The Harvest: A Novel
Below is the full rolling text of the novel I am working on; it is the third (or fourth) rewrite of the novel. It is a draft, where I am developing the characters and plot. I pasted the text because the Scribd file insertion doesn't show up on any phones. The file was last updated on June 2017. I try to upload it every day, after I have copy-edited the previous writing. It's a fluid beast. I hope to revise it, until I want to launch the draft against the wall, and then pay my philanthropic friend, Eric Allen Yankee to edit it for me. (He is charging me a friend discount.)
Also, way, way below are some writing links, which I will reorganize in the future.
Also, way, way below are some writing links, which I will reorganize in the future.
The Harvest[ME1] : A Novel
By: Dr. Jesú Estrada
My mother hands me an old gallon container; this one is grey without a filter. I look out the window and see no Red Guards on the street. No Guards means no Harvest, most of the time.
“Now, Ashley,” says my mother, as if I haven’t been doing this run since I was six years old, “Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t stay out in the sun too long. If you hear the sirens, run to the old bunker. Just last week, Mrs. Lopez’s boy was harvested right before he got to his safe spot. You can’t hide here during harvest.” Her faded grey eyes are still beautiful, and I want to trace that deep indentation with my finger, but caring too much is a sign of weakness.
“Mom,” I sigh looking at her weary face. She is leaner than I remember with ever graying hair and perpetual orange stains on her hands and face from the processing plant. Her hair is a knot over her head with nothing holding it tight but a wispy strand of her own fading hair. I want to give her a biting remark, as really, I should outrank her because I am more productive now, but instead I smile and say, “Don’t worry Mom. I’m the fastest runner in my class and besides, there was just a harvest yesterday.”
Mom hesitates like she wants to tell me something, but even plant workers are not supposed to talk about their trade, and I am always suspicious of the packing plants. I live in Packer Town, one of the suburbs outside the city. Most of the people in Packer Town work in the packing plants.
“Just be careful,” she gives me an unusually long hug, “Remember-“
I clamp my hand over her mouth like I used to as a toddler and say in a robotic tone, “ ‘Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe[ME2] .’” But safe doesn’t mean from the Harvest, but dangerous anti-government ideas. I take my hand off her worried face, “I got the red ribbon again this month. I will be safe.” It’s true. I have gotten the red ribbon award for being productive, accountable, and punishing those who are not true patriots. I am safe.
I step out into the harsh glaring sun wearing a large Panama hat. Panama was once a country, and that is all they tell us in school. I walk confidently because running is suspect, but I manage to walk 3.5 miles an hour like I have purpose, when my only purpose is to get clean water.
Half way down the street, my heart freezes. The sirens begin softly, like an old song you can’t forget, and then the sound rises to a near immobilizing pitch. I check to see if guards are around and run, making sure not to drop the gallon. I wonder where everyone is or if someone got an underground notice I didn’t. I crash hard into an old man. It’s the homeless man who has been avoiding harvest since I was a little girl: Old Hope, I call him. He’s too old to be processed, but I always wonder what they do with old spare meat or old people in general. I don’t ever want to find out.
For a moment, we both have the same impulse. Though I am only twelve, I am strong and lethal. I have learned fifteen ways of killing someone, two with my bare hands. I could maim him or at least stun him, so he will be left behind. But instead, we both get up and run in opposite directions. I guess we are not productive citizens after all. I head down Victory Road toward the retiree compound. She will be waiting for me, my old friend.
I look quickly to my right and see a red squad beating a young boy down. He is unusually fat for the neighborhood and is overburdened with water jugs. Water jugs! I only carry one, and although I can lift 40 pounds easily, the empty container seems to weigh more than anything. To my left a grey volunteer emerges out of nowhere and grabs for my arm, but I offer a swift punch to her throat and easily scamper away into Mrs. Jenkens’ apartment. Maybe she will get it, even though she volunteers. I despise volunteers. They are normal women who can’t afford genetic modifications, unfortunate women who couldn’t find a sponsor. Still, that doesn’t give them the right to harvest us. Especially not me.
I am a girl with high prospects.
I look for any squad member that might be lurking about. Hiding from the squads inside your own home if you are on the streets when the harvest starts is illegal; that tracking is possible because the census software at home tracks your arm-port; one must be accountable. Being hidden in others’ homes is frowned upon, but Mrs. Jenkens doesn’t care what the neighbors think. She doesn’t care if she gets sent to the processing plant. I really don’t think she cares about anything but our weekly meetings.
“Thought I was going to have to get out there with my shotgun,” chuckles the old woman.
She sits by the window, unafraid of gunfire. I know she has been waiting for me because she is holding the old history book in her hand, the one with all the pages in it. There is the familiar smell of green tea and black market biscuits. I spy them on the table and besides the adrenaline rush, I feel a strong surge of hunger. I wonder how much they cost her; in the market, non-meat products run astronomically high. Last week, I traded a whole leg of dog and two bananas for mom’s sanitary products. Mom never said where she got the leg; dogs are also rare and bananas even more so. I give Mrs. Jenkens a sincere grin, and know better than to pester her for details.
“Oh please,” I answer catching my breath, “You wouldn’t last a millisecond. Out there,” I point, “With your broken hip,” I aim at her hip.
I try not to stare at the bright orange shawl she wears that matchers her orange feline fur, “Or that ‘kill me’ flag you have on.” Only Mrs. Jenkens favors them over the military style uniform retirees wear. Today, the woman sports a knee-high pink dress which makes absolutely no sense and clashes against her intense blue eyes. Her cat like ears flicker back, although I know they are her playful ears.
“Hmmm,” I admonish with mock-disapproval, “Trying to get arrested with those clothes?”
Taking my gallon, she walks with the step of a young girl into the kitchen, despite her slight hobble “Bah, no one cares about a woman over fifty. I don’t taste good anyway.” She winks at me and swishes her tail. It is long and graceful, like the tails on our neighborhood cats that run rampant.
“Don’t you mean sixty?” I say. A loud bang makes me head for the kitchen but not too quickly. After all, we are trained to be unafraid of death.
When I enter Mrs. Jenkens has the gallon filled to the brim. I never ask how, but she always has water. Always has enough, but then, she lives alone.
“Two liters, not worth the risk,” says the woman, “You should go out on Sundays and with your escort.”
