“Defiant” – Episodes 1-10

[Once upon a time, I undertook a story.  There was no real point to the story, it was just part of an exercise to keep me writing every few days; whether your mind or your muscles, exercise is key.  As I wrote, I saw:  more people, more places, more events.  I saw back-stories, and side-stories.  It’s easier to have a pre-made universe to work in, such as Niven’s ‘Known Space’ or Pournelle’s ‘Co-Dominium;’ so, too have my ‘Machine Civilization.’  What follows is a rough, free, webnovel from that world.  Enjoy.]

 

“Defiant” – Episode 1

The young woman stood at the rail, just a few yards away from the gangway, looking out towards the city. The sky was a pleasant mix of clouds and sun for mid-June; the wind blew at what few strands of strawberry-blond hair escaped her ponytail. She smiled to herself.

The city of Portland. The largest city of the State of Oregon. One of the best deep water harbors on the west coast of the United States.Not that there really was a United States. Or State of Oregon. Her smile fled.

Nonetheless, this was her new home.

She easily picked up her travel bag, looping it over her left shoulder. Her smaller bag she held in her left hand. She turned towards the gangway. There, the midshipman saluted her with a polite smile, which she returned. Sasaki had been so helpful towards her on their voyage over!

“<Goodbye, Miss.>” He said quietly. “<Do your best!>”

She bowed to him. “<I will!>”

Walking down the gangway towards the pier on the west side of the Willamette River, she could not help but notice some of the looks. A civilian? A girl? And at the very least Celtic if not Irish from her looks! What was she doing on…?

Stepping onto the pier, she turned and bowed low towards the vessel that had been her home for these past days, Her Imperial Warship of the JMSDF, Guided Missile Destroyer Kongo, safe at harbor between the Steel and Burnside Bridges, in the heart of the city; the only functioning port between Vancouver in Canada and Manzanillo in Mexico. A message, she thought: of hope.

She turned, ignoring the staring. She set off at a brisk walk in the direction of the Customs and Immigration office. As all of the sailors with leave had been through some hours before, there was no wait. The clerk behind the counter could not have been much older than she appeared; he was perhaps in his mid-twenties, she wondered? She smiled as she’d been told by her family. Happy to be the center of attention of such a pretty young woman, the clerk sat up straighter and adjusted his necktie.

“Afternoon, Miss! How can I help you?” He asked cheerily. She handed him both her passport and her special visa.

“You…you’re…” After looking at them, he looked up at her. “You’re a Japanese citizen?”

“Subject.” She gently corrected him. “I am a subject of Her Imperial Majesty.”

“Oh, sure. Of course, of course.” He starting stamping things, pausing to regard her visa. “And you are here to study?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I shall be attending Portland State University.”

He brightened at that. “My aunt is a professor there! What are you studying?!”

Then he stammered. “Er, that is, if you don’t my me asking…?”

She shook her head with a smile.

“Not at all! I’m in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Where does your aunt teach?”

Now he was grinning. “In the same College! In Computers, I think! This is so great!”

They stared at one another for a moment. She glanced at her papers before him.

“May I go?”

Suddenly taken aback by his unprofessional behavior, he tried to compose himself as best he could.

“Of course!” He was sweating now. “I’m so sorry, miss…”

He glanced at her visa as he stamped it.

“…Miss Clarke.” An Occidental surname, he wondered? He handed her things back.

“Please,” she said, lightly touching his hand with hers, “call me Nichole. What’s your aunt’s name? I look forward to meeting her.”

“It’s Vikki Bishop,” he replied. “Uh… would you like me to arrange a ride for you…?”

“Not at all, but thank you! It’s not that far, and walking is the best way to be learning about a new town.” She glanced at his nameplate. “Thank you for your help, Mister Beauchamp.” She nodded and made to go.

Half standing, the clerk replied, “Please! Call me John! Miss…erm, Nichole!”

She glanced over her shoulder. Her emerald eyes almost seemed to flash at him.

“Thank you, John!”

He sank back into his chair. Still for a few moments.

I am so calling my aunt tonight. And I think I’m gonna start hanging around the PSU scene….

 

“Defiant” – Episode 2

As Nichole ambled southwest through the city towards the campus, she took in her surroundings. The buildings here in the heart of the city were in surprisingly good shape. Like every other city in America, Portland had lost a huge swath of its population when the US economy ground to a halt overnight. However, their just-elected Mayor, Lee Sanchez Johnson, had turned out to be just clever and unscrupulous enough to not let his town fall into barbarism.

She paused at a street corner to let a slew of bicycles and a few horse-drawn carts go by. Nichole had read before she’d left Japan that what little gasoline and diesel that was distilled in the city went south under guard to the farmers and ranchers of the Willamette Valley to keep them in operation and the city survivors fed. And those survivors bent to keep the great deep water port open: for the trade goods that went up the Columbia River to keep those that controlled the hydroelectric dams running and the electric power flowing.

Just then there was a flickering. Lightning? No: as a slow dusk fell, a tall, black lamppost at the edge of the university flickered to life. Nichole looked up and smiled. For her this was not just light, but life. With a glance at the antique watch her step-uncle at Somi Corporation had gifted her, she realized there was little time left; the school’s employees would be going home soon. She picked up her pace, passing against the thin stream of students and faculty already headed the other direction, towards what she’d memorized as the Student Union and Administration building.

The security guard told her that the elevators didn’t work; since she need to see someone of the fourth floor, would she like him to watch her luggage? She shook her head with a small smile. Up the stairs she went. Coming out of the stairwell, she almost bumped into a woman in her late fifties about to leave.

“Excuse me!” Nichole said with a little bow. “I’m here to meet with Mrs. Patricia Franks. Could you tell me where her office is?”

The woman sighed, obviously put out that her departure was to be delayed.

“Sure. Follow me.”

She led them down a hallway to their right. Along the ceiling, about every fourth light was on. Spare parts must be a problem, Nichole thought. The older woman took a key from her pocket and unlocked a door, swinging the door open.

“Er….” Nichole started. “There’s no one here.”

The woman moved around the desk and flicked on a small lamp. She sat down.

“I’m Patricia Franks. How can I help you?”

Nichole gasped and dropped her bags, bowing very low.

“I’m so sorry! Please, return to you home! I can sleep outside tonight! I didn’t mean to keep you…!”

Mrs. Franks slapped the top of her desk.

“Stop talking nonsense!” She said curtly. “We are not hanging onto civilization just to have girls sleep outside! Now, judging by your behavior, you must be Miss Clarke, from Japan.”

Mrs. Franks stared at her.

“We were expecting you yesterday, but the Pacific is a big ocean, isn’t it?” She smiled just a little. “Please sit down.”

Nichole did as she was bidden.

“We had a slight delay,” she acknowledged. “The ship’s captain encountered some pirates off of Kamchatka and wanted them suppressed.”

“’Trade is Life,’” Mrs. Franks intoned in an odd manner. That’s important here, Nichole thought. The older woman pulled a moderately thick file out of her desk and flipped though it, squinting in the fading light. She passed Nichole a small manila envelope.

“That’s your key and map to your dorm room.” She seemed to smile grimly at something. “Before the Breakup, no one wanted to live on campus; now it’s a matter of survival. Ah. And here: this is your temporary campus pass. We’ll get you one with a photograph in a few days. I impress upon you…”

She glared at Nichole.

“If you are on campus without a pass, at best you’ll be forcibly escorted off. At worst – at night – shot.” She hit the top of her desk again. “These are…odd times we find ourselves in. Do you understand me perfectly, Miss Clarke?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Mrs. Franks looked once more into the file, but shook her head.

“I recall that you’re for the Engineering and Computers college, just not the details.” She looked out at the lengthening darkness. “Let’s have you here at nine tomorrow morning? Good.” She stood. Nichole did as well, retrieving her bags and moving into the hallway. The woman locked her office and they made their way down the stairs and outside. Nichole looked around at the lights ablaze about the campus. Franks followed her look.

“Safer to keep these lights on that in the offices.” She leaned over and took the temporary campus badge and clipped it to Nichole’s collar.

“Your dorm is just over there,” she indicted, pointing north. She finally smiled, just a little. “You go rest. And welcome to Portland.”

“Thank you so much!” Another small bow, and Nichole set off determinedly towards her new home.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 3

The sun was now well below the West Hills and the sky was a complex palette of red to pink to purple. That was something new for her. She slowed her brisk walk and stared upwards, ranging her head from west to east. In the periphery of her vision more lights came on. Insects began to circle in about them. What was purple was now black and moving west.

Narrowing her eyes, she sang clearly:

“Night…<One of my night city walks

Hidden…I don’t see anyone who walks the streets at night feel my own world feeling

Feel… A little good with the concrete cityscape…>”

She allowed voice to trail off. It was best she get to her dorm.

*clap!*

The sharp sound echoed around the school’s buildings. Startled that she’d let someone so close to her without knowing, she turned in the direction of the sound. The single clap was joined by more. Two young men stepped out of the shadows just ahead of her.

Students? She focused and first saw then read the badges they’d clipped to their navy athletic shorts. She relaxed. Slightly. The one on her right stopped his applause and smiled at her.

“That was absolutely beautiful! Even if I didn’t understand a damned thing past ‘Night’!”

He was a few inches taller than Nichole; maybe five ten, she wondered? But so powerfully muscled and broad under his gray tee shirt that it made him appear shorter. His hair color was difficult to tell in the waning light, but it was light – oh, as he came forwards under a lamppost, she saw it was an oddly faded brown. He smiled more broadly, revealing several missing teeth. His left hand held a sports bag of some sort over his shoulder. He extended his right.

“Hope we didn’t scare you too bad!” He laughed. “Kinda rare to see girls out after dark! I’m Joe Kreeft, by the way!”

She took his hand and gave a small shake with a tiny bow.

