Exiles’ Escape Prologue “First Hand Sapping”

Prologue

 

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

Stanton, Pensy[1], Democratic Unity of America

Infinity Acres Retirement Community

Product Reclamation Floor

06.23.02.local_01_Jan_AU75[2] (2127 AD)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bravo twenty.”

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

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

“Check, Ruuf. Good to go.”

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

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

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

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

“Tea?”

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Chapters 50, 51, and 52

Chapter 50

Introductions

meduzarts__subaru_ep3__concept_by_i_netgrafx

Unity

Malila woke as the skimmer landed, and she was lifted onto a gurney. Her images became a stop-motion kaleidoscope: rattling down a dim hallway; the harsh fluorescents strobing above; distorted faces leaning over her, prodding and asking unanswerable questions; her clothes cut off; and the cold rush of air and darkness.

She awoke, finally, in a DUFS sick bay: sterile, small, white, overwarm, shabby, smelling of cleaning solution and floor wax, not really built for people. The mattress wheezed whenever she moved, even less comfortable than a camp cot. What was new to her was a guard at the door with a sidearm. She slept and woke later to see, through the only window, the slanting sunlight on a blank redbrick wall. Her O-A still merely hummed, Edie just an echoing voice in her memory. There was no clock. Over the next two days, silent attendants saw that she ate the tasteless food, showered, changed her drafty hospital gown, and slept … especially slept.

On the morning of the third day, a man appeared. Her mind still muzzy, Malila struggled to stand for a superior officer. The man, a light colonel, waved her back to her bed with a negligent gesture and sat himself, after a guard had brought him a chair. He watched her in silence before speaking.

“Welcome back, Lieutenant. I am Colonel Jourdaine. Consider me your rescuer from the savage captivity of the outlands,” the dark-haired, placid man said in a pleasant voice.

Even though her naked feet dangled centimeters off the floor, Malila’s military training clicked into place. She tried to brace up. She was home.

“Sir, yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Malila said in return.

“You are an extraordinary person. Do you know that?” the man asked.

“Sir, no, sir. I didn’t know that, sir.”

“In the last fifty years, Lieutenant, you are the first officer to get herself captured alive by the savages. That is quite the achievement. I want to understand how a dedicated officer of this country loses every trooper in her command, travels over seven hundred kilometers, and is rescued from an outlander festival with no injuries and no evidence of restraint. How is that possible, Lieutenant Chiu?”

“It was a trap, sir. The outlanders lured us to Sunprairie to get our new pulse rifles. They overpowered me when I was asleep and took my throat mike. They killed all my men. They got the ID chip out of the thumbs and took their index fingers at the first knuckle. A man removed my first implant, then walked me south for six weeks. I had to stay at a farm over the winter. Stamping Ground, where you found me, was the first time I had been away since December, sir.”

“A nice précis, Lieutenant, but let us start from the beginning. Who is your commander?”

And thus, it started. The questions were succinct, and the answers soon became so as well. Jourdaine did not tolerate imprecision or embroidery.

Within minutes, she felt better for the telling, her words a balm to her spirit, unwinding the tatters of her life over the last six months. There was some perverse satisfaction in grinding out the pain of her humiliations to this serene bland man. It was the price of readmission.

Her O-A still buzzed uncertainly.

Lieutenant Colonel Jourdaine listened to her answers without speaking. After several hours of questions, lunch arrived, and Malila ate a sandwich between words. Jourdaine sipped from a glass of water.

By the time the window was in shadow, her account sputtered, roared to full throttle on fossil memories, sputtered again, and stopped. For the last hour, she had been reciting with her eyes closed, sucked dry by her own words. Jourdaine rose and stood before her as she sat, her feet now cold and motionless above the floor.

“Rest now. We will talk tomorrow, Lieutenant,” he said softly, then turned and left before she could say anything.

The door closed for just a moment before an aide came in with a pill that she dutifully swallowed. When she awoke, her breakfast had arrived. She was ravenous.

Jourdaine’s vivisection of her account started that day.

“Tell me, Lieutenant, why were you sent in person to fix Sunprairie? Isn’t that a job for an OAA?” Jourdaine said with no prologue.

He took notes.

Malila hesitated. She sensed, as she had since her rescue, as if she were sitting at the top of a high, steep, snowy slope. Her answer now would be the first step in the plunge down. She anticipated the exhilaration of her swooping descent, and she knew that, at the end, she would be in unknown country, alone. At best she could hope to be allowed to regain the anonymity of the corps, becoming one more striving junior DUFS officer. At worst, her actions would condemn her for immediate punishment. Most likely she would still be disgraced for Sunprairie.

“Sir, I do not know what was in General Suarez’s mind, sir. I can speculate that she did this as a punishment. As soon as the job was complete, I was to report for imprisonment,” she answered, trying to be doggedly truthful.

“Why do you think you were being punished?” Jourdaine countered, not taking his eyes off her.

“Sir, I failed in my duty to maintain sensor station Sunprairie, in Wiscomsin, west of Lake Mishygun. I attempted to cover up my deficiency by colluding with my fellow officers. Sir!”

There was no point in withholding anything from this bland gray man. He, no doubt, knew the truth. No one else had come to rescue her.

The gray man smiled an odd smile at her answer. The questions came fast thereafter. How had she allowed her attackers to enter the station unobserved? How had it been possible for anyone to massacre her platoon and yet she remain unharmed? Why had she cooperated in the bison hunt?

Her feeling of weightless descent made her giddy, exhilarated as she watched her hopes of reinstatement flash by.

Why had she not escaped from the snow cave? At the farm? On the trip to Stamping Ground? How had a single Sisi been able to keep her a captive unaided?

“Who was your captor?” Jourdaine asked, a note of interest in his voice.

