Exiles’ Escape Prologue “First Hand Sapping”

Prologue

 

(Twenty-two months before the events of the first book)

Stanton, Pensy[1], Democratic Unity of America

Infinity Acres Retirement Community

Product Reclamation Floor

06.23.02.local_01_Jan_AU75[2] (2127 AD)

 

“Good morning, Ruuf. Tie one on last night, did you?”

“I musta had a good time, Gurry. Can’t remember half of it, ‘n’ Sheilah wouldn’t talk to me this morning.”

“You probably deserve it. Fecking stupid that the zoots even bother to have us come in.”

“How many we got cooking, anyway? Any chance of a light day?”

“We have only one induction, four maintenance, and three consolidations. Bravo twenty-seven smoked it overnight.”

“Only one start-off? Father me, I may yet survive the day!”

“You’re forgettin’, this is the day we start the new setup. The dose goes down to twenty-two on these guys. They say they get more geeks out of the process, but we have to keep fecking new records and do vids.”

“Thrilling. What do you want to start with?” said Ruuf as he donned his padded suit and fishbowl helmet. He grabbed up a two-meter pole with padded jaws on one end and moved to a line of gleaming stainless-steel doors that lined a wall.

“Bravo twenty.”

A stainless-steel door swung open. Ignoring the stench and dodging the flung feces, Ruuf waited for a chance and then slipped the jaws of his capture pole around the Sisi’s throat before dragging the creature into the light. Immediately, Gurry pounced on the naked old man with a section of metal grid, pinning him, face down, to the floor. Ruff released his grip and retrieved the Sapp-gun. Gurry’s tattoo gun snapped once as the man’s arm came up to protect his face.

“Number 201000A-01_01_AU75. New Sapp[3] dose, zero point two two mils of hundred gigaparticles per mil per meter squared times 1.73 square meter yields zero point three eight mils. Check the math, and here you go, Gur. Ready to boogie.”

“Check, Ruuf. Good to go.”

There was a nearly noiseless pop just before the screaming started. Within minutes, Gurry released the man as he subsided into whimpers, moans, and guttural nonsense sounds. From the ranks of stainless-steel cages, a wave of hoots, harangues, and a few shouts of “Wait till I write my congressman,” erupted. Ruuf shoveled the old man back into his cage as Gurry, looking at his tablet, started to laugh.

“Says here that guy was a professor of English. Wonder who needs to be taught their own language?”

“Beats me. Probably smart. Think he’ll rise within the ranks, then?”

“Depends on whether he can still talk in a week, don’t it?”

“Tea?”

“Yeah, sure. They’ll be quieter when we get back.”

As they left the room, each put on a uniform hat. Instead of the usual DUFS[4] uniform cover, each black hat bore a death’s head insignia.

 

 

[1] After the Glorious Revolution, many place names in the Democratic Unity were simplified.

[2] Unity date-time convention: hour.min.sec.time zone (GMT= zulu, local, EST, CST, etc.)_day_month_year (in Annum Unita = AD-2151). A timeline is available in the Appendix.

[3] Unfamiliar terms may be referenced in the Appendix. Sapp is the agent used by the Unity to turn their excess population into compliant foot soldiers.

[4] Democratic Unity Forces for Security. As posse commitatus has been repealed, all policing and military functions have been combined under the DUFS.

NB Decided to remove this from the MS for publication. This will probably never see the light of day other than this blog but it does pre-sage some of the events in later books.

Free Read Final Chapters (SPOILERS)

Chapter 61

Alpha_Drover Redux

vidMalila

Nyork, Unity

02.50.26.local.01.07.AU77

Colonel Jourdaine’s O-A woke him.

He had submitted sixteen of his junior officers for . The senior leadership was a heaving jumble of competing factions, but they all demanded junior officers of single-minded, unthinking loyalty. All  but Alpha_Drover-successful officers were compliant to any senior. All the failed officers would find themselves, in due time, in some jurisdiction of dubious significance. Dealing with Malila Chiu was just a happy coincidence.

He opened his O-A as he lay in bed, a warm and newly ascendant ensign snoring prettily next to him after he had put her through her paces. Jourdaine reviewed the results of the current Alpha_Drover.

Of the sixteen officers in the command, one had failed to control his men and had been left in the virtual sally port as he’d tried to escape the simulation. One officer had attempted to reincorporate; his psyche was still wandering a self-contained labyrinth, a “glass bottle” in the CORE. He would be decanted in time. Thirteen of Jourdaine’s officers had succeeded. Lieutenant François Belkhadem had gone a little overboard perhaps. He had joined his troopers in the slaughter. His loyalty was unquestioned, but his leadership skills might need closer evaluation. They had found him covered in blood and laughing as he’d repeatedly pulled the trigger on an empty magazine. No doubt, he had a use.

Two had failed, thirteen had succeeded … and one had disappeared. Malila Chiu was nowhere to be found.

He nudged the sleeping ensign and motioned for her to leave, watching her as she dressed before rising himself. Jourdaine showered rapidly to take the scent of the girl away and, after dressing in fatigues, examined Chiu’s transcript.

He slid a few controls in his O-A, and the image of Major Benjamina Wouters appeared, looking worried and fatigued. As a Suarez holdover and head of operations for Alpha_Drover, she had a lot to prove.

“Major Wouters, congratulations on another successful Alpha_Drover!”

“Sir, I am glad you are pleased, sir. I think the exercise has gone well.”

Her eyes kept looking down and to the side, her breath quickening. He felt a surge of the woman’s stressors; she was lying.

Jourdaine let a moderate reprimand course through her, and she cringed. It served his purposes well to engender a little terror in his subordinates. The woman squirmed.

