By the time icy water trickled down the back of Malila’s neck to awaken her, she was stiff with cold. Once she had freed her arms, she pushed up into the squalid dead mass of Bear. His clotting blood had coated her face and shredded clothes. With more satisfaction than disgust, she heaved his dead bulk over onto his back. Malila crawled to an expanse of clean snow and tried to get as much Bear off herself as possible. She was still getting back handfuls of red snow by the time uncontrolled shivering stopped her.
This victory was not like her others. She felt achy, sick, cold yet feverish, somehow. The wound Bear had given was just a centimeter long, just above her pubic hair. It had already stopped bleeding, but it burned. These savages like to label things.
Bear had given her the first taste of leering evil in her life, she thought. Before, the word had been only an advertisement of her country’s displeasure. Now, evil would carry Bear’s face. She saw again the knife stabbing into the back of Bear’s knee and his answering bellow … Very satisfying. The strange disembodied voice she had heard, the voice reminding her of the knife, had sounded like Edie, but that, after consideration, worried her all the more. Hearing voices means you are going mad.
Malila shook herself. It was after noon. Jesse hadn’t returned. She left Bear lying on his back, his eyes open to the skies … and the crows.
Malila plunge-stepped down to the underpass, letting each stride slow her while allowing her to watch the bleak whiteness for enemies. Nothing moved under the bridge. She slid beneath the rusting edge of the underpass and, sitting on her heels, surveyed the area before creeping down and rummaging among the debris. The fire had long since died out. Corpses in various positions, destroyed weapons, discarded cooking utensils, abandoned packs, and stray clothes were all that remained from the previous evening. Malila shifted her grip on Bear’s rifle. There were four bodies. Two, she could account for: “lucky” George and “diving” Junk. Two others lay collapsed over the fire. Grabbing a ski pole, she pushed the top body off the smaller one. The top one was the oaf who had pawed her the night before. A large exit wound of a pulse rifle bolt gaped at the top of his head. She smiled. The man beneath was unrecognizable. Most of his face fell off into the fire ring as she turned him over. The disturbing smell of grilled meat wafted into the cold air. Malila backed away until her belly subsided.
Turning away from the sight, wrestling with the smaller man’s frozen feet, Malila eventually recovered his boots, sturdy and hobnailed. Ripping a flannel lining out of another coat, she folded covers for her feet before putting on the boots and stamping to check the fit. Malila went through the rest of the debris, collecting her pack and clothes that were not soaked in anyone’s blood. She retrieved Jesse’s odd short knife. Somehow, she would hate to tell the old man she had lost it.
In time, she found most of the items she had been carrying and added two water bottles, some better gloves, a hooded parka, and some very thick and invitingly woolly socks. That and the additional food she scavenged made the bandits’ raid an economic bonanza. She found nothing of the old man’s possessions in the debris. For the first time in almost a month, she felt safe.
Malila sat and gnawed on some trail bread. Jesse was gone—good riddance. The old Sisi had finally shown his true colors: abandoning her, leaving her as bait, capturing her again, and leaving her for Bear, no doubt as some peace offering. Trading her or discarding her like so much trash!
She had escaped naked into the snow last night and was eating the bread of her one-time captors today. These outlanders died just like other men. If Jesse ever wandered back, the old man would expect her to follow him to some savage prison pit or, worse, to a barbarian trophy stand. Not going to happen!
Malila watched her anger boil up in front of her. It felt good. Jesse didn’t even want what she was willing to give him. He had humiliated her for the last time, rejected her for the very last time. After today, even death was preferable to being the disgraced chattel of the old, creepy, strange, impotent—well, unwilling—hallucinating, humiliating Jesse. Malila liked how that sounded.
She was armed, well clothed, well watered, and well provisioned. If the ignorant old man could survive in the outlands, so could she!
However, she had to admit she was not a good skier. She couldn’t leave here laying an obvious trail to be caught up and picked up by Bear’s men or whatever it was Bear had seen before she’d killed him.
In the end she decided to stay, just until sundown. But to stay, she would need a killing field and camouflage, just like her sea avatar. Looking around, she noticed the wind had created a massive snow cornice between the two ribbons of concrete on the west side of the underpass. The top of the column of snow would make an ideal sniper nest, protected from the sides and a little above the level of the highways, she thought. Shoveling her way to the top of the cornice, stamping down the snow in order to move up and forward, Malila was finally able to throw herself down into the small bowl of her blind. She jury-rigged a deer hide as a cape with the hair outside to cover herself. Throwing handfuls of the light snow over herself and the rifle, she again eased herself down into the shallow cup. She peered over the edge. Nothing moved.