“Jesse Johnstone. He claimed he was seventy years old. He looked old, with white hair and a beard and everything, sir. I have no way of knowing if he was lying.”

“Describe him.”

“Yes, sir. He is bigger than the average Unity man, sir. Taller by maybe twenty centimeters but proportionally heftier … muscular. He could outwalk me with a forty-kilo pack. I know at least five men he killed when they tried to take me away from him. I never got close to escaping, to tell the truth.”

“I see, Lieutenant. Where was he when we recued you?”

“I don’t know, sir. He never stays anywhere for long, but I think you would have known it. If Jesse thought he could do something, sir, he would have. He has fought against the Unity before.”

“Interesting.”

The questions multiplied.

Why had she helped the breeder? What had she told the savages?

The questions seemed to have no end.

Later, even when the colonel no longer asked her questions, other officers came to question her. The questions did not change. The one real question was not asked: Why had she fought to stay in the outlands?

At the end of her tenth day in the room, Jourdaine pronounced himself satisfied.

He stood before her, the room otherwise deserted, his voice barely above a whisper. “You will be questioned by others. I suggest you adjust your story of the colony. It seems to me that you were kept in close confinement throughout your captivity. I would correct your account to accommodate that appearance. Do you understand?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“It also seems that during your recapture from the savages … do you recall that, Lieutenant? There seems to have been some violence against the forces of the Unity. Do you recall that?”

“Sir, yes, sir. But …”

“It is not necessary to explain. It is not necessary to ever disclose that. Do you understand? The savages, as I can bring evidence to show, were about to club you to death. A loyal CRNA shot the barbarian before he could do you more harm, saving your life at the cost of his own. You no doubt recall it now.”

Malila nodded, unable to say the words with the memory of Xavier’s solemn eyes going dead.

“Good. Finally, you are to consider yourself my protégé from now on. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Malila rose and untied the hospital gown, the thin cotton slipping down along her legs, making a puddle about her feet. She went through the formulaic submission and prepared herself for the man’s caresses. For the first time in months, she was aware how long it had been since she had visited her company depilatorium.

“Very well, Lieutenant. Done with grace and dispatch.”

In the same voice of quiet concern he said, “You are going to become a hero of the Unity shortly. Your fortitude in the face of adversity is an inspiration to us all.

“Your first implant”—he touched her scar—“is no longer functioning. That gives you certain capabilities that are … awkward. I want you to be confident that I’ll look out for your best interests, but for now you need to avoid … pleasure-sex. Understood?” Jourdaine gave her the first warm smile she had seen from him.

She nodded.

“You may dress, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

She bent to retrieve her hospital gown, relieved and disappointed. By the time she stood again, Jourdaine was already leaving the room.

Before she could finish dressing, an aide entered the room with a new DUFS uniform. “Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E.” was stitched over a breast pocket, and each shoulder bore the raised bar that shimmered silver as she moved it in the light. It was the insignia of a first lieutenant.

 

Major Khama exited the belt near his home in Perth Amboy. The commute was getting worse every day. Or maybe he was just getting old. He was never going to be thirty again.

At least things were peaceful. The Blues had been out of the faction fight since 70 when he—that is, the Reds—had won big. Emanuel and Suarez had come to power and had had a field day, Sapping every commander and IT guy down to the S10 level.

Better to give than receive, he thought.

He did not have the enthusiasm for that horror now. It must be his age. It looked as if he could get to retirement unmolested. He had hoped for more.

Suarez had promised him a full colonelcy at one time … if she made chief of staff. It no longer looked as if that was going to happen. So close … Even so, if things started to go bad, he had been furbishing that little nook in Lynneboro Station, on the hill with the old stone farmhouse. A two-day notice to his “friends,” and he would be feet up and brain in neutral, contemplating the cows, or whatever one did in rural NuAmpshur. He would be lighter by a few years’ income, and they might still track his O-A. Nevertheless, he would keep it.

He trudged to his building and absentmindedly announced his floor. It took him a second to realize something was very wrong.

Rough hands snatched him out of the darkened elevator, and a hood was jammed over his head. The skimmer trip was long and anxious. Officially, Khama belonged to no faction and was under the command of a laughable incompetent, Magness. No one should think him important enough to abduct. That was how he had been so successful. No one expected anything from him, so they stood in line to use him. And he collected a toll of information with each encounter. Most did not even know they were being used.

He was escorted from the skimmer. He hoped he would not embarrass himself; he had not visited the toilet since leaving work.

The hood jerked off. Khama squinted into the blinding light.

“This the guy?”

A familiar voice said, “Yes. That’s him. Leave us.”

The light was moderated, and a chair was pushed into the back of his legs. He sat.

“We meet again, Major.”

“General, I …”

“… can explain. Actually, I am pretty sure you can’t. So spare me the performance. There are a number of unexplained things happening. The faction needs your help.”

The explanation filled in a couple of uncomfortable holes in his memory and one very odd dream.

“So my setting up the auto ping was an implanted command?”

“We believe so. We just don’t know who did it.”

“So what can I do for the faction?”

“For now, just keep us aware. Keep a diary about every dream you have, every odd thing you do … on paper, ink and paper. Usual precautions.”

“Will you look out for me if this hits the fan?”

“Yes, and we already know about your little hideaway. If things get bad … you commit suicide, on us. Then we forget your address. Lynneboro Station, wasn’t it?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

Suarez motioned in the uncertain light, and the hood was again jammed onto his head.

 

 

Chapter 51

Repatriation

The attendants gave her a dossier containing her new orders and an entrance code. She had a week’s furlough before she had to report. The guards were gone.

They escorted her to the underground foyer of the building in her new, well-fitting uniform. A private skimmer waited for her, the windows darkened. The trip lasted too long. The driver never spoke.

The entrance code belonged to an apartment across the East River from her last one, far above the distant commotion of the belts and skimmer traffic.

