Free Read Chapters 17 & 18

CHAPTER 17

TRAILS TAKEN

barneveld-prairie

Malila was slumbering when Jesse flicked the hides off her.

“Rise and shine, Lieutenant; daylight’s burning!”

Her detailed and profane response made him laugh.

Jesse kept the southeastern direction for three days before turning full south, although, in those first few days, they walked every heading of the compass. She realized that each step taken was a step down, a step into darkness and obscurity and away from the light of the Unity.

A routine soon developed. At first light, the old man roused her. He dismantled whatever shelter he had made, hid the evidence of it, packed his huge green pack, and swooped his shoulders into it before buckling it down. They walked for about an hour before breakfast. Malila led the way, bound. There were few ways to retaliate.

Before eating his own food, she noticed, Jesse closed his eyes and mumbled a few words. Malila decided it was some superstitious ritual, and at the next meal, she thought to parody his silly practice. Thereafter, she ate alone.

They ate what she first took to be leather. She had initially refused. Jesse had smiled and dropped her portion into his grinning mouth with all apparent satisfaction. At the next stop, she had taken the scrap and, after gnawing, been able to swallow it. It had a smoky, salty taste.

“Jerky … venison. For the record, Malila, if I wanted to kill you, poison’s not my style. You are tied up; knives are durable, have easy instructions for use.”

“You don’t scare me, Sisi.”

“Wasn’t trying to, lass.”

Daily for a week, after washing his hands in the malodorous soap and making her strip off her shirt, the old man examined her wound, lifting and probing her flesh. After some days, he removed the binding and covered the wound with some boiled cloth, sticking it to the wound with aromatic syrup that dried to a tacky brown surface. In a few days more, he removed her sutures.

“That is going to be a pretty little scar.”

“Are you done?”

“Just admiring my handiwork, lass. All done.”

“Then stop pawing me.”

He released his grip on her right breast and looked briefly at the offending hand.

“Sorry, lass, no insult to your maidenly virtue was intended. Just trying to get some light on the site of interest.”

“Sorry if my tits overshadowed your ‘site of interest.’”

“Nothin’ ye’ll need worry about, Lieutenant. Nae yer fault,” said the old man, moving to help her dress.

Malila smacked his hands away when he tried.

The following morning, the old man shoved a rucksack into her arms, containing her sleeping skins, a water flask, and some of the food.

“This is yours, lass. Time you started lifting your weight around here, doncha think?”

With a defiant look, Malila let the pack fall to the ground, folding her arms. Her duty was clear; to cooperate with the enemy was to betray the Unity.

“No matter. It’s your stuff. Carry it or leave it … all the same to me.”

Malila glared at him. His face was unreadable behind its alien bush of white beard and blue tattoos. When she did not pick up the pack, he shouldered his own, bound Malila’s wrists in front of her, and walked off. They had passed out of view of the campsite by the time she fathomed her mistake. They were a few hundred meters beyond that before her defiance crumbled.

“I get it. I get it, old man. You can turn around now,” she demanded.

Jesse’s pack advanced ahead of her, his legs churning underneath, as if she did not exist. After a few more moments, Malila dug in her heels and pulled on the lead, throwing her full weight into it. She toppled over and was dragged for a meter or so before Jesse stopped.

“Sorry, lass. Did you say something?”

“I understand. Let me get the pack.”

“Well, now, lass, that’s a problem. If I walk back for your pack, I carry my bag three times over the same ground, don’t you see? It only seems fair that we share the load. You walk it back, and I’ll take it once we get to yours. Sound fair?”

“Not really. Will you let me go back if I don’t carry your pack?”

“No.” And Jesse smiled his toothy smile.

“Okay, if you are going to be like that.”

“I’m going to be just like that.”

Malila grunted under the impossible weight of the old man’s pack, the distance expanding in front of her with each step. Her sides burned, her legs ached, and her breath came in dry rasps. She got about halfway back before she stumbled and fell to her knees. Jesse leaned over and offered her a hand.

“Nice try, lass. You can leave it there. Stand up, and we can go back without it.”

Malila followed him in silence and let the old man help her into the smaller pack before they started again.

“Lesson learned, lass?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Don’t piss off the Sisi.”