She wanted to ripple her chromatophores in pleasure but settled for a satisfied sigh … and instantly regretted it. A large plume of steam rose above her and blinked out almost immediately.
Malila fussed at herself for such an amateur mistake as she wrapped a scarf around her face. A plume of steam like that could have alerted the enemy. She settled in for the inevitable wait. A good hunter learned how to wait. Malila was a good hunter.
She let her eyes unfocus, a trick she had learned in sniper training. She looked at nothing but became more sensitive to movement everywhere. Motion was enemy.
She supposed it was hours later; the sun was behind her and near the tree line, casting most of the land into long blue shadows—movement!
A shadow, on the edge of the roadway, the very limit of her field of fire.
Past her own tracks, the north-south road was a uniform blanket of snow up to where it disappeared in a curve, which must be the ravine George had fallen into. She guessed the range at a thousand meters. She had used projectile weapons but rarely. Nevertheless, the grooves of this weapon looked sharp; the air was still.
She chambered a round and swept along the crest of the snow with the rifle’s reticle. The shot was almost due north; the Coriolis effect would make the slug veer right about ten centimeters and up perhaps half that. As she adjusted the crosshairs, she saw more activity, movement behind a neat round hole. Malila aimed for a center-of-mass shot, fifty centimeters below the hole. She took a breath, released it, sensed her heart beat once, and fired.
The sound of the shot echoed back from the woods on either side. There was an eruption of snow at the site. The edge slid away, and she saw flailing distant dark limbs. Malila always smiled at the death of her enemies.
Once she was sure there was no more activity to her front, Malila retreated to the center of the shallow bowl of her stand. She found some of the trail bread and gnawed it until it blunted her appetite. Despite making her head throb, she forced herself to gulp the slurry of ice from a water bottle. The worst was almost over. With the coming of night, she could set out. Her mind wandered as she watched the sapphire shadows lengthen against the black woods. The humming in her head subsided.
It was good to be free at last. She would go east, stay away from anything that looked like trouble, and get up to Pensy. She would take a bison before she left the grasslands. She would survive … fecking, fathering old Sisi.
Jesse toppled, flailing as he fell down the steep slope, the cold, dark water churning at the bottom, waiting for him. Facedown, he skidded to the very edge of the water. The ice creaked under his weight. The slug had destroyed the shaft of his ski pole, scattering splinters of carbon fiber along the line of his descent.
You deserve to be knocked on your ass, scorbutic old cretin!
True enough, but it’s always good to be alive-er than your enemy thinks you are.
Jesse released his pack, kicked off his skis, flipped onto all fours, and pushed the heavy pack over the ice and close to the edge of the roiling stream. He lifted it away. If someone came looking, it would seem the icy creek had claimed another body.
All he needed was time.
An hour later, finally out of sight of the sniper, after crossing Old 41, Jesse was able to get into the cave unseen.
That’s disappointing, he thought.
Picking up spectral points of light from the dying sun, the woods took on a look of spun glass.
In front of her, a scraping sound intruded into her thoughts. Malila had been hearing it for seconds now. She saw no movement. The sound was definitely coming from the direction of the snow cave. She could see Bear’s tracks and her own start at a snowdrift. She heard the scraping sound again and then nothing. Malila centered the rifle’s reticle onto the ridge of the drift and waited for a target.
“Halloo, the bridge. You missed us back there. Give us back the girl, and we won’t bother you.”
Jesse? And the old man thought she was a prisoner! Malila grinned to herself. Yesterday’s killings would not gain him any new friends. No doubt, Jesse was anxious to leave the area before accounts could be settled.
Malila had accounts of her own. Jesse had humiliated her for the last time—had rejected … abandoned her for the very last time. Old, strange, unwilling, humiliating … old Jesse. The humming in her head increased.
“Jesse, it’s me. I … I’m all right. They … they haven’t hurt me. They say for you to go away.”
“Good to hear you’re alive and well, lass. Who is it you’re talking for now?”
Just a bit too slow she said, “Andre. He says his name is Andre, and his squad will be coming up to relieve him at sundown.”
In a stand-up fight at twenty to one, Jesse would die. The smart move for him was to retreat and travel fast enough to hide his trail.
“Are they coming from Kankakee or Sheboygan?”
Malila tried to localize the voice, but the snowbank was too large a target.
“He says he won’t tell you.”
