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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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It does not explain the familiarity.

Perhaps it is a memory of another time, when she was not Dakota Rivers. Perhaps it is the memory of Ina Maka, Mother Earth herself, seeping into her mind and her bones from this land that has been so long a battleground, so drenched in the blood of the Lakota and other Nations. If she listens with the ears of her spirit, she can almost hear the war cries, the clash of metal; almost she can smell the sweat and blood. Almost, as she looks up at the sky, she can see the stars shift about the pole through the frozen light years. Almost.

As she watches, a silver pinprick of light makes its way across the sky beneath the stars. A meteor, perhaps, flaring as it plunges to earth. Perhaps a satellite, part of another world now, pacing its orbit, or like the meteor, burning in the air.

“My mother used to say a falling star meant a death.”

Koda turns to look up at the speaker. It is Sonia Mandelbaum, the older woman from the jail, now bundled against the cold in Polartec and boots. “Are you having trouble sleeping?’ she asks. “I could get you something for that.”

The woman shakes her head. “No,” she says, “thank you. I’d rather face my ghosts than try to drug them out of existence.”

Koda slides to one side of the bench in invitation, and the woman settles herself, her breath forming a cloud about her. Even in the pale light, Koda can see that her eyes are swollen, the faint glint of frozen crystals on her eyelashes. She is silent for a long moment, her gaze following the path of the meteorite. Then, “Do you understand this?”

“You mean the uprising?”

Sonia nods. “That. And what’s happened to us.”

‘The uprising—no. All we do know is that it seems to have been world-wide and coordinated. The other—how much to you feel able to tell me?”

“There’s not much.”

After a time, she goes on, “ We had a bakery, my husband and I, with half a dozen employees and a couple droids to clean and do deliveries and run errands. Maid Marians, both of them brand new. Nick always liked to have state-of –the-art equipment.”

“Nick is your husband?”

“Was my husband.” The emphasis is very slight. Sonia pauses, then goes on. “I was finishing a wedding cake. Nick had some French bread just out of the oven and was bagging it. I heard some shouting in the street, and went to the front of the store to look out the window. We’ve had trouble with skinhead demonstrations in Mandan before, some of those ‘Christian Nation’ people from Idaho. Once we had swastikas painted all over the display window. But it wasn’t the brownshirts this time.”

“The droids.” It was not a question.

“The droids. One of ours grabbed Nick from behind and broke his neck.” She makes a snapping motion with her hands. “Just like that. Then they killed Bill and Lalo, who did most of the breads.” Again the snapping motion. “Just like that.”

“But not the women.”

“No, not the women. They herded us into the delivery truck and took us to the jail.”

She flinches as boots crunch through the crusted snow behind them. Koda turns, half rising with her hands on the grips of her gun as Reese passes on his guard round. He is clearly surprised to find them outside in the cold, but much too disciplined to remark on their presence. He salutes, “Ma’am.”

“Carry on.” Koda nods, resisting the urge to return the salute, and settles again on the bench. As footsteps recede down the path toward the next cabin, she says, “They took only the women of childbearing age?”

“Yes. They asked us about when we’d had our last periods when we got to the jail, before they locked us up.” She turns haunted eyes to Koda. “I said last month; it’s been almost a year.”

Very gently, Koda asks, “How did you know that was the right answer?”

“There was one girl who told them she’d had a hysterectomy; I think she was a teacher at the middle school. They took her outside, and we heard her scream. We never saw her again.”

“I see.”

”So I lied. The rapes began the next day.”

Koda’s mind flashes back to her first conversation with Maggie. Slaughter the steers, keep the cows and heifers to make more steers, send the old cows to auction when they can no longer produce calves. But that doesn’t make sense. Droids do not eat.

If not food, then what? Slaves?

That possibility seems no more likely than the first. True, slaves bred to servitude from the womb, who had never known any other life, might be more docile than those taken as adults or even as children, but slaves require a slavemaster. Droids need slaves as little as they need food.

Someone controlling the droids, then?

Koda says, “Flora, did you ever see or hear the droids receive transmissions from anyone?”

“No. After that first day, they never spoke to us. They never spoke to each other at all.”