I snort, “Mom sold it. Besides, she doesn’t have the money to have me engineered, again. Not that they’ll take me,” I pause and look over my shoulder, “I still can’t eat government protein. I tried again this morning. Doc B says it’s the enzyme, but she hasn’t reported me. She can’t run the test to figure out what is wrong with me. It costs too much money, and mom is already so in-debt from the internal mods I have.” I stare at her, longing to have fur on my skin and some day, claws, “Mrs. J, are you sure the meat doesn’t come from the harvested? Is it human meat? Tell me, honestly.” I always ask her the same questions, and she always answers the same.
“No way, that’s just a rumor to keep people more afraid. People are harvested for organs and whatever the government needs. Most people are intact and become servants., especially children.”
I give her a skeptical look, “Right, Mrs. J. Intact.” Almost everyone I have seen harvested is a bloody mess.
“Beatrice is a good woman,” she says switching the subject, “She was one of my students once, before all this—” she says, “You’re so tall.”
“What?” I ask.
“You’re so tall and smart. I’m worried someone will want to patron you, sooner than your finals” she looks out the small kitchen window, “Then, I won’t see you anymore.” That is rare; patronage starts when a girl is 16, usually, but some girls are more adept, and I have been hiding some of my skills.
I give her a knowing look, “No one will take me. You know that. It’s too expensive to feed someone who can’t eat government meat. Anyway.”
The sirens end and the announcer reports, “There will be no more gatherings for thirty six hours. Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.”
“Liars. Liars. Liars,” I say in the same robotic voice, “This is the third harvest in two weeks. Do you think we are going to war again?”
Mrs. Jenkins gives me a squeeze, “We’re always at war. Now, go take this to your mother and come back fast.” She hands me a small pouch, “Go before they have time to search you. Plant this in the rooftop like I taught you. Be sure no one sees.”
“Ah Mrs. J, everyone has a rooftop garden hidden under solar tarps—“
“Yeah, but not for girls. Now hurry along!” she yowls at me playfully and swats at my head.
I know she is right. The gardens are to grow food for boys, the lucky boys who have brave parents. My mother jokes that the extra food is to fatten them for the harvest, but she is bitter having lost two sons by the age of sixteen. I never got to meet them, so they don’t mean much to me, but she still mourns them, even though truly, she doesn’t know what became of them.
I walk nimbly, avoiding strangers. No telling who might steal my water or worse, says Mrs. J, but I am not sure what worse is, yet. I have seen young boys being raped in the alley and dead people starved or shot by regular citizens. Once, I saw a woman selling her male baby on the street corner, and I held my tears all the way home. We are not supposed to cry for boys.
“Hey,” says a raspy voice. It is Guadalupe Ramirez or as I like to call him Alan. Boys are given their mother or a matriarch’s name and father’s last name. It’s cute for most mothers to do that, but his mother hates him. That is part of the reason I call him Alan, after his father.
He is my age and in the same class. He has the most brilliant smile with strong white teeth. It’s the only thing that is strong in his body. His hair is cropped short with highlights from overexposure to the sun. Most boys in the neighborhood have dark skin and black eyes. He has unusually blue eyes, and I wonder if somewhere along the way, the gender got botched up. His smile warms me to the core, and for a moment, I forget the ugly harvest.
I wave, then think better of it and scowl, “Carry this for me, boy.”
Alan snorts and takes the jug, “Humbly, oh great one.”
We both giggle, and I pace two feet ahead of him, which isn’t hard because today he is wheezing so loud, anyone can probably hear him way down at the processing plant, which is three miles away. He wears an ugly shirt with some red flowers and patched up blue jeans.
“Glad you weren’t harvested,” I say pointing at his shirt.
“You and me both; mom dressed me this morning and sent me out, even though I could barely breath. When the sirens went off, I hid under the old resistance bunker. ”
I am instantly furious. Even if he is sickly, she has no right. Boys, especially lowborn boys, are not allowed to wear red. That is a color of honor, one I wear often but am not partial to. Everywhere you see red: red cameras, red advertisements, red screen ads. Red sidewalks.
“Next time, lose the shirt and say some girl tore it off your back,” I urge him.
“And get sun burned? Then, I’ll wear red all the time,” he hands me a jug, bows gracefully, and continues onto his flat.
“Hey, boy?!” I ask, “Where is your shit suit?” because I just noticed he has no protection. Most Girls’ skin is genetically modified to bear the sun’s deadly rays, but not boys, at least not boys in our neighborhood.
He shrugs his shoulder, “Mom sold it to buy lard and some flour.”
“See you at school,” I say. I turn back to look at him; he is walking with a limp on his left foot. I gaze upward and note how the hair on the back of his head is near white, bleached from the sun.
I hurry up to see my mother, “Mom you here, or food?”
“Not roast yet,” she jokes giving me an enveloping hug that smothers me. As a plant worker, I suspect she knows what happens when people get processed, but she has never talked about her job, and I wonder if she is conditioned not to say anything. She comes in to kiss me but thinks better of it, and yanks my ear. “What have I told you? Do not consort with that boy.”
“Mom, he’s in my class, in my group,” I lie. All boys and girls are put into groups until grade nine; he is in my year, but not my group. I am glad, because after eighth grade the divisiveness starts. Boys become the focus of teachers’ scorn. They get segregated and made to be the practice targets of kicks and punches. Alan has been my best friend since we could walk; the truth is I have few friends that are girls because they are so competitive and would surely turn me in knowing about my defect. Luckily, I have always been a recluse, a sort of genius slotted to be patroned for engineering, so I can play the snob and be detached. Girls aren’t supposed to love boys anymore, but I care about him, just a little.
“Too bad. You should be in a private school for girls,” my mother rubs her hands together, “Not going to school with that boy.”
“Awe, mom, it’s OK. Some day I’ll go work in the Center and buy you a new apartment where only women live.”
Mom laughs. Her parents refused to modify her, although she claims they had the money to do so, but that is a story all low class women tell.
I go into my room and hide the seeds behind the bedpost. There is a hole I carved there when I was five, where I used to hide small trinkets. I am not the only one with one of these, but people need some kind of escape, some way to feel they are not totally controlled by harvesting laws. I pull something out and hide it in an inner pocket. I look up to the ceiling. My dad inserted a panel in the below the grubby chandelier. For someone supposedly of average intelligence, he did a job even a Red Guard couldn’t see past. That is where I keep my book of short stories and gun, just in case. I run back to Mrs. Jenken’s street.
Up high on a reinforced communications pole hangs the body of someone who will never contribute again. That is the worst kind of punishment, someone who will never nourish society. I wonder what he did. He could have liberated some men or worse, killed a woman. But, that crime is rare, unless it’s harvest time. It’s not knowing, what people fear the most. No one knows what ever happens to those who are harvested. Some say it’s a gimmick to control population and others that they are sent to war. Few that their meat is actually government protein, but I know eating human flesh has dire health consequences.
