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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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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.

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