It is three in the morning and Koda’s head is beginning to ache. She needs coffee; she needs sleep. She will get neither. Tomorrow she and her troops must settle the women in the camp, and the day after they must move out again, toward Minot. “Black helicopters,” she says, suddenly.

“Pardon?” Sonia looks up at her, puzzled.

“Sorry. Twenty years ago, there were a lot of people, especially out in this part of the country, who thought the government was part of some vast international banking conspiracy It was going to take over and create a corporate state with its capital at Zurich. They thought they were being spied on from black helicopters.”

“Do you think that’s what it is?”

Koda stands and stretches; her legs and shoulders feel like lead. Another pinprick of light scuds across the sky as they turn back toward the cabins, and a shiver passes up her spine that has nothing to do with the temperature.

“No,” she says. “I think that whatever it is, is worse than that. Much, much worse.”

7

The whole world seems to hold its breath as the first gray streaks of dawn stand poised to paint themselves over the roof of the earth.

Seated crosslegged on a tallish bolder about a mile from the base, Kirsten faces east and watches as the earth prepares itself to give birth to another day.

Watching sunrises is, she believes, a pastime best left to dreamers and fools, and she considers herself neither. But the odd sense of peace that descends over her makes the break in her fastidious habits worth the effort.

She’s alone now. More alone than she’s ever been, and that thought brings with it a surprising twinge of sadness. Surprising because she’s quite sure that somewhere on some dusty library shelf, there’s a dictionary that sports her picture next to the word “loner”. Born into a family of loners, she’s always figured she came by it honestly. Add to that the fact that it’s hard to make friends when kids your age are sitting in kindergarten learning the pleasures of eating paste while you’re in a fifth grade classroom calculating the square root of pi, and you have the recipe for a person whose mind is her own best company.

When the plague of ’07 hit—the one they called the Red Death—the complete loss of her hearing hardly fazed her. If keeping the noises of the outside world at bay allowed her to delve more deeply into the rigid structure of her private thoughts and aspirations, well, that was pretty much fine by her.

She laughs now as she remembers that day, so many years ago now, when she woke up in the recovery room of Brooke Army Medical Center, able to hear again for the first time in two years. How joyful her parents had been, and how their faces had crumpled as she cried for the loss of her deafness.

“I’m sorry, Mom and Dad,” she says softly into the wakening world. “I know you only wanted what was best for me, and you did a damn good job giving it to me, too. Thank you for that. I appreciate it, and you, more than you’ll ever know.”

As if in answer, the rim of the sun peeks over the horizon, and, surprised, she wipes a dampness from her cheeks.

She laughs again, this time in self derision. “Alright, Kirsten, enough of this foolishness. You’ve got a job to do, and it’s about damn time you started doing it.”

Like a rude guest who’s bound and determined to pull up a chair and stay awhile, the strange, but welcomed, sense of peace travels with her to the back of the van. Opening the doors, she crawls inside the cool dimness, sharp eyes scanning the interior until they light upon the items she needs.

A powerful battery operated lantern lights the dim interior, and she settles once again into her cross-legged position, grabbing a set of carefully packed items and placing them within easy reach around her.

First she pulls out her laptop, the steroidal super-computer some of her staff jokingly named “Arnold”. The joke had to be explained to her before she got it. Movie watching had never been on her top ten list of things to do.

The computer obediently boots up courtesy of a special, long lasting battery and a solar panel tucked into one corner of the cover. Nimble fingers fly over the keyboard, opening a succession of windows more quickly than the human eye could ever hope to follow.

Seconds later, she sits back with a self-satisfied smirk accenting her features, green eyes seeming to glow as the light from the screen flickers across her face. Multiple incomprehensible lines of text are highlighted, but only one blinking and bolded word changes the smirk to a full-out smile on her face.

Active.

She wants to laugh, but holds it in as her quick mind replays the steps necessary to set her plan into motion.

Androids aren’t The Borg. Though each is connected to a massive data hub deep underground in the Silicone Valley, they are no more connected to each other than two refrigerators in two different houses are connected. It was the one concession she was able to receive as the Chairman of the Androids, Robotics and Bionics Administration. And it is a concession that will make her life, what remains of it, a good deal easier.

