg returns full force. Official rationing of gasoline has not begun, but unless they can find fresh supplies to exploit in Rapid City and the surrounding area, the time will come when all petroleum products will grow not just scarce but extinct.

Dionsaur thou art; to dinosaur thou shalt return. Amen.

She makes a mental note to have someone check on foot-driven transportation already available on base and to send a couple squads to raid the remaining inventories of bicycle shops in town. She will need to speak to Koda and the Mss. Tilbury-Laduque about the possibility of acquiring horses. She will also have to think about how—no, goddammit, somebody else can think about something. Let Boudreaux and the other goddam surviving CPA’s earn their keep.

She shifts that problem firmly off her desk. The bean counters will have to figure out how to pay for such things.

Then the rest of us can fill out the forms in triplicate. Requisition: individual personnel transportation and supply hauling unit, quadruped. Translation: horse.

The feeling that time is slipping out from under her returns: years, decades, centuries tilting drunkenly away as they did the morning of the battle of the Cheyenne. The armature of a whole civilization has collapsed, sending them back to . . . where? When? Maggie shivers a little under her uniform jacket, hunching her shoulders both to hoard the warmth and to ease the weight of her brief case. The most taken-for-granted, everyday facts of life have all suddenly acquired question marks, and she’s not sure there are good answers to all of them.

Maybe not to any of them.

Is there still a United States? If so, is there a Constitution?

Who decides?

How are goods to be paid for? Up until now, patrols from the base have been happily looting—there is no other name for it, no matter if they have been calling it ‘salvage’—and that is a thing that offends her orderly soul. Sergeant Tacoma Rivers, as honest a man as she has ever met, is at this moment heading a team to study the feasibility of appropriating electrical generators that had been private property a few short weeks ago. If any of the power co-op survives, how are they to be compensated? Is there such a thing as money any more?

And who decides?

The headache that has been tapping, tapping lightly at the edges of her consciousness becomes the full-blown assault of a jackhammer. She needs that bath. Thank god there is still lavender. She needs a cup of chamomile tea. She needs—

Something cold and wet and rubbery suddenly thrusts itself into her free hand swinging at her side, and it is all Maggie can do not to jump out of her skin. For half a nanosecond it takes her straight back to junior high school and haunted house fundraisers—one of the oldest tricks in the world, a kitchen glove filled with ice water and dragged over an unsuspecting hand or better yet, the back of a vulnerable neck. It had gotten satisfyingly terrified screams even out of the football jocks.

Especially out of the football jocks.

But this is not a trick, and she turns to ruffle Asi’s fur as he greets her, whining and twisting himself into Moebius strips of canine ecstacy. He barks twice, high and sharp, and the sound almost splits her skull, but she is almost as glad to see him as he is to see her. Anything to be dragged away from the train of thought that has become increasingly oppressive. He will allow her to think about something besides the minuscule but suddenly critical problems that have parked themselves like orphans outside her gate, and will not go away.

“Hey, fella,” she says, scratching his back in long, lazy strokes. “Where’s your lady?”

He barks again, a glass-shattering high B, and Maggie looks up to see Kirsten and Koda coming toward her from the bare woods to the west of the base residences, climbing the short slope that leads up to the sidewalk. Their faces are both flushed with the westerly breeze that is now carries with it the chill of dusk, Kirsten’s hair alight around her face like an aureole in the low sun.

There is something of peace in Koda’s face that she has never seen before, the quiet that follows cessation of pain. With it, too, is a new sense of intimacy between the two women. It is nothing overt, nothing that Maggie can easily put words to; only something in the tilt, perhaps, of Kirsten’s head, the inclination of Koda’s body. A lessening of the space between. Something, something of vital importance, has passed between them this day. Something that has Maggie, this time, on the outside, looking in.

The sight brings a small pang about her heart, but Maggie cannot pretend to any sweeping operatic emotion, neither jealousy or grand amour. Neither can she pretend that she does not see the obvious and instinctive bond between the two women. Her ancestors, plying the coast of East Africa with ivory and leopard pelts to trade for turquoise and myrrh in the incense fields of Oman, would have called it kismet.

Insh’allah.

As god wills.

Aloud she calls, “You guys headed home?”

“Yeah,” Koda answers as she gains the sidewalk, and Asi, fickle male that he is, bounds toward her and paws at her chest as if he has not seen her in a week. “Hey, boy. Down.” And to Maggie, again, “I put some soup on before we left. It ought to be done in an hour or so.”

“You look tired,” Kirsten observes. “Bad day with the interviews?”

Maggie grimaces and shakes her head slightly. “Filthy.”

“Them or the day?”

“Both.”

Koda’s eyes meet hers, concern and affection in their blue depths. “You look like something Asi wouldn’t bother to drag in.” She gestures toward a pair of benches set under the still-naked branches of a sycamore tree. “Soup won’t be on for a while yet. Let’s sit.”

Maggie nods and follows the other two toward the knoll that looks down over the woods. The sun has begun to fall toward the horizon, almost even with the treetops, and birds that gleam blue-black in the light that lies like gold wash across the snow make their way ponderously, two and two, into the trees where they will roost for the night. All of the pairs fly sedately together save one. Where the others glide almost wingtip to wingtip, one raven dives from height upon his companion, swoops under to come out in a barrel roll, pinwheeling his wings about the axis of his body, his long flight feathers throwing off flashes of blue and green and silver where the sun strikes them. His low-pitched prrrukkk resonates in the air.

Kirsten stands transfixed, her eyes wide and impossibly green. Asimov seems to have taken on her mood, sitting quietly beside her. A first. Kirsten asks, “Those are ravens, aren’t they?”

“Common Ravens, to be exact. We— we Lakota—call them ‘wolf birds,'” Koda answers. “They’ll follow a pack on the hunt or sometimes even lead them to prey.”

“And they get a share?”

“After the wolves have done. It’s not true symbiosis, but close.”

Caught up in the small drama, Maggie watches as the stunt-flying bird wheels upward again and plunges again toward the other. It seems extraordinarily graceful for birds that big, that heavy. She says, not quite asking, “That’s not a fight.”

“That’s a proposal, ” Koda responds, smiling slightly. “That’s got to be a couple of young birds pairing off, since it’s still way too early for breeding. They won’t nest until next summer.”

Kirsten shades her eyes, following the aerobatics. “Long term pair bond?”

Koda nods. “For life.”

Kirsten stares at the birds, the one serene in her flight, the other tumbling about her in exuberant loops and rolls, untiring. Finally they disappear into the trees, and she turns, her eyes going from Koda to Maggie to somewhere deep inside herself that Maggie cannot see. “How do we get it so wrong?”

Koda is silent, staring out over the woods toward the setting sun. The light plays across her face, bronze and still as a statue’s, and Maggie feels her bearings slipping yet again. Time has ground to a halt, it seems, or spun backward, and drawing the woman standing before her into its looping maze, into past or future or otherwhen. So it is Maggie who says, “Get what wrong, Kirsten?”

Kirsten makes a small encompassing gesture with one hand. “Everything. How did we screw up the whole goddam world? What’s going to happen to us?”

Maggie bites down on the response that leaps to her tongue on the first question: all too easily. There is no answer to the second one. “I don’t know,” she says. “We don’t know how many are left even in North America, much less the rest of the world. We just have to do the best we can and work to make it enough.”

A small smile, half ironic, tugs at Kirsten’s mouth. “My dad was a Marine. You sound like him.”

Wonderful. The thought weaves through the back of Maggie’s mind. My about to be ex-girlfriend is about to become her future girlfriend, and I’m a father figure. Aloud she says, “Career military tend to think pretty much in the same channels. It’s the training.”

“Semper fi, huh, even in the wild blue yonder?”

“You got it.”

“Someone’s coming..”

Maggie starts. Koda has snapped out of whatever reverie has held her and is staring at a Jeep streaking down the street straight for them. Andrews pulls up with a squeal of brakes and the smell of burned rubber laid down on the asphalt. He salutes, still sitting behind the wheel. “Ma’am!”

Maggie tosses her briefcase into the vehicle and starts to climb in, lifting her sore leg gingerly over the low side by the front passenger seat.. “What’s the problem, Lieutenant?”

“Ma’am, the MP Captain asked me to find you. “There’s a situation at the main gate.”

Without being bidden, Koda and Kirsten pile into the back, Asimov between them. “All right,” Maggie mutters resignedly, regretting the hot bath and the hot supper that have now receded as far into the dim future as civilization itself. “Whatever it is, let’s go tend to it. Semper the hell fi.”

The Jeep bumps along the near-empty street at a speed that rattles Koda’s bones together like bare branches in a norther; the winter weather has not been kind to the tarmac, and repairing potholes has not been high on the Base’s agenda. Andrews seems to be making no particular effort to avoid them, possibly on the theory that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The likelihood of a broken axle does not seem to enter the equation. The snarl of the engine and the sharp whip of the evening air make conversation impossible. Koda hangs onto the rollbar with one hand and Asi with the other; on his other side, Kirsten does the same, face set and pale in the chill blue light that follows sunset. Asi, in contrast, leans into the wind created by their speed, eyes bright, tongue lolling, having the time of his life. George Patton Asimov, Dog of War.

