Free Read Chapters 17 & 18

CHAPTER 17

TRAILS TAKEN

barneveld-prairie

Malila was slumbering when Jesse flicked the hides off her.

“Rise and shine, Lieutenant; daylight’s burning!”

Her detailed and profane response made him laugh.

Jesse kept the southeastern direction for three days before turning full south, although, in those first few days, they walked every heading of the compass. She realized that each step taken was a step down, a step into darkness and obscurity and away from the light of the Unity.

A routine soon developed. At first light, the old man roused her. He dismantled whatever shelter he had made, hid the evidence of it, packed his huge green pack, and swooped his shoulders into it before buckling it down. They walked for about an hour before breakfast. Malila led the way, bound. There were few ways to retaliate.

Before eating his own food, she noticed, Jesse closed his eyes and mumbled a few words. Malila decided it was some superstitious ritual, and at the next meal, she thought to parody his silly practice. Thereafter, she ate alone.

They ate what she first took to be leather. She had initially refused. Jesse had smiled and dropped her portion into his grinning mouth with all apparent satisfaction. At the next stop, she had taken the scrap and, after gnawing, been able to swallow it. It had a smoky, salty taste.

“Jerky … venison. For the record, Malila, if I wanted to kill you, poison’s not my style. You are tied up; knives are durable, have easy instructions for use.”

“You don’t scare me, Sisi.”

“Wasn’t trying to, lass.”

Daily for a week, after washing his hands in the malodorous soap and making her strip off her shirt, the old man examined her wound, lifting and probing her flesh. After some days, he removed the binding and covered the wound with some boiled cloth, sticking it to the wound with aromatic syrup that dried to a tacky brown surface. In a few days more, he removed her sutures.

“That is going to be a pretty little scar.”

“Are you done?”

“Just admiring my handiwork, lass. All done.”

“Then stop pawing me.”

He released his grip on her right breast and looked briefly at the offending hand.

“Sorry, lass, no insult to your maidenly virtue was intended. Just trying to get some light on the site of interest.”

“Sorry if my tits overshadowed your ‘site of interest.’”

“Nothin’ ye’ll need worry about, Lieutenant. Nae yer fault,” said the old man, moving to help her dress.

Malila smacked his hands away when he tried.

The following morning, the old man shoved a rucksack into her arms, containing her sleeping skins, a water flask, and some of the food.

“This is yours, lass. Time you started lifting your weight around here, doncha think?”

With a defiant look, Malila let the pack fall to the ground, folding her arms. Her duty was clear; to cooperate with the enemy was to betray the Unity.

“No matter. It’s your stuff. Carry it or leave it … all the same to me.”

Malila glared at him. His face was unreadable behind its alien bush of white beard and blue tattoos. When she did not pick up the pack, he shouldered his own, bound Malila’s wrists in front of her, and walked off. They had passed out of view of the campsite by the time she fathomed her mistake. They were a few hundred meters beyond that before her defiance crumbled.

“I get it. I get it, old man. You can turn around now,” she demanded.

Jesse’s pack advanced ahead of her, his legs churning underneath, as if she did not exist. After a few more moments, Malila dug in her heels and pulled on the lead, throwing her full weight into it. She toppled over and was dragged for a meter or so before Jesse stopped.

“Sorry, lass. Did you say something?”

“I understand. Let me get the pack.”

“Well, now, lass, that’s a problem. If I walk back for your pack, I carry my bag three times over the same ground, don’t you see? It only seems fair that we share the load. You walk it back, and I’ll take it once we get to yours. Sound fair?”

“Not really. Will you let me go back if I don’t carry your pack?”

“No.” And Jesse smiled his toothy smile.

“Okay, if you are going to be like that.”

“I’m going to be just like that.”

Malila grunted under the impossible weight of the old man’s pack, the distance expanding in front of her with each step. Her sides burned, her legs ached, and her breath came in dry rasps. She got about halfway back before she stumbled and fell to her knees. Jesse leaned over and offered her a hand.

“Nice try, lass. You can leave it there. Stand up, and we can go back without it.”

Malila followed him in silence and let the old man help her into the smaller pack before they started again.

“Lesson learned, lass?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Don’t piss off the Sisi.”

Jesse laughed before yanking on Malila’s leash and making her stumble.

“Watch your language, Lieutenant, but you were close. ‘Accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom.’ Perhaps with contemplation, you might come up with a more philosophical answer.”

“You aren’t making any sense, old man.”

Jesse laughed and walked on. For a Sisi, the man seemed to have too many layers.

