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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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In the guardshack above, Kirsten’s jaws clench tighter and a thick vein throbs to prominence at her temple.

"Androids, as you know, must be programmed to go against their natural actions. They must be programmed to kill instead of save, to harm instead of help. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen of Ellsworth, there is only one person, one person in this country of ours with the means, the opportunity, the ability, and the reprehensible morality to get that job done. The one person who was seen, and captured, at Minot, the world’s largest android construction factory in the process of aiding and abetting the enemy, disguised as the enemy herself! Disguised so well that her co-conspirators had no idea who she really was!! The one person in this country who stood to gain the most, to attain the highest of peaks, to sit at the head of this great and undaunted country.

"The very person who lives with you now, who pretends to share your lives, your worries, your goals, but who is, in fact, continuing her quest for world domination by reprogramming our good and safe androids into brutal killing machines.

"And that person, ladies and gentlemen, that person is none other than the woman who would have the audacity to call herself YOUR President. Kirsten King. Traitor. Abominator. Killer of innocents."

The rage washes over Kirsten in red waves. Her fingers clench into the palms of her hands, itching for the small cold curve of a trigger under them; her blood slams in her ears. She pushes away from the wall and steps up to the opening, shouldering Maggie aside, reaching for the sidearm of one of the guards--Simmons, she thinks--where he attempts to shrink himself small in a corner.

That's what he wants. The thought comes to her from somewhere cold, deep in her mind. He wants us to lose it. That'll prove he's right, at least start some people thinking we want to silence him.

Very carefully, she lets go of Simmons' gun, handing it to Koda. She meets her lover's eyes. "Don't worry. I'm not going to give him anything."

"I know you won’t," Koda replies, handing the gun back to Simmons and turning Kirsten back toward the bolthole, large hands resting comfortably on her shoulders. "Let’s just listen to the rest of his spiel, and then go on to doing something productive with our day."

"I have come to parley," Hart continues. "This country cannot rebuild itself and achieve the greatness for which God has intended until such a monster is removed from her self-appointed post. I wish, all of us here wish, that this be done peacefully. Open your gates and we will retrieve the good "Doctor" and you all have my word that you will be able to go on about your lives as best you see fit. If, however, her words have so brainwashed you that you are unable to see the truth that lies at your feet, we will be compelled to use force. It is a force that, I am sad to say, you will not survive. The battle you have just endured will be like a campfire to the blaze of true Armageddon."

Lowering the megaphone, he appears to touch something at his belt. Within seconds, the formerly empty clearing is suddenly populated with androids, appearing as if from the ether.

"Jesus Christ! Where the hell did they come from?"

Kirsten turns and looks helplessly at Maggie.

"Simmons!" Maggie barks. "Get down to communications on the double and find out why we’re standing here with our asses hanging in the wind! Now!!"

"Yes, Ma’am!"

As Simmons disappears, Koda reaches for a pair of high intensity binoculars hanging from a hook on the wall. Putting them up to her eyes, she adjusts the focus, and whistles. Wordlessly, she hands them to Kirsten, whose jaw drops. "There’s got to be more than a thousand out there!"

Shouldering in, Maggie grips the proffered binoculars and brings them up to her eyes. Her lips go tight, a bloodless slash against the deep ebony of her face.

"How…couldn’t we know about this?" Kirsten’s voice is soft in the silence of the shack.

Simmons steps back into the shack, followed by Tacoma, who eases his bulk into the already crowded room with some difficulty. His expression is apologetic. "We can’t read ‘em," he says, peering over Maggie’s head and squinting as the sunlight reflects off of highly polished armor. "I don’t know if they’re jamming us or what, but all of our scanning equipment says there’s an empty field out there."

"Shit. And my damn computer’s totally trashed."

