Excerpts from Chapter “The Ante”

(note: the chapter format in book two is quite different from book one. It is set up as a hand of poker: Ante, Cut, Deal, Bid, etc)

IAIN HIGGINS

BBWI Local #1, Environs of Washenton, The Unity

07.02.56.local_02_July_AU77 (2129 AD)

The guards escorted Malila into a large, warm, well-ventilated space, muting the smell of the belts. It was bare with the exception of folding wooden chairs for the sparse audience, and posters hoisted along the walls. One poster, now faded and dusty, had once shown in vivid colors a resolute heroic figure with thick forearms wresting a whip from an effeminate master.

The front of the room was slightly raised. The ruler here apparently went in for large pillows for his retinue and a canvas lawn chair for himself. There, a figure reclined in stained overalls, looking, if possible, more intensely odd than the workers she had already met. As she entered, they were all listening attentively to a young worker.

Thole the winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, I guess an’ fear!

The boy bowed and made a low sweep of his hand as a signal his performance was complete, presenting Malila, standing close behind him, with his rather generous posterior for her inspection.

Erupting into cheers of approval, it was several minutes before the odd little man in a lawn chair noticed the newcomers and motioned them to approach. As the young performer moved to the side to allow them to pass, her guards congratulated him sotto voce. Her original inquisitor, goggles circling furiously, approached the dais and announced her capture. At the end of the short discourse, the man in the lawn chair stood.

This is curious, thought Iain Higgins, fourth of that name, who by the will of the workers, was Shop Steward to Local #1 of BBWI. He stood. This will require judgment, and there is never enough time.

Iain still worked a regular shift as a bearing mechanic while donating time to the settling of disputes and the fathering of new workers. They, or their descendants, would, in time, see the Glorious Revolution. It all added up to a busy schedule. Pulling himself to his full height, he started speaking.

“Welcome to the Brotherhood of the Beltway Workers Local #1, Malila Evanova Chiu. I am Iain Higgins, Shop Steward, by the will of the workers. Please, be seated and tell the council your tale.”

After attendants brought a cushion for the strange woman, she sat clumsily, as if unfamiliar with courtly behavior. Certainly, her appearance was odd, even singular. She must be almost a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, Iain thought.

She would never slip into the worker population unnoticed. By reports, face painting had come and gone as a fashion in the streets above. Yet she persisted with it, suggesting narcissism or disdain for her own society’s norms. Moreover, the color of her face paint was unpleasant, like dried blood. Cheap as well, as it was beginning to flake off. She appeared weary, anxious, but resolute—like a cornered rat.

Her story, at least, was different. She was not some disappointed child fleeing the horrors of capitalism. They never worked out on the belts and were eventually told to go home and shown a door. This one was a fugitive from the DUFS. He rather pitied those bumbling horrors. When separated from their commands, they most frequently stopped in their tracks and wept. If the squads kept any cohesion, it was so much easier to mislead them into a wrong and deadly path. The belts could chew up almost anything sent against them.

If it were only that simple.

Local #1 was blessed with vigorous political dialogue. His opponents were always criticizing his every decision. With elections only three weeks off, the backbiting and second-guessing had accelerated. The opposition was stronger now than it had been since late in his father’s term of office. He did not need to have a battle with them or with the Unis on the surface. If he gave her to the Unis, that traitor, Giovanni Higgins, would pounce on him for demeaning the sovereignty of the belts. If he gave her sanctuary, Giovanni would claim Iain endangered Local #1 with the reactionary forces. If he sent her on, she would run into Local #9’s territory within a day.

Local #9, in turn, had been uppity in recent years, challenging the primacy of Local #1. They might just give her to the Unis themselves, making him, Iain, look like an impotent fool. Giovanni, Unis, or Local #9—he was surrounded by enemies. Then this resolute giant rat-woman drops in to make things worse.

Only one thing to do.

Iain Higgins IV smiled thinly as he stood to address the crowd and Malila.

“Your story is most interesting, Worker Chiu. By long tradition and socialist wisdom, Freedom of the Belts is not extended to all who apply. As is our custom and practice, before we consider your petition, we would like you to recite a poem of your own choosing for our attention and appreciation—and, of course, for addition to the BBWI collection.”

Iain IV smiled briefly before sitting. He crossed his thin legs. Scribes looked up, poised over their tablets. The room grew silent. He waited.

Please, not another “There was a man from Nantucket!” he thought.