He may get a second chance to prove himself. As rancher, Koda knows that only two types of problems develop at gates, whether they involve humans or cows. One: someone wants in who should not be let in. Two: someone wants out who should not be let out. Given the disorderly scenes of civilians attempting to take up residence on the Base and defying MP’s that she has already witnessed, she is fairly certain that the crisis is of the first type.

The sound comes to them through the gathering darkness, well before they come into sight of the gate, a muffled roar like a tornado grinding across the plains. A steady rhythm runs under it, a bass beat answering point counterpoint to intermittent screams. As near as she can tell, they seem to be cries of anger rather than pain. If they are lucky, they may still have a bit of time before matters get entirely out of hand. It won’t be much, though. In the seat in front of her, Maggie pokes Andrews’ arm and mimes a heavier foot on the accelerator. Andrews nods and floors it. Without a word, Koda and Kirsten link arms behind Asi to hold him in place; oblivious to his own safety, he throws back his head and howls like a wolf following blood spoor, closing in on his prey.

“He’s enjoying this, the idiot!” Kirsten yells, the shout barely audible above the racket of the Jeep and the ever-closer thunder of what is clearly a mob.

Koda grins in answer, holding tighter to both the dog and the Jeep. But the sound that she has dreaded cracks out in the middle of one of Asi’s canine arpeggios, and she lets go of the bar and shifts her weight to draw the automatic pistol she has carried ever since the battle. In front of her, Maggie already has her own sidearm in her hand, held low and ready. Kirsten’s is in her lap. “Rifle,” Koda shouts into the wind, and Kirsten nods agreement even though Koda doubts she has heard. The sound is unmistakable. The lack of return fire to that single shot is no comfort.

Andrews rounds the corner where the commissary stands and streaks full throttle down the straightaway toward the Base’s main gate. They are no longer alone. Sirens wailing, so close on their bumper that the lead truck almost backedends them, a pair of MP troop carriers swing in behind them from the opposite intersection, and a small ripple of uncoiling muscles runs down Koda’s back. The situation is still not good, but it is no longer as bad as it was a second or two ago.

At the distance of three or four hundred meters and closing, it becomes clear that a full-scale riot is in the offing. One panel of the Base’s double steel gates blocks the right lane of the road, rolled shut across a clot of a dozen cars and trucks angled in as many different directions. A second logjam of vehicles clogs the left lane. A pair of heavy-duty pickups, the long-bedded, double-cab sort that can carry a dozen armed adults apiece, stand aimed at them just beyond the guardhouse, their front tires punctured on the teeth of steel bars that have risen up out of the asphalt like a pair of shark’s dentures. Over and around and among and on top of the cars and trucks, perhaps forty people stand shouting at the two MP’s on watch. The guards hold their weapons at waist level, ready to fire though not aimed at the crowd.

Add nitroglycerin and stir lightly until moistened: the situation is a breath away from disaster. Maybe less.

Maggie is out of the Jeep before it comes completely to a halt, fishtailing to a stop just behind the guardhouse. Koda and Kirsten pile out on her heels, Asimov and Andrews pace for pace behind them. The carrier trucks swing into nearly right-angle turns, one to barricade each traffic lane; MP’s come spilling out their rear flaps, armed with riot helmets, shields and clubs, to stand shoulder to shoulder across the tarmac. At the sight of them, the crowd surges forward, its roar clawing its way up the scale until it becomes a sustained howl. Without warning, the searchlights mounted on the cabs of the MP trucks flare to life, sweeping the crowd with beams bright enough to dazzle the eyes of anyone who looks directly into them. A ripple passes through the crowd as arms and hands attempt to block the glare; here and there, a figure turns away entirely and begins to move toward the back of the mob. More ominously, the light picks out the metal fittings of half a dozen deer rifles, here and there the skeletal form of an M-16 or an AK-47.

Maggie snatches a bullhorn from the hand of the MP Captain and vaults up onto the bed, then the cab roof, of one of the impaled pickups. Koda and Kirsten clamber up to take station in the back of the truck, facing the crowd, guns held low but visible in front of them. Asimov stands on the lowered tailgate, ruff brisling and tail held straight and prickly as lodgepole pine. His lips curl up to bare his teeth. For an instant his form seems to blur, his head lose its angularity to become shorter in the muzzle, his ears less sharply pointed, his whole face broader beneath the eyes.

A chill slips down Koda’s spine, and the sense of something indefinably other—otherkind, otherwhere, otherwhen—follows after. Something of the same feeling, no more than a frisson, had slid through her mind, half-memory, half-not, while she had watched the ravens making their way into the forest as the sun brushed the horizon in its steepening fall toward night. Time has gone awry, the earth tilted off its accustomed axis, past and future irrupting into the present like steam rising in a geyser.

“I can’t hear you!” Maggie’s voice brings her back from her split-second drift into the time stream. Again, metallic and magnified almost beyond recognition, all its Southern softness gone: “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Gun tucked back into the waistband of her trousers, Maggie points at a red-faced man in a plaid hunting jacket at the front of the crowd. “You! Talk to me! What the hell’s going on here!”

The man shouts something back, inaudible. “Say again!” Maggie shouts.

Gradually the crowd quiets, and the unexpected spokesperson steps a little away from the others, moving cautiously with his eyes on the line of MP’s just behind the truck that has suddenly become a podium. His hand moves to the brim of his Stetson in reflexive good manners, hesitates, and tilts the hat back on his head at a jauntier angle instead. His step takes on the suggestion of a strut. Unimpressed, Koda suppresses a snort: a banty rooster, this one, all crow and no balls. She catches the roll of Kirsten’s eyes and almost winks in response; it’s as bad a case of testosterone poisoning as she’s ever seen. Unobtrusively, Koda thumbs the safety off her gun. Covering one hand with the other almost demurely, Kirsten does the same, staring at the man and the crowd behind him with eyes bright and cold and hard as green diamonds.

“Who the hell are you?” the Stetson roars.

“Margaret Allen, United States Air Force. Who the fuck are you?”

A murmur runs through the crowd, and the truculent expression drops off several faces in the front. Word of the battle of the Cheyenne has apparently gotten out to at least some of the remaining civilian population. Further back, a couple of rifle barrels slip from view. Sensing the change behind him, the man’s voice loses a fraction of its edge. “I’m Bill Dietrich, and I’m a law-abiding citizen. You want to explain to me why U. S. citizens can’t come onto a Base their taxes paid for?”

Far back in the crowd, someone yells, “You tell ‘er, Bill,” and another, sharply female, snaps, “Shut up, you idiot!”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dietrich,” Maggie responds evenly. “Suppose you tell me why you and the good folks behind you are attempting to trespass on a restricted government installation.”

“What guvmint? There ain’t no guvmint! We got a right to what we paid for.”

At that Kirsten steps forward, moving to where Asi stands at the alert at the edge of the tailgate. The glare of the searchlights leaches color from her, turning her hair silver, her face ghost-pale. Her voice, when she speaks, is as chill as her face. “Allow me to introduce myself, Mr. Dietrich. I’m Kirsten King, and I’m the only surviving member of the Cabinet we know of.” She pauses, letting the effect filter through the crowd for a moment. “And much as I would hate to do it, I’m prepared to ask these law enforcement officers to enforce the law by firing on you if necessary. Whether it’s necessary or not is up to you.” She steps back toward the cab of the truck, her gun now in plain sight.

A second man detaches himself from the crowd, unceremoniously elbowing Dietrich aside. He is tall and lanky and grey, with creases carved deep around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. “Ma’am, I’m Jim Henderson. I’ve got a ranch up the road a bit, or did have. Had a family, too. Now I’ve just got one daughter, and her only because she was out riding fence with me when the droids took or killed the rest. All I want is a safe place for her. That’s what we all want, Ms. Secretary, Colonel Allen—just a place to be safe.”

“I understand,” Maggie answers. “But you have to understand that the Base is not safe. It’s already been a target twice; we’re likely to be attacked again.”

“You beat the droids!” That from somewhere about halfway back. “They’re gone!”

“We beat one contingent of the droids,” she corrects the speaker. “There are more where they came from, believe me.”

“Then you gotta protect us! Let us in!” Dietrich swaggers to the fore again.

Koda hears Maggie’s sharply indrawn breath, magnified by the bullhorn. Her voice, though, remains patient. “Mr Dietrich, tell me something. How do I know you’re not a droid? How can we tell you’re not a spy trying to force your way in here?”

“Why that’s the damnedest stupidest thing I ever heard of! Listen to me, you—” He breaks off abruptly. “Look, lady, that uniform don’t make you god!”

“I know one way to tell if he’s a droid,” Kirsten remarks almost casually. “Droids don’t bleed.”

“Look,” Maggie says, “We can’t insure your security unless we can insure the security of the Base and our assets. You folks can try to fight your way in, and lose. You can lose even more of your people. You can kill some of these soldiers who have already bled for you at the Cheyenne.”

She pauses, allowing that to sink in. Koda is pleased to see more guns disappear from view.

“Go home. If it will make you feel more secure, you can move into some of the vacant houses closer to the Base. But don’t expect us to support you; we can’t do it. You’ll have to find ways to feed yourselves and protect yourselves from everything but armed attack. That’s your job as citizens. Ours is to defend you from enemies foreign and domestic—and android. You can obstruct us, or you can help us serve you. Your choice.”

