Free Read Chapters 23 & 24

CHAPTER 23
THE UNDERPASS

underpass

Crossing of US 41 and Interstate 74, western Indiana Territory

November 11, 2128

Off the road and near a small huddle of hemlocks, under the thin gray sky, Malila sat. The temperature had plummeted since sunup, and the wind had backed into the northwest. Before noon, low clouds had obscured the sky. She could barely swallow enough of the frigid slurried water to satisfy Jesse’s watchful supervision. Within the last hour, the old man had spotted a road to the south, calling it Old 41, telling her it ran under the highway they were following, Eye 74, one more of the roads that stretched across the prairie from horizon to horizon. The savage names were always so picturesque.

Jesse, after giving her their cache of food, left her in the lee of the evergreens.

“If I am tardy now, lass, let’s say past sundown, walk back west and take the last road we passed going north, on your right.”

“I know which way is north, old man. But I guess, since I have the food, you will find me.”

“My thinking precisely, my friend.”

“I’m not your friend!”

He took the pulse rifle with him.

Malila ducked her face into her jacket, breathing her warmth back into herself, glad for the weight and warmth of her backpack shielding her from the wind. Her O-A hummed painlessly in the background, the annoying mental irritation she had noted during the first week now gone.

They had met no travelers. She’d seen no smoke, no tracks other than animals, and smelled nothing but the coming winter. All the rivers they had crossed flowed west or south. Unity maps showed the outlands as a narrow belt of Scorched and waterless land between the Rampart and the western republics, in most places no more than 150 klicks wide. However, Malila reasoned there must be a great river between the highlands near the Rampart and the highlands out west. Jesse called it the Mississippi River, a name too grotesque to take seriously.

Malila jumped as Jesse joggled her out of her doze.

“Nice to see my absence has not made you overanxious, lass.”

Malila grimaced at him, staggering to her feet as the old man repacked his pack and hoisted it with his usual grunt. She followed him down the long, oblique slope to the underpass, then through it to the opposite side, the dim light slipping into the space like a beggar. When they had reached the north side of the underpass, Jesse motioned for her to stop as he continued farther north, up the side, and out of sight.

In a few minutes, he was back, beaming. “No one home. It looks like we have a place out of the storm.”

“How long do you think it will rain?” she asked, hoping for a day of rest, snug out of the wind.

“I don’t think it will rain at all! Have you never seen it snow?”

“Of course, I go to VerMon all the time to train.”

“Big difference between a noun and a verb, lass!”

“Even so,” he continued, “it is early in the season. It shouldn’t last for long. If we had skis, we could make some real time, but as ’tis, we are stuck here for at least a day. I’ll get wood enough to last us a while.”

The old man emptied their jerky into the small cook pot before taking the remainder of it with him, hoisting the meagre remains of their food cache into a tree while Malila went to start the fire.

By the time Jesse returned, the first flakes were drifting down. The fire, stoked with the new fuel and illuminating graffiti of obscure provenance on the crumbling walls, did little to warm Malila as she shivered in the cave-like corner of the underpass. She wrapped her clothes around her, even grabbing some of the sleeping furs as she watched the fire.

Jesse set about cooking her share of a meager meal, a stew of sorts in the single small pot he carried. Malila’s stomach grumbled as the last of the jerky, scraps of trail bread, and some roots that Jesse had dug up that day bubbled in the pot.

“What do you call this, old man?”

“Specialité de la maison, ragout avec de bison et detritus, mademoiselle.”

“Sounds appetizing,” she said as she made a face at him.

“If we can’t move and run out of food, what are we going to eat?” she asked between bites.

Jesse grimaced but answered, “While it snows, not much. I can scrape some tree bark, and there is a stream to the north with cattails. Dig the roots and bake ’em. Maybe dip the stream for fish.”

Malila ignored the look and the comment and returned to eating. It was horrid. She forced herself to swallow, knowing that she needed the energy just to be warm enough to sleep. When she finished, Jesse set about cooking another batch in the small pot for himself.

Malila watched the fire, warm, with a full belly, wrapped in the obscurity of the swirling snow. Every day’s trek had exhausted her, but today was worse. The cold wind eroded her well-being, and the noise in her head, even dulled to a barely perceptible hum, still bore upon her. Whether it was the cold or their dwindling supplies, Malila felt used up. Orange tongues of flame licked along a small branch, building and adding their glow to the whole fire. The heat, splashing across her face and hands, settled her. Jesse stirred his own meal without comment.

