Malila woke as the skimmer landed, and she was lifted onto a gurney. Her images became a stop-motion kaleidoscope: rattling down a dim hallway; the harsh fluorescents strobing above; distorted faces leaning over her, prodding and asking unanswerable questions; her clothes cut off; and the cold rush of air and darkness.
She awoke, finally, in a DUFS sick bay: sterile, small, white, overwarm, shabby, smelling of cleaning solution and floor wax, not really built for people. The mattress wheezed whenever she moved, even less comfortable than a camp cot. What was new to her was a guard at the door with a sidearm. She slept and woke later to see, through the only window, the slanting sunlight on a blank redbrick wall. Her O-A still merely hummed, Edie just an echoing voice in her memory. There was no clock. Over the next two days, silent attendants saw that she ate the tasteless food, showered, changed her drafty hospital gown, and slept … especially slept.
On the morning of the third day, a man appeared. Her mind still muzzy, Malila struggled to stand for a superior officer. The man, a light colonel, waved her back to her bed with a negligent gesture and sat himself, after a guard had brought him a chair. He watched her in silence before speaking.
“Welcome back, Lieutenant. I am Colonel Jourdaine. Consider me your rescuer from the savage captivity of the outlands,” the dark-haired, placid man said in a pleasant voice.
Even though her naked feet dangled centimeters off the floor, Malila’s military training clicked into place. She tried to brace up. She was home.
“Sir, yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Malila said in return.
“You are an extraordinary person. Do you know that?” the man asked.
“Sir, no, sir. I didn’t know that, sir.”
“In the last fifty years, Lieutenant, you are the first officer to get herself captured alive by the savages. That is quite the achievement. I want to understand how a dedicated officer of this country loses every trooper in her command, travels over seven hundred kilometers, and is rescued from an outlander festival with no injuries and no evidence of restraint. How is that possible, Lieutenant Chiu?”
“It was a trap, sir. The outlanders lured us to Sunprairie to get our new pulse rifles. They overpowered me when I was asleep and took my throat mike. They killed all my men. They got the ID chip out of the thumbs and took their index fingers at the first knuckle. A man removed my first implant, then walked me south for six weeks. I had to stay at a farm over the winter. Stamping Ground, where you found me, was the first time I had been away since December, sir.”
“A nice précis, Lieutenant, but let us start from the beginning. Who is your commander?”
And thus, it started. The questions were succinct, and the answers soon became so as well. Jourdaine did not tolerate imprecision or embroidery.
Within minutes, she felt better for the telling, her words a balm to her spirit, unwinding the tatters of her life over the last six months. There was some perverse satisfaction in grinding out the pain of her humiliations to this serene bland man. It was the price of readmission.
Her O-A still buzzed uncertainly.
Lieutenant Colonel Jourdaine listened to her answers without speaking. After several hours of questions, lunch arrived, and Malila ate a sandwich between words. Jourdaine sipped from a glass of water.
By the time the window was in shadow, her account sputtered, roared to full throttle on fossil memories, sputtered again, and stopped. For the last hour, she had been reciting with her eyes closed, sucked dry by her own words. Jourdaine rose and stood before her as she sat, her feet now cold and motionless above the floor.
“Rest now. We will talk tomorrow, Lieutenant,” he said softly, then turned and left before she could say anything.
The door closed for just a moment before an aide came in with a pill that she dutifully swallowed. When she awoke, her breakfast had arrived. She was ravenous.
Jourdaine’s vivisection of her account started that day.
“Tell me, Lieutenant, why were you sent in person to fix Sunprairie? Isn’t that a job for an OAA?” Jourdaine said with no prologue.
He took notes.
Malila hesitated. She sensed, as she had since her rescue, as if she were sitting at the top of a high, steep, snowy slope. Her answer now would be the first step in the plunge down. She anticipated the exhilaration of her swooping descent, and she knew that, at the end, she would be in unknown country, alone. At best she could hope to be allowed to regain the anonymity of the corps, becoming one more striving junior DUFS officer. At worst, her actions would condemn her for immediate punishment. Most likely she would still be disgraced for Sunprairie.
