The Growing pt. 2 Susanne Beck and T Novan

 

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTY
“God damn you all, I want justice for my father!”

“Mr. Dietrich,” Harcourt begins patiently, “we know you’re grieved by the loss of your father. But we have a procedure here—”

“You have a procedure here that’s taking the word of the sons-of-bitches who killed him! He’s not here to speak for himself!”

Koda’s hands clench into fists on her knees, fingers curled so tightly into the palms that her skin shows white and taut above the sharp angles of the bones. All through Manny’s account of finding and freeing Dietrich’s victims, all through Andrews’ corroborating testimony, she has held herself small and quiet behind a barrier of calm, withdrawing into the far places of her mind where her grandfather and Wa Uspewicakiyapi himself have taught her to seek refuge from pain. And in those places is Kirsten.

With a conscious effort, Koda forces herself to ignore the anger battering against the walls of her refuge from without, forces back the rage that burns white-hot just beyond the limit of conscious thought, that requires only a moment’s inattention to burn through. Instead she deliberately recalls the pressure of Kirsten’s body against her own, the generous yielding of her mouth. Deliberately too, she recalls the sense of rightness in their coming together, as if her own journey from her parents’ home, Kirsten’s struggle over half a continent, had found their appointed ends in the snow at Minot.

Everything happens precisely as it should. Precisely.

And where, she wonders, does that come from? Dakota is no fatalist. Nor, she knows, is Kirsten. If the last months have taught her anything, it is that fate is shaped by human will, or by lack of it. Many of the uprising’s victims have died not so much from the androids’ onslaught as from a moment’s unbelieving paralysis. Like Kirsten, she has come to Minot and now to Ellsworth by a series of refusals to be stunned into inaction, by choices to fight against an enemy still unknown. And out of those actions has come the warrior she has felt dormant within her the whole of her life. And out of them, too, this unexpected love, ripening now in its appointed season.

“No!”

The shout breaks her calm, jerking her mind abruptly back into the anger that pulses off Dietrich in waves. With an effort she stifles the rage that rises to meet it: if he did not set the traps himself, then certainly he knew of them, was complicit in the pain and death of every creature caught in them. He stands before the court, his face blotched scarlet, his hand raised as if to strike out at the men and women of the jury panel.

“Sit down, Mr. Dietrich.” Harcourt motions to the uniformed Sergeant still standing at the door of the Judge’s Chambers. “If you persist in this disruption, I will have the Bailiff remove you.

Dietrich’s color remains high, but he pauses for a moment, deliberately lowering his hand to rest at his belt. When he speaks his voice is quieter, though none of the tension has gone out of the corded tendons at his neck. “You heard them. They were robbing his traps. He had a right to defend his property.”

“Given that, item—the Judge ticks off his points one by one on his fingers– leghold traps are illegal; and that, item, trapping of any kind without a license is illegal; and further, that the grey wolf remains a federally-listed endangered species, I’m not sure that the late Mr. Dietrich could lawfully claim any property interest in the fruits of his activities. Now: sit down, sir. Dr. Rivers, please.”

Dietrich resumes his seat as Koda takes up her place beside the table with the projector. As she steps up to the low dais, a murmur runs through the room. Deliberately she turns her eyes away from the crowd. She knows what she will see in their faces: admiration in some, awe in others, contempt in a very few still trapped in the prejudices of an age long dead. It is the same almost everywhere she goes now, except for the clinic or among the men and women who have stood shoulder to shoulder with her under fire and who give her the respect of one warrior to another, no less and no more.

“I must warn the court that some of what I have to show you is graphic and disturbing,” she says as she unpacks the laptop and attaches the cable to the projector. “Some of these slides are from photographs taken by Lieutenant Rivers and Lieutenant Andrews at the sites of the traps and depict injured animals in pain. Others show victims that did not survive.”

She begins with the snapshot of the coyote, which draws a nervous giggle from the back of the room. Keeping her voice even, she says, “Among the Lakota, Coyote is a trickster, famous for getting himself into difficulties. Many of those adventures are funny, with the joke on Coyote himself. But this,” she says as she turns to face the audience, “this is an individual animal, not a myth or Coyote-with-a-capital-C in a traditional story. If you look more closely, you will see that he has chewed his own tail half through in a effort to escape.” A flick of the switch zooms in on the wound, with teeth marks clear on the small vertebrae. “A little more closely, and you can see the infection that might well have killed him even if he had succeeded in freeing himself.”

This time there is a small gasp, and more than one head turns away from the sight of the inflamed and swollen flesh, the pus seeping into the ragged fur. “If the infection had not been stopped, this is what would have happened to him.”

The projector clicks softly, and the dying badger appears on the screen. “I can’t say for sure exactly how long this animal remained in the trap, but for full-blown sepsis—’blood poisoning’—and terminal pneumonia to develop would require a matter of days.”

“Excuse me, Doctor Rivers.” One of the jurors, an elderly man whose grizzled beard approaches prophetic length, interrupts her. Turning to Dietrich, he says, “Now, I can understand why someone might get the impression that federal laws don’t apply any more. In fact, I can understand why someone might get the impression that there wasn’t any law at all. And I take it you admit that you knew your father was trapping?”

“Sure I did,” Dietrich answers. “He’d been running lines for years. And he’s not the only one who did it, either.”

The juror nods understandingly. “No, I imagine not.” He pauses, looking at his hands, then raises his head to stare at Dietrich, milky blue eyes blazing. “What I can’t imagine—damn it, I refuse to imagine it—is that any half-way decent man would set traps and not check them at least once a day. God knows we may get thrown back to stone knives and bearskins, more’s the pity for the bear. But to leave an animal to suffer like that”—he shakes one gnarled finger at the screen—”is plain sadism. I refuse to accept that as necessary, sir. I refuse to.”

‘Sit down, Mr. Dietrich,” Harcourt says repressively, before the man is halfway to his feet . “I will not warn you again. Do you have any further remarks at this time, Mr. Leonard?”

The juror shakes his head, leaning back against his seat and staring balefully at Dietrich. We’re going to make it. There is a grim triumph in the thought, and a small ironic smile pulls at the corners of Koda’s mouth. They’re as disgusted with the old man as they are with the son. They’re going to confirm the law. Aloud, she says, “Shall I go on, Judge?”

“If you would, Doctor Rivers.”

Steeling herself, Koda cues the next slide onto the screen, turning to face the panel, deliberately looking away from the image of Wa Uspewicakiyape dead in the snow. Her voice sounds hollow in her own ears as she says, “Here we see what happens when such injuries and subsequent infection run their course. This victim is an adult male Grey Wolf, Canis lupus, an endangered and federally protected species.” She focuses in on the shattered leg, and a young man in the back of the room abruptly gets up and pushes his way out the door, one hand over his mouth. “The initial injury in this case is a multiple compound fracture of the right tibia and fibula; plainly put, his leg was so badly crushed, with bone protruding through the skin, that medical repair would have been impossible; even if this wolf had been found immediately, the only choices would have been euthanasia or amputation and life in captivity.” She pauses for a moment, the words bitter in her mouth. “While immobilized by the trap, this wolf was attacked by, and somehow managed to fight off, a large predator, perhaps a bear, more likely a wolverine. Note the puncture wounds to the neck. Note also the abdominal wound. The edges are dry and inflamed, indicating the onset of infection. As in the case of the badger, exposure would have resulted in pneumonia. Again, we are speaking of days.”

Speaking past the rage that threatens to choke her, she continues. “There was also a den within a hundred feet of this trap. Because of the death of this wolf, his mate, who had given birth out of season, was forced to leave her pups to forage. She was shot, though not fatally, at the gates of Ellsworth Air Force Base. Between the trap and the shooting, three out of four of the litter died, a net current loss of four to a still-recovering population. The loss over time, of course, is much greater.

“Finally, she says, “we have a young female bobcat, caught within less than an hour of being found by Lieutenant Rivers and Lieutenant Andrews.” She keys up the slide of the cat backing away from her rescuers, ears flat against her head, nose wrinkled in a snarl. “The injury had not had time to become infected, and no bones were broken. As you may know, lack of fractures is atypical. As it was, several tendons were severed and required sutures.”

“Doctor Rivers?” Another member of the jury, a woman whose long blonde hair is caught into a thick braid down her back and whose hands show the calluses of months of rough work, glances toward Harcourt for permission to speak. When he nods, she asks, “What is the prognosis of the coyote and the bobcat?”

Koda smiles, the knots in her shoulders beginning to loosen. “Very good, in both cases. In fact, both will be released within a week or two.”

“And to what do you attribute their recovery?”

“I attribute their recovery to their rescue by Lieutenants Rivers and Andrews, and to prompt emergency treatment by Sergeant Tacoma Rivers. Had they not been found and treated, both would certainly have died.”

“Da-yum,” someone in the audience drawls. “How many vets you got on that Base? You make house calls, Doc?”

“Oh Doc, I got a pain, real bad,” a young man in the back wails. “Please help!”

Relieved laughter suddenly fills the room, and the Judge raps once, sharply, with his gavel. Abrupt silence decends. Harcourt fixes the speaker with a gaze sharp and bright as a diamond behind his glasses. “Indeed you do, Marc Beauchamp. And if you don’t quiet down and maintain order in this proceeding, I’ll put you and this court both out of it.” Turning to Koda, he asks, “Doctor Rivers, have you anything further to add?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“Thank you. Sergeant Tacoma Rivers to the stand, please.”

Tacoma stands and takes an uncertain step toward the stand, then accepts his crutches from Manny with obvious reluctance. “Good human,” Koda says softly as she passes him on her way back to her own seat.

As she turns to sit, movement at the courtroom door catches her eye. The door opens to admit Kirsten, who pauses for a moment to survey the audience and the panel, her eyes finally settling on Koda with a smile. She steps to one side, and a tall man in a buckskin jacket, greying hair caught back in a ponytail, enters behind her. His eyes, shadowed under dark brows, are blue as jay’s wing. With a glance back at Tacoma, who is taking the oath propped up on one crutch, Dakota deposits the laptop in her chair and makes her way up the side aisle as fast as she can without breaking into a run. As a grin spreads across her father’s face and she returns the smile, her suddenly pounding heart slows to normal. Whatever brings Wanblee Wapka to Rapid City, it is not bad news at home.

As she approaches, he holds the door for her and Kirsten once more and lets it fall shut behind them. Without a word, he opens his arms, and she clings to him silently for a long moment, no words necessary. Then he says, “I’m sorry, chunksi. Kirsten told me what happened to Wa Uspewikakiyape.”

Dakota loosens her hold just enough to take a step back and meet his eyes. “I found him still alive. I couldn’t help him.” She hears the catch in her own voice, half-grief, half-anger. “I couldn’t help him.”

He does not attempt to contradict her. “You are helping his mate and his cub. Not to mention his whole species. He would consider that a fair bargain, I think.”

“It’s all I could do.” The words are bitter on her tongue, like gall.

“It is much. No.” He cuts her off as she opens her mouth to contradict him. “I know you don’t think it’s enough. But it is justice, and you have fought hard for it.” He nods toward Kirsten. “So have others.”

“You’ve met?” With a small shock, it occurs to Koda that her father and Kirsten did not arrive together by chance.

“I went to the Base first, looking for you and Tacoma.” He smiles at Kirsten. “We got acquainted on the way into town.”

“Oh.” To her chagrin, Dakota feels the flush spread across her face, her skin growing warm. “That’s—nice.”

His eyes are sparkling now, with the warmth of a summer sky. “Yes, it is.”

Gods, is it written on my forehead? “Mother–?”

“Will adjust.”

“Not without a fight.”

“Probably not. Meantime—”

Manny pushes through the door, using good shoulder. Wanblee Wapka’s gaze shifts, taking in his bandaged hands, but he says only, “Tonskaya?”

“Leksi. Sorry. Koda, the jury isn’t going to go out at all. They say they don’t need to deliberate.”

The jury, which has been huddled in a tight knot with Harcourt at its center, is just making its way back to the table when Koda, Kirsten, her father and cousin file back into the courtroom. Silently, they range themselves along the wall at the back, and Kirsten slips her hand lightly, unobtrusively, into Dakota’s. Koda gives her fingers a squeeze—thank you—and waits for the verdict.

“Mister Chairperson,” intones the Judge. “Have you made a determination of the cause and manner of death of William E. Dietrich, deceased, of Rapid City, County of Pennington, in the State of South Dakota?”

The Chairperson rises. Louie Wang is a youngish man whose eyes are dark behind bottle-bottom glasses; even after Armageddon, his shirt pocket sports a plastic protector for a couple pens and a marker. Before meeting Kirsten, Koda would instantly have labeled him a typical computer geek. “We have, Your Honor.”

“Your findings, Mr. Chairperson, on the cause of death?”

“As determined previously, cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head, Your Honor.”

“Manner of death?”

“Homicide, Your Honor.”

Koda’s fingers tighten convulsively around Kirsten’s. Kirsten squeezes back, hard, a puzzled look on her face counterpart to the alarm on Manny’s. Only Wanblee Wapka seems unruffled, standing relaxed with one hand holding his hat, the other a jacket pocket.

“Are there any further findings, Mr. Wang?”

“Two others, Your Honor.”

“Your first supplementary finding, please.”

Referring to a yellow notepad on the table, Wang says, “Our first supplementary finding, in the absence of a civilian criminal court and a properly constituted grand jury, is that while a homicide—the killing of a human being—was committed, there is no finding of murder. From evidence given, it is the verdict of this jury that Lieutenant Manuel Rivers acted in defense of his own life and the life of Lieutenant Andrews when he returned shots fired at them by William Everett Dietrich, deceased. The jury calls to the attention of the court the circumstance that the said William Everett Dietrich was in process of commission of a felony when he shot at the Lieutenants with intent to kill, and thereby attempted capital murder, an offense which carries the death penalty in this state.”

Koda feels her breath go out of her in a rush, notes the relief as every muscle in Manny’s body suddenly seems to relax, held up only by the pressure of his shoulders against the wall. A glance at her father tells her that he has never doubted the verdict. It is not, she realizes, so much that he trusts the law as that he trusts her, and Tacoma, and Manny himself. Trusts them to act in honor, trusts their ability to defend those actions.

“And your second finding, Mr. Chairperson?” asks Harcourt.

“Our second supplementary finding,” Wang replies, still referring to the notepad, “is as follows. In the absence of any duly constituted legislative body of the State of South Dakota, this panel affirms the present laws which protect species determined to be either threatened or endangered, and the laws which prohibit the use of the leghold trap or any other device legally defined as cruel.”

“So say you one, so say you all?”

One by one the jurors confirm their votes, and the Judge adjourns the court sine die. As the audience begins to file out, all but a few who form a tight knot about Dietrich’s family, Tacoma makes his way to the back of the room. He walks unsteadily, both crutches held in one hand, their rubber feet stumping against the floor tiles like a freeform walking staff.

Wanblee Wapka looks from his eldest son to his nephew and back again. “You two are a mess,” he says equably. “What does the other guy look like?”

“Little metal slivers,” Tacoma answers, grinning. “Lots of ’em.”

Koda smiles at Kirsten as Wanblee Wapka embraces Tacoma. This is your family, too. But that is not something to be said with strangers crowding past them, and so she only holds the tighter to Kirsten’s hand, not caring who may notice.

Fifteen minutes later, they pile into Wanblee Wapka’s big double-cab pickup, Koda’s own truck entrusted to one of the enlisted men. When they are settled, Manny looks back through the slide window into the camper-topped truckbed and frowns. “What are all those boxes back there? You moving in with us, Leksi?”

“Afraid not,” Wanblee Wapka says, maneuvering the heavy truck expertly out of the narrow space and out onto the street. “Those are just a few things your aunt sent: some home-canned peaches, corn, beans, frybread, and such.”

“There’s a couple chickens and some roasts at the house, too,” Kirsten adds. “And a side of beef at the mess–everyone’s going to have a full stomach tonight.”

“Thanks, Até,” Koda says quietly, and receives a smile in return.

It is nothing, however, to the beatific expression on Manny’s face, framed in the rear-view mirror. “Good bread, good meat,” he says reverently. “Good God, let’s eat.”

********

Koda stands in a white fog of condensate billowing out of the refrigerator, the blast of air chilling her face. “You call that a couple chickens and a roast or two?”

“I admit I wasn’t as—precise–as I might have been.” Kirsten’s voice is dryly factual, but Koda has known her long enough now to recognize the hint of laughter running underneath.

“How unscientific of you,” Dakota murmurs, taking in the packed space before her. There are chickens and roasts, to be sure. There is also a ham, a slab of bacon, a couple gallons of fresh milk, butter, several dozen eggs, and an assortment of parcels tantalizingly shaped like porkchops and T-bones. Above them, the freezer compartment bulges with more of the same. A string bag of potatoes leans against the door of the under-counter cabinets, accompanied by a second of large golden onions and yet another of carrots.

“Your mother,” says Wanblee Wapka with a self-deprecating shrug, “is convinced you’re on the brink of starvation.”

“Oh, we are!” Manny chimes in from his seat at the kitchen table. “Don’t let her tell you otherwise!”

“Well, not quite.” Dakota closes the fridge door and gives her father a brief but fierce hug, then leans back to smile at him.
“We’re down to ‘nourishing but unappetizing,’ though.”

“Rubber cheese,” says Kirsten, with a wrinkle of her nose.

Wanblee Wapka motions toward the driveway with a tilt of his head. “I’ll bring in the rest.”

“The rest” is two boxes of home canned fruits and vegetables, everything from wild grape jam to pickled okra. Koda unpacks the Mason jars while a pair of chickens soak in salt water in the sink. “Até?” she says hesitantly, a quart of stewed tomatoes still in her hand. “You’re sure you can spare all this?”

The sudden fall of Manny’s face is almost comical, “Leksi, we can’t take things you and Themunga might need.”

Wanblee Wapka sets down a third box, larger but lighter, and studies Dakota and her cousin for a long moment. Finally he says, “We’re not just a family ranch anymore. We’ve turned into a village. These last weeks we’ve plowed an extra five hundred acres for garden vegetables and an extra thousand for hay and feed corn. The Goetzes have brought their sheep down and settled on the Hurley place. Brenda Eagle Bear has set up her spinning wheel and loom in one of their outbuildings, and her husband Jack is making hoes and mending bent harrows, not just shoeing horses. Barring a miracle, next spring we’ll be plowing behind some of those horses. The world has changed, Dakota. We have to change with it.”

Koda sets the jar on a shelf with a rueful smile. “I know. It’s just that I never expected home to change, too.” Wanblee Wapka gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze, then goes out for more of Themunga’s ample care package.

Half an hour later, dinner preparations are in full swing. Maggie, returned home in the midst of stowing the new supplies, dragoons Kirsten into helping her wrestle the unused middle leaf of her table down from the cramped attic storage space while Wanblee Wapka coaxes the recalcitrant ends apart. His uniform tie and jacket hung on the hall tree, Tacoma peels potatoes into a large earthenware bowl set between his feet. Manny, odd man out because of his injured hands, offers encouragement to all and sundry. “Hey, cuz,” he observes as Koda sets to cutting up the chickens, “I didn’t know you were a domestic goddess.”

Deftly Koda severs a thigh from a drumstick.. “I’m not. I’m a surgeon.”

‘Watch your mouth there, bro,” Tacoma says with a grin. “She’s good with that thing.”

As they sit down to a dinner of fried chicken and gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits, Koda glances around the table. Nostalgia runs along the edges of her consciousness, memory of a thousand evenings like this one, her father or grandfather at one end of the table, her mother at the other, the ever-increasing Rivers clan ranged in between. The family has long since outgrown the dinner table of her childhood; at Solstice this past December, they had added a pair of card tables at the end, and a third, separate, where the youngest cousins could mash their peas into their potatoes to their hearts’ content. Glancing at the woman at her side, it comes to Dakota that she may never bring Kirsten home to her mother, may never again return to a family untouched by loss. They have escaped the odds so far; but the attack that has injured Manny and Tacoma only emphasizes how tenuous their position is.

A chill passes down her spine, a shadow of premonition. There is a finality to this meal; it lies, somehow, on a point dividing past and future. Something said, something done, this night will alter the course of all their lives to come. Over the circulating dishes, she meets her father’s eyes and knows that he feels it, too.

Everything happens precisely as it should. Precisely.

It is the second time this day that the thought has come to her. Foresight is familiar to her; so is dream; so is prophecy. This is none of those things. It is a sense of pattern, of a path marked out to be trodden again and again, life after death after life through endless cycles.

It fades, gradually, and her attention returns to those at the table about her. Her father, her brother and cousin; Maggie, who is her friend; Kirsten, who is her heart.

And death sits at the table with them, bone-faced and inexorable.

With an effort she pulls herself back to the present. Warnings, she reminds herself, come precisely because they can be heeded, because evil can be averted. She forces her to eat her supper, while the conversation flows past her—her father and Maggie now in earnest discussion of a trade agreement between the Base and the Rivers settlement, Manny and Tacoma answering questions about the relative benefits of reclaiming a half-dozen more windmills versus attempting to reconnect the grid to serve both the Base and Rapid City. Kirsten, beside her, touches her arm briefly. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, sure, I just—”

“Weren’t there for a bit,” Kirsten completes her sentence for her, softly.

“It happens. I’m fine.” Koda smiles at Kirsten, and at her father, meeting his concerned gaze again, letting him see that she is with them again.

His eyes promise a later talk, but for the moment the world slips back into normality around her. Kirsten’s hand brushes hers under the table, deliberately, and Koda looks up to catch the faint blush suffusing the other woman’s face. Like her father’s, the green eyes say later.

And there will be a later. I swear it.

Deliberately, Koda’s fingers close about Kirsten’s, holding fast for all their lives and future.

*******

The hall clock chimes nine as Dakota slips quietly through the door. Her patients are all settled for the night, meds given, dressings changed as needed. The kitchen and the rooms she can see beyond stand dark; a sense of solitude, comfortable after the crowding of the evening, lies over the house. Wanblee Wapka has gone to bunk with Manny and Tacoma in the BOQ, and to have a look at how his son and nephew are healing.

Maggie, as she has done almost every night for the last couple weeks, has announced her intention of working late. In the last few weeks, Hart has grown increasingly remote, and almost all of the day-to-day running of the Base has fallen to the Colonel and one or two junior field officers. Lately she has been home only to eat, to shower and change, returning to her office after supper to coordinate supplies, assign personnel, worry about the android forces still lurking beyond their perimeter and eventually catch a few hours’ sleep on a field cot set up in the narrow space between desk and window. Part of the change is the weight of command; another, equal, part, Dakota suspects, is tact.

With Maggie out for the night, Koda has a room and a bed that she need not share. Or that she can share, if she chooses, without intrusion. That has not become an issue yet; Kirsten still sleeps and works in the small guest room, sorting through endless strings of code in search of the sequence that will, finally and permanently, incapacitate the droids. She is there now, her presence and Asi’s small eddies in Koda’s awareness.

The air has grown chill, and Koda moves to close the window over the sink. The breeze stirs the curtains against her face as she reaches for the sash, and on it comes the sound of frogs singing by the stream that flows through the woods, point counterpoint to the soft whinnying of a screech owl. Stars spill across the sky, undimmed by the customary glare of the city or the Base, a white blaze that, were it not for those few lamps burning in windows and the occasional sweep of headlights, might cast shadows across the back yard. Sweet and familiar, the night air carries the smell of water and wet earth and green things growing.

Normal. Since the uprising began, this is the closest an evening has come to normal.

There is a restlessness in her tonight, born of the premonition of impending loss; born, too, of this night poised on the edge of spring. If she were home, she would take Wakinyan Luta away from his mares for an hour and ride until she tired. But she is not home, has no idea when she will ever be home again. Slowly she pulls the window down, shutting out the night and its voices that call to her. There is work to be done here and now.

Flicking on the light, she opens the large box Wanblee Wapka has left standing by the hall door. On top lie several layers of clothes: underwear, socks, shirts, jeans, all pressed and neatly folded. Below them are half a dozen books, obviously chosen carefully from the shelves of her own home: Paz’ biography of Sor Juana de la Cruz, in translation; a copy of the Iliad whose front cover buckles loosely where it joins the spine; a slim book of poetry in German. Kneeling by the box, her clothes set neatly on the dining chairs, she lets the last book fall open in her hand, to the introductory poem. Its sparse language evokes the vast spaces of the Central European plain, the figures of an Ice Age tribe huddled around the fire against the unseen things of the night, a teller of tales lingering at the edge, making the magic of words only to fade again into the darkness and the empty land.

Am rande hockt
der Maerchenerzaehler. . ..

Her eyes skim the page to the end:

Heiss willkommen den Fremden.
Du wirst ein Fremder sein.
Bald.

Warmly welcome the stranger.
You will be a stranger.
Soon.

The sound of soft footsteps comes to her from the corridor. “Dakota? Is that you?”

“I’m here. In the kitchen.” She closes the book and sets it on the stack of clothing to be carried to what is now her room.

Kirsten appears in the doorway, her glasses shoved up onto the top of her head, her eyes weary. Koda glances up at her, taking in the slump of her shoulders, the small lines at the corners of her mouth. To Dakota, it is one of the sweetest sights she’s ever seen. Even dog-tired, Kirsten has an aura of strength and vitality about her that speaks deeply to Koda’s soul. A powerful, intense intelligence, honed to a razor’s edge, blazes even from tired eyes. The innate goodness within, and the beauty without, shine rose and gold, like the setting sun on a warm summer’s day. She wonders, briefly, why it has taken her so long to truly see this—or if not to see, then to admit. “You need a break,” she says aloud, shrugging mental shoulders over questions she might not ever be able to answer.

“I feel like my damned neck’s already broken.” Kirsten scrubs her knuckles over the tight muscles running from her shoulders up to the back of her head. “Those techs Maggie lent me are worth their weight in microchips, but looking for a micron sized needle in a planet sized haystack is what headaches are made of. When it gets like this I’m afraid I’m going to look straight at the smoking gun and not recognize it. And the whole world will slip back to living in caves and hunting with bone spears because I’m too tired to know what I’m looking at.” She smiles, then, a sparkle of life coming to beautiful jade eyes. “I’m optimistic, though. We’re making damn good progress. If we’re lucky, and the creek don’t rise, as my dad used to say, we might have some preliminary data within the next couple of days.”

“Good news for sure. How about the search for the mole? Any progress?”

Kirsten’s smile fades. “No. Maggie’s up in arms, professionally, of course, but her job’s even harder than mine, I’m afraid. We’re keeping this on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. She hasn’t even let Hart in on it.”

“Trust no one.”

“Except for me and thee,” Kirsten jokes, smiling again. Then she winces as a bolt of pain shoots up her neck and takes up residence in the back of her head.

Rising to her feet, Koda slides her hand along Kirsten’s shoulder and up her neck. “Oh yeah,” she says. “You could bounce tennis balls off that and never feel it. How about some chamomile tea?”

Kirsten’s mouth purses in distaste. “How about a shot of Johnnie Walker?”

“If we had any.” Koda grins. “How about some horse liniment?”

“You don’t—you’re kidding me, aren’t you?”

“Compromise?” Koda holds up the box of herbal tea and begins to fill a small saucepan with water. “Ina sent some honey. You won’t have to drink it plain.”

“Your mom’s an amazing woman. Food, clothes, books. . ..” Koda follows Kirsten’s gaze as she takes in the unexpected bounty. “What’s this in the bottom? It looks like bedding.”

“It probably is. And a snakebite kit, and a needle and thread, and a roadside flare, and—”

“—a partridge in a pear tree.” Kirsten finishes.

“Nah. The partridge is already in the freezer.” While the water boils, Koda moves the books her mother has sent into the living room, leaving some on the low chest that serves as a coffee table, shelving others. The clothes she hangs in the half of the closet of Maggie’s room that has become hers. If she is honest, the room is hers, too, and possibly the house; if Hart breaks entirely, Maggie will probably move into the commandant’s quarters. Koda returns to the kitchen to find Kirsten scooping the herbal mixture into the warmed pot, with cups and honey set on the counter. “Ready?”

“Almost,” Kirsten answers, turning to take the water off the burner and pour it over the chamomile. “Let me help you with that large bundle while this steeps.”

“I’ve got it. It’s just some—” Koda breaks off abruptly as she runs her hands down the sides of the box to lift the parcel out. It does not feel like sheets and towels at all. “No, it isn’t. It’s a blanket or a quilt, I think.” Wedged tight at the bottom, the bundle comes free suddenly, its muslin wrapper falling away to reveal a blazing spectrum of reds and oranges and golden yellow, highlighted here and there by deep peacock shades of blue and violet.

“Well, that would have been handy back in February— ” Kirsten, turning toward the stove, stops as if rooted to the floor, her hand halfway to the handle of the saucpan. “God, that’s beautiful!”

Koda runs her hand gently over the myriad small lozenges that make up the pattern, letting the folds of the quilt fall open to reveal the full design. “It’s a star quilt,” she says quietly.

“It looks almost like a Maltese cross,” Kirsten says. Carefully, she turns off the burner and pours the hot water into the teapot. “May I?”

Koda nods, and together they maneuver the half-open quilt out of the kitchen and into the living room, spreading it over the back of the couch in front of the fire burning low in the grate. Kirsten gasps as the design comes into full view, the eight-pointed star covering almost the entire field of the quilt, worked all in the colors of fire, from its blue heart to its white edges. Kneeling in front of the couch, running her hands gently over the fabric, she says, “It means something, doesn’t it? I mean, you don’t just sleep under this, do you?”

“You can, but no, not usually.” Koda moves a couple books and sits on the chest. Her fingers trace the gradual shading from electric blue at the heart of the star, through yellow and flame orange and red and yellow again. Almost she can feel heat rising from it, the blaze at the heart of the star searing her skin. “A quilt like this is given at times of change in a person’s life. A marriage, a promotion, a coming of age. Sometimes it’s the commemoration of a death.”

“Your wolf,” Kirsten says softly.

“Wa Uspewikakiyape. Yes.” Again Koda runs her hand over the quilt’s surface, tracing the impossibly small, even stitches. “Mother had this one on the frame when I left home back in December.”

“Why a star?”

Koda pauses a moment, studying Kirsten’s face. Love is there, in the softly parted lips; pain in the shadowed eyes. The other woman is a scientist, though, finding her truth in numbers and measurements, in electrons streaming down the tidy paths cut by mathematical formulae. How much of the unquantifiable shaman’s way can she tolerate? How far will she be willing to follow? “In Lakota tradition,” Koda says, slowly, choosing her words carefully, “there are two roads. One, the Red Road, begins in the east with the dawn, and moves toward the west. This is our life on Ina Maka, our Mother Earth.”

“From sunrise to sunset.”

“Yes, but also from Morning Star to Evening Star. They have their counterparts in North Star and Southern Star, and the Blue Road of spirit runs between them. One who leaves the earth goes to walk the Wanaghi Tacanku, the Ghost Road, guided by Wohpe, whom we also call White Buffalo Calf Woman. At some point along that road, she makes a decision about each soul.”

“Like a last judgement? Heaven and Hell?”

Kirsten’s brow draws into a frown, and Koda reaches out a hand to smooth it away. “It depends. Some of our great teachers, like Wanblee Mato, Frank Fools Crow, say that the spirit goes on to be with Wakan Tanka for eternity. But they have been influenced by the missionaries the government sent to ‘civilize’ us.” Koda makes no effort to keep the bitterness from her voice. “A soul that is not worthy of Great Mystery is turned loose to wander forever, and I suppose that would qualify as hell.”

“Do you believe that?” The frown is back; it comes to Koda suddenly that Kirsten is struggling with something, something she is—not afraid, because Koda has seldom known a person of such courage, but perhaps—embarrassed? to speak of.

“There is another belief,” she says softly. “Older, from the time of the beginning. When Inyan created the universe, he gave a part of himself to every living thing. When the part of us that is ourselves comes to match that part the Creator has given us, then we may go on to join with him forever. If our selves do not match that divine part, or if we choose for some other reason, they we are sent back to Ina Maka, to receive a portion of her essence and be born again.” Koda slips from her seat to kneel beside Kirsten, taking her hands in her own. She says gently, “What troubles you about this?”

For a long moment it appears that Kirsten will not answer, looking down at their joined hands. Then she says, “I had a dream. In it I was—someone else, a tall woman with black hair, and an axe and shield. You were there, too, but with red hair, and a spear.” Kirsten’s voice fades almost to soundlessness, breath only. “And we loved.”

The firelight shimmers red-gold over Kirsten’s hair, limns the high planes of her cheekbones and the hollow of her throat, touches her mouth with crimson. Her eyes are lost in shadow. Silence fills the space between them.

Carefully, Koda frees one hand and raises it to trace the outline of Kirsten’s face, her fingers running along the margin between soft skin and softer hair. They trace the angle of her jaw, trail down the column of her neck where the vein pulses in a thready, staccato beat. “Kirsten,” she says, her own voice husky, a drift of smoke along the air. “Kirsten, I love you now.”

Kirsten raises her face, her eyes searching Koda’s. For a long moment she remains still, then looses her hands to run them up Koda’s shoulders and behind her neck, drawing her mouth down. The first touch of her lips brushes feather-soft against Koda’s own, a fleeting warmth like a summer breeze. Kirsten’s hands draw her closer still, and Koda opens her mouth, inviting, to the gentle brush of the other woman’s tongue. I had been hungry all the years. The thought whispers in her mind, but it is not her own. Vaguely Koda recognizes it as a line of poetry, but Kirsten’s mouth, demanding, is the reality of desire, the firm body pressed more and more insistently against her, its truth.

“I love you,” Kirsten murmurs against her lips. “I want you.”

“We mitawa ile.” Fire flows through Dakota’s veins, slipping like silk along her flesh, stealing her breath. “We ile,” she says again. “My blood burns for you.”

Kirsten’s eyes are pools of molten emerald. “Love me, then. Love me now.”

Koda rises to her feet, drawing Kirsten with her. Carefully she lays the quilt on the rug before the hearth, its orange and crimson struck to flame in the low light of the fire. Setting aside her shoes, she turns to find Kirsten standing at the center of the star, her clothes discarded on the couch. The firelight washes her pale skin all to gold, glints off the fall of her hair. It casts shadows in the cleft of her breasts, in the valley between her thighs. “Lila wiya waste,” Koda breathes. “Beautiful woman.”

Her eyes never leaving Kirsten, she shrugs out of her own shirt, draws off her jeans and underthings In a moment’s disorientation, she sees herself as Kirsten must, tall and lithe, shaped of copper and bronze and dusky rose, her loosened hair spilling about her like the night sky, glinting blue and silver in the light of the flames. Then she is wholly in her own mind again as Kirsten steps toward her, smiling. “Nun lila hopa,” she says. “Nun lila hopa.”

Koda closes the small space between them, bending to kiss the upturned mouth, running her hands over the smooth skin of Kirsten’s back, feeling the taut muscles beneath, the firm breasts with their hard nipples pressed against her own. “Lie down with me, wiyo winan, woman made of sunlight.”

Sinking down onto the quilt, she draws Kirsten with her to lie beside the fire. The other woman’s eyes are wide and dark, pools of shadow. For an instant her features shift, and Koda’s own face is reflected back to her, her own eyes the deep blue of autumn skies. That face fades and reforms, and the woman lying half beneath her is leaner, wirier, her skin swirled with patterns in a blue more vivid still, her hair falling in sharp waves loosed from a myriad of tight braids. Koda traces the line of Kirsten’s throat with a feathery touch, trailing a finger down to circle one breast. “You were right,” she says softly. “We have done this before, in other lives.”

Koda’s touch spirals upward, circling first the areola, then the nipple, lingering, circling again. Her lips follow, tracing the same slow helix as her hand drifts down Kirsten’s flank, brushing the lines of her body from breast to belly, over the curve of her hip, down her thigh. Under her hand, fire springs along the other woman’s nerves, a woven net of flame that meshes with the intricate pattern of her own veins. The shock of the sudden connection ripples through Koda, waves propagating from beneath her breastbone, shaking all her frame to magma. Kirsten’s breath goes out of her with the heat of it, and her shoulders arch upward to meet Dakota’s mouth. Koda grazes the nipple with her teeth, suckling now lightly, now more insistently as Kirsten’s fingers thread through her hair, holding her mouth to the tender flesh.

After a time, Koda raises her head and shifts slightly. Kirsten lies with eyes half-closed, her hair spilled across the bronze and crimson of the quilt like tongues of flame licking the incandescent gold at the far reaches of its fire. “Wastela ke mitawa,” she murmurs. “Ohinni.”

Kirsten’s eyes find her, still dark with arousal. “I will love you forever,” she says. “Life to life. From death through death again.”

For an instant, Koda sees herself as Kirsten must, her own eyes languid with desire, her hair cascading over her shoulders to lie silken over Kirsten’s flank. The urgency of the taut body beneath her runs tingling through her own nerves, tightening her nipples to hardness, beating a slow rhythm in her loins. She bends to kiss Kirsten’s mouth again, then, slipping lower, the hollow of her throat where the pulse hammers against her lips, her breasts. Gently Koda trails a hand down the center of her body, circling her navel, drawing fire in the wake of her touch. She feels it all along her own nerves, building, flame drawing in upon itself, grown white-hot in the crucible of her flesh.

Turning then, she slips a hand between Kirsten’s legs, urging them gently apart. Firelight glints off the wetness beading along the cleft of the pale curls, making faint crescents on her inner thighs. Gently Koda cups Kirsten’s sex in her hand, feeling the spasm that runs through the other woman’s body and her own, pressing against her palm. Drawing her fingers upward, she parts the folds of flesh, and the scent of musk comes to her. Kirsten gasps, reaching blindly for Dakota’s other hand against her hip, tangling their fingers together. In her own body, Koda feels her mouth descend to lay a kiss on the red pearl of the clitoris. She circles with her tongue, stroking, probing, stroking again, the wet rasp of her tongue striking fat white sparks of pleasure that swirl and grow and take heady life of their own.

Kirsten’s body goes rigid under her, her hips arching as lightning runs along her veins, down her legs, up from nexus low in her belly. Her breath has gone ragged, and Koda is not certain that she, herself, is breathing at all, her whole body caught up in the fire that strikes through her, crown to sole, as Kirsten cries out, her head thrashing as her limbs shudder and spasm and Koda is lost, lost, spun between the poles of Kirsten’s pleasure and her own.

And it is not just her body, no. Something far in the secret depths of her mind breaks free of its tether, gone nova as the fire on the hearth and the star on the quilt beneath them blaze together, one heart of flame, crimson, copper, incandescent gold, and it is her own heart burning there as years, eons, whole universes wheel by and are lost in space around her. A cry is ripped from her, like the wind at the heart of the sun, and blackness descends about her.

When the curtain of darkness parts, she has returned to herself, feeling the pleasant weight of Kirsten’s fingers still tangled in her hair. Kirsten’s body, sheened with sweat, still quakes, minute tremors that flow from the center and back again. Her breathing, though labored, is settling slowly, along with the beat of heart.

Pressing a kiss to the belly she rests her head upon, Koda gently disentangles herself from Kirsten’s limbs and stretches her length along her lover’s side, her head propped up in one large hand.

“What a fool I’ve been,” she murmurs, gently wiping the tears that sparkle like fire-kissed diamonds upon Kirsten’s thick lashes, “to think my heart my own when I’d already given it up to you the moment our eyes first met.” Kirsten’s smile is radiance itself, and in that moment, her sheer beauty far surpasses anything that Dakota has ever known. “You shine so brightly, wiyo winan.” My heart. My soul. My joy.

The image before her doubles, then trebles, fracturing into multi-hued prisms by the spark of her own sudden, stinging tears. She feels more than sees her hand taken into Kirsten’s, feels the cool touch of her lips on her fingers, each kiss a benediction. When a tongue traces the lines of her roughened palm, she moans and allows herself to be turned onto her back by Kirsten’s gentle strength.

Kirsten moves with her, draping over the left side of her body like a living blanket. Lips descend again, brushing against her cheek, past the heavy fall of sweat-soaked hair at her temple, suckling briefly the sensitive lobe of her ear. Her lover’s voice, when it sounds, is husky and low. “Let me love you.”

She can only groan out her acceptance as Kirsten’s lips leave her ear and a toned thigh slips between her own, seating itself against her with a whisper of silken flesh. Her hips surge and Kirsten cries out as the molten heat of Dakota’s passion paints itself against her skin.

“Oh…sweetheart,” Kirsten whispers breathlessly. “So beautiful….”

Lips mesh and tangle, tongues battle sweetly for dominance, bodies writhe, snake-like, on a sheen of sweat. Kirsten’s hand trails down to cup the weight of a small firm breast, dragging her palm across a nipple so hot and tight that it seems to cut into her flesh.

Dakota’s moans are constant things, fractured with short gasps and snatches of words Kirsten can barely decipher. Her large hands bear the heat of the sun as they trail over shoulders and back, down past the sweet curve of Kirsten’s hip, and settle, pressing her deep and close and tight.

With a labored grunt, Kirsten lifts her head, knowing she cannot bear this incendiary touch much longer without succumbing fully to its whispered promises.

“Slow,” she gasps out, looking down into eyes as black as a moonless night. “Slow….”

“Hiya,” Koda groans. “Hiya, iyokipi. Please.”

With regret, Kirsten slides away from temptation and gentles Koda with firm strokes to her belly and ribs. “Slow,” she whispers. “Let me love you.”

Her head lowers slowly and she nuzzles Koda’s breast, drawing her cheek and nose over the silken skin, taking in her lover’s, musky, exotic scent. Koda’s hips surge again as a warm, wet mouth engulfs her and a cool, darting tongue teases the flames licking at her soul. Her eyes close tightly as the world within fractures and spins, filling her with the heat and the power of a thousand suns.

Her cries are loud as bold fingers comb through the bone-straight hair at her center, then dip lower, bathing themselves in the evidence of her great need. She is so full and swollen with passion that the first touch is pain entwined with pleasure, and when those fingers tease her entrance, she gives them no chance for retreat. Her hips thrust hard and she shouts in triumph as she is suddenly, blessedly, filled.

Kirsten smiles around the breast at her lips, then moans with pleasure as she is gripped and held in slick, velvet heat. Deliberately keeping her fingers still, she draws her body away and up, pressing a deep, heady kiss to Koda’s swollen lips, then soothing her way down to her lover’s flushed ear. “You feel so good, lover,” she breathes, feeling Dakota’s body respond to her murmured endearments. She’s not sure where these words are coming from. She’s not a very experienced lover, and certainly not a vocal one, but here, and now, and with this magnificent woman beneath her, they seem right, and needed, and very much desired.

“So smooth. So open. So ready for my touch.” She begins to gently thrust in rhythm to her phrases, using the very tips of her fingers to stroke the velvet lining as she advances and retreats with slowly building speed.

Koda’s head is tipped back, lips parted and glistening, hair fanned around her like the corona of a jet black star. Her hands grip and release the quilt and her chest heaves as she takes in giant gulps of air. Her body is as tight as a drum, skin flushed and shining rose and gold and shadow by the light of the fire.

“Iyokipi. Lila waste. Mahe tuya. Iyokipi. Hau!”

Pressing down with the heel of her palm, Kirsten rubs against the engorged flesh as her fingers increase the force and speed of each thrust, enraptured by the feel of the slippery heat against her fingers and beneath her palm. The quilt pulls taut as Koda grinds desperately against it. “Now, my love,” she whispers, tasting the sweat of desire on Koda’s skin. “Let go. I love you. Come to me. I love you, Dakota.”

And she feels the incredible strength in the body beneath her as it surges up around her. Arms pin her tight and hold her close against a body that thrums like a live wire. Wetness, molten hot, floods her hand and drains between her fingers.

The grip around her finally loosens and falls away as Koda lays back, limp and motionless except for her ribs, which expand and contract with the force of her panting breaths.

With a tenderness she never knew she possessed, Kirsten eases out of Dakota’s spent and trembling body, gently cupping her lover’s mound she shifts slightly into a more comfortable position. Her free hand comes up and strokes the sweaty bangs from Koda’s forehead.

After a moment, Dakota’s eyes flutter open. They are a peaceful, sleepy blue, and the love that shines forth from them is brighter than any star. Kirsten can feel that look upon her skin, settling over her like a warm, soft blanket, and she closes her eyes for a moment, reveling in the sensation. They open again as she feels long fingers trace down the center of her chest. Dakota is smiling at her.

“Lie with me, cante mitawa. Let us walk the dreaming paths together.”

With a smile, Kirsten curls her body into her lover’s. Murmuring, Dakota gathers her within the warm folds of the quilt. She sinks into sleep with Kirsten’s head on her shoulder, Kirsten’s arm over her body. On the edge of sleep comes Kirsten’s soft voice,
“Wastelake. Ohinni.”

And darkness takes her.
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
The shape emerges slowly under her hands. A chip here, a shaving there, a deeper cut with the tip of the knife to define the hollow of an ear, the pupil of an eye. Dakota’s profession has made her precise with a blade, and the rounded end of the fallen oak branch grows steadily into the recognizable likeness of a wolf.

The quiet of the morning deepens around her as she works, finding its way into the sure movements of her hands and the stillness of her mind. The early light slants down through the sycamore leaves to dapple the stream with flecks of gold, rippling and twining with the swift movement of the water over the rocks beneath. The wet earth at the verge bears the heart-shaped marks of deer hooves and the flat-footed prints of skunk; further down, where she found the branch she is now carving into a spirit-keeping stick for Wa Uspewikakiyape, Koda had seen the blunt, rounded marks of a large bobcat. This will be a good place to release Igmú when the time comes. She is almost ready for her freedom, the fur grown back over her injured paw except for the thin line of a scar; almost ready, too for a mate.

A smile pulls briefly at her mouth at the thought. It is the season, not only for Igmú but for herself.

She had waked early, the dawn light glancing across her eyes through the low window. Her dream had faded gently into the soft haze of the morning, leaving her clear-minded and unsurprised at the warmth stretched beside her on the quilt. She had opened her eyes to meet Kirsten’s own, green as a mossy pool in deep woods, shadowed by long lashes that lay like cornsilk on her cheeks when she dropped her gaze and her mouth sought Dakota’s own. The kiss had been long and slow and sweet, and when Kirsten had looked up again, Koda had asked, “What will you have for your morning-gift, Wiyo Winan?”

Kirsten had trailed a hand through the fall of hair across Dakota’s shoulder, bringing to rest between her breasts. Koda felt her heart beat against the touch. “This,” Kirsten said.

“Only this.”

Koda had kissed her again. “And what will you give me in return?”

Gently Kirsten guided Dakota’s hand to the pulse that throbbed strongly beneath the cage of her collarbones. “This. All of this.”

For answer, Koda had simply gathered Kirsten to her, feeling the smooth skin and hard muscle, the warm strength of her all along her own body. After a time, she stretched her legs straight beneath the quilt, feeling the drowsy hum of her blood as the light grew brighter, falling across Kirsten’s face at a sharper angle. “Canske mitawa, we have to get up.”

“No,” said Kirsten.

“Yes,” Koda answered, a thread of laughter running under her voice. “If for no other reason than that Dad will be here soon, with Manny and Tacoma following in hope of a hot breakfast. And someone’s going to have to let Asi out soon. He’s been a perfect angel all night.”

Slowly they had laid back the quilt and stood. In the morning light, Kirsten’s skin gleamed, her hair like a spill of molten gold. A shiver ran over her skin. “God, I hate the thought of a cold shower.”

“You take Asi out for a few minutes. I’ll put some water on the stove.”

Kirsten padded away to her small room at the end of the corridor, while Koda gathered the quilt and laid it across a chair in the bedroom. From the hall came the thump and scramble of paws on the floorboards, followed by a high-pitched yelp from Asimov. Another sharp bark was followed by Kirsten’s voice. “All right, boy. All right, I’m coming.”

Wrapping her robe around her, Koda made her way to the kitchen, setting the coffeemaker to brew and two large stew pots to boil. It was no substitute for a working water heater, but the bath would at least be warm. From outside, Asi bayed like the hound of the Baskervilles, and she turned to look out the kitchen window just in time to see a squirrel scramble up an oak, just leafing out, to perch just out of the big dog’s reach, chittering and jerking his tail in outrage. “Watch the sign language there, bro,” Koda murmured as Asi took up station at the base of the tree, apparently content to watch. Kirsten, her head thrown back, laughed at his pretensions—”Some hunter, oh yeah,” and tugged gently on his collar to distract him.

When the water boiled, Koda drew half a cold tub full, poured in a potful and added a handful of lavender bathsalts. Steam rose briefly, its sharp sweet scent dissipating in the cool air. Setting the other pot and its hot water on the tile floor, Koda dropped her robe and stepped into the tub just as the door flew open and Asi pounded into the kitchen in search of his bowl. Kirsten’s steps followed, more quietly as she called, “Dakota? I’m back.”

“In here,” she answered. “Come on in. The water’s fine.”

In this spring wracked by the aftermath of destruction and wanton death, Koda knows that a small green shoot has pushed its way up out of her own grief, growing toward the light. Igmu will soon return to the ways of her kind, hunting free to sustain herself and, by summer’s end, her kittens. The coyote they will release near the place where Manny and Andrews found him; he is a social creature and will rejoin his pack. The mother wolf and her cub are a more difficult problem. Their former shelter is now a tomb, and Wanblee Wapka and Tacoma have gone this morning to build Wa Uspewikakiyape’s burial scaffold nearby. Somewhere near the river, perhaps, or closer to home, near Wanblee Wapka’s village. His folk will respect them.

The shape of the wolf grows clearer as Dakota narrows the snout, cutting shallow lines for whiskers, notching the natural curve of the stick just below the ears to show the ruff. She turns the carving in her hands, letting the clear light flow over the smooth length of the branch where she has stripped the bark. No one would ever mistake her whittling for sculpture, not even connoisseurs of “primitive” art, if any are left. But it is clearly a representation of a wolf, and it is made with love. And that is all that matters.

Gently she rubs a thumb over the muzzle. I will miss you, my friend. Yet the grief has lost its sharpness; the pain no longer tears at her, no longer threatens to plunge her into that echoing void that had swirled about her when she had found him dying. For the next year she will be the keeper of Wa Uspewikakiyapi’s spirit, offering her strength to him as he makes his journey along the Blue Road, treading the path of stars. In the back of her mind, only half-acknowledged, lives a small, selfish hope that he will choose to turn again to life on Ina Maka. For me, yes, but not just for me. For Ate and Fenton and Maggie and Tacoma and Kirsten, and for the folk who aided her on her way. For all of us who must somehow remake the world without a pattern. Especially now, for Kirsten.

A frown settles between Koda’s brows. The world had intruded on them too soon, too insistently. There would be no honeymoon in the Greek Isles this time.

Kirsten’s happiness this morning had lit her from within, her eyes bright, her skin almost translucent. When the warm water turned first tepid and then cool, she clung to Koda as they both stood under the still-frigid spray of the shower, burying her face in Dakota’s breasts and muttering something about “mountain runoff.” Ambushed for the second time by Kirsten’s sense of humor, they laughed and pressed even more closely together “just so we don’t get hypothermia.”

The mood held through breakfast. She and Kirsten had bacon frying and eggs ready to tip into the pan when the men arrived as predicted, Wanblee Wapka trailed hopefully by Tacoma and Manny. If she had not been watching for it, she would not have caught the sudden light in Wanblee Wapka’s eyes when he stepped over the threshold and saw them standing side by side, doing nothing, really, more intimate than rolling and cutting biscuits. Yet that was enough. Kirsten, too had seen. She had blushed and become suddenly absorbed in greasing a baking sheet, and Wanblee Wapka’s eyes had danced..

The conversation when they sat down to breakfast ranged from Base politics to horse breeding, carefully skirting anything more intimate. Wanblee Wapka said casually, pushing scrambled eggs onto his fork with half a biscuit, “Chunksi, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to try Wamniyomni with one or two of Wakinyan Luta’s fillies this spring. Unless you want to breed them back to their sire?”

“The big black? Sure, that ought to work out well.” To Kirsten she added, “His name means ‘tornado.’ He’s that fast, and just about as sweet-tempered.”

“He’s not mean,” Tacoma observed, “just–independent.”

“And how many times has he tossed you? Just out of good-natured high spirits, of course?”

“We’ve come to terms.” Tacoma smiled, including Kirsten. “He’ll never be a ‘ladies’ horse,'”—his long fingers made mocking quotation marks in the air—”but then, there aren’t any ‘ladies’ in our family. Thank the gods.”

Dakota had swatted him with her napkin, “And if you ever call me that,”(swat again) “I’ll have” (swat) ” your hair.”

“Ow. Kindly remember I’m a wounded hero, here.” Tacoma raised an arm to defend himself, laughing. “Kirsten, save me!”

“And have you call me names? Hit him again, Dakota.”

“Kirsten, have you ever had a horse of your own?” Wanblee Wapka interrupted the horseplay, his eyes crinkling. “I’ve got a grey filly coming up, one of Wamniyomni’s, that would suit you.”

Manny, oddly silent, had been following the conversation like a spectator at a tennis match, his head turning from side to side. A long, hard look at Tacoma brought no help, only his cousin’s increased concentration on his plate. His brows knitted into a frown, he finally said, “I don’t get it. You look like the cat who ate the canary, Leksi.”

Wanblee Wapka regarded him mildly. “You and Tacoma are the cats, Tonskaya. And this,” he said, spearing a bite of ham with his fork, “was a pig.”

Half an hour later, Kirsten had returned to the endless coil of binary code streaming across her computer screen, running now on batteries as much as possible, the lilt gone from her voice and her step. For the first time, Koda allows herself to wonder what they will do if the code is not there at all. If it is nowhere to be found.

And the answer to that is what they have to do, beating the druids back and back again until they have no more strength and no more resources. And then what?

But she refuses to follow the thought. For all the dead; for Wa Uspewikakiyapi; for the living yet to come, failure is not an option. She runs her fingers again over the carving in her hand. It is as finished as she can make it. Rising, she lingers for a moment in the glade, absorbing its peace, its faint hint of Kirsten’s presence. Then she makes her way back toward the clinic and the hard parting still facing her this day.

*******

The clinic for once is quiet when Koda returns. Behind the desk, Shannon is occupied in updating files on a manual typewriter scrounged from who knows where, pecking away at the keys in an uncertain rhythm broken by the sluggish response of the mechanism. “That thing needs to be oiled,” Dakota observes as she pauses to check the morning’s sign-in sheet; no patients waiting, one drop-off to neuter. “Give Kimberly a call and see if the quartermaster has anybody who can break it down and give it a cleaning.”

“I’ve already—damn!” Shannon breaks off to examine her right hand. Her fingers are still smudged from an apparent struggle to feed in the red-and-black ribbon. “Second nail this morning. There’s supposed to be an old guy in town who used to be a typewriter mechanic. Colonel Grueneman’s got an airman out looking for him.”

“If he shows up, see what else he can work on. We’re eventually going to need all the maintenance people we can find, and not just for the clinic.”

“Doctor?”

Koda stops on her way back to her small office and the wards. There is a plaintive quality in the young woman’s voice. “What is it, Shannon?”

“It’s not going to get better, is it?”

Very gently she says, “It’s not going to be the same, no. In some ways, it may be better. Or there may be no one left to care. We just don’t know yet.”

Shannon’s color goes from the pink flush of annoyance to dead white. She manages, though, to muster a crooked smile. “Thanks. I think.”

Dakota returns it. “You’re welcome. I think.”

Leaving Shannon to her uncertain typing, Koda checks her patients for the second time since dawn. Sister Matilda and her kittens have gone home to general rejoicing in the Burgess household. The Scotty, sadder and with luck wiser, has recovered from his unfortunate encounter with the porcupine. The rabbit with the infected eye, though, is not progressing as well as he had done initially. The inflammation has faded, and he quietly munches his alfalfa pellets as she runs her hand down his back. The infection persists, though, evident in the thinning flesh over his ribs and the pale color of exposed skin and membranes. She makes a note on his chart to add a second antibiotic to his evening dose; penicillin and sulfa together will still take almost anything bacterial. If that doesn’t do the job, they will have to go to an antiviral, and supplies are short.

Not for the first time, a cold chill trickles down her spine. This rabbit may have a constitutional idiosyncracy or underlying condition that leaves him more vulnerable than most. Conditions are ripe, though, for the spread of disease of all sorts. Winter has held most infections in check, save for the usual bronchitis and colds of the season. With the return of the sun, the melting of corpses buried under a meter or more of snow, the likelihood of epidemic will soar. And there is no more public health service, no more Center for Disease Control, no more pharmaceutical companies to mount an emergency campaign for an effective drug or vaccine.

For much of the rest of the afternoon, she inventories the clinics’ supplies, making lists of drugs to search for or attempt to find on the black market that is rapidly springing up. Or rather, the open market; looted or not, merchandise is moving again, paid for in trade goods or services. If they are not already, medications will be at a premium. The unpleasant thought comes to her, not for the first time, that it may become necessary to reinstitute taxes on a population that is barely surviving.

At midday she returns home for a quick lunch and a quicker walk with Asi. Kirsten has gone into Rapid City for the afternoon session of the rapists’ trial. Testimony is almost finished, and closing arguments will begin soon. As the only surviving national symbol of law, Kirsten must be present when the verdict comes in. A smile touches Dakota’s mouth for an instant, and is gone. Kirsten’s strength is beyond question, but she has never faced the cold responsibilities of power before, the chill that must stiffen the fingers of any but the most brutal authority scrawling a signature across a death warrant.

Leaving Asi to his nap on the hearth, Koda returns to the clinic. The neutering surgery goes well, and the Basset mix starts coming out from under the anaesthesia before he is well settled in the hospital ward. The mother wolf and her cub lie stretched out in the sun, sleeping so soundly that they never stir as she passes. Igmú, becoming ever more restless as spring deepens around her and the call of her blood becomes more insistent, bats her ball about her enclosure with increasing fierceness; Coyote, more relaxed, wags his abbreviated tail and whines, thrusting his slender nose through the mesh of the fence for a pat and a scratch.

As the sun stands down toward the horizon, Dakota sets aside her work. In the storeroom, she lays out the buffalo hide robe her father has brought from home and unfolds it on the worktable. Unlocking the freezer, she gently removes the frozen body of Wa Uspewikakiyapi, setting aside its heavy plastic wrappings. She performs each movement deliberately, holding apart her anger and her grief. For a moment she rests her hand on his broad head. This will not happen again, she swears to him silently. Never again. Your people will be free, and safe.

With a pair of surgical scissors, she snips a lock of fur from his mane, where it is untinged by blood. She takes a second from the plume of his tail. These she affixes with a leather thong to the spirit stick, making a mane about the head and throat of the wolf she has carved. With it, she will undertake to remember and honor him as a beloved member of her family for the year of formal mourning and to host a give-away at its end. It does not matter that he is of another nation. He has been closer to her than any not of her blood, save one. Kola mitawa. My friend. My teacher.

And now there is another. As if summoned by the thought, a light step sounds in the corridor, followed by a tap on the door. “Dakota?”

“Come in.”

Kirsten opens the door, moving quietly. She pauses a moment, taking in the wolf’s body, the fur still in Dakota’s hand, the buffalo robe. Silently she crosses the floor and steps into Koda’s arms. Koda holds her tightly, not speaking, merely resting her cheek atop the silken softness of the fair head.

After a moment, Kirsten says, “I wanted to be with you when—that is, for the ceremony.” She steps back a fraction and raises her face questioningly. “If that’s all right?”

Koda lays her palm against the other woman’s cheek. “Of course it’s all right. You’re family now, to both of us. All of us.”

Deep beneath their searching concern, a spark of joy lights the green eyes, and is gone. “Let me help.”

Together, then, they wrap Wa Uspewikakiyape’s body in the buffalo robe, tying it in place with long strips of braided sinew. Into one knot, Dakota ties a medicine hoop fashioned of a supple willow branch, with small patches of cloth—white, yellow, red and black—tied at the quarters and leather thongs running at right angles between them. Into another she fastens an eagle feather and two pinions from a redtail’s wing. “Because,” she explains, “he was a chief of his nation.”

When they are done, they wait quietly by the honored dead, their hands joined.

*******

The knock sounds softly against the service door. “Tanksi?”

Dakota opens it to find Tacoma on the landing, Wanblee Wapka’s pickup backed up to the loading ramp. Her brother is in civilian clothes again, jeans and a deep blue ribbon shirt, his hair caught back at the nape of his neck. His gaze slips past her to Kirsten standing by the table, back again. “You’re ready?”

For answer she nods, and together the three of them carry the body of Wa Uspewikakiyape to the waiting vehicle. Though Tacoma still limps heavily, he has set aside his crutches. He moves awkwardly but surely as they sidestep across the landing and Koda carefully lowers herself, her hands never losing their hold on their chill burden, into the truck’s cargo space. A drum and beater occupy one corner, together with a long, narrow bundle Koda recognizes as her father’s canupah, his ceremonial pipe.

A fringed bag, worked generations back in shell beads and porcupine quills, contains his herbs and other holy things. Kirsten and Tacoma follow her down, and they lay Wa Uspewikakiyapi on the spread deerhide that covers much of the truckbed. Bracing himself on the wheel housing, Tacoma folds down gradually until he is perched beside the drum, then lifts it to sit between his knees. Kirsten moves hesitantly as if to offer a hand, and he shakes his head almost imperceptibly. “Thanks. I got it.”

Koda steps over the side and lets herself down in a single drop; Kirsten follows via tailgate and bumper. Manny swings open the door to the back of the cab, and Kirsten climbs in, followed by Koda. Wanblee Wapka glances into the rearview mirror, checking his passengers. “Everybody settled?”

“Good to go, Leksi,” Manny answers, and Koda follows his gaze as he tracks from Tacoma in the cargo bed to her hand joined with Kirsten’s on the bench seat. His eyes go wide for a second, and he mimes thumping his head against the metal frame of the window to his left. “Everybody but me, right?”

“Not everybody,” Koda says.

The light moment passes as Wanblee Wapka pulls the truck out into the street, and from behind them begins the deep heart throb of the drum, beaten slowly. There is little traffic, vehicular or pedestrian, but here and there a uniformed soldier stops to stare at them as they pass. One or two, recognizing Kirsten’s profile where she sits by the right window, salute; yet another, whose high, broad cheekbones and copper skin bespeak her Cheyenne ancestry, removes her cap and bows her head. The guards at the gate snap to attention and pass them out with looks of puzzlement on their earnest faces, but make no demur. Once off the Base they turn toward the county road that leads into the foothills, the big truck taking the ruts with ease as they begin to climb toward the ancient streambed and its treeline, the place where Wa Uspewikakiyape had lived and died. For the most part they travel in silence, Koda lost in remembrance and a growing feeling of relief, anchored in time and place by the strong, small hand folded in her own.

Wanblee Wapka wrestles the truck up the slope of the rock outcropping that shelters the sealed den. Sliding to the ground, Dakota’s eyes run along the line of trees, the dry course of the ancient stream that once cut its way down through limestone to create the shallow drop from the narrow remnant of wooded meadow with its march of trees. Among them now stands a scaffolding made of strong, straight limbs and rope, its platform six feet above the grass. Boughs of pine and larch cover it, interspersed with the slender trumpets of scarlet madder, the blue stars of anemone. From each corner hangs a leather thong strung with white chalcedony and striped agate, porcupine quills and a falcon’s feathers. A circle of river pebbles makes a wheel about the scaffold, flat, larger stones set at the four quarters. This is a chief’s burial. “Washte,” says Koda. “Thank you, Ate.”

Manny and Wanblee Wapka lift down the body of Wa Uspewikakiyape and lay it by the scaffold. Tacoma sets the drum by the south upright and takes up his station before it. From his pouch, Wanblee Wapka takes several braids of herbs, sage and pine and sweetgrass, a smaller leather bundle that Koda knows contains pollen and another of cornmeal. Finally he unwraps his pipe. To Kirsten he says, “This is what we do for family when they go to walk the Blue Road. Everyone participates.”

Dakota watches as the meaning of his words sinks in, and Kirsten nods solemnly. Wanblee Wapka hands her the packet of cornmeal. “When the time comes, rub some of this on each of the posts of the scaffold. Then on Wa Uspewikakiyape’s wrappings. I’ll tell you when, okay?” She nods again, holding the folded leather as if it were the most precious thing in the world. In this light, her eyes are the wide clear green of the sea.

To Manny he gives a rattle made of turtle shell and antler. “Translate for her, will you?”

Finally he goes to stand beside Tacoma and the drum. “Everybody over here, please.”

As they form a tight circle about him, Dakota feels peace begin to well up inside her. Part of it, she knows, is the coming end of the wrongness she has felt ever since finding that Wa Uspewikakiyape’s body had not been left in dignity. Another part is the strong presence of her father, center of the compass of her world. Part is the warrior’s honor that surrounds Tacoma, body and spirit. Yet another is the energy her cousin Manny carries, the spirit of thunder that can break forth as the humor of a heyoka jester or as the death-dealing lightning.

And at the center of her heart is Kirsten, love returning again and again through the cycles of the sun and the turning earth.

Eyes closed, she hears the small sound of flint and pyrite struck together, smells the fragrance as the spark takes hold in a braid of sage. As Wanblee Wapka holds it out to her, Dakota waves the smoke toward her, washing it over her head and hands, over all her body. Awkwardly at first, then with more confidence, Kirsten follows her example; then Manny, Tacoma, Wanblee Wapka himself. He smudges the platform behind him, the drum, the buffalo hide that enfolds Wa Uspewikakiyape. As Tacoma once again begins the low, steady beat of the drum, punctuated by the rattle in Manny’s hands, Dakota carries a braid of sweetgrass around the circle, lifting it to the sky, lowering it to the earth at each of the four quarters, invoking Inyan the Creator, Wakan Tanka, Ina Maka. She feels Kirsten’s eyes on her as she paces the circuit, the calm touch of her thoughts.

When she returns to the center, Wanblee Wapka unwraps his pipe. It is a beautiful thing, made a hundred years ago and more. The bowl, carved of red stone in the shape of a buffalo, surmounts a length of hollow wood. Where it joins the stem, three eagle feathers hang by a leather thong strung with shell and turquoise. A spike just beyond it, to hold the pipe upright in the earth. Raising it to the east, Wanblee Wapka begins to pray:

“Ho! Wanblee Gleshka!
Spotted Eagle, Spirit of the East,
Hear us!

Speak to us about giving thanks.
Speak to us about wisdom.
Speak to us about understanding.
Speak to us of gratitude

For the life of our brother,
Wa Uspewikakiyape, who has gone
To walk the Spirit Road with you.

We give you thanks for him.
We thank you for the past,
The present and the future.
We thank you for all who are gathered here.”

He pauses, and Koda answers, “Han; washte.” Taking the offered pipe from his hand, she steps to the south quarter and raises it.

“Ho! Ina Mato!
Grandmother Bear, Spirit of the South!
Hear us!

Speak to us about fertility.
Speak to us about children.
Speak to us about health.
Speak to us about self-control.

Speak to us about creating good things for all people,
About the creations of our brother
Wa Uspewikakiyape who has gone
To walk the Spirit Road with you.
Give us fruitfulness in all we do.”

Again, the soft murmurs of “Hau! Waste!”and from Kirsten, “Han!” Receiving the pipe again from Dakota, Wanblee Wapka steps to the western quarter and raises it.

“Ho! Tatanka Wakan!
Sacred Buffalo, Spirit of the West!
Hear us!

Speak to us about purification.
Speak to us about self-sacrifice.
Speak to us about renewal.
Speak to us about the Thunder.

Release us from those things
Which are past.

Speak to us about the gifts of our brother,
Wa Uspewikakiyapi, who has gone
To walk the Spirit Road with you.
Give us freedom from weariness in all we do.”

Dakota takes the pipe once again, stepping to the north. She raises it and prays:

“Ho! Tshunkmanitu Tunkashila!
Grandfather Wolf, Spirit of the North!
Hear us!

Speak to us about rebirth.
Speak to us about winter passing.
Speak to us about the seed beneath the snow.
Speak to us about life returning.

Speak to us about our destiny.
Speak to us about the destiny of our brother,
Wa Uspewikakiyapi, who has gone
To walk the Spirit Road with you.

Give us freedom from fear.

Koda hands the pipe to her father for the last time. Standing by the burial scaffold, he lowers it to the earth, then raises it again to the sky. Finally he holds it before him at the center. He chants,

Ho! Ina Maka, Wakan Tanka, Inyan!
Mother Earth, Great Mystery, Creator!
Hear us!

Our brother, Wa Uspewikakiyapi
Has gone to walk the Spirit Road with you.

Make his steps sure as he comes to you.
Make his eyes bright when he looks upon you.
Make his heart glad when he dwells with you

In the Other Side Camp,
Among the Star Nation.

We hold his memory,
His friends, his student,
His mate and children.

We praise and thank him
For all he has given us.

Give us his courage,
Give us his strength.
Give us his wisdom,

So that one day we may join him
And come safely to you.

The soft murmur runs around the circle again, and Wanblee Wapka thrusts the long spike of his pipe into the earth beside the scaffold. The drum and rattle beat steadily. Following his direction, Kirsten steps forward and rubs a pinch of cornmeal on each of the four poles, sprinkling the remainder on the buffalo hide that wraps Wa Uspewikakiyapi. Then Koda and her father lift the bundle into place on the platform, and the ceremony is done.

As Manny and Wanblee Wapka gather up pipe and pouch and drum, stowing them again in the truck, Koda drifts apart from the group, leaning against the straight trunk of a young birch. The sun poises just on the edge of the horizon, the sky above it shot with crimson and gold. A breeze stirs the leaves above her head, cool with the coming of evening. Quietly, Kirsten comes to stand beside her, saying nothing, offering her presence. Dakota extends her hand in silence, and Kirsten takes it. Peace settles around her, sweet and deep. After a time, she stirs. “They’re waiting for us.”

“Yes,” Kirsten answers.

“You all right?”

Kirsten murmurs something in assent, then says, “You?”

“Better.” Koda turns, her hand still in Kirsten’s. Together they descend the slope, take their places in the back seat of the truck.

Together. Going home.
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
The morning lies gentle on the land as Koda steers the big truck out of the base. Dew spangles the buffalo grass that has grown up at the edges of the road, and the air that streams through the open windows carries its moist fragrance underlaid by the rich smell of earth. High above, a pair of ravens tumble down the depths of the sky, circling each other, giving chase, their calls ringing clear over the bare foothills. Kirsten leans from her window to get a better look. “Ravens, right? Courting?”

Koda grins back at her. “Ravens, courting. A-plus.”

A small smile curves Kirsten’s own lips. “Must be spring or something, huh?”

“Must be.” Taking advantage of a long, straight stretch of road, Dakota leans over and kisses her lightly. Kirsten’s mouth tastes of coffee, with a lingering hint of honey from the morning’s biscuits.

An intimate silence grows up between them, and Dakota marvels again at the way their thoughts seem to fit easily together, mortice and tenon, as if they have known each other from the womb. Not even with Tali has she ever known this wordless intimacy, something she has shared until now only with Tacoma. She watches now as Kirsten sips from the mug between the seats, then passes it without speaking to Koda. She drinks gratefully. She says, “I’m going to miss this. If we ever get stable again, you’ll be re-elected for life if you can make a trade agreement with Colombia.”

“Liberté, egalité, café?”

“You got it.”

At a crossroads—what used to be a four-way-stop—Koda turns onto the farm road that will lead them up toward the ridge where Wa Uspewikakiyapi is buried. They will approach it from the other side, the paved track belonging to the deserted Callaghan ranch; as long as there is still gas, the pickup is too valuable to risk to the axle-busting ruts of the cross-country route. Koda leans out, stretching to get a view of the truckbed. “How are they doing back there, Kirsten? Can you see?”

Kirsten turns in her seat, wriggling loose for a moment from the safety belts to peer through the cab window. “A bit. They look okay.”

Today is the spring equinox, and a day of freedom. Behind them in the truckbed, Manny and Tacoma watch over the two large crates holding Coyote and Igmú. Coyote, being Coyote, had followed a trail of chicken innards into his carrier without a moment’s hesitation. The bobcat had had to be coaxed and gentled, coaxed and gentled time and again until Tacoma could give her the final small push and Koda had fastened the door behind her. From what she can see in the rear-view mirror, Igmú still crouches, hissing, in a corner of the cage. If she ever again willingly approaches humans or metal man-things, it will be a triumph of curiosity over rage.

And that is all to the good. The world has changed, and new ways of living with the non-human world must be found. But the danger will never disappear entirely.

As she takes the turn-off that leads to the Callaghan gate a jackrabbit, still sporting patches of white winter fur, streaks across the asphalt in front of her, startling a flock of ring-necked pheasants from the grass at the other side. Kirsten gives a small, delighted exclamation as they rise, their wings drumming the bright air. They wheel out over the meadow, the sun catching the brilliant emerald feathers of head and throat, splitting the light into rainbows like a nimbus about them. “Oh my god,” she breathes. “What was—” Abruptly her voice sharpens. “What is that?”

Directly ahead of them, precisely in the middle of the cattle guard, lies a low shape of grizzled fur. Perhaps a meter long and two-thirds as wide, it swells up on its bandy legs, its lips curled back from teeth like roofing nails. It hisses, thrusting its squat body toward the truck, then rocking back on its haunches with a low growl.

Koda brakes the pickup about ten feet short of the gate. “It’s a badger. And he’s right bang in the middle where I can’t go around him.”

“But I thought they were, well—smaller,” Kirsten protests. “Like weasels.”

“City girl,” Koda teases gently. “This is a full-grown old man, and he’s defending his territory.”

“Yo!” comes Manny’s voice from the back. “What’s going on up there?”

“Badger in the gate!” Koda yells back at him and leans long and hard on the horn.

In response, the badger inflates himself further, the black and white stripes on his face wrinkling into a snarl, and lunges a foot toward the truck. The difference in distance is small, but it is enough that his teeth seem at least twice as long. His claws, curling at the ends over the bars of the cattle guard, could pass for daggers.

Koda leans on the horn again.

The badger swells, fur bristling, and feints at the pickup a second time. Kirsten flinches back in her seat, then gives an embarrassed grin. “They don’t eat trucks, do they?”

“Nah,” says Koda. “Just tractors.” And she shoves her elbow down on the horn a third time.

The badger does not budge. The truck rocks suddenly, and Manny runs past the cab, halting halfway between the front bumper and the gate. “Hoka!” he yells, waving his arms windmill fashion. “Le yo! Beat it! Ekta yo gni! Amscray!”

The badger snarls again, pushing up on its short legs and swiping at the air in front of his face with a set of claws like the prongs of a front-loader.

“Manny, dammit!”

“Get back here, you idiot!” Kirsten’s shout mingles with Tacoma’s as Koda leans on the horn again and guns the engine.

“Shoo!” yells Manny, undeterred. He waves his hat in a figure eight in front of him

The badger does not even twitch. An awful stench pervades the air, not so sharp as skunk spray, earthier, muskier. Manny flaps his hat again, this time in front of his face, coughing. “Please?” he chokes. “Le yo? Pretty please?”

From the back of the truck comes a soft, high whine, followed by a yip. Coyote, wanting out. The badger’s head tilts for a moment. Then he bares his teeth at Manny again, growling low in his throat.

“Get back in the fucking truck, cuz!” Tacoma bellows. There is more thudding and rocking in the cargo bed, Tacoma getting to his feet and aiming a rifle loaded with a trank dart over the roof of the cab. “Damn, I don’t know which of you dimwits to shoot!”

Coyote whines again, giving a series of soft yips. It is a greeting, not an alarm. Koda scans the meadow, from the line of trees along a low ridge to the woods and the drop-off of the limestone outcropping on the other side. No other coyotes are visible. None answers their returning brother’s call.

I wonder. . . .

Abruptly Koda comes to a decision. Kirsten reaches out to stop her as she opens the driver’s door, a frown creasing her brow. “Dakota—”

She grins in answer. “I’m going to try something. It could go wrong, but I think– Look in the glove compartment and hand me that pistol, would you?” Kirsten complies, and Koda deftly slips a small tranquilizer dart into it. “—I think I know how to defuse this situation. Come back and give me a hand, will you?”

Kirsten follows her out the left-hand door, her puzzled disapproval an almost palpable pressure between Koda’s shoulders. At the back bumper, Koda lowers the tailgate and pulls Coyote’s cage forward. His mouth hangs open in a doofus-dog grin, tongue lolling. He yips again. “Okay, boy” she says, “I get it. I think.” Tacoma spares her a swift glance, also grinning, then returns to keeping a bead on either the badger or their cousin.

Koda is not quite sure which. Igmú has made herself small in the corner of her carrier, her eyes wide with stress. Another reason to get this over with.

Kirsten helps Koda to maneuver Coyote forward, then lift the cage down. Another series of yips punctuates the rapid swing of his abbreviated tail, its syncopoated rhythm rattling the heavy wire mesh to either side of him. Scooting the carrier along the tarmac and around the double wheels on the passenger side, Koda commands, “Manny, step back. Now.”

Manny shoots a glance at her over his shoulder, a glint coming into his eye as he realizes what she’s about. Carefully he takes a step backward and to the side, then another, until the hood of the truck bulks large between him and the badger. With one hand, Koda takes the trank-loaded pistol from her belt. “Tacoma, keep him in your sights,” she says. “Just in case this goes wrong. I’ll cover Coyote.”

“I’m on it.”

“Okay. Here goes.”

With her free hand, Koda slips the latch of the carrier, flinging the door wide. Coyote is out onto the road with a bound, making for the badger at a stiff-legged trot, stubby tail down, head tilted to one side. He whines, low in his throat.

Without warning, the badger seems to shrink. His haunches go down and his head comes up, black button nose snuffling the breeze. He cants his head, small ears cupped forward. He grunts.

“They know each other!” Kirsten whispers, her eyes wide. “You knew!”

“I guessed,” Koda corrects her with a smile. “Watch.”

At the grunt, Coyote raises his head. He yips, twice, and walks straight up to the badger. Still grunting, Badger lifts his muzzle for a mutual sniff. Coyote’s tail resumes its swing, and he stretches, leaning on his extended forelegs, rump high in the air. His tongue lolls from his open mouth. Springing to one side, then, he yelps and prances a few steps down the road beyond the cattle guard. With a last suspicious look backward, Badger lumbers around, and they disappear into the tall grass together.

“Aww,” says Manny. “Off into the sunset. Ain’t that sweet?”

Koda swats at him as she climbs back into the driver’s seat. “It’s sunrise, cuz. Get back in. We’ve still got to drop Igmú off someplace safe.”

Back on the road, Kirsten takes another mouthful of the coffee, offering it to Dakota. “It’s still warm.” Then, “How did you know to let the coyote go there? Couldn’t they have gotten into a fight?” Koda drinks, then sets the mug down again. “They could have, if they hadn’t known each other. That’s why we kept the trank guns on them.” She shrugs. “Nobody knows why, but sometimes badgers and coyotes form what can only be called friendships. They become hunting partners; one flushes the prey, the other catches it. When Coyote kept making ‘I’m home’ noises, well—”

“Can you talk to them?” Kirsten asks abruptly. “To the animals?”

Dakota studies her for a moment. Kirsten’s face is open and earnest. Carefully she says, “Not exactly. Sometimes I can communicate with a particular four-foot, but it’s not usually with words. Why?”

Visibly gathering her courage, Kirsten says, “When we let the bobcat loose down by the stream can you tell her—” She pauses a moment, then finishes in a rush, “Can you tell her I’d appreciate it if she didn’t eat any raccoons?”

Koda allows the question to swirl around in her brain for a long moment, hoping it will settle and make sense. When it does not oblige her, she says, “I think I’m missing something here. You want to tell me what it is?”

“No,” Kirsten says, firmly. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

A quick glance away from the road tells Koda that Kirsten is serious. With a twist of the steering wheel, she pulls the truck over to the side of the tarmac and brakes. Turning to face the other woman, she says, “Canteskuye, I know you’re not crazy. You’re a scientist. You’re probably the most rational person I know. Now, what does releasing Igmú have to do with raccoons?”

Kirsten stares down at her hands, clenched in her lap. Pale sun sidelights her face, outlining her profile in a thin ribbon of light. She raises her eyes for an instant, drops her gaze again. “I had a dream,” she says. “There in the woods. A couple weeks ago or so.”

“A dream,” Koda echoes. “About raccoons?”

“A raccoon. He– That is, we had a conversation.”

A fist thumps on the top of the cab. “You okay up front? Is there a problem?”

“We’re fine, Manny” she calls, not elaborating, then turns back to Kirsten. “Okay. You had a conversation.”

“With a raccoon. I had a conversation with a raccoon. In a dream.”

“And?”

Abruptly Kirsten turns to face her. Her expression is almost pleading. “I was sitting under a tree with Asi. There was a raccoon by the stream, there on the rock where I found you—later. When he’d caught a fish, he came over to me and talked to me.” A small grimace passes across her mouth, is gone. “I don’t know when I fell asleep. I don’t really know if I fell asleep. But when he left and I woke up”–her hands describe small, aimless circles in the air “—came to, whatever—there were tracks in the snow. Those were real.”

“Do you want to tell me what he said?” Dakota reaches out and captures one of Kirsten’s hands, surprisingly strong for all its small size. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, you know, or if there was anything that’s not my business.”

“No, it’s okay. He said his name was Wika Tega—Tegasomething.”

“Wika Tegalega,” Koda supplies. “It’s our Lakota word for ‘raccoon.'”

“He said it means ‘magical masked one’ or something like that. But he told me to call him Tega. He offered me some of his fish, but—”

“Not into sushi, huh?”

“No. Anyway, he said time was like a Moebius strip, always going around in the same circle, things repeating themselves. He said he was my spirit animal, and he said to go to you when I woke up. That you needed me.” She pauses, taking a deep breath, looking up to meet Dakota’s eyes. “And I went to you. And you did. Even if I was—hallucinating.”

Koda squeezes Kirsten’s hand, raising it to her lips to place a kiss on the palm. “And I was grateful that you came.” She allows a small silence to stretch between them. Then she says, “How much Lakota do you know?”

Kirsten’s eyes widen in startlement. “Lakota? Just a few words—things I’ve heard you say once or twice. Like Wiyo’s name. Or your dad’s. ‘Yes.’ ‘Hello.’ That kind of thing. Why?”

“Have you ever heard the Lakota name for raccoon before? Could you just dream it up out of nowhere?”

“I—no. But—”

“You had a vision. You can call it dream if you like, or an altered state, but a spirit came to you as your teacher and friend. It’s a good thing. A good thing.”

Kirsten leans her temple against the back of her seat, never letting go of Koda’s hand. “It’s so much. It’s all new, all strange. I don’t know if I can get my head around it.”

Dakota raises her other hand, runs it gently through Kirsten’s hair. The sun slips through it like molten silver between her fingers. “I know you can. It’s a good head. It’s just that the world has changed more for you in some ways than it has for Tacoma, or Ate, or me. We’re still tied to the old ways your ancestors gave up hundreds of years ago. That’s all.”

“All,” Kirsten repeats with a small laugh. “Sure. That’s all.”

“Not much, huh?”

Another small laugh answers her, and Dakota grins. “And you don’t want Igmú to eat your new friend or any of his nation, is that it?”

“Yeah. Silly, huh? I don’t suppose she could eat a spirit creature.”

“Not really. She wouldn’t be inclined to eat a flesh-and-blood raccoon, either. A big boar can weigh almost fifty pounds, and even a small female would put up too much of a fight to be worth it. Predators don’t like to work that hard for their dinner. It’s not cost-effective.”

“Thank you,” Kirsten says softly.

“For what?”

“For not thinking I’m nuts. For having patience while I learn.”

There is a catch in her voice, and it comes to Dakota that her lover does not mean only spirit animals and language. She says softly, “Wastelake, there is all the time you need. Have patience with yourself.”

“I love you.”

“Cante mitawa,” Koda answers. “Now and always.”

* * *

An hour later, Tacoma and Manny between them carry the wire cage containing Igmu into the small glen in the woods. Morning sun dapples the ground, green with moss, shimmers on the water that purls over the smooth stones of the streambed. High in a sycamore, a gray jay whistles softly.

“Here we are, girl,” Tacoma says, setting the carrier down in the open space. “Home.”

At his voice, she butts her head against the mesh, a purr rumbling in her throat. He bends to scratch her ears, long fingers trailing through the thick winter fur. Dakota says, “Whenever you’re ready.”

Tacoma swings open the door, and for a moment Igmú poises just inside it, one forepaw on the carpet of moss, dotted with minuscule star-shaped flowers. Then she gathers her long legs under her and is gone, streaking across the open space in a heartbeat, to herself onto the limestone ledge and from there over the narrow water in one great bound. A third leap carries her into the undergrowth and out of sight.

For a long moment the four of them stand silent. Koda feels the peace of the land and water and light, a thing almost palpable. Then she turns once again to Tacoma and Manny, Kirsten’s hand in hers. “Let’s go home,” she says.

*******

Taking a step out into the cool, spring afternoon, Kristen draws in a deep breath to settle the butterflies in her belly. The fragrant breeze caresses her skin and she shivers a little. In shorts and a tank top—Dakota’s tank top, to be perfectly honest—she’s a little underdressed for the weather, but the clothing choice wasn’t exactly her idea, and she’s determined to follow her instructions to the letter.

Another deep breath calms her somewhat, and she starts across the lawn with determined strides. To her surprise, she fields several appreciative glances, including one from a military-type who is so busy scanning her from toe to head that when he gets to her face—and realizes, subsequently, who she is—his own face crumples into a mask of utter mortification.

His quickly doffed cap twists in his hands as he stares at the ground, red-faced as a beet. “S-sorry, um…Ma’am…um…Ms. President, Ma’am….I’m…um….”

Laughing softly, Kirsten takes pity on the man. “It’s alright—.” a quick glance at his immaculately polished nametag—”Edmonds. You didn’t offend me.”

“B-but, Ma’am! Y-you’re the P-P-President!”

“Last time I checked,” she replies, setting a gentle hand on his shoulder, “I was also human.” She quirks a smile at him, pleased to see the fiery blush begin to fade from his cheeks. “Besides, I don’t think my first order of business will be to make ‘ogling the President’ a capital offense, so you’re pretty much off the hook, okay?”

Edmonds straightens to rigid attention. “Y-yes, Ma’am, Ms. President, Ma’am! Thank you, Ma’am!”

“You’re welcome, Edmonds,” she answers, returning the young man’s stiff salute with a straight a face as she can manage. “Carry on.”

“Yes, Ma’am! Thank you, Ms. President, Ma’am!”

As the relieved airman trots off double-speed, Kirsten’s features crack into a wide grin. Shaking her head and chuckling to herself, she continues her trek toward the Base’s gate, and beyond.

*******

At the Base gate, Kirsten is held up by a young guard so green he could be a shoot of new spring grass. “Excuse me, Ma’am,” he states in a high, wavering voice. “I’m under strict orders not to let you outside of the base without a full guard.”

She rounds on the man, but cuts short her sharp retort when she sees his obvious youth coupled with the look of abject terror in his eyes. She settles instead for a smile, though it doesn’t seem to quell the nervous sweat beading at the young man’s temple and hairless upper lip. “Well, I can certainly appreciate the concern for my safety, Private Mitchell, and I do, believe me. But since I was able to infiltrate the base at Minot without detection, I think I’m pretty capable of walking a few hundred yards past the gate without getting myself killed, don’t you?”

Mitchell’s panicked eyes search fruitlessly the faces of his comrades, all of whom are as stiffly at attention as he. Finally, he looks back to her. “I…s-suppose so, Ma’am.”

Kirsten’s smile brightens. “Good! I’m glad we got this cleared up, Private.” She reaches for the gate, only to be stopped by a hand to her shoulder. She glances down at the hand, then cuts her eyes back to the man who put it there.

Mitchell yanks his hand away as though she were the sun itself. “S-sorry, Ma’am, but I have my orders. From General Hart himself, Ma’am!”

Turning slowly, Kirsten loses her smile and pins the man with her eyes. “I see.” Her voice, though soft, fairly crackles with authority. “And General Hart is the Base Commander, is he?”

“Well…yes, Ma’am!”

“Mm. And who gives the General his orders, Private?”

“Ma’am?”

Kirsten purses her lips. “It’s a simple question, Private Mitchell. If the General commands the base, who commands the General?” She clears her throat as silence answers her question. “Who is his Commander-in-Chief, Private?”

Mitchell looks distinctly ill as the clue finally strikes across his head with the force of a semi. “Y-you are, Ma’am.”

Kirsten’s smile returns. “Got it in three. Now…if there are no further objections…?”

If any were about to be uttered, they are stopped in utero by a deep, steady voice just outside of the gate. “It’s alright, Private,” Tacoma remarks, walking up to the barred entrance. “I’ll make sure our Supreme Commander doesn’t come to a bad end.”

Looking up into dark eyes sparkling with amusement, Kirsten gives a soft chuckle as an MP hurries to open the gate for her. Stepping through, she laughingly curls her hand through the gallant elbow cocked for her.

“Your chariot awaits, Madame,” Tacoma intones as he leads her to one of the Base’s newest toys, an electric powered golf cart purloined from one of the myriad of country clubs that dot the area around the base. Powered by batteries charged by the few wind-fans they’ve managed to install, the carts are perfect for short drives, enabling the rapidly diminishing supply of gasoline to be conserved for emergency use.

As Kirsten slides into the molded white bench seat, she gazes over at Tacoma as he slips his large bulk into the vehicle and puts it in ‘drive’. He looks different out of uniform, she decides; his cargo shorts displaying long, bronzed and muscled legs. His deep black hair is parted in the middle, carefully oiled, and split into two identical braids that are wrapped in rawhide and some type of fur she can’t identify. He is wearing a long-sleeved, baggy pullover type shirt that hides the rest of his body from view, but once again, she marvels at how deeply he resembles his sister.

