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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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In an automatic reflex, Dakota looks over at the nightstand, but of course, the clock that stands there is blank without the electricity needed to run it.

"Damn," Maggie says, chuckling. "Forgot about that." Reaching across Koda’s body, she picks up the watch she’s left on the nightstand and peers into it through sleep blurred eyes. "0320. Good thing I don’t need much sleep, hmm?"

"You could always grab a little more."

Maggie laughs, a throaty chuckle. "With you here? Naked? Darling, sleep is the last thing I plan on grabbing."

A strong hand slides up a muscled thigh, and Maggie slides with it, reaching Dakota’s tempting lips and entangling her own in a deep, luscious kiss. "Dear god, woman," she pants when she finally pulls away. "I never thought I’d say this to another human being, but you’ve got flying beat by a long mile."

Dakota’s deep chuckle follows her down to sensual oblivion.

CHAPTER FOUR

"Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…."

1

KIRSTEN HUDDLES BEFORE the dying fire, watching the play of scarlet and orange amid the black remains of the embers. She is wrapped in her own sleeping bag, shielded from the concrete floor by a pair of thin mattresses pulled off one of the bunk beds. Asimov is stretched out on another with his head in her lap. She rubs his ears absently.

The small cabin is warm. She has before her the prospect of the first comfortable night since the insurrection began. She has a hot meal inside her, even if it was only canned stew set in the ashes, and has cleaned up as best she can with water warmed the same way and a bar of looted soap. She needs to sleep.

Over and over in her mind, Kirsten replays her encounter with the men at the barricade. Over and over she imagines it differently: introducing herself as a refugee fleeing toward her family in Indiana, perhaps. Shaking hands, accepting their hospitality and a temporary alliance. She is almost certain she could have trusted them far enough to set her safely on her way.

And over and over, she imagines what would have happened if she had been wrong. And what would have happened after that, will probably still happen if she doesn’t get through to the droid facility at Minot.

Outside the snow is falling again, hissing softly as it drifts past the windows. It is the one bit of luck she has had today, the new fall obscuring the ruts made by her tires on the deserted roads. The dead men’s companions had not followed her, or if they had, they had set out too late to catch up before the light failed and the clouds closed in again. Rural areas are as dangerous to her as the urban centers. In the cities the droids will still be hunting down humans. In the farm counties, the humans who remain will be defending their homes and families against the droids.

But it’s not that simple. All wars have collaborators. If there are no humans who have been spared as decoys, there will be. If there are none who cooperate for their own safety and their families’, there will be. And she can never, never, take a chance that another person is not a collaborator. Too much rides on her own survival for her to be trusting or merciful.

Kirsten banks the fire and pulls her makeshift bed closer to the hearth. Because there is nothing else to do, she stretches out full length on the mattress, Asimov rousing just long enough to move up beside her. She does not expect to sleep, but can at least allow her aching muscles as much ease as warmth and rest allow.

She moves through a twilight world. All about her the snow lies heavy: on the ground, in the forks of the branches that spread bare above her head. The sky is white, too, the light diffused and dim. Asimov paces at her side, his huge paws spread to carry him across the surface lynx-fashion. Her own feet do not sink into the snow. When she looks down, she sees only a faint, shadowless impression in the crust where she has stepped.

Above her, in the sky over a clearing, a hawk hangs at the hover. It gives one long and ringing cry, then banks and flies off toward what she knows to be the west, though there is no sun to give direction.

Then she sees it, a shape drifting through the trees, keeping pace with her. Kirsten’s heart seems to stop, then slams against her breastbone, but strangely it is not fear that sets her blood to racing. Somewhere deep in her mind is the knowledge that this is something she has searched for, has waited for, longer than she can remember. She tries to call out to whatever it is, but her throat closes around the words.

The ground begins to rise abruptly, and she realizes that she is climbing one of the ancient earthworks that dot the Hopewell Valley. The forest thins as she scales the top, and there laid out before her, stretching away infinitely far into horizonless space, is a long, sinuous mound in the shape of a serpent, coiling and uncoiling, doubling back on itself in rhythmic curves only to spiral outward again. There are tracks here, the prints of a large animal moving swiftly. Kirsten sets out to follow, placing her own feet in the pad marks that somehow remain undisturbed behind her. Asimov lopes along beside her, a strange eagerness in the play of rippling muscle under his black and silver coat.

