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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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I’m going to die.

The thought is strangely free of accompanying emotion, and part of her wonders if she’s not dead already, simply existing as some amorphous ghost-thing doomed forever to haunt a truck.

"I don’t believe in ghosts."

Setting her jaw, she jerks forward again, only to be dragged back when a strong forearm clamps itself against her throat, cutting off her breathing in a savage motion.

Her right arm shoots out, trying desperately to reach the keys, but all she can do is flop her fingers uselessly against the steering wheel. Black roses begin to bloom in her vision, and with all of her strength she tries again.

Nothing.

Her hand rebounds off the steering wheel to land at her side. Her fingers trace along the chilled metal of some object that her oxygen starved brain refuses to identify. Working on blind instinct alone, she grabs the object, hand curling around it naturally. Hefting it, she brings her arm up and across her body and pulls the trigger of the gun in her hand, again and again and again until it only responds with empty, impotent clicks.

In deep shock, and temporarily deafened by her own gun, Kirsten doesn’t realize that the arm around her neck has loosened until her head begins pounding with the rush of life-giving oxygen returning her red blood cells to their normal function.

Her lungs respond automatically, in heaving gasps of fresh, cold air, and even before her second intake of breath, she’s straightened out, dropped the gun, and is reaching for the keys in the ignition. This time, her fingers score a direct hit, and the van starts up with a howling growl.

"Asimov, release!" she shouts as she swings her leg down and jams her foot on the accelerator. Human and canine are driven against the backs of their seats as the van goes from stop to go in what seems to be a nanosecond. The stench of burning rubber accompanies the screech of new Michelins. The van rockets away from the curb, shimmies a bit on a small patch of black ice, then straightens admirably and roars down the street as if being pursued by Lucifer himself.

Her attacker is still hanging on, though now it’s to the doorframe. Shards of safety glass cut cruelly into its unfeeling palms, but it holds on, uncaring. Kirsten knows better than to try and pry the fingers away from the frame. She lacks the strength and leverage it would require, and would further draw her attention away from the road she is blistering down at sixty and still gaining.

A grin devoid of any charm or humor curls her lips as she sees a delivery truck parked against the curb to her left. A quick twist of the wheel, and the van heads in that direction.

"Die, you fucker!!!"

Another jerk of the wheel and the side of the van crashes against the delivery truck and bounces off. It shudders, then sideswipes the truck again, paint and metal screeching their last. The screeching stops as the two vehicles finally separate. The truck remains stationary, rocking on its springs. The van continues forward, now sounding a little worse for wear.

Kirsten chances a look to her left, and crows in delight when the only sign of her inhuman attacker is the two hands it’s left behind, still gripping the window frame hard enough to dent the metal beneath the vinyl and foam padding.

At her side, Asimov yelps, and Kirsten quickly returns her attention to the road just in time to see a moving truck parked crossways along the road, blocking it completely.

"Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii….."

Yanking the wheel hard, she almost overturns the truck as it attempts to turn at a nearly right angle while still doing somewhere close to fifty miles an hour.

"..iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…."

Going up on two wheels for a terror-filled moment, it finally drops home on all four and continues on at an angle, the truck in its sights and growing larger by the second.

"…iiiiiiiiiiii…"

All four wheels leave the road this time as the van jumps the curb, missing the rear corner of the moving truck by less than the width of a hair.

"..iiiiiiiiiiiit!"

The front wheels land first. Kirsten’s head jerks forward, pounding against the steering wheel and slicing a large gash just above her hairline. Asimov yelps again as he is thrown against the glove compartment, rebounds into the seat, and collapses, panting and whining in pain.

The rear wheels hit then, and Kirsten’s head tips back. A rich fan of bright blood lays itself across the windshield and the ceiling. A second fan joins the first as the van drops down off the curb and shoots down a narrow side street, careening out of control.

The side street widens out, then curves gently, becoming a freeway onramp. Kirsten holds the curve, blinking the streaming blood from eyes big and round and white as saucers. She lets out a breath of relief as the van rockets onto the thankfully empty freeway, then sucks that breath back in as the tires hit another patch of black ice and slide across the lanes as if they’ve suddenly grown skate blades.

The sideways glide, almost balletic really, comes to an abrupt end as the van sideswipes a steel divider, further abusing the already crumpled driver’s side from fender to fender. More metal and paint are sacrificed to the gods of destruction, and the van gradually slows, half on and half off of the smoothly paved freeway.

If finally rolls to a complete stop, and Kirsten sits, staring through the window as her mind tries to wrap itself around the events just preceding. Her hand moves up to wipe her brow. It comes away bloody as she hisses at the sting. "You alright boy?" she asks Asimov. His ears perk, followed by his body as he comes to a sitting position and leans over to lick at her face. It tickles, and she giggles a little before pushing him away. The laugh sounds a little breathless, a little tremulous, and she knows that her system is just waiting out the shock she’s just given it. And if that happens….

Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out another handkerchief, dots gingerly at the blood on her brow, then ties it around her head just below the level of the cut. The mediocre first aid will have to do for now. She can’t spare time for anything else.

The battered van starts forward again, if grudgingly, and soon she’s driving west as if trying to outrun the dawn shading the eastern sky.

2

Setting her hat back on her head, Koda follows Allen to the back of the nearer troop trucks. She swings herself easily up onto the bumper, then ducks through the narrow door. Inside, the carrier has been transformed into a mobile field office. A table has been bolted to the floor between the two long side benches; over their heads—not more than a couple millimeters over Koda’s--a battery-powered fluorescent tube runs almost the length of the compartment.

A topo map of the area is taped by its corners to the table, which also holds a compact laptop no thicker than a weekly newsmagazine. Best of all, a camp stove backed by a wide reflector radiates heat through the entire space. The Colonel unbuttons her heavy parka and drops it onto a folding chair. Koda follows suit, adding hat and gloves to the pile.

The Colonel raises a mug with squadron logo on the side: a bobcat standing on its hind feet and twirling a six-gun in either paw, a crooked, very human grin spread across its whiskered face under a Stetson. Behind it is the shape of a steeply climbing fighter jet, with "Wildcats SR" in looping script across its tail. "Coffee?"

Koda settles on one of the benches, stretching her booted feet out to the stove. "Real?"

"Real." Allen rummages in a thermal chest under the table and comes up with another cup and a vacuum jug. "Sugar? Creamer?"

"Black, thanks."

She hands Koda the hot, fragrant drink and settles across from her. She is tall and spare, though not so tall as Koda, with elegant long hands. There is a scattering of grey in her hair, worn natural and close to her scalp. Her only ornament is a single gold ear cuff, also in the form of a bobcat. She smiles faintly, but her eyes remain sharp and more than a little wary. "So," she says. "Truth or dare time. You want me to go first?"

Koda raises her mug in salute. "Be my guest, Colonel."

"Maggie."

"Koda, then."

Maggie nods, then settles herself, leaning back against the wall of the truck. "Okay.

"We were in the air when we got word of the uprising. We’d only been up about half an hour or so—myself, half a dozen instructors with their student pilots. Flying echelon, doing some formation training on the way up to Minot. We were doing the tour, landings and takeoffs at half-a-dozen bases with mid-air refueling. Standard exercise."

So they have planes. Koda lowers her eyes as she takes a sip from the cup, not quite quickly enough.

"Right," Maggie confirms with a negligent wave of her hand. "When we heard, we turned around and put down on a long, straight stretch of farm road a couple miles from here. We found a ranch house that had already been hit. The folks there apparently kept a couple domestic droids, maybe a field hand or two. The men were all dead and the women all gone."

She pauses, and Koda recognizes that it is her turn. "That’s the pattern we’ve seen. The night it happened, we destroyed a pair of droids that had gone to raid our neighbors’ ranch. We weren’t in time to help the men, but we got the women and girls away from them. Same at another place a few miles up the road, except that the things were long gone."

"We?"

"My family and I. My dad has a large spread up near the Cheyenne. I have my own place next to it."

"Can your people hold it?"

"So far."

"Good. We need to find other resisters, too. Right now, we’re holding about fifteen square miles, closing off the roads and bridges and running a tight perimeter with relay patrols."

"How many troops?"

Maggie ticked them off. "We have the fighter crews; that’s fourteen of us. Then we have another thirty, weekend infantry we picked up when we went to raid the National Guard armory at Box Elder for vehicles and small arms. Plus survivors and refugees that managed to get away from Ellsworth itself. Sixty-five of us altogether."

"So what’s going on? It’s not just a mutiny. Hell," Koda thumped her cup down on the table, sloshing the still-scalding liquid halfway up the side of the mug." It’s a goddam third-rate science-fiction story: kill the men and carry off Earth’s Fairest Daughters. It’s worse than goddam Fay Wray with the goddam gorilla up on the goddam Empire State Building!"

"You’re right about that," Maggie says softly. "Most of the men on the base were mutilated."

Koda draws her breath in sharply, the air hissing between her teeth. "So."

"But you suspected that, didn’t you?"

"Young, prime males, sure." Koda shrugs. "Steers go to market; cows and heifers make more steers, with the bull or with the turkey baster. It does, however," she says very carefully, "seem unlikely that the droids are raising beef. Or long pig."

"Well, they haven’t eaten anybody yet. I’ve always hated the damn things. Hated the idea of them, the risk they just might not be controllable in a crisis. Hated making them humanoid." A wry grin splits Maggie’s dark face. "But I don’t think they’ve gotten human enough to turn to cannibalism. No, it’s something else. Want to help us find out what?"

"What do you have in mind?"

"Some recon tomorrow, onto the base and maybe into Rapid City."

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