THE BORDERS OF INFINITY
Lois McMaster Bujold
How could I have died and gone to hell without noticing the transition?
The opalescent force dome capped a surreal and alien landscape, frozen for a moment by Miles'sdisorientation and dismay. The dome defined a perfect circle, half a kilometer in diameter.Miles stood just inside its edge, where the glowing concave surface dove into the hard-packeddirt and disappeared. His imagination followed the arc buried beneath his feet to the far side,where it erupted again to complete the sphere. It was like being trapped inside an eggshell. Anunbreakable eggshell.
Within was a scene from an ancient limbo. Dispirited men and women sat, or stood, or mostly laydown, singly or in scattered irregular groups, across the breadth of the arena. Miles's eyesearched anxiously for some remnant of order or military grouping, but the inhabitants seemedsplashed randomly as a liquid across the ground.
Perhaps he had been killed just now, just entering this prison camp. Perhaps his captors hadbetrayed him to his death, like those ancient Earth soldiers who had lured their victimssheeplike into poisoned showers, diverting and soothing their suspicions with stone soap, until
their final enlightenment burst upon them in a choking cloud. Perhaps the annihilation of hisbody had been so swift, his neurons had not had time to carry the information to his brain. Whyelse did so many antique myths agree that hell was a circular place?
Dagoola IV Top Security Prison Camp #3. This was it? This naked... dinner plate? Miles hadvaguely visioned barracks, marching guards, daily head counts, secret tunnels, escapecommittees.
It was the dome that made it all so simple, Miles realized. What need for barracks to shelterprisoners from the elements? The dome did it. What need for guards? The dome was generated fromwithout. Nothing inside could breach it. No need for guards, or head counts. Tunnels were afutility, escape committees an absurdity. The dome did it all.
The only structures were what appeared to be big grey plastic mushrooms evenly placed aboutevery hundred meters around the perimeter of the dome. What little activity there was seemedclustered around them. Latrines, Miles recognized.
Miles and his three fellow prisoners had entered through a temporary portal, which had closedbehind them before the brief bulge of force dome containing their entry vanished in front ofthem. The nearest inhabitant of the dome, a man, lay a few meters away upon a sleeping matidentical to the one Miles now clutched. He turned his head slightly to stare at the littleparty of newcomers, smiled sourly, and rolled over on his side with his back to them. Nobodyelse nearby even bothered to look up.
"Holy shit," muttered one of Miles's companions. He and his two buddies drew togetherunconsciously. The three had been from the same unit once, they'd said. Miles had met them bareminutes ago, in their final stages of processing, where they had all been issued their totalsupply of worldly goods for life in Dagoola #3.
A single pair of loose grey trousers. A matching short-sleeved grey tunic. A rectangularsleeping mat, rolled up. A plastic cup. That was all. That, and the new numbers encoded upontheir skins. It bothered Miles intensely that their captors had chosen to locate the numbers inthe middle of their backs, where they couldn't see them. He resisted a futile urge to twist andcrane his neck anyway, though his hand snaked up under his shirt to scratch a purelypsychosomatic itch. You couldn't feel the encode either.
Some motion appeared in the tableau. A group of four or five men approaching. The welcomingcommittee at last? Miles was desperate for information. Where among all these countless greymen and women-no, not countless, Miles told himself firmly. They were all accounted for here.
The battered remnants of the 3rd and 4th Armored All-Terrain Rangers. The ingenious andtenacious civilian defenders of Garson Transfer Station. Winoweh's 2nd Battalion had beencaptured almost intact. And the 14th Commandos, survivors of the high-tech fortress at FallowCore. Particularly the survivors of Fallow Core. Ten thousand, two hundred fourteen exactly.The plant Marilac's finest. Ten thousand, two hundred fifteen, counting himself. Ought he tocount himself?
The welcoming committee drew up in a ragged bunch a few meters away. They looked tough and talland muscular and not noticeably friendly. Dull, sullen eyes, full of a deadly boredom that eventheir present calculation did not lighten.
The two groups, the five and the three, sized each other up. The three turned, and startedwalking stiffly and prudently away. Miles realized belatedly that he, not a part of eithergroup, was thus left alone.
Alone and immensely conspicuous. Self-consciousness, body-consciousness, normally held at bayby the simple fact that he didn't have time to waste on it, returned to him with a rush. Tooshort, too odd-looking-his legs were even in length now, after the last operation, but surelynot long enough to outrun these five. And where did one run to, in this place? He crossed offflight as an option.