Then she sees it. Straight ahead, directly in her path where nothing but air had been a nanosecond before, is a wolf. Its fur is covered in rimefrost, and it regards her with eyes of a startling sky-blue.

Its gaze lasts only a moment. Without warning, the ground gives way beneath Kirsten’s feet, and she is falling, falling through space as the stars streak past, plunging into atmosphere finally as clouds billow around her, plummeting toward a black rock island in a mighty river where she will shatter into atoms. For a moment she thinks that she may survive with no more than a few bones broken, or that she can perhaps deflect her trajectory for a landing in that impossibly blue water.

Don’t be a damned idiot, she tells herself. You know you’re going to die.

The rock rises up to meet her, and she strikes with an impact that jerks her bolt upright in her sleeping bag, to find the hearth still warm and Asimov whuffling softly in his own dreams.

Kirsten’s hands are trembling, and she feels a cold runnel of sweat as it slips between her shoulderblades. "Goddam," she breathes. "Goddam." Her heart lays down a rapid, thready beat, counterpoint to the rhythm of her shocked lungs.

What the hell was that?

Who the hell was that?

But she has no answers. She has seen wolves before, camping in Yellowstone with her parents when she was a teenager; she is in no doubt at all that a wolf is what she has dreamed. She tries to call up the Psych 101 lectures that bored her straight into an afternoon nap more often than not, but other than a vague recollection that almost everything, according to Dr. Werbow, signified either sex or death, she cannot connect the blue-eyed wolf with any standard interpretation.

Eventually she steadies and lies down again, yawning. She has no idea where the dream came from, though she is fairly certain that it was not something she ate. Dinty Moore’s psychedelic stew, oh yeah.

She slips off to sleep again with unexpected ease, and does not wake until the morning.

2

The big truck shakes, rattles and rolls as it bounds over the ice rutted roads, last in a fair sized convoy of impressive military vehicles. Manny sits beside his cousin, a military handset in his lap, and a machine pistol at his side. He eyes Dakota at odd intervals, trying to discover without asking exactly what is different about his cousin this morning. She seems…relaxed somehow, as if she’d spent the night….

His eyes widen, but then he gives himself a mental shake.

Nah. Couldn’t be.

Could it?

"See something interesting?"

The low voice startles him, and he blinks, then blushes at being caught out. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he shakes his head in the negative. "Just woolgathering." He smiles weakly. "Really."

"Mm hm."

They both fall silent, listening to the military radio as it crackles out its continuing stream of routine messages from members of the caravan.

Suddenly, the taillights in front of them flash once, twice, then stay on as the troop carrier comes to a quick stop. Koda works her own brakes. The truck wants to skid, but in the end, it behaves and rolls to a stop, front bumper inches away from the rear of the carrier.

The radio crackles to life.

"Chief? You might wanna come look at this."

"Everybody DOWN!!!"

The sound of gunfire shatters the morning. Dropping the radio, Manny grabs his gun and levers himself outside the passenger door.

Only to duck back inside again in order to keep his head from being blown off of his neck. He stares, wide-eyed, past Dakota and out into the brightness of the morning. His jaw drops. "Great Father, protect us," he whispers.

Koda turns her head and sees a scene out of an Orwellean nightmare.

A long line of military droids block the roadway and the areas beyond. These are not the generically handsome, lantern-jawed, poster children for America’s Idealized Infantryman that have filled newspapers and news broadcasts to the brim over the past several years. Instead, they resemble nothing so much as a mechanized creature straight out of a 1980’s blockbuster sci/fi action/adventure movie.

Shining a blinding, mirrorlike silver, the only humanoid resemblance is in the head and torso region. The "legs" end below the knees, and are replaced by the thick treads usually seen propelling heavy tanks over uncertain ground. The "arms" end in lethal weaponry currently pointed at the convoy.

Dakota turns to her cousin. "You ever seen them before?"

"No. I heard they existed, but no. Never. Jesus." He runs a hand over his short, buzzed hair in a gesture of nervousness familiar to Dakota.

