Free Read; Chapter 15, Outland Exile, Jesse Johnstone


That night, the old man settled them into a small clearing, guided by the lingering light in the sky. He tethered her around a root of a massive oak, throwing down a soft doeskin for her before starting the strange ritual of fire making. They had a hurried meal of some sort of stale bread and a bitter hot tea. Malila ate little, but the old man allowed her to drink as much as she wanted.

Afterward, the old man sat back against the oak and began talking. “It’ll take us a few weeks to walk to the summer camp. Moses took off right away with the horses and the pulse rifles you brought for us. He may still be there when we arrive. Then we ride back in style … if Mose is still there. Ask me any questions you want. I can answer them now.”

“Who are you, and why are you doing this to me?” Malila’s voice surprised her, hoarse, insistent, and with the tinge of panic.

“My, my, the narcissism of youth! I’d have done this for anyone who answered my call. You were just the lucky winner.”

“You called me?” She heard her voice sound incredulous.

“And it took me knocking a third time to get you to answer the door! Courting you has taken most of my summer, lass. But third time pays for all. The first two times we knocked out that station, you people just sent a robot to fix it!” He sounded affronted at the neglect. “Then you volunteered so nicely. Just in time too. If you hadn’t come, we’d have had to leave to beat the snows.”

“What do you want with me?” she asked, trying to gain time to digest the information. He may be mad, but he’s intelligent.

“Remains to be seen, doesn’t it. My superiors need a platoon officer to interrogate, whether they know it or not. That, it seems, is you, lass.”

He paused for a moment. “My turn to ask questions,” he said at last. “Where do you think you are?” He turned to face her in the gloaming, his voice sounding mischievous.

“The outlands. Anything outside the Rampart is outlands, isn’t it?” she said, noting with odd satisfaction her own patronizing tone.

“Wrong, lass. You are in the great state of Wisconsin. We are traveling to Kentucky, another great state, I might add, but Kentucky is favored above all states and nations as being the home of that great American, Jesse Aaron Johnstone.”

“Who’s he?”

“He’s me.” And then he laughed.

“What are you talking about, you fecking old father! You’re crazy. Do you know how much trouble you are in? When the Unity catches you, you’re gonna get Sapped. You damn pathetic senile bagman, you’re gonna be drooling within a day!” she screamed. It felt good to get it out, to reset the order of the universe. She waited for his face to register the new disaster.

The old man backhanded her and waited for her to look him in the face before slapping her with his open palm on the return. Malila recoiled from the blows and braced herself. The man’s face showed no anger but something else; she did not know what.

“You are a slow learner, lass. I thought you might be smarter. Talk nice. But to answer your question, Lieutenant, yes.” He seated himself again.

The old man’s voice changed, as if reading from some manual. “I do know that I have obtained by subterfuge, violence, and the threat of violence a junior officer of a power hostile to my own country. I’m returning you to my lines for interrogation and eventual repatriation at the end of hostilities.”

Malila’s face stung. Sisis were a tractable lot, as a rule. A man as elderly as this should have backed down and pleaded senility for his actions.

She’d expected immediate rescue, with Unity forces falling from the sky and welling up out of the ground to retrieve her. Almost three days had elapsed since the attack, with no signs of pursuit. No skimmers crisscrossing overhead, no loudspeakers warning the old goat to give up. A week ago, she had been a promising young officer, slated for early company command. Now, because of this tattooed horror, she was a hostage to the madman’s idea of some extinct republic.

“You can’t just grab me, take me away from my life, kill my command, keep me tied up, strip me naked, drug me, cut my boob, and do whatever else you did while I was asleep! You …”

The old man’s smile increased during her rant until mirth burst out of him as laughter. “You object to your treatment because it is immoral? What would your zombies say about that, I wonder?”

Her answer had just reached her lips when she stopped. Malila understood what immoral was, of course. The net’casts were always going off about “Unity subdirector succumbs to the immorality of simony” and the like. Morals was a media word. Sapping convicted felons was fair; numerous plebiscites had confirmed its justice. Malila was proud to be a defender of history’s—democracy’s—finest flower. Those who worked to defeat the Unity, whatever their motive, deserved justice.

“The CRNAs deserve to be Sapped. They’re all criminals!”

“Numbers don’t add up well, you know. ’Less everyone is a crook or a traitor or lives forever, how can you Unis have that big an army … or police for that matter? What is it, about ten cops for every thousand people?”

“Don’t be absurd, old man. Only nine. Where do you get your absurd data? Ignorant savage!”

For a maniac, the man was well informed.

