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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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It is not a small honor, and Koda says quietly. "Thank you. But we can’t stay."

The Amazai nods as though it is the answer she expects. "Goddess go with you, then."

"Goddess go with us," Koda echoes. The enormity of their task stands suddenly bleak before her. A hundred miles yet to go, all of it on foot, a fortress to storm. The likelihood that they will survive is close to nonexistent. She says again, softly, "Goddess go with us."

Kirsten reaches out to take her hand. "Cante mitawa," she says. "Now and always."

CHAPTER SIXTY ONE

TWO TIRED AND footsore women walk side by side, flanked by a tired and footsore dog. The adrenaline that has kept them going for so long is just now beginning to drain away like water through a sieve, leaving them with little energy, and less hope for the success of their mission. Doubts, always present but pushed far back like unwelcome guests, begin to creep into their thoughts. Each woman finds herself wondering, albeit silently, just what they have gotten themselves into and how they can ever hope to prevail against such a force as will be sure to meet them.

Kirsten finally breaks the almost morose silence they’ve slipped into ever since crossing the California border by clearing her throat and smiling wanly as Dakota turns an expectant eyebrow her way. "There’s an army depot near here, isn’t there?"

"Just over that rise," Koda answers, pointing to the breast of a small hill they are heading toward. "It’s small—used to be populated mostly by civilians and a few MPs, but it might have a weapons cache if it hasn’t already been raided. We should probably swing by and see if they’ve got anything to replenish our stock with." They’re almost down to the end of their ammunition, and Dakota privately doubts that the weapons they currently hold will be of any effect against the massive group of androids she’s sure is waiting to welcome them to Westerhaus’ lair.

"I was thinking the same thing," Kirsten agrees, absently fingering the holster strap that holds the pistol to her hip. "We…." Her voice trails off and she looks at the ground beneath her feet, sighing. Gentle fingers slide beneath her chin and lift it until she is meeting those wonderful eyes, so full of concern, and devotion, and love.

"What is it?"

Kirsten hesitates for some moments, trying to order her scattered thoughts; a task that is made a bit more difficult by the presence of her love standing so close. Her thoughts derail further as parts of her body, responding to Koda’s nearness, decide that they’re not tired at all and consider demanding satisfaction, right now, if you please. Deciding on a compromise, Kirsten steps into her lover, sighing with relief as those warm, strong, long arms wrap tightly about her, holding her close and safe. "What is it, canteskuye? What’s troubling you?"

Kirsten remains quiet for a time, absorbing the quiet strength of the woman enfolding her so sweetly. She breathes in Dakota’s scent, stronger now with their exertions, and lets the calmness she feels penetrate her whole body and mind until, at last, she finds her center and begins to relax. "Talk to me, love," Koda murmurs into Kirsten’s hair. "Please."

Taking a deep breath, Kirsten eases herself out of Dakota’s embrace and tilts her chin to meet her partner’s eyes. "It’s just…. We really haven’t talked about what we’re going to find once we get to Westerhaus’ compound. And that’s just what it is. A compound. Guarded by androids at every door, every window, every entrance, every exit, every square inch of space in that place. We can’t just bust in there with the equivalent of two pop guns and a couple of arrows. We’ll be dead in seconds." She abruptly breaks eye contact, instead staring at the laces of her dusty, worn boots. "We’re fools even to try."

"Maybe so," Dakota concedes with a slight shrug of her broad shoulders. "But we’re the only fools with a shot at this, and even if the shot is a million to one against us, it’s still better than anyone else would be able to do."

"Fools walk in where angels fear to tread, huh?" Kirsten jokes.

"Somethin’ like that." She eyes her partner. "As for a plan, well, we’ll figure that out as we get closer and see what we have to work with. Everything’s still a pretty big unknown right now, so let’s give it a little more time, and let the situation help set the plan for us."

"Spoken like a true tactician," Kirsten retorts, but this time, the smile reaches her eyes, causing her lover to return the smile.

Koda chuckles and holds out an arm. "C’mere." As Kirsten willingly flows once again into her embrace, Dakota lifts her hands to cup Kirsten’s warm, soft cheeks as two sets of gemstone eyes meet. "We might be fools, but we’re fools together. As for the rest of it? The world can go hang itself if it doesn’t approve. Alright?"

"Alright," Kirsten replies, nodding slightly within the confines of Dakota’s large hands.

"Good." To seal the deal, Koda tips her head and brushes her lips over Kirsten’s, taking in their softness, tasting their sweetness, feeling their warmth and responsiveness against her own, and soon she is lost in the utter bliss that simply kissing her lover brings to her, chasing doubts, fears, and all other thoughts from her mind. Kirsten moans softly as the kiss deepens, and when the very tip of a tongue tickles against the bow of her upper lip, she immediately grants it access. All too soon, the women break apart by mutual consent, their breathing labored, faces flushed with arousal. "Mm, what you do to me," Dakota breathes into her lover’s ear, giving the lobe a quick suckle before pulling away. "I love you, Kirsten King. Cante mitawa. Ohinniyan. Always."

"Always," Kirsten replies, grazing a kiss over both of Dakota’s cheeks, then one against her incredibly soft lips before stepping away. "Onward and upward, huh?"

"Let’s do it."

* * *

When they are halfway up the hill, Dakota halts. Her eyes narrow, and her head tilts in such a way that Kirsten knows to give her time before asking the obvious. When Koda finally turns to her, her eyes are dark, face tense. "You have Asi’s leash handy?"