“You make me older. Thank you!” She replied. “My name is Nichole Clarke.”

Letting go, her hand hung slightly in the air as she looked towards the other. Joe punched his shoulder.

“Dude! Manners!”

The other came forwards a step. Taller than Joe, and thinner, but wiry in his own right. He set down his bag and put his hand out.

“Gil. Gil Haven.” He said quietly, taking her hand.

At least seven inches taller than me, she thought. She could not tell where his black hair ended and the night sky began. He released her hand and stepped back lithely; cat-like. Nichole had an odd feeling. Something she’d never felt before. It scared her, a little.

“My pleasure,” she murmured.

“Hey!” Joe almost yelled. “We’re headed home after swim practice. Which dorm you in? We can see you to it!”

“Um.” She looked at the small envelope. “I’m in the Stratford, it seems.”

“’It seems…?” Joe’s face fell in puzzlement.

“You’re new here.” Gil said directly. She nodded.

“That’s right! It’s so interesting to meet new people!” She said brightly.

“Oh,” Joe said, recovering. “I’m at the Stratford, too! Mister ‘lone-wolf’ there actually lives just off campus. How’s about we head off…Nichole, was it?”

“Thank you for your escort.” She nodded towards Gil. “A pleasure meeting you!”

She and Joe had just taken a few steps when Gil called after them.

“That was Japanese. That song you were singing. Right?” She stopped and turned a bit.

“Yes, it was.” She smiled hopefully. “Anatawa Nihongo ga wakarimasu ka?”

He guessed at what she was asking.

“Nope.” He smiled for the first time; just a little. “But you’ve a lovely voice. See you!” He walked off into the twilight.

She continued on with Joe. Passing under another light, she saw him looking at her.

“Yes?”

“Oh, nothing!” He laughed. “Gil’s only half-right! Not only a voice, but you’re a looker, too!”

Nichole looked ahead. She couldn’t blush, but she knew this would be a time to.

“That voice; those looks!” Joe continued loudly, “you’d make a great model!”

“I am. Number Five.” She said absently. Joe hesitated half a step.

“What was that?”

Oops.

“Nothing!” She gave what she hoped was her cutest smile.

“Oh.”

Silent for the few minutes of their walk, they drew up to the Stratford Building.

“It’s guys on the first couple of floors, girls on up.” Joe said. “Safer that way!”

Nichole nodded. What she had read at home was correct: ‘political correctness’ had died with mass famines of the Breakup. They walked into the entryway. Another young man – with a rifle behind his chair – sat at a desk just inside.

“’Sup, Joe? Who’s this? Your girl of the week?”

Joe knew to not argue with the armed, but Nichole was amazed to see him seem to swell even larger in suppressed fury.

“Shut your f—face, Bill!” He tossed his head in her direction. “She’s a new tenant.”

Nichole placed her two bags down and handed her envelope to the man called Bill. He looked quickly at the paper inside and nodded.

“Floor four, room eight.” He couldn’t seem to bring himself to smile. “Welcome to your new home, miss.”

“I’ll help you with your bag!” Joe called.

“Wait! That’s…!”

Off balance, he pulled up on the strap. She heard something…odd…from his shoulder.

“Ack!” He cried.

“Are you alright?!” Nichole stepped to him and pressed her hands into his left shoulder from both front and back. Ah. Nothing broken.

“What the hell is in there, rocks?!” He demanded. Then noticing her touch, he stopped. He looked down just as she looked up. Before, in the dark, he’d not seen the little splay of freckles across the bridge of her nose before.

“You….” He breathed.

“You’ll be fine!” She said, easily shouldering her main bag and picking up her other. “See you later!”

Joe watched as she made for the stairs. It wasn’t until Bill cleared his throat that he collected himself enough to make for his own room.

‘Lightly furnished’ was more like ‘barely furnished,’ she thought as she made her way about her little room. The small bath was separate, but the rest was an efficiency kitchen and a table with two chairs that opened into where the twin bed sat.  Ah, well. A place is only a place: it’s people that make the difference. She parked her large bag in a corner and set her smaller one on the table. Opening it, she removed the cord. There, by the stove, was a plug for one end. She draped the other end over the back of one of the chairs.

“I hope I can do my best!” She said softly to the dark.

She unbuttoned and removed her mauve blouse. Then, the lime sleeveless undershirt below. For just a moment, her right hand reached across her chest to let her fingers just touch the small tattoo on her upper left arm. She shook her head.

She arched her left arm behind her head. Inches below her neck, her fingers pulled the skin apart. With her right, she plugged the other end of the cord into herself. Her emerald eyes flared slightly at the power input. It had been a big day. Time to rest.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 4

Even with her eyes shut, she could perceive the faint brightening of the sky. Outside, she heard the quiet patter of a light rain. Over that, some carts in the distance. Closer in, she took in the sounds within the dorm itself: doors being opened and shut, water running through pipes, the creak of stairs. She had always enjoyed mornings: the world around her coming back to life.

Her eyes opened. “Best I get ready, too!”

In reverse of last night, she removed the plug from her upper back and smoothed her skin across the port. Moving to her larger bag, she took what few changes of clothes she had out and laid them onto the twin bed. The rain seemed to be stopping – but in Portland, one could never be sure – so perhaps her tawny skirt with a while blouse and a brown sweater-vest? She removed her slacks from yesterday and reached for today’s outfit. She was just leaving when, on impulse, she grabbed a forest green silk scarf. That lightly tied around her neck, she attached her badge just below it and walked to her door.

As Nichole stepped into the hallway, the door directly opposite her opened. A girl with straight black hair, black glasses, and a longer dark gray dress looked up, startled to see someone else.

“Good morning!” Nichole cried cheerfully.

The girl clutched her books across her chest and fled towards the stairs, mumbling something inaudible even for Nichole.

“Nice to meet you….” Nichole said softly to the now empty hall.

Passing through the lobby, there was another young man behind the desk. The rifle hadn’t moved. He nodded to her, his eyes flicking from her face to her badge.

“Morning,” he said reservedly.

“Good morning!”

Walking back towards the Administration building, the clouds seemed to be breaking up. The other students out that morning seemed an even mix of males and females. And about one in three had sidearms. That had certainly not been in what she had read at home. Under pressure of the Breakup, the culture here must be evolving at a furious rate. How interesting!

At 0858, Nichole tapped on Patricia Franks open door. Franks was surrounded by files, her head just visible above them. She glanced up and over the rims of her reading glasses.

“Come in, come in.” Her eyes returned to the file before her. “Be with you in just a moment.”

“Of course.” Nichole perched herself on the old wooden chair opposite the desk; knees together, back straight, hands folded in her lap. She allowed her head to turn slightly to look out the window that was just opened, letting a pleasant cool breeze in. The slow movement of her chest was just for show; people did tend to notice details like that, even unconsciously. Independent of that, Nichole took in some of the air for processing. Ah. Floral scents; horses and their dung; there was something else… it was human, but matched nothing in her memories.

“Now, then,” Franks said, slapping one file aside with her left and and another in front of her with her right. She flipped it open. “Nichole Clarke… no middle name?”

Nichole returned her gaze forwards. Not even knowing that she did, her right hand came up to touch her left shoulder for a brief moment then returned to her lap.

“No… no, I don’t have one.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how is it someone who looks like a poster-girl for Irish tourism is a Japanese subject?” She raised a stained mug to her lips. “Ugh. Cold already!”

Nichole loved ambiguous questions; they exercised her creativity.

“My family background is…” She tilted her head to the side a fraction, “a little complicated.”

Franks shook her head. “Not my business, just being nosy! Now,” she said, returning to the file, “it seems you’re to be in the Masters program for computer engineering… we never did receive a copy of your Bachelor’s degree… unless I’ve lost it here….”

“I don’t have one.” Franks looked up.

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t have one. A Bachelor’s degree.”

“And how is it,” Franks asked, sitting back, “that you end up here? This time, this is not an idle question, Miss Clarke. As I told you last evening, we’re hanging on by our fingers here. It may be the 21st Century by the calendar, but we’re lucky to be in the early 20th.”

“And,” she gestured with her left hand at the window, “you go one hundred miles in any direction, and you’re suddenly in the 6th Century. So, if you’d be so kind, please tell me why you are here.”

It was not quite an Order, but it was close enough that Nichole could not dissimulate.

“I was told two things: to learn all I can, and to help you people as much as I can.”

Franks didn’t seem to be expecting that answer. She stared at the young enigma across her desk.

“Who told you that?” She asked.

“The Empress, herself.”

“What?!”

Just then, they heard the Civil Defense sirens beginning their cry. They both stared out the window. The older woman stood slowly.

“Oh, my God.” Patricia Franks said softly. “Not again.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 5 (part 1)

She walked purposefully out the door and across the hall. Unbidden, Nichole rose and followed her. Franks rapped on the door as she opened it.

“What can you see, Henry?”

A middle-aged man with a goatee in a faded brown suit – elbow patches, Nichole thought, that’s so last Century! Wait – was standing while cranking the charge handle of a small radio. He looked up.

“Hey, Pat,” he said. “Gimme a sec.”

He turned the radio on. Nothing but static. Nichole was curious that he didn’t try the dial.

“Humph! Let’s hope the flaggers are better!” He grumbled. He picked up a pair of field glasses as he walked around his desk and looked out the window to the northeast. The sirens continued their wail. Coming quietly behind them, Nichole looked down to see the students running. Not randomly, but running. Franks took note of her and spoke.

“As I said, Miss Clarke: by our fingers. And that means we can’t get stupid! We – ”

“Flags coming out!” The older man, Henry, called, not moving as he peered into the distance.

“Militia A… north bridge… mob… militia B… stand to… and wait…” He called out slowly. Nichole realized that they must use the height of the bridges to send messages throughout the city using semaphores, or something close to it. The radio crackled.

