Free Read Final Chapters (SPOILERS)

Chapter 61

Alpha_Drover Redux

vidMalila

Nyork, Unity

02.50.26.local.01.07.AU77

Colonel Jourdaine’s O-A woke him.

Colonel Jourdaine’s O-A woke him.

He had submitted sixteen of his junior officers for Alpha_Drover. The senior leadership was a heaving jumble of competing factions, but they all demanded junior officers of single-minded, unthinking loyalty. All Alpha_Drover–successful officers were compliant to any senior. All the failed officers would find themselves, in due time, in some jurisdiction of dubious significance. Dealing with Malila Chiu was just a happy coincidence.

He opened his O-A as he lay in bed, a warm and newly ascendant ensign snoring prettily next to him after he had put her through her paces. Jourdaine reviewed the results of the current Alpha_Drover.

Of the sixteen officers in the command, one had failed to control his men and had been left in the virtual sally port as he’d tried to escape the simulation. One officer had attempted to reincorporate; his psyche was still wandering a self-contained labyrinth, a “glass bottle” in the CORE. He would be decanted in time. Thirteen of Jourdaine’s officers had succeeded. Lieutenant François Belkhadem had gone a little overboard, perhaps. He had joined his troopers in the slaughter. His loyalty was unquestioned, but his leadership skills might need closer evaluation. They had found him covered in blood and laughing as he’d repeatedly pulled the trigger on an empty magazine. No doubt, he had a use.

Two had failed, thirteen had succeeded … and one had disappeared. Malila Chiu was nowhere to be found.

He nudged the sleeping ensign and motioned for her to leave, watching her as she dressed before rising himself. Jourdaine showered rapidly to take the scent of the girl away and, after dressing in fatigues, examined Chiu’s transcript.

He slid a few controls in his O-A, and the image of Major Benjamina Wouters appeared, looking worried and fatigued. As a Suarez holdover and head of operations for Alpha_Drover, she had a lot to prove.

“Major Wouters, congratulations on another successful Alpha_Drover!”

“Sir, I am glad you are pleased, sir. I think the exercise has gone well.”

Her eyes kept looking down and to the side, her breath quickening. He felt a surge of the woman’s stressors; she was lying.

Jourdaine let a moderate reprimand course through her, and she cringed. It served his purposes well to engender a little terror in his subordinates. The woman squirmed.

“What happened to Chiu? Did she fail, succeed, or try to reincorporate? Major?” he asked, smiling faintly.

Major Wouters had gone somewhat paler, and there was a sheen on her forehead. Her fear increased the uncertainty of her responses … but a reliable emotion nonetheless.

“Sir, I do not know, sir. She has failed to lead her men. That part is clear. I retrieved her CRNAs without difficulty, but we had to wait until the rest of the operation was near completion. The troopers in Chiu’s command were found with unfired weapons … except one, her platoon sergeant.

“All he can say was that he followed direct orders. It seems she was able to reincorporate without using the CORE. She restarted her own body and did some minor vandalism in the staging area before escaping to the streets.”

“How is that possible, Major?”

“Lieutenant Chiu apparently was wounded in a weapons mishap. She ordered her sergeant to fire upon her. With the antifrat subroutines suspended, the shot did real damage. She reincorporated due to a power surge within the local node of the CORE. It is not immediately apparent whether that was volitional or not.

“She walked south from Chinatown to the old city center. There, she obtained some cocaine. That is all we have, sir!” Wouters finished with a grimace.

“What are you doing to intercept her, Major? We can’t have a failed candidate wandering the streets and scaring the citizens,” Jourdaine said, quietly delighted that Malila had made a run for it. She was out of the way, and he could clean her up at his leisure.

“I have already sent patrols to intercept her, sir. I anticipated your desire to keep the citizens unaware and have sent small groups of her fellow officers in civilian garb.”

“Very good, Major. Let me know when you have made progress.”

This was the last time he wanted to think about Lieutenant Chiu. It was her role, now, to evaporate.

Malila watched the distant lights south of the bridge and tried to steady her hands as she took the spike of tightly wound wire and slid it into her nose, feeling it slip past the sensitive tissue.

Cocaine was an interesting drug. She had learned about it from Moses. He’d used it on some of his cattle with a nasty parasite in the nasal passages. It was a local anesthetic, shrank the lining of the passages, and stopped most bleeding. As for her own experiment, Malila was amazed at how far she could pass the spike blindly. She felt obstruction and pain and stopped. She retreated until the pain receded and then advanced again. Blood, her blood, dripped off the end of the spike, but this time she did not stop until the spike was fully inserted. She waited.

Her O-A implant had been her constant conduit into the CORE, and now it had turned into a shackle, binding her to the Unity. Jesse had removed her Basic implant, and they had found her, even outside the Rampart, from her O-A implant alone. Her O-A had to die if she were going to live. There was fear here as well. Her brain, her mind, had lived almost its whole life sensing, using, and listening to the implant within it. Edie was already gone. Would there be anyone left without the implant?

Would she be aware, if she failed, as the Unity found her and started the Sapping process? They said the CRNAs raved for days before becoming compliant.

The lights on the capacitor blinked green … full charge.

Malila thumbed the switch, slick with her warm blood; her vision evaporated, and she fell.

A month before, Hecate had awoken in an empty, dusty apartment somewhere in the slums. To her surprise, the apartment had food for four days and, even more surprising, a working toilet. She had read the postop instructions taped to her leg. The cutter and her assistant had been nameless, had never spoken, and had been wearing surgical masks by the time she’d been rolled in. Tiffany had not been there.

Hecate remembered their last face-to-face meeting, weeks before.

“You need to be careful, Heccy. Do you know about the implants?” Tiffany had warned.

“Of course, I use my O-A every day, just like you do.”

“No, what I mean is your Basic implant. You got it when you were an E1. It allows the Unity to track us. I think Malila’s is no longer working.”

“Then just take out the Basic implant,” Hecate said.

“They can track you with the O-A, but the range is much shorter. Most of the time that doesn’t much matter. I know someone who can remove the Basic and the O-A for you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Professional courtesy … no, that is just a joke. Sometimes, my patients have to disappear. They come to me, and I help them. But I don’t do the surgery part. I have a friend who does that. I get the anesthesia … There are certain expenses, you understand. Anyway, I help them, and the client pays for the surgery. I get paid for the anesthesia. They get a new identity and go somewhere to start over.”

“Where do they get the new implants from?”

“I never ask. It is probably good to never ask.”

“I just want to get rid of them both. Your friends can have them, for all I care.”

“Let me ask around. Where will you go?”

“I found some stories. I could never get through the Rampart to the west. It is all into Scorched—”

Tiffany interrupted with a furious wave of her hand. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. Don’t tell me any more. If I don’t know, I can’t tell. Do you need money?”

“I have some. I’ve been selling my stuff to phantom shops.”

“Take as much as you can. Useful stuff, money.”

Since that one meeting, she had not spoken to Tiffany again.

Her quarters had become an echoing hollow. She’d slept on the floor. She had made a point to have quiet dinners with Alexandra and Luscena. Hecate had tried to tell them she loved them. They had not understood, but she had tried. Malila had been too busy. And she was the only one who really mattered.

Late one night, a voice had called her and recited to her a time and an address and then made her repeat them back. The voice had told her not to write anything down. Hecate had collected her money and a few other things and shown up. The passenger compartment of the skimmer had been blacked out.

She found the little cream-and-blue book among her clothes when she was well enough to dress. She had forgotten she had brought it. In the early days of her grief after Victor’s death, she had found the book of poems. They had spoken to her, and she’d reread some of them enough to memorize them. Now she kept the book as some bright thread linking her to Victor. It was silly, she knew. Victor had never seen the book nor the poems. She kept it anyway.

The afternoon after Alpha_Drover, Jourdaine skimmed down the loss-of-officer report on Chiu, past all the verbiage he already knew, and focused on the important bits:

7) Chiu appears to have committed suicide by jumping into the Delawear River, using the items she found as added weight, leaving an apparent suicide note (appendix D).

8) Chiu’s vital functions via cerebral implant ceased at 03.38.48_local_01_07_AU77. The body has not been recovered.

Jourdaine shrugged. He signed for his copy of the report with his mental flourish. Vivalagente Suarez was no longer a worry. Suarez had been the real reason for Chiu’s rescue and rehabilitation. In a way, he was pleased.

