Written by brantley :: [Thursday, 06 September 2007 12:23] Last updated by :: [Tuesday, 30 April 2013 14:13]
A Sequel to Terms of Enhancement
Begun by Jordan Taylor (a.k.a. Ultragirl), continued by Brantley
With additional input by Velvet Belle Tree and Jecel Assumpção
Editor's Note: Popcorn War is one of the biggest narrative ever conceived and written by Brantley, over the last 6 years it has evolved in a massive 100 pages novella. This version features only the first 20 pages, which correspond to the original submission for Workshop 3.1.
“It looks like popcorn.”
Raul had a habit of saying the oddest things at the oddest moments. The sergeant regarded the soldier with a paused thought and an equally paused stare.
Raul ducked as three of their buddies floated over them momentarily blocking the sun before crashing into a pile of camouflage several paces to the rear of their hasty. With an enemy this fast, they didn’t have any time for much more than a hasty. They didn’t normally even see her.
Sergeant raised his head to pop off a couple more rounds at the young woman standing on the trail. Everyone else must have had the same idea. Concentrated fire zipped in from every direction to careen off her body in every other direction. Sergeant noticed her breasts. He took a split second to notice how they never really moved despite all the kinetic energy pounding them. He noticed how the bullets popped off of her like… popcorn.
She squatted down to retrieve a small object that rolled to her feet and quickly surrounded it in her smallish hands. A muffled pop resounded through the thick jungle air before she dusted her hands off, smiling as ever. Despite the unnoticeable effect the grenade had on her, another thumped along the ground to her feet.
Raul could swear he heard a sigh from her. Both dared another peek at her. She muttered something about dummies, scooped up the device, and promptly nestled it between her plentiful breasts. Another, more muffled pop, and more dusting off. The firing continued, careening into her from everywhere. A pile of squished lead began to collect at her feet.
The girl hardly seemed aware that she was being fired on, let alone being hit frequently, as she tied her midnight black mane into a ponytail atop her head. Calmly she stripped out of her bikini top and stepped out of her shorts and boots. She stretched her sinuous body and set her self. She looked over at Raul. She winked, he blinked, and she was gone.
“Okay, yeah. Popcorn. It does look like popcorn. On my count disperse back to the ORP, three, two, one…”
A wind rocked the two off their feet and their weapons were gone. The two soldiers grasped their hands in pain. Another wind rocked them before they hit the ground. They felt themselves somehow attached to each other. A searing heat rushed through each of the soldiers’ arms. Rifle barrels tend to get hot when fired in such long bursts. The wind rushed through again; their feet were bound.
Those who could hear over their own frustrations could make out the giggles of the young woman as she passed. A young woman who seemed to be there and then not there in a moment.
Raul and the sergeant had a mere second to catch their breath before they felt the ground leave them. It met them once again further up the trail in a clearing where the rest of the platoon had also started to get comfortable with the earthworms. She reappeared in front of the pile of heroes and smiled. It was a smile that could lighten any day, even one like this. The pile began to break out in subtle laughter.
“Well, camaradas, what should I do with you?” she asked.
She let her cheek rest in her hand for a moment to consider the many options available to her. Her eyes lit up and she snapped her fingers. The pile groaned from the exceptionally loud crack of her snap. She disappeared. Pallets began stacking up out of nowhere, some still smoking slightly from the friction with the air. She laid them out 6x6 and secured each one to the others with hemp rope.
Within seconds she was finished and two by two the soldiers were lobbed onto the pallet network. The young woman picked up the thirty of them much like a waitress serving up drinks and began the five-mile walk toward base camp. Before she could forget, she returned to the road. The transport was still there.
Without a driver, or need of one, she gripped the bumper and lifted the front end clear of the hard ball. Doing a once over of her surroundings she dragged the dual ton troop carrier along the tank trail, tray plate of fried platoon in her hand. Another training exercise gone well. Romana was proud of herself.