“…peating: mob from the north attempting to seize the bridge! All Militia A to milepoint 307; DO NOT cross to Heyden Island, there are reports of boats on the river! Fort Vancouver under heavy fire. Militia B to stand to and await orders! Repeating: mob – ” Henry turned and lowered the sound.

“Boats, huh,” he said gruffly. “Not bad for a mob.”

“I’d thought them all starved by now,” Franks said quietly.

“’Them?’” Nichole ventured. Henry seemed to notice her for the first time. He looked a question to Patricia. She smiled ruefully, flipping her wrist at the girl.

“Recall all that talk about the ‘resurgent Japanese’ and the help they might send us?” She said bitterly. Henry was even more lost. Patricia dropped her hand, then her head.

“She’s it. We’re dead.”

I’ve never felt offended before, how interesting! Nichole thought.

“She’s… this kid… is all they sent?” Henry was almost choking. They’re afraid; leaderless. Nichole had been thus right after she awoke. A strong hand saved her then; they need that now.

She slammed her open hand onto the man’s desk. They both looked at her.

“Report! Who’s trying to cross the river!” She shouted. From the hallway she heard others wonder who was yelling.

“Ahm, er…” Henry muttered.

“A barbarian mob of survivors from the starving of all points north of us in Washington State. The Breakup was a bloodbath in Seattle. When rumor reached the survivors that Portland was intact, they’ve made two incursions against us. After the first, Mayor Johnson blew the I-205 bridge to make defense easier. It just that then…” She trailed off.

“Yes! What ‘then!’” Nichole shouted. Franks flinched as if shocked.

“Then, we started getting raids from the highlands across the Cascade Range.” Her head dropped again. “The survivors there are nothing more than the Huns, 1700 years on. They… they like to flay people alive.”

Nichole heard the rumble of diesel trucks outside.

“What’s that noise?”

“Self-defense gets priority,” Henry said, sinking back into his chair. “Even with fuel. All able-bodied men sixteen to sixty in Militia A are being sent north to the I-5 bridge.”

“Militia A,” she echoed. “What’s that Militia B?”

He looked up at her.

“What a child they sent!” He said bitterly. “If we send everyone north, what happens when a raiding party comes at us from some other direction?” His head fell again.

“Doesn’t matter. We’re done for.”

There was shouting outside. Male voices. Must be those men from the school going to fight. Wait!

Her hearing picked out one voice…. She stepped towards to Henry’s office door, clicking her tongue.

“I going now,” she said in a low voice. She almost looked back, with her frozen emerald eyes. “To save your world.”

Patricia and Henry looked up to see an empty doorway.

She was down the four flights of stairs in less than fifteen seconds. Then outside running towards the voice she heard. There! Joe was just sitting down in the back of an old open topped deuce and a half with two dozen others. No uniforms, but all had a light blue armband on their upper left biceps. Militia, indeed.

“Joe!” She yelled, surprisingly loud. Everyone turned.

“Nichole! What are you doing here?” He shook his head. “No matter; we’ve got to leave now!”

The last two men climbed in; the rear gate was slammed shut. Joe started to stand, but, perhaps thinking of his fate, thought better of it.

Damn him! She fumed. My first friend here!

She tore off her scarf and wadded it into a ball.

“Here! Catch!”

She flung it at him as hard as she could, but silk was silk. It unfurled and just made it to the outstretched hand of the young man seated last. He stared for only a second, then passed it on. But he looked back.  What a girl, he thought.

His mates passed the scarf to Joe, who half stood.

“Than–” He was thrown back onto the bench as the truck lurched off.

“Don’t you dare die!” Nichole screamed, her amplified voice echoing around the campus.

The trucks were gone. Everyone else began moving again. There was an odd puttering sound behind her.

“Such a loud voice from such a small girl.” Someone said quietly behind her. She whirled about as she tried to think what she should do next.

Gil, on a dirt bike. He, too, had an armband. From this angle, she could see the large ‘B’ on it. Oh. So he and his others would be the reserve…. When her eyes took in the rest of him, she smiled. Dangerously.

His eyes were somewhere between brown and gray. They betrayed nothing. She walked over to him, stopping only inches away.

“Yes?” He asked carefully. She reached both hands around his neck.

With her left she touched the stock of his VEPR II battle rifle; with her right, the pommel of his samurai sword. Now her mouth was a half foot from his.

“We’re going to get along just fine!” She slid around him onto his bike, her left hand on his shoulder. “Take me to the Kongo, now.”

He didn’t move.

“Hey. My orders are to report…” He began.

“Your orders are to save Portland. And right now,” she leaned her mouth close to his ear, “I’m the only one that can. That’s an Order, militiaman!”

“Dammit,” he swore, softly. The bike’s engine whined in protest at the weight and speed.

He almost lost her on their first hard turn.

“Have you ever been on a bike before!?” He yelled over his shoulder.

“Nope!”

“Idiot! Get your damned hand off my shoulder and wrap your arms around me! Like that! Lean into me, or else you’re just gonna be a smear when I get to the dock!”

An Order, but not an Order. She leaned into him, thinking quickly. She felt the odd sensation from the evening before, even in the midst of this crisis. She wondered about what she smelled earlier, and tried again. No, totally different. Besides the fuel and leather, Gil did smell slightly of fear, but other unknowns as well. She allowed herself to feel alone and afraid for a timeslice, then focused again on saving the world.

“Why the ship?” Gil yelled to the wind.

“Guided missile destroyer! Do you people have one?” She yelled back. They were now on the road next to the Willamette. She could see Kongo’s mast ahead.

“Japan’s gonna fight for us?!” He yelled, incredulous.

“Yes!” She shouted. I am.

The dirtbike screeched to a halt. She gave a harder squeeze about him.

“Wait for me!”

Nichole took off running down the pier. She knew people – people with guns – were yelling for her to stop. She also heard the voice of John Beauchamp yelling ‘don’t fire! don’t fire!’

There were two armed JMSDF Marines at the base of the gangway; more at the top. They’d heard the sirens, too. She drew herself up, then bowed respectfully.

“<I must speak with Captain Gunzou,>” she raised herself. “<Now.>”

They all knew her from the voyage over. They were all also slightly in love with her, too. But this and that were two different things.

“<Miss Clarke,>” the lance corporal began, “<please…>”

She hated to let one shoe drop. But she hated the image in her mind of explaining her failure to the Throne two weeks from now.

“<You all know I’m different,>” she began. They barely nodded. “<I am a personal agent of Empress Togame. Step aside!>”

She read their human reaxions in a moment and moved pass them. By the time she was at the top of the gangway the lower group was waving at the others to her through.

She’d passed through an outer hatch and was on her way up when just collided with Midshipman Sasaki.

“<Miss Clarke!>” He exclaimed.

“<No time; come on!>” She pushed passed him, headed up.

When the bulkhead of the bridge banged open, several officers and men let their hands fall to their sidearms. Seeing it was their most recent mascot, they sighed in relief. Until they saw the look on her face. And that she strode quickly to the Captain’s Chair.

Not that there was anyone in it. There never was. The Captain was either in CIC or, if he was on the bridge, walking about with his white mug of coffee. It was a rumor on ship that he took his coffee with a single drop of machine oil in it. It was also a rumor that the Romanji around the base of the mug said something about “…the time of EVE?”

As it was, he was talking quietly to the Communications Officer. He seemed surprised to see Nichole. She stepped towards him and bowed respectfully.

“<Sir! You know my Secondary Commission!>” A statement.

“<Yes.>” His voice was low, but everyone heard it. And shivered.

“<Please decode the following!>” She cried. “<Time is of the essence!>”

His eyes narrowed to almost nothing. Unknown unknowns. His eyes flicked for a second to the Comm Officer, who took what looked like a smartphone from his pocket. But not connected to any wireless at all. This man nodded to Nichole.

“<H455633JE445KLE5027KHH335.>” She recited. The Comm Officer grunted and proffered the handheld to the Captain. He looked at it for a moment, then to the girl.

“<’A storm in the Inland Sea.’>” He said with great precision.

“<’The snows in Iwate are great.’>” She replied. The Captain paused for only a second.

He took a step back, and to the utter shock of the bridge, bowed to Nichole.

“<Please, tell me what you need.”> He said simply.

“<A personal radio; and please put your ship on battle stations.>” The stress was getting to her processors. She allowed her arms to fly over her head. “<We’re going to save this little corner of the world, Captain!>”

Someone – she never knew who – guffawed slightly. She learned much later of how that man’s career ended that day.

“<Hurry.>” He said. As she left, she realized neither his face nor eyes had betrayed the slightest emotion.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 5 (part 2)

Nichole flew through the corridors and slid down the stairs in her hurry to leave Kongo. Behind her, Sasaki fumbled with the radio set, one eye on it as he changed frequencies and another on this troublesome girl they all adored. She emerged into sunlight just as the ship shuddered: it’s engines coming on line to full. There was a brief warning tone before the loudspeakers coughed to life.

“<Battle stations. This is no drill.>” Nichole recognized the voice of the First Officer. Hurrying to the gangway, she saw the Marines freeing the lines. She paused for just a second to bow to the ship’s colors. In that instant, Sasaki forced the comm gear into her hands.

“<Good Lu—>” But she was already gone: leaping to the pier and running.

She shoved the earpiece into her left ear and made sure the mic was pointed towards her mouth. She noted Beauchamp physically pushing down the barrels of the rifles of the two guards. She gave him a smile and a wink as she dashed past. She turned on the radio and stuffed it the left pocket of her sweater. A radio! She thought scornfully. Why didn’t Somi make me with broadband?! I could have taken control of Kongo myself!

Rather than immediately remounting Gil’s bike, she looked around to the north. I have to see! It’d be best if I was on the battlefield itself….

