Done story is done. Here’s the first of the last of the raw manuscript.
Without five to six figures up front, I’m never doing a writing trial such as this again. It will kill me. This is a near-run thing, as it is.
Thirty minutes later, Nichole stood still and expressionless as Teresa calmly read out what her father had written and she had marked up. The six men stood next to their horses and did not seem much to care either way about her answer.
“About what we were told to expect,” their lead said. “You’re playing for time. Was that all?”
“Have you and your men considered changing sides?” Nichole asked clearly.
“The mayor’s daughter and heir, here,” Nichole indicated with a roll of her hand what they likely already knew, “can offer you land and titles in the Willamette valley. Vast lands.”
She saw a few of his men consider the idea. She also saw his scowl.
“Piss on your temptations, witch!” He spat onto the ground in front of them before turning, mounting, and leading his men away.
“Worth a shot,” Nichole tried.
“I agree,” Major Hong said. “You hooked half of them. Let’s hope they tell their buddies.”
He looked at the two mortally dangerous young women.
“What’s next for you two?” he asked.
“I have to see my father…” Teresa began.
“And I have to see my love, who should be arriving south of the bridge about now. Major Hong?” she asked.
“Again, I have no rank or standing. However, would you please write an order that, if I need to use it, will release Gil Haven into my custody?”
A gust of wind coursed down the river valley. Nichole held his gaze, recalling their service together.
“What you ask… and why, I think, you ask it, is highly irregular, Miss Clarke.” Hong observed.
“I think you misunderstand, major. I do not ask for my feeling for him, but for the future he portends.”
Brian Hong had no idea what she was saying. He took a notepad from his jacket pocket and jotted a few lines. He tore out the paper and handed it to her. She read it in a glance.
“Thank you. Friend Teresa? Let’s to the car.”
The day was warming quickly. Teresa lowered her window a few inches as the car crossed south.
“I know that guy, the major,” Teresa observed. “If he thought you hooked some of them, you did. I wonder if there’s some way to get you address a large group of horsemen… stir up dissent… hell, starting a mutiny in their ranks would be ideal!”
“Tactically, yes,” Nichole agreed, tilting her head a fraction at something she might have heard through the open window. “But unless our side won, we would have just enraged them even more.”
“Yeah, true,” she sighed, looking out and away. They were just over mid-river.
“Stop the car, please!” Nichole commanded. In three car lengths, they did. Nichole was already out and looking northwest.
I need to see! But, unlike the Fremont Bridge with its huge arch, the steel of these old spans were only thirty feet overhead. Better than nothing! But, who will see me leap up?
Teresa had already opened her door and stepped out, wondering what her odd friend was up to now. She saw Nichole looking back at the great elevators that could once raise a section of the bridge to let oversized ships through. With no maintenance they seized up shortly after the Breakup. What did she…?
“Teresa!” Nichole shouted, pointing due south. “Do you see that?!”
Hearing her urgency, she turned and stared. And stared. Seeing nothing. She turned back…
Nichole was gone.
Teresa’s eyes tracked to the top of the rusting steel girders. Feet wide and arms out against the breeze, Nichole balanced and turned her smiling face from over her shoulder at her political operative to look northeast. The cloud of dust and dirt matched what she had faintly heard: a large group of horses were coming into the Vancouver valley, at speed.
The gunboats were docked at the Northwest Industrial Port. If they really are underway just now, it will be ninety minutes before they’re here, to try to interdict any crossing…
I have no time.
Nichole leapt back off of the steel, executed a flip on her way down, and landed just next to a surprised Teresa.
“What the – !” she began, shocked at her friend’s superhuman move.
“They are coming. Back into the car. Now!”
“Floor it!” Nichole shouted just as her friend sat. The sudden jerk of motion slammed both doors shut. “At the far end, once across Hayden Island, stop once the road is back onto the land!”
“Ma’am.” From his tone, she knew the driver was enjoying a chance to go all-out.
With a squeal of the brakes, Nichole’s right arm was the only thing that kept Teresa from pitching through the windshield.
“Goddamit, Nichole! Tell me what’s going on!” her friend sputtered.