“Who’s in charge?” The voice comes from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, unidentifiable by age or gender.

Which is the sixty-four million dollar question, isn’t it? Koda’s eyes flick sideways to Kirsten, only to find that the other woman is looking directly at her. With a small shake of her head, Koda averts her glance and returns to watching the crowd. For the first time since the uprising, she is truly and personally afraid of what may come. Because the question is not just who’s in charge now but who will be in charge if human society somehow beats the odds and manages to survive.

And the only viable answer is that it will be someone entirely different, something entirely different, than anything that has gone before.

Maggie shouts into the bullhorn. “General Hart is the Commanding Officer of this Base. Dr. King is the highest surviving civilian authority that we know about. Like it or not, we have to assume that the new capital of the United States is now Ellsworth Air Force Base. And that’s going to mean the kind of security restrictions we had before, only more so.” She pauses. “But you’re free people. You need to choose yourselves a mayor or manager or whatever you want to call it. You need to pick law officers. Because as far as I’m concerned the Constitution is still in effect, and the American military does not police American civilians. Anybody got any problems with that?”

The crowd begins to mill, movement coalescing somewhere around its center. Some of them clearly do have problems with that, and have come here in hopes of finding someone to tell them what to do. Others, their faces clearly relieved even in the flat glare of the floodlights, have heard what they needed to hear. Slowly, infinitely slowly, its members begin to bleed off, backing out of the gate on foot, others getting into their vehicles to inch away in reverse. The MP’s begin to pace them, moving in line, shields locked in a solid wall.

Kirsten raps out, “Hold! Let them go voluntarily.”

The line halts as if frozen, and as the last of the would-be mob filters out, the duty guards roll the second panel of the gate into place. It locks with a soul-satisfying clang.

Maggie jumps down from the top of the cab, stumbling a little on her right leg.

Koda slips a hand under her arm to steady her. “You okay?”

A smile plays for a moment about Maggie’s mouth. “Rapists, mobs, oh yeah, just a day in the freakin’ life.” To the MP Captain, she says, “I want half a dozen more guards on this gate and as many on the side entrance. I want staggered patrols all around the perimeter. M-60s’. We’re in lockdown. Nobody gets in and nobody gets out until we know precisely who’s on Base and who has what useful skill.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The Captain salutes and turns to sort his troops out into patrols.

“And Captain,” Kirsten adds. “If anybody comes over the fence, shoot to kill. This Base was a restricted area before; it’s a restricted area now.”

“Ma’am.” Again, he salutes. “I’m on it.”

Asi, standing down from red alert with an ease granted to none of the humans, begins to wave the plume of his tail. Whining, he paws at Koda’s leg, then noses at her pocket, looking for treats..

Kirsten reaches down to ruffle his fur. “He’s right,” she says. “It’s past suppertime. Let’s go home.”
CHAPTER NINETEEN

For the third time in less than an hour, Dakota looks toward the window, then frowns distractedly before returning to her duties. The base vet might have been an excellent diagnostician, but his office skills were decidedly lacking. She has had to send two sets of volunteers on trips to the nearby towns to raid the vet facilities there and return with any usable supplies they can, and it still isn’t close to being enough. As groups of people continue to stream onto the base, they bring their pets with them; pets who have often-times suffered as much, if not more, than their owners. The clinic is bursting at the seams; full of frostbitten dogs, half-mauled cats, dehydrated turtles, constipated snakes, sick birds of all kinds, and a number of more exotic species, along with several army canines who are slowly recovering from injuries suffered during the initial battle with the androids.

With a soft grunt, she tosses the pencil down and pushes away from the desk, running weary fingers through her disordered hair. She checks the window again, then the clock. Something is nagging at her, and has been for the past hour or so, but she can’t put a finger on what it is, and that fact is driving her just shy of nuts.

“What?” she barks in response to a light tap on her office door.

The door slowly opens and a curly-mopped young woman pokes her head in, expression slightly nervous. “You asked me to let you know when I walked Condor, Doctor.” Condor is one of the army dogs who had taken several bullet wounds to the belly and flank. It has been touch and go with him for the past weeks but he appears now well on the road to recovery. “He did fine. I think he can be discharged in a day or two.”

Nodding, Koda forces a smile to her face. “Thank you, Shannon. You’ve done very well with him.”

The young woman blushes under the quiet praise, then calms, her eyes concerned. “Are you…okay?”

“Mm?” Koda drags her gaze away from the window yet again. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“I asked if you were alright. You seem…distracted?”

“Oh.” She shakes her head slightly, clearing it. “No. Just,” one hand waves toward the paper-strewn desktop, “trying to deal with this mess. I never was all that fond of paperwork.”

Shannon brightens. “Well, I might have a solution for that.” At Dakota’s raised eyebrow, she continues. “I have a friend, Melissa, who used to be an Admin Assistant for Kuyger-Barren-Micholvski, the law firm? She’s been going crazy with nothing to do. I’m sure she’d be happy to pitch in, if you like.”

This time, Koda’s smile is more genuine. “I could use all the help I can get.”

“Great! I’ll let her know tonight.”

“Fair enough.” Dakota rises from the chair with fluid grace and grabs her Stetson from the coat rack and settles it on her head, sweeping her hair behind her broad shoulders. “I’m going for a walk. Hold down the fort, will ya?”

“With pleasure, Doc—Dakota.”

*******

Maggie sorts through the folders in her briefcase as she waits for the clock on the wall to tick officially around to 11:00. Like the conference room, like everything else in the Headquarters building, the walls and floors are grey with occasional Air Force blue accents. A silk ficus to one side of the General’s door and a faux pothos ivy under the window offer the only relief. At her workstation, the General’s secretary bites her lip and dabs at a drop of sweat rounding up under her heretofore perfect mascara. Kimberley has always seemed to Maggie to be forty-going-on-twenty-five, with her acrylic nails and seamless make-up, short skirts and years-out-of-fashion high heels. Now her heart-shaped face is pinched with effort as she struggles with an old-fashioned manual typewriter, resurrected from God-knows-what basement or storage building. An equally antiquated adding machine perches on the edge of her desk, the kind with a handle that is pulled after each entry to crank up a sum or tax percentage. Maggie recognizes it only because her accountant grandfather kept one of the things on top of the barristers’ bookcase in his office, part of a collection that included such other relics as a slide rule and a solid-black metal telephone with a rotary dial that clicked satisfyingly when she stuck her finger into the perforated disk, pulled it around to the stop and watched it spin back..

That had been nearly forty years ago. A lifetime now; an eon. At five she did not go in for elaborate existential metaphors. She is not pleased that she has begun to see them everywhere now.

The sense of temporal dislocation that has plagued her intermittently for the past week has begun to solidify into a reality she is still not quite prepared to face. Finally and irrevocably, the world has changed. The crisis is not temporary, not just a matter of devising a widget or developing an anti-viral, biological or cyber, that will allow the technological world to right itself onto its accustomed axis and go on spinning. Even if Kirsten King manages to cause every last remaining droid to self-destruct in a single ecstatic nanosecond, there is no way to restore much, maybe most, of what has been lost. And here, an icon of that brave new world folding back into its own past, is a goddamed Olivetti typewriter, its uneven clack of metal keys without doubt the harbinger of more and worse to come.

And aren’t we Ms. Congeniality this morning? C’mon Allen, snap out of it.

Though she has not put it so dramatically to herself, she is here to try to save a man’s life. She can afford neither depression nor woolgathering in the middle of such a sensitive rescue operation.

Because we can’t afford to lose anybody now. Not even an asinine General who bombs first and asks questions later. Not even couple dozen decent citizens of Rapid City who had come within an angstrom of morphing into an out-of- control mob less than eighteen hours ago. Every asset must be deployed and its utility maximized.

Even General Hart.

The clock hand creeps round to 10:56. The typewriter keys continue to clatter in a spotty rhythm, punctuated by small mewing sounds from the secretary every time she makes a mistake. Not for the first time since she has entered the office, Maggie wonders what the hell there is to type in triplicate these days.

She is on a mission of mercy, she tells herself wryly. She might as well have pity on Kimberley, too.

Aloud she says, “You’ll get your computer back. as soon as we have a reliable source of electricity. Sergeant Rivers has gone out to the Red River Co-op wind farm to see if we can move in some of the big generators.”

The secretary turns to look at her, a spark of something besides irritation in her eyes for the first time since Maggie has entered the outer office. “He’s that really tall Sioux guy, isn’t he? Army, not Air Force–the really cute one.”

Maggie breathes a mental sigh. She knows exactly what’s coming next, and it arrives on schedule as surely as Old Faithful or the Italian trains under Musollini.

“. . . really good-looking. Is he single?”

As gently as she can, she answers, “I think so. I don’t recall that he’s mentioned a husband.”

“Oh,” the woman says in a small voice. Then, plaintively, “What are we going to do, Colonel Allen? There’s so few men left. Is it going to be like in the Bible, with one man having three or four wives? Wives and concubines? What’s going to happen now?”

With a supreme effort of will, Maggie manages not to grind her teeth. “I don’t know, Kimberley. But what we’re not going to do is fall back into some Bronze Age form of patriarchy. That will not happen. Will. Not. Happen.”