The drive is a short one, through a small wooded area and into a narrow clearing. Tacoma brings the cart to a halt just inside this clearing. Stepping out of the vehicle, Kirsten eyes her surroundings, noticing the small, domed hut covered in patchwork hide and standing only slightly taller than her own height. A bit closer to her is a large, round fire-pit with a jumble of stones sitting atop a well laid bed of glowing coals. Her mouth goes dry as the nervousness returns full force, filling her belly with crawling, fluttering insects.

She almost jumps at Tacoma’s gentle touch to her arm and she looks at him, wide eyed. He gives her an easy, tender smile. “It’s gonna be alright, Kirsten,” he says softly. “You’ll see.” He tilts his head toward the hut in invitation, gaze warm upon her. “C’mon.”

Just outside of the hut, he stops and strips off his shirt, leaving his torso bare. Kirsten gazes at him, struck yet again by the resemblance—aside from the obvious anatomical difference—to the woman she loves. She notes the twin thick scars set into his chest inches above his nipples, pushing down a surprising, and unwanted, flash of xenophobia. “Dakota mentioned that you were a Sun Dancer,” she finally says.

“I am,” he remarks in a smooth, even voice. He has noticed the flash in her eyes, but takes no offense at it.

“I…um…thought that Sun Dancing was illegal.”

“It was. But when we reclaimed our lands, we overturned the washichu’s laws.” He smiles. “It is a part of who we are.” With a brief nod, he motions her to stay where she is as he walks to the fire pit and picks up a small herb bundle, lighting it from the coals.

Sweet scented smoke teases her nostrils as he returns and she stands stock still as he begins a soft chant, drawing the bundle and its attendant smoke in complex patterns over her body. The ritual completed, he returns the bundle to its place by the fire ring, then comes to stand before her once again. “Ready?”

After a moment, Kirsten nods and summons up a brief smile. “As I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Tacoma chuckles. “You’ll do fine. Just remember this isn’t a competition. If it gets to be too much for you, just step outside. No one will think any less of you, alright?”

His sincerity is almost palpable and Kirsten nods again, somewhat calmed. “Alright.”

“Great. Let’s go inside, then.”

Tacoma opens the hide flap, and Kirsten’s senses are immediately assaulted by a blast of herb-scented steam. Fat beads of sweat immediately pop up from wide-open pores and she stills for a moment, willing her body to quickly acclimate to the abrupt change in temperature and humidity. After a short time, her breathing eases and she ducks beneath the low overhang and into the sweat hut. Steam paints the scene in a gauzy haze, and she blinks several times as she scans the interior. Manny and Wanblee Wapka sit cross-legged next to one another to her left. Directly before her is another, smaller, stone ring with dozens of fist-sized stones steaming on a bed of glowing coals. And, to her right, Dakota and Maggie sit, heads bowed closely together as they speak to one another in low tones. Maggie laughs, a low and somehow sexy sound, and Kirsten battles a flare of jealousy at the easy intimacy the scene conveys; a jealousy that is washed away the very second both women turn their eyes to her. From Maggie, there is abiding affection and a warm welcome as she eases over, creating a space beside Dakota.

And from Dakota—Kirsten finds herself all but drowning in the soft, loving blue that envelops her, drawing her effortlessly to her lover’s side, where she lowers herself to the ground and smiles in greeting. Unlike the others, Koda is sitting on her heels, her hands resting, relaxed, on strong thighs. Dressed in simple white cotton shorts and a white breast band, with vast amounts of her bronzed skin glimmering with sweat, she is, to Kirsten, magnificence personified.

For her part, Dakota can’t quite seem to stop her eyes from roving over Kirsten’s body; the vision she presents in a damp and clinging tank-top and flushed, rosy flesh sends a wave of arousal crashing through the tall woman so strongly that for a moment, she is almost overwhelmed by the sudden intensity. Breathing deep, she reaches out and threads her fingers through Kirsten’s as the sharp spike of arousal softens and a wash of love takes its place. “I’m glad you came,” she rasps, her eyes bright and full.

“So am I,” Kirsten replies, gently squeezing the large hand that holds her own.

The flap closes as Tacoma eases his large bulk inside and sits beside his father, mimicking the older man’s posture to perfection.

Wanblee Wapka’s gaze runs around the small space, making the circuit of those present. “All here? Washte, we can begin.” From the smalldeerhide bundle on the floor beside him, he takes out a braid of sweetgrass and tightly tied bundles of sage. “Kirsten,” he says, glancing across the fire pit at her. “Maggie. This is your first sweat lodge, and you may see and hear things that you don’t expect. You may see swarms of blue and green lights. Or you may hear voices. Don’t worry; that’s normal.”

“That’s normal,” Kirsten repeats, her lips shaping the words soundlessly. It cannot be any stranger than a talking raccoon. “Normal.”

She feels rather than sees Wanblee Wapka’s smile, and knows that her thought has been heard, if not her words. Koda squeezes her hand again in reassurance, and she settles her mind to quiet.

Pouring a dipperful of water over the hot rocks, Wanblee Wapka says, “This water is from the four quarters of the world, carried by our Father the Sky. He is with us when we pray in peace, asking knowledge, wisdom and healing. Ina Maka, has given this water from her own body. She, too, is with us. When Inyan made the world, he gave his life to his creation, and became stone. He is here also.” As the steam fades upward, he pours water over the stones three more times.

Kirsten swallows hard as the freshly released heat sets upon her like a living thing. She’s seen her share of saunas, courtesy of semi-regular trips to the gym, but this is a sauna taken to the nth degree, and her body is slow to adjust. She startles when Dakota’s hand withdraws from hers, and she turns to look at her lover.

Dakota appears completely relaxed; her chest moves in a very slow, very steady rhythm, her hands rest, palms upward, against her thighs, fingers slightly curled. A small smile plays across her lips and her eyes are gently closed.

Across the hut, the three men appear much the same, though Wanblee Wapka’s eyes are open, but unfocused.

Finally looking to her left, Kirsten finds Maggie smiling at her. Leaning slightly over, the Colonel whispers in her ear, “Relax. If nothing else, it’ll be good for the skin, right?”

With a whispering laugh, Kirsten nods and forces herself to relax. Though the head is intense, it truly isn’t as bad as she thought it would be. After a moment, her eyes begin to drift closed, and she lets them, clearing her mind as much as she is able.

Some unknown time later, Kirsten breaks sharply free of a light doze, like a swimmer finally breaking the surface of a choppy ocean, and gasps, her heart pounding hard and urgent in her chest. She blinks her eyes quickly, clearing the stinging sweat, as her panicked mind tries to decipher the insistent summons her body seems to be sending her. All seems peaceful and quiet.

A quick check on Maggie shows the Colonel sitting comfortably, eyes closed and breathing in an easy rhythm. The three men across from her are likewise still and calm in their meditation.

It is only then that she notices the frightful cold pressed against her right side, melded to her like a block of ice that has melted and refrozen.

Turning quickly to her right, she gives a soundless cry at the sight of her lover, pale and stiff as a marble statue, her half-open eyes showing only the whites. Koda’s parted lips are bloodless, and try as she might, Kirsten can detect no signs of breathing.

Her voice, when it finally sounds, is high and brilliant with fright. “Dakota!” she screams, latching onto her lover’s corded forearm. She might as well be touching a corpse, so cold and unyielding is the flesh beneath her hand. “Dakota!! No!!!”

Other hands, strangers’ hands, descend on her then, trying to pull her away. Voices, deep and gruff, sound in her ears, all but indecipherable. The strength of the hands on her body is implacable, but her will is stronger still, and she struggles with all her might, yelling for her lover at the top of her lungs.

“Kirsten!” Wanblee Wapka shouts in her ear. “Kirsten, you must listen! Dakota is makoce nupa umanipi. Walking in two worlds. You must not touch her, or her spirit may not be able to find its way back to her body. Please, come away!”

“No!” Kirsten shouts, able only to see Dakota’s bloodless, immobile face. “Dakota!!”

“Come away! Please!” Wanblee Wapka shouts again, redoubling his strength. “She cannot hear you. She cannot respond. Please, you are putting her in great danger!”

The urgency, if not the intent, of Wanblee Wapka’s words seeps through Kirsten’s terror, and she finds herself yielding to the firm strength at her back. Her rigid grip softens and her fingers unwillingly part from Dakota’s chill flesh. A sobbing cry erupts as she watches a tiny drop of blood trail its way down from Dakota’s nostril to rest on her upper lip. Her struggles begin anew, but the grip of the men behind her is too strong and too sure and she feels herself being pulled inexorably away from her lover. “No!”

And then, what Wanblee Wapka has deemed impossible, happens. With the growl of the wolf sounding deep in her chest, Dakota reaches out and clamps down on Kirsten’s wrist, her grip as cold and as unrelenting as chilled iron.

“Ate?” Tacoma demands, stunned and confused. “What–?”

“Chunkshi? He nayah^ uh, he?”

The growling halts and Dakota begins to tremble. Her eyes open fully, though only the whites still show. “Sa,” she groans, her voice hollow and far away. “Wapka sa. Maka sa. Shota. Wikate. Ayabeya tokiyotata wikate. Ayabeya tokiyotata sa.”

She trembles again, violently, and the blue finally shows from her eyes, shining with terrible knowledge. “Ayabeya tokiyotata wikate. Osni. So….cold.”

Her eyes flutter closed and she collapses. Lunging forward, Kirsten gathers Koda into her arms, stroking her hair with frantic fingers and murmuring desperate pleas through her tears.

“Manny,” Wanblee Wapka orders, “get the cart and bring it around to the front. “Chinkshi, help me with Dakota.”

“I’ll carry her myself, Ate,” Tacoma counters, moving to Dakota’s head as Wanblee Wapka’s hands descend back onto Kirsten’s shoulders.

“Kirsten,” he intones softly, lips close to her ear, “Kirsten, I need you to let her go, just for a moment.”

“No,” Kirsten moans. “No, please. Please, help her.”

“We will, wikhoshkalaka. We will, I promise. But you need to come away with me so that Tacoma can lift her and carry her to the cart. She needs to be cared for at home and we cannot lift you both.”

Slowly, with great reluctance, Kirsten allows Wanblee Wapka’s gentle hands guide her away from her lover. Dakota’s grip, however, remains tight around her wrist. Wanblee Wapka comes quickly to one knee and begins to gently massage his daughter’s bloodless hand. “Chunkshi, let her go. Let Kirsten go. We must tend to you, Dakota. Please, release her wrist.”

His intent massage softens Koda’s grip and Kirsten, with the greatest reluctance, pulls her wrist free. Dakota immediately reacts, thrashing her long body about. Head twisting from side to side, she moans.

Wanblee Wapka strokes his daughter’s hair, his eyes bright with concern and love. “Shhh, chunkshi. She is here. Your tehila is here.” He turns his regard to Kirsten. “If you speak softly to her, she will hear you.”

One hand over her mouth, Kirsten uses the other to reach out, stopping just short of Dakota’s icy skin. “Koda? Sweetheart? I’m here, right beside you, ok? You’re gonna be fine, I promise.” Unable to stop herself, her hand completes the last inch and brushes against her lover’s flesh. So very cold. She’s tempted to pull away again; a reflex she actively fights. Instead she strokes along the ridges of tendon, muscle and bone, willing warmth into the icy skin. “I won’t leave you,” she vows. “Not now. Not ever.”

Dakota calms immediately under Kirsten’s attentions. Her breathing settles and she appears to slip into a deep sleep.

Wanblee Wapka takes quiet note of the fierceness in Kirsten’s voice and manner, and smiles briefly to himself. This, he knows, is the true face of the woman his beloved daughter has chosen for a mate—the face of the Igmu protecting her cubs. He nods to himself, well pleased, then tenderly draws her away as Tacoma steps in and easily lifts Dakota’s limp, dead weight into his massive arms.

They follow closely behind as Tacoma walks quickly to the waiting cart, Manny at the wheel. He lays her gently in the back of the cart, a place where golf bags normally rest. It’s a tight fit, but he manages. He then ushers Kirsten around to the passenger’s side, and helps her settle in. She immediately twists in the molded plastic seat and reaches out, running her fingers through the thick fringe of hair on Dakota’s pale, chilled brow. Tacoma yanks Manny from the driver’s seat and gestures for his father to take the vacated space. “We’ll walk, Ate,” he murmurs before returning to check on his sister one last time. “We’ll meet you back at the house.”

With a brief nod, Wanblee Wapka puts the cart in drive and heads away.

Maggie finally looks away from the retreating cart, eyeing the remaining men with one eyebrow raised. “Can someone please explain to me what the hell just happened here?”

Tacoma’s lips twitch. “Sure, I’ll tell you as we’re heading back, ok?”

“Fine.”

And with that, the three start back to the base double time.
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
They enter the house to find Kirsten, white-faced and pacing nervously the length and breadth of the living-room. The door to Dakota’s room is firmly closed, and no sounds emanate from behind it. The rooms are rich with the aroma of heating soup, though it’s obvious that Kirsten is in no way comforted by the homey scent.

Quickly assessing the situation, Maggie walks over to Kirsten, gently takes her arm, and leads her to the couch. “Sit down before you fall down,” she says in a no-nonsense voice that is nevertheless ripe with compassion. “Manny, get some coffee brewing. Make it strong.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Manny replies, all military business as he all but marches over to the kitchen.

“Tacoma, could you….”

“Ate’ will come to us when he’s ready,” the tall man intones, moving over to the other side of the couch and easing his long frame in beside Kirsten. He cups her hand in his much larger one, chafing her skin gently with the other. “She’ll be fine, Kirsten. I promise you.”

“I—.” Kirsten breaks off and gathers herself. “What’s taking so long?”

“It will take as long as it takes, little sister. She will be fine.”

Pulling her hand from his, Kirsten drags it through her hair, tugging on the ends in a gesture of frustration. “I’m a scientist,” she says as if to herself. “I fix things. And I—I can’t fix this!”

“That’s because there’s nothing to fix,” Tacoma replies. Leaning slightly forward, he takes her hand again, his eyes dark and penetrating with the strength of his convictions. “Kirsten, listen to me. This is a part of who my sister is. It’s something you have to accept as part of her. If you can’t, you can never hope to make a life with her.”

Kirsten’s eyes widen in disbelief, then narrow as determination sets her jaw. Tacoma holds up a hand. “I think you will make a life with her. A very long and happy life.” He sighs. “Acceptance comes with understanding, and I’m afraid we haven’t been very forthcoming with you in this regard.”

“You can say that again,” Kirsten mumbles. “It’s like you’re all on the same page, and I don’t even know where the bookstore is.”

“Not all of us,” Maggie interjects, giving Kirsten a little smirk before turning her expectant gaze toward Tacoma.

The tall man blushes, then shakes his head. “Believe me. Ate is much better at this than I am. He’s had to explain it to his ten kids, after all. I haven’t had to explain it to anyone.”

“I dunno,” Maggie drawls. “Should we let him off the hook?”

Feeling somehow better for the conversation, Kirsten nods. “For now.”

“Thank you!” Tacoma exclaims, grinning at her. Then his expression sobers. “The point is, I understand your fears. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like to feel powerless to help.” Kirsten is looking at him with frank interest now. “I was thirteen the first time it happened. A koskalaka still learning how to be a man and sometimes, like most teenagers, too big for my braids.” He smiles in a self-deprecating manner. “I’d had my First Vision almost six months before, see, and so I considered myself an expert on the matter. Dakota was twelve—not quite a woman, but almost. She’d just started her growth spurt and was almost as tall as me again.”

Smiling in fond remembrance, he lets go of Kirsten’s hand and rises to his feet, stepping around the couch and stretching his cramped muscles lightly. Taking the cup of strong coffee from Manny, he hands it to Kirsten and resumes his tale. “Ate and grandfather planned a sweat for her, just to get her used to the idea. A kind of trial run, actually. No one really expected her to have a Vision. It wasn’t her time yet.”

“But she did.”

“And how,” Tacoma remarks, drawing a hand over his face. “It started off alright at first. I mean, it was kind of surprising that she was being gifted with a Vision, but…. I could tell she was a little nervous, so I, with my six months of vast experience, tried to help her through it. But then….”

“Something went wrong, didn’t it,” Kirsten observes, holding the mug in chilled hands but making no move to drink the coffee inside.

“I thought it did. And worse, I thought I made it happen. Like I’d done something wrong when I was trying to help her.” He shakes his head, causing the long fall of his now unbound hair to ripple and settle down over his shoulder. “I was so scared that I forgot everything Ate taught me.”

“What happened?” Kirsten murmurs, entranced.

“Luckily, Ate had the presence of mind to snatch me away before I did something unforgivable. While he held me tight, Grandfather went in after Dakota.”

“Went in after?” she repeats. “I’m not sure I understand.”

Tacoma smiles grimly, pondering for a moment. “Dakota told me of the time,” he begins softly, “when you had an unfortunate encounter with an dying android who seemed determined to take you along with it. Do you remember?”

Kirsten nods. Her memories of that time remain, unlike the stuff of her dreams, curiously vivid—though the scientist in her passes those memories off as dreams for lack of anything else to call them. All of her life, she has stood firm in her resolve that the human body and what people liked to call the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ are inexorably entwined. As long as one lives, the other lives. When one ceases, the other does as well, world without end, Amen. If she is to accept these memories as something more than the random firings of a brain desperately in need of oxygen, she will have to change some very fundamentally held world views, and though she acknowledges that she is a much different person now than she was then, it is a change that she’s not sure she’s ready to make, in truth.

Tacoma, compassionate to her struggle, remains quiet a moment more before speaking. “Our beliefs are very different,” he remarks softly. “When Dakota realized that you were starting to walk the spirit path, she ‘went in after you’, to bring you back to your body. Grandfather did much the same to Dakota long ago.”

“Why your grandfather and not your father?” Maggie asks, curious.

“Dakota loves my father very deeply, it’s true,” Tacoma answers. “But she worships my grandfather, even now, when he’s been gone from this world for many years. They had a bond that…well, if Grandfather had asked her to take poison for him, she would have done it without a second’s pause.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow. I was a little jealous, to tell you the truth, but….” Tacoma shrugs as if to say ‘what are you gonna do?’

“So, your grandfather brought her back?” This from Maggie who, unlike Kirsten, has absolutely no problem believing in and accepting as truth the spiritualism practiced by Dakota and her family since it closely mirrors her own.

“Well…yes and no.” He laughs as two pairs of questioning gazes meet his. “He helped guide her, yes, but he said later that she’d pretty much figured most of it out on her own. Though she did have some very special help.”

Before either of them can quiz him on the subject, the door opens a crack and Wanblee Wapka peers through. “Kirsten, if you could join us, please?” At her startled and fearful expression, he smiles warmly. “Everything is fine. I promise you.”

With a shuddering breath, Kirsten rises from the couch, hands her mug to Maggie, and all but runs to the bedroom, slipping inside and waiting for Wanblee Wapka to close the door behind her. After a moment, she gathers her courage and looks over at the bed.

There, beneath a heap of blankets, lies Dakota. Though still very pale, thankfully some semblance of color has returned to her face, and she appears to have sunken into a very deep, very peaceful sleep. Having spent so much time imagining various horrible scenarios, Kirsten feels weak with relief. Wanblee Wapka’s steady presence beside her is the only think keeping her from breaking into tears with the force of it.

The older man, reading her like a book, puts a gentle hand on her shoulder and leads her to the side of the bed. “As you can see, she is doing well and resting comfortably.” He gestures to the large bowl and mug that sit on the bedside table. “She is warm, dry, and decently fed. All she needs now is rest. And you.”

Kirsten turns wide eyes to him, and he smiles. “My daughter loves you very much, Kirsten.”

“I love her, too. With all my heart.”

Wanblee Wapka’s smile broadens. “I can see that. It shines from you.” Dakota moans softly. “See how she seeks you out, even in her healing sleep?” Kirsten reaches out and strokes Dakota’s bangs. “And she calms at your slightest touch. She knows you are with her and it helps her to regain her strength.”

“Is that….normal?”

“Normal, yes. Common? No. In fact, it’s quite rare. The bond that is between you is a very strong, very sacred thing.”

“I’m…starting to learn that, I think.”

He laughs softly. “I know it is difficult, Kirsten. Not only are you from a different culture, but your mind, and your beliefs, are as different from ours as night is from day. And yet, Ina Maka has chosen to gift you both with this sacred union. I will help you both to adjust to it as best I can, if it is something you truly wish.”

“More than anything,” Kirsten replies, knowing her words for fundamental truth. “More than anything.”

“I believe you,” Wanblee Wapka replies, his own truth ringing strong in his tone.

Kirsten’s fingers drift down, stroking the cheek of her beloved. “She’s still so pale, so cold.”

“It is an unfortunate side effect of the Vision Trance. She will improve, with rest and time.”

“What can I do?”

“Nothing more than you are doing now. She knows you are here. Your presence will make all the difference.”

Dakota shivers as a great, bone deep chill wracks her body.

“Is it….” Kirsten blushes. “Is it ok if I get under there with her? Maybe it would help her feel warmer?”

“An excellent suggestion. But remember, she will be like this for some stretch of days. Do not feel obligated to stay with her the entire time. You have needs which must be met as well.”

“Right now,” Kirsten remarks, reaching for the bottom of her tank top, “this is what I need.”

With a final, proud smile, Wanblee Wapka inclines his head, then turns and leaves the two of them alone, closing the door softly behind him and plunging the room into twilight.

Kirsten strips down to her undergarments and slides beneath the covers. “It’s okay, my love,” she murmurs as she stretches out full on her back and guides Dakota to her, resting her lover’s sleek head on her shoulder and smiling when one long, strong arm immediately wraps itself around her waist. “That’s right. I’m here. You rest now. I’m here.”

A moment later, she closes her eyes and, like her partner, falls deeply asleep.

********

Tacoma half-rises to his feet as his father re-enters the room. “Ate? How is she?”

“Resting easily. Kirsten will stay with her.” He half turns toward the hall that leads to the kitchen. “Is that coffee I smell?”

“I’ll get you some, Leksi.” Before Wanblee Wapka has a chance to protest, Manny is on his feet and headed toward the back of the house. A smile crosses his father’s face, and Tacoma feels an answering pull at his own mouth. “You must be getting grey, Ate. Would you like a warm blanket for your knees? A cane?”

At that Wanblee Wapka laughs outright. “Not yet, boy. Not yet.” He folds down easily to sit on the chest that serves as a sofa table. In a curious reverse of his movements, Asi rises joint by joint from his place on the hearth, yawns hugely and comes around to lie at Wanblee Wapka’s feet. “Hey, fella,” he says, ruffling the big dog’s fur. Then, returning his attention to Tacoma, “I mean to see my youngest’s youngest before I begin to slow down. You’ll have some grey hairs of you own by the time we get there.”

The words are casually spoken, but Tacoma feels an undercurrent of wakan in them, truth rooted in power. Still he notes the weariness that shows in the creases about his father’s eyes, the cold prickles that rise along the skin of his forearm rested casually across his knee. He glances up to meet Maggie’s eyes, dark with concern and a depth of knowledge that he has seldom seen in anyone not of his own people. “Hey!” he shouts toward the kitchen. “Room service! Move your backside, bro! ”

A clatter in the kitchen announces Manny’s reappearance with a mug of steaming coffee in one hand, a bowl of soup in the other. The rich aroma of chicken broth and sage rises from it. “Here you go, Leksi.”

“Pilamayaye, Tonskaya,” Wanblee Wapka says and applies himself to the food. When the bowl is empty, the last drops soaked up with a piece of frybread, he says, “Maggie, I think you have a few questions.”

“More like a few dozen,” she answers wryly. “But let’s start with the big one. What did Koda say? Can you tell me if it’s not personal? I thought I heard something that sounded like your name.”

Wanblee Wapka nods. “You did, but it wasn’t a name.” He pauses a moment. “I can tell you her words. She said, ‘Red. Red earth. Red rivers. Red all over.’ And she said, ‘Death. Death everywhere.'”

Maggie sits back against the back of the sofa with a visible shiver, her arms crossed over her body like a woman caught in an icy wind. “That’s cheerful,” she says. “Is it a prophecy?”

Tacoma feels the chill course through his own blood, rushing like a stream at spring thaw. He knows the answer to Maggie’s question, knows that his father knows. He cannot explain his certainty, but he is no less certain for that. Wanblee Wapka, though, says carefully, “Until she wakes and speaks to us, we can’t say for sure. We don’t know where she was, or when she was. She could be describing what has happened back east, in Europe, in Asia. She could have been seeing the past in this very place.”

“But?” says Maggie, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, her hands clasped loosely before her , looking Wanblee Wapka directly in the eye.

After a moment, he says, “But yes, I think it was prophecy. I think she was talking about something yet to come.”

“Tomorrow?” she presses. “A year from now?”

A lift of his shoulders answers her. Wanblee Wapka says, “Time runs strangely along the spirit road. One does not always see things in the order they assume in our world. Duration is problematical, at best. We were in the Inipi ceremony for less than an hour. Yet Dakota may have spent half a year, or half a lifetime, on the other side, as time is measured there.”

For a moment, Maggie turns her head to stare out the window. Tacoma follows her gaze to the big oak tree that will shade the house in summer, where a squirrel sits placidly eating one of last season’s acorns, turning it over and over in dainty paws. The plain white curtains stir with the breeze, bringing the scent of new grass. Finally she says, “Can you tell us what you think it means?”

“What does red suggest to you?” Wanblee Wapka asks quietly.

“The obvious?”

“Nothing wrong with being obvious. The whole context—” A wave of his hand encompasses the Base, the lands beyond, the continent stretching away to the circle of the horizon. “—is obvious.”

“Blood, then. Blood everywhere. Death everywhere. More fighting, more killing, more human casualties.”

“We always knew we weren’t done at the Cheyenne,” Manny says, his voice flat. “The droids won’t leave us alone. They can’t.”

“If there were ever any doubt, the ‘suicide bomber’ that attacked the convoy bringing back the wind turbines put paid to it,” Maggie says dryly. “We’re a rallying point for the population. We’ve got the guns. And we’ve got the President, who also happens to be the one person with the technical knowledge to put the whole fucking lot of them out of business. From the moment she comes out of that room, I don’t want Kirsten to set foot out of the house without a guard on her. She’s got a goddam bullseye painted on her forehead.”

“Want a volunteer?” Manny raises his hand. “If you do, you got one.”

Maggie nods. “Get Andrews. Find two more to spell you, and bring me their names for approval. Twelve hours on, twelve off. We still have some wireless field sets with working batteries. Check out one apiece. And pick out an armored transport. I don’t want Kirsten going off Base any other way from now on. Get it together by suppertime.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Manny snaps her a salute, grinning. “I always did want to be a Secret Service agent if I couldn’t fly.”

Tacoma stares down at his hands. He cannot volunteer and knows he will be turned down if he does. His skills are needed elsewhere. Wanblee Wapka says quietly, confirming his thought, “Manuel will do what needs doing, chinkshi. You’re too valuable as an engineer and ground field commander.”

“You should have officer rank,” Maggie adds. “I’m going to ask Kirsten to brevet you Captain.” Tacoma looks up, startled, but she waves away his protest before he can make it. “I know it doesn’t matter to you. And it doesn’t matter to the men and women who have fought with you and know you. It will matter to others, eventually, particularly to any other military who may link up with us. You’re getting promoted, soldier. Deal with it.”

There is nothing else for it. “Yes ma’am,” he says. “Thank you.”

A wry grin cants across her face. “Thank me when you have the headaches that go with the job and there’s no more aspirin.”

“There’ll still be willow bark,” Wanblee Wapka says, smiling. “The old ways have gotten our people through a few thousand years or so. Others can learn to use them, too.”

“That could be what Koda saw, too, couldn’t it?” Tacoma meets his father’s gaze steadily. “Red all over. Red people, red ways. The buffalo will come back, and the people with them, just as White Buffalo Woman said.”

“And Wovoka, and others since.” Wanblee Wapka leans down to ruffle Asi’s fur again. “We don’t know yet how much we have lost, or how much we can recover. We don’t know yet how much we want to recover. But you’re right. We—Lakota, Americans, all people–have an opportunity to choose our paths in a way that has not been open to us for centuries. That will be part of Kirsten’s challenge.”

“And Dakota’s,” Tacoma adds.

“And your sister’s. Very much so.” His father levers himself up to his full height, giving Asi’s collar a tug so that Asi comes to his feet, too, tongue lolling in a hopeful grin. “I’m going to walk this guy here, then I’ll be back to stay with them for as long as needed.”

Asi praces to the door, quivering from ears to tail. When it opens he is out like a shot, Wanblee Wapka following more sedately. Maggie looks from Tacoma to Manny and back. “And you two are still sitting on your butts because . . . ?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tacoma says, smiling and getting to his own feet. “We’re on it.”

*******

When Kirsten awakens, her body is in a full state of arousal. At first, her eyes still closed, she passes it off as the remnants of a wonderful, if unfortunately unremembered, dream. The hand laying hot on her naked belly, however, convinces her of an entirely different reality. Her eyes flutter open, and she moans softly, her body arching as that hand makes a slow, deliberate circle over her belly before reaching up and brushing tender fingers over her already hard nipples.

Before she can say a word, her lips and mouth are taken in a kiss that is hot, and deep, and wet. Dakota’s taste and scent floods her senses, and she latches on to strong shoulders with both hands, taking what is offered and giving back her own, spiraling desire.

When the kiss is finally broken, Kirsten looks up into eyes fully dilated and black with need. Only a small sliver of brilliant blue surrounds each pupil, like a corona around a total eclipse.

“Lila waya waste mitawa,” Koda purrs, her voice rough with sleep and yearning. “My beautiful woman.” Sliding her fingers down the silken bra, she cups Kirsten’s breast, feeling the strong heart beat quickly, forcefully against her flesh. “Like a drum,” she whispers. “Calling me to worship.”

Heeding the summons, she lowers her head, brushing her cheek against the smooth fabric covering Kirsten’s firm breast before using the tip of her tongue to inscribe wet circles around the straining nipple. A long breath of warm air almost sends Kirsten through the roof, and her cry is loud as warm lips engulf her breast, working it through the silky material of her bra. Dakota’s free hand glides slowly down Kirsten’s side, past her hip to her knee, then reverses its course, cupping her mound briefly before meandering over to the neglected breast and fondling it gently with her palm and fingers.

Kirsten squirms beneath her, hands now clenched in the bedsheets, her head turned to the side, chest heaving as she draws in deep breaths of much needed air. A gentle nip gets her attention; a harder one earns a groan, long and languorous as her hips twitch in response.

Smiling, Dakota pulls away, then leans in for another deep, probing kiss as her hands trail down to work the fabric of Kirsten’s briefs. The smaller woman lifts, and the garment comes free and is tossed to the side of the room, immediately forgotten. “So beautiful,” Koda murmurs, tracing her fingers the middle line of Kirsten’s belly to stroke through the thick, damp hair framing her sex. Long fingers dip lower, swirling through the abundant moisture as Kirsten gasps and moans in pleasure of her lover’s touch.

“So good, tehila, so good.” Stroking softly, she shifts her body until she is off the bed and kneeling on the floor. Grasping Kirsten’s hips, she pulls her young lover forward, hot breath playing over the weeping jewel so beautifully exposed to her. She lifts her gaze up to find brilliant emeralds staring down at her, and she smiles. “Watch me, canteskuye. Watch me love you.”

Lowering her head, she drinks of her lover’s desire, its taste finer by far than any nectar. Her strokes are long, and firm, and swirling, leaving no bit of the slick, swollen flesh unloved.

Straining to keep her eyes open against the waves of ecstasy rising and breaking against her body, Kirsten releases her grip on the sheets and lowers an unsteady hand to the glossy, shining mass of her lover’s hair.

Removing her mouth for just a moment, Koda slides one finger deep within her lover’s center, then removes it slowly, savoring the velvet tightness that grips her so lovingly. Then she returns to her task as her glistening finger trails down until it is pressed familiarly against the small, puckered entrance to the rear. Kirsten lifts her head at the sensation, her eyes showing a little fear. “Koda? What–?”

She collapses hard against the pillows as Koda’s tongue redoubles its swirling strokes and her finger begins a firm massage designed to relax and pleasure.

“Jesus!” Kirsten pants. “That’s—incredible!” she breathes out as Koda enters her to the top knuckle, stimulating nerve endings she never knew she had before.

Koda laughs softly in her chest as she gently eases her finger forward until it is fully sheathed. Then, with a motion that matches her tongue, she swirls and thrusts, ever so gently, reading her lover’s body like a book as Kirsten’s muscles tense and relax, tense and relax, and her breath becomes short, almost agonized pants.

She curls her finger within as she bites down gently on the flesh in her mouth concentrating solely on the swollen head, bathing it with staccato touches of her tongue.

Kirsten explodes with a force that takes her breath away. Her muscles seize in an incredible spasm and she can do nothing but ride out the waves of utter passion that carry her along into the unknown.

When she is at last borne upon the land, Koda is there, holding her gently in her mouth, warming her, grounding her, bringing her home.

And then, another thrust, and she feels herself, impossibly, driven forward again on the wings of an excitement she’s never even dreamed.

“No!” she cries out when she feels her lover leave her. Her eyes open to find Dakota standing, naked, smiling down at her.

“Spread your legs a little more, canteskuye, a little more. Yes, perfect.”

As Kirsten watches, Dakota uses her clean hand to spread her own lips, then leans forward, sealing them both together in the most wonderful of ways. Their slick, slippery, swollen flesh rubs together, setting off sparks throughout Kirsten’s body and she cries out, once again, at the sensations.

“A long, slow ride to bring us home, cante mitawa.” Koda purrs as she plants her fists on the bed and begins to thrust against her lover, circling her hips in a maddening, captivating way. Kirsten licks her lips as she sees Koda’s breasts sway above her, their nipples proudly swollen a deep red. She reaches up to stroke them as Koda continues her long, slow thrusting, grunting softly with the effort of each stroke.

“Harder,” Koda gasps as Kirsten pulls and tugs. “Yes, harder, like that, oh yes….”

Dakota increases her rhythm, leaning closer over her lover, her long fragrant hair forming a curtain over them both. She feels her climax rushing toward her. “Han!” she shouts, tilting her head back, displaying her neck as she continues to thrust into Kirsten’s willing, open body, sweat pouring down her face and neck. “Han!” she shouts again, and begins to shudder as her orgasm overtakes her with great bursts of light and pleasure.

A moment later, she collapses down over the body of her lover. Her fingers move quickly, thrusting themselves into Kirsten’s welcoming body, and grunts with each thrust into the slick, velvet glove. “I love you, canteskue,” she pants out between grunts. “I love you. Gods, how I love you.”

It takes no more than that for Kirsten to burst free from her body once again, her spirit enfolded in brilliant colors that lift her so high and hold her there for a seeming, blissful eternity before easing her gently back down into the embrace of the woman she loves.

She comes back to herself to find her face and eyes and hair peppered with kisses, and it is all she can do just to collapse, completely spent, into Dakota’s strong and loving arms. She manages to lift her shining face to her lover. The kiss they share is warm, and soft, and loving.

Then both fall down into slumber, still pressed tightly against one another as the sweat from their bodies slowly cools.

*******

When Kirsten next awakens, it is the morning of the third day after the events of the sweat. She finds herself cocooned beneath Koda’s dead weight just as another soft knock comes to the door. “Just a minute!” she calls, her voice sounding as harsh as a frog’s dying croak. “Koda. Sweetheart, could you–? Unh. Okay, that’s not gonna work.” Her deeply sleeping lover is as boneless as a ragdoll, and it takes all of her strength just to free one leg. With some leverage, she is able to roll Koda to her back, where she stays, head lolled to one side. In the dawning light of the new day, Kirsten carefully looks her lover over. Most of the deep color has returned to her face, but dark circles continue to take up residence beneath her eyes. Despite the heat of the room, her flesh still retains a disturbing chill, and as Kirsten rises from the bed, she carefully tucks the scattered quilts around Dakota’s still form.

The knock sounds again.

“I’m coming!” She finds herself blushing deeply at the words. “That’s what I’ve spent the past two days doing,” she murmurs under her breath, then blushes again. Her body is sore, but it is the pleasant soreness of one well and wonderfully loved. “Jesus,” she whispers, shivering as the memories pass in a merry parade through her consciousness. “Alright, Kirsten, deep breath in, deep breath out, good. Now….” She raises her voice. “Who is it?”

“It’s Tacoma. Lieutenant Jimenez, one of your techs, is here to see you. He has something from that suicide bomber android he needs to show you.”

“Ok,” she says, her eyes darting around for clothes, or a robe to cover herself with, and coming up empty. “I’ll be right out. I have to—.”

“Take your time. We’ll be in the living-room when you’re ready.”

“Thanks.” Lifting an arm, she takes a quick sniff, then winces and coughs. “Shower. Now.”

The master suite contains a tiny half bath with enough room for a toilet, sink, and a stall shower. The spray is bitter cold as she turns on the tap, and, gritting her teeth, she steps inside. “I gain more respect for you military types every day,” she mutters, shivering as she grabs the soap and begins quickly working up a lather. Longing for the days when a steamy hot shower was both luxury and necessity, she completes her washing in record time and gratefully turns off the tap.

A thankfully non regulation towel is her reward and she dries off quickly, then wraps it around herself as she stalks back into the bedroom. “Damn,” she murmurs, looking down at the scattered pile of clothes she’d worn three days before, wrinkled beyond salvaging. “Now what? I’m certainly not gonna entertain guests in a towel.”

Shrugging, she steps over to the battered dresser where she’d seen Koda draw forth clothes. Opening a drawer, she rummages through until she comes up with a plain black t-shirt—overlarge, which is good since her bra has been reduced to two matching strips of useless cloth—and a pair of cargo shorts that, once she pulls them on, resemble Capri pants given the difference in height between herself and her lover. “Ah well. They’ll just have to learn to deal with it.”

Running Dakota’s brush through her hair, she deems herself as presentable as she’s going to get, and makes a final check on Koda, who is sleeping peacefully, burrowed beneath the layers of blankets covering her. “I’ll be back soon, sweetheart,” she whispers, gently touching Dakota’s cheek before turning and leaving the room.

******

Jimenez and Tacoma come to their feet as Kirsten steps from the bedroom. She waves them back down, not one to stand on protocol in her own home—and truly, for the first time, that’s what she thinks of this place. She gives each as much of a smile as she can muster, then comes around to the couch and gingerly perches on one arm, hoping neither can see the slight wince she gives as she does so.

“So, what do you have for me, Lieutenant?”

Jimenez lifts his briefcase and props it on the table, sliding the latches and exposing the interior. Picking up a small, labeled plastic baggie, he hands it to Kirsten, who swipes her glasses from the endtable and slips them on. A pair of tweezers follows, and Kirsten accepts them with a nod and opens the baggie, drawing out a tiny object no bigger than the half moon of a fingernail. She turns the blackened object this way and that, a smile blooming over her features. “Oh, this is good. This is very good.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Jimenez says, beaming with pleasure.

“Was this separate from the other pieces or did you extract it?”

He lifts another baggie from the case and hands it to her. “We took it out of this, Ma’am.”

The metallic square he hands her is half the size of a pack of cigarettes and weighs less than two ounces, by her reckoning. Kirsten feels her heart race at the discovery. Though blackened, melted, and quite damaged, the piece she holds is the nerve center of the android; something no one save Westerhaus and his flunkies has ever seen. “You may just have made the second biggest mistake of your life, Pete,” she murmurs, grinning a shark’s grin. Then she looks up at Jimenez. “Any other nice surprises for me, Lieutenant?”

“Back at the lab, Ma’am,” he says, chest so puffed with pride that Tacoma spares a brief second to wonder if he’ll soon burst, leaving Air Force blue bits of himself scattered about the house. He stifles a chuckle in deference to the man’s obvious sincerity, though his eyes share a wicked grin with Kirsten, who’s successfully hiding her own mirth. “Will you…uh…will you be returning with me, Ma’am? To the lab, I mean. Corvallis and I really could use your expertise. Ma’am.”

“I’d like to, Lieutenant,” Kirsten remarks, carefully slipping the square back into the baggie and zipping it closed, “and I will, but right now, I have to….”

“…get yourself to the lab with this young gentleman,” Wanblee Wapka states, stepping through the door. Asi, who he’s been trying to entertain, pushes past him and, yodeling with joy at finally seeing his Mistress, all but leaps into Kirsten’s arms as he covers her face with wet, sloppy dog kisses. “Dakota should be awakening soon. I’ll keep an eye on her while you tend to your own needs.”

“But–.”

“Go. Please. She will be fine, and it will do you good to get out for awhile.”

Kirsten still looks unconvinced. Oh, she believes that Wanblee Wapka speaks the truth; he knows about these things much better than she does, after all. But there is a churning, gnawing feeling inside of her which makes her wonder if, rather than Dakota being okay without her, she will be okay without Dakota.

“Go,” Wanblee Wapka repeats, smiling. “You don’t have to stay long.”

Finally, reluctantly, she nods and, with a final pat to her lovelorn canine, slowly rises and follows the young Lieutenant from the house.

When she leaves, Tacoma also rises from his place on the couch. “If it’s alright with you, Ate, I think I’ll head back to the power plant. Bernstein and Jove are just about to do the first test with the windfans we’ve installed. I’d like to be there if anything goes wrong.”

Wanblee Wapka nods.

“She will be alright, right?” Tacoma asks, eyeing his father closely.

“She’ll be fine, chinkshi. But you know that already. You’ve always been closer than cekpapi.”

“I do know,” Tacoma admits. “But it’s always nice to have it confirmed.” He smiles. “Thanks, Ate. I’ll be back soon.”

“Be off with you then,” he orders, lowering his long frame onto the couch and patting his lap. Asi obligingly puts his head in the indicated spot, and begins to groan as his ears are firmly scratched.
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
Dakota battles up from the deep levels of her sleep; her body burning, aching, bone deep. She reaches for her partner, only to come up empty-handed. Her eyes flutter open, dark with arousal. “Kirsten? Canteskue?”

Only silence answers her call, and she scrambles up to a sitting position, flinging the heavy covers off of her burning flesh, then groans as her head all but explodes from the abrupt change in position. Her hands fly up to cradle her skull. The mother of all headaches seems to have taken up residence in her brain and she grits her teeth against the urge to cry out in pain. “Gods,” she grits out, trapped between the splitting fire in her head and the throbbing need in her body. “What’s happening to me?”

Slamming her eyes shut, she takes in several deep, slightly labored, breaths, trying to restore some semblance of control. The deep breaths are a mistake. Kirsten’s essence, the commingled essence of their passion, lies heavy in the room, causing her whole body to clench with unmet desire. She bolts to her feet and walks on unsteady legs to the one small window. Throwing it open, she breathes deep of the springtime air. Her headache pounds, sending sharp spikes of pain down her neck, behind her eyes, and even through her teeth. She groans and clamps hard fingers to her skull once again. “Thunkashila, help me,” she prays, her words slipping into the breeze that cools the sweat on her skin. “Please.”

Slowly, gradually, with the speed of forever, a small measure of calm steals over her, allowing her to straighten somewhat, which helps lift the strain from her overstressed muscles and bones. “Thank you,” she whispers, taking in a final deep breath before turning away from the window and heading for the small bathroom to take care of other, readily apparent, needs.

The shower beckons, and she turns on the tap and quickly enters. What little calm she’s managed to attain is immediately driven from her by the first blast of icy water on her skin. Her headache trebles in strength, driving her to her knees with its force. All of the muscles in her body simultaneously cramp, and an agonized cry sprouts forth, fully bloomed, from between tightly clenched jaws.

Within seconds, the icy spray ceases its unremitting, torturous dance on her skin, and she finds herself wrapped in the strong arms of someone she knows well. Her father’s scent, warm and comforting, fills her senses, allowing her some small measure of peace, though her body is wracked with violent tremors and her head is an agony almost too much to be borne. “Ate,” she moans, feeling much like a frightened child, “what’s happening to me?”

“Shhhh,” Wanblee Wapka croons in her ear, helping her through the wracking shudders which knot her muscles until they are like rocks beneath his hands. “Shhh, chunkshi. I’m here. I’m here. Shhh.”

A steaming mug is brought to her lips. “Here. Drink this. It will help.”

Inhaling the fragrant steam, she takes a tentative sip, then a larger one as the well remembered and much loved taste of honey soothes her palate and warms her from the inside. Her muscles begin to relax and she leans gratefully into her father’s quiet strength, taking her first full breath in what seems like hours. “Thank you.”

Smiling, he draws the mug away. “If you can hold this for a moment, I’ll get a towel.”

Raising shaking hands, she grasps the mug and holds it like a lifeline. Wanblee Wapka gradually releases his grip and, when he is satisfied that she can hold herself up without assistance, grabs a large towel from its place on the bar and returns, wrapping her in it and holding her close. “Better?” he asks, watching her take another, deeper drink from the mug.

“You don’t know how much,” Dakota replies as her eyelids begin to droop. “What did you–?”

“Just something to relax you, chunkshi. Is the headache easing?”

“A little, yes.”

“Good. Do you think you can stand?”

“With some help, I think. Whatever herbs you used….” She yawns hugely. “…they’re knocking me for a loop.” She turns her head and blinks at him. “How did you know?”

“I am your father,” he replies simply, giving her all the answer she needs.

With Wanblee Wapka’s help, Dakota slowly rises to her feet and allows him to lead her back to the bedroom. As he makes for the bed, Koda shakes her head and stops. “Couch,” she says. “Better.”

He looks at her for a moment, then nods. “I’ll get your robe.”

After trading towel for robe, Koda manages to make it to the living room under her own power and, thanking the gods that there is no one but her father to bear witness to her weakness, she collapses onto the couch in a less than dignified sprawl. Her father’s herbs have eased the vice in her head and loosened the cramping tension in her muscles, but nothing, it seems, can ease the burning in her blood. This state of hyper-arousal is, in its own way, more painful than the headache at its worst, and she shifts on the couch, eyes darting wildly around, seeking out her lover in the deep shadows of the house.

“She will return to you soon,” Wanblee Wapka remarks, entering from the kitchen carrying a bowl of steaming, thickened soup. He hands it to his daughter, returning her glittering stare with one of his own. “Yes, I sent her away for a short time. I knew you were ready to awaken, and needed time to speak with you.” Smiling slightly, he gestures toward the bowl. “Eat. It will help replenish your strength.”

“I–.”

“Eat.”

It is a tone she well remembers, and instinctively heeding it, she begins to do as ordered. After a couple of spoonfuls, however, she pauses, the soup sitting heavy in her belly. “Ate, I….”

With a small sigh, Wanblee Wapka lowers himself to the chest facing his daughter. He puts a hand on her wrist, squeezing it lightly. “Chunkshi, this need that you’re feeling…it is a normal thing.”

“Normal!?” she blurts out, wide eyed.

“Yes. It is an aftereffect of your spirit walk.”

“Never,” Koda half-whispers, bringing her free hand to her brow, “never, not even with Tali.”

“Tali was your beloved. But she was not the match to your spirit, Dakota. Kirsten is. She is mashke naghi. You feel the bond between you. You know I speak the truth.” He smiles a bit to soften his words. “This is something I have experience with, chunkshi. After all, why do you think you have so many brothers and sisters?”

Pulling the mug of cooling tea away from her mouth, Koda sputters and chokes and turns tearing eyes to her father. “Too much information, Ate!” she gasps. “Too much!”

Wanblee Wapka’s laugh is deep and melodious as he leans over and gently pats his beloved daughter on the back to ease her choking spell. “Too much, perhaps, but you need to know that I am speaking from experience. You are not alone in these feelings.”

The choking spell finally passes and she leans, gratefully, against her father’s hand, her expression somber. “How—how long will this…this ache last, Ate? I know that I can’t live this way, and Kirsten….” Her eyes widen as a new worry takes up residence in her churning mind.

“Be at peace in your heart, chunkshi. This need for your tehila will never pass, but the strength of it will dim over time.”

“How much time?”

“Two or three more days, perhaps. It is different for everyone.”

“What about Kirsten?”

“What about her? She is a very strong woman.”

Dakota doesn’t miss the strong note of approval in her father’s voice, and it warms her somewhat. “Yes, but how will she feel…tied to me in this manner? Mother understands, she is Lakota. But Kirsten….” She shakes her head. “Gods, Ate! What if she says ‘no’ and I can’t…I can’t….”

“She’ll never say no.”

Head snapping up, Dakota stares wildly into the shadows as the speaker of those words enters slowly, like a shining spirit making its way into the light. Kirsten is glowing, radiant, shining with an inner light that completely captivates her avid watcher. The hunger which has abated somewhat comes back full force and Dakota feels her entire body pulse with renewed, overwhelming desire. An almost soundless groan sounds from between suddenly parted lips as Wanblee Wapka looks on, smiling to himself.

He silently lifts his body from the chest and summons Asi, who is doing everything short of standing on his head and singing “Yellow Rose of Texas” in order to get his oblivious Mistress’ attention. With a very human sigh, the jilted dog trots over to Wanblee Wapka and allows himself to be led out into the fresh air.

“Never,” Kirsten repeats, voice low and purring, as she continues her slow, deliberate advance. Reaching the arm of the couch, she bends at the waist and covers Dakota’s lips in an incendiary kiss that has her lover seeing an entire universe of stars.

She finally pulls away, running the tip of her finger over Koda’s passion swollen lips. “Come, my love. Let me ease your ache.”

Unable to feel anything beyond the jolts of fire sparking along her nerve endings, Dakota allows herself to be urged up from the couch and let into the bedroom. When the door is closed behind them and Kirsten gathers her into her arms, the inferno roars to blazing life, and she gives into it willingly.

******

Two hours later, the lovers are lightly dozing, their bodies still pressed together, legs comfortably tangled. Kirsten is partway on top of Dakota, her head tucked into her lover’s neck. “Koda?” she murmurs sleepily, lips brushing against sweat-salty skin.

“Mm?”

“I was wondering….”

Koda tips her neck to the side, silently encouraging further exploration. “’bout what?”

Kirsten gives the skin against her lips a light nip, then pulls away slightly. “Those words you use when we make love….”

“Yes?” Koda purrs, pulling Kirsten even closer as she runs one bare foot along the smooth slope of Kirsten’s calf.

“I guess—I mean, I understand them in context, I think….”

“Oh, you do.”

“Thanks,” she replies, blushing slightly. “But…well…do you think you could teach me what they really mean? I mean, I’d…like to learn.”

“Ya would, hmm?”

“Yes. I would.”

“Alright, then.” Moving her legs just slightly, Dakota twists her body, and Kirsten suddenly finds herself flat on her back with six feet of amorous Lakota poised over her, a wicked glint in her eyes. “Consider this your first lesson.”

“Now?” Kirsten squeaks.

“No time like the present.” Giving Kirsten a quick peck on the lips, Koda settles herself more comfortably, then reaches up and glides a hand through Kirsten’s golden hair, watching as the soft, thick mass slips through her fingers like water. “Pehin.” She tugs the locks gently to establish her point.

“Pehin,” Kirsten repeats dutifully. “Hair.”

“Got it in one,” Koda replies, leaning down and giving her a deeper, lingering kiss. “You’re a good student,” she remarks when she comes up for air.

“With incentive like that, how could I be anything else?”

Laughing, Dakota hugs her close and slips a hand into her hair once again, splaying her fingers over the curve of Kirsten’s skull. “Nata.”

Kirsten’s brow wrinkles as her straight, white teeth bite down on her lower lip. “Nata. Skull?”

“Close.”

She thinks a moment more, though those thoughts are distracted by Koda’s short nails lazily scratching beneath the fall of her hair. “Head?” she guesses.

“Perfect.” Another kiss.

“Oooh, I like this kind of reward,” Kirsten chuckles when her lover releases her lips. “Sure beats the gold stars Mrs. Price used to give out in first grade!”

Dakota grins, and draws her hand away. Long fingers gently trail over Kirsten’s brow, her cheeks, her chin. “Ite.” She repeats the gentle stroking. “Ite. Ite hopa.”

“Face,” Kirsten finally replies, then blushes. “Beautiful face.”

“Very beautiful,” Koda murmurs, leaning down for another kiss. Tilting her head slightly, she brushes her lips against Kirsten’s nose. “Pasu.” Tilting further, she brushes a kiss against the lids of her lover’s eyes. “Ista.”

“Nose…and eyes,” Kirsten hums, squirming a little as her body begins to warm.

“Nuge,” Koda breathes into the delicate shell of one ear as her tongue teases its flesh, earning her a moan and a shiver from her responsive lover.

“E—ear.”

“Mmm.”

“Dakota—I—sweet Jesus!” Her ears are extremely sensitive parts of her body, and what Dakota is doing to them is driving her off the deep end in a hurry.

“Pute,” Koda husks softly, running a thumb tenderly across Kirsten’s lips as she continues to work magic on her lover’s ear. She groans as those lips part and suck her thumb inside a hot, wet mouth. Kirsten’s tongue moves to suckle, and Koda moans out, “Wichaceji.”

That moan is nearly her undoing. Reaching up, Kirsten pulls Koda’s hand from her mouth and boldly slides it down her own body. “Sweetheart, I think this lesson’s gonna have to wait.”

“Oh yes,” Dakota purrs as her fingers are bathed in Kirsten’s passion. Suckling her lover’s earlobe, she enters Kirsten’s heat with one smooth, deep stroke. “I think you’re right.”

******

Night has drawn its curtain over the sun, leaving a billion billion stars in its wake. Inside the quiet house, Dakota is seated on the couch, long legs tucked beneath her and covered with a quilt in deference to her still malfunctioning thermoregulatory system. Her deeply tanned face is gilded gold by the light of the cheerily crackling fire, and in her hands is Spengler, turned to the last few pages.

Kirsten sits in an overstuffed and tattered easy chair positioned at a right angle to the couch. Her laptop is on the chest that serves as a coffee table, and her face is bleached of all its color by the backwash of the brilliant blue-white screen. With her recent bonanza of the android ‘nerve center’, she is running the results against established data, hoping to find a common thread that will allow her to affect a permanent shut off of all android systems wherever they might be. After several hours of searching, she hasn’t made a hit, but her confidence is up, flowing from her like fresh water welling up into a natural hotspring. Asi lies adoringly at her stocking feet, his head resting on his stuffed chew-toy, dreaming whatever dogs dream of on soft spring nights like this one.

As if by common, and silent, consent, dark and fair heads rise and two sets of eyes meet, crinkled at the edges from the loving, almost shy smiles they share. Over the crackle of the cheery fire, the refrigerator hums to life, then cuts off just as quickly with a dying clank and groan. Koda sighs and rests her head back against the couch. “That’s it. The last of our diesel ration for this week.”

“Damn. We’ve still got tons of food in there.”

“I know.” Tossing the quilt from her lap, Dakota unfolds her legs and makes as if to rise when a strange buzzing noise fills the room briefly, followed by the flickering of the overhead fluorescents in the kitchen and two table lamps in the living room. A loud crackle and hum issues forth from the speakers of the forgotten stereo system

Kirsten sits back, startled, and almost topples her chair. “What–?”

Asi scrambles to his feet, barking furiously at nothing.

“Looks like Tacoma got those turbines running after all,” Koda replies grinning. The smile slips from her face as the lights brighten for a second, flicker, and wink out, leaving the faint scent of ozone behind. “Or not.”

Kirsten barks out a short laugh, drawing a hand over her face in embarrassment. “I can’t believe I reacted like that. It was like I’d seen a ghost or something! Damn!”

Koda chuckles. “I’d say that was a pretty natural reaction, considering we haven’t full electricity here in what, a month? Two?”

“It feels like forever. But still….” She shakes her head, then looks up at Dakota, her expression somber. “Do you think this is what it’ll be like in the future?” she asks, somewhat plaintively. “Do you think we’ll go back to believing in magic, to thinking that lightening is the gods’ way of showing displeasure? Will technology become something to be feared instead of welcomed and used?” The implication of her questions cause a prickle of unease to dance down her spine, raising the hairs on her arms. “God. How morbid.”

“It’s not morbid,” Koda counters, rising from the couch and coming to Kirsten’s side. Sitting on the wide arm of the chair, she reaches out and strokes her lover’s hair. “I don’t think we’ll ever lose technology completely,” she muses softly. “As a species, we love our creature comforts too much to give them up that easily. We might not get by on coal and other fossil fuels, but we’ve got other inexhaustible supplies of energy, like the wind and the sun, and ways to convert them into what we need to keep our houses lit, our food cold, and our water warm.”

“Some of us, maybe.”

Koda looks sharply at her. “What do you mean?”

“We’re setting up a perfect dichotomy,” Kirsten starts slowly, gathering her thoughts. “The ‘Haves’ versus the ‘Have-Nots’. Here, on the base, or in a larger city, I can see what you’re saying coming to pass. But what about all the people living outside of the cities, outside of the military bases, people who are used to the same creature comforts as the rest of us? Can you imagine Mr. and Mrs. Joe Normal and their 2.3 kids out in the suburbs wrestling a wind fan into place around the ol’ homestead? And even if they could, who would teach them how to hook it up so that Martha could use the washer once a week? Who would fix it when it broke? And what would they pay him or her with?”

“Well–.”

“For every Tacoma” Kirsten continues, now on a roll, “there are a hundred, maybe a thousand people whose only knowledge of technology is that when they push the button, the dragon comes to life. They don’t care how it works, only that it works.” She looks up at her lover, eyes bleak. “So what happens when the ‘have-nots’ gather outside of Grand Rapids in the middle of winter, up to their necks in snow, freezing, covered in furs, and look in on all the folks who are living the life of gods, with central heating and hot water and food that comes with the flick of a switch? How will they feel? What will they resort to, to live that kind of life? Theft? Kidnapping? Murder? Will this new God, Technology, eventually be the name under which all future wars are fought?”

Breaking off, she tilts her head, looking at Dakota who is staring at her with an indecipherable expression on her face. She flushes. “Told you it was morbid.”

“Morbid? No. Something we really need to think about? Definitely.”

Kirsten sighs. “It’s just that….” She shakes her head, then peers pleadingly at her lover. “Dakota, you were born to this land, raised on it. You love it and it loves you. Even a fool like me can see it.”

“Kirsten, you’re no fool….”

“The point is, sweetheart, as much as you might love your creature comforts, you’re more equipped to deal with this kind of thing than ninety nine percent of the people out there. People like me, and like Andrews, and even Maggie. When we lost the electricity that first time, it didn’t even faze you. No, you just built up a fire, got out the blankets and the oil lanterns from god knows where and continued on as if nothing had happened. While the rest of us….”

“You’re adapting….”

“Of course I’m adapting, Dakota! I don’t have any other choice but to adapt! But Dakota, don’t you see? I’m a scientist. More than that, I’m a scientist of technology. This,” her arm sweep indicates the computer and myriad of other electronic gadgets that share space on the wide trunk, “these, are as much a part of who I am as your animals and your visions and your connection to the land are a part of you. Can I adapt? Anything’s possible, I suppose. Do I want to?” She laughs. It’s an empty sound. “I…don’t know.”

“Well then,” Dakota finally replies after what seems a lifetime of silence, “we’ll just have to make sure that the new world we build contains enough for both of us, won’t we.”

This time, Kirsten’s laugh is a little more genuine. “You don’t ask for much, do you.”

“Me?” Koda quips as she slips from the chair, and bends forward, bringing their lips close. “I ask for everything.”

Their kiss is aborted by the sound of men and woman shouting. Somewhere on base, a loud siren begins to wail.

“What is it?” Kirsten asks, scrambling to follow her lover who has straightened and is striding for the door.

“Fire.”

*******

Dakota steps into a scene filled with paradox. Uniformed military men and women march forth in orderly, ordered rows as frightened and yelling civilians dash about in utter chaos, clutching their children and belongings to their chests as if Armageddon has come to visit once again.

Small fires dot the landscape here and there, their flames licking up against the inky blackness of the moonless sky. The air is acrid with smoke and the shouts of frightened people, while the wailing siren holds sway over them all like an omnipotent king on a mountaintop throne.

Shooting a quick glance in the direction of the clinic, Koda is relieved to see that it, for the moment, is out of danger. She can well guess the meaning of these fires; small appliances left on during the first uprising, and forgotten in the subsequent loss of electricity, came once again to life with the return of power, however briefly, to the base. Left unattended, the small, poorly cared for appliances overheated and caught fire.

As she watches, a small base fire truck trundles self-importantly by, its blaring siren poor competition for the base siren which wails on and on and on, causing more fright than it stills. Knots of people stare up at the sky, fearing an invasion from above. Koda grabs a passing airman and yanks him to a stop. “Find that siren and pull its cord. Damn thing’s gonna start a panic that none of you are prepared to deal with right now.”

The arrogant young man thinks to resist. The impulse is a brief one as he recognizes her face in the fire-sparked darkness and stiffens to rigid attention. “Ma’am! Yes, Ma’am!”

“Go. Now.”

He runs off as his cohorts, dressed in fire gear, slip from the now parked truck and drag hoses to the waiting hydrant. Within moments, powerful sprays of water begin to douse the fires and Koda breathes a little easier.

She senses her lover a split-second before she feels the soft weight of a woolen blanket drape over her shoulders. Smiling, she clutches the blanket to her and watches as Kirsten appears to her left, the dwindling flames reflecting off the lenses of the glasses she’s forgotten to remove. “Our little power surprise do this?” she hazards, watching as the airmen beat back the flames of one partially gutted house.

“I’m guessing so,” Koda replies, snuggling further into the blanket as the cool, smoky evening air chills her more than it should. Kirsten looks up at her, concerned, only slightly mollified by the grin and small shrug she receives in return.

Before she can pry further, Tacoma steps up, his face smudged with dirt and soot, his hair hanging in lanky strings. His expression is half-chagrinned, half-pissed.

“Way to make a statement there, goober,” Koda kids him, pressing against the side of his sodden workboot with her bare foot. “Couldn’t you have gone with something a little less…dramatic?”

“Ha. Ha,” he replies, looking her over carefully. “Good to see you’re not looking like death warmed over anymore.” In fact, he muses, she looks much better than he’d even dared hope. She has a sort of…glow…about her that-he shifts his eyes just slightly-Kirsten seems to share. He feels the heat of a blush warm his skin and hopes, prays, that the darkness is enough to hide it from his eagle-eyed sister. The knowing grin she gives him when he dares to look tells him he’s wrong on that score too.

“Anyway,” he drawls after clearing his throat and willing the blush away, “it’s pretty obvious we screwed up. I can’t believe none of us thought about the danger of just flipping those breakers on from outta nowhere like that.” He gives Kirsten a pleading look. “I know you’ve got a lot of stuff on your mind, but I’m gonna have to make my pitch for a Town Hall or something along those lines again. Relying on the bush telegraph like we’ve been doing just isn’t going to cut it anymore. We need more efficient communication or things like this are just gonna keep happening.”

Kirsten nods, embarrassed that she hadn’t the foresight to push Tacoma’s pleas through weeks ago.

“You’ve had other things on your mind,” Koda murmurs, cutting Kirsten’s self deprecation off at the knees. She looks over at her brother. “When you can, get Maggie, Horace, Ate, and whoever else you think might be needed and have them meet at the house tomorrow night, after dinner. We’ll talk about this then, ok?”

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Tacoma grunts his assent.

Koda smiles. “Good.” She looks around at the fires which are slowly, but surely, being tamed. “Could have been worse,” she comments. “Did the equipment sustain a lot of damage?”

“Nah,” Tacoma replies, shrugging. “It tripped off pretty quick. Just a few yards of soldered wires we’ll have to rewrap. Maybe another week and we can try it again.”

“Sounds good.”

“Yeah, well….” He gives his sister and her lover a tired grin. “I’ll let you guys get back to…whatever it was you were doing. See you tomorrow, k?”

“See you then.”

As they watch him trudge tiredly off, Kirsten wraps an arm around Dakota’s lean waist. “Your brother had a good idea,” she murmurs.

Koda turns wide eyes to her. “What, more Spengler and code busting? Joy.”

Kirsten grins. “I was thinking rather more along the lines of earlier this evening.”

“Mm. I could definitely get into that.”

“I’m sure that’s not all you’ll be ‘getting into’,” Kirsten jokes, then trots off, leaving her sputtering lover to catch up as best she can.
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
“So this is somebody’s idea of the presidential limo, is it?

Kirsten eyes the APC pulled into the driveway with disfavor. Andrews sits behind the wheel, his red hair blazing even through the thick glass, even under the shadow of his uniform cap. Manny, similarly decked out in his blues, grins and shrugs. “Hey, we tried for a Rolls, but we couldn’t find any with armor plating. South Dakota isn’t exactly prime mob country, y’know.”

“Obviously you just didn’t look hard enough.” Kirsten keeps her voice flat and stern, her face set in her who-failed-to-clear-the-lab-bench expression. Manny almost buys it; she sees the fleeting alarm cross his face, leaving behind a grin.

“My unworthiness bows before Your Excellency.” He opens the passenger door for her, offering a steadying hand as she scrambles unpresidentially into the back seat. It is not just that these vehicles are not built for dignity. A message from Fenton Harcourt, delivered just before the Inipi ceremony and left unopened until Koda was once again safely in the daylight world, informed her that he expected final arguments this morning. Jury deliberations should begin after the noon break. She is, therefore, attending in her official capacity as the person who will sign the condemned’s death warrants if the jury invokes capital punishment. Also therefore, she is wearing the closest thing the Base can offer to a power suit: a pair of blue uniform trousers half an inch too long and an officer’s jacket stripped of its insignia, complete with mid-heel pumps. The last she had accepted only at Koda’s urging. Unlike the pants, they are almost her size, and will prevent her tripping on her own cuffs. The rest is bearable, mostly, but the shoes have already begun to pinch.

“I’m going to pass a law against these damned things. I swear I am,” she says as she twists around in the confined space and is finally able to sit down.

“What, APC’s?” Manny says as he settles into the front passenger seat with an M-16 across his lap.

“Shoes with heels higher than half an inch. Tell me some man didn’t invent these things.”

For answer, Manny gives a short laugh, then speaks into the wireless microphone clipped to his tie. “Armadillo Two, this is ‘Dillo One. Come in.”

The speaker he wears just behind his ear crackles to life, barely audible to Kirsten in the back. “‘Dillo Two in position. Over.”

“We have the supplies, ‘Dillo Two. Rendezvous as planned.”

“Roger. Out.”

“The supplies,” Kirsten knows, consist of herself. Armadillo Two is a second APC, waiting now at the Base gate, that will run escort for her own vehicle. Maggie’s new security arrangements had been waiting for her along with the Judge’s note when she had emerged from the bedroom to take a look at Jimenez’ findings. She is not yet sure how she feels about them, even though she knows she would have acknowledged the practical necessity had they been set up for anyone else. Still, a neat five-shot automatic nestles in its holster at the small of her back. She is too accustomed to relying only on herself to take easily to trusting others, much less depending on them.

She has begun to make exceptions, of course. The memory of the last few days runs sweet in her blood. Kirsten has never given herself over to anyone as she has to Dakota, and that trust extends beyond her lover to Koda’s family, who have made a place for her within their bond as confidently as she had been born to them. It is not just that they honor Dakota’s choice; it is as herself that she feels welcome.

And that is something entirely new.

The MP on duty at the gate waves their small convoy out with a salute. The countryside streaks past Kirsten’s window in a blur. Fallow fields, still marked by the furrows of the last winter plowing, before the uprising lie green under the clear sky, overtaken by grass and early wildflowers that show as patches of yellow and lavender and rose. Trees, newly leafed out, march along the lines of windbreaks; here and there a hawk circles lazily, and Kirsten wonders if one of them is Wiyo. Once she is almost sure she sees a pair of mule deer drifting behind the screen of saplings that top a rise; another time, Manny points out a humping black shape too large to be anything but a bear. Wolves she fears no more than other dogs, bobcats and pumas no more than other cats. She is not, however, sure how she feels about having a three- or four-hundred pound carnivore with bad eyesight and a worse temper for a neighbor. At least, she reflects, they are too far south and east for grizzlies. So far.

The road into town stretches empty for the first two miles, save for a squad of soldiers in an M-60 equipped humvee whose job it is to keep it that way. Since the near-riot before the gates and the incident of the drunks pot-shotting at the she-wolf, access to the Base has been strictly controlled. Closer to town, they pass a wagon loaded with rolls of hay that tower over the driver and his two mules; close still, a woman on a bicycle pauses at a farm-road intersection to check her tires. In her panier baskets are a dozen small parcels, some in plastic bags, others wrapped in paper. The market square Kirsten has observed the half dozen times she has gone into Grand Rapids has firmly established itself as a thriving commercial and social institution.

As they pass the former Wal-Mart lot, Manny points out his window. “Hey, there’s Leksi.”

Peering, Kirsten locates Wanblee Wapka’s buckskin jacket and long ponytail moving awy from her down one of the aisles. He is pushing a battered Vespa borrowed from the inventory of surplus vehicles belonging to Base personnel lost in the uprising or since; a new pickup might be too much of a temptation to thieves. While Rapid City has settled into an approximation civil order, there is still no real law enforcement, and scavengers from outlying ranches and farms have periodically staged snatch-and-run raids on both townspeople and travelers. It is a problem that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later; Rapid City needs a mayor and a police force of its own. The MP’s do what they can, but their primary duty restricts them to Ellsworth.

At the courthouse, Manny and Andrews escort Kirsten past a small knot of civilians gathered just inside the doors A murmuring precedes her, and follows her as she passes; several of the onlookers smile or wave. A few scowl, one turning ostentatiously away. Kirsten follows Andrews’ gaze as he marks the man, and a shiver runs down her spine. It is not the potential danger that chills her. It is the assumption of danger as the default condition.

Inside, a crowd packs the courtroom from wall to wall. The windows stand open to admit the afternoon breeze, and one or two spectators perch precariously on the narrow sills. Among them are half a dozen women that Kirsten recognizes as released prisoners from the Rapid City Corrections Corporation of America facility, their faces hard and expectant. In a corner, as far away from the others as she can manage, Millie Buxton stands among an anonymous knot of citizens. Only her colorless skin and the deep blue smudges under her eyes mark her off from the rest. The four accused sit ranged behind the defense table, McCallum Kazen and Petrovich hunching forward in conversation with Boudreax. Buxton sits slumped and indifferent, his chair turned so that his back is to the jury box. Boudreaux seems to be breaking off every few sentences, repeating what he is saying to Buxton, who gives no sign of hearing. If he had been thin before, he is gaunt now, cheekbones jutting so sharply from the planes of his face that they seem about to break through his skin. As she moves into the seats reserved for her and her escort, Kirsten catches a glimpse of his eyes. Lightless, sunken, they give no sign of thought behind them, only the stubborn endurance of unbearable pain. For the second time, cold ghosts across Kirsten’s skin. Dead man walking.

On the other side of the gate, Major Alderson sits quietly, his hands folded on a stack of closely written yellow legal pads. His assistant appears to be checking bookmarks, opening volume after volume of the traditional red-and-black embossed legal volumes. Some of her activity, Kirsten is almost sure, is stage effect; there is no precedent in case law for the legal conundrum that faces the men and women in this courtroom. If anything, it will create the pattern of law to come.

The crowd stirs expectantly as she and her escort take the seats reserved for them, again as the door leading to the judge’s chambers opens a crack, closes. After a moment the Bailiff emerges, coming to stand in the well of the court and bellowing, “All rise!” As the assembly gets to its feet with a creak of folding seats and a shuffle of shoe leather, Harcourt enters to take his place behind his high bench, followed by the Clerk and another Bailiff. The jury files in last. The Bailiff gives tongue again, calling the court to order. “Oyez! Oyez! The Court of the Fifth Circuit of the State of South Dakota is now in session, the Honorable Fenton Harcourt presiding. God bless the United States and this honorable Court!”

When silence has settled over the court, Harcourt sits. He says, “Are Counsel prepared to

make their closing statements this morning?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” Alderson answers firmly. With a quick, doubtful glance at Buxton, Boudreaux responds, “Prepared, Sir.”

Harcourt leans back in his chair. “Very well. The prosecution may begin.”

Alderson rises from his seat and comes to stand at the rail of the jury box. He says, measuring his words, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the men who stand accused before you today”—he points to each as he names them—”McCallum, Petrovich, Kazen, Buxton, are charged with a crime that has no precedent in the jurisprudence of the United States. Your verdict will make the law that will determine how cases like theirs are handled for the foreseeable future. That burden, which you did not ask for, is on your shoulders and on your shoulders alone. It is a task I do not envy you.”

He pauses a moment, then continues. “Do not allow yourselves to be daunted by the prospect. You will be doing your fellow citizens a service which will be of benefit to other communities, in this state and in others, as the free people of America begin to reclaim their country from the androids who have wrought so much destruction. It is the destruction that comes with war, with civil war, because it was our own that rose up and attacked us.”

Alderson points a second time. “These men, these four men, are charged with assisting the enemy in an uprising that appears to have destroyed as much as two-thirds of the population of the United States. Presumably the peoples of other nations have suffered as badly as we have. Perhaps they have suffered worse. We are dealing with a holocaust here of a kind that has not been seen since the two World Wars of the last century. It may be that nothing like it has been seen since the Black Death wiped out between a third and a half of the world’s population in the thirteen hundreds.

“These men are accomplices in those deaths.

“Oh, they may not have killed anyone with their own hands. But they bought their lives from the killers. They failed to resist the killers. They co-operated with the killers in a scheme which, to be honest, none of us yet understands. For some reason these killers do not desire to wipe out the entire human race. For some reason they took women—grown women and girls not yet even into their teens—to breed a strain of men for purposes of their own. And these four men, taken captive in the jail where they were already imprisoned for crimes ranging from embezzlement to murder, were the stud bulls in that breeding project.”

Alderson pauses for a long moment. The strain is plain on his face; the honest disgust; the lack of comprehension that niggles at them all when they have tried to explain the uprising. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard the testimony of the women who were these men’s victims. They committed forcible rape upon those women, and they did it willingly. They did it knowingly, and they did it repeatedly and routinely.” Alderson’s fist comes down on the rail of the jury box with each word “They enjoyed it. Not once did any of them attempt to spare his victim out of common humanity. Not once. Not. Even. Once.

“They say they acted under compulsion, or rather the defense says they were forced by fear for themselves. But they did have a choice, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Some crimes are so horrible that common decency demands that a decent man lay down his life before he will allow himself to be entangled in them. These men had the choice to die where they stood rather than aid the enemy. They had the choice to die rather than cooperate in the purpose that led the androids to come perilously close to wiping us out as a people. They had the choice to die rather than violate those women in the most brutal fashion imaginable.

“Ladies and gentlemen, those four men did not make the honorable choice. When you retire to deliberate, I ask that you consider the evidence that has been presented to you and that you find them guilty of the crimes with which they are charged. And when you have done that, I ask that you make the choice they refused, and assess against them the penalty of death. Thank you.”

“Damn straight,’ someone behind Kirsten mutters, and another, “Preach it, brother.” She cannot see their faces without twisting about conspicuously in her seat, but those she can see mirror their grim satisfaction with the prosecution’s summation. Unless the jury is cut from an entirely different cloth than their neighbors, and there is no reason to believe that they are, they are doubtless equally susceptible to Alderson’s unexpected eloquence. From behind her glasses, she sees the same hard determination in the narrowing of Manny’s eyes, the dangerous tightening of Andrews’ mouth in something that is not quite a smile.

Boudreaux stands as Alderson returns to his own seat. Compared to the Major’s, his stance seems less confident, his shoulders rounded in a scholar’s slouch rather than the precise right angles of his opponents. His hands clasped behind his back, he seems almost to wander into the center of the open space bounded by the judges’ bench and the tables, finding himself half-surprised to be facing the jury. He pauses for a moment, looking down at the floor, or his shoes. Then he says, almost softly, “You know, I was very impressed by Major Alderson’s summation just now. He makes a persuasive case for finding the four defendants guilty. Putting them to death, even. A sound case.”

McCallum lets out a yell and comes halfway to his feet before the Bailiff stationed behind him shoves him back down into his chair. Harcourt says quellingly, “Mr. McCallum, you will sit down and be silent, or I will have you removed from this courtroom. I will have order, Sir!”

When silence falls again, Boudreaux smiles faintly. “Even Mr. McCallum makes a good argument against himself.” He pauses again, gazing over the heads of the jury, then lowering his eyes to meet theirs. “But we can say so, ladies and gentlemen, because none of is in his position. Please God, none of us every will be.

“Because none of us can say what we would do when faced with our own deaths until we have been in that situation. Oh, we all want to think that we have the integrity and the strength to resist temptation. We want to think that we’d have the courage to say no. But then, we don’t have to answer that question in just that way, do we?

“But it gets worse even than that for one of the men who stand accused before you. For Harold Buxton, the question was not what he would do to save his own life. The question was what he could do to save his wife and his daughter from rape and possible death.

“And the answer to that question, tragically, was to harm others.”

A small stir erupts in a back corner of the courtroom, and Kirsten turns to see Millie Buxton making her way toward the doors, her face white and frozen with grief. Her husband’s eyes follow her for perhaps half a second, then drop blankly to his hands. A murmuring ripples through the room, instantly squelched by the rap of Harcourt’s gavel. “This is a public proceeding, ladies and gentlemen, but it is not an occasion for public comment. Do not oblige me to clear the court.”

Silence falls, and Boudreaux resumes. “What would you do, to protect your spouse? What would you do, to protect your only child from horror? Faced with a choice between harming someone you loved and someone you did not know at all, which would you mark out for suffering? When you consider the fate of Harald Buxton, ladies and gentlemen, ask yourselves these questions, and let your answers temper your verdict.

“In all four cases, ask yourselves whether we have not had enough of dying. Ask whether, in our present condition, with perhaps as much as seventy-five or eighty percent of our population dead or captive, we can afford to discard one more human life, even the life of a man who has committed abominable acts but who even so has not fallen so far as to murder. A life for a life, ladies and gentlemen, whether that life is taken or spared. Thank you.”

Only the rustle of papers breaks the silence as Boudreaux makes his way back to his seat. At the bench, Harcourt sifts through half a dozen sheets of printout and a pair of legal volumes marked with so many small post-its in so many colors that it looks like the business end of an old-fashioned feather duster. When he has found the passages he wants, he lays the books open before him. “Does the prosecution wish to offer rebuttal, Major Alderson?”

Alderson half rises in his chair. “No, Your Honor.”

“Very well. I will now charge the jury.” Harcourt pushes his glasses up onto the high bridge of his nose and begins to read from one of the heavy embossed volumes. As he details the legal definition of rape, assault, battery and the other lesser included charges, Kirsten allows her attention to wander. She had hated the ceremonial and bureaucratic aspects of her position as a Cabinet officer, the endless meetings, the wrangling, the trading off, the paper-pushing. Her role here is largely ceremonial, too, and she would by far rather be at home working on the android code. Or, better yet, sitting with Dakota before the fire, Asi sprawled at their feet.

But the atmosphere in this courtroom is free of both the cyicism and the zealotry to be found in government. The people who fill the spectators’ seats—the women brutalized by the four defendants; surviving residents of Rapid City, most of them women, too; the ranchers with faces and hands burned raw by the wind rolling unimpeded over the plains off the Arctic ice cap—sit in quiet solemnity, patient with the workings of justice. This community has begun to feel its way toward a framework of order. Perhaps other remnants, elsewhere, are even now faced with finding solutions to the same problem these face; perhaps their solutions are completely different. How would the Shiloh community handle a trial on a capital charge? And how, if she is successful in shutting down the droids, will she manage to draw together a collection of far-flung and disparate townships, villages, communes, no two with the same experiences since the world has changed?

She has never put it to herself in quite those terms before; has never dared. A lump of ice forms in her chest, its cold running down her veins, sheeting along her skin. How will I manage? Gods . . ..

With an almost palpable wrench, she forces her attention back to Harcourt’s charge to the jury. He has finished with the legal definitions and has gone on to outline the panel’s options.

” . . .is perhaps the heaviest part of the burden your fellow citizens have asked you to bear. If you find the defendants guilty, and I cannot impress upon you too clearly that you must make four separate decision, then you must turn your attention to setting the punishment. And here we encounter a difficulty.

“Before the uprising, your choices would have been to sentence a guilty party to death or to a substantial term in a federal prison, given that the federal conspiracy charges would take precedence over the state jail felony of rape. The option of a federal prison is no longer available, nor is either the Ellsworth brig nor the Rapid City jail sufficiently staffed to handle long-term inmates. Imprisonment is not a viable option.

“It is at this point, ladies and gentlemen, that you must, in essence, make the law rather than follow it. We are in the Fifth Circuit of South Dakota, but we are also in the lands traditionally inhabited by the Lakota, the Cheyenne and other indigenous Nations. Under their traditional law, a violent offender is exiled rather than executed so that continuing undesirable, indeed potentially tragic, consequences, and I urge you to approach it with caution. We are in uncharted territory here, and the precedents we set may well become the foundations of future law. Let us take up our responsibilities as the ancient Book of Common Prayer admonishes those about to enter into matrimony: soberly, advisedly and in the fear of God.

“The jury will now retire. Court is in recess until a verdict is reached.”

Kirsten rises to her feet, stretching, bracketed by Manny and Andrews. Wonderful. Siamese triplets. On their way out, she is not surprised to see Blind Harry, his guitar slung over his back, making his way toward the door, his white cane tapping out a path in front of him. She is pleased to see that his cotton shirt still has the creases from its package; he has made himself a comfortable place within the new economy as tale-teller and news-bearer. Whatever happens in the next few hours, he will have a song from it, and an audience.

Andrews says, “We’ve got some sandwiches in the truck. Anybody want to try to find a lemonade stand?”

*******

Two hours and a tour of the market later, the sun casts long shadows along the open space in front of the Judicial Building. . The shade under the trees where Kirsten and her escort have taken possession of a bench begins to grow chill, and only a few stragglers remain on the streets. Of all the strange things she has encountered since setting out on her journey across the continent, this is among the strangest, that the night is no longer human territory. A small crowd, though, still lingers on the courthouse steps, waiting patiently, stubbornly, for the jury’s decision.

“Are they going to sequester them for the night?” Manny asks, glancing at his watch. “It’s past five, and we need to be starting back.”

Andrews shrugs. “Want me to ask?”

As he starts to make his way across the flagstones, the knot of people around the doors stirs, and one of the Bailiffs appears. Kirsten gets to her feet, followed by Manny. The Bailiff, spotting them, stops halfway down the stairs and beckons. “They’re in!”

*******

Filing back into the courtroom, Kirsten feels the silence like a pressure on her skin. The audience has thinned, the seats now less than half filled, the murmur and shuffle as the judge enters and takes the bench now muted. Kirsten’s eyes, like the others’, track the twelve men and women as they file into the jury box. Their faces, set and still, give nothing away, not to the spectators, not to the defendants. Kazen stares at his hands, clasped on the legal pad before him. Petrovich and McCallum seem distracted, eyes flickering down the row of jurors, back again. Only Buxton seems entirely unaffected, lost somewhere in his own mind, indifferent to this moment as he has been to the trial from the beginning.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Harcourt asks, “have you reached a verdict?”

The foreman, a tall Cheyenne with grey braids, answers, “We have Your Honor.”

“If you will hand it to the Bailiff, please, Sir.”

The Bailiff receives the folded papers from him and carries it to the Judge. Harcourt unfolds and reads it in unbroken silence. Finally he says, “The defendants will rise.”

When they have done so, he says, reading from the documents in front of him, “Eric McCallum. On the first charge, of forcible rape, as defined by and pursuant to the criminal code of the State of South Dakota, the jury has determined the following verdict: guilty. On the second charge, of conspiracy, the jury has determined the following verdict: guilty. On the third charge, of murder as defined by the law of parties, the jury has determined the following verdict: guilty. In consideration of the gravity of your crimes, the jury has assessed against you the penalty of death.”

For Petrovich and Kazen, the findings are identical. As the verdicts are read, an MP moves to stand behind each man, handcuffs ready. The Judge continues, “Harald Buxton. On the first charge, of forcible rape, as defined by and pursuant to the criminal code of the State of South Dakota, the jury has determined the following verdict: guilty. On the second charge, of conspiracy, and on the third, of murder as per the law of parties, the jury has determined the following verdict: innocent. In consideration of the gravity of your offense, but in consideration also of the threats to your family employed to procure your co-operation, the jury has assessed against you the penalty of exile.”

Harcourt turns to the jury box again. “So say you one, so say you all?”

The foreman answers, “We do, Your Honor.”

Harcourt nods, turning back to the defendants. “Ordinarily,” he says, “your sentences would automatically be appealed. Unfortunately, there is no longer a superior court to hear your case. Also unfortunately, neither the civil nor the military authority has the means of maintaining you for an extended period. It is therefore the order of this Court that, at an hour and place to be determined, the sentences against you shall be carried out within two calendar days from the instant. May God have mercy on your souls.”

Kirsten, sitting almost directly behind him, sees the shudder that passes through Buxton’s gaunt body. With speed that seems impossible for a man honed down to bone, he pivots toward the military policeman behind him, feinting with his right hand toward the man’s face. In the fraction of a second it takes the officer to react, Buxton snatches the pistol from the holster at his right side. “No!” she cries, pushing up against the arms of her chair. And then she is sprawled face-down on the carpet, staring at the scuffed boots of the person behind her, while Manny’s bulk pins her to the floor and shields her from the shot that goes wild, shattering the glass shade of one of the ceiling lights. She hears a second shot, muffled; and a woman’s anguished scream, “Hal, no! Oh, God, no!”

Something wooden, perhaps a chair, strikes the railing that divides the a well of the court from the audience; something else, not hard, strikes the floor. There is the sound of a brief, violent, struggle, grunts, blows struck. Turning her head to the other side, Kirsten can see only Andrews’ brightly polished black dress shoes, the line of his trouser leg, the muzzle of his M-16 as he stands between her and whatever is happening at the defendants’ table. “Manny,” she gasps, “let me up!”

“Not yet,” he answers. “Not until things are back under control.”

“The MP, Buxton—”

“MP’s fine,” Andrews says from above them. “Buxton’s dead.”

Above the rest of the noise, Harcourt’s voice booms out. “Remove the prisoners! Bailiff, clear the court!”

More feet, more rusling of clothes. Finally the weight above her eases, and Kirsten pushes herself up to her knees, then takes Manny’s proffered hand to rise to her feet. Except for Harcourt, themselves and one Bailiff, the courtroom is deserted. Only a spreading crimson stain on the floor marks the spot of Buxton’s death. Harcourt says, “I apologize, Madam President. I should have realized something like this might happen.”

Kirsten shakes her head. “He wanted to be found guilty and executed with the others; we all assumed he would be.”

“There are papers to be signed. I can bring them to you later if you’d rather.”

“No. Better face it and be done with it.”

Something that might almost be an approving smile touches Harcourt’s lips. “Come back to my chambers, then. The Clerk will have them ready very shortly.”

Quietly, still bracketed by her two guards, she follows him across the well of the court and through the door to the comfortable room beyond. The door closes behind her, Andrews still at guard.

*******

The moon rides high in the west as the small convoy speeds back toward Ellsworth through the dark. Kirsten, leaning against the back of her passenger seat, has forced her mind to blankness. Shutting out the plain printout sheets that had been set in front of her, shutting out the scratch of her pen where she had scrawled her signature to the right of the Judge’s. Half turning, Manny says softly, “You okay back there?”

“Getting there.”

“We’re almost home. Hang in.”

It is a long almost. But when she walks through the front door, into Asi’s exuberant greeting and Dakota’s arms, she is as well as she has ever been in her life.
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
“Coming!” Kirsten responds to a knock on the door, flinging the dishtowel over one shoulder and bumping her busily scrubbing partner with her hip as she slips from the kitchen.

Maggie stands grinning at the threshold, a suspiciously shaped bag in her hand. The smile slips from her lips as she takes in Kirsten’s strange look. “What?”

Kirsten sighs. “I know we’ve been over this already, but it still makes me uncomfortable that you think you have to knock on the door to your own home.”

Rolling her eyes, Maggie pushes Kirsten gently back and slips into the house. “Darlin,” she drawls, “I used to knock before going into the house I grew up in. My mama would have whuped me purple if I didn’t show respect, family or no, so just stop worrying about it, ok?”

Kirsten frowns, unconvinced, and Maggie takes gentle hold of her elbow. “Listen to me, my friend, and listen closely, because this is the last time we’re going to have this conversation, you and I. You did not chase me from my home. It’s mine. I choose what to do with it, and I chose to let you guys have it. No pain, no strain, and all’s cool, capiche?”

“I suppose,” Kirsten replies, grudgingly.

“Good,” Maggie replies, holding up the package, “and to seal the deal, a gift!”

Slipping the bottle from the bag, Kirsten squints at the lettering on the label. “Southern Comfort? Wow, I haven’t had this since college!”

“Madame President!” Maggie huffs, feigning extreme shock. “You actually admit to the consumption of spirits? Whatever will your constituents think?”

“My constituents can kiss my ass,” she retorts, breaking the seal with a quick twist of her wrist. “Where’d you get this anyway? I thought the base was dry?”

“I have my sources,” comes the smug rejoinder as Maggie moves off to the kitchen. “Now, where did I put those shot glasses?” She stops short so as to avoid running into Dakota, who smirks down at her, three shot glasses in her hand. “Well look who’s back from the dead! And looking damn good to boot!”

Koda lifts a brow. “Looks like someone’s started the party a little early.”

“Hardly. Can’t I be in a halfway decent mood once in awhile? Besides,” she adds, pitching her voice low, forgetting about Kirsten’s enhanced hearing, “I think someone could use a little cheering, don’t you?”

“I heard that,” Kirsten remarks, making her way to the kitchen, “and I’m fine. Really.”

“Mm.” Maggie looks at her with a critical eye. “Well, I suppose we can pass that unnatural pallor off to too little sleep then, hmm?” A saucy wink accompanies the statement, making Kirsten’s face heat. “C’mon. Let’s have a toast before the rest of our guests arrive, ok?”

The trio moves into the living room. As Maggie pours the liquor, Koda sits on the floor, her back against the couch. Kirsten settles behind her, stroking the black hair fanning over the tattered fabric of the couch. Maggie hands over the glasses, then holds up her own, her expression serious. “To lessons learned, hurdles overcome, dangers to come, and love and family, which makes it all worthwhile.”