In fact, last month a woman three blocks down actually ate her little boy. She grew very ill. It made the national news, and as her punishment she was fed to the Pit. Even though human life has little worth in the slums, cannibalism is highly frowned upon.
My arm-port lights up, and there is an advertisement for a new mod I can’t afford, “Tiger Teeth,” not the most creative ad. I shiver at what those teeth could do on the playground. I could rip some choice girls’ throats out.
I think about who I won’t see on school this week. It would be so easy to list who was harvested with our technology, but the government doesn’t share the names. Instead, it highlights the names of all the girls being patroned that month. I hit “Like” on a few; two went to my school.
On my way back to her house, I almost step into a large red pool. A long blonde hair dangles in the breeze. I suck in my breath and think of Marcia Goodwin. She is the only girl I talk to on at school, a plucky girl who always scores low on her monthly tests. I think her mother did drugs when she was pregnant because Marcia doesn’t even have the minimum internal attributes like agility and intelligence. But, then genetic engineers are not gods. I look again and imagine a volunteer or worse a Red Guard beating her down because her name has made a list of someone who holds no promise. Marcia Goodwin would never be truly productive in society, and I am not even sure that she is safe from anti-establishment ideas. One day, I spotted a book that was peeking out of her pocket, but her, I didn’t report. I think she even knew that I saw, and she could have used that information against me, but Marcia also has a weak heart.
Blonde hair is common I tell myself, knowing instantly that long hair is not. Even I sport a short brown bob, so I don’t waste water when I wash it or look too gross when I style it with government goop. I turn to look at the stain one more time and run right smack into a Red Guard.
“Watch where you’re going citizen!” she hisses a deep feline hiss.
I look up; it is a slender, graceful woman with expensive Siamese singularly white furry skin and flat pointed ears. I stare at that soft white pelt. It must have cost her a fortune. Her eyes are an unusual emerald underneath her crimson visor. But I notice she is relaxed and not poised to attack.
“My apologies lieutenant,” I say confidently, “Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.”
“Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe,” she answers with a slight smile on her face—slender tiger teeth protrude—and marches on.
I can’t resist taking a look back. This guard hasn’t done the full transformation, or she ran out of funds after getting this wonderful mandibles. Her butt is perky but flat under her uniform.
What’s the point if you can’t swish your tail? I wonder.
When I walk into Mrs. Jenkens’ house, the teacup and biscuits are still there. I put my hand over the items and let the warmth seep into my hands; the tea is a rich Earl Grey, my favorite, and the biscuit is an insta-biscuit, but Mrs. Jenkins has stuffed it with butter, not margarine.
“Gift?” said Mrs. Jenkens automatically holding her hand out, “And don’t tell me what you did for it, dear.”
“Nothing perverted,” I say handing her the red velvet pouch.
“Oh my,” says Mrs. Jenkens, “What a treat!” Mrs. Jenkens picks a pinch of white gold and lets the granules roll between her fingers and back into the pouch.
I beam at her, “It’s real sugar. Real sugar, not some synthetic knock off.”
“How?” asks Mrs. Jenkens, showing genuine admiration.
“I helped the Lister girl pass her midterms. She may be modified with the best, but she’s a total moron,” I smile triumphantly because that is partially true; the other truth is that I had to beat someone up at the playground who had upset her that day. “Her family is so filthy rich compared to us, and Lister kept bringing chocolate and other treats. Of course, she never shares, but just the sight of them made me think her family had to have sugar. . . I was right, but . . . how is that possible when the islands are gone?”
Mrs. Jenkens snorts, “You still believe everything you read on the vid-screen or your arm-port? Ha!”
“But there were storms and famine,” I argue.
“Sure, but man has a way.”
“Don’t you mean woman, you dissident?” I ask in the authoritarian tone I heard earlier.
For a moment, Mrs. Jenkens looks at me uncertainly, and we both start laughing.
“Let’s drink our tea and eat our biscuits where no one will see us,” heading to the basement, she urges me to follow.
Mrs. Jenkens always makes sure all the doors are locked; she sets the wall vid-screen at a high volume with the national channel blaring. Today, they are televising the arena but not a single famous woman is fighting. No doubt, these women are just parading for show, so they won’t fight to the death, just maim each other brutally.
I walk into the basement, which is always cold, but the old woman asserts that helps a person think and stay alert.
“Today,” announces Mrs. Jenkens, “I’m going to tell you about China. . .”
Almost every day it is the same thing. Old Mrs. Jenkens, once a respected member of the Old Guard tells me impossible stories. Families used to have more than one child and celebrated boys. People ate animals like cows, all households. Everyone had clean water, but men messed everything up.
I can only imagine times what these times were like and can’t conceive anything being herded but citizens or criminals. Today, she is talking about the flue, a disease that has since been eradicated but nearly wiped out all of the Chinese population.
“Was it biological warfare?” I ask habitually because it’s always biological warfare.
“Well, that is one theory,” says Mrs. Jenkens, “You tell me girl, when has there ever been a virus that only affected one area of the country? Or one part of the world?”
I think long and hard, “Never, but then why was no one else in other parts of the world infected?”
“Well, some say it was the government itself that spread it through food. Others an errant corporation that did not properly test its products.”
“But,” I ask, “Weren’t most Chinese products exported?”
“Ah, that is the mystery,” she says looking out the widow and assigns, “Try to figure it out, and we’ll continue next time.”
For the next few days, I analyze the problem. Was it the food? No, most of that was exported. Was it medicine? No, most of that was exported, too. Was it a virus? But, there were no reported cases elsewhere. I research the historical archives, yet there isn’t much text left, just images and a few articles that support the Red Guard and a lot of history on the ills of men.
I look at the images carefully. They are advertisements with beautiful women, at least I think they are beautiful because their skin is pale and their eyes the color of burnt earth. There is not a single modification on them. I look up at the window and see my reflection; I am tall for my age, nearly 5’ 7” and although I am skinny, my instructors tell me I am all muscle. Mrs. Jenkins says my face is sweet, the shape of a heart, but I don’t see it. My hair is a honey colored brown, and I hate to see the day it has to be turned a deep, unnatural red, because if I am lucky, I will join the Red Guard. Maybe I will be modified like the Siamese woman, if I am lucky and manage to eat government meat.
No. I look at the ads and see one for make-up. I can’t imagine modifications without engineering, but people used to change their looks like a chameleon. No one uses these cheap tricks anymore.
Make up. Definitely not.
