I’ll make a first-pass edit of all this, this week, push it onto my talented copyeditor. In the mean time, I’ll finally get about implementing her changes for Friend and Ally and release that into the wild.
“Gil!” she cried with happiness after leaping from the Stratford’s stoop, over the sandbags, next to Rahab. “You go on ahead! I shall walk Mac there!”
They stared at her.
“Where?” they both asked.
Again! Mackenzie was right!
“Zom’s! I must speak with that walking lie, Nike!”
“Nichole, I can just push my bike while we – ”
The three of them, and everyone else out front, froze at the clatter of hooves on asphalt to the north. Nichole could just pick out voices… in the Nation’s clipped, Boise dialect. She whirled to the others of her dorm.
“The enemy comes! Stand to!” she shouted.
But no one moved.
Dang! Wrong idiom!
“To arms! Defend yourselves!” she tried again.
This time there was a flurry of action. Erin hustled the rest of the girls inside while the young men piled a last few bags to close off the entrance. Nichole turned back to Gil and reached for the back of his bike. She took his katana and rifle.
“Chamber a round,” she said, passing the rifle back, “and keep it over your shoulder, even for this short ride.”
She held up the sword, still in its sheath.
“May I borrow this for a few blocks?” she asked.
“I’d rather that and you the rifle,” he replied.
She shook her head.
“You have a bare knowledge of what I can do. Go now. I love you.”
He slung his rifle across his back and kicked his bike to life, knowing the noise would draw attention.
“See you in a few!”
With a spit of dirt and gravel he was gone. Mackenzie stood still with one bag over her shoulder and the other in her hand, trying not to cry.
“Hey,” Nichole said softly, bumping her hands to her friend’s. “Walk with me?”
“Will…” little tears came down her cheeks. “Will we make it?”
“Oh, yes!” After she picked up her art box, Nichole put her left arm about her friend. “I promise!”
When she turned them southeast, along Market Street, Mac made a questioning sound.
“Down in the park, the spirits there will help protect us!” Nichole said, giving her a friendly squeeze.
“Spirits? They will?”
Mackenzie muttered, but Nichole still heard: my best friend is a machine who believes in spirits!
Best friend! Another little squeeze.
As they took a step into the domestic greenspace, Nichole opened her mouth to say –
It was dark.
Nichole whirled on Mackenzie, shutting down her panic response.
“Friend Mackenzie! How long was I gone?!”
“It was,” she pulled the data in picoseconds, “1602 when we set foot into the park! It’s now… now…”
I cannot get a hard reading of the time! She began internal diagnostics.
“Oh. I guess it did get dark kinda quick,” Mackenzie allowed, looking around. “That’s weird.”
Pushing everything down that was not ‘Protect Mackenzie’ or ‘Save Portland,’ Nichole pivoted this way and that, assessing threats. It is entirely too quiet!
She took her friend’s art box into her own hand and took her right with her left.
“Come! We must make haste to Zom’s!”
Trotting southwest along the two long city blocks again yielded nothing: no locals, no invaders. She looked for Zom’s bright lights to her right…
They stopped abruptly. The Simon Benson house was a dark, slightly dilapidated ruin. Her panic routine came up several layers.
“Friend Mackenzie?” she asked around gritted teeth. “What do you see?”
“Zom’s… all lit up; but they look really empty right now?” She glanced at Nichole. “Because of the invasion?”
“All lit up…” For Nichole, the dark and silence of the city stretched in all directions.
“Nichole!” Gil’s voice! “Thank God you’re here! It took you an hour to walk two blocks?! I was worried to death!”
With no other choice, Nichole closed her eyes.
“Did you hear Gil just now?” she asked Mac.
“What? Of course! He’s the only one standing there!”
Fine. Make it worse. Am I dying?
Nichole raised her left hand, not letting go of her friend.
“Mackenzie? My eyes are broken and I cannot see. Please guide me!”
“What?! Your… you are…? Oh! Of course, of course!” Her tone changed completely; an artist describing a scene. “The ground is concrete paving, clear here to the first step. About nine yards.”
A little tug on her hand brought Nichole along, running diagnostic after diagnostic with null result after null result.
“There are three wooden steps up to the outside deck; all standard height. Ready?”
“One, two, three!”
Nichole perceived light and opened her eyes. Worse, everywhere else, her ears took in fighting… very close by.
“Lovelies!” Nike called, setting down a tray of drinks. “One last round… on the house!”
Nichole strode directly over and slapped his face, hard.
“You! You have the power to stop all of this! I know not nor care what you are, but use it!” She demanded.