Three glasses clink together, three arms lift, and three heads tip back, taking in the sweet, fiery liquid in one smooth gulp. “Ahh,” Kirsten exhales, slamming her glass down onto the chest that doubles as a table. “That definitely hit the spot.” The liquor spreads warm fire through her belly and limbs, taking with it the sharpest edge of grief and second thoughts she’s been dealing with since signing the execution orders. “Thanks, Maggie. I owe you.”

“What are friends for? Another?”

Kirsten holds up a hand. “Better not. I’d like to appear at least somewhat coherent while we hash things out this evening. Maybe later, though.”

“Suits me,” Maggie replies, capping the bottle and stowing it away just as the door sounds again. “I’ll get it. Be right back.”

Koda and Kirsten share a quiet look as Maggie leaves and returns with the rest of the group in tow. Tacoma, Manny and Andrews look sharp in their crisply pressed uniforms. Harcourt follows, impeccably dressed, as always, in a somber black suit and regimental tie. Wanblee Wapka rounds out the party, looking comfortable in his jeans and workshirt.

“Where’s Hart?” Kirsten asks.

“The General is, unfortunately, indisposed at the moment,” Harcourt replies, settling himself into the overstuffed armchair. “Quite likely for the rest of what remains of his life if the quantity of beer cans outside of his residence is any indication.”

“Great. Just what we need.”

“I think this little clandestine meeting of the minds is better had without him in any event,” Harcourt remarks, a slight smile breaking the stony planes of his face as he looks at Dakota. “It’s good to see you up and around, so to speak, Ms. Rivers. I understand you have an interesting tale to share?”

“In a moment,” Maggie interjects. “Let’s get the rest of our business out of the way first, if we could.” She turns to Tacoma who is crowded into one of the small kitchen chairs he’s dragged over. “Nice light show last night, Captain. Got any tally on the damages for us?”

“Two houses were completely gutted,” Tacoma intones. “Luckily, they were so badly damaged during the original uprising that they weren’t being used. Minor fire damage to twelve other houses. I’ve got repair crews working around the clock on them.”

“Damage to the power station?”

“Minimal.” He looks down at his hands, red and raw from wrapping copper wire non-stop. “We should be up and running again in a week, best guess.”

“Good. We got off a lot more lightly than we should have.” She holds up a hand to forestall Tacoma’s comment. “I’m not laying blame here. We all dropped the ball. Kirsten mentioned you’ve been pushing for a Town Hall, and you’re right, it’s something we desperately need right now. Communication with the civilians on this base is sorely lacking and it’s only going to lead to more problems in the long run. So…we’ll need to set up a Communications Committee. Say ten in all, split evenly between base personnel and civilians. They can meet once a week to start, hash out any issues they have and pass along whatever needs passing. Kirsten, I know you’ve got an overly full plate right now, but I think you’ll probably need to chair the first meeting, just to keep everything Kosher.” She smiles. “You should be able to pass on that honor to some other deserving soul once everything’s underway, though.”

“Being the top dog really sucks sometimes,” Kirsten grumps, but nods her acceptance of yet another duty.

“Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the press.”

The group laughs, then quiets as all eyes turn to Dakota. Maggie raises an eyebrow in silent invitation.

Nodding, Koda straightens and pulls up her legs, crossing her arms over them and looking at the group evenly. “I’ll spare everyone the background details, since I’m sure you probably know pretty much all of them anyway.” Receiving nods, she closes her eyes and calls up the images from her Vision. They come to her easily, though thankfully she feels a sense of detachment from the emotional backlash they convey. She senses that that detachment is helped along by the feel of Kirsten’s warm hand on her shoulder, and she smiles her thanks inwardly.

“Dakota?” Her father’s smooth, kind voice filters into her consciousness. “Where are you?”

She is standing in the middle of a killing field. Red is all around her; sunk deep into the earth, running in rivers across her unclad feet. Even the air is red, as if she is viewing the world through crimson silk, and the stench of burning and death is overpowering. Overhead, carrion birds circle endlessly, waiting for the chance to feed.

“Just outside of the base,” she replies, voice deep, words slow and carefully measured. “To the south, fifty yards beyond the gate.”

“When?”

A listless breeze flutters the leaves on the trees. A blood drenched flag flaps wetly, sullenly, like mud covered sheets hanging from a clothesline.

“Mid spring, early summer. It is difficult to tell.”

“Are you seeing the past?”

The whole room holds its breath.

“No.”

Kirsten’s hand tightens involuntarily on Dakota’s shoulder, but the distraction is minimal. The group exchanges grave looks, and Tacoma turns away, fists clenched, jaw set, as if he’s ready to take on the entire droid army by himself.

Maggie shoots a silent question to Wanblee Wapka, who nods.

“Dakota?” she asks.

“I am here.”

“What do you see?”

There is a brief pause. Then, “Death.”

The room is filled with hissed breaths.

“Death.” In her vision, she lifts hands dripping with gore. “All around me.”

“Are there androids?”

“Yes. Many hundreds.” Her vision body turns in a complete circle, red gaze lancing out over the carnage. “More than I’ve ever seen before. They come from the south, and from the west, in tanks….”

“Tanks?” Maggie asks, startled.

“Yes. Many tanks. Many bombs. And death. So…so much death. All around. All around.”

Kirsten looks over at Wanblee Wapka, in her eyes, an anguished plea. His face set and grave, he holds up a hand. Maggie interjects, softly, “Kirsten, we must know.”

“At what expense?” Kirsten demands, voice shrill. “You’re hurting her!”

“Kirsten—.”

“Canteskuye, please, let me tell it all. I must speak this. Please.”

Dropping her objections reluctantly, Kirsten draws an arm along Dakota’s own and squeezes, pressing a kiss to the crown of black hair beneath her chin. Koda grasps her hand and holds it lightly between her own. Wanblee Wapka nods at Maggie to continue.

“Dakota, the androids…are there humans with them?”

“Yes. Many men. Strangers all. Wearing red. Red death.”

Running a hand through her close cropped hair, Maggie sighs, then puts forth the one question she doesn’t want to ask. “And the base?”

Another pause, longer this time.

“Gone.”

As one, the group stiffens, none having expected such a final answer.

“Gone?” Maggie asks finally, when she’s recovered her voice. “Can you explain?”

“Gone,” Koda repeats. “All gone. No buildings. No life. Only death. Death, all around. The earth weeps for her children.”

“Alright,” Kirsten says, her tone brooking no argument. “That’s enough. You’ve got what you came here for, now end it! Now!”

Wanblee Wapka nods and shifts forward, but Dakota breaks herself from her trance unaided, and gathers Kirsten in her arms as her lover scrambles from the couch and to her side. “It’s okay, my love, it’s okay,” she whispers into fragrant hair. “I’m alright. It’s okay.”

The rest of the group members exchange grim looks. After a long moment, Koda lifts her head and eyes those around the table. “This was a warning. The androids are coming. I can feel them closing in. But how the battle ends will be up to us, in part, to decide. Ina Maka has seen fit to help us, to warn us of what is to come. The rest is up to us.”

Gripping the arms of her chair, Maggie lets go a long breath, and nods. “Tomorrow, then. In my office. All of us.” The smile she gives Dakota is grim, but a smile nonetheless. “Thank you, my friend. Your gift has given us a fighting chance.”

“Thank the Mother,” Koda returns.

“I will.” Standing, Maggie gathers the others with a look. They rise as well, and with soft murmurs of thanks and goodnight, they file from the house, leaving the lovers alone.

*******

Maggie raises a hand to shield her eyes against the late afternoon sunlight that pours through the blinds of her office, casting strips of glare on the large map of South Dakota and surrounding states spread out on her desk. Its brilliance strikes blue sheen like a raven’s wing off Koda’s hair where she leans on her elbows, tracing the thin black lines of state roads feeding into Rapid City and from there onto Highway 90. “Here,” she says. “For the ones moving in from the west, their best bet is to come up 85 to the Interstate, then make the loop back east to Ellsworth. Troops moving up from Offut could use 183 or 87, then march west on 90.”

“If they’ve got heavy armor,” Tacoma adds, “they’ll want to get onto the Interstate as quickly as they can.”

“Isn’t there still a lot of wreckage on the highway?” Kirsten asks. “Is it enough to slow them down?”

“Minimally. Things like mobile Howitzers can just push other stuff out of the way. It won’t take but one advance party to clear the way for them.”

“We need aerial recon. Rivers,” Maggie addresses Dakota’s cousin where he leans over Kirsten’s shoulder. “Put a couple birds up and have them scout the roads. I want reports by evening. And no,” she adds quellingly, noting the gleam comes into his dark eyes. “Not you, and not Andrews. You have your assignment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, turning on his heels in the cramped space between Koda and the door. Dakota jerks her foot out of his path, almost kicking Kirsten’s ankle where she sits to her left. “Sorry, cuz,” he murmurs, then, “We gotta move these meetings into a conference room or something.”

“Scoot,” says Maggie, and he does. The half-dozen bodies surrounding the desk shift, taking advantage of the greater space.

“He’s right,” says Kirsten, flexing shoulders that are no longer jammed against her neighbors’. “Why don’t we use one of the big meeting rooms?”

“Hart,” says Maggie succinctly. “Territory.”

“He doesn’t seem–well,” Wanblee Wapka offers from his place beside Tacoma.

Maggie gives a small, exasperated snort. “Make this man an Ambassador when we’re out of this mess,” she says to Kirsten. “General Hart hasn’t been—well–since the uprising. According to his secretary he comes into his office every day, drinks his coffee, and looks at reports in triplicate. Then he goes back to quarters and waits to do it all again the next day.” Her voice softens. “He’s a manager, not a field commander. Losing his family has been hard on him.”

“What about that aide of his—what’s his name—Toller, Toleman–?”

“All he does is carry the reports back and forth and tell Kimberly who to open the door to. Another MBA. Pigs’ll fly stealth bombers before he questions an order.”

“Okay,” says Tacoma, bringing the conversation back to the map and the advancing enemy. “Manny’s going to take care of air recon. We need some boots on the ground, too.”

Maggie nods approvingly. “Make the assignments when the birds get back.” She turns her attention to Wanblee Wapka. “What are your defense caps?”

His eyes, as startlingly blue as his daughter’s meet hers. “Sixty able-bodied adults with small arms and the skill to use them. Another twenty or thirty for support. If this force gets past you, though, our only real defense is our feet.”

Maggie taps the end of her marker against the map. Multi-task, Allen. Contingency plans. “All right,” she says. “When the time comes, I’ll have two Tomcats fueled up and ready to go. One to cover Rapid City, one to cover you guys if the bastards flank us and turn north. If the droids keep their forces all together, we’ll have them for our ace in the hole here. With distances that short, we won’t need guidance systems for the ‘Cats, and most of our ordnance has been reconfigured to laser.

“Meanwhile, we need an accounting of assets. Tacoma: get me an inventory of all armor, artillery, small arms and foot soldiers and your assessment of the best use we can make of all of the above. I already know what we can put in the air and who can fly it. When we know more about what we’re facing, we can talk deployment.”

“Meet them on the road if we can,’ says Dakota. “Block them off before they can reach the Base or the city.”

“Exactly. And we need to keep our options open to do that.” Maggie folds up the map and hands it to Dakota. “You and Tacoma know the ground better than anyone else here. Choose at least three provisional points where we can cut them off. Kirsten—any luck with that droid fragment Jimenez brought you?”

“Not yet—” Kirsten’s head turns abruptly toward the window, where a shadow crosses the blinds, accompanied by the rich, sweet scent of pipe tobacco. Tacoma reaches a long arm behind her and opens the door to admit Fenton Harcourt, a briar between his teeth and a sheaf of papers under his arm.

“Well,” says the Judge. “How unassuming. Foxes have lairs and birds have their nests, but the Wing Commander operates out of a middling small closet, and the President of what’s left of these United States has no office at all.”

Maggie eyes the folders warily. “What can we do for you, Judge?”

“Nothing you’ll enjoy,” he answers, sifting three of the thin portfolios from the stack. “General Hart saw me after a lengthy wait this afternoon, then told me to take the matter to you.”

“And the matter is?”

“McCallum. Petrovich. Kazen.” Harcourt punctuates the names with the slap of each file as it hits the desk. “They are presently back in the guardhouse, since there are no facilities for holding them in Rapid City. Neither are there any facilities for carrying out their sentences. You do not,” he adds, “seem pleased.”

“I am,” she says precisely, meeting Harcourt’s, “just as pleased as I would be if Ms. President’s dog had made me a present. Asimov would, however, be too polite dump it on my desk.”

Unexpectedly, Harcourt’s face splits in a grin, pipe still tight between his teeth. “Colonel,” he says, “I am sorry I underestimated you. Unfortunately, there is no one else with either the authority or the means to handle this problem. Civil institutions remain in suspension.”

“Unfortunately,” she says, “you’re right. Tacoma.”

“Ma’am?”

“When you get me the list of troops, pick out twenty-five by lot. We’ll cut them down to fifteen in a second round. Tell Major Grueneman to see that the indoor firing range in the gym is set up, and make sure we’ve got lighting there. Better get started now.”

“Ma’am.” Tacoma salutes and squeezes his large frame around Kirsten and the Judge, making for the door. Kirsten moves over by one seat, offering her chair to Harcourt.

“I take it there’s something else I can do for you, Judge?”

“Not you, Colonel. Rivers,” he says, addressing Wanblee Wapka. He takes a long draw on his pipe, and smoke streams out his nostrils. “Can your settlement accommodate a new widow and her orphan daughter?”

Wanblee Wapka contemplates Harcourt’s face for a long moment, his eyes blankly amiable. Then the laugh lines around them fold into wrinkles, and he says, “Fenton, you do know how to ask a leading question, don’t you? ‘Poor little match girl out in the snow.’ You’re referring to Ms. Buxton, I take it?”

Another puff and river of smoke. “I am.”

“Have you consulted the lady about these arrangements?”

“I will inform her of the possibility when I have your answer.”

“You have it, then. Tell her to be ready.”

“Mrs. Rivers?”

“Themunga wouldn’t turn away W. T. Sherman himself if he showed up on her doorstep hurt or hungry.”

“No,” Dakota says wryly. “She’d nurse him back to health, then take his hair.”

Maggie catches a small, alarmed glance as Kirsten’s eyes shift from Koda to her father and back, and she allows herself to wonder how the Rivers matriarch will take to a white daughter-in-law. Not easily, by all indications. But she says only, “Any other business?”

There is none, and as the rest file out her door, she sets grimly to making arrangements for a triple execution. Not for the first time, she wishes for a good stiff drink.

Damn Hart.

Damn Harcourt.

Damn the three bastards who made it all necessary.

Most of all, damn Peter Westerhouse and his droids.

*******

The wolf cub wriggles in her hands as Dakota lifts him gently away from his mother and places him at the back of the crate that will carry them to their new home. Kirsten kneels alongside, holding his attention with a finger drawn along the wire mesh, so that all his small body wags, and he stands on his hind legs, nipping at the elusive prey and yapping sharply. The sound brings his mother out of her run, straight into the carrier with him. Kirsten withdraws her finger abruptly.

Dakota lifts the small hatch on top of the carrier and bends to scratch the pup under his chin one last time, and smooth the fur on the mother’s head. “Go safely,” she murmurs. “Live well.”

“They’ll be all right, won’t they?” Kirsten asks.

Koda slides the hatch closed and reaches across the top of the crate to take Kirsten’s hand in her own. “The place where Ate will release them has a stone outcropping for shelter and a spring for water. With only one cub, the mother will have no trouble feeding him until he can join her on the hunt.”

“He’s going to release them on your ranch?”

“Han,” Koda says, squeezing her lover’s hand. “I wish we could go with him now. I wish you could see it.”

“When this is over, we’ll go. I still need to meet your mother.”

Koda says nothing, only tightens her fingers around Kirsten’s. Wanblee Wapka’s easy acceptance will make the meeting easier, when it comes. It occurs to Dakota that she probably should have written a letter for her father to carry home to Themungha, but there is no time now. Coward, she berates herself. You can run across a ruined bridge straight into an army like a freaking idiot, but you can’t manage to face your own mother. Aloud she says, “I think I hear the truck.”

The sound an approaching engine grows louder, and Koda goes to unlock the back gate that leads to the runs. Beams from a pair of headlights sweep across the small parking lot, and Wanblee Wapka’s big pickup makes a three-point turn then backs slowly, coming to a stop between the two rows of kennels. Overhead, stars still spangle the western sky, swinging low over the Paha Sapa. The hills bulk huge and dark below them, distinguished from the arching darkness above only by the wash of moonlight along their flanks. A white shape passes overhead, almost too swift for sight, and Koda shivers in the dawn breeze. Owl.

Owls are messengers from the spirit world. But she needs no additional omen to know that death is near them—herself, Kirsten, her father, Tacoma, all of them. Her vision has told her that, and the preliminary reports from the scouts have confirmed the forces now converging on Ellsworth in numbers far greater than any they have encountered so far.

The driver’s door opens, engine still running, and Wanblee Wapka steps behind the truck to open the tailgate. “Let me give you a hand with that, chunkshi.”

Together, with Kirsten assisting, they lift the mother wolf and her cub up into the bed of the truck. Wanblee Wapka slides the carrier back toward the cab and ties it down in place, giving the knots an extra pull to secure them. To Koda he says, “Don’t worry. I’ll have them in their new home before the sun is over the trees. I’ll see that there’s food available for the first few days, just until Ina here gets the lie of the land.”

For answer, Koda walks into his arms and hugs him fiercely. “I wish that I could come with you, Ate. That we could.”

“I know,” he says. “But you’re needed here, both of you.”

“Mother—”

“Hey, I’m a diplomat, remember?” Laughter runs through her father’s voice. “I’ll have the peace treaty ready to be signed by the time you come home.”

“Oh, yeah,” she says wryly. “The droids’ll just be the warm-up.”

His arms tighten around her. “Wakan Tanka nici un, chunkshi. Toksha ake wachingyankin kte.**” He releases her then, turning to Kirsten. “Chunkshi,” he says, pulling her into a hug. “Take care of each other.”

The fleeting startlement in Kirsten’s face gives way to a blush, and she shyly returns the embrace. “We will. Thank you, Ate.” Her brow creases briefly. “Ate—is that right?”

“It’s exactly right,” he answers.

Almost too low for Koda to hear, she says, “Dakota and I—can you see–?” She drops her eyes, leaving the question in the air.

“I see that you are meant to be together, Kirsten. It is something you have chosen, time and again. But no, I do not see what is on the other side of this battle. There is a cloud over it, and what is beyond I don’t know.”

Then, with a last squeeze of her arm, a hand on Koda’s shoulder, he is gone, the red points of the truck’s taillights vanishing as he turns onto the road that will take him out the main gate. Koda takes Kirsten’s hand in hers, feeling the chill of her skin. In the east, a faint haze of rose and gold washes the hills. “You’re cold,” she says. “Let’s go inside”
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
What a man will do for love.
Manny stands just inside the shadow of the hanger, his harness strapped and buckled, his helmet in the crook of his elbow. By main force of will he banishes what he knows is a sappy, lovestruck grin from his face. At least, he banishes it for a moment. His watch shows his copilot/navigator due in less than three minutes, and it costs him an effort o refrain from tapping the toe of his boot against the runway apron. It will not do to show eagerness. He has flown a couple times before with Ellen Massaccio, an experienced and careful pilot; he has no reason to believe she will not be prompt today. That gives him a few more moments to contemplate the object of his affection as she sits on the tarmac, her silver skin gleaming in the spring sun, her slender form made all the more enticing by months of abstinence and flying helicopters.

For Manny, his Tomcat is not a male of any species. She is a she, a lady sleek and sure and deadly, a lioness stalking the high cloud savannah, her fur silvered by moonlight. She is, as she was originally, Tom’s Cat, the brainchild of Admiral Tom Connolly, the last and most perfect in a series of his brainchildren. After forty years of refinement and the shift from pure naval deployment to air defense, the craft is still the fastest, meanest fighter in the world. And Manny is as enamored as he was the first time he set eyes on her, as desperate in his forced estrangement as any deserted lover. Their reunion will be sweet.

At least I didn’t out and out grovel to get to fly this mission. Not quite, anyway.

All right, he had almost groveled. He had been prepared to and would have, if Kirsten had not shown immediate understanding when he had asked for the assignment. Instead, she had merely agreed that his request to go was reasonable and pointed out that for a single day on Base, at least, she was unlikely to need more protection than Andrews, Koda, Maggie, a three- pound Sig Sauer and Asimov could provide. Put like that, the Colonel had agreed that he should be the one to fly recon. Somewhere in the back of his mind, there lives the nasty suspicion that he would have copped the assignment anyway, given that he knows the country better than any of the other surviving pilots and can navigate by sight or with an AAA map if he has to.

Nothing wrong with taking out a little insurance, though.

Or a little self-satisfaction.

“Yo, Rivers!” Manny turns to the sharp rap of bootleather on concrete. Massaccio carries her helmet tucked under one arm and a sheaf of paper in her free hand. One, incongruously, is a folded map which flops back and forth, flashing the Triple-A logo, as she waves it under his nose. “Tell me, Manny my man, that we are not actually going to have to find Offut by following the highway signs.”

“Okay,” he says amiably, “we are not actually going to have to find Offut by the highway signs.”

“But?” A scowl appears between Massaccio’s blonde brows.

“No buts. We’re going to fly straight south till we pick up the main fork of the Platte east of Scottsbluff. Then we’re going to follow it till we get to the Missouri. That will bring us within sensor range of Offut. Straightforward as it gets.”

“Riiiight,” she drawls. “No GPS, no air control.”

“Cheer up, Ellen,” he answers, grinning. “If Lindbergh could do it, so can we.”

Fifteen minutes later, Manny looses the throttle on the shuddering bird as it idles at the end of the airstrip and sends it streaking down the mile and a half of runway. The force of it presses his back and shoulders into the padded ejection seat, jams the back of his head against the lining of his helmet. The rush that takeoff always brings starts somewhere around his solar plexus, a tightening pressure almost like the oncoming climax of sex, rises up his spine until his head seems unbearably light and the howl of the engines rises in his ears and the airstrip and the buildings lining it streak by under him until the nose leaves the tarmac and the lift of the wings carries the Tomcat into the blue air, and they are floating free. The earth falls away behind to become an abstract pattern of green and brown veined with deep-cut watercourses. The Cat becomes almost an extension of his own spine, his own limbs, as he pulls back hard on the stick, sending her into an almost vertical climb, then levels off and banks hard left, steering their course out over the creased and folded basalt of the badlands.

They skim along above the bare rock barely a mile high, low enough for visual contact with the ground. The barrens give way almost immediately to prairie, long empty expanses pale green with new grass. Some of it is pasture; some of it, he knows, is fields plowed and left fallow through the winter, now reclaimed by native vegetation. At widely spaced intervals, he can make out the parallel rows of small patches of growing crops, and he keys them into his topography display. “Infrared giving you anything back there, Massaccio?”

“Some,” she says. “Scattered readout. Some blips are probably horses and cattle. Might be some humans in here, though. At least, something roughly the same mass as humans, and something in their vicinity that’s probably a machine heat source.”

Which at least, Manny reflects wryly, leaves out rabbits. Deer, bears and elk are still possibilities, even if they are unlikely to be driving a tractor. Locating survivors is a secondary objective of the mission. At best, they can be recruited into support positions, freeing more trained military for fighting the droids. At worst, it may be possible to warn them of the advancing enemy. He pulls the plane around in a graceful loop to make a pass over the coordinates Massaccio punches into his readout, activating the zoom on the powerful camera riding among the Sidewinder and Phoenix missiles nestled underneath the Tomcat’s wings.

“What’s the radar look like back there?”

“Negative. No company at all within range.”

Not that he expects any. According to Kirsten, no androids have ever been programmed as either pilots or navigators, one of the few precautions the Pentagon had agreed to in its enthusiasm for soldiers that would never come home as political liabilities in body bags.

Wounded Knee passes beneath them, the empty black lanes of Highways 18 and 20, the blue ribbon of the Niobrara. They are over Nebraska, the rolling hills of the western rural counties stretching empty to the horizon. The shapes of farms and ranches remain clear despite their abandonment, the pale lines of fences marching across the land, the rectangular fields defined by windbreaks and the hatched checkerboard created by the last harrowing after harvest. Silent blips appear on his topo screen as Massaccio punches her readouts forward, but there is nothing of note. Scattered readings that may be human appear sporadically, along with occasional clusters that are probably surviving farm animals, or, more likely, deer. Manny knows he does not have the mystic streak that runs through his uncle’s family—and he is happy not to have it, thank you very much—but even he can see the future in the air that shimmers over the bare earth. Even now, even a mile up and years in their past, he can almost see the dust cloud raised by the myriad hoofs thundering across the prairie as the buffalo return, and with them the wolf and the bear, the puma and the river otter. As it was in the beginning, in the time of the People’s coming forth onto the broad shelf of Ina Maka’s breast, so it will be again.

“Rivers, you there?”

The squawk comes through his earphones, jarring him out of the interstices of time-not- yet. “What is it?”

“Something about twenty miles off to the south—moving toward us, not very fast.”

Without even thinking, Manny hits the switches to arm the missiles under the Cat’s wings. “Civilian aircraft? Chopper?”

“Can’t tell.”

“Let’s check it out.” He pulls on the stick again, laying the craft over onto her side in a wide turn. The blip comes up on his screen, and he frowns at it.. Massaccio is right; whatever it is, is slow. Damned slow. To slow to stay in the air almost, unless it’s a helicopter. Low, too. Only a thousand feet up or so. He kicks Cat’s nose up, getting a bit more height. Just in case.

A few miles to the north of the Platte, movement appears on the horizon, a sweeping,

undulating mass riding the wind that scuds over the Kansas flatlands to the south. It is at least a mile wide, perhaps twice or three times as long. Manny feels his muscles go slack, losing their unconscious tension, and he slaps the missile controls a second time, deactivating the preliminary launch sequence. As they pass overhead, he can make out the beating of thousands of wings, hundreds of thousands, as a kettle of hawks makes its way north toward their nesting grounds in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“What the hell are those things?” Massaccio demands. “There must be a million of them!”

“You a city girl, Massaccio? Those were hawks, probably broadwings. Koda could tell you for sure, but I don’t think anything else travels in kettles that large.”

And it comes to him that it is beginning already, the return of the winged ones and the four foots. Without humans to shoot them for sport, without humans to poison their prey, unprecedented numbers of the hawks have survived to make the spring flight north from their wintering in Central and South America. Which means that there, too, the humans must lie dead in the millions.

With the sun at their tail, Manny guides the Cat along the course of the Platte. Once or twice they pick up a blip that may be a watercraft. Or maybe rafts of debris, floating down toward the Missouri with the thaw. As they pass Kearney, just west of the spot where the river splits and flows in parallel streams for fifty miles or so, the infrared picks up multiple heat sources, all of them mechanical.

“Droids on the move?” Massaccio’s voice comes over the com. “I don’t see any readout that looks like anything but a vehicle. And I’m getting hits on the metalhead scanner.”

Not good. “Let’s get some height here. I’m gonna take her from here on compass. We’ll make a pass straight over Omaha and hope they don’t put up any surface-to-air.”

Up and level again, Manny opens the throttle and lets the Cat scream across the sky, afterburners blazing. The readout passes across his screen so fast he cannot process it, only hope that the sensors record everything the telemetry picks up. “Incoming!” Massaccio yells, and he has it on his radar almost simultaneously, a long, slim shape streaking toward them from the ground. Manny hauls the plane into an evasive corkscrew and fires a Sidewinder at the rising missile, noting with satisfaction the blossom on the LED screen as it makes its kill. So much for hoping to go unnoticed; one of the trucks has radioed the Base. A second surface-to-air missile bores at them on the heels of the thought; a second Sidewinder leaves its nest and scores a second kill. Yet a third goes wide, missing them and inexplicably detonating in a cloud of white smoke a thousand feet above them.

Or maybe not inexplicably. Maybe the droids haven’t modified their weapons’ guidance systems and their GPS is fritzing out.

One for our side. Aloud he says, “You got what we need back there?”

“Got.”

“Okay, then. Let’s go home.”

Their course takes them north along Interstate 29, checking still for movement along the highway. They are over Sioux Falls and about to swing west along 90 for home when the plane falls out of the sun, coming straight toward them on an intercept course, visual contact almost as soon as it shows up on the screen. “Unidentified!” Massaccio yells in the same instant that Manny comes to the same conclusion for himself and dives just as a missile separates from the F-15 and comes snaking toward them, its contrail white in the clear air. One of their own Sidewinders takes it, and Manny looses a Phoenix at the unknown fighter as they pull up and away, looping back to evade the enemy’s guns as it fires and corkscrews away. “Massaccio! You get any signal at all off that fucker?”

“Negative. No markings that I can see, either. You wanna try talking to him?”

“Not after that introduction. You still got him?”

“Here we go again. He’s turning.”

Manny hauls back on the stick and puts the Cat’s nose straight up into a vertical climb, then pushes it down again, diving on the other plane. The sun glitters off its unmarked silver fuselage, off the canopy behind which a helmeted shape is visible for the fraction of a second it takes to sweep past, kicking out another pair of Phoenixes at close range.

The Eagle spirals down in evasive action, swinging away to the south. “No joy,” Massaccio reports. “He’s not hit.”

Manny comes to a decision. “Screw this. We can’t afford the risk. We’ll just have to outrun him.”

With that he levels the Cat out with the sun to his left and opens the throttle. He feels the shock as he hits Mach 1, then the plane leaves its own sound behind to skim silently along the air. The Eagle follows, falling steadily behind until it turns back somewhere north of Minot. “Lost him,” says Massaccio. “Headed east.”

“Terrific,” Manny observes wryly. “That means he could be from Offut, or Grand Forks, or Willard Hall. Assuming he’s headed back to base, that is.”

“The Colonel is not going to like this.”

“Nobody’s gonna like this.” Manny throttles back to subsonic speed and heads south. “Let’s go home and tell ’em.”

******

“Redtail one, this is redtail two. What’s your twenty?”

Rolling her eyes, Dakota unracks the mike and puts it to her lips. “Right in front of you, pinhead.”

“Hey! I resemble that remark.”

“Yeah, yeah. What’s up?”

“Isn’t old Boney Markham’s hunt shop around here somewhere?”

“Boney died about six years ago, thiblo.”

“Yeah, I know, but I heard his son took over for the old coot after he kicked it.”

“Terrence?”

“Yeah. Didn’t you go to high school with him?”

“Don’t remind me. What a nutjob.”

“He was scary alright. You still didn’t answer my question, though.”

“Yeah, I think it’s up another mile or so on the left. Why? You up for a little looting?”

“I prefer to think of it as ‘creative acquisition’, tanksi.”

Koda laughs. “Call it whatever you like, thiblo. But if Terrence comes out with a shotgun pointed at your head, don’t come screaming to me.”

Tacoma joins in the laughter. “Like I did when old man Johnston caught us stealing pumpkins from his patch that time?”

“You, brother dear. You got caught. I wasn’t the one getting rocksalt plucked outta my ass for weeks afterward.”

“Hey! Is it my fault you can run faster than me?”

“Yup! Sure is. Hang on,” she says to her front seat passenger, a young airman with the down-home name of Joe Poteet. He does as she asks, grabbing the rollbar as she swings the big truck around an overturned John Deere that is pulled halfway onto the road.

“Nice driving, Ma’am,” the young man remarks, slowly removing his white-knuckled grip from the bar.

Giving him a smirk, Koda continues on over the slight rise. Beyond it, a small shopping center, three stores in all, comes into view on the left. As she pulls into the empty parking lot, Koda scans the area. The store to the far left, Tamke’s Hardware and Feed, has been obviously looted, as has the Video Store to the far right. Shattered glass sparkles in the sun like diamonds on the dark macadam of the lot. Doors hang loose from their hinges and trash is strewn everywhere. The sign from the Video Store, its letters obliterated by blasts from a shotgun, sways in the slight breeze, its rusted hinges squeaking a discordant, depressing melody.

Dakota brings the truck to a slow stop, its fat tires crunching complacently over trash, gravel and glass. Opening the door, she swings out, bootheels clocking on the macadam, and watches as her brother pulls in, followed by two other olive green trucks.

“Damn,” Tacoma remarks as he jumps down from the truck. “Looks like old Boney’s place was the only one that wasn’t hit.”

“Yeah, well there’s a reason for that,” Koda replies, gesturing toward the heavy metal grate that covers the entire front of the store.

“You any good at picking locks?”

“With what? My fingernail? Besides, I thought you military types learned lockpicking about the same time you were learning the difference between your rifle and your gun.”

“Left my lockpicks in my other uniform,” Tacoma mumbles.

Koda shakes her head. “Poteet, Catcham, go around the back and see if there’s a way in from there. The rest of you, look sharp. We don’t know if any friends are lurking about.” She shoots a look to Tacoma. “Be right back.”

Several minutes later, she reappears from the depths of the looted hardware store, two portable blowtorches in her hands and a pair of protective goggles tucked under one arm. Seeing her, Tacoma grins. “Interesting looking lockpicks ya got there, sis.”

“Ha. Ha,” is the droll reply as she slaps one of the torches into his hands. “Hold this.” Grabbing the goggles, she slips them over her head. “Poteet have any luck?”

“Nope. Only way in or out is through that door.”

“Then step aside and watch the Master at work.”

Tacoma’s jaw snaps shut with an audible click as his sister gives him a very pointed look that aborts any quip he might have thought to utter.

Leveling a wink at him, she turns to her work, and all falls silent in the lot.

*******

With a sigh of weariness, Kirsten slumps against the low-backed stool she’s occupying and picks up the blackened circuitry board she’s been staring at for the last two hours. While the others work quietly, continuing to piece what they can of the droid back together, using tweezers in a high-tech game of jigsaw puzzle, she flips the piece back and forth, glaring at it as if it will give up its secrets simply by the force of her will.

Jimenez moves to stand beside her, running a hand through his short-cropped black hair. “You look beat, Ma’am.”

“I’m alright,” she replies, though she knows that’s far from the truth. Rather than being tired, though, she’s feeling…vague, out of sorts. She finds her mind wandering off on strange tangents instead of focusing on the task at hand. This is nowhere near normal for her, and it frightens her, just a bit. The fact that this dazed feeling coincides perfectly with Dakota’s absence leaves her feeling not one whit better about the whole situation.

With a reluctant nod, Jimenez steps away just as Kirsten flips the board in her hand. The shaft of light let in by the young Lieutenant’s movement strikes the charred board in a way that causes Kirsten’s eyes to widen. “Jimenez!” she shouts happily, jumping down off the stool. “Consider yourself promoted.”

“Ma’am?”

“Never mind. Is there a microscope around here anywhere?”

“I don’t–. What kind of microscope, Ma’am?” It’s obvious the man’s confusion is deepening.

“A microscope! You know, the kind you played with in Junior High science lab?”

“I…guess there’d be one at the hospital, Ma’am. Or at Dr. Rivers’ clinic, maybe. For looking at slides and stuff?”

“Perfect! Grab a pad and pencil and come with me.”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

******

With a last, precise cut, the part of the grating that contains the lock breaks free and falls to the ground with a loud clink. Satisfied, Koda shuts off the blowtorch, slips her goggles off, and grabs the gate. It slides grudgingly, sounding out a rusty squeal of protest. A second later, a simple wooden door is revealed.

Tacoma steps forward and gently pushes his sister aside. “Can’t let you have all the fun, chunkshi,” he says, grinning. A moment later, the door is a splintered mess courtesy of a swift kick amidships.

Koda rolls her eyes as Tacoma. “You’re so butch.”

“With a role model like you, how could I not be?” he teases, delivering a light elbow to her side and ducking into the darkened shop before she can retaliate.

Koda follows close behind, clicking on the flashlight she’s appropriated from Poteet. Tacoma whistles. “Not bad,” he whispers, “not bad at all.”

The store is good sized and filled, seemingly, with everything a hunter or fisherman could want, and more besides. Along the leftward wall is a glass case filled with handguns of all makes, models and sizes. Tacked up to the wall behind the case are dozens and dozens of rifles, shotguns, and several highly illegal fully automatic weapons. “Damn,” Tacoma remarks, gazing at a proudly displayed Uzi. “He must have had some cops on the payroll.”

Dakota snorts. “And this comes as a surprise to you…how?”

Three more soldiers enter, their own flashlights brightening the interior and bringing more of the varied merchandise into easy view. Tacoma turns to the men. “Jackson, Carter, start gathering up those guns and all the ammo you can find. Pack ’em in tight.”

“Will do, Cap.”

“The rest of you, look around and box up anything you think we can use…which is probably most of the stuff in here. Move.”

“We’re on it, Cap.”

After watching them for a moment longer, Dakota strikes off toward the rear of the store, her flashlight making sweeping arcs along the dusty floor. “C’mon,” she says to her brother, “let’s check out the storeroom.”

“Right behind ya.”

******

“Jimenez, you have your pencil ready?”

“Ready and waiting, Ma’am.”

“Good. I want you to take down these series of letters and numbers for me.”

Adjusting the eyepiece just slightly, she squints as the charred numbers come slowly into view. “S…D…Zero…zero…A…four…six…. No wait, make that a five. Yes, five.” Even with the benefit of the microscope, the information is difficult at best to read. Blackened streaks and smudges all but obliterate what’s underneath. She looks back over her shoulder. “You getting this?”

“Yes’m.” Jimenez, with his round rimmed military-issue glasses, pad, and poised pencil, looks more like an accountant than one of the worlds’ best fighter plane mechanics. Kirsten can’t help but smile.

“Good.”

Ten minutes later, the task is done. Not as complete as she would have liked—not by a long shot–but given the rather sizable string of numbers and letters completely obliterated by their fiery ending, she’s more than content with what she’s managed to recover. With instincts borne of literally decades of experience, she senses what she has will be more than enough for her current needs.

Her smile tells the story, and when she turns it upon Jimenez, he blinks at her, dazed. “Ma’am?”

“Take the rest of the day off, Lieutenant,” she replies, snatching the pad out of his hand. “Catch up on your sleep, read, hell, pick dandelions for all I care. You’re dismissed.”

“Did—did I do something wrong, Ma’am?”

“No, my friend,” she laughs and, uncharacteristically, goes up to her toes to plant a soft kiss on his clean-shaven cheek that leaves him seeing stars, “you did everything right. Now scoot!”

He does.

*******

“Tanski, you got a minute?”

Sighing, Koda looks to the left, where her brother’s flashlight bisects the shadowy interior. “I’m up to my elbows in ammo, thiblo. Can it wait?”

“I think you might wanna come take a look at this.”

Passing her duties off to a nearby soldier, Dakota rises to her feet and wipes the sweat from her forehead with a negligent swipe of one long arm. Following the light trail her brother has lain down, she comes up next to him at the door to what appears to be Markham’s private office.

With a flair for the dramatic, Tacoma pauses, then sweeps the light in a wide arc until it is pointing directly into the office. He stands quietly, awaiting his sister’s reaction.

Koda gives a low whistle as she peers inside the good-sized room. “My, my, my,” she remarks softly, hands on hips, “looks like someone was a naughty boy.”

The room is filled with items that would make Richard Butler fall on his knees and weep for joy. A huge white cross, complete with the suffering Jesus, is flanked on both sides by flags of the Third Reich, Aryan Brotherhood, Confederacy, Ku Klux Klan, Concerned Christian Men, and a half-dozen others. Above a rickety television set, an old framed photograph of a long dead Austrian private hangs in the place of honor, gleaming forelock forever drooping over one crazed eye.

On the splintered coffee table, several dog-eared copies of The Turner Diaries share space with Mein Kampf, a whole slew of Soldier of Fortunes, and a broad range of other far right wing paramilitary and religious propaganda. Bits and pieces of dismantled weaponry cover the floor like a macabre carpet, and the room stinks of old sweat, old urine, and old hatred.

“Damn,” Tacoma whispers. “I didn’t think he’d go down so deep.”

“I did.” Grabbing the flashlight from her brother’s hand, she shines it in the direction of a white hooded robe. Behind it, she can just see the seal of a door. “And I’m betting the jackpot’s behind door number three.”
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
With Asi happily ensconced at her feet, Kirsten taps at her keyboard, entering the last of the partial serial number into her specialized search engine. Another quick tap sets the wheels in motion, and she slumps back against the couch, watching the numbers crunch. Asi takes this as a sign that some attention-getting is in order, and he sits up, weaseling his massive head between the laptop and Kirsten’s belly. Big brown eyes roll up at her as his tail beats a comforting tattoo against the chest cum table.

“Slut,” she chuckles as she reaches out to scratch his ears. “Nothing but a slut-puppy you are.”

Asi groans in agreement before weaseling further onto what little there is of her lap.

“Oh no. If you think you’re gonna climb up here, you’re got another thing coming. Mommy’s work—aha! Speak of the devil. Okay darlin. Show me what you got.” Pushing her glasses higher on her nose with an absent finger, she studies the results of her search. She frowns. “Great. Sixty thousand possibles. How peachy.” She sighs, white teeth worrying pensively against her full lower lip. “Let’s see…how to narrow this down.” Her eyes brighten, and she taps in several commands, followed by the ‘enter’ key. “There. Chew on that for a bit.”

Satisfied, she turns back to her whining canine companion, and bending forward slightly, touches noses with him. “Now, where were we?”

“Just wait till I tell Dakota how you spend your free time when she’s not around.”

The dry, melodious voice, completely unexpected, causes Kirsten to jump, almost dumping the precious computer from her lap. Heart beating a mile a minute, she looks up to see the shadowy figure cross easily into the light. “Jesus, Maggie! You almost gave me a heart attack, here!”

“Sorry,” Maggie replies, though her tone doesn’t exactly convey apology.

“I didn’t even hear you come in!”

“You told me not to knock.”

“I know, I know.” Settling the laptop, she looks over at her friend as the Colonel settles her long frame into the armchair. “Long day?”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Maggie drags a weary hand through her close cropped hair. “Just got out of a debriefing with Manny.”

“And?”

“Droids,” she responds, mouth cutting off her words with the precision of a Ginsu. “Lots of ’em. Armed with surface to air missiles. Heading this way.”

“Shit. How long?”

Maggie shrugs. “Dunno. Depends on how fast they’re moving. About a week, on the outside, I’d guess.”

The twinge in Kirsten’s gut multiplies tenfold, but her eyes meet Maggie’s steadily. “How are we going to stop them?” she asks softly.

“I don’t know that either.” Silence falls between them, but is broken a moment later. “So, what are you doing this fine day?”

“Hold that thought,” Kirsten replies as her computer chimes softly at her. A smile creases her face as she looks down at the latest results. Sixty thousand possibilities has suddenly become forty, thirty of which she can rule out without a second glance. One name stands out from the rest, and her grin broadens. “Ha! Gotcha, you bastard!”

“Care to share?” Maggie asks after a moment of watching Kirsten gloat.

“Wha-?” Kirsten blinks. “Oh. Yeah, sure.” She turns the computer so that the screen faces Maggie. “See?”

Maggie takes a quick look, then lifts her eyes to her companion’s. “In a famous physician’s immortal words, I’m a pilot, not a bionicist, Jim.”

Righting her machine, Kirsten laughs at the fairly accurate imitation. “Well, I am, so I’ll try to explain it to you.”

“Do tell,” is the dry response.

“Ok. Remember our suicide bomber friend of a week or so past?”

“I do.”

“Well, as you know, I’ve been spending my time trying to discover what I can from its remaining parts.”

“And you discovered something?”

“In a manner of speaking. Actually, your man Jimenez discovered it for me. I promoted him, by the way.”

“Oh you did, did you? What rank?”

“I’m…not sure.” She waves a hand. “Anyway, what he found for me was a circuit board that just happened to contain the serial number for this particular model. It was pretty badly burned, but I was able to extract enough of the code to plug it into my database, and viola!”

“And what does that tell you, exactly?”

Kirsten ponders the question for a moment. “Have you ever heard of Richardson’s Avionics?”

Maggie tilts her head, thinking. “No, I don’t believe I have. Should I?”

“Probably not. To the world, they were pretty much a two-bit operation, manufacturing parts for single engine aircraft and the like.”

“But to those in the know…?”

“Let’s just say they were the recipient of quite a few juicy government defense contracts over the past twenty years or so. The story was that they were developing top secret radar evading and jamming equipment for warplanes.”

“Interesting.”

“Quite.” A pause. “But I see now that that’s not all they were developing.”

Maggie sits forward, intrigued. “No?”

“No. The serial number on that droid leads right to Richardson’s doorstep. None of us knew that these type of droids even existed. And we weren’t meant to.”

“Which is why their manufacture was kept off of the military bases.”

“Exactly.”

“Okay. What does this knowledge do for us?”

“Possibly plenty.” Kirsten adjusts her glasses again. “For one thing, we have proof of another species of androids whose only purpose is to kill. Something all non military androids were supposedly guaranteed against doing. Secondly, and this is only a guess, since these androids were already programmed to kill humans, it’s likely that whatever code that was used to ‘turn’ the others wasn’t implanted into this model. It would have been a needless waste of resources and energy, something that Westerhaus would never have stood for, and his stench is all over this project.”

“I’m afraid I’m still not seeing how this benefits us,” Maggie admits.

“I’m getting to that part.” Kirsten looks at her and grins. “If I’m right, and if these droids aren’t programmed with the same unbreakable code, that means that someone who knows a thing or two about android coding can turn these people killers into android killers.”

Comprehension dawns, and Maggie breaks out in a beaming smile. “Kirsten King, I could kiss you!”

“What, and give you another thing to tattle to Koda about?” she teases, feeling inwardly very pleased.

“I won’t tell if you won’t.”

Kirsten laughs. “I’ll settle for a nice handshake. And maybe another shot of your Southern Comfort a little later on.”

“You’re on!” She settles back in the chair. “Ok, logistics time. How do we go about getting a hold of these droids and reprogramming them, assuming that can be done?”

“Well, as I see it, there are three possibilities here.” Lifting her right hand, Kirsten begins ticking the points off on her fingers. “As far as I can tell, these droids were manufactured with only one purpose, and that was to explode. Which means that it’s very likely that they can’t work the machinery replicate themselves. So, either manufacturing was shut down when the ‘uprising’ happened, and all the droids simply left the factory to go on their killing missions, or some of the androids programmed to do manufacturing came down from Minot, or there are some humans still left alive who are cranking those babies out as fast as they can.”

“If you had to choose, which one would you go with.”

“If I had to choose, I would go with number two, I think. Call me a sop, but I have a hard time believing an entire manufacturing plant full of humans would willingly continue building the things that likely murdered their families and friends. And I think that that plant is much too valuable to Westerhaus and his stoolies to let lie fallow, so that leaves androids from Minot as our only viable option.”

“Hmm.” Maggie rubs her chin absently as she thinks. “My gut tells me you’re right about this. Unfortunately, that scenario is the worst one for us, for obvious reasons. How big is the plant?”

“Actually, not that big at all,” Kirsten replies, pulling up the blueprint from her database. “If I plot out part of the code here, I can probably be in and out in less than a few hours.”

“You?!?” Maggie asks, wide-eyed. “Oh no, no, no, no, no. Sorry, Ms. President, but if I let you within a thousand miles of a droid manufacturing plant, Dakota would kill me. Then she’d probably find a way to bring me back to life, just so she could kill me again. No thank you. I’ll figure out a way–.”

“Maggie.” Kirsten’s soft voice interrupts her ramblings. “I have to be the one to go. You can’t just go down there, spray the place with bullets, and kidnap a couple dozen androids to bring back here to me. It doesn’t work that way. The coding has do be done at the plant. My little laptop won’t cut it, I’m afraid. I’m going down there.”

“Kirsten,” Maggie replies, voice deadly serious, “you know I can’t allow that.”

Pulling off her glasses, Kirsten fixes the Colonel with a stare that is pure ice. “You don’t have a choice in the matter, Maggie. I’ll make it a direct order if I need to, but I don’t want to have to do that. You know I’m right. You know this is right.”

“I know that letting you go down there, to a plant full of androids, is the most wrong thing there is, Kirsten. You’re so much more than a scientist to us.”

“Right now, the scientist is all that matters. If I can reprogram enough of these androids to infiltrate their fellows’ ranks and destroy them, it could give us the only break we have. I can’t not do it, Maggie.”

“But Kirsten—.”

“Maggie, look me in the eye and tell me that we will win this war without those androids. Tell me that you’ve got some secret superweapon stashed away that will take care of the problem once and for all. Tell me that Dakota’s vision is nothing but a bad dream after too much pepperoni pizza. Do that and I’ll forget the whole thing.”

The two stare eye to eye for long moments.

Finally, Maggie blinks, and looks down at her hands. “You know I can’t tell you any of that.”

“Then it’s settled. I’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning. The plant is less than a hundred miles away. I should be back before midnight.”

“Kirsten–.”

“The matter is settled, Maggie. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some coding to do.”

And, just like that, Kirsten slips her glasses back on, and is lost to her, once again immersed in the world of android codes. Resisting the urge to grab the woman by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, Maggie rises to her feet and, after a moment, turns on her heel and leaves, closing the door quietly behind her.

Kirsten looks up once the house is empty. “Goodnight, Maggie,” she murmurs. “Thank you for caring.”

******

“Holy mother,” Tacoma breathes as he shines his light down the narrow stairway and into the cluttered cellar. “It looks like a National Guard armory down there!”

“Yeah. Just keep alert. We don’t know if he left any little surprises for us to trip on our way down.”

“Roger that.” Tacoma makes deliberate sweeps with his flashlight, keen eyes examining every square inch illuminated. “Looks clean from here.”

“Alrighty then.” Koda starts cautiously down the stairs, eyes open and alert. She reaches the third step from the bottom when her brother’s voice sounds over her shoulder.

“Hold up a second.”

Koda freezes where she is. “Something?”

“A twinge in my gut. Something’s not right. Here, let me through.”

“Um, I hate to break it to you, big brother, but there’s barely room for me on this step. And you’re blocking me from behind. Do you propose levitation or should I just try my invisibility trick?”

“Very funny. Here, let me try—this.” Grunting, he puts his hand carefully in front of her face, feeling blindly for what he senses is there. “Just…a little…furth—.”

The sound of a gun going off is deafening in the small confines of the stairwell.

The men above hear it easily and, as one, race for the door to the cellar. Poteet reaches it first. “Doc! Cap! Are you guys alright?”

Dakota’s voice drifts up from the darkness below. “Just fine.” She stares at the charred, ragged hole in her brother’s shirt cuff. “Nice reflexes there, Tex.”

“Jesus. That was almost your head, chunkshi !”

“But it wasn’t, thanks to you.” She peers down the rest of the stairs. “How’s the gut now?”

“As soon as it stops digesting my heart, I’ll let you know.”

Reaching up, she gives his large, warm hand a squeeze. “Thanks, thiblo . I owe you one.”

“Nah,” he shrugs, trying to sound offhand and not exactly succeeding, “that’s what big brothers are for, right?”

“Riiight,” she drawls before beginning her descent once again. She reaches the floor when her brother’s voice halts her steps. “Another twinge?”

“Just making sure,” as he steps off the last stair and moves around her, his light sweeping in arcs across the floor and reflecting off of the dozens of wooden packing crates stacked along the length and breadth of the mid-sized cellar. He whistles soft and low. “How in the hell did he get a hold of all this?”

“Probably the same way he was able to openly sell illegal weapons in his storefront,” Koda replies, looking past the muscled bulk of her brother’s body. Spotting something out of the corner of her eye, she freezes. “Tacoma, shine your like back this way.”

“What way?”

“Toward that packing crate with the crowbar on it. Yeah that one.” Her eyes narrow, trying to recapture what she’s sure she’s seen. “Anything look fishy to you?”

“I’m not the one with the eagle eyes here, sis.” Still, he does his best. “No, don’t see anything but a few dust motes. What do you see?”

“Not sure. Move the light to your right, slowly. There. What does that look like to you?”

Concentrating on holding the light steady, he squints and spies a thin, translucent thread from the crowbar’s forked end to the ceiling rafter above it. “Well, it’s either a tripwire, or a cobweb. It’s sagging in the middle, so I’d go for old cobweb, but I wouldn’t bet your life on it, chunkshi .”

Taking the flashlight from his hands, she shines it along the walls and ceiling, eyes straining for any glimpse of weaponry or other lethal surprises. There is nothing that she can see, but her instincts, once alerted, refuse to be quieted.

“Squat down.” As her brother follows her instructions, Dakota hands him back the flashlight, digs into the pocket of her jeans and pulls out the keys to the APC. “Get ready to duck….”

“Dakota–.”

With an easy underhand motion, she tosses the keys so that they break through the thin thread above the crowbar. In the same motion, the covers her brother’s body with her own, pushing him to the floor. A split second later, four miniature crossbows let loose their bolts, one from each side of the room, all set to intersect through the plane of space that anyone who had hefted the crowbar would be occupying—a space that is, thankfully, empty.

“Can you let me up now, Koda?” Tacoma’s muffled voice filters up from beneath her. “This moldy cement is giving me hives.”

Carefully, Dakota leans back, eyes alert for any further danger. Thankfully, all remains quiet, and she helps her brother sit up.

Tacoma looks over his shoulder at the crossbow bolt driven halfway through the cheap plywood wall at the level of where his head would have been had his sister not pushed him down. He lets out a slow breath, then gifts Koda with a small grin. “Guess we’re even now, huh?”

Laughing, she slaps his meaty shoulder. “You are such a goober.”

“Yeah, yeah, you say that now .” Rising easily to his feet, he reaches down a hand and helps her up. “Shall we see what Santa Skin-Head left us for Christmas?”

******

Koda eases Redtail One out of the small shopping center’s parking lot, followed by the other trucks in the convoy. The back wheels answer sluggishly to the steering wheel; the lead vehicle, like the others, is packed from bed to canopy with crates of small arms and the ammunition to go with them. Old Boney had been a desultory desultory sort of right-winger, not much into doctrinaire survivalism himself but willing to capitalize on the kind of paranoia that drove self-styled “militiamen” to indulge in black helicopter fantasies and stock up on illegal weapons, all against the day that the commies came swarming over the Pole. Or the federal government, whichever arrived first.

Terrence, on the other hand, had been a nutjob’s nutjob. When Sister Rosalie had assigned a book report on a “classic” in seventh grade— and by “classic” she had meant something like David Copperfield or The Last of the Mohicans —Terrence had turned in a glowing review of The Turner Diaries . Some of the literature they had found along with the guns had been considerably more radical. If Terrence had lived through the uprising, she had no doubt he would be yelling “I told you so!” to anyone who would listen.

But Terrence had been into droids, especially the military models. He’d even bought a surplus metalhead or two and had been trying to modify them for what he’d termed “commando operations.”

Live by the droid, die by the droid.

Beside her, Poteet turns his handsome new Bowie knife over in his hands. Once they had cracked the store, they had had to empty it down to the slingshots and Swiss Army can openers or risk the weapons’ getting loose in the population. Which would not have been a problem in nine cases out of ten. But the variety and extent of Terrence’s stock indicated a considerable customer base. And there was bound to be more than one surviving wingnut out there, more than one surviving Dietrich. Not the kind of folk one would want to trust with mortars and grenades and LAAW rockets.

“Eyes on the street, Joe,” she says quietly. “There’s more weapons like these out there, and not all are upstanding citizens like us.”

“Ma’am,” he says with a guilty glance up at her. Then he sets his prize aside and takes up his M-16 again, laying it lightly across his knees.

Koda flashes him a smile to let him know he’s not in trouble and glances into the rearview mirror. The other three trucks follow closely behind, all of them as heavily laden as Redtail One. Casually Dakota waves at the line of kids and teenagers standing across the street, watching as she and her party relieve Boney’s establishment of his inventory. She says, “They’re gonna be real disappointed we didn’t leave them anything.”

“Looks like folks have liberated just about everything that’s not nailed down.”

“And a few things that were.” Navigating around the hulks of cars left standing in the street, Koda gestures toward and abandoned house. The windows gape black, the glass lifted out, not broken; the wall studs stand bare like ribs where clapboard siding has been pried away, possibly for building, more likely for fuel. A couple blocks down, a six-foot-high plank fence with an iron gate surrounds another house.

“You know, ma’am, it could all still go to hell,” Poteet observes.

Koda shoots him a brief glance, noting the solemnity on his rawboned face. “In a heartbeat, Joe.”

Further along, the houses give way to a strip of used car lots and other businesses, all of them broken open with splinters of glass still scattered on the sidewalks, glittering now in the afternoon sun, their doors hanging loose on twisted hinges. A church still stands mostly intact; outside a branch bank a handful of twenty-dollar bills, bleached grey by the weather, skid along the gutter as a breeze gusts by.

Koda turns left to regain the Interstate, taking a different route than the one they had followed coming in. Maybe the wingnut paranoia is beginning to rub off, she reflects; given their firepower, there is no real possibility of ambush. Still, best not to advertise where they have been or become predictable.

At the next turn, the wind brings the sound of shouting, a man’s deep voice and, incongruously, the squeals and laughter of small children. A block down the street stands the venerable brick façade of St. Boniface’s church and school, and the voices grow louder as Koda pulls level with it. On the playground two small children ride the seesaws up and down, while another pumps his legs to carry the swing higher and higher. A veiled woman watches over them from a flight of steps leading up into the building, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes fixed on the knot of adults gathered at the picnic tables under a small grove of pine trees.

More veiled women, and for a moment time slips and it comes to Koda that the nuns have somehow returned. But most of the women wear jeans and sweaters; the few men, denim and Stetsons. All but one.

Standing on one of the concrete picnic tables, he leans on a tall cross made of two branches roughly lashed together. His beard, liberally sprinkled with grey, cascades past his collar, and his long hair stirs in the breeze. Before his ears dangle long, corkscrew curls, though Koda would bet her ranch and all the stock on it that he is no Hassid. He wears a cassock buttoned almost to the throat; on his chest lies a large cross, also crudely made from twigs. She slows the convoy, rolling down her window to hear more clearly.

“. . .only a righteous remnant left here on earth to endure the Tribulation. In those days, says the Prophet Isaiah, seven women will lay hold of one man, saying ‘be our husband.’ The time was when women could refuse their duty to the Lord and to their husbands, but no more. The man-faced scorpions of the Tribulation, sent by God to cleanse his earth of the unrighteous, have killed not a tenth part of mankind but nine out of ten. We let a woman rule over us, and this is God’s just punishment for our disobedience. Now we must restore the order God meant for us to live in. Let no woman have authority, but be in all submission, and if she would learn anything, let her ask her husband. But let her remember her real purpose, and that is the bearing of children.”

Frowning, Koda counts up the veiled women. Seven. The preacher’s “wives?” Two, at least, look under age, fifteen or so. “We’re gonna need to get some civilian law enforcement in here,” Joe mutters. “Next thing you know ol’ Judah there’s gonna start serving Kool-Aid.”

Koda gives him a sharp look. “You know this guy?”

“Know him? Nah.” Poteet shakes his head. “But I’ve seen him preaching on the streets or in parks a few times I was in town on weekends. Calls himself Judah ben Israel now, but I think it was Brother Sam Something before. Cops hauled him off once when he was baptizing folks in the Civic Center fountain during a concert.”

She has head enough. Judah ben Israel, is something they should have known was coming. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the framework of the law to deal with him, unless they can find a way to enforce the age of consent laws. Koda presses the gas pedal, speeding up the truck, and heads back to the relative sanity of the Base.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
Dawn is still several hours away, but Kirsten is wide awake, her lover’s pillow clutched tightly against her chest as she stares at the blackened ceiling above. Her body still hums with the sweet energy of their lovemaking less than half an hour ago, and she already misses Dakota’s passionate presence. “The things you make me feel,” she murmurs into the still, humid air. She remembers the look Koda gave her when she thought she was sleeping. The tenderness and adoration emanating from those magnificent eyes was as palpable to Kristen as a caress, laying itself over the parts of her that were still wounded and raw from a lifetime standing on the outside, and making her feel, for that one wondrous moment in time, whole.

A sinking surge of guilt hits her belly and she rolls from the bed, pushing her lover’s pillow away from her as if she doesn’t deserve the comfort it holds. And in truth, perhaps she doesn’t. Keeping her plans from Dakota was the hardest thing she’d ever done. Compared to that, walking unarmed into Minot had been child’s play. What is it they say? Act first, apologize later, right?

She has the sinking feeling that no amount of contrition will ever make up for her silence of last night and this morning.

Please, God. Let her understand.

Striding into the bathroom, she turns on the tap and stands under the frigid spray, letting the stinging, icy water chase the thoughts and emotions from her. Her face, like her soul, grows stony, and by the time the water is once again silent, she resembles the very androids she is going after.

She dresses quickly and steps into the darkened living room. Koda had left one lamp burning low on the hearth, and its somber light casts Asi’s curled body into flickering shadow. Having gone out earlier with Dakota, he merely looks up at his master, tail thumping companionably against the hearthstone. A slight smile cracks Kirsten’s icy veneer, and squatting, she strokes his noble head, then hugs him close for a moment, allowing herself to enjoy his soft warmth and unwavering affection.

After a long moment, she pulls away and stands, looking down at him. “You be good today, you hear me?”

He looks up at her, slightly outraged, as if “good” isn’t his middle name.

Correctly interpreting the look, Kirsten rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and turns away, grabbing her laptop and the silver case she’s brought with her from the bedroom. Plucking a set of keys from their hook just inside the door, she lets herself out into the cool night.

Feeling a bit like a criminal, she stands at the driveway and looks carefully up and down the street. All is quiet, and dark, and, satisfied, she makes her way toward Koda’s truck. As she reaches the vehicle, a soft voice sounds behind her, causing her to jump and turn, body braced for a fight.

“Jesus, Lieutenant!” she gasps as the tall, muscled and incredibly handsome man steps out from the shadows. “You scared me!”

“Sorry about that, Ma’am,” he replies, touching the brim of his cap in salute and smiling at her.

“What are you doing lurking in the bushes in the middle of the night?”

“Following orders, Ma’am.”

“Orders? Who’s orders?”

“The Colonel’s, Ma’am. I’m part of your night guard.”

Kirsten’s eyes narrow. “Night guard?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I see. And does Doctor Rivers know about this?”

The lieutenant’s grin returns. “She does. I just talked to the Doc this morning, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh, you did, did you?” Placing her articles on the hood of the truck, she crosses her arms. “And what did she have to say?”

The grin fades slowly. “Well, Ma’am, she said that if anything happened to you while she was away, she’d flay me alive.”

Kirsten snorts. “Well, I wouldn’t want that to happen.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“So, you’re coming with me.”

Jackson snaps to attention. “Of course, Ma’am. Where are we going?”

Her smile is mystery itself. “Oh…you’ll see.”

*******

Dakota’s Cougar 2 hums along the blacktop leading north from Ellsworth to the ruins of Minot. Cougar 1, leading the convoy, bristles with armament: like all the APC’s in the line, it mounts a machine gun on its roof, minded by a soldier with one hand on its swivel and the other on her own M-16. Cougar 1 also carries a spotter with binoculars, sprouting up out of the moonroof to keep company with the gunner. So far they have met nothing but the empty highway. Almost a meter high, grass grows along the shoulders to the very edge of the asphalt, with here and there a green shoot springing up on the tarmac itself. There are no wrecks here, and no roadkilled four-foots. The whole caravan had almost come to grief within an hour of setting out, when a mother skunk had led her line of five offsping across the pavement in aloof indifference to the trucks, and Tacoma had run Cougar 1 off onto the shoulder with the four following vehicles screeching to a halt bumper to bumper behind it.

“Shit, Cap, you crazy?” Sergeant Greg Townsend had bellowed from two APC’s back, leaning out of the driver’s window, his face beet red from the spring sun and the barely avoided accident.

“Hell, no, city boy.” Tacoma’s laughter had come over the walkie-talkie. “Better to kiss a telephone pole than hit a skunk, any day.”

After that, they had strung out at a safer distance. From the front seat of Cougar 2, Koda can see Larke’s abbreviated ponytail fluttering like a pennant in the wind created by the APC’s speed as he leans his elbows on the roof of the lead vehicle to brace his optics. Regulations be damned, many of the soldiers and airmen of Ellsworth have taken to growing their hair. Only the pilots, whose coiffure has to fit the confines of a helmet, have remained impervious to the new fashion statement.

Closer to, Dakota has a view of Cougar 2’s driver, Catcham, and Joe Poeteet’s camo-clad legs, the top half of their gunner invisible beyond the roof. Most of the time, though, she keeps her elbows propped on her knees, studying the country through her own pair Swarovski 10×50’s. There has been no sign of the enemy, though the tall grass would give ambushers excellent cover. Once she has seen the tall humps of buffalo lumbering along the horizon; twice, small herds of horses who have survived, still patched and shabby looking with the unshed straggles of their winter coats. She feels untethered, somehow, not quite in the present, not sure whether they are moving through the past or the future. It is a sensation that has lingered every since her vision in the sweat lodge, a sense that she is neither who nor where nor when she once was.

All perfectly normal, according to Ate.

“Halfway mark, Ma’am,” Catcham observes, pointing at the odometer. “We’ve been in North Dakota for the last twenty minutes or so.”

Koda nods her thanks. They will bypass Bismarck and Mandan to the east, making

directly for the base. They should arrive in time for a bit of recon, camp for the night and head back tomorrow afternoon with a cargo of whatever small arms they can pick up and a notion of whether or not it is feasible to try to collect a B-52 or so. Maggie has flatly refused to risk her remaining pilots on a scouting mission, no matter how Manny begged or cajoled or argued. Certainly one or two of the behemoths will come in handy if it becomes necessary to destroy yet another Air Force installation. Her cousin’s account of the F-15 fighter over Offut has raised a number of possibilities, all of them unpleasant.

Because if the droids have acquired the ability to strafe them from the air, they have lost their one great advantage in the upcoming confrontation. Their own air power will have to be deployed to counter the enemy craft and will no longer be available to cover the ground forces or even the civilians of Rapid City.

Still less will there be backup for the settlement coalescing around the Rivers’ ranch. No more will there be any defense for them.

Koda thumbs the button on her walkie-talkie. “Yo, thiblo. Seen anything up there yet?”

“Nothing since we took evasive action to get out of the way of Mama Skunk and her family this morning.”

“Evasive action, my ass. We nearly had a pile-up.”

“And you’d rather stink of skunk for the next three weeks? There ain’t that much tomato juice left in the world, sis. Besides, you got it all wrong. That was a squad of indigenous freedom fighters. One cadre and five enlisted, equipped with chemical weapons.”

The radio falls silent, and the miles slip by. The high grass seems to stretch forever, overgrowing the prairie, the pastureland, fields harrowed for the winter before the ice sank into the soil, petrifying it as surely as the passage of uncounted time. This, it comes to Koda, is Ina Maka reclaiming herself, giving birth to a new family of children, winged and four-footed and finned, the standing people and the stones. The only question that remains is how or whether the human two-foots will have a place in the new world. Or no, that is not quite right. The question is whether humans will live free in the universe that their own creations have brought into being. The question is whether they can survive in large enough numbers to create a stable population, and having done so, whether they can live with each other without sinking into tribal warfare.

If they survive this battle, their first priority must be to make contact with other surviving communities and make alliance with them.

Or, the unpleasant thought intrudes, subjugate them.

Do you want to become a conqueror, Dakota Rivers? Do you want Kirsten to become a dictator, the iron fist that forces the population back into technological society at the point of a machine gun?

No?

Well, then, do you want to allow some old coot who thinks he is God’s administrative assistant to “marry” fourteen-year-old girls by the half dozen?

Somewhere there has to be a balance between the two, some territory marked by common sense and respect for one’s neighbors and the workings of democracy. And somewhere, on this land that her people have lived on time out of mind, there is the pattern of a new and ancient compact between human and four-foot, human and winged, human and Ina Maka herself. Despite the cloud that shadows the battle to come, she knows that that, nothing less, is the quest that awaits her on the other side of blood and death.

Koda steadies her binoculars and sweeps the horizon for the thousandth time. Move over Galahad, she thinks wryly. Compared to this, the Grail was a slam-dunk.

The first sign of trouble appears some ten miles south of Max, North Dakota, arcing over a shaggy forty-acre pasture from the windbreak along its northern border. The grenade lands some twenty feet in front of Cougar 1, gouging a hole in the tarmac and spraying the lead APC with a rain of melted tar and minute asphalt pellets. Koda has just time to see Cougar 1 veer off the road, Larke raising one arm to shield his face from the spatter of liquefied pavement, and to register the incongruous roar of the explosive when another round impacts the spot they had occupied a fraction of a heartbeat ago.

“Motherfucker!” someone bellows from the truck behind her, and flame from a return round blossoms along the treeline, its glare picking out a flurry of movement in the shadow of the trees. Then nothing.

Tacoma scrambles out of Cougar 1, careful to avoid the recklessly canted driver’s door as it clangs shut behind him. “Two of you come with me! The rest stay with the trucks!”

Not turning to see who follows, he slogs into the grass, still only knee-high by the roadside. With a wave of her hand to Poteet, Koda follows, pausing to exchange a grin with her brother where he holds down the lowest two strands of barbed wire so that they can duck into the sea of waist-high purple-top that was once a cultivated field. Some stalks, grown tall, brush at her face, their deep burgundy seeds shining along their spikes like garnets dangling on golden scepters.

“Spread out.” Tacoma waves them off to either side of him. “Watch your footing. Keep your eyes on that ridge.”

Tacoma sets off through the grass, its deep green parting for him, then closing like a wake behind him. Koda strikes out a few yards to his left, Poteet to the other side. She holds her rifle high, ready to fire without aiming at their attackers’ position, but, like Tacoma, she suspects that they are already gone. They may have simply fled in the face of greater numbers and bigger guns. Or they may have abandoned their position to report to whoever stationed them here.

Which would be a troubling thought all by itself, but Manny’s flight over Offut has only confirmed what they already knew. The remnants of Ellsworth and Rapid City are not the only survivors of the uprising, nor the only armed survivors. The F-15 her cousin met in the sky over Nebraska might have gone east when he outran it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t take off from Minot.

And if it did, we’ve got a whole lot of trouble, right where we don’t need it.

Right when we don’t need it.

Tacoma tops the rise slightly ahead of Poteet and Koda. She watches as he sweeps the

line of sight with the muzzle of his rifle, head up and alert for movement, then drop it to part the grass at his feet.

No one home.

Lowering her gun, she sprints the rest of the way up the side of the windbreak to join her brother. The grass along the ridge lies broken and beaten down where two men have crouched to set up a grenade launcher, its abandoned tube tossed down halfway to the narrow blacktop road blow. By the roadside twin ruts run through the grass and weeds, a partial tire pattern visible where it has been printed in dust on the asphalt.

“Shit,” Koda observes.

Tacoma glances at her sharply, one side of his mouth canting up in a crooked smile. “Oh yeah. This road’s still got enough traffic that they pull off to park. Not good. Not good at all.”

“What now, Cap?” A frown crosses Poteet’s sunburned face. “Any chance these guys are friendlies?”

“Well, they don’t seem to think we’re friendlies, and I’m gonna defer to their opinion until proven otherwise.” He shoulders his rifle and heads back down the slope. “From now on, we keep close, drive fast, and shoot first.”

*******

Bright sunlight streams through the windshield, almost blinding Jackson. Squinting, he flips down the visor, but that action brings no relief. With a grumbling sigh, he turns his head to look at his Commander-in-Chief, who is currently humming a song he can’t begin to identify as the passing wind tousles her golden hair.

“Problem, Lieutenant?” Kirsten asks, not taking her shaded eyes from the deserted access road before her.

“No, Ma’am. Except….”

“Except?”

“Well…could you maybe clue me in as to where we’re going?”

“You’ll know soon enough, Lieutenant. We’re almost there.”

This statement does nothing to calm the fears of a man who has spent the last three plus hours imagining one Doctor Dakota Rivers filleting him with a butter knife and dragging what’s left over shards of broken glass. He seriously, albeit briefly, considers jerking open the door, diving out, and taking his chances with the androids, or whatever other unsavory characters make up this stretch of backwater nowhere. His reverie is disrupted by a gentle pat to the knee.

“Don’t worry, Lieutenant,” Kirsten comments, smirking as she divines his thoughts. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“I, uh, think that’s supposed to be the other way around, Ma’am.”

Kirsten’s laughter is rich and surprisingly uncomplicated, and he decides he likes it, even though, in the end, the privilege of hearing it will likely cost him latrine duty for the rest of his natural life. And beyond.

A short time later, he feels the truck slow, and watches as it pulls to a stop behind a large, thick copse of trees. It’s not what he expected, but years in the military have him prepared for almost anything. “I take it, Ma’am, that you didn’t drive us all the way out here just to commune with nature.”

Kirsten laughs again as she gathers her things. “You guessed right, Lieutenant. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.” She levels her sternest look at him. “Stay in the truck, if you please.”

With a sigh, he gives in to her soft-voiced command, slumping back against the seat and waiting for whatever may come.

‘Whatever’ comes sooner than he expects as he suddenly finds himself staring into a pair of android eyes. The only thing that keeps him from depressing the trigger of his weapon is the smile beneath those eyes; a smile that he has come to be acquainted with these past several hours. He blinks, shakes his head, then blinks again. The vision does not change. “M-Ma’am? Ms. President?”

“In the flesh, so to speak. You like?”

“If ‘like’ suddenly means ‘get the shit scared out of’, then yes, Ma’am, I like.”

Chuckling, Kirsten holds up a hand. “Here, take this.”

The cup of his palm suddenly holds a blob of flesh colored plastic. He looks at her inquiringly.

“Put it in your ear.”

With a bit of skepticism, he does as she asks, surprised to find the device sits easily in his ear canal.

“Good. Can you hear me?”

“Yes, but….”

Kirsten lifts a brow.

“Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but you’re like six inches away. It’d be pretty impossible not to hear you.”

“You have a point,” Kirsten replies dryly. “Hang on a second.” She disappears behind the truck. “Can you hear me now?”

“You sound like one of those old time cellphone commercials, Ma’am.”

“Should I take that as a ‘yes’, Lieutenant?”

Jackson fights the urge to snap off a salute. “Yes, Ma’am. I can hear you fine, Ma’am.”

“Good.” The android face appears in front of Jackson, taking another few years off of his life. “Now, this is what I need for you to do Lieutenant. See those trees over there?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I want you to patrol them, but stay hidden. Just beyond them is a small manufacturing plant. I have some business to attend to there. You’ll be guarding my back.”

“With all respect, Ma’am,” he protests, “wouldn’t it be easier to guard your back if I could actually see it?”

Reaching through the rolled down window, Kirsten claps Jackson’s broad shoulder. “Not this time, Lieutenant. I need to do this alone.”

“But–.”

Kirsten’s face goes stony. “No ‘buts’, Lieutenant. I’ve given you a direct order, and I expect you to obey it. Without comment, and without question.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” he shoots back, “but your safety is more important than any order you could give me. I can’t—I won’t let you walk into some unknown structure alone and unprotected.”

“You can, and you will, Lieutenant Jackson.” Taking a breath, she consciously reins in her temper and softens her voice. “Darius, you can’t come with me.”

“Why? Would you just mind telling me that, please, Ma’am? You’ve kept me in the dark for hours now, and I think I at least deserve something! Please?”

She looks at him for a long moment, then nods. “Did you hear the story of what happened at Minot?”

“Bits and pieces. I know you were there to try and get the android code.”

“I was. And if your General Hart hadn’t decided, against all good sense, to bomb the place to smithereens, we might not be in the trouble we’re in right now.” She takes a deep breath, and lets it out slowly, forcefully pushing away the memories of that time. “I have another chance, Darius. Not the same chance, but a good one. And as much as I value your protection, if you come with me, that chance will never be realized. Can you understand?”

“Not really, Ma’am. But…I accept your reasoning. I just—need to help, in some way.”

“Believe me,” she replies, relieved beyond measure, “you will be. That earpiece will allow you to hear everything that’s going on. I’ll be able to communicate with you through it, and if I sense any trouble, you’ll be the first to know.”

“How?”

“I’ll say….” She thinks about it for a moment, then smiles. “Nun lila hopa.”

“Nun lila hopa,” he repeats dutifully. “What does it mean?”

Kirsten blushes faintly. “That doesn’t matter. For our purposes, it means ‘Lieutenant Jackson, your presence is required, NOW!'”

He laughs a little, though his insides are twisted up tighter than a roll of barbed wire and every instinct he possesses is screaming for him to grab her, throw her in the truck, and hightail it back to the base, damn the consequences. Still…. “Okay, Ma’am. I got it.” He looks up at the sky. “How long to you think it’ll take?”

“A few hours, no more. I’ll let you know when I’m headed back, okay?”

“It’s not okay, but I’ll follow your orders, Ms. President.”

Kirsten smiles. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll see you soon.”

A moment later, she’s gone.

*******

“Ho. Ly. Shit.”

Koda stares across the field, in wordless agreement with her brother. Behind them, Larke lets out a long, low whistle. “Dayyyum,” he says. “You didn’t put any funny medicine woman stuff in the water, did you Ma’am?”

“Nope,” she answers, not quite believing it herself. “It’s really there.”

“It” looks like nothing so much as an extraterrestrial grasshopper, from Jupiter maybe, with heavy, drooping wings and squinting compact eyes, squatting in the middle of the prairie that stretches away to the horizon. The curves of the intake turbines of the twinned jet engines, though, just visible above the tall grass, name it for what it is.

“A B-52,” Tacoma adds. “A. Fucking. B-52.”

Slashed across the field from northwest to southeast, the scar of its landing shows bare earth gouged up to either side; a fine dust covers its metal skin from the nose back. The crash, or forced landing, depending on how one views it, is recent; the binoculars show no sign of green sprung up on the low berms ploughed up by the bomber’s skid over the pasture. Koda lowers her optics and says quietly, “Get the Geiger counter, Larke.”

“You think there’s nukes on board, Ma’am?” he asks as he turns back to the line of vehicles parked on the shoulder.

Dakota shrugs. “All we know right now is that if there are, they didn’t go off. What we need to know is whether they’ve been breached.” Larke goes white to the gills, and she adds, “If they’re there at all.”

When he has gone, Tacoma says quietly, “All right, we know someone’s still up at Minot. Someone who’s trying to fly nuclear bombers.”

“Not very successfully, it seems,” Koda answers.

“Not this time. Maybe next.”

Koda nods. “Maybe next, thiblo. Or maybe the time after that. If they have another crew.”

Tacoma looks from the downed plane to his sister and back. He says musingly, “Not likely, is it? I don’t think Ellsworth could muster a full crew for one of those monsters; Manny and Andrews sure as hell aren’t qualified on the heavy stuff, and I doubt the Colonel herself is. And the droids have to have hit Minot even harder than they did us. We got a rogue on our hands, tanski.”

“Take him out?”

“If we can. Or make an alliance. You see a third possibility?”

It’s a no-brainer. “We can’t leave an unknown at our backs. Not this close. Not now.”

Larke arrives with the Geiger counter, and Koda takes it from him. The readout remains at normal levels as she walks it toward the wreckage of the plane. There is no need to check for injured. Once she is within ten meters of the derelict, she sees the white lime left by carrion birds along the edge of the wing; a little closer, and the smell reaches her. Confirmation, if she needs it, that the pilot or pilots did not survive.

Interesting that no one came to bury them. But droids would hardly bother, if droid experiment it was.

On the other hand, a band of marauders—ambitious marauders at that—was unlikely to have sentimental feelings for one another.

Koda snaps the cover over the readout and heads back toward the line of APC’s waiting by the road. “No radiation here. The trouble’s up ahead.” She grins. “Let’s not keep it waiting.”
CHAPTER FORTY
Pushing all non-essential thoughts from her mind, Kirsten strolls onto the grounds of the plant as if she has every right to be there. Which, she considers, given her recent promotion to the head of what’s left of the free world, she does.

Her computer enhanced senses assure her that the building is unguarded, which makes sense, since its unprepossessing façade hardly screams out “We’re making killer androids here!” Taking in a deep, cleansing breath, she grasps the door handle with her free hand and pulls. The door opens easily, silently, on well-oiled hinges, letting out a blast of chilled air. Huh. Air conditioning. Almost forgot what that felt like.

The air smells musty and canned, and she finds herself wrinkling her nose, and blinking at the sudden over-brightness of the fluorescent lighting that bathes the sterile, empty reception area.

Huh. Guess I’m getting used to this Robinson Crusoe stuff after all. After a moment, she straightens her shoulders and drops the emotionless mask back over her features. Ok, kiddo, showtime. Let’s get it right this time, hmm?

Striding through the empty room as if she hasn’t a care in the world, she pulls open the heavy glass door to the factory proper and steps through. Her senses are immediately assailed with the heavy scent of oil and machinery, but she takes it in stride, and approaches the neatly dressed android facing her. His scan hums along her ear canals, tickling against the tiny hairs there. When it finally comes to a stop, she looks at him directly. “I have been programmed to download a patch into your system. 7-E23-1267AA-349.”

“I was unaware of such an order, Biodroid 42A-77.”

Kirsten lifts her laptop and places it on the desk in front of the man. “All the instructions are here, should you wish to verify.”

The scan is more direct this time, deeper and harder, and she fights the urge to clamp her hands over her ears as the drilling pain shoots along her nerve endings in agonizing pulses of pure energy.

The pain stops as abruptly as it begins, and Kirsten is hard-pressed not to gasp for air. She knows her heart is pounding quickly, but hopes the android will take it as a normal response for her model. If not, she’s dead. She has no illusions about that.

“Proceed to the computer room, Biodroid 42A-77.”

Very careful to mask her relief, Kirsten moves off in the direction indicated, looking neither right nor left until she stands before another glass door. The computer room is, as expected, scarcely furnished and icy cold. Mainframe servers take up space along all of the walls, humming, whirring and chittering complacently to themselves.

Walking over to the central desk, she places her laptop down and seats herself on the more-or-less comfortable office chair. As her computer boots up, she taps the keys on the loaded desktop sitting beside it. Less than surprisingly, the passwords haven’t been changed since the uprising, and she is able to get into the system easily.

Quickly scanning down the standard list of codes, she stops as she reaches the area where the “suicide bomber” aspect of the androids’ “personality” is encoded. “Interesting,” she whispers softly, squinting slightly to try and unblur the huge string of binary staring back at her. Shoulda remembered to make these damn contacts prescription.

Easily changing the view from ‘read only’, she clicks the cursor at the beginning of the added code, then takes out the wire needed to mate the two computers. That done, she drags the blinking cursor over a certain area, then hits the ‘enter’ key on her laptop, and sits back as her computer begins to disgorge its altered information. She can feel her heart rate pick up as she waits out the download, hoping beyond hope that she’s not tripping some alarm system down the line. A quick scan before the download told her that wouldn’t be the case, but she can’t help worrying nonetheless.

Several tension filled moments later, the words download complete appear on the screen, and Kirsten finds herself taking her first full, unencumbered breath of the afternoon. Fingers flying over the keyboard, she builds a secure site, then launches a test program, eyes darting across the screen as she watches the new code in action. “Perfect,” she announces to the empty room, before dumping the test program and erasing all traces of its existence.

Just as she’s about to power down her laptop, the door swings open and another android steps through, staring down at her through his emotionless, dead doll’s eyes. “You will explain and demonstrate the new parameters of the patch you have just installed.”

Ohhh shit! I knew this was too damn easy. Think, Kirsten, think. Don’t screw up now, or you’re dead.

“Your heart and respiratory rate mnemonics show an increase of 7.34%, Biodroid 42A-77. In a human, this would indicate nervousness.”

“I am programmed to mimic human autonomic response to a multitude of different stimuli, 16617-398PZ.”

“Noted. Continue.”

Kirsten’s mind races a mile a minute as she desperately tries to think up a story that will placate the killing machine standing a foot away from her. An idea slides into her mind so perfectly that it seems to her as if some outside force has placed it there. Her fingers quickly map out an alternate test pattern as she eyes the android steadily. “As you know, the units here are currently programmed to detonate upon the acquisition of human targets. However, given that a small but noteworthy number of humans have joined together with the standard units, the probability is significant that a one or more of these units will detonate within a mixed group, causing unneeded collateral damage.” She holds up a hand, finger pointed to the ceiling. “Normally, such collateral damage to standard units would not cause difficulty, but with the factory at Minot now substantially out of commission, every android unit is needed to continue its task to completion.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Therefore,” she continues, lowering her hand to continue her character mapping, “I have been programmed with a patch that will cause these special units to avoid any human target that is detected within the presence of standard units, and only to detonate when it finds human readings alone.”

Crossing mental fingers, she turns the monitor toward her listener, and presses ‘enter’. “The flashing red number is our special unit, adapted with the patch. The flashing black numbers are human and android targets. The flashing blue numbers are human targets alone.”

Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease….

As if reading her thoughts, the tiny red number veers away from the group of black numbers and heads into the very center of the blue group. A split-second later, the entire screen flashes, and when it steadies, a line of numbers scrolls down the monitor, ending with a flashing black 78% target acquisition.

Oh, thank you God!

“Does this scenario meet with your satisfaction?” she asks.

“Affirmative,” the droid replies after a moment. “Will there be anything else that you require?”

“Yes. This patch only ties in to the original manufacturing mainframe. If you have any completed units that have not yet been released, I’ll need to apply it to them as well.”

“Acknowledged. If you will follow me, I will lead you to them.”

“Affirmative.”

Powering down her laptop, Kirsten rises from her chair and follows the android out of the room, through a series of intersecting corridors, and down a well-lit stairwell into the basement of the manufacturing plant. The room is large, spotless, and completely dust free. It is also filled with row upon row of deactivated androids, looking like something out of one of those ancient television shows. The Outer Limits, perhaps. Or the Twilight Zone. Kirsten suppresses a shiver as she eyes the stringless puppets awaiting their Master’s bidding.

As she steps closer, she notices something that causes her very soul to grow cold.

These particular androids aren’t only human-like. If she didn’t know, with one hundred percent certainty, that they are simply made of high quality organic plastics and computer chips, she would swear that they are, in fact, human. Gone are the silver circlets around their necks. Gone are the dark, dead eyes that seem to absorb all light. These eyes, these faces, have expression, human expression, and Kirsten feels her mouth go dry at the implication.

Jesus. I have to let Maggie and Dakota know right away. We could be harboring these monstrosities right under our noses without even knowing it. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

She’s brought back to the present by a cord entering her field of vision, held by the ever-helpful android to her left.

“These units are connected to the secondary computer at the pedal terminus.”

Accepting the cord, Kirsten looks down and notices that the androids, twenty five in all and lined up in neat rows of five, are all standing on a metal strip. The cord she’s holding trails out from the far left side of that strip. “Acknowledged,” she comments finally, placing her laptop on the computer desk and connecting the wire to its back.

“Is there anything further that you require?”

“Neg—Affirmative.”

The droid looks at her. She’s sure if it was within its programming to lift an eyebrow, it would be doing so right about now.

“I’ll be appropriating one of these units for a field trail when I leave.”

The pain hits again, like a high-speed dental drill being slowly shoved into her ear canal. Mercifully it stops before she decides to slit her own wrists just to stop the torment.

“Affirmative,” the droid remarks. “If there is nothing else you require, I will leave you to your tasks.”

“That’ll be all.”

******

As Kirsten pushes her way through the last of the trees, she finds herself face to muzzle with an automatic weapon. Even though she recognizes the man who wields the weapon, instinct stops her strides, and her hands go up, palms out.

“It’s alright, Ma’am,” Jackson says, meeting her eyes quickly before returning his gaze to the man in back of her. “Just step to my right. I’ve got the asshole covered.”

Instead of stepping away, Kirsten instead steps forward. Raising a hand, she gently pushes the muzzle of the weapon to the left and holds the Lieutenant’s startled gaze. “Relax, Darius. He’s one of the good guys.”

“Good guys, Ma’am? You mean there were humans there?”

“He’s not human, Lieutenant.”

The weapon comes back up, a long dark finger tightening on the trigger. Once again, Kirsten pushes it away. “Stand down, Lieutenant. That’s an order.”

She’s serious. He can tell that from the blazing emeralds all but soldering him to the ground at his feet. Deeply ingrained respect for a superior officer wars with his absolute need to keep said officer safe and whole.

“Do it, Lieutenant, or I’ll have my buddy Max here take that gun and twist it into a pretzel.”

“Max?”

“Unit MA-233142176-X-83,” the android helpfully supplies.

“Max.”

“You got it,” Kirsten replies, smiling slightly. “Now, are you gonna lower your weapon? I’d kinda like to get out of here.”

“Are we taking him…it…whatever, back with us to the base?” Jackson asks, disbelief plain in his voice.

“Not…exactly,” Kirsten smirks. “Let’s just say we’re gonna play a little game of hide and seek. We hide. He seeks.”

“And what is he going to be seeking, if you don’t mind my asking, Ma’am?”

Kirsten’s smile becomes positively predatory. “Androids.”

********

“Hey, soldier, how far is it to Minot?”

As the sentry turns, Koda steps in to wedge her thumbs in his elbows, going for the nerves. His rifle drops to dangle against his belly, and she deftly relieves him of it before it can hit the ground. Behind the guard, only the glint of his eyes visible by the quarter moon, Tacoma raises both fists and brings them down on the unprotected back of the man’s neck with a dull thud. He slumps, folding in on himself with a soft “Uhhhhh….”

Dakota breaks his fall, laying him out face down in the grass while Tacoma pulls his hands behind him, slipping a length of self-locking plastic into place around his wrists. “That’ll hold him for a while,” he breathes. “Let’s go.”

“Right behind you, thiblo.”