“What happened to Chiu? Did she fail, succeed, or try to reincorporate? Major?” he asked, smiling faintly.

Major Wouters had gone somewhat paler, and there was a sheen on her forehead. Her fear increased the uncertainty of her responses … but a reliable emotion nonetheless.

“Sir, I do not know, sir. She has failed to lead her men. That part is clear. I retrieved her CRNAs without difficulty, but we had to wait until the rest of the operation was near completion. The troopers in Chiu’s command were found with unfired weapons … except one, her platoon sergeant.

“All he can say was that he followed direct orders. It seems she was able to reincorporate without using the CORE. She restarted her own body and did some minor vandalism in the staging area before escaping to the streets of Filadelfya District.”

“How is that possible, Major?”

“Lieutenant Chiu apparently was wounded in a weapons mishap. She ordered her sergeant to fire upon her. With the antifrat subroutines suspended, the shot did real damage. She reincorporated due to a power surge within the local node of the CORE. It is not immediately apparent whether that was volitional or not.

“She walked south from Chinatown to the old city center. There, she obtained some cocaine. That is all we have, sir!” Wouters finished with a grimace.

“What are you doing to intercept Chiu, Major? We can’t have a failed candidate wandering the streets and scaring the citizens,” Jourdaine said, quietly delighted that Chiu had made a run for it. She was out of the way, and he could clean her up at his leisure.

“I have already sent patrols to intercept her, sir. I anticipated your desire to keep the citizens unaware and have sent small groups of her fellow officers in civilian garb.”

“Very good, Major. Let me know when you have made progress,”

This was the last time he wanted to think about Lieutenant Chiu. It was her role, now, to evaporate into anonymity.

 

Malila watched the distant lights south of the bridge and tried to steady her hands as she took the spike of tightly wound wire and slid it into her nose, feeling it slip past the sensitive tissue.

Cocaine was an interesting drug. She had learned about it from Moses. He’d used it on some of his cattle with a nasty parasite in the nasal passages. It was a local anesthetic, shrank the lining of the passages, and stopped most bleeding. As for her own experiment, Malila was amazed at how far she could pass the spike blindly. She felt obstruction and pain and stopped. She retreated until the pain receded and then advanced again. Blood, her blood, dripped off the end of the spike, but this time she did not stop until the spike was fully inserted. She waited.

Her O-A implant had been her constant conduit into the CORE, and now it had turned into a shackle, binding her to the Unity. Jesse had removed her Basic implant, and they had found her, even outside the Rampart, from her O-A implant. Her O-A had to die if she were going to live. There was fear here as well. Her brain, her mind, had lived almost its whole life sensing, using, and listening to the implant within it. Edie was already gone. Would there be anyone left without the implant?

Would she be aware, if she failed, as the Unity found her and started the Sapping process? They said the CRNAs raved for days before becoming compliant.

The lights on the capacitor blinked green … full charge.

Malila thumbed the switch, slick with her warm blood; her vision evaporated, and she fell.

 

Hecate awoke in an empty, dusty apartment somewhere in the slums. To her surprise, the apartment had food for four days and, even more surprising, a working toilet. She read the postop instructions taped to her leg. The cutter and her assistant had been nameless, had never spoken, and had been wearing surgical masks by the time she’d been rolled in. Tiffany had not been there.

Hecate remembered their last face-to-face meeting, weeks before.

“You need to be careful, Heccy. Do you know about the implants?” Tiffany had warned.

“Of course, I use my O-A every day, just like you do.”

“No, what I mean is your Basic implant. You got it when you were an E1. It allows the Unity to track us. I think Malila’s is no longer working.”

“Then just take out the Basic implant,” Hecate said.

“They can track you with the O-A, but the range is much shorter. Most of the time that doesn’t much matter. I know someone who can remove the Basic and the O-A for you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Professional courtesy … no, that is just a joke. Sometimes, my patients have to disappear. They come to me, and I help them. But I don’t do the surgery part. I have a friend who does that. I get the anesthesia … There are certain expenses, you understand. Anyway, I help them, and the client pays for the surgery. I get paid for the anesthesia. They get a new identity and go somewhere to start over.”

“Where do they get the new implants from?”

“I never ask. It is probably good to never ask.”

“I just want to get rid of them both. Your friends can have them, for all I care.”

“Let me ask around. Where will you go?”

“I found some stories. I could never get through the Rampart to the west. It is all into Scorched—”

Tiffany interrupted with a furious wave of her hand. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. Don’t tell me any more. If I don’t know, I can’t tell. Do you need money?”

“I have some. I’ve been selling my stuff to phantom shops.”

“Take as much as you can. Useful stuff, money.”

Since that one meeting, she had not spoken to Tiffany again.

Her quarters had become an echoing hollow. She’d slept on the floor. She had made a point to have quiet dinners with Alexandra and Luscena. Hecate had tried to tell them she loved them. They had not understood, but she had tried. Malila had been too busy. And she was the only one who really mattered.

Late one night, a voice had called her and recited to her a time and an address and then made her repeat them back. The voice had told her not to write anything down. Hecate had collected her money and a few other things and shown up. The passenger compartment of the skimmer had been blacked out.

She found the little cream-and-blue book among her clothes when she was well enough to dress. She had forgotten she had brought it. In the early days of her grief after Victor’s death, she had found the book of poems. They had spoken to her, and she’d reread some of them enough to memorize them. Now she kept the book as some indefinable bright thread linking her to Victor. It was silly, she knew. Victor had never seen the book nor the poems. She kept it anyway.

