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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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It’s Maggie’s turn to sigh. “Much as I don’t like it, I think I’m going to have to split them into smaller squads.”

“Why?”

“Well, while you were busy patching and sewing, I was talking to the acting base Commander, Major General Hart. There’s been a small, but steady line of survivors coming in since the ‘incident’, as he calls it. Mostly men and children. Some older women. One or two younger women, but that’s all.” Maggie pauses for a moment, ordering her thoughts. “Word is that the droids are taking the young women, all of child-bearing age, like we guessed, and housing them in the local jails. Nobody knows why, or what they’re doing to them in there. But it can’t be pretty, whatever it is.”

“So you’re going after them. Try to break them out.”

Maggie nods. “That’s the plan, yes.” She looks down at her hands. “Most of the jails down in this part of the state are, as you know, pretty damn small. And it’s a damn sure bet that the droids are armed to their beady glass eyeballs with whatever weapons they can get their hands on. Which means that if we send out huge squads, they’ll likely shoot the prisoners before we can even break through the front door. With fewer people, we just might be able to do it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Maggie’s mouth drops open in shock. Koda turns from the window, giving a little smirk that tells the Colonel that she’s not entirely joking. Maggie can’t help but grin back, that part of her that’s been a soldier since she was a little girl suddenly warming to the challenge. “Well, I’m not exactly used to being this up close and personal with the enemy, but…yeah, it could be fun at that.” With a sexy little smile, she draws the blanket down so that just the tops of her full breasts show. “Care to join me?”

Another question with a variety of meanings.

Koda, regretfully, declines all of the offers. “I need to go north.”

Maggie hides her disappointment. “Worried about your family?”

Shaking her head, Dakota smiles a little. “My family can take care of themselves.”

“Then why north?”

Dakota looks at her so long and so penetratingly that she’s afraid she’s crossed an invisible line. She finds herself holding her breath as she waits for an answer, all the while praising God that this intent, intense woman is on her side.

“I had a dream.” Koda’s voice is only a whisper, but in the otherwise tomb-silent room, Maggie has no trouble hearing the words. The phrase is so incongruous to her that she finds herself flipping back to the age of seven, sitting in the front row of Mrs. Dobbin’s Country Day class and watching the monitor as an ancient, grainy image of a dark-skinned man mouths those same words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Looks like your dream finally came true, Rev. King, Maggie thinks. Thank God you’re not around to see the result.

Pushing the maudlin thought away, she comes back into herself and realizes that Koda is still pinning her with those too-brilliant gemcut eyes. The aura of tension has returned, strumming around the Vet’s body like an electrical charge.

“And in this dream, you’re headed north?”

Koda nods, the tension still swirling around her body. Maggie swears she can feel the fine hairs on her arms prick up.

“It must be very important to you, then.”

Like the breaking of a vacuum seal, the tension immediately dissipates from the room. Maggie knows she’s answered correctly.

Dakota nods. “It is.”

“How far will you go?”

“Very far.”

Maggie stiffens as the answer seeps into her brain, as if by osmosis. “Not Minot.”

Koda nods again.

“Dakota, that’s….”

“Crazy?” The Vet gives a half smile, but her eyes are twin glaciers.

“You know damn well it is,” Maggie replies, letting her anger show. Taking in a deliberate breath, she reins in her legendary temper. “Koda,” she begins again, softly, “this is in no way meant to demean your dream, but you don’t need to go up there. I’m already planning to take a couple of my fighters and blast that damn factory into a mega-mall parking lot. And you know I’ve got the payload to do it.”

“And the humans inside that factory?”

“You actually think they’ve left any alive in there?” Maggie is incredulous. “What would be the point? That whole factory is completely self run. The droids do everything!”

“I can’t take that chance, Colonel,” Koda replies, turning back to the window. “Every human life is precious. Especially now.”

“And what about yours?!” Maggie demands, hands fisted in the blanket.

The Colonel’s answer is a sad smile reflected in the window’s glass.

4

It is a repeating nightmare. Stretched across the road a hundred meters ahead is a line of pickups strung nose to bumper, a steel wall she can neither drive through nor veer around. To the left of the barricade is a six-foot deep concrete-lined drainage ditch. Something metallic and vaguely human-shaped at its bottom glints in the late sunlight, light that also runs along the barrels of the half dozen long guns swinging up to aim at Kirsten and her vehicle. As she begins to brake, she runs through a quick assessment of her options.

The list is very brief. Zero to zero, in fact.

The drainage ditch on one side, with a possibly demolished droid in it—a possibly good sign. A wide gate of welded pipe on the other, topped by a wrought iron sign announcing Shiloh Farm. A bad sign, given that it is closed.

She could throw the truck into reverse at 80 mph and turn around again a half mile up the road. The scopes on several of the rifles make it unlikely, though, that she would get that far without a blown-out tire or punctured gas tank If these are real people, she may be able to talk her way through. Or buy her way out with the supplies and drugs she will not need much longer.

On the other hand, they may well kill her and take them anyway. And that would be a shame.

Kirsten rolls to a stop half a dozen meters from the blockade. Carefully she slides her pistol into her lap. A glance behind the seat tells her that her patient is again sleeping soundly under the effects of the Morphine Kirsten gave her when she changed the dressing on the gunshot wound. Asimov raises his head just high enough to peer over the dashboard, then settles again beside her.

Which is either reassuring or terrifying, depending upon what happens next.

Three of the guards step away from the barricade, stopping halfway to the van. One, a woman by the long, copper-colored braid that shines even against the hunter’s orange of her jacket, shouts, “Unlock your doors! Then put your hands on the steering wheel where we can see them!”

