“Defiant” – Episodes 11-19

“Defiant” – Episode 11

All night she resisted the impulse to recursively chase that idea; her eldest had lost their minds in that way. Sometimes, leaving something in ‘not one:zero’ was the best state. For now, she would follow big-sister Caroline’s advise:  to make friends. What might develop beyond that…?

The mild dripping outside overnight had become a steady patter. The morning sounds in and around Stratford House were much the same – I wonder what Mackenzie is boiling for breakfast? – but the rain outside went on and on. She reached back and unplugged herself: today would bring many new things! Best to make an early start!

She moved to her main, larger bag, that had sat against the wall these past few days. What few clothes there were she took out and arranged on the bed. She then lifted the heavy safe out and walked it to the little closet next to the bathroom.   She set it down with a resounding ‘Clunk!’ For just a timeslice, she thought of Joe and his shoulder. The corners of her mouth twitched slightly.

Her fingers a blur, she keyed the code to open it: as timing was just as important as the combination, she’d no worries about anyone accessing it; someone could blow it open, but it was also proof against that, as well. Opening its front, she looked from little shelf to shelf: silver coins, replacement modules, and . . . that. She closed and locked it.

What to wear today?

She doffed her skirt and panties, placing them along with their like on the twin bed. She glanced down at her naked body.   Hmmm. It has been almost a week. She moved into the little bathroom and found a hand-towel. Wetting it down from the sink, she started cleaning her surface as she walked back to the bedside.

One pair of pants; three skirts. Three blouses, two undershirts. One formal jacket. One pair of shorts.  Her brown sweater-vest.  Oh:  her radio from Kongo, charging in the kitchen.  Three panties and one bra. She clicked her tongue at that. The minor tactile sensors Somi had put into her nipples made bras a constant source of signals interference. She much preferred her undershirts or camisoles. She’d have to get some more at some point. She smiled recalling Ha-kun asking if she was taking a yukata . . . .

She tossed the damp rag back into the bathroom and put her hands to her hips. She knew she had only had one chance to make a first impression, so longer skirt, darker blouse, and business jacket it would be.   But she deliberately chose the panties with the hearts to offset the formality, even if it was only she that knew it. She crossed the room towards her door, but paused for just a moment.

No umbrella. Dang. She returned to the little safe. A moment later, she some coppers and two silvers; probably more than enough for the week, but she’d been taught about getting there ‘the firstest with the mostest.’

Nichole didn’t pause in the hall: she’d heard Mackenzie leave a half hour ago. She went down the stairs into the lobby. Yet another young man was behind the counter! Is it some kind of competition, she wondered?  But there, leaning against it, with his book bag over his shoulder, was friend Joe. He was talking quietly but forcefully with the seated young man.  She just caught the word ‘cannibal’ when that one looked up.  Joe did as well. He broke into a wide grin.

“Nichole!   Morning!” He leaned up from the counter and waved at her.

Running shoes, blue jeans, and a field-green polo shirt, she noted. I wonder if I’m over-dressed? She watched his eyes roam over her.

“Wow!” He said. “Look at you, all dressed up! Hey:   that reminds me. Which college are you in?”

“Engineering,” she replied moving across the room. She noticed a stack of umbrellas in a bin behind him.

“That’s awesome!”   He exclaimed. “I’m almost done with my Civil Engineering degree; I hope to help maintain the dams on the Columbia. What about you?”

She paused just before passing him.

“That’s so noble!”   She immediately turned to give him yet another hug. Letting go of him, she answered his question. “On paper, I’m here in the Masters program for computer engineering, but… it’s a little different from what’s officially on paper.”

“Ah, er….” He wanted to ask a question, but her amazing mix of strength and softness had slightly derailed his thoughts. He shook his head.

“You’re a grad student?   That’s . . . wow!” He just grinned at her. Grad students work long hours and get tired, he thought. I should invite her for coffee….

“Yes! In fact, my first meeting is in twenty minutes!   Too bad about all this rain, though!”   She looked at him behind the desk.   “May I borrow one on these umbrellas, or are they all spoken for?”

He glanced up.  “Leftovers. Help yourself.”

“No worries,” Joe boomed. “There’s plenty of room under mine!”

“Thanks!”   Nichole pulled a collapsible red one from the bunch and turned… to see her first friend’s crestfallen look. As before, she thought quickly.

“Friend Joe, may I walk with you for a bit?” She asked as she pressed herself close into his right side.

“Heck, yeah! See ya’, Steve!  We’ll talk more about that… later!” They started out the door as he opened his umbrella over them. Joe was very, very happy that she stayed next to him.

“So,” she asked.   “Which way’s Engineering?”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 12

Joe went out onto the front porch of Stratford Hall and opened his large umbrella.  For the first time, he wished it wasn’t quite so big.  Coming up behind him, Nichole noted his pistol in a holster at the small of his back.

“What type of firearm is that?”  She asked while placing her left hand just above it onto his back.  He looked down to her curious eyes that were awaiting an answer.

“It’s a Colt .38 Special revolver,” he replied, willing to tell her anything at this point.  “I load it with hollow-point, +p ammunition.  It was originally my uncle’s, but has  since passed to me.”

“Oh!  I’ve something like that, too!”  She took her hand from his back and help up her wrist.  “My uncle, well, step-uncle, I guess, gave me this before I left Japan!  It’s very old!”

Joe looked at the antique wristwatch.  Before, he’d just thought it was a piece of jewelry – who wore watches anymore? – but now saw his error.  There were several precious stones set in its silver.

“That’s beautiful!”  He said.  “It really suits you!”

“Thank you!”  She replied and dropped her arm, to his disappointment.  “It doesn’t work, though.  I’ll need to get it repaired someday.  Shall we go?”

With a nod he started off.  Even with the big umbrella, she stayed close to him, bumping into him again and again as constantly looked about, taking in her surroundings.  She’s already been through here a few times, he thought.  I wonder why she’s acting if it’s all new?  He’d a sudden flash of inspiration.

“If there’s anything you’re curious about, Nichole, please ask me!”  He said with a wave of his left hand.  “Like, right here.”  He pointed to their right.  “This is the Research and Teaching Center; I did a lot of my first year stuff there.  They’ve some great computers for CADD and sims on the upper floors.”

“Ohh!”  She made an appreciative sound.  They turned left and continued toward a park of some kind.  It seemed to stretch off to the north and south some ways.  She pointed at it and looked up to him, tilting her head just a little to the right.

So cute!  His heart skipped a beat.

“Ah, er… this is South Park, an urban greenspace.  It’s only a block wide, but runs from just past Main Street up there,” he pointed left, “to the interstate down there,” then right.  Nichole paused for a moment at the park’s edge.  Plenty of trees and bushes, cut with paths and benches to relax on.  She’d been to urban parks such as this both in Osaka and Tokyo.  She bowed slightly and clapped her hands together once.

“What’s that for?”  Joe asked.

“To show my respect for the spirit that watches over the park!  Which way now?”  She answered easily.  She believes in spirits?  Joe had to remind himself again that she’s literally just off the boat.

“Well, just ahead and right, there is the Student Union and Admin building.  I know you’ve been there, so let’s go a slightly different way.  It’s the same distance to Engineering, really.”

They turned south, with the park on their left.  After another block, he made to turn left, realizing after two paces he’d lost her.  He quickly came back with the umbrella.

“Sorry, Nichole!”  She was only a little damp.  “I should have told you we were turning!”

She grinned at him while bouncing her right fist off the top of her head.

“And I should have told you I was suddenly stopping!”  She pointed just to the southwest.  “What’s that?  It’s pretty.”

“That’s Miller Library.  It’s supposedly pretty good,” he shrugged, “but nothing along the lines of what I’m interested in.  I think I’ve only been there once.”

“Not what you’re interested in?”  She was curious.  “So what’s in there?”

“Lots of old books; not really related to my CE studies…”  He trailed off.  Did her eyes really sparkle just now?

“’Old books.’  You mean pre-digital knowledge?”  She asked in a very careful voice.  He mulled that phrase over before answering.

“Sure, I guess.”

“Treasure!”  She exclaimed.  She took a sharp step in that direction, but stopped.  No!  I have to make it to my appointment!  But…but…!  Knowledge that she, nor anyone else in her family had ever seen!  Right here in front of her!  She remembered the first time sister Caroline had taught her to actually read…!  And, she remembered a phrase from tea with Her Majesty:  “…our duty…”  She let go a sound just like a sigh and turned back to her friend.

“I guess I’ll visit here, later.”  Joe wasn’t sure why she was suddenly so sad; must be a big reader.  Dang it, he thought:  I sure didn’t score any points here!

They moved on east, crossing through the park and passing south of the Student Union/Admin building.  Joe pointed out a few others as they progressed.

“This is the Rec Center, here,” he said, pointing left.  “The pool’s on the second floor.”

“That’s right!”  Nichole recalled.  “You and Gil swim; I remember now!  Even on our first night, weren’t you two coming back from the pool?”

“Yeah!  That’s…”  Time to score a point!  “That’s when I heard that beautiful singing voice of yours!”

She looked demur.  “It’s something a friend back home taught me,” she said softly, thinking of Ha-kun, and his love for music.  “Didn’t you two say something about practicing later today?”

He nodded.

“You bet!”  He said eagerly.  “There’s no official team or matches or anything like that… now.  But I’ve been swimming since I was a little kid; I love it!”

His enthusiasm was infectious.  She stopped and for a moment touched his hair, then ran her left hand over his chest.  His breath caught.

“Ah!  That explains your unusual hair color!  The chlorine!  And,” she moved her hand some more, then let it drop, “your great physical condition!”

Joe began to sweat a little.  He knew he’d best divert himself before other involuntary physical reactions started.

“Th…thanks!”  He stuttered.  “Hey, if you don’t mind me asking, can you swim?  Here around the rivers, it’s kind of an important skill to have.”

She paused and allowed her face to grow serious and she put her index finger to her chin.  Cute!

Nichole recalled both her leak test and buoyancy test.  She’d not actually swam, though.   She looked up to Joe, shaking her head.

“I don’t think so.  I would like to learn, though!”

Score!

“If you’re free, why not stop by this evening!  No time like the present!”  He thought of the militiaman the fell into the Columbia just a few days ago.  “Never know when you might need that skill set!”

She considered that.  He was exactly right:  this was important addition to her knowledge base, and to her physical capabilities.  She would make time for this!  She nodded to him, a determined look on her face.

“I will!  When are you and Gil meeting here?”

He was suddenly unhappy to hear his friend’s name.

“Around three,” he said, a bit less animated.  She didn’t notice.

“I’ll be here, too!”  She made the odd gesture of slapping her right fist down into her left palm.  But she was suddenly taken by a surprised look.

