A signal—a short, imperative machine command monotonously identical to all the other signals sent from the transmitter over the last twenty-six weeks—was sent. Unique to the prior episodes, the apparatus received an answering affirmative and a short data stream. Chiu, Malila Evanova, number 59026169, was found.
BethanE Winters, graduate student in modern philosophical literature at Columbia’s University of the People, pulled back from the dense work of tracking down a metaphor that had gone rogue on her. It had disappeared somewhere around AU 15 when it had ducked behind a rampaging trope. This was hard work just to add a small footnote.
Feck it and got to bed, she thought … until she remembered the data dump from old Swartzbender still needed to be evaluated.
That was so unfair; none of the other grad students had to do it. It might even be illegal … impersonating another user, but it was only three minutes of her life every day.
BethanE quested the address with a sigh and slumped into the seat to start her analysis.
She was almost done with the string analysis for that day when she saw it. There was the odd string. She quested the original data to verify it. To what was the data attached? She was smart enough to know, if Swartzbender was not, that this was a real-world application invading her scholastic world.
It meant her thesis was accepted.
The good thing about academia was that it was inside work with no heavy lifting. She set the flag in the CORE as instructed … no heavy lifting.
In a swirling, distant portion of an n-dimensional nonreality called the CORE, the dissipating personality of a never-to-be-realized sports phenomenon waited. With rapt attention, Charlie watched a flag. In what was left of his mind, instead of the usual puzzles about picking apart the intrigues of a backfield in his usual quest to dismantle a quarterback, Charlie was in fear for his life. Failure meant death. His swirling thoughts centered on reporting a change in a single CORE processor flag. It was so important. Then he could go home.
“… 00000000000000000000000000000000 …”
The Presence had not been there in a long time … such a long time.
He was falling again. He could hear the phantoms coming to eat his pink writhing guts.
If he looked around he would see them, but he would not.
I veha ot atwhc!
Wrong, I got it wrong again.
eTehr wsa hte anigls: “… 000000000000000011111111111111111 …”
Panicked, in case he was too slow, he slapped the signal alarm, hearing the reassuring sound—just as the silver thread of his life was severed.
Sacrifices had been made.
“This is coming direct from Major Gurion?”
“Exactly, Master Sergeant. Going to mess up your weekend?”
“Sir, yes. I mean, no, sir! It is just so … unusual. Unsupported intrusion into the outlands on such short notice … sir,” said Master Sergeant Beyer.
“Surprised me too, actually, Sarge,” replied Lieutenant Cooper.
“Will the target be able to tell we’re coming? It’d be easier for us if she breaks away before they sight us. With those savages, you never know what they might do. I would hate to lose her just as we got close.”
“Well, Sarge, what the tech guys tell me is that her O-A, when it has no signal, upregulates the gain ‘looking’ for a carrier wave. That might give her a bit of a hum. Once the carrier wave is detected, it downregulates, and she won’t hear the hum anymore.”
“Doesn’t sound like we can count on that,” replied the sergeant. “We got to go in expecting to break her out of some jail cell, someplace? Have we got the munitions for that?”
“I agree. We will have some satchels of C24 and some demo guys with us but still just a light platoon, just the two skimmers. Quick and fast.”
“What if that isn’t enough? We can’t have a knock-’em-down-tear-’em-up fight with no artillery or tactical air.”
“Absolutely, this is a smash and grab. If she’s not where we can find her, she’s too hard to break out, we lose her signal, or we have a lot of opposition, then we cut and run. Understand?”
“What if she’s turned traitor?”
“She comes back, in as many pieces as convenient for storage.”
Stamping Ground, Kentucky
Almost dawn, April 10, 2019
Malila slept poorly, finding it difficult to get comfortable on the cot. Slumber had found her when the sounds of the campground had subsided into that odd muffled racket of a large number of people all trying to be quiet at the same time: hushed whispers, the rare clank, followed by louder shushing, and the occasional toddler asking, in a high, loud, and clear voice, “Why do I have to be quiet?”
It was still dark when Sally jostled Malila’s shoulder to wake her.
“Malila, honey, we are going to the Sunrise. You don’t have to, but we would love for you to come with us. You don’t have to get dressed up; just dress warm,” Sally whispered.
