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.

 

 

Free Read Outland Exile Chapters 56, 57, & 58

CHAPTER 56

HOUSE OF GORDON

gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER 57

GREEN MONKEY

jade-monkey

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

It read:

Lieutenant Colonel Eustace T. Jourdaine

requests the pleasure of your company to dinner

at Le Singe Vert,

this evening, 30 May, at 20:00.

A driver will be provided.

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

Don’t gush, Edie.

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

I shall endeavor to follow your guidance.

Now you are making fun of me.

Okay, a little gushing is acceptable, Edie.

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

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

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

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

You look stunning! The dress is gorgeous!

Thank you, Edie. You are very kind.

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

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

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

<ED> What does squilch mean?

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

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

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

Thank you, Lieutenant.

You are welcome, Edie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hecate killed herself this afternoon,” Lucy blurted.

“What? What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What I said was true!”

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

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

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

“Strip.”

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

“Get me a drink. Bourbon … ice.”

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

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

The one redeeming aspect of the rape was its brevity.

 

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER 58

ALPHA_DROVER

cyber

Nyork, Unity

05.39.27.local_30_06_AU77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, yes, sir.”

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

Did he just say the situation was critical, Malila?

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

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

Of course, Lieutenant!

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

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

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

“Ours is not to wonder why …”

Stuff it, Edie!

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t feel like talking now, Edie.

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

<ED> Be quiet!

She felt better after yelling at Edie.

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

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

That day she had lost to the Unity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was now 2115.