“I’d guess one of the Nation’s brigades is hell-for-leather to take the bridges. Their horses will be blown by the time they get here, but that’s still upward of eight thousand men against Hong’s few hundred and the piecemeal arrival of the citizen-soldiers of Militia B. Speaking of which…”
She flung her door open, but moved her head close to her friend’s.
“I’m off to find Gil. Negotiate for as long as you can! Wear them down!” She started to blink too much and turned away. When she turned back, for the first time she took the initiative and kissed her mutt friend. “Offer them anything. Stay alive!”
She stepped out and looked to the oncoming militia trucks.
“Once I find Gil, I’m on my way to Zom’s, but by way of Overton’s, if you need to send a message to me!”
“Nichole!” Teresa had started to lean over, but collapsed onto the back seat, crying. “Are… are you saying goodbye?”
Her left auditory sensor picked up the misfiring of Rahab’s little engine. Nichole looked back for just a moment.
“Yes. Goodbye, friend.”
She was gone.
With no sound but sobbing from the back seat, the driver – one of her men – took the initiative to resume his fast drive south, on the single lane, hedged by orange barrels, and later west, to get the princess back to her father.
It seems, Nichole thought, running, that someone learned from the debacle of her arrival day, when the cannibals attacked and the northbound highway turned into an huge parking lot. Had I not command of Kongo…
This time, she saw MPs making diversions at the Willamette Slough. She assumed similar diversions further south, as all north-bound traffic was moving steadily at fifteen miles per hour. Nichole drew to a halt and absently returned the cheers and waves from the men in the trucks as they passed.
I know I heard the whore’s voice! But now, which way had Gil been diverted?
With a small rev, she realized he was just on the other side of the truck to her left. They had almost passed one another! She skirted between that truck and the one yards behind it to see her love walking his little motorcycle next to the truck. It must have contained the rest of his unit as he kept pace with it.
“Gil!” she shouted, trotting up to his right, making him nearly lose control from surprise, even at this slow speed. “Where’s your CO?”
“Nichole!” he shouted, drawing the attention of those in the open-bed heavy truck. “When… how…?!”
“Your see-oh!” she tried again, resisting her self-made compulsion to lean over and kiss him.
“Huh? Oh.” He pointed at the adjacent truck. “The eltee’s up there. He uses me as a messenger ‘cause my bike.”
His last word was to empty space as he just barely saw her leap up over his head. Turning quickly, Gil saw that was nearly three yards up and four over. Does she not care anymore?!
Her feet landed on the truck’s bed with a thunk. Most in jeans, a couple in shorts, and two in slacks.
“Which of you is the leftenant?” she asked.
“That’s me,” the younger of the two sketched a salute. “What can I do for you, Miss Clarke?”
“Can you,” she pointed right and down, “spare me your messenger?”
“In that case,” she took the scrap of paper from her pocket and handed it over, “by the order of Major Hong, and at the request of Teresa Johnson, I’m taking him anyway.”
The militia LT read the few lines on the paper as the other men on the truck murmured about what the hell was going on. She saw his grimace as he stuffed the order into a pocket.
“Order understood,” he spat. “Know this! Make it count! Without good comm you are putting a lot of these men’s lives at risk!”
“I understand. Please…” Nichole looked up and north by northwest at the dust cloud. “Please delay them as long as you can! Give us a chance to save your world!”
The young lieutenant was done with her and let his eyes drift to straight before him, seeing nothing.
Having watched their exchange but unable to hear it over the engine noise, Gil saw her describe a short arc and land back to his right.
“What are you – ?” Her left index finger touched his lips.
“You are now seconded to me, under the direction of Teresa through the order of Regular Officer Hong!” she announced.
“Can you drive us out of here, or shall I run like the machine I am?” she asked.
She saw the flickers of panic and misunderstanding across her beloved’s face.
“Get on! Where are we going?” he shouted mostly in uncertain anger.
About to vocalize into his ear, she saw something… a high place, but everything was on fire! The image swam a bit… no, that’s not right: Kongo is not in the river! A last blur was tables and chairs… Isabella!
Nichole did not know if that came from her every-increasing deep unconscious…
Or Nike! she almost snarled.
“Overton’s Pub!” she said after what was for him no delay at all. “I have to see!”