He laughed. “Okay, Lieutenant, educate me. Do you really think all those old people go to live happy little lives in Implausible Acres Retirement Home?”

“You answer me one, Sisi. How did you get by my platoon?” Malila asked, hoping to change the subject.

The old man smiled. “Yes, that was a bit difficult. Have you ever heard of the Trojan horse? No? I didn’t think so. I shall not sully your ignorance. Mose and I figured that you people would respond in about three days from when the station went down. I spent most of a day giving you a cascade of things to repair so that you’d be stuck there for a while. Separating you from your bodyguard was easy enough. We reckoned that you’d not refuse a nice soft bed and would let your zombies sleep rough.”

“Don’t call them zombies. They are neuroablated, not some superstition of yours!” Malila inserted, trying to derail his answer now that the old man was taking pleasure in the telling.

“Don’t be rude, lass. My story. You use whatever euphemism you want when it’s your turn. As I was saying, Mose and I made a wall in the back of the storage room and built us a hidey-hole. It’s been there since the first outage, if’n any of you woulda bothered to look. The storage room was the one place we didn’t damage, and I doubted you noticed that it was a couple of feet too short. But let me tell you, living with Moses and a honeypot in a hole in the wall is above and beyond,” he laughed grimly.

“We just waited for you to pass out and then I neutralized you. Mose took your helmet and throat mike. Your zombies aren’t good about refusing orders, are they? Mose just ordered them to come in one at a time and put them down as they got close. We dumped them down into the bunker, reversed the fans to give it a draft, and topped it off with a fire. Mose took the rifles and lit off south to our rendezvous. He’s a good man; I doubt he’ll have any trouble. As for me, I had to make you safe before I brought you south, now, didn’t I?”

It startled her. Up to the very moment of her capture, she could have turned the tables on this barbarian. Her private consolation was the trouble they were wasting on the pulse rifles. The Unity was very careful with its technology. No equipment left the Unity without being tied to its user by embedded ID chips. No weapon lost to the outlands was useful to them. They were welcome to expend as much effort as they wanted.

She smiled at the small victory, despite her own disaster.

Free Read Chapter 14, Percy


I’m going crazy, she thought. With its choking, closed horizons; identical green-gloomed panoramas; moist, dark tree trunks disappearing overhead; and the unending brambles waiting to grab her clothes, the forest depressed her. Malila refused any of the old man’s bitter draughts now. The pain was tolerable, and she wanted as little of the maniac’s home remedies as she could manage.

The old man had no idea who he was up against. She started studying how best to escape. She would have had a good chance … if her body had not chosen that time to betray her.

Her heart rate pounding in her throat, the spasms of colic, the grinding sensation, and the ever-tightening pain in her head accelerated into panic. She realized the problem only afterward. She had never gone as long as two days without ThiZ; it had been over fifty hours since her last hit. Her nausea came in waves that warped further and further up the beach of her well-being. Sensations of heat and cold wrapped her in drenching sweats or shivering tremors within minutes of each other. Spasms of colic bent her over in pain, relieved by noisy and liquid evacuations under the eyes of the old man. Her breathing became ragged. An unseen insect flew into her mouth, and Malila dissolved into a paroxysm of coughing. For the first time in years, she wept.

The old man let her cry on the ground for a minute before shaking the rawhide lead.

“Get it out of your system, girl, but do it while we walk. We are almost there. Percy will be waiting.”

He retied her hands in front to lead her on. Malila closed her eyes to her tears and stumbled on behind him. It was not until they stopped that Malila fathomed a river was near, splayed out in front of them, brilliant in the noonday sun.

Entering a well-used campsite, the old man tied her to a tree. Even so, she could see a pool, crude and man-made, connected to the river by a narrow stream barred by stakes driven into the bottom. The old man dropped his burdens and rummaged under some bushes before emerging with a wooden shovel and a bundle of green sticks. Malila crumpled down to rest, watching the old man.

Without explanation, he started digging along the lower side of the pool until water flowed down into the river, cutting a new channel. He toppled the bundle of sticks into this new sluice. It proved to be a net, a partition of poles, held together by twistings of vine and surrounded by ropes that he staked down with forked branches.

He had only just finished when a fish, perhaps forty to fifty kilograms and armored like some prehistoric leviathan, surged from the murky water of the pool. Malila cried out in sudden panic. The fish surged into the small channel, and the old man rolled the screen neatly over it before hoisting it out of the water with the help of the ropes. Nevertheless, he was gasping with exertion by the time the fish was secure, flapping wildly several feet above the level of the water.

“Malila, meet Percy. Percy … Malila. Percy here has been kind enough to volunteer in our escape. I thought we’d give your friends something to chase.”

