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.
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.
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.