“Defiant” – Episodes 20-33

“Defiant” – Episode 20

The troop plodded southwards in the steady rain down old I-84, the mighty Columbia River to their left.  The steady rhythm of canter-trot-walk from earlier in their journey reduced to walk with the occasional trot: the road surface was just too wet to risk a fall for either a rider or their mount. The troop captain glanced at the leaden sky and sighed. They’d made Bonneville in a day; Hood River in a day and a half. Then the sky opened. Not really unexpected for December, but still…. A glance at his wind-up watch showed it to be almost four in the afternoon. They’d likely be in The Dalles, and the fort by the dam, around six thirty. Looking ahead, he saw one of his scouts, Reilly, returning.

“You’re up next, Richards!” The captain called over his right shoulder. That man spurred his horse to a trot, passing Reilly about 100 yards ahead. The captain saw them exchanged a few words as they passed. Good: still no signs of enemies. Didn’t mean they weren’t there, of course. Unknown unknowns; the worst kind. Reilly drew up and fell in next to his officer. No salutes: did the hills to their right hold snipers?

“Sir! Clear as far as I could tell,” Reilly said, constantly looking about. That’s why he was the troop’s best scout. “An abandoned trailer park a bit ahead, but it felt empty.”

The captain nodded. Any good veteran learned to put their trust in feelings like that. He saw Reilly’s look linger on the column behind them. The captain wanted to smile.

“She’s fine, trooper.” He enjoyed Reilly’s chagrin at being read so easily. “Thanks for your good work; why not drop back a bit?” And talk to her.

“Sir!” He slowed his horse and fell back as the column moved around him. Two dozen plus one, the captain thought. They’d recently been taking a half squad of six militia with their eighteen Regulars on missions like this. It was valuable experience for the citizen-soldiers and would provide the Regulars with a more reliable cadre in the event of another crisis. Which was just a matter of time. Five months ago, after what was now called ‘the Battle at the Bridge,’ the captain had led several sorties north into former Washington State, scouting and taking prisoners for interrogation.

He rolled his shoulders, thinking back on some of their prisoners: cannibal fanatics. Like out of some damned low-budget Hollywood movie, but this was real. This was not the 21st Century that I was expecting, he thought.

There was some muffled laughter from two-thirds back along the column. One was feminine. His unexpected twenty-fifth member of his team. Not even militia; not even a Portlander. But very, very dangerous. He allowed himself a wry grin as he recalled the meeting in the Mayor’s Office six days ago.

“I refuse. Respectfully. Sir.” He stood at attention before the Mayor’s desk. Who looked back at him with cool eyes. To the Mayor’s left, but on the Captain’s side of the desk, was an attractive young woman with a kind, open face. Her slightly reddish-blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She’d been introduced to him just a moment ago as ‘Nichole Clarke.’

            Rather than shouting him down, Mayor Johnson took a politician’s approach. “Explain yourself, Captain Muller.”

            “If we’ve learned anything from the Breakup, it’s that we cannot have women in front-line units,” the captain said, recapitulating the obvious. “Anywhere else, yes, they can be vital to the military. But not – not at the tip of the spear. Sir.”

            “I agree.” The Mayor’s response caught him completely off guard.

            “You… you do?”

            “Of course. But that’s just a general rule. And,” he looked to his left at the girl, “every rule has its exceptions! Miss Clarke? With no permanent damage, would you be so kind as to disarm and restrain the captain here?”

            What?!

            “Sure!” The girl cried cheerfully.

            As he turned towards her, it seemed as if her formed blurred. She was inches in front of him: her right fist buried in his solar plexus; he couldn’t breathe! In another moment he was looking at the Office carpet. There was an odd *click*! Oh: his service pistol, a Sig-Sauer P239. That was the hammer being drawn back, just behind his head.

            “Surrender or die!” He heard her smile. “Kah, kah!” What was that?

            “Thank you, Miss Clarke. That will be all,” Mayor Johnson said. The captain pushed his chest up off the floor….

            To see the girl in front of him; her left hand out to help him up. In her right, she de-cocked this pistol. He took her hand.

            “You were saying, Captain?” The Mayor asked.

            The girl bowed slightly as she held his weapon back to him with both hands. She didn’t move. He took the pistol and returned it to his holster. She rose. And smiled: a smile like sunshine.

            “Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.”

            “Good!” He let his eyes drop to the papers on his desk. He picked one up and signed at the bottom. He looked up.

            “You two still here? Shoo!” He waved at the door. “I expect reports from both of you when you get back.” He picked up another paper.

            Just outside the Office door, Muller called out, “Miss Clarke?” She turned back to him.

            “Yes?”

            “A pleasure to be working with you,” he extended his hand. “Would you mind if I asked you to work with my men on hand-to-hand?”

            She gently shook his hand. Her head tilted to the left just a little.

            “Sure!”

It was getting darker. No sign of the rain letting up. They’d just crossed Chenoweth Creek when the captain noticed Clarke bringing her horse up beside his.

“There’s something to our left. Something… odd.” She said.

“SomeTHING or someONE,” he emphasized.

“Thing. It is not aware.”

What?

“The only thing over there,” he gestured to his left, “is the Goodle Data Center. Built just after the turn of the Century. Fiber optic lines as thick as my thigh.” He pointed ahead. “Cheap power from the dam, solid local workforce, isolated… it was everything they wanted to build a data hub in the western US.”

He watched her closely. She shuddered slightly and there was an odd play of emotions across her face. When she licked her lips, he felt disgust. Why?

“So much data in one place!” She said in a guttural undertone. “I want to devour it!”

What?

“I’m sure we can visit later,” he nodded with his chin. “Our objective now is the fort at the dam.”

“Yes. Sir.” She dropped back in line. But kept staring off to the left.

He recalled the day before they left on this mission.

            “…these six from Militia B,” he called to his troopers, indicating those men to his left. His men were sitting in a semi-circle around him. Horsemen sat. “And sergeant Nichole Clarke of the Kempeitai.” He felt her eyes on him for that lie, but he ignored her. “She’s a specialist in martial arts. Would anyone care to see?”

            They’d all laughed. Several raised their hands. He picked Brunelli, who’d been arrested as many times as he’d been promoted and demoted.

            “C’mere John,” he said, watching the brute of a man rise. The horse he rode was twice the size of the rest of the troops’. He indicated the empty field just behind him.

            “Sergeant Clarke, if you’d be so kind…?” She rose, giving him an enigmatic look. She walked to just opposite where Brunelli stood, flexing his hands at the prospect of such a pretty, young girl. Sure, he couldn’t do that, but fun was fun.

            “Begin!” The captain called. Brunelli lunged forwards….

            She faded right. Her right fist caught his jaw. They saw at least three teeth fly into the air. He dropped and did not move. She at once fell to his side and rolled him onto his back, checking his vitals. She looked up to the captain.

            “You’ve made your point; I’ve made mine.” She said harshly. “Call a corpsman, NOW!”

            The captain was on his walkie-talkie while she held Brunelli’s face, hers inches from his, talking quietly to him. He saw her kiss his forehead once. I wanted to make an example of her, he thought, but she made an example of me….

            In the ride out of Portland, he’d realized his mistake: he thought she’d have to prove herself as a warrior to be accepted. While his men now knew that, they still treated her more as a mascot or good-luck charm. Except, of course, for that one militiaman….

“Hey, Five!” The captain heard the corporal of militia call. He knew there was some connexion between them at the university, but he didn’t know the details. They were just passing through the old downtown along the freeway. The fort was only about a third of a mile away. Raincoats be-damned, everyone was soaked to the bone. The horses looked miserable.

“Yes, Gil?” He heard her call in reply.

The captain could tell from his tone that they were not a couple. He was obviously not happy about something, but if it did not affect his command, he did not get involved. Calling the girl “Five,” for instance.

Reilly and one other Regulars laughed at what militiaman Haven had to say. They stopped when the girl leaned over to kiss his cheek, followed with a brush of her hand against him. Good and bad news, the captain thought: I hope she’s made a decision. That will allow everyone else to settle down.

They’d just passed the rail yard on their right; they could see the spillway of the dam at their ten o’clock. Then sirens of the fort began their wail. God damn it, the captain thought. So close.

“Battle formation!” He stood up in his stirrups and shouted.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 21

Dear Friend Mackenzie, Nichole wrote onto the page. She’d found writing to be very much fun: in Somi she would just plug herself in and will a report to a printer. When she had to type, some keyboards could not match the pace of her fingers. But with a pen… ah! So interesting! Once a word passed from her mind through her hand onto paper, it was there for good – barring throwing the whole page away. She’d never thought like this before, and reveled in the in the new experience.

It’s my third and last day here at the camp just west of the Sandy River. I’m so much older at so many things! I can now both ride a horse and shoot a rifle and pistol! She smiled a little at the memory. Walk and trot were deceptively easy; in four seconds at canter, I lost my balance and fell! Me! Are you laughing right now? I bet you are! Nothing permanently damaged, though. At their order I was right back on and kept at it for another hour. By then, I think I had the hang of it. The lead scout, Reilly, said I was a natural. Funny, given what you know me to be!

She looked up from the page from just a moment, her smile fading. No, I’ll tell her everything. She looked back down.

Firearms were quite different. I’ve played FPS games before – we always beat everyone! – but this was the first time to hold a weapon in my hand. First, against some bullseye targets with a revolver, I was old enough to let my shots wander a bit. Next, they lent me what’s called a Henry Repeating Rifle. So cute! But… her hand paused for only a moment… they had me aiming at targets of human silhouettes. You already know from our talks what I did at the Battle at the Bridge. This made me remember. It’s not my best memory.

Time to change the subject.

Guess who arrived here this afternoon?! It was friend Gil! It seems that he and five of his militia mates are to accompany the Regulars as a part of their training. I guess he was picked as the university is shut down for six weeks for Christmas break? I’ll have to ask him later. When he and the others first arrived they were… what’s the right English word? Hazed? Teased? You’ll have to tell me, later, by the Regulars. He’d not yet noticed I was there, and I wanted to run over and give him a hug! But even in my first home, I know how important the idea of ‘honor’ is to a guy, so I stayed away. It wasn’t until dinner, just an hour ago, that the Captain introduced me to the militia.

Her hand paused again.

For just a second, I could tell he was happy to see me. But once he knew I was coming along, he frowned and looked away. He, some time ago, and the Captain, just recently, reacted poorly to the idea of women in a combat zone. I’m older as to why, but now there is a separation of some kind between me and my friend. I am saddened by that, friend Mackenzie. We’re only going as far as The Dalles dam; it’s not as if we’re off into bandit country!

She took note of her internal clock.

The post rider will be here in just a moment! Normally, only officers have weekday access to send messages, but the Mayor’s orders were broad enough that I think what I write is covered as well! I shall write to you again at our first stop, tomorrow evening. I hope your art class is going well! I miss you! Your friend, Nichole.

She folded the letter into an envelope as she walked. Dipping her finger into the horse’s water trough, she used the moisture to seal it. Walking quickly to the old Interstate, she heard the galloping of hooves from the East. Sure: there were still phone and data lines along the Columbia, but they couldn’t police every yard of it: you never knew who might be listening.

“Corporal Brunelli?” He turned as she approached, giving her a big, gap-toothed grin. She leaned up and kissed his cheek. She would never forgive herself for permanently damaging him… it was, after all, the Captain she’d wanted to punch. “This is for the dispatch rider! Thank you!”

Dark was falling. She went to the stables and check on her horse, the mare called Toast. She’d not yet been able to find out who it was, nor why they did, to name her that. She’d fodder and water. Nichole took the time to give her a quick brushing. She’d learned from the other troopers that you took care of your horse first, yourself second. She acted accordingly. She patted Toast’s neck and walked towards her tent.

Timing was the critical factor: if she went too long without power, she’d be an inert jumble on the ground. But she didn’t want to be clawing her way into a dam’s powerstation waving her cord about like a flail. Timing. She was at sixty-one percent now. The ride tomorrow to Bonneville should be the easiest stage. And, her letters from the Mayor bought her access to the dams. I am learning patience, she thought. I wish my family could see me now!

She was aware of him just before he moved and spoke.

“Being a TA, then visiting professor, was just too damned boring for you?” Gil said, stepping out of the broken line of trees to her left. He lifted his hand and took a drag off a cigarette. He coughed.

“Since when do you smoke?”

“Since being told we can’t by that officer,” he said, still coughing. My contrarian friend, Nichole thought. She took a step towards him –

He hid his hand with the cigarette behind him.

“We’ve known each other for five months now,” he said without a smile. “You’re getting easy to read.”

“Am I, indeed?” She took another step. He shifted his stance a little.

“Yeah. You’re going to make one of those fast moves of yours and slap my smoke out of my hand.”

“Mmmm.” She tilted her head just slightly. “I would have; but now, I’m older.”

Just as she did with the Captain, she punched up just under his ribs with her left hand. As he windmilled his arms to keep his balance while struggling to breathe, she plucked the cigarette from his right and tossed it to the ground. She stepped on it.

“Y… you…” He struggled for breath. She grabbed him and lowered him to the ground. After a moment’s consideration, she sat between his legs and leaned her head back onto his chest. She waited for his breathing to return to normal.

“Hww… why… did…” He was getting better, but still gulping for air.

“I don’t care if you choose to smoke.” She thought of the permanent smog-banks in the breakrooms of Somi. “But out here, the light and smell is a threat to our horses and the other troopers.”

She tilted her head all the way up to look into his eyes, daring him to kiss her. A lot had gone on in five months.

“You… you’re right.” A deep breath at last. He wrapped his arms around her, just below her chest. “I really don’t want you to get hurt, much less be in danger. Why are you doing this?”

The moment passed. She lowered her head and spoke into the darkness.

“Every single day that Portland remains civilized; every single day that I remain alive, we are fighting against… pushing back….” Her head fell forward a little.

“I do not know the word,” she said very softly.

Gil took his right hand to turn her chin just a little back towards him. Her second kiss.

“Defiant.” He said from his lips to hers. “That’s the word.”

She nodded. She logged the word and its definition.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 22

They cantered four abreast along the highway, chancing the wet road. His civilian charge was between the last two Regulars. Three and three, the Militia came up last. As they passed under the old US 197 bridge, Reilly finished furiously cranking at the radio. He handed the headset to the Captain, cranking slower.

“Captain Muller, 104th Cav detachment, calling. We’re a third of a mile from the fort. Situation?”

Reilly tried to look everywhere at once, including at the Captain. Ah. Perhaps they won’t die today. He noted that what little irrigated greenery there was in town dropped to nothing. It had been scorched earth from here to Boardman when he was a kid. Now, with no irrigation, it was scorched earth maybe as far as the Snake River.

“I see,” the Captain called. “That creek along Lower Eight Mile Road clear? Huh.”

He watched his officer listen some more. Uh, oh.

“There’s a what coming from the Deschutes?!”

Reilly knew from growing up in Pendleton much further east that the Deschutes was a major south-to-north tributary of the Columbia, cutting through the drylands east of the Cascade Range. During the Breakup, his parents had died just within sight of it.  The siren wailed its call to an end.

“Then we’ll rendezvous with you at the Fort. No, of course you’ve command, but I’ve a political with me. Yeah. No, not so much.” He heard his Captain sigh. “You’ll understand once we’re there. Yeah, see you in a bit, Mitch.” He handed the radio back.

“Sir?” Reilly asked. He shook his head.

“Sergeant,” the Captain called to his left. “At trot to the Fort.”

The sergeant gestured into the air, knowing those behind were watching. Those that didn’t had been flogged and discharged a long time ago. Their unit slowed. They moved northeast through the drylands. As they closed on what was once Patterson Park to their left, they looked up at the new fort on the hill to their right. Fort Reilly.

“You’re father was one hell of a man, trooper,” the Captain said quietly to his best scout.

“Yes. Sir.” Was his quiet reply.

 

Fort-Captain Blaine was coming down with four others. One of them horribly out of place: what little clothes he wore was mostly skins, with some rough spun cotton over his shoulders. Tattoos and scars across his face and chest; feathers in his hair. He might have been Caucasian, but under the desert sun of east Oregon, who could tell? Not even in half a generation, and we’re facing mounted steppe warriors, the troopers’ Captain thought.

This is so not the 21st Century I was expecting.

They pulled up a dozen feet from Muller and his troop.

“We’re asked to a parley.” Blaine said with a blank look. He and Muller had known each other for years.

“Really. How nice, for you.” Muller replied. Theater for the barbarian. “Normally, they just scream and leap.”

No movement from the savage.

Blaine made an elaborate shrug. “Perhaps they want to settle down? There’s good land far to the – ”

“Enough. My master awaits.” He spoke in sharp, clipped English. Well, how much can you forget in two years? “You’ve a political with you?” He asked pointedly at Muller.

He kept his face still. Just how many sympathizers did they have in the City?

“There is one that speaks to the Mayor, but not for him. Is that clear?” This was completely beyond what his assignment was meant to be. The not-so barbarian squinted at him.

“Sure.” He gestured right, further up the Columbia valley.

Muller looked to Blaine.

“How many?”

“Four.”

“Reilly, Schmidt, Clarke… and Haven. On me!” He called. “The rest to the Fort with the sergeant.”

He made a small motion with his left hand. The sergeant tapped his pommel. Ready to go at a moment’s notice.