They passed derelict buildings and rusted devastations that she took for bridges. Many of these last stretched over mere streams, suggesting destroyed dams or a more hostile climate.

During the late afternoon, the old man slowed his pace to investigate bivouac sites. Once camped, their main meal was various combinations of hard bread, jerky, dried berries, and the luck of the snares. If there was still sufficient light, the old man did small tasks. His movements were delicate and dexterous while repairing clothes or working on the small patches of leather that he kept in a buckskin roll in his pack. At other times, he soaked the pieces in a malodorous solution that he kept in a thick plastic satchel. Unidentifiable gray objects swam in the turbid yellow liquid.

Before turning in each night, Jesse performed three rituals. Malila understood the elderly liked their little rituals. He first brewed up an effusion from the contents of a leather pouch, bitter and tasting of some unidentifiable dried berry. It made her teeth feel furry. He drank it as well. She surreptitiously discarded it until Jesse caught her doing so. His blow stung. She had to drink it down in front of him thereafter.

Jesse’s second ritual was odd. He sang, recited passages from memory, and told improbable stories. It mystified her as he did not seem to care whether she listened or not. All his speeches were odd, but the long passages of cadenced words he called “poems” bewildered her completely. She heard about Horatio defending his father, who was also a river; a man loitering among some yellow flowers; another talking to a skin parasite; another watching for a flag; another about someone named MacPherson holding up a floor with pipes; and an academic railing against the arrival of a pool in a table. It was all very silly.

The last ritual before retiring was bathing. Jesse had some excuse, but Malila could see it was just to humiliate her on a daily basis. She would have to strip, soap up, and sluice off before Jesse would allow her to dive shivering under the sleeping skins. He followed suit, damp and shivering under the furs as well. When Malila understood that the old man did not expect her to service him, she welcomed the warmth of the sleeping arrangements and slept well … except for the dream.

During the interim of fatigue, while she warmed the bed to allow her body to sag into slumber, Malila was able to think. The old savage acted as if her abduction was a clever prank. She knew better. She was disgraced. The Unity boasted it had never lost a war or suffered an officer captured in the seventy-four years of its glorious history. If she were part of history at all, Malila would star in a great cautionary tale told to new recruits.

Malila ran through the great narratives she had known as a recruit. The Unity immortalized sagas in which the individual sacrificed for the glory of the country. Dying soldiers praised the Unity with their cooling lips. Martyrs succumbed only after striking a courageous blow to confound the enemies of freedom and democracy. Not one heroine had been caught in her underwear by a demented Sisi.

The Sisis were vile, worn-out, incompetent, incontinent, selfish, and dim-witted. They were beneath notice or contempt. She must be an unknowing fraud to have let herself be captured. She was a failure with each kilometer she walked, each kilogram she carried, and each meal she accepted.

Malila imagined how she might become a martyr for the Unity before this lunatic Sisi could show her off as a trophy. After her glorious death, her friends would mourn her and count themselves blessed to have known her. Her patrons would gain heroic cachet that their fellow officers would covet. Her crèche would have a tasteful brass plaque placed on her old bunk. However, as each of her imagined exploits to martyrdom played out in her mind, Malila returned to the same dilemma: as far as the Unity would ever know, she was alive, swimming around some muddy river of the outlands. She would waste her last words on the dementia of an old man. It was just too grotesque.

One night, after she stopped shivering, Malila asked, “Why are you doing this to me, old man?”

“I am a man under authority, and I have men under authority to me. To one I say ‘Come’ and he comes, and to another I say ‘Go’ and he goes.”

“That isn’t an answer.”

“No, it isn’t. When I start answering those questions, lass, it means that I no longer think you are going back to your damned Union alive. Do you want me to answer your questions?”

“No!”

“Good … Sleep.”

She slept, somehow comforted.

CHAPTER 18

TRIP WIRE, SPRING, TRIGGER, JAWS

bsnare

Nyork, Unity

19.51.31.local_19_10_AU76

Monee’k is different from the other girls, Iain thought. That would be obvious to anyone who bothered to really look. Her body floated, while all the other girls merely danced. He knew his attraction, his addiction, for her was getting out of hand. All his spare pay, not that there was a lot, went to buy time with Monee’k at the Night Lite Ballroom. If he got there early enough, he could dance with her the entire night … or until his money ran out. She smiled at him as they shared a few words dancing, his hands caressing her warm skin as they moved. He shivered.

He had seen her arrive at the club once before. Even with her clothes on, she had been easy to spot. She had a bounce in her stride that he would know anywhere. Iain had been waiting across the alley from the stage door in the rain, his service coat buttoned and his collar turned up. He hunkered down into the coat, trying to warm himself against the wind coming in from the river.