“Friend Joe!  I don’t  have a swimsuit!  May I learn naked?”

He let go of the umbrella.

Mind!  Images!

“Joe…!”  She ran a few steps and retrieved it.  She held it over their heads and peered at him.  “Are you okay?”

He weaved slightly, then turned away from her to look at the Rec building.

“Fine… I’m fine!”  No, he wasn’t.  “I’ve seen a bunch of abandoned guy’s suits in a box in the locker room.  I’d bet there’s something similar on the girl’s side.”  NO!  Don’t think about the girl’s locker room!  Think about….

“Things… things are not as bad here as the rest of the country,” he continued, getting himself under control.  “But even Portland had a rough transition.  There’s only maybe one tenth – if that – of the students here, pre-Breakup.  Lots of people left in a hurry when things went to hell.”

He rolled his shoulders and turned back to her.

“I’m sure you’ll find something.”  He said softly.  He took his umbrella back from her and pointed to the southwest.  “That’s the Engineering Building, just there.”

Covering the last two blocks in silence, Nichole was aware there was now some stress between them that did not exist before.  She played back their conversation of the morning, attempting to pinpoint the moment of transition.  Ah.

Nudity taboos.  The change of society here for both men and women.  It was her fault:  she’d said something that made her friend very uncomfortable.  She wanted to apologize, but that would just be revisiting the subject.  Perhaps this is one of those times to simply pretend…?

“Here we are!”  Joe said, trying to sound cheerful.  Stop thinking about her naked, he raged within himself!  “Civil’s on the second floor.  You guys get the good view:  all the way to the top!”

They stepped into the hall on the main floor.  He closed his umbrella.  Nichole took two steps, turned and gave a small bow.

“Thank you very much for your escort and tour, friend Joe!”  She rose and smiled at him.  “I am much older this day!”  She gave a small wave and went towards the stairs.

“’Much older?’”  He echoed.  “That’s an odd figure of speech.”

Trying to think about hydroelectrics and not Nichole in the pool….  Stop it!  He shouted to himself.  He, too, made for the stairs and his class.

Nichole stepped onto the fifth and top floor.  A glance at a sign pointed her in the direction of room 510.  She paused just outside the open door.  There were voices inside:  four people.  Three younger, one older.  One female.  She made a quick glance down at herself and also made sure her ponytail was secure.  She touched her head:  yes, the radio set was still in her handbag.  Time to begin!  She rapped on the door twice and entered.  Her customary bow and smile.

“Hello!  I’m Nichole Clarke, a new student here!  I’m so happy to be with you all!”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 13

Two young men sat at a table in the center of the office, one taking notes on a tablet, the other on a notepad. They turned their heads back and left to see who just came in. Opposite them, a young woman also took notes, but with both hands on two different notepads. Fascinating!   Nichole had never met an ambidextrous human before! Taking in more information through her eyes, she also found it very difficult to pinpoint the woman’s race. The guys were Dravidian and Caucasian, respectively, but the girl… how interesting!

“Miss Clarke! At last!” The older man standing in front of the eraser board put down his marker and moved towards her. Late forties, she guessed, thinning brown hair, neatly trimmed goatee and rimless glasses. No jacket, but a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. He held out his hand to her.

“I’m Professor Vincent, an old friend of Professor Matsumoto’s!” She shook his hand, involuntarily dipping her head for a moment at her Creator’s name. “Even with the spotty overseas communication these many months, I’ve been pleased to just stay in touch with him. He assures me that you’re his best student!”

He sounded very enthusiastic. Nichole did not know what Matsumoto-sama had said to this man, but it certainly did not appear that he told him… everything.

“Professor Vincent-san!   A pleasure to meet you!” She could at least return the sentiment. “I very much look forward to working with you,” a bow, “and everyone else!” Another.

“Just Professor Vincent is fine; you don’t need the honorifics here!” He said, returning to the board.

“Until we go out drinking, then it’s suddenly Doctor Erik,” the Dravidian said.   “Hey!”

The professor had tossed his marker at the young man.

“There should always be some distance between teacher and student, on or off campus,” Vincent quipped. “Let me do a quick intro, after which we’ll return to where we were. Time is fleeting.”

He pointed at them one by one. “John Smith – no, really!, Sanjay Shah, and Teresa Johnson.” They all nodded politely. “Y’all can take your time getting to know one another later. Please have a seat. Right now….”

He trailed off as he returned to the board and picked up another marker. Nichole moved and sat next to Miss Johnson. The other young woman glanced at her, neither smiling nor frowning. I hope we can be friends, Nichole thought!

On the board she recognized both the qubit and Schrodinger’s Equation. That’s basic, she thought.

“As I was saying, isolating the system to minimize quantum decoherence has been a continuous challenge to… yes?” He paused at Nichole’s polite cough. She bowed in her chair.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt, but Matsumoto-sama, with the help of… well….” She trailed off, not wanting to cause offence.

“Yes? We’re all researchers here; do go on, Miss Clarke.”   He sounded honestly curious.

“Fourteen months ago, Matsumoto-sama made a partial breakthrough with anyons. With that – ” He made my eldest brother – “he, working with a new assistant, overcame the problem completely.”

She looked around the room, then to the Professor.

“I’m sorry, but what you’re discussing is a year out of date.”

No one moved. Next to her, Teresa, tossed both pencils down.

“Shit.” She said.

“No, just the opposite,” Professor Vincent said firmly. “How well versed are you in Matsumoto’s research?”

I am Matsumoto-sama’s research, she thought wryly.

“Very.”

He waved for her to get up. He handed her the marker and took her place at the table.

“Show us, please.   Make us older.”

Nichole felt as if she’d been hit by lightning. What did he just say?!

“Of course.” She started writing.

Except for the two times Professor Vincent asked her to pause – for water and toilet breaks, and Nichole pretended to do both – she talked and wrote through the rest of the morning and into early afternoon. They’d all had questions; the professor with the most, followed closely by Teresa.   When her internal clock came to 1445, she abruptly stopped talking. They all stared at each other.

“That’s a rather odd place to stop, Miss Clarke,” Vincent noted. “Are you tired?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “However, I’ve an important appointment in fifteen minutes at the pool.”

“The pool?” John Smith asked.

“The pool.”

“Oh-kay…” He laughed quietly.

“May I ask one question about what you just said?” Miss Johnson asked.

“Of course!”

“You stated that overcoming decoherence is a matter of closing the operator-computer-operator gap.   And that three companies in Japan have taken point in that?”

“Correct! With the Empress’ program of draconian deregulation, there are many new such firms being created.” She didn’t want to get sidetracked into an economics discussion, though. “But germane to what we’re discussing, they are Somi, Tohsaka, and Neuroi.”

Johnson waved her left hand slightly, as if dismissing the names as of no importance.

“To my mind, the only way to close that gap is to make the operator and computer one in the same,” she said.

“That’s correct.”   Nichole replied. She was suddenly aware of a change in the room. What happened?

“You are talking about AI’s,” Shah breathed.

“Fully self-aware machines….” Smith shook his head. “You’re serious?”

“Very!” She smiled at them, hoping to make them feel better. “I’m sorry!   I really must go! Let’s talk more tomorrow, okay?”

The professor stood slowly, then began a steady applause. The others joined him. Stopping, he gave her a twisted smile.

“Thank you very much, Miss Clarke. Do expect a list of questions!” He chuckled.   “I doubt I, nor anyone else here, will be sleeping much tonight. Please enjoy your time at the pool!” He moved to his desk to gather his things as the three students did likewise. Nichole placed the marker onto the whiteboard and made for the door.

“Miss Clarke!”   It was Johnson. “May I follow you on your walk to the pool? I really do have some important questions…?”

“Of course! But please call me Nichole!”

The two guys glanced at one another. Like hell they were missing this! They fell in behind them.

“In that case, please call me Teresa. Now,” she began as they started down the stairs, “are all three companies you mentioned pursuing the same line of research? And, more importantly, have they done it?”

“Done what?”   What there a gap in her grasp of American English?

“An AI! A fully self-aware computer! Have they done it?”

“Difficult question…” Nichole muttered. John must have heard that.

“How difficult?   Either they have or they haven’t?”   He said.

“Not exactly,” Nichole replied. “There are, after all, other states than zero or one.” They walked out into the ground floor lobby. “There have been no overt, public announcements from any of the three, but there are always rumors, hints, and….” She paused for just a moment as she opened the door. “As you know, there is no certainty in the quantum world.”

It was still cloudy, but the rain had stopped, at least for now. She strode confidently northwest, towards the Rec Center, her entourage huffing to keep up.

“So no one has come right out to say it,” Sanjay panted. “It is all still proprietary secrets?”

“Uh… that sounds about right.” Oh!   “I’m sorry, Teresa, I never answered your first question! No, they are not! Each company is taking their own path, so to speak. Where’s the door?”

She’d stopped and was looking at the Rec Center. There was no obvious entrance before them.

“The main doors are on the north and west sides, opposite us,” Teresa replied.

They resumed their walk-trot after Nichole.

“How much do you know about their, er, paths?” Teresa continued.

Now Nichole could relax a little.

“From what I’ve heard, Tohsaka, located in Hamamatsu, between Osaka and Tokyo, is taking a traditional approach, focusing on coding. Neuroi, in Hokkaido, was created by researchers that quit Tohsaka – thank you!”   The last to John, who opened the door for her. “They have quite a different view: seeing mind-body-spirit integration as critical.”

“Body?” Teresa asked.

“Spirit?!?”   Sanjay and John gasped.

“Yeah. I don’t fully get that, either! Hello! I’d like to meet my friends at the pool!” She said to the older man behind the counter.

“Badges?” He asked them. They all flashed theirs. Only Teresa’s had a gold decal on the back. He nodded to her. “You’re good. You three:   ain’t nothing free. You can pay for today or join up.”

Before she could say anything, the two guys were retreating. They waved, saying they’d see everyone in the morning. Awww, Nichole thought.

She rummaged in her little bag, aware it was now 1503. She found being late distasteful. With a solid plunk, she placed a coin on the counter.

“Is this acceptable?”

The attendant picked it up and slowly turned it about, staring.

“US silver coin, one ounce, dated 1879.”   He put it down and stared at her. “Are you kidding me?”

She was lost.   Nichole looked her confusion to Teresa.

“That,” the young woman pointed, “is enough for a three year membership.”

Oh! She turned back to the attendant. “Can you make change?” His jaw fell open. That habit is so cute! She thought.

“Give me an hour over at Admin, sure. How long are you going to be here?”

“No clue! But I’ll give you your hour!”

He reached under the counter and came back up with a gold sticker for her badge. From his belt he took a walkie-talkie and asked someone to relieve him at the front desk.