“Raul?” she teased.
“It feels like popcorn.”
There was a message waiting for her at camp. Private Legion code, known only to the two dozen members of the Novo Recifense detachment. Xuxa needed to see her right away, at the bridge – the once and future bridge.
“We should have kept those other tanks,” Cristina complained.
“The Fernandistas would have zapped them, too,” Leopoldo pointed out. “Anyway, without the bridge, how would we get them here?”
Leopoldo Alves and Cristina Miranda Medeiros were riding shotgun on a food convoy. It was boring duty, because the bandits never attacked convoys protected by Legionnaires. Somebody must be tipping them off. MI was working on it, but MI was in its infancy. Like everything else on newly-free Novo Recife, including the Legionnaires.
There weren’t enough of them to guard every convoy, and those escorted by tanks and regular army detachments came under attack half the time. The Fernandistas had managed to improvise anti-tank weapons based on home-made piranha mix. Tanks were getting scarce, and tank drivers even scarcer.
“If only we could fly,” Leopoldo lamented.
If only. Military Intelligence would have loved it if the Legion could have tracked the Fernandistas by air, trailed them to their base or bases. But the bandits always knew when one of the few spy satellites would be overhead, and there weren’t enough aircraft left from the destruction of the spaceport to cover all the gaps or all the territory.
Leopoldo and Cristina were riding in an open staff car, wearing only their Velorian-issue camo skivvies to advertise their presence. Behind them, the heavy trucks loaded with grain, produce and livestock stretched for half a mile. They’d been on the road for three days now, all the way from Campo Velho, without a single incident.
About halfway here, they’d passed Ciro and Arminda, going the other way. They were with a detachment from the regular army, headed out on a search-and-destroy mission after a convoy from Minas Oramas had been attacked the day before. The Fernandistas would be long gone by the time they reached the mining town, but maybe they’d get lucky and pick up a lead. They hoped so.
Through the pass now, into the plain. Rio Amado ahead. Their driver pulled off the road to the left, and parked. The trucks began pulling off to the right, lining up along the dock. Their drivers knew the drill. Construction crews were working on the new bridge, but it wouldn’t be ready for months, and the food for a hungry Santo Antônio would have to be offloaded from the heavy trucks onto smaller vehicles that could use the temporary pontoon bridge.
The hardball ended here, for the time being, but not the hard times. There had been attempts to attack the construction crews and sabotage the project, but they hadn't come to much. This wasn't friendly territory for the Fernandistas; moreover, there was a company of regulars billeted in blockhouses that flanked the bridge approach, and at least one of the Legionnaires was always nearby.
The sentries in front of the blockhouses looked bored. What would you call their firing position – a slowy instead of a hasty? It was a dull end to a dull journey, Cristina thought, and nothing to look forward to but an equally dull and fruitless journey back. But then two strange yet familiar figures emerged from the south blockhouse to greet them.
The first was Xuxa Sayão, the lider herself, the one they had chosen to coordinate their efforts in cooperation with the provisional government. It had to be important for Xuxa to be here. But Cristina's eyes really lit up when she saw who was with her: Romana Novais, her best friend in the world.
They hoped it didn't have to do with the bridge. The bridge project had been a sore point between the Legionnaires and the fledgling government. Why couldn't the planet's new supermen and superwomen do the job themselves?
Policy for one thing.
The Legionnaires were soldiers, after all, not laborers. For one thing, their Velorian benefactors, James Kim'Vallara and Cher'ee Belan'gan, had made that clear from the outset, and Bidu Braga too had laid down the law before she left with them to lead the off-world Legion detachment.
"Pontes hoje, esgotos amanhã," she'd warned them.
Bridges today, sewers tomorrow. Come to think of it, Santo Antônio did need to upgrade its sewer system, although nobody had asked them to work on that…
There were practicalities, for another thing. Sure, they could lift multi-ton reinforced concrete sections – if they were standing on solid ground. But the Rio Amado wasn't solid ground; and even if it had been, lifting the sections into place would have been impractical. A born Vel could have hoisted them from above, but for flightless Legion enhancees it would have been a team effort at best, with all sorts of complications.