"I’m not sure if that would help or not," Tacoma replies, shrugging his shoulders. "I just…"

"I realize," Hart resumes, "that this is not an easy decision to make, and I am sorry, deeply and truly sorry, that Dr. King has put you in the position of having to make it. That said, since I am a fair man, as most of you are aware, I will give you five hours to hand the good doctor over. Rest assured, she will be treated fairly and receive due process as is her right under the law. A law *we* follow. Even if others don’t."

He pulls the megaphone away for the final time, looking supremely smug.

Kirsten’s summing up is succinct.

"Fuck."

"Ok, let’s think about this for a moment here," Maggie says, turning away from the bolthole. "Kirsten, are there any of your ‘Traitor Tommies’ lying around anywhere?"

"I left ten behind at the factory in case we needed them later," Kirsten responds, rubbing at the back of her neck, where a huge knot of tension has merrily taken up residence, "but I can’t activate them without my computer." Her eyes brighten. "I’ll head down there--."

"No."

Kirsten stares at Maggie as if she’s suddenly grown a second head and is preparing to use it to commit cannibalism upon her person. "Wha-at?"

"You need to get out of here, Kirsten. And not down to that damn factory, which is likely crawling with Hart’s new groupies. You need to get somewhere far, far away from here."

"Now, wait just a minute here. I’m not going to be chased away from this base by some asshole with an agenda. I don’t care how many ‘friends’ he has, and how big his guns are. No how, no way, so just put that out of your head right now."

"Kirsten, it’s not that." Maggie smiles, a little, caught out and knowing it. "Ok, it’s not just that."

"What is it, then?" Kirsten’s arms fold themselves across her chest, implacable armor against Maggie’s coming words.

"Listen to me, please." Maggie heaves a sigh. Her hand lifts, and she begins ticking points off on her long fingers. "Your computer is gone. The code that you risked your life at Minot for is gone. And with it is any chance of you being able to turn off those damn droids, not just for now, for this damn battle, but forever. There has got to be some place, some other place, where you can get what you need to get to do the job you need to do."

"But I can do that after--."

"No. No, you can’t. Don’t you see, Kirsten? Hart’s primary purpose is to destroy you and all the goodness in this world, and he’s not gonna stop until it’s done. Whether it’s this battle, or the next, or the next. He’s got more manpower than we could ever hope to possess, more firepower, more everything. Our only chance, this damn world’s only chance, is for you to cut his troops off at the source. Now. Not later. Because later will likely never come. You need to go. And you," she says, turning to Koda, "need to guide her."

Kirsten looks at her lover, horrified when she realizes that Dakota is actually considering Maggie’s insane order. "Koda, you can’t possibly--."

The rest of Kirsten’s words fade down to a meaningless drone as another voice, one well remembered if little heard, weaves its way through Dakota’s brain, like a mist before the dawn. "I have something to tell you: do not hesitate to flee when the time comes. Victory will follow you. For the sake of all the People, two-footed, four-footed, winged and creeping, you must do what you least wish to, when you least wish to. I will be here waiting when you return."

"We need to leave." Dakota’s voice is low, and tortured, as if the words are being forced from her by something, or someone, beyond her control. They set badly in her mouth, but their truth is undeniable in the hard shine of her eyes.

"What? What are you saying? We can’t run!"

"We need to leave," she repeats, trance-like. "We need to find the answers. They’re not here. Victory will follow us."

"Dakota, you’re not making any sense!"

Ignoring Kirsten for the moment, Koda looks over at Maggie, eyebrow raised. The general smiles, and nods. "We’ll do okay, I think. I still have a few aces up my sleeve. Aces even Hart doesn’t suspect exist. It’ll be hard, but…we’ll do okay."

Koda nods, and a subtle transference occurs between the two women; one that Kirsten can’t, to her great consternation, read. Then the blazing blue eyes turn back to her, and the young scientist is once again captured effortlessly within their pristine depths. "This is the right thing to do, my love. It’s the only thing we can do and hope to win in the end. Anything else will only delay the inevitable. I know you know this…deep inside. Look. You’ll see."