Jesse laughed before yanking on Malila’s leash and making her stumble.

“Watch your language, Lieutenant, but you were close. ‘Accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom.’ Perhaps with contemplation, you might come up with a more philosophical answer.”

“You aren’t making any sense, old man.”

Jesse laughed and walked on. For a Sisi, the man seemed to have too many layers.

They passed derelict buildings and rusted devastations that she took for bridges. Many of these last stretched over mere streams, suggesting destroyed dams or a more hostile climate.

During the late afternoon, the old man slowed his pace to investigate bivouac sites. Once camped, their main meal was various combinations of hard bread, jerky, dried berries, and the luck of the snares. If there was still sufficient light, the old man did small tasks. His movements were delicate and dexterous while repairing clothes or working on the small patches of leather that he kept in a buckskin roll in his pack. At other times, he soaked the pieces in a malodorous solution that he kept in a thick plastic satchel. Unidentifiable gray objects swam in the turbid yellow liquid.

Before turning in each night, Jesse performed three rituals. Malila understood the elderly liked their little rituals. He first brewed up an effusion from the contents of a leather pouch, bitter and tasting of some unidentifiable dried berry. It made her teeth feel furry. He drank it as well. She surreptitiously discarded it until Jesse caught her doing so. His blow stung. She had to drink it down in front of him thereafter.

Jesse’s second ritual was odd. He sang, recited passages from memory, and told improbable stories. It mystified her as he did not seem to care whether she listened or not. All his speeches were odd, but the long passages of cadenced words he called “poems” bewildered her completely. She heard about Horatio defending his father, who was also a river; a man loitering among some yellow flowers; another talking to a skin parasite; another watching for a flag; another about someone named MacPherson holding up a floor with pipes; and an academic railing against the arrival of a pool in a table. It was all very silly.

The last ritual before retiring was bathing. Jesse had some excuse, but Malila could see it was just to humiliate her on a daily basis. She would have to strip, soap up, and sluice off before Jesse would allow her to dive shivering under the sleeping skins. He followed suit, damp and shivering under the furs as well. When Malila understood that the old man did not expect her to service him, she welcomed the warmth of the sleeping arrangements and slept well … except for the dream.

During the interim of fatigue, while she warmed the bed to allow her body to sag into slumber, Malila was able to think. The old savage acted as if her abduction was a clever prank. She knew better. She was disgraced. The Unity boasted it had never lost a war or suffered an officer captured in the seventy-four years of its glorious history. If she were part of history at all, Malila would star in a great cautionary tale told to new recruits.

Malila ran through the great narratives she had known as a recruit. The Unity immortalized sagas in which the individual sacrificed for the glory of the country. Dying soldiers praised the Unity with their cooling lips. Martyrs succumbed only after striking a courageous blow to confound the enemies of freedom and democracy. Not one heroine had been caught in her underwear by a demented Sisi.

The Sisis were vile, worn-out, incompetent, incontinent, selfish, and dim-witted. They were beneath notice or contempt. She must be an unknowing fraud to have let herself be captured. She was a failure with each kilometer she walked, each kilogram she carried, and each meal she accepted.

Malila imagined how she might become a martyr for the Unity before this lunatic Sisi could show her off as a trophy. After her glorious death, her friends would mourn her and count themselves blessed to have known her. Her patrons would gain heroic cachet that their fellow officers would covet. Her crèche would have a tasteful brass plaque placed on her old bunk. However, as each of her imagined exploits to martyrdom played out in her mind, Malila returned to the same dilemma: as far as the Unity would ever know, she was alive, swimming around some muddy river of the outlands. She would waste her last words on the dementia of an old man. It was just too grotesque.

One night, after she stopped shivering, Malila asked, “Why are you doing this to me, old man?”

“I am a man under authority, and I have men under authority to me. To one I say ‘Come’ and he comes, and to another I say ‘Go’ and he goes.”

“That isn’t an answer.”

“No, it isn’t. When I start answering those questions, lass, it means that I no longer think you are going back to your damned Union alive. Do you want me to answer your questions?”

“No!”

“Good … Sleep.”

She slept, somehow comforted.