Fight? Get serious.
This isn't going to work, he realized sadly, even as he started walking toward them. But it wasmore dignified than being chased down with the same result.
He tried to make his smile austere rather than foolish. No telling whether he succeeded. "Hi,there. Can you tell me where to find Colonel Guy Tremont's 14th Commando Division?"
One of the five snorted sardonically. Two moved behind Miles.
Well, a snort was almost speech. Expression, anyway. A start, a toehold. Miles focused on thatone. "What's your name and rank and company, soldier?"
"No ranks in here, mutant. No companies. No soldiers. No nothing."
Miles glanced around. Surrounded, of course. Naturally. "You got some friends, anyway."
The talker almost smiled. "You don't."
Miles wondered if perhaps he had been premature in crossing off flight as an option. "Iwouldn't count on that if I were-unh!" The kick to his kidneys, from behind, cut him off-hedamn near bit his tongue-he fell, dropping bedroll and cup and landing in a tangle. A barefootkick, no combat boots this time, thank God-by the rules of Newtonian physics, his attackers'foot ought to hurt just as much as his back. Fine. Jolly. Maybe they'd bruise their knuckles,punching him out...."
One of the gang gathered up Miles's late wealth, cup and bedroll. "Want his clothes? They'retoo little for me."
"Yeah," said the talker. "Take 'em anyway. Maybe bribe one of the women."
The tunic was jerked off over Miles's head, the pants over his feet. Miles was too busyprotecting his head from random kicks to fight much for his clothes, trying obliquely to takeas many hits as possible on his belly or ribcage, not arms or legs or jaw. A cracked rib wassurely the most injury he could afford right now, here, at the beginning. A broken jaw would bethe worst.
His assailants desisted only a little before they discovered by experimentation the secretweakness of his bones.
"That's how it is in here, mutant," said the talker, slightly winded.
"I was born naked," Miles panted from the dirt. "Didn't stop me."
"Cocky little shit," said the talker.
"Slow learner," remarked another.
The second beating was worse than the first. Two cracked ribs at least-his jaw barely escapedbeing smashed, at the cost of something painfully wrong in his left wrist, flung up as ashield. This time Miles resisted the impulse to offer any verbal parting shots. He lay in thedirt and wished he could pass out.
He lay a long time, cradled in pain. He was not sure how long. The illumination from the forcedome was even and shadowless, unchanging. Timeless, like eternity. Hell was eternal, was itnot? This place had too damn many congruencies with hell, that was certain.
And here came another demon.... Miles blinked the approaching figure into focus. A man, asbruised and naked as Miles himself, gaunt-ribbed, starveling, knelt in the dirt a few metersaway. His face was bony, aged by stress-he might have been forty, or fifty-or twenty-five.
His eyes were unnaturally prominent, due to the shrinking of his flesh. Their whites seemed togleam feverishly against the dirt darkening his skin. Dirt, not beard stubble-every prisoner inhere, male and female, had their hair cut short and the air follicles stunned to prevent re-growth. Perpetually clean-shaven and crew-cut. Miles had undergone the same process bare hoursago. But whoever had processed this fellow must have been in a hurry. The hair stunner hadmissed a line of his cheek and a few dozen hairs grew there like a stripe on a badly-mown lawn.Even curled as they were, Miles could see they were several centimeters long, draggling downpast the man's jaw. If only he knew how fast hair grew, he could calculate how long this fellow
had been here. Too long, whatever the numbers, Miles thought with an inward sigh.
The man had the broken-off bottom half of a plastic cup, which he pushed cautiously towardMiles. His breath whistled raggedly past his yellowish teeth, from exertion or excitement ordisease-probably not disease, they were all well immunized here. Escape, even through death,was not that easy. Miles rolled over and propped himself stiffly on his elbow, regarding hisvisitor through the thinning haze of his aches and pains.
The man scrabbled back slightly, smiled nervously. He nodded toward the cup. "Water. Betterdrink. The cup's cracked, and it all leaks out if you wait too long."
"Thanks," croaked Miles. A week ago, or in a previous lifetime, depending on how you countedtime, Miles had dawdled over a selection of wines, dissatisfied with this or that nuance offlavor. His lips cracked as he grinned in memory. He drank. It was perfectly ordinary water,lukewarm, faintly redolent of chlorine and sulfur. A refined body, but the bouquet is a bitpresumptuous....