Then I notice a magazine from 2032 and spot something interesting at the bottom of the page. It is in the August edition, and I haven’t seen that mysterious ad anywhere else. I scan through other pages. I smile contentedly.
“Well, well my little friend. Whatever could you be?”
I scan other international magazines, but find nothing.
I take a snap of the ad with my arm-port and go to see my history teacher. I mutter to myself, “I know it’s cheating.”
Ms. Loop, my history teacher is one of the few women I can talk to without feeling measured and assessed all the time. Part of the reason is that Ms. Loop is so uncharacteristically plump. She had the full genetic modifications, but she is so clumsy that no one admires her. Here light grey fur is luxurious to say the least and her amber eyes are simply perfect. I come in quietly and see her full bottom hangs over the small government issued stool. Her tail is sticking almost straight out; sometimes I think it has a mind of its own.
“Ah,” says Ms. Loop with joy, as she sips a cup of something, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
I spy a clumsy rivulet of blood trickling down her expansive face. Showing blood while you eat or drink is seen as a sign of low-class starvation. Blood must never show. Hunger must never show, although we are always hungry.
“You have a little. . .” I inform caressing my own cheek.
“Oh!” snorts Ms. Loop, spilling more blood onto her desk, “Who cares anyway? It’s not like no one knows. Government blood is the best for optimal performance.”
Startled, I look around, but we are alone. I want to ask her if she thinks it is human blood, but that is a terrible insult.
“Would you care for some?” she says reaching for a cup, “It’s fresh. I believe this is goat’s blood.”
“No thank you,” I say although I am feeling treacherous hunger pangs, “Uh, I was wondering if you could tell me what this was?” I show her my arm-port.
Ms. Loop analyzes the image and smiles approvingly, “I see.”
“What year was this?” inquires Ms. Loop.
“2032, I think.” She knows no one has assigned me this work, but she never asks why I am asking questions because she is ever delighted that I do ask questions. The other girls avoid her and make fun of her behind her back. Once someone drew a lewd picture of Ms. Loop being done by a dog. Of course, I beat up that girl and erased the image during midday break; no one has drawn stupid pictures of her since.
“And what was happening in 2032?” she presses on.
I answer uncertainly, “Well, a series of earthquakes in China, tsunamis in Asia which hurt their economy, and most importantly, loss of crops with dramatic weather changes,” I add in a joke laughing, “You know people used to not believe in Global Warming? Those stupid, stupid men. Now look at us?”
She laughs heartily, “Arrogant men with too much power.” She snorts and little blood oozes out of her nose, which causes us to both laugh.
She regains her composure as most women do, instantly, “How many people died in China that year?”
“Uh, over 800,000.” I still don’t see the connection. I admit, I feel like a man must feel all the time.
She never judges, “And how did they die?”
“The virus. Well, one of them,” I stare at the image, “I don’t understand.”
“Saliva,” answers Ms. Loop.
She looks at the advertisement. It is a cute cuddly creature, a cross between a cat and a gerbil. The eyes are a disturbing red with hints of green.
“These were government issued companions. If you were stressed, if you were lonely, if you were poor, the government issued one of these pets. Free. They are nothing like the android companions of today, but they served the same purpose.”
I am stunned, “How many? How many were issued?”
“A little over 800,000. How did they not get out of the country?” she says guessing my next question. “They were banned from airports and honestly, they had a very short life span. Just enough to bring the population to a controllable number, and even then, well. . .” Ms. Loop.
“Could they do something like that here to control the population?” I ask.
Ms. Loop smiles, “My dear, they don’t have to. Our system is near-perfect.”
“Of course, thank you,” I say bowing respectfully, “Be accountable, be productive, be safe.”
She smiles wide and tweaks my nose, “You be safe, my dear. Important people are coming, so be sure to neaten your desk.” I want to ask more, but I leave wondering if she just threatened or warned me about my ideas and extra-curricular activities.
The playground is the one place I hate to be, but we all need to be there. The boys sit on the bleachers and watch. Some of them are jealous of us. They can’t run as fast or do some of the flips we do. On occasion a fight breaks out between the boys and girls, but the teachers let it go just a bit, especially when potential patrons are around. Today, there are two potential patrons lurking about, so the fighting will go on longer than usual.
That stupid redhead, June Lister, gives me a smirk; I know she’s angry with me because I outscored everyone in math, although not perfectly. Usually I do just above excellent, but never the top. That day I was just so distracted with the thought of mom and Alan’s raspy cough.
“Hey Starving Trash,” she says nastily as I walk past her.
I can’t ignore her or that would be seen as a sign of weakness, “I see you got new shoes,” I comment before she attacks me.
She shows off her shiny leather shoes. They are red with an unusually silver pattern along the edge of the sole.
“I guess you got tired of wearing your mom’s heels. The cheap whor—“
I don’t even finish the sentence before she strikes, but I’m ready for it. I lower my body unnaturally nearly touching the ground. She claws where my face would have been; shots to the face are not allowed. I do a back flip back and strike, get into pose 1, and strike her with my left hand across the ear. That is a sensitive spot on her since her level 3 mods; she has soft grey ears cat ears with fur that peaks over the edge. She yowls, and I grab her hair.
It’s slick, far more slick than I imagined, which must be a new mod because it feels smooth and slightly oily. She slips away and does a double back kick clipping my chin. But I have been kicked harder before. My head doesn’t even snap back, and, and I suck in and lunge forward.
I knock her to the ground and punch her repeatedly, being careful not to hit her face. I punch the side of her pointy cat ear, the one I struck before, again, and she screams trying to hold back tears. I punch her clavicle and hear something pop.
My h[ME3] omeroom teacher, Mrs. Aspen blows her whistle and slowly pulls me off with one arm.
“Ashley! You are not supposed to fight with level 3 mods. You are at a severe disadvantage,” she says angrily.
“Clearly,” says Ms. Loop laughing heartily.
This infuriates June, and she strikes my face. I know she has cut me deeply with her claws, her absurd level 3 mod claws that are not necessary in our age group. The blood is streaming down, and I have to close my left eye, so it doesn’t get drenched.
“Now girls,” says Mrs. Aspen, “The fight is over.” There are rules to engagement, and June Lister has done the unthinkable: She has acted like an animal. It takes a moment for her to realize what she has done, and she tries to strike one more time despite the coming punishment.
Reflexively Mrs. Aspen grips her in a headlock and takes her away like a rag doll, while she whines about her broken clavicle.
Ms. Loop escorts me to the nurse, “Come now. I have Med Creds, just enough to fix up that wound. Put some pressure on it before everyone wants to lick your face.”