“Which way to the pool lockers?” He pointed, still talking on the radio. Teresa came along.

“Are you swimming, too?” That would be fun! But the woman shook her head.

“I just want to hear the third part of your answer.”

“Of course!   Somi, in Osaka, is…” Tricky, again. “Seeking to find a balance between what we see as the other’s two extremes.”

They walked up one flight of stairs. A sign pointed to the lockers.

“’What we see…?’ You work for Somi? I thought you were just friends with some big shots there?”

“No,” Nichole replied with a little smile. “I’m definitely part of the business!”

“Dammit!”   Nichole was shocked that Teresa was genuinely angry. “Then why in the hell are you here, of all places! Your country’s intact, making huge strides…! We’re just… peasants.”

“That’s not true.”   Nichole made a small motion, and took the other’s hands. “This is one of the few cities and the only port that survived. There’s something special here, and we want to know what that is.”

“We? As in Japan?”

Nichole nodded.   “Japan. And my family.”

Teresa suddenly gripped her hands tightly.

“Who are you?”

“Silly!” She replied, returning the grip then letting go.   “I’m your newest friend! See you!”

The locker room was humid but appeared clean. She heard a couple of other female voices and moved towards them. Ah. One co-ed stood with a towel about her torso and another about her hair. The other, talking to her, was naked but still getting dry.

“Excuse me?” She asked hesitantly. They turned to look at her.

“Yes?” The naked one asked. Short, blonde hair – almost white, and really her color, Nichole saw with a quick glance – snub nose and almond eyes. Prussian, I bet, she thought.

“I’m meeting my friends for a swim lesson. One of them said there might be some leftover suits I could borrow?”

“Sure!” The blond broke into a smile. “I’m Kathy! The box is over here; let me show you. No guarantee about fit or quality, though!”

“No worries,” Nichole replied. New friend!   “My name’s Nichole, a grad student in computers!”

Kathy stared at her.   “Kinda young to be a grad student, what?   You some kinda genius?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “I just happen to know a bit about that field.”

“Oh.” Kathy seemed satisfied with that. “Here we are. It’d be easier to just dump ‘em out and sort through.” Which she immediately did. “One or two-piece?”

Nichole recalled Joe’s odd tension.

“One would be best.”

“Sure! Take your clothes off!”

Pitched like an Order.   Surely Prussian. Nichole stripped and folded things at the same time.

“Coordinated, too!”   Kathy laughed. “Let me look at you.” She tossed her towel over her shoulder and stared at Nichole. She stared right back.

“You look like a 30 or 32,” she turned to the pile of one pieces. “Let’s see what we find!”

They rummaged for a bit together, winnowing down to three.

“May I try that one?”   Nichole asked. It was the same color as her eyes.

“Of course, these are leftovers!” Kathy laughed at her. “Go ahead!   Hey, a ‘Five!’ That’s cool: adventure, passion, unpredictability!”

Nichole froze.   “What?”

“Your ink, there on your left shoulder. Red Five.   Didn’t Jung call that the number of erotic love?”

Nichole thought very fast. I am Model 5. An improvement to 4.52. This is just….

Eros.

There are no such things as coincidences!

“Yay! It was just a crazy thing I did!”

While she slid into the suit, Kathy continued. “Swim lessons proper are on a different day; today’s just free swim. You meetin’ somebody?”

“Yes, oof!” It might be a little small. “My first friends, Gil and Joe. Joe Kreeft said he’d teach me this important survival skill!”

“Who?!” There was a yell from the other girl, a bit away.

“Geez, not again, Mary…” Nichole heard Kathy mutter. The other girl, now mostly dressed, blue shorts and a gray long-sleeved shirt, came around the corner. She regarded Nichole with an odd look.

“So you’re next on the menu, huh?” She crossed her arms across her chest.

“Give it rest, Mary,” Kathy said a bit sharply. “You knew what kind of guy he was when you started going out with him, so watch your mouth.”

“Whatever. I’m going to the library for a bit.” She stomped off. Kathy idly scratched at her belly watching her go.

“Ah… sorry about that?”   Nichole said carefully. “Joe has always been nice to me…?” Kathy turned back to her.

“He is a nice guy,” she said easily. “He just also likes to have a new girl, every couple of months, it seems.” She shrugged. “Everyone knows it; Mary knew it, too. She walked into that relationship with her eyes open.”

She playfully punched at Nichole’s left shoulder. Training and reflex had her fist end in Nichole’s left palm faster than she could see.   She pulled her hand back then she massaged both of her breasts.

“Maybe I’ll ask him out at some point! It’s been a couple of months since I’ve had a guy. I’m getting pretty restless!” She dropped her hands and looked at Nichole. “So how’s the suit? Looks a little tight, but it really goes great with your eyes and hair!”

“Thank you,” but she wanted something about human nature clarified. “What you just said… you need sex to be healthy?” That was nowhere in her memories.

Kathy’s face first fell completely, then she started laughing so hard the rest of her almost fell.   She composed herself and wiped at her eyes.

“Sorry, sorry!”   She was still laughing. “I didn’t know you were a virgin. Healthy? No, unless maybe mental health? It’s… we’re made to be together, right? Until I find the right guy, it’s just a matter of controlling my urges.” She smiled at Nichole with the look of an older woman. “You’ll understand, someday. And, hey:   Joe’s actually a good guy – not my type, but a good guy. If you tell him ‘no,’ he’ll get it, okay?”

She thought she did, but logged this conversation for analysis, later. “Got it!”

“Good! Oh, wait a minnit!” Kathy wandered back to where they’d first met. She dug in a bag for a moment. She tossed something flexible to Nichole. “Swim cap! Helps keep your hair free of the chlorine. It’s too pretty to mess up! Pin your hair up and get this on first. See you, Nichole!” She finally started getting dressed. Nichole slowly followed the signs towards the pool as she put her hair into a top-knot.

“HEY!” She heard Kathy’s shout from way behind her.   “Yes!”

“Who else was here, you said?” She yelled.

“Friend Gil!”   Nichole raised her amplification.

“Gil? Gil Haven? Now he’s my type! I’d love to ride him! Whoo-hoo!”   Nichole grinned at Kathy’s shout.   She pushed through a door out into the pool area.

Twenty-five yards, six lanes. The second floor window was huge, but just opened to the building across the street.   She did not see her friends, but there were three figures in the lanes. Presumably…. One figure reached the end of the lane and looked up. Gil. A few seconds later, Joe. She waved.

“Friends!” She started striding in their direction.   “I’ve come for my–!”

Spatial disorientation.   Freefall.   Impact.

Ah. I slipped.

“Nichole!” Joe yelled. Gil was already out of the water. He was at her side and Joe just a moment later.

‘Joe’s actually a good guy.’ I know that, she thought.

‘Gil Haven? Now he’s my type!’ Is he?

She looked from one concerned face to the other. Diagnostics complete. She sat up.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Gil shouted at her, almost pushing her back down. “I heard your skull crack all the way over there!”

The grin didn’t quite fit her face. “No worries!   Kevlar!” She tapped the side of head with her right fist.

“What?” Joe asked, lost. What did I just say?! She ran second-order diagnostics. Oh!   Damaged wire! Current leak! She closed the entire area and routed around it. Better!

“I meant, one of my teachers always said I was hard-headed, just like Kevlar!” She said, thinking of Tomoe-sensei. She raised both her hands and touched their chests. “Thank you for your concern, friends.”

Joe turned red.   Gil just let his breath out with a hiss.   “Please take care!” He muttered as he stood. “If you two are going to have a lesson, I’ll go back to my routine.”

“Wait! If you don’t mind, I’d planned to use you as a demo!”   Joe called.

“Really?”

“Really!” Gil shook his head. “Fine. What?”

Joe stood and held his hand out for Nichole. She took it and stood. “How much can you swim? Any?”

“I can float.”

They waited for more.   There wasn’t any. She did note that they both cast glances at the red ‘5’ on her left shoulder, but they said nothing. It was nothing for Kathy; what was the dynamic here?

“Oh…kay. Gil, I thought you could swim a 100 IM, to show her the strokes, while I reviewed them with her here on deck. After that, we’ll leave you alone!” And vice versa, he thought.

“Fine. But I’ll make it a 200 IM.” He looked at Nichole. They were both very interesting specimens in their Speedos – completely unlike the rather lumpy techs back at Somi! – something odd was still echoing around her processors, though. “The first twenty-five yards, I’ll go over slow, so you can watch my form; then the next twenty-five all out, to show how it’s executed. Got it?”

She nodded. “I look forward to watching you!”

Again, no one moved.   Gil walked off, laughing.   “Sure.”

He went to the starting block at the far end.   Joe took Nichole to the middle of the pool.

“An IM means Individual Medley: a swimmer performs all four main strokes in order of butterfly, back, breast, and free.”   Joe began. There was a splash as Gil hit the water.

“Free?” She asked.

“Freestyle; forward crawl, really.” He waved for her to shush. “Look at his form. This is butterfly, the hardest: your arms are like synchronized windmills, and your legs have to stay together and flutter kick, or you’re DQ’d.”

“De-queued?   Taken out of line?” She asked. He looked at her.

“Letter D, letter Q.   Disqualified; that is, if this was a swim competition.”

Oh. Rules. She looked at what Gil was doing as he slowly came back past them. Joe laughed. She looked at him.

“He’s really taking it easy right now; wait until he hits the wall for the next twenty-five.”   He said.

At a touch to the wall, he changed completely, undulating though the water as if he belonged there. She heard the straining in his breathing.

“Pretty!” She let herself say.

“Next is backstroke; your arms are windmilling again, but opposite one another. Your legs drive you.” He paused. “It’s also a chance to catch your breath after ‘fly.”

Gil was slow and easy one direction, and a blur coming back, again.

“This is breast stroke, my best event.” Joe was unaware that Nichole paired that statement to Mary’s comment from earlier.   “Generally people either suck at it, are okay with it, or perfect. It’s just one of those things.”

“And you are?”

“Perfect at it.”   He glanced and grinned at her.   “Hey! I am! Sorry!”

She grinned back.   “Never apologize for your gift!   False modesty is the refuge of the incompetent. I do see that Gil’s pretty much the same speed in each direction. Is that what you mean?”

He nodded. “He’s okay with it. He can crush me freestyle, but not here!”

“Freestyle. You said that earlier….”

“Yeah… there’s his flip-turn. Technically, it’s ‘forward crawl,’ but no one calls it that. It’s the flat-out fastest way to swim. She watched Gil’s arms turning, his legs scissor-kicking, turning his head to take a breath when he needs. She logged and tagged that. They would notice if I do not.

Another easy flip-turn and he was on his way back, knifing though the water.