The man squatted in studied politeness until Miles finished drinking, then leaned forward onhis knuckles in restrained urgency. "Are you the One?"
Miles blinked. "Am I the what?"
"The One. The other one, I should say. The scripture says there has to be two."
"Uh," Miles hesitated cautiously, "what exactly does the scripture say?"
The man's right hand wrapped over his knobby left wrist, around which was tied a rag screwedinto a sort of rope. He closed his eyes; his lips moved a moment, and then he recited aloud,"... but the pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead themby the arms; also they had left their garments behind them, for though they went in with them,they came out without them." His eyes popped back open to stare hopefully at Miles.
So, now we begin to see why this guy seems to be all by himself.... "Are you, perchance, theother One?" Miles shot at a venture.
The man nodded, shyly.
"I see. Um..." How was it that he always attracted the nut cases? He licked the last drops ofwater from his lips. The fellow might have some screws loose, but he was certainly animprovement over the last lot, always presuming he didn't have another personality or two ofthe homicidal loonie variety tucked away in his head. No, in that case he'd be introducinghimself as the Chosen Two, and not be looking for outside assistance. "Um... what's your name?"
"Suegar. Right, all right. My name is Miles, by the way."
"Huh." Suegar grimaced in a sort of pleased irony. "Your name means 'soldier,' did you know?"
"Uh, yeah, so I've been told."
"But you're not a soldier... ?"
No subtle expensive trick of clothing line or uniform style here to hide from himself, if noone else, the peculiarities of his body. Miles flushed. "They were taking anything, toward theend. They made me a recruiting clerk. I never did get to fire my gun. Listen, Suegar- how didyou come to know you were the One, or at any rate one of the Ones? Is it something you'vealways known?"
"It came on me gradually," confessed Suegar, shifting to sit cross-legged. "I'm the only one inhere with the words, y'see." He caressed his rag rope again. "I've hunted all up and down thecamp, but they only mock me. It was a kind of process of elimination, y'see, when they all gaveup but me."
"Ah." Miles too sat up, only gasping a little in pain. Those ribs were going to be murder forthe next few days. He nodded toward the rope bracelet. "Is that where you keep your scripture?Can I see it?" And how the hell had Suegar ever gotten a plastic flimsy, or loose piece ofpaper or whatever, in here?
Suegar clutched his arms protectively to his chest and shook his head. "They've been trying totake them from me for months, y'see. I can't be too careful. Until you prove you're the One.The devil can quote scripture, y'know."
Yes, that was rather what I had in mind.... Who knew what opportunities Suegar's "scripture"might contain? Well, maybe later. For now, keep dancing. "Are there any other signs?" askedMiles. "You see, I don't know that I'm your One, but on the other hand I don't know I'm not,either. I just got here, after all."
Suegar shook his head again. "It's only five or six sentences, y'see. You have to interpolate alot."
I'll bet. Miles did not voice the comment aloud. "However did you come by it? Or get it inhere?"
"It was at Port Lisma, y'see, just before we were captured," said Suegar. "House-to-housefighting. One of my boot heels had come a bit loose, and it clicked when I walked. Funny, withall that barrage coming down around our ears, how a little thing like that can get under yourskin. There was this bookcase with a glass front, real antique books made of paper-I smashed itopen with my gun butt and tore out part of a page from one, and folded it up to stick in myboot heel, to make a sort of shim, y'see, and stop the clicking. Didn't look at the book.Didn't even know it was scripture till later. At least, I think it's scripture. It sounds likescripture, anyway. It must be scripture."
Suegar twisted his beard hairs nervously around his finger. "When we were waiting to beprocessed, I'd pulled it out of my boot, just idle-like, y'know. I had it in my hand-theprocessing guard saw it, but he just didn't take it away from me. Probably thought it was justa harmless piece of paper. Didn't know it was scripture. I still had it in my hand when we weredumped in here. D'you know, it's the only piece of writing in this whole camp?" he added ratherproudly. "It must be scripture."
"Well... you take good care of it, then," advised Miles kindly. "If you've preserved it thislong, it was obviously meant to be your job."
"Yeah..." Suegar blinked. Tears? "I'm the only one in here with a job, aren't I? So I must beone of the Ones."