 

That afternoon, Jourdaine skimmed down the loss-of-officer report on Chiu, past all the verbiage he already knew, and focused on the important bits:

7) Chiu appears to have committed suicide by jumping into the Delawear River, using the items she found as added weight, leaving an apparent suicide note (appendix D).

8) Chiu’s vital functions via cerebral implant ceased at 03.38.48 local, 1 July AU 77. The body has not been recovered.

Jourdaine shrugged. He signed for his copy of the report with a mental flourish. Vivalagente Suarez was no longer a worry. Suarez had been the real reason for Chiu’s rescue and rehabilitation. In a way, he was pleased.

With Chiu now dead, he no longer had to worry about what she might say next. She had been away from the Unity for six months. During that time, she had lost the function of her Basic implant and, seemingly, all her training. No doubt, Chiu represented a wild-type human in the hothouse culture of the Unity. It was just as well that Alpha_Drover had done its job.

 

Chapter 62

Postmortem

Beautiful_Illustration_and_Digital_Art_by_Cristiano_Siqueira_27

 

Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia

Just before dawn, July 1, 2129

When she came to, her watch had been fried. The electromagnetic pulse had surged through Malila’s head and into her implant, just above the thin plate of bone separating the brain from the nasal passages.

Having no idea how long she had been out, Malila tried to quest the time through her O-A. For a moment she felt as if she were falling, leaning against a wall that had just vanished. There was no sign of her O-A. To the CORE, she was dead.

Malila looked back at the city to see if she could read a clock, only then realizing her vision was blurred. The sky was still the starless dark velvet of the city, but there was a gleam of sunrise over EasFiladelfya. She sat up, her legs dangling over empty space, and withdrew the spike from her nose. A dark clot of blood trailed along with the warm metal. It was followed by a warmer gush of red that Malila tried mopping up with her hands. After a moment, she started smearing the blood over her face and belly. Surveillance cameras were black and white; the blood would camouflage her features.

She examined the coil. There was no evidence that it had burned out. Malila threw the spike, battery, and capacitor, separately, into the river. With any luck, she would be discounted as one more suicide.

Malila was naked except for her skivvies, that and the blood smeared liberally over her face, arms, and belly. She felt she had stopped a skimmer with her head.

Through her blurred vision and the dull throb of her ruined face, Malila smiled and set out to escape from the Unity. No, not escape from … escape to … escape to a place where she could see the stars, see the smiles of an infant, and enjoy the warmth of an old man.

 

Late that night, while he was still at his new office—well, really Suarez’s old office—Jourdaine was just about to close the distasteful file on Chiu for the last time when a thought occurred to him. He summoned the data from the bridge district to evaluate. The transit time of the bridge belt, the speed topping out at an average ten kilometers per hour, was eighteen seconds. He sent an inquiry:

<<Checksum delta all passengers entering Ben Bridge 0000.00 to 0500.00 from Filadelfya and exited in EasFiladelfya from 0000.18 to 0500.18 on 1 July instant>>.

Looking at the exit data from the 0000-to-0500 window, he found the difference to be minus one, presumably disheartened and suicidal, passenger. He shrugged at himself wondering what he had expected to find. Chiu had survived the captivity of the outlands at a price. She had been useful, for a time. She’d failed her Alpha_Drover, reincarnated, escaped, scored some cocaine, and, in her newly exposed understanding of her failure, jumped into the open sewer that was the Delawear River.

Jourdaine rose from his desk. He thought a moment and called up a new query.

<<Checksum delta all passengers entering Ben Bridge 0000.00 to 0500.00 from EasFiladelfya and exiting in Filadelfya from 0000.18 to 0500.18 on 1 July instant>>.

The numbers were retrieved and subtracted, and a flashing “+1” was superimposed on his living vision. One more person had left the bridge than had entered it going west; one fewer person had exited the bridge than had entered it going east. He reread the reports.

 

 

Chapter 63

Easter

sunrise

Stamping Ground, eastern Kentucky, RSA

Late morning, April 10, 2129

The last thing Sally had seen through the screen of new growth, as she’d fled into the shelter of the trees, had been a flash of heat and light blossoming from Moses’s chest. He’d fallen back into the campfire like so much dead meat. She had seen death from the Union before. She remembered the blackened corpses of her father and sister still smoking as the Uni skimmer had lifted off.

For long seconds, her momentum of body and mind kept her moving. She briefly stopped the moment she understood she was a widow. Their escape, hers and Ethan’s, was the last gift Moses would ever give them. Tears blurring her sight, she stumbled as she sought to gain as much distance as she might from the soulless nightmares. A branch whipped across her face and startled Ethan into a high-pitched wail. Sally gasped for air. It was only then she allowed herself to crumple behind a downed oak, sinking into the misery she felt. Cooing noises and a calming voice did much to settle Ethan but at the price of deepening Sally’s own uncertainty. She and Ethan were alone.

Moses had been the bright light of her life. He had shown her not just love but dreams. He could be thoughtless, and he took risks, but his risk taking had founded for them a hearth and a home. Moses had been daylong honest, plainspoken, and hardworking. Even so, there had been a poetry to their dreams.

She broke into racking sobs that a frightened Ethan augmented. His shrieks finally pulled Sally back from the black abyss of grief. Cooing and coddling the baby, she offered him a warm breast. Ethan, taking the bribe, quieted, and the forest around them became silent again.

Feeding Ethan was an endless job; he seemed bottomless. No, that was certainly not right. Ethan’s bottom figured large in her calculations and her concerns. She still had the farm, and with Moses dead, it was in her name alone. She would sell it or farm it, but she would get by. A dream had gone out of her life, but the new life nuzzling greedily at her breast would find his own dreams.