The thought is repulsive to me, but I see a fourth grader staring at me intently.
I look at her and the rest of the kids. Some of them are giving me smiles of approval. They love it when a level 3 modified girl gets shown up, especially by a lowly level 2. I look at my feet, then, at Ms. Loop, “I think your wrong.”
“What?” she asks fumbling wither her account module on her arm-port.
“I think you’re wrong about animals being at fault for the flue,” I say sighing heavily, “It’s always people that do the worst thing. Always.”
Ms. Loop gives me a warm look and escorts me to the medical wing.
There must be some important women there today because a girl four grades above me has two of her fingers severed. They will be repaired if she has enough credits.
“Wow,” I say to myself, “She must really need the money.”
Ms. Loop snorts, “Or she got what she deserved.”
I look at Ms. Loop. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, let alone students they don’t like. All girls are equal and honored in our society, at least that is what they tell us. Still, teachers tend to favor their wealthier students, though, no one would admit to favoritism.
She smiles at me and tweaks my noise, “You should have gone to a privates school.”
I smile at her weakly as the pain in my head grows stronger, “People tell me that.”
The nurse is in a cranky mood, “Shit. I’m running out of supplies. Three sponsors are here! Imagine.” She grabs my face and looks at the cut. The scanner checks for a concussion and for good measure she scans the rest of my body.
“You need to eat more meat,” she says, “You’re borderline anemic. No sponsor wants that. Hmmm, no menstrual cycle at all, yet?”
I shake my head and try to divert the conversation, “Why sponsor then? They’re supposed to help needy girls like me.” Ms. Loop chuckles.
“Cheeky girl,” says the nurse. With one sweep, she takes her silver machine. I smell burning flesh, and it burns cold. In seconds, the cut is gone. I touch for a scar, and there is none.
“Good as new!” says Ms. Loop cheerily and escorts me back to class. By then, everyone has been talking, and Alan gives an imperceptible thumbs up. I go to the front of the class where all the girls are seated. The boys sit in the back and usually just tune out when the teacher talks. The teacher is overly enthusiastic and almost bouncing, and then I see her.
She wears an uncharacteristic silver outfit, tight around her body, with gorgeous white fur. Anything would look amazing next to that fur. I look carefully and realize it’s the Red Guard I ran into before. She smiles at me, and I stare at my desk. Could she be looking for me? Sometimes the selection is so arbitrary. Sometimes it’s premeditated, and no one ever knows what happens to the girls until much later when they are unrecognizable. The teacher asks questions, and I answer well, but not exceptionally because I can’t afford to be sponsored. Productive citizens must consume, especially the government issued rations and that means eating government meat.
I steal a glance at her, and notice the tail peeking slightly around the chair.
On my way home, I think about China for a long time and not how wonderful I would look with amber eyes of my own and that amazing white fur. When I reach Mrs. Jenkens, I feel more confident about the answer.
“Well, did you figure it out?” she asks scrutinizing me.
“No,” I answer, “I thought at first it was these . . .” I show her the image of the government companions. “But, that didn’t make sense because not just the poor got these pets; the president’s daughter also died; that’s why China issued its first modifications of girls. Resistance to this disease. I think the pets got infected first somehow, and then the people.”
“Good work,” says the old woman, “Most people thought it was these animals, but the so-called experts were wrong. Those men who thought they were scientists.”
“Well,” I say waiting for an answer I know I won’t get by just asking, “What was it?”
Mrs. Jenkens clucks her tongue, “You haven’t figured it out yet?” She pulls out another ad.
There is only one full-page ad, Nutri Pills, Your Pathway to Top Health.
“Nutri Pills?” I don’t believe it.
“The first ones,” answers Mrs. Jenkens.
“But, they weren’t starving in 2032. What was in them?” I ask staring at the ad.
Mrs. Jenkens shrugs, “Who knows? Political prisoners? Herded people?” she chuckles mocking my humans are food theory, “The product was patented, and only top scientists knew what was in them, but I suspect they were compliance pills. Once the Chinese project failed, not much else was heard about Nutri Pills until fifty years ago, when we developed our own.”
“Wait!?” she asks, “How do you know it was the Nutri Pills?”
“Because my father helped re-issue them,” she answers flicking her long orange whiskers. I can’t tell if she’s sad or just pensive, “He was a great doctor, just like me. Just like me. And that is all for the day.”
I stare at the clock, we have an hour left, but I walk home anyway. I think about my father who was a no one. I often wondered if he killed himself because he was ever so clever and was too smart to get herded. Some men just do that; they kill themselves. One day two years ago, he never came home. No government papers came to report that he was processed or imprisoned anywhere. In fact, for months, Mom would search the streets and ask around the black markets. He looked for cannibalized parts there, too. An eyeball on a disfigured face or his unusually thick black hair. But, it happened that way sometimes; people would just vanish. My fear was that someone we knew just harvested him in some basement, processing unit and actually consumed him, selfishly with no accountability whatsoever. Though illegal, some basement processors existed, but the penalty was worse than death. At least that is what Mrs. Jenkens tells me, and I am not sure what is worse than death.
“Hey your majesty,” says a familiar voice. Alan is sitting at the doorsteps looking depressed and weaker than before.
I sit next to him and take out my homework pad pretending I am showing him how to solve a complicated math problem. We are better off than boys, but girls shouldn’t always be cruel.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Mom says I have to go outside and play for three hours,” he answers bitterly.
“That bitch,” I glare back towards his house, “I should report her.”
“Who would care? They only care if girls are mistreated,” He nudges me with his foot. It’s his way of warning me or questioning my judgment, “What you got there?”
I show him the picture of the government companion, “They were issued in China. You would most definitely get one.” I laugh, but he doesn’t get the joke, so I tell him, “I mean you’ve got such bad luck. You’d get an infected one. They spread the First Flue in China.” That only makes him unhappier, and I want to tell him the truth about Nutri Pills, but know truth is dangerous.
“Want to go rat hunting?” I say cheerfully. He goes to grab his stick, and we head down to the water channel. The water channel is not off limits, but if you are caught there, there is nowhere to hide. Only the rats are big enough to go into the small openings. But they are starving too and roam the channel. If you’re quick enough, like I am, you can bash a few over the head. Rat hunting happens to be one of my specialties, and it’s one of the few types of meat I can eat.
Today, I fake being dead. I have this talent for being still for a long time, and my heart rate drops to a near coma. I always wonder if the doctor messed up my engineering, but it helps out. I lie still, and when the rats get close to my eyes, I grab one by the body and second by the tail. Before they can wiggle off I bash them in the head against the concrete.