Though the droids are in no way Borg-like, they do have ways of recognizing one another, and of sending streams of information along pre-set pathways that human beings don’t possess. With that problem in mind, Kirsten drags over a second item; a box about half the size of her laptop.

Carefully opening the lid, she withdraws a second box, this one much smaller than the others. The tiny, plastic-encased hinges give a soft squeal when she pries the lid of this box open to reveal two large, brown contact lenses resting gently in a bed saline solution. Kirsten smiles when they are revealed, touching on the memory of her brief foray into the world of VR.

Her college classmates, all much older than her, seemed addicted to the fantasy of being able to instantly transport themselves into a world of their choosing just for the thinking. Pre-adolescent curiosity drew her into the web, and before she quite knew what was happening, a sizable amount of her scholarship money went towards the purchase of the items she now holds in her hands.

Placing the contacts aside for the moment, she lifts and opens a third, very small, box. Inside this box rests a small, flesh colored button no larger than half the size of the nail on her smallest finger. An earpiece that no audiologist has ever seen, it was used in the world of Virtual Reality to impart a sense of movement and sound to the wearer, taking VR to the bounds of reality none had ever seen before.

For Kirsten, however, the effect had been somewhat different. When combined with the workings of her cochlear implants, the result had been somewhat different than what the makers had doubtless intended. After her initial startlement, she discovered that what she was hearing was the actual wireless data being streamed into the microchip implanted into the ear piece. With a little tweaking, she was able to effect a sort of data translator, and from there on out, she recouped her scholarship losses by developing VR games for her classmates at a substantially reduced cost. She’d quickly become the darling of the Student Union at the ripe old age of fourteen.

Laughing softly, she pulls out the earpiece and slips it into her ear canal. Once it is seated comfortably, she hits a key on her computer. After a moment of disorientation, the signal comes through clearly and she nods, satisfied.

Pressing the key again, she cuts the noise off, then grabs a hand mirror and positions it just so. The contact lenses go in smoothly though her eyes, at first, rebel at the unexpected intrusion. Blinking one last time, she clears her vision and glances into the mirror. A stranger stares back at her. A stranger with the brown, dead dolls’ eyes that mark an android. She shudders at the image, then settles.

Need to get over those whim-whams, little K.

She can almost hear her dad’s voice, as if he were standing right over her shoulder urging her to jump from the highest board at the community pool.

The memory of that gruff, husky voice had helped her through more than a few of life’s little roadblocks. Maybe the magic would hold for one, final try.

Please. Let it hold. Just let me do this one last thing.

Nodding to herself, she lifts one final object from the nest of boxes before her, lifting it to shine in the light, twisting it between her fingers. What should have been a final, tragic insult instead will become, she hopes, her ultimate triumph.

“Here you go, doll,” he said, painted blondes dripping off his arms like water. His insolent smirk made his homely face all the uglier, but the diamond-studded whores didn’t seem to care. “The working microchip is inside. Give it a good, long look-see, and if you can figure it out, call me. We’ll do lunch.”

Laughing heartily, he tossed her a shining, metallic silver strip and walks away, people trailing him like apostles to the One True God.

Though almost loathe to touch the thing, she nevertheless grabbed it from the air and stuffed it into the bodice of her sequined evening gown.

“You’re a real prick, Westerhaus,” she murmurs, coming back to the present. “And I just hope I’ll live long enough to tell you that. And to thank you for this. Right before I shove it up your pockmarked little candy ass.”

Reaching up, she slips the silver collar around her neck and fastens it securely. It’s snug, but not too tight, as if it’s been crafted just for her.

Knowing that little asshole, it probably was.

With a final pat to the collar, she looks back down into the mirror. Her lips form a stunned O as she sees the final results of her handiwork.

“Damn.”

Her soft exhalation briefly fogs the mirror, breaking the spell she’s cast over herself. A small breath of relief, and she looks over at the still blinking monitor.

Active.

With a few quick changes, she’s managed to transform herself from Kirsten King, Doctor of Robotics, to BD-1499081-Z-2A6-13, biodroid currently in service to Chalmatech Pharmaceuticals, the largest drug company in the world.