The radio crackles to life. Maggie Allen’s voice is terse. "Check off, people!"

"Rivers here, Colonel," Manny replies, keying the handset.

"Manny? We’re gonna lay down a line of grenade cover. You get the civvie out of here. Go back the way you came and don’t stop until you’re sure you’re out of danger."

Dakota grabs the radio away from her cousin and holds it up to her mouth. "Sorry, Colonel, but the ‘civvie’ is the one driving this beast, and the only direction I’m going is forward."

"Dakota!"

"Can’t hear you, Colonel. You’re breaking up."

"Rivers!!!"

Releasing the talk button, Dakota tosses the handset down on the floorboards at Manny’s feet, pinning her cousin in place with a look. "Don’t even think about it," she warns.

"Who, me? Not a chance, cuz. I’ve still got bruises from the last time you pounded me, thanks."

The two listen momentarily to Allen’s increasingly irate squawking.

"She’s gonna bust me down to Airman for this, you know."

Pulling down the mirrored lenses of her sunglasses, Dakota gives him a look that makes him laugh.

"Alright, I get your point, Koda. So…what do we do now?"

As if hearing the question, the radio crackles back to life. "Alright, listen up, everybody. This means you too, ‘Airman’ Rivers."

Dakota winces.

Manny gulps.

"Alright, here’s the deal. These bastards aren’t like anything we’ve faced before, and we’re gonna need to be creative in figuring out a way to get past them without getting ourselves fragged to Canada in little pieces. Rule number one, people. No shooting at them. They’re bulletproof and anything you fire at them will ricochet god knows where. We can’t risk it, so put your guns away for another fight, understand?"

Affirmatives buzz across the radio.

"Our friends from the Guard were kind enough to bring along a few little toys we’re going to try out instead, so everybody just sit tight for a bit and I’ll get back to you."

Since Koda and Manny can see very little from behind the massive troop carrier they are following, they do exactly as Allen suggests and cool their heels while keeping a wary eye on the metallic monstrosities lined up across the roadway and beyond.

A loud, whooshing roar is followed immediately by an explosion so powerful that Dakota and Manny are tossed about like rag dolls as the truck bounces and rolls on its springs.

The shaking no sooner stops gunfire erupts from all around them. The distinctive sounds of bullets hitting the metal of the truck cause the cousins to duck down again. The driver’s side window shatters, raining glass over them both. The roar of gunfire is punctuated here and there by the horrific screams of men and women in agony.

Unable to lay passively by and do nothing, Dakota reaches over and unlocks the passenger’s side door, then begins to crawl overtop of Manny, who grabs her by the waistband of her jeans.

"What the hell are you doing, cuz? They’re killing us out there!!"

"Exactly," Dylan replies, prying Manny’s hand from her waist and continuing to crawl until she is out of the truck. Coming up onto her haunches, she surveys the damage. Men and women are scattered like tenpins, many of them bleeding their life into the snow and pleading with an uncaring sky to save them. As she watches, a soldier becomes a corpse, jittering like a puppet on the hard-packed snow under the constant, unremitting onslaught of artillery.

Taking in a deep breath, she lowers her head and charges out into the fray. Bullets slice the air around her, but she keeps her head down and keeps running, sinking past her knees in the snow. Reaching the first two injured soldiers, she lowers her arms and grabs them by their jackets, dragging them until she is behind the cover of a military vehicle.

Another whooshing roar sounds from very close by, and the resulting explosion knocks her to the ground. A shadow falls over her, and when she looks up, Manny is there, two more injured soldiers in his grasp. His face is grim, but his eyes are shining.

"Couldn’t let you have all the fun," he grumbles, voice almost lost within the continuing gun battle.

Getting back to her feet, Koda pounds on the panel of the vehicle before her, then pounds harder when there’s no response. "Watch them!" she commands over her shoulder as she makes her way up to the cab of the vehicle. Two men lay in the cab, dead beyond any possibility of resurrection, destroyed beyond any possibility of recognition.

"Uh…Koda?"

Dakota whirls around. "What?"

"They’re bleeding pretty bad over here. What should I do?"

Koda thinks for a moment. "Pack snow in their wounds. It should slow the bleeding until we can get them under some kind of cover. I need to get my kit."