Malila’s O-A came alive for the first time in six months as she entered.

Welcome home, Malila!

Edie, it has been so long! When I got back and you weren’t here, I thought they’d taken you away from me.

That’s not possible, Lieutenant Chiu. You merely needed the CORE to hear me and see me.

Where have you been for the last six months?

I’ve no sensation of time except in relation to you, Malila.

But Edie, there were times when I heard you, just moments.

I have no recollection of such events.

Nothing? Was I hallucinating? You told me to stop when I was trying to kill Jesse; you reminded me of the knife with Bear. At the devil’s bridge … Wasn’t that you?

I remember dreams … dreams after you were gone.

Do you remember Sally, the baby? Sally, she’s the best person. I’m sure you would like her. She and Moses are so lucky to have found each other, and there was this old man, Jesse. He was the one who captured me. He ….

In my dreams, I saw. He smells like home, doesn’t he? That’s why he can disappoint you.

I think it was me who disappointed him. He made such a big thing out of all the little things of life, but I think he built up all the little things. He made them important.

I am sure now. I saw him … in the dreams, I mean.

It is enough, Edie. Sometimes the dreams are the important parts.

In the long spring evening, Malila sat on a sparsely elegant sofa and watched the shadows slip across the wall until they congealed into the garish twilight of the city. Edie had grown quiet. Somehow, in her absence, Edie had grown up.

Malila felt no need to sleep … or move. It was after midnight before she stirred.

Out of curiosity, she activated the various news feeds and stopped on ESPN 54-N. She watched herself give interviews to talking heads she had never met. No one, apparently, was interested in the colony.

She remembered the gritty sizzling sound of the pulse bolt hitting Delarosa, the smell of ozone and burned meat, feeling her heart sink even before she’d turned around to watch him slump to the ground. She’d watched his face pale and the dark wells of his eyes dilate in death. She remembered Sally disappearing into the forest with Ethan as Moses had turned to start an unequal battle for his homeland … for her.

Why had she fought?

She had no answer if they asked. Why had she fought? Malila remembered no red-hued rage as Xavier Delarosa fell … hollowness for his death, yes, but no incandescent need for revenge. She saw again the faceless trooper raising his rifle to club her. She had reacted instinctively—no, not instinct … She had reacted as she had been trained. She’d set her weight, crouched slightly, feeling the center of her explosive force aim itself. The crunch of her hobnailed boot against the trooper’s knee had been satisfying in the way a well-done exercise was satisfying. The second trooper, the one aiming over her left shoulder to kill Moses, she had folded him up like a paper doll almost with no thought at all.

A part of her had remained analytical, detached, scrutinizing. She’d known the signature lock would prevent the captured rifle from working for her and had not even bothered to see if she could activate it, valuing speed over power. She’d seen the next trooper. He had been five, maybe six, strides away … too far even for speed. She had known that, even as she’d started for him. She had seen him raise the barrel. The rifle had come up slowly, in the odd detached way it did in battle, to center its dimensionless black eye on her. On her third stride, she would have been hit by the searing heat of the bolt as it exploded her flesh along its trajectory, killing her. She had been surprised when the trooper had fallen before she’d reached him, the rifle report informing her that Moses had saved her life. She had been surprised again when the Taze-Net had engulfed her from the side. She’d started to convulse, her uncontrolled limbs jerking painfully … her mind flickering out.

She undressed for bed.

Why had she fought?

The whole attack had been to liberate her. People she had come to admire and to … love … were dead because of her. Delarosa was dead. Moses was dead too, she feared. She had heard his rifle and had seen the trooper drop as he’d been about to kill her, but she had also heard the return fire and the meaty sound of a body crumbling to the ground behind her. There had just been too many for him. Jesse would have escaped. The old man had probably bet money on his own immortality.

Malila looked back at the comm’net. The unfamiliar talking heads were calling the Return at Stamping Ground an “outlander sun ritual,” provoking images of naked savages and twitching sacrificial animals.

The songs came back to her. “The Lord is risen today, alleluia.”

She felt soiled.

 

 

Chapter 52

Lunch with the Girls

A preemptive call from her O-A, the first in six months, jangled Malila awake. Luscena Kristòf’s pale face with her vivid red lips swam before her. Luscena was assuming her tragic-loss face, Malila thought. Lucy was so good at her craft.

 “Malila, my love? Can it really be true? You’ve come back to us!”

 “G’mornin’, Lucy. Nice to see you too.”

“We have all been so terribly worried about you. Heccy, Alex, Tiff … all of us. You were gone so long—without a word.”

It sounded briefly like an accusation. Luscena’s face morphed to even a more dramatic appearance of wounded dignity, which she’d used to such great effect and critical acclaim in Diary of a Protégé.

“But then to find that you were a prisoner of the savages. It is just too horrible to conceive!”

Malila smiled.

“I am fine, Lucy. I only got out of debriefing last night …”

Luscena sighed, and her face went back to normal. Malila was not, apparently, playing the game correctly. Lucy got down to business.

“But you must tell us all. We are getting together for lunch.”

After accepting the invitation, Malila broke the connection, stopping to marvel at and enjoy the simple act. She had been unable to quest for months.

A folder with six months of communiqués bulged in her near vision.

<ED> I need some help here, please.

Of course, Lieutenant. I presume I dispense with the messages of a commercial nature? Then we have a folder containing messages from your patrons.

Yes, let me see that one.

The messages were numerous. Malila concentrated on just the most recent. Within the last few days, each patron had sent a note expressing sadness at her long absence, delight on her return to civilization, best wishes for her continued success, and regrets that the patron would no longer be sponsoring her as a protégé. The wordings were nearly identical. Malila flipped through them without surprise, like looking at holos of another person. From what Jourdaine had said, it was probably inevitable. She would not have to worry about her awkward fertility. Now and for the foreseeable future, her fate was tied to the gray man and his agenda. Malila deleted the whole folder abruptly.

