Nichole finds Joe. Most importantly, that allows me to resume dialog between characters, rather than merely giving exposition as to what Nichole is up to. I hate that; my stories live and die based upon interaction.
So. Nichole finds Joe. Tells everyone “rocks are falling! y’all gonna die!” is not much of a transition, but there it is. At least they’re talking again, minus Joe’s accidental head-butt into N5’s plug. Yeah: talk your way out of that one, kid.
A little after midnight, she clattered into the empty darkness of Battle Ground. Where was everyone? Feeling her horse’s exhaustion, she slid off and led her forward. She would have to find some water for her. Making a check of the air, Nichole smelled a little water, perhaps a stream, just ahead through the empty buildings.
“Not too much further… er…” It took her aback to realize she neglected to ask her mount’s name, such haste had she transferred her saddle and bags. “Good Steed!”
Too tired to nod, she plodded on next to the odd-smelling human.
A line of trees north and south broke up the Euclidean pattern of the neighborhood around her. They left the road to cross a wildly overgrown lawn and down a small hill to a little stream. Nichole hooked the reins back over GS’s head and let her find her footing by the water. She drank noisily.
If Joe’s platoon went this way, it was likely to suppress any local hostiles and keep an eye on the roads to the northeast. I guess that where we’ll be headed –
Voices. Male voices with the accent of the City. With a snort of protest she stopped the mare’s loud drinking and pulled her back a few feet. Nichole looked up and right at the road over the culvert through which the stream passed and waited.
“Nice of the captain to rotate us out for a rest,” someone said. “But with only six hours, and an hour’s walk to and from the lines…”
“Stop your bitchin’! Better than sleeping standing in a foxhole covered in mud and shit!”
Friend Joe’s voice!
“Joe! It’s Nichole! I’m down here!”
Half of their squad over the culvert, a few dropped prone and at least three raised their rifles…
“Ni – ?! Hey! Guns down you assholes! That’s Nichole Clarke down there!”
Two of the three did completely. The third just to his hip.
“That may be, Joe. You!” he called to her. “I’m militia sergeant Kelly. Come up here, slow, so we can put a light on ya’!”
“Of course, sergeant,” she replied with just a hint of playfulness in her tone. Enough that a few men laughed softly.
She led her horse back across the former lawn and onto the road and halted five yards away.
“Joe! Brett! One eye each; everyone else, close ‘em!” Kelly called.
She watched him raise a flashlight. To preserve her illusion, she let her lids down, too.
The flash was long for her, short for a human. Darkness re-enveloped them.
“Joe?” Kelly called.
“It’s her, definitely.” She several complicated emotions in his voice.
The relief of all of them was palpable.
“Miss Clarke,” the sergeant began, “word was you were either seconded to the general or, less believably, off on some secret mission to the Huns. And here you are in BFE!”
BFE? A code for their location? No matter. She chose to lay out a mix of truth and lies to protect her mission, her friends, and herself.
“The latter was correct: I crossed the Cascades with the Nation’s migration. Their mounted dragoons have already crushed the bulk of the cannibals.”
She detected shock, surprise, cheer. She went on.
“After General Tessmer was injured,” a few ‘what’s’, “Bakke of the political police took command. For reasons unknown, he attacked the column of the Nation’s… women and children.”
That produced a better reaction than ‘non-combatants.’
“Effing Chekists!” she heard Joe breathe.
“The alliance between the Nation and City is now broken. I, personally, witnessed General Tessmer’s surrender to their Great Lord, Rhun.”
The night was darker, stiller, colder.
“Ten thousand mounted infantry will be here in a matter of days… the lead elements perhaps in hours,” as Kelly opened his mouth, she spoke over him. “As acting leftenant of the Regulars, I am taking Joe Kreeft. We must see the local Regular commander, at the bridges, immediately! Joe! Come forward!”
He took a few steps at her command, but managed to stop himself.