CHAPTER 18

TRIP WIRE, SPRING, TRIGGER, JAWS

bsnare

Nyork, Unity

19.51.31.local_19_10_AU76

Monee’k is different from the other girls, Iain thought. That would be obvious to anyone who bothered to really look. Her body floated, while all the other girls merely danced. He knew his attraction, his addiction, for her was getting out of hand. All his spare pay, not that there was a lot, went to buy time with Monee’k at the Night Lite Ballroom. If he got there early enough, he could dance with her the entire night … or until his money ran out. She smiled at him as they shared a few words dancing, his hands caressing her warm skin as they moved. He shivered.

He had seen her arrive at the club once before. Even with her clothes on, she had been easy to spot. She had a bounce in her stride that he would know anywhere. Iain had been waiting across the alley from the stage door in the rain, his service coat buttoned and his collar turned up. He hunkered down into the coat, trying to warm himself against the wind coming in from the river.

A group of women started down the alley to enter the stage door, the lights from the street making them unrecognizable silhouettes. It was only when the others turned to go in that Iain saw Monee’k at the back of the group. She stopped. When she smiled, Iain felt himself breathe again. He waved, stopped, his hand still up. She walked across the alley, smiled again, and took his hand. She held it as they talked. She was special.

“Nice to see you, Sergeant.”

“Call me Iain. Can I call you Monee’k? That is a pretty name.”

“My name’s really Heather. Monee’k is like a stage name … Iain. You’ve been coming here a lot lately.”

“I’ve been here before, but I started coming back when I noticed you.”

Heather had laughed, and it had made his heart skip. Once inside they had danced until closing. Heather had paid for their last three dances.

To Hecate, Malila’s disappearance had been wrenching. At the museum, Hecate had been too brusque with her, the memory of their abrupt parting haunting her even before she’d learned of Malila’s disappearance. Then, Malila’s apartment vacant and O-A terminated, Hecate had imagined a purge inside the DUFS. Malila would never have seen it coming. Even as she was bending the rules in unimagined ways, Malila could be blindsided after a not-quite-agile-enough maneuver. Someone would find it so easy to denounce her.

Hecate had made judicious inquiries through the governmental back channels, but to no avail. Malila had just evaporated.

Then Victor had been denounced. To watch his slow, public evisceration at the hands of lesser creatures had been agony. It had been a mercy when he killed himself.

Since then, the one remaining bright spot for her was the book warehouse. To her surprise, Victor’s suicide had not canceled her access. She was spending more and more time within its high dusty walls, staying all night before returning to the ministry.

She found and inhabited worlds of hope, despair, joy, sorrow, and delight. Eventually, it scared her, thinking she might lose herself to the books. There was so little to keep her here otherwise.

“Doggy, I can beat Khama’s last jag!” said a grinning Jasun Ciszek as Iain arrived.

“Given up on loser lieutenants, has the old man?”

“Seems he has changed from looies to loos,” said Jasun.

“Makes sense when you think about it, Gunny. Whata we gotta do now?”

Jasun slipped into official bureaucratese. “Our section is to direct all resources to evaluating and revising policies and procedures for the care and maintenance of all sanitary facilities in the command.”

“You’re kidding me, yeah? We are supposed to feck off everything to make sure the toilets flush?”

“By the authority bestowed by rank and custom … yes.”

“So what do I do with the Chiu data?”

Ciszek was ready for him and passed over a small scrap of actual paper.

“Just post it to this address, Doggy, just the raw data. Let’s get a move on. I need to get this new shit started before my ThiZ break. We gotta have something to show by retreat today.”

Iain gave a smart salute before slouching into the seat at his console. “Ours is not to wonder, Sarge, why these bizzles are in charge.”

Jourdaine smiled his bodiless smile as the Presence. He supervised Khama, unbeknownst to the man or his sergeants. In the CORE of the Unity, secrets of state, encrypted industrial correspondence, and even a low-level data stream were free for the taking … to Jourdaine. The best security procedures were no match for a Presence that could move outside the mirrored corridors of the ’net. With little danger to himself, he had been able to have Khama not only initiate but now disassociate himself from the first step of his trap for Chiu. He had his trip wire—the auto ping.