"I’ll do it."

"No. Stay with the injured. I’ll be right back."

Knowing better than to argue with his cousin, Manny kneels in the snow and begins scooping handfuls of it onto the bleeding chests and bellies and limbs of his comrades, warning himself all the while not to look at their faces. As long as he doesn’t see their faces, he can pretend that they are simply strangers on a battlefield; strangers he will do his best to save.

Dakota makes her way back to the truck and retrieves her kit without much difficulty, but then becomes pinned down by furious gunfire. A man stumbles by, half of his face blown off, a smoking stump where his arm used to be. As she watches, he tumbles into the snow, and dies, open-eyed.

"Koda!"

Ripping her gaze away from the dead soldier, Dakota looks over to Manny, who is frantically compressing the chest of one of the women he’s dragged out of the line of fire. He is looking at Koda through eyes as wide as saucers.

"Hang on! I’ll be right there!"

She’s about to move when her attention is distracted. Looking on, she tracks a shoulder-launched missile as it flies across the gap that separates human from android, and explodes into the noticeably thinned android ranks. A huge fireball erupts, and Koda ducks down, covering her head with both arms as bits and pieces of androids rain down on her like a blazing summer storm. She slams back against the truck just in time to avoid being turned into a stain by a basketball sized lump of molten metal which lands in the snow not more than a foot away. It hisses violently, sending up clouds of vapor as it melts a hole in the snow several feet deep.

"Dakota!!"

Peering through the swirling, dissipating vapor, Koda watches as Manny takes a desperate step toward her position, only to be blown back by a bullet that pierces his arm and drops him to the ground.

"Manny! Hankashi!!! Shit."

Grabbing her pack, she rushes across the space separating herself from her fallen cousin. Manny is already picking himself up as Koda reaches him. Aiding him to his feet, she looks into his eyes, her own flashing all kinds of warnings. "Damnit, Manny, this is no time to be playing John Wayne. How many times do I have to tell you? You’re no cowboy."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Like you’d just sit by and watch me get almost blown to bits, right?"

Scowling, Koda grabs his arm and turns it over. "You’re lucky. It’s just a graze."

"Yeah, I know. Stings like fire, though." He looks to his right. His face crumples. "Oh, holy damn," he whispers, looking at the carnage lying around him. "Jesus, Koda, I’m sorry."

"It’s alright. It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have protected them from the shrapnel." She looks over at the dead bodies laying in pieces over the snow and closes her eyes tightly for a moment. When she opens them again, they are clear and resolute. "Let’s go find some people we can help."

3

The sound of men and women screaming and moaning in pain within the close confines of the troop carrier seems to encompass the whole world, and it’s all Manny can do not to jab a knife through his eardrums just to stop the gut-churning noise.

Koda has set up a field hospital, of sorts, within the vehicle, and the most grievously injured patients lay on makeshift cots, bleeding their lives away while the harried vet tries frantically to save them.

The battle outside is slowly winding down. Shoulder fired rockets have done the trick, and the mission has been reduced to a simple mop-up, as if anything about this terrifying monstrosity can be considered as mundane as "simple".

Unless the androids have buddies out there.

Somewhere.

Manny pushes down a chill that humps up his flesh as he rushes from injured woman to injured man, doing what he can to offer comfort while his cousin goes about the business of patching and stitching. He’s been through war, but it was never anything like this. A pilot sits above it all, like an armored god, dropping his cargo and speeding away, never seeing the damage and pain and misery he causes.

Manny’s reverie is broken by the man before him, lying on a cot and holding the glistening loops of his guts in his hands. His voice, a deep basso, spirals up and up into a castrato’s soprano as he holds a scream that pierces the veil of eternity.

His eyes, though, are dead already, staring through the young pilot as if staring into an infinity worthy of Poe’s worst nightmares.

The woman lying next to him covers her ears and adds a scream of her own. "Oh God, shut him up, please!! PLEASE SHUT HIM UP!!! SHUT HIM UP!!!!"

"Koda!"

Dakota looks up from her place by the side of a young woman whose puckered and twisted face is a horror film’s mask. The young woman is seizing, her body sunfishing and bucking mindlessly, her tongue black and protruding from the charred remains of her mouth. "Give him some Morphine!" the vet shouts over the din.