The bike’s engine complained at the added mass as Gil moved ahead of the truck with his buddies and turned south, ignoring their yelled questions.
“I feel like a goddamned deserter!” he yelled to the air and at her.
“Don’t worry,” she said softly to his back, her arms about him. “None of them will be alive to remember you…”
“What?!” he shouted.
“Nothing!” she shouted back, sad that they were arguing past one another. “With more information I can try to win this!”
There was a brake in the concrete barriers separating north and south-bound lanes that Gil used to get them onto the lanes on the west side. One of them was reserved for northbound traffic but he quickly skirted the plastic barrels and brought his little motorcycle up to its top speed, away from the fight.
Nichole sensed all of this through her contact with his back. While she could shout rational justification for her actions, that was not what he needed right now. She fell silent and let her head fall to his back.
With no sense of irony, Gil crossed the Willamette over the Fremont Bridge, where Nichole had first exercised her power. He slowed slightly as they came to the apex of the bridge.
“Need off?” he called with no irony in his voice.
She did not think so, but…
“Kill the motor. I must hear.”
Nichole stared north. Not enough. She slid off Rahab and walked a few paces to the edge of the bridge and put her hands behind her ears.
“Never seen you do that before,” Gil said, putting his right arm around her waist.
“Never had to; shush!”
The dust cloud was gone. But she heard…
“Let’s go,” she turned abruptly.
“For God’s sake, Nichole! What?”
“Small arms fire and mortars at the north end of the bridges.” She turned back to look into his eyes. “It’s a matter of hours. The day will be theirs.”
She watched him start to shake.
“So… everything… everything we’ve done! Preserved, built, fought for!” He was shaking. “Was all for nothing!”
“Perhaps.” She said. His eyes came up, hating.
“There are only three left that can change this flow of history. I am one of them.” She took a few steps and was back onto his bike. She beckoned him with her right hand. “Beloved Gil, please see me to my destination.”
He moved and kickstarted Rahab.
“You’re creepy as shit when you go all machine, Nichole.”
They rode south. Time and a few short miles went past until he parked them at the base of the thirty-story building.
“I’d rather not take the stairs,” Gil muttered.
He looked over to see her emerald eyes twinkling.
“You can summon their elevator?”
Nichole leaned in close and took his arm.
The elevator arrived with a *ding!* just as there was a squeal of tires from outside.
“Hold it, please, beloved!”
Gil moved to have his arm to the door wouldn’t close. One of the Pins came in. Seeing Nichole he moved toward her.
“Message, ma’am,” the Black man said, handing her an envelope with a nod, “from the princess.”
“Thank you!” Nichole beamed, taking it with both hands and bowing. “You do your mistress such honor!”
He muttered and turned away.
“Is there anyone, including me, you are not manipulating?”
The elevator’s doors closed as she opened the message.
“Well, now,” was all she could manage.
“The bridge is lost, but Teresa and Rhun are having a very interesting conversation over the wireless!”
Gil turned and took his odd girlfriend into his arms.
“The bridge is lost?” he asked.
There was a *ding!* as their arrived at the top. Gil pulled them a half step back to keep the doors open.
“They will sack the city?”
“I don’t know, but likely, yes.”
“And PSU? The dams?” He lowered his face into her shoulder. “Civilization?”
“Will depend upon what Teresa and Rhun are saying to each other right now.” Nichole put her arms about him and held him tight. She was surprised when he suddenly jerked his head back.
“I don’t want to be a serf; I won’t be a slave!” He looked right at the horizon. “I’ll toss myself off this first!”
She let go of him with her left so they turned and started through the pub, past a very confused Isabella, to the threshold of the door outside. But in doing so, she held his left hand in a crushing grip.
“That day may come!” Nichole declared in a hard, flat tone. “But it is not today! The City has suffered a tactical defeat…”
The dozen patrons there were suddenly paying full attention.
“… but talks continue! More importantly, I continue! And, in extremis, there is another!”
Gil was confused and focused on the middle.
“Will you… Nichole, are you going to fight as a soldier…”
“No. This time, the fight is not mine: I cannot defend criminal stupidity!” She gave the barest tug as they walked out onto the roof. She moved to where she could see and hear the north. And paused.
