An experiment, just to keep me writing. People I’ve never met, places I’ve not seen – and that I don’t recall – for over thirty years. And here I am, about 60k words later.
Creativity is occasionally creepy: where does all this come from?
Anyhoo. There are still flaws in what’s below. Someday, after I’ve written Part 2, I’ll get this all cleaned up and ‘novel-ized.’
Played with different ‘voices’ in this one; too much gin to get it all right. Actually excised a couple of paragraphs: I was lecturing again. Thanks, Will!
Let’s do this again. Soon!
“Defiant” – Episode 33
“…which is why, in conclusion…”
“Thank GOD!” Gil jumped at Teresa’s voice from just behind him. He turned only a little; he didn’t need any trouble about ‘not paying hizzoner proper respect’ from the Mayor’s heavies.
“Dammit, Teresa, you startled me! I almost spilled my beer!” He looked at her kitted out in the classic maid’s outfit Nike had her wearing, as part of her employment. “And that’s bad for business!”
“Suck it, Haven.” Pure customer service. “You drop your beer, I’ll get you another, but you pay!”
They held each other’s eyes. Her scowl slipped, but she couldn’t raise a smile. Around them, there was applause. Gil turned back and pretended to, as well. The Mayor went to talk with Captain Muller and several others just to his left.
“Thanks, Haven.” Teresa said. Now she was smiling.
“For what? There’s no way you believed that bee-ess of his about us stopping the attack. That was the Regulars at the Fort… and…” He looked over her shoulder to where Nichole was talking to some others.
“Oh, hell, no! I know that!” Teresa grinned ferally. “You were probably crapping yourself and crying like a little girl the whole time! No, what I meant was all this!” She gestured about.
“A little bird told me that the original idea was yours, and anything or anyone that pisses off my father to the degree he was, is a good egg in my book!”
Uh, oh. “And just why is he so pissed off?” Gil did not want to be branded and exiled.
“Because during this state of emergency – which we’re still in, by the way – there should be no one from the City on the road. Much less for a party and picnic! This was a direct challenge to his authority! Hey, I got customers! Later!” She punched his right shoulder as she moved off.
The troop had passed Bonneville Dam just a few hours ago, making good time going home. Cloudy, but with no rain, they alternated canter and trot. They’d just come to where the rusted sign showing the exit for Multnomah Falls stood. One of those slightly peculiar young men with white hair, dark sunglasses, clad in black shirt and pants, waited for them on a white mare. One of Nike’s men. Striking. The troop slowed, stopped.
“What’s this, then?” Muller asked. Curious, but wanting to be home. The fellow inclined his head, looked about, and spoke.
“On behalf of our master, Nike, we at Zom’s are pleased to present your men with a picnic, just ahead, at the falls!” His voice easily carried so all could hear.
The captain sighed. A complication he did not need.
“I thank you for your offer, from whomever you just said,” Gil realized that Zom’s must not be well known outside of the university scene. “My men are tired, and are looking forwards to seeing their families – ”
“They’re here, too.” The young man said, expressionless.
“Wives, children, girlfriends, friends: anyone expecting the return of your men were invited. Only the infirm we could not accommodate.”
The troopers started to stir.
“This is a joke?” Muller grumbled.
“No, sir. I’m afraid I don’t know what one of those is.”
“So, you’re saying there’s between one and two hundred people just ahead, for… a picnic.”
“It’s already well into the afternoon.” The captain looked at the sky. “There are still enemy unaccounted for. Is this a defendable position?”
“Not at all.” The captain was about to yell, but Nike’s man went on. “However, we’ve a barge rigged for very basic overnight accommodations,” he waved behind with his left arm, “just there. In the morning, we can take everyone downriver to the City at leisure.”
Gil saw the captain look to the sergeant. Neither moved. Muller returned to the odd fellow.
“If everyone’s already here, then what can I say?” A few of the troopers cheered. “However, I want to meet this ‘Nike’ fellow. Immediately.”
“Of course, captain. If everyone will follow me, please!” He turned and rode ahead.
“Good rider, for a ponce,” Brunelli said from somewhere behind Gil.