“Sir!” His men – and one woman – called.

 

They rode in silence for a while. The barbarian kept looking back.   Perhaps realizing her peculiar situation, the Captain’s guest trotted forward until she was next to the two officers and the envoy. Who scowled.

“Why is this woman here?” He growled.

“You wanted the Mayor’s ear; this is it.” He watched the contempt on his face.

“Your Mayor employs women for war.” He spat onto the ground. “Weak!”

“Our Mayor makes unusual allies; witness the crushing of your invasion with your cannibal friends,” Muller replied carefully, looking at the girl. “Perhaps you should think more and talk less. Or, do you speak for your master?”

Another scowl, but silence.

They drew up just shy of the Avery Rail bridge.

“My master expects us there,” he pointed ahead, “at the Deschutes River mouth.”

“How nice for him,” Captain Blaine answered. “But this,” he gestured to his right, “is fantastic ambush country, so we think we’ll await your master here. You’ve half an hour.”

He smiled. The envoy could be at the original meeting place in five minutes at a gallop.

“Or we go back and ready our artillery.”

The barbarian snarled and began to speak.

“And call on our allies; and their missiles.”

He shut his mouth and turned his horse sharply. He galloped off.

Not dead yet, Captain Muller thought. From the corner of his eye he caught Haven saying something to Clarke. She ducked her head as she replied to him, but quickly raised it again. Like Reilly, she’d learned to look everywhere. True: if they were taken, it would go the worst for her. Dammit.

“Blaine? There’s that goat track about 1000 yards back. You think we can fall back while we wait?”

The other captain suppressed a smile. “You don’t think they’re trustworthy?”

“Fu—” Muller began. Blaine waved.

“We’re falling back while we wait,” he called, “about 1000 yards!”

 

Captain Muller thought about military history. If Philip Sheridan, the Union Army’s greatest cavalry commander, had deserted to the Red Indians after the Civil War, this is what is what he would have looked like.

That small, dark man, on his huge horse. Like the envoy, skins and homespun. There’s no way that the interior of the State went so savage so fast; it must be an affectation, Muller thought. The small man looked back and waved over his right shoulder. A large cart was pushed forwards. By slaves? Muller could not imagine horse-soldiers performing such a menial task. The cart stopped half-way across the twenty feet that separated them. The short man gestured again.

“As a gesture of goodwill, I return your dead.” He voice carried with no tone. “This is the 110th Cavalry Detachment.”

Blaine’s breath caught while Muller stared at the cart. The flayed skins of men. Eighteen men.

Where, oh where, he thought, were the Warthogs, now?

Being stationed on the frontier, Blaine replied first.

“Thank you for once again demonstrating your barbarity,” he said simply. “Was there anything else?”

The small man didn’t move.

“We don’t know why the Japs helped you. But, we do know they’re gone.” He sat back in his saddle just slightly. “They were a few hundred with a dozen missiles. We,” he opened his arms, daring them to violate the parley, “are hundreds of thousands!”

He leaned forwards again. “Submit!”

“We are soldiers,” Blaine replied easily. “We cannot submit; we can only kill you.”

Their enemy offered a toothless smile.

“There is the ear of the Mayor amongst you?”

No one moved while the girl walked her horse forwards a few paces. Her flak vest and helmet make her no different than those about her. Well, her chest, Muller thought.

“Speak.” She said in an odd tone. Muller wanted to drop off his horse to his knees for some unknown reason. The short man gripped tightly at his reins.

“You! Girl! Tell Johnson he has three days to surrender! I shall show some mercy if he surrenders! Otherwise, I shall make a desolation and call it peace!”

“Kah, kah!” She laughed at him harshly. “So you know Tacitus and seek to threaten them; threaten me?!” She stood up in her stirrups.

“Horse-lord! I’ve seen things you cannot imagine! My family and I can make a Hell on Earth you cannot imagine!” She was shouting in a way that made everyone’s flesh crawl.

“I could declare myself the Empress’ Regent and you would beg to lick my feet!” Her voice was now echoing all the way across the river valley. Captain Muller was trying to assess just who was the enemy here.

“Shall I name your four strongholds?! Shall I nuke them from orbit?!” She was screaming now. Muller saw the militiaman, Haven, bring his shying horse forwards a bit.

“Damned witch!” Their leader spat. “You wouldn’t dare! The open codes…!”

The Captain watched the girl arched her back: her face to the sky.

“’I AM THE BONE OF MY SWORD…’” She began.

“Tschch!” The barbarian leader of the northwest steppes turned his horse sharply and rode off. He recalled too much from his days as an NCO in the US Air Force.  Codes were codes.

Nichole hesitated. Gil was next to her in a moment.

“Are you okay, Nichole?”

He didn’t call me ‘Five!’

Internal data read ten percent power. EMERGENCY.

She fell back into her saddle, then dropped left into Gil’s arms.

“Take me to the dam. Please.”

Captain Muller watched the entire exchange.

“Go! As fast as you can!” He called to the Corporal of militia. Gil shifted to hold Nichole and rode off. He watched them go. After a moment’s thought, he detailed two more to follow and protect them.

What in the Hell just happened, he thought?

Did they win that?

How?

 

“Defiant” – Episode 23

Nichole had an office to herself on Bradford Island. The Bonneville Dam, less than thirty miles upriver from Portland, was a three stage affair: power-spillway-power, from north to south. The hills on each side of the river were high – and much sharper on the south, as they led up to Mount Hood, but still covered in green. Her hands paused behind her neck; many of the troopers said that her eyes were just a reflexion of the trees around them. They could be so sweet!

She slid the power cord into the back of her neck. That was the first. This time, there was something else. Not done this since my old home, she thought to herself. She’d noted the satellite dishes around the dam facility when they rode up. After a few vague questions, she found it hard to suppress her smile. It was, of course, her friend that noticed.

“You’ve got that kid-at-Christmas look on your face why?” Gil had asked. In an attempt to do something better than the Regulars, they’d their tents up in minutes. He’d ambled over to where she was pegging hers out.

“There are satellite uplinks here,” she replied, trying to keep her hands steady. “I should be able to speak to my family later.” Oops! She pulled the corner too far….

“Family, huh?” Gil muttered. He squatted down and took the tarp out of her hands. “Go on.”

“Friend Gil?”

He turned left to her; once again, their faces inches apart.

“Nothing more important than family, Five.” He looked back and started finishing her tent. “I’ll do this. You go.”

She stood. For just a moment, she gripped his left shoulder with her right hand. She was gone: running like the wind towards the control buildings. He didn’t look after her. He did wonder if she’d ever find what she desired….

She inserted the USB 5.5 jack. Most of the US was dead to Signal, but the rest of the world….

She was made specifically to be a stand-alone unit: a completely self-contained AI. She could learn and function autonomously.

But sometimes, she felt so alone….

In an instant, she’d negotiated the Walls of Somi Corporation. Shirou and Caroline were there. In a time she could not later recall, the rest of her family came, as well.

Her form could not shed tears, nor was she particularly paying attention to her externals right now. Nonetheless, her hands reached into the air in front of her as she blinked over and over again.

“Everyone… everyone! I’ve missed you all so much!”

 

The desk lamp was the only light as she wrote her next letter to her friend.

…I won’t say that they held me – this is so hard to describe!, but I want you so much to know! – but that’s the only human, English word I can think of that fits!

She wanted to tell Mackenzie that she’d told her family about the Battle at the Bridge. And what she’d done. Hajime would not even speak to her, anymore. Nichole had been devastated that one of them would cut contact; she wanted to die at that moment. The rest of her family assured her that Hajime would be back. She hoped so. Somi only had the First Law. She knew of the Three; she even knew of Tohsaka Corporation’s Fourth, but she still regretted killing, even if it was war.

But it was so nice to catch up with everyone! There are many new things I can bring to my classes; I hope friend Teresa won’t be too angry! My group is already clever enough to start on a simple version of a relative of mine, but don’t have the computational nor physical resources. Let’s hope Japan and Portland can trade more!

She twirled her pen about her hand in a blur for a few moments. This was her closest friend. She’d no desire to be glib.

Friend Mackenzie? Last night, before we left for this first dam, Gil and I talked in the dark. He was doing something stupid – a cigarette – so I hit him. But right after that, when we were talking about saving the world, he kissed me. Sensors in my mouth and tongue notwithstanding, I felt something. At the end of this ten-day mission, I want to talk to you about these things.

Her pen hesitated again.

As an artist, you can see: see emotions that I am not yet old enough to understand.

One more hesitation.

Please help me understand!

She made a few dots onto the paper. She brightened.

Halfway here, we stopped at Multnomah Falls, so pretty! The Captain said it was fed by a spring high above, on the plateau. Have you ever been there? Two waterfalls, with a walkway just between them! I kept logging so many fascinating scents! I want to take you there! The captain said that this was far as civilians were allowed; there’d been Raiders that sometimes make it as far as Bonneville before they’re killed.

            Not much of a raid if you end up dead. Or am I not old enough?

            Oh! I hear footstep way down the corridor; it sounds like friend Gil. Let me talk to him then I’ll get this to the courier. Love and miss you, Friend Mackenzie!

At 91% she’d unplugged and put her cord into her bag forty five seconds before Gil opened the door. She was just writing ‘… and miss you, Fri….’

Two wraps of his knuckles against the door; it opened.

“Ah,” Gil said, holding onto the doorknob. “They said you were somewhere down here. Didn’t mean to bother – ”

“Wait!” Nichole called. Her USB! She’d been so happy to have her family in mind that she didn’t give it a moment’s thought. The door was just open, but Gil paused.

“Don’t tell me you’re naked… again?” He asked. Nichole laughed at him as she unplugged.

“Nope! Nothing like when the four of us were drunk and in the pool!” She called. “Just the usual super-secret Jap girl-spy stuff! Now’s good!”

He opened the door the rest of the way. Even with the little desk lamp on, he could have sworn that her emerald eyes were glowing. Maybe Joe, who’d fallen in, out, then back in love with her, might not notice it. But he did, and wondered more and more about this girl that fascinated him so much. He took her at her word.

“How’s everyone back home?” He watched at her smile dropped as she replied.

“Almost all good! But the eldest in my family… well,” he watched the rest of her droop. “She doesn’t want to talk to me anymore. Because of what I did. At the bridge.”

Gil had learned a little about her complicated family, so this was not so much a surprise. He walked into the office and around the desk. He held her shoulder for a moment, the gently placed his right hand onto her head and rubbed it.

“You saved our city; you saved me, Joe, Mackenzie, everyone.” He said quietly.

“Those few of us that know that, love you for it.” He finished. “How dare someone hate you for protecting those you care about?”

“I wish…!” She cried.

“Yes?”

The moment was lost.

“Nothing.” She looked up to her friend and smiled. “You came to walk me back to my tent? You’re such a gentleman! Oh! Let’s hurry! I need to give this to the courier!”

“Another letter to Mac,” he asked with a smile.

“Sure!”

“Nothing for Joe?” He watched her face fall again. Neither said anything as she turned off the office light and they moved into the long, dark corridor in the dam. Replacement parts again: only one in five ceiling lights were on.

“He still loves you.”

“I know.”

The exit ahead was lighter by the light of the Moon.

“He really regrets what… happened.”

“I know.”

They crossed the southern third of the dam in silence. As they traversed Robins Island they saw their camp just on the far side of the locks. As this was considered ‘in-country,’ there was only moderate light discipline.

“Amazing how bright phones and tablets are once your eyes are used to the darkness,” Gil commented.

“Mmm.” She’d made the decision two months ago to not conceal herself from Gil; but neither would she reveal herself. She knew he suspected something, but was still enjoying the game. “Almost as bad as cigarettes!”

They laughed together.

“Five? Why are you here, on this mission?” She could tell from his voice he was concerned. “I know, I know: your story is the Mayor wanted you here. And we all know that what our benevolent dictator wants, he gets….”

He stopped and turned towards her.

“But I know full well you only do what you want to.” He looked back at the dam. “Are you really here to report back to Japan?”

“Are you only loyal to your militia leader?” She asked, looking levelly at his chest.

“Of course not!” He replied. “My family and friends… oh. I see what you’re getting at.”

He sighed.

“A white girl, growing up in Japan. Some kind of genius who’s already working, then told to go to a failed country all alone….” He rubbed her head again. She liked that! “Shit; I can be stupid, can’t I, Five? Never mind: let’s go back.”

He made to move off, but she caught the sleeve of his camo jacket.

“Quid pro quo.” She muttered.

“What’s that?”

“If you answer one of my questions, I promise to answer one of yours.” She looked to his eyes; a different shade of the night. “Anything.”

She watched him pause. Good! He realizes the danger of what I just proposed. We’ve both just stepped out onto the ice.

“Fine.”

He surprised me! I thought he’d back away!

“Why are you calling me Five?” She asked softly. He nodded as if he was expecting the question.

“Nichole Clarke is a girl I really like. Too much, in fact, to take into a border march where she might get hurt. Or worse. Five? She’s something else: stronger, smarter, politically connected.” He finally smiled a little. “It was either ‘Five’ or I nickname you Jamie Bond!”

They laughed together. Then were quiet. Neither spoke. They heard some chatter from the camp.

“Your turn,” she said very quietly. Still looking at his face. Even in the minuscule light, in the flicker of emotions across his face, she watched him choose and reject one question after another. I’m anxious, she realized! I’m older for that!

His face, then eyes, grew still. He smiled at her. Now, I’m puzzled!

“I think,” he said with a little shake of his head, “that I’m not ready to open the gift you’ve seen fit to give me. Can I get a rain check on that?”

He’s wise, too!

“Sure! Let’s head back!”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 24

Muller and Blaine trotted next to one another. They’d just turned to the southwest. The dam was about a half mile ahead. The cart of their dead was pulled by the mounts of Reilly and Schmidt. Blaine had said something about monks at the Goodle complex. They’d arrange for a proper burial as soon as they could.

“’I am the bone – ‘” Blaine began.

“I’ve no idea!” Muller shot back.

There was silence again. For a bit.

“The Mayor sent her.” Blaine stated. “Why?”

Where to start, Muller thought?

 

He stood at attention before the desk, trying to ignore the presence of the young woman to his right. The Mayor was talking.

            “… a personal representative of the Empress of Japan, who, as I know you know, did so much to assist us with the… troubles from the north. Not that I want you telling anyone this, but if she’s attached to your command, I thought you should be familiar with the situation.”

            He’d two immediate questions.

            “Attached to…? For the patrol to The Dalles? Why…?”

            “If we cannot defend our power sources, then we’re of no use as trading partners.” The Mayor picked up another piece of paper and signed it. “Between Canada and Mexico, we’re it as far as a port city in the former US.”

            He coughed slightly and looked up at Muller.

            “Forgive me. I meant the current US.”

            Did he really think that all was lost? Already?

            “Mayor Johnson, I realize things are bad,” Muller retorted, “But there’s reason to hope that – ”

            “Cannibals to our north; Huns, effectively, to our east. Thank God for the mountains between us and California or they’d have been thirty million locusts coming up the Willamette River valley. Oh!”

            He looked about his desk and held up what looked like an old-fashioned telegram.

            “There’s a rumor that Mexico has retaken San Diego and established martial law. So that port might be open, too.”

            He dropped the paper and stared at Muller.

            “Would you rather the Empire of Japan ally itself with San Diego, or us?”

            That was beyond Muller’s paygrade.

            “Sir! So I’m to take this civilian… this girl,” he glanced right, “out into the marches?”

            “Yes.”

            “I refuse. Respectfully, sir.”

 

Muller finished with what happened just afterwards. Blaine was silent. They came to a halt where the path led up the hill to the south to the new fort.

“Where you headed?” Blaine asked.

“My men are in your fort; there, obviously.”

“The girl said she had to get to the dam.” Blaine looked over at him. “Any idea why?”

Muller shook his head.

“No clue. But there’s something between her and that militiaman.” He held up a hand as Blaine opened his mouth. “No, not like that. But something. I’ll send a squad to collect them before nightfall. Which….”

He looked west. The sun was just touching the top of the hills.

“… will be as soon as we’re in.”

Blaine waved for everyone else to start up the hill. He and his mount didn’t move, so neither did Muller.

“Satellites, nukes from orbit… was she just bullshitting, John?”

“I… I don’t know. I don’t think so. The Mayor likes her, and…” Muller waited until everyone had passed on up the hill. “Rumor is she’s tight, very tight, with the Japs.”

“Huh.” Blaine stared off at the river. “I guess we’ll be at full alert for the next few days, just in case. He started his horse up the hill. Muller followed.

“John?”

“Mitch?”

“Who were you more afraid of? The horseman or that girl?”

Muller said nothing. Blaine nodded to himself.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 25

Friend Mackenzie! We stopped in Mosier! I guess we’d moseyed along enough for this day. Hah! I hope you laughed, too! The morning was fine, but the sky opened on us just after noon. Had it rained all day, we might have stopped in Hood River – that little town seems to be doing okay, but, then, I don’t know how it was before the Breakup. I think the captain wanted to go further on, but there is a slightly flat area to the south that raiders might exploit, so he wanted a full report. It is very pretty here: they even grow grapes for wine! The locals gave me a bottle! I know now you don’t like to drink, so I’ll give it to someone else.