“It’s happening in town, Colonel. My sister belongs to one of those Bible-believing temples. You know, where the women can’t wear pants or make-up and nobody drinks or dances and church goes on for four hours on Sunday. She said the preacher has already got three wives of his own, one of them only thirteen.” Kimberley snorts, a sound that reassures Maggie that her considerable good sense has not in fact been a casualty of the uprising. “Says it’s the will of God, a holy thing. As if.” She turns back to her typewriter, rearranging the triple load of paper and –Goddess! Maggie stares in wonderment. Is that actually carbon paper? It is.—carbons. “Just a dirty old man if you ask me.”

Miraculously, the clock hand has arrived at 11:01. Maggie clears her throat, pointing.

Kimberley glances up, then makes a show of checking her appointment book. “Go on in, Colonel.”

Maggie gathers her papers, snaps her brief case shut, and escapes.

*******

The South Dakota spring is showing her fickle side again, having just finished dumping a fresh four inches of powdery snow that sparkles in the warming sun like scattered diamonds. The breeze is fresh, and crisp, but lacks the arctic bitterness of true winter, and Koda breathes it in with an absent sense of pleasure.

The streets are, for once, quiet, nearly empty. Far from soothing, however, this causes the nagging feeling in Koda’s gut to return. A shadow crosses her path, and she looks up in time to see Wiyo circling low overhead. Her warning cry coincides perfectly with the sound of a single shot, and everything slips into place, clear as crystal. An animal’s snarl mists the air before her face. She turns and heads for the gate at a dead run, teeth bared, lips twisted as a second and third shot ring out followed by barking, mocking male laughter.

There are several airmen peering through the barred gate at what lies beyond. She ignores this, instead darting to the left and up the fifteen foot guard tower, taking the steps three at a time. Brushing past the startled MP, she circles the tower until she is looking over the grounds just outside the gate.

Three flannel-clad men stand outside a still-running pickup truck, each armed with a scoped rifle. They are clearly drunk and one even leans fully against the truck’s fender, his legs no longer able to support him.

“Shoot it again, Frank! It’s still movin!”

She follows their sightline to see a she-wolf, slat thin and panting, peering over the snow ridge to the east. The wolf is clearly injured, but still, she doesn’t flee. There is a quiet desperation to her darting eyes, moving from the men shooting at her to the men behind the gate. Another shot throws up snow just in front of her muzzle, and she ducks, only to pop up a second later, tongue lolling, eyes rolling.

Wiyo screams overhead, and one of the men lifts rifle and head, shooting into the air. The hawk wheels, unharmed, and screams again.

Without thought, Koda grabs the M-16 from the guard’s hands and lifts it to high port, staring down the sight with one piercing eye. Caressing the trigger, she stitches a neat line at the shooter’s feet. He whirls, the barrel of his rifle narrowly missing the man standing beside him. “What the fuck?!?” He narrows his eyes at the woman—at least he thinks it’s a woman, with that hat and that height, who can tell?—standing on the guard tower, pointing the business end of an M-16 at him. “Who the fuck are you, bitch?”

“Drop that rifle, or you’ll never find out.”

“Oh yeah?”

Her voice is velvet over steel. “Oh yeah.”

Summoning his drunken courage, the man does the opposite of what he has been commanded, ponderously lifting his rifle and aiming it at the she-demon on the guard tower.

“I wouldn’t,” Koda murmurs, her voice just strong enough to prick his hearing.

“Says who, bitch?”

The sound of a dozen M-16s being cocked gives the man an eloquent answer.

Paling noticeably, he lowers his rifle. His friends drop theirs and dive for the ubiquitous safety of the pickup.

“Sergeant!” Koda shouts down to the guard leader.

“Ma’am!”

“Round those three up and take them to the brig.”

“For what?!?” the drunken man demands. “You ain’t got no hold on us! We’re on public land!”

“Exactly,” Koda hisses, her grin most unpleasant. “Cruelty to animals will do for starters. If that doesn’t stick, assault with a deadly weapon.”

“You can’t…!”

“Open the gate!” the Sergeant yells.

Hearing this, the man drops his weapon and runs, jumping into his truck and fumbling for the gearshift.

An M-16 rattles, and the truck suddenly finds itself with two flats and a fractured engine block. The punctured radiator sends up a bellow of steam from beneath the hood and the truck shudders, and dies.

“Come out of there with your hands over your heads! We won’t ask you twice!”

Koda doesn’t need to see the rest of it. She hands the gun back to the MP with a quiet murmur of thanks, and crosses the tower, pelting down the steps with speed. Running through the gate, she immediately turns toward the ridge, long strides eating up the ground beneath her. The wolf has disappeared behind the ridge, but she doesn’t need sight to track her. The scent of blood is heavy in the air, and she can feel the pain radiating from the injured animal, tugging hard at a part of her that is far more kin to the wolf than to any of the humans behind her.

Halfway up the shallow ridge, she deliberately slows her steps, listening as the wolf’s panting breaths are interrupted by a weak warning growl.

“It’s okay, shugmanitu tanka, it’s okay. I won’t hurt you.” She steps carefully upwind so that her scent is carried to the injured animal.

Cresting the ridge, she stops and looks down at the silver-tipped fur and the crimson stain slowly spreading in the snow. Her eyes narrow. This is a wolf she knows; the alpha female of a large pack whose home range covers several hundred miles, from the base to her family’s home and beyond. That she’s alone and obviously starving is of great concern.

She meets the wolf’s eyes, then shifts her gaze abruptly to the side before looking back. After a moment, the wolf does the same, and Koda relaxes, letting go a slow breath that clouds the air between them. She resumes her steps, narrowing the gap between them, then drops gracefully to her haunches, holding out an ungloved hand for the animal to sniff.

A soft whine lets her know she’s been accepted, and she spends a long moment unmoving, examining the she-wolf with just her experienced gaze. Beneath dry, brittle and thinning fur, her ribs stand out like dinosaur bones, aspirating weakly with every panting breath. Her tongue is dry, cracked, and bleeding in places, indicating severe dehydration. Blood is pouring from two bullet wounds—no more than grazes really, but in her weakened condition they are life-threatening.

Acting on intuition, Koda reaches slowly over and ruffles through the hair on the wolf’s belly. The nipples are swollen, reddened and cracked.

An early litter. Shit. Removing her hand, she peers into dark, pain-wracked eyes. “Where are your pups, ina?”

With a soft whine, the she-wolf looks over her shoulder, then attempts to rise. She collapses a second later, all of her energy completely drained.

“It’s alright, ina, it’s okay. I’ll find them for you. But first, I need to help you so you can help them, alright?”

Feeling along her ruff, Koda slips an arm under the wolf’s proud neck, then gathers her flank and stands, cradling the injured animal easily in her arms.

Too weak to struggle, the wolf gives a soft whine, then collapses back against the strong body holding her.

Koda looks up. The hawk is still circling, wingtips fluttering in the air’s heavy currents. “Wiyo! Awayaye!”

With a loud kre-ee-ee, Wiyo circles once more, then comes down to land atop a winter-bare tree, carefully folding her wings behind her and staring straight ahead. “Pilamayaye,” Koda shouts to the hawk, nodding once, sharply.

And with that, she turns and heads back to the base using her quickest and smoothest gait.

*******

The room is very much as Maggie has become accustomed to it, grey as the rest of the Headquarters Building except for the framed photographs on the walls. Several show Ellsworth’s various aircraft in flight against impossibly blue skies: the Tomcat with its delta wings swept back, the sleek B-1, ponderous and old-fashioned B-52’s that look like nothing so much as locusts built to cyclopean scale. Others depict Hart in the company of various dignitaries: the most recent with President Clinton, the earliest with her husband during his tenure as Commander in Chief. The fluorescent light illuminates them coldly, chilling the imaged skies and the deep blue of uniforms and the hills that ring the Base. Pulled tightly over the windows, curtain panels barricade the office against the bright spring day of strengthening sun and melting snow that lies just on the other side of the glass. There is a settled stillness here that creeps over Maggie’s skin like the passing of a ghost.

The room is so quiet that it seems at first that she is alone. Then paper rustles, drawing her eye to the massive desk at one end of the room as the General slowly pages through a stack of reports, pausing to glance at each one while she stands waiting. With a flourish, he initials three of them, consigning them to one neatly squared-off stack, the apparent rejects to another. The neat surface seems somehow empty, and it comes to Maggie that there are several framed photographs missing. Finally, his point made, the General rises, unfolding out of his leather chair with the suddenly stiff joints of an octagenarian. Maggie has never been quite certain whether the old-fashioned gesture is residual gallantry so ingrained that it is intractable, or whether it is a reminder that while she may be an officer, a gentlewoman and a decorated battle ace, she is still a woman and therefore not quite equal to any one of the boys. “Margaret,” he says. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Sir,” she echoes. A burning begins, deep in her solar plexus, spreading itself along her nerves until her skin feels as though she has taken fire, incandescent in the chill of the long room. Hart has never played power politics adroitly, and this attempt at dominance is almost as crude as his revelation of the one blot he had been able to find on her record. For an instant Maggie wants nothing so much as to turn on her heel and walk out. Leave him for the jackals, damn him. But she cannot do that. Hart has talents that are in short supply.

He is a human being, she reminds herself sternly. Human beings themselves are in short supply, male human beings even shorter. None salvageable can be wasted with impunity.

