“Lights go down; stage is set”

A good time write; move things outside.  Weather clear.  Forecast:  genocide.

He nodded while furtively looking around.

“Their colonel, Bakke,” he’s a colonel now? “has been invaluable since the General’s second disappeared in the fighting in Kelso. But…”

“He’s not a Regular and you cannot know where his loyalty lies,” she finished for him.

“Miss,” he tried with a sigh, “I’d hoped we were all on the same side.”

The doctor allowed his head to fall forward. Sleep, rest, or prayer, she didn’t know. She stood and left.

I do know I have to see Bakke, now. Nichole looked about and gauged where the center of their bivouac would be – and where the command tent would be – and made in that direction. Closer, she saw the tent was still being erected and that Bakke was already on the precious satellite comm gear, talking animatedly.

Her path was suddenly blocked by one of the combat Special Police she didn’t recognize.

“We’re handling this; you Reg’s can just back off.” His tone was curt.

Given that most of Nichole’s kit was borrowed from the Army, and that she bore no badge of rank, she could understand his initial reaction. But after this last year, who didn’t know something about me? She started with a winning smile.

“Hi! I’m Nichole! You’re cute!” She carefully observed his physical reactions before bringing the hammer down.

“I am an acting leftenant,” her change in tone was complete. The man reeled as if from a physical blow. “I have come over the mountains with the host of the Nation and have vital intel for your Colonel! You will present me to him!”

“Now!”

His reason knocked out of him, he spun about and walked away, expecting her to follow. She did. Closer, she could tell that Bakke was talking to the Mayor himself.

“…ank you, sir. If you’d repeat that so I can record it can present it to the troops? Very good. Yes. Yes. Of course, sir!”

He handed the radio-phone back to [name] and turned about with a wry smile on his face. It fell when he saw Nichole and so close.

“I said,” he turned on his man, “to keep everyone clear! What about that didn’t you understand?!”

“Uh…” he was just coming back to himself.

“One reduction in rank! Get out of my sight!”

With a gulp, the man retreated quickly. A very fake smile came to Bakke’s face.

“Miss Clarke.”

“Colonel Bakke.”

“You’re always getting my rank wrong,” he turned a little to make for the tent, but stopped. “It’s ‘Acting Commander’ Bakke.”

She followed, frantically rethinking the implications. He didn’t stop at after the first flap and continued in to the inner sanctum. Nothing had yet been set up. He turned and allowed the fake smile to stay.

“Nice to see you again, Nichole,” he lied. “How was your mission amongst the barbarians?”

His tone is true: he holds them in contempt. I must disabuse him of that immediately!

“There are nearly twenty thousand dragoons of the Nation already in the Centralia Valley,” she began, her tone neutral, “with their own artillery and mortars gifted to them by your master!”

Thankfully, Nichole noted the tiniest doubt creep into his eyes.

“While I’ve not seen any radios, their mounted comm is much better than ours. I suspect Rhun will know of this linkup within the hour, in fact.”

“Rhun?” He cut in. “On a first-name basis already?”

“Only in private. Something you can understand. Right, Armando?”

He made a motion for her to continue.

“While their main force presses north, to draw the cannibals out for a set-piece battle before Olympia, their second force will be coming down old highway twelve sometime tomorrow.”

“What’s in this ‘second force’?”

I must exaggerate.

“Five to eight thousand more armed men, along with many of their women and children.”

Nichole watched him lift his head to consider that.

“… their women and children. Closer to our force than theirs…”

What in the world is he thinking?

“They outnumber you ten to one.” She tried to introduce concern, not fear. “Acting Commander.”

“A modern, mobile force? Against horses – ”

“That need grass, not gas! Why do you think I call them dragoons? They carry rifles, Armando, not spears!” She allowed her hands to her hips. “Your Mayor negotiated this alliance! This fragile alliance!”

His sneer returned.

“What you think you know of politics in the City will be your undoing, Miss Clarke.” He waved at the inner tent flap. “You may go.”

