In an absurd burst of enthusiasm, I thought I could finish the manuscript this weekend. My new doctor certainly wants me to: “you’re drinking too much; your liver numbers are shot to hell.” Great. I told her I’ll cut back in a week or so, once finished.
It has been a difficult transitional period in the story. I did NOT want to write yet another battle, swirling about Nichole, but was uncertain how to write around it. Last night, after watching a few old music videos, I saw the part of Nichole and Armando having a quiet moment – not a war moment – in the back of the MRAP. That let’s me tell the story to the point where things fall to shit and she get’s out of there, on a mad dash south, where she’ll encounter Major Muller & his 2nd Detachment of Cavalry as well as Friend Joe, serving in Militia A, holding the supply line between Portland and Longview.
After that? Into the City with the Nation on their heels. Rocks fall; everyone dies. I’m so happy to be writing this…
“Nothing… rash… will happen in my absence? While negotiations are open?” she asked.
“Nothing ‘rash’ at all, Nichole!” Bakke said with a smile, taking a single step toward her. “We are merely here to, ah, guarantee the safety of the immigrants!”
“Of course.” Nichole saluted. “Sir.”
She hesitated only a moment before turning. In that time she considered abducting him and running off into the night… to change his mind or…
Nichole completed her turn and ran to where she smelled horses.
The Special Police, being of the City, were tied to internal combustion. That meant the ad hoc stables were Regulars.
“I am so sorry!” she pretended breathlessness, “but I need a mount to ride north! Mine, Toast, must rest the remainder of the morning, but…”
“Miss Clarke!” A voice followed by a face in the moonlight she didn’t know led a saddled, pale horse out to her. “She might want to sleep right now, but Smersh is at your service!”
“A moment!” she cried, making another negative pressure. Toast! Nichole unlocked a saddlebag and pushed one of her emergency batteries into the front pocket of her jacket. A quick embrace of her friend and she was gone.
“Cute girl; good with our horses, too,” the minder said to no one in particular.
“Too bad we’ll never see her again,” came a hollow reply from the dark.
“C’mon, Smersh!” With just enough moonlight she drove her new ride northwest across the farm fields. The going was soggy, but there was no time! In thirty minutes they stumbled onto the local east-west road. Risking damage and extinction, she brought them up to a canter.
Her internal chronometer read 0416 when she heard the hooves ahead of her. The command for her to halt was seconds later. Recognizing the Horsemen’s inflection, she sat perfectly still with her hands raised next to her head. Two young men trotted toward her, one of them with his carbine pointed at her head. The one in the lead expressed surprise.
“What the…! A girl?”
“I am Nichole Clarke!” Command. “A personal friend of Great Lord Rhun!”
The one with the carbine actually fell out of his saddle. She stifled a laugh.
“Oh. I saw your…” he shook his head. “What are you doing here?”
“I have words of the acting commander of the City forces to relay to your master.” I have no time for this! Harden! “Now!”
“Pass,” was the mumble she heard, back at canter.
In another thirty minutes, moving northwest, she came in contact with the lead elements of two brigades of the Nation. Not now! Not so soon! A Chieftain she recognized, Karl, halted next to her but waved his men on.
“Clarke.” He said. Neither a friend or enemy. Yet.
“You have something to say?”
“Yes. To Rhun.”
“The Great Lord is injured and sleeps to recover his strength. Say what you have to me.”
A gamble. I must alter the odds of the wager.
“Your second group is penned in by some City forces. It is a misunderstanding,” she tried.
“Noncombatants, women, and children under guns.” Karl spat to his right. “What am I misunderstanding?”
I am too young!
“The political leadership of Portland did not anticipate your numbers nor effectiveness. The commander on the ground is reacting from this concern, not any hostility!”
“Really?” His disbelief was palpable. He looked east where the sky was lighter.
“As a neutral, I am sure – ” she began.
“You wear a badge of their rank!”
“ – that I can be a bridge and clear this misunderstanding!” Nichole faked a sigh and adjusted her tone. “Please! Give me time!”
Hundreds of mounted dragoons had moved past them. In his pause, hundreds more. Nichole remained still.
“I… I will catch hell for this from Rhun,” she heard his quiet beginning with his head down. He raised it. “But this will be a stupid war! For all of us! Ride back! If our families are safe and unmolested, we’ll find a way through this! Go! Now!”
Smersh protested as she abruptly turned her about. It was still too dark for a human to gallop, but as they were re-covering land they’d just rode over, she brought her mount to full speed.
I’m sorry, newest friend Smersh! But it just may be that we can save this little corner of the world –
Nichole again cycled through gallop, canter, trot. After thirty more minutes, the eastern sky was brighter but packed in with leaden, laden clouds. Her hearing picked up mortars and small arms fire, short miles ahead. It was the sound of the world ending.
They had just dropped to canter. She brought them back to gallop. Even if it killed them both. For, she feared, that is what we’re riding into! I must find out what has happened before the lead elements of the Nation’s forces hear this!
A half-mile from the crossroads that defined the empty little village of Salkum – another innocent town that will be remembered in the history records; but who’s? – Nichole was pleased to see and wave at three cavalry troopers just inside a copse of trees to her left. She considered to yell what was coming, but what good would it do? She and Smersh continued on as a light mist fell from the sky, pulling up where she had met Bakke earlier. The armored cars were gone and a hastily assembled aid station in their place. The initial sounds of combat she had heard had thankfully not been followed by more, but she could hear motors off to the east, beyond the low wooded ridge.
