Eleven days straight at Day Job. At least I was able to think a great deal about what the hell might or might not be going on. True to my style, I went for the minimalist approach. So, we get a little overlap of the last scene from Joe’s perspective, followed by Nichole doing gallant machine things and Joe doing gallant human things.
I am genuinely happy when machines and humans compliment one another as men and women do.
Last Sunday, our parish priest – in anticipation of Thanksgiving – asked us to consider what we’re thankful for. Besides the trite answers (“my family!”), what I really thought was that God let me see, and write, stories like this. I don’t deserve it.
Joe watched her run off, her ponytail waiving jauntily from under her helmet. He was a little surprised at her speed, but after what he’d seen at the pool, not much about her surprised him anymore.
He reflected on his ridiculous predicament: abducted, armed, amphibious assault… all because he and Phil were randomly picked to escort crazies in the last battle.
He made a small motion to wipe his face against his left shoulder.
Crazies. There’d never been anything official after the Battle at the Bridge from Hizzoner’s office, and the few so-called newspapers in town were photocopy throwbacks to the handbills and circulars of the 19th Century. ‘An Army of over 100,000!’ one would read. ‘We ate her liver with Fava beans and a fine Chianti!’ proclaimed another. From some others in the Militia and connexions to the Regulars through PSU, reality might have been both worse and more banal.
“In what’s left of Seattle, the fanatics only use cannibalism as part of their ‘conversion’ ceremony; most folks don’t consider themselves human after that. They’ve enough crops and pigs that they don’t need to eat people anymore.”
“Still…” Joe’s contact took a drag off his hand-rolled cigarette; half tobacco, half cannabis. “They let… they lead their attacks with the ones that like it. Human flesh.”
Another drag and slow exhale.
“Scares the hell out of people.”
It was afternoon. Joe had no idea when, but not by much. He wished…
He wished Nichole came back. He wished he was home. He wished the Breakup never happened –
Faint popping? Did they have mortars, too? He might be down, but was totally exposed from the air –
“Gas! Gas!” Nichole’s voice was faint but clear. “Mask up!”
He had nothing. No mask, no one of those… what were they called? Muppet suits?
He could run.
Joe glanced back, up the bridge; he took a shuddering breath. No, I guess I can’t.
More pops. After a couple of seconds, there was a small crack! from just ahead where some of the asphalt was kicked up. Since there was no explosion…
A gas mortar bomb.
Do… do I run, now?! But his post! The other men…! Her…!
He couldn’t leave her.
He shifted up on one knee just as he saw her falling out of Heaven like an angel.
“Ni- ” He began to ask as she hit the ground running.
“-KOHL!” Was knocked out of him when she scooped him up over her left shoulder like a sack of meal. She ran up towards the bridge, still carrying him, yelling about the gas.
“Just put me do-” Joe tried to twist free and felt her nearly snap his spine. Just like how a pool’s lifeguard would work to stop a struggling drowning victim. He relented.
Somewhere off to their left Joe heard the sound for the assault group to retreat. Did that mean that the engineers had done their job? Looking about from the jostling ride of Nichole’s back he saw they were now over water, she running like the wind. Just about 2000 feet, and we’ll be saf –
Now, a siren’s wail from across the river. What did that mean?
A series of small explosions about them was his answer: they were now falling into the river, along with several thousand tons of concrete and steel. Joe flexed to try to wrap himself around her: a shield against the rubble and the upcoming water. Instead, he found himself as helpless as a small child as she twisted him about, her chest to his back. With her left hand over his mouth and nose, she pointed her right over her head, straight at the water.
As they broke the surface of the water, Nichole had another warning: ten percent. She pulled her right arm to her side as she kicked her legs in a blur of motion. Down, down, as far and fast as she could, to get away from the rain of rubble. In less than four meters she could see the bottom. She leveled off and swam towards the southwest. The ship channel there was fifteen meters, and was away from the dropped section of the bridge.