Kirsten pauses only to slip the 9mm into her waistband, where it will remain hidden, however briefly, under the bulk of her down vest. Then she presses the button to pop the locks and places her hands in plain view, clasped on the rim of the wheel.

As they approach again, one of the men pauses to spit out a long stream of caramel-colored liquid, and Kirsten allows herself an infinitesimal measure of relaxation. Droids don’t chew tobacco. Brigands would have shot her already. Unlike the other two, the third member of the group carries no weapon. Shorter than his companions and slightly built, he sports thin white hair combed optimistically over a scalp flushed bright pink with the cold and a week’s genuine human stubble above a Roman collar. Kirsten glances at the perfectly calm Asimov, now sitting straight up in the seat. “Stay, boy,” she mutters. Probably unnecessary; he looks as if he has taken root. Some guard dog.

The priest opens the driver’s door of the van and looks up at her with the clearest grey eyes Kirsten has ever seen. They are like glass, almost, or spring water running over flint pebbles, worn smooth with the stream’s passing. “Good afternoon,” he says pleasantly. His voice is unexpectedly deep and resonant. “I’m Dan Griffin, and my friends here are Toussaint Marchand”—he nods toward the tall man with the shotgun, whose mahogany face barely shows between his muffler and a Navy watchcap pulled down to his eyebrows—“and Caitlin Drummond.” The redhead, obviously.

There is a moment’s pause, and Kirsten realizes she is expected to return the courtesy. The alias comes to her tongue without hesitation. “Annie Hutchinson. Pleased to meet you.”

Her voice is a bit dryer than she intends, and Griffin’s eyes glint in amusement. “I do hope so. Do you have any weapons with you, Annie?” When she does not answer immediately, he adds, “You can tell me about them, or Toussaint and Caitlin can search your van. Let’s do this the easy way, shall we?”

She nods. “In the back. There’s an injured girl, too.”

“Keep your hands on the wheel, please,” he says, and steps back to slide open the side door. There is the sound of his sharply indrawn breath behind her, and a rustle of cloth as he lays back the blanket tucked about the unconscious Lizzie. “What happened?”

“I don’t know exactly. She’s been shot in the leg. The arm’s broken.”

“Yes, I see. How long has she been unconscious like this?”

She can tell the truth or be caught in the lie. “Since I gave her a shot of painkiller. It’s the only thing I could do for the fracture.”

“You’re a medic?”

“My grandmother had diabetes. She couldn’t take the pills.” Kirsten knows that she has answered only half his real question—where did she get the drug?—but he lets it pass.

“All right.” With that, he appears again at the driver’s door. “Now then, Annie, if you and your dog will step down for a bit and let my friends check out what you’re carrying, we can take the young lady here up to the farm and see to her injuries.” As she starts to slide off the seat, he adds, “Oh. And give me your handgun, please.”

Very carefully opening her vest so that he can see her movements, she snaps the safety on and hands the pistol to him, grip first. “How did you know?”

He smiles and nods to the two others, who lower their guns and come to inspect the truck. At her side, Asimov is actually wagging his tail at the stranger. Griffin reaches forward to ruffle the fur of his neck. “Because you’d be foolish not to have a hidden weapon. And you’re not foolish. Come over to the line and have a cup of coffee. And welcome to Shiloh Farm.”

5

“For the last time, Manny, no.”

Manny Rivers’ face, already ruddy, goes a deeper shade of red, becoming nearly plum as his hands fist at his sides and his chest expands enough to put a serious strain on the zipper of his jumpsuit. The other members of the small group fidget nervously. Manny is usually the most placid of men, but when his anger sparks, the results aren’t always pretty.

Taking a quick look at the crowd they were drawing, Dakota signals to her cousin, and the two walk downwind to a relatively empty section of the bombed-out base.

“I’m not the little boy you can boss around anymore, shic’eshi.”

“I know you aren’t, Manny, and I apologize if I’m making you feel that way.”

Manny relaxes a little, but the tension is still plain in the lines on his youthful face. “At least tell me why.”

“Because I need you here.”

“For what? That’s the part you’re not explaining, Koda.”

Mustering what’s left of her patience, Koda pulls a military map out of the generous pocket of her coat. Laying it across some overturned cans, she trails a long finger north along a micro-thin line.

“That’s pretty out of the way,” Manny observes, cocking his head to get a better look.

“Less chance of being detected,” Koda replies. Her finger stops close to the border. “This is the only jail we’ll pass. It’s small, no more than twenty cells, max.”

“You’ve gotta take me, Koda! I’m the best fighter you’ve got. The rest of these guys couldn’t shoot fish in a barrel.”

“Niiice. And you picked them out for me all by yourself, hmm?”

He scowls. “You know what I mean.”

“Once we break those women out, we’re gonna need some temporary place to put them. It’s pretty barren up this way, but I think I know of a good spot or two.”

Manny gives a grudging smile, remembering when he was young, praying for a visit from his older cousin, who would sweep him away in her truck, taking him places where their ancestors had once made a home. They were his favorite times as a boy, and he remembers them fondly still.

Koda looks at him as he remembers, a faint hint of a smile on her face. When he comes back to the present, she nods. “I’ll need to communicate their position to the base somehow so they can be picked up.”

Manny shrugs his shoulders. “So? You’ve got the world’s most powerful satellite phone in your hand there. Where’s the problem?”

“And let every droid east and west of the Mississippi know their position? Think, Manny.”

“So what are you gonna do? Make like in’juns in a John Wayne movie and blow smoke signals from the top of the Black Hills?”

Koda rolls her eyes. “Listen to me, Manny, because I’m only gonna say this once, okay?”

Manny gives a reluctant nod.

“There’s a way I can use this phone and keep the droids from knowing where the women are.”

“How?”

