Catching our Breath

Busy three part episode.  Gil is off to his reserves; let’s hope Joe’s not dead.  I hope not:  introducing new characters is a bother.

Don’t believe me?  Read on…

    “Defiant” – Episode 6
    Nichole walked out of the Administration building with an armful of files stuffed with papers.  Intermittent electricity meant doing things the old fashioned way.  With a glance towards the lengthening shadows of evening, she slightly quickened her pace as she headed home, in light of what Mrs. Franks said to her as she was leaving.
    “I don’t know if someone else has told you, but because of all that’s happened today, there’s going to be a strict city-wide curfew for the next few days.”  She’d told Nichole.  “Unless you’re militia or law enforcement, once night falls, everyone out will be arrested.”
    “But, why?”  Nichole was puzzled.  “Didn’t the mob from the north and the mounted raiders from the southeast turn back?”
    Patricia Franks sighed.  Must be nice to live in peace.  And ignorance.
    “You know for a fact that every last one of them was turned back?  Or is a group of six of them keeping to the alleys and five blocks from here, right now?”  Nichole saw her point and nodded.
    The lights were just beginning to flicker on as she caught sight of the Stratford House.  Mrs. Franks had been correct:  by now, there was almost no one out besides her.  Her hand was on the door to enter when a voice spoke into her left ear.
    “<Is everything alright, Miss Clarke?>”  Lieutenant Kirita asked her.  She’d not forgotten the radio, it simply had not loomed large in her mind.  She quickly understood the odd looks she’d received from Henry and Mrs. Franks earlier.  She made a mental note to consider her appearance to others more.  She let her hand fall from the door as she moved away a few steps.
    <I’m fine.>”  She replied.  “<Thank you for your concern.  Is the ship well?>”
    “<Of course.>”  He coughed politely.  The digital encryption made it sound like a bark.  “<In the coming days, the captain will be having a… delicate time… explaining to the political authorities both here and home as to what happened here.”
    The ramifications opened in her mind like a mosaic.  Oh, dear.
    “<Please tell the captain that I will take full responsibility and present myself before this city’s Mayor tomorrow morning—>”
    “<We expected you to say that,>” he said, cutting her off.  “<And we know that that is not what you, nor… her Imperial Majesty want from this journey of ours….>”
    They were both silent for a moment.
    “<The captain says for you to ‘do your best.’  If we need to speak again, we shall try the radio; if there’s no reply, we’ll send a runner.>”  That odd cough-bark again.  “<Good evening, Miss Clarke.>”
    She remained still as the myriad ways of the future unfolded in her mind.  It was nearly dark now, and she should be inside.  But… but for such a day – for her and for everyone else – to end in such a banal fashion… part of the darkness just below her moved.  She was instantly in a self-defense stance.
    “Uhhh….”  A quiet, uncertain voice.  Female.  Nichole didn’t move.
    “Come into the light.  Now.”  Big sister Caroline had taught her to use over and undertones in her voice to… help humans make up their minds.
    The mousy young woman from across the hall this morning stumbled up the few steps.  She stood blinking under the porch light.  Nichole relaxed.  Slightly.
    “Welcome home, dorm-friend!”  She smiled broadly.  “It’s late and dark!  Let’s go up to our floor together, okay?”
    The other didn’t move, so she gently took her right hand with hers.  The mousy girl’s hand was shaking.
    “I’m Nichole!  I’m very new in your home!”  She glanced at the books the other clutched with her left arm.  “Would you please be my dorm-big-sister and help me?  There’s so much I don’t understand!”
    “Fr…friend?”  It was her first word to Nichole.  And a very good one.
    “Yes!  Your my first girl-friend here!  What’s your name?”
    The other finally lifted her head enough to make eye contact.
    “Mackenzie,” she muttered.  Nichole suppressed a sigh.  She thought for a moment to take the girl’s hand, but realized her brain might explode.  Hasten slowly.
    “I’m so happy to make another friend,” she said with a smile and small bow, “so let’s hurry inside!”
    She held the door for Mackenzie who dropped her head and shuffled in.  Yet a different young man at the desk; how often to they change shifts, she wondered.  If there was a sign-up sheet, she wanted to try, too.  He seemed too busy with school work to notice them, so they made for the stairs—”
    “Badges, please.”  He called sharply.  His pencil was still in his hand, but his eyes fixed on them.  Nichole turned and waved.  His look softened at that.  Mackenzie sloughed left, then right again.  He was already looking again at the papers in front of him.
    “Are they always so strict,” Nichole asked as they plodded up the steps.
    “Yeah.”
    That seemed to be that.  Nichole readied another question….
    “Worse with guys,” her new friend said softly.  “If they don’t recognize you, or if you’re not with someone from Stratford, then they’ll call in your badge number…just in case.”
    That’s not just chivalry, Nichole thought.  When males are that protective… it appeared things here were much worse than the Ministry of Trade had thought when they proposed this mission.  They’d used the lowest-end guess of Americans dead from the Breakup:  eight million.  In her two days, she was beginning to horribly come to the realization that the upper guess – over one hundred million – was the more accurate.