“Sir, I do not know what was in General Suarez’s mind, sir. I can speculate that she did this as a punishment. As soon as the job was complete, I was to report for imprisonment,” she answered, trying to be doggedly truthful.
“Why do you think you were being punished?” Jourdaine countered, not taking his eyes off her.
“Sir, I failed in my duty to maintain sensor station Sunprairie, in Wiscomsin, west of Lake Mishygun. I attempted to cover up my deficiency by colluding with my fellow officers. Sir!”
There was no point in withholding anything from this bland gray man. He, no doubt, knew the truth. No one else had come to rescue her.
The gray man smiled an odd smile at her answer. The questions came fast thereafter. How had she allowed her attackers to enter the station unobserved? How had it been possible for anyone to massacre her platoon and yet she remain unharmed? Why had she cooperated in the bison hunt?
Her feeling of weightless descent made her giddy, exhilarated as she watched her hopes of reinstatement flash by.
Why had she not escaped from the snow cave? At the farm? On the trip to Stamping Ground? How had a single Sisi been able to keep her a captive unaided?
“Who was your captor?” Jourdaine asked, a note of interest in his voice.
“Jesse Johnstone. He claimed he was seventy years old. He looked old, with white hair and a beard and everything, sir. I have no way of knowing if he was lying.”
“Yes, sir. He is bigger than the average Unity man, sir. Taller by maybe twenty centimeters but proportionally heftier … muscular. He could outwalk me with a forty-kilo pack. I know at least five men he killed when they tried to take me away from him. I never got close to escaping, to tell the truth.”
“I see, Lieutenant. Where was he when we recued you?”
“I don’t know, sir. He never stays anywhere for long, but I think you would have known it. If Jesse thought he could do something, sir, he would have. He has fought against the Unity before.”
The questions multiplied.
Why had she helped the breeder? What had she told the savages?
The questions seemed to have no end.
Later, even when the colonel no longer asked her questions, other officers came to question her. The questions did not change. The one real question was not asked: Why had she fought to stay in the outlands?
At the end of her tenth day in the room, Jourdaine pronounced himself satisfied.
He stood before her, the room otherwise deserted, his voice barely above a whisper. “You will be questioned by others. I suggest you adjust your story of the colony. It seems to me that you were kept in close confinement throughout your captivity. I would correct your account to accommodate that appearance. Do you understand?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“It also seems that during your recapture from the savages … do you recall that, Lieutenant? There seems to have been some violence against the forces of the Unity. Do you recall that?”
“Sir, yes, sir. But …”
“It is not necessary to explain. It is not necessary to ever disclose that. Do you understand? The savages, as I can bring evidence to show, were about to club you to death. A loyal CRNA shot the barbarian before he could do you more harm, saving your life at the cost of his own. You no doubt recall it now.”
Malila nodded, unable to say the words with the memory of Xavier’s solemn eyes going dead.
“Good. Finally, you are to consider yourself my protégé from now on. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Malila rose and untied the hospital gown, the thin cotton slipping down along her legs, making a puddle about her feet. She went through the formulaic submission and prepared herself for the man’s caresses. For the first time in months, she was aware how long it had been since she had visited her company depilatorium.
“Very well, Lieutenant. Done with grace and dispatch.”
In the same voice of quiet concern he said, “You are going to become a hero of the Unity shortly. Your fortitude in the face of adversity is an inspiration to us all.
“Your first implant”—he touched her scar—“is no longer functioning. That gives you certain capabilities that are … awkward. I want you to be confident that I’ll look out for your best interests, but for now you need to avoid … pleasure-sex. Understood?” Jourdaine gave her the first warm smile she had seen from him.
