Every morning Ellen checked the thin black laptop she kept under her side of the bed. Michael had stopped asking her about it, and she had stopped assuring him that she would explain it all to him some day. She only ever used a single program, an open source email client which utilized OpenPGP to securely communicate with others that she had shared her public key with. The email address itself was a string of 25 random characters, as were the addresses of all the other people who had her public key. You would not have thought that Ellen would be the kind of woman to have such a setup from the looks of her; a pudgy middle-aged mom living with her family in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. In truth, it had been set up for her, by one of the few dozen people—128 at last count—that would potentially communicate with her through this channel.
Her mother was talking to her, but Serena was not listening. She stared out of the window, her eyes far away from all of them. The intensity of what had occurred, and the powerful relief and concern she had felt when it was all over had slowly faded away. In their place was an emptiness, a dull sense that something was missing.
Serena had been beating up on bullies for picking on her kid brother for as long as she could remember. She was always the tomboy and the tough girl; the pretty dresses her mother picked out for her when she was little quickly got muddy and shredded. Though from a more traditional background, her mom eventually began to include pants and t-shirts in her daughter’s wardrobe. If she had to crawl in the dirt, at least she wouldn’t expose herself.
She never had large groups of friends; it was always one or two good guy friends, who usually were somewhat fascinated and more than a little intimidated by her. She was tough. And she knew it.
When she was in fourth grade, some sixth grader boys were hassling her brother. It was the usual playground fare, nothing especially vicious—just walking uncomfortably close, calling him names, giving him little shoves. She had gone up and given the biggest of them a bloody nose. She could still remember the embarrassed tears that ran down his face as his friends stared in shock and then ran away.
There had only been a couple more incidents after that over the years, but she always came out on top. The worst was her sophomore year in high school; some guys who had grown up with them had decided that now was the point in the developmental process where they had the edge over some girl. They jumped her brother and gave him a real beating, not the chest-thumping posturing that the earlier incidents had mostly been comprised of.
She had never been so angry, and this was a girl with a famously short fuse. Mixed in was a great deal of guilt over the knowledge that this had just been to get at her.
There were three boys involved; three was the bare minimum a group of boys needed to be for them to become cumulatively stupider and bigger assholes than they were individually. They were sure that, being boys, being bigger than her, and outnumbering her, she wouldn’t stand a chance. But they had no real experience at fighting, and they hadn’t expected her to march up to them so confidently and cold-clock one of them. When the other two grabbed her, she elbowed the one on her right in the face, dislocating her jaw. The rest of the encounter did not go much better for them.
The extent of their injuries was so great that she was suspended, and the only thing that saved her from expulsion was the cruelty the boys had displayed in the initial incident. After that, her parents thought it might be a good idea to homeschool for the rest of her high school years. This had allowed them to take the trip to Paraguay for her father’s research.
A choice that had led them to their predicament.
You can understand, then, why she would react the way that she did. Even though the opponent was not a teenage boy or a boy at all; even though he was a professional with combat experience and physical strength she couldn’t imagine approaching. When she saw Sabueso fall helplessly to the ground, her instincts as a lifelong older sister kicked in, and she threw the punch before her brain had time to reconsider.
Having seen the two of them going at it, she could tell, for the first time, how clumsy her punch was. She was sure that he would dodge it easily and then tear her in half. Instead, he stayed right where he was. And it was so much worse.
When her fist met his face, it felt like a thousand burning needles rushed up her arm at lightning speed. She cried out immediately. She had never been in so much pain in her entire life. She knew, right away, that she had broken her hand, and probably her wrist. Would she ever be able to use it properly again?
But…but to her utter astonishment, she knocked Jack flat on his back. The look on his face mirrored the shock she felt; there is no way a good punch from her should have been strong enough to accomplish this feat, much less a punch so sloppy that it had broken her hand!
“One of us…how?” He stammered, but he had wasted far too much time already. Sabueso had grown up in an environment where hesitation almost always meant either injury or having to go hungry. He was already up before Jack had hit the ground, and his prey’s fate was already sealed the moment he had let down his guard.
Years later it was clear to him that his father had tried to warn them, but it was already far too late. They came not long after he arrived, already nursing a fatal wound. Long after he had confronted every individual involved in the attack and come to learn how truly small they were, his memory of that day would cast them as terrifying, overwhelming giants.
They were merciless rather than cruel; their swift efficiency ensured no suffering from their victims.They dispensed of his father first; despite being in no condition to put up a fight he still posed the greatest threat to them. Though his mother and aunts were murdered in what seemed an instant, the sound of their screams would ring in his ears for the rest of his life.
Yet fast as they were, he still slipped away. His father had trained him relentlessly for just this turn of events, had seeped the routine deep into his muscle memory. Though he was unable to save the love of his life and her sisters, the old Chari warrior’s sudden appearance had been enough of a signal; his training kicked in and he ran deep into the woods, towards the hidden grove his father had shown him.