"I can’t! There isn’t any more!"

"Shit." She turns to an airman pressed into service as a nurse. "Watch her. I’ll be right back."

The soldier nods.

The man is still screaming as Koda approaches and looks down into what is left of his belly. His guts roil and twist like snakes in a cave, moving and tumbling over one another as his agonized body writhes on the cot.

"Can you do anything for him?" Manny asks, willing himself not to be sick.

Grabbing her medical kit, Dakota rummages through it, and comes out with a single glass Morphine cartridge. It’s empty, and she throws it down on the ground, where it shatters. Her eyes tell Manny everything he needs to know.

She startles a bit as a surprisingly strong hand, covered in blood and gore, grasps the front of her shirt and twists, pulling her forward slightly. She looks down into the pain-wracked face of the mortally injured soldier. His eyes are very bright, very clear, and almost supernaturally aware.

"Please."

His strained voice is no more than a breath on the wind.

Dakota looks at the hand gripping her, then into the man’s open wound, a part of her in awe that he’s managed to last this long, then back to his too-bright, too aware eyes. "I can’t save you," she says, gently as possible. "Your wound’s too severe."

The man gives a solemn nod, no more than the barest twitch of the muscles in his neck.

"Please," he breathes again.

Another airman, shot in the groin but currently stable, looks up. "You’re a vet, aren’t you?"

Koda nods.

"I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or anything, but would you let a dying dog suffer the way he is right now?"

Koda stiffens, then relaxes, knowing the man is right. "No. I wouldn’t."

"Then pardon me if I don’t see the difference here." The young man gives her a pointed look. "He’s begging you, man! Help him!"

"That’s enough, Roberts," Manny snaps, chest puffing, shoulders straightening, fists clenching. Dakota’s sure she would smell the testosterone in the air if it wasn’t for the blood and death already polluting it. "Keep it zipped."

The airman scowls, but holds his peace, slamming his head back down on the rolled uniform jacket he’s using in lieu of a pillow and glaring at the both of them.

Sure that the danger, what there was of it, has, for the moment, passed, Manny looks over to his cousin. Their gazes meet and meld in brief, silent communication. Manny nods, once, then looks away.

Hitching a deep sigh, Koda reaches back into her bag and pulls out a pre-filled syringe. The mortally wounded soldier has his eyes glued to her every move. "You know what this will do," Dakota says, giving the young man every chance to back out.

He nods, more surely this time.

"And this is what you want."

"Please."

Third time pays for all, Dakota thinks as she reaches for the IV tubing, her eyes never leaving the soldier’s.

A second later, it’s done. The man’s grip convulsively tightens on her shirt, then falls away as his eyes, once bright and shining, become flat and dull; the eyes of a discarded doll on a trash heap as large as the world. Dakota closes those eyes gently, then rests her hand briefly on an already cooling forehead, whispering a prayer so ancient it seems inborn rather than taught.

Manny grips her shoulder and squeezes once in comfort. After a moment, Dakota shrugs off the grip and walks across the cramped space to her next patient, never looking back.

4

The air is cold with wind and melting snow, but not too cold to carry the mingled scents of burned wood and living pine needles. Tumbled into random hummocks of brick and charred beams, the remains of the park office lies before her. Those cabins she can see in the dim light are in no better condition, and when the wind shifts slightly, clocking about to the east, she can smell dead flesh among the ashes and the firs. Asimov whimpers softly at her side, and Kirstin stretches out a hand to pat him almost absently.

She has driven now for two days and a night without rest. She needs a place to lie up and sleep, or she will become a danger to herself on the road. Ain’t life a bitch. And then you die. She sighs. It’s the truck or nothing. Kirsten tugs at Asimov’s collar. "Come on, boy. Gotta get some sleep. Both of us."

She turns back toward the vehicle, glancing up at the clearing sky. It is near dawn, but in the west the stars blaze down with undiminished brilliance. All the hackneyed metaphors—ice, glass, diamonds—march by for inspection, and none is adequate. The stars blaze down, cold and detached as the eyes of angels, so that for the first time Kirsten believes with her heart as well as her scientist’s brain that they truly are lifetimes distant. From somewhere among the trees comes an unidentified grunt. Deer? Bear? Skunk?