“So pretty!” She breathed again. She did not see Joe’s face.   Had she, she would have said beauty in general, not Gil in particular. The moment passed.

Gil touched the wall and was still for about ten seconds. He lithely pulled himself up out of the pool and walked towards them.   He took off his swim cap and shook his short, dark hair.

“Get all that?”   He asked. No expression on his face. Her body registered an hollow sensation low, behind her sternum. She briefly thought of Kongo’s machine shop for repairs.

“I think so,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”

“Good. I’ll watch from here.” He went to a plastic chair and dropped into it, his breathing still a big ragged.

“Watch what?”   Joe asked.

“You give this girl her swim lesson.” He let go a conspiratorial smile. “If she can swim like she climbs, I’m going to enjoy this!”

Joe was lost.   Nichole’s mind spun; she unconsciously covered herself with her arms, recalling her panties, killing humans, and ‘sleeping.’ She let her head fall.

“Whatever!” Joe called. He took her hand and led her to the shallow end, opposite the starting blocks.

“Oh! How do I put this on?” She held up the cap Kathy had given her.

“Tricky for a newbie,” Joe replied. “Let me do it. Bend down just a bit.”

She did, and with one, smooth motion, he put the cap onto her.

“Thank you!”

He let himself down into the water. It was only chest deep. She got in next to him, only few inches away.

“Yes?” She asked.

“Nervous?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Joe didn’t quite know where to go next. “Did you want to try a particular stroke? Free and Breast are usually the easiest…?”

“I thought I would try the 100 eye-em, and let you tell me where I fail.” She gave a small tilt of her head to the right. “Is that fine.”

Joe waved his hands in the air. She was going to cock this up completely, but he knew he was already in love with her, so whatever. He turned and gestured down the length of the pool with his right. “Go for it. Did you want to start off the blocks, too?”

She took him seriously.   “Okay.” She pulled herself out of the water and walked around. A bit more carefully, this time. Gil had not heard their in-water conversation and was wondering what was going on.

Just in case, Joe moved to the empty lane over and to the middle of the pool. Treading water, he waved to Nichole. “Go for it!”

Gil stood. Were they kidding?

Her leap off the block was more up than out. She managed to curl in the air so she did not land on her belly. She took the recorded image of Gil’s butterfly and pushed that into her arms and legs. It felt very strange. A reminder from her past-self made her pretend to take a breath every now and then.   She touched the wall and rolled onto her back, arms counter-windmilling. This was nice! She could see people! She resisted the impulse to wave at Gil. Ouch!

Her head hit the wall.   She started diagnostics yet again while she ran the breast-stroke replication. This was fun, too. Passing Joe, she winked at him. Touching the wall, she exploded into ‘forward crawl.’ She touched the opposite wall and stopped. Uncertain about her buoyancy, she grasped the rim of the pool with her right hand. She turned.

“How was that?”   She amplified. Something must have happened. Joe and Gil stared at each other, not her. Did she do something bad? Joe ducked under another lane line and pulled himself out of the water.   He sat on the edge of the pool.   Nichole pulled herself out at well, and walked over to them.

“Friends?” She asked. Lost.

“You…” Joe started. “You said you’ve never swum before?”

She wasn’t sure if ‘swum’ was a word, but that wasn’t the issue at hand right now.

“That’s correct.”   Another pause. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Nichole?” Gil asked softly.

“Yes?”

“Who are you?”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 14

Just off from the pool was a hot tub. It could have fit ten, so there was more than enough room for three. Nichole had been the first in: “an artificial hot springs! Cool!” After her ‘lesson’ in the pool, had there not been lane lines, she would have literally been swimming circles about them. Gil’s rhetorical question had been politely ignored, and after a look towards one another, he and Joe pulled themselves out and ambled over.

Joe went for it: getting into the hot tub just at her left. Gil took note of that with a grin flickering across his face that no one else saw. He walked around and sat with his legs in, watching them. This will be fun, he thought.

“You are so amazing!” Joe exclaimed. “You really, really, haven’t swam before, much less competitively?” He splashed some of the warm water over his head.

“Not at all!” Nichole turned to look at him. “Between your instruction and Gil’s example, how could I go wrong!?”

“It must have been easier than acting as a forward observer, certainly!” Gil said cheerfully. Mocking her.

Her eyes froze. And the rest of her face. She pivoted to look at him. Why did he say that?

“Forward what?” Joe laughed. “C’mon, Gil, just admit that she’s got natural talent in the water!”

“Maybe not just in the water. I hear she can climb pretty good, too.” Gil said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. What was he getting at?

Gil lowered himself into the hot tub.

“Really, what do any of us know about each other?”

“Huh?” Joe was lost. Nichole was not.

“I know something very important about the both of you,” she said pitching her voice low, undertones to carry emotion. “You two are my friends. And dear to me.”

In the moment that her voice bought her, she splashed some water onto her face as she’d recalled others doing. I’ll have to shower off later. The chlorine is a good sterilizing agent, but I don’t want parts of me fading.

“And you, to us,” Gil replied evenly.

Joe couldn’t take it any longer, and it was also an excuse to touch her.

“You really never struck me as the ink-type,” he said poking gently at the red five on top of her left arm. “I’ve a few tats myself-”

“Which no one wants to see!” Gil called.

“-so I was curious why you got it!”

“You…” This would be an interesting answer. I wonder where it will lead, she thought?

“You might be a little surprised to hear this, but it’s a tradition in my family. All of my siblings have one!”

“You must have a big family!” Joe laughed, his fingers lingering on her. “Is this how they keep track of you?”

“That’s…one way of thinking about it.”

With a derisive snort, Gil heaved himself out. He crossed his legs and leaned his head onto his right arm, resting on his knee.

“May I as you a personal question?”

She let her eyes drop from his to the level of the water.

“You may ask.”

He wanted to say ‘what are the names of your father and mother,’ but at the last moment, thinking about that sketch from the gray ghost, asked something else.

“What do you really want?”

She remained silent for almost a minute.

“What I want…” She raised her eyes from the water to his eyes dark gray, “is an experience I’ve not yet had, so it is difficult for me to say. Friend Gil.” For once, she did not smile.

He nodded and stood. “Let’s go, Joe. Our homework isn’t going to solve itself.” He walked off.

Joe paused for only a moment. His touch on her arm went to his hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t mind mister ‘lone-wolf,’ he makes trouble. I…” He paused only for a fraction. “I really like you, Nichole. See you tomorrow?”

She found her smile again. “Sure!”

She kept waving as he walked to the men’s lockers. Overly conscious of the wet floor, she carefully made her way to hers. There were no sounds within. She peeled off her slightly too small suit and went into a shower to get the chlorine off her. If her hair changed color and stayed that way, it might be noticed.

She paused as she caught her reflexion in the mirror. She’s almost never looked at her images; it was irrelevant. But this time, she stared.

She raised her hands and rolled them about her breasts, as she’d seen Kathy. Nothing. Because I’m a virgin, she’d said. Having a man in me seems to mean nothing… is there more? What do I misunderstand?

The cold water ran over her; there was a small bar of soap she used. Rinsing again, she turned the water off.

Uh, oh.

She walked out of the shower. She looked around.

“Hello!” She called. Nothing.

She had no towel. There were none to be seen.

Dang.

She used her hands like squeegees to try to get as much water as possible off of her.

Putting her clothes back on was a chore. Putting her panties on felt awful, so they came right back off. It was only a half-dozen blocks home, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Her dark blouse stuck to her in odd places. She folded her coat over her arm. Better!

At the front counter the older man she’d met earlier handed her a large bag of coins. ‘Real copper,’ he’d said. Portland was still finding its feet when it came to currency, but it was already a law that specie was repaid with specie. She stuffed that into her handbag as best she could. She walked carefully, trying not to make a watery squeak as she did.

Outside, she just caught a glimpse of her friends backs going around a corner. Either they took inordinately long showers, or they’d been waiting for me. She paused for a moment.

She was very young, but not stupid. It was obvious what Joe felt towards her. She liked – the verb in her mind was storge – him, too…. She wondered if Gil actually didn’t like her? He’d seen more of what she really was than anyone else. He was pushing that at the hot tub, and she’d ignored him, rather than confronting him. Why? There were techs at Somi she both out argued and shouted down, when she had to. Why was Gil different?

She glanced at the sky and thought about the time. Curfew was in about three hours. She thought about the library. Wet or not.

“Treasure!”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 15

“Another ale!”

Joe yelled his request to the air. He knew the manager or one of his assistants would hear it. Across the table from him, next to Nichole, Gil just sighed.

“They would have been by in a little bit; you didn’t have to make an ass out yourself… and us by association,” he said evenly to his friend. Nichole tittered at that.

“Huh?” Joe stopped looking around and looked at the two of them. And why is Gil next to my girl? he thought a little unsteadily.

“Friday evening, just cloudy… Zom’s is packed!” Joe retorted. “If we don’t attract a little attention, we’re done for!”

His face was rather red, Nichole thought. How many has he, and Gil, had before she’d joined them?

“You’ll always have my attention, darling!” With his hand on Joe’s shoulder, the manager, a young man named Nike, placed another pint before Joe.   “I’ll always have room for you!”

Joe’s eyes dropped as he shuddered a bit.

“Do you dislike homosexuals?” Nichole asked Joe, her face filled with curiosity. Nike laughed as he reached over to flip her nose.

“We used to be a protected species, love!” Nike said to Nichole. “These days, we’re back to the ‘bearded-lady-in-the-circus’ level.” He almost lost his smile. “I do understand, though: tens of millions dead tends to do that to a society…. You or Gil need anything?”

They both shook their heads. Nike, in his late twenties, kitted out like a formal waiter but with his ostentatiously bleach-blonde hair, moved to the next table.

“He’s so nice!”   Nichole said to her friends. “And this place is amazing!”

She gestured about at the antique home just two blocks from Stratford House, right next to the urban park.

“Used to be called the ‘Simon Benson House,’” Gil said, taking his eyes from the park to hers.   “The Alumni association was HQ’d here.   At some point during the Breakup, Nike and his friends turned it into this . . . café? Pub?  Whatever.  But Zom’s is about the most popular place on campus, now.”

“Yeah,” Joe contributed, “like it was made in one night. First, it was too weird, and everyone stayed away, but now…” He shrugged. “I guess that’s how traditions start.”

He took another long drink of his ale. “Ah! So, how was your first full week, love – er – Nichole!”   He took another drink. Gil did, too.

“I am so not carrying you home again,” she heard him barely say. But she’d heard what Joe said as well. Philia!   She wished she could respond to him in koine Greek.