“Who’s in charge?” she called, pulling up in front of the two tents. There were a few shrugs before a corpsman, a sergeant, came out.
“Guess that’d be me, right now,” he allowed, followed by a salute. “Eltee.”
“I heard fighting,” she said as she slid off the mare, returning his salute on the way down. “What happened? Briefly.”
She didn’t miss his careful look about before his reply.
“Bakke and the Checkists went forward. The Huns had set up a small roadblock, just there, where the road cuts though the little ridge.” He shrugged. “Must have been an argument. We all heard the shooting followed by engines revving. Besides that, I think our infantry is across the little creek and up the ridge, too. So far, no casualties, thank God!”
Nichole turned left to look at the hill just beyond the little ridge. Her more human than human eyes saw how many of the wagons of the Nation had been tilted over to create a partial wall as well as cover and concealment for those parts that were not wooded. She detected no human activity. Probably dug in. I hope they are.
“Thank you, sergeant,” she said as she remounted Smersh. After this, I’ll trade her out for Toast. She waved a salute before heading down road.
Across the tiny creek and up the little rise, she noted the remains of the temporary roadblock. A façade, even to her non-professional eyes. Rhun spoke of retreat and counterattack… but here, counterattack with what?
She had the last armored car of their column in sight before she was challenged. With not a tithe of the concealment skill of the Hospitallers, Nichole had seen the four men of the political police unit in the shallow ditch to her right.
“Yes?” she called out first.
Their displeasure at being discovered was of the same order of magnitude greater as that of the monks.
“You’re Clarke?” one of them yelled without standing up.
“Leftenant Clarke to you.” She would not use the word ‘soldier.’ “I need to see the acting general, immediately!”
“He’s busy; go back!”
“You presume to speak for your superior?” the hook in her voice was overt. “Your name!”
“Br… Braun!” he tumbled out.
“Enjoy the rest of your service in the latrines, Braun,” Nichole said dismissively as she trotted forward.
Ominously, most of the cars faced the hill where the second group of the Nation had gone to ground. She could not miss the mortars and machine guns trained to the northeast. There was a cluster of men about one of the three MRAPs, so she once again dismounted just shy of it.
“The acting commander?” she called. Several eyes tracked to the relevant MRAP. No one moved, so she acted, pulling the rear door open and climbing in. She just caught Bakke raising his face from his hands, sitting on the left bench.
“Eltee Clarke; how nice to see you again.”
For once, perhaps for the first time, she could not detect falsehood in his tone. She allowed the door to swing closed behind her.
Time was short.
“Armando. Your command will be wiped out if you move against the Nation’s second group, there, on the hill.”
“The Mayor will put my body into the river if I don’t get these barbarians under our thumb,” he said blankly. Honestly.
It made her pause.
“Armando,” she lowered her voice as much as she could, “we must stop this. I do not care if it costs my life, yours, or the rest here. We must not start another war.”
She watched the rise and fall of his back.
“I’m not an idiot, Nichole!” he hissed at her. “And, you might be surprised to hear, neither is the leader of the Political Police! The mayor gave us verbal orders… very opened ended… but since Tessmer was out of commission…”
“Mayor Johnson told you to isolate the Nation’s second group?” she asked into the claustrophobic darkness.
“He told me to bend their will to ours.”
“You must disobey.”
His head came up.
“You’re a rogue, it’s natural for you. Disobey.”
“Nichole,” he tried again, “just a few years ago I was street hustler and dock smuggler. Now I’m a general of men. I cannot just… the man who gave me that chance…”
“Then…” she knew she was running out of ideas. “Then pass your command onto me!”
He gave a wry smile but shook his head.
“The Regulars might follow you; none of mine would.”
There was a bang on the door before it opened a moment later. The Checkist gave her a hard look before reporting to his master.
“Scouts say horsemen are coming down that cleared lane to the northwest.”
“What lane?” Bakke asked, surprised. “There’s no road…”
“It’s for the high-tension powerlines. It may have overgrown a little since the Breakup but it’s clear enough. For them,” the man said.
Nichole registered Bakke’s surprise…
“How… how many?” he asked.
“Not sure. At least a thousand.”
…and could smell his fear.
“Leave us,” he managed.
When the door swung closed, she spoke first.
Her words hung in the air for no more than fifteen seconds before he pushed the door open and jumped down. Nichole followed while he waived at an aide. Writing quickly, he tore off the paper and thrust it at her.
“If anyone challenges you between here and the City, this is your pass.” Bakke turned away from her. “Captain! Have we heard anything back from those on the hill? I see. Please prepare to shell it; we need them suppressed before that little column gets here!”
I cannot believe what I am hearing…!
He looked over his right shoulder.
“Get out of here. Now. As fast as you can.”
Before she could reply he was striding along the line of cars, issuing orders one after the other. Pushing her confusion into a corner of her mind, Nichole ran and vaulted onto Smersh. They galloped west down the road. At the turn where the roadblock had been, she heard the explosions of artillery and the chatter of machine guns behind.
Unable to cry, a sob escaped her as she rode on.