“You have no idea what you have done, old man.”

He laughed. “Here’s a way to find out, lass.”

With that, the old man withdrew from his shirt a plastic capsule about one centimeter long, with several small studs along its length. He attached a short length of fishing line with a hefty hook to it, and, turning, he threw himself onto the gyrating fish, his short knife held in his teeth. When he removed himself several minutes later, the capsule decorated Percy’s dorsal fin.

It took the old man another half an hour to sledge the giant fish into the shallows and release him. Turning back, the old man stripped off his leather tunic.

He did not look like the Sisis she had seen on training sims. He was a good twenty centimeters taller than most men she knew and wider. She guessed he massed ten kilograms more than the average Unity officer, and the mass was devoted to meat. Intricate blue tattoos, with curlicues inside rectangular cartouches, covered the old man’s chest and back. He climbed back up the bank to her smiling.

“Mose and I caught Percy here a couple of weeks ago. I got the idea to pen him here. If you hadn’t come when I’d called, he might have wound up trail rations. Now he gets to migrate south for the winter, if he doesn’t sulk too long.”

“What was that you attached to that poor fish?” Malila asked as the old man put on the shirt.

“That was your implant. You might not even remember getting that one.”

“You’re telling me that was inside me? That is why you drugged me and mutilated me and then mutilated a fish? Pathetic!” she hissed.

“It wasn’t me who mutilated you, girl. That was already taken care of before, wasn’t it? You could say thank you anytime now, lass, if you was properly brung up.” He smiled a toothy, contented smile.

She responded with a vulgar and unlikely imperative.

“Watch you language, Acting Lieutenant Chiu. But do you think I’d risk my skin hanging around for my own amusement? I need your damned so-called Unity to take off in the wrong direction.” He spat as if the word itself were distasteful.

His answer added to her disquiet. He could not have carried her far from the station. Her confinement, anesthesia, and surgery so near the scene of his ambush made no sense if it were just a staged event.

“What was that implant supposed to be?” she asked.

“It is,” he said, pausing, “several things, lass. It changes the drugs you take into any number of interesting agents. Your keepers can change what the drugs do to you. You poor Unis take that trash for amusement, while your masters tailor what it does to you. You haven’t had an authentic emotion or a conviction to call your own since you were seven years old. Welcome to thinking for yourself, lass.”

Malila was not amused, in part because of the old man’s jolly demeanor. When she didn’t respond, he turned to pick up the bundle he had been carrying and added over his shoulder, “Have you ever seen one of your troopers without his visor?”

Before she could think, she barked, “No!” It was almost an obscenity.

“Would you like to?” He turned and underhanded the bundle to her.

She caught it without thinking. Pushing aside the coarse fabric, she found the familiar shape of a DUFS helmet and, feeling its weight, turned it over. Instead of the dark, obscuring helmet shield, the startled gaze of an old man stared at her from the helmet of Nelson, James P., platoon sergeant. A neat and bloodless slice divided the larynx, spinal cord and spine. A faint odor of decay arose from the thing in her hands.

She dropped the helmet and heaved, retching up the taste of bile and green acid. The old man sighed but was again by her side, wiping her mouth with his red kerchief after each convulsion. He gathered the repellant burden into its bag and helped Malila to her feet.

“At your age I wouldna believed me neither. I figured your sergeant might be more convincing.”

Uncertainty rose and washed around her. She had grown up with the CRNA troops and had applauded early and often the severity of their punishment. The troopers never complained, and that had given her permission, somehow, to accept their enslavement. She expected CRNAs to be young, coarse, brutal, but James P. Nelson’s face was so … old.

The man returned to the river and threw the helmet far into the opaque water before washing his tunic and putting it on wet.

Malila led the way, away from the river, until sundown.

Free Read: Outland Exile; Chapter 13; Recovery

rusticleantoMalila woke feeling as if a wall had run over her. The rest of the night had been a nightmare. Her last firm memory was the old man stabbing her thigh again. She was sure she had been asleep for days, but she also had a blur of disconnected images: a knife, the old man, naked to the waist, his muscled chest covered in blue. There was pain, fascination, and the red of her own blood.

She discovered her hands and feet were free and the old man was gone. Lying there, she felt no pain until she tried to move, and then the searing pain in her right side made her groan. Exploring the smooth contours of a soft bandage there, she winced as she fingered a small area under her right breast. Any attempt to rise left her gasping. If she did not move, she had a pleasant fuzzy sensation that left her limbs feeling leaden.