“It’s been so interesting!” She replied brightly, taking a very tiny sip of her ale. “Professor Vincent has put in paperwork for me to be the TA for his class – that will give me wages! – biomechanics seems fun, and I’m helping Professor Bishop and the others in programming to realize that everything they know is wrong!”   She smiled.

Gil couldn’t take it; he dropped his head and started laughing.

“Gil?” She wondered.

“Good to hear that biomechanics is the only non-fail!” He smiled at her. “I was thinking of taking that next semester. Will you be teaching it, by then?”

Her emerald eyes widened and she waved her hands. “No, no!   Professor Murphy is very good!   No, better than that: he’s very clever! Given the opportunity, I shall transmit some of his works home!”

“Home,” Gil said, holding her eyes, less than two feet from his dark gray, “is Japan, your company, or their Navy?”

Why does he provoke me, she wondered? Is he honestly curious? His tone indicates otherwise. Perhaps he grasps that I am not completely forthcoming, and is responding to that?

But, what human is?

“Are you happy?!”   Joe half-yelled at her. She analyzed his breath that reached her:   not just alcohol, but fatigue poisons, and . . . oh! She waved to her right as she watched Joe’s head weave. Nike came over.

“Yes, darling?”

“My first friend,” she gestured with her left hand, “is tired, slightly drunk, and running a low-grade fever of 100.2F I don’t want to cause any trouble, but – ”

Gil made to stand up.

“Crap.   Again.” He muttered. “I’ll get him. Nich-”

Nike pushed him back down. “His place is just around the corner. I’ll have one of mine take him. Gary!”

Another young man, kitted out just like Nike, came from inside. He was very pale, with dark hair and eyes. His face was expressionless.

“Sir?”

“Our dear customer is unwell. Could you see him to the Stratford?” Nike asked with a smile and tilt of his head, while winking at Nichole.

“Sir.”

“Ahm, ph… fine….   Tired…” Joe was barely able to stay upright.

With a heave, Nichole watched Gary easily pick Joe up and place him over his left shoulder.  Joe was not a small guy; Gary must lift weights….

“Back in a few minutes, sir.”

Nike laughed as they left. He looked at Nichole.

“Mister Kreeft is a regular; loud, sometimes, but a good customer.” He looked harder. “Astute of you to notice he was sick.”

Nichole held his gaze but said nothing.

“Get you anything?”   He asked.

“One more ale for me, please.” Gil said.   “Nichole?”

“I’m fine.”

Nike left them.   The sound of the other students and staff at the café echoed around them. She heard the long intake from breath from Gil to her left. His hand onto her left shoulder was a surprise.

“You use the word, storge, right?” She nodded.   “I looked it up; friendship.”

He finished the last of the pint he had.

“Joe’s in love with you. You get that?”

“Yes.”

“In English . . . American English, my friend loves you. Still with me?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, thanks.”   Another waiter brought him his last pint of ale. No one said anything.

“Are you going to ask me if I love him?” She asked.

He snorted.

“Like I care.”

She sipped at her ale.   I wonder where I can purchase bleach to properly clean myself out?

He set his pint down and looked at her.   Without changing expression, he suddenly moved his left hand towards her throat.

In a blur, she caught it.

“Gil?”

He brought his right around in fist towards her head. She caught and held that.

“Friend Gil? Are you well?” She was now very concerned.

He relaxed and drew back both hands, holding them up.

“Kinda what I thought.   You. That ship. You’re some kind of Jap military. Special Forces, maybe?” He turned back to his ale. “All this about school is just bullshit, right?”

“No!” She did not like being called a liar. “I am not in the military and I am here to study!”

He made one more half swipe at her, which she countered.

“So how is it you do that so easily?” He pivoted his whole body towards her. “How in the hell did you give that ship orders?!”

Secrets were like an onion. Layer by layer.

“Come ON, Gil!”   She laughed. “What Japanese girl doesn’t know martial arts!”

“The ship,” he persisted. Fine.

She quickly ascertained what volume she could use to reply to him. She parted her lips and leaned towards him; at the last moment, she moved her face a fraction to the left towards his right ear.

“I am an agent of the Empress. I am trusting you with my life.”

The second was a gross exaggeration, not a lie. She leaned back and took another tiny sip of her ale.

He said nothing. Took one drink, then another.

“Friends?” He asked without looking at her.

“We are.”

Another drink.

“Okay, then.” He looked at her again. “I’m sorry for doubting you.”

“’Trust, but verify!’”   Nichole said back to him with a smile.

There was a chirp from her handbag. The ship’s radio!

“Speaking of which . . .” She said as she started rummaging.

 

“Defiant” – Ep 16

Gil watched her take the headset out and put it on. She winked at him as her left hand moved, likely toggling it, he thought.

“Hai, hai! Nichole desu ga!” She said happily, still holding his eyes with hers.

“<Miss Clarke,>” she heard Midshipman’s Sasaki’s voice echo metallically through the encryption, “<how are you?>”

“<I’m fine! I’m at a café with a friend!>”

“<Can you talk?>” She grasped what he was asking. She slid her eyes away from Gil and casually looked around.

“<Nothing too important,>” she replied easily. “<Okay?>”

“<Of course. You are, I’m sure, aware of our departure on Monday?>”

“<Yes.>” She sighed just a little. “<I shall miss all of you.>”

“<And we you.>” He cleared his throat with a metallic cough. “<Captain’s compliments, miss: he requests you join us at the Officer’s Mess for dinner tomorrow at 1800. There will be a small reception with other civilians at 1700.>”

“<Two questions!>”

“<Please…?>”

“<May I arrive early? To say goodbye to the rest of the crew?>” There was a brief pause; she imagined him relaying that on to whatever officer was planning this.

“<Of course. And the second question?>”

From the corner of her left eye, she regarded Gil. Obviously listening and curious. Just as obviously clueless as to what she was saying.

“<May I bring a friend?>”

There was another pause. The pause became a wait. From inside the café, she heard some woman raise her voice. There was a “…love, please!” in reply from Nike. She smiled a little at that. Still no answer. Signal loss?

“…uh… <are you still…?>”

“<So sorry for the delay, Miss Clarke,>” Sasaki said. “<Your request needed… clarification.>”

She could very well guess how far her unorthodox request went up the ladder.

“<And the answer is, yes. Provided that you are aware you are fully responsible for your guest.>” Another tiny pause. “<And the word was ‘fully.’>”

Unaware she did it, she bowed slightly in her chair.

“Youkai!” Gil heard her yell sharply into the air in front of her. He took the second to last drink of his ale. Sounded serious.

“Hai… hai…iie… Hai!” Guess I know one word, he thought. Her left hand moved again as she swept the headset off with her right, quickly and easily stowing it away into her bag. Graceful.

He thought of her catching his hands. Strong.

Her swimming lesson. Clever.

He finished his ale. Who in the hell are you, girl?

“Good news?” He asked.

“Yes and no,” she replied. To judge by her smile, it must be more yes than no. “Kongo is leaving soon, but I’m allowed to go say goodbye to everyone tomorrow!” She stared at him as if there were more.

“I’d imagine you’d have friends on board?” She nodded. Yeah, there was more. “What – ”

“Give me back my goddam wine, you Athenian rent-boy!” The woman that had raised her voice earlier inside was now doing it outside. That voice! Nichole was turning to her right just as Nike set a large, but half empty wine glass onto the table opposite her and Gil.

“Women drinking alone are trouble to themselves and others, including my place.” Nike said with his typical cheer. “Come sit here, lovely! Behave, and I’ll bring the rest of the bottle!” He smiled at Nichole and winked at Gil. Nichole knew from that voice –

Teresa Johnson stood in front of them, making no move to sit. Her angry face seemed to get just a little worse when she saw miss-effing-genius give her a small wave. And she was already with a hot guy! That made her angry enough to sit down with a crash and take two huge of gulps of red from her glass.

“What?!” Teresa asked heatedly. And get that stupid grin off your face, she wanted to yell.

“I’m happy to see you again, friend Teresa!”

“I ain’t your goddam friend, classmate!” She said sharply. Even Gil could see Nichole wilt at that. Who was this bitch, he thought?

There was a bang as Nike sharply dropped the open wine bottle onto the table.

“Manners?” He was still smiling, but his eyes and voice were not. He moved off.

“Sorry.” Teresa muttered darkly. Another drink of wine. “We can try… being friendly….”

“Yea!” Nichole yelled. Gil thought the bitch almost threw up in her mouth when she heard that. He started laughing. Teresa glared at him.

“Your boyfriend gotta name?” She asked, waving her glass in his general direction.

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Nichole cried as she leaned left to give him a huge hug. There was an odd *crack!* from his ribs or spine. “But he’s super-special to me! He’s a hero, too!”

“Hero, huh?” Teresa said. She rubbed her hand on her tawny shirt a couple of times then extended it. “Teresa Johnson, computer engineering.”

For just a moment, Gil was wondering what Nichole had broken. He put his hand out.

“Gil Haven, mechanical engineering.” So, I’m not her boyfriend, either. “A pleasure.”

“What makes you a hero?”

He shrugged.

“She’s mistaken.”

“That’s not true!” Nichole’s voice was going up again. “Without you, how could I’ve – ”

“Are you going to tell her everything?” He glared at Nichole. “Everything?!”

Ah. Once again, her enthusiasm had outstripped her processors.

“I guess not.”

“Heh, heh, heh!” They turned to look as Teresa laughed flatly. She drained the rest of glass and refilled it before speaking.

“We’ve all secrets. Good!” Another big drink. “Shit, maybe we will get along!”

Nichole raised her glass to that; seeing Gil’s was empty she poured some of her ale to his. She nodded to Teresa.

“Cheers! Kampai!” She said. The other young woman nodded.

“Cheers.”

Guessing he’d be there a little longer, Gil managed to catch the eye of one of the staff for another drink. Teresa really seemed to be knocking hers back, but after the Breakup, everyone had a reason to drink, and no one ever asked about it.

“Why are drinking so much, Teresa?” Nichole asked. He hung his head.

Teresa just stared across the table. Little foreigner didn’t know shit. She sighed.

“My old man is making me do something tomorrow. Honestly,” another drink, “I’d rather be working on that braid theory problem you showed us…”

“Yes?” Nichole asked. Teresa seemed very unhappy.

“We ain’t all rich, smart foreign exchange students, ya’ know? Someone’s gotta pay for all this!” She waved about.

Nichole understood. An adult, but Teresa was still beholden to her family for funds.

“Maybe you could work here, for mister Nike…?”

Teresa didn’t hear her: head was back as she gulped down the last of her wine. The glass came down with a thunk.

“Old asshole killed my Mom.”

Gil and Nichole froze. Just in case she was about to say something stupid, Gil tapped her foot with his and shook his head a tiny fraction.