<ED> Have the commissary send up one egg scrambled, two strips Bakon, one hundred twenty milliliters of Vit-a-kwa, black coffee, one creamer, one sugar, buttered whole-wheat toast with jelly of the day, and two one-hundred-milligram tablets of Naprosinol … My head is killing me.

Coffee?

Oh, yes, of course.

<ED> Delete coffee. Bring tea, black, strong, six grams sucrose per one hundred twenty mils.

Yes, Lieutenant!

The rest of the morning Malila spent in a bathroom exploring the spiritually nourishing aspects of hot water. As she rose from her bath, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. It took her a moment to decide it was her own image in the mirror. Her longer hair had developed an unexpected wave, framing her foreign-familiar face. Her body was pink from the heat, but the blue filigree of the woman’s mark still writhed along the edge of her areola, ending in Sally’s delicate daisy pattern.

You look lovely, Malila. The wilderness seems to have agreed with you.

Sarcasm? While I was gone, you studied up on sarcasm?

I didn’t study at all, as I’ve already said. But I am sincere. You have gained a little weight, all in the right places.

So you thought my boobs were too small too? Malila laughed. No one was a hero to her own frak.

Glad you like them, Edie.

Dressed in her new uniform, Malila arrived at the museum even as Tiffany was hurrying up, her white coat ballooning out behind her in the spring winds.

They hustled in arm in arm through the museum atrium under the gaze of the blue whale. It was much the same: the waiters swooped around with heavy trays, fresh daffodils graced the table, and the fragrant vines in the latticework were as profligate as ever. The string quartet and the Dutilleux were gone in favor of two additional tables. Newly added comm’net screens dominated the walls, displaying a selection of sweaty athletes for lunch.

Malila was the center of attention. Luscena, in a shimmering black pantsuit, assumed the role as her media secretary and answered most questions before Malila could herself. New loops of video spun overhead, repeatedly showing three-dimensional diagrams of Malila’s platoon being overwhelmed by “wave upon wave of heedless barbarians.” The ’nets had improved the number of her attackers from two to “a hundred or more barbarians armed with antiquated pulse rifles.” Her platoon had fought to the death in her defense; at least that was accurate. The savages “had constructed a funeral pyre in grudging admiration for the noble enemy.”

She tried to ignore them, until Jourdaine’s now-familiar voice came on. It took a while before she could quiet her friends in order to hear him.

“Complete surprise was achieved in this rescue mission, allowing us, with minimal casualties, to retrieve Lieutenant Chiu, this audacious example of the best the Unity produces.”

He looked confident, calm, yet determined.

A pleasant contralto from off camera asked, “Colonel, she’s been gone for six months. Where was she held? What happened to her during her captivity?”

“You can imagine that information is classified, Shirley. It goes without saying a captive among the savages is enslaved, starved, beaten, and degraded beyond anything we, in a civilized country, can imagine. Nevertheless, throughout her six months of brutal interrogation, the barbarians were unable to break her spirit. It is nothing less than moral triumph!”

Instantaneously, sidebars erupted around the image, showing ’net commentators who weighed in with their own observations and opinions. The panels waxed and waned as the local viewers’ interest changed.

“Now this little girl … Chiu? Grew up in Kweens. You gotta appreciate that! The district has been supplying more than its share of DUFS for generations now. Must be something in the water,” offered a meaty man in an expensive suit.

“Indeed, Supervisor? I thought your water problem had been rectified,” said the commentator in the next panel, a near-cachectic woman in a rust-colored suit that sported lighted lapels.

The woman said, “However, the level of fortitude this woman has displayed … thrust onto her own resources by savage masculine violence. Who knows what horrors have been visited upon her?”

She lost her train of thought momentarily before refocusing on the audience. “It shows the confidence only a woman with a strong sense of her own style can achieve. Obviously.”

Another commentator, a thin bearded man who was listed as a professor of political science, poked the wall of the woman’s panel. His panel expanded noticeably as he talked.

“Don’t any of these people get it? I don’t think so,” he lilted. “Doesn’t it seem odd that exactly fifteen weeks after General Emmanuel is denounced for incompetence, we have another DUFS crawling back into the headlines? I mean, it may be coincidence, sure, but they both went through the same training. They both served in the same units. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going, does it?”

The screen dissolved into dueling panels for several minutes until the screen cycled back to sports news about the CORE death of some football player.

After lunch, her friends demanded more of the “real” story from her.

Malila started with her waking up in the dark with a knife at her throat and hearing the remorseless gunshots killing her platoon, one at a time. She told them about the excitement of the bison hunt but also about her daily bondage, the Death Walker, and Bear’s death. She concealed devil’s bridge and her bleeding cycles.

Mostly, Malila talked about Sally and Ethan: her bravery at birthing him, his brilliant smile punctuated by new sharp teeth, and his gluttony at Sally’s breast.

“No! You means it actually uses these?” said Luscena, looking down.

“You should have seen how fast he grew. Ethan was hardly three kilos at first, and by the time I … left, at four months, he was double that. Imagine! He had three chins,” Malila said, laughing.

“They make something, and it licks it up, like a discharge of sorts? That can’t be good … for either of them, can it?” replied Luscena. She looked down at herself again.

“That’s how we get milk and cheese, Lucy, but from cattle, of course,” added Alexandra. “The Unity has big flocks of cattle. You harvest the milk every so often and make it into food. I’ve seen reports.”

Tiffany lowered a forkful of alfredo and pushed the plate to the side.

“But it can’t be good for … them,” continued Luscena, fluttering her hands in front of her chest, her face, even with her crimson lips, paled. No one responded.