This was not going right. Jesse had not shown himself, nor had he just backed off from the prospect of an overwhelming opponent. Malila thought she had handled the question about those places with the grotesque names adroitly. No one gave out information to anyone for free, especially to an enemy. The humming in her head felt like the tingling of an old scar.
“Funny that, lass. Kankakee was blown away generations ago. Sheboygan too, now I think ’bout it.”
“Fecking Sisi, go away!” she yelled. Jesse’s condescending arrogance had brought this on himself now.
“Watch your tongue, lass,” he replied.
The tide of the old man’s laughter rolled across the snowfield, deep, rich, uninhibited … insulting.
“Fathering old Sisi!”
Malila looked through the reticle for a target. The sun had already cast the snowdrift into a long shadow. She inhaled, exhaled, waited for the quiet between heartbeats, and … saw movement to the right. More by instinct than thought, she aimed and fired.
A thin voice … or an echo of a voice … rang back to Malila in the silence after the shot.
The first crack of the pulse rifle made her jump in astonishment. The old man was not dead; he had foiled the signature lock on the pulse rifle, and he was willing to kill. In the last several weeks, she had convinced herself that Jesse would never harm her. It had earned her disdain. Her head keened with sound.
Malila sighted through the reticle and placed another slug into the snow cave as she noticed another small movement. Not going to be that old man’s pet prisoner … ever. The duel continued, and that surprised her again. She answered every pulse bolt with another slug, and each slug was answered with another thundering crack of the pulse rifle, ineffective as the others. There were no near misses, no scorching overhead rounds. The man seemed to be firing into the ground for all the good it was doing him.
Malila was down to her last few rounds before it stopped. He’s wounded, without a doubt. Fathering Sisi. She would wait until he bled out before she wasted any more ammunition. Malila moved to the middle of the shallow cup of her nest to retrieve a water bottle. Her next surprise occurred as the snow opened up and swallowed her whole.
It was warm work, Jesse had to admit. The girl kept a steady fusillade going, definitely pissing off the Sisi. The snow cave was deceptive, however; the ground sloped away from the side facing her fire. He was able to shelter somewhat as he moved from side to side along the length of the cave, aiming through holes made by the slugs meant to kill him. He had to place his own shots well, even as Malila shot back.
When she screamed, Jesse stood, broke through the snow cave, and sprinted the hundred yards to the base of the cornice. Small holes left by his pulse bolts were spouting water. Like the snow cave, the bolts had expended their energy deep inside the cornice, melting the snow as he’d planned. He heard the girl splashing around inside the snowbank, newly turned into an icy death trap.
“Malila, can you hear me?” he bellowed.
All movement stopped.
Malila’s voice had already begun to quaver from the cold.
“You are going to die in there unless I help you.” It was not a question.
“Y … yes.”
“I’ll drain out the water and get you out. Understand?”
“Y … y … es.” Almost unintelligible.
Jesse hammered at the soft ice with his ax as if it were rotten concrete. A small stream and then a spout of water appeared, then slowed and stopped.
“Clear the rifle and hand it out, butt first.”
He listened to the sound of the clip being removed and again as the action was worked. A rifle butt appeared in the hole. He grabbed it and tossed it away. Jesse’s small knife came next. Shortly thereafter, Malila was delivered from her ice womb by a double footling breech extraction.
Jesse arose, dressed, and left the warm, sleeping form of the girl as sunlight just tinged the walls of the new snow cave.
It had been dark by the time he’d led Malila away last night, surrendering final possession of the underpass to dead men. He had found enough dry clothes from among the dead to replace Malila’s sodden gear, but she had been too cold to dress herself, her teeth had been chattering, and her limbs refusing to obey commands. He had carried her down the slope to the new snow cave in the ravine. Even with all the furs, the buffalo robe, and his own heat, she had felt like a shivering corpse as he’d held her throughout that long night. He’d woken her at intervals to make her drink water, melted from his own heat.
By the time he left, she was warm, soft, and drowsy, like a new love.
Twice in a single day she had gotten dangerously cold. Malila would awake exhausted and tied to the snow cave by her nakedness. Jesse still had work to do at the underpass.
Camping there, not one of our better decisions, old man.
If I could predict the future, why would I bother to work?
Losing time too! Mid-November and we’re still north of the Ohio.
“You give me much good counsel. I am tired of it.”
Once he regained the road and started along the broad swath of snow, Jesse was careful to make new tracks and not to cross those he and Malila had made the night before. Snow would never hide your presence, but it might be convinced to lie about you to others, overestimating your numbers.
As he approached, Jesse noticed the trail of broken snow leading up to the interstate on the right of the underpass; he hadn’t made those marks. Curiosity was one bad habit he had meant to kick. He sidestepped up the slope, following the tracks already there, crusty with ice.