"Sounds good to me," said Miles agreeably. "Say, ah," he glanced around the vast featurelessdome, "how do you find your way around in here, anyway?" The place was decidedly undersuppliedwith landmarks. It reminded Miles of nothing so much as a penguin rookery. Yet penguins seemedable to find their rocky nests. He was going to have to start thinking like a penguin-or get apenguin to direct him. He studied his guide bird, who had gone absent and was doodling in thedirt. Circles, naturally.
"Where's the mess hall?" Miles asked more loudly. "Where did you get that water?"
"Water taps are on the outside of the latrines," said Suegar, "but they only work part of thetime. No mess hall. We just get rat bars. Sometimes."
"Sometimes?" said Miles angrily. He could count Suegar's ribs. "Dammit, the Cetagandans areclaiming loudly to be treating their POW's by Interstellar Judiciary Commission rules. So manysquare meters of space per person, 3,000 calories a day, at least fifty grams of protein, twoliters of drinking water-you should be getting at least two IJC standard ration bars a day. Arethey starving you?"
"After a while," Suegar sighed, "you don't really care if you get yours or not." The animationthat his interest in Miles as a new and hopeful object in his world had lent Suegar seemed tobe falling away. His breathing had slowed, his posture slumped. He seemed about to lie down inthe dirt. Miles wondered if Suegar's sleeping mat had suffered the same fate as his own. Quitesome time ago, probably.
"Look, Suegar-I think I may have a relative in this camp somewhere. A cousin of my mother's.D'you think you could help me find him?"
"It might be good for you, to have a relative," Suegar agreed. "It's not good to be byyourself, here."
"Yeah, I found that out. But how can you find anyone? It doesn't look too organized."
"Oh, there's-there's groups and groups. Everyone pretty much stays in the same place after awhile."
"He was in the 14th Commandos. Where are they?"
"None of the old groups are left, much."
"He was Colonel Tremont. Colonel Guy Tremont."
"Oh, an officer." Suegar's forehead wrinkled in worry. "That makes it harder. You weren't anofficer, were you? Better not let on, if you were-"
"I was a clerk," repeated Miles.
"-because there's groups here who don't like officers. A clerk. You're probably OK, then."
"Were you an officer, Suegar?" asked Miles curiously.
Suegar frowned at him, twisted his beard hairs. "Marilac Army's gone. If there's no army, itcan't have officers, can it?"
Miles wondered briefly if he might get farther faster by just walking away from Suegar andtrying to strike up a conversation with the next random prisoner he came across. Groups andgroups. And, presumably, groups, like the five burly surly brothers. He decided to stick withSuegar for a while longer. For one thing, he wouldn't feel quite so naked if he wasn't naked byhimself.
"Can you take me to anybody who used to be in the 14th?" Miles urged Suegar anew. "Anybody, whomight know Tremont by sight."
"You don't know him?"
"We'd never met in person. I've seen vids of him. But I'm afraid his appearance may be ...changed, by now."
Suegar touched his own face pensively. "Yeah, probably."
Miles clambered painfully to his feet. The temperature in the dome was just a little cool,without clothes. A voiceless draft raised the hairs on his arms. If he could just get onegarment back, would he prefer his pants, to cover his genitals, or his shirt, to disguise hiscrooked back? Screw it. No time. He held out a hand to help Suegar up. "Come on."
Suegar glanced up at him. "You can always tell a newcomer. You're still in a hurry. In here,you slow down. Your brain slows down...."
"Your scripture got anything to say on that?" inquired Miles impatiently.
"'... they therefore went up here with much agility and speed, through the foundation of thecity...' " Twin verticals appeared between Suegar's eyebrows, as he frowned speculatively atMiles.
Thank you, thought Miles. I'll take it. He pulled Suegar up. "Come on, then."
Neither agility nor speed, but at least progress. Suegar led him on a shambling walk across aquarter of the camp, through some groups, in wide arcs around others. Miles saw the surlybrothers again at a distance, sitting on their collection of mats. Miles upped his estimationof the size of the tribe from five to about fifteen. Some men sat in twos or threes or sixes, afew sat alone, as far as possible from any others, which still wasn't very far.
The largest group by far consisted entirely of women. Miles studied them with electric interestas soon as his eyes picked up the size of their unmarked boundary. There were several hundredof them at least. None were matless, although some shared. Their perimeter was actuallypatrolled, by groups of half a dozen or so strolling slowly about. They apparently defended twolatrines for their exclusive use.
"Tell me about the girls, Suegar," Miles urged his companion, with a nod toward their group.
