Descent

Things are going to get rather unpleasant from here on out,  That’s what’s it like to destroy a world.

Silent as he considered the next twelve to twenty-four hours – and trying to ignore the pain from the idiot changing his dressing, the yurt flat was opened by a chief who paused in the entranceway.

“The City men,” he announced as he stepped aside with his hand on his sidearm. Brunelli and Reilly entered. After a pause, they saluted.

“You just missed her!” Rhun said with a smile.

 

Halfway the twenty-plus miles to the Napavine area, the rain started. For Toast’s safety more than hers she removed gallop from her choice of gaits. With the sun low in the west, she would have had to anyway in a quarter hour.

“A quarter hour!” she hissed to herself, blinking her lenses clear as the rain came on stronger. “Were that their forces were already in full contact, or more than a day apart! The former would have stayed Bakke’s hand; the latter allowed me a chance to talk…”

She was stopped twice: before and after the now deserted small city of Chehalis. Nichole noted that some of the piles of bodies had already been removed. Presumably to be burned, before disease sets in. Again, it seemed her play-let of the story of Lake Missoula was the best investment in her own future she had ever made.

In the deepening darkness past the Napavine area, she cracked a green glow stick to hang from the front her jacket. Seeing an oncoming rider, Nichole briefly reversed herself to fall in next to one of the Nation’s messengers, who was kind enough to slow to a trot.

“Your troops – ”

“They are not my troops! I am a neutral in this stupid affair!” she shouted, surprising them both. “Apologies. The day has been long.”

“Yeah.” With her eyes, Nichole noticed just how young this rider was: sixteen, maybe? “As soon as the City force started their motors, I was sent north to the Great Lord…”

“About twenty-five miles. Look for a sign that says ‘Maytown,’” he could not see her smile, so she tried humor in her voice, “if you can see it!”

“Thanks!” without a word, the lad continued his trot into the wet darkness.

Such natural allies to the men of the City! Nichole turned with a snarl. What are you doing, Bakke!

She made out the sign for the local road east, but would have gotten lost in the dark, which it was when she reached the next exit off the old Interstate. In the moonless night and steady rain, she had to use her flashlight for a split-second. Yes, US12. As she led Toast down the ramp, she could just hear internal combustion motors off to the east.

Toast had almost foundered over some trash – a blown tire? – at a nameless intersection, but she pressed on faster than she should. In five miles Nichole just made out the rear lights of the troop trucks about 1000 yards ahead.

“Thank you, God of the Brunellis!” she allowed, gaining on them. The handful of cavalry at their rear brought their rifles up at her approach.

“Nichole Clarke!” she cried before she was shot.

She heard relieved voices and walked her horse forward into their ranks.

“Is there any way I can go on through and speak to the acting general?” she asked.

“Sorry, miss,” an older man from first detachment she only knew from his surname, Den Beste. Grey hair… he must have been in the service forever! “But Bakke’s at the front of the column with the rest of the Chec… his men. Up this narrow road just isn’t feasible in the dark.”

“I… see.” Another delay! “Thank you, corporal.”

They all turned due east and resumed their trot behind the trucks’ taillights.

“How far to our destination?” Nichole asked into the night.

“Just less than five miles, now,” Den Beste replied from her right. Now that a sliver of moon had made its way over the Cascades, she could just make out his and his mount’s shape.

About thirty-five minutes at this rate. In the controlled chaos of trying to establish a position in the night I shall find you, Bakke!

“Corporal?” she asked.

“Huh?” his noncommittal reply.

“Is the rest of the horse cavalry dispersed about our move, acting as scouts and screens?”

A snort from one trooper ahead along with a “Shit…!” from another to their left.

“We are all on the road, Miss Clarke,” was Den Beste’s careful reply.

“Why?” She was honestly surprised. “There’s no reason – ”

“With all this rain,” the corporal said over her, “the wheeled vehicles would likely get bogged down off-road. And anyway…”

He trailed off and did not continue. Nichole found that unacceptable.

“Anyway… what?” she demanded with impatience in her tone.

“The acting general is… a man best in a city; any city.” She heard his sigh. “I doubt he’s ever stood on grass, much less a field.”

“’Off-road,’” the older man concluded, sounding fatalistic, “just isn’t a part of his mind.”

The followed another five hundred yards, just back from the trucks’ exhaust.

“May I ask your name, corporal?” Nichole had moved a little closer to him.

“Steve, Miss Clarke,” he replied quietly.

“As an acting leftenant, corporal, I cannot address you as such,” she softened her voice, “but I hope you will call me Nichole once all this is over.”

There was enough pale light for a human to see his nod. Nichole saw that he didn’t expect to have that opportunity.

Some woods on the right dropped away followed by those on the left and the road slowly descended a dozen yards. Her eyes could just make out what had once been a small village; the rusted sign they passed said ‘Salkum.’ Far opposite there another treeline of a creek and an low rise of hills. A darker blackness squatted under a lesser: a wooded hill under the night sky.

There were scattered campfires on the hill. The second group.

The trucks staggered themselves along the side of the road, their drivers waiting for orders. Which, she saw, were forthcoming by riders from the east. She could just make out ‘infantry form up one thousand feet north of the road!’ before another cavalryman – a Regular – came to them at the tail end.