Rousing when the old man returned, she realized she had slept again. He approached her, knelt, looked into her eyes, and felt her forehead. “I’m glad to see you back, lass. Let me know if you hurt too much, and let me help you up. I can give you something to drink now if you feel up to it.”

She focused with difficulty on his face.

“You cut me, fathering moronic Sisi!” she said, her tongue viscous and clumsy in her mouth.

“Yes, I did, lass. And watch your language.” He smiled.

The old man stopped further conversation by lifting her up to a sitting position. After the wave of pain subsided, he brought the water skin to her lips and let her drink a few gulps. Spasms of pain and confusion obscured the remainder of the day, her ears humming like a taut wire in a high wind. Her mouth tasted woolly and fetid. She had odd fantasies of the old man sitting by her head giving her mouthfuls of a bitter liquid or crooning a simple melody. It reminded her of the image of a small soft-bodied woman, a faded memory of her childhood.


Malila awoke in the thin light of early morning. Gray specters of ground fog danced across the meadow in the hectic breeze. The old man was already moving, collapsing the gear into a big green nylon pack with a welded-metal frame, out of place with his leather and homespun clothing. He saw her moving and threw a bundle of cloth at her.

“Best get dressed, lass. Moving day.”

A thin strip of braided leather rope led from a large tangle of branches and encircled her waist, knotting at the small of her back, impossible to decipher by touch. This new arrangement allowed her to dress, even as it ensured her confinement.

She unrolled the bundle to find a rough and oversize homespun shirt that fastened with antler buttons, a pair of soft leather pants, and moccasins. She had to roll up the cuffs of the pants several times to expose her feet before she could even try to insert them into the rough moccasins. These, after several attempts, she got to stay on her feet. Nevertheless, it felt good finally to be clothed around the old man.

Her chest wound was tender, but she could move carefully with little pain. By the time she was finished dressing, the old man was ready to leave, a stolen pulse rifle over his arm. If the demented Sisi only knew how useless it is to him, she thought. She had no obligation to volunteer the information. She smiled at the old man, and after a second he smiled back. He dropped the rifle onto his pack and walked over to her.

Without prologue, the man unbuttoned her shirt and let it drop around her waist, unwound the bandage, and exposed her to the cool morning air. Malila shivered as he washed his hands and then started examining her wound, pressing her flesh and muttering a noncommittal hmmm at intervals in self-absorbed concentration. Her growing rage was cut short when the man retied the bandage, making her wince. He rebuttoned her shirt for her before she could complain.

By this time, the lean-to was a mere suggestion of a tangle in the underbrush. All the woven branches were gone, and the rooted saplings were slowly rebounding to their normal posture. The man took a fallen branch and smoothed the dirt floor before scattering dried leaves over the area.

Malila had imagined, initially, that the Unity’s hand of retribution was reaching out to crush this arrogant savage, but no skimmers had appeared in over two days. Uneasily, Malila remembered how the Unity was quite capable of ignoring inconvenient facts. She was now an inconvenient fact.

The old man hefted his huge green pack onto a raised knee with a grunt before swooping it into place. He retied her hands in back, leaving a long leash of the braided rope, and, grabbing up a final bundle in his other hand, set her walking ahead of him.

“I’ll make it easy for the first couple of days, but we have to meet Percy. I’m sure he’s anxious to be off.”

Stepping out into the meadow once more, the old man indicated a chink in the forest edge as they approached, and Malila found that it concealed a faint trail through the alder and willow. The old man followed far enough behind her that any branch she released failed to whip back into his face, but close enough to urge her on with the free end of the lead flicked onto her behind. Deviation from the path, however slight, earned her backside a stroke with the leash.

The air rapidly warmed, and Malila began to sweat with the pace required of her. Doubting now whether the old man was some subhuman outlander, she thought he must have escaped from the Unity, surviving by his tattered wits and lunatic delusions. His imaginary companion, Percy, had not materialized by midmorning, and Malila was beginning to worry how he would respond when his delusions abandoned him.

In the Unity, the Sisis were no longer citizens; their opinions and preferences were no longer anyone’s concern. Most old people just faded into the background, and when you looked up later, they were gone. Those were the good Sisis. The demented Sisis were the ones you had to look out for.

This old man was definitely of the demented variety.bloody-hand-print_61-1501

Outland Exile: Chapter 12; The Sisi

The Sisi


Environs of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin Territory, Restructured States of America (RSA)

Malila awoke, her ears ringing and too dazed to move. The air was redolent of wood smoke. She lay in a small campsite on her side in a lean-to crafted from still-green boughs woven onto saplings rooted into the ground. An ax and sheathed knife threaded onto a broad leather belt hung from a small branch near her head. Only when she moved to retrieve them did she comprehend she had been bound, her wrists tied behind her back and her legs tied at the ankles. A shiver coursed through her when she found she was naked as well. On hearing a faint scuffling behind her, Malila closed her eyes, calmed her breathing, and relaxed her body, sagging into the bonds. She felt the slight breeze of someone’s entrance and then heard nothing but the forest.