It was a start. Unlike any usual trap, however, this one possessed parts that never would appear to connect with any other part. It would never look like a trap. Anyone climbing up the data stream would find people ignorant of any connection they might have with each other. It was not complete yet. He still needed a spring to energize it, a trigger to set off the capture, and the jaws to seize his prey.

With that thought, the next item on his scavenger hunt would be a spring, to magnify the tentative vibrations of the trip wire. In the vast landscape of the CORE, if you could view it from Jourdaine’s perspective, there existed all sorts of oddities and back alleys with bits of program or personality that had gotten lost or corrupted. Becoming cumbersome over time, the CORE techs had found it easier to assign a distant and silent block of memory to them, letting the bits fight it out among themselves.

The n-dimensioned space assigned to them frothed with danger, of course, but it was always worth a look. Sometimes, the bits of program acted like rats, burrowing into otherwise protected file dumps to retrieve a datum or two. However, there were some things you could not get rats to do.

For those jobs, you needed graduate students.

Dr. Waylan Swartzbender, the Rodman professor of the Heidegger School of Practical Theology of Columbia University of the People connected with Jourdaine via a video interview. Jourdaine needed no O-A for this. Everyday coercion, fear, and duplicity were quite sufficient for academics.

“Colonel Jourdaine, I must say I am a bit surprised. My meeting was with a … Undersecretary Chilton … about the funding?” said the E30 S30 man in the rolled-sleeves, red-shirted uniform of a tenured professor.

“Yes, Professor Swartzbender, it is about that we need to speak.”

Jourdaine was pleased with the several beats of eye blinking that his words provoked. Good start.

“Is there any problem, Colonel Jourdaine?”

“I do hope not, Doctor. That is why this interview is what we must consider … informal. It would be unwise to make known this conversation outside ourselves. It would look like … favoritism.”

The academic smiled on cue. Sometimes it’s too easy.

“Well, then, Colonel. The funding proposal was in order, surely? It is almost the same as last year, plus COLA, capital fund, pedagogical allowances, the usual … isn’t it?”

“Yes …”

Jourdaine waited for the professor to blink. He blinked.

“Who is BethanE Winters, Professor Swartzbender?”

The professor’s eyebrows flicked up in surprise, and he looked down, rather than up, recalling her. The man was working from notes.

“Why, I was unaware there was this level of inspection into the academic process, Colonel.”

“Who is she, Doctor?”

“Just a graduate student.”

“Indeed, a graduate student … just. What is her area of study then?”

A hurried number of keystrokes later, the professor said, “The superiority of ethical immanence to the concept of transcendent ethicality with the deconstruction of the modern city-state as text.”

“Now, Professor, I am hardly a man of your learning or insight, but I had thought that concept a bit played out?”

“Indeed, indeed. Rather hackneyed, expected more, distracted, don’t you know … government contracts. But … why is this important?”

The professor looked up into Jourdaine’s eyes. His chin came up; his lips thinned.

Excellent, Jourdaine thought. We finally come to what he thinks important. Time to set him up.

“Are you familiar with The Vital Realism, by John Baudrillard, Professor?”

The older man’s eyes dilated, and there was a slight intake of breath. Jackpot, thought Jourdaine.

“I was a very young scholar at the time, Colonel. The book was on the Correct Readings for Consumers list then …”

The professor subsided as Jourdaine raised his hand and shook his head. Take your foot off the accelerator briefly; makes the turning easier.

“It is not your … reading habits … we are questioning, Professor. Citizen Winters seems to have acquired a copy from her current liaison with a Malik Mafee. What is your opinion of the work, since you admit to having read it?” Now let him hear the trap snap shut. It will focus his efforts wonderfully.

“Oh, derivative, totally derivative. Old-fashioned. Knew it at the time, of course,” the professor said, rather too fast.

Just a little frenzy, as expected, of course.

“So glad to hear you say that—and, of course, your loyalty and … orthodoxy … have never been in serious question. But this Citizen Winters … another issue entirely. I think I would feel very much better about her advancement if we could judge how loyal and cooperative she is,” Jourdaine added, waiting for the response. Open a gate and see how fast he rushes to it, he thought.