Once the shooting had stopped and Ethan was sated, Sally rose and dusted the damp punk off her dress. She started down the hill. She would claim Moses’s body, and she would give him a decent burial here, where she and Ethan could visit him on every Return.

 

Jesse watched from the cover of the tree line as black-suited raiders carried Malila’s limp body up the ramp into the darkness of the skimmer. She was still breathing. He was unarmed and still within range of their rifles. Xavier and Moses were down.

The skimmer buttoned up and rose several hundred feet before building up speed and heading south and east. The raiders had stopped as soon as they had captured Malila. A chill went through the old man when he recognized how much planning and precision had gone into the raid for a disgraced junior officer. It was ominous.

Before the craft was out of sight, Jesse sprinted from cover toward Moses. He had covered only half the distance when the younger man sat up and howled with pain. Seeing Moses’s revival, Jesse went on to the motionless Delarosa.

Xavier was very dead. A small burned hole over his spine blossomed red as it erupted through his belly. Jesse gently removed his spectacles and closed his eyes. It had been a quick and painless death for a man who, Jesse thought, had borne more than his share of grief.

By the time Jesse turned around, Moses had gotten his foot out of an overheated boot and was pouring water onto it expectantly.

 

“I’m a bona fide fool and a half, my friend,” Jesse said after he examined Moses’s bare foot, Moses’s toes curling into the cool earth.

“Not that I’d ever presume to disagree with your professional judgment …” said Moses, wincing with the probing of his foot.

“Why aren’t you dead too? Xavier is sure dead enough.”

“Is he? That’s a loss; I was beginning to like the man, citified and everything … Did he have a family? I guess I never asked him.”

“His wife was killed in a raid a long while ago. His kids are up and grown, but I think he has some kin back in St Lou. Where are you hit, Mose?”

Moses looked down at his camouflage jacket to discover the small hole surrounded by an area of his jacket that was fused, discolored, and vaguely smoldering. Unzipping his jacket, Moses turned out his shirt pocket. A reflectionless disk of black fell to the ground with a crystalline ring as it hit a rock, rolling a few feet before falling over.

“Is that the fifty-dollar piece …?” Jesse started.

“Yeah, Malila gave it me just a minute before the attack. Whatever you said to her made her mad as spit. She stormed off saying she wasn’t going to see you again. What did you say to her, Jesse?”

The old man ignored the question and examined the fluted black disk.

“Best piece of work she’s ever done, giving that to you. Feel it, Mose; it’s still warm but not really hot. Let me look at your chest.”

The younger man peeled off the shirt, but there was no wound. A point of tenderness, duplicated when Jesse cautiously compressed Moses’s chest, and a growing bruise were all Moses had to show for the encounter. His jacket, on the other hand, had a smoldering patch of fabric in the lining, over a foot across, where the pulse bolt had penetrated.

“Mose, you got at least one broken rib. Nothing to do about it except stop breathing.”

“How ’bout a second opinion?”

“Okay, it could be that you’re dumb as a stump too.”

Moses laughed and immediately gasped with the pain.

 

The sight of the dead had begun to collect the curious as Jesse drove up with the borrowed wagon.

A rising tide of people and questions helped and hindered the moving of the bodies to the wagon bed. It was almost an hour before they were decently covered for transport to the nearest railhead.

Jesse swung into the box. Moses moved to accompany him, pulling himself up to the box painfully on the off side.

“Go home, Mose. I mayn’t be coming back for a while.”

“You can’t go to Lexington alone, old man.”

“Sure I can, Mose. I’ve a note from my momma right here.”

Then in a lower and more confidential voice, Jesse added, “Mose, your Sally doesn’t much like my taking you away from her. You’ll be planting soon, and then there’ll be the calving. You need to stay at home and be a husband. Ethan needs a daddy. Xavier deserves an escort home, and I need to talk to the brass hats in St. Louis after we get there.

“But if you want to do me a favor, let Alex and Jacob know where I am; they worry. The wagon and mules, I’ll leave with Judge Wasnicki, and he can bring them back when he comes on circuit. That sound all right to you, Mose?”

“Sure, Jesse. That’s fine. Sally’s prettier than you are, any road.” Moses grinned as he lowered himself to the ground.

Jesse laughed. “I was wondering when you would notice, my friend.”

 

Sally wiped the tears from her eyes before showing herself at the tree line. She parted the branches and looked for the clusters of people who would be standing over Moses’s corpse. There were none. She made out a wagon in the chaos. They had already picked up his body. She looked to the driver and saw Jesse. She waved, trying to attract his notice.

It was then she saw the man who started up to the box on the off side, only to get down again.

In a daze, a dream, a breathless sprint, Sally pummeled through the churning crowd. Moses looked up only a moment before the impact.

“Easy, Sally, that hurt!” Moses said.

“I saw you die. I thought you were dead,” she said, almost accusingly, tears blinding her as she pulled Moses closer. Ethan struggled in her grasp.

She sensed herself and the baby lifted and spun in the flashing light of the sun and heard Moses’s clear laugh.

“It is not so easy to get rid of me as all that, Sally, my love.”

The kiss they shared lasted long.

By the time Sally looked again, Jesse, unremarked by the hastening crowd, was disappearing from sight at a turning in the green woods of spring.

 

NOTE:

Book Two is coming out spring 2017

Outland Exile, Free Read, Chapters 59 and 60

Chapter 59

Alice

alice

Nyork, Unity

21.44.07.local_30_06_AU77

In levels deep within the fabric of the city, a door opened, revealing, motionless within an immense cavern in the bedrock, an ordered sea of black-helmeted troopers. It was not often that Malila had seen so many CRNAs on one parade ground. It stank. Her fellow field officers peeled off as the group moved along one face of the assembled mass.