“Two down,” I say triumphantly. Now, I run after the scampering rats and grab for one, but miss.
“Hmmmm,” says Alan, “Guess you must be tired today.
I grin at him, “I’d like to see you get at least one.”
He chuckles a false chuckle, “Thank you for dinner.” We walk back together. Alan is always nervous. Thus far this year, he has been out during four harvests, but he has managed to survive them all. He is lucky.
“Don’t worry, if the sirens go off, I’ll protect you,” I say.
“I know,” he says blushing, “I would always protect you.” He blushes near purple, and I try not to make a big deal about it.
I start to laugh but bite my tongue. I pat him on the back, “Alan, I wouldn’t want anyone else fighting by my side. . .Except for Mrs. Jenkens. Maybe my mom, with a large gun.”
We both laugh, but we disengage as soon as we near other people.
“I hate this,” I say under my breath. When I was five, I was a scrawny little thing. I could run, but Alan was always faster, stronger. One day a hungry Rottweiler started chasing after me. He was a ways away, but I knew he was after me. I tried running into my unit, but I forgot the code in a panic. I saw it running closer, and I thought it was the end. Alan came running out with something long and heavy, too big for a boy his age to handle. He bashed that Rottweiler over the head, over and over. By the time the Red Guard showed up, the dog was dead. We had roasted dog for four days.
Now, Alan wheezes as soon as he takes a step outside. His skin is overtanned and his whole head turning blonde in odd patches. He looks forward and pretends not to hear me, “I’m sure you’re not the only one.” Alan winks at me before he goes into his flat.
I want to say more, but what is there to say?
The trumpets blare, and I tune in with fake interest.
“Attention citizens, there will be a special challenge at 8:00p.m. tonight broadcast on all channels,” the broadcast ends, “Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.”
It’s not law, but everyone will tune in to watch the challenge. This means two high-ranking women are going to battle, sometimes over trivial matters, often just to make us crave what we can’t afford. I don’t really want to be genetically modified any further. In fact, unlike most people, I like my body. But, the challenge also means there will be no harvest, so I will be able to haggle at the market. Today, we need soap, but I also want to trade for a mouth filter for Alan. I have a harmonica my dad left me, and even though no one can play it, the piece is old. Someone is bound to trade for it.
The market is also not illegal, but people with real goods are rare. Most items are banned anyway, like old books or old music. Sometimes old paintings are banned, and if the Red Guard catches you, you’re pretty much processed.
I look for Alex Carpenter, an unusual name that could be a boy or girl’s name; he’s not much older than I am, but he’s the best scavenger in the market.
“What’s up squirt?” he says hugging me from behind.
I try to disengage.
“Guess all those genetic mods can’t always save you!”
With that, I flip over him unnaturally and give him a solid kick on the ass.
I smirk triumphantly as he lunges forward. The people in the market stop; there is always the chance that a genetically altered girl could go feral. It has happened before with illegal mods, but mine are genuine.
I laugh good naturedly, “You were saying, boy?”
He turns and grins, “Where’d you learn that? You’re too young for that type of combat.”
“Please,” I snort, “You’re never too young for any combat. . .I watch government battles. Beside, they lowered the age, again.”
“Well, well, soon you’ll all be fighting in diapers,” he says.
“Watch your tone,” I say, not because I am offended, but because someone might overhear and turn him in. And who wouldn’t for some extra rations? That is the reward informants get, but if the Red Guard finds the person has lied, he too becomes sent to the plant or wherever.
His face darkens, “Don’t worry squirt. No one here’s gonna say anything. . . . Enough fucking around, what you got?” he holds out his hand.
I hold back, “Please. Do you think I started trading yesterday?”
We go back and forth like this for ten minutes. I ask for high priced items I won’t buy, when I really want that filter. He shows me dehydrated coffee. I show him a rat pelt and rat jerky that I gladly trade for soap. He shows me an apple, and I wonder where he got that from. I don’t want the apple, but I managed to save some sugar. I trade for five aspirin tablets for my mom’s headaches and joint pain.
Finally, I ask, “Do you have a filter? A mouth filter?”
“What do you need that for? I thought your lungs were already modified, you being a girl and all,” he says.
I have no comeback because anything I say will give me away. A girl wouldn’t be trading for a boy, especially not one outside her family. I hold up the harmonica and give him a steady look.
I try not to look around to see if anyone is overhearing. I know he wants it because the left corner of his lip involuntarily curls up every time he sees something he really wants.
“Quit being an asshole, Alex,” I say ending the banter, “Trade me already. . . . Please.”
He pauses and stares for a moment, but he won’t just give up the filter. He has to make me sweat; I think it’s his way of putting one up over a girl, any girl.
“I have this pretty pair of silk underwear,” he says holding up a pair big enough for a hippo.
“Got plenty,” I lie.
“Or, how about this nice buck knife? I bet you could use one of those to skin your rats.”
“Don’t use them,” I start to grow impatient and start looking around. Someone else could have it, but I don’t trust anyone else. He sees me lose focus on him.
“Well, it’s an awful trade,” he says pausing, “But, here you go. I’ll throw in the knife. Just give me three, no five, of your next kills.”
We shake on it, grab my package, and I run without thanking him. That is rude, but girls never have to thank boys.
When I reach Alan’s home, it’s dark. His mother is watching the vid-screen along with some other neighbors. I ring the bell five times.
“What?!” asks his angry mother.
“It’s me,” I say.
She opens the door. I want to laugh because Alan’s mom now has cat ears. I can’t tell which one because it’ dark outside.
“Uh, is Al—Lupe home?” I ask looking past her.
She gives me an angry look, “He’s gone.”
My heart stops, just like it stops when I hunt rats.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s gone. He hasn’t come home,” she says finally without a trace of sadness or remorse.
I want to ask more questions, but she slams the door in my face. I stand there motionless, stuck between a sob and a scream. On instinct, I run to Mrs. Jenkens’ place, and I don’t care. Maybe he’s there. Maybe he decided to leave his lousy home, once and for all.
I don’t even bother to knock and let myself in. Mrs. Jenkens is wearing an outrageous flower print dress. I would normally mock her, but she sees the frightened look on my face.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
“Alan? Is Alan here!?” I yell not caring who hears.
She shakes hear head no, and I do the thing girls are never supposed to do. I run to her and cry.
Between sobs, I tell her the story about how sick he has become and my trading. She purrs a low purr and strokes my head. When I finish emptying myself out, all she says is, “Good friends are hard to find, even if they are boys.”
Most women would admonish me, and tell me not to care, let alone some sickly, skinny boy. Instead, she makes me a strong cup of mint leaf tea.