“Uniyapi Lakota.”

Understanding draws over his face like the wakening dawn. His brow is a squiggle of conflicting emotion; part wanting to lift in an admiring grin, part wanting to lower in a defeated scowl.

“I spoke to the base commander this morning. As far as he knows, the droids have never been programmed with the Lakota language. It’ll give us an advantage that we sorely need right now, and before you say anything, I checked. We’re the only Lakota here.” She looks at her cousin for a long moment. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. “Now do you see why I need you here?”

The scowl wins. “I see it. I don’t like it, but I see it.”

“Good.”

“I’m giving you ten days,” he warns, pointing a finger at her. “Ten days, and then I’m getting in my Tomcat and coming after your ass, hear me?”

Folding her map and storing it in her pocket, she nods. He takes a step closer and flings his arms around her, no longer the soldier, the crack pilot, the man, but rather the boy she remembers so long ago clinging desperately to her in a silent plea not to leave. Her own arms gentle themselves around his trim, hard body. She breathes in the warm, familiar scent of him as a guard against the demons of the unknown she will soon face.

All too soon, the moment ends, and by mutual consent, they both step back, neither acknowledging, except in their hearts, the sheen of tears in the other’s eyes.

6

An hour and a half later, Lizzie is sleeping peacefully in the Shiloh infirmary, her arm set and immobilized in cast and sling. She has other refugees for company, one or two with far worse injuries. Kirsten’s handgun, returned to her, rides uneasily at her belt while she spoons up the last of the best vegetable soup she has eaten in her life. For the second time since she began her flight, she feels something close to safe.

Asimov snores on the flagstones of the farm’s common room floor, a paw over his badly scratched nose. Above him, firmly ensconced in the middle of the trestle table, a white-muzzled calico purrs as Father Griffin absently strokes her fur. The two-story tall window of the refectory looks out on a meadow white with new snowfall and a small pond whose ice shimmers with gold, blue and lilac in the late sun.

Dan smiles at her across the table. “More? Or will that hold you till supper?”

Kirsten laughs, pushing the bowl away from her. “Thanks, that will do for the moment. You have no idea how good that tastes after a dozen cans or so of Dinty Moore and Ranch Style Beans.”

Dan says nothing, merely waits. Confession time, huh? Kirsten observes wryly to herself. Not yet. Maybe never. No matter how warm and fuzzy the atmosphere, she cannot forget that she is a danger to every other human she encounters. So is the knowledge she carries. Instead she trails her fingers across the surface of the white pine table in front of her, its knots and whorls so carefully matched that they form a pattern like flowing water. “This is beautiful,” she says. “Do you make furniture here?”

“One of our members is a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Our resident Kabbalist—you’ll meet him at supper.”

“Kabbalist? I thought—I’m sorry, I thought this was a monastery or something.”

“Monks with shotguns?” Dan’s brows rise in mock surprise. “Not that there isn’t a precedent, mind. Go back to the ‘or something,’ though. Shiloh is an intentional community, made up of the lost sheep and farseekers of a dozen traditions. We have pacifists, mystic warriors, celibates, couples and families, Native American shamen and followers of Kali. We look for the things that are common in all our ways and attempt to live as lightly as possible upon our Mother Earth.”

“That’s why you didn’t have any droids.”

“That’s why we didn’t have any droids, and why we’ve survived. Fortunately, we did have excellent communications before the uprising. We can still get what’s left of the Net on satellite and listen in on CB. We don’t broadcast, though.”

“There’s not much left, Dan. Lizzie’s only the third living human I’ve seen between here and Pennsylvania.”

“I know.” Dan’s fingers curl around his mug of tea as if seeking warmth, and Kirsten finds herself mimicking the gesture. “It may be that we won’t be able to recover at all, Annie. We humans may be where the Spotted Owl the Siberian Tiger were twenty years ago. Nobody’s got a breeding program for us, though.”

“It won’t come to that.’ The passion in her voice surprises Kirsten. “It can’t. I won’t—“

“YO! I’M HOME!”

The common room’s door thumps back against the wall and a giant thuds across the floor, shedding muffler, cap, gloves and a double thickness of down jacket as he comes. Kirsten blinks twice, taking in the half-halo of salt-and-pepper curls, still luxuriant around an encroaching bald patch, the snub nose in a wind-burned round face and the whisky-barrel chest connected to it by an Aran-knit collar. It is as though a two-hundred-year-old oak has sprouted feet and invaded the house.

The walking tree makes straight for Dan and bends to brush a light kiss on the other man’s lips. “Hiya, babe. Back with a cuppa.”

Kirsten, bemused, watches the man’s retreating back. “Who’s that? Fangorn?”

“Not quite. Our electrical engineer, Alan Stephanos. My partner.”

“Black sheep?”

“My Bishop thought so, yes.”

Kirsten feels the heat rise in her face. She glances down at the table in embarrassment. A long moment stretches out, becomes painful. Finally she says, “I’m sorry. That was rude. He just didn’t seem to fit—well, the other category.”

“Spirituality? Think worker saint. I met him at a peace march back in ’02.”

“The Iraq war? My father went into Baghdad with the first ground assault.”

Dan nods. “We got busted together. The LA police put us in a ‘free speech pen,’ and Alan just walked up to the fence and kicked it down. Then he flattened the cop that was trying to Mace me and a couple nuns.”

“Assault on an officer?”

“They couldn’t make it stick. He just stepped up to the guy and fell on him. Like a tree, actually.”

“Talking about me, are you?” Alan settles at the table, folding up one beefy joint at a time until he comes to rest on the bench. Absently he scratches the calico’s ears. “Met God while knocking ice off a generator twenty years ago. Talked to him again today, doing the same thing.” His eyes sparkle, meeting Dan’s across the board. Then, “In case he hasn’t already introduced me in absentia, I’m—God damn. God. Damn.”

