Free Read Outland Exile Chapters 56, 57, & 58

CHAPTER 56

HOUSE OF GORDON

gordon

Malila could see the signs clear enough. Junior officers walked with their heads down so as not to be engaged in idle chatter. Senior officers made brief visits and smiled a lot, showing the flag. Groups clustered around the drug kiosks but scattered if a door opened unexpectedly. Her O-A was ominously quiet.

The factions had been going after each other for a week now. They were always jostling, but they usually kept their rivalries from spilling out into public. Since yesterday, cadres had been marching in full battle uniform, their only identifier their armbands and the clouds of color they threw at spectators. More ominously, the Reds, the current “vanguard of the cadres,” had blocked off the access to the belts around her own battalion headquarters. When reopened, the belts had borne the faction’s color; the walls had borne advertisements, all jackboots and patriotism; and, no doubt, unseen, the station had borne additional surveillance devices. Yesterday, as she’d been going to work out of uniform, overly enthusiastic faction members had popped her with the metallic green of the Unity Home faction and the fluorescent orange of the Forward Unity faction, both minor players. She’d changed and showered once she had arrived.

Other guilds did not play in the DUFS factional contests. Faction wars were all-DUFS affairs. It was complicated. Any individual other than the senior staff could hardly ever tell when a battle started or stopped. Unannounced, one faction or another started propaganda campaigns and denounced a few low-level leaders of another faction. A crisis would come … and eventually pass. At the end, the self-congratulatory puffery would gradually decline. The comm’nets would show more real news. The mind-numbing five-hour-long classic of revolutionary Unity cinema, Birth of the Cadre, would be shown less often. At the very end there would be a rash of denunciations and suicides.

I am glad I’m not in anyone’s crosshairs, Edie. I have been gone too long to know who is after whom.

Enjoy it while you may, Malila. You do know that Suarez is a Red, don’t you?

Thank you, Edie, I pretty much had that worked out already.

Jourdaine as her adjutant is also a Red, then. Correct? And you are not a Red?

You know that a protégé is not required to be of the same faction as her patron, silly. It is already too complicated. For now I am trying to avoid being labeled. It helps advancement … for now.

Would you believe me if I said that while Jourdaine has publically come out in Suarez’s favor, he is actually working for the Blues?

Really, Edie? Jourdaine is trying to frag his own commander? Where is that going to get him? If she loses, he will fall with her. It might get him Sapped. If Suarez finds out, she will Sapp him for treason. If he wins, he would just be an untrusted officer in another command.

Unless …

Malila stopped. Factions was a game played only at the highest levels and only among the senior staff. For Eustace to ignore his faction commander, he would have to command huge resources himself.

Unless this is his coup and the Blues work for him?

The CORE talks in its sleep, Malila. Just count on it being true.

Whatever happens, happens, Edie. All I know is that today I have that interview with Gordon.

Gordon’s skimmer arrived. The passenger compartment had a small bar with a number of atypical and potent drinks and drugs. They did not tempt her. Gordon would use any advantage he could. Not a few celebrities had eviscerated themselves in public by one outrageous gaffe or another while Gordon had looked on and wiggled his eyebrows.

She was deposited at the secure lobby of an unmarked underground entrance. Malila accepted the now-familiar routine of makeup, production, and the long wait in the green room without comment. Again a buffet of drinks and drugs greeted her. Again she abstained, feeling queasy enough.

A large screen, dominating one wall of the room, sprang to life, the slow resolve of Gordon’s face gradually overwhelming it. After his introductory babble, the man was smooth and relaxed with his opening monologue. He then introduced an absurd skit, allowing him to drop several of his trademark catchphrases to the delight of the audience. His first interview was with a rising ingenue. Her semitransparent dress left little doubt as to her bona fides, although her responses suggested her celebrity would last only as long as gravity could be held at bay. Gordon made suggestive asides to the audience at the girl’s expense until she finally became incensed.

“Oh, don’t get mad; you know I love you,” he said, another of his catchphrases.

The audience erupted in laughter. The actress colored and then giggled.

Before her capture, Malila had never been much of a Gordon fan. Other than learning his signature gestures and phrases to counterfeit interest with her coworkers, she’d ignored him. On returning from the outlands, Gordon had seemed a caricature of himself, his new catchphrases absurd or childish.

The blithe goading of the actress finally ended with the woman declaring unending love for her host. Gordon giggled.