“You are awake, lass.” It wasn’t a question. “Open your eyes, or I start to take off toes.”

She detected an alien soft-burred accent. After a few seconds, a hand gripped her left foot by the instep. Her eyes shot open, startled, all pretense lost at the immediate threat.

A Sisi was crouching back on his heels, holding her foot, an odd short curved knife in his other hand, his face concealed in a grizzled beard, his skin burned muddy brown. Over his left cheek he wore a series of blue streaks, faded and indistinct. His hair grew out from under a knitted cap of uncertain design: abundant, lank, white, and to his shoulders. He filled the small space.

After a second to regard her, the old man dropped her foot and turned back to working a small piece of leather. “There you go, lass. Much better. Let’s have your name. I can’t be calling you ‘lass’ all the time, can I?”

Malila calmed herself, waiting until she was confident of her voice. Before she could answer, the old man looked up at her from under his thick eyebrows with such menace that she squeaked, “Chiu, Malila E., E11, S08, lieutenant … acting second lieutenant … serial number 59026169.”

The old man tilted his head back, his face split to show brilliant and sound teeth. He started a low vigorous laugh, stopping after he dabbed at his eyes with a square of rough fabric taken from his leather tunic.

“You should see yourself, lass, trying to look official and all, lying bare-ass naked and trussed up like a prize sow.”

He wiped his eyes again, and his face sobered. “Let me tell you what you’ve told me, so far, Acting Second Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E.

“You are seventeen years old. You’ve been sent on this shit of an assignment because you messed up and they broke you down a rank or three. You have been given the chance to redeem yourself … if you don’t screw up, as you just did. You have been in the service for seven years, and you think you are hot stuff, which you ain’t, as we wouldna be having this here conversation otherwise.

“You have a small scar under your chin, another over your left shin, and one under your right tit, which I should remark is pretty enough, although personally I prefer a little more. The scars under your chin and on your leg are no doubt from training accidents. Your hair is too short for my taste. Your facial features are regular and rather pretty in an exotic way, lass, nice shade of blue in your eyes. Once upon a time, you broke your left forearm as a child from a fall on an outstretched hand, due to some fool game, I should think. You have never birthed a baby. You are sound in heart and limb, but I don’t know about your head yet. Your nutrition could be better, and you would do well to add a few pounds for aesthetic reasons. Have I missed anything, Lieutenant?” he said, again transfixing her with his pale eyes.

Malila’s features creased in revulsion despite herself. A sense of violation inundated her as fear, adding a watery sensation, arrived unannounced. Her empty stomach sent bile surging into the back of her throat. She swallowed but then started coughing.

The man was at her side almost at once, cutting her hands apart and lifting her to a sitting position.

“There you go, Lieutenant. Can’t have you dying on me,” said the old man, almost gently.

Her nausea subsided. She tensed her elbow to swing back into his throat now that her hands were free.

“I wouldna, Malila. I really wouldna do that,” hissed the old man. It was then that she again sensed the cold of the knife pressed against her back. The watery sensation returned.

“Put your arms behind you, lass.”

She complied, and the man bound her wrists again. She took several deep breaths. It seemed to help. The day was almost spent, the scene becoming more hostile and surreal as the dimming light filled it with ominous shadows.

Elderly of the Unity were shepherded into their own enclaves on their fortieth birthday. While Malila supposed they enjoyed their retirement, she and the larger society had little use and scant respect for any of the old, used-up, and worn-out Sisis. That one of these ersatz humans would rise up to touch … to violate a citizen … a DUFS officer … was impossible to imagine.

“I need some water. You, get me water!” she demanded.

She used her command voice, thinking that and the simplicity of the request would gain her the old man’s compliance. If she could get him to abandon his script for even a moment, she increased her chances of escape. If given an opening, her years of training in the killing arts would make short work of this ancient savage. The elderly were supposed to be differential and obedient. This old obscenity needed a dose of reality. The look of dismay on the old face would go far to heal her humiliation.

“I need some water, you fathering Sisi piece of shit.”

“No, Malila, you don’t. And watch your language; there’s a lady present!”

Malila looked around but could see no other person.

“Where are my men? You can’t keep me from my men,” she said, trying to keep her voice low and flat with menace.