“You may dress, Lieutenant.”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
She bent to retrieve her hospital gown, relieved and disappointed. By the time she stood again, Jourdaine was already leaving the room.
Before she could finish dressing, an aide entered the room with a new DUFS uniform. “Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E.” was stitched over a breast pocket, and each shoulder bore the raised bar that shimmered silver as she moved it in the light. It was the insignia of a first lieutenant.
Major Khama exited the belt near his home in Perth Amboy. The commute was getting worse every day. Or maybe he was just getting old. He was never going to be thirty again.
At least things were peaceful. The Blues had been out of the faction fight since 70 when he—that is, the Reds—had won big. Emanuel and Suarez had come to power and had had a field day, Sapping every commander and IT guy down to the S10 level.
Better to give than receive, he thought.
He did not have the enthusiasm for that horror now. It must be his age. It looked as if he could get to retirement unmolested. He had hoped for more.
Suarez had promised him a full colonelcy at one time … if she made chief of staff. It no longer looked as if that was going to happen. So close … Even so, if things started to go bad, he had been furbishing that little nook in Lynneboro Station, on the hill with the old stone farmhouse. A two-day notice to his “friends,” and he would be feet up and brain in neutral, contemplating the cows, or whatever one did in rural NuAmpshur. He would be lighter by a few years’ income, and they might still track his O-A. Nevertheless, he would keep it.
He trudged to his building and absentmindedly announced his floor. It took him a second to realize something was very wrong.
Rough hands snatched him out of the darkened elevator, and a hood was jammed over his head. The skimmer trip was long and anxious. Officially, Khama belonged to no faction and was under the command of a laughable incompetent, Magness. No one should think him important enough to abduct. That was how he had been so successful. No one expected anything from him, so they stood in line to use him. And he collected a toll of information with each encounter. Most did not even know they were being used.
He was escorted from the skimmer. He hoped he would not embarrass himself; he had not visited the toilet since leaving work.
The hood jerked off. Khama squinted into the blinding light.
“This the guy?”
A familiar voice said, “Yes. That’s him. Leave us.”
The light was moderated, and a chair was pushed into the back of his legs. He sat.
“We meet again, Major.”
“General, I …”
“… can explain. Actually, I am pretty sure you can’t. So spare me the performance. There are a number of unexplained things happening. The faction needs your help.”
The explanation filled in a couple of uncomfortable holes in his memory and one very odd dream.
“So my setting up the auto ping was an implanted command?”
“We believe so. We just don’t know who did it.”
“So what can I do for the faction?”
“For now, just keep us aware. Keep a diary about every dream you have, every odd thing you do … on paper, ink and paper. Usual precautions.”
“Will you look out for me if this hits the fan?”
“Yes, and we already know about your little hideaway. If things get bad … you commit suicide, on us. Then we forget your address. Lynneboro Station, wasn’t it?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
Suarez motioned in the uncertain light, and the hood was again jammed onto his head.
The attendants gave her a dossier containing her new orders and an entrance code. She had a week’s furlough before she had to report. The guards were gone.
They escorted her to the underground foyer of the building in her new, well-fitting uniform. A private skimmer waited for her, the windows darkened. The trip lasted too long. The driver never spoke.
The entrance code belonged to an apartment across the East River from her last one, far above the distant commotion of the belts and skimmer traffic.
Malila’s O-A came alive for the first time in six months as she entered.
Welcome home, Malila!
Edie, it has been so long! When I got back and you weren’t here, I thought they’d taken you away from me.
That’s not possible, Lieutenant Chiu. You merely needed the CORE to hear me and see me.
Where have you been for the last six months?
I’ve no sensation of time except in relation to you, Malila.
But Edie, there were times when I heard you, just moments.
I have no recollection of such events.
Nothing? Was I hallucinating? You told me to stop when I was trying to kill Jesse; you reminded me of the knife with Bear. At the devil’s bridge … Wasn’t that you?