“Salvageable” being the operative word. One of the matters they must discuss is the trial and subsequent punishment of the rapists from Mandan and Grand Rapids.

Hart gestures toward the comfortable armchair across the desk, then settles back into his own with an attempt at ease that only emphasizes the angularity of his movements. His skin seems faded by more than the sunless months of snow, his features not so much relaxed as given in to the pull of gravity.

Dead man walking.

He says, startling her almost as much as if he truly were dead, “What can I do for you this morning, Colonel?’

Maggie snaps open her briefcase, removes a pair of manila envelopes and lays them on the General’s desk, facing him. “Casualty report, sir.”

The General lifts one of the files, fans the pages with a thumb and then sets it down again. He does not bother to examine it or read the figures in detail. “How bad?”

“A hundred and fifty dead,” she replies, her voice tight. “Of those, approximately two thirds were military personnel, the remainder civilian volunteers. The heaviest losses occurred on the far side of the river, among the troops assigned to close on the enemy from the rear.”
“Sergeant Rivers’ contingent?” There is a hint of something in his voice that Maggie cannot quite identify; not anger, precisely, not exactly jealousy. Resentment, perhaps.

“Yes. As you’re aware from initial reports, Sir, they came under heavier fire than any of the other units.”

Hart simply nods. Whatever he feels or thinks, he is not going to share it with a subordinate who has, in his clear if unspoken view, usurped his position. “Injuries?”

Maggie points toward the other folder. “Eighty percent ambulatory. The remainder include everything from punctured lungs to third degree burns. The medics tell me we may still lose as many as a quarter of them.”

“Burial details?”

“Proceeding.”

“Very good. What else?”

With considerable distaste, Maggie hands him a third, thicker folder. “Incident report. Reports, actually.”

“I see. Under control?”

“For the time being.”

“What else? How are the prosecutions of the collaborators going?”

“Sir—”

Hart regards her without speaking, not giving her an opening. From the far side of the window come the first hesitant notes of a sparrow’s song to set up a counterpoint to the muffled clack of keys from the secretary’s desk. Perhaps she imagines it, but the grey rectangle of the window seems somehow lighter, as if the sun has emerged fully from the cloud cover that dampened the early morning. She suppresses an urge, almost overpowering, to rise and fling back the curtains, to let the day come spilling into the dingy room.

She cannot do it, though, without being rude, almost insubordinate. Hart has a certain entitlement to his gloom; by rights, his depression should be his own affair. Certainly she cannot openly notice it without embarrassing him, and probably herself. More certainly yet, it would bring his resentment firmly down on her and end any chance of cooperation. Indeed, during the course of their conversation, his face has become both more drawn and more remote. A man going through the motions, getting it over with as rapidly as he can.

Getting human beings as far away from him as he can.

“Sir, if we can get back to the incident reports for a moment–?”

“Yes?”

“Sir, if you’ll look at those reports, you’ll see that a pattern is developing. It’s one we’re not currently equipped to deal with.” Maggie replaces the folder in front of him.

After a pause, clearly reluctant, he picks it up again and begins to read, silently and without comment. Several minutes later he puts it down again. His mouth purses into a tight little moue of exasperation; it is the closest he has come to looking like himself since she entered the office. “Will you please tell me, Colonel, why there are three civilian drunks in the Base jail? Have we taken to picking up winos in alleys or good ol’ boys out on a binge? Surely we can use our resources better than that.”

“They were shooting at a wolf, General, right in front of the main gate.”

“I see,” he says in a voice that makes it clear that he does not. “The United States Air Force is now enforcing environmental regulations?”

“It seems that we may be, Sir, but that’s a side issue. The real problem is that these three idiots drew down on our own MP’s when Dr. Rivers put a stop to their fun.”

“Dr. Rivers. And of course our MP’s—they are still our MP’s, are they not Colonel?—were deployed to back her up.”

The words drop like stones into the air, and Maggie feels the heat as it spreads over her face and neck. ‘The men were drunk, disorderly and presented a direct threat to human life, General. It was a reflection, albeit a minor one, of the previous incident at the gate. That one had the potential to develop into a genuine riot. There could have been deaths—civilians and our troops, both.”

“And your solution to this problem is–?”

And there it is, right in front of her. Maggie mentally crosses her fingers and breaths a small prayer to Koda’s Ina Maka. Or anyone else out there who’s listening. She will have only one chance. Get it wrong, and there will be no way to put it right. It is only with a conscious effort that she does not draw a deeper and very obvious breath before speaking. Here goes.

“My solution, if we can call it that, has to do with reframing the problem, Sir. What we have in the gate riot, the civilians attempting to appropriate Base housing, the numbskulls taking potshots at the wildlife, is a breakdown of civil authority. Quite simply, there is none at the moment.”

All trace of animation recedes from Hart’s face. “There is Dr. King. She is, after all, the only surviving Cabinet officer that we know of, de facto President, if she wants to think of herself that way. And according to your report here, she certainly managed to restore order or help restore order in two of these incidents.”

Maggie shakes her head. “True. But the most valuable thing she can do right now is continue to search for the code that will disable the androids. Someone is needed immediately. Someone who is an experienced administrator and has the confidence of the townspeople as well as the military.”

The General rises to his feet and paces a few feet away, waving her back into her chair when she rises with him. “No, no. Sit down.” He turns to face her, hands behind his back but not at ease at all. “And where will we find such a person, Colonel Allen? Am I mistaken when I assume that you—or you and Dr. Rivers, or the two of you and Dr. King—have someone in mind?”

“I have discussed the matter with Dr. King, yes. As you say, she is the de facto President.”

“And?”

“Sir, we have problems that are not within our military mission to solve. You asked about the trials of the rapists; they’re precisely the kind of thing we don’t really have a way to deal with. For instance—” she refers to yet another folder—”I’ve drawn up suggested indictments under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But can we—legally, Constitutionally—try these men in a military court?”

“It’s the only court we have, Colonel Allen.” Hart’s tone is patient, as if he is explaining the obvious to a rather slow child.

“Which is precisely the problem, Sir. No one has declared martial law. The crimes did not occur on Federal property. They are not Federal offenses, with the exception of collaborating with the enemy and possibly the conspiracy charges. We have them in jail, we’re organizing their trials, but we have no legal jurisdiction.”

“And how will a civil, or civilian, administrator solve this difficulty?”

“Sir, there is currently no legal authority at all in Rapid City. We’ve seen the result of that in the attempt of several families to claim vacant Base housing and in a more concerted attempt to force the gates a few nights ago.” Hart’s face remains expressionless. She is not getting through. Play dirty? For an instant Maggie weighs her options, then continues. “Kimberley tells me that polygamy is taking hold in at least one apocalyptic cult in town. Some old coot who fancies himself a prophet is marrying thirteen year old girls—to himself. If that’s better than what’s happening in the jails, you tell me how.”

For an instant the frozen mask drops off Hart’s face, and fear shows through. Somewhere in upstate New York, with his estranged wife, Hart has twin girls of the same age. There is no way of knowing what has happened to them, but none of the possibilities is good, and all are the stuff of a father’s nightmare. It is their photograph that is missing from the General’s desk, perhaps too painful to look at since the insurrection. Really dirty, Allen. Really dirty. But if it gets results. . . .. With a suddenness that is almost audible, like a gate clanging shut, the rigidity is back. Hart snaps, “It’s an atrocity, of course. But at least those young women are accounted for.”

Maggie shuffles papers and changes the subject, leaving the unspoken parallel to work as it will in the General’s conscience. “Then there’s the matter of the trials, as you say. We need to put together a court that will pass muster with the Constitution—a jury of the offenders’ peers, or as near as we can get to it, and at the very least a civilian judge or two to sit with a military panel. If we can somehow locate a state district judge, all the better. Somebody has to organize that, and it has to be someone the civilians in Rapid City and the military personnel on the Base both trust to do the job honestly and efficiently. Otherwise we have no Constitution, no law at all except what comes out of the barrel of an M-16.”

“Do you have a candidate for this position, Colonel Allen? Your good friend Dr. Rivers, perhaps?”

Maggie’s face burns as if she’s been slapped. But she says, steadily. “No, Sir. I was hoping you would be willing to make use of your good relationship with the civilian leadership in Rapid City and the community’s respect for you to take on the job yourself.”

“I see. Aren’t you forgetting that I made a rather spectacular error in judgment in the bombing of Minot? One that throws your own bombing of civilians into the shade? Don’t you think that calls my authority somewhat into question?” She opens her mouth to speak, but he waves her to silence. “Not to mention being publicly backhanded by the charming Dr. King. But all of that opens the way for you, doesn’t it, Colonel? Just a matter of time until you have the name as well as the job of commander. I’m surprised Dr. King hasn’t field-brevetted you General already.”

Maggie draws in a long breath, appalled. She feels as though the earth has suddenly dropped away from under her, leaving her suspended ins pace. Stupid. Stupid. Christ, I should have seen it coming.

Very carefully, she says, “Sir, if you had been on the field at the Cheyenne, you would know who will eventually command our forces, not just the Base.” She lays the words down one by one, heavy with emphasis, willing him to believe.