“Troopers!” The sergeant called. All eyes were on him. He made two gestures. Gil smiled. A formal, parade entrance. The captain was showing off.
Two-by-two, except for their last, they went westbound down the eastbound lane of the old Interstate. The main parking lot for the falls, between the middle of the Interstate lanes, was empty. Leaving the road and coming up to the gorge that held the falls, Gil saw the rows of wagons to his right. How big was this endeavor? Just ahead, by the empty visitor center, was tent after tent. Some had grilles already cooking a variety of meats, some were for drinks. Most were just tables and chairs.
The crowd of maybe over a hundred civilians were calling, cheering, and yelling. Gil and the others kept one eye fixed on the sergeant, who waved for them to stop. The captain moved his mount forward a few paces and turned to his unit.
“Men! And lady.” Was that almost a smile, Gil wondered?
“Our routine patrol of the river from the City to The Dalles, became something no-one anticipated. I personally want to thank all of you for courage and your… tenacity. We will now pause to remember those that did not make it back.”
Even the crowd fell quiet. For just a moment, those horrible nights came rushing back into Gil’s mind. He fought to suppress the shakes.
“Regulars!” The captain called. “Three days leave! Militia, you’re relieved! Special Observer, our grateful thanks! Dismissed!”
Order dissolved instantly as the mass of civilians became intermixed with the troopers and their horses. All had dismounted. In all the confusion, Gil wondered….
A hand on his shoulder. Nichole! He turned…! Oh, one of Nike’s men. Only when you’re right next to them can you see the differences, otherwise he’d have suspected they were like… her.
“Trooper, we’ve a temporary stables set up just over there,” he indicated to his left, down the access road. “If you’d like, I could – ”
“Thanks, no,” Gil replied. “Your horse is your life; we take care of them, first.”
“Of course, sir. Please call on any of us if you require anything.”
Gil wondered if he really meant that. Pulling this feat off was itself a mind-bogglingly complex feat of logistics in their shattered world. Who were these guys?
The troopers with families were still where they’d dismounted, talking, hugging, kissing. Gil looked around, not seeing Nichole anywhere. He took a step in the direction towards the stables when his ear picked up what was now an odd sound: internal combustion engines. At least two of them. He peered over the crowd west; being tall always helps, he thought. Two Lincolns were pulling up beyond all the tents. He saw the Mayor get out. Furious. Time to be somewhere else.
A few minutes later, brushing his horse, Gil froze in horror.
This was my idea! How in the hell am I going to pay for all this?!
Nichole had been at the rear of the formation. When it dissolved she was off Toast and moving purposefully to her right, leading her mount. She’d seen him at the back of the crowd as they rode up. She stayed against the trees on the northern side of the parking lot, skirting the crowd. He should be just… there!
She saw him just before he saw her. Having lost at least thirty pounds, it actually made him look taller. In the chill of a cloudy December day, he’d two jackets on. He leaned on the orthopedic cane in his right hand. He must not be swimming as much: his hair was darker.
Ten feet away, he saw the horse, then her.
That was a complex smile, she thought, leading Toast forward with her left hand. She watched as he hooked the cane, opening his arms to her. She held him tightly with her right.
“Nichole.” His voice was a little rougher. “You look great!”
“Friend Joe! I am so happy to see you again!”
She leaned back just a little, her face inches from his.
“Remission. They…” He longed to kiss her again. Those months seemed now years ago. “They wanted to follow up in six months. That’s obviously impossible, but I’ll try to make it back in a year.”
“You will!” Nichole said with strength. But she smiled. “I’d dare anyone to stop me from getting you onto a ship!”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “That was another thing: the docs were really surprised I noticed the cancer so early.” He shook his head. “I told them, it wasn’t me.”
“I owe you my life, Nichole.”
A dozen things she wanted to say flickered through her mind; Gil has made me older about discretion. She knew this was one of those times. She was older. She let go of Joe and looked at her horse.
“This is Toast! She’d been taking care of me on my little adventure! I need to see her to the stables. Come along?”