Malila awoke with a start. A dribble of drool chilled her chin. The fire was still burning, but the branch she had been watching was now just a few disconnected gray coals. Newly added branches sent sparks drifting up into the dark beams raftering their camp. Wavering shadows showed a drag in the shin-deep snow along the lowest point of the underpass to the north—no sign of a footprint. The small pot, already clean, was upended near the fire. No doubt the old man had gone to get firewood.

She looked down. Jesse’s odd short knife was out of its sheath and on the ground in front of her: it was a round-backed, drop-point blade with a small back bar for fine work and finger rings in the handle. The old man never left his blades unsheathed, except when he was using them. The blade, looking molten in the firelight, pointed at her. He had not woken her as he’d left. Malila tried to control a shiver as she scooped up the knife, sheathed it, and wedged it into the waistband in the small of her back.

There must have been a noise; Malila looked into the swirling snow to the south side of the underpass. Outside the cone of the fire’s light, the white flakes were a chaos of motion. She stared into the maelstrom, still muzzy from her nap and annoyed at the old man for leaving her.

It was then she saw the hunched darkness against the black. It shuffled, turning from side to side as if smelling the trail. There was no head, just a huddle of shapes, ill-defined and ominous. As it drew nearer, Malila could make out the shaggy coat. A pair of lifeless eyes rested on the top of the heap of fur. The form lumbered into the light.

CHAPTER 24

BEAR

bear

The man was of average height, but there was an adamant solidity to him, Malila thought. He wore the skin of a large bear, the muzzle fur skinned out and tanned, making a gruesome hood, with the eyeless eyes perched on the man’s head. His hair was as black as the bearskin and hung cowl-like around his face. Dark eyes lurked under bushy eyebrows almost hidden in the grotesque hood.

As the figure moved nearer her fire, the man’s large hands shucked off the leather shooter’s mittens and spread open to grasp the heat of the blaze.

“Good evening, Miss. I was hoping to share your fire. The name is Edward Phillips, but most people around here call me Bear.”

He looked sideways at her. It was several seconds before he smiled.

Malila had no idea how to respond. All people of the outlands had reverted to savagery, she knew. The old man showed that much to be true. She understood her choices here: take this unknown man into her confidence or remain in captivity with Jesse. The might and wealth of the Unity should buy her a welcome almost anywhere. Fear and greed were durable motives. Her choice was obvious. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, she thought.

Just before she spoke, however, another saying resonated inside her head: Better the enemy you know than the one you do not know. In the moments she had to choose, the man’s fetid smell decided for her.

“I’m Jane. My friends are coming back in a minute,” she said perhaps a little too late.

This greasy man looked around the campsite, hesitant and uneasy at first. Without invitation, he sat on his heels near the fire, the flames glinting from his eyes. He rocked on his heels and again spread his raw-boned hands over the warmth. He licked his lips as he looked into the flames and started questioning her.

“Where did you say you were coming from, Miss?”

“I didn’t. We are coming from Wiscomsin and going to Kentucky.”

It did not sound quite right. She looked at the man without blinking. It was always good to keep as much truth in a lie as convenient, she knew.

“And your man, where is he? Seems he took his pack with him when he left.”

“He is coming back soon. I’m not sure you ought to be here when he comes back. He mightn’t like it.”

Malila had missed the fact that Jesse had taken his pack, a clear indication he was abandoning her. Her face froze as she tried to act nonchalant. She had been foolish to brandish the possibility of returning companions.

“That isn’t very hospitable, Miss. The night is cold, and the weather’s ugly. No one should be denied shelter on a night like this,” Bear said with a reasonable smile.

Malila had no idea what constituted outland hospitality. By no means should she let this man get too close to her. She ought to make an escape herself. Jesse had said the snow would not last.

Stringing together phrases that she hoped sounded like Jesse, she said, “Okay, I guess you can bed down over there. We are out of food. I cannot offer you anything. But you can have some coals and dry wood to start your fire over there.” She gestured again across the underpass to the far side.