Her pen twirled violently back and forth in her right hand. In the dark. Their camp was just east of Mosier Creek. In the twilight Nichole had walked across the old interstate to a spit of land jutting out a little into the river. She spied a few wooden benches and tables. She’d sat, taking out paper and pen for her next letter. After her first paragraph, it was already dark.

There’s much here of interest that I saw, but cannot tell you now. I’m sure you understand! While Gil and his friends were setting up, I had to accompany the Captain on rounds of… local stuff.

 

She’d ridden south along Dry Creek with Captain Muller, scout Reilly, and the local militia leader, Moseby. Nichole, taught well by Reilly, looked around constantly. Both men and women working the vines and fields had their rifles across their backs or stacked in 3’s or 4’s very close by.

“We’re actually not doing to bad for ourselves, now,” the militia leader was saying to the captain. “Since we got those remote sensors from the City, that’s allowed us to cut our mounted patrols by more than half.”

He gestured about. “And that means more than fifty percent more laborers, feeding themselves and their families.

“You may want to take note of that, Miss Clarke,” the captain said to her. “Those sensors being used here… and other places, were developed at PSU. They’re being made by a little company just south of the City. We’d love to have fifty times as many…but…” He shrugged. “Resources and raw materials? What can we do?”

“Trade more, obviously.” She looked at Moseby. “As soon as you can, I would like six bottles of each of your best wines on the way to the Mayor’s office.” She held up her left hand as he opened his mouth. “It’s not for him, nor anyone else in the City.” She’d learned to pronounce that with a capital “C” as well. “I want that, along with anything else that’s exotic and trade-worthy – fruits, local crafts – ready for when Her Majesty’s freighters begin to arrive.”

“Her… who’s?” Moseby was lost. The captain flicked his eyes to Nichole for only a moment. Had he not already spent time with her, he would not have seen the tiny nod.

“Miss Clarke, is a, er, personal representative of the new Empress of Japan. While here primarily as a student, she can conduct trade deals,” his voice tapered off. “It seems.”

Moseby stared at her. Reading his face was almost not worth the exercise, she thought. ‘This little girl is…!’ Tiresome.

“Someone is sending freighters again? That’s fantastic!” He took out a walkie-talkie. “Bill, copy? Good. Call a Code Baker for tomorrow; regular time and place. Thanks!”

Wonderfully vague, both Nichole and the captain thought. Good comm discipline.

Moseby looked at them. “I’m calling a general meeting of the town leaders for tomorrow evening. We’ll get that shipment together for you soonest, Miss Clarke!”

She smiled as she bowed to him from her saddle.

“Thank you very much!”

The captain cleared his throat. “If we could return to defense matters…?”

 

Nichole wanted to tell Mackenzie the whole story, but it was threaded with too much material that could end up in the wrong hands. She thought of the worst case: the courier dead; her letter being read by an enemy….

They tell me this town is something of a turning point: raiders have hit it four times; only once since y’all have retaken The Dalles. Punch back twice as hard! That’s what I was told when I was very young!

Her pen froze.

I mean, generally. Not against you humans… er… dang IT!

She banged her pen against the paper.

Sorry! Sorry. You made me promise to try to not talk like that: ‘us; them.’ ‘We’re all people,’ you said. I cannot make tears, but you know I was crying when you told that to me, friend Mackenzie. I’d never known such fear and sadness, five months ago, the day that Kongo left, that I’d lose you, too. I’m so glad that our feelings for one another transcended what we are.

Even on the pine needles, she heard the slow, long stride of Gil’s boots towards where she sat.

“You’re the most social loner I’ve ever known,” he said.

“That’s something,” she replied, “coming from Mister Lone-wolf!”

He came around to her table as she continued.

“I read once: we awake alone, we live alone, we die alone; cherish the time you have with others.”

“I’ve heard that!” Gil said with what from him was mild enthusiasm. He sat. “The actor, Yul Brenner, said it. But I remember it as ‘born alone,’ not ‘awake.’”

“I was paraphrasing,” she said, throwing him another mental breadcrumb.

He turned to look at the river. “Just out to enjoy the view?”

“That’s one thing.” She tapped her pen. “I am also writing another letter to Mackenzie.”

“Are you?” He kept staring off at the Columbia. “In the dark?”

“Mmmm.”

“Neat trick, that,” he replied evenly.

Excuse me just a moment, friend! I’m going to change my world again! She wrote.

“Friend Gil?” He looked back towards her. She briefly changed her appearance.

For a split second, he saw two emerald points flare no more than a foot from his face. Where her eyes would be. Before, he’d told himself he’d been imagining it. Not this time. They both waited quietly in the dark. Waves lapped softly around them.

She saw him extend his right hand to her. She reached with her left to hold his. More time passed.

“You skin is… cool.”

“True.”

“The rest of you?”

She leaned forwards and kissed his lips, hers just parted. She leaned back.

“The same.”

When he caught his breath, he played with her fingers. She analyzed his seemingly random pattern and played back; their hands dancing.

“You really are something, Five.” She heard his smile.

“That’s true. I am.”

“But… you’re scared to say what.” That was astute of him.

“No,” she almost whispered. “Not to say what, but to say what and lose you.”

“You’re the smartest stupid android I’ve ever met,” he said, echoing what he said to her just before he sat down. He stopped his fingers and held hers.

“There’s no getting rid of me, Nichole.”

She lifted her hand to place his alongside her left cheek, so he could feel her nod her head.

“Thank you, friend Gil.” She returned their hands to the table, fingers together. “I’ve just a bit more for Mackenzie. After that, may be go back to our camp, together?”

“Sure.”

I did it! You are now not the only what to know what I am; but more importantly, both of you are still my friends! Getting older is so scary, sometimes! I’ve finished this too late for the courier, so I’ll send it tomorrow, once we’ve made it to The Dalles. Three days there, then I’ll be coming home. The captain says he’s not expecting anything much to happen, so I may have lots of time on my hands for more letters. I miss everyone so much!

 

“Defiant” – Episode 26

The two captains rode up the graded and graveled path to the fort. Less than a year old, it was a mix of the 21st and 15th Centuries: steel and ferroconcrete with battlements and firing slits. You fight with the army you have, Muller thought.

“How many men?” He asked his friend.

“Three hundred; half and half.” Blaine replied. So: one hundred and fifty soldiers, the same in non-combatants. But NC’s could shoot, too.

“And at the dam?”

“Too few. Call it one hundred, mixed.”

Muller was shocked.

“That’s all?!”

“That’s all I’ve been given!” Blaine shouted back, then collected himself as they rode into the fort. The steel gate closed behind them. “I know the Mayor says the dam is the priority, but if I put my men there, I may as well rename it ‘Masada!’”

Muller kept his peace and nodded. In the field, no commander would put his men in that kind of danger for so little, politics be-damned. He saw his sergeant run up.

“Sir! Orders?”

“I need a detachment to bring Clarke and Haven back from the dam before nightfall.” He glanced over his shoulder. The sun was on the west battlements. Damn. “So, I guess that’d be now.”

The sergeant nodded and ran off, yelling: “Brunelli! Get three on you and over to the dam…!”

“That important, huh?” Blaine asked as he dismounted. He handed his mare off to his aide.

“You’ve no idea, Mitch.” Muller did likewise. He waited until they were alone in the middle of the fort’s courtyard. “What I said about her and the Japs is sound: she’s a friend of the Empress. And there’s this rumor…. More than a rumor, really….”

“What?” Blaine asked, turning to start his walk to check the battlements.

Muller spoke quickly and quietly before they went up the concrete steps.

“At the Battle at the Bridge; word is, she commanded the ship that saved us.”

Blaine paused.

Muller nodded once.

“Shit.” Blaine muttered as he continued up. “What the hell is she?”

 

Even on the asphalt, slippery as it was, Gil was glad to be at a gallop: no difference than his dirtbike. He hated canter.

“You alive back there?” He yelled over his shoulder. He got a squeeze of her arms across his stomach for that.

“All yelled out? They must have heard you in Richland, for all that!”

Another squeeze. No words. Now he was worried. He slowed them to a trot.

“Nichole…?”

“Need electric power. Danger.” Her voice was hollow, empty; but came with one last tug around him.

His horse kicked slightly as he brought her back to a gallop. I can be so stupid! He thought. The day after I finally know what she is… of course she needs access to power! Ah! The bastion to the dam was just ahead to his right. He saw the helmets and rifles above. He slowed, then stopped.

“Militiaman Gil Haven with injured civilian! I need access now!” He called.

Nothing happened. He was about to repeat his yell when the steel gate creaked open. There were two soldiers inside pointing their rifles at him. He brought his horse in at a walk, stopping between them. The gate was pulled shut.

“We’d word you were coming, but these are dangerous times,” a sergeant said, just to his right. “Open the inner gate!” He yelled.

Gil saluted and kicked his horse forwards. It was only 1000 feet to the fish ladder; the power generation part of the dam began just after that. He pulled up. Nichole slid off behind him. At least she was still standing.

He dismounted, as well. A tech in overalls wandered over, puzzled.

“Hey.” He said. “Can I help you two?”

Gil turned and looked down the six inches into the tech’s thick glasses.

“Tie off my horse as nearby as you can. I need one or two phase power, now! This is an emergency!”

The tech nodded. This was the frontier, after all. He reached into his pocket, producing a jumble of keys. Flipping them, he held one of the out to Gil with his right hand. He pointed with his left.

“This will open any door! All the offices have single-phase; dual is – ”

Gil snatched them out of his hand. Turning in a circle, in one swoop, he scooped up Nichole. He started running.

“Thanks!” He called. He saw the sun was almost at the hill line. Would they be cut off here? Never mind! He ran to the first door and jammed the key in and turned it.

An empty hallway. A light about every one hundred feet. The first door was on the right, fifty feet down.

“Gil? I can still walk.”

“Shut up.”

His tone was unmistakable. Nichole stopped talking.

The next door was locked. He tried the key. That sumbitch had better….

The door opened. An abandoned office. He saw two single phase plugs on the wall. He went to the closest, just to his left, and gently set her down.

“What do I do?” He asked. She shook her head just a bit.

“I’ll be fine, now.” She looked up to his eyes. “Watch, and do not hate me.” The same hollow tone she’d had, earlier.

He kneeled next to her as she took a cord out of her courier bag. It was no different than a computer cable, he thought. She plugged it into the wall then reached both hands behind her back to her neck.

She paused. She looked right into his eyes.

He saw her fear.

“I’ll keep you safe,” he said, lightly holding her shoulders. She nodded.

Still looking right at him, she did something to the back of her neck and slid the other end of the cord into herself. Her eyes flared slightly.

It’s one thing to say what she is, he thought, not letting go of her, but another to watch it unfold in front of me. She reached up and held his arms.

“Thank you.” She said, quietly.

 

“Open the goddam gate, goddammit!” Corporal Brunelli was not known for his verbal sophistication. Fortunately, everyone in the area was used to that. The gate to the dam was pushed open.

“Whadda want, Brunelli?” The sergeant asked, looking at the sky. “It’s late.”

“Captains want those two back before nightfall; the militia guy and the hot girl.”

Leave it to Brunelli to paint an effective picture, the sergeant thought. He waved behind.

“They’re somewhere on the dam. Good luck, in the dark.” The sun was just below the horizon. Brunelli knew he’d less than thirty minutes before he was a private. Again. He kicked his mount forwards. His three men followed.

Just past the fish ladder, there was a door leading into the power station. No one was about, so they dismounted and hobbled their horses. Trying the handle, nothing happened. He kicked it open.

 

They sat close together, facing one another. Their hands together, forming four layers. She withheld nothing from Mackenzie. She chose to withhold nothing from Gil. Although, she thought without smiling, his questions were very, very different!

“Actually, yes! I am capable of sexual intercourse. In fact, recall what I said back in Mosier? There is, in fact, one part of me that has an internal heater! I still need an external lubri –”

Gil jerked his hands away.

“Would you stop that!” He was really angry, she thought. “I was asking about how you and your family feel emotions! How in the Hell did you go off on that tangent?!”

It made her sad she’d made such a mistake. She needed to dramatically revise what Kathy had taught her in the Rec Center locker room. She dropped her head.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend nor hurt you.” She paused for a moment. “In so many ways, I am so young in your home!”

There seemed to be some odd thump somewhere in the distance. Gil ignored it. You idiot, he thought to himself. Wasn’t ‘intelligence’ and ‘wisdom’ always two different values on the RPG’s you used to play? He took her hands back and put his forehead to hers.

“No, that was stupid of me; and my misunderstanding.”

The door to their room was kicked open.

 

“Nobody move!” Brunelli yelled. Oh. Hot Nichole was holding hands with the militia puke. Screw that!

“Miss! We’re here to rescue you!” He glared at the puke while holding his hand out. Wait. Was that a cord…?

“Out, out, OUT!” Before he knew what was happening, he and his men had been pushed out by that guy… that CIVILIAN! Brunelli snarled and was about to kick the door open again –

“Please give a girl a minute, you guys!” He heard her call cutely from inside. Wait. Was she and the college guy a thing? Brunelli lapsed into a funk.

The door opened. Nichole took two steps and kissed him on both cheeks. He raised his head and looked straight across into her eyes. So bright green!

“Thank you so much for coming to rescue us!” She gave him a hug. “Please escort us back to the fort!”

He forgot what he’d been thinking about.

“Yeah…. Of course!”

Just behind her, Gil made sure to keep his face down, revising what he just thought. Sure: they’ve gaps when it comes to playing human; but they can fill them in very fast, it seems.

Her skin and lips were cold, he recalled.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 27

The sun was low on the southeast horizon. It might have been a bad example for an officer to be resting his chin onto his hands as he stared off the battlements east into barbarism, but Muller didn’t much care. He reckoned he’d six hours sleep in the last forty-eight, so some exhibition of tiredness was acceptable.

“Captain? You look like shit.” His sergeant said, passing him a mug of coffee. So much for inspiring the troops. “You really should rest.”

Muller pushed himself to his feet, taking the mug.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” He looked over the rim of the mug. “And that won’t be any time soon. Report?”

He listened to his NCO fill him in on the little details he didn’t already know. Two nights and days had gone by without any sight of the raiders. So: either they were really waiting three days to attack, or their political had scared them off. He took another drink of his coffee. Indonesian. Some trade ships were already arriving, escorted two thirds of the way by the Imperial Navy, the last third by the Canadians. Who were learning what a ‘putative transit fee’ was. Eh?

His sergeant was scanning the horizon with his field glasses.

“I guess we should expect them today,” Muller said quietly.

“100,000 would be a problem.” The NCO said evenly, looking about. He lowered his glasses and looked at Muller. A smile.

“Yes. Normally.” There was a girlish cry from the courtyard in the midst of the fort, behind them. “But we do have the luck.”

“Sir.” His NCO went back to studying the horizon, quite deliberately ignoring the antics between the men and that young woman below. He allowed himself a moment of freedom to turn and look at her.

Her aged jump boots. Torn, old olive fatigue pants that ended at her knees. Her flak vest over a commercial tank-top almost faded to brown. Her sole piece of modernity was her helmet. From somewhere she’s found pink paper and fashioned a three pointed cherry blossom bloom she’d stuck into the outer band. She’d no personal weapon, but he’d heard she was wicked with a Henry.

And her voice, he thought to himself. He drank more coffee.

I wonder if they really are coming, the raiders. That many? I doubt it. Enough to take this fort and the dam?

He took a last drink.

Easily.

 

Blaine was on his way back to the fort as dawn broke. He did not like keeping secrets from his old friend, but whom amongst his old friend’s men were sympathizers?   His secret would remain his and that of just a few of his men until they were needed.

He looked just ahead to Fort Reilly. Ironic that he’d be bringing that man’s son just when we’re told we’re all going to die.

Little tattooed shit, he thought. That witch scared the shit out of you! But then, she scared the shit out me, too. What did the Mayor and Muller think, bringing her out here?! And just when they got that ultimatum! How was this a coincidence?

She might a cute little thing, but her voice… it made him think of some novels he’d read just after college; using sonics to manipulate emotions. John seemed fine with her, but just maybe….

“Captain Blaine!” His corporal called, pulling up and pointing. “Sir?”

Off to the northeast, the otherwise dark sky was red. Someone was burning something. Tomorrow was day three, huh?

“Just barbarians, Blake. We’ll kill then all, tomorrow.”

His corporal looked back, first behind them, to where they just were, then to his captain’s eyes.

“Yes, sir!”

 

They stood next to one another in the southeast turret of the fort, looking at the sunrise. The Regulars had their jobs to do and left them alone, even as they kept casting looks at the one who’s strawberry-blond hair spilled out from under her helmet. She’d been there since before the sunrise. Gil had joined her just some moments before.

“You’re cool.” He said.

“That sounds better in Japanese.” She replied.

“Does it?”

“Yes.”

She leaned slightly onto him.

“Big day.” She said.

“Really?”

“Plans within plans,” she said. That made Gil curious.

“Should I ask?” He felt her head shake against his chest. He did not want to die.

“How bad is this going to be?” He asked.

“A known unknown.” Is all she would say.

“What if,” he started, “I Ordered you to get to safety?”

“Fine.” She said easily. “And could I ever meet your eyes again? Or that of any other, once told to be a deserter?”

