Tack

As in sailing.  This was leading me away from the plot.  So I saw Nichole show off and swing things about.  This part two is supposed to be centered around Mackenzie d’Arcy, just as part one was about Nancy Brunelli.  That means I need my main character back home.

Where she just might walk into her friend’s flat, with Mac’s hair in twin-tails and Gil with his shirt off… I like to think of it as a love-hexagon.

Once past the machine gun emplacement she picked up her pace. Bakke and his second had just handed off their horses as she approached. The sun was almost directly overhead.

Seeing Nichole, he first turned to his leftenant.

“Pass the word and return to me.”

“Sir,” he replied before moving off.

“What word is that, major?” she asked.

“If Adam, the chieftain, that is, keeps his word, they’re pulling up stakes today and crossing back east,” he said striding toward his command tent. “If and when they do, we’re going home. Tomorrow.”

“So soon?” she asked, surprised. “I thought we were to cross the Blue Mountains – ”

“They don’t was us there,” he cut her off, agitated. “Which means they don’t want us see something. Both of these facts, plus some things I saw over there, need to reach the mayor’s ear immediately.”

She understood that meant it was too sensitive to go out over radio or satellite. With a nod to Jones he ducked into his tent. Unbidden, she followed.

“More mobile missile launchers, or something worse?” she asked.

He was both surprised and not surprised that she’d followed him in.

“Do you recall what we passed, on the left, as we came up out of the Columbia Gorge?” Bakke asked, moving to sit at his desk. He pulled paper to him and immediately began to write.

She’d seen the sign: ‘Umatilla Chemical Depot,’ but had no knowledge of it.

“The depot,” she said.

“Used to store about a fifth of the US’s chemical weapons. Was to be closed just before the Breakup.” He kept his attention on what he was writing while he spoke. “Supposedly – supposedly! – they got everything decommissioned before the world fell apart.”

Now he looked up at her.

“But what if they missed something?”

His head went back down.

“You may go, Nichole. And don’t mention any of this.”

“Of course, Armando,” she said, taking a step back. “I appreciate your trust!”

She saw him shake his head once.

“You’d have found out anyway…”

Nichole passed Bakke’s second on her way out. She lingered a dozen feet from the front flap and listened.

“They are breaking camp, sir…”

She nodded to herself and continued on.

Everyone in their camp waited quietly at their posts. A few observers stood on the wagon seats with field glasses to keep an eye on the horsemen. Nichole had just climbed up when one yelled.

“Shit!” he shouted. “They’re all coming this way!”

In less than thirty seconds Bakke was on the cart next to them with his glasses pressed to his eyes.

“What in the hell are they doing?!” she heard him hiss.

“Showing off,” she said, raising her voice so he heard her.

He lowered his lenses and looked at her. Not happy.

“What?” he demanded.

“Primitive is not stupid,” she called back, able to use this moment to teach all of E Company. “I suspect that they will quite literally ride a circle about us. To send a message.”

“That they can,” Bakke agreed, nodding twice. He turned back and raised the glasses. “Assholes!”

Her eyes were better than a human’s, but did not have the range of their field glasses and binoculars. It was a few minutes before Bakke spoke again.

“Sure enough,” he said, “that son of a bitch has a grin all over his face!”

Nichole presumed he spoke of the chieftain, Adam. Motion in her right periphery. She allowed the corners of her mouth to turn up as she jumped down and took a few steps to where the company pennant flew from its pole outside the command tent. She jerked it out of the ground and walked to the cart Armando stood in.

He watched as she easily leapt up next to him. His eyes went to the pennant and back to her.

“I need your permission for what I do next,” she began, still with her tiny smile, “for it will touch upon the honor of you and this unit.”

“Explain.”

“You shall remain in the cart’s bed, observing them. I, a woman, shall stand on the cart’s bench, just slightly above you.” Her grin became a smile. “I shall hold aloft your unit’s standard with my right…”

Now the knife goes in.

“While pointing at the chieftain with my left!”

She watched, in the fifteen seconds it took him to fully digest what she proposed, understanding and mirth seize him.