"Forget the girls." Suegar's grin actually had a sardonic edge. "They do not put out."
"What, not at all? None of them? I mean, here we all are, with nothing to do but entertain eachother. I'd think at least some of them would be interested." Miles's reason raced ahead ofSuegar's answer, mired in unpleasantness. How unpleasant did it get in here?
For answer, Suegar pointed upward to the dome. "You know we're all monitored in here. They cansee everything, pick up every word if they want. That is, if there's still anybody out there.They may have all gone away, and just forgotten to turn the dome off. I have dreams about that,sometimes. I dream that I'm here, in this dome, forever. Then I wake up, and I'm here, in thisdome.... Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm awake or asleep. Except that the food is still coming,and once in a while-not so often, anymore-somebody new, like you. The food could be automated,though, I suppose. You could be a dream...."
"They're still out there," said Miles grimly.
Suegar sighed. "You know, in a way, I'm almost glad."
Monitored, yes. Miles knew all about the monitoring. He put down an urge to wave and call Hi,Mom! Monitoring must be a stultifying job for the goons out there. He wished they might bebored to death. "But what's that got to do with the girls, Suegar?"
"Well, at first everybody was pretty inhibited by that-" he pointed skywards again. "Then aftera while we discovered that they didn't interfere with anything we did. At all. There were somerapes.... Since then things have been-deteriorating."
"Hm. Then I suppose the idea of starting a riot, and breaching the dome when they bring troopsinside to restore order, is a no-go?"
"That was tried once, a long time ago. Don't know how long." Suegar twisted his hairs. "Theydon't have to come inside to stop a riot. They can reduce the dome's diameter-they reduced itto about a hundred meters, that time. Nothing to stop them reducing it down to one meter, withall of us still inside, if they choose. It stopped the riot, anyway. Or they can reduce the gaspermeability of the dome to zilch and just let us breathe ourselves into a coma. That'shappened twice."
"I see," said Miles. It made his neck crawl.
A bare hundred or so meters away, the side of the dome began to bulge inward like an aneurysm.Miles touched Suegar's arm. "What's happening there? More new prisoners being delivered?"
Suegar glanced around. "Uh oh. We're not in a real good position, here." He hovered a moment,as if uncertain whether to go forward or back.
A wave of movement rippled through the camp from the bulge outward, of people getting to theirfeet. Faces turned magnetically toward the side of the dome. Little knots of men came together;a few sprinters began running. Some people didn't get up at all. Miles glanced back towards thewomen's group. About half of them were forming rapidly into a sort of phalanx.
"We're so close-what the hell, maybe we've got a chance," said Suegar. "Come on!" He startedtoward the bulge at his most rapid pace, a jog. Miles perforce jogged too, trying to jar hisribs as little as possible. But he was quickly winded, and his rapid breathing added anexcruciating torque to his torso.
"What are we doing?" Miles started to pant to Suegar, before the dome's extruding bulgedissolved with a fading twinkle, and he saw what they were doing, saw it all.
Before the force dome's shimmering barrier now sat a dark brown pile, roughly a meter high, twometers deep, three meters wide. IJC standard ration bars, Miles recognized. Rat bars,apocryphally named after their supposed principal ingredient. Fifteen hundred calories each.Twenty-five grams of protein, fifty percent of the human MDR for vitamins A, B, C, and the restof the alphabet-tasted like a shingle sprinkled with sugar and would sustain life and healthforever or for as long as you could stand to keep eating them.
Shall we have a contest, children, to guess how many rat bars are in that pile? Miles thought.No contest. I don't even have to measure the height and divide by three centimeters. It has tobe 10,215 exactly. How ingenious.
The Cetagandan Psy Ops corps must contain some remarkable minds. If they ever fell into hishands, Miles wondered, should he recruit them-or exterminate them? This brief fantasy wasoverwhelmed by the need to keep to his feet in the present reality, as 10,000 or so people,minus the wholly despairing and those too weak to move, all tried to descend on the same sixsquare meters of the camp at once.
The first sprinters reached the pile, grabbed up armloads of rat bars, and started to sprintoff. Some made it to the protection of friends, divided their spoils, and started to move awayfrom the center of the growing human maelstrom. Others failed to dodge clots of operators likethe burly surly brothers, and were violently relieved of their prizes. The second wave ofsprinters, who didn't get away in time, were pinned up against the side of the dome by theincoming bodies.