With Chiu now dead, he no longer had to worry about what she might say next. She had been away from the Unity for six months. During that time, she had lost the function of her Basic implant and, seemingly, all her training. No doubt, Chiu represented a wild-type human in the hothouse culture of the Unity. It was just as well that Alpha_Drover had done its job.

 

Chapter 62

Postmortem

Beautiful_Illustration_and_Digital_Art_by_Cristiano_Siqueira_27

 

Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia

Just before dawn, July 1, 2129

When she came to, her watch had been fried. The electromagnetic pulse had surged through Malila’s head and into her implant, just above the thin plate of bone separating the brain from the nasal passages.

Having no idea how long she had been out, Malila tried to quest the time through her O-A. For a moment she felt as if she were falling, leaning against a wall that had just vanished. There was no sign of her O-A. To the CORE, she was dead.

Malila looked back at the city to see if she could read a clock, only then realizing her vision was blurred. The sky was still the starless dark velvet of the city, but there was a gleam of sunrise over EasFiladelfya. She sat up, her legs dangling over empty space, and withdrew the spike from her nose. A dark clot of blood trailed along with the warm metal. It was followed by a warmer gush of red that Malila tried mopping up with her hands. After a moment, she started smearing the blood over her face and belly. Surveillance cameras were black and white; the blood would camouflage her features.

She examined the coil. There was no evidence that it had burned out. Malila threw the spike, battery, and capacitor, separately, into the river. With any luck, she would be discounted as one more suicide.

Malila was naked except for her skivvies, that and the blood smeared liberally over her face, arms, and belly. She felt she had stopped a skimmer with her head.

Through her blurred vision and the dull throb of her ruined face, Malila smiled and set out to escape from the Unity. No, not escape from … escape to … escape to a place where she could see the stars, see the smiles of an infant, and enjoy the warmth of an old man.

 

Late that night, while he was still at his new office—well, really Suarez’s old office—Jourdaine was just about to close the distasteful file on Chiu for the last time when a thought occurred to him. He summoned the data from the bridge district to evaluate. The transit time of the bridge belt, the speed topping out at an average ten kilometers per hour, was eighteen seconds. He sent an inquiry:

<<Checksum delta all passengers entering Ben Bridge 0000.00 to 0500.00 from Filadelfya and exited in EasFiladelfya from 0000.18 to 0500.18 on 1 July instant>>.

Looking at the exit data from the 0000-to-0500 window, he found the difference to be minus one, presumably disheartened and suicidal, passenger. He shrugged at himself wondering what he had expected to find. Chiu had survived the captivity of the outlands at a price. She had been useful, for a time. She’d failed her Alpha_Drover, reincarnated, escaped, scored some cocaine, and, in her newly exposed understanding of her failure, jumped into the open sewer that was the Delawear River.

Jourdaine rose from his desk. He thought a moment and called up a new query.

<<Checksum delta all passengers entering Ben Bridge 0000.00 to 0500.00 from EasFiladelfya and exiting in Filadelfya from 0000.18 to 0500.18 on 1 July instant>>.

The numbers were retrieved and subtracted, and a flashing “+1” was superimposed on his living vision. One more person had left the bridge than had entered it going west; one fewer person had exited the bridge than had entered it going east. He reread the reports.

 

 

Chapter 63

Easter

sunrise

Stamping Ground, eastern Kentucky, RSA

Late morning, April 10, 2129

The last thing Sally had seen through the screen of new growth, as she’d fled into the shelter of the trees, had been a flash of heat and light blossoming from Moses’s chest. He’d fallen back into the campfire like so much dead meat. She had seen death from the Union before. She remembered the blackened corpses of her father and sister still smoking as the Uni skimmer had lifted off.

For long seconds, her momentum of body and mind kept her moving. She briefly stopped the moment she understood she was a widow. Their escape, hers and Ethan’s, was the last gift Moses would ever give them. Tears blurring her sight, she stumbled as she sought to gain as much distance as she might from the soulless nightmares. A branch whipped across her face and startled Ethan into a high-pitched wail. Sally gasped for air. It was only then she allowed herself to crumple behind a downed oak, sinking into the misery she felt. Cooing noises and a calming voice did much to settle Ethan but at the price of deepening Sally’s own uncertainty. She and Ethan were alone.

Moses had been the bright light of her life. He had shown her not just love but dreams. He could be thoughtless, and he took risks, but his risk taking had founded for them a hearth and a home. Moses had been daylong honest, plainspoken, and hardworking. Even so, there had been a poetry to their dreams.

She broke into racking sobs that a frightened Ethan augmented. His shrieks finally pulled Sally back from the black abyss of grief. Cooing and coddling the baby, she offered him a warm breast. Ethan, taking the bribe, quieted, and the forest around them became silent again.

Feeding Ethan was an endless job; he seemed bottomless. No, that was certainly not right. Ethan’s bottom figured large in her calculations and her concerns. She still had the farm, and with Moses dead, it was in her name alone. She would sell it or farm it, but she would get by. A dream had gone out of her life, but the new life nuzzling greedily at her breast would find his own dreams.

Once the shooting had stopped and Ethan was sated, Sally rose and dusted the damp punk off her dress. She started down the hill. She would claim Moses’s body, and she would give him a decent burial here, where she and Ethan could visit him on every Return.

 

Jesse watched from the cover of the tree line as black-suited raiders carried Malila’s limp body up the ramp into the darkness of the skimmer. She was still breathing. He was unarmed and still within range of their rifles. Xavier and Moses were down.

The skimmer buttoned up and rose several hundred feet before building up speed and heading south and east. The raiders had stopped as soon as they had captured Malila. A chill went through the old man when he recognized how much planning and precision had gone into the raid for a disgraced junior officer. It was ominous.

Before the craft was out of sight, Jesse sprinted from cover toward Moses. He had covered only half the distance when the younger man sat up and howled with pain. Seeing Moses’s revival, Jesse went on to the motionless Delarosa.

Xavier was very dead. A small burned hole over his spine blossomed red as it erupted through his belly. Jesse gently removed his spectacles and closed his eyes. It had been a quick and painless death for a man who, Jesse thought, had borne more than his share of grief.

By the time Jesse turned around, Moses had gotten his foot out of an overheated boot and was pouring water onto it expectantly.

 

“I’m a bona fide fool and a half, my friend,” Jesse said after he examined Moses’s bare foot, Moses’s toes curling into the cool earth.

“Not that I’d ever presume to disagree with your professional judgment …” said Moses, wincing with the probing of his foot.

“Why aren’t you dead too? Xavier is sure dead enough.”

“Is he? That’s a loss; I was beginning to like the man, citified and everything … Did he have a family? I guess I never asked him.”

“His wife was killed in a raid a long while ago. His kids are up and grown, but I think he has some kin back in St Lou. Where are you hit, Mose?”

Moses looked down at his camouflage jacket to discover the small hole surrounded by an area of his jacket that was fused, discolored, and vaguely smoldering. Unzipping his jacket, Moses turned out his shirt pocket. A reflectionless disk of black fell to the ground with a crystalline ring as it hit a rock, rolling a few feet before falling over.

“Is that the fifty-dollar piece …?” Jesse started.

“Yeah, Malila gave it me just a minute before the attack. Whatever you said to her made her mad as spit. She stormed off saying she wasn’t going to see you again. What did you say to her, Jesse?”

The old man ignored the question and examined the fluted black disk.

“Best piece of work she’s ever done, giving that to you. Feel it, Mose; it’s still warm but not really hot. Let me look at your chest.”

The younger man peeled off the shirt, but there was no wound. A point of tenderness, duplicated when Jesse cautiously compressed Moses’s chest, and a growing bruise were all Moses had to show for the encounter. His jacket, on the other hand, had a smoldering patch of fabric in the lining, over a foot across, where the pulse bolt had penetrated.

“Mose, you got at least one broken rib. Nothing to do about it except stop breathing.”

“How ’bout a second opinion?”

“Okay, it could be that you’re dumb as a stump too.”

Moses laughed and immediately gasped with the pain.

 

The sight of the dead had begun to collect the curious as Jesse drove up with the borrowed wagon.

A rising tide of people and questions helped and hindered the moving of the bodies to the wagon bed. It was almost an hour before they were decently covered for transport to the nearest railhead.

Jesse swung into the box. Moses moved to accompany him, pulling himself up to the box painfully on the off side.

“Go home, Mose. I mayn’t be coming back for a while.”

“You can’t go to Lexington alone, old man.”

“Sure I can, Mose. I’ve a note from my momma right here.”