The production assistant escorted Malila to her mark. On cue, she strode from behind a curtain and out across a naked stage to the sleek modern chair, still warm from the actress’s body. Gordon stood and pantomimed a burlesque salute. The audience, behind the hot lights focused upon her, was silent. The canned applause ended abruptly.

At first, the interview was benign. How long had she been in District Nyork? Did she enjoy the DUFS? Had she always been stationed across the Rampart? Malila was beginning to unwind a bit when Gordon asked her, “My understanding is that you were sent there on a direct order from Lieutenant General Vivalagente Suarez. Isn’t that correct?”

Before she could answer, Gordon wiggled his eyebrows at the audience and sotto voced, “What kind of a name is Vivalagente?”

The audience dutifully laughed, but Malila’s heart sank. She felt paralyzed. Gordon had information that he should not have. The Presence did not slide next to her as she waited.

“Uhh … that is correct, Citizen Gordon. Like every DUFS officer, I am given orders, and I follow them,” she answered. It was weak.

“And General Vivalagente’s orders got you ‘captured.’ Where, may I ask, Malila—I may call you Malila, mayn’t I? Where were you ‘imprisoned’ for the four months after you reached New Carrolton … That was where you were kept, isn’t it?”

Gordon shouldn’t have known any of this! The only one who did was Jourdaine, and now he had abandoned her.

Malila admitted she had stayed at a farm and gave a brief and rather imprecise description of a hardscrabble hilltop affair, anything to prevent reprisals against Sally. A picture came up behind her; she could tell by the audience reaction. She resisted the urge to look.

“Really, Malila, that doesn’t seem to match my information. General Suarez’s orders maneuvered you to a farm right on the major river of the region”—Gordon looked down to his notes—“the Oh-yoh River. Isn’t that correct?”

That was something, at least. Gordon only had reports of reports. He did not have the originals, or he would not have made that mistake. Or was it a trap? How would that help him? There was still no sign of a presence. She had been caught in her first lie.

“Actually, Citizen Gordon, it is the Oh-high-oh River. Yes, I was told that parts of the farm ran down to the river. I wasn’t permitted to go near it.” That much, at least, was true. The river flooded the low fields for most of the winter and spring.

“A thousand pardons, Lieutenant Chiu!” said Gordon and did the thing with his eyebrows to cue the audience to laugh at her. The interview deteriorated from there.

CHAPTER 57

GREEN MONKEY

jade-monkey

Malila returned from the interview feeling angry, despondent, and surprised to find a pale blue envelope on actual paper slipped under her door.

It read:

Lieutenant Colonel Eustace T. Jourdaine

requests the pleasure of your company to dinner

at Le Singe Vert,

this evening, 30 May, at 20:00.

A driver will be provided.

This is a public affair, Malila. Colonel Jourdaine isn’t just interested in you as a political tool. You see that, I hope!

Don’t gush, Edie.

What better time than now? You are on every net’cast in the country. People know your face and how brave you were! Now you are getting some acknowledgment. Enjoy it, Malila!

I shall endeavor to follow your guidance.

Now you are making fun of me.

Okay, a little gushing is acceptable, Edie.

She wondered when Edie had learned to laugh. It felt good to join her.

The invitation dazzled her. This was a public affair; Jourdaine’s patronage would be acknowledged. Listening to a comm’net broadcast in the background, Malila prepared for the evening, Edie’s excitement fueling her own growing enthusiasm.

Jourdaine had augmented her wardrobe since her return. Sparkling sheaths in shimmering colors illuminated her closet. The effect would be more spectacular after she turned them on, the subtle glow and rhythm of the lights mesmerizing and seductive. Malila selected a black dress that displayed much of her apparently more-prominent breasts, leaving her right shoulder exposed entirely. She added a rope of pearls, twisted twice about her neck, and grabbed the matching shoes and handbag. A small hat of black silk with a curve of iridescent feathers, matching the dress’s lights, was her only addition.

She looked into the mirror. The woman who stared back was no longer Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E., E12, S25. She smiled.

You look stunning! The dress is gorgeous!

Thank you, Edie. You are very kind.

You have never really thanked me before. I like it.

And you have stopped calling me ‘squilch,’ I’ve noticed. What does squilch mean anyway?

Ah—well, you know, we were both very young …

<ED> What does squilch mean?

Squilch is the sound that fleshy personalities make if you play with them too roughly.” I am sorry, Malila. I would never, ever hurt you. You must know that, but then it became a habit.