Alan’s hand remains suspended in midair, halfway across the table toward Kirsten. He is looking at her, though, as if he has just found something unexpected in his boot. Something unpleasant. A snake, perhaps.

“It’s all right.” Dan’s voice is soft. “Your middle name is Anne, isn’t it, Kirsten?”

Shit. Oh, shit shitshitshit.

Tell the truth and shame the devil. Her grandmother had been fond of the saying. Just as a practical matter, Kirsten cannot see how it could make matters worse at this point.

“All right,” she says. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

“Your face has been all over the news at one time or another, you know. Alan, are you going to shake Dr. King’s hand or not?”

“You’re headed for Minot, aren’t you?”

The question hangs in the air above the table, much as Alan’s gesture had done. Duly shaken, the engineer’s hand now engulfs the mug of cooling tea before him. His question, however, shows no sign of withdrawing to a more comfortable distance. Kirsten’s options are limited. Lie, and be caught lying. Tell the truth and bring the good men who have offered her hospitality and at least fleeting respite into even greater danger.

“Kirsten, it’s fairly obvious. There’s nothing else in the region that would be of interest to a cyber-expert like yourself. If you were simply trying to get as far away from Washington as you could, you’d have taken the easier route south.”

Kirsten smiles wryly. “You’re so damn reasonable about it all, Dan. Keep it up and I’ll be confessing all my sins back to hacking the Orange County Republican Party’s bank account when I was in third grade.”

“So young, so gifted, so wicked,” Dan observes piously. “And what did you do with the liberated funds?”

“Gave them to the Sierra Club and the SPCA.”

Alan, who has unwisely taken a mouthful of his tea, snorts and spews. “Jesus, woman. Give a man some warning.” He fishes in his pocket, produces a faded blue bandana and mops his chin. “So getting into a super-restricted top-security shoot-intruders-on-sight droid-manned military facility ought to be a freaking breeze, right?”

Kirsten’s heart slams against her ribs in something close to panic. “Look. It’s obvious; you’re right. I think I ought to go. Now.”

As she begins to push away from the table, Dan says, “Toussaint and Caitlin have already seen you. You can’t protect the community from knowing you’re here, or from guessing where you’re going. We can at least help you get there.”

“No. It’s too dangerous.”

“Kirsten, it’s more dangerous if you go alone. Perhaps none of us here has the knowledge to get onto the base or to know what to do once there, but we can give you an escort. If you’re worried about endangering us—don’t. Increasing your chances of success increases our chances of survival.”

“And just how would you keep us from following you down the road, anyway?” Alan’s level stare is a challenge. “You can make it harder or easier, for all of us. Your choice.”

Kirsten glances from one man to the other. Logically and pragmatically, they are right.

Despite herself, Kirsten feels nothing but relief. She ought to thank them. But she blurts out instead, “Will you take care of Asimov? He can’t go with me.”

“Of course he can stay with us.” Somewhere above them, a bell begins to ring, and Dan sets down his cup. “We’ll put the matter of a convoy to the community after supper. Meanwhile, let’s help set the tables.”

7

She finds herself again in a world of white. Monotonous, perhaps, but expected.

The effect is magnified by the all-white machine humming between her legs. The soldiers call them “stink bugs”, and it’s a more or less apt term, given the military snowmobiles’ reliance on methane as a method of propulsion, together with the wasp-like drone that marks their passing.

Adding to the monotony is the group’s mode of dress. Cammo-white is the call of the day, and Koda can’t help but flash back to a movie she’d once seen as a child. Willie….Somebody, she remembers. Something about a chocolate factory and a young boy who, dressed almost exactly as she is now, gets reduced to his component atoms and flies across the room to materialize inside of a television, a shadow of his former self.

“And here I am, off to rescue the natives of Oompa Loompa Land.”

Her wry thoughts are whipped away by the wind. As she rides on, she smiles, remembering Maggie’s goodbye to her. A quick, if heartfelt hug, a quiet “Be safe.” and it was over. It was as if the woman had read her mind and had given her exactly what she needed.

A shadow crosses over her and, looking up, her smile broadens. Wiyo rides the winds above her, sleek elegance personified.

ANGEL or demon! thou, -- whether of light The minister, or darkness -- still dost swayThis age of ours; thine eagle's soaring flight Bears us, all breathless, after it away. The eye that from thy presence fain would stryShuns thee in vain; thy mighty shadow thrown Rests on all pictures of the living day.

The past stares at her through a curtain not quite opaque.

She can smell chalk dust, hear the quiet hum of the clock as it limps its way toward the final bell, and feel the filtered, somnolent sun resting on her shoulder. She can even see Mr. Hancock’s pinched face and the bald pate that shines in the harsh fluorescent lighting of the tiny classroom. He wants her to slip up. She can feel it, just as she can feel the ancient prejudice that runs through his veins like tainted, bilious blood. It is not a new feeling for her, living as she does in a country that proclaims freedom for all but those it has conquered.

She won’t slip, though. She never slips. The hunger of her intellect far outstrips his paltry teaching skills, and he knows it. The anger sharpens the gray of his eyes to flinty chips, and his permanently sour expression becomes more so. Had she been raised any differently, she might feel a spark of bitter pride in his anger. Instead, she feels only sadness.

A piercing cry from high above draws closed the curtain to the past, and Dakota once again looks up, eyes narrowing as Wiyo banks left, flutters, then swings around and low in warning.

“Ho’ up,” she murmurs into the mic at her throat.