In the silence, Alexandra said, “Captivity sounds entirely gruesome, Mally, but I am not surprised you’re so melled out. Captives always start to identify with their captors. Well-known fact, everybody knows.”

“Oh yes,” said Tiffany. “And whatever you do, give yourself a rest, and you will be back to normal … soon, I’m sure. Be careful who you talk to, Mally.” She would not meet her eyes.

Tiffany, Luscena, and Alexandra ate no more. Hecate winked at Malila as they both poached a little salmon from Alexandra’s neglected plate.

Luscena left shortly thereafter, gasping before she stood and only then remembering to look at her watch. She rushed out with her usual welter of promises and idle threats. Her personal skimmer had yet to be announced. Tiffany and Alexandra started a murmuring conversation and left together with barely a wave between them.

 

 

Chapters 47, 48, & 49 Ping, Love and Death

Chapter 47

beautiful_illustration_and_digital_art_by_cristiano_siqueira_27Ping

Nyork, Unity

16.03.12.local.08_04_AU77

A signal—a short, imperative machine command monotonously identical to all the other signals sent from the transmitter over the last twenty-six weeks—was sent. Unique to the prior episodes, the apparatus received an answering affirmative and a short data stream. Chiu, Malila Evanova, number 59026169, was found.

 

BethanE Winters, graduate student in modern philosophical literature at Columbia’s University of the People, pulled back from the dense work of tracking down a metaphor that had gone rogue on her. It had disappeared somewhere around AU 15 when it had ducked behind a rampaging trope. This was hard work just to add a small footnote.

Feck it and got to bed, she thought … until she remembered the data dump from old Swartzbender still needed to be evaluated.

That was so unfair; none of the other grad students had to do it. It might even be illegal … impersonating another user, but it was only three minutes of her life every day.

BethanE quested the address with a sigh and slumped into the seat to start her analysis.

She was almost done with the string analysis for that day when she saw it. There was the odd string. She quested the original data to verify it. To what was the data attached? She was smart enough to know, if Swartzbender was not, that this was a real-world application invading her scholastic world.

It meant her thesis was accepted.

The good thing about academia was that it was inside work with no heavy lifting. She set the flag in the CORE as instructed … no heavy lifting.

 

In a swirling, distant portion of an n-dimensional nonreality called the CORE, the dissipating personality of a never-to-be-realized sports phenomenon waited. With rapt attention, Charlie watched a flag. In what was left of his mind, instead of the usual puzzles about picking apart the intrigues of a backfield in his usual quest to dismantle a quarterback, Charlie was in fear for his life. Failure meant death. His swirling thoughts centered on reporting a change in a single CORE processor flag. It was so important. Then he could go home.

                         “… 00000000000000000000000000000000 …”

The Presence had not been there in a long time … such a long time.

He was falling again. He could hear the phantoms coming to eat his pink writhing guts.

If he looked around he would see them, but he would not.

                        I veha ot atwhc!

                       Wrong, I got it wrong again.

                       I.have.to.watch!

                       But then!

                       eTehr wsa hte anigls: “… 000000000000000011111111111111111 …”

Panicked, in case he was too slow, he slapped the signal alarm, hearing the reassuring sound—just as the silver thread of his life was                                  severed.

Sacrifices had been made.

 

“This is coming direct from Major Gurion?”

“Exactly, Master Sergeant. Going to mess up your weekend?”

“Sir, yes. I mean, no, sir! It is just so … unusual. Unsupported intrusion into the outlands on such short notice … sir,” said Master Sergeant Beyer.

“Surprised me too, actually, Sarge,” replied Lieutenant Cooper.

“Will the target be able to tell we’re coming? It’d be easier for us if she breaks away before they sight us. With those savages, you never know what they might do. I would hate to lose her just as we got close.”

“Well, Sarge, what the tech guys tell me is that her O-A, when it has no signal, upregulates the gain ‘looking’ for a carrier wave. That might give her a bit of a hum. Once the carrier wave is detected, it downregulates, and she won’t hear the hum anymore.”

“Doesn’t sound like we can count on that,” replied the sergeant. “We got to go in expecting to break her out of some jail cell, someplace? Have we got the munitions for that?”

“I agree. We will have some satchels of C24 and some demo guys with us but still just a light platoon, just the two skimmers. Quick and fast.”

“What if that isn’t enough? We can’t have a knock-’em-down-tear-’em-up fight with no artillery or tactical air.”

“Absolutely, this is a smash and grab. If she’s not where we can find her, she’s too hard to break out, we lose her signal, or we have a lot of opposition, then we cut and run. Understand?”

“What if she’s turned traitor?”

“She comes back, in as many pieces as convenient for storage.”

Chapter 48

The Return

Stamping Ground, Kentucky

Almost dawn, April 10, 2019

Malila slept poorly, finding it difficult to get comfortable on the cot. Slumber had found her when the sounds of the campground had subsided into that odd muffled racket of a large number of people all trying to be quiet at the same time: hushed whispers, the rare clank, followed by louder shushing, and the occasional toddler asking, in a high, loud, and clear voice, “Why do I have to be quiet?”

It was still dark when Sally jostled Malila’s shoulder to wake her.

“Malila, honey, we are going to the Sunrise. You don’t have to, but we would love for you to come with us. You don’t have to get dressed up; just dress warm,” Sally whispered.

Malila nodded and put a hand down to Ethan’s crib next to her. He slept through the night now, only to awaken each morning soaking wet and acting starved by the callous disregard of his keepers. Dressing them both quickly and wrapping Ethan in the thick new quilt from Tabbie, Malila carried him out into the brisk morning. The light tingeing the east was just enough to render the sky an endless cobalt. The high waning moon added a silver touch to the shadows of the encampment. Everyone was up. Despite the cold and the dark, Jesse caught her eye and gave her one of his brilliant smiles. He was such an unapologetic early riser.

