Excerpts from Chapter “The Ante”

(note: the chapter format in book two is quite different from book one. It is set up as a hand of poker: Ante, Cut, Deal, Bid, etc)


BBWI Local #1, Environs of Washenton, The Unity

07.02.56.local_02_July_AU77 (2129 AD)

The guards escorted Malila into a large, warm, well-ventilated space, muting the smell of the belts. It was bare with the exception of folding wooden chairs for the sparse audience, and posters hoisted along the walls. One poster, now faded and dusty, had once shown in vivid colors a resolute heroic figure with thick forearms wresting a whip from an effeminate master.

The front of the room was slightly raised. The ruler here apparently went in for large pillows for his retinue and a canvas lawn chair for himself. There, a figure reclined in stained overalls, looking, if possible, more intensely odd than the workers she had already met. As she entered, they were all listening attentively to a young worker.

Thole the winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, I guess an’ fear!

The boy bowed and made a low sweep of his hand as a signal his performance was complete, presenting Malila, standing close behind him, with his rather generous posterior for her inspection.

Erupting into cheers of approval, it was several minutes before the odd little man in a lawn chair noticed the newcomers and motioned them to approach. As the young performer moved to the side to allow them to pass, her guards congratulated him sotto voce. Her original inquisitor, goggles circling furiously, approached the dais and announced her capture. At the end of the short discourse, the man in the lawn chair stood.

This is curious, thought Iain Higgins, fourth of that name, who by the will of the workers, was Shop Steward to Local #1 of BBWI. He stood. This will require judgment, and there is never enough time.

Iain still worked a regular shift as a bearing mechanic while donating time to the settling of disputes and the fathering of new workers. They, or their descendants, would, in time, see the Glorious Revolution. It all added up to a busy schedule. Pulling himself to his full height, he started speaking.

“Welcome to the Brotherhood of the Beltway Workers Local #1, Malila Evanova Chiu. I am Iain Higgins, Shop Steward, by the will of the workers. Please, be seated and tell the council your tale.”

After attendants brought a cushion for the strange woman, she sat clumsily, as if unfamiliar with courtly behavior. Certainly, her appearance was odd, even singular. She must be almost a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, Iain thought.

She would never slip into the worker population unnoticed. By reports, face painting had come and gone as a fashion in the streets above. Yet she persisted with it, suggesting narcissism or disdain for her own society’s norms. Moreover, the color of her face paint was unpleasant, like dried blood. Cheap as well, as it was beginning to flake off. She appeared weary, anxious, but resolute—like a cornered rat.

Her story, at least, was different. She was not some disappointed child fleeing the horrors of capitalism. They never worked out on the belts and were eventually told to go home and shown a door. This one was a fugitive from the DUFS. He rather pitied those bumbling horrors. When separated from their commands, they most frequently stopped in their tracks and wept. If the squads kept any cohesion, it was so much easier to mislead them into a wrong and deadly path. The belts could chew up almost anything sent against them.

If it were only that simple.

Local #1 was blessed with vigorous political dialogue. His opponents were always criticizing his every decision. With elections only three weeks off, the backbiting and second-guessing had accelerated. The opposition was stronger now than it had been since late in his father’s term of office. He did not need to have a battle with them or with the Unis on the surface. If he gave her to the Unis, that traitor, Giovanni Higgins, would pounce on him for demeaning the sovereignty of the belts. If he gave her sanctuary, Giovanni would claim Iain endangered Local #1 with the reactionary forces. If he sent her on, she would run into Local #9’s territory within a day.

Local #9, in turn, had been uppity in recent years, challenging the primacy of Local #1. They might just give her to the Unis themselves, making him, Iain, look like an impotent fool. Giovanni, Unis, or Local #9—he was surrounded by enemies. Then this resolute giant rat-woman drops in to make things worse.

Only one thing to do.

Iain Higgins IV smiled thinly as he stood to address the crowd and Malila.

“Your story is most interesting, Worker Chiu. By long tradition and socialist wisdom, Freedom of the Belts is not extended to all who apply. As is our custom and practice, before we consider your petition, we would like you to recite a poem of your own choosing for our attention and appreciation—and, of course, for addition to the BBWI collection.”