Though she wears no stripes on her arm, nor brass on her collar, the soldiers listen as if she does. They split formation, half the group pulling to a smooth stop against the left side of the road, the other half doing the same on the right. As a unit, they unsling their weapons while still astride their snowmobiles, ready and waiting for anything.

Koda lifts an arm, and Wiyo settles on it, folding her wings comfortably as her eyes stare directly forward at a danger only she can see.

“Damn good watchdog you got there, Ma’am,” the young lieutenant on her left comments, voice quiet with awe.

Wiyo, surprisingly, takes no exception to the comment, and Koda smiles a secret grin as the hawk settles more comfortably against her.

A moment later, they all can hear the loud, blatting roar of a truck running out the last of its life as it heads toward them. As the vehicle barrels drunkenly into view, Wiyo lifts easily away, strong wings lifting her once again into the cutting air.

Weapons are immediately raised to high port, zeroing in on the oncoming truck with deadly purpose. Koda raises her arm again. “Steady. Let’s find out who it is, first.”

Not a droid, surely. Dakota can easily see the blood painted across the inside remains of a shattered windshield. And the man, or woman, inside leans like a potato sack against the steering wheel, head bobbing violently with each rut the truck’s bounding wheels hit.

“He’s gonna hit us,” the young lieutenant—Andrews, Koda remembers—softly warns, his hands tightening their grip on his weapon.

“Steady….”

“Ma’am?”

“Steady….”

Then the man, for it is a man, sees them, and his eyes widen to the size of saucers. He yanks the steering wheel sharply to the right, but it’s too late. The front tire catches a patch of black ice, and, sliding, the front bumper plows into the snow bank on the left side of the road. The truck flips, end over end. The weakened, shattered windshield gives way and the man is ejected out into the winter air, a flightless bird with his own peculiar, dying elegance.

The truck ends its own flight smashed against a tree. There isn’t enough gasoline left for an explosion. Instead it shudders, and dies.

Dakota moves first, bounding over the snow bank and racing to the downed man as fast as she can plow through the two feet of snow under her boots. He lies in a bloody heap in the snow, limbs bent in ways human appendages weren’t meant to bend. There are two ragged holes in his heavy parka, each tinged with soot and coated in dark, viscuous blood. His eyes are, surprisingly, open. One is crazy-canted, filled with blood, and staring off to the side. The other, however, is very much aware, and filled with terror.

Discerning the reason for the terror, Koda immediately reaches up and loosens her collar, displaying her bare neck to the man. At her side yet again, Andrews does the same.

The man relaxes slightly. The fear leaches from his eyes, but horror remains. One hand, at the end of a terribly mangled arm, reaches up and grabs the leg of Koda’s pants, spasming into a shaking fist. “D-Daughter,” he rasps, coughing on the blood pooling around his lips. “My daughter. Help—Help my daughter.”

“Where is your daughter?” Andrews asks.

“P-Prison. They—they took her aw—away from me…sh—sh—shot me—tw—twice, couldn’t hold…on….help her….please.”

“We will. We will,” Andrews hastens to reassure. “We’ll help her, buddy. But we gotta help you too. You’re….”

The young lieutenant’s voice trails off as the light and awareness from the man’s good eye slowly fades to a blank, glassy stare.

“Damn. Goddamn.” He looks up as a hand descends on his shoulder, squeezes briefly, and lets go. “This blows, Ma’am.”

“You’re right. It does.” Koda looks down at the corpse lying at her feet. “Let’s cover him with snow. We’ll relay his position back to the base once we’ve gotten the women out, alright?”

After a moment, Andrews nods, his shoulders slumped in a posture of defeat and resignation. “He deserves better. Hell, we all do. But I guess you’re right. It’s the best we can do for now.”

CHAPTER SIX

“Went to a party in the county jail. Prison band was there and they began to wail.”

SUPPER IS DONE, the tables cleared and pushed to one side of the room. The benches have been dragged into a large circle in front of the hearth, where a fire is blazing behind a six-foot brass wire screen. Asimov and Her Majesty, the calico cat, have taken up wary positions opposite each other on the warm bricks by the poker stand and woodbin.

The community’s two dozen school-age children, almost as quiet, are bent over books and worksheets at a pair of tables near the window. One child with long black braids and coppery skin—boy or girl, Kirsten is not sure—jabs determinedly at the keys of a calculator with the eraser end of a pencil. Another, a pair of headphones bulging under her cotton-blonde hair, conjugates French verbs. Kirsten can just hear her soft murmur: je suis; tu es; vous etes; nous sommes.

In the wake of Armageddon, homework survives.

Only youngsters over sixteen are excused from the drudgery. They sit with their parents in the circle, where firelight and shadow flicker over quietly solemn faces: black, brown, red, white, golden and every shade in between, men and women gathered to debate and decide for their people. For they are a people, Kirsten realizes.

It is an unlikely tribe, held together not by blood or loyalty to any one patch of ground but by common purpose. Unobtrusively, her gaze slides around the circle, from features that would be at home in Iceland to others whose pattern arose below the Sahara. Isolated from the wreckage as they are, she finds some small comfort in the diversity that ensures genetic survival for this group. And if for them, perhaps for others.

She watches as each accepts or declines a chance to stand and speak as a finely carved beech rod passes from hand to hand around the circle. Kirsten is not a social scientist, but her fingers itch to take notes. Shiloh is, apparently, a functioning anarchy: they have no elections, no leader, no council except the entire adult community. There will be no vote. The hundred and eighty adult members will talk the question at hand to consensus, or the proposition will fail.

Now on its second circuit, the staff has made its way more than three quarters of the way around the council. Some have declined to speak; others have taken the floor simply to think out loud and in company; one or two have been frankly suspicious of Kirsten. To them she is The Outside, and her work and reputation ally her with The Government, non-existent though it now is.