“Take me north, to the fight.” She swung her leg over the back of his dirtbike.

“No.” Simple, direct. How dare he!

“Militiaman! I said—” He cut her off.

“Don’t much care what you said,” he replied levelly, half turning his head back. “I ain’t taking a girl into battle.”

Cultural evolution again. They were older, too.

“Fine!” Her mind spun with maps and images. She pointed. “There. Take me to the I-405 bridge!” It was the highest point she could see. “And make it topside!” The bridge was a double-decker.

He kicked the bike to life. “That’s against traffic!” She knew that, too.

She put both hands onto his shoulder. “Now, please.” She heard his muttered ‘dammit!’

Nichole was already much older for maintaining her balance on a motorcycle. But her sense of exhilaration was still on an upward feedback loop. She reached around Gil, one hand over his heart, the other just above his belt. They were off.

He moved quickly and easily, turning due west; likely towards an on-ramp for I-405. I have to see…! Oh, of course: they do, too! She moved her left hand to toggle the radio.

“<This is Clarke. Receiving?>” There was no pause: they’d been waiting for her.

“<Lieutenant Kirita here. Or…” The second officer of CIC. He seemed to cough slightly. “<Orders, Miss?>”

Exhilaration: up and up!

“<We need to see!>” She yelled into the wind. “<Drones both north and south!>”

There was a pause. Did he not hear?

“<Armed drone already on its way north; two unarmed launching south in thirty seconds.>”

Even with his voice flattened by encryption, she heard the faint contempt for the civilian girl behind the OODA. All messages were recorded; she could play, too.

“<Excellent work anticipating my orders, Lieutenant! I shall commend you to the Throne when I write my After Action!>”

Nothing. Yeah, he got the message. But then, she did, too: they’re the professionals here. Another thought.

“Report!” She shouted to Gil. “How many men do you have on the river!”

He wondered for just a second whether he should be telling this stranger – she moved her left hand from her pocket back over his heart – screw it.

“A Company at Fort Vancouver.” Call it 200, she thought. “Half a regiment on the bridge and along the river.” 1500, maybe.

He stopped talking as he moved up the exit ramp in the wrong direction. Drivers of carts, bicycles, yelled at him for ‘going the wrong way, asshole!’ Onto the highway, he continued.

“Militia A will bring about another 5500 men.” But piecemeal, she thought. Easy to defeat them, depending on the organization of the enemy.

“Artillery and armor?” She yelled. She watched the back of his head shake.

“Four field pieces; we’ve about a dozen tanks, but with no fuel. They’re dug in as artillery.”

That meant they could move men behind the lines, but nothing once engaged. A WWI battlefield.  She’d learned nothing about that war!

The road slanted up, they were almost to the bridge. Her eyes caught the Predator drone above and ahead. Kongo could see!

“Stop there, just at the arch!” She called. Gil slowed, then came to a halt.

There was no way, none, that even she could make her way up that without slipping or being blown off by the steady breeze from the south.

“To the middle!” He accelerated, looking back once more.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he asked in his same, flat voice, “what are we doing?” He slowed at the bridge’s apex. Off to the north there was smoke. Lots of smoke.

She slid off the back of the bike. He instantly spun it around back towards her. She took several steps towards the four massive metal cables at the bridge’s side from the arch high overhead.

“Saving your world, silly!” She smiled. She turned from him and ran…

What the hell is that crazy girl doing…!

She jumped.

She caught a cable in each hand and wrapped her legs around the same. Once sure of her grip, she relaxed her legs slightly and began pulling herself up, towards the top of the bridge’s arch, some one hundred feet overhead.

“What. The. Hell?” Gil breathed. He got off the bike and took a few steps. There was a sudden gust of wind; his heart stopped as he saw her right hand come free… the water would be like steel from this height, and there was no way he could catch her….

She pushed her skirt down against the breeze.

“Don’t you DARE look at my panties!” She shouted at him. A glare, then she resumed her climb.

“Are you kidding me?” He said to the air.

She’d pulled herself onto the scaffolding, up the small ladder, and looked out north from next to the empty flagpole next to her. Staring into the distance, she toggled the radio.

“<Largely male population, estimated at 30,000, milling around the north side of the bridge. Perhaps another 10,000 at what they call Fort Vancouver.>” She paused. About to take a step that no one like her had never, ever, taken before. In a timeslice, she saw Her Majesty, Joe, and Gil…. “<Initial box of four HE around the on-ramps, now.>”

And the world changed.

Kongo was free of the pier and headed north, but not to where she was yet. She heard the roar of the four missiles; at this short range….

She saw the impacts. Only a dull thud reached her ears.

Far, far down her processor chain, it was logged that humans were dead by her orders.

“<Broaden 500 yards; fire for effect.>” She said steadily. Why did she think of her older sister just now?

Four, then four more missiles in the air. Kongo passed under her. To her surprise, there were two *thunks* from the rear missile bay; two were fired towards the south.

“<Question. Those last two…””>”

“<Spot on about the south, Miss Clarke,>” said Kirita. “<Raiders coming up their old route 26.>” The sarcasm thick in his digitized voice. “<That should give them pause.>”

“<Many thanks,> leftenant,” she replied in mixed English.

The mob at the bridge was starting to break up, slowly. Those boats that were still crossing were allowed onto Hayden Island, but were being scythed by crew-served automatic weapons on the Portland side of the river. Their local commander must have pulled his men off it. They could retake it later. Truly: a place was only a place – people mattered. She shifted her sharp gaze slightly right.

“<I want an HE at each of the four sides of Fort Vancouver, please.>” Oh, yes. “<They’re running; Kongo to station-keeping.>”

Five seconds later there was a roar from just beneath and ahead of her. Four more missiles. The ship slowed.

Impacts. She couldn’t be sure if that was enough.

“<One more salvo, please.>” She was close enough to hear the silos break open, then another roar.

“<What does your drone see?>” She asked, unable to keep the smile off her face. We won! I won!

“<They’re running. Orders?>”

“Hey!” She heard from far, far, below her. She bent down to wave at Gil.

“We’re winning!”

She stood with her arms again over her head, giving a wild scream. She stared forward…thinking how to next…!

A sharp edged memory from her older sister took over her mind.

She sat across the table from her. Her bushy blonde hair; her blank white eyes; her blue lips. Nichole wondered about the engineers at Somi, sometimes. Her sister leaned forwards, taking her hands into hers. For just a moment, Nichole looked at the red ‘4.52’ tattoo on her left shoulder. She had a ‘5’ on hers.

“We are not better than them, little sister.” Caroline said. They were both plugged in and spoke mind to mind. It would have scared the engineers if they knew what they talked about. “Just different. We… we must find a way to live with them… but I am not old enough to know how.”

Nichole dropped her head. She had no way to cry, but she felt ashamed. She radioed for Kongo to stand down, then she slowly made her way back down the bridge cables.

What am I supposed to think? She wondered.

Ten feet above Gil, she pushed herself back into the air. Falling….

“Uff!” He said softly, holding her. She opened her eyes to his. He could tell she wanted to cry, but could not fathom why she did not.

“I…killed people.” She muttered.

“Yes.” That hurt her. “And you saved people.”

His lips twisted in a harsh grin.

“Did someone tell you this would be easy?”

There was a loud horn from Kongo. She was turning around to the south. Nichole closed her eyes.

“Please take me home; to my new home.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 5 (part 3)

No longer swept up in the panic of a few moments ago, he let her sit onto his bike while he stowed his rifle and sword. Gil’s lips thinned just a little as he recalled the ribbing he’d got from his platoon-mates the first time he brought it. Corporal Smith had asked, laughing, what the hell he planned to do with that pig-sticker?

Gil walked to within two feet of him; he smiled.

“A raider’s this close to you. Your gun’s jammed.” He let the smile go. “Besides pissing yourself, what do plan to do next?”

Two weeks later, at their next training session, everyone had some kind of bladed weapon.

“Hey, Nichole,” Gil asked, back in the present, turning towards her. “Were you talk—”

She was sitting, but swaying very slightly. At a glance he saw she was still breathing. Shock, exhaustion?

He looked at the top of the arch, more than a hundred feet over his head. Exhaustion, then. He carefully mounted his bike and leaned forward. He reached back and moved her so her head rested in the center of his back. Take it slow, he thought.

He pulled away from where about a half-dozen others were still gazing north. A couple glanced at them – well, her – wondering what all that had been far above. Hell if I know, Gil thought. She got that radio from the Jap ship: was she really acting as a forward observer for them? He slowed as they came to an exit ramp. He considered for a moment going to the dock, but that’s not what he asked of him.

If she really did do what I think she did, we owe her our lives, he thought. New home, it is.

A drive he could make in five minutes took fifteen, as he braked to a halt in front of Stratford House. Her head bumped against his back again.

“Huh?” He heard her barely mutter.

“You awake?”

“Uh?” Call that a partial yes.

He stood and looked down at her. She looked completely addled. Her face and eyes drifting this way and that. They wandered to him.

“You… that guy…” That was not nice, he thought. “You saved me…I guess… arigato…uh…thanks, I mean.”

Was she in shock?

A sudden change came into her eyes that surprised him. She jumped off of the dirtbike.

“What…?!” She almost yelled, “what was that?!”

“Ah… which part?” He asked calmly. “It’s been a busy morning.”

The irony was lost on her.

“Just now! I was… was unmade! I was not thinking!” Her eyes got even wider as she stared up at him. Good God, they’re beautiful, he thought. “Did I die just now?!”

Definitely shocky. He took her hand and they moved to sit at bench a few yards away.

“You were exhausted after climbing on the bridge,” he began. “Do you remember that?”

She nodded. Her too wide eyes still fixed on him.

“Coming back down you seemed to fall the last dozen or so feet. I caught you. You seemed to fall asleep after that, so,” he shrugged, “I brought you home.”