It wasn't that they were unwilling to help out in emergencies – if any of them were near at hand to rescue people from fires or accidents, or step between armed robbers and their intended victims, they never hesitated. But it would have taken time to train the Legionnaires for engineering work, even assuming it had been their duty – and now they didn't have the time.
"No, this doesn’t have to do with the bridge," Xuxa told Cristina and Romana after ushering them into the blockhouse. "But we may want the general public to think it does. We'll need a cover story of some kind, to explain your absence in case anyone misses you. They know who we are. No helping that. But they also know where we are, at least when we're doing convoy duty."
What she was proposing was that Cristina and Romana go undercover.
"I know that you two can work together," she said. "The question is, can you work together without giving yourselves away? You'll have a lot of advantages. You'll be able to see things at a distance that no one else could, overhear things that no one else could, move swiftly from one point to another as so one else could. But you can’t be noticed, or it's all over. Not for you, but for the operation."
"What’s the operation?" Romana asked.
"Find Fernandes. We can put him and his forces out of business once and for all, if only we can find him."
"How do we find him?"
"Join him, of course. Now do you understand why you not only can't let anyone out there know who you are, but can't let anyone know what you are? You'll be just a couple of caboclinhas, a couple of country girls. Think you can manage that?"
“We can manage,” Romana said.
“Then you’ve got your marching orders,” Xuxa declared.
Just like that.
* * *
“Thanks for volunteering me,” Cristina said afterwards.
She looked away toward the setting sun. An array of pinks, and yellows stretched across the sky. It reminded her of when she was a little girl. It wasn’t so long ago when things were simple and she still had her innocence. War stole more than life.
“Where are you, Cristi?”
“In the past… Listen, we leave for Minas Oramas in 48 hours. Take some time off and tie up any loose ends you may have. I’m not sure how long we’ll be gone.”
“Is everything okay? I can stay here with you if you like. We could have some fun, just you and I, before we leave.” Romana patted Cristina’s taut bottom and smiled.
“You’re so mau! The locals had a hard enough time cleaning up after our rumble by the mountain pass. Not to mention the write up and the rock clearing detail. I don’t think so, girl. You're hazardous to the environment!”
“Who can deny how much of a rush it is being so powerful now, though. Anyway, I think I’ll run over to visit my uncle. It’s been a few days. He probably needs some help. I’ve got him so spoiled ever since our enhancements; but, why not? He deserves it after raising a diabinha like me. Take care, sister.” Romana leaned in to squeeze her best friend, a small, endearing kiss touched Cristina’s cheek.
“You are too good for me, Romana.”
“That’s funny, I was thinking the same. See you back here in two days, okay?”
Cristina smiled. They’d had some wild times together, and it didn’t bother her that Romana might leave her for a man – if it was the right man. But the right kind of man was hard to come by, even in the Legion. And making a thing out of their supposedly shared preference helped discourage the wrong kind of men… though in her own case it didn’t seem to work with one particularly obnoxious man.
When Romana said she was running over to see Uncle Manoel, she wasn't kidding. Running was the easiest way to get to Flores Bonitas. There'd never been a road past the gorge where the Rio Amado cut through the Espinha Dorsal, only a narrow path cut into the rocky escarpment.
Even though she was in a hurry to beat the sunset, she paced herself to a mere 30 kilometers an hour. It wouldn’t do to run into somebody coming the other way, although that wasn't likely. Growers came down the river on temporary rafts with their fresh flowers; the current through the gorge was too swift for them to make the return journey, so the growers would sell the wood from the rafts as well as the flowers and leg it back with their earnings.