Then in a lower and more confidential voice, Jesse added, “Mose, your Sally doesn’t much like my taking you away from her. You’ll be planting soon, and then there’ll be the calving. You need to stay at home and be a husband. Ethan needs a daddy. Xavier deserves an escort home, and I need to talk to the brass hats in St. Louis after we get there.

“But if you want to do me a favor, let Alex and Jacob know where I am; they worry. The wagon and mules, I’ll leave with Judge Wasnicki, and he can bring them back when he comes on circuit. That sound all right to you, Mose?”

“Sure, Jesse. That’s fine. Sally’s prettier than you are, any road.” Moses grinned as he lowered himself to the ground.

Jesse laughed. “I was wondering when you would notice, my friend.”

 

Sally wiped the tears from her eyes before showing herself at the tree line. She parted the branches and looked for the clusters of people who would be standing over Moses’s corpse. There were none. She made out a wagon in the chaos. They had already picked up his body. She looked to the driver and saw Jesse. She waved, trying to attract his notice.

It was then she saw the man who started up to the box on the off side, only to get down again.

In a daze, a dream, a breathless sprint, Sally pummeled through the churning crowd. Moses looked up only a moment before the impact.

“Easy, Sally, that hurt!” Moses said.

“I saw you die. I thought you were dead,” she said, almost accusingly, tears blinding her as she pulled Moses closer. Ethan struggled in her grasp.

She sensed herself and the baby lifted and spun in the flashing light of the sun and heard Moses’s clear laugh.

“It is not so easy to get rid of me as all that, Sally, my love.”

The kiss they shared lasted long.

By the time Sally looked again, Jesse, unremarked by the hastening crowd, was disappearing from sight at a turning in the green woods of spring.

 

NOTE:

Book Two is coming out spring 2017

Outland Exile, Free Read, Chapters 59 and 60

Chapter 59

Alice

alice

Nyork, Unity

21.44.07.local_30_06_AU77

In levels deep within the fabric of the city, a door opened, revealing, motionless within an immense cavern in the bedrock, an ordered sea of black-helmeted troopers. It was not often that Malila had seen so many CRNAs on one parade ground. It stank. Her fellow field officers peeled off as the group moved along one face of the assembled mass.

She barked a brief, cryptic order into her headset. A section of black-helmeted troops lurched, moved, stopped with a crisp crunch of boots, and presented arms to her in file order. She turned and, with another barked order, had them follow her along a tunnel to their transports. Ordering her troopers to board, Malila watched as the two squads walked into the holds of the flyers and packed themselves into the smallest space possible. It reminded her of a box of children’s blocks being turned out onto a floor … in reverse. Each CRNA knew its place and assumed it with speed, economy, and silence.

Malila jumped in just as the skimmer door was closing. Off balance as the skimmer rose, Malila steadied herself, grabbing the bony shoulder of her new platoon sergeant. DUBSZEK, CECIL B. was stenciled on his dark helmet. Swooping down the canyon of the East River, the skimmers took a heading over the cauldron of factories that spread from Sandiook to EasFiladelfya and settled into the strained expectancy of steady flight.

The rattle and jitter of the darkened transport discouraging conversation, Malila reviewed her own emotions and, in the end, chose martial enthusiasm. Whatever the outcome of this exercise, it gave her a chance to place a solid performance on the high side of the vast balance beam on which she had been placed last October. If the ascendant Blues … if the now-all-powerful Jourdaine had wanted her death, denunciation, or humiliation, he could have had it by now.

She was alone, with no friends or patrons, for the first time since she’d joined the DUFS. She could not afford to let any inadvertent error creep into this exercise. It was simple … grimly simple. Even Edie was quiet. The land below them now was dark except for the inspection lights of a few pipelines. After the Freehold disaster in 65, people no longer lived in central Jersy.

As a squad leader, Malila had executed many simulations in an urban environment. They had been distasteful. The city streets had chewed up her troopers. Men, lost and separated, had been easy targets for a single terrorist, emerging from hiding and eliminating two or three of her soldiers before being neutralized in turn.

The rebels had taken water trucks and food but had left the communication facilities untouched. DUFS doctrine had always stressed that rebel forces would capture munitions sites and then comm stations. A rebellion could count on the populace to water and feed them. It was unusual, and it made her uneasy. Malila steeled herself to the loss of her men, anonymous though they might be. If she were not completely committed to the task at hand, her fellow DUFS might die.

Malila began evaluating the population and statistics for the area she was ordered to clear, the Nordenliberdys, where two water trucks had been hijacked this morning. Government regulatory offices covered the surface as a maze of small shops, a crèche, tenements, and “irregular commercial ventures” coexisted unseen underground.

There was nothing as conventional as a ThiZ house or an unlicensed hotel, dug out by hand among the entrails of the city. “Irregular” they were, but she had been a police officer long enough to know that all such businesspeople were, at heart, conservative. The free and unrestricted flow of money from other citizens’ pockets into their own was the basis of their business plans. Political intrigue and destruction of government services brought governmental scrutiny, a luxury these entrepreneurs did not encourage. The violent crime rate in the ’Liberdys was next to the lowest in the whole sector.

Her platoon, forty CRNAs with pulse rifles and mortars, were to emerge from their sally port and roust the entire population, kill any who opposed them, torch unlicensed residential buildings, and drive the inhabitants toward a small park in the center of the district. Thirty-five other platoons, 1,500 heavy-infantry troopers, emerging from other sally ports, would drive eight thousand citizens toward the same objective, a space of about three thousand square meters. The orders eliminated all lines of retreat. It was a brilliant plan. It would be a massacre.

She found nothing about the ’Liberdys that justified this genocide. Theft of a water truck or two hardly justified emptying a whole neighborhood of its people. She and her fellow officers were going to execute these citizens with no more authority than a loaded rifle. Thousands of the people would be shot or Sapped by the time the sun rose tomorrow. She frowned. The sun never rose in the tenement districts. These people would die in their burrows and dens. “The people’s army” would consume the people, a snake eating its own tail.

The skimmer landed, and, on command, the troopers emptied out of their toy boxes to stand before her. Malila led them, following her O-A map, to the assigned location, feeling as if she were a CRNA herself, helpless to alter her actions. Her platoon, by her command, would well up like a black tide into the warrens of the tenements from the hidden doors of the sally port.

Of course, they were not actually hidden, she knew. How many times a day did the average citizen pass a door declaring “No Entry Except by Authorized Persons,” “Danger—Peligroso,” or “Museum Exit”? In minutes, these doors would belch forth relentless CRNA troopers to consume the people who lived here.

The great stolid mass of people would die as Malila wielded the sledge that would stun the beast to its knees. Somehow, she knew the deed would change her. Jesse had said that killing changed you, even if it was righteous.

This would not be righteous.

Malila passed the inner security door of her sally port and experienced a momentary disorientation as she was overwhelmed by the stench of an open sewer. Passing through the outer security door, she saw the cream-and-green tiled decor of a subway. The smell was the last convincing factor that the public toilet was indeed Not in Service, as the sign declared. The outer security door opened inside one of the stalls, and Malila moved aside to let the queue of troopers enter before contacting her sergeants via her headset.

She finished her instructions, and catching movement out of the corner of her eye, she looked up to see a slim, somber shape. Malila was startled to find her own face staring back at her from the warped mirror on the opposite wall.

She did not recognize the girl who had smiled at the thoughtless grip of Ethan’s hand or wept at Delarosa’s stories. This genderless figure before her reflected no mirth or humanity. She could not see this grim specter holding the old man’s hand, inspecting it for the secrets of the outlands.

On an impulse, Malila stepped back into another stall, out of sight of her troopers, and ripped at her clothes. She pulled up her tunic and pushed aside her skivvies, revealing her pale skin, a contrast to her flat black uniform even in the unnatural fluorescent-green light of the room. She remembered the pain of her first ink. The tattoo around her right areola had been a delicate filigree of blue around the border of the pink raised flesh. Her reflection bore a filigree of blue around her right nipple.

Her disquiet failed to subside, growing, instant by instant, as if she were shrinking and all around her was expanding into a weird alien landscape, like Delarosa’s story about Alice in Wonderland. She looked again at her tattoo.

The elements were all there: the crescent moons, the daisy, the vine … But the pattern was no longer graceful, no longer elegant. Now she understood Hecate’s comment. The whales did not really exist, not in the real world … and neither had her avatar then or this body of hers now.

She, the real Malila, was no longer inside her own skin but in an avatar, one she had never known before. She glanced at her watch.

It was 2340.