Within a few minutes, he, Sally, Moses, Xavier, and Malila with Ethan had gained the raised gravel path running through the camp. Most people were already up and moving. Small gleams of yellow light flickered and moved within the city of tents as dark shapes revealed and eclipsed other lights, all moving toward the east.

Following the crowd, they entered the greening wood before reaching an amphitheater-like space. The sky above was now like a translucent screen, the bright blaze of Venus being the last light to succumb to the advancing day. They found a place out of the flow of arriving humanity. Malila heard snatches of song move through the crowd as it swelled. Everyone faced east toward the line of the woods and the increasing brightness of the rising sun.

Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior,

Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord.

The song rumbled within her from Moses’s dependable bass. Sally’s bright soprano superimposed on the groundswell of song. As Malila was trying to decipher the words, the sun slipped over the horizon and set the glade ablaze in a verdant glow.

He ’rose a victor from the dark domain.

Song after song followed, all with the same theme. The people were all celebrating again as they had at the Coming. Most everyone knew the words, and many people sang parts, reverberating bass notes lifting up the bright melodies of the altos and sopranos. Once it had grown light enough, Malila glimpsed in the woods before them a large wooden cross, veiled by the new spring growth.

When the sun was fully up, filling the glade with warmth, light, and small insects, the crowd dismissed itself to an early breakfast.

This, Malila knew, was just a prelude. The main meal of the day was after the preaching, in the early afternoon. The guest of honor at that feast was roast lamb, larded with garlic, rosemary, and thyme, major deities in the pantheon of masculine cookery.

Sally came by and relieved Malila of a fussy Ethan.

“Malila, honey, I hope you enjoyed this. We try to come every year. The Return is so special to Moses and me. We are going to go have breakfast with Tabbie. I’m sure she would love to have you join us, but don’t feel as if you have to come. Most everyone will offer you a bite to eat. We all make much too much as a rule, just in case Elijah comes. We’ll be getting back to the campsite by midmorning. Moses has to take his turn looking after the lamb. Enjoy yourself, honey. He is risen!”

Malila knew she bumbled the expected response. A sunrise ceremony seemed appropriately primitive for the outlanders, but the ceremony hadn’t been anything she’d expected. It had been much more personal, in a way. The Return was not about the return of the light from the darkness, order from chaos, or even good from evil. It was the remembrance of a single man who, at the same time, was the child that had arrived at the Coming. For unknown reasons, she was elated.

The grimness of the slow travel and the somber campground had given no hint of the jubilation this morning. Energized, children raced up and down the happy, noisy columns leading away from the glade. Different groups called back the same greeting and response about rising. Everyone was awake already, or should have been with the noise.

Allowing the crowds to move ahead of her, Malila tried to sort out the events of the morning. A smiling girl, one near her own age, pressed a warm, sweet roll into her hand as she passed. Malila nibbled and wandered on even as the crowds thinned out, the trail becoming winding, dark, and isolated.

“Malila! Hold up, Malila,” a voice called out, startling her.

Surprise still tingled within her by the time Eduard trotted up, his face flushed and smiling.

“Eduard, I didn’t know you were here!” she said, weaving her arm through his.

“I saw Moses at the Sunrise, and he told me you were coming this way. I’ve been tied up since we got here with doing errands for my parents. They always find something for me to do. I’ve had no time to see my friends and … I had no time to find you!”

“I’ve been busy too. This is the first time I’ve been free.”

Eduard leaned in to give Malila a kiss, and she circled his waist to make the embrace last longer … and give him promise of further warmth to come. Eduard responded, pulling her closer in turn and reaching under her coat to run his hands over her flanks. Malila was surprised. Eduard’s shy ardor had always been perversely exciting to Malila, but she hesitated to encourage him where anyone might see. Without thinking, she stiffened in his embrace and pulled away. Eduard’s confusion was evident. His face flushed, and he moved toward her, grasping her wrist and bringing his other hand up to cup her breast.

Malila gasped in pain. Her new tattoo was painful enough; Eduard’s clumsy grip was an unwelcome surprise. In the Unity, pleasure-sex was a well-rehearsed ballet of word, gesture, and . Unprepared for his advances and meaning to reorder his priorities, Malila lashed out with a knee almost without thinking. Her aim was a little off, but Eduard released her. They were still standing, panting at each other, as a noisy group of people swept around the bend and encircled them.

A look of dismay swept across Eduard’s face; Malila was grateful. Their private sparring would be in recess, at least for a while. She turned from him and extended a hand to the young man who seemed to be the leader. The boy looked briefly down at Malila’s extended hand before ignoring it.

“Hey, Eddie, is this your pet Uni you’ve been bragging about?” he asked, apparently a signal that set the crowd to smirks and giggles.

Eduard was silent. A girl with an indifferent complexion chimed in, “Eddie has to find a Uni prisoner to get what no one else wants to give him … Is that it, Eddie boy?”

Malila suddenly grasped she had fallen into mysterious dark waters with ominous predatory shapes circling her. She was unable to get a word in as catcalls and insults orbited them. The group started to move on when she refused to respond. A sullen girl elbowed her as the group passed, now with Eduard in tow. He looked back at her, lost in the whirlpool, drowning out of sight of land, as the crowd turned along the wooded path.

For the moment, Malila was alone. She readjusted her clothes, trying to reduce the burning sensation of her new tattoo. Wanting to think without being found by Eduard or his friends, she moved to put some distance between herself and their possible return.

A narrow path promised access to the top of a hill. Malila stepped off onto it, surrounding herself at once with the fresh green of the forest, birdcalls, and the rustling wind in the branches overhead. Picking her way up to the top, she found a small, close clearing with a downed hickory log on one side. Ignoring the dampness of the wood, she sat.