Iain IV smiled briefly before sitting. He crossed his thin legs. Scribes looked up, poised over their tablets. The room grew silent. He waited.

Please, not another “There was a man from Nantucket!” he thought.

By her appearance, he judged the woman was of the working classes, but she had long been a tool of the repressive orders, as she freely admitted. Poetry lifted people from the bondage of economic repression. Local #1 has always held that poetry separated the redeemable elements from those whose revolutionary ire had been permanently stilled by the oppression visited upon them. It was unfortunate, but one had to draw a line somewhere; economics, after all, are based on scarcity.

A look of vacant panic flicked across the woman’s face before resolve snapped in, shifting her appearance into that odd look everyone made as they sorted through their memories to see if they had all the pieces to a remembered work. Without preamble, she began:

O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?

Sounds from the audience became mere outbursts of approval as the work continued. Iain smiled.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

The effect was electric. By the time the woman sat down, the entire room buzzed.

This will require some subtlety.

Calling over his consigliere, Brother Ivan Higgins, Iain had a brief consultation with him before Ivan left to make the arrangements. Iain held up his hands for silence, then rose and addressed the crowd. As he watched, Worker Scrivving, that tool of the reactionary Giovanni, scuttled out the back door.

“Excellent, Malila Evanova! Short but effective. A little unorthodox, changing the rhyming scheme after the first four lines, you will surely admit. The language is archaic, as well, but nonetheless very effective. It appears that we can consider providing you refuge. That’s not lightly nor easily done. We’ll assemble the Grievance Committee to discuss your request. In the meantime, you are granted the Hospitality of the Belts.”

Iain IV rose, and with him rose the entire court, the strange woman struggling not to be the last as Iain and his retinue exited.

Ivan would take care of the details.


1301 Caroline Street, Saint Louis, RSA

8:29 a.m., July 2, 2129

Jesse arrived at the address on Caroline. Waving his travel chit at the optical reader, he exited the taxi and took the stairs down to his appointment.

In general, Jesse liked the smell of learning. After the Meltdown, master librarians had conserved all the printed books, making them electronically available to the widest possible audience. However, the absence of physical books had produced a groundswell of unrest among various faculties until some company formulated a scent of old books and integrated it into the ventilation system. After that, all the disciplines wanted their own boutique aroma. A minor industry emerged to create, and frequently improve upon, the olfactory cachet of every branch of learning. Unfortunately, the signature for this room had not improved.

During his years as a student, the formalin in the air of the autopsy suite had numbed and eventually embalmed Jesse’s sense of smell. It took him weeks to regain an appreciation for coffee after his semesters of anatomy and pathology. And there it was again: formalin and the muted background scent of dead human.

After donning a “bunny suit” to cover his uniform, Jesse pushed through the swinging double doors into the necroscopy suite itself. A tall, smiling black man greeted him without a handshake—necroscopic etiquette. He, too, was dressed in the all-encompassing suit, but the stiff collar of his white shirt and a suggestion of a gold and purple necktie still showed above the zippered closure.

“Dr. Johnstone? Hello! Dave Roberts. Thanks for coming. I’d heard you were in town. I had hoped to meet you before now. I think your friend General Thomas is trying to keep you to himself.” Roberts laughed uneasily.

“Doctor Roberts, pleased to meetcha. There must be a conspiracy! My family has practically held me captive. I’m glad you gave me an excuse to escape for a bit. So, how may I be useful to the Medical Division, Colonel?” Jesse asked with a quick smile.

“As it happens, we got another one of your friends in this week. I thought I would pick your brain, Doc.”

Jesse’s “friend” was naked, a black Produra uniform having already been cut away by two surgically masked men. All that was left was the pale form of a thin, middle-aged man, his joints noticeably enlarged, lying on the stainless-steel dissection table. In death, the corpse smiled enigmatically.

At a nod from Roberts, the masked men started cutting the Y-shaped incision in the pale, dead chest and extending it to the belly. Jesse noticed the “patient” was vaguely jaundiced. A growing stream of red dribble wound down the length of the table to the drain at the corpse’s feet.

“It is not frequently that I get to see Unis up close—dead or alive—but he looks different from what I saw in the old days,” Jesse remarked, moving closer.