Looking a little confused, Kirsten feels around her waistpack until she comes up with the requested item and holds it, dangling, for Dakota’s inspection. Koda nods. "Clip it on him."

"Trouble?"

"Not sure yet. Just keep a firm hold on that leash."

Human and animal exchange puzzled glances, and Asi seems to sigh in resignation as he lifts his chin and allows Kirsten to clip his leash to his collar without much complaint, though he hasn’t been leashed in months. "We’re ready."

With a short nod, Dakota starts ahead, taking the rest of the hill in long, easy strides. Kirsten catches up to her at the top, then pauses as it immediately becomes clear what has caused Dakota’s concern.

Along a pitted, dusty road stand two lines of people, one to a side. Dirty and ragged, they are dressed in varying degrees of black and brown. The women are almost completely covered by thick, dark fabric; only their eyes, hollow and empty, peer out from the barrier of cloth surrounding them. The men are mostly shirtless, with belts of ammunition crisscrossing their chests like modern-day Pancho Villas. And all, from the oldest—a stooped and wrinkled old man easily in his nineties—to the youngest—a girl of three or four—are heavily armed. To the left rise the barbwire tipped fences that circle the Depot, and upon the fence closest to and paralleling the road is a large, white, and crudely lettered sign:

Warriors of the Redeemer

Save for the few who have noticed them, the group’s attention is focused on something on the far side of the fencing; something that Dakota, with her height, can only just see. Her stomach does a slow roll before reluctantly settling.

"What are they looking at?" Kirsten whispers to her. "Can you tell?"

"It’s…." Koda swallows. "…not pretty."

Kirsten turns to her, wide-eyed. "What is it?"

"You’ll see soon enough." Dakota’s face is set in a stony mask. "Whatever you do, don’t react to what you see. Just keep walking, no matter what."

"I don’t understand…."

"You will."

Koda begins walking again, spine straight as a plumb line, shoulders square, hands prudently away from her weapons, though she can retrieve them in a split second, should she feel the need. Her worn bootheels clack on the broken pavement, drawing the attention of the silent crowd. In twos and threes, heads turn to look at her, and beyond, where Kirsten walks, easily holding a leashed and softly growling Asimov to heel. The young scientist can feel the distrust, the hatred coming off the group of onlookers in waves, pressing up against her like some army of zombies she’d seen on television once upon a time. Goosebumps prickle her skin, and she moves, unconsciously, a step closer to Dakota’s side, almost—but not quite—touching. This close, she can sense her lover’s anger, can all but feel the coiled tension radiating from muscles, and tongue, held tense and still. She takes care to keep her expression neutral, returning hostile glares with mild interest and nothing more. Asi continues to growl, but, to his credit, does not strain at the leash, seeming to realize that doing so could earn him, and his humans, a quick death.

The gauntlet finally comes to an end, but any relief Kirsten might feel in that fact is immediately overridden by the horror now facing her. Her shocked gasp is cut off unuttered by the feel of Dakota’s hot, callused hand on her wrist, clamping like a vice. She wants to look away; even looks of hatred would be welcome over this.

Telephone poles, innocuous reminders of a world gone by, have been turned into crucifixes. Upon them, as far down the road as her eyes can track, hang corpses in various states of decomposition. Nailed above each corpse is a placard, spelling out in bold black lettering the crimes of the executed.

ThieveryHeresyAdultery

The "adulteress" can be no more than fifteen, and by the swelling in her belly, was at least six months pregnant when she was murdered.

Nearer to the crowd, a crude gallows stands. Three women and one man hang from ropes tied to the crossbeam, heads lolling from broken necks, hands tied behind them, lifeless feet dangling just above the tufts of wild-growing grasses. These corpses are fresh; undoubtedly the reason for the crowd lining the roadway.

Kirsten bites her tongue until she can taste blood, knowing the only things keeping her from being the first American President to open fire on her own citizenry are Asi’s leash and the hand Dakota has clamped over her other wrist. That hand gives the added benefit of keeping her feet steadily moving.

From beside the fence comes a large, shaggy bear of a man sporting a long blonde beard, deep black eyes, and a semi-automatic weapon that he cradles casually in one arm. "Goin’ someplace, Redface?" he asks, smirking as he comes up alongside them.

Dakota continues to walk until she feels a large hand descend on her shoulder, spinning her partway around. "Don’t you walk away from me when I’m talkin’ to you, squaw."

With bared teeth and a ferocious snarl, Asimov leaps at the man, missing his neck by millimeters as Kirsten yanks hard on the leash. The man, red-faced with anger, releases Koda’s shoulder and grabs his gun, aiming it at Asimov’s large head.

Then finds the long muzzle forced up as the muzzle of another gun seats itself neatly against his temple. "I don’t need a reason to pull the trigger, maggot," a low, vibrant voice purrs into his ear. "So don’t even think of trying to give me one." Before he can even think to blink, his gun is easily wrested from his grip and tossed to Kirsten, who grabs it one-handed and aims for the now milling, dangerously murmuring crowd.

"Call your people off," Koda orders, and when he hesitates, pushes the gun more firmly against his head. "Now."

"All of you, get back inside the compound!" he finally yells, seeing from the corner of his eye a long finger begin to tighten against the trigger. "Now!"

Several of the women and men, and most of the children, obediently head for the gate while others unholster their weapons and start for the trio.

"I wouldn’t," Kirsten comments, almost casually, as she aims at the oncoming group.

Several stop, but one man continues forward, smirking. "You wouldn’t hurt women. Or children."

"Why not?" Kirsten asks, voice as flat as dawn-calm lake. "You do."

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