The man did not answer, but his head swiveled to look at her. His appearance had altered in the few seconds since he’d last spoken. He looked up at her through black, bushy eyebrows and wrenched his face into a grimace of amusement. He fished a small orange whistle out from under layers of dingy shirts and blew three short blasts.

“I like the fire and the company well enough here.” He stood.

Almost at once, dark shapes, hunched against the wind, climbed down the slopes at both ends of the underpass, half-walking, half-sliding in the shin-deep snow, carrying skis and long guns.

Within seconds, Malila was surrounded by men stamping snow off their legs. Most wore beards. Even in the cold, Malila smelled poorly tanned hides and unwashed bodies. Her O-A’s low-level hum had risen to a keen inside her head.

Bear rose and smiled as his men approached.

“Let me do some introductions, Miss. These gentlemen are what you might call my fellow travelers. We sort of patrol this stretch of the I-74 to keep it free of … hazards to navigation. As it happens, the weather has reduced our prospects. That is, until George noticed your fire. So we’re just being friendly-like and welcoming you to the neighborhood, you traveling alone and all. Boys, this here is Jane. I’ll let you introduce yourselves … in private.”

While he was speaking, several of the men had started emptying Malila’s pack, throwing the contents onto the frozen ground and pawing through them. Malila tried to move to one side of the men. A hand reached from behind her and gripped her across her breasts. A yelp of surprise and pain escaped her lips and fixed the men’s attention.

“Easy, boys, the rules are the same. Equal shares and double for the captain, just like we agreed.”

Bear was aiming a sidearm toward the ground negligently, but the threat was immediate and well understood.

“Just checking the inventory, Bear, no harm done,” said a large man with a ginger beard and an uncertain smile.

The man’s huge belt buckle ground into her back, moving Jesse’s short knife on occasion.

“’Course not, Jimmy. No harm at all. George is the lucky one to get her first. He sighted the fire. Harry, you go find him so we can get started. The sooner he gets done, the sooner we all get a piece,” Bear said in a reasonable, businesslike voice.

Bear turned to another man. “Pete, let’s get some food up. You others go get some more wood. This pile won’t last us through the night. I think our lady friend here will want the fire nice and warm. Isn’t that right, Miss?”

“I’m an officer of the Democratic Unity Forces for Security! If you take me to your authorities, no harm will come to you.” Her voice sounded shrill, even panicked.

Jimmy paused in midmolestation as all heads turned to watch how Bear would react.

“Well, Miss Great and Powerful General, ma’am, you appear to be out of uniform and in enemy territory.” At a nod from the man, Jimmy pulled her shirt open, spilling her breasts into the dim light of the fire. The men grinned and hooted their appreciation.

“Worse and worse, ma’am.” Bear shook his head. “I think you must be a spy!”

It was obvious to her that fear or favor of the Unity did not extend to this patch of nowhere. Pretending to lapse into apathy and keeping her head down, Malila counted nine men, plus the absent George. She surprised herself at her revulsion at these leering men.

Since she was an E7, she had found pleasure-sex enjoyable enough with her patrons. This would be very different; this would be a grunting obscenity. She could not have put a name to it before. There was an incorrectness … a wrongness to it. These men wanted to hurt her and to make her fear, using her own body to do so, like overgrown children tormenting smaller ones by making them hit themselves with their own fists.

She had never understood the meaning of evil in her life. Evil was a media word for the losers: “Unity District Conquers the Evil of Hoarding.” The malefactors paraded before the ’nets were always small, frightened, and grubby; this evil was rank and brutal. Her heart started racing, almost pounding out of her chest. Jimmy still held her, moving his hands over her breasts and between her legs despite her best efforts to cover herself.

The man sent out to fetch George and start her serial rape returned. He kicked off his skis and went over to the fire, spreading his hands to the enlarged blaze. It was a few seconds before Bear asked him, “Harry, is George coming?”

Amid some hesitant chuckles, the man, blinking, looked up, snow melting from his wool cap and beard.

“I didn’t find him. I saw some tracks and figured he had come in to get his first piece. Isn’t he here?”

The men stopped laughing and looked up. The only sound was the low moan of the wind and the hiss of falling snow.

A muffled crack of a projectile rifle echoed through the darkness, along with a sound that could have been a man’s wail.