Malila grinned, Edie’s distressed voice keeping her from laughing out loud.

You can call me ‘squilch’ anytime you want. Always good to stay humble, donchatink?

Thank you, Lieutenant.

You are welcome, Edie.

Jourdaine’s personal skimmer picked her up on time. The restaurant had no marquee and, other than a small jade-colored porcelain simian in the window, the name was unremarked. It appeared to thrive on the patronage of the elite of the government, the arts, academia, and the DUFS. The men and women who decided the fate of millions could preen before their peers in a safe and unreportable environment.

Colonel Jourdaine, waving off the officious attentions of the maître d’, met Malila at the door and escorted her into a private dining room. Running a hand over her body as they entered the room, he seemed pleased with her choices of dress and undress.

Opulent with dark woods, gilt, and red plush, the room was lined with unfamiliar works of art. Waiters glided among the guests: patrons and their decorative young men and women protégés. She and Jourdaine must have been the last to arrive, as the company adjourned to dinner almost immediately.

Waiters orbited the table with each course, filling a bouquet of wineglasses and whisking away half-emptied plates. Malila, intoxicated by the atmosphere and the wine, let herself enjoy the moment.

The conversation wandered over topics with which Malila was unfamiliar. She let it all pass overhead without comment, laughing whenever Eustace did. The feeling in the room, tense and expectant, however, was far from jovial.

When a large viewing screen flickered on in the middle of the air at the end of the room, all conversation ceased. “Report of Solon Action Number 345: Vivalagente Suarez Denounced Unanimously.”

To clapping and cheers, Jourdaine accepted congratulations from all corners of the room. Some public service announcements by the Blues followed, and the crowd’s interest dissipated.

Edie had been right. It was obvious now. Eustace, rather than falling with his boss, had been elevated. Malila felt a little ridiculous, her finery borrowed to shine glory on Jourdaine instead of her own accomplishments. She could not, in good conscience, even feel particularly disappointed. She had little love for Suarez, considering her treatment last October.

Malila excused herself and went to the washroom, dodging an unsteady brigadier general coming out who had failed to tuck his shirt in completely. He was followed, rather too closely, by a young E7 in a rumpled dress.

Just as Malila entered, she got a message from Luscena.

Luscena never called her on a performance night. They had not talked since that last lunch, when she had first returned from the outlands. Lucy’s stricken face swam into focus through her O-A. Something was wrong. Malila could not remember the last time she had seen Lucy without even lipstick.

“What is it, Lucy?” she said before the contact was even secure.

“Hecate killed herself this afternoon,” Lucy blurted.

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean she’s gone … already cremated … gone!” Malila sensed the wave of Luscena’s emotions stream across the connection. The watery sensation returned. She had thought she’d left that behind in the outlands.

“She’s dead, Mally! Don’t you understand?”

“That can’t be right, Lucy! Hecate wouldn’t do that! Heccy …”

“Tiffany was there. She was actually there! She called me … after it was all over. She’s gone! Tiffany was there when she died; she signed the papers. She watched her body get cremated. Nothing left …”

Lucy cycled on, saying the same thing again and again, becoming more panicked each time.

“Lucy, calm down. I am calling Tiff … She will be there in a few minutes. It will be all right,” Malila said, trying to get Lucy to listen. She slowly gathered in her friend’s sorrows, trying to make her words make sense, trying to soothe her, to see if what Lucy had said was true. The small room seemed to close around her, almost as if she were looking at herself from outside, listening to herself from a distance.

“Lucy, Tiffany is on her way already. I’m calling Alexandra now.”

“I should have been better. I should have been nicer. Heccy was always the nice one …” Lucy’s voice started to slide into a frenzy across the narrow thread of their connection. Lucy sounded as if she were no longer talking but reciting some speech she knew … reciting out of desperation.

What Malila knew was that Hecate’s demons had finally taken her. She’d had them euthanize her … No, Malila would not give the action any undeserved dignity. They had killed her and then incinerated her still-warm body.

“It will be all right, Lucy. You need to listen. Wait until Tiffany is there. She can help you. It will be all right,” Malila heard herself say.

“How can it be all right? Hecate is dead. She will never come back, don’t you understand, Mally? Doesn’t anybody understand?”

She listened to Lucy’s voice as it spiraled toward hysteria again, waiting until she took a breath.