By her appearance, he judged the woman was of the working classes, but she had long been a tool of the repressive orders, as she freely admitted. Poetry lifted people from the bondage of economic repression. Local #1 has always held that poetry separated the redeemable elements from those whose revolutionary ire had been permanently stilled by the oppression visited upon them. It was unfortunate, but one had to draw a line somewhere; economics, after all, are based on scarcity.

A look of vacant panic flicked across the woman’s face before resolve snapped in, shifting her appearance into that odd look everyone made as they sorted through their memories to see if they had all the pieces to a remembered work. Without preamble, she began:

O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?

Sounds from the audience became mere outbursts of approval as the work continued. Iain smiled.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

The effect was electric. By the time the woman sat down, the entire room buzzed.

This will require some subtlety.

Calling over his consigliere, Brother Ivan Higgins, Iain had a brief consultation with him before Ivan left to make the arrangements. Iain held up his hands for silence, then rose and addressed the crowd. As he watched, Worker Scrivving, that tool of the reactionary Giovanni, scuttled out the back door.

“Excellent, Malila Evanova! Short but effective. A little unorthodox, changing the rhyming scheme after the first four lines, you will surely admit. The language is archaic, as well, but nonetheless very effective. It appears that we can consider providing you refuge. That’s not lightly nor easily done. We’ll assemble the Grievance Committee to discuss your request. In the meantime, you are granted the Hospitality of the Belts.”

Iain IV rose, and with him rose the entire court, the strange woman struggling not to be the last as Iain and his retinue exited.

Ivan would take care of the details.

DAVID ROBERTS

1301 Caroline Street, Saint Louis, RSA

8:29 a.m., July 2, 2129

Jesse arrived at the address on Caroline. Waving his travel chit at the optical reader, he exited the taxi and took the stairs down to his appointment.

In general, Jesse liked the smell of learning. After the Meltdown, master librarians had conserved all the printed books, making them electronically available to the widest possible audience. However, the absence of physical books had produced a groundswell of unrest among various faculties until some company formulated a scent of old books and integrated it into the ventilation system. After that, all the disciplines wanted their own boutique aroma. A minor industry emerged to create, and frequently improve upon, the olfactory cachet of every branch of learning. Unfortunately, the signature for this room had not improved.

During his years as a student, the formalin in the air of the autopsy suite had numbed and eventually embalmed Jesse’s sense of smell. It took him weeks to regain an appreciation for coffee after his semesters of anatomy and pathology. And there it was again: formalin and the muted background scent of dead human.

After donning a “bunny suit” to cover his uniform, Jesse pushed through the swinging double doors into the necroscopy suite itself. A tall, smiling black man greeted him without a handshake—necroscopic etiquette. He, too, was dressed in the all-encompassing suit, but the stiff collar of his white shirt and a suggestion of a gold and purple necktie still showed above the zippered closure.

“Dr. Johnstone? Hello! Dave Roberts. Thanks for coming. I’d heard you were in town. I had hoped to meet you before now. I think your friend General Thomas is trying to keep you to himself.” Roberts laughed uneasily.

“Doctor Roberts, pleased to meetcha. There must be a conspiracy! My family has practically held me captive. I’m glad you gave me an excuse to escape for a bit. So, how may I be useful to the Medical Division, Colonel?” Jesse asked with a quick smile.

“As it happens, we got another one of your friends in this week. I thought I would pick your brain, Doc.”

Jesse’s “friend” was naked, a black Produra uniform having already been cut away by two surgically masked men. All that was left was the pale form of a thin, middle-aged man, his joints noticeably enlarged, lying on the stainless-steel dissection table. In death, the corpse smiled enigmatically.

At a nod from Roberts, the masked men started cutting the Y-shaped incision in the pale, dead chest and extending it to the belly. Jesse noticed the “patient” was vaguely jaundiced. A growing stream of red dribble wound down the length of the table to the drain at the corpse’s feet.

“It is not frequently that I get to see Unis up close—dead or alive—but he looks different from what I saw in the old days,” Jesse remarked, moving closer.

Roberts explained, “He’s pretty typical of the ones we get now. This is an example of what is classed, based on the external morphology, as a Gamma-type. I’d have thought, after all these years, you would be more familiar with the Unis than anyone.”

“Well, in my own defense, Unis have changed a lot since the early days. If I was lucky enough to kill a zombie, I was trying to get my people away as quickly as possible. Back then, they came back for their dead.”

“You took quite a big chance in April, then, bringing the bodies in,” said Roberts, turning to Jesse.