She had expected better of the outlanders. That by itself was irritating. She had been seduced into an acceptance of these barbarians, not as her equals but, in a way, her superiors. The few people she really knew had treated her with forbearance and affection and, in Jesse’s case, with mercy. Eduard had wanted her, but now he didn’t. Not enough.

To survive in the Unity was to have no expectations whatever. A single failure left you at the mercy of your superiors. Hopes were an outlander luxury in a land with no luxuries. And luxuries must be paid for. A promise of pleasure might deliver a blow of unexpected pain. But hopes, even if they failed, allowed you to continue.

She heard a short cough in the underbrush along the trail she had just used. The man’s approach had been stealthy and silent until then. Malila, occupied with her problems, only noticed when it was too late to escape. She rose to face this new intrusion.

 

Jesse’s smile preceded him into the clearing through the verdant new growth.

“You have been following me,” Malila accused rather than asked.

“Guilty as charged. I was following Eduard, but I thought he was following you. It looked to me that you might need a friend. Those kids can be harsh at times. They are good people, as a rule, but I don’t think they quite know what to do with acting second lieutenants, my friend. They don’t understand your great redeeming social qualities as well as some of us.”

Despite herself, Malila smiled.

“What did you think of the Sunrise service, my friend?” asked Jesse, changing the subject as he approached.

“I liked it, but it confused me too. This is the same guy who was born at Christmas?”

“The very one … but we celebrate what he did for us, not so much the calendar days.”

“Everyone was so gloomy on the way here, as if they were waiting for the sun this morning, and now everyone is celebrating.”

“Right, the sad part is remembering his dying … and our failures … and the joyful part is when we realize that he kept his promises. The sun rising, doncha see, is the start of the third day. That was when they could first see he wasna dead.”

“Oh, so some sort of miracle-like.”

“Something like that, lass.”

“Don’t call me ‘lass.’”

“Yes, my friend. I am sorry. I forgot, Malila,” Jesse replied as he always did when she objected. He never seemed to remember for long, and he never seemed to be any less sincere when she confronted him about it.

Jesse walked closer and, shooing her over a little, sat down next to her. In that following silence, Malila picked up the old man’s hand, comparing her hand to his, tracing the blue veins and the thin scars. She wondered, not for the first time, how the thin white lines of the collected scars somehow wrote the history of a life still mostly hidden to her.

Malila, turning his hand over and back, leaning into the solidity of Jesse’s body, remembered seeing him from their trek: pale except for his face and hands, blue from the tattoos, more substantial and more real, in a way, than her own flesh. She remembered her submission and Jesse’s rejection and was surprised when that eddy of emotion pulled her into a larger vortex of regret. Tears blurred her vision, the closeness of him, his scent, reminding her again how isolated she really was. She turned to him and wept, feeling his strength even before she felt his arms enfold her.

Once again, she thought of the soft-bodied woman of her distant past. This time, in her distress, she remembered something more, the scent of lavender deep within the folds of the woman’s dresses when she embraced Malila in the small dramas of childhood. Like a neglected box of broken images dumped from darkness into a pool of light, the scent unfolded forgotten memories: kisses and caresses, hummed songs, rag dolls, and a fierceness of love given and received. The passion of her now-remembered love itself folded out to her an even greater landscape of remembrances: the woman was her mother, the tall man with spectacles, her father, and the great sorrow of her life was their clapboard house disappearing as she watched through the rear window of her abductors’ skimmer. She looked up.

“Hush, hush, lass. Everything will come around all right in the end. You have people who love you, you know,” said Jesse.

Malila gathered she had been hearing Jesse cycling through these consolations as she wept, his rumbling words comforting without her understanding. Malila pulled back and watched Jesse’s face for a moment and then climbed, childlike, into the safety of his lap, clinging to him and clutching his hand between her warm breasts.

Jesse turned her face up to his as a flicker of the sunlight broke through the light canopy of foliage. Malila closed her eyes against the glare, sending arcs of light from tears along her eyelashes. She smiled to be so entirely consoled by Jesse’s now-tender touch. Warm lips pressed hers, and Malila sensed herself surge upward with her own desires into Jesse’s embrace. Her hands moved to caress his face and run fingers through his hair, loosing it to curtain around them as they kissed, closing out the world. She felt Jesse’s warm hands now move, caressing her in turn, his hands adoring her, sweeping aside her clothes to press her flesh closer. Malila sensed another unfolding of love and assurance in his embrace, a coming home to a place she had never imagined. The obstacles slid away in an instant. The gentle, graceful hands against her flesh called forth passion and a fullness of heart, a desire to give him her love.

“Jesse, why now? I thought we’d never …”

“I suppose we had to be friends first. Do you know how long I’ve loved you, lass? I have since you ran off into the snow. I admired you. I needed you … but they were bad times for us both,” he said, looking away, his hands still warm on her smooth flesh.

Malila caressed his rough cheek with her hand, pulling him back into a long kiss and a deep caress. A tide of pleasure and desire surged within her until Jesse sat up, breaking the spell. She almost shrieked with frustration.

“It’s all right, Jesse. No one can find us here! Father me, you feel good!”

Jesse’s hands stilled. Malila hoped her words had not put him off.

“Malila, love, we should stop … for now. Ah dinna just want to keep wi’ ye; a’m wantin’ marryin’ wi’ ye, my love. That is, if ye are willin’?”

A chill, a confusion, spread through Malila as she tried to parse the foreign sentiments.

“You want me but only with Mary Eng? I didn’t know that was something you wanted, Jesse.”

“More than anything, my love,” he said with adolescent enthusiasm.

Malila grasped Jesse’s warm hands and moved them over her smooth flesh, trying to recapture the ardor of but a few moments before.

“Jesse, this feels like I belong, like we belong. I have never met someone that makes me feel like this. Open to you, safe, hungry for you. If that’s what you want … Does that mean we can stay together?”