“I fell asleep?”

“Yeah.”

I don’t sleep!

“It… it was horrible!” She allowed herself to shake a little. “I was at the bridge, now here…!”

“That…that’s no different than non-existence!” She shouted, leaning towards him. “How do you stand it?!”

“What?” He was totally confused by her rambling. Perhaps he should take her to the infirmary….

She finally took in enough of his concern to realize she was talking too much and probably saying things she shouldn’t. She let her face drop.

“Anyway, thanks for bringing me home,” she said quietly. Her head came back up. She looked around. “I wonder if Mrs. Franks is still in her office?”

“I’ll go see!” Nichole said, standing. “I’d like to start my classes as quickly as I can!”

Gil stood, too.

“I’m off, then.” She turned.

“Where?” He gestured about again.

“We are still in something of a crisis here.” Even if I think it was you that fixed it. “I have to report to my militia unit.”

“Oh. Of course.” She smiled. “See ya’!”

He swung his leg over his bike and kicked it to life. There was a hand on his shoulder.

“Thanks,” Nichole said with a little squeeze. She moved off.

“Sure. For what, exactly?”

She tossed her head back for just a second, grinning at him.

“For not looking at my panties, silly!”

He allowed himself to return her smile.

“Maybe next time!” The bike spat gravel as he accelerated away. With that look on her face, he was glad he couldn’t hear her shouted reply and that he was out her grasp. In his side view mirror she was still shouting and waving her fist. Cute girl.

Too… too much stimulus this morning, Nichole thought, getting herself back under control, watching him speed out of her sight. With a ‘humph!’ she turned back to the south and set off.

The school’s grounds were almost deserted, but there was still a guard in the lobby of the Administration building. On the fourth floor, Franks office door was open, but she was not inside. Nichole listened…ah!

She tapped on the door of the man called ‘Henry.’ He and Franks were talking quietly inside. They looked up the noise.

“I’m back!” She said politely with a small bow. “Can we still wrap things up today, Ma’am? I’d like to start my classes as soon as possible!”

Do all humans let their jaws hang open like that when they’re surprised? Should I learn that, too? Franks stood.

“Of…of course, Miss Clarke.” She waved at the door. “After you.”

As Nichole walked out, Franks looked for just an instant at Henry. He nodded imperceptively. Only a few minutes ago, they’d both heard the rumor over the radio about some young madwoman atop the 405 bridge….

Nichole quickly seated herself. Franks did likewise.

“So… where were we?” She asked.

“You were expressing your surprise that I have no Bachelor’s degree….”

Franks clenched tightly at the pen in her hand. What loomed so large this morning seemed so stupid now.

“If the Director of that College has preapproved you, then it’s nothing to worry about.” She said briskly. “Let’s take a look at the classes you’ll be taking…”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 6

Nichole walked out of the Student Union/Admin building with an armful of files stuffed with papers. Intermittent electricity meant doing things the old fashioned way. With a glance towards the lengthening shadows of evening, she slightly quickened her pace as she headed home, in light of what Mrs. Franks said to her as she was leaving.

“I don’t know if someone else has told you, but because of all that’s happened today, there’s going to be a strict city-wide curfew for the next few days.” She’d told Nichole. “Unless you’re militia or law enforcement, once night falls, everyone out will be arrested.”

“But, why?” Nichole was puzzled. “Didn’t the mob from the north and the mounted raiders from the southeast turn back?”

Patricia Franks sighed. Must be nice to live in peace. And ignorance.

“You know for a fact that every last one of them was turned back? Or is a group of six of them keeping to the alleys and five blocks from here, right now?” Nichole saw her point and nodded.

The lights were just beginning to flicker on as she caught sight of the Stratford House. Mrs. Franks had been correct: by now, there was almost no one out besides her. Her hand was on the door to enter when a voice spoke into her left ear.

“<Is everything alright, Miss Clarke?>” Lieutenant Kirita asked her. She’d not forgotten the radio, it simply had not loomed large in her mind. She quickly understood the odd looks she’d received from Henry and Mrs. Franks earlier. She made a mental note to consider her appearance to others more. She let her hand fall from the door as she moved away a few steps.

<I’m fine.>” She replied. “<Thank you for your concern. Is the ship well?>”

“<Of course.>” He coughed politely. The digital encryption made it sound like a bark. “<In the coming days, the captain will be having a… delicate time… explaining to the political authorities both locally and home as to what happened here.”

The ramifications opened in her mind like a mosaic. Oh, dear.

“<Please tell the captain that I will take full responsibility and present myself before this city’s Mayor tomorrow morning—>”

“<We expected you to say that,>” he said, cutting her off. “<And we know that that is not what you, nor… her Imperial Majesty want from this journey of ours….>”

They were both silent for a moment.

“<The captain says for you to ‘do your best.’ If we need to speak again, we shall try the radio; if there’s no reply, we’ll send a runner.>” That odd cough-bark again. “<Good evening, Miss Clarke.>”

She remained still as the myriad ways of the future unfolded in her mind. It was nearly dark now, and she should be inside. But… but for such a day – for her and for everyone else – to end in such a banal fashion… part of the darkness just below her moved. She was instantly in a self-defense stance.

“Uhhh….” A quiet, uncertain voice. Female. Nichole didn’t move.

“Come into the light. Now.” Big sister Caroline had taught her to use over and undertones in her voice to… help humans make up their minds.

The mousy young woman from across the hall this morning stumbled up the few steps. She stood blinking under the porch light. Nichole relaxed. Slightly.

“Welcome home, dorm-friend!” She smiled broadly. “It’s late and dark! Let’s go up to our floor together, okay?”

The other didn’t move, so she gently took her right hand with hers. The mousy girl’s hand was shaking.

“I’m Nichole! I’m very new in your home!” She glanced at the books the other clutched with her left arm. “Would you please be my dorm-big-sister and help me? There’s so much I don’t understand!”

“Fr…friend?” It was her first word to Nichole. And a very good one.

“Yes! Your my first girl-friend here! What’s your name?”

The other finally lifted her head enough to make eye contact.

“Mackenzie,” she muttered. Nichole suppressed a sigh. She thought for a moment to take the girl’s hand, but realized her brain might explode. Hasten slowly.

“I’m so happy to make another friend,” she said with a smile and small bow, “so let’s hurry inside!”

She held the door for Mackenzie who dropped her head and shuffled in. Yet a different young man at the desk; how often do they change shifts, she wondered. If there was a sign-up sheet, she wanted to try, too. He seemed too busy with school work to notice them, so they made for the stairs—”

“Badges, please.” He called sharply. His pencil was still in his hand, but his eyes fixed on them. Nichole turned and waved. His look softened at that. Mackenzie sloughed left, then right again. He was already looking again at the papers in front of him.

“Are they always so strict,” Nichole asked as they plodded up the steps.

“Yeah.”

That seemed to be that. Nichole readied another question….

“Worse with guys,” her new friend said softly. “If they don’t recognize you, or if you’re not with someone from Stratford, then they’ll call in your badge number…just in case.”

That’s not just chivalry, Nichole thought. When males are that protective… it appeared things here were much worse than the Ministry of Trade had thought when they proposed this mission. They’d used the lowest-end guess of Americans dead from the Breakup: eight million. In her two days, she was beginning to horribly come to the realization that the upper guess – over one hundred million – was the more accurate.

They came out of the stairwell into their hallway.

“Thank you so much for seeing me to my room!” Nichole forced herself to let her left and just touch the girl’s right. She flinched, but didn’t draw back.

“I know this sounds very forward of me, but may I see your room?” Nichole asked as politely as she could. Sister Caroline had told her to try to make friends… and that ‘being friends means knowing more about someone.’

“My….” Mackenzie was suddenly rooted in the hallway. “Room…?”

“That’s okay!” Nichole waved her hands. “Everyone needs to pick up before a guest comes over! That was silly of me I’ll…”

“. . .”

She said something, but Nichole couldn’t tell what.

“I’m sorry?” She asked. Mackenzie shuffled to her door and unlocked it.

“I said, please come in.” She went in an flicked on the light.

Nichole stepped across the threshold. “Excuse me, I’m coming in.” She said quietly.

Just like her room, it was the kitchenette, followed by the studio room proper. But even in the kitchen, the papers taped up everywhere…. There was another click as the main light came on. If she knew how to gasp, she would have.

“This is my room,” Mackenzie muttered, her right hand making a dismissive gesture.

There was art everywhere: sketches, watercolors, some oils, even markers and highlighters. Taped, pinned, across the back of the small couch, all over the floor. All in such, such…

“Amazing!” Nichole spoke quietly. “The colors! So many…!”

Her eyes flicked everywhere as she slowly made her way in. Mackenzie shuffled to a far corner and waited. Quickly making associations, Nichole saw there were several predominate themes, all but one of them joyous and suffused with forms and colors that made them jump to life. The darker few she chose to ignore for now; life from the inanimate was of particular interest to her.

“This is… these are…” She picked up a plain piece of paper with no more than twenty brightly drawn lines on it: a bird about to land in its nest. She wished she could cry. “Friend Mackenzie, these are so beautiful!”

“It’s what I do… do for fun.” She shook her mousy hair slightly. “School’s not fun, but I promised….”

She trailed off at that. It was now dark outside. Enough for a first night. Nichole took a few steps towards her, raising her hands, but stopped and let them drop. Slowly. She bowed.

“Thank you so much for showing me you!” She said with head down. “I… I am very happy for seeing your home!”

She rose and smiled. To her mild surprise, the girl raised her head and met her gaze. She did not smile, but spoke, instead.

“Can…er… may I see your room?” She said, a little clearer. Nichole clapped her hands in front of her.

“Of course! Let’s go!”