“I’m afraid,” Nike said, his cheer fled as he lightly touched his face, “you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
With a blast of heat that should have been one hundred times as strong, all the trees in the greenspace, from north to south, caught fire at once. Her friends must have seen it, as well, as they shied away from the deck. Gil’s right arm protectively around little Mac’s shoulder.
Nichole nodded to herself and faced Nike.
“What are you?”
“Not for me to say.”
“Then I will: you are human. You died. You mightily pissed off what ever god you serve and were sent back.”
“You should write fiction. I hear there are good publishers in Jimbocho in Tokyo…”
“Shut up, faker. What’s going on out there?”
Nichole watched as the once proud proprietor seemed to sag into himself.
“Things are out of control. The chant is ‘death, death, death,’ until, perhaps, the sun brings in the morning. I was told to save you three.”
“The line was ‘friends of five.’” He shrugged and leaned forward to take her fluted glass off the tray. Only now were Gil and Mac walking over. Nike, rudely, drank what was in her glass all at once. They stopped as he said his peace.
“What you are seeing is real and not real. Is happening, will never happen.” He looked at the two. “Please, living humans: drink! I shall bring a little food… I’m short staffed right now! We’ll talk before you leave!”
They watched him step quickly back inside. Besides the fire, there were suddenly screams from just off the porch. They turned to look…
“Oh my God…!” Mackenzie shouted and collapsed onto the floor in a ball. Horsemen were shooting, knifing every civilian – mostly students – they could find in the park. Except for the women. They were all being…
“Inside!” Gil fiercely grabbed both their shoulders and forced them inside, kicking the doors shut with feet, behind him. One, two, three steps to a table where he let them down.
“What’s going on?!” he demanded of Nichole. “Why is this place safe?! I can take my rifle and go out there and – ”
“And die, beloved.” Nichole looked up and wondered what was wrong with her face.
“Ni… Nichole? You… you’re crying?” Gil gasped.
She allowed one hand to touch her face. Moisture. Tears. Impossible!
“So I am!
Nike came back with another set of drinks.
“Why not,” Gil asked, “just bring the other tray back in?”
“I’d love to, love!” He said, kissing the top of Gil head. “But once you closed the door I cannot leave.”
“What?” Gil exclaimed.
“He’s dead,” Nichole explained, blankly. “He cannot override a living human’s choice.”
Again, no one moved.
“Drink, drink!” Nike exclaimed. “You’ve miles to go this long night! Let me bring you something to eat!”
He left quickly again, allowing her friends to wonder at the glasses before them. They were both pint glasses but filled with something aquamarine that sparkled in the low light. Nichole had nothing.
“Cheers, I guess,” Gil managed, raising his glass first to Nichole and second to tap Mackenzie’s. The two drank.
Nichole saw the change instantly.
“Brunelli’s God protect us!” Nichole cried
“What?!” Gil set the drink down. “Should we puke it back up?!”
“No!” She let her face fall, looking at the table. “No. Your souls have been slightly recoded; I don’t know how to say it in your languages.”
She raised her head and smiled at her beloved friends.
“Take your time; but, finish your drinks! You two are going to change the world!”
“What?” they both asked.
A third time was too much. Nichole was almost falling out of her chair from laughing when Nike came back with some cheese and cold cuts.
“Care for some?” he lied.
“Of course not, you lying faggot!” she crowed, the pieces of her mosaic settling into place. Her friends were taken aback by her seeming rudeness.
Nike smiled and took a step away…
“Okay,” Gil tried to get a grip on things that had no grip. “So how do we fight our way out of here?”
Nike smiled and took a step back to their table.
“You or me, love?” he asked Nichole.
“Lie to my friends and I’ll kill you for good.”
“Once,” Nike began with a flourish of his hand across his frosted hair, “you finish the meager meal I’ve provided, you will move due west. This charism will cover you for a hundred miles – against the horsemen, mind you! – for that distance and only for a time.”
“What the hell is ‘a time’? Days? Hours?”
Nike looked into Gil’s eyes.
“I don’t know. They have not told me.”
Gil could tell the other was honestly sorry.
“Sorry. You were saying?”
“If I had to bet…” Nike sounded uncertain, “I’d bet on months and years; from personal experience, they tend to think in the long term.”
He fell silent, seemingly listening to the chaos outside.
“Was… that all?” Mackenzie asked.
“Yes.” Nike said, hating what he heard just outside his place. “Excuse me, please.”
“So,” Mackenzie tried, “we three – ”
“You two,” Nichole cut in, “will find a place in the Cascades or, perhaps better, along the coast, as fisherfolk. Guh!”