Miles and Suegar, unfortunately, were in this second category. Miles's view was reduced to asweating, heaving, stinking, swearing mass of elbows and chests and backs.
"Eat, eat!" Suegar urged around stuffed cheeks as he and Miles were separated by the pack. Butthe bar Miles had grabbed was twisted out of his hands before he had gathered his wits enoughto follow Suegar's advice. Anyway, his hunger was nothing to his terror of being crushed, orworse, falling underfoot. His own feet pummeled over something soft, but he was unable to pushback with enough strength to give the person-man, woman, who knew?-a chance to get up again.
In time the press lessened, and Miles found the edge of the crowd and broke free again. Hestaggered a little way off and fell to the dirt to sit, shaken and shaking, pale and cold. Hisbreath rasped unevenly in his throat. It took him a long time to get hold of himself again.
Sheer chance, that this had hit his rawest nerve, his darkest fears, threatened his mostdangerous weakness. I could die here, he realized, without ever seeing the enemy's face. Butthere seemed to be no new bones broken, except possibly in his left foot. He was not too sureabout his left foot. The elephant who had trod on it was surely getting more than his fairshare of rat bars.
All right, Miles thought at last. That's enough time spent on RR. On your feet, soldier. It wastime to go find Colonel Tremont.
Guy Tremont. The real hero of the siege of Fallow Core. The defiant one, the one who'd held,and held, and held, after General Xian fled, after Baneri was killed.
Xian had sworn to return, but then Xian had run into that meat grinder at Vassily Station. HQhad promised re-supply, but then HQ and its vital shuttleport had been taken by theCetagandans.
But by this time Tremont and his troops had lost communication. So they held, waiting, andhoping. Eventually resources were reduced to hope and rocks. Rocks were versatile, they couldeither be boiled for soup or thrown at the enemy. At last Fallow Core was taken. Notsurrendered. Taken.
Guy Tremont. Miles wanted very much to meet Guy Tremont.
On his feet and looking around, Miles spotted a distant shambling scarecrow being pelted offfrom a group with clods of dirt. Suegar paused out of range of their missiles, still pointingto the rag on his wrist and talking. The three or four men he was haranguing turned their backsto him by way of a broad hint.
Miles sighed and started trudging toward him. "Hey, Suegar!" he called and waved when he gotcloser.
"Oh, there you are." Suegar turned and brightened, and joined him. "I lost you." Suegar rubbeddirt out of his eyebrows. "Nobody wants to listen, y'know?"
"Yeah, well, most of them have heard you at least once by now, right?"
"Pro'bly twenty times. I keep thinking I might have missed one, y'see. Maybe the very One, theother One."
"Well, I'd be glad to listen to you, but I've really got to find Colonel Tremont first. Yousaid you knew somebody... ?"
"Oh, right. This way." Suegar led off again.
"Thanks. Say, is every chow call like that last one?"
"What's to keep some-group-from just taking over that arc of the dome?"
"It's never issued at the same place twice. They move it all around the perimeter. There was alot of strategy debated at one time, as to whether it was better to be at the center, so'syou're never more than half a diameter away, or near the edge, so's to be up front at leastpart of the time. Some guys had even worked out the mathematics of it, probabilities and allthat."
"Which do you favor?"
"Oh, I don't have a spot, I move around and take my chances." His right hand touched his rag."It's not the most important thing, anyway. Still, it was good to eat-today. Whatever day thisis."
"Today is November 2, '97, Earth Common Era."
"Oh? Is that all?" Suegar pulled his beard strands out straight and rolled his eyes, attemptingto look across his face at them. "Thought I'd been here longer than that. Why, it hasn't evenbeen three years. Huh." He added apologetically, "In here it's always today."
"Mm," said Miles. "So the rat bars are always delivered in a pile like that, eh?"
"Yeah," Suegar sighed. Rage, barely breathed, was camouflaged in that sigh, in the twitch ofSuegar's hands. So, my madman is not so simple....
"Here we are," Suegar added. They paused before a group defined by half a dozen sleeping matsin a rough circle. One man looked up and glowered.
"Go away, Suegar. I ain't in the mood for a sermon."
"That the colonel?" whispered Miles.
"Naw, his name's Oliver. I knew him-a long time ago. He was at Fallow Core, though," Suegarwhispered back. "He can take you to him."