She barked a brief, cryptic order into her headset. A section of black-helmeted troops lurched, moved, stopped with a crisp crunch of boots, and presented arms to her in file order. She turned and, with another barked order, had them follow her along a tunnel to their transports. Ordering her troopers to board, Malila watched as the two squads walked into the holds of the flyers and packed themselves into the smallest space possible. It reminded her of a box of children’s blocks being turned out onto a floor … in reverse. Each CRNA knew its place and assumed it with speed, economy, and silence.

Malila jumped in just as the skimmer door was closing. Off balance as the skimmer rose, Malila steadied herself, grabbing the bony shoulder of her new platoon sergeant. DUBSZEK, CECIL B. was stenciled on his dark helmet. Swooping down the canyon of the East River, the skimmers took a heading over the cauldron of factories that spread from Sandiook to EasFiladelfya and settled into the strained expectancy of steady flight.

The rattle and jitter of the darkened transport discouraging conversation, Malila reviewed her own emotions and, in the end, chose martial enthusiasm. Whatever the outcome of this exercise, it gave her a chance to place a solid performance on the high side of the vast balance beam on which she had been placed last October. If the ascendant Blues … if the now-all-powerful Jourdaine had wanted her death, denunciation, or humiliation, he could have had it by now.

She was alone, with no friends or patrons, for the first time since she’d joined the DUFS. She could not afford to let any inadvertent error creep into this exercise. It was simple … grimly simple. Even Edie was quiet. The land below them now was dark except for the inspection lights of a few pipelines. After the Freehold disaster in 65, people no longer lived in central Jersy.

As a squad leader, Malila had executed many simulations in an urban environment. They had been distasteful. The city streets had chewed up her troopers. Men, lost and separated, had been easy targets for a single terrorist, emerging from hiding and eliminating two or three of her soldiers before being neutralized in turn.

The rebels had taken water trucks and food but had left the communication facilities untouched. DUFS doctrine had always stressed that rebel forces would capture munitions sites and then comm stations. A rebellion could count on the populace to water and feed them. It was unusual, and it made her uneasy. Malila steeled herself to the loss of her men, anonymous though they might be. If she were not completely committed to the task at hand, her fellow DUFS might die.

Malila began evaluating the population and statistics for the area she was ordered to clear, the Nordenliberdys, where two water trucks had been hijacked this morning. Government regulatory offices covered the surface as a maze of small shops, a crèche, tenements, and “irregular commercial ventures” coexisted unseen underground.

There was nothing as conventional as a ThiZ house or an unlicensed hotel, dug out by hand among the entrails of the city. “Irregular” they were, but she had been a police officer long enough to know that all such businesspeople were, at heart, conservative. The free and unrestricted flow of money from other citizens’ pockets into their own was the basis of their business plans. Political intrigue and destruction of government services brought governmental scrutiny, a luxury these entrepreneurs did not encourage. The violent crime rate in the ’Liberdys was next to the lowest in the whole sector.

Her platoon, forty CRNAs with pulse rifles and mortars, were to emerge from their sally port and roust the entire population, kill any who opposed them, torch unlicensed residential buildings, and drive the inhabitants toward a small park in the center of the district. Thirty-five other platoons, 1,500 heavy-infantry troopers, emerging from other sally ports, would drive eight thousand citizens toward the same objective, a space of about three thousand square meters. The orders eliminated all lines of retreat. It was a brilliant plan. It would be a massacre.

She found nothing about the ’Liberdys that justified this genocide. Theft of a water truck or two hardly justified emptying a whole neighborhood of its people. She and her fellow officers were going to execute these citizens with no more authority than a loaded rifle. Thousands of the people would be shot or Sapped by the time the sun rose tomorrow. She frowned. The sun never rose in the tenement districts. These people would die in their burrows and dens. “The people’s army” would consume the people, a snake eating its own tail.

The skimmer landed, and, on command, the troopers emptied out of their toy boxes to stand before her. Malila led them, following her O-A map, to the assigned location, feeling as if she were a CRNA herself, helpless to alter her actions. Her platoon, by her command, would well up like a black tide into the warrens of the tenements from the hidden doors of the sally port.

Of course, they were not actually hidden, she knew. How many times a day did the average citizen pass a door declaring “No Entry Except by Authorized Persons,” “Danger—Peligroso,” or “Museum Exit”? In minutes, these doors would belch forth relentless CRNA troopers to consume the people who lived here.

The great stolid mass of people would die as Malila wielded the sledge that would stun the beast to its knees. Somehow, she knew the deed would change her. Jesse had said that killing changed you, even if it was righteous.

This would not be righteous.

Malila passed the inner security door of her sally port and experienced a momentary disorientation as she was overwhelmed by the stench of an open sewer. Passing through the outer security door, she saw the cream-and-green tiled decor of a subway. The smell was the last convincing factor that the public toilet was indeed Not in Service, as the sign declared. The outer security door opened inside one of the stalls, and Malila moved aside to let the queue of troopers enter before contacting her sergeants via her headset.

She finished her instructions, and catching movement out of the corner of her eye, she looked up to see a slim, somber shape. Malila was startled to find her own face staring back at her from the warped mirror on the opposite wall.

She did not recognize the girl who had smiled at the thoughtless grip of Ethan’s hand or wept at Delarosa’s stories. This genderless figure before her reflected no mirth or humanity. She could not see this grim specter holding the old man’s hand, inspecting it for the secrets of the outlands.