She hadn't noticed anyone leaving earlier for upriver and figured she’d have time to slow down if she spotted anyone ahead of her. She'd have to slow at sharp turns anyway, aside from he possibility of running into concealed walkers, not doing so would cause her own momentum to carry her right into the raging water. No harm to her, but it would be hell on her clothes and she might lose her personal effects.
Xuxa and Bidu had come this way. During the war. Before Enhancement. They and their comrades had traveled slowly, in the dead of night, almost feeling their way up the path, until they got far enough above the gorge to build a makeshift raft and cross the river in calmer water. That crossing, too, had been at night, and they'd barely had time to get to their position in the Espinha Dorsal by dawn.
They'd been resourceful and brave. And they'd almost died. Because of Fernandes. They hadn't known then that their Comandante, the leader of the Revolução, had been trying to strike a deal with the Betas, to make himself the planetary dictator. They hadn't known that his failure to carry out the amphibious assault across the river that day had been an act of treachery rather than timidity.
Somebody must have tipped him off just as he was about to be exposed. He'd headed for his home province of Selvas Ocidentais and gone to ground with his followers. Sweeps through the area had been fruitless.
Bastardo, she thought. Estamos vindo atrás de você. Vamos pegá-lo.
We're coming for you. We'll catch you. And though she wasn't sure if Xuxa would have approved, she added, Então vamos matá-lo.
Yes, they'd kill him. Romana wished they would, anyway.
She made it past the gorge before darkness fell, began jogging at a steady pace of 60 kilometers per hour along what was now a broader path. Her night vision was good; another gift of enhancement. It took her only another hour to reach Flores Bonita in time for dinner with Tio Manoel.
She'd been so eager to see him that she'd never once looked back, never noticed the two men who had begun following her up the path. They were far, far behind by now. But they knew where she was going, and they had plenty of time.
The bath must be wonderful for her. Vitor agonizes as he sees the hot water – it must be boiling hot – slip over Cristina’s olive skin as she pours it from cupped hands over her shoulders. The steam rises and surrounds her breasts as she enjoys the very thing that he can’t have.
The closeness he desires with her seems so far away now, even as the steam clears. He watches from a perch in a tree outside her open second story window. He can smell her. If he focuses hard enough, he imagines he can even feel her. She turns her head for a moment. Does she know she’s being watched? Does she want him to?
No such luck. His flush of desire becomes a flush of anger, and he remembers how he lost her.
Everything was perfect before those Velorians – the major and then the Protector – came and mucked everything up for them. They offered her a chance at power, and she took it. Vitor pleaded that they be together. He begged to join her, but they had sternly turned him away. Not a latent, Cher’ee had told him. Not qualified, Major Kim’Vallara had confirmed. Cristina hadn’t even looked back. Vitor seethed every time he thought of that bastard taking her away.
Though she was here, though she wandered the compound and saw him every day, she was taken – and by another woman! He'd tried to convince her too; and when she too rejected him it was more than he could bear. They were meant to be together and if he couldn’t have her, then no one would. Surely a shot through the eye would kill her. They can’t be invulnerable everywhere.
That day was sweltering and the air was thick. Males all over the compound could smell the sweet nectar of the Enhanced. She merely looked at him. The pistol was wavering in front her face, beneath her notice, or her care. She was so smug, so superior!
“Estás aqui, vais comer!” he shouted at her. You are here and you’re going to eat. Lead, he meant.
But she only grinned at him calmly after the first shot. The bullet glanced off her cheek. Her hair flipped from her face and she smiled at him while rubbing away the smudge. The bitch was laughing. She was laughing at him.
He remembers the calm that came over him. The same calm that takes you when you’re about to shoot a man. He’d done it before. The pressure gave on the trigger. Smoke kicked from the barrel covering her face. He dropped his pistol arm and began to shake. She was still standing.
She was still alive. She rubbed the water from her eye and her vision cleared. He could see it was irritated. He could see she was irritated. Cristina hadn’t any pity left. Without a word, she turned her back on him. He couldn’t hurt her anymore. And she didn’t even report him, didn’t get him into trouble with the major. That might have hurt him worst of all.
