“There’s a Geoff Tate on the line…?”

I thought everything was going to Hell.  No, let me try again:  I remain convinced that everything is going to Hell.  It’s just that somehow – again! – Nichole started talking and is trying to save everyone and everything… including me.  It’s a good speech of hers, and almost convincing… but as the author, I’ve the SMOD Card in my hand, and I’ll be playing it either 1) once this clown-show is coiling back along itself toward Portland; or 2) In the next sentence I write where another rider comes in with preliminary non-com casualty figures… including Rhun’s children…

Outside of the aid station tents a crowd of about ten had gathered, looking east at the noise. Nichole had planned to go directly to the stables and get her rested Toast back, but she could not leave them like this. She slowed to a trot.

“The horsemen of the Nation will be here in an hour! Perhaps two!” She saw the surprise in their faces. Nichole turned her horse about as she spoke. “They are at least a brigade in strength. Given the stupidity happening behind me, I suggest you flee or prepare to surrender!”

Before the cries of shock and dismay became a flurry of questions she cantered the little distance to the stables. She gave Smersh a pat on her neck as she walked to where Toast was tethered. Their minder she’d spoken with earlier paused with a bucket of water in each hand.

“I heard what you just yelled. Looks like you ain’t sticking around?” he asked.

“No. I must get word of all this to the rest of the Regulars and the City as quickly as I can,” Nichole replied, leaping onto her friend.

“In that case, you wanna take that road, there,” he said, pointing with his chin at the one leading due south. “It follows the river and should keep you out of the Hu… out of their way.”

Nichole paused to look at him.

“You’ll be fine; they will appreciate what you do here!”

She was gone.

The road alternated between trees and clearings where crops had once grown. With each group of trees behind her she tried to pretend she could no longer hear the sounds of war. Too young in all of this, she struggled to think of what to do next.

One, she thought, lay it all at Bakke’s feet: he seized command and attacked when he should not have. The only problem with that would be what did Rhun know? From Teresa she was aware that the mayor’s administration was riddled with informers from various factions. If Rhun knew the mayor was really behind this, and that she was lying…

Nichole gave her head a little shake to get water off of her face as they slowed to a trot to let Toast rest a little.

Two, she tried again, throw Bakke and the mayor under the bus: tell Rhun what she knew to be the truth and that she has a shadow government in place to take power once Johnson – the male Johnson – is removed from office.

“I prefer option three,” she spoke aloud. “Find Tessmer and dump all of this into his lap!”

Coming once more into open country, the road straightened and she saw the unused little airstrip off her right. That meant the empty villages of Cowlitz and Toledo were just over a mile away, and where she’d last seen the general no more than a half-mile beyond that.

Against her protests she coaxed her mare back into a canter before she was rested. Too much was at stake for Nichole to go easy on her friend. Ignoring the twists and turns of the road, they left it and struck due west, to where Tessmer should be in the tents…

She heard them first. Not knowing that, one of their three-man patrol used his rifle to put a shot across her path and into a tree at her left with a *slap!* She drew up and waited, as still as her horse would allow her to be. The three road forward but stopped ten yards away. The one who had shot kept his rifle on her. The other two kept looking about for other possible threats.

“Unless you’re a crazy local, you’re Clarke, right?” the one with his rifle on her asked.

“I am.”

“Come with us,” he said, lowering the rifle from his shoulder but keeping it on her. “Some people want to talk to you.”

Who? She wondered, trotting past and ahead of them. May as well ask…

“And who would that be?”

“The Great Lord is with your general just ahead, trying to find out what the hell is going on.”

Nichole isolated and deleted her panic. It would appear options one and three just went out the window… Arriving at the more established aid station where she had last seen Tessmer, she was relieved that both the Regulars and a smattering of the Nation were intermixed and talking. If they did not know the full extent of Bakke’s stupidity, there might be a sliver of a chance for me to…

Two riders of the Nation came in from the north at a full gallop, almost leaping from their mounts at the last moment. They must have been expected as someone who looked like a chief waved them to the tent where she had last seen her general.

Oh, no! She hurried after them and after some whispered words between the others, was allowed to pass inside.

To her left, no longer flat on his back, General Tessmer was nearly in a sitting position. A bag of saline and a minibag of some antibiotic ran into this left arm. His aide was just beyond the IV pole. On her right was Rhun; Chieftain Adam off his right while one of the two riders, in between his gasps for air, spoke very low and very fast. Nichole, of course, could hear it all.

The shelling and machine gun fire not only failed to break those on the hill, it did not even provoke a response. The Nation’s detachment coming down the powerline clearing did exactly what they were supposed to: hold Bakke’s attention to the north while the bulk of their second brigade overran Salkum and took his motorized force in the rear.   There were…

…very few survivors, she heard. They expected more riders with word from the top of the hill presently. Rhun made a tiny motion at the two messengers who quickly departed.

“Nichole,” Rhun said, not even bothering with familiarity.

“Great Lord.” She was raised better.

“I had just come in to congratulate the general on our great victory over the cannibals,” he said somewhat theatrically, dropping his weight to his right leg and waving at Tessmer with his right hand, “but also to ask, just what under the Sky is going on with our noncoms!”