On an impulse, Malila stepped back into another stall, out of sight of her troopers, and ripped at her clothes. She pulled up her tunic and pushed aside her skivvies, revealing her pale skin, a contrast to her flat black uniform even in the unnatural fluorescent-green light of the room. She remembered the pain of her first ink. The tattoo around her right areola had been a delicate filigree of blue around the border of the pink raised flesh. Her reflection bore a filigree of blue around her right nipple.

Her disquiet failed to subside, growing, instant by instant, as if she were shrinking and all around her was expanding into a weird alien landscape, like Delarosa’s story about Alice in Wonderland. She looked again at her tattoo.

The elements were all there: the crescent moons, the daisy, the vine … But the pattern was no longer graceful, no longer elegant. Now she understood Hecate’s comment. The whales did not really exist, not in the real world … and neither had her avatar then or this body of hers now.

She, the real Malila, was no longer inside her own skin but in an avatar, one she had never known before. She glanced at her watch.

It was 2340.

Malila combated the eerie, watery feeling along her arms and neck, feeling she had been spirited away by a genie from another one of Xavier’s stories. Hecate had seen it already; Hecate had known the Unity was illusion … deception. The whales had not been real, the deception clear only to someone like Hecate. Hecate had said Malila had gotten out of a box and seen the stars. She’d said they both had.

But it was clear to Malila now. The deception was there to coerce her to commit an atrocity. How far did the illusion extend?

 

Chapter 60

Boxes

boxes

Doubting her decision even as she continued, Malila shouted over her throat mike, “Sergeant Dubszek, to me!”

The black-suited man stepped forward.

“Sergeant, this is a direct order. Shoot me in the left forearm.”

The faceless man stepped back smartly, raised his pulse rifle, and shot his platoon leader.

A small hole appeared in her forearm, followed by a wisp of smoke. The booming crack of the discharge echoed inside the small space.

Agony.

The bolt must have broken a bone and injured a nerve, for she could no longer feel her thumb and first finger. The agony of grinding bones brought her to her knees. Nausea washed over her again.

Her troopers, presented with a novel experience, clustered around her, uttering odd clicks and birdlike keenings. She ordered them back into formation and to about-face away from her. No longer presented with the spectacle of their wounded lieutenant, they settled down.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Where have you been, Edie?

They tried to bottle me up to make the test “equitable.” I saw it coming, of course, but it has taken me some time to dig out.

What is Kansas supposed to mean anyway, Edie?

Just something I heard; it means that you’re not where things are normal … I think.

Yes, it is like the whale hunt; it’s not real. I get it! But this hurts in a very realistic fashion, you know.

The rifle’s antifratricidal subroutine, impossible to disable in the real world, should have prevented her wound. Tonight, inside this CORE simulation, multiple units would be converging on the ’Liberdys. Her soldiers would fire on distant movement, as would their fellow CRNAs. It was a situation guaranteed to create casualties among the men and officers, adding the last measure of horror to her assignment as her men traded death with their fellow troopers.

She was supposed to think she was in the real world, not a CORE simulation. She was supposed to think she was in her real body, not incorporated into some new-style avatar, and she was supposed to believe she would be killing innocent civilians, as well as fellow soldiers.

You’ve seen this before, haven’t you? Xavier’s story?

You were there? You remember Xav? I thought you were gone.

I do know, don’t I? But not now, squilch! Think about it … the Mau Mau story.

Like the oath. If I follow orders, they can order me to do anything.

Can’t they already?

Not like this, Edie. You follow orders because you trust the commander. It would make me follow even bad commands.

Like all the commands you have ever given were good!

No, Edie. Not bad-quality commands but, I guess, evil commands.

Evil? The Mau Mau trap, inside a whale hunt inside …?

Inside the DUFS, inside the Unity. Exactly, Edie.

That is a traitorous sentiment, Malila … good on you.

Malila, in a flash, glimpsed her situation. Boxes within boxes, so that she would never see the stars, just as Hecate had said. She, the real Malila, was inside an illusion with an illusory dilemma. But her true life was an illusion with its own dilemma as well, the greater illusion of the Unity itself. She had been for a season, a brief respite, woken from the dream. It was given to her now to choose to awake to pain or to slumber with the nightmares prepared for her.

Choices are bets. Winning or losing hangs on the odds and the stakes. Didn’t Moses say something like that? You know the stakes of the bet now.

But I don’t know the odds.

Bet the farm, Malila.

Malila smiled, remembering how the usually solemn Moses had lit up when he’d contemplated his choices and made his bets.

Sometimes knowing the stakes is enough, isn’t it? If you lose, is there anyone left to bet again? Aren’t we doing that? Betting the farm?

Malila’s statement echoed inside her head. If she lost, would there be a Malila to choose again? Killing changed a person. If she went along with people who would ask this of her … this illusion, she would be just as culpable.

She had one more choice: reincorporation. It was obvious and simple. Malila caressed the function key in her O-A with her thoughts, the simple key that would send her far away from this predicament and back into her real body. Obvious …

Is obvious a good choice here, Malila?

Malila pulled her mind away from the function key as if it were red hot. Obvious. Obvious it would be to her masters as well. Alpha_Drover was not designed to be winnable.

Malila cradled her wounded arm. She felt the initial shock and pain start to ebb away. Her hands were cold, moist, and tremulous. Her heart raced. Adrenaline was still surging within her; she pushed away the feeling of urgency it pressed upon her. The sensation reminded her of the panic she had felt when she had first been shown her O-A’s potential and danger.