As she walked out of the tent and past the lines of the Special Police, all of her mental mosaic pieces turned blood-red.

With Brunelli, Reilly, and Jenkins having gone north with the main body of the Nation, Nichole did not, technically, have a commander. Her ‘acting leftenant’ was that: an act; no one had conferred any upon her. That also meant that no one had any authority over her; a foreign national, she could do as she pleased, and she longed to ride north and find out what was going on.

And to tell Rhun about Tessmer…

Toast tossed her head. Nichole realized she’d been brushing the same part of her neck for three minutes.

“Sorry, faithful friend,” she apologized quietly, “I’ll do better!”

The sun was low in the west. Any attempt to move about in the dark would get her shot by one of the three forces in the valley. She pulled her tent gear and the last city-made battery pack and cast about for a place to make her tiny camp, only to interrupted by a corporal making the rounds. He had been one of her sharpshooters at the Lewis and Clark Bridge. They smiled at one another before his face fell.

“Meeting at the command tent for all officers and sergeants in about fifteen, leftenant Clarke,” he leaned close to say. “Seems the Mayor’s cop has something to tell us.”

She leaned closer and nodded her cheek against his. Never know when you might need allies…

“Thank you, Bill!”

She quickly pegged out her tent. Stuffing the battery into her jacket pocket, she ambled to the center of their camp where artificial lamps were shining. The commissioned and non-commissioned officers were milling about, not happy to see the cordon of Political Police about the Command Tent. The front flap was flung aside and Bakke strode forth.

With a single gold star pinned to each of this collar flaps.

“By Order of the Mayor of the City of Portland,” he called out, pointing to [name] at the communications set. He pressed a button and they heard the voice of Lee Sanchez Johnson:

“Given the unfortunate incapacitation of General Tessmer, whom we all pray will be back on his feet soon, I hereby appoint Armando Bakke as acting commander of all City forces in former Washington State, with the brevet rank of brigadier general.”

They are professionals and say nothing, Nichole thought. But all my senses tell me that they are very, very unhappy with this development!

“Any questions?” Bakke called, obviously not expecting any.

“Yes!” A Major of infantry she did not know stepped forward into the light. “We’ve met our objectives: take Longview and link up with the horsemen. Will there be changes to our original orders of holding and expanding our lines of supply?”

“Our situation here, far from our homes, is perilous!” He’s rehearsed this. Was that Major a plant? “If the horsemen of the Nation are successful in defeating the cannibals, it will fall to us to ensure that they do not then turn their attention to the south: to our friends and families! I assure you that I will take any steps necessary to ensure the supremacy of the City, and its dams and its breadbasket!”

Blood-red mosaic. I must stop this!

“Anyone else? Good! More horsemen and their families are pouring like a flood over the mountains tomorrow into these green fields! Let’s all get a sound sleep so as to welcome this properly!”

He paused for a moment, perhaps expecting more than the applause that came from his own men. The Regulars were silent. Even from the edge of the light, Nichole saw his eyes before he turned and went into the command tent.

She returned to hers, jacked her battery in and sat perfectly still, plotting her actions at the dawn.

72%. Nichole tightened the saddle’s girth about Toast as the red clouds over the Cascade Range poisoned the dawn. She had isolated, rather than deleted, the subroutine in her quantum mind that could do little more than wail and cry for her home and family. I must act; and, act now!

About to swing up onto her mount, she perceived the three sets of boots making their way toward her. Creating a negative pressure in her head she recognized one: Bakke. She made fake-work as if not ready for travel. Two sets paused, one continued.

“Miss Clarke, morning.” Bakke said softly. The low-lying fog swirled about his knees.

“General,” she replied, turning and giving a short bow.

“No salute?”

“I’ve no rank.”

“As acting commander I return to you your acting lieutenant-ship,” he tried on a smile. It almost fit. “Let us act together!”

“Thank you, sir.” Now she saluted.

“Leaving us?” he asked.