“Your troopers? You were given a platoon of dead men, lass. We just did them the kindness of burying them.”

She heard a sharp, gritty sound as a spray of incandescent sparks spurted in a short arc in the darkness. The sound repeated a few times. For a heartbeat, the sparks showed the old man crouching studiously in the dark. After a few attempts, he took up something from the ground and blew on it. It erupted into a red blossom of fire in his hand and the old man placed it back onto the ground before adding small twigs, creating ghastly shadows in the small space. The old man’s eyes became mere pools in a death mask. A moment later a small lamp flared, and the old man hooked the light onto the lattice of the lean-to, illuminating the dirt floor.

“Are you going to rape me now, you fathering twisted Sisi?” she shouted.

The old man shook his head, more in disgust than negation.

“Why is it that all young women think they are going to be ravished at the drop of a blouse, but no, lass, not yet … even if you ask nice. And watch your language.”

“Flecking moron! Fathering Sisi!”

The blow caught her by surprise, her teeth cutting into her lip, the metallic taste of blood filling her mouth.

The old man smiled. “Now, lass, have I got your attention? Talk nice!”

He went behind her and lashed a hide rope around her bound wrists, leaving a long bight as a lead. He then worked loose her ankle bonds and pulled her to her feet.

“Walk. I’ll tell you when to stop.” When she hesitated, the old man slapped her buttocks with his free hand and pointed the way.

Malila stepped into the dark, one bare foot in front of the other in the heavy, expectant gait of the seldom shoeless. After long minutes, her night vision returned somewhat, and she was able to see that they were in another large meadow, surrounded by a dark line of trees.

“Okay, empty your bladder, and if you can move your bowels, you’ll be more comfortable tomorrow.”

She found to her embarrassment that the mere mention made the sensation of her full bladder overwhelming. Grateful for the darkness, she crouched and relieved herself. As soon as she was finished, the man started to pull her backward off her heels.

“No mischief, girl. I didn’t have an attack of stupid,” he said, stopping her attempts to squeeze her wrists from their bonds.

“Is this how you get your pleasure, old man? Watching women pee?” she hissed.

Rather than responding, the old man told her to walk back to the light.

When they returned, he left her so he could rummage in a pile of skins, coming back with a greasy and malodorous cowhide parcel. After tying one of her ankles to a sapling, the old man released her hands. Malila stood facing him, her breasts quivering with her ragged breathing and the chill air.

He tossed her the parcel.

“Rub this on your chest, girl. Use lots of it.”

When she did not immediately respond, the old man pulled his sheath knife into the lamplight. The blade had to be over twenty-five centimeters long. Its edge blazed in the firelight and moved in small arcs in the old man’s hand. Malila, finding she could not hold his gaze, opened the greasy container and scooped out a small handful of oozing matter. Retching at its rancid odor, she self-consciously spread the soap over her breasts and under her arms, scraping off the excess into the container.

The old man approached her, and Malila’s reserve withered, cringing at his close approach. Malila yelped as he sprayed cold water onto her from a water bag. He threw her a faded square of fabric.

“Scrub it in well, lass.”

Outland Exile: Chapter Eleven; The Presence

Divisional Shop, Nyork, Unity


“Guess what jag Major Khama is on today?” Technical Sergeant Iain Dalgliesh reported as Gunnery Sergeant Jasun Ciszek entered the ops center for Battalion Thirty-Nine.

“Haven’t a clue, fecker. Stopped eavesdropping on that ensign has he?”

Iain laughed. “Nope, this is on top of that. Ya know that maintenance platoon that went missing last week? Well, it appears the looie’s implant is still skidding around the bottom of some outlander river. Khama’s intrigued.”

“One less hero of the Unity. Imagine my sorrow, would ya?” said Ciszek.

“Funny thing, Gunny, is that the lieutenant was an S08, bottom of the barrel.”

“Well, how Major Khama amuses hisself is none of my nevermind. What’s he got ya doing anyway, Doggy?”

“I set up an on the looie’s plug job every few hours. If she comes within a hundred fifty klicks of the Rampart, we get a signal.”

“I need to do anything?”

“As if I could trust you, Gunny.” He smiled. “Nope, the signal goes to Khama himself.”

“Sounds good to me, Doggy. Let’s sit down and go over the new enunciation protocols before ThiZ time, okay?”

“Aye, aye, Gunny!”

Feigning work, Iain watched as Jasun walked over to his workstation and reversed a blue folder from its habitual place. Someone from Ciszek’s faction would notice, no doubt, and would report the odd occurrence to his handler. Iain was sure to meet his own handler, a woman he knew as Shirley, within the day.