The old man shrugged. “I was anxious to get them away from the crowd. If the Unis came back for their people, I hoped they’d follow me instead. Besides, there was something funny about the raid: a solitary skimmer leaving immediately after they recaptured

Malila . . . their officer.”

Roberts looked at Jesse’s face for a second before turning back to watch the choreographed ballet of the necroscopy. After opening the cavities, a morgue worker excised each organ, weighed it, and took samples of the tissues for later microscopic examination. The pathologist directed the operations and, in the inflectionless monotone of the profession, spoke continuously into a microphone for the dictation program to proofread, insert normative data, and create the last official documents for the newly dead.

While there was a momentary lull, Roberts said, “Let me show you something.” Putting on a pair of gloves, he went over to the corpse and raised the right arm. Jesse saw a line of crisp numerals tattooed in the armpit. Roberts then picked up a scalpel from the table and, turning, deftly cut into the corpse’s chest. Over a rib and well away from the gaping cavity of the emptied chest, Roberts had stabilized a mass with his fingers before popping out a small white capsule with odd protuberances and letterings.

“The tattoo corresponds to the implant . . . see? That last bit is the date.”

Jesse saw the tattoo: 201000A-01_01_AU75, the same as the implant.

“I took an implant out of an officer last year. She had no tattoos. Same location, but a much older scar in a younger body,” Jesse said. “Have you found any other implants? The officer apparently had a second one somewhere. Heck if I could find it, though.”

“Yeah, once we knew what to look for, we found ’em easily enough. I’ll show it to you when we open the cranium. It’s just above the sphenoidal plate, a whisker away from the nasal mucosa. We surmise that these guys retire from the general population at forty. Their old implants, the ones they’ve had since childhood, are removed and new ones put in. You can see the old scar envelope. They get a tattoo, since most don’t speak very well after the ablation process.”

“This guy looks way older than forty-something.”

The whine of a bone saw cut through the room as it opened the soldier’s head, his facial skin having been pulled like a lumpy sock over the face, leaving the skull colored an old ivory in the harsh overhead lights.

“Can I ask how many autopsies we’ve done on these guys?”

“Several thousand. We always pick up a few who seem to have died spontaneously. Most die from projectile fire, of course. As I recall, the first of the three you picked up for us was pretty typical, rifle shot to the chest. The second died of shock from broken femurs, and the last from chest trauma with a hemopericardium.

“This guy here was found after a raid into what’s left of Chicago. Can you imagine? A walk-in freezer was still operational, running on solar for a deep-fry tofu joint in Hyde Park. Our friend here apparently went into the freezer and locked the door from the inside. Killed himself—froze to death. His own crew tried to dig him out. Probably would’ve, too, if a patrol of our scouts hadn’t come by and run them off.

“They went back to see what they were after. They found him

laid out with his hands over his chest, smiling.”

Roberts shrugged and turned back to the autopsy table. By then, the pathologist had cut the brain free of its confinement and divested it of its tougher coverings. He was carefully slicing the soft mass with a large, smooth knife and dropping the slices into formalin. The masked pathologist straightened up, bent down, and sliced a thinner piece of the pale tissue before looking up and motioning Roberts over.

Peering at the pink-gray slice of brain, the pathologist stopped his dictation and wordlessly pointed to several spots in both the grayer areas on the surface as well as the deeper, paler substance of the brain.

Roberts nodded and continued, “Originally, sixty years ago, when we first started studying the Unis, the brain lesions were large and expanding when the soldier died. I can’t imagine they would’ve lived too much longer, at any rate. Apparently, the Union guys got better with the ablation process over the years. Now, the lesions are quite discrete. They still enlarge over time, but nowhere near as fast.”

“Any of the men younger than their forties?”

“A few, and a few women. We figure that the outliers are judicial ablations.”

Roberts walked over to the corpse and pointed to the now emptied brain cavity. “See the implant there? Just anterior to the sella, really the anterior wall of the sella.”

Roberts leaned away as Jesse looked into the skull and nodded. “I don’t feel so bad. That puppy is pretty well hidden.”

With the autopsy over, the morgue worker started a series of fast, crude stitches with heavy suture to hold the corpse together for cremation. Roberts nodded again and led Jesse away to a small conference room, motioning Jesse into one of the stout institutional aluminum chairs at a small table before he also took a seat.

“The big news is some of the zombies seem to be breaking down,” Roberts began. “I’ll need to do the tissue sections on this one, of course, but if our friend today really died of hypothermia, then he’s the fourth death like that since the beginning of the year.”