Her cry startled them both.
“Just as my people once did! Guh! Not that I’m a real person…” She looked to her hands, hand that she could not stop from quivering. “I… I will find a way home. Home to my Empress, to tell her of my colossal failure here, in your home…”
“Guh! I… will not be coming back.”
A small series of seizures engulfed her. She felt her love on her right and Mackenzie’s arm about her, as well, but Nichole was too busy quelling those subroutines that would make her insane.
Time passed. Nike returned.
“Y’all have to leave. Now.” He said quietly.
“Is… is there any…” Gil began.
“Due west,” now Nike smiled. “As best as you, the living, can make!”
“And,” given that Gil was almost carrying his love, “her?”
Gil looked at Nike’s soft smile. He was surprised when the proprietor leaned forward to his ear.
“She is so young! Let her say ‘goodbye!’ in her own way in her own time!”
Nike led them to a door on the west side, normally used for restocking, and swung it open. It was twilight and there was no havoc to be seen.
“What is this shit?!” Gil muttered at the strangeness.
“There are two rucksacks just at the edge of the verandah for you two. There’s a little more food and some other supplies,” Nike told them.
“Thanks,” Gil replied. “I’ll go around and get my bike – ”
“What,” Nike asked harshly, “did you not get about moving west? A few steps are one thing; to willfully go east…”
Nike glanced over his shoulder.
“You’ve seen what it’s like.”
“We’re supposed to walk to the coast?” Gil asked in astonishment.
“It’s good exercise!” Nike smiled back. “You’ll be fine!”
“That’s enough of him,” Nichole suddenly spoke, shaking off her friends’ support. “Let’s go.”
She took a few steps and handed one bag to Gil and one to Mackenzie. Turning her back on Nike, Nichole held out her hands.
“Let’s start this together, friends!”
With Gil on her right and Mac her left, they stepped down the three steps to the ground. There was a sudden tug from her left.
“It… it’s gone!” Mackenzie gasped. The other two turned.
Zom’s was gone. The Simon Benson House a dilapidated shell.
“You liar,” Nichole lied softly. She heard small arms fire far to the north.
“Come on,” Nichole announced, turning west. “We need to be out of the city and through the tunnels before complete darkness.”
Without further word, her friends followed. Out of campus and along Montgomery Street, Gil only spoke when, just at the highway that plunged under the West Hills, Nichole abruptly turned left onto a residential street winding sharply up.
“There’s something I want to see. You two can wait here if you don’t want to climb with me.”
Gil heard Mac’s little sigh and held out his hand to help her. She took it.
Just above the tunnel’s mouth, Nichole stopped and looked north and east. Besides the continuing small-arms fire, she heard the occasional crump of mortars. Many buildings along the city’s northern edge were on fire.
“I am so sorry…” Gil just caught from her.
Leaping from rock to rock and bracing herself against trees when she had to, Nichole made the descent down the hillside to the road and tunnel look easier than it was. Both Gil and Mac had several slips and scrapes before standing next to her. There was still electric power, but only one light every hundred feet or so in the tunnel was on.
“S… spooky!” Mackenzie shuddered, still next to Gil after her last near-fall.
“You will be fine, dear friend!” Nichole could tell her eyes were back to normal, as there was no moisture on her face to match the raging sorrow in her processors. “After all, you have him, now! No! Do not speak!”
She took two steps and touched their chests. With her right hand she fingered the memory crystal in Gil’s pocket.
“I love you. I might even be a soul. But, I am not human. You must find a mate of your own kind.”
She pressed a little more into Mackenzie, who could properly cry.
“Please take care of each other!”
“Ni…” Gil began.
“…chole!” Mac sputtered.
Her shadow vanished into the blackness as Nichole ran away west.
It was close to midnight in the Imperial Garden. Over the hours some servants had come and gone with refreshments while Nichole told her failure to her Empress, distraught at her friend’s story.
“And how is it you came back across the sea to me?”
“I convinced a fishing trawler to take me out to one of the freighters I could see further out,” Nichole said with a shrug, as if a matter of no consequence. “Once they were convinced we weren’t pirates, I talked my way aboard.”
“I see.” Nichole could tell Togame was tired. “You will have to be thoroughly de-briefed by some of my political and military staff.”
“After that… what can your friend do for you, Nichole?”
“I think I will go home. I would like to be deactivated for a while.”
Nichole felt Togame take her hand.
“Just a while. As your Empress I command you to not die!”
“I obey.” Nichole stood, pulling her friend and master up with her.
“It is late. Let us go inside.”