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.
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY
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.