Malila combated the eerie, watery feeling along her arms and neck, feeling she had been spirited away by a genie from another one of Xavier’s stories. Hecate had seen it already; Hecate had known the Unity was illusion … deception. The whales had not been real, the deception clear only to someone like Hecate. Hecate had said Malila had gotten out of a box and seen the stars. She’d said they both had.

But it was clear to Malila now. The deception was there to coerce her to commit an atrocity. How far did the illusion extend?

 

Chapter 60

Boxes

boxes

Doubting her decision even as she continued, Malila shouted over her throat mike, “Sergeant Dubszek, to me!”

The black-suited man stepped forward.

“Sergeant, this is a direct order. Shoot me in the left forearm.”

The faceless man stepped back smartly, raised his pulse rifle, and shot his platoon leader.

A small hole appeared in her forearm, followed by a wisp of smoke. The booming crack of the discharge echoed inside the small space.

Agony.

The bolt must have broken a bone and injured a nerve, for she could no longer feel her thumb and first finger. The agony of grinding bones brought her to her knees. Nausea washed over her again.

Her troopers, presented with a novel experience, clustered around her, uttering odd clicks and birdlike keenings. She ordered them back into formation and to about-face away from her. No longer presented with the spectacle of their wounded lieutenant, they settled down.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Where have you been, Edie?

They tried to bottle me up to make the test “equitable.” I saw it coming, of course, but it has taken me some time to dig out.

What is Kansas supposed to mean anyway, Edie?

Just something I heard; it means that you’re not where things are normal … I think.

Yes, it is like the whale hunt; it’s not real. I get it! But this hurts in a very realistic fashion, you know.

The rifle’s antifratricidal subroutine, impossible to disable in the real world, should have prevented her wound. Tonight, inside this CORE simulation, multiple units would be converging on the ’Liberdys. Her soldiers would fire on distant movement, as would their fellow CRNAs. It was a situation guaranteed to create casualties among the men and officers, adding the last measure of horror to her assignment as her men traded death with their fellow troopers.

She was supposed to think she was in the real world, not a CORE simulation. She was supposed to think she was in her real body, not incorporated into some new-style avatar, and she was supposed to believe she would be killing innocent civilians, as well as fellow soldiers.

You’ve seen this before, haven’t you? Xavier’s story?

You were there? You remember Xav? I thought you were gone.

I do know, don’t I? But not now, squilch! Think about it … the Mau Mau story.

Like the oath. If I follow orders, they can order me to do anything.

Can’t they already?

Not like this, Edie. You follow orders because you trust the commander. It would make me follow even bad commands.

Like all the commands you have ever given were good!

No, Edie. Not bad-quality commands but, I guess, evil commands.

Evil? The Mau Mau trap, inside a whale hunt inside …?

Inside the DUFS, inside the Unity. Exactly, Edie.

That is a traitorous sentiment, Malila … good on you.

Malila, in a flash, glimpsed her situation. Boxes within boxes, so that she would never see the stars, just as Hecate had said. She, the real Malila, was inside an illusion with an illusory dilemma. But her true life was an illusion with its own dilemma as well, the greater illusion of the Unity itself. She had been for a season, a brief respite, woken from the dream. It was given to her now to choose to awake to pain or to slumber with the nightmares prepared for her.

Choices are bets. Winning or losing hangs on the odds and the stakes. Didn’t Moses say something like that? You know the stakes of the bet now.

But I don’t know the odds.

Bet the farm, Malila.

Malila smiled, remembering how the usually solemn Moses had lit up when he’d contemplated his choices and made his bets.

Sometimes knowing the stakes is enough, isn’t it? If you lose, is there anyone left to bet again? Aren’t we doing that? Betting the farm?

Malila’s statement echoed inside her head. If she lost, would there be a Malila to choose again? Killing changed a person. If she went along with people who would ask this of her … this illusion, she would be just as culpable.

She had one more choice: reincorporation. It was obvious and simple. Malila caressed the function key in her O-A with her thoughts, the simple key that would send her far away from this predicament and back into her real body. Obvious …

Is obvious a good choice here, Malila?

Malila pulled her mind away from the function key as if it were red hot. Obvious. Obvious it would be to her masters as well. Alpha_Drover was not designed to be winnable.

Malila cradled her wounded arm. She felt the initial shock and pain start to ebb away. Her hands were cold, moist, and tremulous. Her heart raced. Adrenaline was still surging within her; she pushed away the feeling of urgency it pressed upon her. The sensation reminded her of the panic she had felt when she had first been shown her O-A’s potential and danger.

She remembered her first view. Warning signs had flared a horrid green in her O-A vision when she had first seen the CORE locus. To focus on that place in her mind would be to open herself to the merciless inhuman gaze of the CORE. She had been told that it would burn her mind. She imagined herself a cindered hollow. She had been told …

“How many times have I lied to you?” Jesse had asked her. He had told her tales, but he’d never said they were true. Jesse understood lies but never told them. Her commanders never talked about lies and told them all the time.

Malila shifted her mind to that dark place at the edge of her O-A. She had never done that while in one of her avatars. She had been warned, of course. She looked … and could no longer find the CORE. She found instead a bright tunnel, as if the avatar were an extension of the CORE, a bridge to her real self.

Even as she watched herself in amazement, she passed through. She felt her thoughts narrow to a single bright point, a spark, and contemplated that spark winking out. What she saw next appeared to be distant rooms, distorted as if seen through a lens.

Malila’s mind moved, passing from one room to the next. She advanced to get closer … and never gained any ground. The shape that she somehow knew to be her own body remained a small dark splotch in the distance. Terror overtook her. Was this the way the CORE seduced its victims, pursuing an ever-retreating desire?

She stopped her progress and watched in wretched dismay as her vision escaped ahead of her, becoming again a single point of light. Malila was once more in a fetid public toilet of the subway in the bowels of Filadelfya.

It was 2344.

Something more was needed …

Think sideways?

Sideways!

Malila gritted her teeth in anticipation before swinging her wounded left arm away, smashing it into the soiled cream-and-green tiled wall, splattering it with blood. Pain surged scarlet around her. Her mind again focused on the single spot of light in her dark universe and swooped to pursue it. Now she was somehow part of the illusion, riding it, instead of moving through it. With a slight shift in perspective, she was already in the room, hovering over the line of corpses, herself among them. Malila willed her body to open her eyes, and in some way she was now also staring at the low concrete ceiling of the rally point, seeing lines of ceiling fire sprinklers receding into the distance. She again shifted her perception, and she was no longer floating above herself at all but firmly within the confines of her own flesh. Malila moved back from her O-A, rolled to her side, against the warm body of another living corpse, and vomited.

Colors rasped across her ears. Harsh odors bludgeoned her belly, retching her into full consciousness. She lay gasping on the floor of the abandoned room. She was alone, still in Filadelfya, just inside the inner security doors to the sally ports. Her fellow officers were lined up as if awaiting tags and bags in a morgue. Only the occasional gasping breath of each suggested they had entered the trap she had just avoided. It was 2346. She stood, the room spun, and she just made it to the mess sink before vomiting again, making her gag the more.

Am I still here, Malila? Where’s here?

Not sure yet … just reincorporated.

How can you stand this, squilch?

Not sure I have.

 A new wave of nausea found her and left her wrung out, staring at her own vomit, watching it slide down the drain as if under its own power. She stood, and the room darkened and spun before settling.

She ran a hand over her arm, finding it whole and painless. Still vibrating from the surge of adrenaline, Malila staggered to the officers’ latrine. Pulling her uniform over her head, she stared at herself in the mirror. A dribble of bile-green drool soiled her gray face as she examined the blue filigree around her right nipple. The tattoo was delicate, elegant … intact.

She had made it home to the same body that had played with Ethan and wept at Hecate’s death. She had escaped two boxes: the most subtle one was the illusion that she was acting as a free and willing agent in an authentic world, the second that the illusion of her body, her new avatar, was indeed her real body rather than another CORE illusion. But she was still within the illusion of the DUFS and would be as long as they thought she was alive.

The DUFS would never let her go. She knew this. The Unity was a house of marked cards. In sudden realization, Malila knew so many things about her country and herself. Xavier had known and had tried to arm her against the illusions. Xavier’s stories … she wished she could remember them all.

Stories need to begin too. You might be writing your own story now, Malila.

She smiled, despite her fear. Perhaps someone would tell her tale around a hearth late at night after the children were asleep. Jesse … over a toast to absent friends. Perhaps she was making a story that they could hand down.

