An explanation of the surprise Nichole walked into in the last post.  I’d tried to fit Joe into this as well, getting everyone together before things go to hell, but it didn’t work:  I had to keep the 3.5-way conversation as tight as possible, so his part came right back out.

We’re north of 43k words!  I knew Nichole would have a meeting with Mayor Johnson before she was seconded to the Nation.  Seeing here that his daughter – and possible successor, Teresa is present, I think the Army general, Tessmer, will be there, as well.  Four-way dynamics are easiest to write, and in my advanced years, I am all about easy!

“And so,” Gil continued after a drink of his ale, “it did not help when Mac, here, suddenly mangled the phrase ‘you came home early’ and instead burbled, ‘you came early!’”

Mackenzie stared straight down at the table on Zom’s outside deck. Her hand-made apple cooler ignored. After her first spectacular spit-take to their story, which two of Nike’s men were still cleaning up, Teresa had kept her wine glass away from her face as they talked.

“Oh, my God!” the mayor’s daughter crowed. “That’s hilarious!”

“Teresa, please!” Nichole tried, worried about her dorm friend.

“I… didn’t mean… he was just modeling… I’ve not done much sculpting…” came a tiny whisper.

“Of course we all understand!” Nichole exclaimed, turning left and putting out her hand to raise Mackenzie’s chin. “I even understand why you changed your hair.”

She watched Mac’s eyes become hunted.

“My boyfriend, Gil, is very handsome!” She reached her right across the table to his hand. “I do not know jealousy and am so happy to love you both!”

Able to take a deep quaff of her wine in this short interlude, Teresa spoke from next to Gil.

“Lucky for them! If it’d been me I have shot you both on the spot!”

“You are your father’s daughter,” Gil said with a snark before taking a drink.

“Big talk,” she snarked right back, “after what you and I were doing in the pool when we found out Joe was sick!”

“Oh. Well.” Nichole felt the sudden tension in his hand. “That.”

Teresa set her glass down.

“What happened next?” she asked with a grin.

“Because of the heat, Gil was a little sweaty,” Nichole said, “and I was covered in dust and horsehair. We went back to my flat and took a long shower together. The sex was awesome!”

“I heard…” she just barely perceived Mackenzie’s murmur.

“It was while we were getting clean rather than being dirty that I sent the message to you,” Nichole looked at Teresa, “to meet us here.”

“To talk about your mission?” Teresa’s eyes flicked about. “Out here?”

“Zom’s,” Nichole said, letting go of Gil’s hand and picking up her thin, fluted glass, just there for the one who did not know her nature, “is more secure than I originally anticipated.”

“Oh. Didn’t know.” Teresa drained the last six ounces at once. When she’d arrived she had been a little surprised that the mousy girl had taken to copying Miss Perfect’s twin-tails. “And?”

“As I told your dad’s right hand, Brown, the horsemen – the Nation, as they call themselves – are convinced they are getting the better of the deal.” She swirled her glass just slightly. “They are probably correct.”

“But,” Teresa objected with her brows knitted, “from what I’ve heard, there’s a firm consensus that while there may be more warriors in the horsemen’s group than the cannibals’, the Army is strong enough to keep them in check!”

“Barring any political disaster, in the first few years, I agree,” Nichole replied. “But in one generation the population pressure will be such that the Willamette Valley farmers may prefer to make a deal with the Nation at the expense of the City.”

“They’d be crazy to do that!” Gil said. “While we learned first-hand at Fort Reilly that they’re not the barbarians they seem, there’s no way they could maintain the dams. That’s what keeps the farmers on our side!”

“You are aware they’ve held a kind of election and put someone they call their Governor in office in the old capitol city of Salem?” Nichole asked.

“Yeah, but…” he trailed off, looking across at her, over to Teresa, and back to Nichole. “I’m gonna put it out there that you two are a little better informed that I am?”

Still holding her hand, Nichole gave an invisible squeeze to Mackenzie’s hand.

“You would be surprised of my sources, my love!” she replied to Gil.

“We,” it was not lost on the other three that Teresa did not say ‘my dad’ or ‘the City,’ “are taking active steps to remind the farmers who’s on their side.”

She poured another ten ounces of wine into her glass.

“And who’s side they’d best stay on! Hey, you!” She shook the empty bottle at one of Nike’s men who had just stood from cleaning up her earlier spit-take.

“Of course, miss.” He nodded once and moved away.

“What else happened on your trip?” Teresa asked, returning to the matter at hand.

Nichole skipped quickly over the uneventful trip out, dwelling more on the meeting and later confrontation with Chieftain Adam and her stop at the Data Center.

“Adamar said what?” Gil asked in surprise as a waiter set down a bottle of wine for Teresa and another unbidden pint for him.

“From my recent research,” Nichole said with a tiny sip of her drink. Teresa’s been watching me too closely! “a prophecy is more a statement that God is angry and the people must change their ways. Not at all a prediction of the future as most people assume.”

“Hanging around Mrs. Brunelli is, ah,” Gil smiled, “making you older!”

“Isn’t it, my love?” she smiled. “It was confirmation of my suspicion that the Nation will turn on the City the moment the cannibal threat is removed.”

“Do… do you think Bakke made you courier to get rid of you?” a small voice asked.

Three pair of eyes settled on Mackenzie who retreated into herself in embarrassment.

“I had not considered that!” Nichole observed softly, letting her eyes fall to the table. He made light of my talks with his men; does he really think I was suborning them?