Tacoma slips into the tall grass before her, bending low to minimize the rippling wake in the purple spikes above him, black now in the moonlight except for the dangling chaff. Their shimmering silver echoes the moonsheen on Tacoma’s form, and Koda’s sight shifts almost imperceptibly to show her not a man but the lean, muscularity of a stalking cougar, his fur silver-gilt in the pale light. With that shift her own hearing becomes more acute, bringing her the small rustlings of mice and kangaroo rats as they go about their business under the shelter of the grass, bringing her the high-pitched whir of moth wings, the frequency so high it almost hurts her ears even now. Her feet go lightly among the tangled stems and roots, yet it seems to her that if she looks down she will see the rectangular print of wolf pads, the indentations of claws.

She does not look down.

This has happened to her before, but never with this intensity. Her vision in the sweat lodge has changed her in ways she does not yet understand. She does not look at her hands, either, as she holds the grass apart from her passage.

A faint, pale smudge to her left, seen intermittently as she slips along like a shadow, tells her that they are moving parallel to the ranch road, moving toward whoever or whatever the sentry has been set to guard. After a time the ground beneath her feet begins to slope and the grass to thin. It gives way to shorter plants, sidas and clover, bluebells with their dark cups, columbine with tails like shooting stars, white as ghosts under the moon. The ground opens up and flattens, and Tacoma crouches, making for a line of trees at a shambling run that only reinforces the unfocussed image of a tawny cat that overlays his own shape. Koda follows, her feet making no sound on crumbling earth and gravel. Great wings drift by overhead, and she shivers.

Owl. There is a death waiting in the night. She feels it in the chill of her blood, the touch of ice on her skin.

Not hers. Not Tacoma’s.

Dakota drops to her belly beside her brother where he lies among the trees, looking intently down at the ranch house and outbuildings a hundred yards ahead. Yellow light shows in the windows, soft and haloed. Kerosene lamps or candles, then, not electric. The space between the house and the barns is crowded close with vehicles: Jeeps in Air Force blue, desert camo Humvees, a pair of 60 millimeter guns on their own carriages. One barn also shows lights; the other stands dark. Barracks and ammo dump, most likely. There is no sign of droids. On the long, low porch of the house, an orange glimmer betrays a burning cigarette. Guard, probably.

Tacoma whistles almost soundlessly. “Got a bomb or two in your pocket, sis?”

“Left ’em back in the APC. Sorry.”

“We don’t have the firepower to take them, not even with the whole team.”

Koda’s blood stirs, hot and hungry and not entirely human. Her tongue runs along her lips. “Maybe,” she says. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“Such as?”

“We don’t need to take the weapons. Just the men.”

Tacoma’s finger jabs the darkness, counting the shapes in the farmyard. “There’s a dozen and a half transports and guns down there. Count three or four men for each one, and we’re outnumbered even without their firepower. The odds are still bad. We’ll have to skirt around them.”

“One on one is even odds.”

*******

“Unit grouping detected six-point-two-seven kilometers west-northwest of this position.”

From her place in the passenger’s seat, Kirsten looks over her shoulder at the android smushed in the tiny space in the back. “How many? Have they spotted us yet?”

“Fourteen. Negative. These units are equipped with line of sight technology only.”

“Ok, how close can we get to them before they spot us?”

“Two point three kilometers to the west of this position is a small ridge. Should you drive to the bottom of that ridge, you would be safe from their sensors. The pathway down is rather rutted and washed out, but I believe this vehicle is quite capable of making the descent with no untoward difficulties.”

“Thank you, Max. Jackson, you heard the droid. Let’s find that ridge and make tracks!”

The set of Jackson’s jaw lets Kirsten know just how much he likes the order he’s been given, but he follows it anyway, going, once again, against every single instinct that has kept him alive for the last of his twenty seven years.

“Darius,” she whispers, knowing the young man will hear her. “Please, trust me.”

After a moment, the stiff bundle of muscles at his jaw loosens just slightly. “I do trust you, Ma’am. It’s–.” His eyes flick to the rearview mirror, then back to the road in eloquent explanation.

“Trust me,” Kirsten repeats before hanging on for dear life as the truck pounds its way down the pitted, potholed road wannabe.

Several bone shaking moments later, they are at the bottom of the ridge, though Kirsten wonders if perhaps her stomach and kidneys are lying, quivering, back up at the top. “Wonder if you could call that an ‘untoward difficulty'”, she mutters, half to herself, earning a half grin from her driver and a purposefully blank stare from the android in the back.

Opening the door, she heaves her hurting carcass out of the truck, then eases the seatback over so that Max can extricate himself, which the android does with easy grace.

Too easy, Jackson thinks as he grabs his weapon. Exiting the truck, he places himself between his President and the android, taking no chances. Kirsten notices the move, but says nothing, satisfied for the moment that at least he’s not trying to ventilate their temporary ally.

They make their way up the rocky, vine-covered ridge until their heads are just below the lip. Max stops them there. “If you take care to keep hidden, you will be able to see the units just ahead.”

Jackson takes the lead, and peers over the very edge of the ravine. When his eyes clear the lip, he can see the westering sun glinting off of the plastic and metal casings of the androids. Kirsten quickly scrambles up beside him and likewise looks over the top. “Any idea what they’re doing?” she asks Max who hunkers down beside her—if, in fact, an android can ‘hunker’.

“I am not programmed to read their transmissions. However, from what I can interpret, they appear to be awaiting reinforcements.”

“And they haven’t spotted us.”

“Not that I can detect.”

“Ok then. You know what to do.”

“Affirmative.”

Kirsten finds herself not quite knowing what to say. The android isn’t human, and members of his kind have killed millions, if not billions, and enslaved millions more, subjecting them to rape and god knew what other tortures. And yet…and yet…she can’t help, if not liking, at least appreciating the polite, soft spoken being that looks so human even she herself can’t tell the difference easily.

Having no need for such pleasantries, he gives them both an android’s approximation (a very good approximation, if the truth be known) of a smile, and without further words, hops easily to the top of the ridge and strides off in the direction of his kindred.

Jackson sidles over closer, looking her and not quite able to hide the ‘I think you might have a screw loose somewhere’ expression on his face. Kirsten doesn’t really blame him, since his knowledge of this plan encompasses the words “trust me”, and nothing else. She sighs quietly. “Ask away, Lieutenant.”

“Why are we letting an enemy, who knows where we are, go off to a whole group of other enemies so he can bring them back here and kill our asses? Ma’am?”

“Darius, I know you’ve been very patient with me, and I appreciate it, believe me.”

Jackson nods.

“But…in some cases, seeing something is much better than hearing about it. So I’ll ask you one last time to trust me, if you can.”

Taking his eyes off of the retreating android, he gazes at her for a very long moment, jaw working silently. “Alright,” he says finally. “We’ll do it your way, Ma’am.”

“Thank you.” A beat. “And Darius?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“If they do start heading back this way….”

“Yes?”

“Run.”

His hands go white knuckled on his weapon as he once again peers in the direction of the android group, very shortly to be increased by one.

As both watch, Max is scanned, and then accepted into the group, much to Kirsten’s silent relief. It is only now that she wishes she’d thought far ahead enough to have attached a transceiver onto the droid so they could get back some information before his task was completed. No use crying over fried circuits, she thinks as she begins a silent countdown in her head.

At ‘one’, she ducks down, grabbing Jackson by the shoulder and pulling him with her.

A loud, sharp cough-like sound rockets through the cool, still air, followed by the great whoosh of an explosion. Heedless of the possible danger, Jackson shakes loose from Kirsten’s grip and pops his head up to see a giant plume of fire rush up from where the droid group used to stand.

“Holy FUCK!” he shouts. “What just happened?!?”

“Max,” Kirsten retorts, quite unable to keep the smug expression from stealing over her face.

“Max? Your android…did that?!? But how?”

“He’s what we’re calling a ‘suicide bomber droid’. Big government secret. One of those guys hit a convoy and did a good bit of damage to it, but we were able to gather up some of the remaining parts, and viola! I simply changed the code from killing humans to killing androids, and there you have it. One good guy and a bunch of dead bad guys.”

Jackson slowly turns to look at her, a whole ocean’s worth of new respect shining in his light-colored eyes. “Jesus Christ, Ma’am! That was…amazing! Shit! How many more of those bad boys do you have wandering around?”

“As of now, twenty five, plus any more that they manage to make back at the plant. I changed the code for all of them.”

“So, why don’t we go back and get ’em all now? Man, this kicks ass!”

“First off, Lieutenant, where would we put twenty five androids in this truck?”

“Hell, Ma’am! We’ll send out a damn convoy for these suckers!”

“Secondly,” Kirsten interrupts, holding up a hand as she watches the flames continue to burn, “we can’t let the regular androids who are making these new units in on the secret. If we do, obviously, no more androids for us. So, we wait as long as we can, then we send that convoy of yours back down here, and take it from there.”

Jackson looks back over at the killing field, the grin on his face a mile wide. “Whatever you say, Ma’am. Whatever you say.”
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
“What?” Tacoma’s voice hisses with alarm. “Oh, no. Don’t you even—”

“Cover me,” Dakota says, getting to her feet and starting toward the house below. Her own rifle slants across her back; she carries the weapon captured from the sentry in full view, its curved magazine marking it as an AK. One of theirs. They will assume she has killed their man for it. Behind her, Tacoma is swearing, violently and very softly. He cannot cover her, and they both know it.

If her plan works, he will not need to.

She is ten yards from the sentry before he sees her. “Hey!” he yells, dropping the stub of his cigarette as he fumbles to being his rifle to bear. “Who’s out there? Identify yourself!”

“Dakota Rivers,” she says, moving from the shadow of one vehicle to the next, keeping their metal bulk between her and the guard. “I want to talk to your commander.”

“Yeah?” A snort. “You got an appointment? Step out here into the light, or I’ll shoot.”

He raises his rifle.

“Put that down, soldier. Go tell your captain there’s somebody to see him.”

What he does is of no consequence. His shouting will bring the others out into the open in a moment or two, and that is what she wants. His shouting, or a gunshot.

“Fuck!” he yells, and fires. The shot goes wide, clanging off the armored hide of a Humvee behind her.

Koda brings her own gun to her shoulder and squeezes the trigger gently. The guard drops onto the boards of the porch, screaming. And finally the doors of the house and barn slam open, and men pour out into the night, surrounding her. Just what she wants.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” she says, and grins at them.

They are young and grubby and unshaven, most of them half-dressed in camouflage pants or shorts, most of them carrying rifles or pistols pointed at the ground rather than the intruder. Most of them green as the prairie grass that grows in a sea around their camp. One of them sidesteps his way through the parked vehicles to the side of the man doubled over on the porch. “Jem? Jem! You fuckin’ bitch, what’d you do to my brother?”

“Quiet!” The roar comes from the porch, somewhere behind the hapless Jem. An older man steps into the light, his grizzled hair buzz-cut, the planes of his face smooth and sharp in the hard light. “What’s going on here?” Gold maple leaves glint on his squre shoulders, and he holds a nine-millimeter pistol loosely in his hand, not aimed. It does not need to be.

“Major,” Koda says, stepping out from among the parked Jeeps. “You’re the commander here?” It is not really a question, only a confirmation. She keeps her eyes on his face, not his gun. If he is going to shoot, she will see it in his eyes.

“Calton,” he says. “Ted Calton. Who the hell are you?” He ignores Jem, now being helped to his feet and led away by his brother.

“Dakota Rivers.” For a split second his eyes widen; then the steel is back. “You’ve heard of me.”

“We’ve heard what happened on the Cheyenne,” he acknowledges. “That was good work.”

Koda makes a show of looking around her, her finger still light on the trigger of her weapon. “I don’t see any droids here.”

“And you won’t. We’ve destroyed every one we’ve found.”

“Good work,” she echoes. “Want to do some more of it?”

“We do more of it every day.” Calton moves forward, standing on the highest step. “We protect the people and the land around Minot.”

“For a price?”

“For a price.” Something that is almost a smile touches his mouth. “We can’t patrol and farm, too. The civilians are grateful.”

Koda raises her voice to carry to the barn and the men still hovering in the door there. “The droids and their allies are massing around Offut and to the west. We expect them to try to take out Ellsworth, again. If they get through us, they’ll roll over you. We have a common interest.”

“Not necessarily. If you stop them, they won’t bother us. If you don’t stop them—well, we don’t have what they want, now do we? No high-powered cyberwonks here.”

Cold runs over Dakota’s skin. But of course they know Kirsten is at Ellsworth; the same tales that brought her own name north would have brought Kirsten’s and Maggie’s. Blind Harry’s ballad is sung here, too, for all she knows. “You have lives,” she says evenly. “And you have weapons. If those civilians include women, the droids have a use for them, too.”

“Breedstock?” Calton snorts. “We’ve heard those stories. What the hell would a droid want with human pussy?”

“More humans. We don’t know why, yet.” She raises her voice. “You men! You want your wives and girlfriends, your sisters, shipped off to be bred by the kind of scum the droids keep alive to do their work? We killed the rapists at Mandan when we bombed the droid factory. We just executed a second batch at Ellsworth. How many have you caught?”

A murmur ripples through the knots of men, and a scowl appears on Calton’s face. He glances quickly about the perimeter of the farm buildings; he has to assume that she has men in place to cover her. “We deal with anyone who threatens us. Anyone. Got that?”

Koda grins at him, and again she feels the heat course through her blood. “That B-52 back in the field yours? We have reason to think the enemy may have air power. Got anything to protect you from high-altitude fighters?”

Calton gestures with his gun. “Go back to your people. Tell ’em no deal. We stay here and protect what we’ve got.”

“You men!” Koda shouts. “What do you think about that? Are you going to sit here on your butts and miss the chance to get your world back? Or are you coming south with me?”

“I’m going.” One trooper, a bit older than most of the others, steps out of the ring of men. Another follows, then three more.

The roar of Calton’s gun splits the night. “The hell you are! Get back in your quarters, all of you! This is my command! As for you—” He lowers the pistol he has fired into the air to aim at Koda. “Get the hell out. While you can.”

Carefully Koda raises the gunstrap over her head and lays the AK aside. It seems to her that she hears the breath of every man around her, harsh and rushing like winter wind. She smells their sweat, the fear in some, arousal in others. The flesh of Calton’s face lies lightly on the bone, so that she can almost see through it to the white skull beneath. See his death. “I’ll fight you for them,” she says.

“What?” Fear flickers in his eyes, is gone.

“I’ll fight you for your command. You win, you keep your men. I win, they go with me.” Her words fall into silence.

“Fight you?” Calton glances at his pistol. “How?”

For answer, Koda bends and draws the knife from her boot-top. The light catches its ten-inch blade, runs along it like quicksilver. “Like this.”

He is trapped, and knows it. His eyes widen, then narrow again. He cannot afford hesitation. “All right,” he says. Setting the pistol on a windowsill behind him, he draws the knife from his own belt. “Don’t expect me to go easy on you because you’re a woman, though.”

Dakota laughs, tossing her blade end for end and catching it again. The men shift to form a ring around them in the open space between the farmhouse and the parked vehicles. Someone brings a kerosene lamp to set at the perimeter of the circle, then another. Their light throws Calton’s shadow and her own huge on the ground, distorted, creatures with impossibly long legs and arms sprouting from attenuated bodies. Slowly they circle each other, Koda keeping her eyes on Calton’s face. His blade glints in her peripheral vision, shines like a beacon to her heightened vision.

He feints, cutting low for the belly, and Koda steps lightly out of his reach, spinning wide to her left. He turns with her, but too slowly, and she whips toward him, her blade opening a gash on his upper arm. His blood runs black in the dim light.

Voices come to her on the wind of her passing, but she does not heed them. “Surrender,” she says.

For answer he attempts to close with her again, this time coming on straight at her. She blocks his upward stab with a sweep of her left arm, whirling again out of his reach. Her wrist is cold and wet, but the cut is shallow. It stings, barely perceptible. The blood from Caltons cut, though, falls on the earth in dark spurts. She need only avoid injury, wear him down.

He knows it, too. Fear flickers across his face, is gone. With a yell, he comes in low and fast, butting at her with his head while his knife goes for the tendons in her left leg. She rolls with the blow, planting a foot in his gut to carry him up and over, to land hard on his back behind her. Koda scrambles to her feet, stepping hard on the wrist of his knife hand with the heel of her boot. His fingers open, and she kicks the blade away.

Behind her a cheer starts up, to be abruptly broken off as Calton grabs at her ankle, turning it hard to bring her down with him. She falls halfway across his body, rolls as he surges off his back to pin her, reaching for her throat with both hands. His fingers close around her neck, bearing on her windpipe and the great veins in her neck. Pressing down and back, seeking the leverage that will break her neck, his grip tightens as she gasps for breath, her chest grown suddenly tight. Calton’s face is a grinning skull mask above her. A shadow passes over her eyes, and she brings her knife up between their straining bodies, finds the soft spot just beneath the join of the rib cage. She thrusts straight up, the blade grating on bone, then making easy passage through the soft tissue of liver and lung, cutting upward. For a moment Calton remains above her, his hands tightening convulsively about her throat, bringing on the darkness. Then he collapses across her, blood running from his mouth in a black torrent, and is dead.

Silence holds her. Then she pushes Calton off her to stagger to her feet. His blood stains her hands, her face, her shirt, dark and wet in the dim light.

Then the sound begins, softly at first, the men chanting her name. “Koda. Koda.” The murmur becomes a shout, swells, grows to a roar. “Koda! Ko-da! Ko-da!”

She lets it wash over her, drawing strength from it. She raises her head to search the faces around her, mouths straining, eyes wide. These are her men, now. Won in battle, paid for in blood. The thought sends a shiver down her spine, and she throws her head back, howling wordlessly with them.

“Koda! Koda!” It goes on and on, the rhythm carried on stamping feet. Finally she raises an arm to silence them. They quiet gradually, as her senses contract about her, and she is one human woman again, standing in a circle of men who are not entirely sure what has happened to them. “All right,” she says quietly. “Get your gear. We’re pulling out now.”

They move to obey, all but one. Tacoma stands before her, his eyes dark. “Are you all

right?” he says. “The blood—”

“Not mine.” She glances down at her ruined shirt. “Not most of it, anyway.”

“What happened? For a moment there, I didn’t know you.”

She meets his gaze steadily, seeing herself though his eyes. The fight, and the kill. “You saw it all?”

He nods.

“For a moment there, I didn’t know myself,” she says slowly. “It’s as though something—slipped. It’s happened a couple times since—since–”

“Since your vision?”

“Yeah. I feel—different. Inside. Things look different. My hearing is different.”

“You talked to Ate?”

Her hand makes a small arc in the darkness. “About some of it. This was almost like that time on the bridge. I felt—out of myself, somehow.”

Some of the rigidity goes out her brother’s shoulders, and he says,” It’s the warrior-gift growing in you. It can be hard to live with.” He glances down at Calton’s body. “Did you mean to challenge him all along?”

She shakes her head. “That just happened. But it was so—familiar. Like I’d done it before. Like the knife was part of my arm. It knew what to do. I never thought.”

Tacoma gives her shoulders a quick squeeze, stepping away from her as the first of the troopers steps out of the barn, his pack on his back, his rifle slung about his neck. The others follow, coming to stand beside the Jeeps and Humvees. Tacoma’s presence does not seem to surprise them. Like Calton, they must have assumed that Koda had men all around them. Let them continue to assume.

Tacoma steps toward one of the Jeeps, glances at the ignition. “Keys?” he asks the man nearest him.

“In the glove compartment, Sir.”

Tacoma fishes for them, finds them. Koda comes to stand by the passenger door and shouts, “All right! We’re moving out! Follow me!”

They cheer again, and again she feels their energy surge within her, obliterating the pain

of her cut, the bruises on her throat. She slips into her seat, and Tacoma steers the Jeep

out onto the road.

Behind them the rest follow, raising a cloud of luminous dust in the moonlight.

*******

The convoy moves swiftly through the night. The full moon rides high in a blaze of stars, bright enough to cast shadows in a world where the glare of civilization no longer rimlights the horizon. Koda dozes fitfully in the lead Jeep, the APC’s from Ellsworth dispersed at regular intervals down the line to ride herd on their new recruits and guard against second thoughts. The tide of adrenaline that carried her through the duel has spent itself, leaving a strange restlessness behind. Her dreams, when she sleeps, are full of drifting voices.

Dawn comes on a chilled breeze as the gates of Ellsworth roll open to receive them. The startled MP salutes as Koda passes, Tacoma returning the gesture with a snap of his own wrist. In the rearview mirror, Dakota can see him counting off the vehicles that follow her in, an easy dozen more than followed her out. The men in the Jeeps and APC’s cheer as they pass the sentry box, honking and waving their rifles in the air.

“Better see the Colonel first,” Tacoma says quietly.

Koda rolls her head back, attempting to work the knots out of her shoulders and upper back. “They’re not exactly the supplies we meant to pick up, are they? Try her office first.”

They catch Maggie just as she closes the door behind her, probably on her way from her cramped work space cum living quarters to the mess hall for breakfast. Koda watches her back straighten, then stiffen, as she spots the caravan sweeping up the length of the runway toward her, taking in its length and the unfamiliar Minot ID codes on the. Her fists settle on her hips as Tacoma pulls up directly in front of her, her eyebrows rising halfway to her hairline while a smile pulls at her mouth. “Well, now,” she says. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

Tacoma grins at her as he climbs out of the Jeep. “Thought you’d like ’em.” Turning to the line of Jeeps and troop carriers, he bellows, “Pile out! Form up!”

As the men scramble out of their trucks and prepare to stand the Colonel’s inspection, Dakota levers herself up and out the passenger door, feeling the blood rush into her tingling feet, the ache as the sinews of her joints stretch and flex. The bruises on her neck throb with her pulse.

Maggie flashes her a grin of welcome. Then her eyes widen, raking Koda from the reddening marks on her skin, down the front of her shirt, still stiff with dried blood, to the stained length of torn T-shirt wrapped around her left forearm. “Sorry,” she says. “It’s not mine, or most of it isn’t. I haven’t had a chance to wash up.”

“I do not,” Maggie says precisely, “see any injuries on anyone else. Tell me what I’m missing here.”

Koda shrugs. “What’s missing is these men’s former commander.”

“You killed him?”

Dakota nods. “It was a fair fight.”

“A. Fair. Fight.” Maggie lays out each word precisely. “And the prize was his men?”

“Them and their equipment. At least, they seemed to think so.”

“They’re from Minot?”

“They’re what’s left of it. They were fighting droids and running a protection racket while they were at it.” Koda turns slightly to watch as they form ranks, straggling into line under the whip of Tacoma’s voice. “They had ambitions. They tried to get a B-52 operational. It crashed.”

The blood leaves Maggie’s face, leaving her skin grey. “Gods. They could have blackmailed the whole damn country, what’s left of it. We don’t need loose nukes.”

“We need to get control of those bombs.” Koda swipes a hand over her face, and stares at her palm when it comes away red. There is blood even in her hair. ” Not today, not this side of battle. But before someone else gets ideas.”

“You need to get a shower and go to bed,” Maggie says flatly. “Anything else can wait.”

“I’m not—”

“No argument. Larke!”

The Corporal double-times it from one of the mid-line APC’s. “Ma’am.”

“Drive Dr. Rivers home. Don’t let her argue with you.”

Larke glances from the Colonel to Koda and back again. “Yes Ma’am. To the best of my ability, Ma’am.”

“Have mercy on him,” Maggie says pointedly. “We’ll talk later.”

Koda cannot quite bring herself to order Larke to disobey his Colonel. She does not particularly want to go back to the house, though, doubts she can sleep with the strange energy that hums through her. A part of her still lingers in the night just past, in the ring of fire and shadow where she killed a warlord for his command. Or, more accurately, the fight has stayed with her, a humming in her blood. It is something she has never felt before, yet it seems familiar. She could name it, if only she could find the word on her tongue.

“Ma’am? Doctor Koda?”

Larke holds the passenger door for her. She is not sure whether it is archaic courtesy or whether he can think of no other polite way to get her to move. Surrendering, she folds back down into the seat she has occupied for most of the past eight hours and lets him steer the Jeep for home.

Over the mile’s distance from flightline to officer’s housing, soldiers salute her as she passes. That, too, seems strangely familiar. She waves briefly back, noting with satisfaction that Shannon is turning the sign on the clinic door to OPEN as they drive by without stopping, her own insistence dying in her throat. As they round the former parade ground, now thick with rough wooden markers for the dead of the Cheyenne, she makes note of three new plots of disturbed earth. There is no memorial for them.

The house, when she enters, is chill and empty. Asimov must be out with Kirsten, wherever she is. Her absence is a dark void inside Koda, and the sharpness of her disappointment gnaws at her.

Kirsten could not have known that she would return early. She had not known it herself.

She sheds her clothes in the hall and heads for the shower.

*******

Kirsten pushes open the kitchen door, feeling pleasantly warm and loose from the half-mile run from the woods to the officers’ housing section. Asi, not at all tired from the exercise, gives a high, loud yip as he shoulders past her, sending the door banging against the wall next to the fridge, and dances across the tiles to his empty bowl.

“All right. All right. It’s coming.”

She rummages about in the pantry, looking for the Base’s last surviving box of Milk-Bones. The ancient pipes in the wall hum and thump with water; Maggie must have come in for a shower and change of clothes. With the thought comes disappointment. Koda is not due back from Minot for at least another day, assuming everything goes well. And when, she reflects, was the last time everything went smoothly? Sometime in a past life, when she was a Washington wonk and had barely heard of South Dakota, still less of a woman named Dakota River

Asi yelps again, louder and more urgently. Kirsten stifles a surge of guilt at the thought that the big dog—the big baby, truth be told—has missed her so badly, even though he clearly has not lacked for attention. “Think of it as gaining a second mother,” she says as she finds the box and rips it open. “Twice the attention, twice the walks. Twice the flea baths.”

She turns to toss him the treat, but he is no longer there. From the hallway comes the sound of whining, the sharp click of his nails on the hardwood floor. Frowning, she sets the box on the counter and follows just in time to see him fling his whole weight against the bathroom door, shaking it on its aged hinges. From deep in his throat comes a howl like the winter wind over snow, and Kirsten’s breath catches in her throat, then resumes on a sigh of relief. On the floor, piled in careless abandon, lie a pair of jeans, a shirt, underclothes. The flannel shirt, in Black Watch tartan, she recognizes as Koda’s. “Easy, boy,” she says, pulling at Asi’s scruff, and lays her free hand on the knob. She grins. A shower a deaux is just what Dr. King would have ordered for herself had she known her lover was home early. Asi batters at the door a second time, and in a shaft of light from the lamp in the front room she sees what Asi has smelled since they came through the kitchen door. Almost all of the shirt, and both legs of the jeans, are soaked stiff with something half-dried, something the color of rust. The sharp scent of iron rises from them.

Blood.

“Koda!” she screams, and throws herself against the door.
CHAPTER FORTY TWO
Koda shivers as she stands on the bathmat, the breeze that stirs the curtains ghosting over her skin. Despite the morning’s brightness, it leaves no warmth behind it, and she feels the gooseflesh rise and tighten along her arms. More out of habit than conviction, she turns on the hot tap and lets the water run while she collects towel and washcloth from the tall, narrow cabinet above the clothes bin. The stench of blood is on her still, mingled with sweat and dirt and the oil-and-metal smell of the APC. She is used to blood, and used to smelling of it. You cannot, after all, turn a breech foal or perform emergency field surgery and remain clean. It goes with the job.

Killing a man in a duel and taking his warband for prize does not go with a veterinarian’s job. It does not go with a warrior’s job, either, she reflects. Or it has not, at least for the last thousand years or so.

Yet there was nothing in it that was strange, or unfamiliar to her. There had been a pattern to the encounter that revealed itself as the fight played out, a choreography. It was as if she had been thrust out in front of the footlights in riding boots and a complete innocence of Tschaikovsky, and had danced a perfect Swan Queen. Tacoma had called it the warrior spirit waking within her, growing. He should know. As she had been called to the life of a shaman, he had been born a warrior. Strange, that like as they are, each has been given the other’s heart’s desire.

Koda steps into the shower and pulls the curtain to keep off the draft. The water hits her like a rush of snowmelt, so cold it burns. Gritting her teeth, she stands still, shivering, watching as the brown stains on her skin liquify and sluice down her body, swirling crimson around the drain at her feet. She unwraps the length of cotton around her arm and lets her own blood join the flow. As if, she thinks, we were making relatives in the Hunkapi. At that moment, her enemy seems as close as her own brothers and sisters, as her own lover.

Her hand, half numb, closes on the soap, and she begins to work it into a lather on the bathsponge. Just as she turns off the frigid water pelting down on her, Asi’s deep bay sounds in the hall, and the door shakes on its hinges. The dog’s howl comes again, with a second battering against the door, and with it Kirsten’s voice, high pitched in fear. “Koda!”

*******

Kirsten’s weight hits the door for the second time, and suddenly its solidity is gone, giving way before her and carrying her straight into Dakota where she stands wet an naked on the bathmat, her hair streaming down her back and over her breasts like dark floodwater, water and blood running red in branching rivulets down the length of her legs, dripping from a long, shallow cut visible on her forearm.

The cold water soaks through her own thin shirt, chilling her. But it is the fear that causes her to shudder as she pushes Koda away, holding by both arms as her eyes run the length her body, searching for the source of the blood on the clothing still lying in a heap on the floor. But there is only the single wound, clearly not lethal, only a crimson thread against the copper of Dakota’s skin. Kirsten’s heart, lodged in her throat, slips back into its accustomed place, and she begins to breathe again. “All that blood,” she gasps. “It isn’t yours.”

“Not mine, no,” Koda echoes. “I killed a man.”

Her fingers tighten on Dakota’s arms, making small white marks where they dig into the skin. “At Minot? They fought you?”

“Not ‘they.’ Just one.” Koda’s eyes are on hers, a light in them that is part triumph, part desire, part something else she cannot name. “We took his men from him.”

“We?” Kirsten asks carefully. “You mean ‘you.'”

“I challenged him. None of our soldiers was killed, none of his. Just him.”

Once again, she sees the tall figure racing ahead of her onto the shattered bridge at the Cheyenne, dark hair streaming behind her like smoke. Once again, the fear strikes through her, this time without the hum of adrenaline in the blood that had drawn her out of herself and propelled her across the pile of tumbled concrete after the other woman. She is still not sure whether she acted from blind trust or blind panic. “How dare you,” she says softly, the words hissing between her teeth. “When so much depends on you.”

“When what depends on me?” Dakota steps closer, so that Kirsten can hear her breathing, not quite steady now. The light from the open window, glancing through the blowing curtains, shimmers over Koda’s wet skin, slipping over her shoulders and breasts like silk.

She is made lean and hard, lithe muscles stretched over long bones. The form of the hunting animal, elegant in understatement—long-legged cheetah moving with harsh and angular grace through the high grass, gerfalcon stooping on her prey like a meteor out of the blue heaven.

“I depend on you, goddammit.” A tremor runs through her, part fear, part not. “You have no right to risk yourself alone.”

“I wasn’t in any danger. No greater than we face here, every day.”

Kirsten opens her mouth to make the obvious retort, but instead looks away, silent. I risked as much, myself. Hypocrite.
But if she died, I would be so alone. So alone.

Again.

Intolerable.

Her breath catching, Kirsten runs her hands up Koda’s arms, over her shoulders and up into her hair, pulling her head down. Dakota’s mouth meets hers, hot and open, and Kirsten’s tongue traces the austere lines of the other’s lips, savoring the heat and the acerbic tang of salt. Koda pulls back abruptly, lowering her head to Kirsten’s throat to trace a line of hard kisses from her ear to the hollow of her collarbones.

She can feel the heat of Dakota’s skin through her clothing, the hardness of her nipples through the thin fabric of her T-shirt. Fire begins in the cleft between her legs, licks down her thighs and up her spine, knotting in her belly. “Bedroom,” she gasps, pulling back just enough to move, drawing Koda after her by the hand.

Dakota growls deep in her throat. The scent of blood on the clothes at her feet stirs her; a primal, animal sensation that is equal parts rage and lust.

The lust of the battle she’s fought.

The lust of the blood she’s spilled.

The lust of the woman who stands before her, so open and so ready.

It all coalesces within her, a spiral of red and black, pulsing with the beat of her heart, growing more acute as the scent of blood mingles with the scent of Kirsten’s need, and the scent of her own. It pulls each muscle taut, tension thrumming like a live wire, threatening to burn out of control with the tiniest of sparks.

Pausing only to kick the pile of bloody clothing out of view into the bathroom, Kirsten leads Dakota into the bedroom that has become theirs. Like a distant drum, Koda feels the pounding of her blood in its hidden channels, flowing hot as molten earth from the veins of Ina Maka. As she moves, Kirsten’s free hand claws at the fastening of her jeans, pushing them down around her ankles where she can step free of them. Her sandals follow, and she looses Dakota’s hand just long enough to pull her shirt over her head, flinging it unheeded onto the floor.

“You hunger,” Kirsten states as she stares up into a face haloed with black silk and lighted by heated silver eyes.

“Yes.”

“Show me.”

Fully naked, Dakota presses her roughly down onto the bed and stands for a long moment, taking in the compact body before her. Her sight narrows, hunter vision, and she runs her eyes over Kirsten’s face, open now with hunger to match her own, eyes dilated to midnight pools in their thin rim of green. She notes the pool of shadow at the base of the throat where the pulse beats visibly in its blue vein; her breasts rising and falling in short, sharp spasms, tight rippled flesh about her nipples; the hollows of ribcage and belly; the shadows between the lean legs. “Mitawa,” she growls, low in her throat. “Winan mitawa.”

She kneels on the bed, predator, hunter, running one hand over the Kirsten’s belly, tracing the hollows of her hipbones, slipping between her thighs. The pulse beats there, too, against her hand as Kirsten’s legs part for her and she runs her thumb through the soft curling hair to spread the lips of her lover’s sex. The wetness flows free there, and she growls, deep and long.

She feels Kirsten’s body jerk as she finds the nub of her clitoris, circling it slowly, pressing hard against its own hardness. Her mouth follows, and Kirsten moans, a low, animal sound, as her hands tangle in Koda’s hair. Dakota scarcely feels it, caught up in the throbbing of flesh against her mouth, the blood singing against her lips. She pulls away abruptly, running fingers down the wet curve of flesh, sinking fingers deep into Kirsten’s body and withdrawing only to thrust again and again, feeling the other woman’s hips buck against the long, hard strokes. Growling, needing, she adds another finger, feeling the tender tissues stretch to their limit as she pushes inside, curling her fingers into blunt claws.

From somewhere comes a cry, piercing and wild, and hot liquid flows over her hand and Kirsten’s thighs. The other woman’s body shudders as the waves of orgasm beat over her, pounding their rhythm against Koda’s hand.

Kirsten feels the cry leave her throat, a wild thing escaping into the air. Her body shudders with the force of her coming, pleasure so intense it is hardly distinguishable from pain shaking her flesh loose from her bones. Above her she sees the strong curve of Koda’s spine, the fall of her hair spilling down her back like a cataract. Her lover’s fingers withdraw from her, Koda turns to trace curving signs on her belly with her own essence. “Mitawa,” she says again, huskily. “Mine.”

“Mine,” Kirsten echoes. “You’re mine.”

Rolling over onto her side, she brings Koda down beside her, covering the long body with her own. “Mine,” she says again, tongue outlining Koda’s mouth, licking away the fine beads of sweat that have gathered over her lip. Moving down the column of her neck she laps at the moisture there, savoring the salt taste mingled with the sharp sweetness of lavender that runs along her tongue. Drunk, says the small part of her mind still capable of words, drunk with her.

Koda stretches under her, her hips lifting blindly, searching. “Wait,” says Kirsten. Beneath her lips, Koda’s throat vibrates with a small, incoherent sound, half moan, half growl. For answer, Kirsten presses her down against the bed again and sinks her teeth into Koda’s shoulder, tasting salt again as blood flows.

“Damn vampire,” Koda breathes, her fingers digging into Kirsten’s arm. But Kirsten pulls away, biting her own forearm this time, pressing the flesh with its thin red trickle against Dakota’s lips, feeling sharp white teeth against the edge of the wound as Koda sucks at it. Kirsten draws her arm away, then, and brings her own mouth down on Dakota’s, stained now scarlet as her own. She feels a shudder pass through Koda’s body as their tongues meet, tasting themselves and each other. Blood of my blood. The phrase floats up from some dark place in her mind.

“Hunka.” It is Koda’s voice, no more than a breath ghosting over her ear. She does not know the word, though she knows what it must mean. Bound now, inseparable. For this life and forever.

Her mouth moves to Koda’s breast, tongue swirling around the nipple, her free hand slipping down the smooth skin of her flank to slip between her legs. They part for her, and she trails her fingers along the tender skin, rakes through the triangle of dark curls at their apex, slips her fingertip into the growing wetness beneath her hand, withdraws to trace again the long muscles of flank and thigh. Koda’s head tosses against the quilt, eyes narrowed to blue slits, her breath coming in small, hard gasps.

“What do you want?” Kirsten whispers. “Tell me.”

“Want—”

“Is it this?” Kirsten’s hand covers Koda’s sex, spreading the flesh wide to press her mouth against the clitoris, tracing its shape with her tongue. She feels Koda tense, her climax gathering, and withdraws. “Or is it this?” she asks, her fingers following her mouth, then sliding down circle the hot entrance to Koda’s body.

“Want—”

“Tell me.”

“Fuck me,” Koda gasps. “Now. Now!”

“Oh, yes,” Kirsten answers, and slips her fingers inside, holding still.

Past words now, Koda thrusts her hips against Kirsten’s hand, and Kirsten at last begins to move in long, slow strokes, her thumb finding the clitoris again, pressing and releasing, then swirling over the distended head until Koda’s spine arches and her body goes rigid. Looking up, Kirsten can see the pulse where it hammers against her lover’s neck, point counterpoint to the frantic beating of blood under her hand. Koda cries out wordlessly, and her climax takes her, rippling through the taut belly under Kirsten’s hand.

“Mitawa,” Koda murmurs again after a time that seems to stretch into infinity. “Winyan mitawa. Cante mitawa.”

“Mitawa,” Kirsten agrees, drained now. She rocks back on her heels, then shifts to lie beside Koda, who slips an arm under her head. Dakota’s eyes slide closed, and darkness takes them both.

*******

For the second time this day, Koda emerges shivering from the shower. She wraps one of Maggie’s luxurious towels around her—another amenity that is among the last of its kind; there will be no more Egyptian cotton anytime soon—snatches her clean clothes from the hooks on the door and runs the half-dozen steps to the kitchen.

Kirsten already has soup on the stove, with the oven lit and its door open.

Within the compass of its heat, Koda pauses in the doorway, struck once again by the compact grace of Kirsten’s body as she goes about the mundane tasks of preparing a belated lunch. Her shorts and tank top leave her arms and legs bare, browned skin smooth over muscle attesting to unexpected toughness. Her hair, drying rapidly in the warm air, curls around her ears and over the back of her neck. The late afternoon light streaming through the window as she sets out bowls and spoons touches it to gold.

The sight brings a flush of warmth to Koda’s own skin, mingling with the heat from the stove as she steps over Asi’s snoring bulk, unfurls the towel and begins to rub herself dry. But she says only, “Grandma Lula used to talk about how she and her brothers bathed in a big aluminum washtub in front of the stove back on the rez. Maybe we should start doing that, too.”

“Grandma Lula?” Kirsten flashes her a smile and an inquiring glance. “Reservation?”

“My mom’s mother. Pine Ridge. She believed that suffering is good for you. Builds character.”

“Catholic school?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s why Ina’s such a radical. Equal and opposite reaction.”

Kirsten sets the last of the silverware on the table, then turns to face her. “Your mother’s going to object, isn’t she?”

There is no need to ask what Themunga will object to, no need to skirt the answer. Koda lays the towel over the back of a chair and begins to pull on her clothes. “She’s going to have a conniption, if she hasn’t already. But Ate will win her over.” She pauses for a moment, head buried in a long-sleeved shirt in Black Watch tartan. “He already counts you as a daughter, you know. So will she, given a little time to get used to the idea. It doesn’t hurt that you’re already picking up some Lakota ways.”

“Like talking to raccoons?” Kirsten’s mouth twitches in a quizzical smile.

“Among other things.” Koda grins in return. “Not even Themunga would argue with one of the Four-foot spirits.”

“Mm,” Kirsten observes noncommittally. “How’s your arm?”

“Just a scratch.” Koda rolls up her right sleeve, peels the backing off a clear Coloplast bandage and slaps it over the cut. “Next week you won’t even know it was there.”

“Sure I won’t. Let’s eat?”

The meal is simple, lentils and vegetables stewed together; they are rationing the meat brought by Wanblee Wapka because there is no time to hunt, and no rancher thins his herd in the spring. It occurs to Koda that there is a certain optimism in the assumption that they will last as long as their supply of protein; unless they win the upcoming confrontation, it will hardly matter whether there is meat for the next month or not. “So,” she says, sopping a piece of frybread in the savory broth, “what did you find out about that bomber droid while I was gone?”

Kirsten drops her eyes, giving her entire attention to the soup plate in front of her. “Pass the bread?” As Dakota hands her the basket, she says, “I found the control code. So I made a few more of them.”

The tone is so casual that it almost gets by, but the sheer improbability of it snags on Koda’s brain and hangs there, flapping in the breeze. She sets her spoon down carefully. “Say again, please.”

Suddenly losing interest in her own food, Kirsten pushes her bowl away with a short, sharp gesture. “I said, I found the code and made some more bomber droids.”

It makes no more sense than it did the first time. Granted that Kirsten is brilliant in her field and could probably rig a working computer out of string and paperclips and a few printed circuits. But the Base does not have the materials to make a convincing android, much less “a few more” of a very specialized model. Not in the space of three days. “What,” she says, “did you make them from?”

“The droids already assembled. At the plant down at Butte.”

Butte is just over the state line in eastern Nebraska, perilously close to Offut and the massing enemy. Dakota leans her forehead on her clasped hands. “You want to tell me about it? Or do I have to keep playing twenty questions?”

Kirsten reaches across the table to touch her arm briefly. “It was no big deal. I put together a patch that will target other droids instead of humans. Then I went down to Butte, did my biodroid act, and installed it in their inventory. I tested it. It worked. End of story.”

“Tested it on what?”

“A squad of military units.”

Koda lifts her head from her hands, her eyes on Kirsten’s face. “When did you decide to go?”

There is no sign of a struggle there; the clear green gaze meets her own. “When Jimenez brought me the part of the bomber droid that gave me the idea. Before you left for Minot.”

At least there will be no lie between them. It is cold comfort. “You might have mentioned it.” Koda speaks very clearly, biting off the words. “Say, just in passing. Something like, ‘Koda, I’m going to risk my life and everybody else’s chance of survival on a solo, possibly suicide, mission to a droid plant.’ Would that have been so hard?”

“Yes,” Kirsten snaps. “It would have.”

“You had no right!” Koda’s fist comes down on the table, rattling the soup bowls. “You’re the President! You’re the fucking Commander-in-Chief! Get used to it!”

“I had the obligation! The goddamned fucking obligation!” Kirsten rises and flings away from the table, facing for a moment out the window. Koda cannot see her face, only the rise and fall of her back with her rapid breathing. When she turns, the color has risen in her face, flushing her skin from the base of her throat to her forehead, turning her tan almost to copper. “I can’t ask anyone else to take risks I won’t take myself, Dakota. That includes the lowest private on the Base. That includes Maggie.” She pauses a moment. “And that includes you.”

“Goddam it, Kirsten. No President since Washington has led his own troops, much less—”

“Much less fought Cornwallis for his!” Kirsten’s chin comes up, eyes blazing. “Don’t talk to me about not having the right. The world has changed, Koda. You know that.”

A silence stretches out between them, spun fine along the currents of anger. Koda’s eyes linger along the red line of her wound, visible under the cloudy plastic of its dressing. Finally she says, “Fair enough. But why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I could have died.”

At that Koda looks up, searching Kirsten’s face as she goes on more quietly. “Or you could have, only I had no idea how. And I didn’t want this fight to be the last of us.”

“I wouldn’t have—”

“Yes you would. I’d have tried to stop you, too, if I’d known you were going to fight a duel.”

“I’d have gone with you.”

“And you wouldn’t have been where you were really needed.” Kirsten meets her gaze levelly. “There are things only you can do. Things only I can do. We have to acknowledge that.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I don’t like it, either. But we are what we are.”

Stalemate. Don’t leave me! Don’t you leave me! The words echo in the dark places of Koda’s mind, driven on the wind of panic. But she will not speak them. Instead she says, very quietly, “I don’t want to lose you.”

After a moment Kirsten steps around the table to lay her hands on Dakota’s shoulders. “You won’t. We’ll see this out together, wherever it leads.”

Koda turns in her seat, covering Kirsten’s hand with her own and laying a soft kiss on her wrist. “Wherever.”

Kirsten’s arms slip down over her own, soft hair tickling her cheek, followed by soft lips. She leans back into the embrace, giving herself up to her lover’s persuasion. “If you keep this up–” she murmurs.

“—we’ll end up back in bed. Hmm?”

“You have anything better to do?”

“Not a thing.” Very delicately, Kirsten bites the side of her neck.

“Vampire.”

Koda draws Kirsten around to stand before her, then down, straddling her lap. “There’s really something to be said for this kiss and make up thing, you know? Let’s—”

She never finishes her suggestion. A fist falls on the door like a hammer, and Jackson follows it into the room as it swings open and Asi scambles to his feet, baying. “Ms. President! Ma’am—oh.” He fixes his gaze on a point somewhere midway the lintel of the door.

“Quiet, Asi!” Kirsten gets to her feet and turns to face the airman with what Koda considers remarkable aplomb under the circumstances. “What is it, Jackson?”

“Ma’am!” he gasps. “The Colonel’s compliments, and would you both please come to her office. General Hart has gone missing!”

*******

Maggie looks up as the door to Hart’s office flies open and Koda comes storming in, Kirsten following on her heels. She holds up a hand. “Hang on, guys. We just found out.”

“How,” Kirsten demands, coming to a stop before an immaculate, and empty, desk.

“He set up a meeting with his secretary for noon. She waited for an hour or so before checking out his house.” Though it’s late in the afternoon, Maggie looks, as always, neat, trim, and immaculately pressed.

“Empty?”

“A hovel,” Maggie answers succinctly, rapping her knuckles on the desk. “But he wasn’t there.”

Koda, having gone over to the window, parts the blinds and peers out into the warmth of the sunny spring day. “A note?”

“Suicide?” Maggie guesses.

Still peering out the window, Koda lifts a shoulder in elegant reply. A shaft of sunlight lances through the blinds and across the room, to land on the scuffed and bland military tile, highlighting its many imperfections.

“No. But she was looking for a man and not a note, so….”

Nodding, Dakota turns from the window. “How about the gate?”

“Already checked. Nobody in or out since you came back.” She turns a significant eye toward Kirsten who, to her credit, hides her flush well as she peers around the empty room as if looking for something she’s lost. Maggie, who isn’t buying the ruse for a moment, hides her smile behind a patently faked cough, earning her a right proper glare from glittering green eyes.

“Anybody spot him before then?” Koda intones, deliberately ignoring the none-too-subtle byplay between her two companions. “He might have slipped out when the convoy returned.”

Maggie narrows her eyes, about to protest. Then she thinks better of it and sighs, resigned. “I’ll check again, but I doubt it. No one made any mention of seeing him at all since sometime yesterday.”

Crossing the room, Koda lays her hands, palm down, on the Spartan desk. “Do you know where Tacoma is?”

“Yeah, I sent him out with the squad to scour the base. Why?”

“He’s a damn good tracker.” Rising to her full height, Dakota eyes Maggie steadily. “Send someone out to find him and tell him to see if he can spot any tracks that might lead to our man. Kirsten and I will comb over his house and see if there’s anything to be found there. We’ll meet you back here, or in your office in, say, two hours. Sooner if we find anything.”

Maggie nods crisply, resisting the urge to snap off a salute. Inwardly, though, she’s smiling at the effortless way that Dakota assumes command of the situation. It’s something she saw in the tall, quiet woman from the first moment they met, and she’s pleased to see the shining potential slowly coming to fruition.

It is only when the dynamic duo has left the office and the door closes quietly behind them that she lets the smile bloom fully over her face. With a jaunty little whistle, she turns back to work.
CHAPTER FORTY THREE
“God! This place stinks!!” Striding across the darkened living room, Kirsten draws aside the heavy, smoke-impregnated curtains, and throws open the large westward facing window. Fresh air flows in on a strong breeze, helping neutralize the stench of unwashed clothes, rancid food, half-empty beer and liquor containers, though doing nothing to touch the foul undercurrent of far more identifiable, and personal, odors permeating the house like a miasma.

Turning, she watches as Koda, seemingly unaffected, casually lights one of the two kerosene lamps she’s brought with her and lifts it in her lover’s direction. “You have a cold or something?” Kirsten asks as she approaches and grasps the lamp’s wire handle. “This place is enough to gag a maggot and you’re not even breathing through your mouth!”

“I’m a Vet. I grew up on a ranch. I have seven brothers.” Koda lights the second lamp, her smirk hiding in the shadows sliding over her features.

“Point,” Kirsten grants, hefting her lamp and turning in a circle. “Well, this is gonna be fun.”

“You take out here and I’ll tackle the bedroom.”

Kirsten grins over her shoulder, straight white teeth glittering in the flickering lamplight. “Better you than me.”

“Yeah, yeah. Holler if you find anything.”

“In this mess? If you hear me holler, it’ll be because a rat just bit me.” Shuddering inwardly, she makes her way, with her lamp, to the tiny kitchen. As she advances, she hears her partner’s soft steps retreat, and she silently wishes Koda luck in her quest.

Holding the lantern shoulder high, Koda uses her free hand to push open the door to the bedroom. It gives grudgingly, jammed from behind by gods only know what refuse. The boards groan as she forces her way into the dark, stinking room, and she lifts the light high, scanning the small space with narrowed eyes.

The bed, unmade, sports sheets that she’s quite sure could stand up on their own and dance a jig with the equally offensive pillowcases. The quilt and blanket, lying in a tangled heap on the floor and covered with dried filth that Koda can all too readily identify, are obviously lost causes.

Pushing several glasses onto the carpeted floor where they land with muted thunks, she sets the lamp down amidst the half empty bottles of Ol’ Grandad and Wild Turkey on the small bedside table. Rounding the bed, she lifts the fallen quilt and blanket, shaking them out and turning her head from the stench the covers emit as they’re disturbed. She drops them back down into a heap when nothing is shaken loose.

Walking over to the closet, she shuffles through the few remaining uniforms that hang with military precision on the rail, turning up nothing of interest. A quick pass-through of the bathroom makes her wish she hadn’t, and then she heads back to the nightstand, opening its single drawer with a smooth tug. Her search yields a small bible, well-read, but with nothing pressed between its thin, fragile pages.

With a soft sigh, she replaces the bible, closes the drawer and lifts the lamp, heading back into the living room and closing the bedroom door behind her.

“Anything?” she asks Kirsten as her partner steps out of the kitchen.

“Not unless you want to count the swarm of drunk cockroaches breeding merrily in what’s left of the beer. You?”

“Zip.” She takes another quick look around the living room. “There’s no way to tell if he’s been gone hours or weeks in this mess.”

“Maybe Maggie and the others have found something by now.”

“Maybe,” Koda agrees, though it’s clear she doesn’t really believe the word she’s uttered. “Shall we?”

“None too soon for me, thanks.”

*******

Dakota, Kirsten, Manny, Andrews, Harcourt, Maggie and several other ‘insiders’ are packed shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip in the Colonel’s small office. Before them, just inside the door, stands Tacoma, a slightly chagrinned expression on his otherwise somber face. “I wish I had better news to report,” he intones. “Fact is, it’s just been too dry, and with all the base traffic, trying to track one human male is difficult, to say the least. Especially if he doesn’t want to be found.”

“Alright, then. We’ll need to—.”

Before she can finish, Maggie is interrupted by the door being flung open, almost sending Tacoma across the room. Kimberly, winded and disheveled, steps through, a mess of slickly printed leaflets in her left hand. “Toller’s gone.”

“General Hart’s assistant?” Kirsten asks.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Moving fully into the room, she closes the door behind her and tucks a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “I thought that since you guys weren’t having any luck in the search, I’d see if Toller knew where he was. I went over to his house. It was all closed up, which isn’t like him. He must have forgotten to lock the side door, though, because it opened right up.” She worries her lower lip for a moment before continuing. “He wasn’t there. His uniforms were gone. His luggage was gone. All that was left behind were these.”

Dakota takes the leaflets from Kimberly’s outstretched hand, riffling quickly through them and glancing at the titles only.

Android = Armageddon

Multiculturalism: Satan’s Garden

Will YOU be among His Saved?

Curling her lip, Koda tosses the pamphlets onto Maggie’s desk where they splay out in a fan of Fundamentalist claptrap. “Answers that question.”

“What now?” Kirsten asks, thumbing through the leaflets and wincing at the titles.

“Little weasel’s got family in Grand Rapids,” Andrews remarks. “We could–.”

“I’m there,” Tacoma interrupts, already headed for the door before he’s stopped by his sister’s voice.

“Wait.”

He turns, eyebrow raised. The expression is so eerily like that of his sister’s that Kirsten finds herself turning to the woman beside her to make sure she’s still there and not suddenly across the room.

“Look,” Koda continues, spreading her hands out on the desk, “I appreciate wanting to find the man, but what I appreciate more is the fact that those androids out there aren’t going to wait for us to do that. We need to start planning for the war that’s just outside our doorstep, and that planning includes everyone in here.” Turning her head slowly, she eyes them all, watching as they straighten and seem to throw off the fatigue touching each and every one of them.

“I shall endeavor to track down your vermin and his master.” Harcourt’s voice is soft from the corner where he’s been quietly standing throughout the proceedings. He eases his way forward until he is standing before Maggie’s desk. He holds up a hand in the face of Dakota’s immediate objection. “We had a deal, Ms. Rivers, as you’ll recall. I enter and leave when I please, as I please. While I am far too old to be lobbing armaments at the enemy, I am quite experienced in hunting down animals who have gone to ground, as it were.” He smiles slightly, and there is something of the predator in it. “Make your plans, prime your trumpets for the walls of Jericho. I shall play my small part through to the end.” His own look, diamond hard and razor sharp, cuts off any and all objections at the knees. His smile broadens infinitesimally, showing the points of his canines. “I bid you all adieu, then, and wish you luck.” He turns to Dakota. “Should you wish to contact me again, you know where to find me.”

With a slight incline of his head, he eases forward as the bodies give way, and slips through the door, leaving everyone to stare, stunned, after him.

“Be right back,” Dakota remarks and pushes through the crowd and through the door.

*******

“Fenton, wait!”

Hearing Koda coming quickly up behind him, he stops, back still turned to her, and surveys the land before him. His voice is soft and contemplative as he recites from a favored poem.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that, the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.”

With a smile set on his face and a fine walking stick in his hand, he turns to his listener, eyes seeming to glow with vitality and a surge, seldom seen, of good humor.

“I believe, for my purposes, I shall take the road less traveled. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I’d rather you didn’t take any road.”

“Ah, but where would be the fun in that, Ms. Rivers?”

“This isn’t a game, Fenton.”

“True, but it is an adventure, and one which I am uniquely suited to undertake. Androids have no interest in me, an old man well past his prime, and I am more than wily enough to avoid their reach should they change their circuited minds on the matter.” In a rare show of warmth, he reaches out and lays a gnarled hand on Dakota’s wrist. “I know the import of hunting down the good general, Dakota. He may hold few secrets, but any secret is one too many if it is given unto the enemy.” He squeezes the thick wrist under his hand briefly before drawing away. “We all have our parts to play in this, Ms. Rivers. Allow me the dignity to see mine through, no matter what that end might be.”

After several moments of complete silence, Koda finally nods. “You’ll have some help, however.”

“I assure you, Ms. Rivers, I am quite capab–.”

His discourse is interrupted by a loud whistle, and a moment later fiercely beating wings herald the arrival of Wiyo, who lands easily on Dakota’s wrist. “She can see what you can’t. She can warn you if there’s danger ahead, or behind. She’s a friend. Take her with you, and I’ll feel much more comfortable about letting you go.”

The face of granite, the face that has frightened years off of criminals through the decades, dissolves like sugar in water, transforming the harsh planes of his face into soft lines of wonder and joy.

“Wiyo, hup.”

The redtail easily hops from Koda’s wrist to Fenton’s arm, then sidesteps up until she is perched quite comfortably on his shoulder.

“Now this isn’t a gift, so don’t be thinking you’re gonna be taking her home to live with you, you old codger. When you’ve done what you set out to do, set her free. I may have need of her yet.”

Harcourt chuckles, enjoying the feel of the weight on his shoulder and the odd sense of comfort it brings him. “Not to worry, Ms. Rivers. This bird knows who she belongs with.” His smile falls away, and he inclines his head respectfully. “Thank you, Dakota. You’ve given me a companion beyond price.”

Reaching out, she takes his hand and squeezes the gnarled fingers warmly. “Good luck to you, my friend.”

“And to you as well. May we meet again under better circumstances.”

With a last nod and a fleeting smile, he turns from her to begin his journey. She watches him until he rounds the curve leading to the gate, then makes her way back to Maggie’s office, and the problems within.

*******

Kirsten watches as the civilian population of Ellsworth files into the Base theater. Their number has held steady over the last several weeks, since sealing the gates to all but authorized traffic. Still, they number close to three hundred. About half are women rescued from the droid breeding facilities. The remainder consist of families in various configurations; in the first row an elderly couple accompanied by two toddlers shuffles sideways past a pair of young fathers holding hands with their three pigtailed daughters between them. They take their places beside a middle-aged woman and a teenaged girl with a face that is a mirror image of her own and eyes dead and dull as granite. They greet each other with quiet nods, subdued and somber. Though information about the approaching enemy has been closely guarded, they must know that a crisis is at hand. Koda’s return with a strange warband will not have gone unremarked, nor the suddenly increased number of Tomcat flights taking off for day-long missions to unspecified destinations. The Base is a small town, with a small town’s instant transmission of gossip.

Maggie, standing beside her on the small stage, says softly, “They know.”

“They’d be fools not to,” she answers. “Nobody’s ever thought the droids would give up. Ellsworth is a prime target.”

Maggie flashes her a grin. “Our defenses are good. Better since your little excursion.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.” Kirsten returns the grin, showing her teeth. “You’re still Base Commandant, General Allen.”

The promotion cannot have been unexpected, but Maggie stares at her wide-eyed for a moment, the breath gone out of her. Before she can speak, Kirsten says flatly, “It gets worse. You’re Air Force Chief of Staff, as of now. If we make it through this upcoming fight, we’re going to have to start looking for and organizing other surviving forces. Persuade them if we can, appropriate them if we have to.”

“Like Koda ‘appropriated’ the Minot militia?”

Kirsten nods. “We do what we have to. We’re not going to come out of this with the same kind of society we had going in. At least for a while, we’re going to have to be the biggest, meanest, most ruthless dog in the junkyard. Because that’s what we’re going to have to deal with—junkyard dogs.’

“Some of them rabid.”

“Some of them rabid,” she affirms. “And some of them we’ll have to deal with as we would with rabid dogs.”

At the back of the auditorium, Andrews pulls the double doors closed and turns to wave at the stage. All in.

“You sure you don’t want to do this?” Maggie asks Kirsten.

“Positive. It’s your Base. I’m just the civilian authority.”

“Okay, then.” Maggie steps forward to the podium, flanked on one side by the Stars and Stripes, on the other by the blue Air Force banner. She taps the mike softly and says, “Is this thing working? Can you hear me?”

A murmur of assent comes in answer, and Kirsten notes the rise in her shoulders as she takes a deep breath. She has just made Maggie the supreme uniformed authority in what remains of the United States. Which is only fair, she thinks, if I have to be President. Serves her right.

But that is not the only change that needs to be made. It is becoming increasingly clear that Koda’s position with the troops will have to be formalized, some title found that she will accept. “First Lady” sure as hell isn’t going to do it. Suppressing a smile, she turns her attention back to Maggie.

“. . .some cause for concern,” the new General says quietly. “General Hart has gone missing, and our efforts to find him have so far been unsuccessful. We do not know whether he left of his own free will, nor do we know whether he is safe, or even alive. I urge anyone who may have any information about the General to share it with the MP’s and help us to find him.

“Now. The real reason we asked you to come here. As most of you know already, the droids have regrouped since their last attack on Ellsworth. They are currently gathering troops and materiel at locations to the south and west of us. We have every reason to believe that they will attack Ellsworth again.”

A murmur runs through the crowd, quickly stilled. Maggie continues, “So we’ve asked you here, President King and I, to offer you a choice. Anyone who wishes to leave the Base should be packed and ready and at the gate tomorrow morning at eight. A bus will be made available to take you into Rapid City. Unfortunately, we cannot spare either the personnel or the vehicle to take you further. If you wish to leave the area entirely, we suggest that you go into North Dakota, then east. You will have a better chance of avoiding the enemy if you move in that direction. Lieutenant Andrews—he’s the redhead over there—will have a list for you to sign as you leave here tonight, so the bus driver will know who and how many to expect.

“On the other hand, you are welcome to stay on Base if you prefer. The only condition is that able-bodied adults must serve in support capacities to free up as many troops as possible for fighting. We will need you as cooks, messengers, orderlies, clerks. Someone will have to set up a child-care center. Lieutenant Rivers has the list where you can sign up for the job you prefer. We’ll give you your first choice if we can, but there are no guarantees.” She pauses a moment. “Are there any questions?”

The grandfather in the first row stands. “Will you be able to defend Rapid City?”

“We will have a fighter designated to attack troops that may approach you from the west. But that protection will be minimal. We are not prepared for urban ground fighting. We don’t have the numbers for it.”

A ripple of sound runs through the audience again. Here and there faces go grey; not all had realized the gravity of their situation. A woman in the last row speaks for all of them. “Is there anyplace that’s safe? Or safer?”

“No, ma’am. There isn’t.”

A silence falls, then. Maggie waits at the podium, but no one has anymore questions. After a moment, people begin to move out. Most, Kirsten notes with satisfaction, pause to sign Manny’s list; perhaps a dozen opt to evacuate.

She moves to stand beside Maggie. “That was a dose of reality.”

“Oh, yeah. They knew there was a problem. This was just the first time somebody official said it.”

“How long do we have?”

“Maybe a week. They’re not moving yet, but the recon flyer that came back about an hour ago says their numbers have doubled in just a couple days. Not good.”

Not good at all. Kirsten says, “I’m going back to the house. See if I can turn up anything else on the code.”

It is an unlikely hope, and they both know it. When Kirsten leaves the auditorium, Maggie is poring over the lists with Manny and Andrews. Past the veterinary clinic, past the stand of woods to the west of the street that leads to the residential section, strings of code run through her head. All futile; she’s been there before and come away empty. At the curve of the road, a rustle in the tree above her catches her eye, startling her out of the endless loops of binary. Sitting in the fork of the trunk, regarding her with eyes like onyx, is a large raccoon. “Yo, Madam President,” he says. “How’s it hanging?”

Kirsten stares for a moment at the masked face a foot above hers, the snap of mockery plain in the dark, bright eyes. Tega’s long fingers lie interlaced against his chest; replete and self-satisfied, he grins down at her. After a moment she says, “I don’t talk to hallucinations. Go away.”

“Hallucinate this,” he says amiably, and drops a small bird’s egg to splatter against her boots.

The yellow stain on the sidewalk looks very real. So does the sticky mess running down the laces of her Timberlands. She looks from her fouled hikers to the raccoon and back. “Damn,” she says. “You didn’t have to do that. That was going to be a bird.”

“No, it wasn’t. Those eggs were orphans.” Tega’s tongue runs the circuit of his muzzle.

“You mean you—no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“As Madam President wishes.” Delicately, Tega picks a small brown and grey feather from his ruff and looses it to fall floating down to join the broken egg. “I do pride myself on my table manners.”

Kirsten looks furtively around her. The street and sidewalk are both deserted at this hour, the folk who will stay sitting down to their suppers, those who will leave in the morning no doubt packing. It will not do to be seen talking to a raccoon in a tree. “You’re going to get me locked up if anybody sees us. Wearing one of those jackets with the extra long sleeves.”

“You wouldn’t be the first Great White Father—or Mother—to be a few kilowatts shy of a glimmer. Now among the Real People, that’d make you a holy woman. I don’t suppose you feel particularly holy?”

‘Holy–? Look, dammit. I’m a scientist. I believe in what I can see or calculate. I don’t believe in—” Kirsten makes a dismissive, circular gesture with one hand—”all this—this mumbo-jumbo. I don’t believe in you. You’re something I ate.”

Tega bares his teeth again, white and sharp as lancets. “Don’t even think it, schweetheart.”

“Don’t be absurd!” she snaps back. “You’re not edible.”

“Ah, dere ve haff it.” Tega leans back against the tree trunk with his hands once again folded over his midsection. He sounds, to Kirsten’s ears, like a Viennese psychiatrist in a bad TV drama. “Kultural differencesss.” Absurdly, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses has appeared perched just behind the black button of his nose.

“Cultural—” she repeats blankly. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Kirsten King, P. H. of D., President of the U. S. of A., wearing buckskin and feathers and opening the Sun Dance. How does that grab you?”

A flash of memory, involuntary and unconcealable: the slanting scars on Tacoma Rivers’ chest, the same scars on his father’s and cousin’s, and her own distaste. She had not been quick enough to keep Tacoma from reading her face; she is not quick enough to evade Tega’s eyes now. “It– All right. It makes me uncomfortable. Not the buckskin and feathers; I’d be honored to wear Dakota’s traditional dress. It’s—it’s just—”

“The blood, the mutilation, the primitiveness of it all?”

Her own blood rises hot in Kirsten’s face; she feels the blush spread from her neck up to her forehead. “It’s– Yes. It’s not—” The word she needs will not come. Perhaps it does not exist. She says, “It’s not quantifiable. Not—containable. It could get out of hand.”

“Oh, it could. Not to mention what could happen when people start up with the Ghost Dance again and all those dead Injuns born into white skin wake up and realize who they really are. That could get waaaayyy out of hand. You just can’t let it get out of your hand.”

Not for the first time, Kirsten wonders if her mind has shattered under stress. “I don’t see what that has to do with me. Dakota’s a medicine woman, I know that, I respect that—”

A hoot of laughter, strangely not human, comes from the tree above her, and Tega leans back, holding his sides. “Medicine woman! You silly girl, you’re marrying the fuckin’ Pope! Get used to it!”

“That’s crazy! You’re crazy!” Kirsten hisses. “I’m crazy for thinking I’m having a conversation with a—a—talking raccoon with perverted dietary habits!”

Tega turns suddenly serious. “Oh, you’re crazy all right. No sane woman would get herself into—and out of—the tightest droid facilities on the continent. No sane woman would try to put this wreck of a society back together. Now would she?”

“I had to! I’m the only one who could do that! The droid part, I mean.”

“True,” says Tega. “And you, and Dakota with you, are the ones who will lay down the pattern for the New World Order.” Kirsten can hear the capitals as his eyes dance behind their ridiculous lenses. “A mixed culture, where even white boys do the Sun Dance. And a blonde Lakota woman opens the ceremony beside the Medicine Chief of the whole nation.”

Kirsten head spins. Almost she can see it, herself in braids, carrying a hawk’s wing fan, stamping out the rhythm of the drums at the head of a line of women, all in Native dress, their skins and hair all the colors of the human spectrum. Behind them, making the circuit of the dancing ground, come the men with wreaths of spruce crowing their long hair, eagle-bone whistles between their lips. Among them are Andrews and Darius. And the implication hits her like the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs.

“That means—we’re going to survive! Gods–!”

Before her, Tega begins to fade, the rough texture of the bark becoming visible through his rough fur. Only his voice remains, becoming fainter and fainter. “Remember: the past is the future, the future is the past. Round and round she goes. . . little wheel, spin and spin . . .round and round . . . and where she stops. . . nobody. . .knows. . . .”

And Kirsten is alone, standing on the empty sidewalk, staring up at the empty fork of the tree. She swallows hard; her throat is painfully dry. I need a drink, she thinks. I need a drink bad. Swiftly, almost running, she sets off for the relative security of home and Asi.
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR
The convoy weaves in and out among the wrecks on Highway 90 like a line of dancers, stately and nimble. The lead Humvee bristles with weapons, a roof-mounted M-60 and an AK in the hands of its gunner, the tail vehicle identically armed. In between, Tacoma drives an open Jeep, Koda in the seat beside him, Maggie Allen in the back with a topo map and a laptop open on the passenger bench beside her. They are moving just fast enough that the odor from the shattered and torn-open derelicts cannot settle about them. Even so, Koda can hear the occasional strangled breath from Maggie. An airborne warrior skims above the stench of death; a foot soldier and a medic spend their lives in its penumbra. In any case, Koda’s mind is on another matter.

A shadow has followed them since they set out from Ellsworth, a shape that glides along just beyond the screen of the treeline, disappearing at intervals where the ground rises or a streambed cuts below the road. The sun, standing down from noon, glints off the new green of leaves, laying long shadows the length tree trunks. The shadow never quite separates itself from them, never comes clear into the light. The wreckage slows the convoy to a pace that a swift four-footed creature might match, and it has paced them tirelessly. Though it is beyond the range of sight recognition, Koda knows it for a manitu, a power. Tacoma does not seem to have noticed, nor has Maggie. The creature’s message is not for them. Dakota simply makes note of the presence and waits for what will come.

“We need to get a dozer out here,” the Colonel observes as they veer around yet another overturned eighteen-wheeler, its open door bent back like the lid of a tin can. Its upholstery is streaked white with lime where the carrion birds have perched. Just visible through the spiderweb of cracks in the windshield, an arm picked down to bone angles over the steering wheel. “We can’t get an armored column up this road unless we get some of this mess cleared off.”

Tacoma nods as they pass a minivan whose windshield crawls with maggots. He waves a hand at it. “There’s a real morale booster for you. We need a burial detail out here before we bring troops through.”

Maggie pauses a moment, her face thoughtful in the rearview mirror, and Dakota knows that she is weighing resources. “All right,” she says finally. “Nothing fancy. Just a backhoe and a ditch. Get half a dozen volunteers and promise them . . .whatever bonus you can realistically promise them. We’re as short of perks as we are of time.”

Just ahead of them, a fox climbs out the broken window of a car that remains crumpled into the back bumper of a pickup. A scrap of blue cloth still clings to its muzzle as it hops down and disappears into the grass grown tall by the side of the road. Spring thaw has brought the scavengers out to feed. From the corner of her eye, she catches movement of something larger in the rippling stalks, and watches as the fox’s smaller wake veers wide to pass it by.

Something born on Ina Maka, then, physical. Not something purely of the spirit world.

Briefly the shape of Wa Uspewikakiyape floats across her mind, and with it a stab of grief that remains sharp, even though she has managed to hold it distant from her in the crisis of the coming battle. It is too soon for his return, even should he choose to be reborn again. And, she acknowledges to herself, one of his wisdom has no need to walk the earth another lifetime.

“Tanski? You with us?”

Tacoma’s brow knits in concern for her, and she reaches over to pat his arm. “Present and accounted for, thiblo. Just thinking.”

He grins, and she watches the snappy comeback fade before it reaches his tongue. More and more of the Base personnel have begun to exchange knowing glances when she and Kirsten enter a room together; it is, she supposes, something that goes with being a newlywed.

More or less. Formalizing their relationship is something she and Kirsten have not talked about yet, cannot talk about at least until they are past the coming battle. When she had married Tali, fresh out of graduate school, they had gone away to Greece for their honeymoon and had been spared the grins and the elbow jabs of friends and kin. Odd, that her life should have taken a turn for normal in this one small thing amid the wreckage of a world.

She says, “How far out you think we should meet them?”

“Far enough out to give us some maneuvering room between there and the Base.” He glances back at Maggie. “Colonel?”

“Fifteen miles. Twenty would be better. There’s a place up past the bridge where the land falls away. They’ll have to come along that stretch strung out on a narrow front. We can control their approach there easier than just about anywhere else.”

A shiver passes over Koda’s skin, despite the warmth of the sun. “I know the place you mean. Anything on wheels will have to keep to the highway there.”

“Their armor won’t, though.”

Koda frowns, an idea forming slowly as the convoy negotiates yet another narrow passage between lines of wrecked vehicles. “We can block them, if we have time,” she says. “Or at least slow them down. How many heavy dozers can we get working?”

“Two or three,” Tacoma answers. “What d’you have in—oh.”

“Exactly.” She grins at him.

“Care to share?” Maggie asks, her voice dry.

Tacoma says, “Tracked vehicles can climb just about anything that’s not vertical, but if we ram a pile of these wrecks into a defensive berm, we can stop the enemy’s wheeled transport cold wherever we want to.”

“Or funnel them where we want them,” Dakota adds.

Tacoma shoots her a glance warm with appreciation. ” And we can direct the tanks, too. Colonel?”

“Sounds good to me. You’re the dirt soldiers.”

Koda notices the plural, and it makes a small warm glow somewhere under her sternum. There is a familiarity to the acknowledgement, and a certainty. It fits her, the same way her scalpel fits the shape of her hand, or the tortoiseshell rattle that had been her grandfather’s last gift to her.

The lower west fork of the Cheyenne passes beneath them, the highway curving away from the bridge to pass along the spine of a ridge that falls sharply to the bank of a stream on one side. The water runs parallel to the road for perhaps a mile, with a broad meadow spread out between it and another rise to the south. Koda lays a hand on Tacoma’s arm. “Stop. Stop here.”

Tacoma waves to the Humvee gunner ahead of them, then pulls the Jeep over to the side of the road. Koda climbs out and goes to stand by the guardrail, shielding her eyes as she looks over the level space between Highway 90 and the lift of earth not quite a mile away. A line of trees marches along it, and it seems to Koda that something moves in the laddered shadows that spill down its slope, but she cannot be certain.

The Interstate here is almost clear of wrecks, an open stretch between Rapid City and the small towns linked to it by farm-to-market roads. The air above the tarmac seems to shimmer in the sun, and through the rippling heat Dakota catches the glare sun off the metal hides of military droids, the sudden glint of light striking the silver collars of androids marching in uniformed ranks, the tireless crunch of their boots on asphalt a constant grinding that blends with the whine of tanks and the ponderous crawl of big guns. Then time slips back into place, and the vision fades. The road runs empty through the spring fields, overgrown now with grass and self-seeded crops, sprinkled here and there with patches of bright yellow and blue, rose and lavender.

“Tanski?” Tacoma touches her arm. “You okay?”

“Here.” Dakota says. “The battle will be here.”

“It’s a good place for it,” Maggie says, thoughtfully. “We can block this road at two or three places to slow them down and control their options once they get here.”

“We need to prevent them from fanning out on the north side of the road,” Tacoma says. “Or spilling down over the stream.”

“We’ll mine the north side,” Koda answers. “Maybe dig some ditches. How wide do they need to be to stop the tanks, thiblo?”

“Maybe ten feet. If we can dig them that deep, with straight sides, they’ll have to go around.”

Maggie nods assent. “Get the backhoes out here the minute we get back. Bury the dead as quickly as you can, then start to work on those trenches.”

“Spike the bottoms,” Dakota says suddenly. “Cut enough brush to camouflage the digging until the enemy is too close to turn back. What have we got besides fuel that will burn?”

“Asphalt. Tar. We repaved the runways just a few months ago, and there were supplies left over.”

Tacoma grins. “Thank the gods for government waste. What d’you have in mind, tanksi? Fire the ditches?”

Koda grins in return. “Between the spikes and the fire, we can immobilize anything that tries to cross them. Then we can use shoulder fired anti-tank missiles to explode their fuel and ammo once they’re stuck.”

“I like it,” says Maggie. “What about the ones that get through?”

“Use the wrecks to funnel them back behind our lines. Surround them, cut them off, and destroy them.”

“A strategic retreat could draw them in,” Tacoma adds, his dark eyes far away on a battle not yet joined. “Half our armor could fall back maybe five miles toward the Base through the open country. Then the other half could come in behind.” He raises his hands and brings them together. “Squeeze ’em like a python.”

“What about this open space here on our right?” Maggie gestures toward the meadow and the treeline in the distance.

“Spike the slope, too,” Koda answers. “Tacoma, could we dam up this stream and muddy the ground enough to mire their trucks if they try to leave the road?”

Tacoma leans over the guardrail, staring up and down the narrow watercourse for a long moment. Then he says, “We could dam it, no problem. The question is whether there’s enough water volume. We could probably get a hundred-meter strip nice and wet, though.”

“Do it,” says Maggie.

Movement behind the trees to the south catches Koda’s eye again. Something is there, pacing, the long shadows rippling with its passage. “But leave it passable on foot,” she says, as the image forms in her mind. “For the force we’ll hide behind that rise over there.” She turns to meet Tacoma’s gaze, half startled, half admiring. “We’ll block them, draw them in on the left, turn their line, and roll them up from the right and behind. Piece of cake.”

“Fuckin’ A better-than-sex cake,” Tacoma laughs. Then, as Koda and Maggie both stare at him repressively, “Figuratively speaking, of course.”

“Themunga makes a chocolate better-than-sex cake that’ll melt in your mouth,” Dakota elaborates, noting Maggie’s puzzled frown. “Only she calls it a not-quite-as-good-as-sex cake.” She pauses a moment. Then, careful to keep her face straight, “We’re a big family.”

“I noticed,” her friend says wryly. Then, “What about the ground over there? How big a flanking force can we put behind that rise?”

Again the movement catches her eye, and Koda says, “I’ll go scout it.”

Tacoma motions to one of the gunners from the lead Humvee. “Take an escort.”

She shakes her head. “No need. Back in a flash.”

With that she is gone down the slope, jogging over the matted grasses that spring under her feet. At the base, she leaps the stream easily as a deer, landing lightly on the far bank and sprinting across the meadow. Grasshoppers whirr out of her way; once she starts a young rabbit from its form, and ground squirrels, chittering, dive into their holes as she flies past them. Her feet seem to brush the ground only briefly; she is lighter than air, barely ruffling the grass as she passes. The sense of presence grows stronger as she approaches the fold of land with its crown of trees, stillness settling over her even as she reaches the foot of the rise and begins the ascent, leaping from rock to rock up its stony side.

At the top, she pauses, looking around her. The top of the knoll is perhaps a hundred feet wide, dropping down perhaps a third of the distance on the other side to a broad meadow. Sycamore and cottonwoods grow thickly along the spine, once, perhaps, planted as a windbreak before so many family farms failed in the second half of the past century and the Dakotas’ population bled away to the cities. In their cover, and on the field below, it should be possible to hide several hundred lightly armed fighters, far more than she will have at her disposal. And where, she wonders, does that come from? Who’s decided I’m the one to lead the ambush battalion?

Why, you have, of course.

Dakota wheels around, scanning the trees and the underbrush that grows thick beneath their branches, but there is no one. The voice is everywhere and nowhere, a ripple of laughter in her mind. The manitu.

Drawing her own silence around her then, Koda waits for the being to make itself known.

Or herself. She can sense that it is female in the current of savage tenderness that flows about it, running above the wild abandon of the hunt, the burst of joy at the kill. With a start, she recognizes the blood hunger as her own, the savage pulse in her own veins as she fought an alpha and killed him. My band now. My pride.

For what seems an eternity, the voice does not speak to her again. She can feel eyes on her, though, from somewhere within the trees. Watching. Waiting. Testing her patience. Finally the vigilance relaxes, and the thought comes to her, Oka was right. You have the makings of a warrior.

She gives a start, at that. Oka, Singer, is Wa Uspewikakiyape’s true name, the name by which his own people knew him. The name by which only Dakota among the two-footed has ever known him. I give you his greetings, the silent voice goes on. He has taken his place at the council fire in the other side camp. He will not walk the Red Road again.

I miss him, she says without sound.

You grieve because you love. That is as it should be.

Again, silence falls, and Dakota waits. It is not her place to hurry an elder, or to speak before spoken to. After a time, the light shifts among the trees, shadows rippling with the movement of a long body as it walks between them. Koda catches the sheen of sun off golden fur, the twitch of the end of a long tail. Igmu Tanka. At the thought, a puma steps out of the woods and comes to sit in the center of the small glade, gazing up at Koda with eyes like molten bronze. Round patches of fur show dark against her belly. She has cubs.

Ina, Koda acknowledges.

And I must kill something for them by nightfall, comes the answer, and with it the taste of hot blood. As you must kill for your own.

A pang stabs through Koda’s heart. I have no cubs. My child died with my beloved.

Igmu Tanka nips at a bit of twig caught in the fur of her shoulder. There are cubs, and there are cubs. Those for whom you are responsible are not of your body, yet they are yours nonetheless.

My responsibility is to fight this battle.

Your responsibility is to fight this battle, and others. And then it will be your responsibility to rule.

Rule? But Kirsten—

Is Chief. You are something new.

I don’t understand.

You don’t need to, not yet. I have something to tell you: do not hesitate to flee when the time comes. Victory will follow you.

Koda feels her brows knit. I don’t—

Understand. That does not matter. What matters is that you should obey my younger sister when she gives you an order. For the sake of all the People, two-footed, four-footed, winged and creeping, you must do what you least wish to, when you least wish to.

I will be here waiting when you return.

With that, the puma turns and pads back into the trees. Koda follows her movements until she is lost in shadow, then turns back toward the road and the burden laid on her.

*******

A somber, thoughtful Dakota opens the door to the house and steps inside, more by rote than conscious act. Padding softly through the kitchen, gaze turned more inward than out, she stops upon sighting Kirsten. Sitting on the tattered sofa, her legs tucked up under her, the young scientist stares into the monitor of her laptop as her agile, graceful fingers fly over the keyboard. The window across the room is open, and from it, a shaft of sunlight lances in, gilding her in pure gold, her hair a halo that quickens the pace of Koda’s heart. The love she feels for this woman is so strong, and so pure that it hurts, deep within, like a tight band across her chest.

Quite without her permission, her mind drifts back to her conversation with Igmu Tanka, and she finds herself comparing this new love with the one she lost so long ago, comparing Tali’s dark, reed-slender lines with Kirsten’s golden, muscled curves, Tali’s quiet sweetness with Kirsten’s mercurial intelligence, passion, and deeply hidden pain. What paths, she wonders, would her life have taken had Tali not been taken so quickly from her?

“You have the makings of a warrior,” Igmu Tanka had said. Would Tali have appreciated this growth in her, accepted it as simply and wholeheartedly as Kirsten does? Perhaps, she thinks. Tali had a good heart, a good soul. But she valued constancy in her life; the safety and security of knowing that each day would be much the same as the last. Family was the most important thing to her. Their loving was gentle, and quiet, fulfilling and comfortable. She gazes at Kirsten again, remembering their joining of last night. Her blood stirs hot in her veins and she moans softly. Kirsten accepted the raw desire, the deep passion in her. More than that, she embraced it, craved it with as much fire as Koda herself.

Tali was the love of who I was, Dakota realizes, with something akin to shock. But she, she is the love of who I am becoming; the woman I am meant to be.

At that very moment, Kirsten, who has turned her implants off for convenience’s sake, turns her head and locks eyes with her lover. Koda finds herself falling into the sunlit green of her direct, loving gaze, her sprit separating from her body seamlessly, painlessly as the world around her tunnels and rushes past, unacknowledged.

She’s running through a jungle thick with moisture and the scent of the earth. Broad green leaves caress her face as she passes, coating her with their moisture as her heartbeat, loud in her ears, sets her pace. Her spirit is filled with an almost savage joy as she runs, her feet light on the ground cover, her pace easy and relentless. She is the hunter, and her prey is very close. She can smell blood and earth, and a predator’s smile breaks over her face, turning her eyes to molten silver.

A sunlit clearing of deep green grass suddenly appears, and she stops, blood thrumming, as a woman, dappled green and gold, rises from her crouch, swaying to the tempo that Koda’s heart has created. Her hands reach out, gracefully beckoning, and Koda heeds their call, running to her, merging with her. They are one body, one spirit, one essence, writhing, pulsing in an ecstasy neither has ever known.

They explode then, their atoms scattering through space, and reforming randomly as the earth spins above them, blue and green and glowing, lit behind from the sun. Their combined heartbeat fades, to be replaced by the squalling of an infant breathing her first, then by the triumphant yowl of a hunting cat, until finally, it becomes the howl of the wolf going on and on and on until it is everywhere and everything.

Dakota comes back to herself as she is pulling away from Kirsten’s soft, swollen lips. They collapse against one another, panting breaths mingling, hearts thundering against their bony cages.

“Dear God,” Kirsten whispers when she finally has the breath to speak.

Cupping her lover’s cheek, Koda stares down into her eyes, so green and shining. “Did you…?”

“Feel that? God, yes. It was the scariest, most wonderful thing I ever felt in my life.”

A sudden wave of dizziness rolls over her, and her knees give out, dumping her less than gracefully back onto the couch. Dakota follows her down, squatting between her splayed legs and grasping her hands gently, chafing them with concern as she looks into clouded green eyes.

“Are you okay?”

Though she can read her lover’s lips easily, Kirsten suddenly craves the sound of her voice, and, pulling one hand away from its warm nest, thumbs her implants back on.

“Kirsten?”

“I’m—.” She lets out a breath, long and shaky, almost, but not quite, a laugh. “I’m…not sure. I think I may be…taking a little vacation from reality.”

Cocking her head slightly, Koda narrows her eyes, all but pinning Kirsten to the couch with the strength of her gaze. “Explain.”

“That’s just the problem,” Kirsten replies, tucking her free hand under the thick fall of her hair and rubbing at the back of her neck, where a mountain of tension has suddenly decided to take up residence. “I don’t know if I can.”

“Try.” Koda’s voice is soft and soothing, and Kirsten clings to its timbre like a lifeline.

“Remember when I told you about my raccoon visitor?” she begins, blushing slightly. “The one that wasn’t really there?”

Dakota nods.

“He wasn’t really there again today.” She laughs. It’s a dry, almost bitter sound. “Sitting in a tree just as big as life.” She shakes her head. “A full blown visual and auditory hallucination that I would have heard even with my implants off.”

“What did he say?”

“Oh, he had a lot to talk about, most of it put-downs.” The laugh sounds again, though a bit more genuine this time. “I can’t even manage to come down with your garden variety delusions of grandeur. Noooo, I have to hallucinate a wise-cracking vermin with a nasty attitude who seems to find my general ineptitude with life quite amusing.” Closing her eyes, she hangs her head, her chin not quite touching her chest. “When he’s not getting his jollies out of dropping eggs on me, that is.”

Koda’s eyes dart over to where Kirsten’s boots stand at the foot of the couch. With a small smile, she notes the dry streaks of yellow on the laces. Her suspicion fully confirmed, she releases Kirsten’s hand and, reaching up, gently cups her lover’s cheek, her strong thumb tenderly tracing over the baby soft skin. She remains silent, allowing Kirsten the much needed time to process her thoughts.

Deep green eyes finally raise and open, and Koda feels, once again, that sense of temporal dislocation. This time, she fights the urge, biting down on the inside of her lip until the feeling passes and she is firmly in control of her spirit. This is not good, she thinks, before Kirsten begins speaking, and she turns her attention to that instead.

“I feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole. Just when I think life is making sense, things start spinning out of control. And sometimes I think that if I just close my eyes real tight, maybe I’ll wake up and find this has all been a dream.”

“Do you want it to be a dream?” Dakota’s voice is steady and soft, but Kirsten has no trouble seeing the unease in her striking eyes.

Without thought, she takes the hand cupping her face and brings it to her lips, brushing a kiss against the warm knuckles. “Not even one second of it. I should hate myself for feeling this way. It’s so damn selfish. But if none of this had ever happened, I would never have met you, and that is something I would never want to change. No matter what.”

“Nor would I.”

The two embrace and hold each other tightly for a very long moment before Koda pulls, with reluctance, away. “For what it’s worth, love, you’re not crazy, ok?”

Kirsten looks up at her, clearly wanting, needing to believe, but, equally clearly, not believing—not entirely, at any rate.

“Maybe….” Koda’s throat clicks audibly as she swallows. After a split second of hesitation, she gives voice to the thought plaguing her for the past several days. “Maybe you should go off base until all this is over. My parents would keep you safe, and I’m sure by now the entire family is dying to meet you.”

Kirsten’s eyes widen as her jaw sets. Koda fancies she can feel the anger building in the smaller woman, and she winces internally.

“I–,” Kirsten begins. “You–. You want to send me away?!? I can’t—you really do think I’m losing it, don’t you!” She gathers her legs, beginning to stand, but Koda holds tight to her waist, pulling her in again. “Let me go.”

“No.”

“Damnit, Koda! I said–.”

“Listen to me, Kirsten!” She pulls back just enough to meet her lover’s blazing eyes. “It’s not you! I don’t think you’re crazy! You’re saner than anyone I know! It’s me! Don’t you see it?! I can’t lose you! Kirsten, I…can’t…lose…you!”

The hoarseness of Dakota’s voice finally filters through the red heat of Kirsten’s anger, and she relaxes against the large, trembling body holding her with desperation. “What—What did you say?”

“I can’t lose you,” Koda repeats, voice muffled against the fabric of Kirsten’s t-shirt. “Not now. Not ever.” Her hands tighten and tangle in the cloth, pulling her lover so tightly against her that not a molecule of air can pass between them. Kirsten can feel her breaths, tight and raspy, against her chest, and her arms close instinctively about Dakota’s broad shoulders, giving what comfort she can.

She’s scared! Kirsten realizes. For me! Dear God…! With a feeling of wonder, she slowly rocks the body half in her arms, her restless hands smoothing over Koda’s thick, shining hair as she replays her lover’s words to her over and over. Finally, slowly, she pulls back, and tips Dakota’s chin so that their eyes meet. “I’m not going anywhere,” she says firmly, with finality. “Not without you. We started this together, and we’ll end it together, or not at all. Understand me?”

After a moment, Dakota nods.