Roberts explained, “He’s pretty typical of the ones we get now. This is an example of what is classed, based on the external morphology, as a Gamma-type. I’d have thought, after all these years, you would be more familiar with the Unis than anyone.”

“Well, in my own defense, Unis have changed a lot since the early days. If I was lucky enough to kill a zombie, I was trying to get my people away as quickly as possible. Back then, they came back for their dead.”

“You took quite a big chance in April, then, bringing the bodies in,” said Roberts, turning to Jesse.

The old man shrugged. “I was anxious to get them away from the crowd. If the Unis came back for their people, I hoped they’d follow me instead. Besides, there was something funny about the raid: a solitary skimmer leaving immediately after they recaptured

Malila . . . their officer.”

Roberts looked at Jesse’s face for a second before turning back to watch the choreographed ballet of the necroscopy. After opening the cavities, a morgue worker excised each organ, weighed it, and took samples of the tissues for later microscopic examination. The pathologist directed the operations and, in the inflectionless monotone of the profession, spoke continuously into a microphone for the dictation program to proofread, insert normative data, and create the last official documents for the newly dead.

While there was a momentary lull, Roberts said, “Let me show you something.” Putting on a pair of gloves, he went over to the corpse and raised the right arm. Jesse saw a line of crisp numerals tattooed in the armpit. Roberts then picked up a scalpel from the table and, turning, deftly cut into the corpse’s chest. Over a rib and well away from the gaping cavity of the emptied chest, Roberts had stabilized a mass with his fingers before popping out a small white capsule with odd protuberances and letterings.

“The tattoo corresponds to the implant . . . see? That last bit is the date.”

Jesse saw the tattoo: 201000A-01_01_AU75, the same as the implant.

“I took an implant out of an officer last year. She had no tattoos. Same location, but a much older scar in a younger body,” Jesse said. “Have you found any other implants? The officer apparently had a second one somewhere. Heck if I could find it, though.”

“Yeah, once we knew what to look for, we found ’em easily enough. I’ll show it to you when we open the cranium. It’s just above the sphenoidal plate, a whisker away from the nasal mucosa. We surmise that these guys retire from the general population at forty. Their old implants, the ones they’ve had since childhood, are removed and new ones put in. You can see the old scar envelope. They get a tattoo, since most don’t speak very well after the ablation process.”

“This guy looks way older than forty-something.”

The whine of a bone saw cut through the room as it opened the soldier’s head, his facial skin having been pulled like a lumpy sock over the face, leaving the skull colored an old ivory in the harsh overhead lights.

“Can I ask how many autopsies we’ve done on these guys?”

“Several thousand. We always pick up a few who seem to have died spontaneously. Most die from projectile fire, of course. As I recall, the first of the three you picked up for us was pretty typical, rifle shot to the chest. The second died of shock from broken femurs, and the last from chest trauma with a hemopericardium.

“This guy here was found after a raid into what’s left of Chicago. Can you imagine? A walk-in freezer was still operational, running on solar for a deep-fry tofu joint in Hyde Park. Our friend here apparently went into the freezer and locked the door from the inside. Killed himself—froze to death. His own crew tried to dig him out. Probably would’ve, too, if a patrol of our scouts hadn’t come by and run them off.

“They went back to see what they were after. They found him

laid out with his hands over his chest, smiling.”

Roberts shrugged and turned back to the autopsy table. By then, the pathologist had cut the brain free of its confinement and divested it of its tougher coverings. He was carefully slicing the soft mass with a large, smooth knife and dropping the slices into formalin. The masked pathologist straightened up, bent down, and sliced a thinner piece of the pale tissue before looking up and motioning Roberts over.

Peering at the pink-gray slice of brain, the pathologist stopped his dictation and wordlessly pointed to several spots in both the grayer areas on the surface as well as the deeper, paler substance of the brain.

Roberts nodded and continued, “Originally, sixty years ago, when we first started studying the Unis, the brain lesions were large and expanding when the soldier died. I can’t imagine they would’ve lived too much longer, at any rate. Apparently, the Union guys got better with the ablation process over the years. Now, the lesions are quite discrete. They still enlarge over time, but nowhere near as fast.”