“Did I ever tell you about the Mayans?” she asks.
I hold onto my warm cup of tea and let the warmth seep in. I sit and try to listen, and images of Alan being hacked by a dirty axe invade my mind.
“Like us they too killed to sustain their society. But, they made sacrifices, so the world wouldn’t end. We kill because the world is ending, and there are not enough resources for everyone,” she says.
I almost start crying again, wondering if someone in the neighborhood was desperate enough, but who isn’t? I choke on my tea and look at the vid screen for the first time.
The images of two women show up and I ignore them, until I realize one of them is the sponsor is school, Ms. Way Warrior, the Guard from class, but I don’t care if she gets her throat ripped out.
I think about what the days ahead will be like without Alan. I will have no one to talk to after school. Even ratting will become dull and more dangerous. No one would ever harm a girl, not usually. People who are so hungry they wouldn’t care if they were strung up alive along the wall. I walk home in a daze.
Then things get worse. Eight days later, I come home and see the slick black car with red wheels outside our door.
I grow frightened. Has someone noticed I can’t eat government meat? Have they come to investigate the garden? I enter using my most confident walk.
It’s her, sitting on the couch. She has short red hair and a swishy tail she seems to be enjoying. I look at the tail, and then at her.
“Lieutenant?” I stretch out my hand.
“Captain Warrior can’t have children,” says an officer standing next to her, a man, “She has seen your young girl and checked her fighting statistics. Her intelligence may be below superior, but that doesn’t matter to her.”
“I suspect that is an irregularity,” says Captain Warrior, enjoying her new title.
“Why do you say that?” asks my mom nervously.
“Because statistically, she shouldn’t be missing the same exact percent of questions each time,” answers the young captain, “The mistakes are patterned.”
I grow stiff. I didn’t think I was that obvious; I was just always careful to miss a certain percentage of questions.
“Is that true?” asks my mother faking disdain and alarm.
I know two things for sure. (1) I will be evaluated and (2) I will be injected for optimal performance. I won’t be able to lie. “Yes,” I say keeping my head up.
“Why?” asks the official, an old greasy haired man with thick glasses.
I answers as honestly as I can, “Because we’re poor, and I didn’t want to be removed from my mother. She needs me, still. ”
Captain Warrior nods her head knowingly, “I grew up in Junk Town . . .You wouldn’t know it. Now.” She stretches her slick arms and smiles at me.
I smile at her; there is no point in being rude.
“You will be evaluated tomorrow morning with and without enhancement. Be ready at 7:00a.m. and bring only one school issued bag. Here is a list of what you can and cannot bring,” with that they leave.
I look at my mom, but I have no more tears left.
“Where were you?” she asks getting that nervous tick in right cheek, “I was worried sick!”
“I was with Mrs. Jenkens,” I answer, “Alan got taken away. Or worse, Mom.”
“Always that boy! Don’t you know your place!?” she comes to me and hugs me tight because she once loved her boys too.
“Mom,” I say not caring if anyone hears, “Tomorrow I may be processed. They’re going to find out.”
Mom holds me tighter, “I don’t have any suicide pills.”
“No Mom,” I say horrified, “You’ll be processed too.” Women’s suicide carries the penalty for all family members. Sometimes maiming, but since mom is my only relatives, she would be killed for sure.
I pack my bag meticulously. We can only take arm-port cards, a spare change of clothes, and one memento. I take a picture of my mom and am careful to fold my dad’s image behind. It’s old and will look like a sign of prestige.
That night, we play cards until 1a.m. and drink black market tea. Mother should be alert for her job, always. Any mistake, and she could be punished, but this may be the last time I see her for months and months or ever.
I lay in bed, unable to sleep, but when I wake up, it’s 6:30a.m., and I am not exhausted.
“Ah mom,” I say, “That tea.” Mom has ironed my best school uniform. I wash quickly with an old rag and put on my school uniform. Mom puts my hair up in a ponytail and gives me a long hug.
“Even if you go,” she says, “You are so smart and able. Surely—“
“Don’t worry, I survived four outbreaks,” I say making her laugh.
The doorbell rings, and I give her one final hug.
Captain Warrior is wearing a blue dress and old sunglasses.
“Blue?” I ask and stop myself from asking more questions.
“I don’t care for red,” she says, “Besides, no one will be watching me.”
I suck in my breath. She doesn’t care for red? Is that a political statement? Could she be a member of the underground? I doubt it. But, maybe she is like Mrs. Jenkens, a remnant of old thinking.
“Where will I be tested?” I ask. I look at the car. It’s not the same black car with red wheels, but a white convertible.
She gives a tinkling laugh, “You’ll see.”
I try not to grow irrationally nervous because even though girls are precious, sometimes they disappear. We drive for almost forty-five minutes to the inner city. I have never been in the inner city before, and I am shocked. Girls are playing with boys, and a young woman kisses what looks like a young man. I try not to stare, but it’s hard. In the next block, I spot someone eating a tomato.
“Is that allowed?” I ask incredulously.
“Oh yes,” she answers, “I favor peas. You see here, we can afford to vary our diets a bit more. What is your favorite meat?”
Is this part of the test? I could either lie and keep lying, but I tell the truth.
“Rat,” I answer flatly.
She laughs heartily, “Ah rats. I don’t miss those days.”
“And human meat?” she asks.
I give her a steady look, “I don’t care for it.”
She pauses and bursts out laughing, “Don’t tell me you’re compassionate?”
“No,” I answer trying to be nonchalant about it, “I always hunted well and never had to stoop that low; I never broke the law, like others. Ever.”
Captain Warrior lets out a long breath, “Sometimes that happens.” She pauses dramatically, “I once ate a forearm.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Someone dear to me.”
I don’t ask anymore questions because cannibalism is frowned upon, and I am not sure if she is trying to shock me.
We stop at what looks like an old clinic.
“I will be back within the hour,” she says and drives off. I grow tense because I don’t know where I am, but I walk in with a steady stride.
A friendly Siamese woman looks up with soft green eyes, “Ashley? We’ve been expecting you. Come here dear.”
I walk through a bright corridor, and I am greeted by a man in a lab coat. He takes my blood and comes back a few minutes later.
“It’s nothing major, you inability to process government meat. We just need to modify you a bit, and you will be good as new.”
I lie down on a long corridor. I have been through this before with major mods. The scanning begins, then the injections. There is always the slightest danger that something could go wrong, or worse, nothing changes.
When I finish, he waits twenty minutes and gives me two pills to swallow. He waits and offers me some broth. It tastes gamey and rich.