“I can’t lose you either, my love. Not when I’ve just found you. I—I can’t ask you not to do what you do best out there, once this war finally starts. What I can ask is that you come back to me, whole and healthy. Be careful. Okay? For us?”

“For us.”

They embrace again, tightly, and this time, neither is inclined to pull away for a very, very long time.
CHAPTER FORTY FIVE
“Alright, ya big goober, just give me a second here.” Asi dances on his forepaws as Kirsten struggles with a screen door that doesn’t want to open. Though the sky is a crisp, almost autumnal blue, the wind howls through the trees as if heralding a hurricane. “Damn…stupidass…state…” she grunts, giving the handle one final heave, and almost falling over as it opens far too easily, nearly taking her hand with it. Uncaring, Asimov dashes into the house, yodeling.

With a sigh, Kirsten releases the door, and it slams closed on another gust of wind. Instead of trying to wrestle with it again, she turns away, content, for the moment, to put off going in the house to spend more long hours in fruitless pursuit of the missing code. Even if the breeze is stiff enough to drop a mule, the sun is warm on her shoulders, and the air is fresh and sweet.

What a difference a week makes, she thinks to herself. The tepid, frightened, holding-pattern feel of the base has been replaced, almost overnight, by an almost hive-like intensity. Men and women, civilians and military alike, move across the grounds with purpose, heads held high and shoulders squared. She even spies several groups that appear to be drilling. Broken into squads of twenty, they run about the grounds in orderly rows to a musical cadence sung out by the squad leader.

As she looks on, one such group rounds the curve toward the house. She smiles as she recognizes the leader, and raises a hand. Clad in running shorts and a green T-shirt emblazoned with ARMY across the chest, Tacoma spies her, grins, and snaps off a stiff salute, barking to his charges to do the same or risk his wrath. Watching the few civilians in the crowd stumble about trying to salute and run at the same time causes Kirsten’s grin to broaden, but she reins it in and returns the salute as solemnly as she can manage. Her smile breaks through at last when Tacoma tips her a wink, and she watches with true pleasure as they all run off in step, even the four sixty something year old men, veterans of the first Gulf War who had buttonholed Tacoma and warned him that if he even attempted to get them off base and out of the fighting, they would stage a coup and depose him.

With a last, deep breath of fresh air, she turns back to the door, yanks it open, and strides inside. Her steps slow as she becomes aware of a presence she does not expect, and a smile of joy crosses over her face as she looks at her lover, seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch, eyes closed, breathing soft and even. Dressed in cargo shorts and a black tank-top, her beauty is a Siren’s call to Kirsten, and she finds herself heading into the living room without being aware of her movement.

Koda’s eyes open, and the simple welcome and deep affection in them warms Kirsten’s heart so greatly that tears spring to her eyes. As Dakota rises easily, fluidly, to her feet, Kirsten holds up a hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–.”

The rest of her statement is muffled as she’s gathered into a strong embrace. Koda’s warmth, scent, and strength surrounds her, filling her with a peace she’s long been lacking.

“You’re all knots,” Koda murmurs into her hair, long fingers pressing gently against the bands of tight muscle along Kirsten’s back and shoulders.

“Nerves,” Kirsten replies, wincing as the gentle pressure sends sparks of pain down her arms.

“Let’s do something about that.” Pulling away, Koda smiles down at her.

“A massage?” Kirsten asks innocently, well remembering where their massages have ended up in the past. “I suppose that will relax me. Eventually.”

Rolling her eyes, Dakota takes a step back. “Let’s try something else first, shall we?” Strong hands still on her shoulders, she gently urges the young woman to sit on the floor. “Here, cross your legs and get comfortable, alright?”

“C’mon, Koda, I’m no good at this meditation stuff. Remember what happened at the sweat hut?” A tremor of anxiety wends its way through her belly as she remembers that time, quite well. Muscles which were starting to relax instantly become tense again.

“Relax, cante skuye. You’ll be fine. Just relax and close your eyes.”

Sighing softly, Kirsten does as requested. Closing her eyes is the easy part. Relaxing is something else altogether.

Dakota’s hands come down on her shoulders again, their heat filling her body with a sweet, welcome warmth. “Relax and concentrate on your breathing.” Koda’s voice sounds very close to her ear and she shivers slightly as the dulcet tones sooth their way through her. “Deep cleansing breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Yes, like that. Good. Now, with each breath, feel some of your tension drift away. Can you feel it?”

Not really, Kirsten thinks, but doesn’t speak aloud, not wanting to disappoint her lover.

As if reading her thoughts, Koda chuckles and squeezes the firm flesh beneath her palms. “Don’t try so hard, my love. If nothing else, think of it as a few minutes without worries, ok?”

“Hm. Well, if you put it that way….”

“I do.”

“Alright, then.”

Wiggling her backside a little to try and gain more comfort on the hard wooden floor, she makes a great effort to relax her muscles and control her breathing. She can feel her lover’s solid presence behind her, and takes in her scent on an indrawn breath, letting it surround her and mingle with the warmth of the strong hands on her shoulders. Without realizing it, she slips into a light meditative state.

Opening her eyes, she finds herself in some sort of field. The land is flat and treeless and empty, stretching on for miles as far as her eyes can see. Tall grasses with feathery tufts have been pressed flat against the ground, laying a rich golden carpet over the earth.

A familiar, piercing cry sounds overhead, and she looks up, smiling as she sees what can only be Wiyo circling overhead on the warm, late-summer breeze. Instinctually, her hand raises as if to wave to her old, trusted friend, then freezes as the slanting sun winks off something on her finger.

A ring.

On the third finger of her left hand.

Her vision blurs as she stares, dumbstruck, at the simple golden band through a film of sudden, joyful tears.

The hawk’s cry sounds again, and this time it is answered by an identical cry to her left. Blinking, she shifts her gaze in that direction, looking on in dazed wonder as Dakota appears as if from nowhere. She is a magnificent sight. Dressed only in a beaded loincloth of red, yellow and black, her skin is dark and shining with sweat and oil. Her feet are bare as are her breasts. Her hair, drawn into two fat, shining braids lying easy over her broad shoulders, sports two eagle feathers, both pointing toward the heavens.

In one hand, she holds a handled drum, and she taps on it with the fingers of her free hand. The rhythm is that of Kirsten’s heartbeat. With each tap, Dakota takes a step, ball of her foot to heel and ball to heel again, approaching her in a slow, sinuous and utterly captivating dance.

Her mouth opens, and she utters, again, the cry of the hawk, which is echoed by Wiyo, and then by human voices.

Many human voices.

A long line of men and women appear behind Dakota. Leading the line is Tacoma, dressed identically to his sister save for the single feather in his hair and the bone whistle cradled securely between his lips.

He looks at her and winks. She can’t help but smile back, filled with a sense of warmth and family far beyond anything she has ever conceived of knowing. She almost laughs aloud as the line dances slowly forward to Koda’s rhythm and she recognizes the men and women following. Andrews, his shockingly red hair free and down past his shoulders, wears a pair of Army camo pants and no shirt, his fair, freckled skin already starting to burn in the blazing light of the sun. Manny is next, looking every bit the full blooded Lakota, his hair finally grown out enough to braid.

Her jaw drops slightly as she recognizes Maggie, breasts proudly bared, her ebony skin shining blue in the sun, her teeth a blinding white as she nods to Kirsten and breaks into a beaming grin.

“My family,” she whispers, her eyes filling with tears once again. “My people.”

The strident scream of an air-raid siren breaks through her vision, jarring her back to full consciousness as her muscles close their steel traps once again.

She feels herself being lifted to her feet and steadied as she sways the tiniest bit, still caught between the present and what can only be her future. Can it? the more cynical part of her mind asks. Can it really? Dreams like that are not for you, Kirsten King. Not for you. Not for you. Not for you….

“We’ll just see about that,” she growls, grabbing Dakota’s hand just as the door bursts inward and Jackson plows through. “The enemy’s been spotted, Ma’ams. They’re coming.”

“In the air?” Dakota asks.

“No, Ma’am. On the ground. It’s….” He shakes himself out of his nervousness. “The Colonel requests your presence in her office. Best possible speed.”

“Let’s go.”

Jackson leads the way back out, but as Kirsten is about to follow, she’s tugged to a gentle stop by Dakota. She looks up into gleaming eyes.

“You were given a vision.”

It’s not a question, and she doesn’t have it within her to demur. Not now. Instead, she nods.

“It will come true.” Again, the tone of complete, unalterable certainty.

Lifting Kirsten’s hand, Koda places a kiss in the palm, then holds it over her own heart. “It will come true,” she states again, her belief bedrock.

“I hope so,” Kirsten whispers. “More than anything in the world.”

*******

Hours later, with the last of the plans set into motion, Dakota and Kirsten return to the house for a brief period of privacy, each knowing that such a chance will not come again for a very long, strenuous time.

“I saw Manny earlier,” Kirsten says, looking up from her laptop where binary code continues to march futilely across the screen. “He’s not a happy camper.”

Koda lifts the kettle from the stove with both hands and pauses on her way to the bathroom. “I ran into him, too, when I made a last check on the patients in the clinic. He was walking around in the middle of his own personal cloud, but he didn’t say what was bothering him.”

“I know Maggie isn’t letting him lead the chopper squadron tomorrow. He’s been a glorified baby sitter for the last several weeks; that’s got to smart.” From the bathroom, Kirsten hears the water splash into the tub. They may die tomorrow, maybe tonight. But, by all the gods past and present, they are going to have a hot bath first. “How’s it going?” she asks as Koda returns to fill the pot and set it on the stove where two others are just beginning to steam.

“Almost there. I found a last bit of bath salts in the back of the cabinet. Want to go for it?”

“Oooo, decadence. Need help?”

“Nah, I got it.” Koda lifts another pot from the stove and disappears again.

The figures march across the screen in ranks, and it seems to Kirsten that they possess the same sort of mindless, mechanical determination that has been programmed into the droid soldiers. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die . . .. The odd bit of poetry, relic of some long-ago literature class, floats up from her memory. And how, she asks herself wryly, is that so different from us? If we fail here, we all die, sooner or later. Some later, but just as surely. And then what?

Her vision, or her imagination, had seemed to promise that she and Koda would survive. So had Tega.

But she knows enough, by now, to know that prophecy is conditional, not what will be but what can be. It is up to her, to Dakota, to Maggie and Tacoma and Andrews and Jackson and Manny and all the rest, to carry that future and ultimately to bring it forth into the world. And there is a battle between that conception and that birth, and in that battle is death.

She lowers the top of her computer, pushing it away from her, and with it the thought. They are as ready as they can be: ditches dug, derelict cars and trucks rammed into barricades, troop placements and strategies mapped out. Even from the distance of the officers’ quarters, Kirsten can hear the steady roar of engines as their transports pull into formation on the flight line, the higher pitched whine of tanks and their two self-propelled howitzers as they take up their positions. Their rumble vibrates through the floorboards under her feet.

We’re going to make it. We have to. Failure is impossible.

In two hours, she and Koda will take their places in that line, move up the road to block the droids’ advance. The enemy has the numbers, but, given the rigidity of their programmed logic, the Ellsworth force has the tactics and the flexibility to exploit even a minuscule advantage to the fullest. And, despite the air raid siren, the droid army is dirt-bound. At need, Maggie will put the Tomcats into the air and bomb them to flinders. Which is, it occurs to Kirsten, probably why Manny is being held back.

The last pot comes on the boil, and Kirsten carries it into the bath. The steaming water smells sharply of lavender and something sweeter and more subtle, running under the astringent scent of the bath salts. Koda kneels by the tub, stirring a thin stream of cooler water from the faucet into the mix. Curling vermilion petals skim the swirls, here and there the bell of an entire flower, its anthers leaving a trail of gold in the water. Koda glances up, one hand still in the water. “Try the temperature. See if it’s right.”

Kirsten’s eyes sting suddenly, a prickling that has nothing to do with the eyestrain of the past hours. “It’s right,” she says around the catch in her throat. “It’s the best bath I’ve ever seen.” Then, more steadily, “Where’d you find the tiger lilies?”

“In the garden of one of the vacant houses. They’re panther lilies, actually, wild flowers. Someone must have brought them here from California.”

Bending to add her own pan of hot water, Kirsten looks more closely. She brushes a silken bloom with one finger as it floats by. “You’re right. They grow all over in the woods; I used to see them when my dad took us camping.”

Koda reaches up to capture her free hand, turns the palm up and kisses it. Her eyes, when she raises her head, are the deep blue of gentians, trouble in their depths. She says softly, “You’re trembling.”

Wrapping her fingers about her lover’s longer ones, Kirsten closes her own eyes. “I’m scared, Koda. I don’t know—” With an effort, she steadies her voice. “It bothers me when I don’t know what outcome to expect. It’s the scientist thing.”

“You have seen beyond tomorrow. Wika Tegalega has given you a prophecy.”

“Do you believe that? That we are going to make a whole new kind of world? Truly?”

“I do.” Something else stirs in Koda’s eyes, a question Kirsten cannot quite read. “When I scouted the battlefield with Maggie, I spoke with—I spoke with one of the Four-Footed people, Igmu Tanka. She said she wait for our return.”

“Igmu Tanka? Igmu is ‘cat’—a mountain lion?”

Koda nods. “We will survive, cante mitawa. Not just us, but our people—all our peoples. If we use all our weapons, all our knowledge. It is promised.” Her expression changes, a smile breaking over her face. “Now get into the tub with me, or the water will be cold.”

Kirsten rises, turning away and slowly drawing her shirt over her head. Behind her, she can hear Koda’s breath catch, and wonder washes through her that she has such power to move her lover. But she says, laughing, “I know how we can warm it up again.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Koda answers, a hint of laughter in her own voice. Kirsten hears the quiet murmur of cloth on cloth as Dakota’s jeans and shirt drop to the floor, the soft splash as she steps into the tub and settles into the water. “Oh gods,” she breathes, “this is heaven. I could die happy right now.”

Kirsten turns to face her, taking in the long, copper legs that stretch all the way to the front of the tub, the angular shoulders contrasting with the upper curve of Koda’s breasts. The blue eyes are closed in sheer, abandoned ecstasy, incredible long lashes fanned out on her cheeks. A more inviting prospect would be hard to imagine. But, “How are we going to do this? That’s not exactly designed for a hot tub.”

“True.” Koda sits up straight, drawing her knees up almost under her chin. “Come on in. No, not that way,” she says as Kirsten steps in, facing her. “Turn your back. That’s it.”

As she moves to comply, Koda’s legs part to let her sit between, and Koda’s arms come around her, holding her gently. “This is better, no?”

“Much better,” she breathes as she feels a kiss, soft as the spring breeze, ruffle her hair. Her own hands on Koda’s she leans back against her, feeling the embrace tighten. The warmth of the water, the silkiness of her lover’s skin, the rich scent of the lilies combine in something close to sensory overload. For a long moment, they remain motionless. Then Kirsten sighs, letting go Koda’s hand and reaching for the puff of pleated tulle that hangs from the hot water tap. “Time to scrub.”

“Let me.”

There is not room to turn around, but, Kirsten hands the sponge and the bottle of soap backward, laughing. “Who’d have thought the woman waving an M-16 in my face would turn out to be such a hedonist? Just goes to show first impressions aren’t all they’re racked up to be.”

Koda chuckles, deep in her throat. “Who’d have thought the cute little android taking a leak in the snow would be such a sucker for it?” Kirsten opens her mouth to protest, but closes it abruptly. Koda’s hands, slick with the soap, pass over her shoulders in long, slow, circles, slip down her spine and up her flanks, the pattern repeating again and again. Through the film on her skin, she can feel Koda’s nipples harden as they brush against her back. Koda’s hands continue to spiral across her shoulders, down her flanks, sweeping across her thighs, circling her belly. They rise to cup her breasts, thumbs lightly brushing her own nipples, the touch and the cool air tightening the flesh around them. Koda’s mouth moves along the back of her neck, nibbling at her ear. Kirsten presses herself back against the strong body behind her, her own hands gliding over the long legs that arch beside her. “Nun lila hopa,” Koda whispers. “Cante mitawa.”

“Cante mitawa,” Kirsten echoes, her breath catching as Koda’s hand slips between her legs, then, fingers parting the labia to find the nub of her clitoris. Fire catches under her touch, strikes along the nerves of Kirsten’s legs, flares to life up the column of her spine. “Cante mitawa,” she says again, while she can say anything at all, and her head falls back as release takes her and she feels her pulse hammer against Koda’s hand that still cups her sex, shuddering through her again and again.

When she can move, she turns to kneel between Koda’s thighs. Dakota’s eyes, wide and unfocused with desire, draw her down and down, until it seems that she glides slowly through dark water, while shapes move along the verge of the pool above her, slim-legged and swift, slow and lumbering, moving on four legs or two or none. Around her she hears the darting passage of bright fish, the roll and tumble of otters. Then they are gone and she is back in the world she knows, her lips seeking Koda’s in a long, lingering kiss as her knee presses against her lover’s center and Koda comes, the blood pounding in her throat under Kirsten’s mouth, beating frantically, then slowing as the after-languor takes them both. For a long moment they remain still, holding each other. Then Kirsten says huskily, “You remember that ring I saw in my vision?”

“Mmm,” Koda answers, her head still against Kirsten’s shoulder.

“Well, then, are you gonna marry me?”

“Are you proposing?”

“I am.” Kirsten smiles against the dark hair that coils over her own shoulder and Koda’s. “One of us had better.”

“Since you put it that way—” Koda raises her face to Kirsten’s, claiming her mouth in a kiss that takes Kirsten’s breath. Then, “Since you put it that way—yes.”

“How—that is, I don’t know what the Lakota custom is? How do we do it?”

A glint of mischief comes into Koda’s eyes. “Well, first, you take Wanblee Wapka a string of ponies. Say about a dozen, you being President and all. Then you get a courting blanket and come calling. Then–”

“Then we elope,” Kirsten says succinctly. ‘When does the Judge get back?” A shadow crosses Koda’s face, and a stab of regret goes through Kirsten. “I’m sorry, love. I’m worried, too.”

“I know,” Koda answers. “But we’ll make our own rules. It’s a new world. We’re something new. We just need to get through this fight. Then we can plan.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Kirsten leans forward into a kiss. “Hold you now and forever.”
CHAPTER FORTY SIX
Kirsten sits cross-legged on the springy, cool grass beneath the heavy boughs of fragrant trees that dot the residential area of the base. At her back, the waters of the stream chuckle merrily as if listening to a joke only they can hear.

The scent of the rendered fat in the bowls before her doesn’t exactly rival perfume, and she resists the urge to sneeze just to get the smell out of her sinuses. She settles for what she hopes is innocuous mouth-breathing instead, flushing slightly at the look she receives from Tacoma. A touch to her knee draws her attention back to Dakota, who is sitting with a bowl of yellow paint cradled in her lap, and a small twig laden with the same held up, elegant eyebrow raised slightly, questioning.

Kirsten nods, almost shyly, and, smiling, Koda brings the loaded twig to her lover’s cheek, painting a design with sure, deft strokes. After several moments, she pulls the brush away and tilts Kirsten’s chin, eyes raking over the design she’s just created. A quick touchup, and she nods, satisfied with her work.

“Iktomi zizi.”

The words bring smiles to the faces of Manny and Tacoma, and a frown of puzzlement to Kirsten’s. “Excuse me?”

Reaching up, Dakota gently touches Kirsten’s face, then lays two fingers on her partner’s chest, right above her heart. “Iktomi zizi.” With her free hand, Koda lifts a bowl of clear water and hands it to Kirsten, gesturing for her to look into it.

The surface of the water ripples, and Kirsten watches her reflection waver in it, squinting as the image slowly comes into focus.

An intricate web design covers most of her left cheek. A similar one, though smaller, dots her right. She raises her head slowly, looking up at Dakota, wide-eyed. “A spider? You’re calling me a spider?”

“Iktomi zizi. Yellow spider.”

Kirsten’s face wrinkles. “I don’t think I–.”

“Hey!” Manny interrupts, chuckling, “I think it’s perfect. Spiders might be small, but some of them can bring down a man, or even a full grown horse with just one bite.”

“Yeah, but they’re–.”

“Crafty and intelligent,” Tacoma intones. “Creators of incredibly complex designs, and absolutely fearless.” He grins. “The name fits you perfectly.”

Kirsten eyes the three steadily. “Yeah, well just remember something else about us spiders.”

“Yeah?” Manny asks. “What’s that?”

“We eat our mates.”

There is a moment of absolute silence as her words are absorbed. Then Tacoma and Manny both blush, their copper skin tinting toward tomato red as they break into laughter and smack Dakota on the shoulder with good-natured teasing.

Kirsten looks on, a bit confused with the reaction she’s receiving. It is only when she spies Dakota’s rakish, eyebrow waggling grin that the subtext of her words blooms fully in her mind, and the blush that crawls up from her shoulders is so deep and dark that her pale eyebrows stand out in vivid relief against its heat. “Oh my god,” she moans, dropping her face into her hands. “I cannot believe I just said that!!”

Chuckling, Koda rubs her back. “Just relax, love. We know what you meant.” After a moment, she eases Kirsten’s hands away from her face and checks to make sure the designs aren’t smudged. “One last thing. Close your eyes.”

Said eyes narrow. “Why.”

“Relax and just close your eyes. Trust me.”

Sighing, Kirsten lets her lids slide closed over her eyes. “I’d better not regret this.”

“Just keep ’em closed.” Taking another bowl, this filled with thick black paste, she dips three fingers in, coating them liberally. Lifting her fingers, she tilts Kirsten’s face toward her, then draws them across her lover’s eyes, from temple to temple, creating a crude, but effective black mask. “Ok, you can open your eyes now.”

Dakota grins as vivid green eyes open, their color all the more striking when set against the black paint surrounding them, like emeralds in a black-velvet jeweler’s box. “For Wika Tegalega. Look.”

Kirsten glances down into the still water, then back up at her lover. “I look like the Hamburgler.”

A moment of silence, and then the group roars in laughter. Kirsten merely rolls her eyes. “Can we get on with this, please?”

The others eventually sober, and Dakota takes back the water bowl with a grin that is slightly abashed. Her face has already been painted with the symbols of Crazy Horse, and the backs of both hands bear stylized wolf prints done in black and red.

A piercing cry spears the silence, and the four of them look up to see Wiyo circling down toward them. With a great beating of wings, she lands upon Koda’s outstretched forearm. A leather pouch dangles from one of her legs, and Kirsten eyes it curiously. “What…?”

“A note,” Dakota intuits, using her free hand to untie the simple slipknot. She hands the pouch to Kirsten. “Get it out of there for me, willya?”

The bag’s laces are tight and slippery, but Kirsten finally manages to fumble them open. Upending the small pouch, she shakes out a tiny, tightly rolled slip of paper, which she proceeds to unroll. Without her glasses on, the tiny writing is just one big blur, so she hands the scrap off to Dakota, who peers down at the message while Wiyo looks on, placidly. “It’s from Fenton. He found Toller.”

“Oh yeah?” Tacoma asks. “Where?”

“Just outside of Grand Rapids.” Dakota raises her eyes from the note. “Dead.”

“No shit!” This from Manny, who looks on, wide-eyed. “How?”

“Single gunshot wound to the back of the head.”

“Sounds like an execution,” Kirsten murmurs. “Did the judge say who he thought did it?”

“He’s guessing androids. There was talk in town about a small group of them in that area over the last week or so.”

“Any sign of Hart?”

“None.”

“Bet the metalheads took him,” Manny observes, raking a hand through his hair. “He’s the fucking commander of the base they’re about to attack. Jesus Christ.”

Kirsten rubs at the back of her neck. “Well, he’s been kept pretty well isolated from our plans for awhile now, so while it’s not the best news in the world, I’m not sure it’s the worst, either.”

“Yeah, but,” Manny argues, getting up to pace, “he knows the base layout like the back of his hand, he knows our numbers, our weapons, our strengths, our weak spots, and, worst of all, he knows you’re here. That sound like pretty damn bad news to me.”

“Manny. Sit.”

The young pilot looks over at his cousin, sighs, and sits.

“Alright,” Dakota continues, “we’re not even positive that the androids have him, but if they do, it’s a bit late to worry about it now. They’re at our gates, and with or without Hart’s information, they’re gonna be damned tough to fend off. So…we stick to the plan, and see what develops, alright?”

“We should probably let Maggie know,” Kirsten replies softly.

“Sounds good.” Koda eyes her brother and cousin. “Anything else?”

Both shake their heads in the negative.

“Good.” Shifting her gaze, she looks into the golden eyes of her feathered companion. “Thank you, my friend.”

Ruffling her wings, Wiyo closes her lethal talons around Koda’s forearm until the needle-sharp points break the skin. Three fat beads of blood well up. Cocking her head, she lets go a loud, almost triumphant cry, then launches herself into the air, wings flapping strongly, elegantly. With a feeling of almost stunned disbelief, Koda looks down in her lap, where two perfect feathers now rest. As she watches, the blood from her arm drips down onto the feathers, anointing them.

“You have been blessed, Tshunka Wakan Winan,” Tacoma says, his eyes sparkling reverently, joyfully. “By Ina Maka herself. Surely we are meant to win this fight.”

Still staring down at the feathers in her lap, Dakota finds that she can say nothing at all.

*******

Kirsten sits on Maggie’s cot, the blanket tucked drumhead-tight around the narrow mattress, systematically shoving rounds into the spare magazines of her .45. One, already filled, lies beside the weapon on top of her pack. She is halfway through the second, her face frozen in concentration as she thumbs bullet after bullet into their flat carriers. Koda watches her from the desk, where she is marking their force’s final battle positions on a topo map of the ground where they plan to meet the android army. Tacoma has another copy, as does Maggie. Like them, she has no illusion that these are anything but a diagram of their opening gambit; if she had learned nothing else from the battle of the Cheyenne, from her fight with the Minot war leader, she would have learned that battle is unpredictable.

She has also learned that men and women will follow her, and that still frightens her. It frightens her all the more when one of those women is Kirsten. Perhaps she should feel easier knowing that her lover will be at the command center, guarded by Manny and Andrews and Maggie herself. A part of her mind remains convinced that Kirsten is safest at Dakota’s own side, with love as well as friendship and duty between her and harm.

But that is an illusion, and she knows it. There is no safety anywhere. Not on the battlefield, not off it. They must break the enemy here, and they must break him now. There will be no second chance. I will be here when you return, Puma had said. But prophecy is contingent. None knows that better than Koda.

We could still lose. We could lose it all.

Finished with the map, Koda folds it and slips it into her field pack. “About ready?”

Kirsten shoves the last round home, slipping the full magazines into loops in her belt. She looks up, smiling briefly. “I’m ready.” Then, the smile fading, “I’ll be glad when this is over.”

“Me, too,” Koda says quietly. She rises and shoulders her own pack. One way or another, the world will be a different place in twenty-four hours.

Kirsten follows suit, snapping down the holster on her Colt and lifting her kit by its straps. Her helmet dangles from it by the chinstrap. Her battle dress, like Koda’s own, bears no insignia. No need to advertise their identity to the enemy. Forward parties have already caught and killed half a dozen human spies; it would take only one to recognize her and carry word of Kirsten’s presence to the enemy. They have no way of knowing how many they have missed, any one of whom could betray their strategy to the enemy.

Go to Plan B . . ..

Unfortunately, there is no Plan B. They have not the resources.

A shadow passes across the window, dark in the light of the low sun. Knuckles rap lightly on the jamb, and Maggie pushes open the door. Like Dakota and Kirsten, she wears combat fatigues, the bulk of her Kevlar vest showing clearly beneath her tunic, an M-16 slung over her shoulder. A wry smile quirks her mouth upward. “Madam President. Would you like to inspect the troops?”

“No,” Kirsten says succinctly. The tension in her voice runs along Koda’s nerves. “Let’s just go.”

Maggie’s mouth tightens, her eyes narrowing. “Let’s try that again. Madam President, would you like to inspect the troops?”

Kirsten glances up at the taller woman, her own face set. “I said—”

“Kirsten,” Koda says softly. “You are their Commander in Chief.”

Koda notes the rise and fall of Kirsten’s shoulders underneath her jacket, hears the breath as it leaves her. “All right. Nothing formal.”

Maggie nods. “Nothing formal. They need to see you, though. They need to know you see them.”

It is something Koda has learned over the last months, slowly and with reluctance. A commander is as much symbol as leader, as much a fighting band’s faith as its head. The troops who had followed her across the bridge at the Cheyenne had not done it for freedom or democracy or the idea of a state. They had done it for her. Kirsten’s face loses its stubbornness as the realization comes to her as well. “All right,” she says again and steps through the door Maggie holds for her.

Over her head, Maggie’s eyes meet Koda’s. “You’ll do,” she says, and Koda is not sure whether she means Kirsten or herself. “You’ll do just fine.”

Outside, the low sun lays long shadows on the tarmac, fantastic angular shapes that barely suggest the APC’s and Humvees and Bradleys that cast them. The vehicles themselves form a convoy strung out half the length of the runway, most single file. Lead and rear contingents are both armor, tanks and their two mobile howitzers. Personnel carriers cluster in the middle. All along the line, the troops stand at attention, men and women drawn from every branch of service, the reserves, the civilian population. All are well armed, most are, more or less, in uniform. There is no shortage of equipment, only of soldiers to use it.

Parked just outside the office, the Jeep that had once been General Hart’s stands waiting. Its door bears his three stars, or once did. Now all that remains of them is a single star and two splotches of fresh paint. From the front fenders fly miniature flags: the Stars and Stripes from one, the blue Air Force banner from the other. Andrews sits at the wheel. Maggie slips into the front seat beside him, Koda and Kirsten into the back. Just as Kirsten turns to arrange her gear, Koda says, “Stand, cante skuye. Let them see you.”

For a moment it seems that Kirsten will demur. But she faces front, one hand on the rollbar, as the Jeep begins to roll. A ripple precedes them up the line, hands raised to salute. Koda watches as Kirsten smiles and acknowledges the gesture, her own back straight as a young birch tree, all traces of anger and tension gone from her face. It comes to Koda that Kirsten has a true gift for leadership, one very different from her own. Her lover’s wildness is all for her, nothing that near-strangers or even friends will ever see. To them she is a still point of order in chaos; a fragment rationality in a spinning vortex of dementia. She is the center that will hold against the circling dark.

The Jeep comes to the end of the line, the rear brought up by one of the howitzers. Then it swings back to take its place in the middle of the column, and the line of vehicles shudders into motion.

“Here we go,” Kirsten says, taking her seat. In her eyes, apprehension shadows her pride in the moment, and Koda knows what she fears.

“Here we are,” she answers, taking her hand. “Always.”

*******

“It’s a good thing they already know we’re coming,” Kirsten shouts into Koda’s ear, “because this is sure as hell no sneak attack.”

Koda grins and nods, not even attempting speech. Before and behind them, the Bradleys and howitzers, the mortars and the other tracked vehicles crunch along the asphalt. The tanks’ characteristic shrill whine carries on the evening air like the howl of lost souls, punctuated only by the whup-whup of a pair of low-flying Apache choppers scouting the margins of the road. The air chills as they pass, blue with dusk, shadows fading into the oncoming night. Stars hang low on the eastern horizon before them; behind them the scudding clouds flame gold and crimson as the sun slips below the edge of the world. To either side of the road, barriers of derelict cars and trucks loom high, broken shapes out of nightmare bulldozed into place to funnel the enemy advance between Tacoma’s forces and Maggie’s. Also along their flanks, invisible now under brush and rubble, ten-foot wide trenches run from the pavement into the trees that line the road. If the enemy follows the battle plan hammered out by the Ellsworth officers—if the enemy can be forced to follow it–the ditches will trap and incapacitate the droids’ armor. At intervals, two-and-three man teams peel off the line of march to take stations, in the woods or behind rocks, where they can lob armor-piercing missiles into the mired tanks from shoulder launchers.

Koda fastens the chin strap of her helmet, pulling it tight and checking the adjustment of the night sight. She does not lower it yet; there is little to see now save the bulk of the APC lumbering along ahead of their Jeep, the heaps of wrecked metal looming on either side at irregular intervals. Beside her, Kirsten does likewise, her lover’s smaller hand seeking hers again. They will separate soon, Koda to lead her detachment into its position on the south flank, hidden from the road, Kirsten to remain with Maggie among at the command post personnel as communications chief. It is not a position of safety; Maggie will have charge of the center, where the enemy attack will fall hardest. In the dark, in her own mind, she tries to find reassurance in Kirsten’s vision, in Puma’s promise that she would be here, on this ground, at Koda’s return.

But this is a return, now, and Puma is a warrior spirit. It is battle that waits. There is no guarantee of ever coming here again.

Neither is there any guarantee of leaving.

As they pass the ten-mile mark out of Ellsworth, the pace of the column picks up, the whine of the tanks suddenly diminishing. Kirsten’s fingers tighten around her own; Tacoma has left the interstate with the armor squadron, gone to take up position in the thickening dark to the north of the road, where they will both protect the flank of the main force and, with luck, draw the enemy tanks and Bradleys into a death trap.

The moon is up, just off the full. A stiff wind blows from the south, and clouds scud across its face, narrow ribbons of black and silver. Suddenly Kirsten turns, her profile rimlit in the pale light, her pointing finger tracking something moving along the treeline. As Koda’s gaze follows, she can make out a white shape beyond the reach of the branches, propelled by slow, deep wingbeats. Owl. The moonlight strikes silver from its feathers, ripples over the fan of its pinions where they spread out like fingers at the ends of its wings. Though it does not call, a shiver passes through her, chill along her skin. There will be death tomorrow; she needs no omen to tell her that.

With the armor gone, the convoy picks up speed. The barricades grow fewer as they approach the place where they will deploy in preparation to meet the enemy, and the last mile or so of road lies open and unobstructed to give their own forces room to fall back. Kirsten no longer needs to shout to be heard. “We’re almost there.”

Koda turns to face her. The moon is higher now, and the fear in Kirsten’s eyes shows plain. She does not fear for herself; no woman who could be intimidated by a mere army could have made her way across a continent alone, could not have gone cold-bloodedly, twice, into the heart of the enemy stronghold. The fear is for the world they will leave behind them if they fail. It is also, she knows, for her, Dakota.

There are no words to answer it. Her own fears have burned themselves clean: for Kirsten, for Tacoma, for the men and women whose lives are in her hand.

She touches a finger to one of the hailstones painted on her face. Hoka hey, Tshunka Witco. It is a good day to die.

It is a better one to live.

Ahead of them, the APC’s slow even further and begin to fan out across the width of the interstate. Andrews brings the Jeep to a halt beside the truck that will house the command post, parked now facing back the way they have come so that Maggie, Kirsten and their staff will be able to see out the open back. Kirsten’s hand tightens on Koda’s almost convulsively. They will separate here.

Maggie gets out of the Jeep and begins to move toward the line of APC’s disgorging their loads of troops. Koda can hear the rattle of their gear as they jump to the pavement, the occasional “Moth-er-fuck!” as someone drops a piece of equipment or jostles the soldier ahead. She will have to sort out her own squad and lead them into position behind the rise that lifts dark against sky to the south. Andrews has also found urgent business ahead, leaving Koda and Kirsten a small moment of privacy in the midst of chaos.

“Dakota—” Kirsten breaks off, her voice catching. Then, “Be safe.”

Koda lays a hand on the other woman’s cheek, feeling the helmet strap under her palm. Awkwardly, because the night sights project from above the rims of their helmets, she bends and kisses Kirsten gently. “Till morning,” she says. “This is the easy part.”

“I know,” Kirsten answers. “I’ll just be glad when we’re through it.” Under her hand, Koda feels her lover’s mouth quirk up in a wry smile. “Can’t wait to get to that hard stuff.”

Koda kisses her again, lingeringly, and turns to go. Before she can move from where she stands, a whistling howl splits the air above them, a metallic shriek that is followed by another and another. Koda tracks the sound as it dopplers down the highway. A mile beyond them to the west, a flame-shot cloud rises from the pavement, roiling with the violence of the explosion. A second flares just beyond it, and a third.

“What the hell was that?” Kirsten demands of the sudden silence.

Maggie appears again beside them. “Howitzers.” Even in the darkness, her grin is visible. “We just got lucky. The bastards are overshooting us.”

*******

Kirsten walks the line in the darkness, feeling as much as seeing the mass of the metal wall thrown up across the width of the interstate. The moon gives light enough to make out the crumpled metal rammed into barricades; here and there it glints off chrome trim or the arc of a hubcap. Here and there, too, it catches the shape of an M-16, where a soldier crouches at one of the firing slits left open or perches six feet up, straining to catch some glimpse of the enemy. They nod and salute as she passes, their movements visible only in the shift of shadow. At the other wall, the one a hundred yards behind this one, Maggie is doing the same thing, checking their defenses, rallying morale. In the hollows of culvert and the drainage ditch that runs along the road, soldiers crouch with grenade launchers held ready. Ideally, the enemy will not breach the first barricade. Practically, they are certain to do so. And when they do, they will be trapped between the two barriers, caught in crossfire from three directions. Kirsten cannot see the ambushers, but is aware of their eyes on her as she moves. The howitzer shells still scream overhead at regular intervals, still landing well behind them.

Kirsten grimaces at Manny, walking beside her. “I’m beginning to think they’re just trying to keep us awake.”

The light gleams off the glass of his night scope as he nods. “Weakens morale. Or maybe they’re just trying to cut off our retreat by tearing up the road.”

“Or maybe they’re just dumb. They’ve got to wonder why we’re not shooting back.”

“Goddam metalheads. Who the fuck’s in charge over there, anyway?”

“Or what’s in charge.”

“Yeah.” Manny pauses a moment, listening. “Here comes another one.”

The round shrieks as it flies over them, landing with force that shakes the ground beneath them where they stand, half a mile away. With the wall behind them, she cannot see the fireball rise. “Good thing we don’t plan on retreating. Maybe they’ll run out of ammo eventually.”

“Nah. Ammo, small arms, they’re just like us. They’ve got more stuff than they have troops to shoot it.”

Kirsten gives him a wry grin. “Well,” she says, “that’s a comfort.”

*******

Koda moves among her troops, stepping without sound over the springy new grass that carpets the meadow below the rise that shields them from the interstate. She does not speak to them, but touches a shoulder here, an arm there, letting them feel her presence and her concern. They will not let her down; she must help them know that she will not fail them.

Just like an old war movie, she thinks with a fleeting bit of self-mockery. Patton, maybe or Prince Hal moving among his men before Agincourt, pretending to be a common soldier.

Except that she knows that it comes from no film, nor from any history book. This is instinct with her. Memory. She has never doubted that she was born to be a shaman. Has never doubted, either, that she required every moment of learning and practice her father and grandfather demanded of her. Her leadership has come to her as easily as her breath, and that frightens her.

Because I don’t know what I don’t know. And what I don’t know can get us all killed.

She shivers a little in the night wind. Another of the seemingly interminable hail of howitzer rounds passes to the north of her position, to impact somewhere on the other side of the main force’s position on the highway. Either they cannot find their targets or the Ellsworth force is within the big guns’ minimum range.

Or they want us to think we are. Spook us bad.

She completes her round of her squadron, finally settling on a rocky outcropping where she can just see over the crest edge of the embankment. The hollow beyond is lost in shadow. In the moonlight, she can just make out the irregular shapes that she knows to be the barricades and the strings of empty vehicles behind the second one. Kirsten will be there, operating the main communications net. It ought to be a place of greater safety, but Koda knows that it is not. None of them is any safer than any other, which is to say that none of them is safe at all.

The moon climbs as she watches, the stars pacing across the sky in their myriads. Ares the ram, Taurus the bull, constellations of spring, both associated with the turning of the seasons and the time of planting from time immemorial. Both, in their own time, gods who saw the rise of civilization and who may now see its ending.

The sweet scent of the grass comes to her, mingled with the sharper tang of gun oil. Above her, the sound of a thousand voices skims the air, and she looks up to see a wedge of geese pass before the moon, followed by another and another, the flocks arrowing north to the tundra’s edge to mate and rear their young. In the fall, their passage will blacken the sky as they fly south, fearing none but eagles, their human predators all but vanished.

A hand tugs at her sleeve, and she turns to find one of the Minot men just below her. “Ma’am, look,” he whispers.

Koda follows his pointing finger to the meadow behind them. Fog is rising, billowing up from a small branch of the Cheyenne. “Damn,” she says quietly. “God damn.”
CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN
Toward dawn, the big gun falls silent. The fog, rolling in from the stream to the south, blankets the highway and the ground to either side. The figures that emerge from it from time to time to speak to Kirsten, or to Maggie, trail mist through the back door of the command truck, like ghosts with fragments of shroud still clinging to them. At her post , numbers marches across the screen of Kirsten’s computer, tallying their strength, coding the position of their forces. Maggie, beside her, studies a map of the field, searching for the overlooked weakness that may give advantage to the enemy.

Tacoma and his armor have spread out on their left flank, reaching north into the open ground that once was a wheat field. Behind him lie the trenches and barricades that will funnel the enemy into the two-pronged trap so carefully laid for them. On their other flank, behind a rise to the south, Koda holds her force in reserve to hit the droids and their allies from the side and rear once they commit fully to the attack. The task of the center is simple: to take the brunt and hold. If they break the way to Ellsworth lies open, and humanity has no more defense.

Maggie glances at her watch, then looks up to catch Kirsten’s eye. “That’s twenty minutes since they’ve fired. They’re getting ready to move.”

“Relay,” Kirsten says, and Manny begins to speak quietly into the radio. Kirsten can make out a few of the Lakota words—mazawaka is “gun;” toka, “enemy” –and allows herself a fleeting second of satisfaction as the replies come in. “Han,” she says, adding her own sign-off to Manny’s “Hau.” Out of the corner of her eye, she catches Maggie grinning at her. For once she does not blush, her answering grin part pride, part the rising excitement that comes with the approach of battle.

“Hoka hey,” Maggie says, “you’re learn—” She breaks off abruptly. “I hear them.”

Kirsten’s touches a finger to her implants, boosting the volume. The low vibration, felt as much as heard, becomes the crunching of treads on asphalt, the high whine of powerful engines. “It’s their tanks,” she says, just as the door bursts open on one of the corporals from the forward barricade.

“Col—I mean General, Ma’am! They’ve got their armor out front.”

“We’re on it. Rivers,” she raps out. “Tell your cousin we need two of his tank killers on the south side of the road ASAP. Herd them off toward our left flank.”

“Ma’am.” Manny turns back to the radio, rattling out orders in Lakota, this time too rapid for Kirsten to follow. She concentrates instead on the mounting crescendo of the enemy approach, sorting out the grinding of the armor, the steady stamp of mechanical and human feet. The low “whump!” of the lead tank’s cannon comes a fraction of a second before her own cry, the shock of explosion as the shell plows into the road just ahead of the barrier drowning out her voice.

“Shit!” Maggie swivels in her seat. “Kill the bastards! Now!”

*****

Koda watches the slow approach of the enemy column as it makes its way down the highway toward the center of the battle line. The mist drifts green and eerie in front of her nightscope, allowing her hardly more than a glimpse of the lumbering shapes of tanks and Humvees where the headlights of the troop carriers strike them. The growl of their engines comes to her muffled by the fog, the vibration of their movement a steady rumbling in the earth. Behind them come ranks of marching troops, their height uniform, their guns all canted at identical angles, their step perfectly paced and synchronized. Droid soldiers. And behind them, followed by more heavy vehicles, supply trucks perhaps, come the fully militarized androids, some on treads like the tanks’, others on more human-looking legs with nothing else human about them.

A chill runs down her spine. The charge across the Cheyenne had been easy, the warrior spirit overriding her mind to take possession of heart and body and drive her like an arrow straight at the enemy. Here she must wait until the first blow of the droid advance falls against the Ellsworth center—against Kirsten, against Maggie and Manny—to close from behind in a pincer movement calculated to trap the enemy between their forces.

Then she had run her prey to earth. Now she must lie hidden, stalking silently until the time comes for the killing charge, each move calculated in cold blood to a margin without tolerance. It is the way of the warrior, the way of the cat.

I am on your ground, Igmu-tanka. Teach me patience.

Teach me the cold equations.

Sudden fire blossoms amid the fog, arcing upward to explode just short of the first barricade. Smoke boils up from the ground, mingling with the mist, shot with red and orange as the asphalt burns. Koda’s hands clench around the scope, her fingers fumbling with the knob to sharpen focus. But the mist closes in again over the road, and she never sees the two men who crouch in the drainage ditch, only the muzzle flash as their shoulder launchers kick out armor-killing rockets, and a tank goes up in a ten-meter high flare of diesel fuel that splits the darkness punctuated by smaller explosions as the ammunition explodes still in its magazine, ripping the monster’s steel hide apart from within. Around it movement ebbs and flows, a second tank lumbering up beside it to take lead position and fire, its shell tearing into the berm of wrecked cars, metal shrieking against metal while smaller arms fire peppers the culvert where Tacoma’s men lie hidden.

Again the shoulder launchers spit out their missiles, this time a good ten meters from their first position, and the second tank bursts in a fireball of burning fuel and cannon shells, showering white-hot fragments on the troops behind it.

“Two down.”

Koda can just make out the black-painted face of the Minot sergeant beside her. His nod of satisfaction makes a small shift in the darkness about them both. A third vehicle goes up, not a tank by the size of the explosion, and a man’s scream stabs through the fog as yet another rocket streaks down on the column, this one from closer to the barricade, and a third M-1 bursts into flame.

“I think they got one of our guys, Ma’am,” the soldier observes quietly.

“I think you’re right. That was a suicide mission.”

“But it worked. Look.”

On the road, the column halts briefly. A flurry of movement runs along its flank, droids or humans assessing damage, probably, checking the road. Then the tanks’ engines rev and they begin to lumber off the highway, moving onto the shoulder and then over the open field to the north, where Tacoma waits for them.

Koda breaths a long sigh of relief, her breath frosting in the early morning cold. The enemy has taken the bait. It is now a matter of waiting, and the kill.

******

He walks along the line of his squad, noticing the facepaint on the majority with an interior smile. His mother, he knows, would be furious, offended. These are not our People, he can hear her saying, as if she is even now standing right beside him, how dare they presume to know our Ways?

What she doesn’t know, what she would refuse to acknowledge even if she saw, is that these men and women have adorned their faces with paint for much the same reason Tacoma himself has. For honor. For courage. For hope, and for remembrance. There is no mockery in the eyes that meet his own steadily. Stalwart resolve? Yes. Fear? Oh yes. All of that, and more. Much more.

Andrews looks up at him from his place near a small rock outcropping. His face is a harlequin’s mask of green and orange, and his eyes sparkle with an inner light, his perennial good cheer not failing even in this, their last, desperate attempt at freedom. Tacoma gives him a nod and continues walking the line, murmuring words of encouragement to the men and women who stand guard against what is to come. He steps in next to a small woman who, from behind, looks like a young boy trying on his father’s work clothes. Her helmet is much too large, tending to slip down over her eyes no matter how tightly the chin strap is snapped. She is one of the women rescued from the living hell of the jails, one of the very few who remained behind.

Oh, most had volunteered, quite vociferously, but revenge had been their reason for staying, and despite the temperature at which that particular dish needed to be served, it could only cause more harm than good in the end.

Slate gray eyes stare up at him, and the ex-State Trooper gives him a little grin, her body loose, but ready for any command given. The marks of her abuse still linger in the bruises on her jaw and neck that the jagged lines of red and black paint don’t quite cover. Her gaze, however, is nothing but professional. He finds himself returning the grin. “Doin’ ok?”

“Five by, Cap,” she replies softly, reaching up to push the helmet from her brow. “How much longer, do you think?”

“Not much.” The howitzer fire flies overhead, but they’ve all become, more or less, used to it. “Just be ready,” he says before moving on.

He gets no more than two steps away when his headset crackles. “Yeah?”

Manny’s voice sounds over the less than stellar comm., low-pitched, but with a kernel of excitement ready to bloom. “Hipi. Aka iyiciyapo!”

A thrill of adrenaline flows through Tacoma’s body, speeding his heart, sharpening his senses until all around him is as keen as a well sharpened blade. He clicks off the com and turns to his troops. “It’s time. Mount up!”

With a silence and a professionalism to please the hardest hearted four star general, the squad eases into their Bradleys, their Humvees, and their tanks. Their engines start, one after another, and with a “Wagons ho!” signal from Tacoma, sitting in his Jeep, they move forward, ready to engage an enemy they cannot see, hear, or smell. The fog seems to move with them like a second army, this one as much enemy as ally.

A mile or so ahead, the Hummers pull off to the side, and heavily armed troops jump off to the right and left, flanking the road and getting quickly into position. The sound of the enemy comes to them then in the clank of rolling metal and the heavy, cloying scent of gun oil.

The Bradleys and the tanks move ahead several yards, then form a line across across the field to the north of the road, behind the carefully camouflaged deadfalls, guns ready. They wait.

Tacoma swings his jeep back around the line and parks to the rear. Hopping out, he nods to the troops manning the vehicles, then breaks off to the right of the road, jumping down onto the embankment and approaching his men. Johnson, Tooms, Carruthers, Chin, and Wayley stand down in the natural ditch, shoulder launchers up and armed. Seven others kneel behind them, boxes of ammunition open and ready. They all meet his gaze steadily. “Hold fire,” he says. “Let them come to us.”

******

The second tank round shakes the earth, sending Maggie to one knee as she bolts for the back of the truck. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees Kirsten clutch at her computer just as it slides toward the edge of the folding table that is her station. Manny grabs at laptop and operator both, steadying them against his own stocky bulk. “General, you okay?”

Maggie levers herself up, hardly breaking stride. “I’m fine. Look after Kirsten!” She steps out onto the bumper and takes the drop in one step, feeling her knee fold under her again. Swearing silently, she jogs lopsidedly to the front of the truck. About thirty yards ahead of her, a crater in the pavement smokes with the heat of the tank round. One soldier lies some ten feet to the side, arms and legs bent at impossible angles. All broken. As she approaches, another soldier gently removes the gun from the dead hand and pulls the body to one side.

She has no trouble seeing the hole the shell drilled in the barricade; its metal edges remain white-hot with its passing, glowing like a will-o’-the-wisp in the swirling fog. Lowering her night goggles, she peers through it, watching as first one tank, then another, bursts into flame and dies. Above her, perched precariously among the twisted metal, snipers wait with hands clenched on the grips of their rifles. Until the armor is off the road, they are useless. “Hold your fire!” Maggie yells. “Wait for the droids and traitors!” Then, to a private crouched beside the wall, “Run back and tell Martinez to move up a couple of the machine guns. We might as well make use of this goddam hole!”

The soldier scrambles to obey, and as she sprints for the rear of the column, the forward tanks of the enemy force begin to lurch off the pavement onto the shoulder, spreading out across the field to their north. “Yessss!” Maggie allows herself a small moment of triumph as the whine of their engines dopplers off, then turns back to the task at hand.

The tanks move with remarkable speed for behemoths of their weight and size, and within minutes the last of their bulk disappears to the left. With her night sight, Maggie can make out, dimly in the fog, the advancing ranks of the droid infantry, marching in perfect unison toward the barricade. They do not break step even for the gaping holes left by the tank shells, adjusting their speed automatically to maintain perfect formation. These are the cannon fodder, then, not programmed for differential determination of their situation or independent analysis. Good soldiers. Not a thought in their metal heads to question their orders or to opt for their own survival. Somewhere behind them will be the more advanced models, and somewhere among them, please Goddess, are the self-destruct bombers programmed by Kirsten.

A pair of infantrymen land beside her, each carrying an M-60; a third and fourth drop an ammunition chest between them, then sit on it, panting. “Ma’am. The guns you ordered,” one gasps.

Maggie grins at them. “Good. Set them up here, aimed out of this hole. Get as much crossfire as you can. Spray anything that gets in range, once it’s in range.”

“Ma’am.” The two sitting on the case drop to their knees and set about threading the ammo belts into the guns’ feeders. Maggie slaps a couple shoulders as she rises and moves down the barricade, checking her troops. Except for a couple burns and a few more bruises, the soldier killed by the shell’s concussion is the only casualty so far. The rest hold their posts, guarding their flanks where the barrier curves to the rear. Advantage, good guys. She does not expect it to last.

It does not. From behind the barrier come the sound of shots, fired in single volleys as M-16 shells begin to rain down on troops and vehicles alike. “Shit!” she yells. “Get to cover! They’re firing high!”

Around her soldiers scramble to flatten themselves against the barricade, a few diving under trucks. Behind her the M-60’s open up, and she darts for the command truck, reaching up to grab Manny’s arm as the door flies open and he pulls her up and in. Shells

strike the truck’s roof and bounce off, clattering harmlessly against the armor plating. “Sounds like a hailstorm out there,” Manny observes.

“Nah.” A wry grin quirks up one side of Kirsten’s mouth. “That’s freakin’ Santa Claus and eight tiny reindeer.” Then, to Maggie, “Tacoma’s drawing fire. Nothing’s headed Koda’s way. The guys in the back want to know if they should move up.”

“Woman, you pick the damnedest time to develop a sense of humor.” Maggie shakes her head at Kirsten. “Tell ’em come on. All hell’s about to break loose out there.”

*****

The battle comes to him as sound. Even through the night-scope, the fog and trees obscure the enemy advance. Tacoma knows when the tanks leave the highway by the suddenly shriller whine of their engines, knows when another of them dies before it can make the descent to the field by the shock of the explosion. He holds his forces ready, waiting silently, their engines cold. Neither noise nor heat will betray their position.

From his vantage point to the side, he hears the grinding of metal treads in the soil, the timbre changing as they begin to crush the woody undergrowth covering the open space between the field and the treeline where the ranks of armor lie hidden from both sight and heat sensors. The enemy rides without lights, relying, like the Ellsworth force, on night scopes and the sensors feeding data to mechanical brains. The first of the droid tanks pitches into one of the camouflaged trenches with a crash, landing squarely on the clutch of mines awaiting it. The double blast, mines and fuel, shudders through the ground, and a fireball blooms upward into the dark, briefly burning away the fog to illuminate the long barrel of a cannon here, the low curve of a turret there. “Got one,” Jackson observes in the momentary silence. His hands lie slack on the Jeep’s wheel, waiting the order to move.

The roar of the explosion drowns the last of his words, and Tacoma can only give a brief thumbs-up signal in reply. In the instant before the fog closes in again and obscures the advancing armor, he counts four more tanks and a pair of Bradleys. About half the enemy cavalry, judging by the noise. A second fireball goes up as one of the two fighting vehicles tips into another deadfall, and Tacoma speaks into his com. ” Wana,” he says, “Now.”

In response, the engines of half a dozen armored units growl to life, and flame bursts from the long muzzles of the two M-1’s in the center of the line. A pair of anti-tank missiles streak upward from their hidden launchers in a steep trajectory, their white contrails pale against the swirling mist. The M-1’s and Bradleys on the flanks, though, skulk silently, holding their fire, hidden in darkness.

An enemy tank shell lands on one of the fighting vehicles, its fuel going up in a torrent of flame, fragments of its steel sheathing clanging against the turret of an M-1 half a hundred yards away. The fire illuminates the tank’s cannon for the instant of its recoil as it returns fire, striking, too, off the taut knuckles of Jackson’s fist as he pounds it in soundless rage against the rim of the steering wheel, his lips moving in curses Tacoma cannot hear above the roar. The concussion from the blast shivers through his bones.

There is no hope that the Bradley’s crew has survived; armored vehicles are death traps under a direct hit.

A shell bursts overhead, its white phosphorus glare burning through the fog to show Tacoma the grinding advance of the enemy armor. One tank, bizarrely, craws over the remnants of another to bridge a deadfall; others batter their way through the woods, crushing trees, root and branch, under their metal hulks. Tacoma shouts into his com, “Willie Peter! They’ve seen us! All units fire!”

The thunder of the cannon rolls over him like a shockwave. An enemy shell gouges out a crater less than fifty feet away from Tacoma’s position, and the Jeep rocks beneath him. A second volley uproots a thirty-foot larch pine, to bring it crashing down on one of the enemy’s Bradleys. The tree, its pitch taking fire from the burning diesel, flames through the fog like a candle.

Another enemy tank succumbs to a deadfall and to the anti-tank missiles from the snipers hidden on the flank. The others go wide to skirt it, swinging back to reform and drive snarling toward Tacoma’s center. He watches them come, gauging their approach to the last second. He can feel Jackson’s eyes on him, taking their own measure. It is an unsettling feeling, one he has no time to analyze. He lets the enemy come on until he can almost make out their shapes, hulking in the mist. “Hektakiyanapepi!” he yells into his mike, then hangs on for his life as Jackson turns the Jeep on its own footprint and falls in behind the armor, now retreating at full speed along the trails already blazed over the rough ground. “Goddam!” Darius yells as they bounce over an axle-shattering outcrop of limestone, a grin splitting the grease paint streaking his face. “This is fun!”

*****

A thunder of bootsoles on pavement announces the arrival of the troops from behind the second barricade. Maggie flings the door wide and jumps down among them, heedless of the hail of bullets pelting down on their position, running with them for relative safety of the wall. “Grenade launchers!” she yells. Get up on the wall and let ’em have it! Get as many as you can before they hit the mines! We want to save those for the heavy models!”

A dozen soldiers scramble up the irregular pile of metal, finding holds among the dents and the protruding door handles and axles. Maggie gestures toward the top with a sweep of her hand. “Some of you rifles get up there, too! Snipe off any humans you see. Don’t waste your ammo on the metalheads!”

“Ma’am!” a Sergeant salutes and hits the wall, swinging with a gymnast’s skill to a position where she can fire over the top, her platoon swarming up after her to spread out between the grenade launchers. Maggie watches them go, strange green shadows in the light of her night scope, a hand here, a helmet rim there, lit to white glare by the muzzle flashes of their weapons.

“The rest of you, reinforce the flanks! Once they get to the wall they’ll try to go around!”

As they split and sprint for the sides of the highway, Maggie grabs hold of a protruding wheel and levers herself up to a slit in the wall. The mist still swirls thickly along the ground, but overhead she can make out a faint gleam that she is almost sure is a star, Siurius, maybe, well toward its zenith, and another glint, reddish, that may be Betelgeuse. Dawn is perhaps two hours away, and the fog will thicken again as the temperature drops just before sunrise.

The good news is that it should cover Koda’s advance. The bad new is that she won’t be able to see where she’s going. She will have to find her way to the line by sound.

Not that that should be a problem. A grenade sails overhead to land just behind the wall, spraying asphalt and metal fragments upward toward the snipers’ perches. One of the men above her yells “Fuckhead!” and opens up with his own launcher, firing grenade after grenade as a thin wet trickle drips down the wall past Maggie, black in the sheen of her night scope. From both flanks comes the rattle of small arms fire, troops on the flanks making a distraction or picking off humans among the enemy troops. They are few, uniformed no differently than the droids. They give themselves away, though, as they break ranks and split for the edge of the highway, one throwing away his weapon as Maggie watches, and tumbling headlong into the ditch under sniper fire.

No sympathy from you own kind, now, you bastard. Tell your sad story to the Jackal-god. Maggie pulls her handgun from its holster and pots a second would-be deserter as he slithers low along the highway shoulder. The droids advance steadily, stand and fire, march forward, stand and fire. The muzzle flashes of their rifles light the tendrils of fog that curl about them, their crack lost in the thunder of the bigger guns, the unremitting cacophony of the two heavy machine guns. It will not be long now before they step into the field of claymores and Bouncing Betties, and the easy part will be over. She squints into the fog and fires twice more. Another of the enemy slumps down to be trodden underfoot by his mechanical brothers. She begins to back her way down the wall. Time for com check.

She is almost to the pavement when she the scream of the howitzer shell streaks over her, its tracer light streaming behind it like a comet’s tail. It slams into the highway just in front of the second wall, sending a wall of flame licking up its metal bulk, setting fire to the paint and traces of gasoline and oil that linger on the wrecked cars. The impact shudders through the ground, tossing soldiers at random ahead of the concussion wave, rocking the command truck on its wheels. For an instant it tilts, poises, and falls with a crash onto its side. A grenade arcs overhead to gouge out a crater, the rear tire of the upended truck spinning in the swirling smoke. Two soldiers flap at the last of the flames with their jackets. The vibration of Maggie’s com unit ceases abruptly as it loses contact with Kirsten’s laptop.

“Goddam!” She half falls, half jumps the rest of the way to the tarmac, feeling her knee give under her again but ignoring it, hurtling across the fifty feet that separate her from the vehicle. At least the gas tank hadn’t blown.

Just as she swings around the corner of the roof, the door opens horizontally, like the hatch of a Normandy Beach landing craft. Manny crawls out, clutching his M-16 and a string of grenades. Kirsten follows, a darker wet streak cutting through the yellow spider traced on her face. A spot of blood beads on her lower lip, probably bitten when she went over with truck and equipment. Her M-16 slants across her back. “GODDAM MOTHRFUCKERS GOT MY COMPUTER!!” she bellows at Maggie.

“Are you hurt?”

“WHERE DO YOU WANT ME TO GO?”

“Just a minute. Are you okay?” Maggie yells back as machine gun fire breaks out behind her.

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

“Manny, is she hurt?”

“Just banged up a bit when the table tipped over,” he shouts back. “Computer hit the wall and bounced!”

Kirsten’s eyes dart between them, a frown wrinkling her forehead. She puts a hand to the bone under one ear, then, presses and repeats the gesture on the other side. The frown relaxes. “My implants! Must have gone when I hit my head.”

“How bad?”

For answer, Kirsten shrugs. “We’re going to have to make do with messengers if we need to talk to the others.”

“Where’s Tacoma? Did you hear anything before the rocket hit?”

“Headed back down the highway, with the droid tanks in hot pursuit.”

“Koda?”

“Still waiting.”

“All right then. Manny, take her back behind the second wall. See if you can get the computer back up.”

Kirsten’s face sets. “I. Will. Not. Go. Back,” she says, biting each word off. “Tell me where you can use me, or I’ll make my own choice.”

Manny shrugs, the rise of his eyebrows visible only in the dim light’s reflection off his facepaint. No help there. She shouts, “Take the right flank. They’ll try to get past us at some point—make sure they don’t!”

With a nod, Kirsten turns to jog over to the group crouched at the south end of the metal wall, Manny on her heels. He glances back briefly, a grin splitting the shadows of his face, fingers snapping to his forehead. “Nice try, General!”

She returns his salute with the one-finger variation. Pausing only to pull one soldier off the line at the wall for a courier, she scrambles back up, aims along the sight of her gun, and resumes shooting.

*****

The battle rolls like thunder down the road, lit by occasional flashes of the big guns. The fog obscures all but the general movement, the enemy advancing, the Ellsworth forces holding. She can feel the tension in the men and women behind her, straining to hear, willing their sight to pierce through the shroud of the fog. She feels it, too, in the taut muscles of her own body, her hands clenched around her binoculars as if they gripped an enemy’s throat.

Deliberately, she allows her grip to slacken, forces the strained tendons in arms and legs to relax. Learn the lesson of the cat. Patience.

Koda raises her optics again, trying to pick out recognizable shapes along the enemy front. Far from dissipating, the mist begins to thicken, the air taking on a distinct chill through the layers of her shirt and camo jacket. It is perhaps an hour to dawn. Her force will need to move soon.

Beside her, Sergeant Beaufort echoes her thought. “If we’re gonna surprise those bastards, we better get about it. Sun comes up, we might as well send out announcements.”

Koda nods. “Form the line. Be ready.”

“Ma’am.”

Behind her, she hears the clatter of gear shifted into place, slides pumping rounds into the chambers of sidearms, magazines snapped into the grips of the M-16’s. She can feel the frustration dissipate, replaced with the more subtle tension that is half excitement, half fear. She keys her com, but before she can speak the shriek of a howitzer shell splits the night, its arc etched crimson against the darkness. The earth trembles with the explosion, a rippling pulse that spreads through rock and fog and flesh. It booms, too, through the speaker in her hand, punctuated by a muffled shout, then a distinct “Shit!” Kirsten’s voice.

Then silence.

Koda’s heart clenches in her chest. She stabs at the transmit button repeatedly. “HQ. Come in. Come in. Kirsten! Answer!”

Nothing.

She is not dead. I would know.

It is what she does not know that frightens her. “All right!” she shouts, stepping up to the crest of the ridge. “Move out!”

*******

Kirsten crouches among the snipers strung out in a line from the south end of the wall to the drainage ditch beside the road. The tramping of mechanical feet, marching in inhumanly perfect unison, comes to her as a steady drumbeat, a vibration through her bones. Grenades rain down on them from behind the barricade, but do not slow them. They are not programmed to tend their fallen companions; their survival overrides, designed to remove them from a hopeless situation, will not kick in until they are trapped between competing priorities. Walking into a minefield or getting picked off by snipers, for instance.

Underneath their steady cadence, perhaps audible to no one else, the steady grinding of treads comes to her. Not so heavy as the tanks, nor even Bradleys; the next wave to break against their defenses will be the heavy-duty military droids.

And with them, the counterprogrammed models whose mission is to destroy their own kind. Please– Kirsten stumbles over the prayer. She is a scientist, agnostic, does not believe in the god of her childhood, perhaps never did. She bites her lip, drawing blood salt on her tongue. Listen, Ina, Tega, Wa Uspe—Uspewika—Whothehellever. Listen. We need help. Not just for us. For all the earth. If you have a stake in this, too—then let the goddamned things blow up on schedule. Please.

A ripple of laughter runs through the back of her mind, partly human, partly not. Appealing to enlightened self-interest, are you? Fight without attachment, Iktomi Zizi of the Lakota. Trust your actions and move on.

For instance, you might blow away a couple of droid sympathizers—right–about—now.

The first rank of the enemy steps into the minefield. The roar of multiple explosions echoes off the metal barricade, doubling and redoubling as smoke, laced with fire, billows out into the mist and pieces of fragmented droid clang off the wall to take down more of their comrades on the rebound. Kirsten cannot make out individual figures, but she can see, green in her night sight, swirls of motion where intact droids or their human allies have broken formation to veer away to the side of their inexorably advancing column. Kirsten aims into the middle of one such vortex and is rewarded with a man’s scream, high-pitched and cold with his death. She seeks a second target and finds it as a soldier stumbles blindly into their position; she fires point-blank into his face and shoves the body aside with her rifle’s butt.

From the ditch come sounds of a brief struggle, then two shots, then more fire into the mist. Behind her, Manny alternately swears and shoots, swears and shoots again. “Don’t let ’em get down into the pasture! Koda won’t be able to see the bastards coming—they’ll give away her position!”

Kirsten’s world shrinks to the small space before her, where the mist hides an enemy she cannot see. She fires until her magazine is empty, shoves another one home keeps firing.

There is only the enemy and her finger on the trigger.

She kills coldly, human and nonhuman alike. Without attachment.
CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT
The night scope shows the mist that surrounds them as green wraiths, the uneven ground beneath their feet as an uncertain patchwork of black and green. Koda can see the man on either side of her and little else. From time to time she catches a glint off the gear of a troop a few feet further down the loose skirmish line, but none of them can spare much attention for anything but the jutting rocks and tussocks of thick grass that can send them tumbling, turn or break an ankle. The one good thing, Koda reflects wryly, is that they do not need to see where they are going. The sound of battle draws them steadily toward the highway, where they will attack the droid army on its vulnerable—and with luck, unsuspecting—flank.

They are perhaps halfway across when the minefield goes up. A collective gasp runs up the line, punctuated by one clear “Jesus god damn!” and a grunt as someone elbows her vocal compatriot in the ribs.

Except as a matter of discipline, the exclamation hardly matters. The roar as half a hundred claymores and as many Bouncing Betties go off in chorus will drown anything but the report of a big gun. In the red-lit chaos ahead of them, Koda can make out the vague shapes of bodies pitched into the air, their severed limbs arcing above them to rain down on their fellows and clatter against the barricade. Others, still apparently on their feet, make for the edge of the highway and relative safety, only to run into a solid line of rifle and small arms fire. The fog muffles their screams to vague cries out of nightmare, distant, contextless.

Without warning, a burst of white light cuts through the mist along the highway, etching the scene for a microsecond into her memory: scattered arms, legs, some human, some not; the asphalt slick with blood; craters gouged into the roadway. And it shows her two things more. Behind the ranks of cannon fodder, the military droids grind inexorably on toward the wall, the hard light from the phosphorus shell sheeting off their metallic hides. And along the edge of the road, a troop stands looking directly toward the gorge, raising his gun to his shoulder.

“Down!” she bellows. “Keep moving!”

Dropping to knees and elbows, she humps her way over the damp earth, crawling a space, then levering herself up to a crouching run. Behind her, where she had stood a handful of seconds before, an M-16 round kicks up the water in a small puddle. A second whistles over her head to land silently in the earth beyond. She jabs the man to her right, harder than she had meant because she cannot judge distance. “Hold fire. Don’t give ’em our position till we have to. Pass it on.” She gives the same message to the sergeant on her left.

The shooter at the edge of the road has apparently been joined by others. Enemy fire quickens, becomes heavier, pelting down on the length of the line. Koda puts her head down and keeps on crawling.

*******

The M-1’s and Bradleys run with their lights high now, lurching over the uneven ground at top speed, spraying dirt from under their treads. Tacoma’s Jeep bucks and yaws in their wake, throwing him alternately against the straps across his chest and the unyielding back of his seat. In the occasional beam of light that rakes over him, he can see the steering wheel spinning under Jackson’s left hand, his right taut-knuckled on the gear shift. It occurs to Tacoma that after this he will never need a chiropractor if he lives to be a hundred and ten. He might never need a dentist either, except for his helmet’s chinstrap. Pitching his voice just under a bellow to make himself heard above the din of the surrounding engines, he yells, “Did you”—thump!—”drive like this”—bang!—”when you went”—slam!—”with Kirsten to”—whump!—”Minot?”

“You kidding, man?” Darius favors him with a thousand-watt grin for a split second, then turns his eyes back to the road. “And have that sister of yours”—he pauses to steer around a large chunk of limestone—”hang me up by my heels and skin me?”

“The General’d—get you—first. Koda’d—just take—your hair!”

A shell from one of the droid tanks sails overhead, to gouge a crater in the field to their right. Turning to look behind, Tacoma can see their halogen lights where they punch through the fog. What he cannot see, and with luck the enemy cannot either, is the other half of his armored cavalry, running dark behind them, ready to cut them off once the lead units lure them onto the Interstate and into the trap that has been laid for them.

“Pull us off when we get to the road,” Tacoma shouts. “Get us in under the overpass!”

“You gonna lead from behind?”

“You got it!”

The tanks at the front of the column take a sudden hard left, ploughing their way over the soft shoulder to the highway access road. As they sweep up the on ramp, Jackson steers the Jeep out of the line and into the shelter of the huge struts and pylons holding up the highway above the Elk Creek interchange. The racket as the behemoths lumber up the slope is beyond deafening, and Tacoma hunkers down and covers his ears as they pass. The metal plates above him rattle against their bolts, and it seems to him that every bone in his body hangs loose, clattering against its neighbor. Then the last of them is up and racing west, the whine of their engines fading with their speed.

The silence lasts for perhaps a minute. Tacoma savors it, the first respite they have had since the droid howitzers began their siege. Then, “Here they come,” Jackson says quietly.

Bursting out of the fog with engines howling, the enemy armor follows their own forces up onto the highway. As the first of them commits to the ramp, Tacoma feels his shoulders go slack with relief. Bait taken.

Perhaps five minutes after the last of them has passed, Tacoma hears the growl of their second unit’s engines. “Here we go,” he says, and Jackson keys the engine and the lights, steering the Jeep out onto the access road and into the lead as the half dozen M-1’s speed for the ramp. “Gonna send all those good little droids home to cyber-Jeezus!”

******

When the smoke from the mines clears, Maggie looks down on a scene straight out of Hieronymus Bosch by Bill Gates. Mechanical body parts litter the highway below the wall: a leg with its struts and dangling wires jutting up out of an asphalt crater here; a head there, recognizably non-human only by the absence of blood; impaled on a spar of steel protruding from the barricade, a hand still clutching an automatic rifle. Fanned out on the margins lie the human casualties, most of them picked off by snipers as they tried to flee. To her right, from the north lip of the gorge which Dakota must cross, she can hear the pop and rattle of rifle fire. Not good. Even in the fog, even with enemy shooters they can pick off by sound, Koda and her troops are at a disadvantage, their whole traverse exposed. And the phosphorus shell would have shown them to their enemies, mercilessly trapped in its glare.

Mentally, Maggie reels through a catalogue of her troops. The worst of the attack is yet to come; the full-bore military droids have halted their advance, but the lull will not last, not beyond the few minutes required for them to assess their losses. She can, perhaps, spare a platoon.

Clambering down from her vantage point halfway up the wall, she snares one of the men crouched at its foot. His helmet shows three stripes; his shirt pocket proclaims him McGinnis, Ralph. “Corporal, I need you to carry a message to Dakota Rivers in the gorge. Can you do it?”

McGinnis’ face, pale beneath its black grease-paint, goes paler still. But he snaps off a salute. “Yes, Ma’am!”

“Good man. Ask her if she needs reinforcing. I can send her a dozen troops if she does.”

He salutes again and is gone.

Maggie takes advantage of the momentary calm to walk the length of the barricade again. Supply runners race past her, carrying ammunition and grenades. She is halfway back to her post when she hears the grinding of treads on pavement. Her heart bangs once against her rib cage, then steadies. They will hold because they must. A passing runner carries grenades; she snags a belt of them and a launcher, finds a gap in the wall big enough to admit its muzzle. She loads and waits.

*******

There is no time. Koda has no idea how long she has been humping over the wet earth of the gorge. The new grass, slick with the mist, slides easily beneath her body. The musty scent of sodden vegetation mingles with the sharper smell of black powder and cordite drifting down from the battle. Direct fire from above has tapered off, become sporadic as the enemy has either given up wasting ammunition or has found more immediate matters to occupy them.

Or simply decided to pick them off later, when they come into visible range. They had been on the edge of the burst of light from the Willie Peter, but almost surely the enemy has marked their position. It is not a comforting thought.

From the highway comes the sound of small arms fire and the occasional concussion of a grenade. The mines have gone up in a roar, presumably taking out the first wave of droids. For a moment the fog had glowed red, then settled into its pervasive grey, hiding the road and what she hopes is the successful completion of the first phase of the battle plan.

“Hey, Chief.’ The sergeant appears out of the void to her left, his helmet and night scope protruding over his eyes giving the shape of some early cinematic Martian. His hoarse whisper is the sound of wind in dry grass. “You got any idea where we are?”

“About halfway, I think,” she answers. “Ground’s leveling off.”

“We need to pick it up, Ma’am. If we’re caught down here once they get past whatever’s keeping ’em busy up there, or they start picking us up with the infra-red, we’re fucked.”

The thought is not new. They need to be in position when the ringer droids blow, and position is within seconds of the highway. “Pass the word down,” she says. “Tell the troops to get to their feet. We have to risk it.”

“Ma’am.” She can just see his form rise and lengthen as she levers herself to her own feet, feeling rather than seeing the woman on the other side of her do the same, the order rippling down the line. She plods on, straining her senses to pick up the breathing of the troops closest to her, the faint variations on grey nothingness where the fog eddies and pools.

She picks up the thudding footfalls from yards away. Half-running, half-stumbling, a man solidifies from the mist, his hands up. “Friendly, Doc! Friendly!”

Her M-16 slaps down into her hands and is leveled at him before the first word is out. The sargeant and the man next to him haul the newcomer down to his knees, pulling back his collar to inspect his neck. It is clean flesh; no silver collar. “Doc Rivers?”

“That’s me.” Koda does not lower her weapon.

“McGinnis, Ma’am, Third Montana Reserves. General Allen’s compliments, Ma’am, and do you need any reinforcements? She says to tell you she can spare a platoon.”

The droids Kirsten programmed to destroy their own kind have not yet detonated. For the first time, Dakota allows herself to think that they might not. If their destruct program fails, Maggie will need every weapon, every pair of hands she can muster at the wall. She makes her decision almost without conscious thought. “Tell the General we’re doing fine, Corporal. We’ll see her topside.”

“Chief.” It is the sergeant. “We’re spread thin.”

“No.” Koda’s voice is firm. “If we take none of the troops from the main front, they’ll have a better chance of holding when we hit the metalheads from the side and drive them against Allen’s line. Tell the General we’re doing well, Corporal. There’s no other message.”

“Ma’am.” The Corporal salutes and disappears once again into the fog.

“Sergeant,” says Koda. “Pass the order to pick up the pace. We need to get at least part way up that slope before they recoup. Continue to hold fire until I say otherwise.”

There is a small pause, and Koda shifts the muzzle of her rifle slightly. She cannot tolerate disobedience, or even discussion. Not now.

Even in the fog, though, she can see the sudden grin break across his face. “Ma’am, you got brass ones, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I don’t mind. Now move it.”

The fog swallows him again as he begins to move along the line. They have passed the mid-point; land begins to rise again, punctuated by deep ruts where snow has melted off the flat surface above, cutting down the side of the embankment and carrying gravel and asphalt pellets with it across the winter-bare ground. The treacherous footing slows them. Koda swears softly when her ankle turns, pitching her down on her right hand and knee. Up and down the line, she can hear the crunch of pebbles under boots, the troops’ heavy breathing as they negotiate the ragged slope. To her right, she sees a woman pitch forward onto her face, tripped up by a jagged ridge of flint justting out from earth. The man between them grabs for her, helping her to her feet.

She sees them. Faintly, she sees them. The fog is beginning to thin with the dawn. Carried on a gathering wind, its tendrils whip by her face, scattered in the growing light.

With the realization comes a crack of gunfire from above, the enemy shooting almost straight down on them. There is no point in silence now. “Return fire!” she bellows. “Hose ’em!”

Up and down the line, the M-16’s open up on full automatic, their rattle punctuated by the clang of rounds off metal and the sharp, strangled scream of a man going down somewhere to her right. Koda braces her weapon against her shoulder and empties the magazine at the enemy still invisible along the highway shoulder. She wrenches it free, slams in another, and keeps firing as she storms up the slope. Without warning the ground shakes beneath her, tumbling her back onto her butt, and the wave of sound washes over her, huge, apocalyptic, the thunder at the end of the world. Fog glows crimson and burns away, leaving clouds of red-shot black smoke roiling over the battlefront. Kirsten’s trap has sprung.

She scrambles back up onto her feet, seeing for the first time the line of soldiers stretched out along the lip of the rise above her. “Come on!” she yells at her troops. “Take the fuckers down!”

Yelling and whooping, they charge up the slope, into the hell of lead blazing down on them.

*******

Tacoma’s Jeep speeds along amid the thunder of his armored cavalry. The smaller vehicle darts in among the Bradleys and M-1’s, nimble as a dolphin among great whales. The wind of their passage tilts his helmet back on his head, snags his braids from under its rim and sends his loosened hair flying behind. Here on the road, steadily rising as they race west, the low sun has begun to burn through the fog, tingeing the mist with a strange, golden iridescence. Ahead of them, the enemy still runs blind, though the sun will soon show them what even their high-intensity spotlights cannot. Neither will there be any cover for this rear half of his split force, should the enemy have the wit to look behind them. Given a few more minutes, though, that will not matter.

Muffled by mist and distance, the roar of guns comes to them on the wind. “That’s it!” Tacoma yells. He keys his mike and shouts into it. “Slow down! Form a line across the road! Make it tight!”

The behemoths around them lurch as their drivers stand on their brakes. They maneuver the M-1s into a long-legged, inverted V that rapidly becomes a flying wedge in reverse. Bradleys take their places on the on the fringes. There is barely space for an armed infantryman to squeeze between them, no more than a meter from vehicle to vehicle. A second, staggered line closes in behind. Jackson swerves the Jeep to take up the outlier position along the south flank, and the line begins its inexorable grind forward, to take the enemy from behind.

“We got ’em!” Jackson shouts in his ear above the lower, but still deafening, racket.

“We got ’em as long as they don’t turn and bust back through!”

A second volley rolls over them, louder, more than one cannon this time. Up ahead, a column of roiling black smoke rises above the road, burning fuel. As it coils upward into the thinning fog, the tank’s ammunition goes up in a series of short explosions. There is no way to tell yet if it is one of their own or an enemy. Cannon reverberates around them, rattling the glass in the windshield, shattering the air to echo off the hills that rise, black against the sky, to the north of the highway.

Just ahead of them, the road curves sharply to the right. As they round the bend, Tacoma can see the two lines of armor, his own drawn up in tight formation to block the path westward, the other straggled out across the front, individual units angled to try to wedge their way between their opponents. Some have forced their way so close that they cannot use their cannon or swivel their turrets. Behind the enemy line, the torn hulk of a burning tank lies heaved onto its side, ragged holes in its armored carapace, its treads still running clanking over its wheels. The smoke stinks of diesel fuel and scorched meat.

“Damn, looks like a bunch of dinosaurs fighting!” Jackson shouts. “Those things with horns on their heads!”

Tacoma laughs. “And here comes T. Rex to finish ’em off!” He thumbs the button on his com. “All units, close in and fire at will–just watch your range!”

******

Kirsten lies flat on the shoulder of the road, her elbows propping her up, as she methodically searches the thinning fog for more solid patches. The mines have done their work on the first lines of the enemy. The casualties are mostly droids, but the severed fingers of a human hand dangling from a metal strut in the wall testify that humans had been among them. Kirsten has no time for them, no pity. She knows better than most what bargain they might have made, the safety of a family, the remnant of a life, even a life of slavery. Other renegades string out the line on the edge of the gorge, mingled with android troops.

Kirsten picks off another; behind her Manny’s rifle stitches a line of fire up and down the road’s shoulder, steady and careful. From several hundred meters away, her implants pick up the faint whine of the military droids’ motors. They are still waiting, perhaps allowing the Ellsworth forces to expend time and ammunition before closing in for the kill.

Got a surprise for ya, motherfuckers. Any time now. She sights carefully and picks off two more hostiles.

The explosion, when it comes, rattles the scrap metal in the wall that looms above her, and one sniper, less securely perched than he might have been, slips down to land sprawled beside her, shaken loose by the blast. “God damn!” he yells above the echoing blasts. “What the hell was that?”

“Suicide droids!” Manny shouts back. “Takin’ their friends with ’em!”

Kirsten smiles tightly, feeling the knots in her shoulders relax a minute fraction. The program worked, and however many metalheads come grinding down on them, it will be fewer than it would have been before. Maybe the difference will be enough to make a difference. At least give them a better chance. In the lull that follows, she hears human voices off to her right. Koda’s troops, closing in to trap the enemy between their force and Maggie’s.

The pitch of the droid’s motors changes suddenly. Mingled with their high humming,

Kirsten can make out the tramp of flat metal feet, the snarl of treads biting into the pavement. “They’re coming!” she yells over her shoulder at Manny. “Send someone to tell the General!”

The freshening wind tears at the last rags of the fog. She can see them now, the sun glinting off their titanium hides as they grind toward the barricade. The first volley from their M-60 caliber arms clangs against the wall, a drumming like fist-size hail on the roof. Grenades plow into the pavement ahead of them, some landing in their ranks to knock the droids over onto their sides. The ones on treads cannot rise, and lie with their wheel belts spinning, like upset beetles. Others step or crawl over them, unheeding.

A LAAWs rocket tears into the line, sending bright fragments flying in the growing light, like spray off a fountain. To her right, the snipers on the edge of the gorge pot steadily away at Dakota’s troops as they attempt to scale the slope, but Kirsten can also see that they are beginning to fall in greater and greater numbers before Koda’s advance. So far, so good.

There is a microsecond’s warning, no more, as the howitzer shell screeches toward them. It rips through the barricade to land somewhere in the midst of the line of vehicles drawn up between the two walls, sending metal debris and bodies fountaining into the air, the roar of the explosion rolling on and on, unfolding like the cloud of smoke and flame that billows up from the pavement. A section of the barricade groans, its rammed steel blocks grating against each other, and very slowly, almost gracefully, begins to slide toward the ground. The treaded droids crawl up its slope, followed more slowly by the flat-footed models. Too close. Kirsten swivels her rifle to aim at the optic shield of the nearest, but Manny grabs her belt from behind and jerks her out of the way just as a twisted chunk of steel tumbles down to l and where she had crouched a moment before. A cartwheeling fragment strikes her helmet, and darkness, sudden as thunder, closes in about her.
CHAPTER FORTY-N-NE
The wedge of armor closes inexorably in on the enemy where they stand locked with the first line. The Bradleys swing wide, speeding to block escape off the shoulders of the road, while the crews of the advancing M-1’s crank up the angle of their cannon to lob their shells high and short into the droid tanks. Hatches on the roofs of the Bradleys crack open, sprouting the long tubes of tank-killing missiles. As Tacoma watches, two of the launchers send their warheads streaking toward a single enemy tank, slamming through its armor and sending it up in a ball of fire and smoke. A cannon shell lands short of a second, gouging a crater in the pavement but doing little other harm. A second finds its mark, and a Bradley fragments, spewing glass and bolts, flesh and blood, for a radius of half a hundred meters in all directions. Red spatters cover the tread and turret of one of their own tanks near it; a human crew in that one. An enemy tank flounders as it attempts to turn its guns on the closing force behind it, the turret still mobile but its cannon wedged against the bulk of its neighbor. Its gears snarl like a rabid thing, snared and careless with its pain.

A missile takes one of the Ellsworth Bradleys in the side, tearing open its plating and spinning off the road to tumble down the embankment and come to rest with a final clatter thirty yards away. A second sweeps up from behind to take its place in the wedge, blocking off an APC that suddenly breaks from its hulking companions to attempt to dart through the narrow gaps in Tacoma’s line. The Bradley rams it headon, turning it end for end and slamming it into the path of an enemy M-1 as it attempts to extricate itself from its deadly embrace with one of its own allies. A shell from the center tank in the wedge settles its difficulty, blowing the fuel tanks of both and sending their ammo up in a series of short, sharp explosions that leave the highway pocked with craters and scars on the flanks of friend and enemy alike.

Tacoma, watching, takes a quick count. The enemy are outnumbered and blocked off. It comes to him that the battle is decided; has in truth been decided ever since the enemy took the bait and followed the forward unit onto the highway. It remains only to end it as quickly as may be. Keying his com to universal frequency, Tacoma shouts into the microphone, ” Ellsworth, hold your fire! Droid forces, surrender! You are surrounded, with no hope of escape! Humans among you will have the protections of prisoners of war! Androids will be reprogrammed! Surrender now and spare yourselves!”

And, though he does not say so, spare the tanks and fighting vehicles that they may well need another day. No one will be manufacturing any more anytime soon.

There is no response. More quietly Tacoma adds, “You have sixty seconds.” He glances down at his watch, and the luminous sweep of the second hand. “Mark. Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. Fifty-seven. . . ..”

On thirty, Tacoma raises his hand to signal resumption of the attack. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jackson’s taut face, watching not him but looking beyond for signs of compliance or attack. On twenty-five, Jackson guns the engine, ready to move again. Tacoma’s breath comes short and hard. Please, Ina, let this work. And on twenty, a tank hatch cracks open and two humans climb out, waving a white T-shirt.

A wide grin splits Jackson’s face. “Well dayyyum. And I thought your sister was the magic one.”

Tacoma’s pounding heart and lungs slow toward normal. He grins back. “No magic to it. Appeal to enlightened self-interest’ll do it every time.” He climbs out of the Jeep and signals the Bradley crews to dismount. “Let’s round ’em up.”

Twenty minutes later, the human prisoners have been separated from the droids, hogtied and deposited by the side of the road for later pickup. The androids, no more than half a dozen, pose a different problem. They stand together, guarded by two troopers armed with grenades. Tacoma glances around the field, where his men and women are busy untangling the traffic snarl and lining up the enemy armor for a run back to the barricades. They cannot spare anyone to stand guard over the droids, cannot leave them unsupervised, either.

“Waste ’em, Major. You don’t need to keep a promise to no damned metalhead.”

Tacoma turns to confront the speaker, a tanker of twenty years and four wars’ experience. “If I do that, then the humans have no way of trusting my word, either. You know the code.”

“That was then, Major.” There is only weariness in the man’s leathery face; no cruelty, no vengeance. “Now is different.”

Tacoma nods, agreeing. He has fought in Kashmir and in the horn of Africa, in Macedonia and Korea. This war is different beyond imagination. A warrior’s honor is still worth preserving. He claps the man on the shoulder. “Thanks, Reilly. All the same, get one of those Bradleys off the road. We’ll pull the wires out of the engine and lock ’em in it till we get back.”

Shaking his head, Reilly moves to obey, and Tacoma turns his attention back to reforming his line. Beside him, Jackson says, “That was a tough one.”

“That was a necessary one.”

“That’s not in the UCMJ, y’know.”

Tacoma gives him a half smile. “Different code. Lakota.”

The wedge forms up again, this time pointing east and augmented by the captured armor. By the side of the road, Reilly has a fighting vehicle pulled to the side, its engine on the ground beside it. Not one to do things by halves, Reilly. Tacoma, satisfied with his formation, makes one last circuit to check for external damage. Jackson shadows him, one hand on his sidearm, his eyes on the knot of androids preparing to load into the Bradley. Tacoma gives him a grin. “Relax, Darius. Nothing’s going to hap—”

He never finishes the sentence. With a yell, Jackson springs, flattening him to the tarmac, rolling over and over away from the spot where a spray of M-16 rounds clangs against the side of an APC and the air shudders with the explosion of half a dozen grenades. When the roaring stops, he is lying on his face in the loose dust of the road shoulder, with Jackson on top of him. He lifts his head slightly, gasping for air. “What—What the fuck—was that?”

“Reilly,” Darius says shortly. He pushes up to his feet, leaning down to help Tacoma up. “You okay?”

Tacoma takes a quick mental inventory. No blood, nothing broken. “Yeah. Just winded.” He grins at Jackson. “Thanks, man.”