“Lucy, calm down. You are scaring me. I can’t lose you both. You have to calm down. You need to listen to me. Okay! Wait there. Tiffany is on the way.”

Something she said found a purchase in Lucy’s pain, and Lucy nodded and started to weep quietly. Within a few minutes, Tiffany arrived, bustling through the portal just as Lucy was starting to accelerate again. Malila broke the contact when Alexandra arrived.

Only now did Malila understand Hecate’s pain at Victor’s death. She was just finishing the act that had started with his death the previous year. Malila had no desire to share the sobs of Alexandra or Tiffany. There would be time enough for tears after tonight.

Malila found her way back, feeling hollow and appreciating Jourdaine as she stood close to him. It was several minutes before Malila, lost in the pain of Hecate’s death, noticed how quiet the room had become … very quiet … except for the sound of her own voice.

She looked over her shoulder to a screen showing her interview with Gordon. She watched herself talk, sitting on the edge of the uncomfortable sleek chair.

“Citizen Gordon, you have asked me why I fought against the troopers sent to rescue me from the outlands?”

“Why, yes, Lieutenant Chiu!” Gordon said and added the eyebrow thing again, the audience complying on cue with catcalls and boos. “I think the answer to that would make my audience feel a good deal more sympathetic to your commander’s and your, ah, inaccuracies, don’t you?”

The recorded Malila gave him a brief smile before continuing, “Ignoring that for a moment, Citizen Gordon, the people I met were a very small sliver of the outlands. Some were brutal, some were stupid, some were desperate, and many were kind, generous, and hardworking.

“The people of the outlands are proud of their country, and they are proud of themselves, what they have done and are doing. They asked nothing of me except to work for my food, but they still fed me when I didn’t work. They shared their warmth and their lives with me. They clothed me when I had no clothes. Best of all, some shared their stories with me: true stories, old stories, made-up stories, and outright lies—and they knew the differences.

“The Unity has greatness. The outlands has no greatness, but it is filled with little things: how men and women live together their whole lives, how they get old together, how they raise their own children, and how they cherish their children’s children. I saw things there that I’ve never seen in the Unity: how a baby looks at you, how singing together in the dark and watching for a sunrise makes you feel, how an old man can make children laugh.

“Yes, I fought back when a trooper tried to club me. I fought back when another trooper was about to kill a man for defending his woman and his baby … yes, his own son. The troopers were there for me. They were not there to add more death to the people who had befriended me, fed me … loved me … me, an alien, an enemy in their own land. I think we might learn from that.”

Gordon interrupted her there, and his monologue, which must have been added in postproduction, completed the segment. The rest of what she’d said had been edited out, except for a loop showing her nodding her head at everything said by the pompous little shit.

Jourdaine was silent on the ride home, following her up to her apartment and stepping through the portal without invitation. As soon as it closed, he turned and jammed Malila against the wall hard enough to jar her teeth together. Behind the miasma of cologne, he smelled of expensive alcohol.

“What do you think you were doing? Do you have any idea the damage you’ve done? No, of course you don’t. Where do you get off giving your moronic opinions about the outlands?”

“What I said was true!”

The blow caught Malila across her cheek. Astonishment paralyzed her.

“Why should I care? You leave civilization for a few months, and you bring back truth for a souvenir? You could get us both denounced, and you lecture me on truth?” he sneered.

He stepped back, his gaze running from her defiant face down her body like an insult.

“Strip.”

Malila’s engrained response to orders engaged. She watched herself unfasten the gown, pulling it down from her left shoulder and hearing, more than feeling, it slither to the floor.

“Get me a drink. Bourbon … ice.”

Malila moved as if in a nightmare, a puppet to the gray man. She returned from the bar with the glass, feeling Jourdaine watching her the entire time. He accepted the drink and sipped it.

Malila, standing in front of him, galvanized by her unthinking obedience, slowly appreciated how exposed … naked … she was to the grim will of the man. Her horror must have shown. Jourdaine smiled and downed the rest of his drink in a gulp. The next blow sent her over the back of the couch, the glass thudding dully as he dropped it.

The one redeeming aspect of the rape was its brevity.

 

Iain had been worried after his meeting with Smith, but it had worked out all right. The Blues had come out on top. Life had been good since then. Looking back, he wondered why they had been worried. He had an additional stripe, three up and one down now. His pay had improved. Heather and he had found a place in Kweens that actually had a window. That had been three weeks ago.