“It isn’t me.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard about the charge across the bridge. You’ve got your Joan of Arc, Colonel, but she has no training and no experience. She may make a charismatic figurehead, but you and I both know that at the end of the day that’s not enough.” He pauses. “But she has you and her brother to prop her up. She’ll pass well enough, no doubt.”

With an effort at least as great as the force that propelled her across the ruined bridge in Koda’s wake, Maggie manages to get a chokehold on her anger. There seems to be insufficient oxygen in the room; her throat feels so constricted that each word is a struggle. Her vision constricts to pinpoints. “Sir. With respect. You have the administrative experience that no one else surviving can offer. You are respected in the civilian community. Someone needs to hold that community together, or it will collapse into anarchy. And we will waste time and effort we need to spend fighting the droids fighting them instead. You can prevent that.”

“Anything I can prevent, Colonel, I can prevent as Commanding Officer of this Base. Is there anything else? If not. . . .” He gestures toward his desk. “I’m rather busy, as you see.”

It is dismissal. Maggie rises, snapping her attaché case shut. “Thank you for your time, General.”

Hart nods, dismissively, and turns back toward his high-backed leather chair in front of the drawn curtains. The sense of failure heavy about her, Maggie makes her way to the door and out into the reception area. Kimberly is missing, probably gone to lunch, and she is glad not to have to make conversation. She has no backup plan; neither, that she knows of, does Kirsten. They will have to identify someone in Rapid City, back up him or her, and hope that person’s authority can be made to stick by something besides a bayonet.. Maggie rubs her throbbing temples and strikes out for the Judge Advocate’s office and the brig once again.

One son-of-a-bitch down, four to go.

*******

“Clamp down on that rate a little. I don’t want her fluid overloaded.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

The small operating suite is brightly lit; brilliant white on chrome sterility.

Koda and Shannon are dressed in green scrubs, surgical masks hanging from their necks. The she-wolf is on the operating table, only lightly sedated; her weakness and profound dehydration making anaesthesia too risky a proposition.

With a soft grunt of satisfaction, Dakota applies the final bandage to the wolf’s flank wound, then strips the bloodied gloves from her hands, tossing them into a nearby red-bagged trash bin. Long fingers trail through the coarse, brittle fur, stopping briefly against a bony chest, feeling the reassuring beat of life beneath bone and skin. “I’ve done the best I can, shugmanitu tanka. The rest is up to you now.”

“Is that her name?” Shannon asks as she deftly removes the bag of IV fluid from the pole while Dakota gathers the dazed wolf into her arms.

“Mm? I’m sorry?”

“What you called her. Shug…mani…. Is that her name?”

Koda smiles, slipping backward through the swinging doors and into the recovery area. “Shugmanitu tanka. It means ‘wolf’ in Lakota.”

Shannon blushes, then laughs softly. “Oh.” She tips her head toward a large wire kennel separated from the rest, its bottom nested with soft towels. “That one okay?”

“Perfect.” Squatting down, Koda slides the barely conscious wolf into the warm nest and ruffles quickly through her fur, checking all wounds for seepage. When all seems well, she peers into her eyes, and nods, satisfied before closing the door and standing back up. She turns to look at Shannon, who is hanging the IV bag on a poll next to the kennel. “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

“Sure! Name it.”

“I know it’s getting late, but I need you to watch over her for a little while longer for me. She’s got a litter out there somewhere and I need to find them before it gets dark.”

Shannon’s eyes widen in shock. “A litter? So early?”

“Too early,” Koda agrees. “But they’re out there. We would never have seen her if they weren’t.”

“Are you sure you can find them?”

“I’ll find them.” A beat, as she looks at the young woman. “Will you stay?”

“As long as you need me to.”

Koda’s lips twitch in some semblance of a smile. It’s not perfect, but it serves its purpose. “Thanks.”

Pulling her heavy coat on directly over her scrubs, Dakota gathers several warm blankets, a basket, and a handful of ChemHeat packs in her arms and heads back outside, the setting sun gilding her in tones of purest gold.

*******

The figures march across the screen in orderly rows, keeping lockstep as the files scroll up and disappear over the top edge. Kirsten thinks of micrographs she has seen of blood cells spilling down through the narrow channel of vein and artery, compact red discs propelled from the conundrum of their origin to the mystery of their destination by the alternating pressure of dystole and systole. She thinks of Disney movies and television science specials, streams of army ants gnawing their way across the forest floor in a pheromone-driven rush from here to there, leaving bare earth in their wake. She thinks of lemmings, diving headlong into the sea.

No meaning in any of it.

There are moments when she is so close to the solution—when she knows she is so close to the solution—that she can almost see the dim shape of it forming on the screen. But something is always missing, something vital, the single segment of code that will turn the string of integers into a signal that, properly transmitted, will stop the droids where they stand. And that, in turn, will free the rest of surviving humanity, both those held in jails and the all rest, held by fear or resolve or instinct for survival to resist their rule.

Kirsten removes her glasses, laying them carefully on the desk, and scrubs at her eyes. She is blind weary, almost literally, with the hours of unbroken attention seated before the computer. Her eyes sting; her back aches; the muscles of thigh and shoulder have twisted themselves into macramé in the four hours she has been staring at the code strings, looking for something that she is beginning to fear is not there. Her mouth tastes of too-strong coffee, reheated once too often. She needs a break.

Deliberately, she snaps the lid of the notebook down and retrieves her glasses. Asimov, who has spent the morning drowsing under the desk, perks up instantly at the small sound, ears up, eyes bright. His tail thumps tentatively against the floor, and he whines softly.

Kirsten reaches down to ruffle his ears. “Yeah, boy. I hear you. Give me a minute, and we’ll go.”

She rises, nearly stumbling with the stiffness of her legs. In the bathroom, she splashes cold water over her face, attempting to force her mind back to alertness. It is pain, though, that does the job, the knotted tendons and cramped ligaments in her neck resisting motion as she leans over the basin, then stands almost on tiptoe to reach the mouthwash on the top shelf of the old-style medicine cabinet. She has lived alone so long that she is seldom aware of her lack of inches, but sharing quarters with one six-footer and another woman almost as tall has brought back all the old annoyance at having to stretch for bottles just beyond the tips of her fingers, the indignity of having to stand on chairs to retrieve items from the top shelves of pantry and closet. She swears softly to herself as the bottle slips away from her grasp toward the back of the cabinet, again when it tips forward to land with a muffled thud in the sink.

Par for the course. Nothing else has gone right today, either, least of all her attempt to reconstruct the necessary cyber commands. Deliberately, Kirsten refuses to allow herself to think what will happen if she does not break the code. Failure is not an option.

Ten minutes later, her eyes scrubbed free of grit and the stale coffee-taste replaced by the astringent bite of the mouthwash, she lets herself and Asimov out the front door. Desperate to get as far away as she can from the virtual environment of her computer, she makes for the stand of woods near where she and Koda had met Maggie the evening of the gate riot. The day stands on the edge of spring, though the sun’s warmth does not yet match its brightness. It lies like pale gold along drifts of new-fallen snow, gilding the dawn side of tall birches and sycamores. Against one bare trunk, a woodpecker hitches its way up the bark, searching for still hibernating insects. High up and far out over the woods, a raven calls, his cries dropping into the soundless air. The streets, which should have been heavily trafficked at mid-day with Base personnel coming home for lunch and pre-school kids playing in the white and winter-brown yards or pedaling their trikes down the sidewalk to the peril of hapless pedestrians, lie deserted and nearly silent. As she follows the curve of the road away from the residential area, she encounters only a single squirrel foraging among the roots of a still-bare oak tree. At the sight of Asi loping toward her, she bottles her tail and scampers up onto an overhanging branch, scolding loudly. Then she, too, falls quiet, darting up into the tree’s crown until the intruders have passed.

Kirsten’s hearing loss has left her adapted to silence. Preferring, it even. For the first time, it occurs to her to wonder how others will deal with a world free of blaring automobile horns and ever present radio and television. A world where human voices are swallowed up not by ambient clatter but by the depths of silence.

A fragment of an antique song drifts through her mind:

Hello, darkness, my old friend.

I’ve come to talk to you again

About a vision softly creeping

That left its seeds while I was sleeping,

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sounds of silence.

Except, of course, she is a scientist. She does not deal in visions. Just the facts, ma’am.

Just the facts, and preferably the numbers. If it’s quantifiable, it can be trusted. Anything else veers off into the realm of unpredictable emotions and their generally messy effects. Better to keep things orderly.

There is order somewhere in their present situation, even though it is not presently discernable. Someone, somehow, has a reason for turning the droids loose on the remainder of the human race. When that reason is found, motives will become understandable and guilt can be reliably assigned.

She shakes her head to clear her thoughts. She has not come out into the fresh air to keep worrying the problem, turning it over and over, trying to rearrange it like a Rubik Cube until questions and answers all match up. Deliberately forcing her mind away from the droids, she searches the snow cover for a length of fallen branch long and heavy enough to throw well but not too heavy for a round of fetch. Finding one, she brushes the leaf mould off it, and, whistling, pitches out far ahead of her. Asi is off after it in a nanosecond, bounding into the trafficless street and returning at a dead gallop, ears laid back and tail straight out like a rudder, to drop it at her feet and quiver with eagerness to do it again.