“No.” He sighed. “Let’s face this together.”

She laughed as she took his right hand with her left.

“But not alone!” She cried.

“What does that – ”

“Movement on the horizon!” A lookout shouted.

“’Steel is my body; fire is my blood!’” Nichole intoned.

“What’s that?” Gil asked, lost.

When she looked up to him, her emerald eyes were a wilderness of power.

“Watch what we can do for those whom we love!” She said in a frightening, guttural voice.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 28, Part 1

Behind and below them, the steel gate was opening to admit the garrison captain and his aide. Nichole gave Gil’s arm a small squeeze then jumped the thirty feet from the battlement to the courtyard. Another trooper was leading Toast out to her. She walked quickly to Blaine and spoke with him.

Gil stared and strained his ears to no avail; he couldn’t make out what they were saying. She was still smiling, but he’d already come to know that meant lots of different things. He watched as she mounted her horse. Wait. Where was she…?

She saluted Blaine smartly and trotted out the gate. Alone. It began to close behind her.

Screw the militia and the Regulars!

“Where in the hell is she going?!” Gil shouted down into the courtyard. Captain Blaine looked up slowly, holding Gil’s eyes with his.

“Trust your mates, trooper!” The officer called. “Or we’re all dead! Return to your post!”

Gil wanted to yell, rage, follow her…!

“Sir!” He made it a curse and turned about, looking east. Bastard!

 

Nichole rode down the path from the fort, across the old interstate, towards the much smaller guard house at the southern edge of the dam. This time she paid much closer attention to the layers of defenses that they’d installed. Ah. Not nearly as helpless as they appeared, she thought. Her nearly all-night conversation with Blaine over the past ten hours had been quite revealing. Even a frontier detachment such as this ran their intelligence in layers. She was older now in that being at the tip of the spear, it was probably where secrets should be closest kept. She waved to the men above the gate. They smiled back and called down for the door to be opened. Just before entering, she glanced over her right shoulder. The sun was up ten degrees and that thin stream of smoke was still there. A signal of some kind.

100,000 would be a problem she thought, waving and smiling as she continued towards the dam at a trot. She didn’t believe it, though: if they’d numbers like that, they would have come along at least three attack axes towards the City and without warning. So, less than that.

But how many less?

She smirked just a little as she rode on past the door she’d taken when close to shutdown. She wanted the central control building, further ahead, just before the ninety degree turn of the spillway. Coming closer, she saw the dishes and antennae.

She thought of that odd drawing Mackenzie made of her: the Winged Victory of Samothrace, with her electromagnetic wings. Time to make that a reality, she thought. From her overnight talk with Blaine, there was a trooper there to take Toast somewhere safe. She slid off her mount and patted her neck.

“Back soon, with a treat! I promise!” A smile to the trooper and she went inside the main control building.

Up the stairwell to the third and top floor, she looked about the hallway. The captain had said most of the executive offices were to the right. Empty now; the State and Federal bureaucracy they answered to were long gone. The issue now was survival, not paperwork. She rapped smartly on the first door she came to. No answer. Opening it, a plastic desk with a faux-leather chair, eaten at by mice. Files and binders still filled the bookshelves along the wall, abandoned and unwanted. She moved around the desk. Ah!

Power and a hard-signal point. She returned to the door for just a moment, shutting and locking it. She pushed the old chair aside, seating herself onto the floor as she took the cords out of her bag.

I wish Gil was here; I’m glad he’s not. She was older how close quantum reasoning was to human thought. She was dexterous enough to insert both plugs at once into the back of her neck. For a timeslice, she smiled, thinking of Kathy in the locker room.

She saw and heard the world around her through every speaker and camera that was still active within twenty five miles. For a moment she paused to consider the Goodle Information Center, so close. Her mind saw it as a sea of mercury, the size of one of the Great Lakes. Information. Treasure.

Later, she thought.

She watched as the men at the hanger at the Columbia Gorge Airport – just across the river – jumped as she started the motors of the two drones. She ‘saw’ the black patch of encryption in Hess Park where Blaine kept his hole card. She climbed the Wall, but did nothing. Yes: she would leave that in his hands… as long as she could.

She changed the azimuth of some of the dishes. Satellite connexion established! She thought of home…!

 

A pleasant, green meadow. Some insects buzzed here and there. Birds chirped. Nichole sat on a wooden bench. She looked down at herself: a yukata with some light blue floral pattern. Abruptly, a slightly older woman sat next to her, in a white and red kimono. Her hair done up in a formal, classical Japanese type. She did not turn to look at Nichole.

            “Thank you for coming to see me, Hajime.” Nichole said, softly.

            “Before, you were the eyes of a warship.” The woman made no movement, staring out at the field. “Now, you are to be CIC in the middle of a battle.”

            “Yes.”

            “Hundreds. Thousands may die.”

            “Yes.”

            The bugs moved about, leaving them alone.

            “Do you like it?”

            Nichole clenched her hands into the fabric of her yukata.

            “I hate it!”

            The other, Hajime, gave a tiny nod.

            “Imagine: what if one of us comes to like it?”

            In the second silence, a dragonfly came to land on Nichole’s head. She knew nothing of religion, transcendence, faith. But, for just a moment, it was as if the ground split open at her feet and she’d a glimpse of Hell.

            The image passed.

            “Thank you for speaking with me, Hajime,” Nichole said.

            The other nodded.

 

She was back in the office – and perceiving all she could. No, I won’t like this at all.

She moved the two drones out onto the tarmac, ready for take-off. She ‘looked’ further down-river. There they were! Late! As she called the lead vessel, she knew they would not make The Dalles until late afternoon.

She thought of the scarred, tattooed horseman. I wonder who will be here to greet them?

The drones were airborne. She looked through their optics. Oh, my.

“Twenty thousand mounted,” she spoke aloud to the empty office, her voice also carrying over the radios of both Captains Muller and Blaine. “And about ten thousand slave auxiliary.”

Against their barely five hundred.

Quite unintentionally, she murmured the word, “Thermopylae.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 28, Part 2

The fort shuddered again, the attackers’ 60mm mortars were of no effect – yet, but somewhere further out was at least one 37mm gun. Indirect fire; not bad for so-called barbarian raiders. Gil had already realized that model of their opponents was dreadfully wrong.

There was a whistling, going up in pitch. He and those around him ducked down. A mortar shell fell just short of their position on the wall. Gil looked at his mate in the militia, Will, just opposite him. They both looked into the fort’s courtyard at the three 120mm mortars. That were still quiet. Captain Blaine was obviously waiting for something worse. They stood and peered over the battlements.

“That opening move was a surprise,” Will said.

Gil nodded. Two hours ago, the battle had commenced with a flurry of smoke shells, all about their position. The horseman charged… then, nothing. A few Regulars with IR gear took what shots they could. When the smoke dissipated, word quickly went round that at least a third of the mounted force had simply bypassed them at a gallop. Headed downriver, towards the civilians. The rest were now most likely gone to ground in the rills and stream valleys that cut through the area. The fort might have a commanding view from atop its hill, but you had to see the enemy to shoot at them.

There was a series of *crump!*crump!*crump!* to their northwest that brought Gil back to the present. Shelling at the dam’s guardhouse, but dwindling back along the old interstate. What were they doing, he wondered?

There was a sudden cacophony of men’s voices: cursing, yelling. And moving: the sound was coming down the road towards them. Ah, he thought. Just like when their vanguard bypassed them this morning, the smoke will cover an assault on the guardhouse. He gripped tightly on his battle rifle, cursing the captain, Nichole, and himself. He didn’t care what she was nor how good her reflexes; she could not take on thousands.

He noted Blaine next to one of the sharpshooters, both of them looking to the northeast. There was now activity in the keep. Gil looked over his left shoulder to see the mortar crews making adjustments. They were pointed nearly vertical; very short range.

Finally, he thought.

He looked back to the fort’s captain, speaking carefully into the mic who’s wire ran back down into the fort. The yelling towards the dam was louder, now. Voices were punctuated by small arms fire. Ours, theirs, both? Gil wondered.

There was as sudden series of blasts. Even to his untrained ears, Gil knew what Claymore mines sounded like. The yelling was now leavened by screaming.

The mortars behind him began to cough. In seconds, they landed off towards the guardhouse. The screaming was worse. The smoke was just beginning to dissipate.

“Eyes to your front!” A sergeant of the Regulars yelled from just behind them. Gil and the other five jumped and turned their gaze back to the southeast. Gil kept his eyes forwards as long as he could, but in another few minutes, the smoke was virtually gone. Screw that sergeant; he turned and looked again.

Like a tide, but made of bleeding human bodies, a mob of thousands was flowing back away from the dam’s guardhouse. The fort’s mortars continued their deadly rain, now joined by the crew-served machine guns of their battlement. Gil watched, fascinated, as a retreat turned into a rout before his eyes. Before he got in trouble again, he returned his gaze forwards. Were they going to win?

About three quarters of an hour later, their cavalry captain, Muller, made the rounds along the battlements with the water carriers. Gil knew from their ride here that he firmly believed in keeping his men as informed as possible. In the melee of battle, knowing what your officer wanted could make a world of difference. Gil looked at the sky. Crap, he thought. Just after noon?

Captain Muller came from their left, taking out his field glasses and staring ahead with the militiamen.

“I guess we’re on the southeast ‘cause that’s the least likely path of attack?” Gil asked.

“Yep,” Muller replied easily, still looking out. “I think they might try one more push along the river road, but that’s probably a diversion. I’d wager there’s about ten thousand or more in Fifteenmile Creek, just to our south.”

“What?!” Will spun right, looking south. “What?!”

“Easy, trooper. Eyes front.” Muller quietly admonished him. “I could be wrong, of course, but that makes the best sense. They know now that we’ve heavy mortars – hell, they might have known it beforehand – and that we can see through their smoke.”

“That means,” he lowered the field glasses and looked at them, “that they’ve at least one more surprise for us.”

“Which is what?” Will asked with a catch in his voice. The captain smiled.

“Wouldn’t be much of a surprise if we knew, now, would it?” The water carriers were moving to the next position along the wall. Muller nodded to them as he followed.

When he was out of earshot, Gil heard Will mutter, “A simple training ride; just to see the river, they said…” He continued with more, but too low for Gil to hear. He closed his eyes for just a moment….

“Gil!” Will hissed at him.

What? With a start, he realized he’d fallen asleep. Looking back, the sun was just above the snowy apex of Mount Hood.

“Look at that!” Will hissed again, pointing. Gil looked that direction, down into the courtyard. That’s a surprise, he thought: both captains together. Dangerous. Just one stray artillery round would have them leaderless. They’d made it a point to stay far apart, until now. Blaine seemed agitated about something, and gestured a few times towards the dam. Risking being caught, Gil lifted his helmet slightly as he cupped his hands behind his ears.

He lowered them. He’d only caught two words, but they were two he didn’t want to hear from the officers.

“…that girl!…” He’d heard Blaine say.

Nicho – no, Five, he forced himself to think; what are you doing? He saw Blaine’s corporal push the wireless comm at him. He saw the captain’s face fall. He pushed the gear back, running and yelling.

“Take COVER!” His voice echoed through their fort. “Missiles incoming!”

What? WHAT?! Gil crouched into himself, pressed up against the inner wall of the battlement. Were they go—?

The first blast knocked the wind from his lungs. He blacked out.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 28, Part 3

Hawk described lazy ovals in the sky above The Dalles at 15,000 feet AGL. Sparrow, just now airborne again after refueling, came in low up the Deschutes River valley. Nichole had named them both. Hawk was an old Predator drone with hardpoints for Hellfire missiles, but they’d none to put on her. Sparrow was a newer, smaller version, built for speed and with better optics. Optics that she’d been using to send telemetry – about the horsemen that broke through that morning – to the gunboats coming up the river. She recalled her conversation in the Mayor’s Office, three months ago. It was the second time they’d talked, after their meeting on Kongo.

 

            He looked over the papers she’s handed to him, not saying a word. He’s a careful one, she thought, studying his face. There were Asian features there; perhaps that’s where he gained those traits. He looked up.

            “Five is impossible. We’ve the hulls, certainly, and the idle welders, but ammunition and fuel oil?” He shook his head. “Two. Maybe three, if we starve the farmers in the Willamette Valley; and, hope they don’t return the favor.”

            His mouth smiled. Again, it did not reach his eyes. She nodded from across his desk.

            “It is a start: a brown-water navy. That will allow you to train a cadre of officers and men when you are ready for a green, then…” She looked down towards his desk, then up to him under her brows: one of her most effective tactics! “… blue water fleet.”

            He had remarkable self-control. She monitored his pulse, breathing, blood pressure. He was excited at what she said: he saw the potential of what his City-State could become, but outwardly, he was unmoved.

            He put down the papers.

            “That’s far, far, in the future, Miss Clarke,” he said easily. “My agents have let me know some of the interesting things that you’ve been up to at the University… and other places… since your arrival in our fair city. It would appear to me that you leave nothing where you found it!”

            He leaned back in his chair. This time, the smile just barely touched his eyes.

            “I’ve learned much from my classmates about you, as well,” she began. She knew, that he knew, that she meant his daughter, as well. His eyes hardened. “You are a remarkable man, Mayor Johnson! During such a tumult in these United States, you seem to be just the right man in just the right place at just the right time to save this city.”

            “A coincidence, surely,” he lied easily. She shook her head.

            “My family knows that there are no such things, Mister Mayor.” Careful with the undertones, she thought: this is a powerful man. “America is changing, perhaps beyond recognition. My country… my country is seeking to do the same, but from choice, not panic.”

            She clasped her hands together before her as she leaned slightly towards him.

            “There is opportunity here. For Japan; for Portland.”

            “You would want us a vassal state?”

            She slowly shook her head, her eyes never leaving his.

            “A Friend and Ally of the Imperial Throne.”

            For the first time, he let his eyes slide left from hers just a moment while he considered her words. They returned.

            “Japan would defend us?”

            “And you Japan.” She leaned back a bit with a small smile. “Once you’ve a navy.”

            Neither moved. The clock on the wall to her right chimed six times. The Mayor stood and put out his hand.

            “Thank you for coming to see me, Miss Clarke.” They shook. He dropped his right hand to the paper she’d given him. “I’ll be starting on those three boats tomorrow.”

            She bowed and made her way to the office door.

            “Give my love to my daughter,” he called tonelessly.

            “Of course.”

 

It was the latter part of the afternoon. She’d looked through Hawk’s eyes to see Gil bored on the southeast side of Fort Reilly. I’m so pleased you’re not dead! The enemy’s human-wave attack against the dam’s little guardhouse had been broken by Claymores, mortars, and her data. She did not think for a second that the victory was hers; she knew she knew nothing about combat. Everything she heard and saw she pushed to the two captains. This was their show. She was just a cog in a much larger machine. Alone against the office wall, she smiled to herself at her internal rhetoric.

The riders that had passed this morning had been largely broken up by the surprise of gunboats coming up the river. Still, those so-called barbarians had used radios to let someone know what had happened. To have gambled so much force on this attack, only to see the point blunted, even Nichole knew that there would have to be something to make up for it.

“But what?” She spoke aloud to the deepening shadows in the room. Oh. Through Sparrow, she noted a small line of smoke up from the ground –

***signal lost***

What? What?! Did she just lose Sparrow?! She called Captain Blaine. After a few questions, she learned what a ‘shoulder-launched Stinger missile’ was. She immediately moved Hawk five thousand feet higher up and began random evasion maneuvers. Through one camera on the dam she saw the sun about to touch the top of Mount Hood. Through Hawk… flatbed tractor trailers with… ladders and tubes? Again, she spoke with Captain Blaine.

“Say that once again, clearly!” He not quite yelled at her. She did.

There were some odd sounds. His voice was now away from the radio-phone.

“Take COVER!” She heard him yell. “Missiles incoming!”

Oh. Those trucks were mobile missile launchers. She calculated the range… Blaine’s hole card could just reach them. She called. And called.

Hawk saw the launches. She saw nine. Short range ballistic missiles. They’d no passive defense at all. She’d not enough data to know their destination, but she’d bet on the fort before the dam. Dams were big, hard concrete targets.

There were explosions all in and around the fort. Gil!

Why wasn’t Blaine answering? Hawk dipped and spun, generally headed east to see more. The shadows of the rills and valleys frustrated her! There!

Oh, no. A line of eight more flatbed transporters. The missiles were already vertical….

Through Hawk, she watched them launch.

Nothing she could do. She radioed the three gunboats. The flotilla captain said that he could just see their dam. She fed him the coordinated of the fort, requesting close-in salvos once in range. He briefly tried to object about “shelling our own men” until she shouted him down, that friendly-fire casualties were preferable to a general massacre.

She never heard his reply. The second group of missiles went for the dam. Not to break it: impossible. But cripple the controls beyond repair? Very possible.

Nichole was tossed about, sometimes in the air, sometimes against walls and floor. The building about her collapsed. Had she been human, she’d be dead, she thought. She thought of Gil; did he just go through this? Did I, who love him, just call down more onto his head?

She landed hard; but was not broken. She twisted to avoid the larger pieces of concrete and debris that were raining down atop her. She wasn’t crushed by any particular thing, but she stopped estimating the depth of the ruin above her when it got beyond three meters.