    They came out of the stairwell into their hallway.
    “Thank you so much for seeing me to my room!”  Nichole forced herself to let her left and just touch the girl’s right.  She flinched, but didn’t draw back.
    “I know this sounds very forward of me, but may I see your room?”  Nichole asked as politely as she could.  Sister Caroline had told her to try to make friends… and that ‘being friends means knowing more about someone.’
    “My….”  Mackenzie was suddenly rooted in the hallway.  “Room…?”
    “That’s okay!”  Nichole waved her hands.  “Everyone needs to pick up before a guest comes over!  That was silly of me I’ll…”
    “. . .”
    She said something, but Nichole couldn’t tell what.
    “I’m sorry?”  She asked.  Mackenzie shuffled to her door and unlocked it.
    “I said, please come in.”  She went in an flicked on the light.
    Nichole stepped across the threshold.  “Excuse me, I’m coming in.”  She said quietly.
    Just like her room, it was the kitchenette, followed by the studio room proper.  But even in the kitchen, the papers taped up everywhere….  There was another click as the main light came on.  If she knew how to gasp, she would have.
    “This is my room,” Mackenzie mutter, her right hand making a dismissive gesture.
    There was art everywhere:  sketches, watercolors, some oils, even markers and highlighters.  Taped, pinned, across the back of the small couch, all over the floor.  All in such, such…
    “Amazing!”  Nichole spoke quietly.  “The colors!  So many…!”
    Her eyes flicked everywhere as she slowly made her way in.  Mackenzie shuffled to a far corner and waited.  Quickly making associations, Nichole saw there were several predominate themes, all but one of them joyous and suffused with forms and colors that made them jump to life.  The darker few she chose to ignore for now; life from the inanimate was of particular interest to her.
    “This is… these are…”  She picked up a plain piece of paper with no more than twenty brightly drawn lines on it:  a bird about to land in its nest.  She wished she could cry.  “Friend Mackenzie, these are so beautiful!”
    “It’s what I do… do for fun.”  She shook her mousy hair slightly.  “School’s not fun, but I promised….”
    She trailed off at that.  It was now dark outside.  Enough for a first night.  Nichole took a few steps towards her, raising her hands, but stopped and let them drop.  Slowly.  She bowed.
    “Thank you so much for showing me you!”  She said with head down.  “I… I am very happy for seeing your home!”
    She rose and smiled.  To her mild surprise, the girl raised her head and met her gaze.  She did not smile, but spoke, instead.
    “Can…er… may I see your room?”  She said, a little clearer.  Nichole clapped her hands in front of her.
    “Of course!  Let’s go!”
    Nichole exited Mackenzie’s, unlocked her door and went in, turning on the kitchenette light and main light.  She stopped and turned to see her friend just entering.  She looked about carefully, as if afraid to step on or touch something she shouldn’t.  At the invisible transition between kitchen and main room, she stopped, blinking.
    “There’s….”
    “Yes?”
    “There’s nothing here.”
    “Of course there’s something here!”  Nichole laughed.  “There’s my main bag from my trip!  And there on the table is my little bag!”
    Mackenzie’s eyes continued to drift here and there.
    “So… that’s all you brought?  No tablet, no pictures, no…”  She gestured weakly, “nothing?”
    “I’m sorry, friend Mackenzie,” Nichole answered honestly, “but I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
    A sigh.
    “If we took you and your bags out of here, is there any proof you existed?”  Mackenzie asked.  Her voice sharp, even if her eyes were down.
    Nichole was older now.
    “No.”  She said quietly.  “Only in the minds of those I’ve reached these two days.  The notion of a physical remnant is… new to me.”
    She could plainly see the mousy girl mouthing the words ‘physical remnant.’  I can make her older, too.
    “It’s late; I should go.”  Mackenzie half turned.  “Thank you for showing me your home.”
    Nichole stood still for some time.  She finally shrugged and turned the lights off.  Again, with her shirt, skin, and plug.  Down 31% in a single day!  The Somi engineers would have had a fit!  But then, they’d never saved a world before!
    Time passed as it did.  She was aware of the door across the hall opening; the shuffling; the noise under her own door, and friend Mackenzie’s door closing again.  All at 0130.  How odd!
    She unplugged herself and walked to her door.  A piece of paper.  She flicked on the light.  Oh.
    In watercolors, on a simple sheet of paper, she looked at something she almost recognized.
    ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ was something she’d learned.  This was a variation of that:  the classical clothes remained, but the wings were gone; it was Nichole, high in the air, EM waves out from her headset like wings… the look on her face….
    I don’t know if I like that look, she thought.
    Even so:  my friend made a picture of me; my friend make a picture for me!  She had no tape nor staples, so she set in her her lap while her hands reconnected her life.  She took the watercolor back with both hands.
    It was just before dawn that she heard herself mutter, “Thank you!”

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