Joe had not moved since their plunge under the water. From what she could sense of her left hand on his face, he was alive, but likely unconscious from the impact. Her hand stayed where it was to prevent him from taking water into his lungs. Ah!
The dredged ship channel dropped away before her, but she thought it time to surface, for her friend. She brought them up at an angle away from the north side, but allowing the flow of the river to carry them slowly downstream.
Their heads broke the surface and she spun in a quick circle before setting off towards the south with Joe on her chest. Unable to actually breath, she could only perform something akin to the Heimlich Maneuver with her fists to get his lungs working. After a sharp cough, he began taking in great lungfulls of air.
“What – ?!” He began.
“Don’t!” She hissed. There were crumps of artillery firing from somewhere over her head. Her eyes could track the shells as they screamed overhead on their short arc to the north. A few machine guns chattered from both sides. With the bridge now ten meters to her right and further away with each second, they were horribly exposed. She kicked as fast as she could without making a foaming wake…
A few splashes around them. A *whang!* past her left ear. She covered her friend’s mouth as she rolled and dove. Kicking as hard as she could, she regarded the map in her mind: there were trees and brush by the large factory, just northeast of the bridge. If she could get them ashore and into concealment, they just might survive this. She changed their direction to the right just a bit. The bottom was coming up fast and she could tell Joe was starting to convulse from lack of air…
Nichole pulled her feet up under her and stood and began running just after, carrying Joe like a princess. He was coughing too much water to see the dance of mirth across her face. No one was shooting at them just then, so she pushed through the short trees to a drainage ditch at the base of a line of chain-link fence. She dropped and was still. Now they had cover and concealment! She was quite happy with this development!
She lay nose to nose with Joe. She liked that, too. He opened his eyes, startled at her proximity.
“What the hell is going on?” He asked.
“We’re winning!” Her left hand came up to touch his cheek. “I’m winning… again!”
A routine she did not know existed triggered. Her left hand fell, along with her arm. Her eyes remained open with her lips just parted from her last word. Even her routine to fake breathing stopped.
I know Somi needs to protect their investment, but they might have warned me! She thought, furiously trying to either recode or route around this Emergency System Command. Tricky.
“Nichole?” She’d stopped moving and, Joe realized to his horror, breathing. He shifted to shake both of her shoulders. “Nichole! Nichole!!”
And there’s this, too, she thought, not needing the complication.
Joe looked around at their situation; what he could see of it. The culvert offered enough cover for him to roll the girl onto her back in the rotted, marshy weeds. A quick ear to her mouth confirmed his fear: she wasn’t breathing. He grabbed at her left wrist.
Dear God, what the hell happened to her!? He raged, tearing her flak vest off. Did she have a heart attack after all that swimming?!
After saving my life?! He paused only for an instant, tilting her head back and clearing her airway with his finger. He breathed into her.
Sensory input was degraded to save power, but she was fully aware of what he was doing and why. She thought it was really sweet of him, to try to save her. Barely feeling his mouth pressed to hers, she was saddened that her first kiss with a human male was under such circumstances. She made a note to make it up to him, later.
There was some odd resistance to his breath into her. He wondered if she’d swallowed water, too? He started on the first series of thirty chest compressions. Nothing. He tried another two breaths. Same resistance. During the next series of compressions, he allowed himself to look around at where they were. The fence just ahead and some huge factory walls beyond that. Further inland the hills came up. He could hear the artillery and small arms fire.
Nobody knows we’re here. She’s going to die.
Two more breaths. It killed him to see her pretty green eyes stare emptily at the sky like that.
More compressions. I won’t stop; not until she’s alive or I’m dead!
And not once has he tried to feel me up! Nicole thought, nearing a breakthrough of Somi’s shutdown protocol. So nice!
But using her processors to overcome the protocol took power, too. Four Percent.
“Why does this development not surprise me?”
Nicole was shocked as Eldest Sister Hajime appeared before her in her [description] elegant kimono. A recorded image? Why?
