Illinois Territory, RSA
Late October 2128
The leaves, at first just tinged with yellow and scarlet, were now gaudy, floating down to swirl around them as they walked. The air was scented with the musk of loam, sunshine, and the promise of winter. Autumn in the Unity was merely a different shade of gray. Malila was ever more grateful for the warmth of the old man as she slept.
During the second week, as they reached the crest of a long slope covered in scrub, two tilted and paved plateaus appeared, fading to the horizon, left and right. Woods separated them in many places, and stray vegetation punctuated the pavements themselves.
Jesse grunted and, stepping onto the hard surface, started walking south without comment. Malila adjusted her gait, letting her legs swing free, and hitched her pack higher. The consistency of the tread allowed her to look around without tripping. She could then enjoy the unfolding of the landscape: the changing shape of a copse of trees, clouds and their shadows, and the slow flow of the land under her feet—ridges, shallow lakes, and bomb craters. At their first stop, she asked him about the trail.
“It’s the old Eye-39, lass. Due north-south for a while before we have to head east to pick up Eye-74. Don’t much like using these roads. It’s a little too easy to see us coming.”
“What are you worried about, old man. We haven’t seen anybody since we started.”
“Doesn’t mean that they haven’t seen us, lass. When Mose and I came up here, we took side roads, as we had horses … didn’t want to offer too tempting a prize to your Unity scabs. Now we are fighting south before the snows; fewer sharks to feed on us this time of year. We can hazard the highways for a while.”
Despite his anxiety, the old man took time to show Malila new skills. She learned to make fire, set snares, skin the game, and much else. Out of the corner of her eye Malila would catch the man watching as she demonstrated some new talent, a vigilant brittle gleam in his eye and a smile on his face until she turned to look at him. Then he would harrumph at her efforts before turning away. She found herself laughing at the absurd old man. He laughed as well, then.
One skill she had not successfully acquired was setting up a bear bag, hauling food out of the reach of “critters.” Malila had tried to learn how to select the right tree branch and toss the line so that it did not get tangled. On the occasion of her first attempt, the counterweight, a large machine nut, had swung around, giving her a black eye. Since then that job had been left to Jesse.
She was still a prisoner. She wore a tether while they walked and slept. At night, Jesse still recited his long cadenced elocutions to the fire, he still made her drink the tea, and he still made her bathe, despite the cold.
“This must be the highlight of your day, old man,” she said as she started to disrobe at a small cove along a stream, the water black in the light of the first quarter moon, shining low in the west.
“You get to humiliate a Unity officer in the name of good hygiene. How pathetic is that?”
“For the record, I’m obligated to supervise prisoners, Acting Lieutenant Chiu. I’d like nothing better than to preserve your maidenly modesty, but the company strength is deficient one provost marshal’s matron, if’n you ain’t noticed.”
“Seriously, Jesse, you have me tied up naked. Where am I going to go? I just want some time without you looking at me.”
“The eye cannot trespass, my friend, but … do you promise not to try to escape? If I accept your parole, I come back and you are still tied up here waiting for me, right?”
Malila almost smiled. In the Unity, they were so past this. The government made many promises, only to break them, all for superb and cogent reasons. The people could vote to change any regulation, deny any privilege, and revoke any liberty. Promises were “a bookmark for progress.” Personal promises fared rather worse. Anyway, Jesse was not a citizen. Grateful for the dim light, she hoped her voice did not betray her.
“I promise I will not attempt any escape, Jesse. I’d just like a little privacy.”
“Okay, lass. I’ll take you at your word.”
Jesse threw the long line of her tether around the root of a big tree overshadowing the pool and tied it off before leaving. Once he was gone, Malila finished disrobing and threw her clothes onto a bush and herself into the cold water. It should have been frigid but wasn’t. Working upstream, she found a patch of warmth and followed it to its source, a ten-centimeter-wide opening at the floor of the pool.
Malila luxuriated. That was when she saw the lights.
They were the first lights she had seen at night since her capture, two yellow lights weaving back and forth above the leafless scrub. What supported the lights she could not see, but the light of the moon seemed to gleam off a surface that reminded Malila of dark, brushed steel. She heard no rotors or the hum of a Skimmerhorn drive.