/**/

bear underpass

Outland Exile: Free Read Chapters 19&20

CHAPTER 19

DEATH WALKER

fungi-pic1

Illinois Territory, RSA

Late October 2128

The leaves, at first just tinged with yellow and scarlet, were now gaudy, floating down to swirl around them as they walked. The air was scented with the musk of loam, sunshine, and the promise of winter. Autumn in the Unity was merely a different shade of gray. Malila was ever more grateful for the warmth of the old man as she slept.

During the second week, as they reached the crest of a long slope covered in scrub, two tilted and paved plateaus appeared, fading to the horizon, left and right. Woods separated them in many places, and stray vegetation punctuated the pavements themselves.

Jesse grunted and, stepping onto the hard surface, started walking south without comment. Malila adjusted her gait, letting her legs swing free, and hitched her pack higher. The consistency of the tread allowed her to look around without tripping. She could then enjoy the unfolding of the landscape: the changing shape of a copse of trees, clouds and their shadows, and the slow flow of the land under her feet—ridges, shallow lakes, and bomb craters. At their first stop, she asked him about the trail.

“It’s the old Eye-39, lass. Due north-south for a while before we have to head east to pick up Eye-74. Don’t much like using these roads. It’s a little too easy to see us coming.”

“What are you worried about, old man. We haven’t seen anybody since we started.”

“Doesn’t mean that they haven’t seen us, lass. When Mose and I came up here, we took side roads, as we had horses … didn’t want to offer too tempting a prize to your Unity scabs. Now we are fighting south before the snows; fewer sharks to feed on us this time of year. We can hazard the highways for a while.”

Despite his anxiety, the old man took time to show Malila new skills. She learned to make fire, set snares, skin the game, and much else. Out of the corner of her eye Malila would catch the man watching as she demonstrated some new talent, a vigilant brittle gleam in his eye and a smile on his face until she turned to look at him. Then he would harrumph at her efforts before turning away. She found herself laughing at the absurd old man. He laughed as well, then.

One skill she had not successfully acquired was setting up a bear bag, hauling food out of the reach of “critters.” Malila had tried to learn how to select the right tree branch and toss the line so that it did not get tangled. On the occasion of her first attempt, the counterweight, a large machine nut, had swung around, giving her a black eye. Since then that job had been left to Jesse.

She was still a prisoner. She wore a tether while they walked and slept. At night, Jesse still recited his long cadenced elocutions to the fire, he still made her drink the tea, and he still made her bathe, despite the cold.

“This must be the highlight of your day, old man,” she said as she started to disrobe at a small cove along a stream, the water black in the light of the first quarter moon, shining low in the west.

“You get to humiliate a Unity officer in the name of good hygiene. How pathetic is that?”

“For the record, I’m obligated to supervise prisoners, Acting Lieutenant Chiu. I’d like nothing better than to preserve your maidenly modesty, but the company strength is deficient one provost marshal’s matron, if’n you ain’t noticed.”

“Seriously, Jesse, you have me tied up naked. Where am I going to go? I just want some time without you looking at me.”

“The eye cannot trespass, my friend, but … do you promise not to try to escape? If I accept your parole, I come back and you are still tied up here waiting for me, right?”

Malila almost smiled. In the Unity, they were so past this. The government made many promises, only to break them, all for superb and cogent reasons. The people could vote to change any regulation, deny any privilege, and revoke any liberty. Promises were “a bookmark for progress.” Personal promises fared rather worse. Anyway, Jesse was not a citizen. Grateful for the dim light, she hoped her voice did not betray her.

“I promise I will not attempt any escape, Jesse. I’d just like a little privacy.”

“Okay, lass. I’ll take you at your word.”

Jesse threw the long line of her tether around the root of a big tree overshadowing the pool and tied it off before leaving. Once he was gone, Malila finished disrobing and threw her clothes onto a bush and herself into the cold water. It should have been frigid but wasn’t. Working upstream, she found a patch of warmth and followed it to its source, a ten-centimeter-wide opening at the floor of the pool.

Malila luxuriated. That was when she saw the lights.

They were the first lights she had seen at night since her capture, two yellow lights weaving back and forth above the leafless scrub. What supported the lights she could not see, but the light of the moon seemed to gleam off a surface that reminded Malila of dark, brushed steel. She heard no rotors or the hum of a Skimmerhorn drive.