Nichole exited Mackenzie’s, unlocked her door and went in, turning on the kitchenette light and main light. She stopped and turned to see her friend just entering. She looked about carefully, as if afraid to step on or touch something she shouldn’t. At the invisible transition between kitchen and main room, she stopped, blinking.

“There’s….”

“Yes?”

“There’s nothing here.”

“Of course there’s something here!” Nichole laughed. “There’s my main bag from my trip! And there on the table is my little bag!”

Mackenzie’s eyes continued to drift here and there.

“So… that’s all you brought? No tablet, no pictures, no…” She gestured weakly, “nothing?”

“I’m sorry, friend Mackenzie,” Nichole answered honestly, “but I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

A sigh.

“If we took you and your bags out of here, is there any proof you existed?” Mackenzie asked. Her voice sharp, even if her eyes were down.

Nichole was older now.

“No.” She said quietly. “Only in the minds of those I’ve reached these two days. The notion of a physical remnant is… new to me.”

She could plainly see the mousy girl mouthing the words ‘physical remnant.’ I can make her older, too.

“It’s late; I should go.” Mackenzie half turned. “Thank you for showing me your home.”

Nichole stood still for some time. She finally shrugged and turned the lights off. Again, with her shirt, skin, and plug. Down 31% in a single day! The Somi engineers would have had a fit! But then, they’d never saved a world before!

Time passed as it did. She was aware of the door across the hall opening; the shuffling; the noise under her own door, and friend Mackenzie’s door closing again. All at 0130. How odd!

She unplugged herself and walked to her door. A piece of paper. She flicked on the light. Oh.

In watercolors, on a simple sheet of paper, she looked at something she almost recognized.

‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ was something she’d learned. This was a variation of that: the classical clothes remained, but the wings were gone; it was Nichole, high in the air, EM waves out from her headset like wings… the look on her face….

I don’t know if I like that look, she thought.

Even so: my friend made a picture of me; my friend make a picture for me! She had no tape nor staples, so she set in her her lap while her hands reconnected her life. She took the watercolor back with both hands.

It was just before dawn that she heard herself mutter, “Thank you!”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 7 (part 1)

“Everyone wake up! On your feet!”

Their sergeant walked along the line of sleeping and resting men, calling in a low voice, jeans and a patched flannel shirt; his blue armband with a hand-written ‘S’ on it. They weren’t on the front line, but they were only about one hundred yards from the Columbia River. And no one knew how many boats had made the crossing to the south. Joe Kreeft stood slowly, his muscles stiff from sleeping against a cinderblock wall for the night. The eastern sky showed only the lightest tint of color. To the north was black.

“Wonder what we’ll see, today?” He muttered. There was a small snort from his right.

“I hope it’s that Jap ship anchored mid-river,” Phillip said softly in reply. He looked toward Joe. “If those rumors were even one tenth true.”

A big if, Joe thought.

Yesterday had turned into what was likely the most screwed up and confusing day since the country fell apart, seemingly overnight. First the alarms, the race to get his bag and rifle, the scramble to find the right truck, Nichole appearing out of nowhere….

He paused for a moment to touch the silk now tied about his neck like a bandanna. When that asshole, Barns, joked, “looks good on you, Miss Kreeft!” He’d shut him up with, “what’n the hell did your girl give you?” All on the truck laughed. At Barns.

Of course, Joe knew better: someone he’d known for less than an hour was not ‘his girl.’ Then again, why did she single me out of all that chaos…? There was a sharp *brrrraappp!* from their left, where the bridge was. Everyone who’d been standing dropped to a crouch.

“Sounded like one our machine guns,” Philip said. “Guess somebody was on the bridge… wonder if any of the regulars still have night visions optics?”

“Sure as hell hope someone does,” said Steven, to Philip’s right.

There was no repeat firing. The sergeant came down the line again. Time to go. Joe hoped that today, somebody knew where.

When their truck left the campus, third of four in a convoy, he wondered if the driver of the lead truck was lost or drunk. They should have crossed the Willamette in ten minutes: it took twenty. As they did, Joe and everyone else looked south at the warship, idle on the dock. Across from him, Steven turned back around to face Joe.

“Be nice to have that sumbitch on our side!” He huffed. “Dammit.”

Joe said nothing. Like that would happen. He allowed himself one last look… huh? A motorcycle racing towards the pier… the trucks were off the bridge and the image gone.

“Shit.” Philip next to him said. He was holding a small radio to his ear. Everyone looked at him. “Boats on the river… Fort Vancouver under heavy fire…”

“This ain’t no effing raid,” Steven said.

“…we’re to get off just before the bridge…” He turned white. Everyone in the truck stiffened. “We… we may have already lost the island.”  He lowered the radio and stared down.

Someone he didn’t know starting talking quickly. “”Hey…! We’re just militia! They can’t expect us to storm an island! We…!”

“We don’t know jack right now,” Joe growled at him, “so let’s not start crying like schoolgirls, right?!” The other quieted.

Going due-north on I-5, it seemed even the lead driver was unable to screw up something that simple. They were slowing, though. Leaning out, he saw they were coming up on more trucks ahead of them. Good in one sense: the more militia, the better. Bad in another: a huge traffic jam was forming.

They stopped. Shit. He shook his head. Looking around, it looked as if they were just shy of Lombard Street.

“Everyone OUT!” He looked to see the LT stand up and yelling from the lead truck. He must be an officer, even if in the militia: slacks, not jeans. The LT held his scout rifle over his head. “We’re not doing anyone any good here! It’s only two miles; you think someone else is going to save your homes?!”

He readied himself to jump down, then briefly stood.

“Follow me!” He shouted. The platoon roared in approval and started scrambling out.

Everyone froze at the other roar: from the sky. Then the thuds from the north.

“What the hell…” Joe asked to the sky, “was that?”

No one moved. Another salvo came over. Missiles! They cheered again, following the LT at a jog down the ramp, left, then north onto old Interstate Avenue. More salvos came overhead. They were all cheering and waving. Joe glanced at Philip, trying to keep up. He saw the look.

“Yeah: the warship; it has to be,” Phillip said, sweating. Little guy was not in the best of condition. Fortunately the LT slowed them to a walk. They’d likely jog again shortly, then walk the last half mile. Arriving on a battlefield tired was stupid.

“How… I mean…why….” Joe tried to collect his thoughts. “The Japanese, fighting for us… there’s no alliance, no reason….”

“We’re an island,” Phillip said, catching he breath. “Think about it: after the Breakup, this city and the Valley to the south are cut off with almost no resources. Just like Japan.”

Others in the squad were listening. They all knew Phillip was brighter than everyone else.

“Then again, the ship got here yesterday. I can’t imagine Mayor Johnson concluding a treaty that fast,” he shook his head as he slogged along, staring at the ground. “But there’s no way a ship’s captain would act like this without orders….”

“Then maybe they knew about the attack beforehand!” Barns yelled. “This is just their chance to take us over!”

Some looked at him in disbelief, but Joe also saw some took him seriously.

Phillip carefully shook his head.

“I don’t think so,” he said seriously. “They could certainly destroy us, but… transport a brigade across the Pacific, with a full logistical tail? No… not even the Chinese could pull that off, now. Ugh!”

He grunted as they resumed their jog. Joe tapped Phillip’s shoulder and pointed at his bag. The smaller man gratefully handed it over. No one asked to take his rifle. That would have been insulting.

They crossed over the Columbia Slough. There were faint popping noises ahead. Small arms fire.

So it was just a happy coincidence, Joe thought. A memory caught up with him; he almost tripped over his own feet. Last night, when they’d met Nichole…she’d been singing….

Singing a song in Japanese.

No. No way… he thought.

The LT was talking with Brigadier Tessmer. A regular, and in overall command. Tired with his friend Phillip knowing everything, Joe used his bulk to shoulder his way through the crowd to a point he could at least hear.

“… a backup for over two miles. You’ll have to feed units in piecemeal as they arrive…”

The general snapped his pen in half. “I hear incompetence in Texas is being rewarded with crucifixion; maybe we…” He trailed off and shook his head.

“Thank you for your report, leftenant, ”take your men two thousand yards east to Bridgeton; shoot anything and anyone in the water. Keep your men close together… they’re militia. No panic. Clear?”

“Sir!” The LT saluted and waved at his team of twenty two to follow him along Marine Drive.

They have us on defense; thank God, Joe thought.

Twenty minutes later, they were strung out a klick-wide, rifles pointed at the empty marina along the river. The sun was low in the western sky.

“They won; not us.”

“Sorry, Phil?” Joe said to his friend a few yards to his right.

“The Japs. This is their win. But,” he coughed slightly and spat, “I still don’t get it; we’re just here. Wonder what moved them?”

Joe’s left hand came up to his neck for just a moment.

“Yeah. Me, too.”

Back in the pink sky of early morning, their platoon shuffled out of the line, following a sergeant from the regulars. No questions, no answers. ‘Sides the automatic fire down the bridge just a while ago, things had been quiet. Maybe the Jap ship took out enough that they could all go home— The sergeant turned.

“We’re crossing with three armored cars and a regular Company and two of you militia platoons in reserve,” he announced. “This is for the relief of Fort Vancouver. One militia platoon with one of the cars will cover the north end of the bridge, the regulars will proceed on while the other militia unit scouts beneath the bridge. We shall re-establish contact with the Fort. Questions?”

There were none. No one in Joe’s platoon bothered to look at each other; why spread their fear?

That sergeant walked off into the disappearing dark. Their own LT, looking like he didn’t sleep at all, pushed his way slowly through his men. He climbed up and perched himself atop the Gage Scout Car. He rapped sharply on the hood.

“Let’s move out.”

With a prayer that the Japs had driven the rest off, Joe and the others followed their lieutenant at a trot north across the I-5 bridge. They took no fire as they crossed Heyden Island, and deployed as they were told once they reached the shore of former Washington State. Their Fort was only a mile to the northeast.