She stepped forward and gasped in pain; a singeing feeling sliced along her instep. Malila pulled her foot back, allowing herself to float. The pain remained steady, and her immediate fear subsided. She slid her fingers down her leg gently, finding a small, sharp shard of something still protruding from her instep. Malila swam back to the bank, reluctantly leaving the warm current, and clumsily hauled out onto the tree root. A green glass shard was still sticking out of the wound. Without a thought, she pulled it out and could see the stream of darkness—her blood—wash into the dark waters. The wound was neither deep nor long, and Malila had no difficulty walking back to where she had left her clothes.
Dressed and still damp, she moved through the brush to find a place where she could see the lights but was brought up short by her tether, within a few meters. With little thought, Malila spun the rope around her waist and began slicing through the braid with her newfound glass knife. Within a few cuts the tether parted.
Malila worked her way through the scrub along the banks of the stream toward where she thought the lights had gone. Using it as cover, Malila crept near the bole of a large, dead tree.
She should have known that the Unity patrols would patrol at night. Low-light technology let them scan large sections of the outlands, while the savages were slowed by the darkness. The overwhelming might of the Unity would descend out of shadows, and in the morning only stories of mysterious lights in the night sky would remain.
She moved out from behind the tree trunk.
The lights were just meters away from her. The moon silhouetted two serpentine stalks, twisting and writhing above her in a complicated dance. A light surmounting each stalk like an eye turned down and seemed to inspect the ground. She could no longer breathe. The stench of ammonia hit her. Her eyes watered, and her vision started to fade. She retched as the yellow lights halted, turned together, and started to advance toward her, emitting a scritting noise as it came.
The blow took her just below the ribcage. An arm snaked around her waist and began to drag her off. Dazed, she was surprised that the yellow eyes began to fade away in the night before the trunk of the dead tree blocked her view. A dark shape stood her up against the bole of the tree, pressing her against the rough bark. The shape stooped and put an arm between her legs before painfully grabbing her wrist and hoisting her. Malila’s world spun as she was turned upside down and bounced on the old man’s shoulder back to their fire.
Jesse dropped her with a thump onto the skins before turning on her.
“Li’l Miss I-Just-Want-a-Little-Privacy got mair than she was bargainin’ for, seems like, ye damned Uni gowk! Now I’ve gotta burn out a Death Walker. Th’ thing is gonna stink fur days. What ’xactly wur ye thinkin’, lass?” he shouted.
When she didn’t respond, the old man threw up his arms before frisking her, rapidly and thoroughly, and tying her up, facedown, onto her skins. He built up the fire and transferred red coals onto a makeshift shovel made from tree bark before starting back down the path from which they had just come.
Sundering screams from what Malila took to be a running battle with the creature punctuated the darkness. Strange cries rent the night and subsided into groaning agues of noise. Jesse returned to stoke the fire with fresh fuel, shoveled more coals out, and again disappeared into the dark. For a time, the old man was getting the worst of it. Screams and smoke assaulted her where she lay, always coming closer. After that, however, the cries of the creature, sounding like a thrown belt on a major beltway, started to move off. The stench of smoke and ammonia sullied the air.
Jesse returned just before dawn. Even by the dim light, Malila could see blisters on his hands and burns marking his face. Jesse slumped next to her and let his head droop, his beard smudging the soot on his tunic as he rested his elbows on his knees. He coughed, an extended, emphatic liquid cough, which left him breathless.
“What was that?”
“It was a gift … from our … friends … ’cross the Rampart … I didn’t think … they got … this far west … Call them … Death Walkers … Showed up after th’ Scorching … kind o’ fungus … Got to burn … ’em out … They need meat … attack at night.”
“Is it dead?”
“Pretty much. Don’t live … long … blinded. Tried to eat … one, once. Tough … taste like they smell … ’Spect they’d … say … same of me.”
The old man started laughing and was again seized with a fit of coughing that drove him to his hands and knees. Blood streaked across the back of his hand after he wiped his mouth.
The old man coughed for a week thereafter. That day, they walked hard, away from the site of the fight, and Malila, again bound, found herself running to keep up.