“Men!” Bakke called before the horsemen were within vocal range, “shall Nichole Clarke bear our standard and spit in the faces of those who would spit in ours?!”

“City! City! City!” was the resounding yell back.

“Nichole…” he whispered, pointing at the cart’s bench. She took the step up.

At a human’s limit, she could clearly see Adam’s face. She shifted the pole and pennant so she held onto it by its last third. Nichole raised her left arm and aimed her index finger at the chieftain’s face and tracked it.

She saw the question in the horseman’s eyes the moment the standard was aloft. In what was only in the next few minutes, as they drew closer, he realized that a woman had a superior height. And was pointing at him. With her left. And laughing.

And that his entire command behind him would see it.

Nichole noted the tiny motions of his hands as he drew back slightly on his reins, unconsciously seeking escape from the PR disaster he was leading himself and his men into.

To your credit, she thought, you are seeing it through.

Nichole calculated when they would make their closest approach: in seconds for those in the lead. Adam was not her main target of this act.

In thirty seconds, before the leading cadre of the horsemen was out of her vocal range, she raised her voice to a level she’d not since her last trip upriver.

“The City of Portland!” she shouted, loud enough that even Bakke flinched. “And its Friend and Ally! The Empire of Japan! Welcome your show of fealty!”

Her left still pointed to the chieftain but her eyes scanned up and down the mass of the horsemen. Her smile grew.

They are disaffected! I will never not be in their minds!

Nichole laughed on and on as she watched dissention spread, seeing at the same time, the cautious fear in Bakke’s eyes.

I hope the both of you learn this lesson!

 

She had her gear stowed bowed to the major’s salute an hour before dawn. She and Errogan were to be the first pair of scouts out for their trip home.

“Sir!” she called clearly but not loudly on the east Oregon steppe. She swung up onto Toast and gave a nod to her second. In UV and IR all about them was clear. She heard nothing. With a tiny change of her thighs her mare trotted northwest. Toward home.

What they’d covered in four and a half days on the way out, they made in three on the way back, and not just because it was downhill: Bakke needed to report what he’d seen. They might have made another hour past Fort Reilly, but he halted them there, aware that while his men were alert, their animals were close to exhaustion.

In the midst of everyone trying to find a corner to sleep inside the fort’s walls, Nichole strode to Bakke and bowed again.

“Permission to spend the night at the monastery!”

“Granted.” Happy to rid of his troublesome civilian. “Rejoin us as we head out in the morning.”

“Sure!” She was already running for her horse, giving waves to those Regulars that she’d served with in their last battle.

In the woods just before the former Goolag Data Center, she brought Toast from a canter to walk to halt.

“Permission to proceed?” she asked into the tiny pile of leaves at her right.

With a rustle, the obviously unhappy Knight Hospitaller, with his camouflage and AK-74, raised himself to a knee.

“You are… anticipated, Miss Clarke,” he said, exasperation in his voice at being seen. “Pass on.”

“Thank you!”

The facility’s main gate was just being opened as she trotted in with her horse, with a smile and wave to everyone. She slid off Toast and tied her to the same rail she did last time. Unlike the Brother under the rule of silence, the Prior himself, Father Tuchman, came out to welcome her.

“Miss Clarke! Thanks be to God for a chance to see you again!” Almost six and a half feet tall, he still wore his work overalls. Nichole had never seen him dressed as a priest. His hand engulfed hers.

“Prior.” She bowed slightly. “I am so happy to be here and see your koinonia once more!”

“We’ve just finished our meal – and I recall you’re a light eater – but there’s much to discuss…” the Prior began, his voice dropping.

“Yes?”

“Brother Adamar…” Tuchman trailed off.

“No!” Nichole quailed. “Is he unwell?!”

“Not at all… in body.” He gave a great sigh. “Here on the grounds, it is no secret, nor will we keep it from you: our brother has seen the end of our world.”

For the merest time-slice, the glimpse of Hell she’d seen after talking with her sister, Hajime, just before the Battle of the Dam, came into her mind.

Fire.

She stumbled and was caught by Tuchman.

“Miss Clarke?!”

“I… am fine.” She wasn’t really. “We must speak of this. Now.”

He nodded.

“Let’s go to my office.”

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