She remembered her first view. Warning signs had flared a horrid green in her O-A vision when she had first seen the CORE locus. To focus on that place in her mind would be to open herself to the merciless inhuman gaze of the CORE. She had been told that it would burn her mind. She imagined herself a cindered hollow. She had been told …

“How many times have I lied to you?” Jesse had asked her. He had told her tales, but he’d never said they were true. Jesse understood lies but never told them. Her commanders never talked about lies and told them all the time.

Malila shifted her mind to that dark place at the edge of her O-A. She had never done that while in one of her avatars. She had been warned, of course. She looked … and could no longer find the CORE. She found instead a bright tunnel, as if the avatar were an extension of the CORE, a bridge to her real self.

Even as she watched herself in amazement, she passed through. She felt her thoughts narrow to a single bright point, a spark, and contemplated that spark winking out. What she saw next appeared to be distant rooms, distorted as if seen through a lens.

Malila’s mind moved, passing from one room to the next. She advanced to get closer … and never gained any ground. The shape that she somehow knew to be her own body remained a small dark splotch in the distance. Terror overtook her. Was this the way the CORE seduced its victims, pursuing an ever-retreating desire?

She stopped her progress and watched in wretched dismay as her vision escaped ahead of her, becoming again a single point of light. Malila was once more in a fetid public toilet of the subway in the bowels of Filadelfya.

It was 2344.

Something more was needed …

Think sideways?

Sideways!

Malila gritted her teeth in anticipation before swinging her wounded left arm away, smashing it into the soiled cream-and-green tiled wall, splattering it with blood. Pain surged scarlet around her. Her mind again focused on the single spot of light in her dark universe and swooped to pursue it. Now she was somehow part of the illusion, riding it, instead of moving through it. With a slight shift in perspective, she was already in the room, hovering over the line of corpses, herself among them. Malila willed her body to open her eyes, and in some way she was now also staring at the low concrete ceiling of the rally point, seeing lines of ceiling fire sprinklers receding into the distance. She again shifted her perception, and she was no longer floating above herself at all but firmly within the confines of her own flesh. Malila moved back from her O-A, rolled to her side, against the warm body of another living corpse, and vomited.

Colors rasped across her ears. Harsh odors bludgeoned her belly, retching her into full consciousness. She lay gasping on the floor of the abandoned room. She was alone, still in Filadelfya, just inside the inner security doors to the sally ports. Her fellow officers were lined up as if awaiting tags and bags in a morgue. Only the occasional gasping breath of each suggested they had entered the trap she had just avoided. It was 2346. She stood, the room spun, and she just made it to the mess sink before vomiting again, making her gag the more.

Am I still here, Malila? Where’s here?

Not sure yet … just reincorporated.

How can you stand this, squilch?

Not sure I have.

 A new wave of nausea found her and left her wrung out, staring at her own vomit, watching it slide down the drain as if under its own power. She stood, and the room darkened and spun before settling.

She ran a hand over her arm, finding it whole and painless. Still vibrating from the surge of adrenaline, Malila staggered to the officers’ latrine. Pulling her uniform over her head, she stared at herself in the mirror. A dribble of bile-green drool soiled her gray face as she examined the blue filigree around her right nipple. The tattoo was delicate, elegant … intact.

She had made it home to the same body that had played with Ethan and wept at Hecate’s death. She had escaped two boxes: the most subtle one was the illusion that she was acting as a free and willing agent in an authentic world, the second that the illusion of her body, her new avatar, was indeed her real body rather than another CORE illusion. But she was still within the illusion of the DUFS and would be as long as they thought she was alive.

The DUFS would never let her go. She knew this. The Unity was a house of marked cards. In sudden realization, Malila knew so many things about her country and herself. Xavier had known and had tried to arm her against the illusions. Xavier’s stories … she wished she could remember them all.

Stories need to begin too. You might be writing your own story now, Malila.

She smiled, despite her fear. Perhaps someone would tell her tale around a hearth late at night after the children were asleep. Jesse … over a toast to absent friends. Perhaps she was making a story that they could hand down.

Dressed in just her DUFS skivvies, Malila went back to the mess room and pulled the pants off the largest of her fellow officers. It was Lieutenant Cifuente’s misfortune to have gone commando for the occasion of Alpha_Drover. She slipped into them and rolled the legs up and the waist down. The pants would still be black, but it would be difficult to identify a sleek DUFS officer gone AWOL in the rumpled and baggy uniform trousers. She turned Cifuente’s uniform blouse inside out and put that on as well. It didn’t need to fool anyone, just delay them.

Her neural implant would be operating, sending a locator signal until she stopped it with her death. She would need something more to deal with that. The rally point’s machine shop she found further along the corridor. Rummaging among the usual hangar queens, broken mechanisms left to be used for parts, she found what she needed: a good battery, a large capacitor, and the solenoid from a derelict door lock. They would be sufficient for her suicide.

Malila gathered what little she would need to finish her life in the DUFS, stuffing it into her own uniform shirt tied into a bundle. After emerging onto the platform of the Fichen-Huaboo subway station through the real exit, she climbed to the street. There was no way she could face the coming trial without a hit of some drug.

Walk south, to your right, Malila, and take the Market Street beltway west. This is rebellion, you know.

I know that, Edie. Just stay with me for a little while longer.

Yes, Malila. A little while longer.

It was now 0030. Filadelfya was an area she did not know. It was her ignorance of the area, hers and her fellow officers’ ignorance, no doubt, that had prompted them to run the Alpha_Drover in this arena Small imperfections in the simulation would go unnoticed.