Hajime looked away, sighed, looked back into Nichole’s eyes.
“You might not have been the youngest of us for long – you’re certainly not, now! – but we all regarded you with… great care.”
“Playing games, picking fights, a boundless capacity for love and friendship, quite defiant in the face of the caution we’d sought to teach you…” Another sigh. “So, if you’re seeing me now, it means you’ve done it again: pushed too far too long – probably for one of your so-called ‘friends,’ putting yourself into danger.”
She watched as Eldest Sister lowered her head for a moment. Raising it, Nichole was shocked to see mirth in her recorded eyes; eyes that were so stern and unforgiving.
“Here is the code to take back control of yourself.”
It was in her memory and instantly into herself.
“Know that we love you, our brash little sister!”
The image faded. Nichole sat up.
“Jesus Christ!” Joe yelled, scared to death.
“Nope!” She put her arms around him and kissed him, properly this time.
“First Friend? I am sick and must sleep! Please,” she rummaged her right hand in a BDU pocket and produced a cord that she pressed into his hand, “when they find us, take me to General Tessmer!”
She returned her right hand to his neck.
“I love you, Nichole.”
She nodded, with a smile.
“I know. I feel… for you…”
She had to rest, or she wouldn’t have power to make her chest fake breathing. She slid off him into the wet weeds.
“Sssshh!” She managed.
She opened her eyes. She lay on her right side on a cot in a green tent. She felt the cord in the back of neck. A blanket covered her from her chest down. There was no rumble of a generator, so she suspected a battery pack of some kind. Looking more about the room, the general was writing at a folding table a few meters away. An aide beyond him stared into a laptop screen. Staying still and keeping her eyes hooded, there was an interruption every five minutes, or so, as soldiers came in and out.
She sat up. Slowly.
Tessmer tilted his head at the creaking sound.
“Miss Clarke.” He said in a neutral voice. “Are you well?”
“Better now. Thank you,” she waved her hand behind her neck, “for feeding me!”
That got to him, she saw.
“An army moves on its stomach, Miss.”
He’d yet to look up from the paperwork.
“Did we win?”
‘Civilians!’ she heard him sigh.
“The day is ours. Tomorrow,” now he looked at her. “Remains to be seen.”
“Of course. Sir.”
She adjusted her position so that her cord was invisible. The next man that came into the tent – this portion of the tent, she realized – glanced at her for only a moment, relaying some casualty figures.
“How long,” he began, “before you’re fit to travel?”
“If no change to my charge rate, three hours for normal motor activity. For further combat? Ten hours.”
“In four hours, just before sun-up, you and Kreeft are being evac’d back to the City.”
“Is there…” She tried again. “Did we do something wrong?”
Tessmer carefully placed his pen down.
“Miss Clarke,” he began again, carefully. “I’ve only some idea who and what you are, but I had to allow my Master Sergeant to talk me out of awarding you a Silver Star; you’ll have to settle for Bronze, which, I’m sure, our political masters will keep classified. Similarly, a civilian acting as a sharpshooter on a cross-river attack – during the day! – with little to no training… Mister Kreeft shall be awarded a Commendation Medal.”
He shook his head at her.
“Haven’t you done enough?”
She bowed from her seat on the cot, stopping only when her cord grew taught.
“Sir! Thank you!” She sat back up. “I shall lay and be still until time to go!”
He watched it – her – re-cover herself. What a world, he thought.
“There’s one more matter, Miss.”
“I am… telling you this in confidence.” She watched him pick up his pen and set it back down. “I shall tell your civilian friend myself, personally.”
“The other civilian, Morris. He was killed in the gas attack.” Tessmer paused but went on. “My Intel captain carried his body back to the barge.”
“He, and the few others that died – ”
“You’ll have to burn them, downwind from here.”
He looked up at her.
“Please, sir: let me be at my friend’s side when you tell him.”
“Of course.” He lowered his head to the paperwork. “Please rest, Miss.”