I remember dreams … dreams after you were gone.
Do you remember Sally, the baby? Sally, she’s the best person. I’m sure you would like her. She and Moses are so lucky to have found each other, and there was this old man, Jesse. He was the one who captured me. He ….
In my dreams, I saw. He smells like home, doesn’t he? That’s why he can disappoint you.
I think it was me who disappointed him. He made such a big thing out of all the little things of life, but I think he built up all the little things. He made them important.
I am sure now. I saw him … in the dreams, I mean.
It is enough, Edie. Sometimes the dreams are the important parts.
In the long spring evening, Malila sat on a sparsely elegant sofa and watched the shadows slip across the wall until they congealed into the garish twilight of the city. Edie had grown quiet. Somehow, in her absence, Edie had grown up.
Malila felt no need to sleep … or move. It was after midnight before she stirred.
Out of curiosity, she activated the various news feeds and stopped on ESPN 54-N. She watched herself give interviews to talking heads she had never met. No one, apparently, was interested in the colony.
She remembered the gritty sizzling sound of the pulse bolt hitting Delarosa, the smell of ozone and burned meat, feeling her heart sink even before she’d turned around to watch him slump to the ground. She’d watched his face pale and the dark wells of his eyes dilate in death. She remembered Sally disappearing into the forest with Ethan as Moses had turned to start an unequal battle for his homeland … for her.
Why had she fought?
She had no answer if they asked. Why had she fought? Malila remembered no red-hued rage as Xavier Delarosa fell … hollowness for his death, yes, but no incandescent need for revenge. She saw again the faceless trooper raising his rifle to club her. She had reacted instinctively—no, not instinct … She had reacted as she had been trained. She’d set her weight, crouched slightly, feeling the center of her explosive force aim itself. The crunch of her hobnailed boot against the trooper’s knee had been satisfying in the way a well-done exercise was satisfying. The second trooper, the one aiming over her left shoulder to kill Moses, she had folded him up like a paper doll almost with no thought at all.
A part of her had remained analytical, detached, scrutinizing. She’d known the signature lock would prevent the captured rifle from working for her and had not even bothered to see if she could activate it, valuing speed over power. She’d seen the next trooper. He had been five, maybe six, strides away … too far even for speed. She had known that, even as she’d started for him. She had seen him raise the barrel. The rifle had come up slowly, in the odd detached way it did in battle, to center its dimensionless black eye on her. On her third stride, she would have been hit by the searing heat of the bolt as it exploded her flesh along its trajectory, killing her. She had been surprised when the trooper had fallen before she’d reached him, the rifle report informing her that Moses had saved her life. She had been surprised again when the Taze-Net had engulfed her from the side. She’d started to convulse, her uncontrolled limbs jerking painfully … her mind flickering out.
She undressed for bed.
Why had she fought?
The whole attack had been to liberate her. People she had come to admire and to … love … were dead because of her. Delarosa was dead. Moses was dead too, she feared. She had heard his rifle and had seen the trooper drop as he’d been about to kill her, but she had also heard the return fire and the meaty sound of a body crumbling to the ground behind her. There had just been too many for him. Jesse would have escaped. The old man had probably bet money on his own immortality.
Malila looked back at the comm’net. The unfamiliar talking heads were calling the Return at Stamping Ground an “outlander sun ritual,” provoking images of naked savages and twitching sacrificial animals.
The songs came back to her. “The Lord is risen today, alleluia.”
She felt soiled.
Lunch with the Girls
A preemptive call from her O-A, the first in six months, jangled Malila awake. Luscena Kristòf’s pale face with her vivid red lips swam before her. Luscena was assuming her tragic-loss face, Malila thought. Lucy was so good at her craft.
“Malila, my love? Can it really be true? You’ve come back to us!”
“G’mornin’, Lucy. Nice to see you too.”
“We have all been so terribly worried about you. Heccy, Alex, Tiff … all of us. You were gone so long—without a word.”