“Yeah, well.” Oddly, Darius does not meet his eyes, finding a sudden interest in the scorched hole in the embankment where Reilly had stood. Reilly himself lies yards off, his rifle gone, his helmet and the back of his head crushed. A pry bar lies among the remains of the droids. “That’s gratitude for you. At least we won’t have to deal with the metalheads now.”

“You okay?”

“‘M fine.” Jackson tilts his helmet back, and for a moment his eyes meet Tacoma’s. Fear is there, and relief, and the hint of something else, gone as soon as it appears.

There is no time. But a small warmth has settled in somewhere around Tacoma’s breastbone, something that will bear more attention on the other side of battle. For now he turns back toward the Jeep and says only, “Let’s move ’em out then. We got work to do.”

*******

“Goddammit, Manny, put me down!”

Kirsten’s head, sore but clear, bangs against Manny’s ammunition belt. From her inverted perspective, she can see only the rubble-strewn pavement and the backs of his heels as he jogs away from the breached wall, herself slung over his shoulder like an untidy bedroll.

“In a minute!” he yells, tightening his grip across the back of her knees. “Hang on!”

Swearing, she digs her fingers into the loops of webbing that holds his gear around his waist. A roar like the rush of a great river pounds in her ears. Some of it, she knows, is her own blood; some of it the report and recoil of the big guns at the rear of their line. And some of it is fire. The red sheen on the asphalt, on the heels of Manny’s flashing boots, is not all blood. A wave of heat washes over her from somewhere on her right. Something is burning. Something large.

“Manny–!” She tries again, “Lieutenant Rivers, I order you to put me—”

“—Down. I know. Hold on!”

She thumps against his back as he takes an obstacle at a running leap, then another. I’m going to bust him back to private. I’m going to put him on permanent latrine duty. I’m going to make him peel potatoes right into the next ice age—

From her upended position, she sees a pair of soldiers crouched behind the wreckage of a Humvee, feeding grenades into an array of squat, tubular launchers that slam back against the pavement as the belch out their rounds. Others scramble to assemble an M-60, weighting down the legs of its tripod with the detached wheel of a truck, its tire stripped off. Someone has set up an impromptu med station in the lee of another wreck, Shannon from the vet clinic using the injured troops’ own T-shirts and sleeves to bind off wounds. With a start, Kirsten recognizes the half-burned truck as the command post. She had known they were in trouble, but not just how much. It’s bad, then. It’s really bad. Gods, I wish Dakota—

Were a million miles away and safe. Fat chance.

She grits her teeth and involuntarily tightens her grip on Manny’s belt as another howitzer shell screams overhead. This one lands somewhere beyond the second barrier. To cut off our retreat. Then they’ll get around to finishing us.

Abruptly, Manny comes to a halt and bends at the waist, decanting her gently into a hastily thrown-up bunker of torn metal and sandbags. Maggie looks up from the battered laptop where she is apparently keeping track of her units, holding one half of a pair of headphones tightly to her ear and tapping on the keyboard with the other. When she sees Kirsten, the tightness in her face relaxes visibly. “Are you hurt?”

“Just banged about a bit. Give me—”

She does not even complete the sentence before Maggie shoves the computer into her hands. “Rivers, stay with her. Nice one with the suicide droids,” she says, and is up and gone.

*******

The battle has become a siege. It was always intended that it should; Maggie and her forces are the anvil, Koda and her troop, swinging around to flank the enemy from the south, are the hammer. All she has to do, she reminds herself as she pushes the computer into Kirsten’s far more knowledgeable hands and sets herself to make the round of her nest of machine-gunners and snipers, is hold firm. She has enough heavy munitions to stave off the swarming mass of killing machines for half an hour more, perhaps an hour. If the enemy manages to cut Dakota off, if they delay her advance up the embankment and onto the road, she still has a pair of options left. Both are suicide.

Crouching, she watches as the droid line shifts slightly. One of their number, a humanoid model, leans out from between the heavily armored models, aiming a shoulder-held rocket launcher. Before it can bring the tube to bear, a LAAWS fired from one of the upended Humvees behind her finds its mark, leaving a break in the line where the droid had stood. Two of the heavy models go down with it, one smashed to metal flinders, the other decapitated, its sensor array blown straight off its mountings. In some weird cyborg version of spinal reflex, it raises both its arms and sprays 60-caliber rounds across the space separating the two lines, kicking up asphalt pellets from the roadway, clanging off the armor of trucks and personnel carriers. The others join in the barrage, the sound trapped between the two metal barricades that hem them in. From somewhere to her right, Maggie hears a man scream; closer to, she can see another slump against the sandbags of his post, blood and flesh from the melon-sized exit wound in his back spattering the troops next to him.

From behind the wall, she can hear the higher-pitched rattle of M-16’s, the occasional heavier thump of a grenade. Koda must have made her way up to the rim of the embankment, then. That will not take pressure off Maggie’ forces, though. Not yet. Not till Dakota has fought her way past the android contingent set to block her, not till she has gotten p ast the first barricade, over it or around it. Hammer and anvil, with the titanium and steel of the enemy between.

A trooper sprints across the open space between Maggie’s position and Kirsten’s makeshift com center. He dives and rolls under the hail of gunfire, landing half on his face beside her. Levering himself up beside her, he manages a credible salute. “General—Dr. King’s compliments. She says to tell you Major Rivers has neutralized the enemy armor and is on his way back. Instructions?”

“Yeah,” she says, a laugh that his half relief, half amusement at the young man’s formality. “Tell him get his ass back here as fast as those tanks’ll go. We need him yesterday.”

********

Koda pulls herself up the slope, using her rifle butt to steady her, hugging the ragged outcrop to keep within the angle of fire raining down on her troops from above. The fog still shrouds them, but only faintly. The freshening wind tears it, whipping it by in tatters. From time to time she catches the glint of metal from above, weapon or droid, she cannot tell. Her men, strung out on the face of the embankment, appear as clotted shadow in the mist, here and there a glimpse of mottled green camouflage or the clear shape of a weapon. And always there is the rattle of automatic fire above her, unremitting. The enemy has only to hold them in the gorge until full light, and they will die.

She cannot allow that to happen. They have to get up and over. Now.

Fumbling at her belt, Dakota slips one of her two remaining grenades from its loop. She pulls the pin with her teeth, then counts the seconds as the fuse burns down. With a high, wordless scream, she sends it arcing up over her head to land among the enemy on the road above. Its concussion beats at her like great wings flailing the air, but she strains against it, hauling herself to within striking distance of the top as the droids shift and reform. All up and down the length of her skirmish line, other grenades go sailing into the enemy ranks. Through increasing gaps in the fog, she catches sight of her troops. One man, only yards away, sprawls face-down on the earth, his left side soaked in blood, his arm gone. She cannot stop to tend him. She screams again, part anger at her helplessness in the face of his helplessness, part red blind lust for the destruction of those who have killed him. Her second, and last, grenade flies true, gouging out a hole that sends asphalt particles stinging into her face as she crests the top of the ridge. The last of her squad’s grenades explode somewhere down the line. They swarm up over the top, screaming, shooting point-blank into the sensor arrays of the few enemies left standing. All about her lie the broken remains of droids, wire and shattered circuit cards, metal fragments and titanium bolts bright in the sudden sun that breaks upon them as the last of the fog whips away. And there are the wrecks of the droids’ human allies, blood and bone and muscle spattered over half the width of the highway. The air smells of iron.

Down the line from her, her troops set about mopping up anything still functional. At her own feet, a prone droid’s arms make futile paddling motions at its sides, and she places the muzzle of her M-16 carefully against the back plate that covers the power supply. The gun jerks against her elbow. Two rounds, and the thing lies still.

To her left, the bulk of the first barricade wall appears, half of its middle section tumbled to the pavement where the howitzer shell has torn through. From behind it comes the din of battle—the rattle of M-60’s and automatic rifles, the dull whump of grenade launchers. A quick survey of the field shows her no more enemy troops as far as she can see to the east. They are all behind the wall, then. And most of them will be the military models, mindless killing machines, impervious to small arms.

“Where now, Ma’am?”

Their task is to squeeze the enemy between their line and Maggie’s. The men and women trotting toward her down the curve of the road are fewer by a third than those she set out with across the gorge. If she sends them around and through the wall, crashing into the droid’s line from behind, the enemy will simply turn and cut them to pieces. “Sergeant,” she says slowly, “How many big guns do you think they have back there?”

“Ma’am?” He blinks into the sun that strikes glare from the broken metal all around them, sweat running down his blackened face into his eyes. “There’s a couple howitzers back there, maybe a couple big mortars, too.”

“Good,” she says. “Let’s go.”

She begins trotting east, toward the back of the enemy line, stepping nimbly as a dancer among the scattered debris. Her troops form a wedge around her, their faces puzzled, as they jog away from the fight. None of them asks what she is about, and for a fleeting moment their obedience frightens her. Behind them the noise of the fight lessens, buffered now by the remains of the barricade and the trees that line the north of the road here. The sergeant, keeping pace with her, pants, “Ma’am. Ma’am. The range is off. We can’t fire those mothers now—we’d hit our own people.”

Koda flashes him a grin. “We’re not gonna fire ’em, Sarge.”

“Wha— Oh. Gotcha.”

The droids have left no rearguard. Their vehicles, clustered a mile and a half back from the battle line, sit neatly parked across the road, Humvees and troop trucks lined up as carefully as if they were about to stand motor pool inspection. There are no hospital trucks, no rations supply. What the hell did they expect their human troops to run on? But Dakota has no time for the thought. “All right,” she says, coming to a halt before one of the APC’s. Her squad form a knot around her, some of them heaving with the effort of the run, others bright-faced and eager. “Anybody here have experience with heavy machinery—cranes, tractors, anything like that?”

A half dozen hands go up: the Sergeant, a couple reservists, armored cavalry that Tacoma had no place for. “Good. You come with me. The rest pile into a couple of these carriers, get the ammo threaded, and get ’em started. We’ll be back.”

With that, she sets off at a run toward the hulking shapes she can just make out in the distance, where the fog lingers along the course of a small stream. Two howitzers loom out of the mist, their barrels, huge-seeming as ancient sequoias, canted upward to shorten their range. The squatter shapes of self-propelled mortars hulk beside them. Koda slows, dropping her M-16 from her shoulder into her hands; there may be no guards, but the droids may have left gunners behind. With the thought, the sun glints off the barrel of a weapon aimed from behind the nearer howitzer. She pulls and holds the trigger of her rifle, spraying the pavement, the tread, the armored side of the monster. “Split up!” she yells. “Go around!”

They move to obey, two lines swinging wide to flank the big guns. Koda charges straight for the middle, aiming not for the enemy gunner’s position but for the howitzer itself. A flying leap lands her on its tread, and she pulls herself up its curve, using its metal grips like rungs on a ladder. On top, she clambers past the driver’s perch and scrambles over the main gun mount to the rear. The sniper lies sprawled at the rear of the tread, blood seeping from beneath him. Dakota fires a single shot, straight between his shoulder blades, to be sure. From the end of the line, behind one of the mortars, come two more sharp reports, then silence. “Got ’em, Ma’am!” a trooper sings out, and a moment later the Sergeant appears atop the other howitzer, making for the controls.

“Okay,” Koda shouts. “One operator and a back-up on each of the guns! Let’s go!”

She slips into the driver’s seat aboard the howitzer, taking a moment to study the dashboard. Ignition is no problem; she turns the key and the huge diesel motor under her kicks to life, shaking and shuddering like her grandfather’s ancient John Deere with its front-loader exhaust pipe and its metal bicycle seat. Only bigger. Much bigger. Fit to rattle her teeth loose, she thinks as she straps herself in. Gonna join the Polident crowd way too young, here.

One of the sticks is obviously the gearshift. The smaller one—she shoves it away from her, and the huge barrel over her head begins to descend like a falling tree. “Timber!” somebody shouts, and she gives it an abrupt push in the opposite direction and keeps pushing until it is as near vertical as it will go. Down the line, the other drivers crank their guns up; the barrels will foul each other when they begin to maneuver. “Man, oh, man!” yells the driver of one of the mortars. “If that ain’t the biggest goddam hard-on I ever saw!”

“Dream on!” the Sergeant sings out. “Good to go, Ma’am!”

“All right!” she yells above the din of the engines. “We get back to the line as fast as we can. Then we flatten the bastards!”

Her back-up slides into place behind her, perched between her seat and the tread housing, as she lets out the gearshift and the huge gun lumbers forward. It is not so bad once in motion; maybe just a three-legged mule, not the antique tractor. “You okay back there?” she yells, half-turning her head.

“I’m hangin’, Ma’am!”

“Strap yourself to one of those eye-bolts back there, or you’ll come loose when things get serious. This is not gonna be a joyride!”

It is not. The going is rough for the first several hundred yards as she explores the controls. Slow and awkward, the guns must have been what kept the enemy to its crawling advance, even more than its foot soldiers. Most of those, after all, were droids, who did not need to sleep or eat or fall out to pee. No. They had brought the guns with the idea of laying siege to Ellsworth from a distance, maybe using them to disable the fighter squadrons and bombers before making a direct assault. Damn. Better park the Tomcats out on the runway where they can take off at a minute’s notice. There may be more of these motherfuckers where this one came from. And more droids.

The noise of battle comes to them over the roar of the howitzers’ engines. Most of it is small arms fire, M-16’s and M-60’s. Koda has begun to be able to tell the difference; it is what she does not hear, though, that alarms her. No grenades. No LAAWS.

Nothing left but the little stuff.

Fuck.

She throws the throttle wide open, bracing as the huge gun lurches forward, grinding under its treads the remains of droid and human alike as they round the curve and enter the straight mile of highway remaining between them and the ruined barricade. She can see it clearly, the tumbled wreckage where the wall was breached forming the ramp that let the attackers through. Whether it will hold something as large as the gun, though, is an open question.

One about to be answered. Koda waves the mortars on either end to go around the wall, and they break off to comply. Setting her teeth, she pulls back on the joystick, slowing the howitzer as it finds its traction in the crumpled metal beneath it. The bulldozers have done their work, though, and after a split second in which the gun seems to sink, and Koda’s heart with it, its treads bite into the steel slope and propel it up and over, spilling it out onto an even steeper angle on the other side. Koda stands frantically on the brakes, her breath stopped in her throat, the weight of her back-up thrown sharply against her shoulders, the barrel of the howitzer wobbling visibly above her head.

And then they are on the level pavement, lurching toward the battle, which seems to be concentrated behind the remains of the Ellsworth vehicles. With a stab of fear, she recognizes the command truck, overturned and half-burnt, black smoke still billowing out of it. But I would know, dammit. I know I would know.

Swinging around the wreckage, she can make out the fight now, only half a mile distant, backed up against the second barrier wall. The droids seem to be almost entirely the military models, the humans invisible behind bunkers of sandbags and overturned APC’s and Humvees. “Here we go!” Koda shouts, shoving the gearshift forward into first.

I’m hallucinating.

Kirsten shoves her laptop aside—it has long since ceased to be useful in any case—and grabs her rifle. The monsters lumbering onto the battlefield are nightmare come to life: enormous snouts uplifted in wrath, impervious metal hides clanging as rounds glance off them to ricochet and scatter among the droids. For a moment a flash of memory crosses her mind: Micah and his oil-pump dinosaurs on the flat plains of the Texas panhandle, their kin come suddenly to life here in the north where the wide salt sea drew so many of them into its sands.

“Goddam.” Manny, beside her, fumbles in his pack for the last of his grenades. “They’ve brought up their field guns.”

Recognition snaps into place. These are nothing out of her schoolday dreams. This is the enemy’s final assault on their depleted troops, the last blow that will smash their already broken lines. Grimly she shoves the last magazine into place on the stock of her M-16. What was it Leonidas had said there in the Hot Gates when the Persians demanded his weapons? Oh yeah. Come and get them.

Come and get me, fuckers. I’m not going down easy.

Lying flat, Kirsten sights along the barrel of her gun. Beside her, Manny pulls the pin of a grenade and cocks his arm back. Kirsten squints, her finger tightening—

With a cry that is not quite a shout of triumph, not a scream of fear, either, she lunges to her feet, knocks Manny down, and tosses the grenade clear of the oncoming howitzer, into a mass of milling droids that seem suddenly to have lost their bearings, a tangled mass like a circle dance that has lost the music.

“What—!”

“Look who’s driving, Manny! It’s the goddam cavalry!”

From the corner of her eye, Koda catches a flurry of movement behind one of the upended Humvees, a pale blonde head and a dark one. A wash of relief goes through her, so strong it almost rocks her where she sits. Safe.

A grin, feral as a wolf’s, pulls her lips back from her teeth as she swings the gun around on its footprint and plows it into the nearest pack of droids. Their metal hides crunch and pop as she pulls back on the stick, raising the front of her gun carriage to slam down on them, grinding them under the treads that loop inexorably on and on, carrying her over the wreckage and into the next squad of them, even as they raise their arms and begin to empty their magazines at her, spraying lead over the housing of the engine and the treads, shooting indiscriminately to kill her or disable the howitzer itself.

All along the battle front, the droids turn to face the new attack, tangling in knots around each of the four field guns. One of the mortar drivers slumps in his seat, only to be pulled aside as his second slips into his place and charges into a line of droids near the end of the wall. Koda swerves again to mow down a contingent that has turned, running as best their mechanical legs will take them, for the breach in the first wall, then takes another clutch as they split off from the main body and make for the edge of the road. The grinding of the guns treads brings with it a fierce joy, part battle-lust, part relief, part astonishment at her own competence. But you have done this before, a laughing voice says in her head. We did not meet for the first time, there beyond the trees.

For a fraction of a second, the puma’s face passes before her, eyes golden with the sun that now shines full on the field before her. Then it is gone, replaced with the enemy who fall beneath her, noticeably fewer now, their fire slackening. A little more to do, and all is done.

Behind the barriers, Maggie’s forces have gathered themselves, raining their last grenades and LAAWS rockets into the droids’ rear, driving them toward the crushing treads of the guns. Above the racket of the engines and the slackening gunfire, roaring down on them from beyond the western wall, comes the high whine of tank engines and the rattle of treads on pavement: an armored column bearing down on them. Tacoma returning? Or droids? She has no way of knowing. Driving hard to intercept a line of stragglers making for the ramp, Koda cuts them off just as one of them raises its arm, raking the side of the howitzer with rounds that sing by like hornets. Dakota feels her second slump against her back, wet warmth gushing down her back and legs. Something impacts her right arm just behind the wrist, and her hand on the stick goes limp. Swearing, she shifts slightly to get a grip on it with her left, still feeling nothing as a red stain soaks into sleeve of her shirt and spreads, wetting her pants leg where the arm lies useless

With a crash the returning tanks hump up onto the pavement from their detour around the back wall, Tacoma riding outlier in his Jeep beside them. A great relief washes through Koda, and she lets her gun grind to a halt as she watches the armored behemoths stream by her now, chasing down the few enemy left as they attempt to flee.

It is over.

The pain of her arm slams into her, then, taking her breath away. Maggie emerges from behind her bunker, Kirsten and Manny from theirs, making for her where she still perches above them on the gun carriage. Awkwardly she releases her harness, sliding out from under the dead weight behind her, and begins the climb down. Halfway to the pavement she slips, but Kirsten’s hands are there to receive her, steadying her as she finds her feet. All around them lies the wreckage of the droid army, with much of their own. Victory has come at cost, cost they may not be able to recover.

“You’re hurt!”

Kirsten’s voice, sharp with alarm, cuts into her thought, and she musters a smile for her lover. “Hey,” she says softly. “It’s only a flesh wound.”

A frown knits Maggie’s brows. “Let’s see.” She continues to scowl as Koda peels back the sleeve of her shirt, carefully turning the arm to see the wound more clearly. The frown relaxes. “You’re right, nothing broken. Let’s get you to Shannon.”

“No,” she says, with a wave of her good hand. “I need to help with the wounded—”

“Which you can’t do with a bum wrist. Come on, cuz.” Manny takes her by her good elbow, firmly propelling her in the direction of the aid station. “Let Shannon bandage that and get some Novocaine into it.”

Kirsten says quietly, “Koda, please. You can’t go bleeding on your patients.” Dakota gives her a long, look, taking in the toll of battle printed on the dark flesh under Kirsten’s eyes, in the haunted gaze that turns on her with both relief and hunger.

It is easier not to resist. Taking off her helmet, she lets her hair spill down her back, the two hawk feathers brushing the side of her face. From above her comes a scream, fierce and high, and she looks up to see broad wings spread against the blue, copper-colored tail catching the light. “Look,” she says. “Wiyo.”

“She agrees with me,” Kirsten says steadily.

With her good hand, Koda runs a finger down Kirsten’s cheek, tracing the spider shape painted there. “Iktomi Zizi. Cante sukye.”

At that, Maggie lays a firm hand on Manny’s arm and steers him down the line to check on the troops, the injured and the dead. Around her, the men and women of Ellsworth are beginning to deal with the aftermath of battle, gathering up the wounded and dead. Gently, Kirsten laces her fingers through Koda’s. “Let’s go home,” she says. “This is over.”

“Over,” Koda echoes. A chill runs down her spine. “For now.”

Without further protest, she allows Kirsten to lead her to the medical station, and from there to an APC with other wounded. She will tend them when they reach the Base.

For now, she braces herself against the cold metal side of the truck, and holds tightly as she can to Kirsten beside her.

Cante mitawa.

Now and forever.
CHAPTER FIFTY
The sun rises slowly, finally clearing the eastern ridge. Simmons, on the tail end of his shift in the guard post, leans over and rubs his eyes as the first rays glint off of something just beyond the bushes close in. “Holy fuck!” he grunts, elbowing the half-asleep Roberts. “Do you see that?!?”

“See what?” Roberts leans out, then ducks back in again, quick. “Shit! Shoot it!”

“With what? My dick? The land-grubbers took every bit of ammo not nailed down, you idiot!”

“Well? What the fuck should we do?”

“Get the General. She should still be in her quarters.”

“Huh uh. I just got these stripes, Simmons. I’m not gonna go in there and let her rip ’em off with her teeth for wakin’ her up. No thanks.”

“Would you rather stay up here while that thing draws a bead on your hairy ass?”

Roberts thinks about it for a moment before bolting for the stairs, taking them three at a time and almost tripping over his own feet.

“Asshole,” Simmons sighs before turning back toward the metal thing bristling with weapons that seems content to just stand there, watching.

Ten minutes later, Roberts returns, Maggie in tow. Aside from a few bruises and scrapes, and bags beneath her eyes that would make a Samsonite salesman jealous, she seems none the worse for wear. She returns Simmons’ salute crisply, then takes a look out the bolthole, eyes narrowing as she glimpses the military droid and his just arrived buddies standing in a semi-circular formation. “Well, well, well, look who’s come for breakfast. Have they done anything?” she asks Simmons without moving her gaze from their newly arrived friends.

“No, Ma’am. Just standing there.”

Suddenly, the air is rent by a loud piercing blast that resembles an air-raid siren, though lower in volume. Roberts covers his ears, then quickly drops his hands after the glare from Maggie all but melts his fillings. He looks at her, shamefaced, as the siren blast tapers off, then starts up again. The pulses are regular, and Maggie can just begin to get a handle on them when Simmons breaks in, his voice loud to compensate. “It’s Morse, Ma’am. It’s telling us to listen.”

“I got that part, Corporal,” Maggie replies dryly. “Listen to what, though?”

Simmons shrugs. “I dunno, Ma’am. Just keeps repeating ‘listen’ over and over again.”

Maggie crosses her arms over her chest. “Alright, you bastards, I’m listening.”

The two men turn as a noise from behind them attracts their notice, and they stiffen to granite attention as Kirsten enters the watchhouse, Koda following, fiddling with the pristine white bandage covering her forearm. “What’s going on?” Kirsten asks, eyeing Maggie directly.

“See for yourself,” Maggie replies, stepping aside and allowing Kirsten a clear line to the bolthole.

Kirsten peers out, unconsciously easing slightly to the side to allow Koda room beside her. Dakota’s eyebrow edges upward as a white flag is raised from the center of the android grouping. The pair exchange glances before returning their gazes back to the area just outside the front gate.

“Je-sus!” Kirsten breathes as the androids break rank and none other than Sebastian Hart steps through, white flag in one hand, battery powered bullhorn in the other. He’s dressed in the same black uniform that clothes the other humans within the ranks of the androids, and aside from being a bit pale and gaunt, Kirsten thinks he actually looks better than he did when he left the base.

“Guess we know the answer to that question,” Koda mutters as Hart looks around, then lifts to bullhorn to his mouth.

“Hail the base!”

Kirsten looks to Koda, who shakes her head, very slightly, in the negative.

“Hail the base!” A beat later, “I come to parley under a flag of truce! Who speaks for you, base?”

“Let him lay out his hand,” Maggie murmurs, coming to stand behind Kirsten and touching her shoulder as she looks over the smaller woman’s head.

“What hand?” Kirsten asks. “We’ve decimated his troops! What could he possibly be bargaining for?”

“We won’t know until he asks,” Koda replies, keen eyes narrowing on the man below.

“Does no one speak for you, then?”

Maggie feels a moment of pride as the entire base keeps its silence, like an abandoned castle of a long-ago time. She senses the eyes and the attention of those who stand below and wait, and blesses them for their loyalty.

“Very well, then. If you will not speak to me, I will speak to you.” A brief pause, as he surveys the exterior of the base, much as a deposed emperor who knows his palace will again soon be his. An expression more smirk than smile flicks across his lips before they’re covered, once again, by the bullhorn. “I’ve worked with many of you, most of you, for a long number of years on this base. You know me. You know my honesty, and you know my integrity.”

Maggie snorts, shaking her head in patent disbelief. The others remain silent, though their thoughts are easily read through the set of their bodies.

“And because of your knowledge of my honesty, my integrity, I feel it is safe for me to stand before you and say this: People of Ellsworth, you are being lied to.”

“What the fuck?!?”

Kirsten is kept from diving out the bolthole and taking on the ex-general by a quick hand to the belt of her pants. She grounds on Dakota, glaring, color high. “What are–?”

“Shh. Just wait a minute. Let’s see what he has to say.”

“But–.”

“Don’t let him know he’s gotten to you, Kirsten,” Maggie interjects softly. “That’s his game.”

With a look of biting into a very sour lemon, Kirsten finally relents, shaking off the gentle arms holding her and stalking to the side of the knothole, away from the others. Koda looks after her with concern, but Maggie shakes her head, just once. Koda nods, and peers back through the knothole, elegant brows drawn down low over piercing eyes.

“To set the record perfectly straight, ladies and gentlemen of Ellsworth, you were not lied to when you were told that there had been an android uprising. No, all of you were part of that horror, seeing sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and loved ones taken away from you or killed before you. No, that certainly is not the lie. Nor is it an untruth that some of those women, your daughters, your mothers, your relatives and dear friends were taken and incarcerated against their wills, defiled in the most horrendous of ways. You have seen such horrors with your own eyes, or heard them with your own ears. A great abomination has been visited upon our country, people of Ellsworth, a great abomination that continues still!”

“This asshole missed his calling,” Maggie mutters. “He should have run for office.”

“Or the pulpit,” Koda smirks.

“The lie,” Hart continues, “concerns these beings standing beside me. They, ladies and gentlemen, are not your enemy!”

“That’s it,” Kirsten grumbles, heading for the door and pushing the guards aside like tenpins. “Let me at that overbearing, underachieving, bald-headed, drunken asshole motherfu–.”

“Woah there, spitfire,” Maggie says, grabbing Kirsten by the arm and hauling her back inside. “Let him finish his lies, then you can go out and knock him every which way from Sunday, ok?”

“You know,” Kirsten remarks, yanking her arm from the General’s grip and glaring at her, “I’m getting mighty tired of being manhandled and told what to do here. I thought I was the one who gave the orders. Remember? Me? The frikkin President of the U S of A?”

“You need to keep your calm, Kirsten,” Maggie replies as the two guards look away, uncomfortable. “You’re playing right into his hands. This brand of warfare might be a little more subtle than what we just went through, but its war just the same. Please, just listen to the rest of it, ok?”

“It’s only going to get worse.”

“No doubt it will, but we all know he’s lying, so….”

“These androids standing with me now are what they have always been: a boon to all mankind. There is no harm in them. They live only to serve. They are programmed only to serve. Not to kill, but to preserve life, to aid…life. These very androids, and hundreds, thousands like them, have gone through the jailhouses, the detention centers, the hospitals and rescued thousands of your loved ones.”

“He lies!” Kirsten growls, moving forward again, but stopping herself just at the edge of the bolthole, hands clenched tight over the lip, knuckles as bloodless as her lips. “He fucking lies!”

“Loved ones who even now, as I speak to you, are receiving the very best of care administered by beings just like these who stand in solidarity with me before all of you.” Lowering the bullhorn for a moment, Hart looks down at the ground, much like a keynote speaker, or a preacher, who is gathering himself for a momentous announcement.

In the guardshack above, Kirsten’s jaws clench tighter and a thick vein throbs to prominence at her temple.

“Androids, as you know, must be programmed to go against their natural actions. They must be programmed to kill instead of save, to harm instead of help. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen of Ellsworth, there is only one person, one person in this country of ours with the means, the opportunity, the ability, and the reprehensible morality to get that job done. The one person who was seen, and captured, at Minot, the world’s largest android construction factory in the process of aiding and abetting the enemy, disguised as the enemy herself! Disguised so well that her co-conspirators had no idea who she really was!! The one person in this country who stood to gain the most, to attain the highest of peaks, to sit at the head of this great and undaunted country.

“The very person who lives with you now, who pretends to share your lives, your worries, your goals, but who is, in fact, continuing her quest for world domination by reprogramming our good and safe androids into brutal killing machines.

“And that person, ladies and gentlemen, that person is none other than the woman who would have the audacity to call herself YOUR President. Kirsten King. Traitor. Abominator. Killer of innocents.”

The rage washes over Kirsten in red waves. Her fingers clench into the palms of her hands, itching for the small cold curve of a trigger under them; her blood slams in her ears. She pushes away from the wall and steps up to the opening, shouldering Maggie aside, reaching for the sidearm of one of the guards–Simmons, she thinks–where he attempts to shrink himself small in a corner.

That’s what he wants. The thought comes to her from somewhere cold, deep in her mind. He wants us to lose it. That’ll prove he’s right, at least start some people thinking we want to silence him.

Very carefully, she lets go of Simmons’ gun, handing it to Koda. She meets her lover’s eyes. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to give him anything.”

“I know you won’t,” Koda replies, handing the gun back to Simmons and turning Kirsten back toward the bolthole, large hands resting comfortably on her shoulders. “Let’s just listen to the rest of his spiel, and then go on to doing something productive with our day.”

“I have come to parley,” Hart continues. “This country cannot rebuild itself and achieve the greatness for which God has intended until such a monster is removed from her self-appointed post. I wish, all of us here wish, that this be done peacefully. Open your gates and we will retrieve the good “Doctor” and you all have my word that you will be able to go on about your lives as best you see fit. If, however, her words have so brainwashed you that you are unable to see the truth that lies at your feet, we will be compelled to use force. It is a force that, I am sad to say, you will not survive. The battle you have just endured will be like a campfire to the blaze of true Armageddon.”

Lowering the megaphone, he appears to touch something at his belt. Within seconds, the formerly empty clearing is suddenly populated with androids, appearing as if from the ether.

“Jesus Christ! Where the hell did they come from?”

Kirsten turns and looks helplessly at Maggie.

“Simmons!” Maggie barks. “Get down to communications on the double and find out why we’re standing here with our asses hanging in the wind! Now!!”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

As Simmons disappears, Koda reaches for a pair of high intensity binoculars hanging from a hook on the wall. Putting them up to her eyes, she adjusts the focus, and whistles. Wordlessly, she hands them to Kirsten, whose jaw drops. “There’s got to be more than a thousand out there!”

Shouldering in, Maggie grips the proffered binoculars and brings them up to her eyes. Her lips go tight, a bloodless slash against the deep ebony of her face.

“How…couldn’t we know about this?” Kirsten’s voice is soft in the silence of the shack.

Simmons steps back into the shack, followed by Tacoma, who eases his bulk into the already crowded room with some difficulty. His expression is apologetic. “We can’t read ’em,” he says, peering over Maggie’s head and squinting as the sunlight reflects off of highly polished armor. “I don’t know if they’re jamming us or what, but all of our scanning equipment says there’s an empty field out there.”

“Shit. And my damn computer’s totally trashed.”

“I’m not sure if that would help or not,” Tacoma replies, shrugging his shoulders. “I just…”

“I realize,” Hart resumes, “that this is not an easy decision to make, and I am sorry, deeply and truly sorry, that Dr. King has put you in the position of having to make it. That said, since I am a fair man, as most of you are aware, I will give you five hours to hand the good doctor over. Rest assured, she will be treated fairly and receive due process as is her right under the law. A law *we* follow. Even if others don’t.”

He pulls the megaphone away for the final time, looking supremely smug.

Kirsten’s summing up is succinct.

“Fuck.”

“Ok, let’s think about this for a moment here,” Maggie says, turning away from the bolthole. “Kirsten, are there any of your ‘Traitor Tommies’ lying around anywhere?”

“I left ten behind at the factory in case we needed them later,” Kirsten responds, rubbing at the back of her neck, where a huge knot of tension has merrily taken up residence, “but I can’t activate them without my computer.” Her eyes brighten. “I’ll head down there–.”

“No.”

Kirsten stares at Maggie as if she’s suddenly grown a second head and is preparing to use it to commit cannibalism upon her person. “Wha-at?”

“You need to get out of here, Kirsten. And not down to that damn factory, which is likely crawling with Hart’s new groupies. You need to get somewhere far, far away from here.”

“Now, wait just a minute here. I’m not going to be chased away from this base by some asshole with an agenda. I don’t care how many ‘friends’ he has, and how big his guns are. No how, no way, so just put that out of your head right now.”

“Kirsten, it’s not that.” Maggie smiles, a little, caught out and knowing it. “Ok, it’s not just that.”

“What is it, then?” Kirsten’s arms fold themselves across her chest, implacable armor against Maggie’s coming words.

“Listen to me, please.” Maggie heaves a sigh. Her hand lifts, and she begins ticking points off on her long fingers. “Your computer is gone. The code that you risked your life at Minot for is gone. And with it is any chance of you being able to turn off those damn droids, not just for now, for this damn battle, but forever. There has got to be some place, some other place, where you can get what you need to get to do the job you need to do.”

“But I can do that after–.”

“No. No, you can’t. Don’t you see, Kirsten? Hart’s primary purpose is to destroy you and all the goodness in this world, and he’s not gonna stop until it’s done. Whether it’s this battle, or the next, or the next. He’s got more manpower than we could ever hope to possess, more firepower, more everything. Our only chance, this damn world’s only chance, is for you to cut his troops off at the source. Now. Not later. Because later will likely never come. You need to go. And you,” she says, turning to Koda, “need to guide her.”

Kirsten looks at her lover, horrified when she realizes that Dakota is actually considering Maggie’s insane order. “Koda, you can’t possibly–.”

The rest of Kirsten’s words fade down to a meaningless drone as another voice, one well remembered if little heard, weaves its way through Dakota’s brain, like a mist before the dawn. “I have something to tell you: do not hesitate to flee when the time comes. Victory will follow you. For the sake of all the People, two-footed, four-footed, winged and creeping, you must do what you least wish to, when you least wish to. I will be here waiting when you return.”

“We need to leave.” Dakota’s voice is low, and tortured, as if the words are being forced from her by something, or someone, beyond her control. They set badly in her mouth, but their truth is undeniable in the hard shine of her eyes.

“What? What are you saying? We can’t run!”

“We need to leave,” she repeats, trance-like. “We need to find the answers. They’re not here. Victory will follow us.”

“Dakota, you’re not making any sense!”

Ignoring Kirsten for the moment, Koda looks over at Maggie, eyebrow raised. The general smiles, and nods. “We’ll do okay, I think. I still have a few aces up my sleeve. Aces even Hart doesn’t suspect exist. It’ll be hard, but…we’ll do okay.”

Koda nods, and a subtle transference occurs between the two women; one that Kirsten can’t, to her great consternation, read. Then the blazing blue eyes turn back to her, and the young scientist is once again captured effortlessly within their pristine depths. “This is the right thing to do, my love. It’s the only thing we can do and hope to win in the end. Anything else will only delay the inevitable. I know you know this…deep inside. Look. You’ll see.”

But Kirsten doesn’t need to look. She’s known the truth from the very second Maggie suggested leaving. It sits across her shoulders like a yoke, like a cross, growing heavier with each passing second, each passing thought.

“I’ll help you carry it,” Koda says, reading her effortlessly. “Together, to the end of whatever journey the gods have planned for us.”

“Where will we go?” Kirsten asks, beginning to accept the inevitable.

“It’s your call,” Dakota replies, reaching out and grasping her lover by the hand, a hand that is cold, slightly damp, but strong and steady. “Where is Westerhaus’ inner sanctum? That might be the most direct route.”

“Silicon Valley, but god, that’s so far….”

“We’ll get there. Somehow, we’ll get there. Unless there’s somewhere else that you think is better? You’re the boss here.”

Kirsten thinks for a moment, then nods. “If we want to stop this shit at the source, we need to go to the source. You’re right.”

“Great,” Maggie interjects. “Then it’s settled. Manny will take you out with the Cheyenne.”

“The river?” Kirsten asks, confused. “How will we get past all those droids?”

Maggie smirks. “Just go over to hangar twenty two. He’s waiting for you.”

Kirsten scowls. “You had this planned all along, didn’t you.”

“We knew it would be an eventuality, Kirsten. It’s happening a little sooner than we expected, sure, but the sooner you get out of here, the sooner we can all breathe a little easier.” Her smile softens as she closes the two steps between them, and looks down into Kirsten’s clear, beautiful eyes. “You’re our hope, Kirsten. And I, for one, am glad of it.” Leaning forward, she brushes a soft kiss against her lips, then pulls away. “Good luck.”

*******

Maggie’s keys flash in the early sun as she tosses them to Simmons. “Take my Jeep. Take Dr. Rivers and President King home to pick up their things. Then take them out to the flightline. Hangar 22.”

Simmons’s eyes go wide, his eyebrows ascending his forehead in surprise. “Hangar 22?” he squeaks, making a dive for the keys that ends in a two-handed catch.

“You got it. Koda.” Dakota walks into Maggie’s open arms, returning her hard embrace and the chaste kiss on her cheek. “You know what you have to do. Be safe.”

“You’re in more danger than we’ll be,” Koda says, stepping back, letting her hands linger a moment in the other woman’s. “Tóksha aké wanchinyankin kte.” <ed. note: Until I see you again.>

“We’ll make it. Until then. Kirsten.” Maggie hugs Kirsten tightly, whispering something in her ear that Koda cannot quite make out. It is something that makes her smile, though, and Kirsten says softly. “Don’t worry. I will.”

“Go, now. We’re going to stall them as long as we can. We’ll be waiting for you when you get back.”

With an arm around each of their shoulders, Maggie half hugs, half pushes, them both out the door. Koda’s last sight of her is a straight-backed silhouette at the view slit, raising the binoculars again to her eyes.

They pass the ride home in silence. Kirsten, regardless of Simmons in the front seat, leans into Koda’s arm, clinging to her. Her hand in Dakota’s feels cold as the frozen dead of the Hurley farm, all those months ago. And with reason. It comes to her that this is the second time Kirsten has been forced out of a place of safety and purpose and thrust into the unknown with the fate of her world and her species riding squarely on her shoulders. At least for her brief sojourn at Shiloh, and again at Ellsworth, that burden had been shared. “Hey,” Koda says softly. “We’ll make it. We’re a hell of a team.”

“What about Maggie? And Tacoma? How—”

“The best way they can, cante sukye. They’re warriors, blood and bone. They’ll hold.” Her fingers tighten involuntarily on Kirsten’s shoulder. “However they have to, they’ll hold.”

“However,” Kirsten repeats, her voice flat.

The words hang in the air between them, unspoken. Kirsten will not say them; neither will Dakota, who knows that words have power. Even at the cost of their lives. Even if they can only hold the enemy temporarily.

The Jeep buckets up into the driveway, and Koda gives her lover’s hand a last squeeze. “Take Asi out to pee. I’ll start packing.” To Simmons she adds, “Fifteen minutes.”

Dakota shoves the kitchen door open, Kirsten on her heels. Tacoma stands at the table, stuffing a backpack with MRE’s and various more palatable items; Koda’s quick glance takes in oatmeal, a plastic zip bag of sugar, salt, what must be the last of their meager stash of coffee. Her brother looks up from his task for a second, smiling. “I packed up some clothes for you. Not much, but I figure you can get more on the road. Go check if I’ve missed anything.” To Kirsten he adds, “Asi’s done his duty. You just need to get his leash on him.”

“Thanks,” Kirsten says, bolting for the living room and the seldom-used lead hanging on the hall tree. Koda follows, veering off into the bedroom where a small rucksack stands open on the dresser. A quick inspection shows that Tacoma has packed a pair of jeans and a shirt apiece, all their socks and underwear, extra boots. A Colt .45 automatic and its ammunition belt lie on the bed, with her bow and quiver. A soldier’s choices. She adds toothpaste and brushes to the pack—no need to go without until they have to—a couple bars of soap, a bottle of aspirin and an elastic athletic bandage from the medicine cabinet. They will have to be prepared to go on foot at least some of the time; a pulled muscle or a turned ankle cannot be allowed to slow them down. She straps on the gun, shifting its weight to lie comfortably against her thigh.

She zips the bag and hoists it onto one shoulder, testing the weight. She slings her bow and its arrows over the other. Not bad. Not bad at all. In the hall, a sharp bark registers Asi’s protest at being collared and leashed, together with Kirsten’s murmured, “Sorry, guy. But we’re gonna have to strap you in when we get to the chopper.”

“Ready?” Koda emerges from the bedroom, shutting the door carefully behind her. The house is no one’s home now, but her memories, and Kirsten’s, deserve a kind of privacy. Say goodbye.

Asi whines again, this time plaintively. He knows something is not right. “Easy, boy,” Kirsten says again, “easy.”

In the kitchen, Tacoma stands ready with their provisions. Koda reaches for the pack, but Kirsten forestalls her. “I’ll take that,” she says, and slips quickly out onto the carport, Asi tugging on his leash.

Tacoma’s face is solemn, but a glint in his dark eyes betrays a flash of humor. “You’re marrying a tactful one, tanski.”

Dakota takes his hands in her own. “Promise me—”

“I’ll be careful,” he says quietly. “That’s all the promise I can make.”

“I know.” She looks away for a moment. Then, “When we went to scout the battleground, Igmu Tanka spoke to me. She said that we must do what we least wish to, when we least wish to. That victory would follow.”

The lines around Tacoma’s eyes deepen, and the smile spreads to his mouth. “She’s a warrior spirit, with a warrior’s honor. If she says you will be successful, then you will.”

“She said we would come back, that she would be waiting.”

He touches her cheek lightly. “Then you must be careful, too, and not only for Iktomi Zizi.”

Koda raises her hand to cover his, not willing to lose the contact. “I will.”

“I dreamed last night. I saw all of us back at the ranch, with Ate and Ina. You and Kirsten. Me and—” He breaks off abruptly, a dark flush spreading across his face.

“Darius,” she supplies, smiling.

“Hau. Darius. And a little black-haired girl with green eyes. It’s not hopeless for us here, tanski. It only looks that way.”

She pulls him close, holding hard for a long moment. “Well then,” she says. ” We’re off. Come on outside and say goodbye to your sister-in-law.”

*******

“What the—”

“Hell is that?” Koda finshes the sentence for Kirsten.

“That” sits on the tarmac in front of the apparently off-limits until now Hangar 22, an aeronautical engineer’s nightmare of a craft. Roughly the size and general shape of a Chinook, its slate-blue belly and tail have been sleeked for speed behind a pointed nose like a bomber’s. Wings protrude from its flanks, a jet engine underslung from each, each sprouting double co-axial rotors from a mast that holds their drooping blades up and away from the body of the craft. A smaller engine, and a tail rotor, adorn its rear. Its forward door stands open, with a short flight of boarding steps leading into its dark interior.

Manny, flight-suited and helmeted, grins at them from behind the half-loosened oxygen mask that covers most of the lower half of his face. “It’s your taxi, ladies.” He relieves Kirsten of their provisions, pausing a moment to ruffle Asi’s fur where he dances at the end of his leash. “Now haul it, and let’s get the hell outa Dodge.”

The interior of the craft is configured for MEDVAC, with brackets for stretchers and half a dozen jump seats, hardly more than round steel stools, cantilevered out from the wall. Manny pulls down two for them, then clips Asi’s leash to a D-ring in the floor, crossing a pair of safety belts over his chest. “That’ll hold him. You two okay?”

“We’re fine,” Koda answers, clipping her own belt in place. “Where are we going?”

“I’m gonna try to set you down a couple hundred miles into Wyoming. She may look weird, but this baby’s a true VTOL. We can put down any reasonably flat place that’s wider than the wingspan, even in the middle of the woods.” He looks around him, apparently satisfied that they and their gear are safely stowed, then pulls two pairs of earphones down from a rack above them. “Wear these. They’ve got mikes attached. Yell if you need me; we’ve also got autopilot.” With that he disappears into the forward cabin, and a moment later, the rotors set up a steadily increasing racket. Out the port, Koda can see them gradually lifting, then standing straight out from their masts as the spin faster and faster. The turbos cut in, their whine rising octave by octave into a steady scream. Asi howls in sympathy.

“Oh man.” Kirsten grins at Koda, rolling her eyes. “And to think how I used to bitch about the morning red-eye out of Washington,” she shouts.

Koda flashes her a smile in return. “The Concorde champagne flight it ain’t! Put on your earphones!”

Koda slips on her own, and blessed quiet descends. Beneath her, the floor of the craft seems to lurch forward. Then they are up and airborne in a surprisingly smooth sweep, lifting straight up into the bright morning. The shadow of the rotors flashes across the port as she watches the hangar and the base recede below her. A part of her life remains there, a part she may lose in spite of dreams and visions. Silently she takes Kirsten’s hand.

“Jesus,” Kirsten whispers, looking down at the long line of droids laid out below them like a malignantly sparkling river. Her hand clenches on Koda’s to the point of pain. “How can we leave them to that?” she demands, eyes sparking fire of their own. “How?!?”

“Because we must,” Dakota replies, voice soft, sad. Her right hand comes up to curl over the one in her left. “Because we must.”

They turn west toward Wyoming and the beginning of the quest before them.
CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE
Grinning, Koda pulls away from Manny, giving his short braid a little tug. “Get back safe, and good luck.”

“You too, shic’eshi. Be careful. Be safe.”

“We will.”

Stepping around her lover, Kirsten smiles at Manny. There is a trace of uncertainty in the expression. Though things between them have warmed considerably over the months, there is still a subtle distance between the two that, quite suddenly, Kirsten doesn’t want to be there anymore. “You’re a brave man, Manny. Good luck. Fight well.”

Reaching for her stiffly extended hand, he gives her an ‘aw, what the hell’ grin and pulls her against him in a tight embrace, kissing both of her cheeks soundly before pulling away. “You take good care of my shic’eshi, understand?” he teases.

“I swear it,” Kirsten replies, deadly serious. “And you take good care of yourself, and Tacoma, and Maggie, and everyone else. I expect you all to be there, and happy, when we get back.”

“Count on it. I’m a Rivers.” He thumps his chest proudly. “We wear away mountains, given enough time.”

“That I don’t doubt,” Kirsten returns, finally breaking into a smile. “I mean it, Manny. Be careful, alright?”

“Will do, Ms. Prez.” He sketches a cocky bow, grins, winks at his cousin, and, in the blink of an eye, disappears back into the cockpit of his Picasso-nightmare inspired ‘copter. A second later, the thing is airborne and over the horizon.

In its wake, a silence so profound that not even the ever-present wind soughing through the boughs of the large pines surrounding them can penetrate, descends, and Kirsten shivers.

“You alright?” Koda asks, stepping closer and slipping an arm around her lover’s shoulders.

Leaning her head against her lover’s strong chest, Kirsten takes in the world that surrounds her. Trees, trees, and more trees, as far as the eye can see. The wind, now coming to her, carries with it the sweet scent of life, underlined with a darker, richer, almost secret scent that she can only identify as decay. And amidst this, she stands alone, save for the strong body at her back, promising her protection and comfort. And love beyond measure.

Not so alone now, she thinks. The thought brings with it a small, secret smile, and a tiny thrill of joy suffuses her chest, warming her from within even as Koda’s radiant head warms her from without.

“Yeah,” she says finally. “I think I am.”

“Good.”

They stand that way, body pressed to body, for a long span of moments, content to allow the forest carry its secrets to them, one at a time, absorbing the peace and contentment that seems to be theirs for the wishing. She can almost…almost…forget what lies ahead, and behind, and resolves to take full advantage of this small slice of peace for as long as it is gifted unto them.

Finally, though, the words push forth from their place in her chest. “So, what now?”

Koda smiles and slips her arm away, digging her hands deep into the pockets of her jeans. “How do you feel about camping?”

Kirsten pretends to give the question serious thought. “The Beverly-Hills-‘cabin’-with-all-amenities-and-you’ll-never-see-so-much-as-a-mouse-dropping kind of camping, or the ‘let’s grab us a pup tent and a couple cases of beer and shoot us up something to mount on the wall’ kind of camping?”

“I’d say the second,” Koda responds, chuckling, “minus the beer, unless you’re suddenly partial to the stuff.”

“Nah. Never developed much of a taste for it. A little of Maggie’s sipping whiskey might go down real nice on a cool night, though.”

Koda’s grin broadens. “I’ll see what I can come up with, then.” She looks around, getting her bearings. “I’m pretty familiar with this area. My grandfather used to take us out here sometimes when the woods around our place got a little too easy for us kids to figure out. Unless it’s been torn down in the interim, there should be a pretty good camping and hunting shop not too far to the north of here. We can stock up on the supplies we’ll need and start off from there.”

“How will we get around?”

“Walking seems the best bet, for now at least. I want us off the main roads as much as possible. We don’t know how many unfriendlies are still around patrolling, and we’re prime candidates for a trip to the local rape ward if they don’t recognize you. And if they do….”

Kirsten doesn’t need Dakota to finish that particular sentence for her. She well knows the size and shape of the axe hanging over her head, but is determined to push through, no matter how thin the thread holding it up there might be. “That’ll be pretty slow going, though,” she muses.

“We might be able to rustle up a couple of mountain bikes. Horses, if we’re lucky. That should speed things up some, but for now, our feet are our best bet.”

“Lead on, then, MacDuff,” Kirsten jokes, passing the leadership of this particular part of their quest on with a sweeping hand gesture that earns her a fond swat on the backside. Her happy laughter is answered by the chirping of birds, and for this one second in time, all is right in Kirsten King’s world.

*******

“Wow,” Kirsten remarks to the woman standing before her, grinning. “If we were playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’ right now, I’d be mighty confused.”

“Good thing we’re not, then,” Koda replies, chuckling and looking past Kirsten into the mirror that hangs along one wall. A soft flannel in red and black hangs open over a tight, white ribbed tank top, which in turn is tucked into soft bluejeans whose cuffs are, in their turn, tucked into calf high moccasins with thick treads. A gun is holstered and hanging low on her right hip, a hunting knife at her left. A rifle strap crisscrosses her chest with the strap that holds her arrow quiver over her back. Her black Stetson is in its customary position atop her head, though a hank of braided hair hangs down, twined with the two hawk feathers she’s yet to remove. Her medicine bag lays close against the hollow of her neck, completing the picture. Leaning against one leg is a vacu-sack, all the rage in hiking equipment before the androids had made such a pleasure an outright necessity for so many. Clothes and sundries are stored in the roomy sack, then vacuum sealed, cutting their total bulk down to almost nil. The pack would fit easily over her hips and lower back, leaving her easy room to reach her weapons, should she have need for them. The tent is similarly stored.

Kirsten is dressed a bit more conservatively, in jeans and a T-shirt with a Gore-Tex jacket rolled in her pack. “Hey, look what I found back there!” She grins as she holds up her prize: a fully loaded solar laptop with all the amenities. “Damn thing’s about five pounds lighter than my old one and damn, it’s fast!!”

“Only you,” Koda grins, shaking her head.

“Yeah, well, get used to it, Vet. You’re marrying a geek. Our toys come with the territory.”

“Just as long as you’re the one carrying ’em,” Koda jokes.

“Don’t you worry about that. I always carry my weight.”

“We’ll see.”

*******

Already dressed in her flight suit, Maggie runs out to greet Manny as he swings out of the copter, instinctively ducking low to avoid decapitation by the still slowly spinning blades, thought in this particular model, that really isn’t much of a danger. The roters are high above her head. “You get em down safe?” she shouts.

“And sound,” Manny returns, giving her shoulder a quick, calming pat. “For better or worse, they’re on their way.”

“Good. One less thing to worry about.” Turning, she begins to walk back toward the command post, Manny at her left heel like a well trained dog at a show.

“How are things on this end?”

“Ten minutes to the deadline. We still can’t read em on radar or GPS. Line of sight only, and it’s not good.”

“Has anyone figured out where the hell they came from?” he asks. “I mean, where the fuck were they when the rest of their little friends were getting shredded?”

“Don’t know, and at this point, I don’t care,” the General retorts, dragging a hand through her hair. “We’ve gotta take em down as fast as they put em up. It’s the only way.”

“Got a plan for that?” Manny asks slyly.

“Don’t I always? C’mon.”

*******

“You hungry yet?”

“Is supper gonna be MRE’s?”

“‘Fraid so. Unless you want to stop and fish. I haven’t seen a whole lot of small game around here, yet, and I’m not too keen on lugging around sixty pounds of venison from killing one of those big bucks you keep scaring.”

Kirsten’s face brightens for a moment. Then the smile fades. “It was a nice thought. We’d better keep going as long as we have light, though.”

‘That won’t be long. Better start looking for a place to camp.”

Around them the shadows of pine and aspen lie long upon the ground. The low sun strikes glints of gold and silver from the rippling current of the Little Medicine Bow, visible here and there through the trees where the river bends west. Asi runs alongside, snuffling happily at fox scrapes, occasionally pausing to inspect the tangled roots that hump their way across their path. They have been walking steadily for almost eight hours, pausing only to take compass readings and refer to the Ordinance map Manny had stowed among their gear. Their course angles south and west from the clearing where they set down an hour after leaving Ellsworth, past the historic town of Medicine Bow and the Medicine Bow Range beyond. Here the land lies in sharp folds, rising gradually toward the higher peaks of the Sierra Madre, interspersed with streams and alpine meadows. They have seen no sign of humans. The woods and the river are as they might have been a thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, when her people first moved west into the plains, following the buffalo.

“It all seems so far away,” Kirsten says quietly, echoing her thoughts. “Almost like none of it ever happened.”

“This is Ina Maka’s place. Her time, not ours.” Above them, a dark speck appears against the sky where the gold sheen of the westering sun meets the deepening blue of the east. It circles above them, growing larger as it spirals downward. A cry floats down to them, high and wild and triumphant.

Koda stops in her tracks, staring upward. As the speck comes nearer, it takes on the shape of wings, a bright copper tail fanned out to the beating light, its feathers sheened like hammered bronze. The cry comes again, and the broad wings cup the air to slow the hawk’s descent. “My God,” Kirsten breathes. “My God.”

Koda does not speak, only stretches out her arm. Wiyo lights delicately on her wrist, protected only by the thin fabric of her shirt, and walks sideways up her arm to rest on her shoulder. She ruffles her feathers once, gives a small, incongruous chirp of greeting, and settles, ducking her head to preen under a wing. Koda strokes her lightly under the throat, drawing a finger across the white breast feathers and the dark belly-band below. Around them dusk thickens as they move west, toward the mountains, the sea beyond, the crimson sky.

*******

The midday sun beats down on the tarmac in front of the main gate, making rippling the air above it. From where she stands in the watchtower, Maggie can see metallic glints here and there that must be either droids or armed humans, but they are scattered among the tumbled buildings across the road and in the open fields beyond. She has not been able to get good instrument readings on their number or their placement. All she knows is that there are too goddammed many of the goddammed things for her depleted forces to hold off. All she can do is keep their attention on the Base and stall them for as long as she can.

And give Dakota and Kirsten as much time as she can, measured out now in minutes, in hours at best.

Next to her, Andrews settles the muzzle of his rifle against the edge of the wall slit, squinting for perhaps the dozenth time through the scope. “Nothing there, Ma’am.”

Maggie sets down her own binoculars. “I know. They’re keeping under cover until the last minute.”

“But Hart’ll have to show himself.”

“Oh, yeah. And when he does . . ..” Maggie lets the words trail off. They both know what will happen when he has outlived his usefulness. To both sides.

The early summer heat settles about them, a stillness in the air that has nothing to do with the impending conflict. It is not so much the calm before a storm as it is the earth settling into its season despite the human goings-on that scrabble along its surface. The planet, for the first time in decades, is no longer at risk from its inhabitants. Only one species stands to vanish now, eradicated by its own hand. A bee, drawn by the scent of soap, buzzes lazily in front of Maggie’s nose, and she bats it away gently. On the road, nothing moves.

Then, “Here he comes,” Andrews says quietly.

Hart moves out from between the remains of a McDonald’s and an auto parts store, his blue shirt open at the collar, head bare. He no longer carries a flag of truce, only the bullhorn swinging from one hand. A snap and whine of feedback breaks the silence as it powers up. “Colonel Allen,” says the flat, amplified voice. “Do you have an answer? Open the gates and surrender your so-called ‘President,’ and we will leave you in peace.”

“Cover me,” Maggie says, and steps out of the guardroom onto the catwalk that circles the tower. Below her, Hart stands alone in the middle of the road, the breeze ruffling his grey hair and the beginnings of a patriarchal beard. She stands in the sun, letting him see the stars on her shoulders and the one on her helmet. Letting him see, too, that her hand rests on the butt of the pistol at her waist. With five generations of gospel singers and twenty years in command of troops behind her, she has no need for a megaphone. “Hart!” she shouts. “I have a deal to make you!”

“No deals, Colonel. Meet our demand or not: that is the only choice you have.”

Maggie smiles grimly. It is no more than she expects. But she says, “It’s not the only choice you have, though. What do you think your little metalhead pals out there are going to do with you when you’ve outlived your usefulness to them? Which is—” she glances ostentatiously at her watch—”right about now.”

Hart shakes his head, a gesture meant to convey a response more in sorrow than in anger. “Wise humans have allied themselves with these good beings, Colonel. I am not alone, I assure you, nor am I in any danger. Nor are you or the troops under your command, if you surrender Dr. King. Your answer, if you please.”

Crunch time. “Then you have it, and it is this.” She pauses, letting the moments draw out, in case any other human collaborators are listening. “President King has authorized me to allow you, and any other human who has had second thoughts about cooperation with the enemy, to return to the Base to face charges of desertion in time of war and treason. If you give yourselves up, your lives will be spared. If you don’t, you will face the full penalty of the law when you are captured.”

The expression on Hart’s face might almost be a smile. “And I offer you and your people the same amnesty, Colonel, provided that you hand the good Doctor over. Now.”

The parley, Maggie knows, is essentially useless. The best she can do is buy a few minutes’ more time to prepare, give Koda and Kirsten a few more moments to get that much further away. Once, long ago, she had seen a film in which the hero, about to be hanged, requested time to make his confession. After half an hour, he was still owning up to affairs with “Maisie, and Gertrude, and Lollie, four times with Wilhelmina, and twice with Tom.” And of course, rescue had arrived just as his captors’ patience ran out. Her own list, alas, is not nearly long enough to inspire either patience or awe. And what time she has is running out, with no help in sight. “Withdraw your android troops as a sign of your good faith, General. Then we can talk seriously.”

“Bring Dr. King outside the gates where we can see her—as a sign of your good faith, Colonel–and we can talk seriously.”

And that time has just run out. Hart and his cohorts have to have seen the Cheyenne take off; they have to have seen it return. They must at least suspect that Kirsten is no longer on the Base. They hope for an easy conquest, no more. Maggie steps away from the slit in the wall behind her. “Now, Andrews.”

The crack of his rifle shocks the bright afternoon air. Almost simultaneously, Hart’s head jerks back violently, spraying blood and brain matter in a cloud of droplets that catch the sun, sparkling like summer rain. The bullhorn drops to rattle along the pavement as he falls. There is no sound, no movement, from the buildings across the road, nothing to give away the enemy that she knows is there.

“Ma’am! Inside!” The door behind her jerks open, and Andrews pulls her bodily back into the guardroom by the straps of the Kevlar vest she has buckled over her flight suit.

“Out! Now!” she snaps, giving him a shove toward the stairs and pounding down behind him, two steps at a time. Pulling a walkie-talkie from her belt, she thumbs on the transmit button and yell “Fire!” into the speaker just as they sprint out of the tower at ground level and into the waiting Jeep. Andrews guns the engine, zero to sixty in what seems less than a breath. A shell from one of the big guns hastily dug into makeshift bunkers that morning arcs whistling overhead to land beyond the gate with a burst of fire and a roar. The concussion sends a shudder through the Jeep and rocks them against their seats.

“With luck, that got a few of ’em,” Maggie shouts. And into her com, “Hold your fire until we have the enemy in sight or incoming! Don’t waste our ammo!”

“At least we got that son-of-a-bitch traitor,” Andrews says, satisfaction in the straight set of his mouth as they speed down the Base’s main drag toward Wing Headquarters and the guns arrayed around it. “That ought at least to send a message to any other collaborators out there.”

“Yeah,” Maggie says, her voice grim in her own ears. “But the message they’re gonna get real quick now is that we can’t hold out against them for more than a couple hours, maybe not that, if they launch a massed attack.”

“Remember the Alamo, huh?”

“Remember the Alamo,” she agrees. “But remember something else. We’ve still got a few Tomcats with some fight left in ’em.”

*******

A small fire is blazing cheerily in the center of a tiny clearing just west of the river. Next to it, coals lie in a ring of stones, and on those coals, two plump chukar roast away; lucky finds that Koda was able to take with a bow after Asi had accidentally flushed them from their hiding place while sniffing around in search of a good place to mark his territory.

The hero of the food getting venture is sprawled on his back near the fire, eyes open and alert to every movement, hoping beyond hope that his hard earned work will earn him some of the catch.

The savory scent of cooking partridge sets Kirsten’s belly to grumbling, and she covers it with a hand as Dakota looks up from her work and grins at her. “Won’t be much longer.”

“Thank god for that. I’m starved!”

“Did you finish setting up what you needed on that thing?”

Kirsten’s blush is luckily hidden by the glare from the computer’s large screen. “Um…yeah, just now,” she replies, quickly clicking off the solitaire game, mid-hand. The computer beeps out a mechanical sigh—it had been winning—and obligingly shuts down.

“Good.” Nodding, Dakota returns to her task of sharpening the hunting knife she’s used on the birds. As Kirsten looks on, she experiences a sense of déjà vu so strong that she wonders, albeit briefly, if she’s undergoing an actual time transfer. The woman sitting next to her looks exactly the same, minus the hawk feathers and much of the clothing Koda now wears. The weapon she sharpens so carefully by the firelight is not a knife, but a sword, well used, and well loved. She looks down at herself, noting absently the similar lack of clothing, and sees, not a computer, but a flattened piece of parchment. A quill and small inkpot sit to her right.

The dark, glossy head looks up from its work, deep blue eyes meeting hers with the same look of total adoration and devotion, and Kirsten can’t help but smile until it feels as if her face is about to split in two.

A dark eyebrow lifts. “Are you alright?”

Kirsten blinks, and the déjà vu, or time travel, or whatever it is that she has experienced, is gone, and a perfectly normal looking Dakota Rivers looks back at her, a question in her eyes.

Taking off her glasses, Kirsten rubs her eyes. “Just…processing the day, I guess.”

“Mm.”

Taking a quick peek, she sees that Koda is already back to her sharpening, and lets go a small sigh of relief. Closing her laptop completely, she sets it to the side and stands, stretching out muscles pleasantly tired from their long hike. Simple physical tiredness, of late, has been replaced by bouts of emotional overload shot though with darts of adrenaline, keeping her on hair-trigger edge. Her body, though tired, thanks her for the respite, and she, in turn, thanks it for bearing up remarkably well under these changed circumstances. Her belly grumbles again, and she laughs, watching as her lover puts down her work and fishes the game birds from the coals, setting them on two camp plates already garnished with the fresh herbs she’s picked from the forest.

Not even using the spork provided, Kirsten rips into the stuffed bird with her bare hands, shoveling the food into her mouth as fast as it will go, and groaning, eyes rolling in ecstasy as the spicy flavor coats her palate with ambrosia. “Jesus!” she exclaims around a bulging mouthful, “this is fantastic!!”

Koda looks on in awe, decimating her own bird with more delicate motions while feeding several morsels to the raptly attentive Asimov. “Glad you like it.”

“Like it? I never had something so good in my life! You should have been a chef!”

“Exercise and fresh mountain air,” Koda replies, tossing another morsel to Asi. “Does it every time.”

“Huh uh,” Kirsten disagrees, still shoveling as fast as her hands can move, her mouth and chin liberally coated with grease. “You’ve got talent, woman. Ever think of opening up a Vet clinic with a restaurant on the side?”

“I…think that would give customers the wrong idea, don’t you?”

Kirsten thinks about it for a moment, then realizes the outcome of her suggestion. “Ew.”

“Ew is right.”

The rest of dinner is finished in silence, and after the leavings are buried and the dishes cleaned, Dakota sits back against an overturned log, Kirsten comfortably ensconced between her legs holding the arms crossed over her belly. Both are lost in the contemplation of the stars above. With no streetlights, no cars, no sirens, and only the wind for company, the night is profoundly silent. After a moment, Kirsten sighs.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Koda asks, pressing her cheek atop the soft blond hair of her lover.

“I…don’t know, really.” She laughs a little. “Maybe I’m getting an attack of the guilts or something. I mean, here I am…here we are…in…well…in paradise, while our friends are back home fighting for their lives, getting hurt, maybe getting killed.” She turns a little, meeting Dakota’s eyes. “What right do I have to feel so at peace, so happy, when people I care about are dying? Because of me?”

Dakota tightens her grip around her lover, settling Kirsten more comfortably against her and pressing a kiss into the crown of her hair. “It’s their freedom they’re fighting for, canteskuye. Theirs, ours, everyone’s.” She pauses for a second, then resumes. “Do you think, really think, that if Maggie had given you to Hart on a silver platter, he would have let everyone on the base just walk away?”

“Well….”

Koda remains silent, letting Kirsten think it through.

“I guess not. I mean, he’s lied about everything else, so why would he suddenly be telling the truth about that?”

“Exactly. Hart’s an opportunist. The androids cut him a deal, and he’s keeping up his end of that bargain. You might be the ‘prize’ at the moment, but every single man, woman and child outside of the control of Westerhaus and his gang is the ultimate target and he won’t stop until he has every single one of us under his thumb, one way or the other.”

“I know this,” Kirsten says, shifting a little. “In my head, I know this. It’s just….”

“Your heart. You feel because you’re human, because you’re a compassionate person, and because you love.”

“This being human stuff is hard,” Kirsten mumbles, snuggling further into Koda’s warm embrace.

“But worth it, don’t you think?”

Kirsten’s grin is hidden in the folds of Dakota’s shirt. “Oh yeah.”

******

“Isaac Asimov King, you get your furry, flea bitten behind out here this instant!”

Chuckling, Dakota opens the smallish two-man tent’s flap a bit wider and spies Asi lounging in royal splendor over their sleeping bags, his head daintily placed on Kirsten’s camp pillow. His tongue lolls as his tail beats a tattoo against the side of the tent.

“I mean it! Right now! I built a nice blanket nest out here for you to lie on, so get out here and use it! Now!”

Asi’s tail beats harder against the fabric of the tent, putting on his best ‘ain’t I lovable?’ act.

“Don’t make me come in there and pull you out by your ears, son.”

Dark, doggie eyes roll over to Dakota, who smirks. “I think she means it,” she says, sotto voce.

Asi whines.

“Oh, believe me,” Kirsten replies sarcastically, “she does.”

With an Emmy-worthy groan, Asi rolls over and stands, then begins to slink, tail and ears drooping, toward the exit, like a convict on his way to the Chair.

“Save that load of bull for the fertilizer salesman and get your hairy butt moving.”

With a last, mournful look at them both, he exits the tent and sniffs at the blankets Kirsten has set up for him right outside the entrance. In a quiet flutter of wings, Wiyo glides down from her perch on a nearby tree to land on the tent’s support post.

“Look,” Kirsten says, “Wiyo’s here to keep you company.”

That gets an interested look from Asi, who, on the spur of the moment, decides to try out his newly acquired partridge flushing skills on the newcomer. Wiyo, who isn’t anything close to even resembling a partridge, is particularly unimpressed. Asi barks softly and noses the tent again. Wiyo ruffles her feathers and hisses at him, making him take a step back in surprise and growl low in his throat.

“Play nice,” Koda orders softly, eyeing both of them as she urges Kirsten inside the tent.

She receives two supremely innocent looks in return.

The tent is just tall enough for Kirsten to stand up straight, and she does, hands clamped to the small of her back as she stretches it, groaning unhappily. “Dear god I’m stiff.”

“I’ve got just the cure for that.”

Kirsten looks over her shoulder, a smile forming. “You do, do you?”

“Mm. Take off your clothes and lie down.”

Kirsten chuckles. “Honey, you know I love you, but I’m about as sore as one person can be and not require large doses of Morphine. I don’t know how much I can contribute to–.”

“Just take off your clothes and lie down, please.”

“Well…if you insist.”

“I insist.”

Slowly and stiffly, Kirsten removes her clothes, then slowly kneels down atop the opened and connected sleeping bags, stretching out on her belly with a loud groan. “I think it’s gonna be a toss-up as to whether I can ever get back up again.”

“Oh,” comes Koda’s smooth voice from above and behind her, “you’ll get up. Now just close your eyes and relax.”

Doing as she’s bade, Kirsten jumps just a little as something warm and heavy is laid across her shoulders. “Mm. What’s that?”

“Warm packs. Just stay relaxed and let me do all the work.”

Several more packs find their way across her back and legs, their warmth immediately penetrating her overstressed muscles and coaxing them into gradual, and welcome, relaxation. “Oh,” she moans, “this is bliss.”

Something faintly spicy scents the air just then, and Kirsten wakes up from a half-doze to feel her right foot cradled gently in Dakota’s large hands. One strong thumb comes down on her instep, making her hiss with pain, then groan with pleasure as heated oil and gentle pressure soothes its way into the tender sole of her foot. “I’m in Heaven,” Kirsten croons off-key, her voice slurred against the incredible pleasure she’s feeling. “God, what hands you have, my love.”

Dakota’s laugh is soft as she continues to tend to every muscle, every pore, every inch of skin on Kirsten’s foot, soothing the aches with deft strokes of her strong, gentle fingers. Then she lays the limp appendage down on the sleeping bag and lifts the other, repeating the process until Kirsten’s blissful snores fill the tent.

“That’s it, cante mitawa,” she whispers lovingly. “Let it go for tonight. Just let it go.” Brushing a kiss against the foot she’s holding, she places it down with its mate, languidly removes her own clothing, and slips into the sleeping bag next to her partner. Removing the warm packs, she presses her length against Kirsten’s naked side, places the palm of her hand on the small of her partner’s back, and falls quickly asleep, a small smile on her face.
CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO
“They have heavy guns here, and here, in the valleys.” Tacoma points to the rippling contour lines on the ordinance map spread out on the table before them. “And we’ve been taking rocket fire from higher elevations here.” He taps the map again, indicating the low hills to the west of the base that gradually rise into the sacred Paha Sapa. “They’re spread out all around us. We can backtrack and return fire, but we have no way of knowing what else they have or where it is. And we’re going to run short of ammo in a very short time.”

“We need recon,” Manny observes. “Let me take an Apache up, General. Or the Cheyenne—I can get it up high enough, quick enough they won’t be able to hit it.”

“Hell,” says Tacoma, with a grim smile. “One sight of that thing’d scare the bejesus out of ’em if they were human.”

Manny shoots him an aggrieved look over the bandana that wraps the lower half of his face, even though Maggie suspects he agrees. Goddess knows she does. Soot from the burning HQ building drifts through the air, settling under the canvas flap that constitutes the temporary command post and falling as fine dust on the map. Further away, black smoke pours from a burning fuel tank, shot through with tongues of flame. Its stench, rank with oil and kerosene, comes to them on the thick air. Maggie waves a hand in front of her offended nose and says, “We don’t just need recon. We need aerial fire power.”

“And we need it now,” Tacoma agrees. “Toller knows the Base as well as Hart. Sooner or later they’ll get the range on the planes.”

“Shit.” Manny jerks the kerchief of his face. “General, Ma’am—”

“Get suited up,” she says tersely. “Meet me on the flightline.”

Manny sprints from underneath the makeshift canopy, holding the bandana again over his face. Tacoma watches him go, his eyes troubled. “With respect, General—”

“With respect, Major Rivers. We have two Tomcats fueled and ready. Two planes, two pilots. You’re in charge on the ground as of now. End of discussion.”

“You know they’ve probably got anti-aircraft missiles out there.”

“They probably do,” Maggie agrees. “We’ll just have to dodge them as best we can.”

“We’ll do whatever we can to draw their fire, General.”

“Within prudence, Major. Within prudence. You’ll be able to see at least one of us. When you do, open up and give ’em everything you’ve got. Andrews.”

“Ma’am.”

“Let’s go.” She turns again to Tacoma. “You remember I have to answer to your sister for you. Don’t do anything that’ll lose my hair.”

A flash of white teeth is her answer as he turns back to the study of the map, punching coordinates into his hand-held. Maggie races for the Jeep, her flight boots ringing hard on the pavement. Andrews paces her stride for stride. The dash for the flightline is, if anything, more harrowing than the white-knuckle race from the gate, clipping corners and bouncing over speed bumps with the kind of jolt that would knock the doors off a civilian vehicle. She holds fast to the rollbar and mutters a quiet prayer to Yemaya, cc’d to Koda’s Ina Maka.

Let us get there on time. Let us make it into the air.

Halfway there, a mortar shell goes screaming over their heads to land somewhere near a maintenance hangar. A second follows it before Maggie can draw a breath. The twin strikes hit like thunderbolts, blurring out the rattle of the Jeep and its snarling engine in a fog of white noise. Smoke rises from the street that runs along the flightline, and a second column from somewhere on the other side of the row of hangars. Maggie’s heart rises up and lodges in her throat, stifling speech. The enemy have found their range. “Go!” she yells, and Andrews floors the accelerator, rattling her teeth and shaking her bones loose in their sockets. The last half-mile streaks by in a blur, while the rockets begin to fall around the flight line like deadly hail, on ripping into the street just ahead of them, gouging a crater that Andrews barely misses, the tires of the driver’s side skirting its rim by millimeters.

Thirty seconds later, the Jeep skids to a stop on the apron that flanks the main north-south runway. The two Tomcats sit just outside the hangar doors, one with its canopy up, the other, Manny, suited and helmeted at the controls, already closing down. Throwing off her Kevlar vest and field gear as she runs, Maggie snatches her helmet from the waiting tech sergeant, slaps it on her head and scrambles up the ladder into the front cockpit of her craft. She straps in one-handed, fixing her oxygen mask in place, punching in the sequence for the automated systems checks that would normally occupy a quarter hour. Today they will run exactly as long as it takes her to get into position for takeoff. The green and red LED’s dance across the small screen, but the only figures that matter are the ones that tell her that she’s taking off fuel tanks topped off and the readout that confirms the ready status of the missiles that bristle along the undersides of her wings. It comes to her that this may be the last time that she will ever fly, that she has nothing to gain and only time to lose, but habit is too strong, and she continues to follow the check-list even as she shuts down her lexan bubble. The numbers still flickering in front of her, she revs her engines and begins her taxi to the north end of the strip.

She has beaten it into her student pilots’ heads for a decade and a half. If you’re going to fly, you don’t have options. Do it right. Do it right the first time.

Do it right the last time, too.

With a wave of her hand, she motions Manny into position at her left wing, just to one side and behind. As she turns to make her run, a rocket tears into the tarmac just behind her, and she opens the throttle, no time now for gradually gathering speed, and hurtles down the runway, pulling G’s before she ever reaches the end, Manny streaking along beside her, keeping pace. Then she pulls the nose up, feeling the lift of air beneath her wings and is airborne, climbing almost straight up into the sun.

At 10,000 feet she levels off, scraps of cloud like drifting feathers beneath her where she hangs in silence over the folded valleys and greening fields below. Sun glints off the nose of her plane, catching the edge of the lexan bubble as she banks to sweep in a wide arc south and west. Below her she can make out the rectilinear grid that is Rapid City and the dark ribbon of the highway where they made their stand against the droids a day, a lifetime, ago. She levels her wings and swings back toward Ellsworth, punching the display from the copilot’s monitor forward to her own screen. The radar might not be able to pick up the enemy, but the cameras should be able to find them. Even if the damned metalheads have found some way to shield themselves from long-wave frequencies, even if they can make themselves effectively invisible, they can’t make themselves transparent. If she can find the anomalies, she can bomb them.

And put an end to them once for all.

Far to the east, the sun strikes fire from a streaking silver shape that must be Manny’s Tomcat, turning as she is now to quarter the land beneath them. The gorges and ancient lava flows that spread out between the Base and the Black Hills ripple away beneath her, their shapes flowing across the screen. The camera’s lens, powerful enough to show a single buttercup growing in the summer meadows, singles out nothing of interest. No armored columns, no grinding mass of titanium canon fodder.

The blip appears on her screen without warning, something rising toward her from a winding gorge branching off from the Cheyenne’s south fork. She kicks up the Tomcat’s nose, and a Sparrow air-to-air missile streaks from beneath the left wing, locking onto its target as Maggie climbs and rolls away, sweeping back toward its launch point and punching coordinates into the laser guidance system that will drop 500 pounds of high explosive on the enemy. The offending blip disappears from her readout a half-second before she sends the bomb on its way. With luck, it will take out a whole nest, but it is luck she cannot count on. Neither can she afford to be free-handed with her payload.

Another ground-to-air rocket rises up as she loops back toward Ellsworth from the north, and she dispatches it, and its launcher, as easily as she did the first. There is still no sign of the android force that appeared around the base earlier that morning; the only indication that they were not an hallucination or some weird sort of image projection is the artillery fire that pours down on her ground forces even as she seeks out their operators, and even then, they are evidence of no more than one operator apiece.

What if . . ..?

But that is a fantasy. They have to be here somewhere. Have to be.

If I were a mule, where would I go to get lost? If I were a metal killing machine with printed circuits for brains and copper wire for nerves, where would I go to jam radar and avoid detection by conventional means?

Maggie sweeps low to obtain a clearer image of a line of vehicles on a farm road, but they are only more of the ever-present wreckage of the first days of the uprising. Putting on speed, she climbs again, sweeping up through wispy clouds to the relative safety of the sky. Beneath her, the land rises steadily, from black bedrock deposited by volcanoes when the northern prairies lay beneath an inland sea into the uplift of the Black Hills themselves, sacred ground to the Lakota from time before time.

Where would I go?

There’s gold in them thar hills.

Gold.

Not gold. Uranium. Vanadium. All of it lying exposed to the sky in the tiers of the huge strip mines gouged out of the earth at the turn of the century, shut down by treaties renegotiated by the Oglala and Northern Cheyenne less than a decade ago and never remdiated.

Radioactive ore, huge masses of it, busily throwing off electrons on its own bandwidths. It has been a sore spot with local citizens for years, disrupting the endlessly running talk radio stations, reducing cell phones to sputtering static, interfering with transmissions from civilian aircraft. How much? Maybe enough to mask the output from lesser masses and scramble incoming locator signals, even the special military frequencies.

That’s where I’d go if I were a droid.

Turning south again, she lays down a pattern of sweeps that covers the expanse of more hospitable terrain between the Black Hills and the Badlands to the south and east. Flying with one hand and only half her brain, the years, the decades, of practice more ingrained now even than instinct, she scans the ground beneath her, zooming the camera in on every outcrop she does not recognize, every glint of sun off twisted metal or the rippled surface of a stock tank.

For twenty minutes she flies low and slow. The camera shows her cows grazing, a stallion running with his mares, a coyote arcing up out of the tall grass in pursuit of something invisible beneath its green stalks, one human with a gun who stands transfixed as she passes, not even bothering to run for cover. The mines themselves stand deserted, great open wounds in the Mother’s body, their tiers descending into the earth like the narrowing circles of Dante’s hell. There is no sign of the droids.

Disappointment washes through her, leaving the taste of acid in her mouth. The damned things might as well be invisible. Maybe they are invisible. Maybe her brain has shorted out under the stress of the last several weeks.

Maybe Hart was right. She is not command material, never was.

Maybe she’s not even a goddamned decent pilot.

Banking one more time over the snaking canyons of the badlands, she follows the twisted paths of dry rivers among the bare rock where the relics of eons past lie open to the sun that stands now halfway down from noon, raking the landscape with harsh sidelight. The rocks stand forth like nightmares out of legend; giants turned to stone, Lot’s wife, looking back toward her burning city, transformed to a pillar of salt. Now blindingly bright, now running in shadow, streams that feed into the White River wind through them, the sun striking upward from their surfaces in sheets of light.

And there, in a bend of a narrow stream, the glare off their metal bodies blending with the reflection of the water, they are.

Thousands of them. Motionless, they stand in ranks as stiff as the terra cotta soldiers of Tchin-tsche Huang-ti, as unaware of the heat that beats off the dry rock as the rock itself. As she passes, a shiver of movement runs through them; their sensors are not shut down. But by the time they can react, she is far away again to the west, entering the bomb-release sequence into her console as she loops back. She passes again, high above them this time, laying down the long stick of 500-pounders that will reduce them to shards of molten metal. Her vid shows her the perfect string of explosions that follows in her wake, clouds of smoke and dust rising up out of the canyon, here an overhang toppling onto the wreckage of the droids beneath, there a tower of basalt crashing down.

Hoka hey. It is a good day to kill.

Maggie allows herself a grim smile as she makes a second, then a third, turn to check for enemy till standing. She finds none; nothing on the visual but tumbled stone and scrap metal. Satisfied, she allows relief to break over her and gives her wings a waggle, partly just in case Manny or someone on the ground can see her, partly out of sheer satisfaction. She can feel the knots loosen in her neck and in the muscles along her spine, unraveling like strands of rope.

Mission accomplished. She takes her heading and turns for home.

As the land slips by beneath her, badlands and prairie, she allows her mind to turn to what awaits her on her return. Obviously the droids and their human allies—or perhaps masters? At this point she is not sure what Hart was, dupe or agent, hostage or mole—had meant to pound them senseless with artillery, tear up the runways to ground their air defense, and move in at leisure. Not necessarily in numbers, though. She will need to make the circuit of the Base, spending her remaining missiles on the gun emplacements. They won’t destroy the howitzers or heavy mortars, but they should reduce their crews quite nicely to smithereens. Two keystrokes shift their mode from air-to-air to air-to-ground; the big guns generate enough heat to home them in. Always assuming Manny hasn’t already bombed them right into their next lives.

Q: Where does a bad droid go when it dies?

A: Helliburton.

The joke is as old as Westerhaus’ first military models, a dart aimed at his rival Army contractor. Ancient history now.

Maggie passes over Rapid City, looping around to the north to scan the valleys around Ellsworth. She sees only the river, running gold in the westering sun, the woods, the mass of the Black Hills thrusting up toward the sky. She feels an odd sense of homecoming, partly the welcome she always associates with the completion of a successful mission, partly something she cannot quite name, something that emanates from the sacred ground beneath her. All clear.

At the far eastern arc of her circle, she passes over the highway where the wreckage of the battle lies strewn for miles. Her monitor shows her only the tortured metal remains of tanks blown open and burned out from inside, the tumbled length of the first defensive wall. Nothing moves except the wind in the trees. She can go home.

As she banks, the sun glances off something miles up the road to the east. Something bright, something metal.

Something moving.

Maggie pulls back on the stick and streaks for the clouds again, kicking in the afterburners for speed. Once she levels off, she scans the stretch of tarmac that stretches out beneath her.

More droids. Not thousands, perhaps no more than several hundred, marching in a tight column toward Ellsworth. Reserves? Latecomers? She has no way of knowing. Neither has she the firepower to take them out. Manny might, but Manny obviously has not seen them. With luck, they have not seen him, either. She will not break radio silence.

She has only one weapon left. She checks her fuel guage. The Tomcat carries close to 20,000 pounds of jet fuel; close to half that remains in her tanks. Enough for the job.

Her premonition returns to her. With the runways and hangars pounded by enemy guns, this is her last flight. She will make it count.

Carefully she calculates the distance and trajectory to the enemy column and enters the coordinates into the autopilot. Loosing the last of her missiles, she aims the Tomcat’s nose toward the earth with one hand and jerks on the ejection lever with the other.

Nothing happens. The ground rises up at her, the column of droids growing clear in her sight. She pulls the lever again, and again.

On the third try, the bubble pops and she flies free of the plane as it gathers speed in its descent. But the delay has cost her, and her head strikes the canopy, hard, as her seat becomes a projectile. She sees the flash of silver as her Tomcat streaks toward earth, the blue sky above her.

And then the dark comes down.

The night is blue around her, the deep blue of the deepest sea. Overhead the stars dance in stately patterns, throwing off streamers of flame as they spin and whirl, jewels burning cold in shades of amethyst and emerald and sapphire, blazing ruby and topaz with hearts of fire. A breeze slips cool over her face, soothing against her skin. It stirs the pine needles that ring the clear space where she lies, soughing softly.

There are voices in the wind. If she tried, she could make them out. But she is tired, so tired. She lies under a billow of white silk. Perhaps she is dead, and it is her funeral pall.

If she is, she decides, death is not so bad after all. She knows that one leg lies twisted under her and is undoubtedly broken; from the way the blood pounds in her head, that may be broken, too. She can feel the grass through a cool wetness above one ear; more strangeness. Something has apparently happened to her helmet. Perhaps whoever has laid her out has removed it. Odd, though, that she seems to be lying on earth. No coffin, no burial platform, no piled wood. Just the silken pall.

With effort, but with no pain, she turns her head. Just beyond her reach, a large cat sits watching her, fur silver-gilt in the strange not-moonlight that shimmers in the air, eyes deep amber rimmed in shadow. The paler fur on her belly lies in darker swirls, made, Maggie knows, by her nursing young. Elegant in its length, her tail curls about her feet.

You wander, sister, the cat says in the silence, Igmu Sapa Winan.

Where? Maggie answers without sound. And why?

You stand with one foot on the Blue Road. If you wish, you may cross over.

If I wish?

Or not. Do you want me to summon help from your own kind?

Her own kind. She thinks about that for a moment. She knows of only three of her own kind, maybe four, who might hear a call like that. None of whom can be spared from duty.

It would be easy to slip away. A picture forms in her mind, unbidden, of sky-tall trees ringing a lake whose deep purple waters lap at shores dotted with gentians and spurred columbine. As she watches, a winter buck limps up to the shore, blood oozing from a wound in his shoulder, laid open to the bone. Maggie winces for what must be the pain of it, but as he bends to drink, the blood stills. Flesh folds back on itself, skin and fur spreading to cover it, and he stands there whole, sunlight streaming down through the trees about him. A woman stands beside him, her leather dress died green, yellow shells and beadwork running in rows down its length like kernels on an ear of corn. Her black hair spills down her back almost to her knees; silver shines at her ears and wrists.

Mother, Maggie says silently, awe washing through her.

Selu, the woman answers. And this is Ataga’hi, where the hunted may come to be healed. Though you are a warrior and have killed more two-foots than most, you have never harmed one of your four-footed brothers or sisters. Hunters may not come here. Will you drink, Black Cat Woman?

My people, are they safe?

They are.

For answer, then, she rises up and steps carefully toward the lake. The grass bends gently under the pads of her feet, and she is not surprised to find that her spine has shifted so that she does not stand erect. Her ears, inhumanly sharp, take in the murmur of small life around her, the calls of birds like music. The water, when she bends to lap, slips cool across her tongue, and she drinks her fill, life pouring back into her, and purpose with it.

Then she is back in her own body, and she gasps as sensation floods back into her from cracked bone and torn muscle. The puma, though, still regards her quietly. I will call, she says.

For an instant, Maggie thinks she is seeing double. A second great cat stands beside the first, gazing at her with eyes of warm brown. And there is a bobcat, too, grinning at her with open mouth.

Hang in there, he says. We’re on our way.

The blue begins to fade to black about her. The puma fades with it, a liquid shadow in the night. Pain from her leg rises about her on a swelling tide, bringing its own darkness with it. Just, she says to the wind as words begin to desert her altogether. Just move your asses.

*******

The antelope crashes through the undergrowth, plunging through the copse that borders the open prairie to the east. Koda follows, making no effort now to be silent, her hat scraped off her head somewhere back there where she first entered the strip of woodland, her bow in her right hand, arrow nocked. Ahead of her, the young male’s rump patch flashes white, and she sweeps low branches away from her face as she fights her way through the whip-like saplings after him. Sweat runs stinging into her eyes, blurring her vision, but she cannot pause to wipe it away. If she can just keep in range, she will have him when he breaks from cover on the other side.

The wood is wider than she had first thought, and she slides down a steep bank toward a stream, bracing her feet against a fall like a skier. The antelope, ahead of her, splashes through the water and is up the other side before she can draw back her arrow. Neither is there time to unsling her rifle and aim; by the time she has it into position, he will be on open ground again. Pronghorn can sprint at speeds approaching seventy miles an hour, fast as a cheetah. If she is too far behind when they reach the edge of the grass again, she will lose him altogether. She crosses the ankle-deep brook in two strides, scrabbling for an instant on both knees and one hand as she races up the limestone outcrop opposite, ignoring the sudden burn as she scrapes her palm against the rock. Her heart slams against her breastbone, and her breath comes in short, panting gasps. She has run the better part of two miles, about half of it flat out, since cutting the yearling out of a bachelor herd. The meat will let them save their packed rations against emergencies, gain them another day or two. And Asi, held back by main force from following the chase, will appreciate his share.

