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 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.