“Back in the saddle…


…again.”  Literally in a literary sense.  I ‘saw’ this beginning of the next part of the story a week ago, but was busy with RealLife(TM).  When I finally sat down and did some research, I realized that rather than in the SSE of the Willamette Valley, this part of the story is going up the Columbia River, following the hydroelectric dams:  given what the protagonist is, makes sense, right?  Wish I knew that five days ago!

I’m making a few leaps, and would really appreciate comments good or ill as to what I’m doing.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the ‘likes’ and ‘now following’ I get, but without written feedback, I can only hope I – and Nichole and the rest – are on the right path.

“Defiant” – Episode 20

The troop plodded southwards in the steady rain down old I-84, the mighty Columbia River to their left.  The steady rhythm of canter-trot-walk from earlier in their journey reduced to walk with the occasional trot: the road surface was just too wet to risk a fall for either a rider or their mount. The troop captain glanced at the leaden sky and sighed. They’d made Bonneville in a day; Hood River in a day and a half. Then the sky opened. Not really unexpected for December, but still…. A glance at his wind-up watch showed it to be almost four in the afternoon. They’d likely be in The Dalles, and the fort by the dam, around six thirty. Looking ahead, he saw one of his scouts, Reilly, returning.

“You’re up next, Richards!” The captain called over his right shoulder. That man spurred his horse to a trot, passing Reilly about 100 yards ahead. The captain saw them exchanged a few words as they passed. Good: still no signs of enemies. Didn’t mean they weren’t there, of course. Unknown unknowns; the worst kind. Reilly drew up and fell in next to his officer. No salutes: did the hills to their right hold snipers?

“Sir! Clear as far as I could tell,” Reilly said, constantly looking about. That’s why he was the troop’s best scout. “An abandoned trailer park a bit past it, but it felt empty.”

The captain nodded. Any good veteran learned to put their trust in feelings like that. He saw Reilly’s look linger on the column behind them. The captain wanted to smile.

“She’s fine, trooper.” He enjoyed Reilly’s chagrin at being read so easily. “Thanks for your good work; why not drop back a bit?” And talk to her.

“Sir!” He slowed his horse and fell back as the column moved around him. Two dozen plus one, the captain thought. They’d recently been taking a half squad of six militia with their eighteen Regulars on missions like this. It was valuable experience for the citizen-soldiers and would provide the Regulars with a more reliable cadre in the event of another crisis. Which was just a matter of time. Five months ago, after what was now called ‘the Battle at the Bridge,’ the captain had led several sorties north into former Washington State, scouting and taking prisoners for interrogation.

He rolled his shoulders, thinking back on some of their prisoners: cannibal fanatics. Like out of some damned low-budget Hollywood movie, but this was real. This was not the 21st Century that I was expecting, he thought.

There was some muffled laughter from two-thirds back along the column. One was feminine. His unexpected twenty-fifth member of his team. Not even militia; not even a Portlander. But very, very dangerous. He allowed himself a wry grin as he recalled the meeting in the Mayor’s Office six days ago.

“I refuse. Respectfully. Sir.” He stood at attention before the Mayor’s desk. Who looked back at him with cool eyes. To the Mayor’s left, but on the opposite side of the desk, was an attractive young woman with a kind, open face. Her slightly reddish-blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She’d been introduced to him just a moment ago as ‘Nichole Clarke.’

            Rather than shouting him down, Mayor Johnson took a politician’s approach. “Explain yourself, Captain Muller.”

            “If we’ve learned anything from the Breakup, it’s that we cannot have women in front-line units,” the captain said, recapitulating the obvious. “Anywhere else, yes, they can be vital to the military. But not – not at the tip of the spear. Sir.”

            “I agree.” The Mayor’s response caught him completely off guard.

            “You… you do?”

            “Of course. But that’s just a general rule. And,” he looked to his left at the girl, “every rule has its exceptions! Miss Clarke? With no permanent damage, would you be so kind as to disarm and restrain the captain here?”

            What?!

            “Sure!” The girl cried cheerfully.

            As he turned towards her, it seemed as if her formed blurred. She was inches in front of him: her right fist buried in his solar plexus; he couldn’t breathe! In another moment he was looking at the Office carpet. There was an odd *click*! Oh: his service pistol, a Sig-Sauer P239. That was the hammer being drawn back, just behind his head.

            “Surrender or die!” He heard her smile. “Kah, kah!” What was that?