A dozen places around the circle from her, a young man accepts the staff and rises to his feet. Long side curls frame a gentle face and dark eyes huge and soft as a deer’s. Micah, the cabinetmaker and Kabbalist. “I will go,” he says simply. “I will not fight or carry a weapon, but I will offer Kirsten whatever protection I can.” He sits down abruptly, almost as if he has found himself unexpectedly in strange territory.

But he has changed the tenor of the discussion. His own sense of purpose sparks determination in others, and the discussion becomes a matter of what the community will do, not what it should. The infirmarian proposes scavenging whatever medicines the party can find between the Farm and Minot. Toussaint volunteers to take the tanker truck in search of gasoline. Others will search abandoned feed stores and perhaps farms. The community needs grain for the livestock as well as seed for planting.

“It’s going to be a safari by the time they get through,” Dan murmurs.

“That’s fine,” Caitlin answers from Kirsten’s other side. Her pale brows furrow on either side of the triple moon—waxing, full and waning—tattooed between them. “We need to gather in what we can, while we can.”

She falls silent when the staff comes round to her husband. Counterpart to her triple moons, Aidan Cameron bears the image of a blazing sun on his brow. He looks, Kirsten thinks, like nothing so much as a Viking, with blond braids falling almost to his belt and bound in leather. When he speaks, though, his voice is pure Highlands. “I will gae likewise,” he says. “And if we find any of the mechanical de’ils, or any who make cause wi’ them—Chlanna nan con thighibha so’s gheib sibh feail—Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh!” He brandishes the staff aloft as if it were a sword, and its polished surface takes the light like steel.

Laughter runs around the circle as Alan stands in his turn, the speaker’s staff reduced to the proportions of a matchstick in his huge paw. “But will the sons of bitches eat the damned indigestible things?” Then he turns serious as he faces the rest of the community. “As you all know by now, ‘Annie’ here is Dr. Kirsten Anne King, one of America’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence and cybertech. What used to be America, at any rate. Right now, she may be the only surviving person who has the knowledge to get into the droid factory at Minot Air Force Base. She is the only person we know of that has some chance of getting the droids under control.”

He pauses, and the fire paints his face in bronze, making great hollows of his eyes. Memory—a history lecture, a visit to a museum, a book, she is not sure--flares for half a second: a disk of beaten gold with human features, dug from the ancient earth of Mycenae. The mask of Agamemnon Wanax, the lord of men. Then it is gone, and Alan Stephanos is a plain man speaking plainly. “I will go, too,” he says. “We may never recover what we have known. We may not even want to have all of it back. But what we have now is intolerable.”

When Alan hands him the staff, Dan says only, “I will go,” and sits down again.

It is Kirsten’s turn. She hates speaking in public, has hated it ever since her second grade teacher’s attempt to cast her as Priscilla Mullins in the Thanksgiving play. She cannot simply pass the staff on, though, unless she is willing to be inexcusably rude. Rude to people who will risk their lives for her and for the goal she has pursued over half a continent.

So she says, “I never expected to have help when I left Washington. Thank you for being willing to take the risks you’ve committed yourselves to. And thank you for taking in Lizzie and Asimov.” She glances toward him where he snores by the fire, and feels her breath catch in her throat. Damn. I will not go mushy. Goddam. “I know they’ll be safe with you.” Then, for lack of anything else, “Thank you again.” She sits down and hands the rod to Caitlin.

The red-haired woman holds it up silently, and when no one claims it to speak again, she stands and turns slowly, holding the eyes of all in the circle. Then she demands, “Shall it be so?”

“Let it be so,” the community answers.

“Well, then. Those who will go with Kirsten, please stay. Whose turn is it?”

“Margot’s,” someone answers, and someone else, more loudly, “Okay, kids.”

They stand with their elders, and an older woman with short-cropped grey hair raises her open hands. In a voice that is low but carries easily, she chants:

“Great Lady: What no human ear can hear, you hear.What no human eye can see, you see.What no human heart can bear, you transform.What no human hand can do, you do.What no human power can change, you change.Goddess of love; Goddess omnipotent;You through whom all power flows;Queen of Earth and Sky, Creatrix of the Universe:watch over us until the light once again prevails against the darkness.O Gracious Goddess, be with us through this night.”

The meeting breaks up quickly after that. A quick tally of volunteers adds up to a dozen who will accompany Kirsten in the morning. Of those twelve, half are foragers who will leave the group when they find supplies; Aidan and Caitlin, Alan and Dan and Micah will remain as her guard. All except Micah will be armed.

When only Dan remains, she whistles to Asimov and takes him outside. Kirsten will spend the night in one of the guest rooms in the common building. She does not allow herself to think that she will never do this again.

Despite herself, though, her throat tightens once again as he quarters the large open space between the porch and the pond, pursuing invisible scent trails and rolling in the ankle-deep snow. On the other side of the frozen water and down the narrow road, lights glimmer in the cabins belonging to the community’s permanent residents. One by one, as she watches, they begin to go out, until there is only a soft glow here and there where a late scholar remains awake over a book or an artisan works on a project that will not let go until morning. Overhead, the stars spill across the sky in their winter brilliance, Rigel and Sirius burning blue against the depths of space. Betelgeuse flares blood-red above them.

Dan’s face is lost in shadow. His breath, though, makes a shimmering nimbus about him. “We’ll keep him safe. If you make it back, he’ll be here waiting for you.”

Kirsten’s answer is less than a whisper. “Thank you,” she says, meaning more.

Thank you for taking care of Asi. Thank you for not pretending I may live through this.

He takes her hand in both of his, squeezing gently. “Sleep peacefully.”

