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.”
“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.