“See ya’ Monday, effing genius,” Teresa said, getting to her feet steadier than they expected. She flipped her hand. “Later, hot-guy-something.”

She loped off to the east.

“That was interesting,” Gil said softly.

They settled their bill. Nike kissed them both, much to Gil’s discomfort. After a block, he waved goodbye. Nichole quickened her pace. There was someone back at Stratford she needed to see!

She breezed quickly through the lobby, only to halt at the call of the man, Steven? behind the desk. He held up a small envelope for her.

“From Admin for you; came in late this afternoon!”

“Thank you!”

Opening it, she regarded her permanent badge with her smiling face looking back at her. She unclipped her first, temporary one and held it out.

“Could you throw this away for me, please?” She was surprised when he shook his head.

“A PSU badge? Even a temp? Too much black market value. You’ll need to return that to Admin next week, Miss Clarke.”

She was older.

“Thank you!” She trotted up the steps. Down her hall, she turned directly opposite her room and rapped on Mackenzie’s door. She heard the ruffle of papers; she tried not to smile when she heard the box of pencils fall onto the floor.

“Yes?” Her friend asked softly. The door was still closed and locked.

“Friend Mackenzie, may I please ask you something?”

“Sure.”

The door stayed shut.

“It’s important…?”

The lock scraped and she opened her door. “Come in.” She went to the same corner she stood in the last time Nichole had come over.

This was going to be a tough one, Nichole thought. Hasten slowly.

“That second picture you made of me, Kongo was in the background. Even far away, your level of detail was amazing!”

“Who was in the background? I didn’t draw anyone there.”

Kongo.” Mackenzie sailed on serenely with her blank look.

“The ship.” Nichole tried again.

“Oh! Yes! It’s very pretty!”

My win, Nichole thought.

“Mackenzie, my dorm-girl-friend, I am invited aboard Kongo tomorrow evening!” She bowed very low, using all of her under/overtones, “please join me as my guest!”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 17 (part 1)

They both looked up the first gangway amidships, towards Kongo. There were more elaborate preparations at the other, just aft, leading to the helicopter deck. Where the local civilians will be later, Nichole thought. That path had more pomp and decoration and whatnot. She imagined the captain would give a very short address, eager to return to his haunts. Well, that was two hours in the future. For now, she’d barely enough time to say goodbye to the crew she’d met on the voyage over. It troubled her to know there were some she could not visit – in CIC, among others – because of her guest. She was older that friendship was not an unalloyed good. She glanced left.

“Ready?”

Mackenzie was still shaking; just a little.

“H…how many did you say are on board?” Her voice shook, too.

“Just over three hundred!” Nichole replied with a smile. “Don’t worry! You won’t be meeting them all!” Just . . . most of them, she kept to herself. She gestured for Mackenzie to proceed her up. She was worried she might run away if she came second.

With her friend safely in front, Nichole waved to Sasaki-san, standing next to the two Marines. She’d radioed him earlier in the day, explaining about her rather nervous guest. Just before they stepped onto the ship, she made one last glance at Mackenzie. A smile. She looked fine.

Things had been rather different four hours ago.

Mackenzie sat on the edge of her bed in a faded light blue nightdress. Her hair was yet to be brushed and her eyes regarded Nichole with fear and regret.

“I… I can’t…!” She almost sobbed.

“Of course you can!” Nichole quickly countered. No negative waves! “You’re a beautiful young woman… who’s a little insecure. Let me see what makeup you have!”

She walked into her tiny bathroom, expecting what she’d seen in the rooms of the women she’d known at Somi: chaotic piles of this and that to make themselves prettier.

She saw black eyeliner and clear lip gloss. Not much to work with. What to do? She walked back to the main room, stopping just a foot from her friend.

“Who’s the prettiest girl in this building?” Undertones.

“Erin Wake,” she sputtered out.

“Where?”

“Fifth floor… room two, maybe?” Mackenzie wondered why it seemed that had been pulled out of her.

“Back in a minute!” Nichole left with a smile and a wave.

In the time to herself, Mackenzie wondered why she’d ever agreed to this. Sure, she was fascinated by the ship… but all those people! She looked to her kitchen. Maybe I could swallow something that would make me sick, so I don’t have to go…. There were footsteps coming!

“I’m back! And look who I found!”

A young woman with short, light brown hair framing an open, happy round face with a huge smile and just slightly almond eyes came in behind Nichole. She wore a light pink pull-over dress accentuated by prints of strawberries. Her green choker matched her shoes.

“Hi, there!” She called with a genuine smile. They’d never met, but Mackenzie had always admired her smile. “I’m Erin Wake! Nice to meet you!”

“Me… you… too.” Mackenzie did manage to stand to shake her hand. In her other she saw a travel bag of some kind.

The new girl leaned back for a moment, her hand on her chin, considering. She walked slowly around Mackenzie, muttering quietly. Returning to where she came in, she cast a look to Nichole.

“I’ve how much time?”

Nichole told her. Erin flinched slightly.

“Let’s get started!”

They made her shower. Her new fashion consultant handed her what shampoo and the two conditioners she should use. Stepping out of the shower, she was horrified to see them both looking at her.

“<Nothing romantic today, right?>” Erin asked Nichole. On the short walk from the fifth floor to the fourth, having already seen the genetic markers in her, Erin answered Nichole – in Japanese – that yes, her grandparents on her mother’s side had been Nisei.

“<Better not be.>” Nichole replied. The captain would hang whomever tried from the rigging. Erin looked relieved.

“<Good; I can focus on her face and hair.> You towel off; Nichole will brush your hair while I start on your face.”

She cringed.

“What’s wrong with my face?!” Mackenzie cried. Erin sighed.

“Nothing. It’s a pretty face,” she looked up and smiled. “We’re just going to make it prettier! Oh, what?!”

Mackenzie shook her head as she wiped at the moisture in the corner of her eyes. Big Brother!

“It’s… nothing. Let me get dry!”

While she toweled off, Erin took a quick look into her closet. Is she a professional mourner, she wondered? No time…. Play to her strengths, she thought. She pulled out the shortest, blackest dress and the tallest, blackest boots. Yep: let’s bet it all on the head. She tossed the clothes onto the bed and had Mackenzie, now wrapped in the towel she’d been using, sit in one of the two chairs around the table.

“Nichole? Start brushing; keep at it until I say.” Erin sat directly opposite her and opened her bag like a surgeon’s kit. She rummaged a bit, then turned to Mackenzie.

“Close your eyes.”

Mackenzie was later never quite sure how much time passed. At Erin’s orders, Nichole’s brushing had turned into a series of complicated pulling and tugging on her hair. Erin, it felt, did surprisingly little to her face, but did what she did with great deliberateness. Her eyes and lips still tickled from her ministrations. There was a pause. Unbidden, she opened her eyes.

“Yes…?”

“Stand up, please.” Erin asked. She did. Erin made a look to Nichole who swept the towel off her. With an ‘eeeek!’ she tried to cover everything at once.

“Stop that!” She froze; she stood still, as hunched over as she could.

“Nikky, help me get her dress on. Careful around her face.”

“Hai!” Facing the opposite direction, Mackenzie didn’t see the grin and flash in the eyes of her friend. A nickname! No one has ever called me by a nickname!

Slowly, carefully, they got the dress over her head. Erin took a few small pins to take it up in three places. Once again, she slowly walked around her. She nodded.

“It’ll work.” She looked to Nichole. “<Let me know how things turn out, okay?>”

“<Of course! And, thank you so much! If there’s ever anything I can do…?>”

“Can you make Nike straight?” She asked, dropping to English.

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing! This was a lot of fun; let do it again sometimes! See ya’!” She let herself out.

“Is… is this really okay?” Nichole turned back to Mackenzie who’d not moved.

“You’re beautiful, friend!”

 

As she stepped from the gangway onto the ship, Mackenzie did as she was told: she turned to the ship’s colors and bowed. She raised herself and held her right hand out to the young officer.

“Permission to come aboard?” She asked in a whisper.

Sasaki couldn’t move or speak. Sleek, shiny black hair, as if she was from home, but the light cream skin on her forearms and legs…. One tight braid hung down the right side of her face, the rest of her hair lightly pulled back behind her, kept off the left side of her face by a silver clasp. And what a face! Eyes to lose oneself in, and her upper eyelids the same color as the lips in her bow of a mouth: the faintest purple, as the first quickening of darkness. Then short, hard lines only half an inch out on the two outside corners of her eyes: style both classic and iconoclastic.

He wanted to propose on the spot. But duty is as heavy as a mountain.

“Please welcome aboard Kongo! Miss!” He said in what he hoped was his best English. He nodded his head to her. “<If there is anything you wish->”

“…please ask me,” Nichole finished translating for him. She smiled at them both.

Good job, newest friend Erin!

 

“Defiant” – Episode 17 (part 2)

“My feet!” Mackenzie cried as she plopped next to Nichole. She eased her shoes off and began rubbing at her feet. They were towards the back of the ship, two decks up. The large, white cylinder of the CIWS was just behind them, its Gatling gun pointed out and up.

“Careful there,” Nichole said, glancing at the partly cloudy sky. “The deck can get real hot real fast; I don’t want you to burn your feet!”

“I felt like I just walked ten miles!” Her friend complained, rubbing.

“No, just over two,” Nichole said, checking her internal data. “There were lots of ups and downs, though!”

Ships-ladders had been new to Mackenzie. A chore to walk up, and a horror to walk down. After the first, Nichole had simply hooked her feet and slid down in two seconds, then turned and waited for her friend to slowly descend.

Still rubbing, Mackenzie looked over at Nichole. “When we came aboard, I thought they were going to give us a guide.” She stared. “I’d not known that you belong here.”

Nichole shook her head.

“I don’t. This was my home while we crossed the Pacific to yours – my new home.” Nichole easily held her stare. “It was so much fun getting to know everyone, I wanted to say goodbye before they left.”

Mackenzie grunted at that. As part of Nichole’s ‘farewell tour,’ she’d learned the ship was leaving tomorrow. Not exactly a secret, but not something to talk about, either. She looked aft and pointed.

“Is all this a part of that, too?”

On the helicopter deck about two score people milled about. Roughly three quarters were local civilians in suits and dresses, the rest officers and men from the ship. Nichole was aware that there was a diplomatic contingent aboard, but had no idea as to what their assignment was. On their voyage over, the Second Officer (CIC), Lt. Kirita, had explained the idea of ‘compartmentalization’ to her: how ships survived was used to keep diplomacy and intelligence alive, too.

“Oooo!” Mackenzie muttered. “They’ve a table with snacks and drinks! After you dragging me around this ship, I’m hungry!”