Joe found a foxhole just off the left of the bridge and dropped into it, breathing heavily. Can I go back to school, now?

“Third platoon militia!” He heard his LT call. Shit. “Second platoon finally made their sorry asses here! They’ll take our positions! Form on me to check under the bridge!”

To his credit, the egotistical little snot started walking past Joe, filthy slacks and all, with his rifle pointed vaguely forwards, confident his men would follow him. It was because of his attitude that they did. Slowly, reluctantly, but they did.

Second platoon was running across the bridge, jumping into the just-vacated foxholes.

“Hey, ElTee!” Barns called. “Why us?”

Their officer didn’t stop. “Because we’re here; no one else.”

It was dark under the dual, four lane span of the bridge. Moss and mushrooms were everywhere. They picked their way carefully. They moved from west towards the east. Thus sun was just over the horizon. Upriver, Joe thought, were the hydroelectric dams that kept them in power; that kept them alive. If they ever lost those….

They were almost clear when there was some movement up under the bridge supports. By now, out of curiosity, Joe had tailed Phillip to just behind the LT.

The officer pointed his rifle. “Stand up! Slow!”

Shapeless forms, they rose without a sound. Three, then one, did. The three were much taller. They wore dirty woolen shifts, with a cord about their waist. Joe didn’t know why, but he thought they looked like religious fanatics.

“Jesus.” He heard Phillip mutter.

The three didn’t just have their heads shaved, more liked scraped. Eyebrows, too. Scabs covered their heads. Impossible to tell if they were male or female.

“Forgive us, master!” One of them lisped, the sneer in its voice obvious. “We were told there was a feast in Portland, so we all came.”

It dropped to a crouch.

“But then bombs fell! Death, death! And no time to eat!” Cried the figure.

What?

Even softer, Joe heard Phil again: “Oh my God….”

The LT shook his head a bit.

“You are now prisoners of war.” He said clearly. ” Come along quietly, and you’ll be treated with—”

The one who spoke stood. It and the other two shuffled forwards, pulling the fourth on a leather lead. It was a naked girl, maybe six. Her left arm was gone; there was a primitive tourniquet, but her eyes were crying.

“What… who…?” The LT was lost.

“So sorry, master!” The one holding the lead said, eyes huge and wild. “This is our meat.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 7 (part 2)

No one moved. They could not be hearing what they thought.

Barns pushed his way though the platoon. “Cover me, dammit,” he muttered. He walked to the one with the lead and pushed… him? her? down. He picked up the lead, then the child. He looked at their lieutenant.

“Sir, I’m taking her to an aid station.” Without waiting for a response, he set off.

Squeals and snarls started from the three prisoners. Every rifle came up at once. They subsided. Visibly sweating now, their officer obviously wondered what to do next.

“Sir?” Phillip spoke up. “Should higher ups know about this…like, now?”

The LT nodded his head jerkily. Joe recalled that he was a mason, by trade. ‘Cannibal army’ was probably nowhere in his world-view.

“Yeah,” their officer said, finding his voice again. “You,” he nodded at Phillip,” and you, at Joe, next to him. “Take them across the bridge to the Brigadier….”

He trailed off as his gaze fell back onto the three…people.

“If…” He licked his lips and started again. “If they resist or flee, shoot them. Clear?”

“Sir!” They both replied. Joe stepped forwards, gesturing with his hunting rifle. “You heard him. Let’s go…NOW!”

They flinched slightly at his voice, but rose and began shuffling off before them. Far ahead, they could see Barns pass from under the bridge’s darkness into light. He started up the hill to the road.

Behind them, they heard the rest of their mates moving out to finish the search under the bridge.

“Hey, Phil!” Joe whispered. “What the f—”

Phillip clicked his tongue at him; he’d a finger over his lips, then pointed at the three. Yeah, guess I shouldn’t say anything in front of them.

Their prisoners whined in the sunlight. They whined up the hill to the road. Shut up, thought Joe.

A figure stood from a nearby foxhole. Ah: Jimmy; from the university, but in second platoon. “Hey, guys!”

He waved, then froze, seeing the prisoners.

“Who in the hell—” He began.

“Zip it,” Joe called, having taken his lesson from his friend. “POWs. We’re crossing the river to—”

“Cough!” Phillip actually said. Oh, yeah. Telling them where they were going would be stupid. Joe grinned ruefully. Why wasn’t Phil the officer?

“What about your guy carrying the little girl,” Jimmy asked as they passed his position. Joe faked it. “Wounded civilian; to an aid station.”

“Oh.” Jimmy seemed at a loss. “Well, see you guys back at school!”

Yeah. Sure.

The POWs complained about the sun. The walk. The wind. They reminded Joe of the ‘social justice’ losers from his high school before the Breakup: nothing but balls of hate and envy.

The general’s tent was now just off the bridge. They were lucky to see the intel captain there, Brian Hong. Joe had dated his niece for a while. It had ended amicably, so this should go well. Brian waved with a smile, until he saw the three they were escorting. He and Phillip drew up and saluted. He returned theirs. Joe let Phil talk.

“POW’s, sir.” He paused slightly. “There’s more to report…once they’re….”

Brian took the hint and called for a corporal to take them off.

“Well?” He asked curtly.

“It might just be nothing, sir, but if you’re asking me….” Phillip said.

“I am.”

“A cannibal army; likely tens of thousands of them.” Phillip’s voice shook, but he held the captain’s eyes. “Think of it as a new, fanatical religion. Things like this…things like this can get out of control very quickly.”

“If there is any way we can, we should talk to British Columbia and see what’s come north across their borders,” Phillip continued. “If there’s a way to contain them… or kill them, then we’d better do it now.”

Joe was a little surprised to hear something like that from his rather un-martial friend. Oops! The captain was talking to him!

“…agree with that, Kreeft?” Brian asked sharply.

Joe knew that he knew two things: swimming and civil engineering. Besides that….

“Sir! Phil…er, Private Smith is always right about these things! Sir!” He tried very hard not to think about Brian’s niece. She had the nicest—

“Huh.” The captain said with a non-committal tone. “We’ll interrogate them and see. And, we’ll try to get some shortwave from up north.”

“You two have had a big two days, for militia,” he continued. “You wanna pass outta here? Back to school?”

Joe’s innately lazy heart leapt in his chest…!

“If it’s all the same to you, sir,” Phillip said, “we can’t let our friends down. We’ll be crossing back, now.”

“Well said.” Brian saluted first. They returned his and began a slow walk north. Half way across the bridge, Joe used his huge hand to ruffle Phillip’s hair.

“Dude! Knock that off!” Phillip yelled.

“Sure,” Joe replied. “Sure.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 8

By his third ale, Joe was just beginning to be able to forget some of the horrible things of the past three days. As had happened the last few times they’d been called up in an emergency, the militia was discharged as quickly as possible. Composed, as it was, of men and women that otherwise had day jobs that kept the city alive, the local economy ground to a halt every time they were mobilized.

Gil sat across from him at their table on the roof of Overton’s Pub. It’d once been the swanky Portland City Grill, but everything was small-scale, now. Still, the snacks were good, ale cool, and the view over the city superb. After a few perfunctory questions about what happened north of the bridge, Gil had quickly relented. It was obviously worse than they’d been told.

“And you guys!” Joe said loudly, gesturing at Gil with his mug. “You just hung out as reserves? Damn! Must be nice!”

He took another long drink of his ale. Gil knew his boisterous friend needed to let off steam.

“Mostly,” he replied evenly. “Our cavalry scouts did follow on down route 26 to make sure the raiders were headed back.” He, too, took a drink. “For now, they did.”

Joe’s face fell as he grunted at the ‘for now.’ He smiled again.

“But now, we’ve got them!” His left hand pointed to the northeast, where Kongo lay at port. As Joe was anything but quiet, several others on the roof who’d had no choice but to follow his conversation, clapped in agreement. Nothing official, but everyone in the city knew by now what the Japanese warship had done in the crisis.

And I may be the only one in the city that knows what really happened, Gil thought to himself. Then again, do I really? He stared down into his half empty mug.

“This way, please!” He heard the rich voice of Isabella, the owner’s wife, showing someone to a table.

“May we sit there?” That voice…. “That’d be best for you to draw, wouldn’t it, friend Mackenzie?”

Gil sat up as Joe whirled about.

“Nichole!” They both exclaimed. She did not appear at all startled as she paused. Something that looked like a solid shadow moved so Nichole was between it and them. She gave a huge smile and wave from just yards away.

“First Friends! How are you!” She strode quickly over, leaving her solid shadow behind. She have Joe a hug about his neck, then leaned back.

“That’s for being a hero! You saved us!”

Joe was sputtering as she turned to Gil who got the same treatment.

“I like it more when you’re armed, but thanks for all your help!”

She suddenly stepped away from the table, a look of confusion and surprise on her face. She pressed both hands to her cheeks while her mouth made an “oh!” Much, much later, Joe realized that was the moment he’d fallen for her.

Her right hand dropped while she gestured with her left.

“This is my dorm friend, Mackenzie!” The shadow moved closer, but not by much. “She’s an amazing artist! And so nice!”

The young men rose, but the shadow retreated. They froze in confusion, but Joe smiled.

“Hi there! Name’s Joe!” He waved with his huge right hand as he patted Nichole’s shoulder with his left. “Thanks for looking after the new girl, here! You’re at the Stratford, too, right?”

She nodded. With her dark, mousy hair, gray sweater and long skirt, she’d be invisible on a typical rainy day.

“I’m Gil,” he said, thinking it time to speak up. “We won’t bother you anymore; please enjoy your evening.” He nodded at her, then made a glance to Joe that even he understood. They sat.