            “Thank you, Miss Clarke. That will be all,” Mayor Johnson said. The captain pushed his chest up off the floor….

            To see the girl in front of him; her left hand out to help him up. In her right, she de-cocked this pistol. He took her hand.

            “You were saying, Captain?” The Mayor asked.

            The girl bowed slightly as she held his weapon back to him with both hands. She didn’t move. He took the pistol and returned it to his holster. She rose. And smiled: a smile like sunshine.

            “Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.”

            “Good!” He let his eyes drop to the papers on his desk. He picked one up and signed at the bottom. He looked up.

            “You two still here? Shoo!” He waved at the door. “I expect reports from both of you when you get back.” He picked up another paper.

            Just outside the Office door, Muller called out, “Miss Clarke?” She turned back to him.

            “Yes?”

            “A pleasure to be working with you,” he extended his hand. “Would you mind if I asked you to work with my men on hand-to-hand?”

            She gently shook his hand. Her head tilted to the left just a little.

            “Sure!”

It was getting darker. No sign of the rain letting up. They’d just crossed Chenoweth Creek when the captain noticed Clarke bringing her horse up beside his.

“There’s something to our left. Something… odd.” She said.

“SomeTHING or someONE,” he emphasized.

“Thing. It is not aware.”

What?

“The only thing over there,” he gestured to his left, “is the Goodle Data Center. Built just after the turn of the Century. Fiber optic lines as thick as my thigh.” He pointed ahead. “Cheap power from the dam, solid local workforce, isolated… it was everything they wanted to build a data hub in the western US.”

He watched her closely. She shuddered slightly and there was an odd play of emotions across her face. When she licked her lips, he felt disgust. Why?

“So much data in one place!” She said in a guttural undertone. “I want to devour it!”

What?

“I’m sure we can visit later,” he nodded with his chin. “Our objective now is the fort at the dam.”

“Yes. Sir.” She dropped back in line. But kept staring off to the left.

He recalled the day before they left on this mission.

            “…these six from Militia B,” he called to his troopers, indicating those men to his left. His men were sitting in a semi-circle around him. Horsemen sat. “And sergeant Nichole Clarke of the Kempeitai.” He felt her eyes on him for that lie, but he ignored her. “She’s a specialist in martial arts. Would anyone care to see?”

            They’d all laughed. Several raised their hands. He picked Brunelli, who’d been arrested as many times as he’d been promoted and demoted.

            “C’mere John,” he said, watching the brute of a man rise. The horse he rode was twice the size of the rest of the troops’. He indicated the empty field just behind him.

            “Sergeant Clarke, if you’d be so kind…?” She rose, giving him an enigmatic look. She walked to just opposite where Brunelli stood, flexing his hands at the prospect of such a pretty, young girl. Sure, he couldn’t do that, but fun was fun.

            “Begin!” The captain called. Brunelli lunged forwards….

            She faded right. Her right fist caught his jaw. They saw at least three teeth fly into the air. He dropped and did not move. She at once fell to his side and rolled him onto his back, checking his vitals. She looked up to the captain.

            “You’ve made your point; I’ve made mine.” She said harshly. “Call a corpsman, NOW!”

            The captain was on his walkie-talkie while she held Brunelli’s face, her’s inches from him, talking quietly to him. He saw her kiss his forehead once. I wanted to make an example of her, he thought, but she made an example of me….

            In the ride out of Portland, he’d realized his mistake: he thought she’d have to prove herself as a warrior to be accepted. While his men now knew that, they still treated her more as a mascot or good-luck charm. Except, of course, for that one militiaman….

“Hey, Five!” The captain heard the corporal of militia call. He knew there was some connexion between them at the university, but he didn’t know the details. They were just passing through the old downtown along the freeway. The fort was only about a third of a mile away. Raincoats be-damned, everyone was soaked to the bone. The horses looked miserable.

“Yes, Gil?” He heard her call in reply.

The captain could tell from his tone that they were not a couple. He was obviously not happy about something, but if it did not affect his command, he did not get involved. Calling the girl “Five,” for instance.

Reilly and one other Regulars laughed at what militiaman Haven had to say. They stopped when the girl leaned over to kiss his cheek, followed with a brush of her hand against him. Good and bad news, the captain thought: I hope she’s made a decision. That will allow everyone else to settle down.

They’d just passed the rail yard on their right; they could see the spillway of the dam at their ten o’clock. Then sirens of the fort began their wail. God damn it, the captain thought. So close.

“Battle formation!” He stood up in his stirrups and shouted.

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