As he moves down the path toward home, his hair remains bright, salt white in the starlight even after the rest of his form is swallowed in darkness. Asimov comes at her call, and together they turn back toward sleep. A foot of so short of the porch, where light from the window still falls on the snow, a line of tracks leads across the front of the building. Long-fingered, the imprint of the paws looks almost like human hands.

Raccoon, she thinks. Odd that the marks were not there when she came out into the night. Odder still that Asimov did not bark.

With a shrug, she steps inside and closes out the dark behind her.

2

“What’s the count?”

“Twenty nine,” Andrews murmurs, pulling the nightscope from his face. “Can’t find one damn metalhead, though. Fuckers don’t put out any heat.”

In the near pitch darkness, the jail rises up before them like an ancient monolith, cold and uncaring, blind and deaf to the suffering within. The structure is tall, but narrow, a finger thrust upward, pointing toward an uncaring heaven. Few lights blaze from within, indicating an independent power source of some type.

“How many do you think there are?” asks a slight red-headed woman who would look more at home sitting behind a desk in Junior-High than clad in an army uniform and toting a rather large automatic weapon.

“Damned if I know. Could be one, could be a hundred.”

“Doubtful.” Dakota gives each of her squad members a look before continuing. “These droids are nothing if not efficient. Two or three of them could easily handle the twenty nine women in there.”

“Two?!” the young woman responds, hefting her weapon. “What the hell are we waiting for, then? Let’s go!”

“Not so fast,” Koda warns, lifting a hand. “They obviously want these women alive for a reason, so they’re likely looking after them with special interest.”

“More droids?”

“More droids. Say six to do the grunt work, and two or three to take care of whatever administrative details droids take care of. And because I’m fond of even numbers, round it up to ten to be on the safe side.”

The woman’s face falls. “Ten. Damn, that’s alotta metalheads in such a small space.”

“Be a lot fewer when we’re done with ‘em,” Andrews growls.

Koda feels the group respond as the energy level cranks up another notch. The men and women around her are almost vibrating with anticipation. The plan, conceived by Maggie while back at the base, is firm and set in everyone’s minds. They have their jobs, they know what to do. Koda gives them all a final, slow look before nodding.

“Stay behind us, Ma’am,” Andrews warns as the squad breaks up into two groups and heads, silent as the night, toward the heavy door at the front of the prison.

Drilling holes through his back with her eyes, Dakota says nothing as she follows along behind the group, staying in the shadows as the plastique is carefully placed and then detonated. With a muted wuff, the door falls inward and, weapons drawn, the soldiers enter the prison two by two.

Two silent human chains flow along the interior walls, like water pouring into a basin.

“Down!” Andrews yells a split-second before gunfire erupts over their heads. As a group, they duck down, grabbing cover where they can find it. Overturned tables, shattered wooden boxes, and other less identifiable objects litter the floor.

“Remember,” Koda cautions as they ready their weapons in preparation for returning fire, “aim at their arms and hands. They can’t fire what they can’t hold.”

The others nod, deferring to her greater experience in fighting these droids.

“And if you can’t get a good shot there, aim for their optical sensors. Should throw their own aim off.”

Using hand signals, Andrews draws the others into position, and with a quiet command into his mic, the squad rises as one and begins the assault. Gunfire explodes in bursts of deathly hail as the soldiers rise from their positions and begin an inexorable march forward.

Two go down. Then a third. But the group marches onward, fingers depressed on the triggers of their high-powered weapons, never giving an inch of ground they’ve gained.

The first wave of droids, four in all, goes down relatively quickly as the group advances upon, and captures, the first set of steel risers that will lead them up to the cells where the women are being kept.

Koda makes it to the third step when something slams into her chest and blows her off her feet. She is driven back, and down, landing on the hard cement floor with a force enough to rob what little breath she has left from her lungs. Her gun flies from her hand, clattering along the rough concrete until it hits a wall and discharges, filling her world with its booming roar.

As she lies, stunned, she watches with something close to clinical interest—shock, she supposes—as Andrews swoops down upon her like some sort of gangly, prehistoric bird, shouting things that she can’t quite get her mind to unravel.

So, this is what dying feels like.

Not too bad, actually.

Andrews’ homely, freckled face looms over her like the pitted moon. His lips continue move in incomprehensible patterns, spitting out syllables she can’t seem to care enough to understand.

Suddenly, her vision is obscured as his body closes down over her. The force of his collapse fires the nerves in her diaphragm, releasing it from its paralysis. She can feel herself taking in great, heaving gasps of air, and the agony of expanding bruised and cracked ribs lets her know that she’s not quite dead yet.

A moment later, her vision clears and it’s his concerned face she sees once again.

“Are you alright?”

Finally, some words that make sense. Taking quick mental stock of her body, she nods.

A smile wreathes his face as he gently helps her to a sitting position. She looks down at her chest. A rather large hole has been ripped through the white flack jacket just below her heart, and she stares down at it with a sense of awed wonder.

“Amazing what they’re doing with ceramics these days, huh?” Andrews asks cheerfully.

“Damn,” is all Koda can think to reply.

Climbing slowly back to her feet, she allows Andrews to steady her as her legs become reaccustomed to the fact that they’re not going to be feeding the buzzards anytime soon.

“M-Maybe you should wait outside, Ma’am,” a concerned Andrews murmurs.

Koda shoots him a look that vaporizes the spit in his mouth. “Chesli.”

“Um—do I wanna know what that means, Ma’am?”

The look comes again.

“Didn’t think so.”

Prudently, the young man turns away for a moment, then back. “They—they’ve cleared the second and third tiers. Hobbs and Jackson have gone to the control room to try and get the doors opened.”

A loud buzz echoes through the building, indicating the venture’s success. Koda starts forward at a run, taking the steps two at a time. Andrews shakes his head and follows.