Suegar bundled Miles forward. "This is Miles. He's new. Wants to talk to you." Suegar himselfbacked away. Helpfully, Miles realized. Suegar was aware of his unpopularity, it seemed.
Miles studied the next link in his chain. Oliver had managed to retain his grey pajamas,sleeping mat, and cup intact, which reminded Miles again of his own nakedness. On the otherhand, Oliver did not seem to be in possession of any ill-gotten duplicates. Oliver might be asburly as the surly brothers, but was not otherwise related. That was good. Not that Miles inhis present state need have any more worries about thievery.
Oliver stared at Miles without favor, then seemed to relent. "What d'you want?" he growled.
Miles opened his hands. "I'm looking for Colonel Guy Tremont."
"Ain't no colonels in here, boy."
"He was a cousin of my mother's. Nobody in the family-nobody in the outside world-has heardanything from or about him since Fallow Core fell. I-I'm not from any of the other units orpieces of units that are in here. Colonel Tremont is the only person I know anything about atall." Miles clasped his hands together and tried to look waif-like. Real doubt shook him, drewdown his brows. "Is he still alive, even?"
Oliver frowned. "Relative, eh?" He scratched the side of his nose with a thick finger. "Isuppose you got a right. But it won't do you any good, boy, if that's what you're thinking."
"I..." Miles shook his head. "At this point, I just want to know."
"Come on, then." Oliver levered himself to his feet with a grunt and lumbered off withoutlooking over his shoulder.
Miles limped in his wake. "Are you taking me to him?"
Oliver made no answer until they'd finished their journey, only a few dozen meters, among andbetween sleeping mats. One man swore, one spat; most ignored them.
One mat lay at the edge of a group, almost far enough away to look alone. A figure lay curledup on his side with his back to them. Oliver stood silent, big fists on hips, and regarded it.
"Is that the colonel?" Miles whispered urgently.
"No, boy." Oliver sucked on his lower lip. "Only his remains."
Miles, alarmed, knelt down. Oliver was speaking poetically. Miles realized with relief. The manbreathed. "Colonel Tremont? Sir?"
Miles's heart sank again, as he saw that breathing was about all that Tremont did. He layinert, his eyes open but fixed on nothing. They did not even flick toward Miles and dismiss himwith contempt. He was thin, thinner than Suegar even. Miles traced the angle of his jaw, theshape of his ear, from the holovids he'd studied. The remains of a face, like the ruinedfortress of Fallow Core. It took nearly an archeologist's insight to recognize the connectionsbetween past and present.
He was dressed, his cup sat upright by his head, but the dirt around his mat was churned toacrid, stinking mud. From urine, Miles realized. Tremont's elbows were marked with lesions, thebeginning of decubiti, bedsores. A damp patch on the grey fabric of his trousers over his bodyhips hinted at more advanced and horrible sores beneath.
Yet somebody must be tending him, Miles thought, or he wouldn't be looking even this good.
Oliver knelt beside Miles, bare toes squishing in the mud, and pulled a hunk of rat bar frombeneath the elastic waistband of his trousers. He crumbled a bit between his thick fingers andpushed it between Tremont's lips. "Eat," he whispered. The lips almost moved; the crumbsdribbled to the mat. Oliver tried again, seemed to become conscious of Miles's eyes upon him,and stuffed the rest of the rat bar back into his pants with an unintelligible grumble.
"Was-was he injured when Fallow Core was overrun?" asked Miles. "Head injury?"
Oliver shook his head. "Fallow Core wasn't stormed, boy."
"But it fell on October 6th, it was reported, and-"
"It fell on October 5th. Fallow Core was betrayed." Oliver turned and walked away before hisstiffened face could betray any emotion.
Miles knelt in the mud and let his breath trickle out slowly.
So. And so.
Was this the end of his quest, then?
He wanted to pace and think, but walking still hurt too much. He hobbled a little way off,trying not to accidentally infringe upon the territory of any sizeable group, and sat, then layin the dirt with his hands behind his head, staring up at the pearly glow of the dome sealedlike a lid over them all.
He considered his options, one, two, three. He considered them carefully. It didn't take long.
I thought you didn't believe in good guys and bad guys? He had cauterized his emotions, he'dthought, coming in here, for his own protection, but he could feel his carefully cultivatedimpartiality slipping. He was beginning to hate that dome in a really intimate, personal way.Aesthetically elegant, form united with function as perfectly as an eggshell, a marvel ofphysics-perverted into an instrument of torture.