“For a lifetime! For longer than you can imagine!”

Jesse smiled at her, his encircling arms pulling her closer still. Malila’s doubts about the arrangement were subsiding when Jesse continued, “We’d have to get a waiver from the association, of course. I don’t want anyone to thing I pressured you into this.”

Malila’s heart fell. Why should anyone think Jesse was trying to pressure her, unless he was hiding something? Jesse seemed to have shifted mental gears and was not listening to her. She imagined his mask falling away. The kind, faithful, unfailing, gracious facade was cracking to reveal a barbarian who was going to use her love to enslave her, to add her to a harem of women. If he could ask her to share him with Mary, why not any number of women?

“Jesse, slow down. I need some time to think, to talk with Sally, with Xavier. You are confusing me.”

“I’d ask your father, of course, if he were here. Maybe Moses would step in …”

Malila felt betrayed again! Even in the Unity, patrons had the integrity to see only one protégé at a time. Nothing was as it seemed or should be. Even Jesse, the man … the man she knew … the man she had lived with … cried with … even he!

“No, I see. Father you too then, and Mary as well!”

Malila leaped away from him and stormed into the forest, ignoring any footpath before Jesse could react.

 

That went well, didn’t it, you old fool?

I don’t understand what happened.

You tried to make an honest woman of her. She woke up to what a worn-out bit of gristle you are.

It had been a mistake to propose to her; he had let himself believe, imagining himself bringing her home as a new bride. Now he had lost her completely.

Jesse turned away from where Malila had left the clearing. He stomped up a small ridge east as it rose to an adjacent hill through the spring foliage, looking to exhaust himself before returning to camp. He’d come back during the preachings, pack his gear, and leave. It would be easier for them.

Malila was such a porcupine, prickly coming from any direction. He had been naive to think she had any affection for him, of course.

“Damned old fool is you,” he said to the wind … just before it replied with the faint crack of pulse weapons and a ragged volley of projectile rifles.

 

 

Chapter 49

Unity

“Can I warm that up for you, Xavier?” asked Sally.

It was a lovely morning, reminding her of the Returns of her childhood. Beyond the bustle of believers, the greens of the woods displayed their colors: the almost yellow green of new growth, the bronze greens of oaks, and the dark contrasting greens of the pines, their branches slowly shouldering back from the snowy burdens of winter. All across the verge of the large meadow, the boughs of red-purple redbuds thrust into the light, while back into the woods, as if shy, contrasting wisps of white dogwood spotted the scene.

Xavier, from his seat by the warm fire, idly turned the lamb on a spit, making the air redolent with its smells and masking the earthy scents of the woods.

“Thank you, Sally.” He smiled as his cup was filled to almost overflowing.

At breakfast she had finally met her mother’s new husband, a talkative mountain of a man who made Moses look small. The two made a good couple; her father would rest easy. In addition, that extended breakfast should keep the men from sampling the roast for a while, until after the preachings. It was an entirely satisfactory day.

“How did you like the Sunrise service, Xav?” she asked.

“It’s quite a moving service in its way. Of course, I’m used to something a bit different. Always good to be among believers, though. I got quite a kick out of it,” he said with a grin.

Malila burst from the tree line, dodged a dog, and stormed onto the meadow. Malila hesitated, taking a heading on Sally, and marched a determined path toward her. Sally noticed her high color and a misbuttoned shirt.

Malila sat down without salutation, rose, went into her tent, returned, poured a cup of coffee, sipped it, threw the rest onto the ground, sat down, and finally rose again.

“Something bothering you, honey?” asked Sally.

“Nothing.”

“If you want to talk, we can …” started Sally.

“Nothing’s wrong!”

After a few minutes, Malila entered her tent again and emerged with a bundle wrapped in a bit of homespun. Walking over to Moses, she solemnly placed the object into his hands.

“Mr. Stewert, please give this back to Dr. Johnstone. He’ll understand. I never want to see him again, and this is his.”

She turned and sat dry-eyed by the fire. Moses, looking over the fire to Sally, asked a silent question. It’s finally happened between them, she thought. Sally shrugged.

They all heard the low-pitched whine of the skimmers before the ominous black shapes swept out of the shadows and crested the hills into Stamping Ground.

Moses bolted for the tent and returned with his rifle and Ethan. He scooped the baby into Sally’s arms, and Sally ran for the woods. It’s happening again, she thought.

“Malila! Run. Now, do it now!” Xavier yelled, using his command voice.

As she was running, Sally heard the skimmer drive whine to a higher pitch and felt the thump of its arrival. Looking over her shoulder, she stumbled. The black skimmer had landed between Moses and the tree line. Making it to the brush near the verge, she crouched and looked back. In the distance, she could see simultaneous surges in the crowded meadow. Women with children streamed away from the skimmers as all others, men, women, large girls, and boys, raced forward, the sun occasionally gleaming off gunmetal.

The skimmer ramp crashed down. Oddly gaited troopers emerged, firing and crouching, providing cover for the soldiers behind them. Off in the distance, Sally saw Malila turn as a bolt took Xavier in the back. For a moment, Malila froze. A trooper approached and swung his weapon to club her to the ground. It did not connect. Malila ducked under the blow and kicked hard at the black horror’s knee. He went down in a heap, and she grabbed his rifle, swinging it into the gut of the next horror and folding him up. A pulse bolt erupted at her feet, and Malila ran toward the shooter. It was too far. Sally watched as the soldier aimed the killing shot at her. The soldier’s chest erupted in a pink mist.

The report of the rifle made her jump. She looked over to see Moses kneeling, his old rifle still smoking.

Moses stood and stepped back, stumbled, and looked down, his feet inside the fire ring.

There was a flash, and Moses fell, a foot still dangling over the coals near the roast lamb.