Malila nodded and put a hand down to Ethan’s crib next to her. He slept through the night now, only to awaken each morning soaking wet and acting starved by the callous disregard of his keepers. Dressing them both quickly and wrapping Ethan in the thick new quilt from Tabbie, Malila carried him out into the brisk morning. The light tingeing the east was just enough to render the sky an endless cobalt. The high waning moon added a silver touch to the shadows of the encampment. Everyone was up. Despite the cold and the dark, Jesse caught her eye and gave her one of his brilliant smiles. He was such an unapologetic early riser.
Within a few minutes, he, Sally, Moses, Xavier, and Malila with Ethan had gained the raised gravel path running through the camp. Most people were already up and moving. Small gleams of yellow light flickered and moved within the city of tents as dark shapes revealed and eclipsed other lights, all moving toward the east.
Following the crowd, they entered the greening wood before reaching an amphitheater-like space. The sky above was now like a translucent screen, the bright blaze of Venus being the last light to succumb to the advancing day. They found a place out of the flow of arriving humanity. Malila heard snatches of song move through the crowd as it swelled. Everyone faced east toward the line of the woods and the increasing brightness of the rising sun.
Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord.
The song rumbled within her from Moses’s dependable bass. Sally’s bright soprano superimposed on the groundswell of song. As Malila was trying to decipher the words, the sun slipped over the horizon and set the glade ablaze in a verdant glow.
He ’rose a victor from the dark domain.
Song after song followed, all with the same theme. The people were all celebrating again as they had at the Coming. Most everyone knew the words, and many people sang parts, reverberating bass notes lifting up the bright melodies of the altos and sopranos. Once it had grown light enough, Malila glimpsed in the woods before them a large wooden cross, veiled by the new spring growth.
When the sun was fully up, filling the glade with warmth, light, and small insects, the crowd dismissed itself to an early breakfast.
This, Malila knew, was just a prelude. The main meal of the day was after the preaching, in the early afternoon. The guest of honor at that feast was roast lamb, larded with garlic, rosemary, and thyme, major deities in the pantheon of masculine cookery.
Sally came by and relieved Malila of a fussy Ethan.
“Malila, honey, I hope you enjoyed this. We try to come every year. The Return is so special to Moses and me. We are going to go have breakfast with Tabbie. I’m sure she would love to have you join us, but don’t feel as if you have to come. Most everyone will offer you a bite to eat. We all make much too much as a rule, just in case Elijah comes. We’ll be getting back to the campsite by midmorning. Moses has to take his turn looking after the lamb. Enjoy yourself, honey. He is risen!”
Malila knew she bumbled the expected response. A sunrise ceremony seemed appropriately primitive for the outlanders, but the ceremony hadn’t been anything she’d expected. It had been much more personal, in a way. The Return was not about the return of the light from the darkness, order from chaos, or even good from evil. It was the remembrance of a single man who, at the same time, was the child that had arrived at the Coming. For unknown reasons, she was elated.
The grimness of the slow travel and the somber campground had given no hint of the jubilation this morning. Energized, children raced up and down the happy, noisy columns leading away from the glade. Different groups called back the same greeting and response about rising. Everyone was awake already, or should have been with the noise.
Allowing the crowds to move ahead of her, Malila tried to sort out the events of the morning. A smiling girl, one near her own age, pressed a warm, sweet roll into her hand as she passed. Malila nibbled and wandered on even as the crowds thinned out, the trail becoming winding, dark, and isolated.
“Malila! Hold up, Malila,” a voice called out, startling her.
Surprise still tingled within her by the time Eduard trotted up, his face flushed and smiling.
“Eduard, I didn’t know you were here!” she said, weaving her arm through his.
“I saw Moses at the Sunrise, and he told me you were coming this way. I’ve been tied up since we got here with doing errands for my parents. They always find something for me to do. I’ve had no time to see my friends and … I had no time to find you!”
“I’ve been busy too. This is the first time I’ve been free.”
Eduard leaned in to give Malila a kiss, and she circled his waist to make the embrace last longer … and give him promise of further warmth to come. Eduard responded, pulling her closer in turn and reaching under her coat to run his hands over her flanks. Malila was surprised. Eduard’s shy ardor had always been perversely exciting to Malila, but she hesitated to encourage him where anyone might see. Without thinking, she stiffened in his embrace and pulled away. Eduard’s confusion was evident. His face flushed, and he moved toward her, grasping her wrist and bringing his other hand up to cup her breast.