The scene on the second tier is controlled chaos. Several droids have been temporarily disabled, shoved in a cell, and the door manually locked behind them. Shell-shocked women, shabbily dressed, bruised, and in some cases bloodied, mill about like frightened cattle bound for slaughter. More stream down from the tiers above. Sporadic gunfire erupts, causing the women to scream and the soldiers to look around wildly in the hopes of spotting the remaining, elusive droids before they themselves are spotted.

“Hanson, Siebert and Reeves, start getting these women secure. Johnson and Larke, go on ahead, act as lookouts. Shoot anything that moves.”

Dakota’s orders are crisp and clear. The selected soldiers nod, faces set and grave.

Andrews and Koda spot the shadowed movement from the next tier up at the same time and, pushing soldiers and civilians down and away, begin firing. Two droids advance through the gunfire, mechanical fingers constantly depressed on the uzis they’re carrying. Bullets whiz by like hungry, deadly gnats, ricocheting off the steel of the cell doors.

“Move!” Koda yells to the soldiers guarding the women. “Now!!”

The shout breaks their paralysis and they begin herding the women down the stairs, weapons at the ready.

One droid falls to Koda’s blast to his optical sensors, but the second, continues its advance. Its uzi is firing sporadically now. They can almost feel the heat from the nearly spent weapon from where they stand.

“Die, you motherfucker!!!” Running up several stairs, Andrews pulls the pin on the granade he’s carrying and shoves it down the the tight, metallic singlet the droid is wearing.

Dakota catches the soldier as he leaps backward, and both are driven to their knees by the resulting explosion.

“That was the last one lieutenant!” a feminine voice calls through the smoke and falling debris.

Andrews and Koda come to their feet to the sound of boots hitting the steel steps. Bodies materialize through the smoke as the rest of the prisoners gather on the landing. Koda’s eyes narrow.

“Who are they?”

Martinez looks at the three dirt-covered men who stand in the group with the rest and shrugs. “Found ‘em with the others. They’re human.”

A stone mask drops over Koda’s face as she notices the women shying away from the men in question. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she mutters, half under her breath. Ignoring Andrew’s questioning look, she searches the small crowd. A pair of dark, calm eyes meet her own, and she gestures the woman forward.

Older than the rest by almost a decade, the woman displays an almost regal bearing as she steps up to the vet. “Thank you,” she says in a voice heavy with sincerity.

“You’re welcome,” Dakota replies in kind before looking over her shoulder at the men. “What’s their story?”

“They were here when we were captured.” The woman’s voice is now a flat monotone, devoid of any emotion. “Prisoners, I’d guess.”

“And?” Koda asks, eyebrow raised.

“Our rapists.”

Hissing through his teeth, Andrews raises his weapon and gestures for the others to move away.

“Hold it,” Koda warns, one hand raised. She looks back to the woman. “All of you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they coerced?”

“No. They were quite willing.”

“The bitch lies!” one of the men shouts, struggling against the sudden grips of iron around his biceps. He might as well be tied between a boulder and a mountain for all the good his efforts net him. “She’s lying! Fucking bitch!”

He falls silent when the muzzle of a gun is pressed to his temple. Koda looks over at him, then lets her gaze trail down the line until she spies a young girl of no more than thirteen.

“Her too?”

The woman nods.

“Alright, that’s it,” Andrews growls, aiming his weapon. “Motherfucker dies now.”

“Hold it,” Koda warns again.

“But….”

“Please.”

Slowly, uncertainly, Andrews lowers his weapon, his eyes full of questions.

“Put them in those cells back there,” Koda orders. “One to a cell.”

As the soldiers move to do her bidding, Andrews turns to her, face ruddy with rage. “Why? Why are you letting these scumbags live?!?”

“Live?” Koda shrugs. “Oh, I suppose they’ll live. For awhile, anyway. Till they starve to death from lack of food and water.” Her smile is ice. “There won’t be anyone around to take care of them. Or let them out.”

Her voice carries easily to the men, and they begin their fruitless struggles anew, screaming and pleading for mercy. The pleas are cut short as the heavy steel doors slam shut for the final time.

Then Koda turns back to Andrews. “I think a quick death is too easy for them.” She eyes the woman standing before her. “Don’t you?”

After a moment, a rather predatory smile curves the lips of the woman. She nods as the other women surge forward, calling out their own thanks.

“Alright then. Let’s get the hell outta here.”

3

The convoy prepares to move out just after dawn. The tanker truck—a provisional battering ram, at need—stands in lead position, engine idling and belching fog into the freezing air. A couple pickups follow, one of them carrying Dan and Aidan, a pair of long guns riding in the rack behind the seat, just visible in silhouette. Kirsten’s van takes center position. Caitlin and Alan are immediately behind, with more pickups, the last one a camper packed with a half-dozen extra volunteers and twice as many weapons.

The world is faded to monochrome in the thin light, sky washed blue-white, snow dirty grey where tires and feet have churned its surface. Breath and steam from insulated mugs of coffee hang in the air about the company gathered in front of the common building to see them off. Toussaint and Micah, who seem to have been appointed coordinators of the project by some process unknown to Kirsten, make last minute checks up and down the line, satisfying themselves that weapons, food and other supplies are adequate and in due order.

Kirsten has made her own preparations. Her medicines have been offloaded, as have the cartons of Alpo and empty jerry cans. Their places have been taken by a thermal chest filled with what she has come to think of, reverently, as Real Food, more water, more gasoline. A couple of Pelican cases, no longer hidden under the mounds of other supplies, hold items that should help her get into Minot. The lingering sense that she has forgotten something will not leave her.

Stop it. Stop it, goddam it.

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