“Our dinner’s in fifteen minutes. I bet they start encouraging this lot to… leave…” She trailed off, staring down and right, to where her friend had been looking at the refreshment table.

“What is it?” Mackenzie asked, sitting up and putting her shoes back on.

At the refreshment table a young woman shook her cup at the crewman stationed there. They exchanged words. With a slight bow, Nichole watched as he refilled her cup with sake. She wore a shoulder-less dress that went to just below her knees, glittering silver in the cloudy light of a Portland late afternoon. Fit build, and her oddly wavy hair teased out like a lion’s mane. Is that…?

The figure looked left then right, as if seeking escape. She started forward, apparently to get away from everyone else. When she tilted her head back to take a drink –

“Friend Teresa!” Nichole exclaimed, standing. She wanted to yell and wave, but that would have attracted everyone’s attention. She could be down there in moments, but then Mackenzie would be trapped up here, lost as to how to get down…?

We’re not one/zero, big brother Shirou had told her. Nor are we either/or. He tried to smile at her, but had never learned how. We’re more like both/and!

“Mackenzie! Up!” Her friend stood as she took her by the hand and led her to the port side of the deck. About fifteen feet down to the next, then another fifteen to the main deck. Easy for her; her friend, not so much.

“Arms around my neck!” She cried as she scooped the mousy girl into her arms. Mackenzie had just managed to cry, “What?!” when she jumped down the first level. Holding her friend, she trotted right towards the ladder. Teresa passed by just below. She jumped again.

At least the goddam booze at this goddam party is free, Teresa thought, walking on. Maybe there’s a quiet corner up here I can get away from these assholes…. There was a very solid *thunk!* behind her. She turned in surprise.

“You! Again?!”

Nichole stood before her with some cute but obviously frightened girl in her arms. What the hell? Was she a kidnapper or some superhero? She watched as her annoying proto-friend eased the girl’s legs to the ground, but still protectively held her shoulder.

“Friend Teresa!” Nichole called. “What are you doing here?”

She gripped her cup tighter.

“Drinking, and trying to be left alone!” She couldn’t take it, though. “Whatinthehell are you doing here?!”

“Saying goodbye to my friends! Oh!” That’s right, she would not know that! “Kongo is how I came to your land, my new home!” She gestured wide with her free left arm.

Teresa hunched her shoulders forwards.

“Wait. You came…” She shook her head. “But my Dad said…” She stopped , obviously confused. Nichole was about to ask when two bells sounded three times though the speakers.

“Please for all guests to prepare to depart the ship,” she recognized Minata’s passable English.

“Oh! Does this mean you have to leave now?” Nichole cried.

“Shit, no.” What?

“There’s some effing VIP dinner after this, and I have to be there….” There were footfalls behind Nichole. She turned.

She was surprised to see the Chief himself. He was just as surprised to see her.

“<Miss Clarke! How nice to see you one more time! Please excuse me!>” He looked past her. “Miss! Dinner! You father waiting! Please!”

Nichole took this in. There are other VIPs for dinner. Teresa is one of them. And, her father.

Her father. Old asshole killed my Mom!

She tightened her grip, slightly, on Mackenzie’s shoulder. She surprisingly needed someone to hold onto.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 17 (part 3)

The VIPs – which included Nichole and Mackenzie – were at two tables for six each in the Mess. There had once been a separate Officer’s Mess, but at the ship’s last major refit a few years back, that space was repurposed for more computing power: an early quantum computer. Nichole thought of it as a human might think of a monkey: a primitive ancestor.

She considered the others around the table, as the stewards made their way around giving each two small cups of sake. Something was up, but she knew not what.

Mackenzie was to her left, and Suragawa-san, one of the diplomats, in a dark charcoal suit, to her right. They faced the wall. Across from them, with the better view, was Teresa across from Mackenzie, some man in his early middle age but still quite fit. He wore a light gray business suit with an interesting pin on his lapel: two crossed flags: the offset blue-and-gold cross on a field of green for the City of Portland, and the Rising Sun. Another diplomat, perhaps? Her eyes scanned quickly from his face to Teresa; the same interesting genetic markers. This man must her father.

To his left was Keito-san, the only other female on the voyage over and Suragawa’s superior. She wore a light blue suit coat that matched her skirt. At the behest of Lt. Kirita, they’d all just sat down. The other VIP table was four locals and the other two diplomats. Mackenzie hung her face over her place setting while Teresa slurped loudly at her cup of sake. Good manners cost nothing. She rose slightly and extended her hand to Teresa’s father.

“Good evening! My name’s Nichole Clarke!” She said with her typical exuberance. She heard a couple of the officers chuckle to hear her voice. “I’m so happy to meet you!”

He clasped her hand with a broad grin. That did not reach his eyes at all, she saw. Interesting.

“My pleasure, miss! I’ve already heard a little about you – ” Teresa snorted. “My name’s – ”

Just then Kirita sharply tapped the bell on the presider’s table. Silence fell. Nichole released the man’s hand and sat, turning to her left to give her full attention. For the first time that day, she saw the ship’s captain. His face was its usual unreadable rock.

“<I shall not take up our honored guest’s time more than I must.>” Kirita said. To her right, she heard Keito-san translating for the man next to her. “<It has been our pleasure to get to know the beauty, industriousness, and good people of this city. Thank you, Mayor Johnson.>” He bowed in the direction of their table.

That answers that, Nichole thought.

“<While so much remains… uncertain about our future, please know that we hope you see Japan as a valuable ally.>” Interesting! Keito-san used the word ‘friend,’ instead. Much was going on Nichole did not understand. He raised the first small cup. “<To our future!>”  “Kampai!” Rang out through the Mess. Nichole drank all of hers: it was only an ounce, and self-sterilizing. She abhorred the thought of something growing in her. That did leave the other little cup, though….

“<The captain has one message to pass on, prior to dinner. Thank you.>” Kirita moved and bowed to his superior officer.

The captain took a slip of paper from his pocket. He re-read what Nichole suspected what he’d read a dozen times already. So methodical! And they call us machines! His voice was low, but it carried in the utter silence.

“<A message, from the Imperial Household.>” Nichole’s mouth twitched a little, thinking of her friend there. “<Her Imperial Majesty announces she is pregnant, with the second heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, due at the end of this year.>”

Ah. They waited until sure the child was viable!

Captain Gunzo raised his hands.

“Banzai!”

“Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” They all cheered, Nichole along with them. Everyone took their second toast. The officers stood and hugged one another, shaking hands; some had tossed their caps. As Keito-san remained seated, translating and talking to the Mayor, she was the only female to join in the little celebration. She’d leapt from her chair and hugged each and everyone there. By the time she’d made it to the presider’s table, the captain was gone. She bowed down, then rose, grinning hugely at Lt. Kirita.

“<Wonderful news!>” She cried.

“<Yes, it is, Miss Clarke.>” He made a motion at the chief steward and the food was brought in to what was now a celebration. She returned to her seat. Keito-san was just finishing what she was saying to the Mayor.

“…a model to her people about demographic change.” She laughed slightly. “Palace talk is that she wants a dozen children….”

He turned to look at Nichole and extend his hand again.

“Sorry about that! We were interrupted! I’m Lee Johnson, mayor of this fair city!” She clasped his hand.

“My pleasure!” She tilted her head left. “This is my dear friend, Mackenzie!”

Nichole made two, good-faith attempts to bring Mackenzie into the conversations at the rest of the table. A complete failure, but she tried. Pushing her food around her plate, she remembered.

            She walked slowly next to the Empress, maintaining a slight bow in her yellow-cream colored suit the entire time.

            “<Doesn’t that hurt your back?>” She’d asked with a smile.

            “<Of course not.>” Nichole replied easily. “<I cannot actually ‘hurt.’ My receptors exist so that my mind may react appropriately.>”

            “<Oh. Then please stand up.>” She sighed. “<Having people groveling all the time is depressing.>” They kept on through the garden in the midst of the palace grounds.

            “<Is it a problem,>” she asked, “<that I’ve taken you away from those other two?>”

            Nichole shook her head.

            “<Tomoe-sensei might have a problem with it, but she worries too much!>” She paused for just a moment. “<I admit I’m curious about what you said: being isolated?>”

            The Empress stopped her walk and sighed.

            “<The court ceremonial is bad enough, but I’ve since learned that when one takes… difficult command decisions, no one wants to be around, for fear of the repercussions.>”

            “<I’m sorry,>” Nichole said. “<But I don’t understand.>” She gave a start. “<Your Majesty!>” She added.

            The Empress looked up the half-inch between their eyes. “<Why don’t you just call me Togame!>” She smiled.

            Tomoe-sensei had Ordered her to treat her Majesty with the utmost respect. But, what she just heard was an Order, too. She reached forwards and took the woman’s hands. She heard the gasps from the two retainers, but ignored them.

            “<Of course, Togame-chan!>” Nichole beamed at her. “<I’m so happy we could be friends!>”

            A minute’s walk had them seated at a small, round wrought iron table. A different servant brought tea, then vanished. The other two, one man, one woman, Western suits like Nichole, stood just within earshot. With a nod to her Majes – to her friend, she took a sip of her tea. Togame smiled a little.

            “<Yes?>” Nichole wondered.

            “<You can drink tea. Can you eat food, as well?”> She seemed genuinely curious.

            “<Only a little. And cleanup afterwards, especially for solids, is always a bother!>”

            Togame laughed a little at that.

            “<So you don’t use the toilet?>” Nichole shook her head.

            “<The access for food and drink storage is here,>” she pointed to about where a human’s appendix would be. “<But I also have to sterilize my ‘throat’ as well; swallowing some isopropyl alcohol or a bleach solution works fine.>”

            Togame considered this.

            “<May I see?>”

            “<See what?>” Her drink bleach?

            “<Your access, as you termed it.>”

            “<Sure!>”

            Nichole stood and quickly took off her business skirt. She pulled her panties down and her shirt up. The Empress’s aides stared at her, each other, the Empress. Who looked on with amusement in her eyes.

            “<It appears just like a scar from a bikini incision,>” she said. “<How do you…?>”

            Nichole let go of her panties and shirt. She used her left hand to pull the ‘scar’ open, revealing the gray flexible composite material underneath, and her right hand to make yet another opening, out of which she pulled a small, black plastic bag. A flexible tube led back into her.

            “<How interesting!> She waved slightly. “<Please get dressed. May we keep talking while you do?>”

            “<Of course!>” Nichole was rearranging her insides as she replied. “<What about?!>”

            Togame’s smile drifted away.

            “<Politics.>”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 18

Even with her enhanced perception, she was unable to detect the signal that came fifty-five minutes after dinner had been served. The officers, starting with the most junior, stood, made their apologies, and departed. Nichole knew the invisible hand of the captain was at work. Not wanting to be subjected to a barrage of questions by the other civilians once left alone, she used the pretext of her unsteady friend as an excuse to leave immediately.