“I have been too long away from my designated superior, sergeant Brunelli, and his second, corporal Reilly” she turned away and made a few last dithers at Toast’s kit, “and, I can supplement any intel that your couriers are bringing from the Nation’s activities in the north!”

His blank look was her triumph: he’d sent no couriers north at all. He was blind.

“And excellent idea, eltee Clarke!” he raised his voice so the men behind him could hear. “For an officer to use such initiative, I shall commend you for a promotion!”

“I thank you, sir,” she said, mounting Toast. “I shall return as soon as I can.”

She looked down at his bent smile. He is glad to be rid of me!

“For the City’s sake, I hope to return to the peace I leave.”

Without another word, she trotted to the perimeter. A word with the machine gunner there and she was through and onto the old Interstate: walk, trot, canter. And gallop. She was pushing her poor horse, but… I am pushing back against the end of this world!

In less than an hour she was on the outskirts of Chehalis. Squads of the Nation roamed here and there, some noting her with a wave, few challenging her and her identity. Coming up to the downtown of that little city she had seen stacks of bodies: the fanatics in their grey shifts along with otherwise normally dressed civilians: their subjugated population.

North to Centralia, for whom the valley was named, the piles were more frequent. A health hazard. Perhaps they were waiting for after their decisive battle to properly dispose of…

A messenger rider came from the north, jubilation all over his face. Nichole gambled at the fame from her storytelling just outside Yakima and placed herself along his vector and waved him to a halt.

He slowed but did not stop. She fell in at a trot next to him.

“The Great Lord did it!” the messenger crowed. “We suffered but they died! I tell all the Nation!”

With a barely perceptible motion he was back to canter, followed by gallop.

‘We suffered,’ Nichole thought, turning Toast back to the north and into speed.

Ironically, the piles of bodies peaked in Grand Mound and dropped of sharply thereafter. Off a nameless crossroad sign proclaiming ‘Maytown’ she picked out the yurts of Rhun and his staff. They would not have bothered setting them up if they’d not thought it safe…

There was rifle-fire ahead. At the limit of her vision she saw horsemen with field glasses looking back at her. Several fired their weapons up and to the west; their yurts were on the east of the interchange. Closer now, in a brief parting of their ranks, Rhun was laughing; laughing, even though his right leg below the knee had been cut off; the tourniquet there was very bloody. Nichole made calculations and one last time brought Toast to a gallop. She would welcome the Great Lord to his abode.

And try to save the world!

One of the Nation took Toast’s reins as she moved directly to just before Rhun’s yurt. His party was clattering their way down the broken exit ramp. She heard their half-halt at seeing her kneeling figure, but they came on. At fifty yards she put her forehead onto her hands on the ground.

Togame-chan! I’m trying so hard!

With their typical discipline, there were no mutters for her to analyze. She heard their dismount and wondered…

“Nichole!” Rhun cried.

She raised her head.

“Great Lord!”

Off his horse, Rhun leaned right into the shoulder of Chieftain Adam, whom she had done so well to humiliate. Dang.

“I…,” never not make them fear me, “I have heard rumor, Great Lord, of a victory in the north?”

He bayed his laughter.

“See! See! Even you, Adam!” He used his left to cuff the other’s chin. “She’s a wonder!”

“She’s a witch.” Nichole barely caught his reply. Rhun did not.

Not bidden to rise, she did raise her right arm.

“Great Lord! You are injured…!”

“’Tis but a scratch!” he laughed at something she did not understand. “A round from the flesh-eaters shattered the bone; your corpsman personally sawed it off!”

He was entirely too happy about things, even if they had won. But she could tell nothing from his appearance or smell. There was a horseman, two back, older, that had kept his gaze fixed on Rhun the entire time…

“Then please, Great Lord, let us celebrate with food and drink! I shall be your doctor’s aide while you talk me into being your third wife!”

He was almost holding onto Adam, who was scowling at this point.

“Perfect! How you anticipate my needs, you’ll be my best wife!” He waved with his left to the rest of his company. “Come! Come! We must make a small celebration for our victory before we can bring the all of the Nation together under the Sky!”