But Kirsten doesn’t need to look. She’s known the truth from the very second Maggie suggested leaving. It sits across her shoulders like a yoke, like a cross, growing heavier with each passing second, each passing thought.

"I’ll help you carry it," Koda says, reading her effortlessly. "Together, to the end of whatever journey the gods have planned for us."

"Where will we go?" Kirsten asks, beginning to accept the inevitable.

"It’s your call," Dakota replies, reaching out and grasping her lover by the hand, a hand that is cold, slightly damp, but strong and steady. "Where is Westerhaus’ inner sanctum? That might be the most direct route."

"Silicon Valley, but god, that’s so far…."

"We’ll get there. Somehow, we’ll get there. Unless there’s somewhere else that you think is better? You’re the boss here."

Kirsten thinks for a moment, then nods. "If we want to stop this shit at the source, we need to go to the source. You’re right."

"Great," Maggie interjects. "Then it’s settled. Manny will take you out with the Cheyenne."

"The river?" Kirsten asks, confused. "How will we get past all those droids?"

Maggie smirks. "Just go over to hangar twenty two. He’s waiting for you."

Kirsten scowls. "You had this planned all along, didn’t you."

"We knew it would be an eventuality, Kirsten. It’s happening a little sooner than we expected, sure, but the sooner you get out of here, the sooner we can all breathe a little easier." Her smile softens as she closes the two steps between them, and looks down into Kirsten’s clear, beautiful eyes. "You’re our hope, Kirsten. And I, for one, am glad of it." Leaning forward, she brushes a soft kiss against her lips, then pulls away. "Good luck."

* * *

Maggie’s keys flash in the early sun as she tosses them to Simmons. "Take my Jeep. Take Dr. Rivers and President King home to pick up their things. Then take them out to the flightline. Hangar 22."

Simmons’s eyes go wide, his eyebrows ascending his forehead in surprise. "Hangar 22?" he squeaks, making a dive for the keys that ends in a two-handed catch.

"You got it. Koda." Dakota walks into Maggie’s open arms, returning her hard embrace and the chaste kiss on her cheek. "You know what you have to do. Be safe."

"You’re in more danger than we’ll be," Koda says, stepping back, letting her hands linger a moment in the other woman’s. "Tóksha aké wanchinyankin kte." <ed. note: Until I see you again.>

"We’ll make it. Until then. Kirsten." Maggie hugs Kirsten tightly, whispering something in her ear that Koda cannot quite make out. It is something that makes her smile, though, and Kirsten says softly. "Don’t worry. I will."

"Go, now. We’re going to stall them as long as we can. We’ll be waiting for you when you get back."

With an arm around each of their shoulders, Maggie half hugs, half pushes, them both out the door. Koda’s last sight of her is a straight-backed silhouette at the view slit, raising the binoculars again to her eyes.

They pass the ride home in silence. Kirsten, regardless of Simmons in the front seat, leans into Koda’s arm, clinging to her. Her hand in Dakota’s feels cold as the frozen dead of the Hurley farm, all those months ago. And with reason. It comes to her that this is the second time Kirsten has been forced out of a place of safety and purpose and thrust into the unknown with the fate of her world and her species riding squarely on her shoulders. At least for her brief sojourn at Shiloh, and again at Ellsworth, that burden had been shared. "Hey," Koda says softly. "We’ll make it. We’re a hell of a team."

"What about Maggie? And Tacoma? How—"

"The best way they can, cante sukye. They’re warriors, blood and bone. They’ll hold." Her fingers tighten involuntarily on Kirsten’s shoulder. "However they have to, they’ll hold."

"However," Kirsten repeats, her voice flat.

The words hang in the air between them, unspoken. Kirsten will not say them; neither will Dakota, who knows that words have power. Even at the cost of their lives. Even if they can only hold the enemy temporarily.

The Jeep buckets up into the driveway, and Koda gives her lover’s hand a last squeeze. "Take Asi out to pee. I’ll start packing." To Simmons she adds, "Fifteen minutes."