“Yes, assuredly, Colonel. I could have her do some of my classes,” the professor said and actually looked away to write something.

“Hardly, Professor.” Jourdaine laughed but did not smile.

The man looked up, startled. The man needed his priorities rectified.

“I think I will provide the test,” Jourdaine said. “A little discrimination test for her.” Jourdaine sent the file to the professor as he spoke. “She is to review this data stream, and when it matches these parameters, here, she is then to set this flag in the CORE. Her thesis would be unwise to accept if she fails, don’t you agree? She will find the task tedious but untaxing. Is that acceptable?”

The look of immediate gratitude on the man’s face was unfeigned. It had taken so little. The professor disdained money and thus lowered his own value to the cost of an impoverished scribbler. He disdained politicians and thus became a bad one.

The remainder of the interview was painless. By the time Jourdaine broke the contact, Swartzbender was practically rolling onto his back to have his belly scratched.

The same day, a good deal less unusually, at Columbia’s University of the People, a graduate student’s thesis advisor assigned her to do a task that was completely useless.

Now Jourdaine needed a trigger. Questing around the frothing edge of the CORE, he had seen how an anomaly dimpled the surface, darkened it, and distorted the landmarks. He swooped closer and could tell it was Charlie. Inside a swirling vortex of the CORE sat what had been a promising sports personality.

Even Jourdaine, not a fan of the usual blood sports, had heard the reports that a defensive lineman, one who had just been given his O-A, probably a little too late, had almost immediately COREd himself out. His owners were furious.

Jourdaine’s Presence sat near the lineman, close enough to hear but far enough away so as not to be hit by the backwash of the man’s emotions.

oHw ddi I gte ehre? Ewehr si eerh?

No! I said that wrong.

How.did.I.get.here? Where.is.here?

The trainer had given him some of the yellow pills and told him not to take them all at one time.

I sohudl avhe lenisted!

No! Not right.

Thoughts and images swirling around him, he could get no fingerholds for his own ideas. He kept falling, falling forever. His flesh melted and reformed as he watched. He saw his guts clench and move, pink and writhing like a newly killed hog.

The O-A had been such a great new toy when they’d put it in. They’d said that it was going to improve his game. It had taken a lot of hard work to get the thing to work, but it had been fecking amazing. He had been able to see the game like a bird and feel the ball move before he could see it, feel how the quarterback was going to move by how he pressed against the earth.

They had told him not to look into the CORE. He had understood that.

What he had not understood were all the willing, enthusiastic, exceptional women who had undressed for him every time he’d turned around. He could just eat them up … the girls. They had come with their pills and the pills with their visions, and he’d eaten those too.

Mi’ llafign!

Charlie watched his fingers morph into staring alien eyes before they dissolved into a fetid, sticky mass. It hurt so bad.

He was aware of the Presence for a while as he watched his fingers regrow.

“Charlie, Charlie. You aren’t falling. Look at me, Charlie. You are here with me, and I am not falling. I can make it all go away. You don’t have to do this Charlie …”

Charlie looked over and could see only the barest swirl of darkness in the shadowless noon of the CORE. He didn’t have to say anything. The Presence calmed him. He was grateful for the brief respite from his torrent of sensation. He clung to the Presence and wept, for the first time since that night when they had found him raving.

He had tried to hide from them in the CORE. Now he wept. Just having the Presence there gave him an anchor. Once he stopped falling and stopped crying, the Presence told him what he had to do.

“Charlie, you can listen to me, Charlie. I can get you home. You will stop falling. It will all be easy, but you have to do your part. You know how to execute, don’t you, Charlie? People depend on you. You have always done your best for a teammate, haven’t you? I’m your teammate, Charlie. Just one more assignment, and we can go home.

“Just watch the flag. See the line marker. When it comes up, just throw the switch. It will send you home. But you have to wait. It isn’t time yet. It is too dangerous to test the switch until the flag is set. Do you understand, Charlie?

“Yes … und’stand: assignment flag home.”

“Excellent, Charlie. At the right time, the switch will send you home.”

Trip wire, spring, trigger … only jaws were needed. The trap was coming along.

