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