Threshold

Putting aside our visual novel, OTChi Kocchi, it was NaNoWriMo that taught me to be a novelist.  I am utterly wedded to the idea of irrational deadlines; were I not, nothing would ever get finished.  This entry of Nichole5’s second book would put me just over the 50k limit demanded by NNRM, were I playing along.

That’s all well and good, but I need the Nation across the Cascades, beating the cannibals, betrayed by the Special Police, and burning Portland.  In two weeks.  Dang.  The best I can hope for is either a mild heart attack that sidelines me from my DayJob, or a meteor hits the place, with the same affect.

Arriving back too early to go directly to the pub, Nichole instead went to the Student Rec center, first. With a smile, she waved the gold decal on the back of her badge at the man behind the counter and went in and up. In the women’s locker room, in an unused corner locker, Nichole’s slightly-too-small, “borrowed” green one-piece waited for her. She let her eyes flash a little, to think back to the first time she wore it.

Shucking her clothes and squeezing into the suit and the cap she’d never returned to Kathy, she made for the pool. Once in the natatorium, she was very pleased to see her prayer answered again in the affirmative: Gil and Joe at practice.

I shall be with my love later; must be with Joe, now!

After a few careful steps, she leapt high and far, disappearing under the water with nary a splash just behind Joe. Just off the bottom of the pool, she rolled over and smiled up to him, her eyes still bright with mischief.

Noticing her, she watched as bubbles exploded from his mouth as he yelled her name. Just to the wall, they surfaced together.

“N…Nichole!” Being a swimmer, he quickly caught his breath. “What are you doing here?!”

Teresa’s comment about “saying goodbye” ran about her processors.

“I… have to go away for a little bit, again,” she began. Just behind Joe, Gil did a flip turn and kept on. Oblivious. “And – please don’t tell anyone! – Militia A is going to be called up in a few weeks. That will put both of us in harm’s way…”

I badly want to hold him, but am older that such would be a mistake:   misunderstood by all.

Nichole heard a pause from the swimmer in the lane behind her, followed quickly by a return to their routine. An idea!

“May I share your lane for a little bit? You who taught me how to swim?” she said, batting her eyelids.

“’Taught you,’ forsooth!” Joe laughed. “Let’s a one hundred IM… starting off the wall, here!”

“Yes!” she cried.

“Ready…” Joe began holding on with his right and pointing out with his left.

“Steady…” Nichole added, her arms reversed, to watch him.

“Go!” they both called.

Starting in Butterfly, Joe was first doubly-surprised, but then, not at all: Nichole not only chose to match his pace but look over at him with a smile whenever her head broke the surface. A smile he’d once fallen in love with.

She said something about my militia, he thought, turning around off the wall. Our practice call-up for next weekend was cancelled without explanation.

On backstroke he would look over at her now and again, her eyes there for him every time. After his flipturn, he looked the other direction for a moment: nope, Gil had no idea she was here. He looked back to her just before their next turn.

Now on his best, Breast Stroke, he strove mightily to pull ahead of her. That he touched the far wall first was, he hoped, a testament to his skill and not her pity. Back again, he didn’t see her next to him. He switched to freestyle…

Even over all the splashing he heard her cry of laughter and joy. Tilting his head right for a breath, Joe didn’t believe his eyes: she had somehow kicked off and up the wall, into the air! She knifed into the water next to him and once more paced him. Knowing now he couldn’t win, he slowed just slightly. After the last turn, he noted that after his girlfriend’s sea-launched missile imitation, Gil was now aware she was here. He treaded water and watched them pass.

Again, to avoid misunderstanding, after touching the wall, Nichole pulled herself out and stood. For a timeslice she wondered if putting out her hand would be an insult? She bent a little and opened her palm to Joe. He paused to push his goggles onto his head and took it. With a heave, he was out. They both heard Gil swimming up behind him. Joe had only a moment.

“I still love you,” he said.

“I know.” Her smile was sad.

Gil stood next to his friends.

“What’s up?” he asked, maintaining a small distance from his girlfriend out of consideration.

“I’m hosting a party at Zom’s in,” she considered her internal chronometer, “ten minutes! Just enough time to get changed!”

She took Gil’s left and Joe’s right.

“Please join me, friends!”

“Homework?” Joe smiled. “Never heard of it!”

“Yeah!”