A group of women started down the alley to enter the stage door, the lights from the street making them unrecognizable silhouettes. It was only when the others turned to go in that Iain saw Monee’k at the back of the group. She stopped. When she smiled, Iain felt himself breathe again. He waved, stopped, his hand still up. She walked across the alley, smiled again, and took his hand. She held it as they talked. She was special.

“Nice to see you, Sergeant.”

“Call me Iain. Can I call you Monee’k? That is a pretty name.”

“My name’s really Heather. Monee’k is like a stage name … Iain. You’ve been coming here a lot lately.”

“I’ve been here before, but I started coming back when I noticed you.”

Heather had laughed, and it had made his heart skip. Once inside they had danced until closing. Heather had paid for their last three dances.

To Hecate, Malila’s disappearance had been wrenching. At the museum, Hecate had been too brusque with her, the memory of their abrupt parting haunting her even before she’d learned of Malila’s disappearance. Then, Malila’s apartment vacant and O-A terminated, Hecate had imagined a purge inside the DUFS. Malila would never have seen it coming. Even as she was bending the rules in unimagined ways, Malila could be blindsided after a not-quite-agile-enough maneuver. Someone would find it so easy to denounce her.

Hecate had made judicious inquiries through the governmental back channels, but to no avail. Malila had just evaporated.

Then Victor had been denounced. To watch his slow, public evisceration at the hands of lesser creatures had been agony. It had been a mercy when he killed himself.

Since then, the one remaining bright spot for her was the book warehouse. To her surprise, Victor’s suicide had not canceled her access. She was spending more and more time within its high dusty walls, staying all night before returning to the ministry.

She found and inhabited worlds of hope, despair, joy, sorrow, and delight. Eventually, it scared her, thinking she might lose herself to the books. There was so little to keep her here otherwise.

“Doggy, I can beat Khama’s last jag!” said a grinning Jasun Ciszek as Iain arrived.

“Given up on loser lieutenants, has the old man?”

“Seems he has changed from looies to loos,” said Jasun.

“Makes sense when you think about it, Gunny. Whata we gotta do now?”

Jasun slipped into official bureaucratese. “Our section is to direct all resources to evaluating and revising policies and procedures for the care and maintenance of all sanitary facilities in the command.”

“You’re kidding me, yeah? We are supposed to feck off everything to make sure the toilets flush?”

“By the authority bestowed by rank and custom … yes.”

“So what do I do with the Chiu data?”

Ciszek was ready for him and passed over a small scrap of actual paper.

“Just post it to this address, Doggy, just the raw data. Let’s get a move on. I need to get this new shit started before my ThiZ break. We gotta have something to show by retreat today.”

Iain gave a smart salute before slouching into the seat at his console. “Ours is not to wonder, Sarge, why these bizzles are in charge.”

Jourdaine smiled his bodiless smile as the Presence. He supervised Khama, unbeknownst to the man or his sergeants. In the CORE of the Unity, secrets of state, encrypted industrial correspondence, and even a low-level data stream were free for the taking … to Jourdaine. The best security procedures were no match for a Presence that could move outside the mirrored corridors of the ’net. With little danger to himself, he had been able to have Khama not only initiate but now disassociate himself from the first step of his trap for Chiu. He had his trip wire—the auto ping.

It was a start. Unlike any usual trap, however, this one possessed parts that never would appear to connect with any other part. It would never look like a trap. Anyone climbing up the data stream would find people ignorant of any connection they might have with each other. It was not complete yet. He still needed a spring to energize it, a trigger to set off the capture, and the jaws to seize his prey.

With that thought, the next item on his scavenger hunt would be a spring, to magnify the tentative vibrations of the trip wire. In the vast landscape of the CORE, if you could view it from Jourdaine’s perspective, there existed all sorts of oddities and back alleys with bits of program or personality that had gotten lost or corrupted. Becoming cumbersome over time, the CORE techs had found it easier to assign a distant and silent block of memory to them, letting the bits fight it out among themselves.

The n-dimensioned space assigned to them frothed with danger, of course, but it was always worth a look. Sometimes, the bits of program acted like rats, burrowing into otherwise protected file dumps to retrieve a datum or two. However, there were some things you could not get rats to do.

For those jobs, you needed graduate students.

Dr. Waylan Swartzbender, the Rodman professor of the Heidegger School of Practical Theology of Columbia University of the People connected with Jourdaine via a video interview. Jourdaine needed no O-A for this. Everyday coercion, fear, and duplicity were quite sufficient for academics.