“Sure! I…” Joe looked around for just a moment. “Sure, I’ll come!”
He was just at her right as they skirted the crowd in the opposite direction.
“You don’t talk as much as you used to.” He said.
They continued on. They were just to the temporary stables.
“So who taught you – ” He began.
“Nichole! Where have you… Joe!”
She looked up to see Gil with something like a highlight around him. She knew this was a trick of her subprocessors, now that so much was changing in her. She rewrote her own code and watched as Gil’s image returned to normal. What other ghosts have Somi’s techs and engineers left inside me? She watched as her two best friends embraced and immediately started to catch up.
“I’m seeing to Toast! Back in a few!” She moved away before Gil could ask the question on his face.
That was almost cowardly, she thought, taking Toast to a stall and pulling her saddle off. I’m reading their faces and bodies and reacting before they can. I might understand if I did that to all but one, but I just did it to my professed love. Why?
She took her time brushing her mare, focused on that act rather than chasing unknowns in her mind. The sun was low in the sky when she walked back to what was now a going party. Where were Joe and Gil?
She made her way from the stables towards the tents: food and drink tents first, places to sit beyond that. Looking up to her left, many of the troopers, those with kids, were up by the falls. She paused a moment. The bridge broke the image nicely. The yells of the children made her smile.
“Looks normal, doesn’t it?” A man’s voice just at her left. She’d heard him walk up. “One would never suspect the terror a few miles in any direction.”
That was peculiar. She turned. About six feet, thinning, sandy-blonde hair. A round face but sharp nose, with glasses perched on it. Interestingly, his clothes were from Japan. There was something peculiar about his eyes….
“My apologies. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” He bowed; again, Japanese. As he moved off, she caught the hem of his gray jacket. She experimented.
“<Can you help me find my friend?>” She asked.
She watched his back. He was motionless for just a moment. She saw his head nod, once.
“Thaad was correct: there are no such things as coincidences.” He said.
She didn’t know who ‘Thaad’ was, but the second part held her attention. Who was this man? He turned.
“Certainly, miss!” The cheer in his voice got nowhere near his eyes. She had already tagged him as ‘unknown; potential threat.’ “What’s your friend’s name?”
“Joe Kreeft.” She said. His eyes grew worse.
“Of course. Of course he is.” A blink. “He was sitting with another young gent just this way!” He indicated a tent with his right.
“Thank you! How is that you know Joe?” She tried a winning smile. You never know, she thought. They made their way through the milling crowd.
“We shared the same ship, just now from Japan.” Ah, she thought. A piece of the puzzle.
Each tent had two rectangular tables under it, with enough room for six at each; eight, if they were close. She saw Gil and Joe at the end of a table. Two civilians she didn’t know were at the other end. Her friends each had a beer. Guess I’ll have to pretend about that presently…. Just ahead of the older man she’d just met, she ran her right hand across Gil’s shoulders as she sank into the chair to his left.
“Nichole! Where’ve yo…mrphl!” She cut off his question with a kiss. One she was in no hurry to end. But, after just a moment, Gil’s index finger tapped at her right hip. Did I make another mistake?
She tilted her head back and looked at Gil.
“Beloved?” Uh, oh. She tried to understand what his eyes were saying. She looked across the table at….
At someone that had once confessed his love for her. That had come within months of death from a deadly disease. That had just now returned to his homeland. To watch the girl he loved kiss his best friend only feet away from him.
Nichole had never before had a notion to shut herself down, no matter how bad things had been at the time. She struggled to not do so, now. That was cowardice.
A sigh escaped the man who’d come to the table with her. He’d sat next to Joe. Now, he waved for a server. Teresa came over. Of course it was her.
“Yeah?” Her typical insolence, until even she picked up the emotional dynamic at their end of the table. She tried again. “Thanks for saving us all, you guys; this one’s on the house. What can I get you?”
“Whiskey’s; all around,” the man who knew Joe said. When she paused, he looked at her sharply. “Any meeting that does not begin with a drink is inherently hostile.” Another sigh. “I would have these three be friends.”