The sun was behind the West Hills and clouds building up from east to west, but it was still warm and dry enough that Nike and his men had moved a few of the smaller tables together outside. Erik and Teresa were already seated, arguing heatedly about something. Is there anyone she doesn’t argue with?

Flanked by the men, Nichole stepped up onto the verandah. Teresa looked up with a snarl.

“Nichole! Explain to this ignoramus that in a quantum calculation – ”

“Is a place, where, love, we don’t talk shop!” Nike said, putting a opened bottle of wine and a large glass before the mayor’s daughter. Across from her, from one of Nike’s men, Erik got a normal sized glass of a white wine. The fellow also put down ales for Gil and Joe. Nichole was about to ask, but saw John come around the corner with a wave.

“Sanjay will be here in a bit; those friends of his with the shortwave had some news from home for him,” he said, sitting and reaching for his glass.

“Nothing bad, I hope!” Professor Vincent said, just a moment before Nichole. John shook his head and leaned back as trays of appetizers were set down.

“Don’t think so,” John began. “His sister was expecting twin boys so it’s likely related to that. Their… priest? Holy man? I’ve no idea about India! Anyway, they’ve been told this is a really big deal.”

Erik was reaching for a piece of celery, but paused, thoughtful.

“Given demographics, India passed China as the most populous nation just before the Breakup…” He continued his motion and dipped it into some cream cheese. “Religious significance? Perhaps Mister Shah will enlighten us!”

Nichole watched Teresa watch her as another waiter placed a thin glass before her. She still suspects. She raised it in a toast.

“My friends!” she called.

They took their attention from the food and raised their glasses. At that moment Sanjay came running up. The waiter that had given Nichole her drink had been standing at the top of the three steps, waiting for him.

And how did he know that he was coming now? And from that direction?

Professor Vincent stood, followed by the others.

“Friends.” He echoed. “And, you, Miss Clarke!”

An hour later, the food and drink exhausting what wages she might have had for a month and a half, plates began to be cleared away. Replaced by another round of drinks, even for her.

“Mac’s not here,” Gil noted from directly across Nichole.

“I’m aware. She’s not this social; it would hurt her.”

“Oh.” Gil leaned back into the darkness and rolled his shoulders. Nichole shook a little and wondered, again, where that code came from.

After his chemotherapy, Joe was only one drink ahead of everyone else rather than three or four. Still…

“In all the time you’ve been here, making at least as many changes to our lives as the Breakup did, you’ve not done something like this,” he said, finishing his beer. Another was set before him. So: two ahead.

Nichole considered how to put together the mosaic pieces into an answer for everyone.

“My father, the Mayor,” Teresa said, pouring the last of her second bottle into her glass, “and I, his heir…”

What did she just say? Nichole froze. Other’s at Zom’s had been listening to their little soiree, but the sudden silence was deafening.

“… are going to eliminate the cannibal scourge once and for all!” she said, knowing she was overheard. She’s been told to say this or is letting the dice fly high…

“We, who govern the City in your name, will do whatever it takes to rid us of this menace, forever!”

The silence was broken by a strong hand of applause, which Nichole recognized as belonging to Nike and his men. What part do they play in this? Followed by the other patrons, as well. As the clapping slowed, Nichole amplified.

“Thank you, Teresa, and your father, for your hard service for our safety!” Nichole changed pitch just slightly. “We hope to enjoy your protection into our next generation!”

The applause this time was just from the… humans, she thought.

Teresa took a long pull off her wine glass but kept it before her face, looking at Nichole.

“Montrose,” Nichole said as quietly as she could while still sounding human.

“Montrose.” Teresa set her glass down and took a huge, shuddering breath.

“Dammit!” Erik hissed, looking this way and that. He still had much to learn. “You two were serious! Monarchy?!”

“I’ve been there,” Joe suddenly spoke up, from Gil’s right, looking first at Nichole, then down the table. “And it works.”

Ah! He speaks of his time in Tokyo for treatment! Did someone let the cat out of the bag as to who made the call to let him in?

“As I’m married next month,” John slurred just slightly, “I can understand what you said, Nikky… about looking to the next generation!”

He paused and whapped his forehead with his free hand.

“That’s right! Sanjay!” The Dravidian jumped at his yell. “So what’s up back in your home!”

“Ah, yes! The reason I was delayed! Please forgive me!” He bowed in his chair. “My nephews are born! Fit and healthy!”