It was the first time she had heard him angry. Tessmer and his aide retained their composure, but even the one who hated her, Adam, turned pale and took a small step away.

Rhun turned his back on her.

“I would like an answer, now, General Tessmer; before I hear of the casualties among our women and children!”

“There was talk,” Tessmer began. Nichole tried to assess from his demeanor what painkillers he was on. His voice and eyes seem clear. “Just talk, mind you, that if you got really bogged down up north, that it was up to me to decide if we could take your second group… under our protection. As a bargaining chip.”

Nichole watched him sigh.

“I would not have done that,” Tessmer concluded.

“I believe you,” Rhun replied without a beat. “But you are no longer in command. The shitskin political is.”

“’Shit…’” it was obvious Tessmer had never heard that word before. “Colonel Bakke was, after a sat-radio talk with the City, placed in command, yes.”

“Your shitskin mayor plotted with his shitskin political police to murder our women and children.” Rhun took a deep breath and paused before slowly letting it out. “The Nation will want every last one of you dead once news of this gets out.”

Tessmer looked left, not knowing how to respond to this political treachery.

For just a moment, Nichole recalled her little talk with her sister Hajime, before the Battle at the Dam. When she briefly saw an image of Hell.

No! I will not allow it!

“There is another way!” Her voice was clear but not loud. She wanted their attention.

“Is there?!” Rhun barked, turning to look at her. “Just how much blood – !”

“Just how much blood do you expect to lose in a jihad against the City?!” she demanded. “Okay, there’s only a thousand more regulars between here and Longview… but they’ll be on the defensive, so each one of them takes one of yours! After that, it’s only militia, right? But that’s upward of two thousand also with their loved one’s behind them, taking two of yours for one of them!”

She faked taking a shuddering breath.

“Then, the Columbia River! The other militia group will be there! With nothing… Nothing. To. Lose. Nothing to lose if they do! What will be left of your Nation when you try to force your horsemen across two thousand feet of bridge covered by mortars and machine guns?!”

From outside, who could hear her quite clearly, she heard consternation and arguments break out between the two armed groups.

Nichole saw Rhun was thinking. Thank you, God of the Brunelli’s!

“Then tell me, woman!” he shouted, at once angry and perplexed, “before my nation learns what the City has done to their families and cry vengeance: what instead?!”

Deep inside, she understood his predicament: when the casualty reports from that hill came in, they could only be repaid in blood.

“A coup d’état.” She said simply.

Rhun and Adam were both surprised enough that the former took a step back while the latter took a step forward. They bumped into one another.

“What?!” they both shouted.

“I have,” she began quietly, “laid the groundwork for an alternate government to that of Mayor Johnson.”

A perfect silence fell. Now or never.

“Even if a handful, the Nation will demand vengeance. If you do not act, well… it might be the man behind you that puts a knife between your ribs and does!”

In the moment that Rhun and Adam looked at one another, she marked that as ‘winning step one’ and moved on.

“In the Nation’s anger against the City forces, they flee south at top speed, dragging the militia along with them…”

After her ride and given the speed at which she thought, her right hand went to the emergency battery in her right front jacket pocket. 26%!

“With the Mayor’s heavy weapons units dead just east of here, there will no opposition to the remainder of the Regulars, along with reliable militia units, taking up strategic positions throughout Portland…”

She paused. No one, not even Tessmer, moved. Hooked! She allowed her right hand up, away from the battery, with her index finger in the air.

“I, having traveled south with the main force, reach out to the shadow government there…” she now pointed at Tessmer. “And tell them that the Mayor is… incapacitated. There is a brief time of martial law under the Regulars, followed by a succession…”

Nichole caught herself right before her conclusion: ‘to the throne!’

Enough emotion. These were men; leaders of men.

“A coup from within; the Regulars take and hold what we need. And…”

Now she swung her finger to Rhun for only an instant. She did not want to insult him so she brought it to her cheek and smiled.

“And just to our north, an army of our dear friends! Who suffered so much under the previous regime! If turning over most of the goods of the Mayor’s allies, as well as granting them title to lands in the Willamette will assuage their anger…”

“’Title’!” Tessmer sat up even more. “We’re not some kingdom that – ”

“We will be!” Nichole kept her eyes on Rhun’s, for there was the center of power. “You will be King of Centralia… unless you care to rename your land?”

“King…” he echoed.

“Great Lord! This witch…!” Adam hissed over his shoulder.

“What? Would you not be Duke of the Olympian Peninsula?”

“What?!” Adams eyes took on a look. “Oh.”

No one moved.

“Everyone!” her call made them jerk.

“… here has their former primary loyalty somewhere else: City, Nation, Empress.” Nichole stepped out onto brittle glass. “I propose an oath! To the monarch of the Kingdom of Oregon! Who, with their majesty, King Rhun the First of Washington, will establish a new world; a new world Next to the Sea and Under the Sky!”

Nichole waved wide left with one hand while pointing straight up with the other.

Another pause.

“Do you really think we can do it?”

Tessmer, like all high ranking military men, had a pronounced aversion to revolution.

Nichole took a step and put her left open hand into his and opened right hand to the one who held the final word.

“I know it!”

The 2.63 seconds she waited for Rhun to take a step and hold her hand were far longer than how she recorded them. Nichole smiled.

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