“Doesn’t that happen all the time? Weather in the frontier is fickle. Quick snap will freeze you blue in half an hour,” Jesse commented.

“Indeed, but we find stuff that’s odd about the deaths. They don’t appear to be trying to stay warm. Some disrobe. One went swimming and drowned. The common factors are they each got separated from their units and were exposed to cold, although we don’t know which event came first. Oh, and all had implants placed after January 1, 2127.”

“Interesting. But I’m sorta lost here. I’ve been on the more tactical end of zombie-American relations, you might say—I try to kill them before they kill me. Has anyone got a handle on the Unis, Dave? I need to try to understand them better,” said Jesse.

Malila understood you well enough, old man, he thought.

Roberts’s face softened. Taking out a business card, he flipped it over and scribbled a number on the back. “Here’s a strictly unapproved minority opinion, name’s Lucente. Smartest guy on the subject, but the brass don’t like what he has to say. You never got it from me. And Jesse, look out for a tail, okay?”

“Who’d bother to tail me?” Jesse asked as he examined the card. He had always assumed that his movements and motives were self-evident and predictable.

“You may have fewer friends than you deserve, old man. There are at least four opinions out there about you. One is that you’re the embodiment of the American ideal: self-reliant, benign in victory, and savage in retreat. The second is that after all these years on the frontier, you’ve gone a bit mad, have too much sympathy for the Unis. The third is that you are some sort of incubus, making yourself younger at other people’s expense.”

Jesse’s face fell for a moment before he asked, “And the fourth?”

“That you’re a fortunate fraud. A good deal of that’s envy, you know, but there’s a core of believers who think you couldn’t have done all the things you have. And if you did, they could have done them better. They’re looking for a way to discredit you, primarily to discredit your boosters.”

“I see. I had hoped to stay out of politics. Thank you for the warning. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dave.” “You as well. Thanks for coming.” They parted again without shaking hands.

LANCE HAVERSHAM

Anne Arundel Annex Station, Unity

0916.22.local_06_July_AU77 (2129 AD)

The stolid tramp of boots echoed down the steps into the beltway station, startling workers going home after their graveyard shift as well as idlers anxious to look busy in the suddenly cramped space.

DUFS uniforms pushed the few civilians to the wall for inspection and interrogation. Another squad seized the surveillance tapes. Simultaneously, units were working back to Anne Arundel from several stops north and south in case someone had attempted to escape just before they arrived.

Jourdaine watched via the surveillance cameras as Second Lieutenant Lance Haversham found the service door through which Chiu had apparently escaped. After placing charges on the door, the demolition crew crouched behind any available cover and waited for the detonation. Just then, a small worker, oblivious to the DUFS, appeared and approached the door, unlocking it. The surveillance camera silently showed the explosion of recriminations as the door swung open.

After the shouting had ceased, a young lieutenant took control, confiscating the worker’s door key before directing his men to rush the door. Heedless of whatever opposition might greet them, the CRNAs forced their way through the opening but stopped abruptly after no more than four soldiers had entered.

“What do you mean it’s a janitor’s closet? We saw the Chiu woman walk into it!” barked Lieutenant General Jourdaine at the young and progressively more squeaky-voiced Lieutenant Haversham, reporting from the field.

“I’m sorry, sir. The door leads to a room that’s about a meter square with mops and brooms in it,” said Haversham. Jourdaine watched the young officer’s blush spread, starting around his uniform collar and advancing inexorably over his freckled face to his ginger hairline.

“You’ve opened the wrong door, you fool! And then you’ve made the mistake of annoying me with your error,” retorted Jourdaine. “Check all the doors before you tell me you have failed, Lieutenant,” he said as he cut the link.

Problem-solving is not something they teach these officers anymore, it appears, Jourdaine thought as he returned to a particularly knotty logistics problem.

The propaganda front was coming along well, at least. The comm’nets were filled daily with some sort of atrocity perpetrated by random outlanders. Documentaries on the primitive nature of the savages and the pathetic state of their weaponry drew rave reviews and glowing editorials. Manufactured outrage and avarice within the Unity were rising nicely. But the rate of transit across the Scorch . . .

General Jourdaine’s OA signaled. Again, it was the luckless lieutenant.

“Yesss?” Jourdaine hissed.

“Sir, the Anne Arundel Annex station is secure, sir. All exits have been accounted for, sir. There are no exits from the platform except those that go to street level or the belts, sir. We have not found the suspect, sir. Searches continue, sir—”

Jourdaine cut the contact and sat back in his chair. Chiu had graduated to being an irritation.