He would be ready for her: Khama to order the auto ping to be tripped if Chiu’s O-A came within range, an agent of his own in the shop to create the auto ping, an expendable E20 graduate student to read the raw data, her thesis advisor ready to denounce her if needs be, Charlie to trigger the switch, and, easiest of all, a snatch team. Anyone working on any one link was unable to identify Jourdaine himself: no program code to be unearthed, no data dump to be gone through by some enterprising eprovost. Jourdaine’s programming had been in people, and when people died, their memories died with them. Chiu, if she surfaced alive, could dispute her last disastrous meeting with Suarez. If anyone took her seriously, it might expose Miramundo Morales. Jourdaine wished to reserve the pleasure of that revelation for himself.

Of course, it was probably unnecessary. Chiu had already been missing for three weeks. He’d give it six months and then dismantle the whole affair. His coconspirators would go back to whatever they had been doing, never knowing they had been a part of a conspiracy.

But this had been a good deal of trouble for one jumped-up second lieutenant unless … she might be recycled.

Palace coups required audacity, brutality, and the ability to draw people to his cause. Power blocks in academia, the government, or the arts were fools to contest a change in government against a unified military. Barring kitchen knives and makeshift cudgels, only the DUFS had weapons.

However, the DUFS was hardly unified. It seethed with intrigue. Like a magnet, any leader powerful enough to succeed induced polar opposites to dispute that success. Disinterest combated enthusiasm, disaffection contended with popularity, and combinations of lesser powers blocked a greater one. Jourdaine would have to be seen and unseen, exceptional and unremarkable, decisive and compliant.

For this coup d’état, then, he needed not supporters but metasupporters, those who were unaware how their actions might forward his plans. Many were in place already, Jourdaine’s spiderweb of subordinates. None of his people knew another. None of his human tools would ever be able to report more than an odd enthusiasm or quirky behavior, and Jourdaine would remain a bland smudge on their recollections.

But at some time the virtual must become real, and for that he needed a face.

Free Read Chapters 15 &16

mountainman
CHAPTER 15

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.