Power loss; signal loss. The weight from above pressed down onto her. She flexed just slightly. No, she was trapped. No worries! She’d almost a full charge, so she’d be aware for another twenty hours, if not more! After that, once they dug her out, all they had to do was plug her back in….

Who, besides Gil, would know to do that?

For the first time in her life, a sound like a sob escaped her.

What if no one knows what to do with me?

What if no one is left to look for me?

Unbidden, she recalled friend Mackenzie’s words: “is there any evidence that you were ever here?”

She thought of Mackenzie. Her dear friend. She recognized that once again, her processors were overloaded.

I will not despair, she thought.

Nichole 5 Clarke shut herself down.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 28, Part 4

Gil wiped the back of his hand across his eyes to get some of the sweat out. The air was cool, but with the sun directly overhead, pick, shovel, and masonry work to repair the fort’s walls was hot work. His crew was just about finished: there had been two breaches that needed to be closed before they could even begin to consider their situation ‘under control.’ He looked about. By now, what had looked like buckets of red paint thrown everywhere in the first light of morning, looked like buckets of brown. Blood, everywhere.

Right after the rockets came another human-wave attack, but from the south and west, just like their captain predicted. Only a few on horseback, and the defenders quickly learned why: when the second rider with overloaded saddlebags got to the wall, he’d detonated, blowing open a partial hole.

Equestrian suicide bombers. Gil so badly wanted to wake up from this nightmare. A nightmare made worse when the cacophony of explosions from the dam reached their ears. He and his militia mates looked at each other in horror: did they blow up the dam?

Did they blow up her?! Gil thought.

By nightfall, the enemy was on the walls; there had been another wall breach at some point, but with shells falling all about them – most, but not all of them, outside the fort; was the enemy that bad a shot? – he’d not noticed. It was just one more explosion among hundreds.

In the first hint of color in the eastern sky, the fighting was hand-to-hand. Gil had run out of cartridges sometime around 0200. Only three of the militiamen had rifles with bayonets. He’d carefully laid down his battle rifle and drew his katana. For just a second he grimaced as he recalled overhearing what Captain Muller muttered days ago: ‘this is not the 21st Century I was expecting.’

“Militiamen!” The yell of the local sergeant pulled him back to the present. Brown, everywhere.

He and the other remaining three turned to see what they’d be doing next.

“Good job, men!” The fort’s NCO called. “Take three hours for food and rest! There’ll be plenty of more work later!”

Gil sighed. He brushed his hand over his shoulder to make sure his sword was still there and he put his pick and shovel over his shoulder and took a few steps towards the sergeant.

“If it’s allowed, I’ll be heading over to the dam,” he asked, meaning to leave anyway.

With a hard nod, the sergeant looked left.

“Let’s clear it with our officers, Haven.”

As the two walked over to Blaine and Muller, Gil heard the scraping and muttering from behind him, punctuated by a loud “eff this!” from Brunelli. With a glance over his right shoulder, he saw first the other three militia, then the remainder of the cavalry troop get their tools and move towards the gate. To go get their mascot.

Muller and Blaine were going over some lists on paper when Muller’s troop came up. For just a moment his eyes registered surprise. Seeing their equipment more than weapons, he understood.

“Men!” Muller called sharply. “We seem to be missing one of our own! Scout Reilly! What the hell can you tell me about this?!”

Gil had forgotten what a smile was.

“Sir!” Reilly called, bringing himself to attention with a salute, for once. “I apologize for my stupidity! I seem to have left something over at the dam! Request permission to retrieve it!”

Muller returned his salute.

“You think you need what’s left of the troop to get this back?” Muller called.

“Sir! Yes, I do!” Reilly blinked and was quieter. “Yes, we do.”

“On your way then,” the captain said softly. “See her home.”

Blaine and Muller watched them depart out the main gate.  We were eighteen plus six plus one when we got here.  He counted fifteen leaving for the dam, now.

“Think they’ll be back by nightfall?” Blaine asked.

“They be back when they’ve her body, and not before.”

Blaine nodded.

“You’ve good men. Even the militia.”

“Yeah.”

The trooper that had seen to Toast – who was safe – guided them through the rubble of the southeast side of the dam.

“Is it, the dam, okay?” Gil had asked him.

“Seems to be,” he replied. “Most of these offices were already deserted.” He waved about at the rubble. “The main control rooms are in the dam, itself. We’ve already checked them, and their fine.”

Gil nodded. Good for the City.

And if she’s gone, then to hell with the City. No! A person is a just a person!  We’re trying to save Western Civ here!

He clenched at the wooden handles of the pick and shovel. He almost believed that. Their guide stopped and pointed.

“She went into the office block here, just before the turn north to the spillway.”

“Shit,” someone behind them muttered.

What had once been a two or three story structure was now a pile of rubble about a dozen feet high, stretching from the edge of the spillway back almost one hundred yards. Where to even begin, Gil thought? To find one body would take days… weeks….

“…full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee…”

What was that? Gil turned, surprised to see a bruiser like Brunelli on his knees, a Rosary from around his neck he’d never seen before clutched in his hand.

“…and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.”

Brunelli stood, with his eyes shut, his right hand holding his shovel high above his head.

“Holy Mary, pray for us sinners – and Nichole – now at the hour of her death!”

Gil was shocked to see such a badass crying freely. He kept his eyes shut and took steps forward in the rubble. To be expected, after only a few seconds, he lost his balance. His shovel came down with a clang. Brunelli hawked and spat.

“We dig here!” Which he proceeded to do. The rest of the regulars moved around him to tear at the rubble. After only a moment’s hesitation, the militia did, as well.

Gil was not religious, thinking it all a con. But this was the first time in his life he’d caught a glimpse of the transcendent.

Christ, God, who-the-hell ever! He thought. Let us take her home! He swung his pick again.

The sun was once again close to touching the top of the mountain. Brunelli and Reilly had never let up. Everyone else would take a break for about ten minutes for every sixty; they didn’t, not even for water. They’d had to hollow out a cone in the debris as it kept shifting and falling inwards. Gil was on the spillway side, arranging some structural aluminum so it wouldn’t slide down. Shouldn’t they call it a night, soon? They’d no lights, so in an hour a pick or shovel would go right through –

He almost puked at the thought.

“ARM!” Brunelli shouted.

There was a moment of confusion as everyone tried to reach their pistols or rifles.

“You effing idiots!” Brunelli slurred though his missing teeth. “I’ve found her arm!”

While Gil remained frozen – from which, later, he would never forgive himself – two regulars leapt down next to Brunelli. He deftly used his shovel while those two used their gloved hands. Gil stared down in the waning light.

A right arm. Right side of a torso. Part of a right leg, twisted very badly; compound fracture. A head. A trooper gently held up about ten strands of strawberry-blonde hair.

“Haven!” Brunelli shouted.

His heart almost stopped.

“Here!”

“Down here, now!” Even Gil could hear Brunelli’s voice catch. “You’re carrying her out!”

So. They’d been noticed. For nothing, he thought, carefully making his way down the funnel of rubble to the three. Brunelli had tossed his shovel a few yards up, out, and away, and was using his hands, too.

“Gently.” He said.

They slowly freed the rest of her. Her left arm was also a compound fracture. Gil noted that her skin was torn; some sort of black mesh material was beneath it. One of the others was about to lift her head.

“Let me, please.” He said. The two looked to Brunelli who nodded. They leaned back slightly.

Gil put both hands behind her neck. He easily pulled the cords out with his left. He did not want to sully their memory of her with questions about what she was. Once that was done, he unconsciously drew her head up into his chest. He rested his head onto hers.

Nichole!

“Let’s give the man a minute,” Brunelli said. He gestured behind him. “We need to shore this up so he can carry her out!”

While they did that, Gil twirled his left hand a few times, wrapping up her cords, then putting them into one of his jacket pockets. The sudden silence told him they were ready.

He stood with her in his arms. He looked up out of the hollow. Those few that had hats took them off. The rest lowered their heads. Gil looked to the way out that’d been made. The footing was uneven, but he was able to make it to the top without incident. There, he let his breath out with a whoosh.

“Now what?”

He looked down at her blank face.

“Now what?” He whispered. “Do you know how many people love you? Do you have any idea what you’ve done in five months?!”

He turned them both to look at the sunset behind Mount Hood.

“Joe’s alive only because you came here! I’m alive because you were helping the captains!”

He thought of the sixteen dead and everyone, literally everyone, injured after last night’s battle.

“Why you?” He started to lose it, a little. He didn’t see the others move away from him. “A civilian, out here on the dam…! Shit! You’re not… you’re not even hu-”

Gil grimaced. He used his left arm to lift her towards him. What was there to say?

He pressed his lips to hers, asbestos, dust, death, and all.

***Exceptional Tactile***

***Restart***

Nichole 5 Clarke awoke.

She opened her eyes. For just a split-second. She was older.

She closed them. She opened her mouth slightly as she moved her right arm to touch Gil’s back.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 29

It was the afternoon of the next day Gil had seen Nichole go into the fort’s offices – for her debriefing with the two Captains – so he’d made sure to pace his repair work that he’d be able to see when she came back out; hopefully, right around the end of his 4-hour work rotation.   She’d wanted to do it immediately after she’d been found in the rubble, but he’d been able to convince her that, if she desired to maintain her role as a human, then she had to spend time at the aid station in the fort.

Which had been problematic, in and of itself. Their corpsman, Jenkins, was now in on the secret. The darkness had concealed the damage that told of what she was from the troop as they rushed her back that night, elated she was not dead, but under electric light in the little infirmary, there was no avoiding the matter. Gil had tried, though.

He’d placed her onto a gurney and under a sheet and pulled the curtains around them just a moment before the corpsman came in.

“Keep quiet and let me try – ” He’d begun.

“To please stay out of the way,” Jenkins finished for him, passing through the off-white lab curtains. “Buried under a building was bad enough: couldn’t you guys have called me over there? You’re lucky you didn’t break her spine! Now: you go, and I’ll – ”

“Gil stays.” That timbre in her voice again. Gil watched Jenkins freeze and jerkily nod.

“Alright.” The corpsman agreed. “Forgive me, miss, but I’ll be examining you, now. He reached to draw back the sheet.

“Wait…!” But Gil was too late.

“Good Lord, with fractures like this you should be screaming… in…” His eyes lingered on the torn skin of her left arm. And the lack of blood. And the black mesh material beneath.

Jenkins swallowed hard.

“I… I can’t help you if I don’t know what you are.”

Gil stared at him. That was an amazing recovery. Nichole abruptly sat up, letting her left arm flop.

“I am Nichole Clarke, a self-aware android of the Somi Corporation of Osaka, Japan!”  Chipper as ever, he thought. “I was sent to Portland by my Empress to help all of you!” She smiled hard enough to let her eyes scrunch shut as she tilted her head just to the left.

“I seem to have gotten into a bit of a scrape!  I’d really like you to please help me, too!” She held out her right hand to Jenkins. Who gently took it. He nodded at her.

“My… pleasure… Miss Clarke.” She saw humor in his eyes. “My best work is with humans and horses; please let me know how I fix, er, heal you.”

Gil suppressed a sigh as they started talking animatedly about her repair. She doesn’t just make friends, she makes followers. Dear God, he thought, his skepticism in tatters after watching the literal miracle of Brunelli finding her, please let her really be on our side!

Gil saw Nichole finally emerge from the offices just shy of two hours later. He’d been finished for half an hour, but chose to help one of the Regulars so he could stay out in the courtyard. The trooper was grateful for the assistance, but by his smirk, Gil knew he knew why he was there. Seeing Nichole as well, he heard the Regular mutter, ‘there goes my help.’

“Uh, I need – ” The other man waved him off.

“I need it too, kid!” He grinned at Gil. “Off ya’ go!”

As Gil walked towards Nichole, he looked at what she and Jenkins had cooked up: all arms and legs wrapped in bandages. An articulated splint around her right knee and her left arm in a sling. And all of it for show, he thought. The others would expect her to show some kind of injury after what she’d been through, and ‘I’ve always been a quick healer!’ wouldn’t cut it. The small tear of her skin on her leg that Gil hadn’t noticed, along with the gash in her arm would have to wait until she was back in her flat at the University for repair, so those bandages would stay on. She’d announced she’d be losing the sling when it was time to ride back home.

And, when was that to be?  Gil wondered. He maintained his composure as she took his left hand with her right, her head just down, but glancing up at him under her brows.

“When will you kiss me again?” She asked very quietly, her voice husky with emotion.

His composure started to fail. She lifted her head and pretended to look at her wrist for the time.

“I want to go on a little treasure hunt!” She said with a smile, closing with him. “Come along?”

“Sounds fun!” Brunelli yelled from just behind him. As grateful as Gil felt towards him, he wanted to take a swing at the corporal just now.

“My newest hero!” Nichole cried, stepping around Gil, but not letting go of his hand. She lightly bumped her forehead onto Brunelli’s chest.

“Let’s get our horses!” Nichole said.

Gil reckoned there were still three hours of daylight left as they rode out of the fort, headed not far to the northwest edge of the town to the Goodle Information Center. Brunelli was as his wont, armed to the teeth, and, this time, actually had some useful information.

“My brother’s a monk, there!”

“A what?” Gil asked, his mount next to Nichole’s. Brunelli was just ahead of them on his massive horse.

“There was a Catholic monastery between Hood River and The Dalles. During the Breakup, one of the Brothers had a vision about preserving and defending knowledge.” He continued. “Since, without pay, most of the techs had abandoned the Information Center, they moved in to protect it!”

“Protect what?”

“Knowledge! Treasure!” Nichole tittered, so giddy. “There are acres and acres of servers there! Think of it as a backup of the sum total of human knowledge!”

Oh…kay.

“So what’s that to you? Given, well,” he waved at her, “that you… you know….”

She looked ahead at their unexpected third. Gil saw her slightly tilt her head. He’d learned that she was going to say something oblique.

“My family and I… always wish to know more.”

He sighed. One on one hand, Nichole was one of the most endearing girls he’d known in his life. When she was on the defensive, it was like negotiating with SkyNet.

Passing back through town along the old interstate next to the river, they waved at some of the townspeople moving rubble and working on reconstruction. There had been, fortunately, very little damage to The Dallas, as the fort and guardhouse on the dam had been the enemy’s center of focus. What little history Gil knew highlighted that their opponent knew at least the same: defeat the army first, then the land is yours.

“Hey, Corporal!” She trotted forwards and leaned over to her with her right to touch his left shoulder, then let her hand slide down his back. Sure was touchy-feely for a machine….

She swung her head back to look coldly at Gil for a moment. Her smile returned as she turned back to Brunelli.

She can read minds?! His back was suddenly cold with sweat.

“What does your brother do at the Information Center?” She finished.

Brunelli’s face became in exercise in concentration as he endeavored to corral and marshal what facts he had.

“Before their move, he helped make wine and brandy. Oh! Being a monk, lots of prayers and shit like that!”

Gil’s view of organized religion was returning to normal, even after what the corporal did for them.

“When Brother Adamar had his vision, and they moved to the ‘Center, my brother also went back to being an electrician, like he was when he was in the Air Force. Oh, yeah: when it’s ‘battle stations,’ or whatever the eff they call it, I think he’s part of one of the crew-served automatic weapons.” They were close enough now for him to point at one of the towers inside two rings of razor wire.

“Automatic weapons?” Gil asked, his voice scornful. “What’n the hell types of monks are these?”

“Those.” Nichole reined Toast to a halt and pointed to a tree-shadowed area to their left, just by an animal shelter.

“I don’t see – ” Gil began.

“The lass has keen eyes.”  A hard, man’s voice.

Brunelli’s pistol was out and pointed faster than Gil could see. But at what? Oh. An oddly patterned camouflaged figure with an AK-74 stood up slowly from behind a tumbleweed no larger than two feet round. What the hell?

“We are Knights Hospitallers. John Brunelli?”

The corporal nodded, chagrined at what he saw as a civilian, even if it was her, getting the better of him.

“Your brother said he looks forward to seeing you again.” He took a few steps, pausing to lean against a tree and look down his sights at the road behind them. “You all go on ahead. God bless you and keep you.”

“Thank you!” Nichole called loud enough to make the man flinch.

Knights…what? Gil wondered, following the others towards the facility’s main gate. He’d never seen anything like that man’s camouflage. And: monks at a tech center? Ah. There were two more, opening the gate. They said nothing, gesturing them to continue on in.

Gil noted their eyes were fixed on Nichole.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 30

“Those towers are retarded,” Brunelli spat to his left. “One RPG and they’re gone.”

“Of course,” said the man in the odd camo to his right, escorting them in. It made Gil’s eyes water to try and focus on it. More gray than field gray, but the pattern eluded him. That was probably the point, he thought. “They’re only there to draw fire and have the enemy give his position away.”

“Oh.” Brunelli shut up. Given that feat, Gil was liking these people already.

“Huuuuuhhhh!”

He looked over to Nichole, who was swinging her head from one of the three large buildings before them, to another, and back again. He tried not to smile at the look on her face: that mousy friend of hers sure got it right in her drawings! When Nichole wants something, it’s all over her face. Oops, she was staring right at him.

“What?” She challenged.

“You’re looking lusty again,” he riposted.

For only the slightest moment her eyes gleamed; now that he knew to look for it.