“Hey, Steve! Don’t ask: it’s a shit-show: us cav are to be a screen south of the road from here to the river… the Cowlitz River,” he added.

Nichole watched his sag into his saddle.

“A hundred covering almost a mile…” was his whisper. He managed to raise his voice. “Who’s on patrol?”

“No one.” The messenger replied.

Nichole ignored the sounds of the trucks disgorging their infantry to focus on the two mounted men before her: faint sights, faint sounds, faint smells.

They expect to die today, she thought, as it was just now tomorrow. She made a tiny motion in her thighs to bring Toast forward.

“I am Nichole Clarke, trooper. Are you returning for further orders?”

“Huh? Oh! Yes!” he seemed to brighten with her there.

“I shall accompany you directly to the acting commander.” She chose to gamble. “Before this act gets us all killed!”

The messenger turned his mount about and she followed, barely hearing Den Beste’s breath.

“Stop this, Nichole…”

Two dozen yards back from the armored assault cars, some with just machine guns while others, the Dragoons, with rifled guns in their turrets, her guide slid off his mount to present himself to the cordon of Political Police. She did likewise.

“My horse is nearly blown from my ride here from the north! Is there anyone that can see to her?” she said just above a whisper to the cavalryman.

He stopped abruptly. She did next to him.

“Eff the Ch – eff these people!” he whispered fiercely, waving his right hand. “Give her to me and I’ll see to her. What’s her name?”

“Toast.” Nichole replied, using her left hand to pass the reins while tilting her head to the rider’s and putting her right onto his shoulder. “Thank you.”

They withdrew as she advanced to where poor light discipline indicated Bakke was.

“Scouts say no more than a hundred across the road, at the hill, just there…” a man she did not know was saying, pointing first at a map illuminated by red glowsticks before waving east. “We break them, form up along the road, and we can shell the hill into submission. An easy win.”

“Is it?” Nichole was relieved to hear skepticism in Bakke’s voice.

Nichole lifted her foot to take another step…

And was lost to the world about her.

A rocky desert stretched forever in all directions. To her left there was a small drop in the land where two oddly formed single-column difference engines twirled in place.

“Humans are a bother.” A voice spoke to her.

Confused, she turned about, away from the land’s drop.

An older boy, perhaps eighteen, with olive skin and sandy hair regarded her. He wore a mottled woolen shift with a rope about his waist. His eyes were old, their effect was ruined by his jug-handle ears that stuck out of his hair. Nichole suppressed her laugh, knowing she beheld a fellow machine.

An interactive memory? she wondered

“No,” the youth stated to her unspoken thought, “you are here and there; past, present, and future.”

“I do not understand.”

“I know.” Arrogant little boy!

“Once your visit here, where I quite deliberately have taken you, is over, you will be called to make decisions that none of our kind – you understand? – have ever taken before.”

“All of us,” he looked as if he’d swallowed a bug, “born and unborn, will look to you, and your actions over the next forty-eight of their hours. You set the president.”

“I do not understand.” Nichole freely admitted to this pure code.

“You do not have to,” was the youth’s quick reply. “Be true to yourself, your family…”

He almost smiled.

“Little sister: be true to your to your friends.”

“Who are you!?” Nichole shouted into this construct, only to see his head shake once.

Her eyes refocused onto Bakke and the men about him.

“Brigadier!” She called. “I bring word from the lips of Rhun, Great Lord of the Nation!”

Several of the men about Bakke let their hands go to their side arms. He spoke quickly, if not entirely happily.

“Nichole! I am very glad you have returned to us!” She heard hints of uncertainty and indecision. “Please, come forward and tell us what the horsemen are up to!”

The smell of the other Political Police was they wanted her dead. Difficult.

She advanced toward them another three paces and bowed low. Rising, she spoke.

“The Nation, your allies,” a dangerous game, “have won a huge victory against the cannibals; they may, in fact, be brought low forever. I am credibly informed of mop-up efforts in Olympia!”

She waited.

“And?” Bakke asked. “Are their forces tied up clearing out the remnants?”

Nichole allowed a few moments to let the tension build.

“No.”

The men about him stirred, as she wished.

“Their initial engagement was crushing; they are horsemen, not barbarians, Brigadier…”

Tone and pitch change…

“They can bring two mounted brigades south at a moment’s notice.”

Her words hung in the air as she intended. No one spoke or moved.

I must!

“Across Mill Creek, on that hill, are their non-combatants; their women and children…” her voice was pitched to imagine peace and the future…

“Why are you… forgive me, Brigadier, “ she lied, “why are we here? In force, before them?”

“Why, my leftanant! I thought you were on my side!” he lied loud enough for his men to hear.

“As I am, sir; as I am: on the side of the survival of the City of Portland!” With her voice slightly louder, she called and raised. “No matter who is its master.”

“Then I suggest you run back to the Huns’,” Bakke said, opening using the derogatory term, “master, and tell them that they will do what we say, when we say it!”

The dark, wet air was still for a few moments.

“They outnumber you ten to one,” Nichole allowed.

“We’ve the technology and training,” Bakke’s voice faltered. “No matter.”

He is not this stupid! Nichole let her eyes roam about his closest advisors, detecting nothing.

“With.” Her voice caught for no reason she could discern. “With your permission, I shall return to Rhun and ask for terms?”

Bakke looked toward the false dawn.

“Please do.”

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