The Chari raiders did not stop at his family or the house; they burned the entire farm to ashes. The chase began before the destruction was completed; when it became clear that their primary target had fled they formed hunting parties and split up to cover more ground. He was quick on his feet, however, and his father’s hiding place served its purpose well. He was able to stay the night there without being found.
He did not feel safe staying in one spot, however, so the next day he began walking away from where he believed they would be coming from. He was hungry, but did not know where to find food. Halfway into the day he came upon a pond, which he drank from the quench his thirst. It didn’t take long for him to start feeling sick. After a few hours, he was even more hungry, and dehydrated, than he had been to begin with.
On the third day, he spotted a family of coatimundi. He was weak, and his mouth and throat were painfully dry. But he was of the Chari, and even in his state he was a match for at least one measly little racoon creature. He waited patiently, and then scrambled over, adrenaline surging as he clasped one of the cubs. He sank his teeth into its throat as it writhed in his hands.
It was hardly the level of sustenance he was used to even in his humble Chaco home, but it gave him the strength to wander on for a few more days. He eventually came upon a stream, and this time the water did not make him sick. He lingered there for a few days, but as his strength returned so did the anxiety of being found by his family’s murderers.
He was five years old at the time. He slowly learned the terrain, the best places to hunt, the plants that did not make him sick. The Chari were relentless in those years; he narrowly escaped them many times. One of them had successfully gripped him once and he had broken his arm in order to get free.
The encounters grew increasingly violent and getting away more difficult. Three years after his family’s deaths, he decided to stop running and start fighting back. He followed a hunting party from a safe distance for months, observing their habits, eating the scraps of their kill. Heart beating wildly, he crawled what felt insanely close in the dead of night. When one of them went to relieve themselves, he sprung up and beat the hunter to death with a rock. Terrified and elated, he crawled a great distance away, then climbed up to the top of a tree.
The next day he did not move an inch, but he heard them tearing through the area, could feel their anger and frustration. Sabueso smiled to himself.
Sabueso grew quite good at picking them off one by one. As the years went by and the confrontations became more and more direct, he grew in strength and skill. Once, when he was twelve years old, a hunting party got the jump on him. He did not try to run. At the end of the confrontation, his right arm was broken, his belly had been pierced, but he was alive, and they were not. And he would heal.
As his confidence grew, he became more aggressive. He followed hunting parties back to the Chari village, gathering information on the people that lived there. He decided he would make them pay for any more action against him. The next time he was confronted by a hunting party, he left one alive, but took an arm and a leg from him and put out one of his eyes. Before the maimed hunter could return to the village, the boy snuck back and burned down his home, just as they had done to him so many years ago. The warrior would be able to tell all who was responsible. He continued to make direct assaults on the village in response to aggression against him, and in time the hunting parties became fewer and further between. The Chari children spoke of him in whispers, like a monster of legend.
He had become quite good at hunting down his food, but early on he found he could do better by trading with the scattered households of the Chaco. The households, mostly Guarani families, would trade him their crops for meat, as well as for protection. Many would-be thieves and murderers met their end when they sought to trifle with families under his protection.
It was through these families that he was eventually introduced to Manuel, the merchant. Manuel bought from Chaco farmers and many others, and then sold their wares back in Ciudad del Este. “They tell me that you protect the families around here, and bring them meat,” the older man said to him.
The boy grunted; he understood, but was not used to talking. The merchant looked him over with cold appraisal.
“Do you have a name?” at this, the boy came up short. He did have a name, he knew it—his mother had given him one. But it had been far too long since anyone had called him by it, and he had forgotten. At that point, he had almost forgotten what his own mother’s face looked like, never mind his own name.
“They call you many things here,” Manuel said after receiving no reply, “some of them not so nice. My favorite is sabueso, for your keen ability to find game.” There was a twinkle in his eye as he said the word; the idea of this lean, surly boy as a wrinkled old bloodhound clearly amused the merchant.
“Sabueso is fine,” the boy murmured, and it was.
Manuel needed a bodyguard, and while skeptical of Sabueso’s age, the villagers vouched for his strength and ruthlessness, and he came cheaply. Sabueso agreed to follow him for a time for food and lodging. As a result, at the age of sixteen, Sabueso left the Chaco for the first time. The dangers in a place like Ciudad del Este were no less real, but so long as he had an employer, they would hopefully exclude things like starving or drinking tainted water. And he would be far, far away from the Chari village.
Though now employed in the business of dealing with violent and dangerous people, Sabueso felt safer than he ever had. Surely in Ciudad del Este he need not fear Chari hunting parties ambushing him while he slept.
He would learn the hard way that the Chari were far more dedicated to his extermination to let him off because of a little distance.