Dakota shoves the kitchen door open, Kirsten on her heels. Tacoma stands at the table, stuffing a backpack with MRE’s and various more palatable items; Koda’s quick glance takes in oatmeal, a plastic zip bag of sugar, salt, what must be the last of their meager stash of coffee. Her brother looks up from his task for a second, smiling. "I packed up some clothes for you. Not much, but I figure you can get more on the road. Go check if I’ve missed anything." To Kirsten he adds, "Asi’s done his duty. You just need to get his leash on him."

"Thanks," Kirsten says, bolting for the living room and the seldom-used lead hanging on the hall tree. Koda follows, veering off into the bedroom where a small rucksack stands open on the dresser. A quick inspection shows that Tacoma has packed a pair of jeans and a shirt apiece, all their socks and underwear, extra boots. A Colt .45 automatic and its ammunition belt lie on the bed, with her bow and quiver. A soldier’s choices. She adds toothpaste and brushes to the pack—no need to go without until they have to—a couple bars of soap, a bottle of aspirin and an elastic athletic bandage from the medicine cabinet. They will have to be prepared to go on foot at least some of the time; a pulled muscle or a turned ankle cannot be allowed to slow them down. She straps on the gun, shifting its weight to lie comfortably against her thigh.

She zips the bag and hoists it onto one shoulder, testing the weight. She slings her bow and its arrows over the other. Not bad. Not bad at all. In the hall, a sharp bark registers Asi’s protest at being collared and leashed, together with Kirsten’s murmured, "Sorry, guy. But we’re gonna have to strap you in when we get to the chopper."

"Ready?" Koda emerges from the bedroom, shutting the door carefully behind her. The house is no one’s home now, but her memories, and Kirsten’s, deserve a kind of privacy. Say goodbye.

Asi whines again, this time plaintively. He knows something is not right. "Easy, boy," Kirsten says again, "easy."

In the kitchen, Tacoma stands ready with their provisions. Koda reaches for the pack, but Kirsten forestalls her. "I’ll take that," she says, and slips quickly out onto the carport, Asi tugging on his leash.

Tacoma’s face is solemn, but a glint in his dark eyes betrays a flash of humor. "You’re marrying a tactful one, tanski."

Dakota takes his hands in her own. "Promise me—"

"I’ll be careful," he says quietly. "That’s all the promise I can make."

"I know." She looks away for a moment. Then, "When we went to scout the battleground, Igmu Tanka spoke to me. She said that we must do what we least wish to, when we least wish to. That victory would follow."

The lines around Tacoma’s eyes deepen, and the smile spreads to his mouth. "She’s a warrior spirit, with a warrior’s honor. If she says you will be successful, then you will."

"She said we would come back, that she would be waiting."

He touches her cheek lightly. "Then you must be careful, too, and not only for Iktomi Zizi."

Koda raises her hand to cover his, not willing to lose the contact. "I will."

"I dreamed last night. I saw all of us back at the ranch, with Ate and Ina. You and Kirsten. Me and—" He breaks off abruptly, a dark flush spreading across his face.

"Darius," she supplies, smiling.

"Hau. Darius. And a little black-haired girl with green eyes. It’s not hopeless for us here, tanski. It only looks that way."

She pulls him close, holding hard for a long moment. "Well then," she says. " We’re off. Come on outside and say goodbye to your sister-in-law."

* * *

"What the—"

"Hell is that?" Koda finshes the sentence for Kirsten.

"That" sits on the tarmac in front of the apparently off-limits until now Hangar 22, an aeronautical engineer’s nightmare of a craft. Roughly the size and general shape of a Chinook, its slate-blue belly and tail have been sleeked for speed behind a pointed nose like a bomber’s. Wings protrude from its flanks, a jet engine underslung from each, each sprouting double co-axial rotors from a mast that holds their drooping blades up and away from the body of the craft. A smaller engine, and a tail rotor, adorn its rear. Its forward door stands open, with a short flight of boarding steps leading into its dark interior.