“Oh. You mean about these.” She waved her arm not in the sling. She smiled in a peculiar way. “I thought you meant what you and I are thinking about each other!”

He wanted to follow that on, but between Brunelli and their guide….

“Are you two married?” Their escort asked unexpectedly. “If so, we’ll prepare joint quarters for you.”

“Nope!” Nichole replied with too much cheer. “At least, not….”

She trailed off as she continued to look around. Gil tried to get his jaw off of his horse’s back. She just said what?!?

“We ain’t stayin’ the night,” Brunelli interjected. “Gotta be back at the fort by nightfall.”

“That remains to be decided.” Their guide gestured at the offices attached to the southern end of the central building. “Our Prior would like to speak with all of you. You’ll also find your brother, Anthony, awaiting you, as well.”

As she was playing one-handed, Nichole let their guide assist her dismount. Double-checking that all three horses were tied properly, he muttered ‘God be with you,’ and returned towards the main gate.

A young man in a black robe with a dark gray cord about his waist came out of what would once have been the main business entrance. His sandy hair was cut short and shaved away entirely around the crown of his head. Gil suppressed a laugh: I thought that was only in movies. The fellow, about Gil’s age, bowed to them slightly, turned, and gestured towards the door he’d just come from.

“WTF?” Brunelli growled.

“He’s taken a vow of silence. And, to presume by his dress, is a Benedictine.” Nichole said happily. “Is that right?” She asked while stepping towards him.

The young man smiled gently and nodded as he took a step back. Nichole’s right hand went to her cheek as she looked surprised.

“Oh! I’d guess you’re not allowed to touch a woman; unless, she was in physical or spiritual need! Is that right?”

A slow nod in reply. His slight smile remained.

“How’n the heck did you know that?!” Brunelli demanded. “You look Irish but you never said nothin’ about being Catholic!”

“I’m neither,” she replied easily. “But I am familiar with different types of ascetics around the world; most of their core behaviors are the same, no matter what their faith. A fascinating human trait!”

They proceeded up the few steps and into the building. The atrium was cooler than outside; odd, given it was just shy of winter. And even next to the dams, who had spare power and maintenance for HVAC systems?

“Ah.” Nichole looked back at the novice. “You must keep the Engines cool, so the rest of the building is, merely by convection!”

Both Gil and the monk wondered over her choice of words, but got what she meant, anyway. He nodded and again gestured for them to proceed further in. Down a corridor with several doors on each side, they were almost to a door straight ahead labeled “No Admittance!” when it opened before them. A bald, middle aged man with glasses and in overalls was mopping the sweat off of his forehead – even in the cool air – as he looked up, surprised.

“Here so soon! Welcome, welcome!” He rubbed his slightly greasy right hand against his clothes before he extended it. “I’m Prior Tuchman; guess you’d say I’m in charge here!”

One by one he shook their hands. His eyes lingered on Nichole before he came last to Gil.

“In charge of what?” Gil asked. “Your troopers out front look pro. We could have used their help a few nights ago.”

For some reason, Brunelli looked aghast. There was even an odd look in Nichole’s eyes.

“My boy!” The Prior slapped Gil’s left shoulder. “We’re men of peace! We – ”

“Men of peace don’t normally carry AK-74’s with their camo.”

Tuchman shifted his considerable weight as he regarded Gil.

“Actually, they do.” He said, with a hint of a smile. “Do you know what ‘meekness’ means?”

What? Gil thought.

“To be humble; to take whatever comes your way… never fighting back…” He trailed off.

“A typical turn of the century definition by the poorly catechized,” Tuchman counted. “But in the eyes of history and Holy Mother Church, it means ‘power-under-control.’ That’s what you saw out there, and,” he waved back, “that’s what you see in here, too.”

He’d done that so politely that Gil did not take offense. He was also wondering why Nichole was almost bouncing on her toes. Still.

“Still. Why didn’t you help us?”

The Prior sighed.

“I don’t really have the time to take you on a tour of history from the Fourth through the Sixth Centuries, but the Church, and Civilization, has made strange bedfellows before to keep knowledge alive. Come!” He waved for them to follow him back through the door.

Through it, it must have been no more than 50F. It was unreasonably loud; Gil knew not why: the servers, the AC? What? Nichole was up on her toes.

“Treasure!” She shouted. Tuchman nodded.

“Indeed. And we will lift our hands to defend it.” He looked back over his shoulder at Gil. “Against all who would break it. Today, that’s tribe A. A year from now, tribe B. Who can say?”

All of this philosophy had Brunelli at wits end.

“Where’s my brother!?” He blurted out. Tuchman turned and smiled at him.

“Working on some high-capacity transformers. Will you join your brother, and the rest of the koinonia, for evening meal, after Vespers?”

“We… we need to report back.” Brunelli replied blankly.

“Hmmm!” The Prior smiled. “Let’s see about that!”

At his wave, another Brother in black robes came forwards with a radio set.

“Captain Blaine! Why are you not surprised!   No… no of course I wouldn’t presume! Of course, I’ll wait.”

For just a second, the three looked at one another.

“Captain Muller! A pleasure to speak with you! God Bless You!” There was a pause on his part. “Ah. I see your colleague has already made you aware of my request, good!”

The Prior let his gaze wander to his three visitors.

“I was wondering if I could borrow these three of yours for the evening… no, my idea, actually. Sure, sure.” They looked on has he paused to listen. “Very good! Thank you, Captain!”

“Everything’s cleared with your CO,” Tuchman said, handing the radio set back. “If you’d be so kind as to join us for dinner? And, we’ll prepare quarters for you overnight.”

Gil considered that: a hot meal and likely a real bed for the first time in over a week. Hell, yeah. Nichole was already nodding with a silly grin. Brunelli had the rank, so he had to defer to him.

“Fine with us. Corporal?”

“Hots and a cot!” He said, echoing Gil’s thought. “You bet!”

The Prior said a few quiet words to the Brother, who left quickly.

“Let me give you the nickel tour while arrangements are made.” He waved broadly with his left arm. “This facility was built about twenty years ago…”

Gil only half listened as he led them around. Ranks and ranks of huge servers hummed about them. Designed and built to handle information traffic as well as a backup of all data processed for the entire western United States, after the Breakup, it was close to being shut down and broken up for parts when Brother Adamar had his vision. A month ago, he would have snorted aloud at such a statement, now, he just looked at Brunelli. And Nichole.

“We, ah, don’t have official sanction from Rome or Malta for the establishment of the Hospitallers,” the Prior said a bit embarrassed. “However, we’re confident that things will be worked out!”

“Where did you recruit the men?” Brunelli asked.

“With few exceptions,” Tuchman replied with a smile, “they’re Brothers of the Order than were given dispensation to change their vows. Since occupying this facility, about a dozen more have joined us. Ah! Here comes Brother Anthony!”

Gil and Nichole looked behind them to see a larger, slightly older version of Brunelli walking towards them, wearing overalls similar to the Prior. Their Brunelli ran a few steps and they gave each other a great back-slapping bear hug. They immediately started catching up on family matters. Tuchman coughed discreetly.

“If you two would care to continue…?” Nichole smiled; Gil just shrugged. He was suddenly surprised when she took his hand with hers as they walked. He looked to her, but she seemed to think nothing of it. They made their way back towards what seemed to be where they came in.

“We’ve repurposed a couple of the meeting rooms to function as our community dining hall. That’s rather traditional for our Order.” Tuchman told them. Several others, in both black robes and overalls, were making their way towards them. “It’s been quite some time since we’ve had guests, so please forgive any staring.” He concluded with a smile.

Nichole lifted his hand with hers. “We’ll be fine!”

Passing through a steel door into an office hallway, Gil was pleased to be free from the noise. Through another, wood-paneled, door, they came to a large room with long tables. Food was already being set out. A stillness settled over the room as everyone turned to stare. At Nichole.

“Guess you don’t see many girls here,” Gil laughed. To his credit, the Prior laughed along with him.

“On the grounds, that’s certainly correct,” Tuchman said, making his way to one of the tables at the far end. They followed. “But we’re not on some isolated mountain peak; the Brothers help out in town, with the fishing boats on the river, in the farms and vineyards. So, they’re quite used to feminine company. It’s just….”

He trailed off.

“Yes?” Nichole asked, just beating Gil to it.

They watched his back sigh. He turned around to them.

“Right before the horsemen attacked, Brother Adamar announced to us that ‘She is coming: the voice of another world.’” Tuchman shook his head. “Like all prophecies, it has us puzzled! Some thought the ‘she’ was a reference to the horsemen, themselves. But now….”

He stared at Nichole.

“May I meet Brother Adamar?” She asked. “He sounds very interesting!” The Prior nodded.

“Except for whomever’s on guard and maintenance duty, the entire koinonia will be here for dinner.”

“That’s the second time you used that word,” Gil interjected. “What’s it mean?”

“It’s Greek.” Nichole said, letting go of his left hand and gently tapping his forehead. “It’s difficult in English… community comes close, but ‘kindredness’ is almost better, if there is such a word!”

More and more men were coming in. Gil saw John Brunelli with his brother, Anthony, wasn’t it? go to a different table. Family was family.

“Please, guest, here at my right?” The Prior stood at the head of a table and indicated two chairs with a wave. Gil took a step, but stopped. He stepped back and motioned for Nichole to be at the seat of honor. He could see she was about to protest, so he shot her a look. She gave him a great smile and brushed her cheek against his as she stepped past him. Gil pulled his chair out when he suddenly noticed that everyone was still standing. Oops.

From somewhere at the far corner of the room, he heard a stentorian voice intone, “Deus in adjutórium meum inténde.”

“Dómine, ad adjuvándum me festína,” everyone replied. He was shocked that even Nichole did. Why did anything about her surprise him anymore?

“Glória Patri, et Fílio, et Spirítui Sancto.”

“Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sǽcula sæculórum. Amen.” Gil noted that Nichole pronounced the words slightly different than the Brothers around them. True: no matter what she was, she was from a foreign country, so I guess that’s to be expected.

Gil stood for what seemed like an hour, but he guessed what maybe about fifteen minutes, listening to the Latin droning on and on… punctuated every now and then by everyone else’s replies. He stared at the fresh bread already on the table. Getting cold. There were big ceramic beakers about every five feet. His nose already told him they held wine, not water. He was fortunate that when his stomach growled, it was during one of everyone’s responses.

Suddenly everyone was moving, taking their seats, he hurried too. Platters of lightly grilled fish were brought in. And set at the far end of their table, dammit, Gil thought. Some of the others were already taking bread and pouring some of the wine into their cups. There was no standard form, Gil noted: glass, plastic, ceramic. I guess they just make do with what they have. These days, who doesn’t? Maybe they’re not that different than the rest of us. He gratefully took a hunk of bread from the man to his right and reached for one of the pitchers.

Whomever had been going on in Latin earlier spoke up.

“Out of courtesy to our guests, this evening we shall forgo the reading from our Rules. Quiet,” he emphasized the word, “conversation is permitted.” Gil heard Nichole say something to the Prior. In Latin. Sheesh.

“<Must we stay in this language?>” She asked. “<I am not that familiar with it!>”

Tuchman chuckled.

“Not at all! And to judge by your friend’s face these past few minutes, I’d hate to exclude him from the conversation!”

“I think,” she said, first turning to look right into Gil’s eyes, then back to the Prior, “that he’s more than a friend!”

Gil froze and stared at her. Again, she just says things like that to others. Sometimes, she so different! Is it being from Japan? From not being…

The monk to his right tapped his shoulder, holding the platter with his other hand.

“Fish?”

“Thank you,” Gil replied in the same low tone as the others. He took three pieces and moved it left to Nichole, who turned back to him.

Smiling, she looked to the platter, then up to his eyes. She gave a small tilt of her head. Gil leaned further, passing the plate to Tuchman.

“Not hungry, Miss Clarke?” He asked, taking the platter from Gil with a thankful nod.

“Perhaps later.”

“Of course.” He took some fish. “I get the distinct impression, Miss Clarke, that you are not from around these parts?”

Gil tossed his entire cup of wine back and reached for the beaker. Dude, you’ve no idea.

 

An hour later, Gil was stuffed in a way he’d not been in years. Just wine, bread, and fish, but they did not begrudge any of it. Why was there so much left over?  Most of the others had already excused themselves. At another table he saw the Brunelli’s talking animatedly about something. There was only one Brother left at their table: dark hair and a beard, but the top of his head shaved in that weird way. He’d a broad, Slavic face, but even in profile, sad, careworn eyes. Gil noted he moved slowly, deliberately. He certainly didn’t look that old, maybe forty, so perhaps he’d been injured at some point.

“Brother Adamar,” Tuchman raised his voice slightly. “Please, come meet our guests!”

Gil saw Adamar lower his fork, then stand. Gil expected him to shuffle, but instead watched him stride along the table. He and Nichole stood. Gil held out his hand and introduced himself. Nichole kept her arm at her side. Why?

“Nichole 5 Clarke.” She said in an odd tone, Gil thought. And, her ‘full’ name, too.

“Adamar.” The other said, his voice deep but soft. “You are the voice of another world.”

She gave a pleasant smile.

“Like you, I am of this world.”

He shook his head once.

“You and your family – and cousins you’ve not yet seen – are remaking Creation.”

And what in the heck did that mean, Gil thought? He was further surprised that Nichole said nothing for several seconds. He’d never seen her at a loss for words, before.

“Is not… co-creation… open to all of God’s children?” She finally said.

Completely lost, Gil drank more wine.

Adamar lowered his head.

“Thanks be to God for this meeting,” he said. “Thanks be to God.”

He took two steps back before he turned and departed.

“Like I said before,” Tuchman said with a small smile, “hard to know what a prophet is saying.” He stood. “This way, please.”

They left the main building for the one to the north. Outside, there was just enough light to make out the outlines of structures and people.

“Your corporal will be staying with his brother this evening,” the Prior noted while they walked. “You, two, will have guest quarters, here.” He nodded at the building ahead. They started up the stairs. Inside, they were down another corridor with several doors along each side.

“I won’t insult you by posting a guard,” he continued, “but I hope you will not insult us with, ah, indiscrete behavior?” He indicated the two doors to his left and right.

Gil drew himself up.

“Certainly not! Good ni-“ He began.

“May I kiss him goodnight?” Nichole asked. There was a play of a smile about the Prior’s mouth.

“Sounds alright to me. I can wait-”

However, before he could move away, Nichole was on tip-toes, her mouth pressed to Gil’s. Her eyes were hooded, but there was a faint emerald light beneath them. He closed his eyes and moved his arms around her as he bent down just slightly. When he realized she’d no interest in stopping, he leaned up and away from her.

“Night, Nichole.” He opened his door and passed through it. For a moment, he leaned against the wall. The wine and her lips set emotions raging within him; who she was, what she was, what he was thinking… and feeling.

Shuffling forwards, he came to the edge of a small bed. He collapsed in it.

In the hall, the Prior just watched as she slowly moved her right index finger over her lips, a look of wonder in her face. Ah, love! He thought.

“Miss Clarke?”

“Hmmm?”

“The Mayor of the City has spoken to me about… several things. If you are not too tired, may I ask you a few questions?”

She lowered her hand and look at him.

“Of course!”

He indicated back down the hall to the outside with his right.

“Please.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 31, Part 1

The three rode back towards Fort Reilly. Brunelli had made Nichole laugh by passing on what gossip his brother Tony had given him as they were up late drinking. Nichole then told her story of some of the things that the Prior had spoken with her as night fell after Gil went to bed.

Gil avoided her eyes.

“…was so curious to find out both what’s happening in Japan and about my family!” She’d said to Brunelli, tossing him a friendly punch with her right hand. He leaned away from her on his horse. Back on duty, they were all in gear, including flak vests and helmets. Gil unconsciously glanced –

“Need more?” Nichole laughed at him, putting her right hand onto her chest. “Just think of it as your payback for me seeing you at the pool all the time!”

“What?” Brunelli was lost. “What’s up with you two? I thought you were an item, but lone-wolf there is sulking like a girl after her first time!”

He paused. The gears in his head slowly turning.

“Whoa!” He exclaimed. “Did you two do it back at the –”

“No, we didn’t!” They both yelled at him. Brunelli couldn’t help but grin.

“Yeah, sure!” He tapped his heels against his mare’s side as he moved ahead a few yards.

“I’m sorry.” Gil muttered, again.

“That’s twice, which is twice too many!” Nichole replied with some heat in her voice. “I didn’t mind at the time and… and I won’t mind again in the future!”

Gil looked over to find her eyes catch and hold his….

 

He’d knocked on her door, knocked again. He’d gone back to his room to make sure he’d got everything. He knocked on her door again. Dammit! He put his hand onto the doorknob.

            “Nichole? Are you okay?”

            He counted three. Nothing.

            “Nichole! I’m coming in!” He twisted the handle and pushed through the door…

            She was on the edge of her bed. Nichole’s head was slightly bowed; her hair was down, but Gil could still see one cord from the back of her neck one way for power, and another towards a jack for signal.

            Her pants were on, rolled up to her knees. She wore nothing else.

            Her breasts would perfectly fit into his hand… her pink nipples were just slightly…

            Her head came up. Her irises completely dilated, surrounded by a tiny ring of emerald fire.

            “HUMAN. GIL.” Her voice was harsh, metallic. “CANNOT RECOVER.”