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CHAPTER 16

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

The light finally deserted the sky, and the stars came out. Malila seldom noticed them at home. The old man threw new fuel onto the fire, the heat washing over her.
“Let me tell you a story, my young friend. Once upon a time, this was one country from the Union in the east to the republics out west. What you call the outlands is still the same country. We call it the Reorganized States of America.”
“You are wrong there, old man. This land belongs to the Unity,” Malila said, glad to stop the lecture.
She could easily see his smile, even in the darkness.
“Well, lass, y’all welcome to come an’ git it anytime you want. Seems to me if it was yours, we wouldn’t be talkin’ now, would we?” He yanked on her tether, making her start.
“Any road, a few generations ago, there was an awful war. Young men made up most armies then. By young, I mean older than you. They were headed by generals who were old, meaning younger than me. Our country, yours and mine, went to war in some godforsaken piece of desert—and we lost.”
“If they depended on senile generals, that was bound to happen!” she said. The watery sensation in Malila’s body grew. It could not be true.
The old man ignored her.
“Those pagans set off enough nuclear bombs to wipe our forces off the map. No one came home from that war … not a one. The whole world turned in on itself then. The pagans pulled the house down on themselves, ’course. They got their glow-in-the-dark caliphate, but commerce disappeared. For the first time in fifteen hundred years, they had nothing to trade: no spices, no slaves, no silk, no salt, no oil, no water, and no guilt remittances from the rest of the world. I suppose the stories of cannibalism could be bogus, but I’m not sure I can blame them, can you?”
“What are you talking about? The Unity rebelled against the old republic when it showed how decadent and corrupt it had become,” she said, now angry with the old man for inventing the absurd story wholesale.
“Not quite right. Decadence and corruption were there, I grant you, but this country doesn’t do well with defeats. We ignore the ones we can and just call them victories. If we can’t ignore them, we blame somebody. This time we blamed the old for the death of the young … not entirely unfair, I grant you. It worked, as usual, but it started a new war. This one, everyone lost.”
“You mean the Great Patriotic War. The Unity beat the reactionary forces into submission. I’d have liked to have been there!” she said.
The old man’s voice took on an edge.
“Everybody lost. The Unity as well as America. I understand it was worse back east. There was a takeover by the Coasties, only ones with any military organization. They were the first Solons. They declared a new state you call the Unity. Something like that happened out west as well. Different name, the Demarchy, but same disease.”
“The first Solons were selected by acclamation of the people, Sisi,” Malila said when the old man drifted off for a moment.
“I ’spect you was there taking notes, then, lass?”
“Don’t be absurd; of course I wasn’t. That is ancient history.”
“Perhaps not so ancient as some would like you to believe, but long ago as the Union counts time, I’ll grant you.”
“Unity, Democratic Unity of America, old man.”
The old man laughed easily.
“‘A word … means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,’ said Humpty. Cut something longer, grow shorter, maximum increased negativization, secede from the country but call the result a Unity. Black be white and white, black. Evil is good and good, evil. All to the tune of the masters’ pipes. Amen and amen.” His arms moved against the stars.
“You are talking crazy, Sisi. Let me go!”
He ignored her now. “I guess there was a difference this time. The coup just killed the scapegoats, people my age, I suppose.”
“It seems we were good enough, back then, to defeat you savages. You are all still running and hiding, aren’t you? Living useless little lives in the ruins,” Malila spat back at him, giving the self-satisfied old horror a bit of his own.
The old man threw some branches onto the fire. As they flamed up, his form emerged from the darkness, preceded by his toothy smile.
“Excellent. Well done! ‘A touch, a touch. I do confess ’t.’ A point in your favor, lass. But not the story I’m telling.
“The Solons declared that no drugs were illegal anymore. Lotsa idiots went right out and bought enough shit to blow their minds up several times over. Your masters no longer had to worry about controlling the unproductive; they were doing a good enough job left alone. Your Union pukes dropped the cost of the drugs and even started supplying them free if people got an implant, the forerunner of the one I tickled out of you. Time came that you could not buy fuel, rent a room, get services, or show your face to the sun without an implant.
“What do they call that stuff now, by the way, lass?”
“ThiZ is a great boon to humankind. It elevates our existence, enlarges our imaginations …”
“Makes you crap your pants. Yes, I noticed the wonders of ThiZ on the trail. Did you notice the other great triumph of the Union pharmacology today?”
The old man stopped and cupped a hand around his ear.
“Sorry, Lieutenant, we old people get hard of hearing. What was that you said?”
“I’m not playing your games any longer, Sisi,” Malila said, trying to rise and getting one leg under her before the old man pulled her back. She sat down painfully.
“Sit and be sociable. It’s not a request. Your sergeant was about an average zombie for your platoon. I have to ask you, what could anyone do to deserve what he got?”
The question sounded familiar to her. “Only criminals get Sapped. It’s the law. They pay back to the Unity for their crimes.”
“Well, that at least was true at the Meltdown. They emptied the prisons and made theirselves a brand-new army. They put down the food riots. Then they invaded the rest of the country, the rest of America. They went through here like we was made of paper. They burned from Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago down to Peoria. By then the American army had been mustered, such as it was; we held them off at Springfield.
“Even so, they never found my family’s homestead. Your average zombie army lacks personal initiative, doncha think?”
Malila refused to answer. Sisis could have quite extensive hallucinations, she knew. She was not going to feed into them anymore if she could.
The old man shrugged and threw another branch onto the fire and flicked a few stray coals back into position before starting again.
“Like I say, the East Coast and the West Coast probably lost the most—their souls. Parts of what you call the outlands were Scorched. It was some sort of chemical weapon. It killed plants but not animals. It’d have been kinder had it killed everything. Most everyone died that winter or the next spring when crops withered as they came up. The plants that did come up, come up changed.”
“You savages got what you deserved,” Malila said. Somehow it felt unfair, though.
“People survived in the outlands, but I was just a kid, so don’t ask me how. Don’t wanta speculate. I had my family, and they had weapons and a cabin in a hollow. Most of the hunger mobs never knew we were there, and the few that did … never shared the information.”
“Why should I believe any of this shit, old man?”
“No reason at all, Acting Second Lieutenant. None whatsoever. Far be it from me to educate the unwary, the uncaring, or the stupid.” The old man laughed a little before standing. He left the circle of light, returning with armfuls of dying ferns, dry and yellow, to make a pile. From the depths of his pack, he pulled out a coil of hard-used, thick climbing rope, unlooped the fifty meters, and coiled it down flat onto the ferns, before piling furs and skins onto it.
The old man pulled Malila to her feet by her lead and wound the braided leather around her waist again.
“Undress … You need to wash.”
When Malila started to object, the old man pulled out his short knife and prepared to cut the clothes from her. Malila raised her hands and began to disrobe. Once she started, he turned away and busied himself with the fire. She was shivering in the night breeze by the time he threw her a water skin and the soap.
“Wash. Be thorough, lass. If you get the furs dirty, you’ll freeze when the weather gets cold.”
“Gets cold? I’m freezing now!”
The old man grinned.
“I suggest the shortest route to a warm bed is a cold bath, lass.”
After she had washed to the old man’s satisfaction, he indicated where she should lie and covered her with furs. Gradual warmth washed back into her. By then she could hear the old man washing himself as well.
She steeled herself for the inevitable.
Pleasure-sex with her patron, man or woman, was, of course, only natural and predictable. Her education had been enlightened. As an E7, her teachers had helped her choose among the more senior cadre and select the best patrons based on influence, preferences, and likelihood for further advancement. A grimace flitted across her features before she noticed.
It pleased her, at times, that men and women thought her attractive and, at least, an adornment to the life of power. Malila’s skin crawled to think how her counterparts in some bygone era would have had to endure coupling with the ancient patrons of old. The Unity had saved the nation from the tyranny of the elderly and saved her from sharing her body with some hideous Sisi … until now.
The old man, naked, stepped onto the sleeping skins next to Malila, sat, and brushed off his feet before pulling back the hides. Malila felt the cold night air quest along her spine. Jesse tested her lead with a brisk pull before wrapping the cord around his wrist and lying down next to her. Malila stiffened.
Within minutes, she heard the heavy breathing of sleep and, later yet, slept herself.
That night she dreamed of holding Sergeant Nelson’s severed head inside his helmet, the eyes opening and the mouth trying to speak to her, making only hideous moist appeals. She awoke gasping, a cry half-heard in her sleep. The sky was ablaze with an intense blue-white star and a waning moon low in the west. Their light gave an icy cast to the scene, and the wind moved the tufts of grass just enough to suggest furtive motion. She looked around at the old man. Starlight reflected from his open eyes. She mumbled something and settled herself again. Her O-A hummed in her head. Edie’s absence made her uneasy. Despite her fatigue, she watched the crescent moon founder into the horizon.