He's shaking in the here-and-now. A snapping branch has brought him back to the present. He sees her wrapping a towel around her. His attention is diverted to the ground where a branch splinters against the dirt. She’s gone. A high-pitched “zip” sound echoes the area.
“Merda, merda, merda!” he whispers anxiously. He begins to scramble for the trunk a few feet away. Time to get down. Time to go before something bad happens.
“Who’s that monkeying around in my tree?” she asks. As if she doesn’t know. She knows exactly who it is. Vitor stops. as if he might still get away with it. He watches her. Cristina sighs. Her towel is gone. There are little smoldering pieces of it lying about her and in a trail leading around to the front of her hooch. He watches her stride over to the trunk and place her hand against it.
“I’m only going to ask nicely once, Vitor.”
He closes his eyes, hoping she'll just go away. Sit still, he thinks.
“Have it your way.” He pops his eyes open. Her fingers curl into the flesh of the tree. She looks up once more at her prey. Vitor feels his world begin to crumble. The branch he rests on shakes him uncontrollably. Leaves rustle loudly about him, yet he feels no wind. The branch kicks him high enough to flip him around. He reaches for another life-saving branch, latching onto it with both arms. His feet still dangle meters above the ground. She could come get him, but this is much more fun.
Cristina steps closer to the trunk and waves her arm back and forth. The thick, woody trunk leans over nearly coming out at its roots before returning only to lean the other direction. She taunts him as he is tossed around much like leaf himself, a big Recifense leaf. He grasps with the last of his strength and is finally tossed clear of the branches into the field below. There is sky and then ground. A pain shoots through his leg, yet he is alive and thankful for that much before he passes out.
“This is getting old, Vitor. It ends tonight.” Cristina raises him up to the moonlight and glares at her prize in disgust.
Romana had to cut short her visit to Tio Manoel. It wasn’t because of anything he did. If anything, it was for his own safety.
Flores Bonitas was a quiet village of small farms and small enterprises. The road there wasn’t passable for powered vehicles, but that didn’t matter: the village had the river. Now that the War of Independence was over, Manoel had prospered in his sale or orchids downstream to Santo Antônio.
Tio Manoel was constantly experimenting with new breeds.
“I have a surprise for you,” he told Romana when she looked him up at the greenhouse. She knew better than to look for him at home this time of day.
What he had to show her seemed pretty typical at first – purple against yellow. But then she saw that the purple patches weren’t just patches, but took the form of the emblem of the Enlightenment.
“But how?” she asked.
“I mean, really.”
“A chance mutation, in just one planting. It will take a lot of work to reproduce it, make it breed true. Years, most likely. I’ve sent to the capital for genetic tailoring equipment.”
“But that will cost a fortune.”
“I’m making a fortune now. Why let it sit in a bank?
“I suppose you’re calling this new breed the Cheree.”
Cher’ee was the Velorian Protector who had helped liberate Nova Recife – mainly through the Enhancement of natives like herself.
“Of course not,” said Manoel, a trifle irritated. “I’m calling it the Romana.”
“You shouldn’t have,” she said, but Manoel could tell that she was fishing for a compliment.
“You’re as good as any Velorian. You’re here. And more to the point, you are my beloved niece.”
Manoel was childless himself. His wife had suffered two miscarriages, then died in childbirth, along with the child. He’d never married again.
Romana had never asked why; it was something they always passed over in silence. So she didn’t bring it up now – any more than the deaths of her own parents and siblings when their truck had run off the road near Sul dos Rápidos. She’d been in her teens then and Manoel, newly widowed, had taken her in. In shared tragedy, they had somehow found strength.
They spent dinner talking about her recent training – she could talk about that, but anything to do with assignments was strictly off limits. Except for the business about the bridge.