When they reach the benches, Kirsten sails the stick off over the incline leading up from the woods, and Asi plunges down it , sliding and slipping in the snow and thewet earth beneath it. Kirsten follows more carefully, having no desire to add bruises on top of her existing sore spots. Neither does she want to have to wash her clothes out by hand. Maggie’s machine runs only on full loads now, and only for things, like sheets and jeans, that cannot reasonably be hand laundered. The bathroom has begun to take on the aspect of a dorm room, socks and underwear in three sizes apiece draped over the shower rails and towel rings.

A small stream flows over the flat ground between the street and the wood, and Kirsten follows it into the trees. Most are still bare, but the ice has begun to melt, and here and there along low hanging braches, she can make out the swollen buds of leaves to come. The stream has thawed entirely, and it murmurs softly as it winds between its dark banks, spilling here and there into a low waterfall, spreading out to hardly more than a film over the petrified fans of ancient lava flows.

Asi is quiet now, pacing beside her. There is no room here where the trees crowd close to keep up their game, and somehow the boisterousness of it seems inappropriate, like laughing in church. Weaving her way between gnarled roots and under low branches that will trail their leaves in the water come summer, her eye is caught by a sudden movement some ten feet ahead of her. She freezes where she stands, and Asi with her.

Apparently oblivious of her presence, a raccoon sits on his haunches at water’s edge, dabbling with both hands in the stream. Kirsten knows that the myths are myths; he is not washing up before lunch, or, for that matter, washing his lunch before lunch. More likely he is searching for his meal, small fish or aquatic insects, perhaps even freshwater mussels. Soundlessly, so as not to disturb him, Kirsten sinks down upon one of the sycamore roots, leaning back against the trunk to watch. She keeps her hand on Asi’s collar, but he has shown no inclination to harass the raccoon. Which is odd, she thinks, but certainly convenient.

For long minutes she watches him, the sun striking coruscating brilliance from the clear water through the gently swaying branches. He seems to be out of luck, for he catches nothing that she can see. Yet he continues his search below the surface, patiently, his eyes taking the errant sunlight like dark rounds of Baltic amber.

She is not sure when or how it happens. Nor has she any idea how long she has sat watching the steady, repetitive motions of the creature’s search. She only knows that somehow the light has changed around her.
The intermittent fall of sunlight through the branches has become a steady, golden glow without visible source. Colors have grown deeper, the pale grey water become vivid blue, the rough grey bark of her sycamore a rich and varied umber. The sky, where she can see it between the forking trunk of her sycamore, has turned the impossible shade of perfect turquoise, clouds like feathers drifting lightly along under its canopy. Beside her, Asi has fallen still, whuffling softly in his dream.

With a lunge almost too fast to see, the raccoon splashes into the stream and emerges with a small silver fish, still wriggling, in his mouth. On the bank again, he shakes the water from his coat, and, quiet deliberately, begins to clamber over the uneven ground directly toward Kirsten herself. Kirsten holds herself motionless, scarcely breathing. Part of her mind is screaming that this is abnormal behavior, and that she is about to be bitten by a rabid animal. The other part waits in stillness, a frisson running over her skin like electricity. She does not know what is about to happen, but even she knows magic when she sees it. Asi never stirs.

When the raccoon is no more than a yard from her, he sits back on his haunches again. Golden eyes never leaving hers, he takes the fish from his mouth with one long-fingered hand and calmly bites its head off. He chews thoughtfully, swallows, and says, “Well damn, it took you long enough. What kept you?”

For a moment the tingle of anticipation turns to real fear. Nothing in her zoology courses has prepared her for talking animals. She is either mad or dreaming.

Or she was right the first time, and it is magic.

She says, “What do you mean, long enough? Do you have any idea what I’ve been doing the last three months? It’s not like we had an appointment.”

“Oh, we had an appointment, all right. You just didn’t know it.”

“Not any appointment I made. I don’t pencil hallucinations into my schedule.”

“I am not,” the raccoon says, enunciating very carefully, “an hallucination.”

“Then what are you? A dream? Something I ate?”

The raccoon pauses with the fish halfway to his mouth again. “What do I look like, you idiot human? Chopped liver?”

“You look like—”

“I,” he interrupts, speaking with extreme dignity, “am Wika Tegalega.”

He waits, as though he expects the name to mean something to her. When the silence threatens to become awkward, she says, “Pleased to meet you. Kirsten King, here.”

“I know that. Since you apparently don’t speak Real Human yet, I’ll tell you what my name means. It’s ‘Magic One with Painted Face.’ You can call me Tega. I’m your spirit animal.”

“My what?”

“Your spirit animal. Your guide. Think of me as your guardian angel if you have trouble getting your head around a Real People idea.”

“Aaallll riiight,” she drawls. “So what did I do to acquire a spirit animal?. Or guardian angel? Or whatever?” She makes a dismissive gesture with one hand. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have a guardian animal. He chases the likes of you up trees.”

The raccoon shows all his teeth, which are very white and very sharp and very many, in what would be a grin if he were human. There doesn’t seem to be anything humorous in it now, though. “Him and whose army? Looks like tomorrow’s stew to me.”

“What!” She starts to stand, to escape from this surreal conversation, but finds that her muscles will not obey her. It is not paralysis; it is mutiny by her own body, acting on its own wisdom.

“Okay. Look, I’m sorry. Nobody’s going to eat your mutt.” Wika Tegalega raises the fish to his mouth again, then holds it out to her. “Want some?”

Kirsten may not be able to get to her feet and bolt, but she can still cringe. “Uh, no. No, thank you.”

Tega tilts his head to one side as if to say “Your loss” and takes another bite. Scales and bones make small, metallic crunching sounds between his teeth as he chews. Kirsten shudders.

“Good,” he says, running his tongue around his muzzle. “Sure you don’t want some?”

A sense of familiarity has begun to grow on Kirsten. Gingerly she sorts through her memories of her near-death, caught in the downward spiral of a self-destructing android, the code that burned its circuits searing destruction along her own nerves. There had been a red-haired woman warning her back toward life; that she remembered. And there had been another woman, older, clad in vermilion robes that blew about her stooped body and a cap of the same color above her wizened, nut-brown face. And there had been a shape like this creature, holding up a long-fingered hand like a benediction, speaking above the howl of the vortex that threatened to consume her: Go back. The time is not yet.

“You were there!” she blurts. “The time I almost died!”

“I was there,” he acknowledges.

“So what are you doing here now? Am I—” she lets the question trail off in a shiver of unadmitted fear. She cannot let herself go now. Not with the work she has yet to do, not with the first real friend she has ever made in her life. Real friends, she corrects, though one is—she searches for a word that is not too extravagant—special.

“Ahh,” Tega says. “So you’ve gotten around to telling yourself the truth. Some of it, at least.”

‘What? You mean about—about–?”

“About Dakota Rivers. Your friend.”

“Well, I’ve never really had one before. It’s a new experience.”

Crunch goes another mouthful of bones and scales. “It’s even newer than you think, and older, too. Do you want me to tell your future? Your past? Cross my paw with mussels and Wika Tegalega will Reveal All.” The raccoon has no eyebrows, but the stripes around his eyes waggle lecherously.

Kirsten sniffs. “I know my past, thank you very much. And if any of us have any future at all, it will be what we make it. I don’t need a talking four-footed bandit with a bushy tail to tell me that.”

Crunch again. “All right.” Tega shrugs, a very human gesture. “But I’ll tell you this anyway. Think Moebius strip.”

“What?”

“Moebius strip. You know, one of those little thingies you made back in grade school. Twist the loop and glue it together so it only has one surface. Neat trick, actually.”

“I know what a Moebius strip is, dammit. I’m a scientist. Why should I think about one now?”

The last of the fish disappears and a faraway look comes into Tega’s eyes. “Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows. The front is the back, the past is the future. Round and round, life after death after life. What has been, will be. And there is nothing new under the sun.”

Kirsten frowns, at the cryptic words, and at the chill that passes over her skin. Someone walking on my grave, her grandmother had always said. “I don’t understand.”

“No, of course not.” The remote gaze has gone, and the raccoon’s eyes are on her face, here and now. “Not yet. But you will.”

“I—” Kirsten is not quite sure what she means to say. Demand an explanation? Deny causality? Proclaim her belief in a random universe of random events without pattern that sometimes just happen to give the illusion of purpose?

“You will,” Tega repeats. “What you need to know now is that three drunken idiots with their brains in their tiny, tiny balls have just shot a she wolf at the gate. Koda is caring for her at the clinic and will need to go search for her pups. She needs your help.”

“What? How can I–?”

“Go to her. Go now.” Tega drops to all fours again, the non-human grin splitting his face. “Hasta la vista, baby.”

The golden light fades, and Kirsten finds herself sitting once again on an ordinary root in an ordinary wood with ordinary snow powdering the ground. A dream, that’s all. An extremely vivid dream, but just a dream.

She rises and stretches, Asi with her. “C’mon, boy, let’s—” She stops, frozen, in mid-sentence. Printing the snow in front of her, one string coming and another going, are the marks of long-fingered hands and agile feet. A raccoon’s tracks.

“Come, Asi!” she cries, and begins to run.
CHAPTER TWENTY

Kirsten looks up from her pacing as the door to the vet clinic opens and Koda steps out into the waning sunshine. She runs up to the other woman, noting the grim set to her jaw and the thin, bloodless line of her lips. “I just heard,” she says softly. “How is she?”