She stepped forward and gasped in pain; a singeing feeling sliced along her instep. Malila pulled her foot back, allowing herself to float. The pain remained steady, and her immediate fear subsided. She slid her fingers down her leg gently, finding a small, sharp shard of something still protruding from her instep. Malila swam back to the bank, reluctantly leaving the warm current, and clumsily hauled out onto the tree root. A green glass shard was still sticking out of the wound. Without a thought, she pulled it out and could see the stream of darkness—her blood—wash into the dark waters. The wound was neither deep nor long, and Malila had no difficulty walking back to where she had left her clothes.

Dressed and still damp, she moved through the brush to find a place where she could see the lights but was brought up short by her tether, within a few meters. With little thought, Malila spun the rope around her waist and began slicing through the braid with her newfound glass knife. Within a few cuts the tether parted.

Malila worked her way through the scrub along the banks of the stream toward where she thought the lights had gone. Using it as cover, Malila crept near the bole of a large, dead tree.

She should have known that the Unity patrols would patrol at night. Low-light technology let them scan large sections of the outlands, while the savages were slowed by the darkness. The overwhelming might of the Unity would descend out of shadows, and in the morning only stories of mysterious lights in the night sky would remain.

She moved out from behind the tree trunk.

The lights were just meters away from her. The moon silhouetted two serpentine stalks, twisting and writhing above her in a complicated dance. A light surmounting each stalk like an eye turned down and seemed to inspect the ground. She could no longer breathe. The stench of ammonia hit her. Her eyes watered, and her vision started to fade. She retched as the yellow lights halted, turned together, and started to advance toward her, emitting a scritting noise as it came.

The blow took her just below the ribcage. An arm snaked around her waist and began to drag her off. Dazed, she was surprised that the yellow eyes began to fade away in the night before the trunk of the dead tree blocked her view. A dark shape stood her up against the bole of the tree, pressing her against the rough bark. The shape stooped and put an arm between her legs before painfully grabbing her wrist and hoisting her. Malila’s world spun as she was turned upside down and bounced on the old man’s shoulder back to their fire.

Jesse dropped her with a thump onto the skins before turning on her.

“Li’l Miss I-Just-Want-a-Little-Privacy got mair than she was bargainin’ for, seems like, ye damned Uni gowk! Now I’ve gotta burn out a Death Walker. Th’ thing is gonna stink fur days. What ’xactly wur ye thinkin’, lass?” he shouted.

When she didn’t respond, the old man threw up his arms before frisking her, rapidly and thoroughly, and tying her up, facedown, onto her skins. He built up the fire and transferred red coals onto a makeshift shovel made from tree bark before starting back down the path from which they had just come.

Sundering screams from what Malila took to be a running battle with the creature punctuated the darkness. Strange cries rent the night and subsided into groaning agues of noise. Jesse returned to stoke the fire with fresh fuel, shoveled more coals out, and again disappeared into the dark. For a time, the old man was getting the worst of it. Screams and smoke assaulted her where she lay, always coming closer. After that, however, the cries of the creature, sounding like a thrown belt on a major beltway, started to move off. The stench of smoke and ammonia sullied the air.

Jesse returned just before dawn. Even by the dim light, Malila could see blisters on his hands and burns marking his face. Jesse slumped next to her and let his head droop, his beard smudging the soot on his tunic as he rested his elbows on his knees. He coughed, an extended, emphatic liquid cough, which left him breathless.

“What was that?”

“It was a gift … from our … friends … ’cross the Rampart … I didn’t think … they got … this far west … Call them … Death Walkers … Showed up after th’ Scorching … kind o’ fungus … Got to burn … ’em out … They need meat … attack at night.”

“Is it dead?”

“Pretty much. Don’t live … long … blinded. Tried to eat … one, once. Tough … taste like they smell … ’Spect they’d … say … same of me.”

The old man started laughing and was again seized with a fit of coughing that drove him to his hands and knees. Blood streaked across the back of his hand after he wiped his mouth.

The old man coughed for a week thereafter. That day, they walked hard, away from the site of the fight, and Malila, again bound, found herself running to keep up.