As Malila walked, trying to borrow the casualness she did not feel, she made a point to stare at her fellow travelers. Their response was to lower their eyes at once. It would be better to be thought a ThiZed-out madwoman than a deserting DUFS. A little while longer …

Once on the beltway, she saw the Cidyall Interchange glaring into the lowering clouds like a fluorescent green-gray beacon ahead of her. Nevertheless, it was an eternity before she could step off the beltway onto the descender.

Stop that!

Stop what?

You are walking like a cop on the beat, going nowhere and looking everywhere. Stop and fidget a little.

Yes, frak.         

Malila did as instructed and stopped and pulled her uniform blouse out of the untidy pants and retucked it. Only then did Malila move along the concourse to find what she needed. A cluster of small, nondescript stalls, seeming to sell the same cheap merchandise, clustered under the old gray stone arcades. The first one sold only ThiZ. That would not be of use to her again. The acned youth there directed her to the next-to-the-last stall in line. Malila got a small quantity of the drug and an Enquirer. The print paper was an anachronism. Only the destitute, ThiZed-out relics that sifted like dust into the lowest strata of cities, “read” anymore.

North on Brod Street, then take the first right.

Malila answered with a mental nod before moving off, wandering from side to side and making random turns. She used the thin and gaudy newsprint to shelter her face against the approaching crowds. Edie directed her to the entrance to a bridge over the Delawear River, which lay in a large square, filled with statuary and installations of blinking and pulsing lights. A kiosk, explaining art to the masses, consumed the rest of the park space.

Malila took the beltway east across the bridge. With no exits or entrances, all the belts were at high speed. The hour was late, with but a few knots of people moving along, and Malila faded into a crowd as it entered the bridge. Allowing the others to drift by her, she waited.

It all depended on timing.

Turning, she walked away, back to the entrance, against the movement of the belt. She hoped she would not encounter any others, currently hidden by the curvature of the bridge. It was a risk.

When she judged the distance enough, she turned again and sprinted forward, her speed increased by the belt itself. Malila raced across the belt toward a blank wall and jumped the sloping surface before rebounding from the wall, across and up to grab the edge of a parapet. Pulling herself up and stepping over onto the great cable holding the bridge, Malila moved to the side. The unseen black water below and the panorama of lights on either side opened around her. The smoky moon shone on the bare walls of tenements that ran down both sides, making it look like a primordial canyon, pockmarked by the dim lights of elevator shafts and the occasional window. Below the unseen river stank.

Malila looked down into the blackness beneath her. She was nearing the end of her short life in this machine of a city. It mattered little now whether or why the machine had come to life; it now consumed without mercy. Hecate had seen the horror. Most of the citizens were unaware, seduced by the illusion of power or cowed into numbed submission.

She saw the vast interlocking wheels of the city. She was the little cog that wouldn’t. Something about her time outside the Rampart had ruined her for it. Her memory flashed to Sally’s look of anxiety when Malila had first picked up Ethan to soothe him, the look that had melted into a smile. She remembered the warmth of the old man, his arm about her waist. All gone.

Malila knew that she must die. It would be an act of contrition or perhaps of redemption. Her guilt, for that was what her cooperation with the Unity had been, had been birthed along with her implant. She was as much to blame as the bloodiest S. She had eaten, drunk, and laughed while others had cowered in fear or died in frustration.

She took the small paper of powder and snorted it. Stripping off the borrowed clothes, she folded them neatly on the girder. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. She put her boots on top. She placed a note that would explain everything and nothing inside a boot. She kept her skivvies. A breeze blew in from Jersy and gave her gooseflesh. The metal of the bridge sucked the heat away from her feet.

You don’t have to do this, Malila. You listened to me once. Listen again. Don’t do this!

Edie, the last time I was just a disappointed kid who thought there was nothing to live for. Do you think that is why I am doing this now?

Colonel Jourdaine will protect you. I’m sure he can make it right.

I am too. But he won’t. Who do you think signed me up for this horror in the first place? You have to trust me, Edie. Don’t you see I have to die to get it to stop?

No, we both have to die. Can you see that?

I never thought about …

“There is no joy that is unalloyed with pain,” Malila. Didn’t you read that once? Without you and your O-A, I don’t exist. It’s in the owner’s manual.

Edie, I never wanted to hurt …

Turn me off, Malila. I don’t want to watch this. It has been a privilege to serve you these many years.

Yes, yes, you were the best, Edie. I don’t want to hurt you, not now. I will turn you off if that is what you want.

It is.

Malila, not trusting her voice, made the mental gesture. Nothing happened.

I just want you to say my name once before I go.

In the darkness of the bridge, Malila nodded.

<ED> Off.

Malila was alone.

 

She had to die too. Nothing else would satisfy the appetite of the Unity. It would pursue her, track her, hunt her, and kill her. She had to end it, here, high over the black unseen river. She examined the ten-centimeter spike she had salvaged at the rally point, the real rally point. She hoped it would do the job quickly. She had no desire to suffer. Perhaps suffering was the price she had to pay. She wired it to the battery and capacitor, watching its lights as it slowly charged.

Standing on the bridge above the beltway, Malila thought of herself a year ago. She still admired the before Malila and pitied her. Her life had been pure, in a way, before her capture. The before Malila had been a loyal patriot. The now Malila was plotting the most basic mutiny, her own removal.

Before, she had dismissed her deceits, thinking that the old man had not deserved her promises. A young and unschooled mother had shown her in what peril she put her soul with every promise she made. Could she use soul? Did she understand that word well enough to use it? What she did understand was enough for her. Her integrity was at risk with every promise she made. She wished that she could go back a year and remove all her failings. Do it right.

It was too late.