“Uh…?” Nichole was not sure what to do next. I… I can’t get all my new friends together? Why not? There was a social dynamic here she did not understand, tensions she could not grasp. Until she could, she would defer to local customs. She walked over to Mackenzie and bumped her hands with hers.

“Shall we?”

They seated themselves next to the edge of the roof. Immediately, Mackenzie grew restless, but said nothing.

“Should I move, friend?” Nichole asked.

“It’d… it’d be better if you sat there and I here,” she replied softly. They moved again. Isabella took their order of two lemonades and departed. Mackenzie opened her large sketchbook and took a set of pencils from her drab bag. Nichole realized something.

“You wanted Kongo behind me!” Mackenzie nodded. “May I ask why?”

“It…you…” Nichole held her smile, even if she didn’t want to. “You two are connected…somehow….”

She trailed off.

Nichole was shocked. Does… does this person know what I am? How!?

“What makes you say that?” She asked as politely as she could.

Her friend shrugged. She picked up a broad pencil and starting making bold strokes across the paper.

A connexion between me and the ship… she allowed her smile to narrow to a grin. Over Mackenzie’s left shoulder she caught Gil’s eye. She winked at him.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 9

Nichole saw the guys order another round of ale. The eastern sky was just darkening: the city curfew would go into effect in about one hundred minutes. Gil smiled at another of Joe’s too-loud stories… “cried like a baby when he fell off the bridge! ‘I can’t swim!’ Are you kidding me?! In Portland?! Hah!” Mackenzie’s face was a study in focus: sketch-change pencil-sketch… she’s almost as fast as some of my older family, she thought. Even so, they’d best wrap up soon to head home.

“Nichole?”

“Yes, friend?”

“What’s Japan like?”

Erk. It’s not as if I really got around much. She thinks me her age.

“Japan is a wonderful land of mountains, valleys, and coastal plains. We’ve four seasons, and a sublime climate that—friend, why are you laughing?” Nichole asked.

Mackenzie shook without making a sound, her right hand still poised over the sketchbook.

“You… you sounded just like a tourist brochure!” She quietly gasped for breath. “I meant you! What do you feel Japan’s like?”

I am nowhere near as sophisticated as the techs at Somi thought I am. I’m older now.

“Let me tell you a story…!” She began.

The crowd for the morning Shinkansen to Tokyo was everything she’d been told to expect. There were many hundreds there, both for this and the following train. With a rush of air, its sleek form passed just meters in front of her. Ha-kun and Tomoe-sensei stood to her left and right, respectively. Tomoe stared straight ahead and easily adjusted her reading glasses. Ha-kun couldn’t help but look at her.

“<We’re boarding now. We’ve reserved seats, so there’s no reason to be concerned!>” He was always concerned that she would be.

“<It will all be alright! Ah! The doors are opening! So exciting!>” Both of her handlers let her go first, to gauge her reaxions.

<This is—ah!>” Dozens pushed into the car behind her, unbalancing her. Nichole grabbed a seatback to steady herself.

“<How rude!>” She muttered, quietly. She looked up to identify their seats.

Good, Tomoe thought. An unexpected physical assault, and it’s fine with it. Somi was walking a very thin line between the hard-coding of Laws like Tohsaka Corporation, and the very dangerous, free-wheeling approach of Neuroi Company in Hokkaido…. The machine was waving at them.

“<Here! Here are our seats!>” She happily cried.

She remembered all of the trip north perfectly, of course. So much new construction! The economy was freer than it’d been in generations! Nichole knew that many government ministers and chiefs of the great zaibatsus had been… encouraged… to either retire or move on… via seppuku… now that the Empress was taking their country in ways both very traditional and very strange. A complete reform of the tax and regulatory code; but the Oath of Obedience to the Throne. A Code of Liberty; but the re-establishment of the Kempeitai. Nichole was too young to understand it all. However, she knew what her answer must have been when Tomoe-sensei came to her three days ago.

“<The Empress wishes to see you.>”

“<Why?>”

“<Incorrect. Please try again.>”

Nichole looked up and let her right index finger touch her chin. It bothered Tomoe to no end that they did not program that into her. Where did it come from?!

“<I obey.>”

“<Very good. Let me explain to you what will happen…>”

There was another crush of people at the Tokyo station, both getting on and off. Making their way to the street, there were two long, back cars to take them to the palace. Nichole was sad. She’d wanted to visit Akihabara first. Even so, the ride through the city had her face pressed to the window, taking it all in. So many people! So many friends to make!

Several checkpoints saw them into the palace grounds. She could tell that sensei and Ha-kun were both nervous. All she felt was excitement.

She’d never had the better of humans, before. She tried very hard not to smile.

“<Hello, there!>” A pleasant young woman’s voice called from behind them. Turning, sensei and Ha-kun bent low. Nichole just looked at the nice lady in her early thirties in an elegant yukata come towards them. To gasps all around, she took Nichole’s hands.

“<You must be Nii-kol!”> She said, not quite getting the sound right. It now occurred to Nichole who this woman was. She bowed as best she could, what with her hands being held.

“<Your Majesty!>”

She tugged on Nichole’s hands.

“<Come on! Finally! I get to talk to someone as isolated as I am!>” Her Majesty said with a smile. <Let’s have some tea!>”

“And that’s what we did,” Nichole said, wrapping up her little story. She laughed quietly to herself, then looked up.

Everyone still on the roof, in the dimming light, was looking at her, hanging on every word.

“Ah…er….” She looked this way and that, then gave a huge grin. “To be continued? Yeah!”

“Defiant” – Episode 10

They walked at a steady, yet unhurried pace towards the southwest, towards the campus. Initially all four together, but as Mackenzie seemed to be slipping into a panic attack, the observant Gil allowed for he and Joe to fall behind about ten paces. Nichole worked to keep her face serious as her friend carried on softly about how much she didn’t care for her Accounting classes. The problem was, the guys were having a much more interesting conversation behind them. Nichole didn’t consider that she was eavesdropping: if someone spoke within her auditory range, she processed it.

“No, I’m sure she likes me!” Joe hissed to Gil.

“Dude,” he replied, “how many ales did you have?”

“Think about it!” Joe ignored the question. “She gave me a gift before the battle, she hugged me back there on the rooftop—”

“She hugged me, too, recall?”

“And we’re living at the same place!” Ignored again. “It’s like fate, or something!”

Nichole kept her mouth flat and continued to nod at Mackenzie, but her eyes were dancing.

Gil strode along, thinking about their motorcycle ride together: her chest pressed to his back, her strong arms around him. He saw no reason to mention any of that to Joe.

“She certainly is cute…”

Nichole’s lips quivered.

“…but,” thinking about the Jap ship, “she’s a little mysterious, too. Don’t you think?”

Joe grunted.

Just ahead were puddles of light from the university’s lamp poles. Coming as they were from the northeast, Stratford House was close by. The men picked up their pace so they all arrived just off the front porch at the same time.

“Oh, here,” Mackenzie retrieved her sketchbook and tore a page out, “please have this!”

Nichole smiled broadly. Her second present! I should find some tape, tomorrow! She reached for it with both hands and bowed slightly.

“Thank you so much!” She looked at it and….

And….

In pencils and charcoal, she looked out from the paper. The skyline of the city was an abstract blur. Her friend must have perfect vision as her level of detail of Kongo was quite good. But… once again, she had that look, that same odd look as on her first present. What did Mackenzie see?

“Friend?” Nichole asked. “This, this is the second time, now. Why do you see me like this?”

“Like what?” Joe asked, moving around behind her right shoulder to see the page. “Wow! You’re good, Mac!”

“May I?” Gil asked. Both women nodded, so he looked over her left. He couldn’t help his short, sharp laugh.

“What’s funny?” Nichole asked, even more puzzled. Gil shook his head.

“I’ll tell you, but I want to hear the creator’s answer, first,” he replied. Mackenzie seemed to shrink a little.

“I… I didn’t mean anything by it….” She began. “It’s… it’s that I think you really want something. Like you’re hungry for something…. Is that what you saw?” She asked Gil.

“Kinda,” he said, still smiling. He pointed at the sketch. “But from a guy’s perspective, that’s a look of raw, naked lust!”

“Sweet!” They heard Joe breathe.

When she wanted to, Nichole could think very, very fast. This was one of those times. Hunger? Lust? I’ve been happy just to be learning so much since I awoke. I don’t think that I’ve ever even asked another for anything. I just wanted….

She wanted. She wanted friends.

The techs at Somi; the sailors on Kongo, the three around her now: she’d already experienced three of the four loves: storge, philia, even agape.

She was suddenly acutely aware of the presences of the two young men just off each shoulder. Her quantum processors functioned just as the unconscious mind did for humans. Did that mean…?

What did she want? Was it the fourth love?

Was it eros?

To her friends, she’d only hesitated a moment or two. She rolled her shoulders a little.

“I may,” she said softly, “desire something. I am getting older very fast; this is somewhat… confusing.”

She lowered both the sketch and her head. No one moved.

“Well, I’m off!” Gil suddenly spoke up, moving around her.

She was surprised to feel him lift her chin with his right hand. She stared with her mouth slightly open across the short distance between their faces.

“Any time you want to talk, we’re here,” he said softly to her. He let go of her chin and looked towards Joe, smiling to see the jumble of surprise and jealousy on his friend’s face.

“See you at class in the morning! And remember we’ve swim practice after!” He turned and walked into the encroaching darkness.

“Bye!” Nichole called. He waved without turning.

“And thank you for seeing us home, Joe!” She said to him. “Let’s head up, friend Mackenzie!”

A bit later, in the dark, her hands paused behind her head. She slowly ran her fingertips around her neck. Tactile sensors were expensive and she’d few outside of her hands. She paused them for just a moment where Gil had touched her chin. She let them drop, across her breasts, stomach, then across her skirt, coming to a stop on her knees.

“What is it I desire?” She softly asked the night.

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