Anne Arundel Annex, Marilan, Unity

07.23.12_local_07_July_AU77 (2129 AD)

Hours after his last ego-wilting conversation with Jourdaine, Lieutenant Lance Haversham viewed Anne Arundel Station with satisfaction. He had completed the interrogation of citizens trying to enter or exit. After “accelerated recollection” treatments, a few of the regular commuters admitted noticing a scantily clad and odd-looking woman when they glanced up from their tablets on the southbound beltway five days ago. None remembered when she exited.

General Jourdaine was expected momentarily, and Haversham vowed he would be ready. All he had to do—all he could do—was escort Jourdaine around and show him just how dead this particular dead end was. Afterward, he could take his men back to the barracks, see them fed and bedded down, clean and polish his own gear, and after collapsing onto his bunk, attempt to forget these two long, fruitless days.

Jourdaine had said he wanted to see the door through which this absconder had left the station. Odd, but Haversham would nevertheless show Jourdaine the welded steel box. It was symmetrical, painted an institutional off-white, worn in appropriate places where a carelessly thrown mop bucket might scrape paint. The attendant mop bucket had identically colored scrapes along an edge. The closet, bathed in the greenish light of the single light panel, looked like any janitor’s closet. Jourdaine would have to admit failure.

There was a noise from the entrance and the snare-drumming of hard-soled shoes on the stairs. Jourdaine and his retinue had arrived.

Haversham gave his commander a meticulous tour of the beltway station, but dogged by Jourdaine’s continual displeasure, it seemed to take forever. His narrow, cold, and solitary bed appeared ever more unobtainable as Jourdaine ranted on, even about the fragrance of his men.

The fathering officer was the one who ordered us to stay overnight, he thought.

“Lieutenant Haversham!” Jourdaine said.

“Yes, sir!” Haversham replied, jolted from his reverie of a quiet bed.

“Close me into the closet.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Which word are you having trouble with, Lieutenant? It was an order.”

“Sir! Yes, sir.”

The heavy metal door swung closed behind the slim gray form of Haversham’s commanding officer. Silence descended. Haversham was forced to stand and wait for further orders. Perhaps, he thought, there would not be any order; Jourdaine would do the same magic trick the fecking woman had pulled when she conspired to turn his comfortable military life into the hell it had become.

Why Jourdaine’s attention had focused on one more runaway was unfathomable. They were all eventually found, these runaways—dead or alive. The several he had uncovered were grotesque enough: a stench behind a wall in some public area, fetid liquid draining for weeks onto a platform before someone thought to complain, blanched white flesh floating in a foul river. If Jourdaine would only let things take their natural course.

A slightly muffled voice with the edge of command issued from behind the door and again interrupted his thoughts. “You may open the door now, Lieutenant Haversham.”

The general, once liberated, bore an odd smirk on his face. “Did it ever occur to you to wonder why they put a bolt on the inside of a janitor’s closet, Lieutenant Haversham?”

Exiles’ Escape Prologue “First Hand Sapping”

Prologue

 

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

Stanton, Pensy[1], Democratic Unity of America

Infinity Acres Retirement Community

Product Reclamation Floor

06.23.02.local_01_Jan_AU75[2] (2127 AD)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bravo twenty.”

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

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

“Check, Ruuf. Good to go.”

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

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

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

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

“Tea?”

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 47

beautiful_illustration_and_digital_art_by_cristiano_siqueira_27Ping

Nyork, Unity

16.03.12.local.08_04_AU77

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

It meant her thesis was accepted.

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

 

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

                         “… 00000000000000000000000000000000 …”

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

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

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

                        I veha ot atwhc!

                       Wrong, I got it wrong again.

                       I.have.to.watch!

                       But then!

                       eTehr wsa hte anigls: “… 000000000000000011111111111111111 …”

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

Sacrifices had been made.

 

“This is coming direct from Major Gurion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if she’s turned traitor?”

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

Chapter 48

The Return

Stamping Ground, Kentucky

Almost dawn, April 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior,

Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord.

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

He ’rose a victor from the dark domain.

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

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

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

Sally came by and relieved Malila of a fussy Ethan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Despite herself, Malila smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, so some sort of miracle-like.”

“Something like that, lass.”

“Don’t call me ‘lass.’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I don’t understand what happened.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Chapter 49

Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something bothering you, honey?” asked Sally.

“Nothing.”

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

“Nothing’s wrong!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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