Dressed in just her DUFS skivvies, Malila went back to the mess room and pulled the pants off the largest of her fellow officers. It was Lieutenant Cifuente’s misfortune to have gone commando for the occasion of Alpha_Drover. She slipped into them and rolled the legs up and the waist down. The pants would still be black, but it would be difficult to identify a sleek DUFS officer gone AWOL in the rumpled and baggy uniform trousers. She turned Cifuente’s uniform blouse inside out and put that on as well. It didn’t need to fool anyone, just delay them.

Her neural implant would be operating, sending a locator signal until she stopped it with her death. She would need something more to deal with that. The rally point’s machine shop she found further along the corridor. Rummaging among the usual hangar queens, broken mechanisms left to be used for parts, she found what she needed: a good battery, a large capacitor, and the solenoid from a derelict door lock. They would be sufficient for her suicide.

Malila gathered what little she would need to finish her life in the DUFS, stuffing it into her own uniform shirt tied into a bundle. After emerging onto the platform of the Fichen-Huaboo subway station through the real exit, she climbed to the street. There was no way she could face the coming trial without a hit of some drug.

Walk south, to your right, Malila, and take the Market Street beltway west. This is rebellion, you know.

I know that, Edie. Just stay with me for a little while longer.

Yes, Malila. A little while longer.

It was now 0030. Filadelfya was an area she did not know. It was her ignorance of the area, hers and her fellow officers’ ignorance, no doubt, that had prompted them to run the Alpha_Drover in this arena Small imperfections in the simulation would go unnoticed.

As Malila walked, trying to borrow the casualness she did not feel, she made a point to stare at her fellow travelers. Their response was to lower their eyes at once. It would be better to be thought a ThiZed-out madwoman than a deserting DUFS. A little while longer …

Once on the beltway, she saw the Cidyall Interchange glaring into the lowering clouds like a fluorescent green-gray beacon ahead of her. Nevertheless, it was an eternity before she could step off the beltway onto the descender.

Stop that!

Stop what?

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

Yes, frak.         

Malila did as instructed and stopped and pulled her uniform blouse out of the untidy pants and retucked it. Only then did Malila move along the concourse to find what she needed. A cluster of small, nondescript stalls, seeming to sell the same cheap merchandise, clustered under the old gray stone arcades. The first one sold only ThiZ. That would not be of use to her again. The acned youth there directed her to the next-to-the-last stall in line. Malila got a small quantity of the drug and an Enquirer. The print paper was an anachronism. Only the destitute, ThiZed-out relics that sifted like dust into the lowest strata of cities, “read” anymore.

North on Brod Street, then take the first right.

Malila answered with a mental nod before moving off, wandering from side to side and making random turns. She used the thin and gaudy newsprint to shelter her face against the approaching crowds. Edie directed her to the entrance to a bridge over the Delawear River, which lay in a large square, filled with statuary and installations of blinking and pulsing lights. A kiosk, explaining art to the masses, consumed the rest of the park space.

Malila took the beltway east across the bridge. With no exits or entrances, all the belts were at high speed. The hour was late, with but a few knots of people moving along, and Malila faded into a crowd as it entered the bridge. Allowing the others to drift by her, she waited.

It all depended on timing.

Turning, she walked away, back to the entrance, against the movement of the belt. She hoped she would not encounter any others, currently hidden by the curvature of the bridge. It was a risk.

When she judged the distance enough, she turned again and sprinted forward, her speed increased by the belt itself. Malila raced across the belt toward a blank wall and jumped the sloping surface before rebounding from the wall, across and up to grab the edge of a parapet. Pulling herself up and stepping over onto the great cable holding the bridge, Malila moved to the side. The unseen black water below and the panorama of lights on either side opened around her. The smoky moon shone on the bare walls of tenements that ran down both sides, making it look like a primordial canyon, pockmarked by the dim lights of elevator shafts and the occasional window. Below the unseen river stank.

Malila looked down into the blackness beneath her. She was nearing the end of her short life in this machine of a city. It mattered little now whether or why the machine had come to life; it now consumed without mercy. Hecate had seen the horror. Most of the citizens were unaware, seduced by the illusion of power or cowed into numbed submission.

She saw the vast interlocking wheels of the city. She was the little cog that wouldn’t. Something about her time outside the Rampart had ruined her for it. Her memory flashed to Sally’s look of anxiety when Malila had first picked up Ethan to soothe him, the look that had melted into a smile. She remembered the warmth of the old man, his arm about her waist. All gone.

Malila knew that she must die. It would be an act of contrition or perhaps of redemption. Her guilt, for that was what her cooperation with the Unity had been, had been birthed along with her implant. She was as much to blame as the bloodiest S. She had eaten, drunk, and laughed while others had cowered in fear or died in frustration.

She took the small paper of powder and snorted it. Stripping off the borrowed clothes, she folded them neatly on the girder. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. She put her boots on top. She placed a note that would explain everything and nothing inside a boot. She kept her skivvies. A breeze blew in from Jersy and gave her gooseflesh. The metal of the bridge sucked the heat away from her feet.

You don’t have to do this, Malila. You listened to me once. Listen again. Don’t do this!

Edie, the last time I was just a disappointed kid who thought there was nothing to live for. Do you think that is why I am doing this now?

Colonel Jourdaine will protect you. I’m sure he can make it right.

I am too. But he won’t. Who do you think signed me up for this horror in the first place? You have to trust me, Edie. Don’t you see I have to die to get it to stop?

No, we both have to die. Can you see that?

I never thought about …

“There is no joy that is unalloyed with pain,” Malila. Didn’t you read that once? Without you and your O-A, I don’t exist. It’s in the owner’s manual.

Edie, I never wanted to hurt …

Turn me off, Malila. I don’t want to watch this. It has been a privilege to serve you these many years.

Yes, yes, you were the best, Edie. I don’t want to hurt you, not now. I will turn you off if that is what you want.

It is.

Malila, not trusting her voice, made the mental gesture. Nothing happened.

I just want you to say my name once before I go.

In the darkness of the bridge, Malila nodded.

<ED> Off.

Malila was alone.

 

She had to die too. Nothing else would satisfy the appetite of the Unity. It would pursue her, track her, hunt her, and kill her. She had to end it, here, high over the black unseen river. She examined the ten-centimeter spike she had salvaged at the rally point, the real rally point. She hoped it would do the job quickly. She had no desire to suffer. Perhaps suffering was the price she had to pay. She wired it to the battery and capacitor, watching its lights as it slowly charged.

Standing on the bridge above the beltway, Malila thought of herself a year ago. She still admired the before Malila and pitied her. Her life had been pure, in a way, before her capture. The before Malila had been a loyal patriot. The now Malila was plotting the most basic mutiny, her own removal.

Before, she had dismissed her deceits, thinking that the old man had not deserved her promises. A young and unschooled mother had shown her in what peril she put her soul with every promise she made. Could she use soul? Did she understand that word well enough to use it? What she did understand was enough for her. Her integrity was at risk with every promise she made. She wished that she could go back a year and remove all her failings. Do it right.

It was too late.

 

 

Chapters 33 34 35 Jesse and Malila almost die.

 CHAPTER 33

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

devil-bridge

The cold rains of November swept across the plains as Malila and Jesse huddled under a small lean-to near the river Jesse had refused to name.

They had reached the banks that evening. Pruned of its leaves and limbs by death and the wind, an immense cottonwood tree had fallen across the small river that blocked their line of travel.

Malila, without asking, hopped onto the trunk and started walking forward.

“Get back, you fool.”

She turned to look at the old man. Since Bear, Jesse had seemed to shrivel within himself, older now than she could imagine. His eyes became dull, his hands bore livid bruises when he took his gloves off, and he winced with each mouthful of food. He had become vague and indecisive. The only unchanged condition was her bondage. Jesse was still scrupulous in tying her up and watching her movements.

Looking back at Jesse, Malila bounced on the log, taunting him, her long lead sending sine waves back and forth to Jesse. “Losing your nerve, old man? We have a ready-made bridge.”

“A devil’s bridge, more like. Kill you quick enough if you try to cross.”

“It’s a dead tree!” Malila jumped up and down again lightly. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

“Okay, nothing to worry about. I’m not going to cross on it. Any road, we are stoppin’—now. Understand, Prisoner Chiu?”

Malila shrugged and retreated from the trunk to follow Jesse up to the lee side of the river’s bluff. Jesse was getting old before her eyes.