“Perhaps we are not as secure here as you think, Nichole,” Teresa said drolly, but still pouring more wine into her glass and raising it to her mouth. “Maybe we should change the subject?”

“Christ!” Teresa muttered after two gulps, aware she had killed the conversation. “So, Gil!”


“Is Miss Perfect as good in bed as she is at everything else?”

His desire to defend my honor is so nice! Nichole leaned across the table to touch his forearm.

“I love you all so much! Please speak freely, my love!”

“It…” he began. Stopped. Tried again. “Yes, she is!”

“Color me effing surprised,” Teresa muttered into her glass.

“Not at all!” Nichole added. “I was passive and boring my first time! We have much fun, now!”

Why did Gil just hang his head like that?

To hold another spit-take back, Teresa swallowed but began choking. Gil whapped her back a few times until she could breath.

“Typical virgin! You can be normal, can’t you?! Hah!” She went to take another drink, but paused. “You two… are you using something or…”

Nichole watched in surprise as Gil physically leaned back to try to remove himself from the conversation.

“No, we’re not.” Nichole continued before the other could speak. “Teresa? My dear friend? I cannot have children.”

The mayor’s daughter looked horrified. She half stood.

“Did… did that company do something to you – !” her voice was rising dangerously.

Nichole also stood and had her left hand to caress her friend’s cheek in a moment.

“No!” She lowered her voice. “No. It’s how I am.”

“Oh.” Teresa said. She sat. “Oh.”

They all saw her eyes fill with tears. After the Breakup, all survivors realized how stupid, sick, and lied to their society had been about children. Teresa punched Gil’s shoulder. There was a clattering of hooves from the opposite side of Zom’s. Undoubtedly one of Nike’s special deliveries.

“Dammit!” She laughed and cried, reaching for her wine. “You really are in love with her!”

Gil ignored the hit and looked across the table. Nichole’s eyes held his.

He does love me, but now there is regret. He will have no progeny without a human wife. She found she could no longer look at him.

“I am sorry, my love!” she said as softly as she could.

He made a small beckoning motion as he stood. She did and their lips met. He leaned back.

“I don’t recall getting guarantees about anything in this life,” he said, sitting back with a smile and raising his pint. “I love you. Here, now. It is enough!”

“And I, you!” she raised her glass to him.

“Sappy!” Teresa called, her wine glass up and sloshing about.

“My friends!” came a tiny grey voice behind her cooler.

They smiled.

With the mood recovered, Nichole tried something else.

“Is your secret painting complete,” she asked, turning toward Mackenzie, “and may I see it now?”

“Gaah!” Not a spit-take, but panic nonetheless. Nichole watched her raise a napkin to her mouth.

“It… it’s finished!” she replied in some agitation. “And I did promise…”

About to tell her she could wait, Nichole looked up as Nike led a courier – a Pin – around the corner of the verandah. Toward their table.

What now?

Nike paused as the other took one more step, holding out a flimsy.

“Nichole Clarke? You are summoned to the Mayor’s Office.” He said.

She smiled.

“Which one? He has so many.”

Teresa’s wine let her snort out. In her field of view she saw Nike smile.

Obviously just a low-level messenger, he’d no idea what was happening about him.

“Please read this,” he tried again, waving the thin piece of paper.

Nichole took it, telling the man to wait, as she did. She scanned it and held it aloft while looking to Nike. He stepped around the courier and Gil and produced a lighter. The tiny flame touched the top of the flimsy.

“Thank you for delivering this message.” The flame was just to her fingertips when she dropped it. She stomped on the ashes once. “You may go.”

He seemed to twist his lips before turning about. It is this kind of arrogance that will turn the Nation against the City! Once he was out of earshot Nichole spoke.

“Your father’s CP up in the West Hills,” she said to Teresa. “There will be a car at the Stratford in thirty minutes for me.”

She stood, waving at Gil to stand as well while she rested her left hand onto Mackenzie’s right shoulder.

“I’ll have to see your beautiful work later, my best dorm-friend! Right now, I want my boyfriend one more time!”

“I’m coming along,” Teresa said, standing.

Nichole and Gil and Mackenzie stared at her.

“To Dad’s.” She started laughing. “Unless… a three-way…!”

She was almost falling over; Gil swiped the nearly empty wine glass out of her hand and set it onto the table.

“Or…! Or… we can get Mousy here and make it a four – !” Teresa was almost in tears from her dirty thoughts.

“You can wait in the lobby! Friend!” Nichole brought her amplification up as she came around the table and slid her arm tightly around Gil’s wait. “We go!”

Watching Nichole frog-march her boyfriend away, Teresa looked at her empty glass and sighed.

“Hey, Mac?”

“Yes?!” she jumped.

“What’s this picture Miss Perfect was talking about?”

“Oh.” On artistic, familiar ground, Mackenzie regained her composure. “Would you care to see, Miss Johnson?”

They’d only taken a few steps before they heard Nike clear his throat somewhere behind them.

“Put it on Nichole’s tab!” Teresa yelled without turning, waving her right hand in the air. Many others at Zom’s laughed at that.

Fifteen minutes later Teresa didn’t know whether to laugh or cry again: the painting was one of the saddest things she’d seen in her young life, but to hear Nichole carrying on in heat from across the hall was quite another.

“How do you put up with their shit?” she asked Mackenzie, having a new respect for the grey ghost.

“Not well,” she admitted.

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