CHAPTER 20

PAROLE

parole

The day following the forced march away from the battle with the Death Walker started with crystalline sunlight. High fleecy clouds arched up and over them as they walked. By late morning, however, the sky turned threatening. Almost on cue, the highway disappeared into a confusion of rubble with rusting steel erupting into frozen fountains of splintered metal. They spent the afternoon retracing false starts and bushwhacking new trails.

Long before his normal time, Jesse scouted out a bivouac on a slight rise in the lee of a stand of old trees and built a hut rather more generous and sturdy than usual. A cold wind set the woods to groaning and rattling in protest against the wind.

“We are in for some dirty weather, lass. With this high a wind, it should not last too long. Best we hunker down and ride it out for a day. I could use the rest.”

He coughed. After the rain started, Jesse built a small fire and lit the lamp as he sat, cooking stew. The rain added a frenzy of noise as wave after wave of the storm beat against the jury-rigged roof.

Malila started shivering. Jesse arose, unasked, to fetch a couple of deerskins to drape around her and himself before regaining his place by the fire, working another small patch of hide with the short knife as he stirred the pot.

A stray gust of wind whipped under the eaves and swirled the air with smoke and sparks. Blinded, her eyes stinging with tears, Malila coughed until she was exhausted.

In an instant, the whole grotesque burden of the day descended on Malila, the cold, the wet, the fatigue, the frustration, and now the smoke.

“You made a mess of this, old man! We are both going to die because a demented Sisi thinks he can beat the Unity! Why didn’t you kill me the first day?”

Jesse, recovering from another fit of his visceral coughing, wiped his mouth.

“Why indeed, lass? Be careful what you wish for. Dead is for life, I’m told.”

“You should know, Sisi; you must be half dead already!”

“I love you too, lass! But I wouldna be so anxious to end it all. You are tired. You will feel better after a night’s sleep, my friend.”

“I’m not your friend, Sisi! How would you have any idea how I feel?” she shrieked at the old man.

Jesse looked up, spearing her with his pallid eyes even in the dim light. He pulled the small pot off the flames, set it aside, and waved a finger under her nose before Malila could consider she might have gone too far.

“How would ah know? How am ah suppose ta be sae damned auld ’n’ ne’er hae bin young, once upon a time? Dae ye think ah wis born auld, ye arrogant boot pup? How much dae ye put inta th’ pot ye eat from, Acting Lieutenant Chiu?”

Malila inched away from his anger, antagonizing him further.

“Who dae ye think is keeping yer sorry bahookie dry richt noo? If it weren’t fur me, ye’d be cold and drookit in some hollow o’ a tree someplace!”

The old man dismissed her with a flourish of his hand when she gave him a bewildered look, turning his back on her as he replaced the pot on the fire.

“If I’m such a burden to you, why don’t you let me go?”

“Humph … You don’t mind being abandoned to die o’ starvation and exposure to the elements? Good to know, provender being at low ebb for the moment.”

“Is that why you tie me up every night? So you can find me when you want to butcher me?” She knew that was unfair, and it pleased her to say it.

“I tie you up because of you being an enemy soldier. I haven’t decide about roasting you … yet.”

“Look, Jesse, I’m a city girl. Even if I could get away, I don’t know how to get home. I’ll make you a deal. Don’t tie me up, and I promise not to try to get away. Let me loose, or let me go! Do one or the other, old man, if you are telling me the truth!”

There was silence for a second, and then the old man turned to look at her.

“Well said, lass. But how do I know you won’t try to kill me?”

“Would you believe me if I promised?”

“Your promises don’t mean much to you. You showed me as much back there. Why should they mean anything to me?”

Malila stopped. Her actions, when she had cut herself free at the hot spring, had not been to escape … at least she had not been sure she could escape. She had dismissed her promise to Jesse before she had made it. Jesse had not, apparently. For the old man, the promise had had actual substance. To him, she had betrayed him. It had never occurred to her. The new realization made her feel empty. She was left with no response for the old man except one. In grim determination, she stood. The Unity procedure was straightforward, even if Jesse did not know the long history of it. Over the weeks, Jesse’s restraint, despite his interest in her, had grown perplexing and, in its way, demeaning.

Malila faced him and waited for him to look up at her. She undressed herself. Jesse did not look away, and it gave Malila hope. When she finished, she remained standing, the cold wind plucking her flesh into tight peaks.