It sounded briefly like an accusation. Luscena’s face morphed to even a more dramatic appearance of wounded dignity, which she’d used to such great effect and critical acclaim in Diary of a Protégé.
“But then to find that you were a prisoner of the savages. It is just too horrible to conceive!”
“I am fine, Lucy. I only got out of debriefing last night …”
Luscena sighed, and her face went back to normal. Malila was not, apparently, playing the game correctly. Lucy got down to business.
“But you must tell us all. We are getting together for lunch.”
After accepting the invitation, Malila broke the connection, stopping to marvel at and enjoy the simple act. She had been unable to quest for months.
A folder with six months of communiqués bulged in her near vision.
<ED> I need some help here, please.
Of course, Lieutenant. I presume I dispense with the messages of a commercial nature? Then we have a folder containing messages from your patrons.
Yes, let me see that one.
The messages were numerous. Malila concentrated on just the most recent. Within the last few days, each patron had sent a note expressing sadness at her long absence, delight on her return to civilization, best wishes for her continued success, and regrets that the patron would no longer be sponsoring her as a protégé. The wordings were nearly identical. Malila flipped through them without surprise, like looking at holos of another person. From what Jourdaine had said, it was probably inevitable. She would not have to worry about her awkward fertility. Now and for the foreseeable future, her fate was tied to the gray man and his agenda. Malila deleted the whole folder abruptly.
<ED> Have the commissary send up one egg scrambled, two strips Bakon, one hundred twenty milliliters of Vit-a-kwa, black coffee, one creamer, one sugar, buttered whole-wheat toast with jelly of the day, and two one-hundred-milligram tablets of Naprosinol … My head is killing me.
Oh, yes, of course.
<ED> Delete coffee. Bring tea, black, strong, six grams sucrose per one hundred twenty mils.
The rest of the morning Malila spent in a bathroom exploring the spiritually nourishing aspects of hot water. As she rose from her bath, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. It took her a moment to decide it was her own image in the mirror. Her longer hair had developed an unexpected wave, framing her foreign-familiar face. Her body was pink from the heat, but the blue filigree of the woman’s mark still writhed along the edge of her areola, ending in Sally’s delicate daisy pattern.
You look lovely, Malila. The wilderness seems to have agreed with you.
Sarcasm? While I was gone, you studied up on sarcasm?
I didn’t study at all, as I’ve already said. But I am sincere. You have gained a little weight, all in the right places.
So you thought my boobs were too small too? Malila laughed. No one was a hero to her own frak.
Glad you like them, Edie.
Dressed in her new uniform, Malila arrived at the museum even as Tiffany was hurrying up, her white coat ballooning out behind her in the spring winds.
They hustled in arm in arm through the museum atrium under the gaze of the blue whale. It was much the same: the waiters swooped around with heavy trays, fresh daffodils graced the table, and the fragrant vines in the latticework were as profligate as ever. The string quartet and the Dutilleux were gone in favor of two additional tables. Newly added comm’net screens dominated the walls, displaying a selection of sweaty athletes for lunch.
Malila was the center of attention. Luscena, in a shimmering black pantsuit, assumed the role as her media secretary and answered most questions before Malila could herself. New loops of video spun overhead, repeatedly showing three-dimensional diagrams of Malila’s platoon being overwhelmed by “wave upon wave of heedless barbarians.” The ’nets had improved the number of her attackers from two to “a hundred or more barbarians armed with antiquated pulse rifles.” Her platoon had fought to the death in her defense; at least that was accurate. The savages “had constructed a funeral pyre in grudging admiration for the noble enemy.”
She tried to ignore them, until Jourdaine’s now-familiar voice came on. It took a while before she could quiet her friends in order to hear him.
“Complete surprise was achieved in this rescue mission, allowing us, with minimal casualties, to retrieve Lieutenant Chiu, this audacious example of the best the Unity produces.”