Biodroids had been the first androids developed by Westerhaus, touted as a superior alternative to animal research. Designed to mimic the human body in every way, including a beating “heart”, breathing “lungs”, measurable “blood pressure” and a body “chemistry” that could mimic any disease known to man, and efficiently and accurately predict the effects of medicines used to fight said diseases, the biodroid was a smashing success.

And it is Kirsten’s ticket onto the base. Her only chance to try and undo the damage Westerhaus has created.

A tightly clenched fist pounded on her leg, and she nodded once, sharply. “Alright. Let’s do it.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

KODA GIVES THE communications handset back to Johnson, who returns to her own sleep, taking the unit with her. The women they have left at Camp Sitting Bull will be safe. Koda has just spoken with her cousin Manny, briefly and in Lakota to avoid detection by the droids.

“Shic’eshi,” she greets him.

“Makshké,” he answers in Lakota.

“Listen, this has got to be quick.. Winan iyoheyapi ekta Mandan—hochoken Tatanka Watanka.”

“Toná?”

“Wikcemna yamni.”

“Iyeyathi,” he promises.

“Pilámayaye.”

“Wakan Tanka nici un.”

She paces for a time, restless. The moon is in her blood again this night, and Koda slips quietly across the perimeter of the camp and onto the shore of the frozen lake beyond. She passes Martinez on his sentry rounds, accepting his salute quietly with a murmured acknowledgement and a nod. The feeling of disquieting familiarity with the office of command slips along her veins beside the other summons. It is something, she now knows, she will have to deal with, though when or how is not certain.

Her grandfather would have known how to confront this new aspect of herself. But then again, he would not have needed or wanted to be forewarned. “Well, Tshunkila,” he would have said. “It will come when all such things come--when you have no time for it and when you are not prepared. Any fool can deal with a challenge that comes in broad daylight across an open field. Only a real warrior or a true winan wakan will survive an ambush.”

Fox had been Tunkashila’s name for her then. Fox Ears, her mother had sometimes amended when she found Koda had overheard some dully adult thing that wasn’t “fit” for a child. Mostly about sex, of course, but how many times could you see the stallion stand with the mares and your baby brother out of his diapers, and not figure it out? Then there was the other thing she’d figured out, with no assistance from the horses, and her mother had simply kissed her and said, “Yes, I thought so.” Once, teasing, Tali had sworn she had married Koda just to have a decent mother-in-law.

A yard or so from the edge of the ice, a sandstone outcropping thrusts up through the snow. Koda brushes the powdery new fall off the top of the boulder, clambers up and settles crosslegged, facing north. Between the tops of the pines and the moon, now just off the full, the Northern Lights flare across the sky in ripples of green and blue and gold and lilac. Her grandfather had called them the outrunners of waziya ahtah, the blizzard, but she had pointed to them one night and said, “Wápata, tunkashila.” “Flags?” he had asked, laughing, and she had insisted, “Banners, of many warriors on great horses, wearing gold.” He had looked at her then, long and hard, and she had seen decision form in his eyes. He had said only, “You are the one I will teach.”

He had taught her what she is about to do now. Laying her hands on her knees and closing her eyes, she begins to breathe slowly and deeply. Gradually she becomes aware of the breath as it passes in and out of her lungs, follows the thrum and hiss of her own blood as it beats in throat and ankle. She begins to chant softly to the rhythm of her body’s drum, first in its own tempo, then slowing and feeling her heart slow with it. Hey-ah. Hey-ah. Heeyy-aaahh. It is the blood song, one of the first of her grandfather’s teachings. It can be used to stop bleeding, in human or birthing mare or wire-entangled deer. Or it can be used as she uses it now, to quiet the noise of physical life and let the spirit slip free.

When the chant has slowed almost to stillness, she feels herself rise upward, out of her body, past the trees and the floating banners. Above her the stars flare close and huge, cold as the northern ice below them. And there again is the errant one, the low small sphere pacing its round. Not a meteor, then. It is in part this thing that calls to her, though she cannot tell why. Nor does it hold her long. Across the snow fields she hears again the wolf pack racing under the waning moon, calling to each other in the chase. Calling to her, Tshunka Wakan Winan of the Lakota people, to run with them.