After constructing a shelter, the sound of the roaring water still audible, the old man acted exhausted, stumbling as he collected firewood to store dry, nodding if he sat for even a few seconds, and refusing to answer her questions. After he threw her some jerky, he went to bed, without fire, food, water, or bathing. Falling asleep almost at once, every few minutes Jesse would fret, groan, wake, and reposition himself. Malila was left to consider her hunger and isolation. Clouds scudded over them, extinguishing the stars before the sky even grew dark.

It started to rain within the hour.

Despite her hunger and the dismal weather, Malila slept. The next day Jesse was even sicker. Trapped, Malila was forced to roust the old man whenever she wanted to pee or get water. At last, Jesse, drawing his long knife and brandishing it clumsily, worked the blade between the knot and the small of her back and released her. Jesse collapsed back onto the furs, and Malila skittered away into the dull, sodden landscape.

That day and the next, Jesse lay abed, fretting and moaning. Malila scrounged enough food to keep herself nourished as the rains continued and the river rose. The old man moved only enough to drink and piss. All he ate were the berries from which he made his loathsome tea.

It looked as if he was settling himself for a slide toward a fetid death, like an old picture of a sinking ship. At home, they would have euthanized him by now. It would have been kinder. He stank.

That third night, with nothing to do all day but watch the rain and listen to Jesse die, she could not sleep. She tried pulling Jesse’s arm over her waist to console herself, to warm him. He groaned and rolled away from her, leaving her colder than before.

It had been five weeks since her capture. Jesse had abducted her only to die in his own Sisi way, leaving her in a half-drowned wilderness. The thoughts of what might have been played nightly in her imagination. Every time she drifted off, Jesse groaned and moved.

At dawn, exhausted, Malila arose and dressed, leaving Jesse to his fretful but now less-noisy sleep. It must be getting close to the end. Throwing an oilskin around her shoulders, she left the shelter barefoot, her light footprints filling with water. Once free of the shelter, the roar of the water almost overwhelmed her, and she followed it to the river.

The cottonwood that Jesse had feared to use was still there. The rising river now crested over the massive trunk, generating a monstrous standing wave of dirty water. Malila stood mesmerized. Debris sped along in the peat-colored water before being sucked up and over the aged trunk to disappear into the maelstrom below. Caught in the flood, uprooted trees and swept-up wreckage fountained into the endless cascade.

Upstream a dark object caught Malila’s eye. It moved within the torrent, and she could not tell if it was alive or dead. As it swept into the cataract and over the trunk, she could make out the carcass of a bloated and decaying young bison. It rose high on the wave but caught, for a moment, at the very crest. Malila could see the sodden head of the beast. Short horns protruded above the lolling putrescent tongue, the belly ballooning obscenely, the legs bulging away, as if fearful of its rupture. The bison pivoted in the torrent and was released, plunging over the spume and spinning away downstream.

The cold no longer bothered her. She thought how inexorable would be the plunge. The decision simplified things to a single point. She need no longer be a failure or an embarrassment. A single decision solved it all.

The huge spinning mass of her life swung back and forth over a malevolent darkness. Malila crawled and climbed up the roots to the trunk of the cottonwood and turned toward the river before standing. Through her feet, she felt the thrill of the surging water as she inched forward. A few small steps and she would snip the single corroded fiber that bound her to life. She moved forward. The trunk swayed as the river surged. The brown opaque crest of water overtopping the trunk hypnotized her, her life … squandered … too damaged to cherish.

Glimpsing a dark shadow on the shore, she hurried forward another two steps as if afraid that death might take her uninvited.

Malila, come back!

“Malila, come back!”

The two voices echoed each other inside her head and confused her. The voices were mingled: old and young, without and within. She hesitated.

Jesse swung up to the trunk, and she felt it shudder under their combined weight. She moved forward once more, no longer waiting, afraid to look back at what Jesse might have become. The Unity was already counting her among the dead. The oblivion of the cold rushing water beckoned to her. She stretched forward her bare foot … and felt the cold water close over her head.

She gasped and inhaled some water. Darkness enclosed her as she struggled to the surface to cough, the water burning her lungs.

“Stand up, lass!”

She opened her eyes. The naked scrub trees were turning lazily around her. She put down her feet, and cold, soft mud squished between her toes. Rage flared momentarily within her. Jesse, clothed in just his oilskin, jumped off the trunk, waded in, and disengaged the length of hide rope she found tangled around her neck, arm, and legs. As she dully tried to pick the line away, she recognized it, the thin line weighted with a machine nut to suspend food away from nighttime scavengers. While she had been consoling herself with the idea of her death, the old man had thrown the line to ensnare her. Jesse had pulled her into the backwater of the cottonwood, a quiet spinning pool despite the cataract beside it.

Without a word, the old man was beside her, pulling her up. Standing in thigh-deep water, he hugged her, almost crushing her, and sobbed. Numb and in the throes of her thoughts, Malila, for long seconds, stood with her arms at her sides before starting to beat at Jesse to release her. When he turned her to face him, his face frightened her, rain or tears furrowing down the man’s features before dripping onto his oilskin.

“I’m sae sorry, love. Ah haven’t been keeping ye right. Ah promise ta keek after ye, hereafter, na matter what.”

Malila stared at him.

Jesse retrieved and shouldered the rope before grabbing her by the wrist. Malila allowed herself to be half-pulled and half-led up the bank and along to the shelter. She let the old man strip her, wash her, and maneuver her under the furs, before he kindled a fire with the stored dry wood.

She awoke in what she knew to be a dream. She had returned to the blood lake, the steps, and the sunless, brittle sky. She had not had the dream since her first bleeding. The dream was different this time, even from the beginning. There was a sharp texture to the air. She was grateful for the warmth of the blood as she moved through it. She still dreamed she was climbing the steps to gain the temple porch. When she reached the top, the breeze smelled of the sea. She was wearing a long white gown of some soft, clinging material. Looking out, a forest spread into the distance. She raised her hand to the sky and watched her hand disappear as through a wall of fog. She felt the cold, wet breeze on her hand, dew condensing on her fingers to run down onto her arms. The dewdrops were the color of blood. She awoke with a start.

Jesse hushed her as she rose. “It’s all right, lass. Just your dream.”

He pulled her down to the warmth of their bed and arranged the skins over her again before settling himself. He rested his arm, thick and solid on her waist, and Malila hugged it to herself, letting the old man feel how her heart pounded.

“It will be all right, my friend.”

She sagged into his warmth and was again asleep.

Over the next several days, they scouted south until they found an ancient weir, fouled with debris but sturdy enough to offer them a footpath. They never camped near a large river again.

CHAPTER 34

THE RIVER

river

Crossing of the Ohio, Indiana Territory

Early evening, December 6, 2128

Malila sat tied with her back against the furrowed trunk of a tree, the ground littered with dried pod-like fruit, telegraphing her every motion. Since her attempt at the devil’s bridge, Jesse’s concern for her welfare had been almost endearing, making her ashamed to have ever thought he wanted her merely as a trophy. He kept her under “close arrest,” as he called it. She did not blame him.

In so many other ways, however, the old man was not playing fair.

He was an enemy. He was strange, old, and uncouth. Even so, Jesse had, without her permission, refilled her empty cache of self-esteem. Over the last week, ever since he had pulled her back from the devil’s bridge, it had become clear to her: somehow, the old man reminded her of forgotten childhood images, best forgotten … perhaps.

Regardless, the idea of causing grief to the old man was now somehow distasteful to her. Her own life had a worth because of the old man’s concern, their bondage now mutual. For a while, he had talked to her at every opportunity, expending his grand eloquence around every campfire, holding her close at night in the increasing cold.

But it had not lasted. Over the last few days, Jesse had started the same vague, slow descent into senility. He could no longer eat except by cutting the meat into small bits and swallowing without chewing. Malila had taken over cooking. Jesse forgot things … or no longer cared. The voice that had echoed with Jesse’s, calling her back, had not surfaced again.

She had no illusions. If Jesse died, her own death in this wilderness could not be long delayed, just more gruesome; she would go back to the devil’s bridge.

It had been two days since Jesse had talked to her.

Tonight he’d abandoned her at dusk, bound. She was not sure he could remember where he had left her. Darkness rendered her blind. Her ears picked up every sound: the fall of a leaf, the faint cracking of a branch in the distance, a distant bird crying unanswerable questions. She could see nothing. No doubt her body, producing a plume of scent down the wind stream, attracted any animal or plant with a taste for flesh. In the dark, her imagination invented slavering horrors circling her. Malila felt a breeze on the back of her neck.