Manny, flight-suited and helmeted, grins at them from behind the half-loosened oxygen mask that covers most of the lower half of his face. "It’s your taxi, ladies." He relieves Kirsten of their provisions, pausing a moment to ruffle Asi’s fur where he dances at the end of his leash. "Now haul it, and let’s get the hell outa Dodge."

The interior of the craft is configured for MEDVAC, with brackets for stretchers and half a dozen jump seats, hardly more than round steel stools, cantilevered out from the wall. Manny pulls down two for them, then clips Asi’s leash to a D-ring in the floor, crossing a pair of safety belts over his chest. "That’ll hold him. You two okay?"

"We’re fine," Koda answers, clipping her own belt in place. "Where are we going?"

"I’m gonna try to set you down a couple hundred miles into Wyoming. She may look weird, but this baby’s a true VTOL. We can put down any reasonably flat place that’s wider than the wingspan, even in the middle of the woods." He looks around him, apparently satisfied that they and their gear are safely stowed, then pulls two pairs of earphones down from a rack above them. "Wear these. They’ve got mikes attached. Yell if you need me; we’ve also got autopilot." With that he disappears into the forward cabin, and a moment later, the rotors set up a steadily increasing racket. Out the port, Koda can see them gradually lifting, then standing straight out from their masts as the spin faster and faster. The turbos cut in, their whine rising octave by octave into a steady scream. Asi howls in sympathy.

"Oh man." Kirsten grins at Koda, rolling her eyes. "And to think how I used to bitch about the morning red-eye out of Washington," she shouts.

Koda flashes her a smile in return. "The Concorde champagne flight it ain’t! Put on your earphones!"

Koda slips on her own, and blessed quiet descends. Beneath her, the floor of the craft seems to lurch forward. Then they are up and airborne in a surprisingly smooth sweep, lifting straight up into the bright morning. The shadow of the rotors flashes across the port as she watches the hangar and the base recede below her. A part of her life remains there, a part she may lose in spite of dreams and visions. Silently she takes Kirsten’s hand.

"Jesus," Kirsten whispers, looking down at the long line of droids laid out below them like a malignantly sparkling river. Her hand clenches on Koda’s to the point of pain. "How can we leave them to that?" she demands, eyes sparking fire of their own. "How?!?"

"Because we must," Dakota replies, voice soft, sad. Her right hand comes up to curl over the one in her left. "Because we must."

They turn west toward Wyoming and the beginning of the quest before them.

CHAPTER FIFTY ONE

GRINNING, KODA PULLS away from Manny, giving his short braid a little tug. "Get back safe, and good luck."

"You too, shic’eshi. Be careful. Be safe."

"We will."

Stepping around her lover, Kirsten smiles at Manny. There is a trace of uncertainty in the expression. Though things between them have warmed considerably over the months, there is still a subtle distance between the two that, quite suddenly, Kirsten doesn’t want to be there anymore. "You’re a brave man, Manny. Good luck. Fight well."

Reaching for her stiffly extended hand, he gives her an ‘aw, what the hell’ grin and pulls her against him in a tight embrace, kissing both of her cheeks soundly before pulling away. "You take good care of my shic’eshi, understand?" he teases.

"I swear it," Kirsten replies, deadly serious. "And you take good care of yourself, and Tacoma, and Maggie, and everyone else. I expect you all to be there, and happy, when we get back."

"Count on it. I’m a Rivers." He thumps his chest proudly. "We wear away mountains, given enough time."

"That I don’t doubt," Kirsten returns, finally breaking into a smile. "I mean it, Manny. Be careful, alright?"

"Will do, Ms. Prez." He sketches a cocky bow, grins, winks at his cousin, and, in the blink of an eye, disappears back into the cockpit of his Picasso-nightmare inspired ‘copter. A second later, the thing is airborne and over the horizon.

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