“Any of the men younger than their forties?”

“A few, and a few women. We figure that the outliers are judicial ablations.”

Roberts walked over to the corpse and pointed to the now emptied brain cavity. “See the implant there? Just anterior to the sella, really the anterior wall of the sella.”

Roberts leaned away as Jesse looked into the skull and nodded. “I don’t feel so bad. That puppy is pretty well hidden.”

With the autopsy over, the morgue worker started a series of fast, crude stitches with heavy suture to hold the corpse together for cremation. Roberts nodded again and led Jesse away to a small conference room, motioning Jesse into one of the stout institutional aluminum chairs at a small table before he also took a seat.

“The big news is some of the zombies seem to be breaking down,” Roberts began. “I’ll need to do the tissue sections on this one, of course, but if our friend today really died of hypothermia, then he’s the fourth death like that since the beginning of the year.”

“Doesn’t that happen all the time? Weather in the frontier is fickle. Quick snap will freeze you blue in half an hour,” Jesse commented.

“Indeed, but we find stuff that’s odd about the deaths. They don’t appear to be trying to stay warm. Some disrobe. One went swimming and drowned. The common factors are they each got separated from their units and were exposed to cold, although we don’t know which event came first. Oh, and all had implants placed after January 1, 2127.”

“Interesting. But I’m sorta lost here. I’ve been on the more tactical end of zombie-American relations, you might say—I try to kill them before they kill me. Has anyone got a handle on the Unis, Dave? I need to try to understand them better,” said Jesse.

Malila understood you well enough, old man, he thought.

Roberts’s face softened. Taking out a business card, he flipped it over and scribbled a number on the back. “Here’s a strictly unapproved minority opinion, name’s Lucente. Smartest guy on the subject, but the brass don’t like what he has to say. You never got it from me. And Jesse, look out for a tail, okay?”

“Who’d bother to tail me?” Jesse asked as he examined the card. He had always assumed that his movements and motives were self-evident and predictable.

“You may have fewer friends than you deserve, old man. There are at least four opinions out there about you. One is that you’re the embodiment of the American ideal: self-reliant, benign in victory, and savage in retreat. The second is that after all these years on the frontier, you’ve gone a bit mad, have too much sympathy for the Unis. The third is that you are some sort of incubus, making yourself younger at other people’s expense.”

Jesse’s face fell for a moment before he asked, “And the fourth?”

“That you’re a fortunate fraud. A good deal of that’s envy, you know, but there’s a core of believers who think you couldn’t have done all the things you have. And if you did, they could have done them better. They’re looking for a way to discredit you, primarily to discredit your boosters.”

“I see. I had hoped to stay out of politics. Thank you for the warning. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dave.” “You as well. Thanks for coming.” They parted again without shaking hands.


Anne Arundel Annex Station, Unity

0916.22.local_06_July_AU77 (2129 AD)

The stolid tramp of boots echoed down the steps into the beltway station, startling workers going home after their graveyard shift as well as idlers anxious to look busy in the suddenly cramped space.

DUFS uniforms pushed the few civilians to the wall for inspection and interrogation. Another squad seized the surveillance tapes. Simultaneously, units were working back to Anne Arundel from several stops north and south in case someone had attempted to escape just before they arrived.

Jourdaine watched via the surveillance cameras as Second Lieutenant Lance Haversham found the service door through which Chiu had apparently escaped. After placing charges on the door, the demolition crew crouched behind any available cover and waited for the detonation. Just then, a small worker, oblivious to the DUFS, appeared and approached the door, unlocking it. The surveillance camera silently showed the explosion of recriminations as the door swung open.

After the shouting had ceased, a young lieutenant took control, confiscating the worker’s door key before directing his men to rush the door. Heedless of whatever opposition might greet them, the CRNAs forced their way through the opening but stopped abruptly after no more than four soldiers had entered.

“What do you mean it’s a janitor’s closet? We saw the Chiu woman walk into it!” barked Lieutenant General Jourdaine at the young and progressively more squeaky-voiced Lieutenant Haversham, reporting from the field.