Malila gasped in pain. Her new tattoo was painful enough; Eduard’s clumsy grip was an unwelcome surprise. In the Unity, pleasure-sex was a well-rehearsed ballet of word, gesture, and . Unprepared for his advances and meaning to reorder his priorities, Malila lashed out with a knee almost without thinking. Her aim was a little off, but Eduard released her. They were still standing, panting at each other, as a noisy group of people swept around the bend and encircled them.
A look of dismay swept across Eduard’s face; Malila was grateful. Their private sparring would be in recess, at least for a while. She turned from him and extended a hand to the young man who seemed to be the leader. The boy looked briefly down at Malila’s extended hand before ignoring it.
“Hey, Eddie, is this your pet Uni you’ve been bragging about?” he asked, apparently a signal that set the crowd to smirks and giggles.
Eduard was silent. A girl with an indifferent complexion chimed in, “Eddie has to find a Uni prisoner to get what no one else wants to give him … Is that it, Eddie boy?”
Malila suddenly grasped she had fallen into mysterious dark waters with ominous predatory shapes circling her. She was unable to get a word in as catcalls and insults orbited them. The group started to move on when she refused to respond. A sullen girl elbowed her as the group passed, now with Eduard in tow. He looked back at her, lost in the whirlpool, drowning out of sight of land, as the crowd turned along the wooded path.
For the moment, Malila was alone. She readjusted her clothes, trying to reduce the burning sensation of her new tattoo. Wanting to think without being found by Eduard or his friends, she moved to put some distance between herself and their possible return.
A narrow path promised access to the top of a hill. Malila stepped off onto it, surrounding herself at once with the fresh green of the forest, birdcalls, and the rustling wind in the branches overhead. Picking her way up to the top, she found a small, close clearing with a downed hickory log on one side. Ignoring the dampness of the wood, she sat.
She had expected better of the outlanders. That by itself was irritating. She had been seduced into an acceptance of these barbarians, not as her equals but, in a way, her superiors. The few people she really knew had treated her with forbearance and affection and, in Jesse’s case, with mercy. Eduard had wanted her, but now he didn’t. Not enough.
To survive in the Unity was to have no expectations whatever. A single failure left you at the mercy of your superiors. Hopes were an outlander luxury in a land with no luxuries. And luxuries must be paid for. A promise of pleasure might deliver a blow of unexpected pain. But hopes, even if they failed, allowed you to continue.
She heard a short cough in the underbrush along the trail she had just used. The man’s approach had been stealthy and silent until then. Malila, occupied with her problems, only noticed when it was too late to escape. She rose to face this new intrusion.
Jesse’s smile preceded him into the clearing through the verdant new growth.
“You have been following me,” Malila accused rather than asked.
“Guilty as charged. I was following Eduard, but I thought he was following you. It looked to me that you might need a friend. Those kids can be harsh at times. They are good people, as a rule, but I don’t think they quite know what to do with acting second lieutenants, my friend. They don’t understand your great redeeming social qualities as well as some of us.”
Despite herself, Malila smiled.
“What did you think of the Sunrise service, my friend?” asked Jesse, changing the subject as he approached.
“I liked it, but it confused me too. This is the same guy who was born at Christmas?”
“The very one … but we celebrate what he did for us, not so much the calendar days.”
“Everyone was so gloomy on the way here, as if they were waiting for the sun this morning, and now everyone is celebrating.”
“Right, the sad part is remembering his dying … and our failures … and the joyful part is when we realize that he kept his promises. The sun rising, doncha see, is the start of the third day. That was when they could first see he wasna dead.”
“Oh, so some sort of miracle-like.”
“Something like that, lass.”
“Don’t call me ‘lass.’”
“Yes, my friend. I am sorry. I forgot, Malila,” Jesse replied as he always did when she objected. He never seemed to remember for long, and he never seemed to be any less sincere when she confronted him about it.
Jesse walked closer and, shooing her over a little, sat down next to her. In that following silence, Malila picked up the old man’s hand, comparing her hand to his, tracing the blue veins and the thin scars. She wondered, not for the first time, how the thin white lines of the collected scars somehow wrote the history of a life still mostly hidden to her.
Malila, turning his hand over and back, leaning into the solidity of Jesse’s body, remembered seeing him from their trek: pale except for his face and hands, blue from the tattoos, more substantial and more real, in a way, than her own flesh. She remembered her submission and Jesse’s rejection and was surprised when that eddy of emotion pulled her into a larger vortex of regret. Tears blurred her vision, the closeness of him, his scent, reminding her again how isolated she really was. She turned to him and wept, feeling his strength even before she felt his arms enfold her.