The faction was moving and he along with it. The comm’nets were back to normal with none of the stories and silences that meant something more was up. Just that morning he had seen the flag was set as he’d gone by RockCent.

He’d picked up the order from the new drop. The order was lousy; Ciszek deserved better. They thought they were giving Iain a real award or something, being the guy to finger Jasun for the Blue’s enforcers. He admitted to himself that it had felt like a big deal at first, but he had since decided to tell Jasun to beat it, find a new faction … do something.

He got to the bar where they’d agreed to meet and walked in past the bed warmers to the back. Jasun wasn’t there, but Billy, the guy who usually sat at the till, pointed with his eyes to the back room.

For the few seconds, while he could still think, after his arms were seized, after the garrote began crushing his windpipe, Iain wondered whether his death had been ordered by Jasun’s faction or his own gray smudge of a man, Smith.

CHAPTER 58

ALPHA_DROVER

cyber

Nyork, Unity

05.39.27.local_30_06_AU77

For over a month Malila had seen no trace of Jourdaine, in person or through his Presence. The faction struggle subsided. She heard of a handful of suicides and assassinations. In the former were Suarez and Khama. Miramundo Morales was in the latter. Most of the Unity population were unaware of the change in DUFS leadership. Jourdaine was fast-tracked to a lieutenant general.

Except as necessary, no one spoke with her. Malila went to work and came home expecting a provost guard around every corner. She slept in uniform. She did not go to any of the phantom shops, convinced she was being followed and unwilling to let them suffer on her account. After a grim remembrance dinner for Hecate, the four remaining friends had scattered. Alexandra would not return her calls. From Marta’s Vinyerd, where a patron had allowed her to hide during her time of mourning, Luscena called. It did not help.

Tiffany called her, but she could not bring herself to answer. Tiffany had been there when Hecate had died; Tiffany had not been able to call her back to life. At the devil’s bridge, Malila had sensed the same overwhelming claim of oblivion, its promise of easy passage a step away. The old man had called her back to life. That was what friends did.

For all practical purposes, Edie ran her life, answering her messages, attending O-A meetings, and reminding her to eat and sleep.

She was back in the shallow lake. Thick blood streamed along her thighs as she pushed herself along under the featureless yellow sky. She turned and found the same old temple steps. As she tried to climb, her feet slipped away painfully with every step. She wept, placing her face onto the warm ancient stone, made wet by the blood and her own tears.

Then something happened; the stones were the same, but she could tell they lived. Trying again, she found the climb easy and exhilarating, the sky blue, with high, wispy clouds. She did not look back. At the top, she found a small platform with soft pillows. It smelled of the old man. She slept and dreamed no more.

At 0330, thirty-one days after Jourdaine’s triumph, Malila woke to a siren.

<Imperative> “Report GHQ ASAP. Uniform of the day: battle dress. Information: political crisis level—Charlie, repeat, Charlie. All news banned. Repeat: a news blackout has been instituted. Refer all media representatives to Public Affairs.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

She heard the echo of dozens of similar acknowledgments through her O-A.

Did he just say the situation was critical, Malila?

That’s what it sounded like to me, and …

<ED> Monitor news outlets for political events while I dress.

Of course, Lieutenant!

Malila was out the door within twenty minutes. That did not give her a sense of satisfaction. Sometime during that period they gave her a new platoon of CRNAs and took away her old one.

A new platoon? What is that all about? There goes Sergeant Grauer, and I was just getting used to him. I guess that means that they are not expecting any action.

You might be right. Looked at another way, some green-as-grass second looie has my platoon. I don’t like it.

“Ours is not to wonder why …”

Stuff it, Edie!

Malila spent the morning collating data and generating a summary for General Magness. There was a generalized outbreak of vandalism in Bahston, Artfurd, Washenton, and Filadelfya. A busy taut hum of activity pervaded division headquarters. She had a feeling of uneasiness. There was nothing on the news about it.

The crisis was some unrest among the unguilded masses. The DUFS response would be sudden, complete, and devastating. This happened every once in a while, and Malila knew the routine, despite never having been picked to participate before.

Lunch was cold tea and a selection from a heap of sandwiches dumped in the break room. By 1600, her O-A informed her that the command structure had changed once again. She had a new company commander as well as a new commanding general. She was now part of Recon Twenty-One. She had never heard of the new commander, General Winston.