“I’m sorry, sir. The door leads to a room that’s about a meter square with mops and brooms in it,” said Haversham. Jourdaine watched the young officer’s blush spread, starting around his uniform collar and advancing inexorably over his freckled face to his ginger hairline.

“You’ve opened the wrong door, you fool! And then you’ve made the mistake of annoying me with your error,” retorted Jourdaine. “Check all the doors before you tell me you have failed, Lieutenant,” he said as he cut the link.

Problem-solving is not something they teach these officers anymore, it appears, Jourdaine thought as he returned to a particularly knotty logistics problem.

The propaganda front was coming along well, at least. The comm’nets were filled daily with some sort of atrocity perpetrated by random outlanders. Documentaries on the primitive nature of the savages and the pathetic state of their weaponry drew rave reviews and glowing editorials. Manufactured outrage and avarice within the Unity were rising nicely. But the rate of transit across the Scorch . . .

General Jourdaine’s OA signaled. Again, it was the luckless lieutenant.

“Yesss?” Jourdaine hissed.

“Sir, the Anne Arundel Annex station is secure, sir. All exits have been accounted for, sir. There are no exits from the platform except those that go to street level or the belts, sir. We have not found the suspect, sir. Searches continue, sir—”

Jourdaine cut the contact and sat back in his chair. Chiu had graduated to being an irritation.

Anne Arundel Annex, Marilan, Unity

07.23.12_local_07_July_AU77 (2129 AD)

Hours after his last ego-wilting conversation with Jourdaine, Lieutenant Lance Haversham viewed Anne Arundel Station with satisfaction. He had completed the interrogation of citizens trying to enter or exit. After “accelerated recollection” treatments, a few of the regular commuters admitted noticing a scantily clad and odd-looking woman when they glanced up from their tablets on the southbound beltway five days ago. None remembered when she exited.

General Jourdaine was expected momentarily, and Haversham vowed he would be ready. All he had to do—all he could do—was escort Jourdaine around and show him just how dead this particular dead end was. Afterward, he could take his men back to the barracks, see them fed and bedded down, clean and polish his own gear, and after collapsing onto his bunk, attempt to forget these two long, fruitless days.

Jourdaine had said he wanted to see the door through which this absconder had left the station. Odd, but Haversham would nevertheless show Jourdaine the welded steel box. It was symmetrical, painted an institutional off-white, worn in appropriate places where a carelessly thrown mop bucket might scrape paint. The attendant mop bucket had identically colored scrapes along an edge. The closet, bathed in the greenish light of the single light panel, looked like any janitor’s closet. Jourdaine would have to admit failure.

There was a noise from the entrance and the snare-drumming of hard-soled shoes on the stairs. Jourdaine and his retinue had arrived.

Haversham gave his commander a meticulous tour of the beltway station, but dogged by Jourdaine’s continual displeasure, it seemed to take forever. His narrow, cold, and solitary bed appeared ever more unobtainable as Jourdaine ranted on, even about the fragrance of his men.

The fathering officer was the one who ordered us to stay overnight, he thought.

“Lieutenant Haversham!” Jourdaine said.

“Yes, sir!” Haversham replied, jolted from his reverie of a quiet bed.

“Close me into the closet.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Which word are you having trouble with, Lieutenant? It was an order.”

“Sir! Yes, sir.”

The heavy metal door swung closed behind the slim gray form of Haversham’s commanding officer. Silence descended. Haversham was forced to stand and wait for further orders. Perhaps, he thought, there would not be any order; Jourdaine would do the same magic trick the fecking woman had pulled when she conspired to turn his comfortable military life into the hell it had become.

Why Jourdaine’s attention had focused on one more runaway was unfathomable. They were all eventually found, these runaways—dead or alive. The several he had uncovered were grotesque enough: a stench behind a wall in some public area, fetid liquid draining for weeks onto a platform before someone thought to complain, blanched white flesh floating in a foul river. If Jourdaine would only let things take their natural course.

A slightly muffled voice with the edge of command issued from behind the door and again interrupted his thoughts. “You may open the door now, Lieutenant Haversham.”

The general, once liberated, bore an odd smirk on his face. “Did it ever occur to you to wonder why they put a bolt on the inside of a janitor’s closet, Lieutenant Haversham?”

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