Four places back, Nichole saw the shaman nod and raise his finger to the sky.

While everyone dismounted and sorted themselves into Rhun’s yurt, Nichole deftly put herself next to horseman, in his late forties, she guessed, who’d kept his eyes on Rhun through their exchange.

“You are his doctor?” she asked, eyes hooded.

“One of them.” It was obvious he wanted to follow the rest.

“Background? Training?” she shot in tone.

“I was a GP in Twin Falls,” he sputtered. “I joined up after the Nation’s retreat from Salt Lake.”

An opportunist. His will is weak.

“There is no clear heir to the Great Lord.” Her statement, not question. In tone.

“No.”

“If he dies, your Nation will fall to pieces.”

They paused at the leather flap into the yurt.

“Don’t you want that?” the doctor asked, aware of his weakness.

“Valley. City. Valley.” Nichole tried on this, she realized, lesser man. “I seek only balance.”

“Oh.”

They entered. The doctor went to Rhun’s side and spoke out of everyone’s range but hers, on medical affairs. Nichole took note of the messengers that came and went in a steady stream for close to twenty minutes. In that time, she noted Rhun had been drinking some kind of tea with a splash of wine, to sterilize it. Adam’s eyes spent two thirds of their time on his lord, awaiting orders, and the last third on her, obviously wishing she was dead.

There was a clearing of the throat of the shaman to Nichole’s left at the entrance. After he finished talking, Rhun dismissed his last messenger.

“It is evening! Our brothers remain in the field, so we will only eat sparingly!” he called. Nichole saw that only vegetables, cheese, and yogurts were brought in. No meat. A very stark contrast to the meals she had shared before. “Nichole of the City! Come sit with me!”

If others’ eyes were daggers, she’d be dead. If his were fecund, she’d have a miracle pregnancy.

“My Lord,” she again knelt before him, forehead to hands.

“Stop that!” he hissed so only she could hear. Does he really want me so much? Perhaps I could… She sat up and looked into his eyes.

“Tell me of the meeting with the City forces, please!” he said, suddenly all business.

“Completed successfully, Great Lord! However, General Tessmer has been sorely injured, while taking Longview. Command has passed to brevet General Bakke, of the Special Police.”

It was best to get the bad news out, first.

“War, then,” Adam said from over her shoulder. She watched Rhun suppress his fury.

“Leave me!”

Chieftain Adam stood and walked out without motion nor word. What was going on…

She saw Rhun look at the others still with them.

“Great Lord,” she tried to buy both of them time, “I know our corpsman will be into the valley tomorrow with the second group, but can you speak to me of my sergeant, Brunelli? I am older that the lives of our families are tied together.”

Rhun managed to look surprised over his cup of watered wine.

“My intelligence was that you were taken by a lad at your university. Are you with the cavalryman, too?”

“What sources you have!” Nichole said, looking straight into his eyes. “But, they are correct! The engineer of the university is my love, and, Great Lord, there is no room in my virtual heart for another!”

She did not expect him to catch that.

“But there was a time, when Ruin was brought down upon me…”

She paused to make her point about his predecessor.

“…that I died.”

At that she did something she knew she should not. With her right hand, she reached across the table and touched his right hand, still about his ceramic cup with wine.

“I died, Rhun.” she whispered.

She leaned back as if nothing had happened.

“It was John Brunelli who found my body. Through some miracle, I came back to life.”

She rolled the watered wine in her own cup about and looked up to him.

“Do you understand my concern for him?” A blink. “Great Lord.”

He looked at one of the men writing at a desk. No one looked up, so busy were they in their reports.

“OI!” Rhun shouted. Nichole couldn’t not smell their fear. “I want the whereabouts of City Brunelli and Reilly in an hour!”

The one closest to them ran out of the yurt.

Nichole dropped her head.

“Thank you, Rhun,” she said at her lowest setting above an inhuman whisper.

Nichole faked a huge breath and asked the question.

“So! You won?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s