Romana was abed in the spare room, ready for a night’s sleep – enhancees still needed that, it seemed; at least she did – when she heard a sound at the door. She assumed it was her uncle, returning from the greenhouse. But then came that feeling of popcorn against her body. The sound of the firing was muffled; her assailants were using silencers. But there was no doubt that somebody was trying to kill her. The bullets were turning the bed into shreds of padding and feathers.
She leaped out of bed and caught her assailants at the door: two rough-looking men she’d never seen before.
Robbers, most likely, stupid men who thought Tio Manoel kept a lot of cash at home. But they might be something more, and she couldn’t take a chance. From the smell she knew they had already wet their pants when they realized what kind of woman they were dealing with. She broke their necks without hesitation, picked them up and carried them out to the river – and dumped them The last thing Manoel needed was dead bodies on his property.
It was late. No one saw her going, but Manoel saw her coming back.
“Trouble,” she told him, and gave a quick explanation. She described the men as best she could.
“I don’t think they could have been from here,” he said. “But I’d have had to see them to be sure.”
“I have to go now,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone I was here.”
“Someone might have seen you. Besides those salteadores.”
“Just the same, don’t tell anyone.”
When Cristina and Romana met Xuxa again, they weren't in uniform, skivvies or otherwise. Neither was their lider: she was naked but for a cache-sex and imported mirrorshades that made her look like some escravo da moda, aping the latest fashions in Santo Antônio without even knowing that they'd ceased to be fashionable on any other world for decades.
She seated herself before Cristina and Romana on the lawn behind an estate house, the kind that never went out of fashion. This was it; this was where they'd work out the final details before heading into the back country. But Romana wanted to get one thing out of the way first.
"Nós podemos ter um problema," she said, and explained the incident at the village. "I couldn't take a chance," she said.
"You did the right thing," Xuxa reassured her. "If they were Fernandistas, they probably never had a chance to report to anyone what they were up to. If not… robbers are no loss. We have to be practical about these matters.”
Cristina looked embarrassed.
Xuxa saw the look.
"It's nothing," the lider assured her. "You did the right thing too, reporting Vitor to General Command after you dumped him at the barracks. He’ll get his walking papers, you can be sure of that. It’s a shame, because he was really good at comms. But he’ll find another job and, hopefully, another woman, I think your problem is taken care of.”
Xuxa paused a moment.
“Taking care of Fernandes won't be as easy. You've got to find out about him and his base of operations without him or his people finding out about you. Then you'll have to come back to report to me. You can't afford to be caught with comlinks, and we can't be sure of the security of electronic communications in any case. Other forms of contact are even riskier.
"You'll take the bus to Minas Oramas. You'll dress like caboclinhas, you'll talk like caboclinhas, you'll act like caboclinhas. You won't do anything you couldn't have before Enhancement. You'll jump at the sound of gunfire, run and hide if there's another raid.
“The rest of the time, you'll go about your jobs, hopefully at a restaurant or bar; that's the best kind of place to be seen and heard. You’ll find the Labor Registry very helpful in that regard, but not in any other regard. Make up your own cover stories for being there; I’ve already arranged the cover stories for your not being here.”
Again she paused for a moment.
“Don’t lay it on too thick. Make it convincing. You'll complain about the government, – but not too obviously; just work it in here and there where it comes up naturally. You'll dangle the bait, and hope somebody takes it. Only then can you express sympathy for the rebels. And from there… find out as much as you can and get home.”
"But if there's a real emergency?" Romana objected. "Something that changes all our plans? We need a way to alert you, without coming all the way back here. Some code word, perhaps."
Romana remembered her training session, and the attack on her last night.
"How about Popcorn? People will think it just refers to a party or something."
"Well, you'll be party girls. If it is a real emergency, you'll need to make it sound like something else, talking on a public phone. Be ready with some idle conversation that just happens to include how much you love our special popcorn. But it will take a while for any of the rest of us to get there, and you'll have to hold the fort until then."
And so began what was later called Operation Popcorn.