He could now report the final fate of the enforcer leader. The dead, pale blue lips were already pulled back from chipped teeth in the rictus of death. The man still wore his bearskins, but the hood was a frozen mass of blood. With difficulty, Jesse lifted the dead man’s chin to examine the wounds. There had been only two cuts, but one had fileted the carotid artery on the left for over four inches. The man’s blood pressure must have dropped like a stone. Most of the bleeding was next to the corpse rather than underneath it; the body had been moved, flipped onto its back after death. Jesse looked at where the man had died, mentally canceling out the blood pool, looking just at the shape of the cavity. It revealed the form of a body … a small, familiar body.
The old man widened his search away from the corpse and found the wicked little blade. He grunted.
“Slaver’s blade,” he hummed. Except for some of the peace-loving Muslim states, the institution had officially been interred before the twentieth century. When the Meltdown had occurred, American slavery had stretched, yawned, and resurfaced, invigorated by the brief rest.
They were now in the no-man’s-land of Indiana, and the practice was alive and well. The old man had wondered about the odd wound Malila had collected just above her pubic hairline. It looked deliberate. Despite how much she put on about her sexuality, the girl was still naive about the sexual cesspits available for falling into.
“Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power,” Jesse thought.
So Malila had killed the man in a hand-to-hand fight. She had also made two credible attempts to kill Jesse himself with an unfamiliar weapon, one at a range of over 1,100 yards. If his kith and kin were not to be deprived of his sparkling personality, Jesse needed to keep Malila under very close guard. Damn.
It was late morning when Malila awoke. It took her a few minutes to orient herself inside the horizonless whiteness of the cave. She wondered how many of the experiences of the day before had been dreams. Had the old man really abandoned her to rape and enslavement? Had she run off naked into the snow and been attacked by a wolf that had turned into Jesse? Had she killed Bear? How had she come to be swimming encased in a column of ice?
She found herself again naked under warm furs inside a snow cave. The old man had not seen fit to leave her any clothes this time. Malila checked her fingers and toes, finding them flushed, warm, and tingling.
Sometime later, she heard Jesse glissade down the face of the ravine. He pulled aside the deer hide covering the entrance and, without a word, threw in some clothes, the woolly socks, and her still-damp new boots. Malila dressed, despite the occasional dark, stiff stains she found on the clothes, and emerged. The old man grunted at the fit and pulled the coat’s hood up, closing it around her face.
“We hav’ ta shift, Lieutenant. Gimme any more truck, and I’ll leave ye fur th’ wolves.”
“Wolves, lass. Do ye want to meet them for real?”
Malila waded up the snow slope with difficulty, followed by Jesse. Then Jesse had her load her pack and put on skis, the old man adjusting the bindings until he was satisfied.
“J’ever use skis lik’ this afore, Lieutenant?”
“Show me what ye kin do, lass. Gang down twenty meter or so, and come back.”
Before she started, Jesse put a hand on her arm and waited until she was looking at him.
“Just for th’ record, I’m fagged out, and right now I don’t like ye over much. I have this new Knapp. Not tried out yet. Don’t piss off the Sisi.”
“Learn to ski wi’ the pack, and we get on the trail sooner. Let the skis carry ye. This ain’t snow walkin’ by a long sight.”
It was still snow walking for Malila for many attempts thereafter. She got the hang of it before the sun was down, the old man’s burr improving in step with her skiing.
They headed north on the smaller road until well after sundown, when they rested. By the time they were moving again, the rising moon shed an eerie light across the landscape. During that lurid night, each time Malila looked over her shoulder, she saw Jesse’s dark form silhouetted against the blue-lit snow, like a specter bearing down, as if to run her over.
At dawn, they had made several false trails to either side of the road. Jesse then directed her to backtrack a kilometer before heading to a bivouac. In the cold camp, Jesse once more bound her before they slept. It was midafternoon before she awoke and dusk before they set out again.
The hard-driving dash lasted for three long nights. She rose exhausted, the days too short to repair her fatigue. When the snow melted too much, Jesse started again to hike during the day. He never talked to her now. Days passed with nothing more than a nudge from a boot. His silence drained her life away. Even the hallucination of Edie’s voice had abandoned her after that last protest. She had acted like a child lashing out in anger … in frustration. The old man had then turned to save her. She felt shamed by her actions but could not put a name to the feeling.
For the first time, Malila saw the two of them in comparison to the vast unpeopled prairie, a life raft on a sterile sea.