“Colonel Jourdaine, I must say I am a bit surprised. My meeting was with a … Undersecretary Chilton … about the funding?” said the E30 S30 man in the rolled-sleeves, red-shirted uniform of a tenured professor.

“Yes, Professor Swartzbender, it is about that we need to speak.”

Jourdaine was pleased with the several beats of eye blinking that his words provoked. Good start.

“Is there any problem, Colonel Jourdaine?”

“I do hope not, Doctor. That is why this interview is what we must consider … informal. It would be unwise to make known this conversation outside ourselves. It would look like … favoritism.”

The academic smiled on cue. Sometimes it’s too easy.

“Well, then, Colonel. The funding proposal was in order, surely? It is almost the same as last year, plus COLA, capital fund, pedagogical allowances, the usual … isn’t it?”

“Yes …”

Jourdaine waited for the professor to blink. He blinked.

“Who is BethanE Winters, Professor Swartzbender?”

The professor’s eyebrows flicked up in surprise, and he looked down, rather than up, recalling her. The man was working from notes.

“Why, I was unaware there was this level of inspection into the academic process, Colonel.”

“Who is she, Doctor?”

“Just a graduate student.”

“Indeed, a graduate student … just. What is her area of study then?”

A hurried number of keystrokes later, the professor said, “The superiority of ethical immanence to the concept of transcendent ethicality with the deconstruction of the modern city-state as text.”

“Now, Professor, I am hardly a man of your learning or insight, but I had thought that concept a bit played out?”

“Indeed, indeed. Rather hackneyed, expected more, distracted, don’t you know … government contracts. But … why is this important?”

The professor looked up into Jourdaine’s eyes. His chin came up; his lips thinned.

Excellent, Jourdaine thought. We finally come to what he thinks important. Time to set him up.

“Are you familiar with The Vital Realism, by John Baudrillard, Professor?”

The older man’s eyes dilated, and there was a slight intake of breath. Jackpot, thought Jourdaine.

“I was a very young scholar at the time, Colonel. The book was on the Correct Readings for Consumers list then …”

The professor subsided as Jourdaine raised his hand and shook his head. Take your foot off the accelerator briefly; makes the turning easier.

“It is not your … reading habits … we are questioning, Professor. Citizen Winters seems to have acquired a copy from her current liaison with a Malik Mafee. What is your opinion of the work, since you admit to having read it?” Now let him hear the trap snap shut. It will focus his efforts wonderfully.

“Oh, derivative, totally derivative. Old-fashioned. Knew it at the time, of course,” the professor said, rather too fast.

Just a little frenzy, as expected, of course.

“So glad to hear you say that—and, of course, your loyalty and … orthodoxy … have never been in serious question. But this Citizen Winters … another issue entirely. I think I would feel very much better about her advancement if we could judge how loyal and cooperative she is,” Jourdaine added, waiting for the response. Open a gate and see how fast he rushes to it, he thought.

“Yes, assuredly, Colonel. I could have her do some of my classes,” the professor said and actually looked away to write something.

“Hardly, Professor.” Jourdaine laughed but did not smile.

The man looked up, startled. The man needed his priorities rectified.

“I think I will provide the test,” Jourdaine said. “A little discrimination test for her.” Jourdaine sent the file to the professor as he spoke. “She is to review this data stream, and when it matches these parameters, here, she is then to set this flag in the CORE. Her thesis would be unwise to accept if she fails, don’t you agree? She will find the task tedious but untaxing. Is that acceptable?”

The look of immediate gratitude on the man’s face was unfeigned. It had taken so little. The professor disdained money and thus lowered his own value to the cost of an impoverished scribbler. He disdained politicians and thus became a bad one.

The remainder of the interview was painless. By the time Jourdaine broke the contact, Swartzbender was practically rolling onto his back to have his belly scratched.

The same day, a good deal less unusually, at Columbia’s University of the People, a graduate student’s thesis advisor assigned her to do a task that was completely useless.

Now Jourdaine needed a trigger. Questing around the frothing edge of the CORE, he had seen how an anomaly dimpled the surface, darkened it, and distorted the landmarks. He swooped closer and could tell it was Charlie. Inside a swirling vortex of the CORE sat what had been a promising sports personality.

Even Jourdaine, not a fan of the usual blood sports, had heard the reports that a defensive lineman, one who had just been given his O-A, probably a little too late, had almost immediately COREd himself out. His owners were furious.