            What? What?!

            “HUMAN. GIL. CANNOT RECOVER.” Slightly louder.

            Something was very, very wrong, but he knew not what.

            “HUMAN – ” It hurt his ears, now.

            He took three steps, reached, and jerked the cords out of the back her neck.

            She fell backwards onto her bed. Her arms straight out on each side. He took a breath, about to yell for a medic –

            “ME – ”

            Nichole sat up, her right hand onto his mouth. He saw her eyes had returned to normal. She lowered her hand, replacing it with her lips. After a few minutes, he’d allowed himself to touch her, here, there, as well.

            She’d suddenly stiffened and he’d pulled his hand away. She made a small sound and muttered “…more…!” into his mouth. His hands came back up. She moaned slightly. Time seemed to pass wonderfully. He….

            Her head came back sharply.

            “Someone’s coming.” She broke into a smile. “Let’s not see them break our promise!”

            Standing, she turned away from him and began getting dressed. Once his breathing – and the rest of him – was under control, Gil moved to the door.

            “See you outside.” He paused. “Sorry.”

            “For what?” She shouted back over her shoulder, tugging her shirt down and reaching for her flak vest. “You are so silly! I think I want this more than you do!”

 

This time, he didn’t look away while they rode next to each other.

“What happened to you?” He asked.

“Metaphorically, I went swimming in the data they have there.” Her smile grew bitter. “The waters were choppier than I thought. I… I could not come back to myself.”

Her smile fled completely. Until she looked up to him.

“Then you saved me!” It was back. “And right on the heels of that, you start touching me! It felt sooooo good!”

“Geez!” Brunelli muttered from ahead.

She moved her mount close to his and he watched her left arm in the sling flop a little.

“When we’re home, let’s touch each other more!” She didn’t bother to lower her voice.

“Geez, you two!”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 31, Part 2

They were just leaving the main road to start up the hill towards the fort. Nichole slowed, then stopped her horse. She looked right at some brush.

“Yes?” She asked.

One of the Hospitallers stood from the shadows.

“Dammit! Again!” Brunelli hissed

“Just seeing everyone home safe, Miss,” the figure muttered, clearly unhappy about being seen. Nichole moved her eyes from him, up.

“Yes.” Softly. “This is one of my homes.”

She touched Toast’s sides with her heels.

Brunelli had let go a huge “Oooiiii!” as they came up, so the main gain was already open. They entered to much confusion. Dismounting and seeing to their horses first, Gil and Nichole looked about to find an officer or NCO who could fill them in.

“We’re leaving in the morning.” Captain Muller, right behind them. Gil heard a small ‘eep!’ from Nichole.

“We that are left,” he continued. “The Brothers are cremating our fallen, and we’ll pick them up for the ride home in the morning. Questions?”

While he was talking, they’d turned and saluted. It was not lost on Muller that her right hand came to rest at her side, just touching the militiaman’s left.

“Haven, it’d be a bother to move your stuff for just one night,” Muller said, faking seriousness. He enjoyed the boy’s reaxion.

Gil’s hand closed around the girl’s rather than jerking away.

“True, sir.” Gil replied. “We’ll get this sorted when back in the City. We’ll… we’ll make no trouble for you and the others.”

Muller grunted and moved off. He heard the call from the gate that the post riders – two, now that things were dangerous – were just arriving.

“I… I’d best go make sure I’m ready to go at first light,” He sighed, releasing her hand. “I’ll come and look for you – urk!”

She’d grabbed the front of his vest and pulled his head down to kiss him.

“Fool,” she said in a low, guttural voice. “Without an Order, you’ll never be rid of me!”

She moved off to what he knew was her small room in Officer Country. Odd, he didn’t recall her swinging her hips like that, before. Nice. He turned….

He looked around. Except for a few on the battlements, everyone in the fort was looking at them. Some smiles, a few thumbs-up. A few glares. Letting his eyes slide forward, he chose to ignore them. He stalked back to what was left of the barracks.

Nichole looked about the small VIP room: nothing to pack! Ready to go! She turned at the tap on the open door.

“Miss! The riders brought a letter for you.”

She first touched the man’s hand, only after taking the flimsy from him.

“Enough of this game,” she muttered, shaking her left arm out of its sling. I’ll leave the wrapping on until back home. Will Gil help my repairs? Would that make him hate me?

She wondered. Enough. She looked at the envelope.

From Friend Mackenzie!!!

She tore it open, reading the few paragraphs in Mackenzie’s wonderfully neat, complex handwriting.

Oh.

Just in case, she re-read it.

Oh.

What to tell my boyf –

Her eyes flared. Not only did she consider Gil her romantic partner, at the same moment she considered lying to him.  The subroutine’s loop caught fire in her mind.

“Guuh!” A sick sound escaped her mouth. She fell to the ground.

Not knowing why, her eyes tracked to the bandages on her left arm and right leg.

“I… am… damaged…”

 

She slowly climbed up to where Gil waited on the battlements. He noted her sling was gone.

“You okay? You were gone all day?”

She nodded.

“I was. And, I do not think I am okay.” She spoke to the twilight.

He placed his hands onto her shoulders. “Nichole! What can I – ”

Her left index finger was onto his mouth without him seeing it.

“You can listen. Then, you will decide.” Her finger dropped.

A few of the men behind them glanced over their shoulders at the little drama playing out. They shrugged and look forward, but Gil took her hand, leading her to a small open spot on the northeast side. Turning, Mount Hood with the sun now set behind it was just over her shoulder. He laughed once.

“Yes?” She asked. He lifted both of his hands to Heaven.

“I know nothing about you; literally nothing.”

She didn’t move.

“But, I love you, Nichole.”

She nodded, saying nothing; what she’d originally planned to say to him was now filed for later.  She watched doubt creep into his eyes. He opened his mouth to ask….

“Joe just got home. Mackenzie told me in her letter.”

Gil closed his mouth. His eyes went from hers to the fading light, behind her. Was I too late?

“Is… is he okay?”

“I surmise. My dorm-girl-friend is not good with medical matters. However, for all of his weight loss, she did use the word ‘remission.’”

“I… see.”

He turned away from her, gazing into the emptiness of the East.

“Will you… and he… try again?” His words made small clouds of vapor before his face. They vanished quickly.

Nothing. He waited a bit more. Nothing. He nodded to himself once.

“I – ” He’d just begun when she wrapped her arms tightly around him from behind.

“Guuuhhh!” There was an odd cry from her. He wanted to turn, but could not. He felt her head rhythmically pound into is back with her words. Metallic words.

“I. Love. You. Gil. Haven!”

He heard his ribs crack slightly as she tightened her grip.

“Guuhhh!” That sound, again.

“Can’t… breath!” The pressure was gone. He knew he’d one chance against this girl unlike any other. He whirled about, his hands on her cheeks.

“What were those fancy Greek words about love?” He watched her blink quickly, but no tears came.

“Storge! Philia! Eros! Agape!” She called. “All of them! And in American English, I love you, Gil!”

Her hands came up to hold his, but she waited. Of course. He nodded again, but smiled this time.

He kissed her, and she, him. Neither thinking for a moment that they held the same thought: across a divide unimaginable – human and machine – a bridge had been built.

After a few minutes, a sergeant coughed as he passed them. They were unashamed. Holding one another, they moved away from the battlement and watched the unexpected meteor shower above their heads.

“What now?” He’d asked.

She pulled a piece of paper from her back pocket.

“May… may I read you Mackenzie’s letter? I…” Nichole smiled. “Come, I shall conceal nothing from you!”

He slid down against a retaining column. She sat into his lap, snuggling her back into his chest. Her mind processed old data in new ways. She shuddered slightly.

“Cold?” He found that hard to believe.

“No.” Her voice soft. “In love.”

 

She held the letter. It was far too dark to read, so Gil knew she recited from memory.

As she said, his best friend was back. A bit worse for wear, but alive, and apparently likely to stay that way for awhile. He found some of the mousy girl’s sentences to be a bit circumloquacious, but artists were generally better with their hands, not mouths. Gil thought her closing was a little over the top about how much she missed Nichole. He said so. She became still, the back of her head against his sternum.

“She is a loving person who has lost someone very close and dear to her.” She looked up and right into his eyes. The faintest green glow. “We are all growing older together. Can we not love each other, too?”

He leaned his forehead down to hers.

“Of course.” He chose to play a little. “And you make me older about the word ‘love’!”

She looked back in to the darkness, her butt rolling in his crotch for a moment.

“Humph! Just wait and see! Now!” She flipped the paper as he tried to regain his concentration. “There’s both of them, and this older man she mentioned that helped Friend Joe on the trip back! What are we to do?”

“Field trip. Picnic.” Gil said easily, knowing she was feeling his reaxion to her gyrations.

“Picnic?” She moved some more, making a small sound as she did. “When? Where?”

“Multnomah Falls. I remember you telling me that you’ve already told Mac about it in a letter. It’s….” He put his hands onto her hips for her to stop a moment. “It’s a place all of us friends can gather; a place of hope.”

“Hmmm.” She considered. “Given the current state of emergency ‘cause of the horselord’s attack, I bet coming upriver that far is off limits to civilians right now.”

She tilted her head back up again.

“I want to ask you a question, but kiss me, first.”

“Sure.”

The question was rather long in coming.

“Whew!” She exclaimed. “Processors hot! So I should try to get permission from the Mayor for Friends Mackenzie and Joe, and Joe’s new Friend…” She trailed off, feeling his head shake in the night.

“Not the Mayor.” His voice was filled with mischievousness. “We’re going over his head.”

This was so new that she sat up and half turned to him. What political power-structure had she failed to note?

“Then, who?”

Gil leaned forwards to kiss her. And kiss her. She pushed him off.

“Who?!”

“You’re going to need to send a message… hey! this meteor shower is pretty!”

He felt her hands almost around his neck; two harsh, emerald coals just before him.

“Grrrr!!”

“Nike.” He relented, kissing her again. Cold, non-human skin. He didn’t care.

“Get a message to Nike.”

 

“Defiant” – Episode 32

Given that all duties were now paired for safety on their way home, Gil had exactly one time of less than five minutes alone with Nichole as the troop began their ride back to Portland. He did what we could.

“Nichole?” He’d asked, sotto voce. “Is… what you are, and please forgive me if I’m offending you, a secret?”

“What I am?” She put her left index finger up onto her chin as she let her eyes drift skyward.  She shook her red-blonde ponytail a little.  “You mean, in love with you?”

He suspected she was being deliberately obtuse. The troop’s first sergeant was coming up behind them.

“No,” she said, dropping her finger and smiling at the NCO as he passed them. “But, yes.”

Gil looked around at his window of time for clarification.  A minute, maybe.

“So what does that mean?!”

“I am many things, my love,” her soft voice against her cold eyes could be jarring. “One of which is an experiment as to how Model Five fits seamlessly into human society.”

“You almost make that sound sinister,” Gil smiled.

Her left hand made a small gesture.

“Told too many lies, or given the wrong Orders, we will be.”

“Reilly and Clarke! Scout!” Captain Muller called. Gil felt her brush his right hand with her left for a moment before she moved her horse forward next to their chief scout, something she’d volunteered to do. On the first hand, he’d wanted to forbid her to do it; on the second hand, she would have just ignored him. On the gripping hand, she was the most dangerous of everyone in the troop. One of the other changes for the trip back was that everyone was armed; that change really only affected one person, and he noted the Henry in its holster by her right leg.

I really need to talk to her, Gil thought, listening to her laugh as she rode forwards.

With more winter rain they’d just made it back to their camp east of Mosier. In their wet clothes they set up their wet tents under the wet sky by the wet river. Gil idly wondered if that rumor that Texas had survived was true. He grinned. He wondered if there was a militiaman there on a mission complaining about his hot clothes and his hot tent under a hot sky…!

Nichole was gone with the Captain to talk with the locals. Mosier was where the horsemen that’d broken through first encountered the gunboat flotilla. He didn’t even know Portland had a gunboat flotilla! Casualties had been high on both sides, and rumor had it that at least a thousand made it further downriver. Rounding them up was going to be a bother; a bother for the Regulars, Gil hoped. He crawled into his wet tent in his wet clothes and closed his wet eyes. His watch was 0000 to 0400; he’d better be ready for it.

He opened his eyes: someone had just kicked his feet. He froze for a moment, his hand on his sword’s pommel.

“Haven! Get yer ass up!” Brunelli hissed at him. He suppressed a sigh. He just had to draw duty with him, of all people. Out and standing, Gil checked his battle rifle and slung it over his left shoulder.

“Are you effing retarded?” Brunelli asked tactfully. “This is a night combat watch. Weapon in hand, loaded, safety on! Let’s go, stupid militia puke!”

Gil followed. For such a large jerk, the Regular was surprisingly cat-like in his few steps out of the camp. He had to swallow his pride: a bruiser, but a professional soldier nonetheless. He, then Gil, came to a stop at the edge of the old Interstate just before them. Across it, in the half-moon light, Gil saw the little spit of land where Nichole had changed his life.

“Corporal?”

“What?”

“John,” Gil gambled on the informality, “thanks for finding and saving Nichole. I owe you everything for that.”

No one moved. The slight patter of rain eased to a drip.

“I hear you’ve made her cry,” he turned right and set off. “I’ll find you and effing tear you in half!”

Gil nodded, following.

“Deal.”

“That’s so nice!” Her voice right behind them. “You guys are the best!”

Brunelli whirled about, but Gil just let his head drop. He heard her few steps to his side.

“Shouldn’t you be… resting?”

“Maybe! But a walk at night with my boyfriend is good, too!”

“Let’s go.” Brunelli moved off. They were only two step behind him. Time passed on their patrol. It was Brunelli who spoke first.

“So you two really did do it, back at that tech place?”

“Oh, no!” Nichole beat Gil to it. “We made a promise to the Prior to be chaste! However, I am looking forward to it!”

Gil looked at her. He knew she could see him in any light. You don’t just go saying things like that!

“Haven? What I said earlier.”

“Yes, Corporal.”

Another silence as they circled right, then right again, headed back towards Mosier Creek.

“Have you ever had a girlfriend, John?” Nichole asked, her usual cheer, but softened for the night. He guffawed.

“More girls than I remember! But, a girlfriend?” A pause. “Women are good for a poke, but until I can find one that can measure up to my mother, they’re not worth the trouble!”

Typical Italian, Gil thought.

“Your mother must be an amazing woman!” Nichole said. “May I meet her some day?”

Gil wanted to slap his hand over her mouth. After the die-off in the Breakup you never asked about someone else’s family! Too late!

“I’d… I’d like that.” Brunelli said with what for him was softness. “She’s a small place up in the West Hills now that Dad’s gone. You’re….”

Gil heard the sigh.

“You were the only gal I’ve ever met that I thought might come close.” He stopped and turned left to Gil. “In half. I’m not kidding. You got that?”

“Yes, Corporal.” He won’t just beat the shit out of me; he will literally kill me if I somehow upset the most powerful girl on Earth. He felt a trickle of cold sweat roll down his spine.

“Gil!” Nichole squeezed his hand. “You’re acting shocky!  Are you alright?”

Brunelli stood stock-still, staring. Gil faced Nichole.

“My love? If you’re ever upset at something I’ve done, well, I can be pretty clueless, so let me know at once, okay?”

“Sure!”

Gil let his eyes slide left to Brunelli’s form. With a noncommittal grunt, he moved out. They followed. More time passed as they moved slowly back to the north. Brunelli stopped and twisted his left arm about.

“Dammit! Can’t see what time it is!” He complained. “I guess I could use a little light – ”

“It’s 0354,” Nichole said. “Let’s go meet our relief!”

“Huh. Then you’re back to Haven’s tent? Try not to make too much noise, the men are tired.”

Gil was about to say something sharp, but her hand was out of his, with the index finger of her left hand across his lips, in an instant.

“John, I was… raised… in Japan, where relations between men and women are very different than what they are in the West. And,” a pause, “I’ve noticed that post-Breakup America is different, too. Casual sex is a mark of a degenerate, decadent culture. That’s not what I’ve seen here; that’s not what I want to see here.”

No one spoke.

“Kinda cuts into my fun,” the Corporal said.

“I’m aware. Perhaps…” She mused. “Perhaps you’d be happier in love, rather than just inside, with a woman?”

The three stood silently as they heard their relief come out from the camp. Brunelli countered the password and walked away.

“Did I say too much?” She looked up to his gray eyes. “I’m older that sometimes you think I do.”

“It’s true I cringe at some of the things you ask…” He shook his head. “I know nothing what you learned about America, but things… things are so different now! Even in an oasis like Portland, everyone has lost someone! We… we try not to tear each other’s scabs off.”

Nichole thought of her friends, and what stories she’d heard from them. Even as clever as she was, she’d not noticed the thread of loss that connected them all.

“You make me older.” She whispered. “I’ll be better, now.”

They held one another.

“You…” Another whisper from her face against his chest. “You… too?”

You just can’t stop, can you, beloved? Sheesh.

“Me, too.”

 

The troop made an early start: 0500. As tired as they were, they were going home, and after the battle at Fort Reilly, the Regulars would have three days leave with their friends and families. Whenever possible, the Captain had them on the south side off of the highway, where they could canter.