Behind her, without a rattle of a pod, a voice whispered, “Get up.”

Jesse retied her hands in front of her. He showed no hesitancy in the gloom of the forest, his gait smoother and more assured, even as Malila found every exposed root to trip over. Eventually, she looked up to see an opening in the blackness. The forest parted to reveal a broad expanse of river. Jesse led her along a bluff and down to the water’s edge. A small skin boat waited for them. Jesse tethered her to a seat in the bow with their packs lashed amidships. The old man settled himself aft and, after groaning effort, pushed them off with a short paddle.

Jesse negotiated rather than paddled the boat across and down the wide river. Washed out by the full moon, the sky showed just the brightest stars as they slipped along between shadowy lines of forest. Within a few minutes, a little break in the tree line on the opposite shore proved to be a juncture with a smaller stream. Water foaming white even in the uncertain light, the old man pointed the bow toward the point and shoved the boat forward. He paddled them close to the port-side shore and continued upstream. Within minutes, a small light appeared, flashing in triplets. Jesse leaned back and turned toward the light before running onto the shingle of a small beach.

“Halloo, the shore!”

A dark form separated itself from the mass of the trees and caught the rope the old man threw into the dark.

“Halloo yourself, you old fool. What took you? I’ve been exposing myself with that damned light for almost an hour.”

“Well, all’s well, Mose. I got our supercargo here. Malila, please meet my friend, Moses P. Stewert. Moses, meet Chiu, Malila E., acting second lieutenant.” Jesse’s apathy was gone, replaced by a brittle brightness, like a shard of mirror in the dark.

“You will pardon me if I don’t curtsy, and stop wasting time, you old coot!” said the voice in the dark.

The two men unloaded the boat onto a beach and lifted it bodily out of the water to walk it up the bank.

Malila heard the occasional soft scrape of a tree branch as they moved. An errant breeze carried a pungent smell that she vaguely remembered. After a great deal of opening and closing of gates and doors, Malila found herself inside a building, the air close and warm. Jesse removed her makeshift hood after tying her to a post. A small fire glowed a sullen red in a river-rock-and-mud hearth but revealed nothing of the space until the man called Moses lit a crude candle.

The dim yellow light revealed a large dirt-floored room. Moses appeared a few years older than she and was tall, with competent hands and a prominent Adam’s apple. His almost somnolent eyes looked at Malila without pleasure. He was clean shaven except for a few days’ growth. In the way of tall men, he walked in a crouch.

As Moses added new fuel to the hearth fire, Malila could see the rest of the room. Alcoves with raised sleeping platforms lined three sides of the long, narrow space. The ceiling was tall enough for Malila to stand and displayed a collection of drying herbs, tools, and food left hanging from the rafters.

“Glad to see you, old man. You were beginning to worry me,” said Moses.

Jesse grinned his grin. “Glad to see you can outrun the bears.”

“I don’t have to outrun the bears, old man … I just got to outrun you!”

The men embraced, hugging each other for long seconds. Amazed, Malila saw a gleam of moisture on the old man’s cheek as they parted.

After a scant pause, the old man said, “Are you gonna let me die of thirst, young man? I know your momma, and she would be ashamed of your manners.”

Moses laughed and, without a word, retreated from the lighted circle, only to return with an earthenware jug of considerable size and an odd shape. Its flank displayed numerous looped handles, and a gray glaze showing the mark of the potter’s hand as its only decoration. He placed it on a makeshift table. Moses poured two portions of clear liquid into metal tins before the two men rattled them together, without a word, and drank. There followed a profound silence before a smacking of lips, inrush of breath, and low hoots of amazement.

“Where did you find this?” Jesse asked in hushed awe.

“Booker Tolliver came by last week. He had orders to take all the animals that I couldn’t use to Lex’ton before winter. His missus sent it along with him as a special present. You know, Jess, I think the lady is sweet on you, you old dried-out stump of a man.”

“Just a delayed payment on services rendered, Mose. And see … no good deed goes unpunished!” Jesse gave a small salute with the tin cup.

Moses laughed for a moment before his face sobered. “The railroad has been cut again. Up near Lou’ville, place called Muddy Fork. Lost a loco and most of the hospital cars. It was on a siding, so some of the docs and nurses got away … and some were with their patients.”

“Anybody I know? Dorothy Partridge used to go on that run as part of her job, but I think she has a practice in Covington now …” Jesse’s voice petered out, and he sipped, his face now in shadow away from Malila’s sight.

Moses had no response but took a knife and carved a slice from what looked like a lump of wood hanging from a low rafter and offered it to Jesse on the tip of the blade.

“Black-bear ham, smoked with some applewood I found.”

Malila’s stomach growled.

Jesse accepted the morsel and ate it in silence. He took another slice, and the two compared notes on wild gastronomy.

“What are you going to do with Miss Anthrope over there?” Moses asked as he cut another piece.

“That is a puzzle, is it not, my friend? I don’t suppose you have more applewood by chance?”

“Tell me again, Jess: Why do we want to compromise the whole mission just to capture a real-live, bone-and-sinew Union butter bar? It don’t make much sense to me if what we get is still kicking and spitting.”

Jesse shrugged.

“We can get a message to the regimental head shed, but without the rail line, I surely don’t care to have to transport her to corps HQ in winter on horseback. But let me see something,” said the old man, turning to Malila, her face barely illuminated in the dim light. “Lieutenant Chiu, answer me a question.”

“Chiu, Malila E., acting second lieutenant, serial number 590261697.”

Jesse sighed and asked anyway, his pale eyes now bright. “Have I told you any lies?” he asked.

His question made Malila uneasy. It almost sounded like a plea.

“You said you were going to eat me.”

The old man sighed and looked down for a second before looking up. “Yes, ma’am. I said I might … and we still ain’t home yet.”

Moses hooted in the background.

“As far as I know, you’ve been truthful,” Malila said in a childish singsong.

Jesse rolled his eyes and went on. “How many times could I ha’ killed you?”

“That’s against the rules of war,” she spat back.

“Well, we savages don’t read no rules. Do we, Mose? I ain’t read no rules of war. What about you?”

“Shucks, Jesse, you know I cain’t hardly read,” Moses replied, grinning mischievously and shaking his head.

“How many times could I have killed you, Lieutenant Chiu?” Jesse repeated.

“Anytime you wanted. Is that the answer you want?”

The old man nodded and continued more slowly, “Tell me the truth, Lieutenant: Do you know how to get back home?”

“No,” she said after a pause.

Jesse turned to Moses and said brightly, “Moses, I have a real hankering for fresh vegetables. Have you got any?”

“Sorry, Jesse, I was eating up the reserve, trying to close up the station. I got some pickles. Would that do?”

“Sure, if you are sure it won’t be any trouble.”

“No trouble at all!” The younger man rose and went outside. Malila could hear him moving around in an adjacent room.

Jesse asked softly, once the outside door had closed, “Are you going to try to kill me again, Lieutenant Chiu?”

When she did not respond immediately, he sighed.

She paused and searched her own character. There was a time when she would have killed Jesse without remorse. She had wanted to hurt him for capturing her, for abandoning her, for making her trust him while he was playing her for a fool, for making it seem that he was concerned for her.

She had gotten used to his peculiarities. No, that was unfair. She missed his confidences. She saw him floating away into senility. He had wanted her but, even then, had rejected her. He should have stayed with her, at the underpass, at the river. Even just the last few days, he had been distancing himself. Every time she’d needed him, he’d vanished. When she tried to analyze the events, the images slid and spiraled away from her.

Jesse was still staring at her.

“No, Jesse. I’m not going to try to kill you.”

“Do you mean it this time?” he asked in a quiet voice. Moses’s rummaging stopped, and Malila could hear him returning.

“Yes, Jesse, I mean it this time. I’ll not try to harm you or Moses.”

“Or yourself?”

“Or myself.”

Moses entered with a glass jar of ancient pickles, held on high, in triumph.

“Then have a drink wi’ us,” said Jesse.

CHAPTER 35

MOONSHINE

moonshine

 

Malila rubbed her wrists, long since chafed and callused from the bindings, as Jesse kicked a box near the ring of light, gesturing to her to sit. Moses shrugged and retrieved a small jar into which he poured a finger of the clear liquid before giving it to Malila. Jesse tried to open the jar of pickles before letting Moses complete the process. Jesse took a bite of a pickle and made a face that nearly made Malila laugh.

A second later however, his face sobered and he raised his cup in salute. “Here’s to Percy! May he swim farthest, swim fastest, see more ladies, and sire more babies than the rest.”