Once again, she thought of the soft-bodied woman of her distant past. This time, in her distress, she remembered something more, the scent of lavender deep within the folds of the woman’s dresses when she embraced Malila in the small dramas of childhood. Like a neglected box of broken images dumped from darkness into a pool of light, the scent unfolded forgotten memories: kisses and caresses, hummed songs, rag dolls, and a fierceness of love given and received. The passion of her now-remembered love itself folded out to her an even greater landscape of remembrances: the woman was her mother, the tall man with spectacles, her father, and the great sorrow of her life was their clapboard house disappearing as she watched through the rear window of her abductors’ skimmer. She looked up.
“Hush, hush, lass. Everything will come around all right in the end. You have people who love you, you know,” said Jesse.
Malila gathered she had been hearing Jesse cycling through these consolations as she wept, his rumbling words comforting without her understanding. Malila pulled back and watched Jesse’s face for a moment and then climbed, childlike, into the safety of his lap, clinging to him and clutching his hand between her warm breasts.
Jesse turned her face up to his as a flicker of the sunlight broke through the light canopy of foliage. Malila closed her eyes against the glare, sending arcs of light from tears along her eyelashes. She smiled to be so entirely consoled by Jesse’s now-tender touch. Warm lips pressed hers, and Malila sensed herself surge upward with her own desires into Jesse’s embrace. Her hands moved to caress his face and run fingers through his hair, loosing it to curtain around them as they kissed, closing out the world. She felt Jesse’s warm hands now move, caressing her in turn, his hands adoring her, sweeping aside her clothes to press her flesh closer. Malila sensed another unfolding of love and assurance in his embrace, a coming home to a place she had never imagined. The obstacles slid away in an instant. The gentle, graceful hands against her flesh called forth passion and a fullness of heart, a desire to give him her love.
“Jesse, why now? I thought we’d never …”
“I suppose we had to be friends first. Do you know how long I’ve loved you, lass? I have since you ran off into the snow. I admired you. I needed you … but they were bad times for us both,” he said, looking away, his hands still warm on her smooth flesh.
Malila caressed his rough cheek with her hand, pulling him back into a long kiss and a deep caress. A tide of pleasure and desire surged within her until Jesse sat up, breaking the spell. She almost shrieked with frustration.
“It’s all right, Jesse. No one can find us here! Father me, you feel good!”
Jesse’s hands stilled. Malila hoped her words had not put him off.
“Malila, love, we should stop … for now. Ah dinna just want to keep wi’ ye; a’m wantin’ marryin’ wi’ ye, my love. That is, if ye are willin’?”
A chill, a confusion, spread through Malila as she tried to parse the foreign sentiments.
“You want me but only with Mary Eng? I didn’t know that was something you wanted, Jesse.”
“More than anything, my love,” he said with adolescent enthusiasm.
Malila grasped Jesse’s warm hands and moved them over her smooth flesh, trying to recapture the ardor of but a few moments before.
“Jesse, this feels like I belong, like we belong. I have never met someone that makes me feel like this. Open to you, safe, hungry for you. If that’s what you want … Does that mean we can stay together?”
“For a lifetime! For longer than you can imagine!”
Jesse smiled at her, his encircling arms pulling her closer still. Malila’s doubts about the arrangement were subsiding when Jesse continued, “We’d have to get a waiver from the association, of course. I don’t want anyone to thing I pressured you into this.”
Malila’s heart fell. Why should anyone think Jesse was trying to pressure her, unless he was hiding something? Jesse seemed to have shifted mental gears and was not listening to her. She imagined his mask falling away. The kind, faithful, unfailing, gracious facade was cracking to reveal a barbarian who was going to use her love to enslave her, to add her to a harem of women. If he could ask her to share him with Mary, why not any number of women?
“Jesse, slow down. I need some time to think, to talk with Sally, with Xavier. You are confusing me.”
“I’d ask your father, of course, if he were here. Maybe Moses would step in …”
Malila felt betrayed again! Even in the Unity, patrons had the integrity to see only one protégé at a time. Nothing was as it seemed or should be. Even Jesse, the man … the man she knew … the man she had lived with … cried with … even he!
“No, I see. Father you too then, and Mary as well!”
Malila leaped away from him and stormed into the forest, ignoring any footpath before Jesse could react.
That went well, didn’t it, you old fool?
I don’t understand what happened.