The sun breaks through where the wood begin to thin, the pronghorn sprinting now nimbly through the mould and leaf litter that carpets the ground between the trunks of pine and aspen, gaining speed. With a last burst of speed Koda throws herself after him, even as he breaks from the trees and is gone. Koda swears under her breath, what she has of it, and follows, her blood not ready to give up even though her brain tells her that the antelope is already beyond range.

Somewhere just ahead of her, the crack of gunfire shatters the still afternoon air. Abruptly, Koda pulls up just short of the edge of the trees, unstringing her bow and sheathing it and its arrow even as she shrugs her rifle off her shoulder and into her hands. Carefully she steps to the edge of the treeline, keeping a pine trunk between herself and whoever has fired the shot. Squinting into the sun, she can make out only the rippling billows of short grass, interspersed here and there with clumps of scarlet sage and mountain globemallow, thick with rose-colored blooms. Behind a screen of the tall spikes, something moves. Something large, bending down now toward something else on the ground.

Koda steps away from cover, gun leveled. She is not quite prepared to kill another human for her supper, but neither is she prepared to give it up without protest. Not when she has done the work, not when she has given fair chase. Keeping the muzzle of her gun pointed toward whatever or whoever crouches on the other side of the dense shrubs, she gathers her breath and bellows, “Hey! You over there! Stand up! Slow! Or I’ll shoot!”

Two seconds pass. “Now!” she yells, and pumps a round into the ground at her feet. “Next one won’t be a warning!”
CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE
“Okay! Okay!” It is a man’s voice, rich and resonant. He steps out from behind the sage spires, black curling hair and close-trimmed beard glistening in the sun, a sheen of sweat silvering his bare chest and the hard muscles of his arms and shoulders. He is tall, taller than she is, and made like a wrestler. For a moment he looks as though he might be made all of bronze, something cast by Michelangelo or Bernini to taunt their bloodless patrons tripping along the halls of the Lateran Palace. Then a sheepish grin splits his face and his hands spread open at his sides. “I’m sorry. Was that your pronghorn? I thought a cat might be after it, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” Koda says, more equably, the muzzle of her gun never moving from its aim at his belly. “W— I’ve been after him for a couple miles or so, now. From back on the other side of that treeline.” Go on, be a good boy. Give it up.

“Look,” he says, the ingratiating smile never leaving his face. “You chased it, I shot it. Share?”

It is not, under the circumstances, a bad bargain. Half the antelope is still a substantial prize. “All right,” she says, lowering her rifle without taking her finger from the trigger guard. “I’ll help you field dress it.” She may have to set down the gun, but she will still have a knife in her hand. The sudden gleam in the man’s brown eyes tells her he understands and is not offended.

Far, it would seem, from it. He extends one huge paw toward her. “Ariel Kriegesmann. Call me Ari.”

“All right,” she says, shifting her 30.06 to her left hand and offering her right. “Koda Rivers.”

He gives no sign of recognizing the name, merely nodding in acknowledgement. His shake is firm, but not the finger-crushing grasp that she has encountered from men out to prove their macho. “Welcome to Elk Mountain, ma’am.” He gestures toward the line of hills that rises to the west across the miles of grassland. The peaks of the Medicine Bow Range lift into the sky beyond them, glittering even now with late snow.

“Koda!” The shout rings out from behind them, punctuated by furious barking. Asi streaks across the distance from the trees, Kirsten following more slowly, her own weapon at the ready. Koda’s vagrant Stetson perches on her head, casting hard shadows on her face. “You all right?”

Kriegesmann’s eyes dart between the two of them. One eyebrow canting upward, he asks, “Friends?”

“Friends,” Koda confirms, not at all sorry to have the back-up. “Asi,” she says, “Annie, meet Ari. We’re gonna split dinner.”

With a quick glance under her lashes at Koda, Kirsten extends her free hand, and Asi allows a quick scratch of his head and ruff. “Nice dog,” Ari says, admiringly, turning his thousand-watt grin on Kirsten. “You taking good care of your ladies, are you, boy?”

“Need help?” Kirsten asks, slipping their packs from her shoulders. Asi stretches out beside them, tongue lolling. Koda shakes her head, and Kirsten sinks down crosslegged onto the makeshift cusion, rifle still propped across her knees.

Koda lays her own gun down and draws the knife that hangs at her waist. Kneeling beside the antelope, all his grace and beauty now still, she begins to chant softly:

“Tatokala, misakalaki

Antelope, little brother,

swift runner,

we thank you for giving your life

so that we might live.

Walk the Blue Road in peace.

May you have green grass

and clear water,

may you run free

forever.

Han!”

“Han,” Kirsten repeats softly. She has seen Dakota do this before, and can follow the sense of the prayer if not yet all the words.

Kriegesmann listens respectfully, his eyes lowered. Looking up to meet her eyes, he asks, “That was Lakota, wasn’t it? You traditional?”

She nods, bending to her work as she opens the antelope, picking out the liver and kidneys for Asi, who comes to her whistle and settles down to his meal with obvious pleasure. Ariel glances from Koda to Kirsten. “Both of you?” he asks.

“Both of us,” Kirsten answers. The tone of her voice is crisply authoritative, and Koda smiles silently. Translation: Keep off my turf.

“I can dig it.” Kriegesmann shrugs, unperturbed. “My community’s pretty traditional, too.”

“Community?”

“About fifty of us, mostly from Caspar. A bunch of us from my bank were up here snowshoeing, snowmobiling and like that when the uprising hit. We’ve picked up a few more survivors since.”

“Your bank?” Koda gives him a disbelieving look.

“First American. I’m an accountant. Or was.”

“You don’t look like a banker,” she says bluntly.

“That’s ’cause you haven’t seen me in a jacket and tie. See that?” He grins and points toward one eye. “That’s the true capitalist glimmer.”

He is either amazingly disingenuous or going out of his way to be charming. Koda has known very few disingenuous bankers in her life. None, in fact. She waits for what she is almost certain is coming next.

It does. Kriegesmann sits back on his heels and wipes the sweat off his forehead, his hand bloody to the wrist. “Say. Why don’t the two of you come on back to the camp?” Asi looks up from his feast, growling and laying his ears back, and Kriegesmann chuckles. “It’s okay, boy. The three of you. I don’t know where you’re headed, and I’m not gonna ask, but you might want to spend a night under a roof. We’ve got a generator. And we’ve got hot water and showers.”

“Thanks,” Koda says evenly, “but we need to get on.”

“We also,” he says, and his voice turns serious, “have a couple sick kids. The way you’re dressing this buck, you’re either a professional meat-cutter or you’re a doctor. We’d appreciate it if you’d look at ’em. And we’ll send you on your way with a full pack when you leave.”

“Your kids?”

“My sister’s girl and a couple others. They had something with spots a few weeks back, before the weather broke. Now it’s like they’ve got a permanent cold.”

Spots and a lingering respiratory infection. All sorts of unfortunate things can happen in the aftermath of measles or chickenpox. With the near-disappearance of many childhood diseases, more parents than not have chosen to avoid the possible side-effects of vaccination. Worse things can happen with scarlet fever. Not good. “You got any antibiotics?”

“Just what was in the first aid cabinet at the lodge. They’re gone.”

And probably misused, and overused. She looks up at Kirsten. “What about it?”

“Okay by me,” Kirsten says. “How far is it?”

Kriegesmann points at the rising slopes of Elk Mountain in the distance. “About three hours, maybe a little less.”

Koda wipes the blood from her knife on the grass, then gathers a handful of stalks to cleanse it more thoroughly. “I’ll cut a pole. We were headed that way anyway; we won’t lose time if we stay over for the night.”

Ten minutes later, the rough-dressed antelope is securely lashed to a straight branch of aspen. Koda shoulders one end, Kriegesmann the other. Asi paces beside them as they set off across the expanse of prairie, Kirsten pacing with the rifle still cradled in the crook of her elbow. Shadows lengthen as the sun begins to slip behind the mountains, and the breeze turns cool. Clouds darken the horizon to the south. Above them, a hawk rides the thermals, wings and tail spread as she coasts the currents of air. Her call drifts down to them, sharp and bright as steel. Kriegesmann glances up, admiration in his face. “Red-tail,” he says. “There’s lots of them around here. Golden eagles, too. Only you call them spotted eagles, don’t you?”

“Wanblee gleshka,” Koda answers. “Wakan.”

“Right,” says Kriegesmann, and keeps walking.

Dusk lies thick about them when they reach the lodge. Kirsten has limped for the last mile or so, and even Koda’s muscles are beginning to stiffen. The thought of hot water, faint temptation at first, has grown into a massive obsession. . Steaming water. Real soap. Standing under the shower while the spray pounds against her skin, working the knots out of her neck and scalp. Baths for the last several days have been cold-water exercises in endurance, hygienically adequate but a long way from comfortable. Even further from comforting.

I’d kill for a hot bath. No, not kill. Maybe maim somebody, though. Starting with Hunk-boy here.

A guardpost blocks their path about halfway up the mountain. A taut chain strung across the road at knee height bars wheeled traffic any larger than a bike. Both halves of the gate stand upright, the faint red of rust gathering about its nuts and bolts. Koda has seen no sign of a vehicle’s passage, no twin ruts of flattened grass on the prairie, no tire tracks on the sections of pavement washed out by the snow and rain of the last months. At a guess, the guests and staff of the resort used up their gasoline early and have not bothered to lower the double bars since. The sentry on duty, scarcely more than a silhouette in the gathering dark, grunts and waves Kriegesmann by. Koda can make out the shape of a rifle leaning up against the door of the booth, the motion of his head as his gaze follows them around the chain and onto the overgrown shoulder of the road, staring still as they head up the last, steeper, ascent. Perhaps it is the antelope he finds so interesting.

Then again, perhaps it isn’t. With her free hand, Koda loosens her handgun in its holster, watches as Kirsten furtively does the same.

“Hang in there, ladies,” Kriegesmann says cheerfully. “We’re almost there.”

“Oh, goody,” Kirsten answers, her voice flat.

“You okay?” Koda stops in her tracks, almost pulling the pole of Kriegesmann’s shoulder. He comes to an abrupt halt, a quizzical look on his face. Koda lays a hand lightly on Kirsten’s arm. “You still okay with this?”

“Yeah. We’re almost there. Let’s do it.”

Koda stands silent for a long moment, then “If you’re sure.”

For answer, Kirsten nods, and they resume the climb. Kriegesmann has said nothing, only watching. At the very least, Koda reflects, it should have made a thing or two clear to him. She grins to herself. No poaching here. And I don’t mean antelope.

“There,” when they slog round the last painfully steep switchback and emerge onto the more or less level top of the mountain, consists of a sprawling central building surrounded by a dozen or so smaller cabins set among century-old pines and balsams. Some show the A-frame silhouette popular for vacation homes forty years ago. Others, like the main facility, are constructed of redwood logs and wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass and decks on at least three levels. Through the windows, Koda catches a glimpse of leather-upholstered sofas, pine-wood tables burnished to a golden glow, Navajo rugs hanging against the walls. A dozen or so people seem to be moving about in the common room, but Koda cannot see them clearly. It is precisely the sort of place where a clutch of affluent suburbanites would come to rough it for a couple weeks of winter sports, enjoying room service in the morning and the ski instructors at night.

Precisely the sort of place she’d never be caught dead before the war. It remains to be seen what its resident survivors have made of it.

Kriegesmann leads them around to the back, where a windowless building stands among garages, a couple of barns and other service buildings. “Meat locker,” he says, shrugging the pole off his shoulder. “I’ll hang this up, then we’ll get some supper. We can finish dressing it out in the morning.”

Glancing about her, Koda asks, “Where are your windmills?”

“Down on the floor of the valley on the other side of the mountain,” Kriegesmann answers from inside the cold house. Condensation billows out of the door, though the temperature has begun to drop rapidly with the oncoming dark and the increased altitude. “This place was originally supposed to be an off-grid retreat—you know, meditation gardens, resident gurus, drumming, that kind of thing. Not much money in it, though, and the bank wound up with the property.”

“Foreclosed on it, you mean,” Kirsten says suddenly. She has not spoken since they passed the gate, and Koda glances at her sharply.

“If you want to put it that way.” Kriegesman shrugs, grinning. “We call it—called it—assuming the burden of the investment. Très, très touchy-feely and all that.” He waggles his fingers at her as he emerges from the locker, snapping the door shut behind him and padlocking it.. “A kinder, gentler takeover, with full-color brochures and lots of western art on the walls.”

“And you run this place like you did the bank?”

“More or less. Most of the people here worked for us before. The rest, the hunting parties that were here when the uprising began, the skiers, the Christmas vacationers were almost all business people, too. They speak the language.”

Kirsten gestures toward the hasp and chain. “You ration out the food?”

“Not to raccoons and wolverines. Or bears. A couple years ago a yearling grizzly wandered into the lobby somehow. Scared half the guests and himself out of ten years’ growth. We’ve reinforced doors and double-locked everything on the ground floor ever since.”

It is not an unreasonable answer. Raccoons have no need for opposable thumbs to open doors and get into pantries, and bears and wolverines are notorious for raiding campers’ food supplies. Wolverines, especially, have nasty habits, fouling everything they do not eat or carry away with their overwhelmingly pungent musk. With the conservation policies and the reforestation work done under the last two federal administrations, they have re-established themselves along the spine of the Rockies and in the northern tier of states bordering Canada. With the near-eradication of the human population, their range is likely to expand even further. Kriegesmann’s explanation is plausible, makes excellent sense, and still leaves Koda with a vague sense of unease.

She cannot quite put her finger on it, and her left brain refuses to sort out the information into neat data points and conclusions. Something about Kriegesmann bothers her, beyond her general distaste for the sort of old-style coroporate solipsism he seems to represent—and, to be truthful, she has no firm evidence for that except for his offhanded contempt for the spiritual community whose property his bank (His family’s bank? There is that recurring ‘us.’) has apparently managed not only well but conscientiously.

Whatever it is, it cannot be her concern. She and Kirsten will have a good supper, she will look at the children as requested, and they will be back on the trail tomorrow after a night in a comfortable bed, richer by half an antelope.

Still, she intends to sleep in her boots, with one hand on her gun.

Kriegesmann sets off up the stone-paved path toward the rear of the lodge, waving them ahead of him with an exaggerated deference and a small bow. Closer to, the smell of meat and herbs wafts along the air, together with the scent of cornbread baking. Kirsten’s stomach rumbles audibly, and Koda flashes her a sympathetic grin. Whatever the ethical shortcomings of their host, his family and their corporation, they have evidently managed a comfortable sort of survival. Like every such enclave, they will have gathered in what livestock they could, raided what supermarkets and warehouses they could. Perhaps she can barter her veterinary services for some cornmeal and flour, maybe even a pack horse.

The door opens onto a substantial receiving area stacked with carboard boxes almost to the ceiling. Some few appear to be empty, but most, everything from canned beans and tomatoes to stomach acid remedies, are still stapled shut. Koda glances back at Kriegesmann. “You pretty much clean out Caspar, or what?”

“Or what. We got down to Boulder, too, before the gas ran out.”

“How bad is it in Caspar?” Kirsten asks, her eyes running over the piles of supplies. Koda can almost see the numbers cascading in her head. How many refugees at Elk Mountain? How long will this feed them? How long until they turn to preying on other survivors?

“It’s bad,” Kriegesmann answers, grimacing. “Even worse in Boulder. Lots and lots of droids for such a back-to-nature place.”

“Looks like you’ve got enough here to do you for a while.”

“Yeah. We found some seed, too, and some farm stuff. We’ve started growing what we can.”

Koda raises an eyebrow at him. “Kind of a change from banking, isn’t it?”

“I don’t do dirt.” Kriegesmann flashes her a grin. “I hunt. Lots more fun.” He bangs on the door that leads to the kitchen. “Yo! I’m back! There’s company!”

The woman who opens the door stands not much taller than Kirsten, but the legs below her running shorts are brown and tightly muscled. Her tank top does nothing to conceal washboard abs; the tendons in her hands and wrists run rippling under tanned skin. Her grey eyes slide past Kriegesmann, hardly acknowledging him. Her gaze lingers, though, on Koda herself and on Kirsten, appreciative but cool, almost aloof. She gives Kriegesmann a tight smile. “So I see. I’m Tanya Kriegesmann. Come in. You’re just in time for supper.”

“Sis, this is Dakota Rivers. Doctor Dakota Rivers. And meet Annie—” He pauses, his hand describing small circles in the air.

“Rivers,” Kirsten supplies, firmly. “Doctor Annie Rivers.”

“Funny,” Kriegesmann says, “you don’t look like sisters.”

It is either dry humor or stupidity; Koda opts for the former. “We aren’t. We are hungry, though. Chasing that antelope right into your sights was hard work.”

Tanya gives a small, amused snort. She says, “Ari’s good at shooting things. Particularly if he doesn’t have to get off his ass to do it.” She gestures toward a double swinging door, steel clad and further reinforced at the bottom for waiters with their hands full. “Supper’s this way.”

She leads them through the kitchen, still equipped to feed perhaps a hundred guests. Industrial-sized pots hang from tracks anchored to the ceiling; the sinks, all shining steel, are deep and long as bathtubs. A dusting of flour remains at one end of a polished pine workbench that anywhere else would pass for a banquet table. Kirsten walks between Koda and Tanya, her shoulders drawn in, hands on the straps of her pack. Consciously or not, she appears to avoid touching anything in the room, and a wisp of memory floats through Dakota’s mind. Persephone in the underworld, condemned to remain if she ate or drank from the table of Hades. For half a second she considers bolting here and now. Beside her, sensitive to her mood, Asi whines, and she reaches down to pat him.

Food first. Then a bath. If we still feel spooked, we can leave before dawn, no one the wiser.

The kitchen opens onto the dining room, its tables still white-draped like ghosts. In the darkened lobby, a cavernous room with exposed rafters, stuffed animal heads punctuate the walls. There are deer and elk, bear and buffalo. A pair of moose antlers over the mantle stretches almost the width of the large fireplace. Through the window Koda can see half a dozen children chasing a ball down the driveway, shepherding it for a stretch between their feet, then kicking. A woman follows them slowly, her body heavily pregnant. Her face, a little bloated with the nearness of her time, seems peaceful in the fading light, her hands clasped under her breasts as she paces. A golden retriever lopes along the path, shuttling between her and the children. Asi, his interest pricked at last, trots to the window and utters a sharp bark. The retriever looks around, puzzled, then resumes her care of her human family. “Shall we let him out?” Tanya asks, running her own hand down Asi’s back. “Or would you rather have him with you since he doesn’t know the area?”

“His feet are tired, too,” Kirsten says with a smile. “Let’s let him rest.”

A smaller room leads off the lobby to one side of the hearth. Bottles still line the wall behind the antique walnut bar, but half the shelves stand empty. Attrition has set in among the glassware, too; the stems for alexanders and whisky sours that hang above the bar show chips on some of the rims, and here, too, many seem to be missing.
“Family dining room’s this way,” Kriegesmann says, turning to open a door carved with a line of quail, the young ones strung out between their parents as they make their way through a jungle of columbine and lupines. A discreet sign beside the jamb names it The Covey. “This used to be the VIP club. Still is, so to speak.”

The room is brightly lit by lamps and candles. Seven people sit at a long table in the center, staring at them as they enter. Tanya crosses the small room to a sideboard and begins to set two more places, while her brother introduces them. “My dad, Julius Kriegesmann.” The man seated at the head of the table, his white beard and hair impeccably trimmed, nods in greeting. “My mother, Harriet.” Harriet looks decades younger than her husband; not, in fact, much older than her son. Kirsten smiles at her, murmuring “Beaucoup Botox,” under her breath so quietly that even Koda barely hears her. Another sister, Diotima, who is evidently the mother of the two children lately afflicted with spots, waves and gives a blinding smile when introduced; neither offspring, however, can be coaxed to look up from their mashed potatoes long enough to greet the visitors. “Errolllll,” their mother whispers. “Vanesssa. Manners. Please.” Humphrey Smith, Diotima’s husband, and a black haired woman with uptilted black eyes, introduced merely as Elaine, round out the company. Tension hums around the room, running a three-pointed current among Harriet and the two daughters, between Julius and Elaine, between Tanya and Ariel.

Gods. We’ve gone through the rabbit hole and landed in a Faulkner novel. Or maybe Flannery O’Connor. Good country people, for sure.

Koda acknowledges the introductions politely, slipping into a seat across from Elaine, Kirsten beside her. Ariel, standing with his hand on the back of one of two chairs to the right of his mother, shrugs and accepts his plate without comment. Julius serves both Dakota and Kirsten with thick slices of the meat from the platter, and Koda is pleased to find that it is venison, excellently prepared with red wine and bay leaves. A helping of mashed potatoes follows, together with disappointingly insipid pea-green peas from a can. Beside her, Kirsten tucks into her supper with enthusiasm, leaving Koda to make conversation with their hosts. It is as much tactics as hunger, Koda realizes; while no one here has apparently heard of the battle of the Cheyenne, these are precisely the sort of people who might well recognize Kirsten despite her lengthening hair and bronzed skin. A turn of phrase, a tone of voice, could give her away as easily as her face.

So Dakota is left to answer the inevitable questions. They are traveling west from Minnesota, aiming for Salt Lake and Annie’s family there, if they’re still alive. Medical school? Sorry, vet school, at U Penn. Yes, she has some experience with human medicine, too; veterinarians dissect human cadavers along with animal corpses as part of their training, studying human infections right along with distemper and feline leukemia. At this, Harriet winces and reaches for her wine glass with fingers that still show traces of a professional manicure. The children’s eyes, in contrast, grow large as their plates, and Errol pronounces his approval. “Hey, that’s cool. I bet it’s really, really, gross.” This last is aimed at his sister, who smiles sweetly and rubs a handful of her potatoes into his face.

Koda aims a sharp glance at their uncle, two seats further up the table. “Looks to me like they’re making a normal recovery.”

“Yeah,” Kriegesmann answers shortly. “Pass the gravy, would you?”

“Recovery?” says Diotima, at the same time, frowning. “Oh, those spots.” She turns to Koda. “They have allergies, that’s all. They got into some poison ivy or something awhile back, and now it’s sniffles. Nothing serious.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Koda says thoughtfully. “They’re not used to the mountains in summer?”

“No, we usually go to the beach in June. We come here in winter, just like we did last year. And now—” Diotima shoots a resentful glance around the table—”we’re stuck. We can’t get out. We can’t go back. We’ll die out here in the middle of nowhere, all because of some stupid, stupid robots. The government never should have allowed Peter Westerhaus to make those things. He’s rich, but he’s crazy, you know?” She makes a circular motion around one ear with a forefinger. “If Clinton had stopped him, we wouldn’t be here now—”

“Dio,” her father says repressively, setting his fork down beside his plate. “We’ve been through all this. Make the best of it.”

“And how many droids did you have, Dio, dear?” Tanya looks up with a bite of meat halfway to her mouth. “At least your children were here with you. And your husband.” Her smile is pure acid as she gazes at Humphrey. “Such a comfort, I’m sure.”

“So many comforts,” Elaine sniggers. “A comfortable masseur, a comfortable tennis pro, a comfortable ski instructor. . ..”

“Like you’d know,” Dio shoots back at her. “At least I’ve got kids.”

“And how about you, Humph?” Elaine asks. “Are you comforted that she has kids? At least you have a chance to have some of your own now.”

Smith, arrested in the act of cutting his venison, slowly turns the color of old brick, the blood rising under his tan from neck to receding hairline. “I have,” he says, biting off each word as if it were the texture of pemmican, “fulfilled my obligations to this family and to the corporation. I will continue to do so.”

“There isn’t any corporation any more, you idiot!” Dio wads her napkin into a knot and throws it, violently, into her plate. “It’s over. It’s gone! There’s nothing left but this—” the sweep of her arm encompasses the lodge, the mountain, the empty months and valleys between this spot and an urban existence as dead now as Babylon— this hellhole! I want out! I want out now!” She swings around on Kirsten and Koda. “When you leave in the morning, I’m going with you. The rest of you can stay here and rot!”

With a sob, Dio pushes her chair back so violently it rocks on its back legs and stumbles across the room, both hands over her face. She jerks the door open and slams it behind her; hanging upside down in its rails above the bar, the crystal chimes gently. Julius Kriegesmann’s face, stony pale where his son-in-law’s is a shade just short of purple, half rises from his own seat. His wife lays one hand over his, clenched around his wineglass. “Well,” says Kirsten calmly, “now we know what happened to the glassware.”

Julius turns his gaze on her, his face still thunderous. Then Ariel’s head comes up from what has seemed to be an earnest contemplation of his meal. He stares at Kirsten in the silence, then begins to laugh, a chuckle that begins somewhere around the middle of his chest and gathers force as it rises, shaking his shoulders. “Dr. Annie Rivers,” he says between spasms, “you’re okay.”

The tension in the room snaps, and Julius carefully sets down his Burgundy. The two children return to their suppers with only perfunctory mayhem, overseen by Smith. Julius rises to offer after-dinner brandy to the adults, pouring Courvoisier into the bottoms of ample snifters. He hands Koda hers with a smile, half rueful. “Sorry about the fireworks. It’s been stressful since the uprising, especially for a city girl like Dio who’s used to all the luxuries. She’ll be fine in the morning.”

And we’ll be gone in the morning. Long gone. By ourselves. But she accepts her drink and the elder Kriegesmann’s oblique apology with a smile of thanks. The gathering breaks up into knots after that, the three men and Harriet huddling around the fireplace, Julius and Ariel gnawing the ends of expensive cigars. The Smith children—putatively Smith, at any rate, escape to play in the larger space of the lobby, where thumps and thuds attest to their energy. Tanya and Elaine seem to distance themselves from the rest, holding hands as their voices become quieter and more intimate. Letting her own hand linger on Kirsten’s arm, Dakota says, “You about ready to turn in? Tomorrow’s gonna be a long one.”

Tanya looks up from her conversation with Elaine. “I’ll show you to a cabin. Unless you’d rather stay here, in the main lodge?”

“Thanks, we’ll take the cabin,” Kirsten answers almost before the other woman finishes her question, and Tanya grins in silent agreement.

“It’s not always this bad,” she says. “But it’ll be quieter up the road.” To Elaine, she adds, “I’ll be up in a bit.”

“I’ll be waiting.” Elaine gives her a sultry look over the rim of her glass, all fire and smoke.

As they gather their things, Asi darts to the door ahead of them, whining. Ariel yells “Sleep tight!” to the accompaniment of quieter good nights. In the lobby, now well lit, the furniture shoved together in an improvised jungle gym, Tanya glances at her watch and announces, “Fifteen minutes, kids. Time to hit the books.”

“Awwwww, Aunt Tanya, that’s mean!”

“Pleeezzzeee, just half an hour?”

“Fifteen and not a second more. Suck it up, guys!” She lets Dakota and Kirsten out the main door onto the deck, and Asi shoots away, racing full out up the drive, turning and cannoning back at speed, only to hurtle off into the woods that line the road, barking furiously. Tanya laughs. “He’s off on one of the rabbit trails. I don’t blame him; it got pretty thick in there, didn’t it?”

The conflict on Kirsten’s face is almost comical. If she agrees, she insults the Kreigesmann family; if she does not, she contradicts the most normal one of the lot. Dakota rescues her. “People get on each other’s nerves when they get too close. Your mom and dad seem to have a pretty firm handle on it, though.”

“They’re used to managing hostile takeovers. Even our family’s a breeze after that.”

They set off down the path, the shadows thickening about them. The wind moves through the tops of the tall trees, sighing among the pine needles. Out here, free of the power struggles and tensions of the Kriegesmann brood, Koda’s own stress begins to fade. She feels as though she has been walking in boots half a size too small ever since they came upon Ariel and has only now been able to pull them off. Relief courses through her body, and, oddly, a sense of kinship with the woman beside them. There is strength in her, and though Koda suspects the presence of a wide ruthless streak, a kind of honesty she can respect. She says, “Your mother was with the bank, too?”

Tanya glances up at her, her face shadowed. “Oh, Harriet’s not my mother. Ari’s hers, and Humph from her first marriage. Dio’s the oldest, though she doesn’t want to be reminded of that. Then me, with Wife #2. Ari’s the baby.”

“And he doesn’t like to be reminded of that?” Koda finishes the thought for her.

“Or of the fact that he never made senior VP. A doorstop with a title, that’s our Ari. His talents—well, the one good thing about this situation is that he can be more useful here than he ever was at the office.” A wry smile twists her mouth. “Not that that outweighs the negatives for the rest of us.”

“Dio certainly doesn’t seem to think so.”

“She’s a born mall bunny. Julius got down in the muddy end of the gene pool with that one.”

Cabins line the main road once they pass the lodge’s turnout and parking area. Warm light spills from their windows, and the smell of woodsmoke rises from their chimneys. Though summer solstice is only a few days away, chill descends on the mountain with the dark. Here and there, women gather children into what seem to be family homes; elsewhere, two men, or three, sit late on the front decks, smoking and talking. Koda can feel their eyes on them as they pass.

Tanya follows her gaze to the men, then back. She says, “We had quite a few hunters here when the rebellion started. Some tried to get back to their families; others stayed to help defend Elk Mountain.”

“You’ve fought them?” Kirsten asks. Her voice is dry, her skepticism barely concealed.

“We caught a half dozen scouts, a couple of them human. Otherwise they either don’t know we’re here, or they haven’t bothered with us. There are relatively few women here. Maybe we’re just not worth it to them.”

“You know what they’re after, then.”

“We know they’ve been breeding the women they capture.” Tanya’s eyes narrow, her mouth tightening in a look of pure hatred. “We heard about it from the refugees who’ve settled with us. One woman escaped from a jail in Laramie, then damned near died when she took tickweed to induce an abortion.

“As to what they’re really after—hell, no, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. Otherwise we could stop them, or at least have an idea how.”

About a quarter mile from the main lodge, she leads them onto a side path. In a small clearing at is end stands one of the A-frame cabins, its weathered boards and cedar shakes blending almost imperceptibly into the woods around it. Tanya opens the door for them, switching on the light as she does so. Someone has clearly prepared the place for visitors; the woodbox by the kiva-style fireplace is full of split logs, while a basket on the counter that divides the living area from the kitchen holds dishes, a small jar of coffee, a box of cereal, sugar and canned fruit. “Breakfast is at seven in the dining room, if you want to join us. Otherwise—” She gestures toward the provisions. “Bath’s on the other side of the kitchen; bedroom’s up in the loft. See you in the morning.”

An hour later, Koda slips into bed beside Kirsten, her whole body feeling polished from the blast of the water jets in the shower. Her hair, still damp despite a session with the dryer, lies heavily across her bare shoulders. The small soapstone stove fills the space under the peaked rafters with drowsy warmth. Kirsten, the quilt pulled up around her ears, lies on her side, breathing softly and regularly, already asleep. Her pale hair spread across the pillow catches the glow from the lamp, a spill of sunlight in the surrounding dark. Wishing she were not blind-tired from the day’s trek and the bizarre familial wrangling of the evening, Dakota checks the revolver on the nightstand and settles beside her lover, drawing her against her own body, back to front, fitting together as if made for each other. Love you, babe. Love to love you, but I don’t want to wake you, and I’m just tired, so tired. . .. She never finishes the thought. Sleep claims her between one breath and the next, and she slips away into the dark.
CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR
She is never sure, afterward, what wakes her. Perhaps the snick of the key in the lock, perhaps a footfall or the voices of her dream, slipping through the pines in the wind. Asi stands by the bed, his ears up, tail stiff. Not a dream, then. Something is not as it should be. Early morning light sifts through the branches that are all that she can see out the one, high window at the apex of the roof, lays pale squares of light against the oak floorboards. She feels Kirsten’s body go suddenly rigid against her, her voice a barely audible whisper. “Dakota? What is it?”

“I don’t know yet. I think someone’s in the house.”

Carefully she slips from the bed, her muscles moving smoothly and silently as Igmu Tanka’s own. Without sound, she lays a quieting hand on Asi’s head, then pulls on the jeans and shirt folded over the back of a chair, tucking the gun on the lamp table into her waistband. Kirsten glides from the bed behind her in one, smooth noiseless motion, reaching for her own clothes and weapons. Still barefoot, Koda steals toward the spiral metal stair that leads down to the ground floor. The loft opens onto the long side of the house, giving it privacy from the kitchen and living area below; all she can see from the head of the stair is the small game table by the floor-to-ceiling window and the shadow of the roof where it slopes to within a few feet of the ground. She stands there, scarcely breathing, her eyes closed as she concentrates her whole attention on her hearing, her thought spiraling out from her to touch the sense of wrongness that pervades her whole mind.

Someone is in the house. Quiet, not moving. Waiting.

Danger.

“Koda. There are men in the woods behind us. With guns.” Kirsten’s voice is no more than a breath at her ear.

Dakota crosses the room to step up onto the chair beneath the small window. There are perhaps half a dozen of them, two of whom she recognizes from the bachelor groups of the night before. Which makes the whole situation quite suddenly quite clear. “Goddam asshole baboons,” she mutters, biting her lip as she assesses options.

One. They can break the window and pick the idiots off. While satisfying, that still leaves whoever is downstairs, not to mention a riled community. Not a viable first choice.

Two. The skylight over the bed is just low enough that she and Kirsten can pull themselves and Asi through it. That leaves a long, risky slide down the roof, possibly a long, risky, noisy slide down the roof into the arms of the idiots presently gathered behind the house. Asi, particularly, is not likely to perform the maneuver quietly.

Three. Draw the said idiots toward the front of the building. Then proceed with Two.

She whispers, “I’m going to go downstairs and create a diversion. While I’m doing that, break out the skylight.” Kirsten gives her an alarmed look, then her face clears as she nods her understanding.

Koda slips into her boots, loosening her shirt around her waist to hide the butt of the pistol. As she steps out onto the metal rungs of the stair, deliberately clanging her heels against them, she can hear Kirsten chiseling away with her knife at the sealer that holds the lexan skylight in place. She clatters down the staircase and around the corner of the kitchen. She pauses there for a long moment, hooking her thumbs into her belt next to her gun. A man sits at the table, a cup by one hand, a rifle by the other. Koda lets the silence drag out, then says, “Well, now. I sure don’t remember inviting you to breakfast.”

Ariel Kriegesmann grins over the top of his cup, taking a long drink of the steaming coffee. “I remember it just fine. And here I am.”

“How’d you get in?”

For answer, Kriegesmann dangles a ring of keys. “You forget. I’m the landlord.”

“Funny. I thought that was your father.”

A flush spreads across Kriegesmann’s face, pale in the early light, but he says evenly, “For the time being.”

Koda moves toward him, out of the east light that silhouettes her against the window. His gaze follows her, half appraising, half hungry. “Does he know you’re here?”

“Actually, it was his idea. We need someone with medical skills at Elk Mountain.” He shrugs. “We have plenty of food, relative safety, some of the comforts of civilization. It beats wandering around in the mountains.”

Crossing behind him, Koda is faintly surprised to find the door is not locked. That must mean there are more armed men out in front, which is where she wants them. Holding it open, she says, “Then tell Julius I appreciate his offer, but Annie and I need to get on to Salt Lake. It’s been nice knowing you, etc., etc.. Now get out.”

“Jeez, aren’t you the grateful one. How about, ‘Thank you for the good food, Ari.’ Or, ‘Thanks for letting us spend the night in the cabin.'”

“Thanks for the good food, Ari,” she says. Her sight narrows, hunter-vision pinpointing him in a cloud of darkness. With an effort she shakes it off. She does not want to have to shoot him. That would take time she does not have. “Thanks for letting us spend the night in the cabin. Now get your ass out of here.”

“Well, see, it’s not quite that simple.” He rises easily, stretching. Strutting. He comes to face her across the open door. “It’s not just doctors we need. You may have noticed we’ve got a surplus of men.”

“I noticed.”

” Well, then. We need women. Healthy women who can have kids. You, for instance.” He gestures toward the staircase. “Your little friend, for instance. You could be very comfortable here, you know.”

“Is that a proposal? I decline.” It requires all her strength to keep the contempt out of her voice. She does not want to goad him into a demonstration of his manhood here and now. The darkness closes in on her sight again. Gods, the stupid arrogance of the idiot.

Laying his hand on the door, Kriegesmann jerks it shut with a slam. “I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Get used to it.”

To the end of her life, she will never know how she manages not to laugh in his face. Instead, she steps back, and in one swift motion draws her pistol and fires three times past his head. The plate glass in the tall windows shatters and falls to the deck, and as Kriegesmann jerks around to follow the sudden sound, she darts around him, snatches his rifle off the table and sprints for the stair. Grasping the center post to swing her herself up the spiral two steps at a time, she never pauses to look behind her. From outside, she can hear shouting. That is good; that means that the idiots under the window are now with the presumed idiots at the front, reinforcing their inglorious leader.

Kirsten, her own gun in hand, stands at the head of the stairs, one foot on the first tread. She backs up, relief clear in her face as Koda steps out into the loft. The skylight leans against the wall by the bed, nothing now between them and the pines that tower over the roof.

She answers the unspoken question. “I broke some windows, that’s all. Give me a hand here—”

Together they pull the bed over to cover the stair head. It will not keep the men out for long; what will keep them out longer is the belief that she and Kirsten are holed up in the loft with a small arsenal. With luck, they will be long gone by the time the ruse is discovered.

“The packs?”

“Already out on the roof.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Making a stirrup of her hands, Koda boosts Kirsten up and halfway through the open skylight. Anchoring herself by the frame, Kirsten scrambles the rest of the way through and scoots over to one side. Asimov is next. Dakota gives him a pat and a “Good boy,” then lifts him through, halfway into Kirsten’s lap. Last Koda grasps the edge of the opening and levers herself up onto the shingles. The pine branches grow thick along this stretch of the roof, giving them at least some cover from below. Not that that will matter in a second or two.

From here, the slide looks decidedly longer and steeper than it did from below. Asi, looking down, gives an anxious whine, scrabbling against the rough surface with his nails. There is no time to waste thinking about it. Before Koda can speak, Kirsten gives herself a shove and goes hurtling down the slope, bumping along the shingles with Asi still halfway across her. Koda follows, coming off the edge of the roof six feet above the ground with a somersault that lands her, if not on her feet, at least not on her head or on her rifle. Kirsten, beside her, unfolds upward with a groan, while Asimov dances around her, tongue lolling. “Chirst, you beast,” Kirsten says, and it is not at all clear whether she means her dog or her lover. Then they are running, all three, for the line of woods behind the house, Koda with her rifle in her hands, Kirsten’s finger on the trigger of her automatic. From behind them comes shouting, the sounds of a coalescing mob. A single gunshot cracks the air, followed by a full-throated roar from a dozen throats.

Sprinting among the trees, leaping the tussocks of undergrowth that bar their way, Kirsten pants, “Y’know—I’m—not sure—that’s—all—about us.”

“I don’t think it is,” Koda answers without breaking her stride.

“They want—what I think they want?”

“Yeah. And Ari’s—” Koda pauses to duck under a low branch that bars their way—”got the Oedipal thing bad. Gonna overthow papa.”

Ahead lies the main drive to the lodge. Koda pulls up, motioning Kirsten and Asi to halt, and listens. The shouting of the idiot posse comes to them through the trees, along the side path that leads to the cabin. Faintly, from the tarmac that leads past the headquarters-cum-palace, comes the sound of running feet. A dozen or so, coming on fast. Shit. Koda pumps a round into the chamber of the 30.06; Kirsten, her mouth drawn in a grim line, pulls back the slide on her pistol. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kirsten answers, and they burst out of the trees onto the road just as Tanya and Elaine, three other armed women behind them, come pelting around the bend of the road.

But Tanya yells, “Go!” motioning them across the road with the sweep of her arm. “I’ll deal with them!”

With a salute of thanks, Koda and Kirsten, Asi loping full out beside them, sprint across the road and into the deep woods. Behind them gunfire erupts in a rapid exchange. The sound fades as the trees, towering pines and spruce, close about them, fallen needles silencing their steps as they become shadows in the darkness only, running ahead of the sun.

*******

At evening, they camp on the shoulder of the Medicine Bow Range. The Platte runs blue below them, its course marked with brilliant splashes of color: the scarlet of Indian Paintbrush, golden yellow columbines, lupines in rose and purple. Snow blankets the high ridges of the mountains that rear toward the sky behind them. A faint breeze, chill from its passage over the latest fall, winds about them as they sit by the remains of their fire, their pots scoured and stowed, their supper of jerky and tinned beans lying comfortable if not tasty in their bellies. Asi, oblivious, lies snoring in the warmth.

“I’m going to get up any minute and get into the tent,” Koda says, smoothing Kirsten’s hair against her shoulder. “Any minute now.”

“Mmmm,” says Kirsten. “Just drag me in after you.”

After a moment, Koda says, “Those are pretty big mountains. You wanna go over or run parallel to ’em down into Colorado?”

“You’re supposed to be the trusty native guide. Which way’s quicker?”

“Over, probably.”

“Over it is, then.

“Know something?”

“What?”

“I’m never gonna say something’s no skin off my ass again. I’m almost scared to take my pants off and look at the damage.”

“Want me to take ’em off for you?”

Koda flashes her a grin. “Why, Ms. President. I thought you’d never ask.”

*******

“Looks like rain soon,” Kirsten observes as she looks up at the sky and its rapid gather of clouds like guests to a party they absolutely cannot miss. Her breath comes hard and fast from the exertion of climbing nearly (to her) vertical grades with not a level plane in sight. She walks with the aid of a stout stick nearly as tall as she is. Asi lopes along happily, occasionally darting off the game trail they are following to investigate something interesting to his dog senses. Wiyo easily paces them high above, riding the currents of the increasingly chilly air.

They have made good time since The Elk Mountain Incident—as Kirsten is coming to call it, capital letters and all. They’d managed to scare up a couple of mountain bikes that had gotten them a good long way before a blown out tire ended that adventure for good. Not that it would have mattered soon anyway. The grades they were now climbing were too steep to even entertain the notion of riding a bike, unless one was Greg LeMonde, a title neither of them claimed.

Cars, of course, were out. Even if gas hadn’t been a problem, which it was, and they had been able to find one that would start after sitting idle for six or more months, which they hadn’t, riding in a moving vehicle might as well have painted a target on their heads, together with a sign reading “KIRSTEN KING IS HERE!!! COME AND GET HER, BOYS!!”

Androids do not drive cars.

While continuing her easy, long-legged stride, Koda cants her head, nostrils flaring as she scents the air. “Not rain,” she murmurs. “Snow. And a lot of it by the look of those clouds.”

“Not that I’m a weatherman or anything,” Kirsten replies, chuckling, “but in case you’ve forgotten, it’s July, love. It doesn’t snow in July.”

“Up here it can. Weather patterns are different up this high. A July snowstorm isn’t all that uncommon. People can get tricked up here sometimes, and come unprepared.”

“If you start making Donner party cracks,” Kirsten states with a nervous chuckle, “I’m gonna start running back down this damn mountain as fast as my slowly blistering feet will carry me.”

Koda smiles. “We’ll be alright. We’ve got a little time yet to find shelter.”

Kirsten looks around, seeing nothing but trees, trees, bushes, and more trees. “Um…I don’t want to sound alarmist or anything, but I haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling a town for hours. Hell, I haven’t seen anything resembling a house for hours.”

“We’ll find something. C’mon.”

With an exasperated sigh, Kirsten trudges on, every so often taking a wary glance at the clouds continuing to build and stealing the last of the bright blue of the sky.

******

Heavy flurries are threatening to turn into a full-out blizzard as Dakota leads them deeper into the forest. Her eyes constantly scan, ears primed for any sounds of danger. Asi ranges back and forth in front of them, nose to the ground and tail held at stiff attention. Though Kirsten trusts Dakota with her life, her old childhood fears of being lost in the woods have sprung to the surface with the turning of the weather, and though a chill wind is now blowing, a greasy sweat dots the exposed surfaces of her skin, dripping into her eyes and causing them to sting.

Suddenly, Asi’s haunches stiffen and he lets go a volley of barks that almost sends Kirsten into orbit. She steps closer to Dakota as a huge flock of birds rises, screeching their displeasure. To her surpise, her lover seems quite relaxed, even smiling as she eyes the angry birds. “I don’t see what’s so funny,” she snipes, angry more at herself for her jittery nerves than at her partner’s seemingly inappropriate sense of humor. “For all we know, he could be barking at a grizzly.”

“It’s no grizzly,” Koda replies, still smiling as she meets her lover’s eyes. “Birds wouldn’t be roosting around a bear.”

“So…what is it then?”

“You’ll see.”

“It” turns out to be a shack, though to use the term does great disservice to shacks everywhere. Short and squat, perhaps eight feet to a side if that, it has the faintly listing look of a party-goer after one too many shots of Cuervo. The only window peers out at the world through shattered glass, and the door, or what’s left of it, hangs forlornly from one rusted hinge. The roof, minus most of what passes for its shingles, is slightly canted and the rocks from a fireplace chimney rise from it like a strangely shaped mushroom.

To Dakota, it looks like nothing so much as a long abandoned ice-fishing shanty, though she knows that the nearest body of serviceable water is miles away in any direction. Still….

“Well, it’s not the Watergate, but it’s got a roof.”

At this point in time, Kirsten is all in favor of anything that involves protection from the hard-driving snow and the wind that cuts through her light windbreaker like the blade of a knife. She takes a step forward, only to be held back by Dakota, who unshoulders her rifle and aims for the door.

“I thought you said there wasn’t any danger?”

“No, I said there weren’t any grizzlies,” Koda replies, smirking. “Stay here a second. I’ll be right back.”

Confident in being obeyed, Koda steps easily forward and nudges the door open with the nose of her weapon. It gives way grudgingly, squealing its protest via its one rusted hinge. The strong odor of animal spoor assaults her nostrils, but the scent is nowhere near as strong as it would be had it been currently occupied, so she relaxes and steps inside. Aside from the aforementioned spoor and spiderwebs festooning the corners like forgotten party streamers, the shack is abandoned. Warped floorboards bear dark stains and the walls have jagged cracks running through them, but even so, the place seems relatively sound for all that.

“Wowza. A little ripe, huh?” Kirsten’s voice sounds beside her left elbow and she turns her head to gaze down into the shining emeralds of her partner.

“I thought I told you to stay put?”

“So you did,” is the complacent reply. “The fault in your logic is thinking that I’d actually obey. And since I’m the President and you’re only the chief cook and bottle washer, well….” Kirsten’s tone is light and playful. “Besides, I didn’t want you having any fun without me.”

“Oh yeah. Fun.”

Setting her rifle to stand in one corner, Koda, after a questioning eyebrow toward her partner, liberates Kirsten of her walking stick and walks to the good-sized fireplace taking up almost one entire wall. Squatting on her haunches, she maneuvers the stick up the chimney and pokes. A soft rain of elderly, almost white ash filters down, together with sticks, twigs, leaves, and part of a very old bird’s nest, sans birds. “Flue’s clear.” With a nod of satisfaction, she hands Kirsten back her stick and rises gracefully to her full height, dusting off her hands. “I’ll go out and get us some firewood before the storm gets much worse, then we’ll figure out how to close off that window and get some warmth in here.”

“Hang on a second,” Kirsten says, unshouldering her pack, unzipping it, and pulling out one of their tightly rolled blankets. “Throw this around your shoulders. It’s too damn cold out there to be walking around in just a shirt.”

“Best to keep our blankets dry,” Koda counters. “See if my heavy flannel is in there. I won’t be out long.”

Digging further, Kirsten comes up with Koda’s thick, lined flannel shirt, and she tosses the garment over. She watches as her lover shoulders it on and flips her braid out from beneath the neckline. “Be careful out there, alright?”

Koda responds by kissing her lightly; a kiss which quickly deepens as their bodies realize exactly, to the very second, how long it has been since they have last made love. The nights of late have found them both so bone tired that it has been all they can do just to strip and slide into their joined sleeping bags before falling deeply asleep, huddled closely together. “Hold that thought.” Koda’s voice is suspiciously husky as they finally break for air, hearts pounding in tandem.

“Hurry back,” Kirsten replies on a breath that is just as ragged.

******

The wind howls as it soughs through the trees like an express train headed east. Already, half an inch coats the summer-warm ground, and more accumulates as the seconds pass. Practically snow-blind by the driving blizzard, Koda hunts for firewood on instinct, straying near the deciduous trees with their new growth covered in crystals of virgin white. Within twenty minutes, she has all the wood she can carry bundled in a more or less neat stack, and is silently thanking her father for many such a chore in her growing-up years. She picks her way carefully through the newfallen snow, her inate sense of direction leading her surely to the small shack in the middle of nowhere that they’ve chosen as their temporary—she hopes—shelter.

“Get in here!” Kirsten shouts to be heard over the shriek of the wind, all but pulling Dakota through the doorway. “God, you’re soaked all the way through!”

“That’ll be remedied soon enough,” she replies, walking to the fireplace and setting down the branches she’s managed to forage. Her fingers, quite numb from the cold, are sluggish to cooperate and Kirsten, seeing this, kneels down to help, scowling at her.

“You just get out of those soaked clothes. I’ll start the fire.”

Koda’s stiffening knees send out twin bolts of pain as she rises, and she walks gingerly back to where Kirsten has laid their packs, rummaging about for some warm, dry clothing. She takes in a deep breath, and is pleasantly surprised at the vast reduction in rank odor permeating the place. “Nice,” she hums.

“House-cleaning for backwoods shacks 101,” Kirsten replies, shaking out a wooden match from the waterproof tube and lighting it on the first strike. “Find a branch with dead leaves—instant broom.”

“Learned that from the felonious Martha did you?”

“Ha. Ha. I’ll have you know that beneath my bookish looks and geeky charm lurks a genuine Rosie the Riviter.”

“Mm,” Koda’s liquid voice sounds right next to her ear, “I like your bookish looks and geeky charm.”

“Jesus!” Kirsten utters, as much at the sudden onrush of hormones as at the fact that she has almost burned herself to a crisp. “Honey, I love you, but I think I learned in Girl Scouts that it’s unwise to seduce someone when they’re trying to start a fire. At least…one in a fireplace.”

“Interesting troop you belonged to, canteskuye.”

“You have no idea,” Kirsten purrs, this time managing to get the tinder to light underneath the larger branches and logs.

“What else did they teach you?”

Kirsten shoots her a coy look from beneath partially lowered lashes. “Get out of those cold, wet clothes, and you just might find out.”

“You must have gotten the incentivising for fun and profit merit badge.”

“Frist time out,” Kirsten replies smugly. “Now scoot!”

“Consider me scooted.”

As she turns away, Koda notices another improvement in the shack. Kirsten has used her bright yellow rain poncho as a windbreak, using their roll of duck tape to lash it securely over the hole masquerading as a window. Added to the now burning fire, the warmth is palpable, and Koda lets go a shiver as the pins and needles of sensation rush into her warming skin.

“You okay?” Kirsten asks, moving over to her side and helping her remove the sopping garments.

“Getting better. Nice job with the window, Rosie. Have any more talents you haven’t shared?”

“Maybe one or two,” Kirsten replies, grinning. “However, they still don’t include cooking worth a squat so…any suggestions?”

“Trail rations, at least for tonight. And some hot tea to wash them down with.”

Kirsten’s lips mou. “I could have done that.”

“True,” Koda replies, pretending to consider. “I suppose I could open the door and invite a couple of rabbits to hop into the stew pot—assuming we had one—but I think, personally, that they’d rather take their chances with the blizzard.”

“Mm. You have a point there. Tell you what, I’ll scare up our jerkey and crackers, and you heat up the water for tea. Sound fair?”

“More than.” Slipping on her loose sweatpants, she moves to their gear and pulls out the stacked cooking gear they picked up from the camping store, pours some water from one of their canteens into the largest pot, and sits it on the heath to warm. After setting out a couple of tea-bags, she moves to the door and, with a bit of effort, manages to get it seated more or less securely into its swollen, warped frame. By the time she’s completed that task, the water is gently steaming in its pot, and she returns to the fireplace and pours the water into two travel mugs, allowing the tea to steep.

Kirsten has already laid their sleeping bags atop a thick blanket, and has used a second blanket to cover the blackened floor. Their simple fare sits atop this blanket, several pieces of jerky, a tube of crackers, and some cheese she’d liberated from a holiday basket some weeks back. It’s not a feast, no, but when she thinks about it, it’s not too different from the cardboard tasting microwave dinners she’d used to eat when she was living in the lap of civilization—when she remembered to eat at all, that is.

And, she thinks, looking over at the beauty who comes to sit comfortably by her side, tea mugs in hand, the company is infinitely preferable.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Koda remarks, tossing a piece of jerky to Asi, who sets to with vigor.

“Is that the going rate these days?” She chuckles. “Actually, I was just sitting here thinking that there could be worse places to be than holed up with you in some shanty eating cold food and waiting out a blizzard.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Home, for instance. I mean…the home before all this started.”

Koda thinks for a moment. “What would you be doing if you were there instead of here?”

“What is it, about six or so?”

“Thereabouts.” Neither wears a watch, but, as with many things in this brave new world, they’ve learned to get by without them.

“I’d probably still be at work. I never left much before nine or so.”

“Hillary kept you running ragged, huh?”

Kirsten smiles. “Nah. I was pretty much a workaholic anyway. I was doing something I loved, and there really wasn’t anything for me back home…”—she is interrupted by a rather outraged whine—”except for Asimov, of course, I’d never forget you boy.” She ruffles him behind the ears, earning a grunting acceptance of her oblique apology. “How ’bout you?”

“Mm, pretty much the same thing,” Koda remarks around a mouthful of tea. “I usually kept my clinic open till late. More often than not, Wash or one of my other brothers would be down helping, and I’d drive them back home and take dinner with the family. I’d usually hang out with them for a bit, see if there were any chores that needed doing, then drive home. One last check of my patients, and I’d head to the house for bed.” She shrugs. “With Tali gone, there really wasn’t much else to do.”

With the mention of Tali’s name, Kirsten feels a burst of insecurity, but it’s more of an echo now, not the sharp, bitter tang she might have felt not three months before. She smiles internally, pleased at the growth she can feel in herself. I’m getting there, she thinks. I might not be all the way yet, but I’m getting there. She blinks, startled as a tin cup clinks softly against her own, and looks up into Dakota’s soft, loving eyes.

“To us, and to the future we’ll build together.”

“To us,” she replies softly, the warmth rushing through her an answer to unuttered prayers.

The rest of their meager repast is eaten in comfortable silence between them. The shrieking of the storm outside is mellowed by the cheery crackle of the fire. And though the shacks cracked walls and questionable roof lets in some of the cold, the warmth between them more than makes up for it.

Kirsten sets her empty cup down on the blanket and wraps her arms around Dakota’s lean waist, snuggling her head against one well-muscled shoulder and sighing in contentment. Smiling, Koda sets her own cup down and trails her fingers through Kirsten’s now long hair, watching as the strands sift through her hand like rays of warm spring sunshine. “Cante mitawa,” she whispers as Kirsten tilts her head up and their mouths meet, slip away, then meet again in loving welcome. Kirsten’s lips part to the tender, inquisitive touch of Koda’s tongue, and she shivers with delight even as her hand slowly raises to cup her lover’s firm breast, caressing it with her thumb as she feels its warm weight in her palm. The hand in her hair tightens and she feels her neck arching as her head is drawn firmly, tenderly back, exposing the strong column of her neck to the ravenous lips, tongue and teeth of her lover. She shivers again, then moans as her bounding pulsepoint is nipped, then soothed with the tip of an amorous tongue. A low growl sounds from Koda’s throat as she removes Kirsten’s hand from her breast and eases the younger woman back onto the blanket, lips still attached to her throat, suckling at the pale, tender skin presented her. Her hands and fingers are demanding as they tug and pull at Kirsten’s T-shirt, easing it up until her lover’s breasts are exposed to the chill air and her voracious gaze.

“Beautiful,” she rasps. “So beautiful.” Her eyes are the sky of a moonlit night, her pupils black holes and Kirsten feels herself drawn into their vortex. Long fingers dance over the pale, silken flesh, circling nipples hard and aching even as her thigh slides up and seats itself between Kirsten’s legs, pressing and releasing and gently grinding. Kirsten trembles, then cries out softly as a warm, wet mouth moves down over her left breast, taking her in and sparking a fire that flows through her veins, making her limbs heavy and leaden as sharp teeth graze her nipple and a tongue soothes the sting.

As Koda moves over to Kirsten’s right breast, her hands dance down over belly and hips in long, slow, reverent strokes, then work the button to her jeans with expert precision. Rolling partially away, Dakota draws down the jeans and undergarments over strong thighs and tanned, toned calves, and tosses them in the direction of their packs. She then returns, grasping her lover’s legs and bending them, spreads them wide. Her tongue peeks out to wet her lips as her eyes feast on the evidence of Kirsten’s passion shining in the dancing light of the fire. With a soft groan, she eases back between those legs, rocking her pelvis until the soft fabric of her pants chafes against Kirsten’s swollen need.

“Oh God!” Kirsten gasps out, fingers digging into the ragged blanket.

“Mitawa,” Koda growls, circling her hips against Kirsten’s swollen wetness. “Mitawa.” Leaning forward so that her thick, black hair forms a curtain around them, she melds her lips to Kirsten’s, nipping her lower lip and tonguing the fold in slow, suggestive strokes and circles.

Kirsten’s legs move of their own accord, wrapping themselves around Koda’s waist, pulling her closer. “Please,” Kirsten whispers. “Please.”

Sliding her hands down to Kirsten’s hips—hot hands they are, so hot, searing her skin like brands—she begins to thrust in earnest, the soft cloth of her sweats giving her lover the exact friction she needs. Reaching up, Kirsten, in a burst of passionate strength, rips open Dakota’s T-shirt from hem to neck, then pulls the sweaty back down so that their breasts and bellies slip and slide along their lengths in time to their rocking thrusts. “More,” Kirsten moans, her body liquid fire. “More, please, God, more!”

Dakota’s lips blaze a trail over her cheek and jaw and latch onto the fleshy part of her lobe; her tongue traces the whirles and whorles, still rocking, still thrusting, meeting Kirsten’s need with her own in a circle that has no end. Her hand slips between them and she groans as liquid heat bathes her fingers in a benediction of passion.

“Mitawa,” she growls into Kirsten’s ear as she thrusts three fingers deep into her lover’s core, claiming her, filling her, loving her. Kirsten’s head slams back against the ground; her body arches like a bow bejeweled with sweat, every muscle taut and straining, every vein plump and thrumming just beneath the surface of her skin. Koda pulls her fingers out to the tips, twists, and thrusts back in with force, her eyes fluttering closed to her lover’s scream of ecstacy. Holding herself up by one trembling arm bent at the elbow, she begins thrusting in earnest, advancing and retreating to the rhythm of Kirsten’s wildly bucking hips. Her grunts of effort into Kirsten’s ear are low and guttural and send waves of sensation flowing through her and into her lover, causing Koda’s vision to blur and her head to spin. She slips out again, then adds a fourth finger to Kirsten’s delighted shout, and her thumb curls up to circle tease the engorged flesh, circling, circling, circling until Kirsten, finally, can take no more and crests on a thunderous wave of spiraling light that seems to have no end.

Sensing her lover is at her breaking point, Dakota begins to slow the rhythm and force of her thrusts, bringing Kirsten back to earth in the sweetest possible way. She lays butterfly kisses along closed eyelids and furrowed brow, on cheeks, and chin, and passion-swollen lips until finally Kirsten relaxes and drops back to the blanket, spent and gasping for breath. Koda gathers her in close, gently stroking hypersensitive skin, murmuring words of love and adoration she knows go likely unheard.

After several moments, emerald eyes flutter open, slightly dazed. “That was…you are….GOD.”

“No,” Koda jokes, “just a minion.”

Kirsten rolls to her side, grabbing tight to the t-shirt she’s ripped and pulling Koda belly to belly with her. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I could say it a million times a day, and it wouldn’t be enough. Never enough.”

“More than enough,” Koda replies softly, tilting her lover’s chin so that their eyes meet. “More than enough, cante mitawa.” Their lips come together again, and this time it is Kirsten who pulls away.

“I need to taste you,” she says urgently. “Now. Right now.”

Not needing to be told twice, Koda slips up to a sitting position and shucks off her sweats and undergarments in one easy move. As she moves to lay down on the blanket, Kirsten halts her. “No, sit up with your back against the wall. I want you to watch me. I want to watch you.”

The naked, cracked wall is scratchy on her now naked and sweating back, but that minor annoyance is completely forgotten as Kirsten, licking her lips, spreads Dakota’s long legs, bends them at the knee, and situates her lover’s feet flat on the floor. Then she lowers herself onto her belly and takes in a deep breath. The spicy, exotic scent of her lover’s arousal flows through her senses, kick-starting hormones that had just given up the ghost. Her mouth waters and her eyes, filled with joyous anticipation, catch the dark, blazing eyes of her lover watching her every move.

With a little smirk, she begins by kissing the insides of Koda’s long, muscular thighs, using her tongue to gather up all traces of her lover’s passion and moaning in happiness over the taste that is, to her, finer than anything this world has to offer. “Touch yourself,” she whispers, “your breasts. Make love to them as I make love to you. Here.” Dipping two fingers into Dakota’s wetness, she reaches up and paints her lover’s nipples with her own essence, which shines like molten gold in the light of the fire. Dakota’s hands come up to caress her breasts, using the moisture to stimulate her nipples until they are stiff peaks that ache with sensation. “Now watch,” Kirsten orders, dipping her head and using just the tip of her tongue to part Dakota’s lips. Dakota’s head slams back against the wall and she hisses with pleasure as she feels her lover’s talented tongue explore her folds, gently at first, then with more vigor. The first touch of Kirsten’s tongue on her clit almost sends her over, but she holds back with everything in her, squeezing her nipples and trying to keep her hips as steady as possible—a nearly impossible task given what Kirsten is now doing with her mouth.

Pursing her lips, Kirsten draws Koda inside, then traps the shaft with gentle teeth, leaving the turgid bud smooth and pulsing on her tongue. First lapping like a kitten to cream, then twisting and dancing, she finally settles down to a staccato rhythm that she knows Dakota particularly loves. Her lover is silent, like she usually is when being made love to, but Kirsten need only hear her labored breathing and feel the wiry tension in the inhumanly strong muscles clamped to her sides to know that she’s nearing the edge. With a final swirl of her tongue, she bites down as hard as she can without breaking the skin, and applies the perfect suction. One more touch of her tongue, a gentle, long lick, and Dakota climaxes, her entire body shuddering with the force of her explosion. Kirsten greedily drinks at her lover’s font, taking in every drop that springs from her like a waterfall until Dakota collapses, boneless, against the wall.

Getting to her knees, Kirsten moves forward and gathers her semi-conscious lover into her arms, stroking the sweat damp hair and whispering nonsense words into her ear as she recovers and comes back to planet earth.

“You…learned that in…Girl Scouts…did you?” Koda asks as strength and sensation finally opt to make a reappearance.

“That one I thought up on my own,” Kirsten replies cheekily. “I’m glad you liked it.”

“Liked it? As soon as I can find the top of my head around here, I’ll show you how much I liked it.”

Kirsten chuckles. “We’ve got plenty of time for that, my love. Right now, I think sleep’s calling.”

“Donwanna.”

“Come on, boneless one, time for bed.”

A truly aggrieved sigh follows, but Dakota allows Kirsten to help her to her knees and over to where their sleeping bags lie ready for them. They settle in, back to front, and Koda presses a kiss to Kirsten’s salty shoulder. “Love you.”

“I love you too, Dakota Rivers. I love you too.”

And with that, the two lovers fall into a well earned slumber.
CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE
From the depths of her dream, Dakota hears the whine of a dog desperate for relief. “Wash,” she mumbles, shifting beneath the blankets, “let the dog out.” Another whine, this one louder and even more desperate. “C’mon, Wash. She’s your dog. Let her out already!”

A somewhat grouchy, somewhat sleepy grumble sounds right next to her ear, causing her eyes to open. It comes to her, then, with sudden clarity that this stunning blonde vision is about as far from being her youngest brother as it is possible to get.

“All right. I’m up already. I’m up!”

“I’m sorry, love,” Koda replies, rolling up and wiping the sleep from her eyes. “I was dreaming. I’ll get him.”

“No, no,” Kirsten states, eyes still closed as she struggles out of the confining sleeping bag, “he’s my dog, I’ll let him out.”

Both manage to get to their feet at about the same time and spend a moment leaning against one another as they fully awaken to a new day. Asi whines again, all but crossing his legs. Kirsten swears his eyes are yellow. “You poor goober,” she sighs. “We forgot about you last night, didn’t we.”

His expression appears to say that yes, they did forget about him, but all will be forgiven if they would just please use their opposable thumbs to unlatch the door and let him outside…post haste, if you please.

Snagging the top blanket to wrap around herself, Kirsten stumbles to the door and, after a few good yanks, manages to pry it open. Asi takes one step out into the still raging blizzard and stops. A wide strip of fur from shoulder to tail spikes up and he tears off into the whiteness, barking insanely.

Kirsten freezes. “Asi—.”

“Asimov! No!!” Without thought, Dakota runs naked into the blizzard toward the sudden snarls—which aren’t Asi’s, and the pained yelp—which is.

“Dakota!!” Kirsten screams, already losing sight of her lover in the driving, thigh-deep snow. “Shit!!” Turning, she runs back into the house and grabs the first set of clothing she can lay her hands on, yanking on too-large sweatpants and her own t-shirt and shoving her feet into her still wet boots. Dakota’s gun is closest to hand, and she grabs it and heads back outside at a run. “Dakota!! Asimov!!”

“Stay back!” Dakota’s voice is commanding, though oddly flat, as if muffled by cotton batting.

Ignoring the order, Kirsten bounds into the snow, following the short trail Dakota has blazed, rifle cocked and at the ready—for what, she doesn’t know. Another series of high-pitched and piercing yelps is followed by an unearthly howling that all but freezes Kirsten’s heart in her chest. “Dakota!!!”

The howling cuts off abruptly and Koda reappears through the curtain of snow, blood covered and carrying Asi’s limp form in her arms. “Get my kit and build up a fire! Hurry!!”

Without further question, eyes wide and fearful, Kirsten turns again and races through the deep snow back into the shack. Setting the rifle in the corner, she hurries to the packs and quickly digs Koda’s first-aid kit from the larger one. Placing it on the sleeping bags, she then strides to the fireplace, drops to her knees, and starts feeding sticks into the smoldering fire, fanning it to hurry the process along. Dakota enters a moment later and lays Asimov gently down on the sleeping bags. “It’s okay, boy,” she says softly, stroking his fur, “you’re gonna be alright. I promise.”

The fire blazing, Kirsten comes to kneel beside her lover, placing the blanket over Koda’s icy shoulders and looking down at her beloved pet. A long, blood slice lays open his side from mid-chest to belly. Blood pours liberally from the cut, obscuring its depth. “What happened?” she asks, eyes brimming with tears.

“Wolverine. Get me some rags, t-shirts, anything to wipe this blood off, and some water. Hurry.”

Kirsten grabs random batches of clothing from their packs and starts shredding them as Koda opens her kit and removes several items. Her fingers are like ice, but the adrenaline rushing through her body causes her not to notice. Grabbing a rag from her lover, she covers the wound and presses hard. Blood soaks through quickly, and she tosses it away, retrieving another one and repeating the process until finally the blood from the gouge begins to slow to a trickle. Grabbing a pair of battery-operated clippers, she quickly and efficiently begins to shave away the fur around the gash until his skin is smooth to the touch. “Give me a couple of wet rags,” she orders.

Wet rags in hand, she carefully wipes the blood from the edges of the wound, breathing a sigh of internal relief as the cleansing reveals that the cut, while deep, does not break through the deepest barrier of skin. His organs are intact and undamaged. “Does he mind shots?” she asks, without looking up from her work.

“I…I don’t think so. Koda…?”

“Is he up to date on his rabies?”

“I…um….”

“Kirsten!”

“I’m thinking, alright!? It was maybe two weeks before everything went crazy. Asi stepped on a thorn or something and I took him to the Vet. He got a shot.”

“Was it rabies?”

“I don’t…yes, it was. His year was almost up, and the vet decided to give it to him then so I wouldn’t have to come back.”

“Good.”

“Do wolverines carry rabies?”

“They can, yes. Get another wet rag and try to keep the cut clean of blood so I can see what I’m doing.”

Swallowing hard, Kirsten does as asked, using her free hand to gently stroke Asi’s trembling flanks. Reaching into the kit, Koda removes several narrow syringes. “Lidocaine,” she explains to Kirsten. “It’ll deaden the area I need to stitch. Just a little prick, boy.”

Asi looks at her with offended eyes, and Koda chuckles softly. “Yeah, that’s what all you men say. Ok, here we go.” Pinching up his skin, she injects the drug into several places, then sits back, waiting for the medication to take effect.

“Dakota,” Kirsten says gently, “you need to get warmed up. You’re nothing but a block of ice.”

“I’m alright,” Koda replies firmly, shaking Kirsten’s arm from her shoulder. “I need to take care of the dog first.”

“But you can’t–.”

“I’m alright.” Reaching out, she touches the skin around the cut, nodding. “Okay, boy, time to stitch you up. Kirsten, sit over there near his head in case he gets a mind to bite me.”

“He’d never bite you!”

The look Koda gives her convinces her to switch positions, and a second later, she’s settled next to Asi, his head in her lap. “It’s gonna be okay, boy. You’re gonna be okay. Promise, ok?”

Raising calm eyes to his mistress, Asimov licks the inside of her wrist, causing her to giggle. “Stop, that tickles!”

Slipping powdered latex gloves on over her icy hands is an exercise in slow torture, but Dakota manages, and further manages to make the fine motor skills of her fingers work in picking up the threaded suture needle. “Ok, boy, here it comes.”

It takes a double row of stitches to close the deep wound, but Asi bears it well, without even a whimper, and soon Dakota’s work is done. A bit of antibiotic salve rubbed over the stitches, and she removes her bloodied gloves with a snap. “There, all done. It’ll leave a scar, but his fur should cover it, and if it doesn’t, he can brag to all his buddies about the time he went up against a wolverine and lived.” Then she looks directly at her patient. “And no licking, or I’ll have you looking like Mary, Queen of Scots in a heartbeat, understand me?”

Asi gives an affronted growl.

“Just remember what I said. I’ve got plastic collars right here and if you don’t want to be mistaken for a radar dish for the next week, no…licking. Got me?”

With a truly martyred sigh, Asi lays his head back in his mother’s lap and closes his eyes to further discussion on the matter. Kirsten looks up at Koda, eyes shining. “Thank you.”

Dakota gives a short nod. “Just trying to protect his family.”

“The wolverine?”

“Asimov. It was pretty brave. Stupid, but brave.”

Testing an unsure barometer, Kirsten gives a small smile. “Speaking of both of the above.” She inclines her head, scanning her lover’s naked, mottled and blood spattered body. “Please,” she whispers. “You helped Asi. Let me help you. Please?”

After a moment, Dakota nods, then tries to stand. Her knees refuse to bear her weight and she winds up sitting on the wet, bloody floor beneath her. Laying Asi’s head carefully down on the sleeping bag, Kirsten jumps to her feet and grabs the rest of their blankets, bundling her lover in them before going over to the fire and removing two pots of water she’d set to heat when she built up the blaze. Liberating some soap and clean cloths from their bags, she comes to her partner’s side and gently begins to clean the crusted blood from her limbs and body. She doesn’t miss the stiffening, nor the soft intake of breath when she reaches for Dakota’s left arm. Bringing it slowly out into the light, her eyes widen even as her face pales. “Dakota?” she asks, her voice tremoring. “Did Asimov bite you?”

“No,” Koda replies from between tightly gritted teeth. “Wolverine.”

“Oh, god.” She looks up into her lover’s pain shadowed eyes. “What do we do? What–?”

“It’s alright,” Dakota spits out. “Just clean it as best you can with soap and water and wrap it. I’ll give myself a couple of shots that should take care of it.”

“A couple of shots?? Dakota, did that wolverine have rabies???”

“There wasn’t time to tell. I was too busy trying to keep him from cutting me into filets.” She smiles slightly. “Relax. I have the vaccine here and as long as I take it, I’ll be fine. You know that.”

“Jesus, Dakota! You could have been killed out there!”

The smile disappears from Dakota’s face as if removed with acid. “It was either that, or let Asimov die. I saw a chance. I took it. End of story.”

Kirsten opens her mouth, then closes it with a snap of teeth. This isn’t time to argue, and she knows it. Dakota is in pain, and she concentrates on that, cleansing the wound with as gentle a touch as she can manage. “Jesus,” she whispers as she examines the angrily swollen puncture marks on her lover’s forearm. “Dakota, we need to get you to a doctor.”

“No, we have what we need right here. It would be worse trying to go out in this weather. Believe me, I’ll be fine.”

Kirsten has reservations, a whole ton of them, but pushes them back hard. “Ok,” she says instead, tossing the bloody rag away, “what now?”

“Throw those rags in the fire, then grab the syringe marked ‘rabies’ from my kit. There’s also a bottle of pills in there marked ‘Amoxicillin’. Get those too, and some water.”

By this time, the adrenaline she’s been working on has completely worn off and in its place, violent wracking shivers invade from top to toe, making even her guts clench with the force of the contractions. “You’re…gonna have to…give me…the shot…I think….”

“Whatever you need me to do, Koda. I’ll do it. Just show me how.”

“Hel…p…me l…lay down on my s..s..side.”

With a tenderness that surprises her, she is able to lay her lover on her side, cushioned by the sleeping bag. “Ok, what now?”

“Th…there’s a landmark. Be..between my hip and my asscheek. Almost a triangle…of muscle. Feel it?”

“I…I think so, yes.”

“G..good. Now, pinch up the skin, just…just grab it and pull. Then take the needle and stick it in, like you’re throwing a dart, right into the muscle.”

“I…um….”

“Just do it.”

Taking a deep breath, Kirsten wills her hand to stop shaking and inserts the needle. “It’s in.”

“I can feel it, yes. Now…now pull back a bit on the plunger. Just a little. Check…check for…b…blood. Is there any?”

“N-no. I don’t see any.”

“Good. Now p..p..push the pl..unger in, nice and sm…mooth. Like that, yes. Then remove the needle and clean the puncture with a clean rag to stop the bleeding.”

“Okay, it’s done. It’s not bleeding anymore.”

“P…perfect. You gi..gi..give go..go..good shots, Dr. K-king.”

“Thanks, but that’s the first and last shot I hope to ever give in my life, so we’ll keep that little talent a secret, shall we?”

“Wh-whatever you s..s..say, Doctor.”

“Now, how about those antibiotics? Can you drink some water?”

“I can try.”

Koda sticks out her tongue and Kirsten places the capsules in her mouth, then tilts the mouth of the canteen up to her lover’s lips. Koda takes a few choking swallows, enough to wash down the meds, then turns her head away. “N..no more right now…I’ll just..ch..choke on it.”

“Alright, then. It doesn’t take an MD to see that you’re suffering from exposure and hypothermia. So, Asi and I are going to make a Dakota sandwich and warm you up, whether you like it or not.”

“‘s the b..best i..i..idea I’ve h..h..heard all day.”

“It had better be, because it’s the only option you’re getting. Can you try and scoot over a little next to the dog?”

Koda manages a weak half-crawl, and collapses next to Asi, who immediately snuggles against her, back to front. Stripping, Kirsten slips into the bag and presses her warm front against Koda’s ice-cold back, then draws the covers over them all, praying with all that is in her that this will work.

*******

For the second time that day, Kirsten awakens to a whine from Asimov. Tension flooding her, she twists within the confines of the blankets and the body pressed against her. “Asi?!”

Whining again, Asi stares past Kirsten, his tongue bright pink and lolling from his mouth, his sides heaving with the strength of his panting.

“Asi? What’s wrong boy? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

He continues to look past her, still whining plaintively, and finally Kirsten’s sleep-numbed brain gets the message and she rolls over, and freezes, one hand moving up to cover her mouth. Dakota’s normally bronzed complexion is pale as curdled milk save for two high, clownish spots of color resting on her cheeks. Her entire body is bathed in sweat and suddenly, Kirsten can feel the immense heat radiating from her as from an oven. “Jesus!” she chastises herself as she scrambles from beneath the heavy, sodden blankets, “What was I thinking? How could I have fallen asleep?! Jesus! Koda? Sweetheart? Can you hear me?”

An unintelligible moan is her only response.

Throwing the blankets away from the makeshift bed, she stares in horror at Dakota’s arm. Massively discolored, it is swollen to nearly twice its normal side. The puncture marks constantly ooze bloody drainage mixed with yellow, foul-smelling pus, and, worst of all to Kirsten’s view, long red streaks radiate from the wound up the arm. “Toward her heart,” Kirsten whispers, hand against her own chest. “Oh god. Oh, god. Ok. Ok, Kirsten, think. Think. You can do this.” With a slightly shaking hand, she touches Dakota’s uninjured arm and squeezes, just the tiniest bit. “Dakota? Dakota, can you hear me? Honey, you need to wake up now, please.”

“Ina?” Koda rasps, eyes still tightly closed. Her soaked head thrashes back and forth on the makeshift pillow. “Ina?”

“No, sweetheart. It’s Kirsten. Please, you need to wake up now.”

“Wakinyan he. Wakinyan tuwapiIyuha te.”

“Sweetheart, Dakota,” a harder shake, “honey, wake up. You’re dreaming and I can’t understand you. Please, please wake up.”

“Kohipe, ina,” Koda moans, still thrashing desperately. “O opa le te. Tali.”

“Dakota! Please!!”

“Ikahe. Waciyeye.”

Kirsten pulls back, wringing her hands. “Ok, ok, you just need to calm down here and not panic. Now, she’s got a fever, and she’s delusional. That’s to be expected, right? So…what do you do for a fever?” She looks around. “Water. Cool water, on a rag. Wipe the sweat away, cool her off. And…aspirin. That’s good for a fever, right? Right. Okay, let’s just get this done.”

Grabbing one of their clean t-shirts and a canteen, Kirsten wets the cloth with the last of their fresh water. “I’ll need to melt some snow to get more,” she tells herself. “It’s gotta be pretty clean out here in the middle of nowhere. I hope.”

Once the rag is fully wet, she brings it to her lover’s face and gently bathes the sweat away, slightly comforted when Dakota immediately stops thrashing and seems to calm beneath her tender touch. “That’s right, sweetheart, just let me help you, ok? You’re gonna be alright. You are. You have to be.”

“Ina,” Koda whispers. “Kohipe, ina.”

“It’s alright, Dakota. It’s alright, sweetheart. I’m here. I’m right here.” Not sure what else to do, she begins to hum, slightly off key, a tune she’s heard Dakota hum in the past. Even if the tune isn’t exactly right, it seems to reach down into whatever hell Dakota is trapped in, and her labored breathing eases slightly as she seems to fall into a deeper sleep. Continuing to hum, Kirsten gently bathes the sweat from the rest of her lover’s body, leaving the brutally injured arm for last. She doesn’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that Koda shows absolutely no reaction to the cleansing of what has got to be a horribly painful wound.

“Ok,” she says, tossing that rag into the fire and listening to the flames’ hissing protest, “now Aspirin, and more Amoxicillin. Water first, though.” She rises to her feet a bit unsteadily, battling down a wave of dizziness that threatens to take her back down to her knees. “Oh no, you’re not going to get sick too. Not going to happen, so you can just forget that action. Asi? You stay here, boy. I’m going outside to get some snow for water. I’ll be right back.”

Slipping into some dry clothes and wet boots, she grabs the pots from the cooking kit and heads outside. The storm appears to be slowly tapering and Kirsten breathes a sigh of relief over this one bit of halfway decent news. Staying within a pace of the shack, she grabs handfuls of snow and packs it tightly into the three pots she carries. “Okay, this will have to do for now. I’ll just melt it over by the fire and see if I can get Dakota awake enough to swallow it with some pills.”

Satisfied with her course of action, she lifts the pots and heads back into the shack, kicking the door closed behind her. Asi lays full length next to a too-still Dakota, once again offering his warmth. “Thanks, boy,” Kirsten says, bringing the pots over to the hearth. “I’ll check on you and let you out in just a minute, ok? Just got to get some medicine into Koda first.”

The snow quickly melts and Kirsten pours some into one of their drinking cups, then roots through the packs for Aspirin and Amoxicillin. Two caplets of each in hand, she moves over to Koda’s side and sits cross-legged beside her. “Now for the hard part.”

Dakota’s head lolls like a corpse’s as Kirsten gently tries to lift it enough to get the cup to her lips. “Come on, sweetheart, you can do this. We can do this. Please.” Setting the cup down, she opens her lover’s mouth and slips all four caplets on her dry, discolored tongue. Then she retrieves the cup and starts to trickle the water in. Most of it runs harmlessly down Dakota’s cheek and chin. With a sigh, she tries again, this time using her thumb to close her lover’s mouth and one finger to gently stroke her throat, as a mother would when trying to get an infant to swallow formula. “Thank god,” she says when it works. “Oh, thank you, god.”

Taking away the soaked bundle of clothing she’s using as Dakota’s pillow, she replaces it with the last of their fresh sweats and gently replaces her lover’s head on the prop, tenderly stroking tendrils of wet hair away from her cheeks and brow. “Now you just rest, sweetheart, and let the meds do their work. Asi and I are right here and we’re not going to let anything happen to you. Just concentrate on getting well, ok?”

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she regains her feet, takes away the dirty clothes and cup and puts both in a corner to be dealt with later. “Okay, boy, your turn. How’s your side, huh?”

Asi obediently comes to her, easily and without a limp or obvious pain, and as she pets his great head, she looks at the wound on his flank. Despite her own serious injury, Dakota had done her job to perfection. The wound is clean, dry, and free of swelling or discoloration. “Another thing to be grateful for, huh? Ok, let’s let you outside to do your business and then come back and keep watch, alright?”

The snow has tapered off even more to isolated flurries when she opens the door. Asi goes bounding out and heads immediately for the blood-covered area where the corpse of the wolverine lies. Lifting his leg, he marks it, then turns away, sniffing at other trees, bushes, errant leaves, and whatever else strikes his fancy. “How did you kill it?” Kirsten wonders out loud. “You didn’t have a gun. Hell, you didn’t even have any clothes on. How did you kill it?”

The chill breeze gives no answer.

*******

Kirsten rouses from her watch from time to time to add wood to the fire and to stir up the embers. Its warm glow spreads over the stones of the hearth and the crude walls of the cabin, over their spread sleeping bags and Koda’s face. Kirsten is not sure how much of the flush of her lover’s skin is the flame’s reflection, how much is the burning of an inner fire. Her breathing seems more rapid now than the last time Kirsten checked, her lips dry. Kneeling beside the pallet, she turns the cover back from Dakota’s bandaged hand. The forearm strains tight against the wrappings, its swelling grossly unmistakable now where the flesh balloons around the elbow. Scarlet stains the gauze and lycra, bright against older, rust-colored spots. A bright yellow streak, fresh drainage, seeps through with the blood.

A chill runs along Kirsten’s spine. The infection from the bite has grown worse, spreading to adjacent tissues. Whatever it is—Staph? Strep? One of those flesh-eating megabugs?—is not responding to the Amoxicillin. If it gets into the bone, or goes systemic, into the blood, Koda may not be able to throw it off. She may not be able to throw it off, even now.

For the half-dozenth time, she rummages through Dakota’s kit, hoping to find something, anything, she’s overlooked. There’s a second antibiotic, Sulfamasomethingunpronounceable. Maybe if she gives it in addition to the Amoxy? Sometimes, she knows, drugs can be more than the sum of their parts. Breaking two of the large, white tablets from their foil-and-plastic blisters, she lifts Koda’s head from the rolled jeans and flannel shirt that serves as her pillow and slips the tablets into her mouth with a trickle of water. Without awakening, Dakota swallows, reflex taking over. With Asi beside her, Kirsten wraps her own hand around Koda’s and does the only thing she can do. She waits.

Kirsten walks a corridor filled with light. Her nylon-soled shoes make no sound against the tiled floor as she passes what seems to be an endless series of wide, numbered doors on her right, an equally endless series of tall windows on her left. Men and women in white coats and surgical scrubs pass her in a human stream, their elbows cocked to hold clipboards, stethoscopes draped over their shoulders, their pockets brimming with coiled wires and esoteric-looking instruments. Looking down, she sees that she, too, wears a lab coat and carries a file, the name blurred against its red label.

She reaches an intersecting corridor, marked by what is apparently a nurses’ station. An endless rank of white-clothed figures stares at monitor screens arrayed on the desk, so many it might almost be a computer lab. None of them moves or speaks to her, or raises a head to acknowledge her. It comes to her that she does not know where she is or why she is there. One of the nurses might know, but she hesitates. Perhaps something terrible will happen if she asks one of them a question. Or, perhaps, something terrible will happen if she does not ask. Galahad—no, not Galahad, one of those other impossibly priggish knights, she can’t remember his name—at the Grail Castle, too polite to ask the obvious and heal the King.

But that doesn’t make any sense. I’m the King.

Doctor King.

As if in response to her thought, the intercom crackles above her head. “Dr. King. Dr. King. Room 486 please. Stat. Dr. King, go to Room 486. Emergency.”

No single head turns away from its monitor. The human traffic continues to flow around her, oblivious. Kirsten begins to run, paying attention to the numbers on the rooms for the first time. 400. 410. She dodges around a meal cart, pushed by a young man who spares her not so much as a glance. 420. 440. She crosses a second intersecting hall, a third. 460. Her chest heaves with the effort; surely she has run half a mile, three-quarters of a mile since the intercom’s summons. 470. The corridor makes a double-dog leg turn, leading away from the bright hallway lit by windows. Here rooms run on either side of her, and she panics, almost skidding to a halt in her tracks. The numbers on the doors no longer march in sequence. She passes 239, then 863. But no, there is 472, and a bit further on, 475.

As she runs, the passage constricts and becomes darker, the lights above dimmer, the traffic diminished. Finally, at the end of the hall, lying now almost entirely in shadow, she comes to the door she seeks. Her breath coming in gasps that are part exhaustion, part fear, she pushes it open and brings her hands to her mouth, stifling a scream.

The room lies in near-total darkness, lit only by running LCD readouts on screens that rise up from the head of the hospital bed to the ceiling. In their flickering rainbow light, she can dimly make out Koda’s face on the body lying so still and stiff on the bed, a white sheet drawn up to its chin. Oddly, none of the instruments seem to be connected to her—no tape, no tubes, no needles.

Oh gods, no. It’s the morgue. No.

“No, it isn’t. Not quite.”

Kirsten follows the sound to the corner of the room. A white-coated figure stands there, the multi-colored lights playing about him like an acid-dream aura. The person takes a step forward, ostentatiously checking a Rolex the size of a saucer that lies against his slim brown wrist.

His brown furry wrist.

“There is not,” he says, “very much time.”

Another step forward, and Kirsten can see him clearly now, partly in the instrument lights, partly in the glow from the lighted dial of the immense watch. Bottle-bottom round spectacles perch over his pointed black nose, and a brushy tail, grey stripes and black protrudes from beneath the pleat of his lab coat. The hand that turns the Rolex so that she can see the time bears five long fingers, and no thumb.

“You!” she snaps. “What the hell—”

“Tch. Again with the manners. Your mother should hear you.”

“What the hell”– Kirsten can hear her voice rising, out of her control—”What the fuck are you doing here? I don’t need you! I need someone who can help!”

“On the other hand, your mother shouldn’t hear you. What a mouth you’ve got.” He gives an indignant sniff. “Besides, look where you are. Have some respect.”

Kirsten’s gaze returns to the still figure on the bed. She stares fixedly at the sheet for a moment, willing it to rise and fall with Dakota’s breath. It does not stir.

All the fight goes out of her, her spine slumping with the sudden weight that falls on her. “She’s dead,” Kirsten says in a voice so flat she does not recognize it as her own. “I couldn’t help her. The infection got out of hand—” She swallows hard against the dry contraction of her throat. “We didn’t have the medicine, and I couldn’t help—”

“And it’s all your fault, yadda yadda yadda. Suck it up. You can help.”

“Wha– Didn’t you hear me? The medicine doesn’t do any good! What are you going to do, give me somebody’s grandmother’s recipe for a magical herbal tea? She needs a doctor. She needs a hospital. She needs—”

“This prescription.” Tega extracts a notepad and a pen from his coat pocket and begins to write, holding the ballpoint between the middle joints of his third and fourth fingers. He tears off the script and passes it to her across the bed. “Here. Any questions?”

Kirsten glances down at the paper in her hand. Printed in fine, flowing letters across the top is the legend, W. T. Kunz, M.D., Ph.D., A.P.A., F.R.C.S., D.V.M., LL.D., K.C.B.E.

Half the alphabet soup she does not understand, and it occurs to her that that is probably just as well. Beneath it, in clear block print, is “Levaquin Injectable. 500 mg 2/day for 10 days. Packet 10 3cc syringes w/needles.” It is the most lucid prescription she has ever seen, and the most useless.

She says bitterly. “It might as well be skunk cabbage tea. Where the hell am I supposed to find this? There’s no Walgreen’s over the next ridge, or if there is, it’s looted.”

“How about the hospital pharmacy?” Tega cocks his head to one side, looking at her as if she is a slightly backward child.

“What hospital? There is no hospital, dammit! This is a dream. We’re marooned in some god-forsaken fishing shack in the god-damned middle of god-damn nowhere!”

“Craig,” says Tega.

“What? Who’s Craig?”

“Not who. Where. Over the state line in Colorado. There’s a clinic. In Craig. With medicines. You can fill the prescription there.”

“But—”

He glances at his watch again, steadying its immense dial with one hand. “Get out the map, put on your boots, and go. There isn’t much time.”