Poem “Vigil”

sternchase

Sailors do say an aft chase is long,
Light after darkness, dark after dawn.
Progress is ventured by scarcely a sign:
Set of a rigging, quench of a limn.
Vigils are kept in aft chases, ‘though,
Watch after watch and, slow ever slow.
The battle may come at a time never sought,
Down the wind quarter, and out of the fog.
Then there is volley and steel and the smoke,
Pike against borders, stroke against stroke.
After all’s quiet, except for the cries
Of weary survivors, the spars groan as alive.

When time comes for me, for my own bloody chase,
Dark after light, haste before Grace,
I hope I see backwards, as forward I flee,
That someone stands there a Vigil for me.

 

Boutwell 2013

Free Read: Outland Exile Chapters 13 & 14

CHAPTER 13

RECOVERY

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Malila 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 comfortable until she tried to move, and then a 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 recoiling 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.

CHAPTER 14

PERCY

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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 six 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.

New Audio Book Raffle

audiobook

The audiobook of Outland Exile: Book One of Old Men and Infidels is now available from Amazon and Audible.

Outland Exile on Amazon

I am very excited about this project. It required a new presentation of the book, notably without the footnotes and the backstory suggested by them. I was able to obtain the services of a great narrative talent, Jack Nolan. He has added depth and wit to the work in double-handfulls. You can hear a sample on the link aboveOutland Exile on Amazon

In order to introduce the work, I am raffling off four copies (worth $21 each) to a random drawing of all those who send me a comment to this blog.

Instructions:

Go to the bottom and click “comment”

Say “I’m in” or words to that effect

Drawing will be on Black Friday, 25th November.