“It is as the message said: they have the bridge. The militia is broken and fleeing; for their homes, I hope!” Nichole spoke after a two minute’s silence.
“My friends…” Gil managed.
“What’s odd,” she continued, “is that there is no pursuit. After a breakthrough, besides encirclement, pursuit of a broken enemy is most effective!”
She paused and turned to first look at him, then let go her hand and slide it around his waist.
“Based upon my limited knowledge, they are consolidating their bridgehead. They will raze the city tomorrow if talks fail.” She concluded.
“Yee-arrgh! God Damn It! Nichole!” He suddenly shouted. “Civilians are going to die! The dams will fail! The Willamette valley will be a parking lot for their horses!”
Gil Haven took a shuddering breath.
“Are you expecting me to Order you into battle?!”
“I wouldn’t go.”
Nichole turned back and grabbed his collar, pulling him down while she heard the rest of the patrons leave in a great hurry.
“I AM older! I can ignore or bypass any such Order! In your wide, wide, world, beloved human Gil! There is none like me! My Empress has only IRBM’s… otherwise I could kill millions! Is that what you ask of me?!”
She released his collar. And turned her back to him.
“Mackenzie was correct. I must leave this shore and go West to go East.”
She shook her head once but retook his hand. There was nothing she needed to see anymore as she led him back inside.
“Sorry for the bother,” she said to the still surprised Isabella. Nichole shook her coin purse out. “Here are eight silvers. While the power’s still on, keep your elevator turned off. Any of the Nation that makes it all the way up here on foot will be willing to negotiate!”
She tugged Gil toward the stairwell.
“You’re not kidding?”
Less than ten minutes later they stepped out onto the street and moved to Gil’s little motorbike. The sun was westering as Nichole held Gil back for just a moment.
“Rahab. I apologize. You are a good machine to my love.”
She looked to Gil who just shook his head before getting on.
“Where now?” he asked.
“My… former place.”
“Must you be so pessimistic?” he called over his right shoulder.
“It’s not pessimism!”
Gil bit back his reply as they rode the few miles southwest to PSU and the Stratford.
“What the…?” he began.
All the guys he knew there, and many he did not, where filling and placing sandbags about the entrance, to create a directed field of fire. Some hot girl he didn’t know with bobbed dark hair and a strawberry-themed choker around her neck was giving basic rifle instruction to a half-dozen other girls on the ground just before them. Nichole was off the back of his bike before he stopped.
“Erin!” she called, giving said girl a clasp on her shoulder. “Is everything okay?”
“Just some refreshers about shooting from the upper windows!” she replied with a winning grin. “We’ve missed you here, Nichole!”
“And you will continue to, I’m afraid!” Gil stopped his bike and took a few steps toward them. “I’m taking Mackenzie and leaving; I do not know when or if I’ll be back.”
Erin’s wide smile faltered.
“Is… is it that bad?” she asked.
“Yes and no! If the horsemen make it here, try to talk. If they don’t, shoot them and crucify the bodies. The next group will talk.”
Gil was surprised to see the hot girl just roll with that hideous recommendation.
“Okay! See you later!”
“Mmm!” Nichole gave her a quick hug and turned to Gil. “Let’s get Mac and run!”
Two steps up the stoop, Nichole suddenly turned and stared north. All activity, male and female, stopped, as they looked at her.
“They are beginning to burn buildings.” She gave two expressive blinks. “It may be worse than I thought.”
They continued inside as everyone else worked faster. Coming out of the stairwell onto the fourth floor, she paused.
“Walk softly,” she said before stepping out.
Easier said than done in his boots, but Gil did what he could. He watched Nichole lean close to the door across from hers before unlocking and opening her own. He followed her in.
“She’s still packing!” Nichole said, surprised, as she closed and relocked the door. “I told her to pack light!”
“I’d wager,” he replied, voice low, “that it’s going to be underwear and art supplies! Hey! What are you…!”
Nichole was shedding her layers: jacket, pants, shirt. She paused in her camisole and panties before taking those off, too. Slowly, she took his right hand with her left.
“Please love me, beloved Gil!” she asked in her inhuman whisper.