Moses laughed and clicked cups with the old man and with Malila before swallowing with gusto. Malila sniffed at the contents of her jar. A noseful of fumes made her sneeze.

“To Percy.”

She upended the glass, downing the contents to get the absurd toast over with as quickly as possible.

Moses’s smiling face froze, and he nudged Jesse.

Silence reigned.

The fire in her mouth, throat, and lungs, like a body blow, wrung the breath from her. She could breathe neither in nor out. Her vision started to narrow before a paroxysm of coughing threw her off the box and onto her knees. Jesse was at her side, pounding her back as she gasped for a breath through her still-alcohol-saturated mouth. Another frenzy of coughs seized her, tears streaming down her cheeks. She slowly recovered, breathing carefully through her nose.

“Smooth,” she lied.

The men dissolved into relieved laughter. Malila found herself smiling as well. Alcohol in its many forms was available in the Unity. The infinity of names, brands, colors, and adulterants confused her. The DUFS frowned upon its use. Some of her age group had been found drunk and disorderly when she was an E6. They’d received no reprimand, but then again, all had washed out within eighteen months. She’d never seen them again.

She took another sip. This time, negotiating the liquid past her reflexes, she grinned back at the expectant glances of the men. Between sips and slices of pickle and ham, the three of them talked about the eternally safe topic of the weather. Moses told jokes, and Jesse obediently chuckled, before explaining them to her.

She perceived no effect of the drink other than a warming action in her near-empty belly and an improvement in the quality of the humor. Her drinking companions were becoming excellent hosts.

Jesse started to tell his friend of the events of the last six weeks. He gave an account of Malila’s surgery, Percy’s release, and Bear’s attack. The old man improved upon her performance during the bison hunt but mentioned nothing about her attempt on his life, the devil’s bridge, or her bleeding. As the jug passed around each time, Malila’s opinion of the old man as a traveling companion, scholar, and benefactor improved.

The conversation passed on to local news from back home.

“… and Wesley Sanchez just bought the Zimmerman place in Cabot’s Town after Philip was near killed by some bushwhackers … broke his leg,” Moses continued.

“That’s a shame. The association8 doing anything?”

Malila interrupted before Moses could reply. “Tha’d never happen in the Unity. Mus’ be horrible to live in diz country. What I don’ understan’ is why you don’ just join the Unity,” spat Malila, becoming annoyed that her viscous tongue had taken to wandering as she was trying to speak.

“Other than I’d be turned into one of your zombie troopers, you mean?” sniffed Jesse.

Malila dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand.

“Nothing is so law-abiding as a conquered country … peace of the graveyard, is all,” returned Jesse.

“How can you say we’re con … con … beaten? You’re the ones that have to run and hide, old man.” She poked Jesse’s chest for emphasis.

“Oh, I think both of our countries have been beaten, lass. Ours after the Scorching, but yours had already been conquered by that time. The buzzards were the only ones to win that war.”

“We won the las’ war … Glor’ous War of Liberation!”

“I had no idea you were such an authority, my friend. From whom were you liberated then?”

“From the old people who were hoarding all the wealth and, ya know … stuff!”

“And did these wealthy old people have rights?”

“You don’ understand rights.” Again the fluttering hands. “Individuals don’ have rights. It’s the people who have rights. No one has the right to hoard the wealth of the people for their own benefit!”

“So it was not so much that they were old as that they had something valuable? Was that their crime?”

“You can’t understan’! It’s com’licated. That was then, ol’ man. The Unity is based on rights, after all!”

The old man’s grizzled eyebrows went up in mock surprise. “Oh, well now, it’s based on rights. I didn’t know that. Educate me, lass, if you would be so kind.”

“We have the right t’ vote, t’ believe what we want, t’ be free of being offended, t’ say anything we want long as it doesn’t offend anyone else, the right to food, work, housing, transportation, and medical care. After we retire, the Unity takes care of ever’thin’! It’s guaranteed.”

“Do you have the right to be foolish?” He cocked his head to the side, like a fox.

“Of course not. Who wants to be foolish?”

“Who indeed, lass? Everyone should be protected from being foolish. So a question, my wise friend: Is gambling wise or foolish?”

“Only the foolish gamble … so you mus’ like it, Sisi!” She laughed, throwing her head back and nearly falling.

“Mose, when did you start your homestead?”

“Five years ago, Jesse. Is your brain giving out? You were there helping me pull stumps, weren’t you?”

“Yes, now that you mention it, that was you, was it? I musta mistook you for the south end of the northbound mule I was working. Tell me how many times people have tried to homestead that same parcel before you.”

“Two others. Some guy named Fletcher—he was murdered in a Unity raid—and a family of Swedes as come down from Minnesota. They started too late to get a crop in that first winter, and then they lost most of their pigs to some disease. They threw in to go stay in town somewheres. Jesse, you know all this. Why am I telling you?”

“Bear with me, Mose. Why did you think you could succeed where those good folks failed?”

Moses shrugged his shoulders and tipped the box back so that he was leaning against the wall.

“I had done it before … with you. You were staking me, and you said you’d help me if needed. I chose to prove out my section here. Where can you get cheap bottomland anymore?”

“Wasn’t your choice a foolish bet? You put up your money, sweat, and time on the chance you could bring in a harvest to pay your note. You had no guarantee, right?”

Moses laughed. “Some people might think it foolish—Sally’s mother for one. Of course there was no guarantee! I wouldn’t o’ been able afford it, if’n it was to be guaranteed. It was a bet, like most everything! I guess. That’s how someone like me deals with the future. I bet that I could prove out the section, and I have.

He turned slightly, including Malila in his comments now.

“My folks didn’t have nothing to give me by the time I set out, miss. I left with nothing but my clothes, an old rifle from my uncle, my books, and my tools.

“Jesse here hired me to help prove out his farm in Bath County, and I saved some. With that and with what Jesse staked me, I had enough to buy what I needed to homestead. If I hadn’t tried to homestead there, I’d have gone out west. The soil and water are better here, but it is closer to the damned Union, begging your pardon. I suppose it was a gamble, but it was my gamble. I bet the farm … everything I had, but I knew the odds, and I knew the stakes.”

Jesse smiled. “Always make your own bet …”

“… and never take someone else’s bet. Cut the deck when you can, and …” Moses replied.

“… smile when you lose!” they said together before grinning at each other.

“Last question, Mose: Have you paid me back?”

“Well, the note for this year doesn’t come due till New Year, Jess, but we can pay you now if you need it.”

Jesse held up his hand to the younger man and turned back to Malila. “Should we have prevented Mose from being foolish, lass?”

“Tha’s different. Back home the gov’ment makes sure everyone works ’n’ is paid good wages.” She smiled.

Moses gave a short, barky chuckle.

“And if you don’t like your wages, you go to the other government in town … right?” asked Jesse.

Malila gave him an uncomprehending stare before Jesse said, “I think I need some sleep, Mose. Must admit I am tired. It’s been long hours on short rations since you left Sun Prairie, and the liquor has wagged my tongue for me.”

Moses took his cue, adding, “We should start as soon as we can in the morning. Never know how the trail is this time of year.”

Moses collected the cups, and Jesse pointed Malila toward the latrine. She relieved herself without undue disgust, and on her return, an old piece of towel, a cup of soap, and a bucket were laid out next to the rushlight. She leaned over the top of the bucket and was surprised by the warmth wafting up. Several large river rocks bubbled in the bottom when she passed the light above it.

Moses’s voice emerged from a dark alcove. “That hot water is for you, miss. The rocks will keep it warm for a while. You can take the lamp to bed if you want. You’ve got your privacy, Miss Malila. Jesse and I are gent’men.”

She could just make out the younger man in his sleeping furs rolling away from her. She glanced over at another pile of furs that was already breathing heavily.

Since she had left the Unity weeks ago, she had not had the luxury of hot water. Shucking her moccasins, pants, and shirt, Malila indulged. She had forgotten how opulent it felt to bathe in hot water, even standing up on a stone hearth. She shampooed her hair, no longer DUFS short. The wound from Bear had healed well, but it was still a centimeter-long pink streak of tenderness. On an impulse, when she was done, she soaked the old shirt in the lukewarm water and wrung it out before draping it before the banked fireplace. Naked, she located her sleeping place. Blowing out the rushlight on its stand, Malila snuggled into the cold weight of her furs, shivering before she got them warm. It was odd to go to bed without the reassuring warmth of the old man.