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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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Instantly serious, Maggie snaps, “And—“

“He requests covering fire from the mortars back in the woods.”

Maggie’s face goes grey. Then, quietly, “Tell Jurgensen to shell what’s left of the bridge. We’ll try that first.”

Kirsten turns back to her mike, speaking into it in English. The battle has reached the melee stage; strategic surprise is no longer possible. Fear catches at Koda’s throat. Shelling the bridge is a stalling tactic, a forlorn hope. Its complete destruction would require a howitzer, a bigger gun than they have, with a range too long for the relatively confined space of the valley below. Without speaking she turns her field glasses on the fight at the northwest end of the bridge. A company of the heavy military-model droids grinds its way slowly toward the bridgehead, flanked on one side by a much smaller human force that ducks and runs and ducks again, firing off grenade launchers and shoulder rockets at every possibly opening. The troops on the southeast side are completely engaged with the remnants of the human and domestic droid forces; they cannot spare a squad.

She searches the forces on the far bank, looking for one man. Tacoma is down there. She knows it. She cannot make out his face or tell one shape from another under the camo and the layers of Polartec and thermal nylon, but there is one soldier out front and to the side that she knows with utter certainty is her brother.

Her brother Tacoma, who has just called down a strike on his own position.

A red haze passes over her eyes. Her vision narrows to that one point where she knows he runs along the basalt table, sprawling where he can behind a low rise, heaving up the tube of his grenade launcher to fire when feasible. Impossibly keen, her ears bring her the clang of M-16 rounds on the metal skin of the droids on the near side; the scream of a soldier suddenly shot in the gut, doubling over in pain as his lifeblood runs out between his fingers. The hot metallic smell comes to her on the wind. Hardly aware of what she does, she passes her tongue over her teeth, tasting the richness of the odor.

With movements that seem ponderous, she slips loose of her rifle, lets the binoculars fall from her hand to go tumbling down the slope of the hill. Two long strides carry her to the back bumper of the last Jeep, another into the driver’s seat. Human voices batter at her, shouting, a jumble of words that she neither heeds nor cares to.

KODANOSTOPWAITDAMMIT

MAAMYOUCANTDOTHAT

ATLEASTWAITFORMEYOUIDIOT

And she is bouncing down the hill in the Jeep, accelerator to the floor on a forty-degree downslope that probably ought to send her flying hood over tailpipe, but somehow she manages to keep the damn donkey of a machine on the road. There are other people in it with her, hanging on for their lives, a tall lean dark-faced woman yelling something into her ear and a smaller one with hair that burns like white flame in the sunlight shrieking unintelligibly, and behind her she hears the roar and clatter of other engines as they speed down the hill straight toward the fighting, toward the near end of the bridge. As she pulls the vehicle onto the flat meadow at the foot of the rise the first of the mortar shells streaks toward the far bridgehead, landing just short of the northwest bank and impacting the shattered concrete with a roar and a cloud of grey-white dust that clears to show a few large pieces of the bridge smashed to smaller pieces but not much effect otherwise. A second shell screams over, and another and another.

In the narrow focus of her vision, Koda can see a figure scrambling out onto the spars of half-collapsed asphalt and cement where broken slabs jut up against each other at unlikely angles like some strange rock formation on a sea-beaten coast. She shifts gears and sets the Jeep straight for the near end, steering her way somehow through grenade craters and over the splintered remains of droids. Her helmet flies off her head, and her hair unfurls behind her with her spped. A huge shout goes up around her, but she pays no attention, noting only out of the edges of her sight a convoy no larger than the one she leads, streaking down on the battle out of nowhere, spilling out of the Black Hills, truck-mounted machine guns spraying bullets that bounce harmlessly as pebbles off the titanium hides of the androids.