“Jesus Christ, Nichole!” he exclaimed for all of them. “All of this…? No bullshit? For real?”
“Yes.” She moved her eyes to Kelly. “Sergeant? Get word to your commander, soonest. All militia must be south of the river as quickly as they can.”
To his credit, she saw, even though only militia, he kept his cool.
“I’m willing to allow what you just said is true, after all, you’ve quite the reputation!” She could tell he meant that many ways. “And, I’ll allow Kreeft to go with you. Beyond that? We’ll see. We…”
He paused to spit left into the creek.
“A panicked rout would play right into the Huns’ hands, if, again, your report it true.” He looked around at his men. “Those of you that still want a break, go on ahead. I’ll be back to the captain.”
He turned on his heel and went east. All but one of them, Joe, followed him. Such brave men! Her eyes saw Joe’s trying to find hers in the pale moonlight.
“Come, friend,” she took his hand and placed it onto her horse’s rump while she unbuckled the saddle and tossed it aside. Her bags stayed.
“It’s easier for both of us without the saddle. I really don’t need one, anyway!”
With a protest from GS, she picked up Joe and placed him further back. After two steps back, Nichole leapt into the air, turning as she did, and landed just in front of him.
“What?” he said in sudden surprise.
“Joe?” she asked over her shoulder, taking the reins.
“Nothing, nothing,” he sighed, putting his arms about her waist. “So. We’re headed south?”
“As fast as we can manage!”
Her instinct was to move due south and once into the remains of greater-but-deserted Vancouver, move southeast toward the bridges. Joe quickly disabused her of that notion, so she had them retracing her steps west, back to the Interstate.
“After their occupation, well, more of a ransacking of it,” Joe had spoke from behind her into her right ear, “there’s rubble and glass everywhere. In daylight it’d be slow-going… at night…”
She’d understood and acted accordingly, to her quiet dismay. Still, it did give her more time to relate the rest of the story of her recent activity to her increasingly amazed friend behind her. He chuckled as she described the reaction of the Nation to her Lake Missoula story and was stiff in horror to hear of the plans within plans that led to Bakke’s actions.
“But,” he tried once they were on the highway south, “if they’re just simple people from the badlands, surely we can – ”
“They are not a ‘simple’ people, Joe!” she spat back at him. “Say they – the mass, not their leaders! – are unsophisticated. They will see little nuance in negotiating for land over the bodies of their wives and children!”
“Yeah. That was stupid.” He leaned again into her back as she once again pushed her poor mare to canter with two riders.
“Ow!” he cried, while Nichole quailed inside. “What was…? What did I just hit my eye on!”
My power jack!
His left still tight around her waist, she felt him begin to move his right hand…
“DON’T TOUCH!” she gambled, thinking he might choose to follow her command and fall off completely, slowing to a trot. Joe’s right arm was at his side and his left was slipping…
“Hold On With Your Left!” she modified, hating herself for secrets. Still, Nichole was relieved that he tightened that arm.
“Not now, friend… please, not now!”
Crossing the slough of Burnt Bridge Creek, she waved and called to the militia and Regulars emplaced there. Less than a mile to the last bridges. She had to change the subject.
“Who’s in command? Here, back home!” she called.
“Major Hong,” Joe replied, putting his right back around her waist but never taking his eyes from where her strawberry-blond hair covered the back of her neck. Hair she never wore down like this…
“I thought he was intel?”
“Still is, but the men like him, so the fort, so to speak, is his to hold!”
Good! The man who led us across the river at Longview… he will know what to do!
“Do you know where his CP is?”
“Yeah, we passed it on the way north… he and all of his came out to salute us militia pukes!”
Nichole was happy Joe still had a sense of humor.
“Sorry!” he laughed behind her. “This side of the river, just off the west span!”
“Not a vote of confidence if you stake your camp on the other side of the river, Nichole!” he said, his voice closer than before. Back to a trot; canter was no longer possible for their poor steed.