The exalted speculations of a moment before come crashing down, and she petrifies there on the edge of day, trying not to make a sound, not to breathe, most of all not to smell attractive to bear or polecat. In the east the stars begin to pale, not so much a dimming of their light as the gradual leaching of the darkness. A white shadow ghosts along the treetops with the rising wind, its wings making no sound as it hunts the last of the night.

Kirsten’s breath catches in her throat, and her belly tightens. Abruptly tensed, the long muscles in leg and back as abruptly relax. She does not fling herself flat, praying not to be noticed. The rational part of her brain, that bit of it not befogged by need for sleep, observes sarcastically that owls do not eat humans and reminds her that pterodactyls are long since stone. Yet death has passed over. Hunting someone else, this time. Next time, maybe her.

Last time, it was her. And the time before and the time before that. She knows she will be prey again.

God, I need to sleep. Afraid of an owl. Next thing you know I’ll be hallucinating.

Above her head, the first rays of the sun strike the tips of pine needles to blazing gold. From somewhere behind her, Kirsten hears the beat of great wings lifting. She turns, and a hawk sweeps past her, all bright bronze and copper, climbing into the dawn. A blood-stopping kreeee-eeeer! rings out over the forest. The hawk cries again, twice, and spirals up toward the strengthening sun and her day’s work.

As Kirsten begins to move back toward her truck, a stray breeze carries a half-charred piece of blue paper between her feet. She jerks away from it, startled, then catches her breath and picks it up. Christ, spooked at a goddam tourist flyer. Gotta get some sleep. Now. Idly, she glances at the brochure in the growing light. It is a map of the park, showing lake, fishing dock, cabins (now deceased) and a network of deep limestone caves underlying the bluff along the river. Phrases register disjointedly in her mind. Walkways. Stairs. Constant 60°Fahrenheit.

Salvation.

"C’mon, Asimov." She whistles the dog to her, climbs into the truck and heads toward the first prospect of real comfort she has known in days.

An hour later, she has established a camp several hundred feet below the surface of the bluff and half a mile in. Two trips from the van have set her up with a Coleman stove, now heating yet another can of stew because she is ravenously hungry as well as weary, a pile of sleeping bags apiece for Asimov and herself and an electric lantern. For the first time since leaving Washington, she is able to take off her jacket and double layer of sweaters and sit lightly in her shirtsleeves. Her shoulders feel as though half the world has rolled off them to go bouncing down the pale rockflows of the cave. From above her comes a low thrumming sound, almost below the threshold of her hearing, that she knows is the voice of the river, singing.

Singing, singing. . . .singing her to sleep like a mother, rocking her in her rock cradle, loose, light, stoned in her house of stone, the deep waters singing of warmth and refuge and release from pain, singing, singing. . . .

She has just enough presence of mind to turn off the stove before she sinks back onto her bed and into the darkness where there is only the voice of the river, singing the song of the earth, rocking her home, singing and singing now and forever. . . ..

It seems to Kirsten that she has not slept at all. Yet she rises up lightly, easily, borne almost on a breath of air. The small stove no longer burns but still radiates warmth, a visible glow in the darkness around her. That seems strange to her, though not so strange as to be disturbing. Nor is she alarmed that Asimov, too, seems to shed his own light where he lies snoring, lost in dreams.

Kirsten glances down at her hands, and they, too, seem to glow palely. Just under the skin, she sees the outlines of a double spiral and a lightning bolt forming, rising to the surface in red and black and ochre paint. When she raises her hands to her face, she can feel the same sigils taking shape beneath her cheekbones, patterns traceable under her fingers. Her palms are painted with sun and crescent moon. Strangely unalarmed, she turns to see her body still lying where she has left it, sprawled with no particular grace across the blankets.

So. She does not seem to be dead. At least, this is not how she has ever seen the experience described. With no more than a thought, she finds herself kneeling by her body, which is still breathing, the chest rising in deep, slow inhalations. Rising on another thought, she drifts across the rock floor to Asimov, who whimpers softly at the faint ruffling of his fur made by her passing.