Just short of the near end of the bridge Koda stands on the brakes, bringing the Jeep to a shuddering halt that nearly throws her free. Snatching a belt of grenades and a launcher from the back of the vehicle, she speeds for the bridge, her eyes on that lone figure now firing on the advancing droids from the meager cover of a broken pylon. Behind her someone is shouting CEASEFIRECEASEFIREDAMMIT, and the broken structure shakes beneath her as she leaps from concrete boulder to concrete boulder, grasping an upright length of rebar to steady herself as she plants her feet and fires. She pushes off from her position, finds footing again a meter ahead, fires again, catches a foot in a cage of steel supports and shakes herself free to kneel and fire yet again on the advancing metal demons. Dimly she is aware of voices behind her, screaming out her name, a warcry, curses, she cannot tell and does not care. She feels the recoil of weapons loosed behind her, though, and knows that more of the droids are going down than she can reasonably account for. Thank you Ina Maka the thought winds through her mind, never touching the part of her brain that drives her feet forward, powers her arms through the routine of load, life and fire again and again as the droids clustered at the far end of the bridge go down, crashing into those pressing forward behind them, some of those behind falling forward to strike the ruins of the span and tumble down into the metal-clotted water below.

There are fewer and fewer of them standing between her and the hills beyond, and finally there are none. She stares into a face inches from hers, her fingers caught up in gentle hands as a voice says, again and again, “Tanksi? Tanski! Koda, you in there? Answer me!”

Slowly the world takes shape around her. She is looking into the deep brown of her brother’s eyes, blurred where blood has run into them and carried streaks of his warpaint down his face in runnels crusted with dust and minute grains of cement. There is a strange silence, no more shooting, no more shouting. She can hear the force of the current as the Cheyenne finds its way in small rapids around the debris that juts out of the water.

Gingerly she glances around her. Andrews perches on a slab of concrete, teeth clenched, grimly cutting his left boot away from an ankle already swollen half again its size. I need to get up and tend to that, she thinks dimly. Maggie, beside her, leans on the tube of a rocket launcher, favoring her right foot. There is a streak of bright blood on the leg of her pants above it, but her face is clear and bright. Kirsten, face pale as her hair, rubs at her shoulder where the end of a grenade launcher is printed into the padded fabric of her jacket.

Koda’s eyes return to her own hands, scraped raw and bloody in her scramble across the ruins of the bridge. Gently she looses them from Tacoma’s grasp and looks around her, taking in the battlefield with its scattered dead and the deliberate movements of survivors walking among the fallen, looking for wounded.

She glances back at Maggie, then at her brother again. “We won?”

Yeah,” he says, slipping his hands under her arms and levering them both to their feet. Even at her height, he is taller still as she gazes up at him. Slowly he turns her to face the others. Somehow she cannot seem to find her boundaries; some part of her is still Koda Rivers, but she feels herself spread thin, strung out, strands of her substance mingled with her brother’s, Maggie’s, Kirsten’s, the thoughts of Andrews on his perch and the men still scattered on the field beyond.

“That’s the goddammedest thing I ever saw, Ma’am, like something out of a storybook,” Andrews says, images tumbling through his mind of Lancelot stampeding across an English meadow toward a dragon, a Greek general in a mountain pass called the Hot Gates, a long haired man in a kilt, wild with freedom, brandishing a sword almost as tall as himself.

Maggie shoots him a sharp glance, more than half-amused at the blatant hero-worship, but why the hell not, it’s the bravest thing she’s ever seen in her own life. She tells herself that the pride she feels in this woman is totally irrational; she has not had the teaching of her, and yet the pride is there. Pride and regret both. She glances briefly upward, to the high reach of sky where the hawk still circles, and knows that an ending has been reached; an ending that, like the rising circles of the red-tail’s spiral, is also a beginning. She lets her rocket launcher fall among the tumbled wreckage of the bridge and steps forward to put an arm around Koda’s shoulders. “You were born for this,” she says simply.