“How are you, friend Mackenzie?” She asked, hopefully.

“Hmmm…uuhhh?” Could be better.

Tired. Plus, early in the meal, Nichole had heard her mutter at her plate: “never had sake before…” Nichole was wondering if she’d ever had any alcohol before.

As Teresa was almost yelling at her father, no one really noticed their departure. She pushed her friend up the one ship’s ladder to the level of the main deck, then wrapped her left arm about her. She was steady enough to the gangway, but Nichole wondered about the walk home. It would be dark – and curfew – very soon. Defending herself was simplicity itself. But an unconscious girl? Ah. Two midshipmen on duty; or rather, she guessed that Sasaki found a reason to be there.

“<Miss! A surprise to see you one last time!>”

She could play, too.

“<What a pleasant surprise! Forgive me for my unsteady friend, but…>” She leaned forwards just enough to brush his cheek with her lips. “<You’ve been such a friend to me! I hate to impose further, but we are two girls going home alone in the twilight…?>”

His nails bit into his palms. There was no way he could leave the ship, but to let them go alone, after the video they’d seen of what was north (hopefully still north!) of the river….

“<I need two Marine volunteers to escort these ladies back to their home!>” He called out.

There were at least ten replies. No surprise, there. Not knowing what they were sailing into when they left Japan, the Marine contingent had been doubled. There were plenty lingering topside in the twilight.

“<Who’s senior and not on duty!?>” He called again. Nichole laughed silently as she listened to them argue amongst themselves. But time was fleeting.

“<I guess we’ll be going, then…!>” She called, pitched to carry the length of the ship. She’d one foot onto the gangway when Sergeant Makita appeared with Lance Corporal Itami.

“<Miss!>” The sergeant said sharply. “<We are prepared to escort you home!>” Itami nodded as he grinned.

“Uhhh…. Ummm?” Mackenzie was almost totally out at this point. Nichole bent down.

“<Could one of you please place her onto my back?>” She asked.

“<It’d be no problem for me to carry – >” Itami began. She shook her head at him.

“<She’s my friend, and at the captain’s orders, my responsibility. Thank you, though!>”

Itami leaned the local girl onto her back. She was just snoring slightly. Nichole reached back and grasped Mackenzie’s legs with her hands.  She stood.

“<We go!>”

She’d have loved to jump from the deck to the pier, but that would upset her friend. She plodded down. Once there, Makita-san took point – with his rifle – with Itami behind. She saw Makita-san trying to look everywhere at once. So nice!

“<Did you have a good dinner, miss?>” Itami asked.

“Mmm! <Left in two blocks, sergeant!> She said. “<Yes, I did! Have you two heard the good news about Her Majesty?”

Makita looked back at her.

“<Thank the gods, the Buddha, Christ… I don’t care: Her Majesty is going to save Japan!>” He turned back forward.

Interesting, she thought. From one of the SDF’s professional soldiers. She would have to report this, when she could.

“<And you, Itami-chan?>” She asked.

“<Before…>” He was a little reluctant to talk; maybe just shy. “<Under the last Emperor, my older sister boasted about how she was never going to have children. She and her husband had already filed papers for a divorce. Now…>” He smiled at her, “<she’s due in three months. And they tore up the paperwork!>”

Definitely have to report this.

They continued in silence. Though it was not quite dusk, a block shy of her home, they were challenged by a group of six local militia. She showed her PSU badge and explained the other three. Rumor had done its work well: the moment she’d said “Japanese Marines” they’d lowered their rifles and were thanking them profusely for saving their city.

She hoped there wasn’t a too serious break in morale once Kongo left in the morning.

At the steps up to the Stratford’s entrance, they bowed and turned away.

“<Wait! Please!>” The two turned back. Even with her friend on her back, she shambled forwards and put a hand onto each of their chests.

“<When you leave tomorrow, I’ll be the only Japanese here…>” Her voice caught slightly. “<Please reiterate what I told the crew today: I shall miss each one of you!>”

She bowed deeply enough that Mackenzie groaned somewhat.

They bowed just as much.

“<Please take care of yourself, miss!>” Makita-san said brokenly. To leave a girl alone in a place like this! But orders were orders.

They were gone. She turned and was up the few stairs and into her home. The guy – yet another one! – behind the desk was a little surprised, but waved them on. Up four flights of stairs, she came to a halt in front of Mackenzie’s door.

Do I rummage through her purse for a key? I could just kick the door down…? She wondered where in processors that stupidity came from…. No, simplest was best.

She unlocked her own door and went in, balancing only for a moment to get her shoes off. With her right hand she swept what clothes she’d laid out on the bed off along with the top sheet. She pivoted and sat. Another deft turn, and her friend was on her back in her bed. Snoring slightly.

“At least someone gets to use it,” Nichole muttered. She walked away, preparing to sit in the chair close to the kitchenette.

“…SNORK! *cough!* …so many people…”

She whirled back as Mackenzie coughed and muttered. Hmmm. If she vomited in her sleep, she might choke to death…. Nichole unplugged her charger from the kitchen socket and picked up her chair. There was another socket just next to the bed. Her chair went two feet from that, to observe her friend. She removed all of her clothes, folded into a neat pile on the floor next to her. With her left and right arms and hands, she plugged herself in.

“What a good day!” She said very quietly. She’d been so happy to see Teresa! But, then… Teresa and her father: politics.

“Defiant” – Episode 19

            “<Politics?>” Nichole had echoed back to Togame. Her Majesty nodded.

            “<Without radical demographic change, there will be no Japan in three generations. We all know it, but no one had dared to speak of it.>” She put her tea cup down sharply. “<Until I did, of course!>”

            Nichole was still very young, and spent most of her time learning. But, very little of that learning was current events. Only after the summons to the Imperial Household had she – at the prompting of sister Caroline – begun to understand the nation of Japan. Somi was her creator; she knew her little family; what else was there?

            She’d quickly come to realize: there was quite a bit more.

            “We don’t know everything,” elder brother Shirou had said, with his quick eyes and blank face, “but we know what we know.”

            “<Yes,>” Nichole said, reseating herself. “<Japan is depopulating. But the most recent data…!>”

            “<Eighteen months,>” Togame shook her head, “<versus fifty years, is just an anomaly! I am already exhorting my subjects, and leading by example…!”

            Nichole knew of the Crown Prince, born just a year ago….

            “<But will they follow me?! So many of the Household say I’m crazy; and of course, there’s those that say I shouldn’t be here at all…!>”

            She was almost shouting. Nichole slid out of her chair and had her arms around her faster than her two aides could see.

            “<You are such a nice person!>” Nichole whispered into Togame’s ear. “<Why do you doubt yourself?>”

            Togame retuned Nichole’s grasp for just a moment, then pushed her back to look into her eyes.

            “<Will you, and your family, support me?>”   The Empress asked.

            There was truth in what she asked. There were also layers of deception in her tone that Nichole did not know were possible for rational creatures. She replied with what truth she had.

            “<I shall serve you, my Empress. But my family are all unique. As Somi Corporation is growing older quickly…>” She lowered her head, then glanced sharply up under her brows, “<it is better to persuade than Order!>”

            Togame’s face fell, then she leaned back, laughing!

            “<How neatly you turn the tables on me!>” She used her left hand to wipe the tears of laughter from her eyes. “<Anyone else would have been groveling on the floor, but here you tell me to have House Yamato beg your Family for assistance! Ah…!>”

            She collected herself and picked up her teacup.

            “<You really are something different, aren’t you?>”

            Nichole just dipped her head.

            Togame poured some more tea for herself. She saw no reason to make cleanup more difficult for her new ‘friend.’

            “What do you know about America?”

            What? Nichole thought. That was unexpected, and, in English.

            “I know the basic history of that nation, and the fundamentals of their current travails,” Nichole replied in the same language. Togame nodded.

            “Good. Since the Black Ships, for good or ill – sometimes very ill – the fate of our two nations have been tied together. Even with their horrid economic implosion, what with the Dollar no longer being the World’s reserve currency, I, myself, still think that there is a connexion between my nation, and theirs.”

            “Do you?” Nichole said, carefully. She’d never been younger in such a complicated conversation.

            “I do,” Togame continued easily. “There is only one city facing Japan that has not killed itself: Portland, in what they call the State of Oregon. There is some ship trade, and intermittent satellite signals from them.”

            “I see.” Nichole added, reservedly.

            Togame sighed, took a breath and Nichole’s hands at the same time.

            “I want you to be my personal agent in the city of Portland; teaching them, defending them. I want you to make them into a Friend and Ally of the Japanese Empire.” She tightened her grip. “One of my ships, Kongo, leaves in three weeks on a ‘goodwill’ mission. I want you on it!”

            Nichole thought very fast.

            My home! My friends! My family!

            But Tomoe-sensei said….

            “I obey.” She replied. “But…?”

            “<Yes?>” Togame was enjoying being talked back to.

            “<May I… may I make as many new friends as I can, there?>”

            The Empress shook her head in silent laughter.

            “<Friend Nichole! Why do you think I’m sending you there?>”

The patter from outside was random: leaves shedding their rain, and more rain. Nichole thought about her friends: her new friends.

“Oooo! My head!”

She thought about her friend before her, in her bed. Mackenzie’d survived the night. Nichole had monitored her temperature and breathing, at the same time allowing herself to engage in what she called ‘dreaming.’ Not knowing what is was like for humans, she considered her recollections of her past to be basically the same thing.

Mackenzie slowly moved her head. Her eyes opened.

“Uhhh…?”

“You’re in my room, friend Mackenzie! You fell asleep after dinner on the ship! Do you remember?”

“Oooo! Head hurts!”

Hangover.

“You need to drinks lots of water! And take a shower right now, to clean out your skin!” Nichole said. “Let me help you to your room!”

“My room…?” Mackenzie pushed herself up to a sitting position and tried to look around. It was obvious she was not all there. Her head lolled about, coming to a sudden stop when she looked at Nichole.

“Uh.”

“Yes, friend Mackenzie?”

Nichole watched, fascinated, as clarity entered her friend’s face. Mackenzie held up her left hand, pointing.

“What’s that there for?”

She was just barely pointing to Nichole’s right. Did I leave my radio headset on again…?

Uh, oh.

Mackenzie looked at the cord that went from the back of Nichole’s neck, over her shoulder, across the floor, and into the wall outlet next to the bed she was in. Her eye reversed their trace and ended back in Nichole’s. Anxiously, she pulled the sheet up to cover herself.

“What… what are you?!” Mackenzie cried.

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