She follows the baying as she slides along the air, miles slipping away under her with a thought. When she finds them, they are a string of dark shadows, moving over the snow in great leaping bounds from north to south across a rise. As she descends, she feels the beginning of the change come over her. Her spine reconfigures itself, hips and shoulders twisting beneath its line. Eyes and ears become almost unbearably keen. She hears each padded footfall as it breaks the crust of the snow, sees each hair in the feathery ruff of each wolf as they streak toward her, never breaking stride.

As the big male in the lead passes by her, she swings into the line after him. She feels her spine coil and release with each plunge into the snow, feels the power as muscles of hip and thigh lift her free of it again and into the air. Yellow eyes gleam like fireflies around her; the breath of a dozen mouths streams behind her in a plume. It is only gradually that she becomes aware that there is something strange in this running. There is no crashing of underbrush as escaping prey flees before them; her nose catches no scent of elk or deer or antelope.

She senses amusement from the pack leader at her discovery, and something that, had it been a human word, would have been, “Wait.”

A mile further along, she picks up the scent—wolf-like but not, with faint but still perceptible overtones of human. Dog. Male. A ripple of tension runs through the lower-ranking members of the pack behind her, but she senses nothing of threat or fear in the lead male. Instead there is purpose, and the feeling of a task almost completed.

When they come upon him at last he is stretched out along a fallen log in a larch-pine clearing, front paws straight out in front of him, the brush of his tail draped elegantly to one side, facing forward with ears erect. Almost, she thinks, as if he has been waiting for them. And almost—almost he is familiar to her. A big dog, almost as large as the alpha wolf, with silver fur on face and flank, legs and belly, marked with a black saddle and a four-pointed black star between his eyes.

The pack comes to a halt, and the stranger descends to meet them. He sniffs noses with the leader, and they stalk around each other stiff-legged for a moment, tails straight up, hackles rising. Then the dog steps back, lowering his head to make submission. The ritual repeats itself down the line. Then the pack wheels and sets off south again, running under the moon toward the frozen lake and the small band of humans encamped there.

When Koda’s spirit comes again into her body, her muscles are sore, and she is painfully hungry. Sound asleep on the rock beside her is a large silver and black German Shepherd. Levering herself up, she grabs him by the scruff of the neck and gives him a shake. “C’mon, boy,” she says. “Let’s go find something to eat.”

2

Walking up to the retinal sensor, Kirsten experiences a feeling of terror unknown in her life before this time. If she fails this one simple test, she will be killed outright. No second chances, no recriminations. Dead. As a doornail, as her father has been known to say on occasion. Her analytical mind could never quite make sense of that particular idiom before, but now it seems painfully clear.

Taking hold of a deep breath, Kirsten steps in front of the sensor and prays her contacts will do their job.

The wait seems interminable and she has time to see various scenes of her life flash through her mind in all their Technicolor glory. She hears a soft hum, and has only time enough to think I’m a dead woman before the gate slides noiselessly open and she steps through, unencumbered and still very much alive.

She fights to keep her face, and body, completely without expression as her eyes trail over what she first takes to be scattered hillocks in the snow. It is only on further, seemingly casual, inspection that she notices those hillocks are actually snow-covered bodies, left to die, and freeze, where they have fallen.

Don’t start, K. Don’t stare. You’re an emotionless android. Remember that, or you’ll be joining your frozen friends here.

Thus fortified, she begins the trek across the wide expanse of grounds toward the large, low-slung and windowless building directly ahead. It looks more like a bomb shelter than a business, but given that the facility is, for the most part, a fully self contained unit, and further given that the androids that operated there wouldn’t appreciate an outside view, Kirsten supposes it all makes sense.

A second retinal scanner awaits her at the main entrance to the building, and she isn’t nearly as petrified to step before it. A half-second later, a small beep tells her she’s been processed and her identity accepted. The door hisses open and she slips easily through.

The normalcy of the scene boggles her. For one heart-stopping moment, it seems as if the events of the recent past have been swept clean, like the cobwebs of a nightmare upon full awakening. She could be walking into her own lab, nodding pleasant good mornings to her employees as they bustle by, intent on one task or another. If she looks hard enough, wishes hard enough, she can almost see Peterson, her gangly, nerdish assistant, start toward her in his peculiar, shuffling gait, steaming cup of strong black coffee in one freckled hand.

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