She announced the formulaic declaration in a voice made uncertain by the cold. “Jesse Johnstone, I offer you the freedom of my body and my faithful service in return for your protection and advice.”

In the Unity, the patron-elect would acknowledge her act and words with a session of animated pleasure-sex before announcing his or her decision. Malila waited. She had to admit to herself that the idea of a Sisi as patron was grotesque, but oddly, it no longer filled her with disgust.

“This is how we ask someone to become a patron. I offer myself to you in return for your looking out for my interests … Talk, old man. I’m getting cold!”

Jesse again moved the food off the fire and stood facing her. Malila gratefully took his hand and pressed it between her breasts, moving his dry, warm hand against her softness. Malila stepped closer, feeling warmed by his nearness, and smiled to herself.

The old man had finally shown himself to be no different than her other patrons. It had been difficult for a naive thirteen-year-old Malila to present herself the first time. Defenseless and friendless, the desirability of her body had bought her protection and power, of a sort. After weeks of uncertainty, life was becoming understandable again.

Jesse spoke without moving, low and unhurried. “We aren’t about ta dae this, lass. If ah dinna tak yer words, ah wouldna shame ye by taking yer body. Ah think ye should git dressed.”

Jesse’s words at first made no sense to her. She pressed herself against the old man and was reassured by his growing reaction. Malila touched him, feeling she had at last gotten a purchase on the rocky slope of the old man’s personality.

“Malila Chiu, git dressed!”

He spoke it as a command. It startled her. Cold air circled around her as she stepped back.

“But …”

“No, lass. Git dressed. Please.”

This time is was a plea. In turmoil and confusion, Malila stooped to gather her clothes. Jesse stood watching her, his face impassive and unmoving until she was dressed.

“The question was why I should believe a promise from you, Lieutenant Chiu.”

Malila looked up at the stolid face of the old man. “You should believe me because if I kill you, then I die alone. Everyone I’ve ever known will think I drowned in some river out here. I don’t want to die alone.”

After a few moments of silence, the old man gave her a wooden spoon and a cup of the stew he had been cooking.

“No one should die alone, lass. Mak’ me a promise nay ta escape or ta harm me or yourself, an’ I will take your parole.”

“I promise, Jesse.”

“Enough said, lass. Eat your stew.”

Two New Reviews for Outland Exile from B&N

“Outland Exile” is a compelling read, and one that will definitely appeal to fans of dystopian/alternative reality/action novels. Author W. Clark Boutwell does an amazing job of bringing this incredible, fully-realized world to life where people are subjected to mental and emotional enslavement by the Unity and the lead, Malila, is exposed to a whole new reality that makes her question everything – and realize the need to fight back. Very interesting concept, and the premise feels familiar in a way, yet is executed differently than anything I’ve come across before. Although there are common elements that mandates the genre, Mr. Boutwell’s voice is unique, and his characters fresh and engaging. We really root (or cry) for them and get totally invested in the outcome. BTW the editing was GREAT! Nearly perfect, and that is really rare in ebooks, I find. Smooth, authentic dialogue that flowed well and moved the plot forward nicely, sparing us of the dreaded “telling” that so many authors tend to do (except I did grow weary of Jesse’s ‘accent’ after a while…). We feel like we are a part of the book and I recommend for fans of Dystopian Sci-fi who’d like a new twist. This is the first in a series though, so we are still in for more of a ride, especially after that twist of an ending. Can’t wait! (4.5 stars) Charles Vasquez in B&Nmeduzarts__subaru_ep3__concept_by_i_netgrafx

Great action, well-written and very creative, “Outland Exile” (Book 1 of Old Men and Infidels) from W. Clark Boutwell is a must read for fans of novels such as “Hunger Games” “Divergent” and maybe even “Brave New World”. This book is far less involved than those, but to me that is a good thing. It still “feels’ big and epic, with a varied cast of colorful characters and plenty of action and suspense to go around. There are some familiar literary elements here (as with most dystopian/sci fi), however, I feel Mr. Boutwell did an amazing job of bringing in a fresh voice and making the story wholly his own, and giving it a unique feel which is pretty tough to do in this crowded genre. For the most part the editing was great. Overall and engrossing read that will satisfy even the pickiest dystopian reader! (suitable for most ages teens and older) (4-5 stars) AprilDawn @ B&N