He looked confident, calm, yet determined.
A pleasant contralto from off camera asked, “Colonel, she’s been gone for six months. Where was she held? What happened to her during her captivity?”
“You can imagine that information is classified, Shirley. It goes without saying a captive among the savages is enslaved, starved, beaten, and degraded beyond anything we, in a civilized country, can imagine. Nevertheless, throughout her six months of brutal interrogation, the barbarians were unable to break her spirit. It is nothing less than moral triumph!”
Instantaneously, sidebars erupted around the image, showing ’net commentators who weighed in with their own observations and opinions. The panels waxed and waned as the local viewers’ interest changed.
“Now this little girl … Chiu? Grew up in Kweens. You gotta appreciate that! The district has been supplying more than its share of DUFS for generations now. Must be something in the water,” offered a meaty man in an expensive suit.
“Indeed, Supervisor? I thought your water problem had been rectified,” said the commentator in the next panel, a near-cachectic woman in a rust-colored suit that sported lighted lapels.
The woman said, “However, the level of fortitude this woman has displayed … thrust onto her own resources by savage masculine violence. Who knows what horrors have been visited upon her?”
She lost her train of thought momentarily before refocusing on the audience. “It shows the confidence only a woman with a strong sense of her own style can achieve. Obviously.”
Another commentator, a thin bearded man who was listed as a professor of political science, poked the wall of the woman’s panel. His panel expanded noticeably as he talked.
“Don’t any of these people get it? I don’t think so,” he lilted. “Doesn’t it seem odd that exactly fifteen weeks after General Emmanuel is denounced for incompetence, we have another DUFS crawling back into the headlines? I mean, it may be coincidence, sure, but they both went through the same training. They both served in the same units. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going, does it?”
The screen dissolved into dueling panels for several minutes until the screen cycled back to sports news about the CORE death of some football player.
After lunch, her friends demanded more of the “real” story from her.
Malila started with her waking up in the dark with a knife at her throat and hearing the remorseless gunshots killing her platoon, one at a time. She told them about the excitement of the bison hunt but also about her daily bondage, the Death Walker, and Bear’s death. She concealed devil’s bridge and her bleeding cycles.
Mostly, Malila talked about Sally and Ethan: her bravery at birthing him, his brilliant smile punctuated by new sharp teeth, and his gluttony at Sally’s breast.
“No! You means it actually uses these?” said Luscena, looking down.
“You should have seen how fast he grew. Ethan was hardly three kilos at first, and by the time I … left, at four months, he was double that. Imagine! He had three chins,” Malila said, laughing.
“They make something, and it licks it up, like a discharge of sorts? That can’t be good … for either of them, can it?” replied Luscena. She looked down at herself again.
“That’s how we get milk and cheese, Lucy, but from cattle, of course,” added Alexandra. “The Unity has big flocks of cattle. You harvest the milk every so often and make it into food. I’ve seen reports.”
Tiffany lowered a forkful of alfredo and pushed the plate to the side.
“But it can’t be good for … them,” continued Luscena, fluttering her hands in front of her chest, her face, even with her crimson lips, paled. No one responded.
In the silence, Alexandra said, “Captivity sounds entirely gruesome, Mally, but I am not surprised you’re so melled out. Captives always start to identify with their captors. Well-known fact, everybody knows.”
“Oh yes,” said Tiffany. “And whatever you do, give yourself a rest, and you will be back to normal … soon, I’m sure. Be careful who you talk to, Mally.” She would not meet her eyes.
Tiffany, Luscena, and Alexandra ate no more. Hecate winked at Malila as they both poached a little salmon from Alexandra’s neglected plate.
Luscena left shortly thereafter, gasping before she stood and only then remembering to look at her watch. She rushed out with her usual welter of promises and idle threats. Her personal skimmer had yet to be announced. Tiffany and Alexandra started a murmuring conversation and left together with barely a wave between them.