“This is not exactly a romantic situation!” he hissed back, taking his clothes off, nonetheless. Her smile dazzled.
Two times and just shy of thirty minutes later, Nichole rolled off of him to fetch a hand towel from her bathroom. Her love was covered in sweat!
“I didn’t know that you were more active when not yelling and carrying on!” he said hoarsely, trying to catch his breath. “I’d have shut you up ages ago if I had!”
“I didn’t want to those working so hard out front, nor startle my friend across the way,” she said with a smile, sitting naked next to him on her bed, running her hand over his chest. “Besides, I was using sub- and supersonics to play with your sexual response!”
“You did what?”
Had be misunderstood?
“Dammit!” he cursed, sitting up but turning away from her. “Sometimes you make me sound as if I’m just a lab rat!”
“Guh!” Her odd sob escaped her mouth. He turned around.
“I am sorry! Guh! So sorry! I love you, Gil!” No tears, but her face was contorted in regret. “You are not and never were a ‘lab rat’ to me…!”
“Shit,” he said, standing and coming around the little bed. He pulled her up into his arms.
“I forget, especially after what we just did, that you are only… what? Four years old?” He moved her face to his chest with his strong hand. “I love you, too, Nichole.”
When he felt her relax, he continued.
“But we’ve taken enough selfish time for ourselves!” He leaned back just a little and lifted her chin. “Shouldn’t you be saving the world right about now?”
“So strong, so smart, so wise!” she smiled up to him, her emerald eyes glittering. “Is there anyone I could love more?”
They separated and looked for their clothes.
Minutes later he paused her before she opened her door.
“Is there anything else you should be bringing?” Gil tossed his head at her little closet. “From your secret stash, and all?”
“Nooo…” she said slowly. “My repair equipment is in a saddlebag on Toast, up north. I imagine that technology will confound them when they get ‘round to opening it up! Still…”
She walked to him and leaned her head back for a kiss, which she got.
“You are so wise!”
She went to her closet. In just a moment she returned and held up what looked like an orange crystal, maybe two inches long and half an inch wide.
“Take it,” she said.
He put out his palm and she placed it there.
“And this is…?” he asked.
“I backed up my memories in that,” she glanced at his hand, “just before leaving on my mission to the Nation. While no one in this city has a reader for it, perhaps, someday, as an heirloom of your house, when ships from the Empire come again across the sea, a young version of me will live again! What? Why are you crying? What did I say this time?!”
“Nothing, Nichole, nothing.” He closed his fist around it and put it into the jacket pocket over his heart, double checking that it was velcroed down tight. “It’s just not everyday someone hands you a copy of their soul!”
Gil was surprised when she made a quick half-step back.
“You… think I have a soul?”
Geez. He took a step and kissed her again.
“You don’t have a soul; you are a soul. That’s what I fell in love with, Nichole.”
“Oh. I see. Now.”
She stepped around him.
“Let us get Mackenzie and begone!”
With two sharp raps on the door across the hall, he noticed that she didn’t even bother to close hers. He understood and hated that.
The bolt slid and the door cracked open. Seeing who it was, the grey ghost opened it wide.
“I… just finished packing!” she mumbled, shuffling back a few steps. Gil wondered where the Xanax version of her went.
Nichole looked at the two items just behind her on the floor: a soft-sided piece of luggage, and a hard-sided art kit.
“So wise, my love!”
“What?” both of her human friends asked. Nichole shook her head once and glanced about the room. That.
“It is time we go, friends,” she announced.
“W… where?” Mac managed. Nichole shook her head.
“Let’s get back out front, first!”
They made their way down the hall to the stairs when they saw Nichole feel furiously at her jacket pockets and run a hand over the back of her neck.
“My charging cable! On the kitchenette counter! You two go on; I’ll be right behind you!”
Her lie complete, she turned away. Once hearing them down the stairs, Nichole reentered her friend’s room and walked quickly to where her oil painting sat on its easel.
I… see. Now. What Mackenzie sees…
“Guh,” was her almost undetectable sob.
The imaged fixed in her memory, she ran to follow her friends, reshuffling the mosaic pieces as she flew down the steps.