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 comfortable until she tried to move, and then a 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 recoiling 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.
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 six 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.