Not dead then. But if not dead, what?

She can feel a force, gentle but insistent, pulling her further into the depths of the cave. With a last insubstantial brush at Asimov’s ears, she allows it to draw her as it will. She has no idea how long her journey takes her, or what distance. Where she is there is no time, no space beyond that which surrounds her. Her bare feet skim the limestone floor of the cave without feeling its chill.

Like the walls, like the pillars of calcite that seem to extend upward without end, milk-white as the columns of some great temple, the stone itself is suffused with a soft light. Rising up to the roof, she drifts among colonies of bats in their thousands, tens of thousands perhaps, all lost in their winter’s sleep. Some part of her scientist self remains even now, and she notes that they are Myotis socialis, hanging single file in long, precisely aligned rows, so neatly arrayed that she can see the nose of every bat in each rank. A bat army. Bat Marines. She raises a hand to her forehead in salute and drifts on. She passes lace curtains formed of glittering mica, crosses a pool setting each foot precisely into the surface tension of the water. Always wanted to do that. Move over, Jesus!

The voice of the river becomes louder as she descends into parts of the cave where there is no further human sign. No walkways here, no blank lamps hanging from iron stanchions to mar the beauty of the great vault above her. Effortlessly she glides down the spill of petrified waterfalls, past small pools where eyeless fish swim. With a breath, she ascends sheer walls rising ten meters or more to make her way along a path along the high wall, no more than inches wide. The dust here has not been disturbed for centuries, yet she can make out the marks left by human feet along the ledge. Here the pull is exponentially stronger, and she knows in some part of her soul that the holy one whose footprints she walks in without disturbing a grain of sand came, one day long ago, from the very place where she is going.

She comes upon it suddenly, where the path ends abruptly at a fissure in the sheer wall. Like a breath of smoke she passes through it, to find herself within a geological miracle. The dome is perhaps twelve feet across, and lined from floor to apex with clear crystals. Some are slender as pencils; others as large as her forearm. Energy pulses from them to the rhythm of the water that seems to flow no more than a meter or so above, sometimes slipping lightly over its stone bed, sometimes roaring. In the center of the chamber is a stone slab perhaps a meter high. Around its sides are painted spirals, blazing suns, the forms of bear and wolf, eagle and puma. Carved into its surface are the shapes of hands, one to either side, and a hollow for the back of a human head.

Kirsten understands that it is a place of vision. She understands, too, that it is perhaps mortally perilous.

But danger is irrelevant. She approaches the slab and stretches her incorporeal body out upon it, head in the depression at one end, hands in the carved prints. She is not surprised to find them exactly to her measure.

As she lies there, the voice of the river changes, grows deeper, begins to form words. It is not any language she knows, but she understands its meaning nonetheless. It is the earth herself speaking to her--of violation, of anger, of terrible grief at the murder of her children. Images shift before her eyes so fast that she can barely keep track of them.

The terrible wound of a strip mine gouged out of the sacred Black Hills.

Forests falling to the rasp of saws and lumbering mechanical behemoths.

A yellow butterfly, last of its kind, dying in the summer sun on a strip of asphalt.

Dead buffalo lying skinned in their thousands.

Dead men and dead women, skins bronze and coppery red, lying dead and mutilated across fields of snow and grassy meadows.

A coyote with its rotting foot caught in a trap like a shark’s jaw.

And last, the world she has just left, humans slaughtered by the tens and hundreds of thousands, corpses left frozen in the snow or rotting in the heat of a tropical beach, scavenged by gulls.

And suddenly she finds herself once again on the surface of the world, in the forest now lit by a full moon. The cold does not touch her nakedness, nor the wind burn her skin. Before her stands a woman clothed in fringed buckskin worked with porcupine quills in the shape of a hummingbird across her breast, bands of turquoise and white shell circling her neck and wrists. Her long black hair drifts on the air, framing a face that is old an wrinkled and wise beyond knowing in one instant, young radiantly beautiful the next.

Kirsten folds down on her bare knees before her, wailing soundlessly. What must I do, Mother? It is too much, too much!

Of course it is too much, my daughter, the woman answers. Too much and too long. Yet you will not be alone.

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