“Stable for now,” Koda replies, distracted. “I need to go. I have to find her pups.”

“I’m going with you.”

“No. I’ll go alone. Stay with Shannon and keep watch over the mother.”

“Please. I…I want to help.” She holds up a hand to forestall comment. “I know you don’t need it. Hell, you’ve probably done this a million times before, but….I’d like to help anyway.”

Kirsten receives her answer by way of a handful of blankets being pressed into her chest and a curt “let’s go”. Peering over top of the blankets, she settles them more tightly against her front and starts off at a brisk trot, trying her best to keep up with Koda’s long-legged strides.

Within moments, they’ve breasted the snowy crest, and both stop, though for different reasons. Koda cocks her head, scenting the air and listening to the area around her. All is silent, save for the wind rustling through branches yet to have seen the first touch of spring green.

Kirsten, on the other hand, is staring at a large bird roosting atop the very tallest of the trees ahead. “Koda,” she whispers in her softest voice.

Hearing her, Dakota slowly turns her head until she is looking down at the woman at her side. Her eyebrow lifts in silent inquiry.

“That bird…it’s a hawk, isn’t it? If it’s anywhere around the pups….”

Koda grabs Kirsten’s hand as she lifts it and returns it to her side. She softly utters an odd, three-note whistle With a heavy, almost sub-sonic, beating of wings, Wiyo lifts up from the tree’s top and glides effortlessly onto Koda’s upraised arm. Kirsten stares on as if her sockets are the only things keeping her eyeballs from popping out and rolling around like marbles on the ground. Giving Kirsten a look that could freeze a volcano, Wiyo calmly sidesteps up to Dakota’s shoulder, barely missing her Stetson, and settles there, looking regal as a queen on her throne.

Koda continues on, leaving Kirsten staring after her, slack-jawed, until a soft “coming?” floats back to her and spurs her feet into motion once again.

*******

By Kirsten’s reckoning, it is ten minutes later when they once again stop, Koda’s upraised hand giving her direction better than a verbal order. These ten minutes have been silent though, at least from Kirsten’s perspective, far from uninformative. In that short space of time, watching Dakota tracking the wolf pups, Kirsten has received a flash of insight—though perhaps “flash” isn’t the right word. It is as if an elusive puzzle piece has finally slipped into place, providing her with the answers to several questions she’s been asking herself for these months in the other woman’s company.

Watching Dakota’s profile, its sharp lines softened by descending twilight, the image of the blue-eyed wolf, her guardian, comes to her again, superimposing itself over the noble, striking features of the woman before her. She finds herself flushing, shamed at having come to this rather obvious conclusion so late in the game.

Some scientist. Can’t even see what’s in front of my face. God.

The answers, however, raise even more questions, but Kirsten pushes them to the back of her mind as she watches Koda gracefully lower herself to her haunches and stare down at the snow-covered ground for several long moments. When she rises again, her face is carved of granite, absolutely expressionless save for her eyes, which are burning embers glittering with an anger that takes Kirsten aback and has her wishing desperately that this reaper’s gaze will not set itself upon her.

It does, though only briefly, and she feels almost faint with relief as it passes on, leaving her untouched.

Silent as the grave, Dakota resumes her pace, leaving Kirsten struggling to keep up. But not before looking down at the place that had lit the fires of Dakota’s anger.

There, in a small pile, is a heap of bones and bits of fur. Tiny bones, so very tiny, and yet unmistakable even to a city-bred girl like Kirsten. The bones of a wolf-pup; predator turned prey. She slaps a hand over her mouth as her gorge heaves, threatening to expel whatever remains of her breakfast—the only meal she’s eaten today. After a long moment, her stomach settles itself and she takes her hand away, forcibly ripping her gaze from the tiny mound of bones at her feet. Dakota is a dozen yards ahead and pulling away rapidly. Kirsten breaks into a run to catch up.

She has just slowed down to walking speed when Dakota comes to another abrupt halt, forcing Kirsten to jig slightly to the left to avoid a collision. “What is—?”

“Shh.”

Kirsten looks on, slightly annoyed, as Dakota cocks her head in that increasingly familiar listening posture of hers, and stiffens. It’s obvious she hears something, though Kirsten, who knows by virtue of her implants that her hearing is at least five times as acute as a normal human’s, can’t hear a thing.

Of course, I don’t know I’m listening for, she consoles herself, not quite sure why it suddenly matters so much.

A whispered word to the beast on her shoulder, and the hawk flies off to God-knows-where, leaving Kirsten even more annoyed than before. Why am I the only one who’s flying blind here?

She didn’t ask for your help, that more rational part of her brain reminds her. You more or less forced it on her, so don’t be getting all pissy when she doesn’t recite her intentions to you chapter and verse.

Dakota utters a small, soft, whining sound that has Kirsten looking on in amazement. Instinctively, she knows that she has not just heard a human imitating a wolf’s call, but rather a wolf making that call.

Will wonders never cease?

Then she hears it. A soft, almost inaudible cry off to her left. Koda repeats her call, and the cry is likewise repeated. Kirsten stands unmoving as Dakota plucks a blanket from her hands. “Stay here unless I call you.”

Kirsten simply nods and watches as Koda heads with silent steps to the medium-sized rock outcropping ahead and to the left.

With twilight rapidly deepening into night, Koda senses the den’s entrance more than sees it. It’s small and narrow, forcing her to drop to her knees, then to her belly in order to squeeze her way inside. Before moving, she stuffs the warm blanket into her jacket and removes a small, but powerful, flashlight from a pocket and switches it to “wide beam” before clamping it between her teeth and beginning her trek inside.

The rocks brush hard against her broad shoulders and, though not one prone to claustrophobia, she feels the weight of the entire formation pressing in on her from without. It’s not an entirely pleasant feeling, but she shuts her mind to it and continues on, using her elbows to propel herself forward.

The stench of putridity and decay is indescribable, but it’s something she’s well used to, given what she does—or did, she doesn’t know anymore—for a living. Still, she finds herself mouth-breathing to keep the smell from burning itself into her sinuses.

Approximately two bodylengths from the entrance, the den widens, becoming a more or less circular structure surrounded by solid rock on all sides. In the center are the pups, or what remains of them. There were four in the litter—five if she counts the obvious stillbirth remains she’d come across earlier. Only one still lives, clinging to that life by the meagerest of threads. The others are long dead, their bodies cold and stiff; maggots already beginning their gruesome work on the corpses.

Attracted to her living warmth, the pup lifts his shaking head, blindly groping for her, struggling beneath the weight of its dead siblings.

Gently grabbing the pup by its ruff, Koda tenderly pulls it from its macabre nest. The pup hands limp from her hand, and she absently checks its gender before she bares her teeth in an unconscious and soundless snarl. With a soft cry of revulsion mixed with anger, she uses her free hand to pluck the squirming maggots from his living flesh, crushing them between her fingers and flinging them away.

Task complete, she pulls out the blanket and wraps the pup carefully within its folds, murmuring nonsense words to him in Lakota. He whimpers softly, oh so softly, and collapses against her, completely spent. She feels frantically for a pulse, and sags in relief when it is there—too weak, too thready, but there.

“C’mon, boy,” she whispers, tucking the final fold about his tiny, defenseless body. “Let’s get you home to your Ina.”

*******

Kirsten stands outside of the den, eyeing the helter-skelter jumble of boulders with deep suspicion. Her dream (and what else could it possibly be? She refuses to entertain the notion that even her hallucinations would feature a talking raccoon with an attitude problem.) comes back to her in soft-filter, like the camera lenses they used to use on movie stars. Back when there were movie stars.

“She needs your help. Go to her. Go to her now.”

She eyes the rockpile again. Is that a rumble she hears? A shifting of stones presaging a total collapse of the structure? Is this why she is needed?

“No,” she whispers, horrified.

Another image flashes before her, this one in sharp, stark lines and bold tones of red and black.

The outcropping is collapsing, drawing down unto itself in cracks of thunder and stifling dust that chokes her as she screams Dakota’s name into the blackness of the night.

Her hands. Blood on her hands. Her palms scraped raw, flesh hanging in tatters as she desperately pulls rock after rock away this charnel house.

“She needs your help.”

Her voice, hoarse and ragged, screaming Dakota’s name over and over and over again.

“Go to her.”

Her lungs. On fire. Sending out pluming jets of vapored, panicked breath.

“Go to her now.”

Her heart. Thundering in her chest. Fear and a savage, piercing grief fueling its frenetic pace.

“No,” she whispers. And “no” again.

And almost launches herself to the moon as Dakota materializes in front of her like a wraith from the mist.

Her face is still harsh-planed, but her eyes have softened a bit from their earlier rage. Kirsten suspects—when she can think again—that that softening is a result of the tiny bundle she holds so tenderly in her large hands.

Her heart rate slows, though grudgingly. She doesn’t like shocks. Never has. And she’s had more than enough to last several lifetimes. Somehow, though, she doesn’t think Dakota will appreciate the sentiment. She’ll have to remember to tell her later.

“How—how many?”

“One,” Koda replies tersely. “The rest were dead.”

“Oh god…I’m so sorry.”

“‘s alright. Nothing anyone can do about it now.” Though her wor