The factions were quiet for now. That was good. He had come to like Jasun, even if he belonged to the wrong faction. He really wanted things to be peaceful for a while, at any rate. He was distracted.

Monee’k was quite a distraction.


Jourdaine’s Presence was his own discovery from years ago while he had been a mere ensign. He had told no one about it since. Jourdaine did not have a foolishly generous character. Really, he thought of it as the unintended reward for attempting to rescue the COREd-out protégé of his commander Major General Divny. For reasons that escaped Jourdaine, the old man, almost a Sisi himself, had decided to rescue his E7 boyfriend from a CORE coma.

“You know him, don’t you, Eustace? He was a classmate of yours at the academy, wasn’t he? Olevar Thimosen? You could talk him out of it. It was a mistake, I’m sure. I shouldn’t have been so harsh with him. A bit too much ThiZ, and he looked into the CORE. I found him at my apartment, dead to the world. He’s at Bellvu now. We have to do something!”

“It would mean trying to go into the CORE myself, sir. I-I’m not sure, sir.” Jourdaine had sensed his heart pounding in his ears.

“I’m not a fool, ensign! I have a CORE tech on the strength. He has an idea. The implants have their own ID number, of course. He can reprogram your implant. Get you to poor Olevar’s locus in the CORE in one shot. Olevar trusts you. He’ll listen to you, and we can put a tracer on you … give you a way back. It’d mean a promotion for you, just for trying. I know I’m asking a lot, but if this works, think what good it would do for all the other COREd-out citizens?”

Jourdaine indeed knew young Olevar. They had been more than classmates but less than lovers. Olevar had abandoned him the month before Jourdaine had gone off to Officer Training School.

After an admittedly long period of self-loathing, Jourdaine had bounced back to what he’d hoped was a competent sober officer. When Olevar had joined Divny’s professional family as a protégé, neither of them had acknowledged their previous attachment.

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. For the good of the service. I am sure he will know me. I consider it a great honor, sir.”

His stomach lurched at what he was saying.

“That’s my boy! I’ll contact Pippitte right away. He’s the CORE tech. One more thing: When was your last ThiZ? Pippitte wants the attempt to be done cold, off ThiZ at least for forty-eight hours.”

“I haven’t had mine today, sir.”

“Good, it will give us some time to set up. Go see to transferring your assignments, and we will contact you. Dismissed.”

Taking ThiZ was the only way he knew to navigate the rest of the day, and now that was taken away as well.

“Sir, yes, sir!”

After the wrenching diarrhea and nausea of the next two days, the little of Jourdaine’s confidence had drained away with the toilet flushings. Nevertheless, he came when summoned.

Pippitte turned out to be a dark little man who talked to himself. Jourdaine was required to wear some sort of orthodontic apparatus that allowed him to hear Pippitte even when he was in the CORE.

The first few attempts were futile. The CORE illusion using the standard O-A was of gleaming mental corridors, branches, turnings, doors, passwords—a net of connections, passages, and information. Jourdaine easily slid along the illusion at Pippitte’s direction, his nausea subsiding as he went on, even as the man’s mutterings grew less helpful. In the end he ignored them.

He reached a blockage. Pippitte’s plan was foolish, really. No two consciousnesses could occupy the same locus at the same time. Jourdaine was preparing himself for failure when he glimpsed the dark line along the wall. It should not have been there. Questing along the line, it moved to his command.

He pushed again; it opened to blackness. He looked around to see if anyone noticed.

He moved through the gap more from frustration than curiosity to find himself in another reality. Nothing was “up” unless he told himself so. He looked back at the defect he had discovered. The bright corridors of the ’net stretched around him but were different from this vantage point, “the outside.” It looked like patchwork, as if made of plates. He expected it was code segments.

He had escaped the interior of the ’net; he was outside. His disembodied bowels began to rebel. He was floating free. He would be lost … like so many others. In panic, his mind yearned … quested … to touch the merest edge of the crack from which he had just emerged, to find a handhold, something solid … and it was so. Gracefully, his Presence swept back to the fissure, and Jourdaine reached out a “hand” to run along the edge. It sizzled coldly at his touch.

Finding Olevar was just as easy. Jourdaine thought of his name and was drawn the short distance to the locus. He could tell it was Olevar somehow; he had the right smell. However, the tornado of swirling thoughts surrounding Olevar battered Jourdaine away. Olevar recognized him.

                                                                                                                                “What are you doing? Why are you here? Useless. I’m so cold. Where are all                                                                                                                                         the pencils? The general … wanting … Don’t! Why? Go away! Og ywaa?”