Nichole wanted to ask; say. She glanced at Gil. And Joe. They did, too. But no one spoke.
“Lovely!” They all jumped at Nike’s voice. He took the shot glasses off his tray, placing one before each of them. Oh, she saw. There was a fifth one. Nike took it in his left and raised it.
“God! Family! Friends!” He shouted, tossing his drink back. “What else is there!?”
The four of them raised their glasses, then drank. Nichole watched the older man watch Nike as he left.
“So.” Joe was rolling his shot glass from hand to hand. “Looks like things have changed.” He looked up. “Between you two, my friends.”
She was too young to answer. She was older, that way.
Gil took her right hand with his left.
“Yes. It… it was never our intention to hurt – ”
“Hey! Hey, hey, hey!” Joe half stood and reached over, grabbing the top of Gil’s head, before sitting back down. “She ain’t mine! She ain’t no trophy!” He took a drink of his beer, waving at the staff as he did so. “I don’t know how you got her to fall for you, but she did!”
He finished his beer, banging the mug down.
“But if you make her cry, I’ll effing break you!” Joe half laughed.
“There’s someone you should meet,” she heard Gil mutter.
“Nothing, nothing.” One of Nike’s men put another mug before Joe. Gil raised his. “Friends!”
“Hell, yeah!” I wonder if, even in remission, he should be drinking so much, she thought.
“Crap! Chemo brain!” Joe called, setting his beer down. “I totally forgot! This here guy helped me all the way across on the trip home! He’s a total dude!”
Nichole filed that as a high-end compliment.
Gil and Nichole looked at Joe. He looked back.
“Name?” Gil said softly.
“Shit! This here’s Clive Barrett!” Joe cried. “CB! This is my best friend, with my ex-girlfriend!”
Clive Barrett stood and extended his hand to both of them.
“How… interestingly complicated!” For once, his eyes showed emotion.
“What brings you to Portland, Mister Barrett?” Gil asked. He was curious. Unbidden, the waiter had brought a glass of wine for both Barrett and Nichole. Neither touched it.
“I’m… looking for something. In the former US, Customs and immigration are easier in Portland than Vancouver. And San Diego, as Mexico seems to be getting that port back open.”
He tapped my foot with his. He wants to make sure I don’t ask anything stupid. How to let him know I understand? Ah: subtlety. She squeezed his hand with hers.
Night was falling. Nike’s men lit torches and had already begun escorting groups to the barge. Joe seemed to have fallen asleep in his chair. Barrett was looking at some folded maps from his back pocket. She pulled at Gil’s hand.
“I don’t want to be alone.” She watched his mouth draw into a line.
“The captain discharged you! And,” a quick glance at Joe, “I don’t mean sex! I mean I don’t want to be alone!”
There was an odd thump. At the end of their table, Nike was there, his head down. One of his men was at his left, Teresa at his right.
“For this they sent me back?” She heard him mutter. Who?
“The Renmei, dearie,” lifting his head and smiling at Nichole. “You’re not the only one reading minds, love! Gary, the gentleman to the barge, please. Teresa, show these two and Mister Barrett to a place to sleep.” He looked about, not seeing anything. “Indoors, I suppose.”
She and Gil rose to follow Teresa, but stopped after a bit. Barrett was talking with Nike. Gil couldn’t hear it, but she could.
“No. You won’t find her. First.” More words. “You’re going to die first. Trust me: it’s a bother.”
Ignoring Teresa’s entreaties, Barrett walked out into the darkness. To the east.
She led them to what had once been a small office in the Visitor’s Center. Gil had brought his bedroll, she had not.
“How are you?” He asked after her life.
“31%. I’ll be fine so long as you don’t keep me up all night!”
A huge yawn. “Not happening.”
She waited until he lay down. He’d still his briefs on. She doffed all but hers, too, sliding in next to him.
“Mmm?” She snuggled close to him, regarding the sensations.
“If this was a story, no one would believe it.”
She shook a little with laughter.
He moved his strong right arm over her, pulling her close. Time passed. She tilted her head back to touch her lips to his.
A *snooork!* was her response. She smiled.
Love is complicated!