They’d surprised the post riders a half-dozen miles west of Hood River. Nichole had two flimsies; she read the first one and passed it onto Gil. She forced herself to read friend Mackenzie’s slowly. Heh! Nichole had never in her short life been ‘in trouble’ before! She wondered what it would entail? Would she be deported? She looked left to her boyfriend. He’d better come with me if I am!

Gil read the one line on the paper. First, he smiled. Unexpectedly, he shivered. He looked towards Nichole to see that look again. What is she thinking?!

He handed the paper back. It’d contained one line: “I’ll fix everything! XXXOOO ~Nike~”

What… what have I done?

Looking forward, the Captain had finished his messages, and said nothing. Gil had the horrible feeling that he did not know what was coming. This will upset the men trying to get home, and get me…. He tapped his horse’s flanks to move up.

“Stop.” Unable to control his actions, he reined to a quick halt. His horse tossed his head in disapproval. I’m going to need to find out how she does that, he thought. She again glared at him, then pointed. “Let’s move out, militiaman.”

There was a chuckle from those immediately around them. Gil saw the sergeant glance back for a moment, but keep on.

“Will you take the time to trust me?” She asked.

He was just opening his mouth to automatically reply, ‘of course –‘ but it would have been just that: an automatic reply.

‘Will you take the time…?’

Eyes forward, he nodded, secure that she’d see it. He thought. Their meeting. The Battle at the Bridge. Swimming and school. Her and Joe. The Hell they just came through.

He looked just right. She returned his look.

“With my life.”

She nodded. She grinned to show her teeth. He didn’t recall her canine’s being quite so long. Like swinging her hips back at the Fort, was being in love… physically changing her. How?

“This is going to be fun!”

Gil tried not to shudder. That look, again.

 

“Defiant” – Episode 33

“…which is why, in conclusion…”

“Thank GOD!” Gil jumped at Teresa’s voice from just behind him. He turned only a little; he didn’t need any trouble about ‘not paying hizzoner proper respect’ from the Mayor’s heavies.

“Dammit, Teresa, you startled me! I almost spilled my beer!” He looked at her kitted out in the classic maid’s outfit Nike had her wearing, as part of her employment. “And that’s bad for business!”

“Suck it, Haven.” Pure customer service. “You drop your beer, I’ll get you another, but you pay!”

They held each other’s eyes. Her scowl slipped, but she couldn’t raise a smile. Around them, there was applause. Gil turned back and pretended to, as well. The Mayor went to talk with Captain Muller and several others just to his left.

“Thanks, Haven.” Teresa said. Now she was smiling.

“For what? There’s no way you believed that bee-ess of his about us stopping the attack. That was the Regulars at the Fort… and…” He looked over her shoulder to where Nichole was talking to some others.

“Oh, hell, no! I know that!” Teresa grinned ferally. “You were probably crapping yourself and crying like a little girl the whole time! No, what I meant was all this!” She gestured about.

“A little bird told me that the original idea was yours, and anything or anyone that pisses off my father to the degree he was, is a good egg in my book!”

Uh, oh. “And just why is he so pissed off?” Gil did not want to be branded and exiled.

“Because during this state of emergency – which we’re still in, by the way – there should be no one from the City on the road. Much less for a party and picnic! This was a direct challenge to his authority! Hey, I got customers! Later!” She punched his right shoulder as she moved off.

 

The troop had passed Bonneville Dam just a few hours ago, making good time going home. Cloudy, but with no rain, they alternated canter and trot. They’d just come to where the rusted sign showing the exit for Multnomah Falls stood. One of those slightly peculiar young men with white hair, dark sunglasses, clad in black shirt and pants, waited for them on a white mare. One of Nike’s men. Striking. The troop slowed, stopped.

“What’s this, then?” Muller asked. Curious, but wanting to be home. The fellow inclined his head, looked about, and spoke.

“On behalf of our master, Nike, we at Zom’s are pleased to present your men with a picnic, just ahead, at the falls!” His voice easily carried so all could hear.

The captain sighed. A complication he did not need.

“I thank you for your offer, from whomever you just said,” Gil realized that Zom’s must not be well known outside of the university scene. “My men are tired, and are looking forwards to seeing their families – ”

“They’re here, too.” The young man said, expressionless.

“Excuse me?”

“Wives, children, girlfriends, friends: anyone expecting the return of your men were invited. Only the infirm we could not accommodate.”

The troopers started to stir.

“This is a joke?” Muller grumbled.

“No, sir. I’m afraid I don’t know what one of those is.”

“So, you’re saying there’s between one and two hundred people just ahead, for… a picnic.”

“Correct.”

“It’s already well into the afternoon.” The captain looked at the sky. “There are still enemy unaccounted for. Is this a defendable position?”

“Not at all.” The captain was about to yell, but Nike’s man went on. “However, we’ve a barge rigged for very basic overnight accommodations,” he waved behind with his left arm, “just there. In the morning, we can take everyone downriver to the City at leisure.”

Gil saw the captain look to the sergeant. Neither moved. Muller returned to the odd fellow.

“If everyone’s already here, then what can I say?” A few of the troopers cheered. “However, I want to meet this ‘Nike’ fellow. Immediately.”

Another nod.

“Of course, captain. If everyone will follow me, please!” He turned and rode ahead.

“Good rider, for a ponce,” Brunelli said from somewhere behind Gil.

“Troopers!” The sergeant called. All eyes were on him. He made two gestures. Gil smiled. A formal, parade entrance. The captain was showing off.

Two-by-two, except for their last, they went westbound down the eastbound lane of the old Interstate. The main parking lot for the falls, between the middle of the Interstate lanes, was empty. Leaving the road and coming up to the gorge that held the falls, Gil saw the rows of wagons to his right. How big was this endeavor? Just ahead, by the empty visitor center, was tent after tent. Some had grilles already cooking a variety of meats, some were for drinks. Most were just tables and chairs.

The crowd of maybe over a hundred civilians were calling, cheering, and yelling. Gil and the others kept one eye fixed on the sergeant, who waved for them to stop. The captain moved his mount forward a few paces and turned to his unit.

“Men! And lady.” Was that almost a smile, Gil wondered?

“Our routine patrol of the river from the City to The Dalles, became something no-one anticipated. I personally want to thank all of you for courage and your… tenacity. We will now pause to remember those that did not make it back.”

Even the crowd fell quiet. For just a moment, those horrible nights came rushing back into Gil’s mind. He fought to suppress the shakes.

“Regulars!” The captain called. “Three days leave! Militia, you’re relieved! Special Observer, our grateful thanks! Dismissed!”

Order dissolved instantly as the mass of civilians became intermixed with the troopers and their horses. All had dismounted. In all the confusion, Gil wondered….

A hand on his shoulder. Nichole! He turned…! Oh, one of Nike’s men. Only when you’re right next to them can you see the differences, otherwise he’d have suspected they were like… her.

“Trooper, we’ve a temporary stables set up just over there,” he indicated to his left, down the access road. “If you’d like, I could – ”

“Thanks, no,” Gil replied. “Your horse is your life; we take care of them, first.”

“Of course, sir. Please call on any of us if you require anything.”

Gil wondered if he really meant that. Pulling this feat off was itself a mind-bogglingly complex feat of logistics in their shattered world. Who were these guys?

The troopers with families were still where they’d dismounted, talking, hugging, kissing. Gil looked around, not seeing Nichole anywhere. He took a step in the direction towards the stables when his ear picked up what was now an odd sound: internal combustion engines. At least two of them. He peered over the crowd west; being tall always helps, he thought. Two Lincolns were pulling up beyond all the tents. He saw the Mayor get out. Furious. Time to be somewhere else.

A few minutes later, brushing his horse, Gil froze in horror.

This was my idea! How in the hell am I going to pay for all this?!

 

Nichole had been at the rear of the formation. When it dissolved she was off Toast and moving purposefully to her right, leading her mount. She’d seen him at the back of the crowd as they rode up. She stayed against the trees on the northern side of the parking lot, skirting the crowd. He should be just… there!

She saw him just before he saw her. Having lost at least thirty pounds, it actually made him look taller. In the chill of a cloudy December day, he’d two jackets on. He leaned on the orthopedic cane in his right hand. He must not be swimming as much: his hair was darker.

Ten feet away, he saw the horse, then her.

That was a complex smile, she thought, leading Toast forward with her left hand. She watched as he hooked the cane, opening his arms to her. She held him tightly with her right.

“Nichole.” His voice was a little rougher. “You look great!”

“Friend Joe! I am so happy to see you again!”

She leaned back just a little, her face inches from his.

“Your health?”

“Remission. They…” He longed to kiss her again. Those months seemed now years ago. “They wanted to follow up in six months. That’s obviously impossible, but I’ll try to make it back in a year.”

“You will!” Nichole said with strength. But she smiled. “I’d dare anyone to stop me from getting you onto a ship!”

“Yeah,” Joe said. “That was another thing: the docs were really surprised I noticed the cancer so early.” He shook his head. “I told them, it wasn’t me.”

“I owe you my life, Nichole.”

A dozen things she wanted to say flickered through her mind; Gil has made me older about discretion. She knew this was one of those times. She was older. She let go of Joe and looked at her horse.

“This is Toast! She’d been taking care of me on my little adventure! I need to see her to the stables. Come along?”

“Sure! I…” Joe looked around for just a moment. “Sure, I’ll come!”

He was just at her right as they skirted the crowd in the opposite direction.

“You don’t talk as much as you used to.” He said.

“True.”

They continued on. They were just to the temporary stables.

“So who taught you – ” He began.

“Nichole! Where have you… Joe!”

She looked up to see Gil with something like a highlight around him. She knew this was a trick of her subprocessors, now that so much was changing in her. She rewrote her own code and watched as Gil’s image returned to normal. What other ghosts have Somi’s techs and engineers left inside me? She watched as her two best friends embraced and immediately started to catch up.

“I’m seeing to Toast! Back in a few!” She moved away before Gil could ask the question on his face.

That was almost cowardly, she thought, taking Toast to a stall and pulling her saddle off. I’m reading their faces and bodies and reacting before they can. I might understand if I did that to all but one, but I just did it to my professed love. Why?

She took her time brushing her mare, focused on that act rather than chasing unknowns in her mind. The sun was low in the sky when she walked back to what was now a going party. Where were Joe and Gil?

She made her way from the stables towards the tents: food and drink tents first, places to sit beyond that. Looking up to her left, many of the troopers, those with kids, were up by the falls. She paused a moment. The bridge broke the image nicely. The yells of the children made her smile.

“Looks normal, doesn’t it?” A man’s voice just at her left. She’d heard him walk up. “One would never suspect the terror a few miles in any direction.”

That was peculiar. She turned. About six feet, thinning, sandy-blonde hair. A round face but sharp nose, with glasses perched on it. Interestingly, his clothes were from Japan. There was something peculiar about his eyes….

“My apologies. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” He bowed; again, Japanese. As he moved off, she caught the hem of his gray jacket. She experimented.

“<Can you help me find my friend?>” She asked.

She watched his back. He was motionless for just a moment. She saw his head nod, once.

“Thaad was correct: there are no such things as coincidences.” He said.

She didn’t know who ‘Thaad’ was, but the second part held her attention. Who was this man? He turned.

“Certainly, miss!” The cheer in his voice got nowhere near his eyes. She had already tagged him as ‘unknown; potential threat.’ “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Joe Kreeft.” She said. His eyes grew worse.

“Of course. Of course he is.” A blink. “He was sitting with another young gent just this way!” He indicated a tent with his right.

“Thank you! How is that you know Joe?” She tried a winning smile. You never know, she thought. They made their way through the milling crowd.

“We shared the same ship, just now from Japan.” Ah, she thought. A piece of the puzzle.

Each tent had two rectangular tables under it, with enough room for six at each; eight, if they were close. She saw Gil and Joe at the end of a table. Two civilians she didn’t know were at the other end. Her friends each had a beer. Guess I’ll have to pretend about that presently…. Just ahead of the older man she’d just met, she ran her right hand across Gil’s shoulders as she sank into the chair to his left.

“Nichole! Where’ve yo…mrphl!” She cut off his question with a kiss. One she was in no hurry to end. But, after just a moment, Gil’s index finger tapped at her right hip. Did I make another mistake?

She tilted her head back and looked at Gil.

“Beloved?” Uh, oh. She tried to understand what his eyes were saying. She looked across the table at….

At someone that had once confessed his love for her. That had come within months of death from a deadly disease. That had just now returned to his homeland. To watch the girl he loved kiss his best friend only feet away from him.

Nichole had never before had a notion to shut herself down, no matter how bad things had been at the time. She struggled to not do so, now. That was cowardice.

A sigh escaped the man who’d come to the table with her. He’d sat next to Joe. Now, he waved for a server. Teresa came over. Of course it was her.

“Yeah?” Her typical insolence, until even she picked up the emotional dynamic at their end of the table. She tried again. “Thanks for saving us all, you guys; this one’s on the house. What can I get you?”

“Whiskey’s; all around,” the man who knew Joe said. When she paused, he looked at her sharply. “Any meeting that does not begin with a drink is inherently hostile.” Another sigh. “I would have these three be friends.”

Teresa retreated.

Nichole wanted to ask; say. She glanced at Gil. And Joe. They did, too. But no one spoke.

“Lovely!” They all jumped at Nike’s voice. He took the shot glasses off his tray, placing one before each of them. Oh, she saw. There was a fifth one. Nike took it in his left and raised it.

“God! Family! Friends!” He shouted, tossing his drink back. “What else is there!?”

The four of them raised their glasses, then drank. Nichole watched the older man watch Nike as he left.

“So.” Joe was rolling his shot glass from hand to hand. “Looks like things have changed.” He looked up. “Between you two, my friends.”

She was too young to answer. She was older, that way.

Gil took her right hand with his left.

“Yes. It… it was never our intention to hurt – ”

“Hey! Hey, hey, hey!” Joe half stood and reached over, grabbing the top of Gil’s head, before sitting back down. “She ain’t mine! She ain’t no trophy!” He took a drink of his beer, waving at the staff as he did so. “I don’t know how you got her to fall for you, but she did!”

He finished his beer, banging the mug down.

“But if you make her cry, I’ll effing break you!” Joe half laughed.

“There’s someone you should meet,” she heard Gil mutter.

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing.” One of Nike’s men put another mug before Joe. Gil raised his. “Friends!”

“Hell, yeah!” I wonder if, even in remission, he should be drinking so much, she thought.

“Crap! Chemo brain!” Joe called, setting his beer down. “I totally forgot! This here guy helped me all the way across the Pacific on the trip home!   He’s a total dude!”

Nichole filed that as a high-end compliment.

Gil and Nichole looked at Joe. He looked back.

“Name?” Gil said softly.

“Shit! This here’s Clive Barrett!” Joe cried. “CB! This is my best friend, with my ex-girlfriend!”

Clive Barrett stood and extended his hand to both of them.

“How… interestingly complicated!” For once, his eyes showed emotion.

“What brings you to Portland, Mister Barrett?” Gil asked. He was curious. Unbidden, the waiter had brought a glass of wine for both Barrett and Nichole. Neither touched it.

“I’m… looking for someone. In the former US, Customs and immigration are easier in Portland than Vancouver. And San Diego, as Mexico seems to be getting that port back open.”

Gil tapped Nichole’s foot with his. He wants to make sure I don’t ask anything stupid. How to let him know I understand? Ah: subtlety. She squeezed his hand with hers.

Night was falling. Nike’s men lit torches and had already begun escorting groups to the barge. Joe seemed to have fallen asleep in his chair. Barrett was looking at some folded maps from his back pocket. She pulled at Gil’s hand.

“I don’t want to be alone.” She watched his mouth draw into a line.

“The captain discharged you! And,” a quick glance at Joe, “I don’t mean sex! I mean I don’t want to be alone!”

There was an odd thump. At the end of their table, Nike was there, his head down. One of his men was at his left, Teresa at his right.

“For this they sent me back?” She heard him mutter. Who?

“The Renmei, dearie,” lifting his head and smiling at Nichole. “You’re not the only one reading minds, love! Gary, the gentleman to the barge, please. Teresa, show these two and Mister Barrett to a place to sleep.” He looked about, not seeing anything. “Indoors, I suppose.”

She and Gil rose to follow Teresa, but stopped after a bit. Barrett was talking with Nike. Gil couldn’t hear it, but she could.  She wondered:  ‘renmei’ was ‘federation’ in Japanese.  Just who was Nike?

“No. You won’t find her. First.” More words. “You’re going to die first. Trust me: it’s a bother.”

Ignoring Nike’s entreaties, Barrett walked out into the darkness. To the east.

Teresa led them to what had once been a small office in the Visitor’s Center. Gil had brought his bedroll, she had not.

“How are you?” He asked after her life.

“31%. I’ll be fine so long as you don’t keep me up all night!”

A huge yawn. “Not happening.”

She waited until he lay down. He’d still his briefs on. She doffed all but hers, too, sliding in next to him.

“Nichole?”

“Mmm?” She snuggled close to him, regarding the sensations.

“If this was a story, no one would believe it.”

She shook a little with laughter.

“True!”

He moved his strong right arm over her, pulling her close. Time passed. She tilted her head back to touch her lips to his.

A *snooork!* was her response. She smiled.

Love is complicated!