Jourdaine’s Presence sat near the lineman, close enough to hear but far enough away so as not to be hit by the backwash of the man’s emotions.

oHw ddi I gte ehre? Ewehr si eerh?

No! I said that wrong.

How.did.I.get.here? Where.is.here?

The trainer had given him some of the yellow pills and told him not to take them all at one time.

I sohudl avhe lenisted!

No! Not right.

Thoughts and images swirling around him, he could get no fingerholds for his own ideas. He kept falling, falling forever. His flesh melted and reformed as he watched. He saw his guts clench and move, pink and writhing like a newly killed hog.

The O-A had been such a great new toy when they’d put it in. They’d said that it was going to improve his game. It had taken a lot of hard work to get the thing to work, but it had been fecking amazing. He had been able to see the game like a bird and feel the ball move before he could see it, feel how the quarterback was going to move by how he pressed against the earth.

They had told him not to look into the CORE. He had understood that.

What he had not understood were all the willing, enthusiastic, exceptional women who had undressed for him every time he’d turned around. He could just eat them up … the girls. They had come with their pills and the pills with their visions, and he’d eaten those too.

Mi’ llafign!

Charlie watched his fingers morph into staring alien eyes before they dissolved into a fetid, sticky mass. It hurt so bad.

He was aware of the Presence for a while as he watched his fingers regrow.

“Charlie, Charlie. You aren’t falling. Look at me, Charlie. You are here with me, and I am not falling. I can make it all go away. You don’t have to do this Charlie …”

Charlie looked over and could see only the barest swirl of darkness in the shadowless noon of the CORE. He didn’t have to say anything. The Presence calmed him. He was grateful for the brief respite from his torrent of sensation. He clung to the Presence and wept, for the first time since that night when they had found him raving.

He had tried to hide from them in the CORE. Now he wept. Just having the Presence there gave him an anchor. Once he stopped falling and stopped crying, the Presence told him what he had to do.

“Charlie, you can listen to me, Charlie. I can get you home. You will stop falling. It will all be easy, but you have to do your part. You know how to execute, don’t you, Charlie? People depend on you. You have always done your best for a teammate, haven’t you? I’m your teammate, Charlie. Just one more assignment, and we can go home.

“Just watch the flag. See the line marker. When it comes up, just throw the switch. It will send you home. But you have to wait. It isn’t time yet. It is too dangerous to test the switch until the flag is set. Do you understand, Charlie?

“Yes … und’stand: assignment flag home.”

“Excellent, Charlie. At the right time, the switch will send you home.”

Trip wire, spring, trigger … only jaws were needed. The trap was coming along.

He would be ready for her: Khama to order the auto ping to be tripped if Chiu’s O-A came within range, an agent of his own in the shop to create the auto ping, an expendable E20 graduate student to read the raw data, her thesis advisor ready to denounce her if needs be, Charlie to trigger the switch, and, easiest of all, a snatch team. Anyone working on any one link was unable to identify Jourdaine himself: no program code to be unearthed, no data dump to be gone through by some enterprising eprovost. Jourdaine’s programming had been in people, and when people died, their memories died with them. Chiu, if she surfaced alive, could dispute her last disastrous meeting with Suarez. If anyone took her seriously, it might expose Miramundo Morales. Jourdaine wished to reserve the pleasure of that revelation for himself.

Of course, it was probably unnecessary. Chiu had already been missing for three weeks. He’d give it six months and then dismantle the whole affair. His coconspirators would go back to whatever they had been doing, never knowing they had been a part of a conspiracy.

But this had been a good deal of trouble for one jumped-up second lieutenant unless … she might be recycled.

Palace coups required audacity, brutality, and the ability to draw people to his cause. Power blocks in academia, the government, or the arts were fools to contest a change in government against a unified military. Barring kitchen knives and makeshift cudgels, only the DUFS had weapons.

However, the DUFS was hardly unified. It seethed with intrigue. Like a magnet, any leader powerful enough to succeed induced polar opposites to dispute that success. Disinterest combated enthusiasm, disaffection contended with popularity, and combinations of lesser powers blocked a greater one. Jourdaine would have to be seen and unseen, exceptional and unremarkable, decisive and compliant.

For this coup d’état, then, he needed not supporters but metasupporters, those who were unaware how their actions might forward his plans. Many were in place already, Jourdaine’s spiderweb of subordinates. None of his people knew another. None of his human tools would ever be able to report more than an odd enthusiasm or quirky behavior, and Jourdaine would remain a bland smudge on their recollections.

But at some time the virtual must become real, and for that he needed a face.

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