You tried to make an honest woman of her. She woke up to what a worn-out bit of gristle you are.
It had been a mistake to propose to her; he had let himself believe, imagining himself bringing her home as a new bride. Now he had lost her completely.
Jesse turned away from where Malila had left the clearing. He stomped up a small ridge east as it rose to an adjacent hill through the spring foliage, looking to exhaust himself before returning to camp. He’d come back during the preachings, pack his gear, and leave. It would be easier for them.
Malila was such a porcupine, prickly coming from any direction. He had been naive to think she had any affection for him, of course.
“Damned old fool is you,” he said to the wind … just before it replied with the faint crack of pulse weapons and a ragged volley of projectile rifles.
“Can I warm that up for you, Xavier?” asked Sally.
It was a lovely morning, reminding her of the Returns of her childhood. Beyond the bustle of believers, the greens of the woods displayed their colors: the almost yellow green of new growth, the bronze greens of oaks, and the dark contrasting greens of the pines, their branches slowly shouldering back from the snowy burdens of winter. All across the verge of the large meadow, the boughs of red-purple redbuds thrust into the light, while back into the woods, as if shy, contrasting wisps of white dogwood spotted the scene.
Xavier, from his seat by the warm fire, idly turned the lamb on a spit, making the air redolent with its smells and masking the earthy scents of the woods.
“Thank you, Sally.” He smiled as his cup was filled to almost overflowing.
At breakfast she had finally met her mother’s new husband, a talkative mountain of a man who made Moses look small. The two made a good couple; her father would rest easy. In addition, that extended breakfast should keep the men from sampling the roast for a while, until after the preachings. It was an entirely satisfactory day.
“How did you like the Sunrise service, Xav?” she asked.
“It’s quite a moving service in its way. Of course, I’m used to something a bit different. Always good to be among believers, though. I got quite a kick out of it,” he said with a grin.
Malila burst from the tree line, dodged a dog, and stormed onto the meadow. Malila hesitated, taking a heading on Sally, and marched a determined path toward her. Sally noticed her high color and a misbuttoned shirt.
Malila sat down without salutation, rose, went into her tent, returned, poured a cup of coffee, sipped it, threw the rest onto the ground, sat down, and finally rose again.
“Something bothering you, honey?” asked Sally.
“If you want to talk, we can …” started Sally.
After a few minutes, Malila entered her tent again and emerged with a bundle wrapped in a bit of homespun. Walking over to Moses, she solemnly placed the object into his hands.
“Mr. Stewert, please give this back to Dr. Johnstone. He’ll understand. I never want to see him again, and this is his.”
She turned and sat dry-eyed by the fire. Moses, looking over the fire to Sally, asked a silent question. It’s finally happened between them, she thought. Sally shrugged.
They all heard the low-pitched whine of the skimmers before the ominous black shapes swept out of the shadows and crested the hills into Stamping Ground.
Moses bolted for the tent and returned with his rifle and Ethan. He scooped the baby into Sally’s arms, and Sally ran for the woods. It’s happening again, she thought.
“Malila! Run. Now, do it now!” Xavier yelled, using his command voice.
As she was running, Sally heard the skimmer drive whine to a higher pitch and felt the thump of its arrival. Looking over her shoulder, she stumbled. The black skimmer had landed between Moses and the tree line. Making it to the brush near the verge, she crouched and looked back. In the distance, she could see simultaneous surges in the crowded meadow. Women with children streamed away from the skimmers as all others, men, women, large girls, and boys, raced forward, the sun occasionally gleaming off gunmetal.
The skimmer ramp crashed down. Oddly gaited troopers emerged, firing and crouching, providing cover for the soldiers behind them. Off in the distance, Sally saw Malila turn as a bolt took Xavier in the back. For a moment, Malila froze. A trooper approached and swung his weapon to club her to the ground. It did not connect. Malila ducked under the blow and kicked hard at the black horror’s knee. He went down in a heap, and she grabbed his rifle, swinging it into the gut of the next horror and folding him up. A pulse bolt erupted at her feet, and Malila ran toward the shooter. It was too far. Sally watched as the soldier aimed the killing shot at her. The soldier’s chest erupted in a pink mist.
The report of the rifle made her jump. She looked over to see Moses kneeling, his old rifle still smoking.
Moses stood and stepped back, stumbled, and looked down, his feet inside the fire ring.
There was a flash, and Moses fell, a foot still dangling over the coals near the roast lamb.