Koda’s eyes are still wide, still not focused entirely on the reality in front of her. She says, “You’re the commander. You followed me.”

Maggie feels her mouth stretch into a grin. “Well, you didn’t exactly give us a choice. You were out front and running away without a word; we had to follow or be left behind.”

The words echo in Kirsten’s mind, left behind, left behind, alone. And suddenly she knows, directly, the same way she knows that her side hurts where she has pulled a muscle in the mad dash for the Jeep and then the insane stumble over the wreckage of the bridge firing a weapon she’s barely touched before, that she is not alone,. From somewhere in the depth of her mind an image forms, a dark-haired woman in a beaded dress, promising. . .promising, it seems, this woman who has just pulled them all out of themselves and drawn from them a courage and a passion they never new was in them. Drawn them straight into the heart of the flame and through it, to come out tempered steel on the other side. “Hey,” she says, quietly, moving to support Koda on her other side. “Let’s get you out of here and get your hands tended to.”

Koda feels their arms around her, Tacoma still half-holding her up from behind, and they begin to make their slow progress back toward the southeast end of the bridge. It was easier, she thinks, when she was not thinking at all; a couple times she stumbles and nearly falls to hands and knees on the jagged concrete. Somewhere someone is shouting. The sound starts small, one man , and then another joining him, and another until it seems the whole small army is yelling, some of them waving their weapons in the air in a decidedly dangerous fashion. It seems odd that Maggie does not have something sharp to say about that. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “What the hell’s with all the noise?”

“You are,” Kirsten says quietly. “Wave at them.”

“Huh?” This makes no sense. I am not drunk. I may, however, be losing my mind. The thought is surprisingly clear.

“Wave, “ Maggie repeats from her other side. “They’ve fought like the devil themselves. They deserve the acknowledgement.”

Koda raises her arm from Maggie’s shoulders and waves at the troops. Their cheering—because that’s what it is, she suddenly realizes—goes on and on and on. Finally her arm will no longer hold itself up, and her knees buckle with sudden weariness. “I’m sorry, I can’t do anymore,” she says.

Maggie bears her up again, Kirsten still firm on the other side. “Come on, “ she says in her best no-backtalk scientist voice. “Let everyone else take a turn at being a hero. Time for you to rest.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THE ROOM IS as dark as guilty secrets. Only the faint light from the hallway enters, laying a wedge-shaped pattern across the carpet. It reaches the very edge of the bed and goes no further, as if afraid to disturb the vigil being kept above.

Kirsten sits on a chair that has seen better decades, staring down at Koda, who is so deeply unconscious that she appears, for all the world, dead. Only the slight rise and fall of her chest reassures her silent watcher. Heavily bandaged hands lay quiescent on the dark coverlet, as still as the body that bears them.

Dakota looks small, almost fragile as she lies so still, a lost and broken child in her parents’ bed. Kirsten swallows the lump in her throat, blinking to cast away the vision. She looks up, startled, at a soft sound from the doorway.

Maggie enters, bearing two steaming mugs. Smiling slightly, she walks to Kirsten’s side and hands her one. “Thought you could use this.”

Kirsten takes the offered mug eagerly, wrapping her chilled hands around it and inhaling the comforting aroma with a sigh of pleasure. “Thank you. This is perfect.” Taking a small sip, she lets the coffee roll over her tongue, savoring it for a timeless moment before swallowing. “Bless you, Colonel,” she breathes. “This is just what the doctor ordered.”

“Seeing as you’re sitting in my bedroom,” Maggie replies, smirking, “I think we could dispense with the formalities, don’t you?”

Kirsten glances up, the expression of a guilty child plain upon her face. She begins to rise, but Maggie motions her back down. “No. It’s alright. Stay.” Her smirk softens into a true smile. “I have a strange sense of humor, sometimes.”

Nodding, Kirsten returns the smile with a hesitant one of her own. The space between them is like a chasm; one which she suddenly wishes she could cross.

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