“Wait! What—”

The intercom interrupts her. “Dr. Kunz. Dr. Kunz to Emergency. Code Purple. Stat.”

“Gotta go, schweetheart. It’s been fun, and it’s been real, and get up off your ass and go get the meds.” With that he begins to fade, and the hospital room around him. Kirsten’s eyes snap open, to the now-familiar sight of the fire and Asimov’s anxious gaze, and the too-quiet form beneath the sleeping bag.

“Gods, what a damn dream—” Without thought, she raises a hand to rub at her aching forehead.

There is a paper in it. A paper that was not there before.

Hardly trusting her sight, let alone her mind, Kirsten looks down at the words that march across the corner of the Wyoming/Colorado map from Koda’s rucksack. In her own neat handwriting it says, “Levaquin Injectible. 500 mg/day for 10 days. Packet 10 3 cc syringes w/needles.”

“Ok,” she says, wiping her hands on her pants. The script crinkles in protest. “I can do this. I have to do this. Even if that nutty striped Marcus Welby wannabe from my very weird subconscious didn’t tell me, I’d still have to do it. So let’s get going. First things first. It’s gonna be a long hike, so I need to be dressed for it. Or as dressed as I can be, anyway.”

Slipping off her sweats, she tugs on a dirty pair of jeans, then pulls the sweats back on over them, then pulls Dakota’s sweats on over them, changing her appearance to that of a housewife who’s spent a little too much time with the bon-bons and soaps. They have two dry t-shirts left, and she pulls both of them on, then one of her own flannels, then one of Dakota’s, and finally Dakota’s heavily lined flannel that is more jacket than shirt. A third flannel is tied, babushka style, over her head. A pair of heavy, clean socks double as mittens. “I know, I know,” she remarks to Asi, who seems to be laughing at her, “I look like the bagperson from Hell, but at least I’ll be warm. I hope.” Three pairs of socks and her boots come last.

Fully dressed for whatever may come, she waddles over to Dakota and, with the effort of a small child in a full snowsuit, lowers herself to her knees. “I’ll be back soon, sweetheart. I promise you.” She strokes the damp hair from her partner’s forehead. “I’ll have the meds you need and you’ll be better in no time. Then we can finish this shit and get on with the rest of our lives, ok?” Tears sting her eyes and she swipes at them. “Just…hang in there while I’m gone, alright?” Bending still further, she places a tiny kiss on Dakota’s forehead, and a longer one on dry, cracked lips. “I love you, Dakota Rivers. Never forget that. Ever.”

Pulling away, she pauses for a moment, and looks up at the ceiling. “Ina Maka? I don’t know if you can hear me. Hell, I don’t even know if I believe you even exist. But Dakota does, I know that, and that’s enough for me. I don’t pray much—heck, I don’t pray at all, really, but I’m doing it now. Please, please watch over her while I’m gone, ok? I know that you and her are close, and you might be thinking of calling her to your side so you can be together all the time, but…don’t do it just yet, ok? I need her. I need her and I love her…so much. And if you really are up there, you know that. So please, just…watch over her for me, alright? Thanks.”

Struggling back to her feet, she takes one long, last look at her lover, then turns to her dog. “Guard her with your life, Asimov. I mean that. Do you understand me?”

A stern bark is her answer as she exits the cabin without looking back.
CHAPTER FIFTY SIX
With a soft grunt, Kirsten lays the crumpled map flat against a rock whose cap of snow has melted away in the warm summer sun. Removing her makeshift mittens, she pulls out the old-fashioned compass, surprised she still knows how to read one in these days of GPS tracking, takes a reading, and looks back down at the map, frowning. “The compass says I’m going the right way. The damn map says I’m going the right way. So would someone please tell me what the hell this mountain is doing here?!?”

The world around her is, unsurprisingly, silent on the issue.

“Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, three goddamn hours of walking for what?!?” She looks slowly left, and then right. The snow-covered cliff face, nearly vertical and reaching almost as high as the clouds, stretches to the horizon in both directions. The town of Craig is only five miles away. Five miles and an unscalable mountain away, that is. “Fuck! What now?” She can’t turn back. That much is certain. Just the memory of her lover, lying still and pale as death, fills her with a desperation that fires her nerve endings and urges her muscles into action. Any action.

“What I wouldn’t give for a goddamn pair of wings.”

Perfectly on cue, a piercing call sounds above her head, and as she looks up, she sees the trademark shape of a hawk circling above her. A disbelieving smile comes to her face. “Wiyo? Is that you, girl?”

The hawk, who is indeed Wiyo, calls out once more, then gracefully shoots in for a landing atop the rock where Kirsten’s map is perched. “It is you! God, it’s so good to see a friendly face around here.” She reaches out, but Wiyo takes a step back, not quite as trusting of this woman as her two-foot companion. Kirsten laughs. “That’s okay, girl. I was only wishing for wings. I wasn’t planning on stealing yours.” Sighing, she slumps forward, leaning her elbows on the sun-warmed rock, letting the heat of it bleed into her cold-numb body. “I hope Dakota’s doing ok. I hated leaving her. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done…but I had to do it. I have to. There isn’t any other choice. And now this…this…blasted mountain is keeping me from getting back to her.”

Wiyo cocks her head, dark eyes piercing and somehow frightfully aware. After a moment, she takes off from her perch on the rock, crying out her signature call. “Sorry, girl,” Kirsten says, watching her go, “I guess I’m not very good company. Be safe, wherever you’re off to.”

Which, it turns out, isn’t very far at all. The hawk lands atop a huge, snow-covered fir and screeches out again, twice.

“I’m sorry, girl,” Kirsten calls. “If you’re talking to me, I don’t understand you. Dakota would understand you, but she’s not here and I’m not her.” She looks around, slightly abashed. “Great, now I’m talking to birds. I’m definitely losing it here.”

Wiyo calls again, lifts off a bit from the top of the tree, and lands once more. “What? Are we playing charades? I don’t understand you, girl!”

With yet another call, Wiyo jumps from her perch and lands on the next pine over, fluttering her wings. If it were possible for a hawk to look supremely frustrated, Wiyo is accomplishing the task admirably.

“Ok, ok, I get it. You’re trying to tell me something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something alright.” Shoving her map and compass back into her pockets, she slogs through snow still up to her knees toward Wiyo’s current perch. Just as she arrives, the bird takes off, arrowing for another pine a hundred or so feet away. “Great. First it’s charades, now it’s tag. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Or maybe you are and you just can’t read a map. Or a compass.”

At the sixth hopscotch, and approximately a mile away from where she had stopped at the rock, Kirsten stands staring in amazement at a tiny pass through the mountain. “Holy Jesus! I never would have found this in a million years!” She looks over her shoulder at Wiyo, perched on yet another tree and presumably agreeing with her. “Yeah, I know, I’m not super tracker, but…thanks, Wiyo. I owe you one. And I’ll pay up. I promise.”

With a screeching call, Wiyo takes off once again into the skies, circles once, and is quickly gone from her sight.

*******

Craig, Colorado, a small city which, in its heyday, boasted a population of just under ten thousand souls, is a ghost-town. Wandering through its empty streets, Kirsten can’t help wishing for a set of eyes in the back of her head. Something about the town is eerie, though she can’t quite put her finger on just what that might be. Her raccoon hallucination hadn’t seen fit to give her the name of the clinic she is supposed to be raiding, nor its exact address, so she finds herself wasting yet more precious time trying to track down the medicine she needs to save her lover’s life.

Choosing a street more or less at random—more or less only because she has seen a physician’s shingle hung out on one of the well-tended houses and figures where the doctors are, a hospital can’t be all that far away—she lengthens her stride, peering fitfully at the sun which has already started its downward descent. The road she is on is narrow, curving, and steep, and as she breasts the hill, the clinic, or what remains of it, comes into full view. It had once, she surmises, been a rather beautiful place, as medical clinics go, with its broad expanse of lawn just now going to seed and a fantastic view of the mountainous wilderness seen in panorama like a postcard in a fancy boutique. It is now a mostly burned out hulk with the words “YOUR BABIES WERE MURDERED HERE” scrawled across its once-pleasant wood and stone facing in huge, red letters. “Great,” she sighs, unsurprised to feel the sting of tears, once again, pricking at her eyes. “I walk all this fucking way to find a bombed out abortion clinic. Shit!” Still, her desperate need presses her onward in the hope that something, anything, of value might yet be scavenged from the wreckage. “Please, God, just this once, ok? I’ll never ask for another thing again as long as I live.”

As prayers go, it’s been heard before, and many times at that, but she means every word with all of her heart and soul.

Stepping over fallen beams and shattered glass, she enters the clinic, wrinkling her nose at the stench of melted plastic and cordite that still permeates the air despite the obvious signs that the damage was done several months ago, at the very least. A fitful sun shines through what remains of the roof, turning the ugly scene oddly beautiful as the shards of glass sparkle like diamonds in the snow. At the rear of the reception area is a door that has somehow escaped the brunt of the blast. She walks to it and, with a hard yank, pulls it open. Beyond is more destruction. To the left, the walls and ceiling have collapsed, leaving whatever is beyond inaccessible to her. Straight ahead, a long corridor has, for the most part, been left to stand on its own. Taking out a small, but powerful, flashlight from her pocket, she switches it on and shines it down the undisturbed hallway. The walls are a soothing blue, and the doors, six to a side, are painted in cheerful primary colors. She walks slowly, cautiously, down this hallway, opening each door in its turn. All reveal neatly kept examination rooms with real beds instead of sterile tables, and all the high-tech medical equipment a prospective mother could want to be assured of the continuing health of her developing fetus.

The corridor ends with a stark white door, larger than the others, and bearing the legend: “Authorized Personnel Only”.

This door opens easily, and she steps through, into yet another corridor—sterile white, this time. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” she says, feeling a faint spark of hope bloom. There are several doorways with no doors to bar the view, and she walks to the first one, peering inside. A rather large centrifuge and other identifiable pieces of equipment identify this room as a lab. Her light reflects back at her, sparking off of many rows of glass tubes used for blood collection. The open cabinets reveal nothing of great interest, but she goes through them meticulously anyway on the off-chance that some needed item might be stored within. Coming up empty, she plays her light in a last sweep over the room and steps back into the hallway.

“Paydirt!” Her happy cry echoes through the empty corridor, though the squeaking of disturbed rats tell her the place is not exactly as empty as she might have liked. “Ok, time to find out if my furry, striped hallucination is worth the ulcer he’s giving me.”

Stepping into what obviously is the pharmacy portion of this little operation, she shines her flashlight over row after row of open cabinets, and several which appear to be securely locked. “Oh well, no narcotic bliss for me. Let’s see. Pills, pills, caplets, tablets, pills, pills, more pills, vials! Yes!!” Walking over to the cabinet containing the vials, she squints at the names on the boxes which house the ampoules of liquid medication. “Damn, I should have remembered my damn glasses. Stupid…. Ok, what do we have here. Sodium chloride. Potassium chloride. Gentamycin. Vancomycin. Zythromycin. Erythromycin. I’m not gonna even try to pronounce that one. Ampicillin. Amoxicillin. V-Cillin, Hello Levaquin!” She pulls down a box of twenty five 50cc vials. “Ok, they’re not pre-filled syringes, but the dose is right, and with my crash course in Shot Giving 101 yesterday, I think I can manage. Now all I have to do is find some syringes.”

Acting on a hunch, she pulls open a large drawer beneath the cabinet and finds a plethora of sterile-wrapped syringes of different sizes, from 10cc down to TB. Grabbing handfuls, she begins stuffing her pockets with as many as they can possibly carry. “Thank God there aren’t any cops around anymore. With my luck, I’d get arrested for drug pushing. I know it.” Another drawer reveals hundreds of alcohol prep packets, and she grabs those as well.

Pockets filled to overflowing, she takes a final look around, sees there isn’t anything else she thinks she’ll need, and steps back out into the corridor. “Alright, I think it’s time to blow this one-horse town and get back to where I belong.”

Without thinking, she turns the wrong way and faces a somber brown metal door with a safety bar across it and an “EMERGENCY EXIT” sign just below the wire-crossed window that is too high for her to see through. Seeing no reason to take the long way around, and well aware of the need (and desire) to get back to Dakota as quickly as possible, she ploughs ahead, hitting the safety bar and taking a step outside, before just as quickly reversing and allowing the door to slam closed in front of her. When it does, she sinks to her knees, breathing deeply and trying to convince herself that what she thinks she’s seen out there isn’t what she did, in fact, see. The visual imprint of the scene plays itself out behind her closed eyes, cutting her futile hopes in that direction to shards.

The first thing that comes to mind is a newsreel, seen long ago in some dusty History class in school—High School, she thinks, though it doesn’t really matter. Done in black and white, it showed, in incredibly vivid and heart-wrenching detail, scenes captured just after the liberation of the concentration camps of post World War II Poland. She remembers giant bulldozers pushing before them the emaciated bodies of dead Jews, Gypsies, and gays into gigantic earthen trenches.

The trenches are here, as they were there. She’s seen them, no matter what her mind tries to tell her. Instead of musselmen, however, these slashes in a weeping earth bear the bodies of infants. Not fetal abortions—even assuming an abortion clinic would toss their remains in some stinking, rat infested pit—but infants, and even, she would swear before court, toddlers.

“Jesus Christ,” she moans, her body rocking in a completely unconscious self comforting gesture. “Oh sweet Jesus Christ. What the hell is happening here?”

Her plaintive wail goes unnoticed and unremarked in the cavernous emptiness of the bombed out clinic. Even the rats, it seems, have no answers for her.

Ok, Kirsten, she thinks, putting her hands over her ears like a child not wanting to hear a fight between her parents, you’ve got to let this go for now. There’s nothing you can do here. There’s nothing anyone can do here. They’re dead, and dead they’ll stay. You’ve got someone out there who loves you and depends on you, and damnit, you’re not going to fuck this up. Get a hold of yourself and get the job done. Mourn later.

Thus bolstered, she rises to her feet. A spasm hits her belly, and everything she’s eaten for the day comes up in a large glut, pooling on the ground between her feet. Black speckles dart before her eyes and she stumbles blindly until her back is against the wall, her flashlight falling to the ground and breaking, plunging her into total darkness. She can feel panic begin to draw its icy talons down her spine. She fights it down as she fights the waves of nausea and the threat of fainting, digging down deep to a reserve of strength she senses is Dakota’s as much as her own—the bond they share. That same sense of her lover tells her that she’s running out of time, and that scares her far more than what she’s dealing with here. Her stomach settles and the dizziness and cold sweat of panic recede, enabling her to move away from the wall, hands in front of her like a blind woman. One booted foot slips in the mess she’s left, but she continues on, one hand skimming along the corridor wall until she’s able to find the door. She opens it quickly, and steps into the second hallway, this one just as night-black as the first. Hurrying now, a map of this corridor firmly in her head, she runs down the hall and grabs the doorknob, yanking it open and breathing a sigh of relief when the charred rubble of the waiting area appears before her.

It’s snowing again. Hard. The flakes fall in straight, heavy lines through the roof’s many holes, adding to the accumulation already on the floor from the earlier blizzard. Kirsten barely notices as she stumbles through the partly covered wreckage and into what remains of the day. Frosty breath jutting in twin streams through her nose, she secures her hard-won and newly gotten gain and begins to run.

******

The door to the shack opens reluctantly on its one squealing hinge. A gust of bitter wind enters and flows over Dakota’s uncovered, sweat-shiny body. She shivers, then stirs. Sunken eyes, ringed with deep, dark circles, flutter open, dazed. A huge wolf, gray-pelted and sleek, steps through the open door and looks down at Dakota, dark eyes wise, calm, and affectionate.

Dakota struggles to sit, but it too weak to do more than lift her head the merest inch from its makeshift pillow. “Wa Uspewicakiyapi? Am I dreaming?”

“No.” His voice is deep and comforting in her mind. “Nor do you walk the Blue Road, Mato Sica Kte.” (ed. Note: Killer of the Wolverine—loose translation.)

From the depths of her illness, Koda musters up a smile. “You saw that, huh?”

“Indeed. It was most…impressive.”

She looks away, hopeful that the slowly guttering fire hides the blush that creeps onto her cheeks, but knowing that her old teacher’s eyes are keen indeed.

“The reason I have come,” he continues, “is because your mate is in danger.”

Koda’s eyes snap back to him, wide and fearful. “My m….Kirsten?” She cranes her neck, looking frantically about the tiny shack. Asi lies, oblivious, next to her, deeply asleep. “Kirsten?!?”

As she struggles to rise, all thoughts of illness, and its attendant weakness, forgotten, Wa Uspewicakiyapi steps forward and places a forepaw on her shoulder, easily holding her to the floor. “As you are now, there is nothing you can do, young one. Your mate has gone to The Far Away Place to gather healing for your wound. Your body is too weak to follow.”

“You don’t understand! I have to–.”

“I understand well, my friend,” he replies, putting more of his weight down on her shoulder, sharp claws not quite digging into the tender flesh beneath them. “As you are now,” he repeats, words measured and deliberate, black eyes staring deeply into hers, willing her fevered, panicked mind to understand, “you cannot help her. Remember.”

“Remember what? I can’t –.”

Again she struggles and again he presses more of his weight into her. He can feel his time growing short. The solidness of his body begins to shift and grow insubstantial. “Remember my lessons. Remember where your true strength lies. Goodbye for now, my friend. I will be watching.”

“Wa Uspewicakiyapi! No!! Wait!!! Please!!”

“Remember….”

Her frail strength depleted, Dakota slumps back on the ersatz bed, shivering in pain and distress. “Remember. I need to remember….” Her gaze darts about the empty cabin, searching…searching. “Kirsten!! Kirsten, where are you?!? I have to find you! I have to….” She struggles, but it’s one that’s over before it has truly begun. Her body is weak, wrung out, her mind delirious with fever. Delirium tells her she is simply dreaming, but the more rational part of her mind, buried deep and struggling to maintain its hold, tells her the truth of the matter. She is not dreaming, and Kirsten is in danger.

“Remember,” she mutters to herself, dragging her good hand through her sweat-tangled hair. “Remember….”

Her eyes drift closed and a vision, not of Wa Usepwicakiyapi, but of her grandfather, appears in the darkness. His face is exactly as she remembers it; lines as deep as river-cut canyons running down from the corners of his somber mouth, braids iron gray and tightly wrapped, eyes stern, but always with a tiny twinkle of amusement sparking their pale depths. He holds in one gnarled hand a teaching stick. A feather, tied off with rawhide, dangles from its end.

In this vision, fever induced or otherwise, she sees herself as she was many years ago, a weaning-child, all pudgy arms and legs, a mop of coal-black hair, and pale blue eyes. Giggling with joy, this younger version of herself reaches for the pretty feather and topples forward, into the feather’s bright colors and the paleness of her grandfather’s eyes. Dakota finds herself merging with this younger version, and together they fall into the swirling void.

“Remember….”

*******

The blizzard has grown greatly in intensity, but Kirsten, at the bottom of a deep ravine, barely notices. Both sides of the ravine bear signs of her struggle. The back side, scuff and tumble marks from where she had, in her haste, blundered off the path and down the steep embankment, end over end, and the front side is covered in the broken branches and muddied snow that marks her scrambling, frantic attempts to get back out.

For the moment, she lies at the very bottom, bruised, aching, sore, and above all, tired. It does not seem like she is lying on snow at all, but rather a soft, warm bed that appears to promise her a restful sleep if only she’d close her eyes and sink into the gift it offers. The scientist in her knows the dangers of such seduction—hypothermia will kill her far more quickly than any animals who might slither down this cut in the earth looking for an easy meal. The medicine she has somehow managed to keep safe, though the thought of Dakota seems far away—hazy almost, as if she’s dreamed that part of her life. “Sleep,” she murmurs, laying her cheek into the soft, so very soft snow. “Just a little rest. I can try again when I’m stronger. She’ll understand.”

Some part deep within her fights this sudden lassitude, but the pull of seduction, like the Siren Song of old, spins its false promises to avidly listening ears. Her eyes begin to drift closed, by slow degrees until her outside view of the world is cut off completely in the darkness that follows.

A minute later, an hour, she isn’t sure, she is awakened by something that feels suspiciously like a tongue licking her cheek. “Ew! Dog kisses!” she mumbles, pushing the furred snout away. “C’mon, Asi, just a few more minutes, ok?”

A low, deep throated growl that could never have come from Asimov snaps Kirsten’s eyes open, and when she sees an enormous black wolf staring down at her, she forgets her aches, bruises, and tiredness and begins to crab-scrabble backward on hands and heels until her back is slammed into an overturned log, preventing her further retreat. Her heart slams against her ribs, her mouth going dry as cotton. Duck and cover. The scream dies in her throat. High, shrill sounds mean distressed prey, and Kirsten wants to do nothing to provoke the four-footed death in front of her. Making herself small against the log at her back, she curls up with her head down and her hands over her neck. “Nice wolf,” she sing-songs softly. “Niiiice wolf. You don’t want me for dinner, Mister…er….Miz Wolf. Really. I’m too tough. Bad for the digestion.” With effort, she clenches and unclenches her hands, stiff and chapped with the snow. “Nothing but gristle.”

Growling again, the wolf takes another step toward her, then sits down on its haunches, looking down at her. Kirsten, risking a glance upward, swears that she can see a look of expectancy in those eyes, even in her fear.

Those blue eyes.

Staring at them in frank wonder, she quite unconsciously echoes Dakota’s earlier words. “Am I dreaming? ….or dead?” She unfolds slightly from her crouch; a firm pinch to the inside of one reddened forearm answers that question quite nicely. “Ok. So you’re a blue eyed wolf. Tacoma said they weren’t as rare as I thought they were, and he should know, right? Right.” So why does it seem that this particular blue-eyed wolf is laughing at her?

Scooching forward a bit, the wolf places a fist-sized paw on Kirsten’s thigh, then cocks its head in a gesture so familiar that it steals her breath. Then the more rational (she believes) part of her mind reasserts itself and she laughs in self deprecation. “Must be hypothermia,” she mutters to herself, staring down at the huge paw still resting on her thigh. “Are you…uh…testing for choice cuts,” she hazards, “because I’m telling you, an old boot would taste better than me right now.”

After staring at her a moment longer, the wolf lowers its massive black head, takes her wrist, very gently, between its long, sharp teeth and tugs lightly. Startled, Kirsten cries out before realizing that she isn’t being hurt and that, in fact, like Wiyo, this animal is trying its best to communicate with her. And like Koda’s wolf, like her own–patron? mascot? familiar?–raccoon, this one must be at least in part a denizen of the spirit world. Gently she reaches out to touch the massive shoulder, knotted with muscle under the thick fur. Not entirely a spirit, then. At least this one doesn’t talk, or dress up in hospital whites. When the gentle tug comes again, she sighs and shakes her head sadly. “I…think I know what you’re trying to tell me,” she comments, feeling vaguely embarrassed to be having a rational discussion with a wild creature who, logically, should be ripping into her guts right now, “and I wish I could, but I’ve tried and I just can’t make it up there.” The tug comes again, and with a sigh, she gets stiffly to her feet, crying out softly as her twisted left ankle is forced to bear weight.

The wolf immediately drops her wrist and stares up at her with what Kirsten swears is concern blazing from those strangely colored eyes. She finds herself blushing. “I twisted my ankle falling into this blasted hellhole and twisted it again trying to get out. It…hasn’t been the best of days for me.”

Cocking its head again, the wolf then trots easily down the mouth of the gully, returning a moment later with a large, forked branch in its mouth.

“A crutch?” Kirsten asks incredulously. “You’ve brought me a crutch?” She stares down into the disconcerting eyes—”Who are you? What are you?”—and swears she feels something pressing at the recesses of her mind. Then, like a fleeting dream upon awakening, it is gone and she finds herself taking the stick from her newfound companion and propping it under her arm. It is slightly too short, and pokes at her uncomfortably, but it helps bear her weight and for that, she is grateful. “I…um…thank you. For this. It helps. Though I’m not sure how much good it’s going to do once we have to start climbing.”

Giving her one more look, the wolf turns and trots toward the incline several feet away. Shaking her head in bemusement, she follows, limping and wincing as the snow continues to fall around her. The truth of her prediction is borne out as, two steps into the hill, her good foot slips and she finds herself falling. The wolf is immediately there, and she instinctively wraps her arms around its well-muscled neck and chest, astonished at the easy strength and supple grace of the animal as it climbs the steep ravine, hauling her along as if she weighs no more than a sack of feathers. As it hits the steepest part of the incline, the wolf’s sharp claws slip and slide over the loose ground cover, but it digs in and continues climbing, scrabbling over the fallen branches and snow-slick leaves until finally, with a final heave of its sleek, muscled body, it brings them both over the lip and onto level ground once again.

When she feels the ground flatten beneath her, Kirsten releases her death-grip on the wolf and leans back, breathing deeply. She finds herself briefly alone as the animal disappears back down the ravine, then reappears, her crude crutch in its mouth. Still muddle-headed from the cold, she scrambles to her feet as best she can and gratefully retrieves the crutch from the she-wolf’s massive jaws. “Maybe you could come home with me and teach that trick to my dog Asimov. Not that…of course…I’m comparing you to my dog. Or any dog, actually. I’m…uh…pretty sure that’s an insult to you, being a wolf, and…I should probably stop babbling now, right? Right.” Once again, the wolf’s eyes seem to sparkle laughingly up at her. A thought comes to her as if from out of the blue, creasing the space between her brows in puzzlement before she rejects it as out of hand. “I’m losing it. I know I am. Gotta get back to Dakota.”

Settling the crutch securely as possible beneath her arm, she sets off, completely unsurprised when the she-wolf trots ahead in the same direction, looking back over her shoulder to make sure her companion is following.

*******

The low sun lays blue shadows on the snow, crusting now as the day’s melt begins to freeze with the falling temperature. Kirsten stumbles and slips as she crests the last slope leading up to the fishing shack, her attention wandering with lack of sleep and the increasing effort of setting one foot in front of the other. All feeling has gone in her legs, and she knows she is moving only because the wolf still paces steadily beside her as the landscape shifts. Her brain has gone numb, too, all fear gone, all feeling. For the last twelve hours, she has been driven only by will. She has not allowed herself to think of what she will do when she arrives at the cabin, still less of what she may find.

But she will be there. If she had gone, I would know.

The thought comes to her now, and with it the conviction of truth. She does not know how she would sense her lover’s death, nor why she is certain that Koda still lives. But she does not doubt, cannot doubt.

“Gonna make it girl,” she murmurs, perhaps to the wolf, perhaps to herself. “Gonna make it.”

For answer, the wolf glances up at her, a glint in her improbably blue eyes. The last of the light strikes white sheen from her fur, thick and lustrous even through the hunger and sleeplessness of the forced march from the Colorado line. That is strange, as is the fact that she has not seen the wolf eat or drink along the way.

Huh. What’s strange is that a wolf pulled you out of a ditch. What’s strange is that a wolf is trotting along beside you like a poodle.

Scratch that. You’re the poodle, King . She’s the one in charge here.

Almost as if she understands the thought, the wolf turns to Kirsten, tongue lolling in a wide canine smile. She moves closer, half-pushing, half-supporting Kirsten as she takes the last few steep steps to the crest of the rise, her bulk warm and solid against her leg. Below, the stream runs through the small valley, its floor in shadow now, the square shape of the hut clear along the rising curve of the hill on the other side. Kirsten sniffs the wind for the hint of smoke, but there is none. Koda has not been able to rise to stoke the fire. So much for the forlorn hope that she would return only to find Dakota up, dressed and full of vinegar, wondering where the hell she’d gone.

A frisson of fear runs down her spine. Dakota cannot, must not . . .. She cannot even think the words.

A different pressure then, the wolf’s nose cold and wet against Kirsten’s hand. The wolf looks up at her with that same heart-breakingly familiar sidewise glance, then gives one sharp bark, wheels and trots along the top of the rise to disappear into the stand of pines that runs along its western edge. Kirsten can just make out her shape, a shadow among the tall trunks, as she begins the descent to the other side.

“Hey, you sure you don’t want to get a signature on delivery?” The small joke bolsters her confidence, and she picks her way down the slope, splashes through the water without feeling its chill, and scrambles up the other side, slipping once and resorting to all-fours where the granite juts from the hillside in broken slabs. Vaguely she remembers that there is an easier path, but she cannot take time to find it in the gathering dark. Besides, the frontal assault is quicker.

At the door she pauses, gathering courage. With an effort of will she quiets her suddenly hammering heart, slows her breathing. It is going to be all right. She is in time. Koda will recover when she has the medicine. Tega said so.

Riiighht. Now you’re taking medical advice from a delusional raccoon.

Or maybe it’s not Tega who’s delusional.

Gently she pushes open the door. A blast of air greets her, colder than the evening breeze that now ghosts over the snow. The acrid smell of wet ashes greets her, mingled with the musty odor of unwashed human and unwalked dog. Asi whines, stretches and comes to meet her, his gait stiff from confinement and lack of exercise. “It’s okay, boy,” she says quietly. “We’ll go out in a minute. How’s Koda, huh?”

Asi whines again as she approaches the bed. The blanket rises and falls visibly with Koda’s chest, but her breath comes in small, rapid gasps. “All right,” Kirsten says softly, partly to herself, partly to Dakota. “All right. First thing, get some light in here. Then the shot. Then the fire.”

Kirsten turns up the wick of the Coleman lamp and lights it. Dakota’s face is pale almost as the puffs of condensate that form with each breath, frosting in the chill air. Her face is not so much pale as grey, its rich bronze faded to brass, her lips cracked and dry. A sliver of white shows between her eyelids, yet she does not wake.

“Okay,” Kirsten says, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. Out of her mind. “Lamp’s lit. Water.” From the canteen by the bed, she trickles a few drops into Koda’s mouth, raising her head to aid her swallowing. Dakota’s throat moves convulsively, a dry tongue running over her lips, and Kirsten dribbles more water from the flask. Twice more she repeats the process, then sets the water aside. No more putting off what she has to do. “Shot. Get it over with.”

Kirsten tears open the packet of syringes, and, holding the Levaquin ampoule close to the lamp, she pierces the seal and draws the fluid up to the mark. “All right,” she tells herself. “I can do this. Nothing to it. Just stick it in, push the plunger, that’s it.”

Kirsten pulls back the blanket, vacillating between arm and thigh. The arm is easier; one handed, she rolls up the left sleeve of Koda’s shirt and stabs the syringe down, her thumb driving the plunger home. With a sigh of relief, she recaps and discards the syringe. “Hey boy, how’s that? I didn’t panic and pull it out. Now we just gotta wait.” Wait for the medicine to work; wait for Koda’s burning skin to cool.

Waiting is something she has never had a talent for. Fifteen minutes of wild running about the small clearing and the desperate relief of a leg lifted against a tree burn off at least some of Asi’s tight-held energy, but Kirsten feels as though her nerves have wound into a tight spiral within her. Gods, what I wouldn’t give for a drink. Just a shot of bourbon, just one. Or a mouthful of old man Kriegesmann’s brandy.

But no such luxury is available, and she lays out a few strips of jerky for Asi and sets about rebuilding the fire. When it is burning nicely, she turns to Dakota. In the red light of the flames, her face seems touched with flame from within, the fever eating its way to the surface to show the white bone beneath. Carefully, Kirsten removes the bandages from the injured arm and hand; the skin lies drum-tight over the distended flesh. More carefully still, she wipes the dark blood and serum and oozing pus from the punctures made by the wolverine’s teeth. Red streaks run through the purpura that surrounds the wounds, and Kirsten forces down her fear, feeling the spring within her tighten another turn. “All right,” she mutters. “All right, damn you, you masked quack. You promised she’d be all right. She damned well better be, do you understand? Do you understand?”

That is not quite true, but she has no time for nuances. She intends to hold her delusion accountable, promise or not.

But all she can do now is replace the bandage, tuck the arm underneath the sleeping bag and wait. Somehow she manages to choke down a few bites of jerky, then settles in the one serviceable chair to keep vigil, Asi beside her.

She is never sure, after, what wakes her. She claws herself up out of the depths of a sleep she never intended to Asi’s sharp barking, the rustle of cloth, the sound of a voice. Weak and scratchy, vile with every four-letter word in the English language and others in a language she does not understand, but a living voice. Koda’s voice.

“Fuck. Shit. Burning up. Goddam. Gotta pee.” More rustling. “Damn. Hurts.”

Kirsten starts upright to see Koda struggling with the sleeping bag, half sitting up with one leg over the side of the bed. Her face, her hands, her throat are bright with sweat, her lank hair lying over her shoulder as wet as if she’d been standing in the rain. A huge wave of relief washes over Kirsten, and she throws her arms around Dakota. “I got you, love . I got you. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Goddam arm. Hurts like hell.”

“It’s okay, I’ve got something for it. What do you need?”

“Pee,” Koda says succinctly, and, wrapping her in the sleeping bag, Kirsten helps her outside into the first light of morning, the sun barely brushing the peak of the mountain behind them. Half, supporting, half carrying, Kirsten steers her back into the cabin, back to the bed. Lucid she may be, but Koda remains catastrophically weak, and subsides onto the narrow cot with a sigh. “How long?” she says.

Kirsten pauses to do the calculus of her journey. “A couple days, maybe three.” Gently she strokes Koda’s forehead, cool now beneath her touch. “You can go back to sleep in a few minutes. Just let me change the dressing again and give you your shot.”

“Mffph,” Koda says, covering her face with her good arm. “Gods. Stink. Mouth feels like a regiment camped in it for a month.” Then, “What shot?”

“Antibiotic. Levaquin,” Kirsten replies, pulling the injured hand toward her and beginning to unwind the gauze. It comes off slackly, the swelling already visibly reduced. The discoloration has also receded, crimson and purple lingering around the wounds themselves, but the surrounding flesh is clean, normal color returning. Koda flinches under her touch, and she bites her lip. “I’m sorry, love. It looks better, though.”

“Goddam nerves waking up. Where’d the AB come from?”

“A clinic a few miles away,” Kirsten lies without even thinking about it. She can tell Koda later about her dream, about the trek across the state line, about the wolf.

About the dead children.

Later. Much later.

She rewraps Koda’s arm and reaches for the Levaquin and the packet of syringes. Koda’s eyes follow her movements, and she gives the second injection with what she hopes is more aplomb than the first. Rummaging in her pack then, she finds the Vicodin and taps a pill out into the palm of her hand. “Here you go,” she says. “Something for the pain.”

“Dr. King,” Koda says, a faint smile turning up the corners of her mouth as she swallows the tablet. “How’d you know where to find an unlooted pharmacy?”

“Just followed directions.” And as Koda glances sharply up at her, “Later. Can you eat something?”

A half hour later, with Koda sleeping soundly, her breath slow and easy, Kirsten leans back in the chair, propping her feet up on the edge of the mattress. Dreamless sleep rises up about her, and she surrenders without a struggle.
CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN
Koda stirs her soup slowly, savoring the aroma of parsley and bay. For the first time since her fever broke, she can smell something besides her own tainted breath, and the steam from the dried herbs and reconstituted vegetables is the very perfume of Paradise. The bowl’s warmth also soothes her injured hand, and she shifts her grip to lay her wrist against the heat. That’s not to say that the Vicodin doesn’t help, too. So does the burnished feeling of her clean skin beneath clean clothes. It required a dozen pans of heated snowmelt and almost two hours, but with Kirsten’s help she has at last scrubbed the stink of illness off her.

She glances out the window of the fishing shack to where Kirsten has carried the sleeping bags to lay them in the open on a slab of dry stone. Snow still lies blue in the shadows under the pines, but where the sun strikes it has melted, running down the slope to swell the stream below. Kirsten stands just at its edge, spreading their laundry on a sandstone boulder that juts out into the water, making a narrow rapids. Asi has made himself comfortable on the grass beside her, belly turned up to the summer warmth, tongue lolling. A dark-crested Steller’s jay, its vivid blue a splash of color amid the dark needles of a balsam pine, pries at a cone with its bill, ignoring Wiyo where she floats high above aginst the open sky. Her cry floats down on the breeze, mingling with the song of a cardinal hen and the scolding of a tuft-eared squirrel. It is not a day to stay inside.

Carefully Koda pushes herself up from the edge of the bed. The Levaquin has done its work, and the infection is clearly under control. She is not so sure about her legs. Transferring her spoon to her bowl, she uses her right hand to steady herself as she progresses from bed to table, from table to door, and finally from the door to the trunk of a fallen larch halfway down to the water. She reaches it gratefully, steadying herself again as she sits and gives herself a moment to catch her breath.

I made it, though. Made it without help.

For a moment she simply sits, idly eating the soup and watching Kirsten’s neat, economical movements as she rinses out their spare shirts and underwear in the churning water, slapping them against the rocks, then smoothing them out to dry. In the past months, her skin has tanned to a rich bronze, her hair lightened under the sun and rain to the color and sheen of cornsilk. The waifish prettiness of the Kirsten King she had first met at the Minot android facility has gone, transformed into the taut beauty of a woman at home beneath earth and sky. Almost she could be Lakota.

But she is Lakota. Little by little, she is becoming a walker in two worlds. Kirsten King, President of the United States. Inktomi Zizi, warrior of the Lakota, wife of Tshunkmanitu-wakan Winan. That is something even Themunga will have to acknowledge.

Wanblee Wapka will help. So will Tacoma and her other brothers and sisters. Even Wiyo.

Her soup finished, Koda sets the bowl on the ground and slides down to sit in the grass, her back braced against the log. Lulled by the warmth, she feels her body grow heavy, her eyelids sliding shut. She should get up and go help Kirsten. But maybe a little nap first. Just a little one. Just a. . ..

She wakes to pressure of Kirsten’s body against hers, her still-bandaged left hand held lightly in her lover’s right. The bright head rests just as lightly on her shoulder, and she opens her eyes to its silver-gilt sheen. “Nun lila hopa.” She barely breathes the words, not wanting to wake Kirsten. “Nun lila hopa.”

“Thank you,” Kirsten says quite clearly, and Koda can just see the twitch of her mouth as the corners turn up in a smile. “I’m not asleep.”

“You should be, cante sukye. You need rest worse than I do.”

Kirsten lifts her head with a sigh. “I’m fine. Really. All it took was a couple nights’ good sleep.”

“That was quite a hike.” Koda cannot quite picture the map of northern Colorado and is not quite sure she would know Craig if she saw it, but she knows how far they are from the state line here on this mountain. She knows that the country gets no easier for a hundred miles or more. It is mostly vertical, just as this narrow valley is.

Kirsten shrugs. “Piece of cake, compared to that last high pass over the Medicine Bows. I went, I got the stuff, I came back. Nothing to it.”

“Mmm,” says Koda.

“What?”

“You never have said just what decided you to go to Craig. Instead of, say, Columbine. Or Steamboat Springs—that’s pretty close, too.”

Kirsten does not answer, and Koda begins to think she will not. Then she says, “It was him.”

Koda takes note of the unspoken capital H and italics. Him. “Who’s him?”

“Him. My pet delusion.”

There is only one male creature that Koda knows of that Kirsten regards, sporadically, as an hallucination. “Your raccoon, you mean? Your spirit animal?”

“Yeah.” There is a long pause. Then, “He showed up in a white coat and wrote a prescription. Dr. Kunz.”

The image floats up in her own mind, vivid, of a raccoon in a lab coat, stethoscope slung across his shoulders. With an effort, she keeps her face straight and says seriously, “For the Levaquin?”

“Yeah. And then he told me where to find it. I went, and it was there.”

Koda strokes Kirsten’s hair, running the fingers of her good hand through the silky strands. She may be Inktomi Zizi the warrior, but as a Lakota, she is still a work in progress. “You know, you’re going to offend him if you keep calling Wika Tegalega a delusion.”

“All right. An hallucination.”

“How would an hallucination know where to find the antibiotic?”

“My subconscious, that’s all.”

For a long moment, Koda remains silent. She can sense something held back, something besides Kirsten’s ambivalence about her encounter with another walker between worlds. Gently she says, “Do you think Wa Uspewikakiyape was an hallucination?”

“Your wolf? No!” Kirsten’s head comes up sharply. “I mean—I saw him, I—”

“And you saw your raccoon, too, didn’t you? I seem to remember he messed up your shoes in a very visible, tangible way.”

“Yeah, but—”

“But what?”

Very carefully Kirsten draws away from her, sitting back on her heels so that she can face Dakota. She says, “But it wasn’t just him. There was another—creature. A black wolf, with blue eyes. It pulled me up a snowbank when I twisted my ankle. It brought me a crutch. That’s what St. Bernards do. Not wolves.”

“Well, not as a rule,” Koda says mildly.

“But they do occasionally, huh? Black, blue-eyed wolves? Lakota shaman wolves.”

“Occasionally, yes.”

The breath goes out of Kirsten in a rush. “Oh boy. I’m not sure I– Shit.” She shakes her head as if to clear it. “But that’s normal in your culture, isn’t it? The fox out in the chicken house just may be Aunt Matilda, huh?”

“Great-Aunt Matilda,” Koda says solemnly, “is very fond of chicken. But she likes it fried. With gravy.”

“You’re laughing at me!”

“No.” She reaches out to draw Kirsten close again. “If it’s hard for you now, just let it go. No one’s going to ask you to accept things you’re uncomfortable with. Give it time.” Then, “What is it? There’s something else, isn’t there?”

With that, Kirsten turns to her again, her face against Koda’s shoulder, her hand gripping fiercely. Dakota feels her nod, an abrupt movement against her arm. “I didn’t want to tell you when you were so sick. I wanted to wait another day or two.”

“Tell me now. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it together.” Koda feels Kirsten’s muscles tense under her hand, her whole body going rigid. “Tell me.”

“They’re killing babies.” It comes out on one breath, desperate as a gasp for air in drowning water. “Newborns, infants, toddlers. They were all tossed out into a pit at the back of the clinic.”

“Just babies? No older kids, no adults?”

Kirsten shakes her head violently. “I don’t know. I didn’t see any. But I didn’t stay for a second look, either.”

It does not make sense. Not that the general slaughter of the uprising makes any. If you’re going to capture women to breed, go to great lengths to confine and impregnate them, presumably what you want is the babies. Any babies, given that the droids have not been exactly fastidious about the studs. So why destroy the desired product?

Maybe the droids had killed the boys? No livestock breeder keeps excess males. Bull calves become hamburger; all roosters but a few end up in the frying pan.

Clearly the droids are not eating the babies. Breeding slaves, maybe? But for whom? Slaves would not be culled by gender; every society that has ever bought and sold humans has valued strong male workers. Has valued breeding females, too, so at least that part fits. But if slaves, where is that market? Who are the buyers?

Finally she says, “I don’t understand it, cante sukye. I don’t understand it at all.” A shiver passes over her skin. Shadows have lengthened; the sun has dropped below the tops of the trees. “Let’s go inside. It’s getting cold out here.”

******

“Now I remember why I’ve always hated shopping.”

Koda picks her way through the remains of a sporting goods store, stepping carefully through the spilled tennis and golf balls scattered across the floor. Against the walls, the locked cabinets that once held guns have been broken open, their sliding lexan doors in shards behind the counters. In one dark corner stands a rack that once held basketball jerseys, judging by the scraps of brightly-colored mesh now piled beneath it. From somewhere behind it comes a rustle and the sound of small feet scrabbling on the floor tiles, punctuated by grunts and a threatening hiss. Asi gives a pleading whine, his head up, tail straight as a standard.

“Possum,” says Kirsten from behind a counter that still stands largely intact, “Mama Possum.” The drawers have been thoroughly looted of ammunition, gun oil and other useful items. Her head appears above the glass top of the display case, and she aims a frown at Asi. “Don’t even think about it, Deppity Dawg. You don’t need to get chewed up again.” Asi whines again but stands down, leaving the store’s residents in peace. Returning to her rummaging under the counter, Kirsten adds, “At least you could find stuff to fit. ‘Petite’ is a lot larger than it used to be.”

“Small but mighty.” Koda flashes her a grin. “What hasn’t been carted off or ruined by the weather has been co-opted by the critters.” Still, this modest strip mall is tame compared to the sprawling wreckage of the Wal-Mart on the north side. At least one pack of coyotes had moved in, denning among the fallen I-beams and the slabs of collapsed ceiling, sharing their quarters, judging by the limewash on the walls and the castings on the floor, with a pair of owls and innumerable mice and rats. They have assiduously avoided the business district with its tall office towers rearing up against the purple-grey bulk of the mountains and the sprawling Temple complex, all of which offer prime opportunities for armed bands to fort up. After The Elk Mountain Incident, which has permanently acquired capital letters after the manner of The Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge or The Ox-Bow, Koda will be perfectly happy if they never see another human between now and their return to Ellsworth.

Fat chance.

Sifting through the wreckage of the office, no more than a corner set off by faux pecan panels, Koda, pockets a pair of serviceable pencils and an old-fashioned red plastic grade-school sharpener. A pack of lithium batteries also goes into her pockets, together with a small handheld that looks as though it might be functional. Kirsten has taken to keeping a general log of their journey on her laptop, but other information, such as animal population and migration, the water volume of streams that no longer feed cities, needs to be recorded, too. This world is not the world she grew up in, may become something far different than any has ever imagined.

But for now, she will settle for small things that make their journey less arduous. Which means that they probably need to move on, to see if they can find a part of the city less devastated. In the scatter of papers, she shuffles aside a photograph of a trio of small girls, grinning up at the camera from their swings, their twin blonde pony tails brushing their shoulders. Two are twins. The third is perhaps a year older. To their right, a cocker spaniel makes a fourth to their number, the same grin, the same tumble of bright gold from crown to collarbone.
Something is scrawled across the bottom of the picture in a hand too shaky to be legible, but it looks like numbers. Koda turns her attention to the tall free-standing gun safe, which might hold something useful if she can open it. A second scrap of paper with numbers along the bottom catches her eye in the debris on the floor. 12-28-something. The combination? She should be so lucky. She picks it up, though, carefully dusting it off.

Not the combination. Another photo, this one of a dark-eyed toddler on a red tricycle, a motorcycle cap pulled over his forehead as he leans over the handlebars. 12-30-2015.

Not a combination. A date. Retrieving the picture of the three girls, she lays it on the desk next to this one. Same handwriting. Same date. Not a birthday, then, especially since the girls on the swings wear shorts and sandals, their feet skimming green grass. The date is the second or third of the uprising; for these children, it can mean only one thing. DOD. Date of death.

Not only one thing. Date of death, date of disappearance.

“Kirsten,” she says quietly, not turning away from the cubicle. “How old were the oldest children you saw in Craig?”

For a long moment there is silence. Then Kirsten says, quite evenly, “Toddlers. Maybe two and a half. Three, maybe. Why?”

“Come here, would you?”

Kirsten’s feet make small rustling noises in the litter as she picks her way toward the corner. As she comes to stand by Koda, she says, “What is it?”

“These photos. Look at the dates. Look at the kids.”

For a long moment, Kirsten does not answer. Then she says, “The droids were taking them alive, then killing them. I don’t get it. Why?”

“They were using jails, maternity centers, clinics. There used to be a Planned Parenthood branch in this part of Salt Lake. I think we should go check it out.”

In the harsh light of the flash, the revulsion on Kirsten’s face is clear. After a moment, though, she says. “You’re right. It may not help us turn the goddammed things off, but—” Her hand makes small, loose circles in the air.

“There’s always the possibility we’ll find some kids alive,” Koda says gently. “Not much, but some.”

“Even if we can just figure out why—”

“That’ll be a start.” Koda adjusts her pack to lie more comfortably around her waist and shoulders her rifle. “Let’s go.”

*******

“Bomb?”

“Looks like. Big one.” Dakota kicks at one end of a broken and charred two-by-four that protrudes from the rubble of roofing shingles and drywall, jagged chunks of concrete block and aluminum siding. Pink fiberglass insulation protrudes from between shattered boards and wall panels, threaded through with bright strands of color-coded wiring. Behind the ruined front of the Salt Lake Birthing Center, the rear half of the building still stands, its framing studs and walls stained black with smoke. Asi quarters the edge of the wreckage, whining.

“Look how bright that insulation is. This is recent.”

Koda’s gaze returns to the cotton-candy mass of fiberglass sandwiched between a collapsed wall and fallen acoustic tiles. It is as shockingly pink as the day it came off the roll, unweathered by snow or desert heat. Slowly, she turns through a full circle. A McDonald’s across the street is similarly ruinous, but its garish plastic furniture, tumbled out onto the restaurant’s parking lot, is faded to pale sherbet colors, orange and lime and raspberry. The electronics factory outlet next to it stares out onto the asphalt through empty windows, only a few shards of glass still clinging to the frames. It would have been one of the first stores to be looted, by people in desperate need of communications gear or by conventional thieves with no idea of the scope of the collapse in progress. “You’re right,” she says quietly. “Check it out?”

For answer, Kirsten nods, revulsion clear on her face and in her meticulous steps amid the wreckage, avoiding contact even with the leather of her boots where she can. Koda herself goes warily, picking out a path down what might have been a paved walkway before the blast that tumbled half the clinic’s front onto it. It takes her onto a tiled surface, perhaps once the clinic’s reception area, with darkened halls opening off it. Open now to the weather and to scavengers human and otherwise. Tucked well back in the exposed rafters between ceiling and roof, a wren has built her barrel-shaped nest, and a spattering of guano on the pale terrazzo bears witness to the colony of bats with which she shares her space. The sharp smell of ammonia rises from it, and Koda covers her nose and mouth with one hand. One corridor seems to be lined with various labs and exam rooms; another with recovery cubicles separated only by grey and tattered curtains. Still a third leads off to service areas; through an open door at its end, Koda can see the shape of a large, aluminum-topped worktable with industrial sized pots and pans hung on a rack above it. No sign of the obstetric wards and surgeries; they must have been in the wing brought down by the blast.

“Look,” Kirsten says from behind her. “On the wall behind the desk.”

Koda looks more closely, squinting at what she had at first thought to be smoke stain. The streaks show a more regular pattern, though, letters scratched out with the end of a charred stick. Some have faded to illegibility; others are faint angular shapes, parts missing where the stick has skipped over the rough surface of the concrete block. B-b- -il-e-s.

“B-b,” she says. “Baby—”

“Killers,” Kirsten finishes for her. “It’s just like that clinic in Craig.”

Koda nods. “Let’s have a look at the pharmacy and get going, then. There’s somebody in the neighborhood that’s armed. They may not want company.” She steps around a fallen chair and heads briskly for the lab corridor.

Kirsten, though, remains rooted where she stands. “We have to check.”

Caught. “There’s no place here to bury bodies, cante sukye,” Koda says softly. “The clinic backs right up to whatever is in that office strip behind it. We won’t find anything.”

“I saw an incinerator chimney when we came in.”

So had Koda. Its squat black shape had jutted up against the clean blue sky, an obscenity in the light of day. The memory of her lover’s face, pinched and white, as she told of finding the corpse-filled trenches in Craig is something that will stay with Dakota as long as she lives. That, and the nightmare-filled nights that followed, Kirsten tossing and crying out in her sleep. “All right,” she says. “You stand watch here. I’ll go have a look.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“Kirsten—”

“It’s going to be nothing, or it’s going to be bad. If it’s bad, it can’t be any worse than those graves in Craig. I’m coming.”

Koda holds her ground for an instant, then stifles her protective instincts and gives way. “All right,” she says. “Let’s go.”

The incinerator stands to one side of the main building, its red biohazard sign still bright in the afternoon sun. The stench of charred flesh still lingers about it, even to Koda’s human nostrils. It must, she thinks, be overpoweringly strong to Asi, where he stands at attention ten feet away, ears forward, legs stiff, issuing short, sharp barks of alarm despite Kirsten’s order to be silent. Foulness hangs over the place like a cloud.

The furnace has two doors, a larger one above for the burn chamber, a smaller below for scraping out the ash. Neither yields to Koda’s determined pulling, and she returns to the wreckage in front to scavenge a yard-long length of rebar. It makes an admirable pry, and she wedges it under the handle of the upper door, turning it fairly easily on the second effort. The door swings open on blackness and the stench of death, but the oven holds no bones, no infant corpses. Kirsten leans over her shoulder, peering into the shadow. It seems to Koda that the sound of her lover’s breathing has slowed; no demons here to haunt her nights. “Okay,” she says. “Nothing here. Let’s—”

“Check the bottom,” Kirsten says steadily.

Ash lies thick in the compartment below the burn chamber, black and stinking of grease. Dakota scrapes it out onto the concrete platform with the end of the rebar. Scattered throughout it are small flakes of white, bigger than the grain of the ash. “Bone,” Kirsten says, her voice expressionless. “That’s what that is, isn’t it?”

Koda nods, her teeth clenched. If she opens her mouth, she will vomit. After a moment, she breaks apart a clod of ash, freeing larger fragments of calcified bone. One larger piece still keeps its shape; half a vertebra, its spur still jutting out from the half-ring that once surrounded the spinal cord. The whole piece is less than an inch long.

“Now we know.” Kirsten’s voice is scarcely more than a whisper.

Koda forces herself to speak around the constriction in her throat. “Now we know.”

She feels Kirsten’s hand settle on her shoulder, warm and alive. A lifeline. “And we know someone else is fighting them, too. That’s a good thing.”

Suddenly it seems as if the buildings around her, the mountains around them, will fall on her at any moment. She levers herself to her feet, glancing up at the sun. “Let’s get out of here. We can be in the foothills again by nightfall.”

They make the trek out of the city in silence, hands joined, Asi quiet beside them. A long-forgotten phrase slips through her mind, from the mission school decades, eons ago. “And the Lord God rained fire and brimstone on the cities of the plain, fire from heaven.” Koda does not look back, lest she turn to stone.
CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT
The faint glow of the embers reflects off the back of the rock shelter, tingeing the shadows with crimson. Spilling down off the heights of the mountains, the breeze carries with it a foretaste of the turning year, its scent sharp with pine and hemlock. Kirsten pulls the mylar blanket more firmly up over her body, settling her head in the hollow of Dakota’s shoulder. Her lover’s hand makes lazy circles against her back. On the other side of the dying fire, Asi snores softly, his paws twitching with his dreams. Cold with distance, a howl rises up into the night, coyotes hunting the lower slopes. Kirsten shivers, not with the chill but with the memory of the Salt Lake Clinic. It seems out of place here in the clean air, it the light of stars spilling across unimaginable distances.

But the dead will not leave her. She feels Koda stiffen where she lies beside her, and her soft breath ruffles Kirsten’s hair. “What is it, cante sukye?”

“Nothing.”

“Not nothing. Something cold has touched you.”

Kirsten turns her face so that she looks directly up at the sky. She raises one arm to point at the great stream of the Milky Way where it arcs across the night. Almost bright enough to cast shadows, it blazes down on the earth as it has for millions of years, answered now only by wood fires and the occasional, scattered glimmer of artificial light. “You call it the Ghost Road, don’t you? My dad was into Irish heritage stuff, and he said the ancient Celts called it the Path of Souls. Funny how different cultures had the same idea.”

“Maybe it’s the braids and war-paint.” Koda shifts her weight slightly to keep Kirsten’s head on her shoulder. “Most Cherokee and Creek families who use European names are called Mac-this or Mac-that. Lots of Scotts.”

“Do they wear kilts, too?”

Koda gives a soft snort, and Kirsten can feel the laughter as it runs through her. “Now that’d be a sight, wouldn’t it? Tartans and feathers.”

From somewhere a mental picture floats up of Tacoma, tartan plaid clasped about his waist, a classic warbonnet on his head. Kirsten giggles at the absurdity of it, and the tension in her eases a bit. “What about the Dipper? Do you call that a bear, too?”

“No, but we have a summer constellation called Mato Tipila, the Bear’s Lodge. That’s Gemini, mostly. And Leo is The Fireplace.”

“What about him?” Lazily, Kirsten points to Orion, whose belt of three stars just clears the peaks to the east. “Is he a hunter in the Lakota stories, too?”

“It’s part of what we call the Backbone, which is part of the Racetrack.”

“Oh.” Kirsten cannot quite keep the disappointment from her voice. The figure of a mighty man with upraised club seems so obvious to her—even though a part of her mind recognizes that obviousness as cultural bias—that it would seem to be the stuff of legend in any society. Get a grip, King. It’s a different world. Koda’s is a different world. And somehow I’m going to have to learn it all.

“There is a story, though.” Koda’s arm tightens about her shoulders. “Want to hear it?”

“About a backbone? Sure.”

“Not exactly. See his belt, there, and his sword? That, plus Rigel are what we call the Hand, Nape.”

“Whose?”

“A chief’s.” Koda’s voice settles into a steady rhythm that is almost ceremonial, and it comes to Kirsten that among the Lakota, as among her own ancient ancestors, stories are not simply entertainment. They are history, as Blind Harry’s ballad of the Cheyenne is history now. They reach into the future, as well as into the numinous past. “There was a chief who was not generous with his people. He kept all the horses he took in raids for himself, instead of sharing them with his warriors. He showed no concern for the poor in his tribe, or for widows and orphans. And one day, the Wakinyan, the Thunderbirds, had had enough of his stinginess, and they tore off his arm.”

“Too bad the Thunderbirds never took on the Congress. Talk about one-armed bandits.”

“Not to mention the whole swarm of bureaucrats. Anyway, this chief had managed to do one thing right, and he had a beautiful daughter. Wicahpi Hinhpaye, or Fallen Star, who was the son of the North Star and a mortal woman, came courting her. And she agreed to marry him, on condition that he find her father’s missing arm.

“So he searched and searched, all through the Paha Sapa. Then he searched among the stars, because the landscape of the Black Hills is reflected in the sky, because they are both sacred. The Wakinyan tried to prevent him from searching, and he fought them. Then Inktomi, Spider Woman, tried to trick him, but he outwitted her.

“Finally he found the hand where they had hidden it in the stars, and he returned to earth with it. In a ceremony, Wicahpi Hihnpaye reattached the chief’s arm and married the daughter. He became the new chief. In the spring they had a son. And—” Koda leaves the word hanging.

“—they lived happily ever after.” Kirsten finishes the sentence for her.

“And the people flourished, and the land had peace. It all goes together.” After a moment she adds, “You okay?”

“Mmm,” Kirsten says, turning again to lay her arm across Koda’s body. “Very okay. G’night.”

“‘Night, cante sukye.”

“Ever after,” Kirsten murmurs, and slips into sleep.

******

Late afternoon light filters through the branches of pine and spruce, grown thick and tall here on the western slope of the Nightingale Mountains. The Trinities lie behind them, now, the folded valleys and jagged bare-rock ranges that scar the Nevada landscape. Asi trots easily along a deer track paralleling a narrow stream that loops and swirls its way down the mountainside. Kirsten follows, Koda walking rearguard. A jay scolds from somewhere half a hundred feet up, and is answered by a chittering squirrel. From time to time the sun catches the crest of a small rapids where the stream banks pinch inward; occasionally it strikes silver off the scales of fingerling trout or minnows. Out of the corner of her eye, Koda can make out the shape of a mule deer doe drifting between the trees a hundred yards away. Her two spring fawns follow, their spots fading now with the end of summer. Gently Dakota taps on Kirsten’s shoulder, pointing silently, and a smile light the other woman’s face at the sight. Asi, too, turns to look but makes no sound, then pads on, his humans’ feet making no more noise than his own.

A pair of dark wings sails over them, to be lost in the trees. A moment later, another bird sweeps past, its cry low and harsh. Ravens, a mated pair, returning for the night to their roost and their young.

From somewhere to their right comes an answering call, and Koda pauses, staring into the shadows beneath the trees. Breeding ravens are territorial, pairs spaced out over wide distances to maintain hunting and scavenging grounds.

“Something wrong?” Kirsten looks back over her shoulder, her hand dropping to the pistol at her belt.

Koda shrugs. “Another raven, that’s all. Their ranges aren’t usually so close together at this season.”

“Passerby?”

“Probably.”

Just one bird skimming the edges of another’s territory, taking a shortcut home. That’s all. Maybe even, if it’s young and reckless, poaching a bit on a scrap of carrion or a pocket mouse. Dakota glances up, searching the patches of deepening sky for Wiyo, finding only wisps of cloud and a sweep of redwings making for one of the small lakes that dot the corner where Nevada angles into California. The absence is reassuring. Not even a red-tail will unnecessarily confront a raven pair on their territory, still less draw the attention of a feathered mob. Nesting ravens will attack owls and eagles without a second thought, and though Wiyo is a female, and large of her kind, she is no larger than Kagi Tanka. Koda says, “Start watching for a place to camp. Sun’ll be down in an hour.”

Kirsten nods and sets off again, Dakota following. Dark will find them halfway down the slope; by mid-day tomorrow they should be on open ground again, crossing the basin of Lake Winnemucca. At this time of year it should be dry, the snow-melt gone, the autumn rains yet to come. Still, it should be less formidable than the alkali flats they crossed a week ago, or the edges of the desert between Salt Lake and the eastern Nevada border. After the endless miles where it seemed they sweated themselves drier than the sand itself, it is good to be in the mountains again. Here the sharp pine scent rides the breeze and small springs break from the living rock feed lakes and rivers on the plain below. Cool days fade to chill nights populated with raccoon and lynx, otter and bear, while the smaller life of the understory that persists stubbornly against the pressure of larger creatures with larger teeth. Geographically, at least, matters can only get better from this point on.

Everything else, of course, can get worse. Much worse.

A raven calls again, a low, rolling prrro-o-o-ok. This time the sound comes from somewhere ahead of them, off the flight path of the first pair. Cold ghosts down Koda’s spine, and she shrugs her rifle off her shoulder.

No law says ravens have to fly in a straight line. Still, she feels better with the gun in her hands. Kirsten glances back at her, her eyes widening when she sees the gun. Wordlessly, she draws her own weapon, reaching for Asi’s collar to pull him back to heel beside her. The big dog’s ears prick, his tail coming up to jut stiffly out from his spine. Something is in the wood with them. These mountains are bear country, with straggling populations of wolverines and the occasional wolf pack. Bear she can deal with, wolf she can talk to. Wolverine—involuntarily, her trigger finger twitches. She will be happy if she never sees another wolverine in her life, even if she lives to a hundred and fifty. More likely their company is a smaller predator, bobcat or coyote, even a badger. Later, over supper, they can laugh at their excess caution. They have come too far, though, to take unnecessary risks. It is not that more depends on them now than when they left Ellsworth. It just seems like more, the burden heavier and heavier as they come closer to their goal.

Another raven calls, this one to their left. Around them, other birds have gone silent, with none of the twittering fuss of settling in for the night. “All right,” Koda says softly, ‘that’s just one too damned many.” She slides her finger into the guard, to lie lightly against the trigger.

“Don’t ravens hunt with wolves, sometimes?” Kirsten whispers? “Lead them to prey?”

“Yeah. But we haven’t seen any sign of wolves all day, and we haven’t seen any other top predators, either. Nothing to sound an alarm about.”

“We don’t count, huh?”

“Not to the birds.”

Asi comes to a sudden halt, growling. His lips peel back, showing his canines, and his tail comes up to full staff, its plume quivering with the rumble that rolls through his chest and belly. Kirsten’s hand shifts on his collar, her knuckles white. ‘Easy. Easy. What is it, boy?”

“Company,” Koda says grimly. “Hold onto him.”

The raven cry sounds again from a hundred yards down the trail. Another answers from behind them, a third and fourth from either side, yet another from above them, close. Following the sound with her eyes, Koda can just make out a darker shadow against the high trunk of a pine, some thirty or forty feet up, almost directly overhead. Just beneath the tree stands a stake topped by a deer’s antlers, clusters of black feathers hung from its tines by sinew strips. A flat stone at its base holds a spray of dried sage bound with sweetgrass and lupine, the shed skin of an indigo snake and a hollow pebble, its inner surface paved with clear crystals. It sits within the horns of a crescent, drawn around the forward edge of the stone in deep crimson. Deer’s blood, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Koda remembers enough of her anthropology to recognize the symbols, older than Babylon, older than Delphi, older even than Crete.

Carefully she moves her finger away from the trigger of her gun, then bends to lay it on the ground. She rises slowly, open hands at her sides. Kirsten glances at her sharply, then, still holding to Asi’s collar, follows suit. “Who are they?” she asks, her voice scarcely audible.

“Women,” Koda answers softly. “Goddess worshippers.”

“Keep your hands visible!” The voice comes from high in the tree. “State your names and business.”

“Dakota and Annie Rivers,” Kirsten answers, squinting upward toward the sound. “And we don’t have any business here. We’re just passing through.”

“Open your collars. Let us see your necks.”

Moving slowly, Koda and Kirsten obey, turning so that the still invisible watchers can see clearly that they bear no circlet of metal.

“Good. Now, you, the tall one. Take off your clothes.”

“What?” Kirsten stares up into the branches. “What the hell–?”

Koda, though, sits down on a rock by the stream to pull off her boots. “It’s okay, cante sukye. They just want to make sure I’m really a woman.” She drops her pack beside her, then her shirt, finally stepping out of her jeans and rising to stand in the open. Loosened, her hair spills down her back. She turns slowly, her hands at her sides.

For a long moment, the glade is silent. Then, low-pitched and long, a wolf whistle comes from behind them. “Oh, yeah, now. Ain’t she a woman!”

Kirsten whirls to face the speaker, still invisible. Her face flushed crimson, she snaps, “Back off, bitch!”

A whoop of laughter answers her, a contralto rich with the dark earth of Mississippi. “Get you dander down, Shorty. I’m just admirin’.”

Suppressing a grin, Koda lays her hand on Kirsten’s arm. “I’m ‘Shorty’s’ woman, sister. Anybody wants to argue with that, deals with me.” Asi gives a high, challenging yelp, and Koda adds, “Yeah, and his human, too.”

“How say you, sisters?” The voice from the tree again. “Shall they pass?”

Four answer her, more or less in unison. “They shall pass, and welcome.” It has the feel of ritual, and Koda wonders again just how the crimson stain came to be on the stone. A rustling of pine boughs draws her attention back to the tree above her, and a back-lit shape plunges down the length of the trunk, rappelling off it with the aid of a rope. The woman lands with a thump on the carpet of fallen needles, one ankle turning slightly, as though she has not yet entirely got the hang of the maneuver. She has no trouble putting her weight on it, though, and she steps firmly enough out into the light. “Hi,” she says, extending her hand to Kirsten, who takes it almost reluctantly, then to Dakota. “I’m Morgan.” Her clasp is firm, her palm callused with work and, evidently, the handling of weapons. An AK slants across her back, and a Bowie knife hangs from her belt, both worn with use. “Hey. Annie? You want to put your clothes back on?” She turns back to Kirsten. “We have a permanent camp a few miles on. You’re welcome there.”

From beneath lowered eyelids, Koda watches irritation and bemusement flicker across Kirsten’s face. She turns away to pull on her clothes, letting her hair fall forward to hide a smile. Okay, Ms. President, here’s a chance for some diplomacy.

Kirsten says softly, pointing, “I’m Annie. She’s Dakota. He’s Asimov. Who are you, besides Morgan?”

Koda turns just as her head clears her shirt collar. Kirsten stands straight as a birch tree, her face expressionless. Ms. President, indeed. Morgan’s grey eyes flicker over her, assessing, and she says easily, “I’m Morgan fia d’Loria, and I’m chosen Riga of the Amazai.”

A small shock runs through Koda. For an instant, a fraction of a second, the vision of the Cretan coast flashes before her again, a blonde swimmer in the surf. But she keeps her voice even. “Amazai? Moon women?”

Morgan glances sharply at her. “You’re a linguist?”

“My first wife was. I had to learn a bit to talk to her while we were in school.”

“Mmm. Greek’s not just ‘a bit.'”

Koda shrugs, tucking her shirt into the waistband of her jeans. “For a while we spoke a dialect unknown outside our dorm room. Some French, some Spanish, some Lakota, a few words of Sanskrit. It took a year or two to sort out. You?”

“Lawyer. We’ve got a Classics wonk in the band, though. She’s our history-keeper.”

Warriors. A bard. How much of the social structure she is beginning to sense in this group of women is deliberate reconstruction based on texts? How much is instinct, repeating itself across the millennia? Koda sits again to pull on her boots, watching the other woman from beneath her eyelashes. Morgan, though not much taller than Kirsten, seems to fit the scale of the forest. Part of it is sheer personal presence, the kind of thing that would sway a jury in a courtroom. Part of it is the rippling muscle under her tanned skin, shown to advantage by her leather vest and wrist-guards. The left one covers her forearm almost to the elbow, marking her as an archer even though she carries no bow. And part of it is the series of diagonal hatch lines scored into each cheek, tattoos done the old fashioned way, with pigment rubbed into a bleeding cut. It takes no imagination to divine what they represent, no more a mystery than the crescent moon between her pale brows. Madame President, meet the Queen of the Amazons, with four, five, six, seven kills to her credit. Let’s keep it friendly if we can.

Morgan raises an eyebrow at her covert study. “Ready?” she asks.

“The others?” Kirsten indicates the surrounding trees.

“On patrol. We guard our borders.”

“Against androids?”

“And men,” Morgan says coolly. “We’re a tribe of women. No men. No man-gods. No man-laws.”

Which makes sense. Ari Kriegesmann and his bachelor-babboon coterie can hardly be the only ones of their kind. It comes to Koda that Tanya and Elaine would fit into Morgan’s world as if born to it, and she wonders again how the fight at Elk Mountain ended. Not, for certain, with Ari in charge. “Ready,” she says. “How far are we going?”

“The camp’s by Pyramid, across the dry lake.” Koda’s face must show her dismay, because Morgan adds, “Not to worry. We have horses tethered at the foot of the trail. We’ll be there by full dark. You do ride?”

Kirsten snickers, and Koda says, “Yeah. I’m a vet. My family breeds horses.”

The mounts tethered at the foot of the slope scarcely look up at the three women and one dog when they emerge onto the meadow. The grass grows thick here, interspersed with dandelion and columbine, salvia and mallow, good eating that makes for sleek hides and bright eyes. All the horses are mustangs, in various combinations of white with chestnut, white with buckskin, dapple grey and black. They are the classic mounts of the Plains Nations, the breed that made the Lakota and Nez Perce in their time the finest light cavalry in the world. None is equipped with more than a bridle and saddle blanket, some of those no more than a sheepskin. Koda’s respect for Morgan and her band takes a quantum leap, and she asks, “Wild caught?”

Morgan bends to loose a young grey from her ground tether, glancing back over her shoulder at Koda. The filly whickers softly and nudges at the woman’s pocket, obviously looking for a treat. Morgan pushes her nose away gently and says, “More or less. They were running loose, and none were broken. They’d had some handling, though. Take your pick; two of the patrol can double up on the way home.”

“They’re good stock.” Koda strokes the withers of a tall white and chestnut mare who sports a wide white blaze from ears to muzzle. “Annie?”

“I’ll take the black.” Before Koda can offer a hand up, she springs up easily onto the horse’s back, sliding only a little on the loose buckskin that is its only saddle. It is an impressive performance, meant to impress. Alpha female, meet alpha female.

Suppressing a smile, Koda says only, “Good choice,” and mounts the paint. The horse snuffles and turns twice widdershins at the feel of an unaccustomed rider on her back, but settles quickly with a pat and a word or two of assurance. “All right,” she says to Morgan. “Lead the way.”

The way takes them down the mountainside and onto the miles-long expanse of the dry lakebed. The dark gathers around them, rose and gold along the line of the western hills gradually giving way to deep blue that blends into black at the zenith and stretches behind them to become indistinguishable from the last slopes of the Nightingale range. The moon, one night off full, rises bright enough to cast shadows along the alkali-pale flats. Heat, absorbed during the summer day, radiates upward now, mingling with the already-cooling air of the evening. The breeze, slipping over the line of hills from the west, smells of water, and more faintly, dark earth and salt. Moving at an easy pace, the horses’ hooves clatter against the hard surface. Morgan leads, the weight of her pale braid bouncing between her shoulders to the rhythm of her mare’s gait. She chants as she rides, something Koda cannot quite make out, though she thinks she hears the words “Isis” and “Demeter.” Kirsten follows, her hair a pale halo in the moonlight. Koda rides rearguard, her rifle slung over the saddlecloth in front of her. Asi trots along beside them, breathing easily. The wolf is an endurance runner, and for all his faithful breeding, the wild has begun to surface in the big dog, as if the genes of his ancestors have only been lulled by ten thousand years of domestication, lying dormant until the turn of an age in which humans no longer rule the earth. The dog, the horse, even the comfort-loving cat, may once again become something no living member of her own species has ever encountered in the flesh.

And we’re losing our domestication, too. Warriors and shamen. Tribes of women. Warlords. We are being drawn into our own past, dragging the remains of our technology behind us.

The alkali lakebottom gives way to loose scree, and Morgan picks their way carefully through it, setting them on a path that winds through low hills and then rises, climbing the mountain slope. Columbine and Indian paintbrush grow close along its margins, leaving space for two horses to pass abreast; pine branches, low enough to sweep an unwary rider from the saddle, obscure it from above. Barely visible in the shadows, Kirsten slows to lean down and rub covertly at her left calf, shifting slightly on the horse’s back to ease what seems to be a stiffening back muscle. Koda knees her mare and pulls even with her lover. Careful to keep amusement out of her voice, she whispers, “Sprain something there did ya, Annie Oakley?”

Even in the dark, Koda can see the frown that knits Kirsten’s forehead, then the rueful smile. “That obvious, was it?”

“‘Fraid so. I’m flattered, though.”

The smile breaks into a grin. “You damned well better be. I wouldn’t bust my butt like that for just anybody.”

“Such a nice little butt, too. Is it sprained?”

“My butt?”

“Your knee.”

“Nah, just pulled. I’m fine.”

Asi, doubling back from where he has been ranging ahead of Morgan, weaves between their horses’ legs, whining. The Amazai herself has halted. “You okay back there?”

“Cramp,” Koda says, tactfully omitting whose. Morgan touches her heel to her mare’s flank, then, and turns her head to lead them up a branching pathway, narrower yet, that leads upward at a steeper angle. Twice along the way, she gives the low, rolling call of a screech owl, and is answered. The second time, when it seems to Koda that they must be about halfway to the crest, Morgan says, “This used to be a park campground, but we’ve blocked the main access on the other side. Nothing gets up here we don’t know about, and nothing at all with wheels.”

Which may or may not mean that they have no vehicles. They could always be stashed lower down. Most state and national park had motor pools and the gas to fuel them. Unlike Ari Kriegesmann, Morgan and her sisters do not seem to be the kind to waste resources unnecessarily. They might, though, be persuaded to part with one in an excellent cause. A nice Jeep could put Koda and Kirsten on the Mendo coast in—three hours? Four?

Pipe dream. They’d be gunned down, by droids or hostile humans or both, before they got halfway there.

The path takes a final hairpin turn, then opens up to lead under a gate carved from knotty pine. Two torches flank it, and its sign, just visible in the dancing shadows, reads, ‘Welcome to Free Sierra.” The letters are rough, cut into the arch over the original name of the park. And the red light shows something else; Kirsten, who must see it, too, jerks hard on her horse’s reins, then knees her again as she pulls up. She is, perhaps, not certain what she is looking at. Koda is not certain, either. Not entirely.

A round shape hangs from each gatepost. The red light strikes a steely gleam from the one on the left, outlining its bare metal dome. On the other side, the torch draws the shape in dark hollows; two that might be eyes, another that might be a gaping mouth above a caked and matted beard. With the sweet night air comes the smell of rotting meat. So much for ambiguity. No lilacs blooming in the dooryard here.

“Hell of a No Trespassing sign you got there,” Koda says quietly.

Morgan shows her teeth in something that is not quite a smile. “Yeah. Got ’em both on our last raid. Reno.”

Which means that these women either do have vehicles, or whoever they took down in Reno did not. Kirsten, who has quietly nursed her sore muscles on the ascent, says, “On who?”

“A clinic. You know about that?”

Koda answers, carefully, “We know that women have been kidnapped for breeding in jails, sometimes in birthing centers, women’s clinics. Stuff like that.”

They pass a couple of low signs, illegible in the dark except for their white arrows pointing directions to the various park facilities. Morgan leads them to the right where the path forks, and says, “Yeah. Stuff like that. They had another place in Reno, where they took the kids they didn’t kill. Right off, anyway.”

Koda sees the flinch in Kirsten’s shoulders, remembering the death-pit in Craig, the ruins of the clinic in Salt Lake. Morgan, though, seems disinclined to answer questions. Up ahead, the path fans out into an open space where white smoke rises up into the moonlight above the embers of a fire. Cabins line the perimeter, small oblong log structures with coarse screening in the windows. Here and there the yellow glow of a kerosene lantern silhouettes women’s shapes as they move about in their lodgings; one, as they pass, seems to be tucking a child into bed. Looking up at the sound of the horses’ hooves, the women wave as they pass, calling greetings to Morgan. One, leaving her cabin with a guitar slung over her shoulder, pauses to stare at Kirsten and Koda; Morgan answers her unspoken question with a wave of her hand and a brief “Later.” To Koda she says, “I’ll show you where the stables are, then where you can bunk. Come join us around the fire after you get settled; there ought to be some stew or something left in the pot.”

The stables, obviously designed to accommodate only a handful of horses for the amusement of riders on family outings, now house mostly hay, grain and tack. The horses themselves are tethered along a picket line behind the building. Koda counts thirty-two as she and Kirsten lead their mounts to one end to remove their saddle cloths and rub them down. Add to that the ones left behind in the hills across the dry lake and those likely to be on patrol in other directions, and you get forty riders, a formidable warband when the population of the continent has been reduced by 99 percent or so. Most are mustangs, but one or two show signs of more aristocratic breeding: a chestnut walking horse with white socks and blaze, a couple Appaloosas. Almost all are mares, two of them beginning to swell with foal; a few are geldings. They whicker softly as Koda passes, one nuzzling at her back pocket where she has stashed a trail bar. Kirsten, following her gaze, says, “I guess the ‘no man’ thing extends to the critters, too. Maybe we should worry about Asi.”

“Maybe Asi should worry about Asi,” she replies, smiling and ruffling his ears where he walks beside her. “They’ve got a stallion or two somewhere; they just wouldn’t stake them out on the line with the rest.”

At the end of the picket, Kirsten and Koda slip the skins off the horses’ backs and loop their reins around the rope that runs between a pair of tall pines. Tossing an armful of hay down in front of them, Koda hands Kirsten one of the two curry brushes she has brought from the tack room. “Know how to use one of these?”

Kirsten, her eyes wide in the low light, looks at Koda as if she has sprouted horns, or a second head. “You’re kidding, right? I’ve ridden before, but some stable guy has always taken care of the technical stuff, like getting the saddle on and off.” Gingerly she stares down at the arcane instrument and shrugs. “How hard can it be, though? I mean, it’s basically a hairbrush, isn’t it?”

“Basically,” Koda says with a smile. “Just watch and do what I do.”

Ten minutes later, both horses stand munching contentedly at the hay, their coats smooth and free of dust and the small accretions of the trail. Kirsten has done yeoman work, following Koda move for move, watched by Asi where he has settled in among the tree roots, his gaze sardonic. He follows them to the cabin Morgan has shown them, which contains little but four bare cots and a galvanized pipe across one end for a closet. “Looks like we’ve got our penthouse to ourselves,” Kirsten remarks. “We could shove a couple of these beds together.”

“Mmm,” says Koda. “We could. Just for warmth, of course.”

“Of course.” Kirsten grins back at her as she shed her pack. Asi hops up onto the bed in the far back corner and stretches out, making himself instantly to home. “Guess you’re not gonna come check out the place, huh, boy?”

For answer, Asi lays his chin on his paws and closes his eyes. “Guess not,” Koda answers for him. “Want to go get something to eat?”

The path to the center of the camp leads them past other cabins like theirs, a slightly larger main office building with actual windows, a communal shower and latrine. “Wonder of that still works?” Koda murmurs. “The one good thing about the Elk Mountain Incident was that hot bath.”

“Wonder how that came out? My money’s on Tanya and Elaine.”

“If not, we could always introduce Ari to Morgan and her tribe.” Koda flashes a grin. And I know where my money’d be on that one.”

“Nasty.”

“But amusing.” She pauses, sniffing. Her stomach turns over in a barrel roll of sheer joy. “Gods. They’ve found some onions somewhere. And chicken. Come on.”

The fragrance comes from a circle of stones some twelve feet across. A fire pit in the center sends clouds of smoke billowing upward, and nestled in the embers is a Dutch oven of a size that would serve the entire Rivers family, with seconds all around and thirds for Manny and Phoenix. Around it, their faces flushed with the red glow, a company of perhaps a dozen women sits on rocks or skins or the bare grass. Some still hold their bowls in their laps, while a couple lean back on their elbows, gazing up at the sky, and the woman with the guitar strums softly, her voice weaving wordlessly in and out amidst the melody. Yet another pair sit with their arms around each other’s waists, a small dark woman leaning her head against her taller partner’s shoulder.
Introductions go round the circle. Inga fia d’Bridget. Frances fia d’Alice. Magdalena, daughter of Rosario. Sarai fia d’Yasmin. They bear their own names and their monthers’, no acknowledgement of paternity or patriarchy. And every face that Koda can see bears, too, the marks of dead enemies. Three, five, not a few with seven to equal their leader’s. Morgan herself sits on a flat granite boulder at the northern quarter of the circle, her bowl still between her hands, a far-off look in her eyes. She takes note of Kirsten and Koda, though, rising to invite them to stand beside her while she makes the introductions. With Salt Lake behind them, their story is now that they are headed for Los Angeles to find “Annie’s” parents. At that, the faces around the circle grow grave, and Morgan says, “Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard?” Kirsten frowns. “It’s been a bit busy between St. Louis and here. We haven’t had any contact with anyone at all in California.” And again, “Heard what?”

Morgan lays a gentle hand on Kirsten’s arm, and draws her down to sit on the boulder. “LA’s gone. Nuked.”
CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE
Kirsten’s parents were nowhere near Los Angeles when the uprising began, have not lived in southern California for two decades. Yet even in the dim light, Koda can see the blood drain from her face as her mouth repeats the word without sound. Dakota’s own mouth goes dry, imagining the radiation cloud spreading inland on the winds off the Pacific, sweeping across the orange groves and to lay radioactive ash on the already burning sands of the desert. “Bombed?” she says, inaudible even to herself. Then, more loudly, “Bombed? Who?”

Morgan’s eyes between them, softening suddenly. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I didn’t think. Of course you might well know someone there.” Laying a hand on Kirsten’s arm, she draws her down to sit beside her on the boulder.

“It’s okay. It’s just—sudden. I grew up a bit further south, San Diego .”

Very deliberately, Koda lifts the lid of the Dutch oven with the poker left by the side of the firepit and ladles two bowls full of the stew. She replaces the lid and brings one bowl and a spoon to set beside Kirsten, settling cross legged on the ground beside her with her own meal. She says, “Who did it? How?”

“We’re not real sure. We heard about it from a couple refugees headed back east to try to find their people. Seems a couple ships up from the Naval base at San Diego sailed into the port there and blew up.”

“Warheads aboard?”

“Maybe. According to what we heard, it was a pair of aircraft carriers. The Reagan and the Kerry .”

Stirring her stew aimlessly, Kirsten says, “All the new aircraft carriers have nuclear power plants, some of the older ones, too. Even if it was just the reactors, it would be bad. Real bad.”

“Supposedly there was more than one mushroom cloud. Supposedly the fireball incinerated everything from Long Beach to Ventura and out to Pasadena . It’s all fourth- and fifth-hand, of course. Hearsay. What we do know from what we’ve heard since is that Los Angeles just isn’t there anymore.”

“There were so many droids in LA to begin with, we heard they took it in half a day.” The small, dark woman straightens and leans forward, toward the fire. Her face carries no expression. “Lots of tech-droids, maid-droids, lots of military models at Oxnard . My brother worked for Paramount . He said they’d taken over just about everything except the acting.”

Almost imperceptibly, Kirsten’s eyes widen at the mention of Oxnard . Then the shock is gone, and she lowers her gaze and begins to eat silently. No one else seems to have noticed, their attention still on the Amazai whose brother must have been blown to subatomic particles in the blast. Not for the first time, it comes to Koda that Kirsten’s government position has made her more poker player than politician or diplomat. No glad handing, no smooth equivocation, just the calculation of a very junior predator in a pack of hyenas all older and more experienced by decades.

“So,” comes the inevitable question from across the circle, “what’s it like where you’ve been?” The speaker is an older woman, her red hair graying at her temples, introduced earlier as Fiona fia d’Linda.

The circle seems to draw closer together as Koda gives a carefully edited account of their wanderings. She makes no mention of Ellsworth or the two battles fought there, nor of Kirsten’s journey from Washington . She begins with Wyoming, gets a round of laughing applause and “Right on, sisters!” when she recounts the Elk Mountain Incident in all its dubious glory, plays up the encounter with the wolverine without making clear exactly where it occured. Then she says, watching their faces in the flickering shadows, “When Annie went into town to look for some antibiotics, she came across a wrecked women’s clinic. And back by the incinerator she found a pile of dead kids—babies, toddlers. There was a spray-painted sign on the building that said, ‘Children Murdered Here.’ And then we found something similar in Salt Lake . Like it was organized.”

Silence falls around the circle. Morgan’s eyes run around its circumference, and something apparently passes between her and her tribeswomen. She says, “The band from over by Provo did the Salt Lake clinic. Don’t know about the one in Colorado . We don’t have any contacts that far east.”

“Band?” Kirsten asks quietly. “Like this one? There are others?”

“More or less,” Morgan answers. “We’re not linked to them, but our foragers have met their foragers. News still travels.” She turns to Koda. “You liked our gate decorations?”

“Is that what you were doing in Reno ?” Bombing a clinic?”

“Among other things. We’re going out again tomorrow night. Want to come along?”

“Where to?”

” Carson City .”

Koda conjures up the map of Nevada in her head. It’s a hundred and twenty mile round trip. “Not on horseback.”

“Not on horseback,” Morgan confirms.

They need to move on. The sooner they get to San Francisco , the sooner Kirsten will have the code to shut down the droids. Time is of the essence.

Time after is of the essence, too. Morgan and her women are the kinds of allies they will need once the uprising is put down. That’s the favorable reading. The unfavorable reading is that these are the kinds of rivals they may face in reunifying the nation; splinter groups, petty nations, warlords. It has happened, disastrously, within her lifetime, in Afghanistan and Iraq , in Syria and Palestine . In either case, they need to take the measure of the Amazai, who are, apparently, a growing territorial power. “Annie?” she says quietly.

Kirsten sets down her bowl. “Let’s do it.”

A murmur of approval runs around the group, and Inga, the woman with the guitar, strums a descant on her twelve-string and begins to sing. Other voices pick up the song around the circle.

In an anarchistic garret, so dingy and so mean,

Smell the pungent odor of nitroglycerine.

Midst the piles of pipes and powder, and pamphlets to the skies,

‘Neath the dust and dirty laundry, you can hear this mournful cry:

Oh it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

God knows what’s become of Brother Tom. (Brother To-o-o -om.)

Mama’s aim is bad, and the cops they all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

There are knives and guns and daggers scattered on the front room floor.

Look behind the sofa, you’ll find two dozen more.

But Cousin Mac’s in prison, and Grandpa is long dead,

And Uncle Jim has left us to become a ‘Frisco Red.

The tune is lively, and Koda finds her foot tapping of its own accord. Kirsten has begun to clap in rhythm to the chorus, and Koda takes it up, adding her own voice to the chorus.

Oh it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

God knows what’s become of Brother Tom. (Brother To-o-o -om.)

Mama’s aim is bad, and the cops they all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

In the hall you’ll find the baby teething on some dynamite.

Try to get it from her, you’ll find you’re in a fight.

But she’s too young to do it, and Mama’s baking bread

And Uncle Jake is tripping, and he’s flipping out his head.

Oh it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

God knows what’s become of Brother Tom. (Brother To-o-o -om.)

Mama’s aim is bad, and the cops they all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

There’s a saveau tabby kitten sittin’ purrin’ by the door,

And lying in the bed, there’s a smiling saboteur.

But a cat’s no good at bombing, and none of us is sure

That that smiling sleeping freak is not a pig provocateur.

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

God knows what’s become of Brother Tom. (Brother To-o-o-om.)

Mama’s aim is bad, and the cops they all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb! (Throw the bomb!)

The song ends on a cheer, and Morgan rises as the roar subsides. She raises her arms, her hands open, over her head. “Sisters! Shall it be so?”

“So mote it be!” thunders back, with more clapping and war whoops. Koda finds herself shouting with the rest, the spirit of the song infectious. Kirsten, her face flushed, is caught up in it, too. She catches Koda’s eye, and where there might have been embarrassment a month ago, there is now both the joy of battle and frank desire. They have come a long way, in more ways than one. And now there is but a little way to go, for life or death. Slipping her hand into Kirsten’s she says huskily. “Ready to go?”

Kirsten’s green eyes sparkle up at her. “Where you go. Always.”

*******

Koda leans one shoulder against the concrete block wall and carefully eases her right leg out from under her, stretching to relieve the cramp in her thigh. The long muscle that runs from hip to knee has twisted in the hour and more she has crouched in the alley across from the Carson City Women’s Clinic, waiting for the wreck of the city to grow quiet. She grits her teeth and rubs at the knot, willing herself not to swear aloud, though obscenities in at least five languages cascade satisfyingly through her mind. Beside her Kirsten leans forward, her face a pale shadow in the moonlight that filters down between the two strips of shops that once housed medical offices, pharmacies and the odd restaurant or two. Koda shakes her head, reaching out to touch the other woman’s hand reassuringly. The cramp hurts like hell, but it will not kill her.

Not unless she makes noise and attracts the attention of the droids across the street.

There are droids at the clinic; they have seen the metal-collared guards pacing the perimeter of the grounds. Arriving on the outskirts of the city at sunset, the twelve women have picked their way cautiously from house to vacant house through a ruined residential neighborhood populated only by stray dogs, feral cats and the small prey that susta