Despite having never seen them, she would indeed command her new platoon for the action that night. That was another surprise. After a hurried dinner, a sandwich that no one had wanted for lunch, she made her way to the briefing room. It was mostly full by the time she entered.

I count thirty-six lieutenants, one major, and five captains … over 1,500 CRNA combat troopers. Say twice more for support/logistics, and this is quite a force.

I don’t feel like talking now, Edie.

For the ‘very edge of the Unity’s saber,’ you get queasy a lot, Malila. Why is that, I wonder?

<ED> Be quiet!

She felt better after yelling at Edie.

Malila had been educated and indoctrinated by the Unity’s best trainers. She had served with all the officers in the room, all as well trained. It was a close-knit, if contentious, group of officers. The platoon leaders, all first or second lieutenants, talked in low whispers, the usual jokes, flirtations, and innuendo now absent.

No land avatars had been requisitioned. This operation would be different. In harm’s way, platoon leaders would be fighting alongside their troopers. Malila remembered the fight when she’d been recaptured. It was odd, but that had been her first taste of real combat, combat not filtered through the CORE.

That day she had lost to the Unity.

By some subliminal signal, all speech ceased a tenth of a second before the first shout: “General officer present!”

There was a sharp crunch as thirty-six lieutenants, five captains, and one major snapped to attention. Near the front of the room, a tall, robust man with his retinue of staff officers entered.

“As you were!” barked an adjutant a moment later.

Forty-two bodies sat or went to parade rest with barely a change in the taut level of attention. By the looks Malila intercepted from a few of the other officers, the man was as unknown to them as he was to her.

“I’m Major General Bradlee Winston. It is a pleasure to meet so many of my aggressive new officers. I hope we will have long and successful careers together. The cause for this meeting is, however, not as congenial. You and your troopers are all that stand for progress, law, and order against chaos, anarchy, and a return to the dark days after the Meltdown. Your country expects each one of you to do your duty and to show us that you deserve those bars we have placed on your shoulders. Alpha_Drover is going to test the loyalty of everyone here today! Traitors have taken possession of the streets, and the stability of our way of life is in the balance. Do your duty, and the Unity will do well by you!”

He briskly wiped the corners of his mouth with a small handkerchief and motioned to one of his retinue to continue.

“Men, I’m Major Williams, General Winston’s adjutant. Tonight each of you will have an assignment on the streets of the Unity.” He motioned, and a vision of the tactical situation swam before her eyes. Malila’s hands grew cold. Thirty-five other lieutenants, five captains, and a major were quiet as they each studied their own maps.

“Agents, no doubt in the employ of traitors to the homeland, have led mobs to capture food supplies here and here.”

Red squares flared in the map of the megalopolis that appeared to hang in the air before Malila. Sector Filadelfya was just a short flight south from where they were now, an old and crowded slum, not unlike parts of Nyork, a port city with bridges across great rivers.

“Water distribution centers at quadrants A12, C21, F45, and J3 on your maps are occupied.” Green squares flared in Malila’s vision.

“Data distribution centers at B12, D22, G47, and M9 have been protected and should not be targeted. Under no circumstances are they to be damaged by collateral fire or chosen as a line of retreat for yourselves or the enemy.” Orange outlines blossomed on her display.

“A curfew has been called for sundown. Anyone not in Unity-approved shelters is to be considered an enemy combatant.

“You are to enter at the points marked in blue. You are then to sweep your troops to the objectives for each officer as marked. You are to conserve your CRNA resources as appropriate, but given the urban nature of the action, losses are expected. Under no circumstances are losses to prevent you from gaining your objectives. Repeat, your troopers are expendable if your objective can be obtained.”

The import of the major’s words flared in Malila’s mind as the blue markings on her map blazed and set. The area of her assignment enlarged on her O-A, and she was treated to a three-dimensional survey of the region. It was one of the older parts of the Filadelfya District, a warren of narrow streets and alleys opening onto a crowded public area. The names meant little to her: Newmarket, Lombard, Sainjorg, Arch Street, Indiplaza, and Two Street.

“Questions?” For a heartbeat or two, the major gazed across to the back of the room, above the faces of the young officers, before he turned to follow the general out of the room. The portal closed and sealed with a liquid whoosh.

At once, the officers stood and filed out. The operation was to commence at 2345. That left no time for idle talk. Malila jogged to rendezvous with her platoon.

It was now 2115.

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