“Joe?” She felt him lean back just a little.
“I promise to tell you. Everything. But not now: now, I am trying to save your… our… world!”
“I love you…” it was not meant for human ears, but she heard it. And was sad.
The moon had fled but the sky was quickening in the east. East, they saw Fort Vancouver, where she had first learned to kill humans. West, inside the loop of the on-off ramp, were several tents. Now at a walk, the moment her poor horse was off the road and onto soil, she stopped completely.
“C’mon, Joe!” Nichole swung her right leg over the mare’s head and slid off. He pushed himself off her back. Two men with rifles were walking to where they were. Nichole fished her last two batteries out of her bag, abandoning the rest of her secret, sophisticated repair equipment.
“Acting leftenant Nichole Clarke and militiaman Joe Kreeft!” she called. “I’ve vital information for Major Hong about the situation in the north! Can one of you see to my blown horse? Thanks!”
While they were still processing her little speech, Nichole took Joe’s hand and moved around them toward the tents. Without his cover but with a cup of coffee, Hong had just stepped out into the cool morning air. Once he saw who his unexpected visitors were, his surprised melted away.
“Miss Clarke!” He started with a smile. That fell once she was close enough that he could see her face. “What the hell has happened?!”
Not wanting her data dump to happen in front of his men, Nichole led Hong on a Brownian path around the fringe of his command post. With nothing else to do, a tired Joe ambled along in their wake.
“How…” she watched the major swallow hard. “How long before their vanguard is here?”
“It will depend entirely upon the push-back they get from the Regulars north of Longview,” she began, having already informed him what she’d told Muller. “If the militia puts up any resistance they’ll be cut to pieces in minutes.”
Hong flicked the last of his cold coffee into the bushes.
“They’re that good?”
She watched him turn back to the tents, probably thinking about more coffee, before returning to their talk. He looked right at her.
“Evacuate what we can; blow the bridges when we see the lead of the Nation.”
“We’ve nothing on these bridges. It will take a day, minimum, to load and wire them.”
Nichole sank to a squat, her arms around her legs.
“Then we are at their mercy.” Hong thought it odd she blinked so much without crying. “I suggest you write out terms of the Regular’s surrender, as advantageous to you as possible.”
“But,” Hong began, “without the authority of the Mayor…”
“The Nation knows the mayor’s office was behind the betrayal.” Nichole stood, recalling her obligations to her friends. “In fact, I must see to that now. May I pass south with my friend?”
Having already forgotten him, Hong looked about.
“Kreeft, from my sharpshooter team across the river, wasn’t it?” the major asked.
“Yes, sir.” Joe suddenly remembered to salute.
“I guess you’ll be – ”
“A moment, please, sir.” Joe asked, turning to Nichole and putting his hands onto her shoulders.
“What are you going to do?” Directly.
“Extract my friends to a place of safety.” Pointedly.
“Extract…” Hong mused. “You see no hope, Miss Clarke?”
With Joe’s hands still on her shoulders, she turned her eyes to his.
“I’m staying here, Nichole.” Joe announced.
“W… what? You CAN’T!” she amplified, carrying across the circle inside the ramp’s loop.
“My friends… my buddies, in the militia, are going to need everyone they can to keep this escape route open as long as possible.” She felt his hands shake on her. “For their friends! For their families! I can’t just…”
He let his hands drop.
The sun crested the mountains. Dawn broke over them.
“I understand,” she said, dropping her head, her processors afire. “I wish…”
“What?” Joe said with the mirth of the dead.
“…” Nichole tried again. “Nothing. I guess.”
She looked up into his eyes, hers glittering emerald.
“You were the first human to love me. I shall never forget you.” She considered making a promise, but thought better of it and blinked, instead.
Joe leaned forward and kissed her lips. He turned to Hong.
“Where do you want me, sir?”
Nichole was already running, beyond human speed – she no longer cared – south over the bridge.