“So why the religious involvement?” Nichole asked. Did I transgress some line? The rest of our company looks at me!

“Oh, that.” Sanjay looked uncomfortable and proud at the same time. “It is said by many that they are the reincarnation of the Ashvins, Nasatya and Darsa; the Gods of health and medicine, respectively.”

He took a sip of his ale and smiled at Teresa.

“You might be a princess, but I am related to gods!”

The laughter among them was just a little forced. It was time to –

“So who’s paying for all this?” Nike asked, stepping out of the encircling darkness, his clean white teeth in a smile.

Everyone looked at Nichole.

“Wonderful! The girl who pays in silver!” He pulled her chair out for her to stand. “Come, now, let’s see how high you can count!”

With a threat such as that hanging in the air, Nichole heard a series of quick excuses – except for one voice – as to why they had to be somewhere else right now…

“You wanted me away from them,” she accused Nike.

“Yes,” was his easy reply as he typed at the mid-20th Century cash register.

“What are you willing to pay?” he asked in a measured tone.

She noticed his right index finger hanging over the “No Sale” key.

“For them?” she asked, of her friends present and not, “anything at all.”

“I see.” Up and left he pressed the “Sale” key. With the ring of a bell, the register popped open. “Dinner is four silvers.”

She passed them over.

“And for them?”

Nike didn’t move.

“Even if silently, will you bear Him?” Nike asked in a whisper.

“Yes,” Nichole replied clearly.

“Four.” He said with a shudder. “Perhaps five, but do not count on five. That is how many I can see outside the City.”

Angry again she could not cry, she ground her teeth, silicon carbide, able to bite through steel, instead.

“There is no hope?” she asked in her inhuman whisper.

Nike did not move at all.

She turned and left.

Wondering what was taking his girlfriend so long, Gil was about to step inside – he saw her and froze.

She’s furious.

Nichole walked right to him. Paused. Stepped around him and jumped the little distance to the ground. He turned.

She’s not even pretending to breathe, he noticed.

He noticed the little movement of her right hand next to her hip. He also leapt down. But he put his left arm about her shoulder.

“I – ” she began in tone of failure.

“We,” he countered, just into her right ear, “are nothing seen on Earth before!”

She shook. He decided to push.

“A bag of blood and bones loves a bag of lightning and steel?” Gil gave a hollow laugh. “Who would believe this story?”

“No one,” she said clearly for once. “Do I?”

“I do.” He used his strong left hand to move her face about and kissed her cool lips. “I do, Nichole.”

What do you see? She wondered? It is not what I see!

Nichole allowed herself to relent and put her arms about him, her putative love.

“Let us to your flat… Mackenzie has had too many shocks.” She muttered into his chest.

She felt his nod above her head.

They walked slowly to the northwest, each aware of a different loss. Dave, having borrowed Gil’s first paperback of Del Arroz’s steampunk series, waved as they came close, and was about to say something ribald – why would he not, given Nichole’s very loud sexual response – but shut his mouth at seeing them walking as if they were mourners.

“Hey.” His voice failed. “Nice night, what?”

Gil was almost carrying her and she gave only a tiny wave with her left hand.

Geez! If they’re still together, why all the drama?!

Gil led them up to the second floor and unlocked his door. Just before swimming he had finally finished his biomechanics homework. It was only two exercises, but the professor, Reedy, demanded all or nothing: ‘Tell an injured vet his new arm ‘mostly works!’ Yeah, he and the rest got the point.

He led Nichole into the middle of his flat, about the same size as hers. She didn’t move.

He sighed and waited.

And waited.

After another few moments, her arm went from about him as she turned to hold him. She couldn’t seem to bring herself upright.

“You are the only one… the only one who I love four-times over,” she muttered somewhere into his chest.

Those Greek words she was always on about, he thought.

“Yeah.” He tightened his arms about his love.

“I cannot be alone! But…”

“Sheesh!”

He picked her up and kicked the door shut. Gil eased her into his twin bed and pulled her top and camisole off. He doffed his shirt and shorts and got into bed next to her.

“I…! I’ve…!”

He understood something was very unusual was making his girlfriend crazy; since she had come out of Zom’s.

“Shhh!” He commanded. His index finger first to his lips then hers. He put his arms over her. “Tomorrow!”

“Yes.” She began to calm, moved just a little closer. “Tomorrow.”

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