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.