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.