Olevar was continually terrified of falling, but his frenzy was like a buzz saw to Jourdaine’s touch.

Pippitte’s urgent mutterings broke through to Jourdaine, even here, and ordered him to return. Once back, Jourdaine just told them he had been successful in contacting Olevar. The general was pink with hope. Pippitte wiped his mouth on his sleeve and asked for his apparatus back.

Jourdaine went again. He had to. Divny demanded, cajoled, and eventually ordered him, then fell to wringing his hands during Jourdaine’s attempts. Later, Jourdaine’s questing mind went unsupervised. He stopped using ThiZ. He was learning.

The CORE, outside the limitations of the Unity conventions, was a great temptation.

The lights, sounds, concepts, and jangle of identifiers flashed by, oblivious to Jourdaine’s freed Presence. In the CORE but outside Unity restrictions Jourdaine claimed a new world as his own.

Sitting near Olevar’s turmoil, Jourdaine watched huge magenta engines of commerce chunter by, flaking off RFPs in the same color that scattered in six directions. Svelte ellipses of the arts in myriad colors teemed in a large scintillating ball in the distance, waiting for sponsors, occasionally fountaining off into smaller groups, then recombining. Individuals appeared to him, at a distance, to be wraithlike squiggles, nodes that, while appearing to fill the space, were invisible when he looked past them, varying in appearance only once focused upon. Whole dimensions of meaning were somehow compressed into the scene, obvious to him but near impossible to describe once he had exited.

Only with difficulty did he go back to Olevar.

                                      “Olevar, it is me. It is Eustace. You know me. You liked me once. Remember? You don’t have to do this. You can come back with                                        me. Everything will be all right. Divny wants you to be happy. I want you to be happy. Just take my hand … Olevar, it’s me,”

he said again and again.

At first that had slowed the maelstrom of mirrored thoughts, but only at first. Olevar had stopped talking after the first few times. At intervals, he lashed out with bursts of sensation: heat, cold, a stench of death, quinine bitterness, and pain. But far worse were the memories: memories of Eustace being taunted by his crèche mates, Olevar’s own abandonment, Olevar’s ascendancy as Divny’s protégé, his smug disdain for the plodding Jourdaine.

                                   “Olevar, it is me. It is Eustace. You know me. You liked me once. You don’t have to do this. You can come back with me.                                                         Everything will be all right. Divny wants you to be happy. I want you to be happy. Just take my hand … Olevar, it’s me. It is                                            Eustace.”

It was all he could offer, unarmed as he was before the mounting violence of his friend’s circular thoughts. Battered, he would leave for a few hours, only to be forced back by Divny’s mounting anxiety and threats.

Jourdaine recounted to Olevar his own memories, random but always containing something that he should recognize: a teacher, a matron, a lost friend. Eventually, mercifully, it worked. Jourdaine never knew what it was that stopped Olevar’s whirling intensity of self-loathing. The chaos slowly petered out like a dying top.

For the first time, Eustace saw what had become of Olevar in the mirrored corridors of his thoughts. Wizened, sapped of vitality, feral, his face in the illusion of the CORE was nevertheless unmistakable. Jourdaine still shivered anytime he thought about it. The face was there, the same smooth brow and gentle mouth, but now creased with rage, guile, and savagery. In repose, the face relaxed almost to beauty—until Olevar recognized Jourdaine.

                                                                           “Little Useless, come to fumble, have you? Clueless Useless, fathering baby. Feck off someplace and fumble                                                                              yourself!”

                                          “Olevar, I came to help you come back.”

                                                                           “You help me? Help me? You have nothing! Nothing to help me!”

Jourdaine had tried again and again, but that one thought was the only one he got from the creature that Olevar had become. Pippitte told him to return. By then, Jourdaine was weary and repulsed by the creature.

In his disgust, Jourdaine killed Olevar just before he left.

Sacrifices had to be made.

The boy’s body died a few days later. Jourdaine’s report to the general described how the damage was too severe. It gave no mention of the illusion of Jourdaine’s hand sliding along the slender silver tether of Olevar’s life and severing it with a paroxysm of disgust.

The exercise had gained him rewards. Divny had given him an excellent efficiency report and, after being denounced, had not suspected Jourdaine’s betrayal. In his grief, the man had no longer cared.

Thus, Jourdaine learned to be a thinking Presence, a resident phantom in a land peopled by tourists. He alone had plumbed the possibilities of the CORE. He could project his Presence into the CORE itself and thence to another O-A recipient.

Cadets for generations had been warned that they might contract CORE fever. He wondered if the CORE had been warned that it might catch a case of Jourdaine.