“Congratulations,” he says, “You can metabolize govmeat.”
I am stunned, “How? They’ve tried before.”
“We have all the best in the inner city. All the best,” he smiles at me warmly, “Good luck with your sponsor.”
“Wait,” I ask, “What’s in it? What is govmeat?” I think about my father and the brothers I never met.
“It’s just synthetic protein,” he says, “Don’t believe all the talk on the streets. We are not savages.”
I got to shake his hand and hope he is an honest man. He stares and shakes it weakly and then hangs on tightly.
“Look,” he says giving me a last big of advice, “Be careful of your sponsor. She may be looking for a daughter, but she will throw you under the bus if you underperform. You don’t want that. I have studied your entire record. Start performing at your peak. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I answer and walk out shakily.
She waits for me outside and smiles confidently.
“Good as new!” I say pretending to be super-excited because now my life has been changed forever. Now, I don’t have to hide because I cannot. I analyze her.
“Wonderful!” she pats me on the back.
On the way to the center, she doesn’t say a word. I have a thousand questions. I want to know who paid for the test and the digestive mod, but she is not obligated to tell me. Besides, the only way to thank her is to do my absolute best.
I look at her waiting for advice or directions, but I get out and enter without her. I go into rat hunting mode before I enter the building.
The testing center is almost empty. The rooms are surrounded by two-way windows where [ME4] interested parties will see us. That is how poor girls get duped. They are offered patronages by impostors, and they vanish.
This place, however, doesn’t look like it is illegitimate. A woman with long blonde hair sizes me up. She is completely normal as far as I can see.
She takes a machine and gets a blood sample, and scans my body quickly.
“Hmmmm,” says the woman, “You’re not afraid or nervous?”
“No, mam,” I answer, louder than I should.
“Your heart rate is unusually calm, too calm,” she says.
She takes me to a large room with a table. There is more food here than I have seen, even at the market.
“Is this part of the test?” I ask.
“Ha,” she gets a plate for me, “No. You need to eat before the first test begins. You haven’t eaten yet have you?”
“No,” The truth is that we only eat twice a day, and breakfast is always sparse, “Not really, I just had some tea.”
“Great!” She steers me towards the plates.
“Where are the other girls?” I ask looking around.
“Oh, you won’t get to meet them, yet. Always causes trouble if you meet ahead of schedule. They are in the other rooms, like this.”
I stare at the table longingly; in the distance, I spy an orange and some carrots. I love orange produce and am waiting for her to leave, so I can eat. But she remains there waiting for me to do something.
I grab a carrot and orange. I look at the meats and see one I vaguely recognize. It’s plump and far less red than meat. I put a few pieces on my plate.
“What is that?” I ask pointing to some purple fruits.
“Those are grapes,” she answers observing me carefully. She writes into her clipboard.
I grab a small handful, “I have heard about grapes and wine.” I don’t want to be perceived as being low class.
“Oh, I’m sure,” she says noncommittally.
I sit at a table and begin to eat. The grapes are like a song in my mouth. They are sweeter than sugar. I eat my carrots, then orange. I haven’t eaten an orange in two years. I savor each bite, smelling every single peel, and then eating them too. Finally, I make a go at the meat. Part of me is very sad, because in a few moments, I will vomit it all or grow desperately sick. I chew it slowly and look at the woman who is still writing in her board. Before long, I have cleaned off my plate. I wait, but nothing happens. It’s true, then, the mods work.
I look at the woman, “What kind of meat is that?”
She chuckles, “Pork.”
“Can I have some more?” I ask. She nods and I grab another slice. Part of me wants to hide food in my pockets for Mom or Mrs. J, but that could be part of the test. Besides, I will not see them for a long time. I take another slice and grab more grapes. Alan would love these, and that slows me down. Everything tastes bitter as bile rises from my stomach. That is good because I need to stay sharp.
I stop eating abruptly, and a loud robotic voice says, “Ashley Jones, report to the Arts room.”
Art? Art is not my best subject. Well, at least I am not as good as I would like to be. I can paint just about anything, but I can’t play any instruments well besides the harmonica. I doubt they play that in the city.
I report and am relieved to see a variety of tables.
“Choose one,” says the woman.
I choose the oil painting section.
“Paint a picture of your father,” says the woman coldly, “You have thirty minutes.”
I am torn. Part of me wants to paint a picture where he is smiling; instead I paint a picture from when I was little girl. He came home drenched in blood, and once he sat down, he wept. That is the image I capture. But in the background, I put the flag of our great nation. It’s not perfect, but it’s a very good likeness.
The woman stands behind me and stares. She gives me an appreciative look.
“Now, let’s move onto the Computer room,” she touches my shoulder and herds me to another room.
In the distance, I hear someone scream, and I want to run to see what is happening.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “It’s part of the test.”
When we enter the computer room, I am surprised to see Lister. She is smiling triumphantly and already decking herself with an entourage. Pretending she doesn’t see me, she goes back to her work.
I sit at a terminal. The questions are far too easy, and before the hour is over, I am at a level eight.
The woman gives an appreciative hum, “Wow.” She says. The other girls look up at me, some of them with hate it their eyes. Lister has grown uncertain because I know she probably didn’t make it past level two, so I smirk at her, right at her, and hold my triumphant look.
“Now,” says my guide, “Onto combat.”
I grin at Lister one last time. I hope she’s my opponent, but we can’t fight girls from our school, at least not in the first few months of training.
I think back to the first fight I was ever cognizant of. I must have been three years old, when I realized that women fought, but not women like my mom. These women were huge with bulging arms and furry skin. One of them was pitch black, and the only color was the red of her tongue. The other woman was soft and grey. She was calm and slender. I turned and asked my dad, “Why are the monsters fighting?”
“Same reason as always,” he answered with disgust, “One wants what the other has. Or one insulted the other one.”
I stared as the panther woman struck the grey cat woman leaving a huge gash on her cheek.
The other woman crouched and pounced, so fast the cameras had to replay the action. In less than a minute, she had torn out the larynx of the other woman in two bites.
“Well, that was quick,” said my mother disappointed.
“She must have been really angry,” replied my father.
My eyes were glued to the T.V. as the woman tore off a trophy from her opponent’s chest.
“Turn away,” said my father.
My mom held me close, “That was brutal, even for the elite.”
“Nothing is too brutal anymore,” he got up and went to his study and didn’t come out the rest of the night.
I looked up at my mom, “What’s an elite?”
She smiled at me, “That’s what you’re going to be some day, sweetheart. Some day.”
But, she was wrong, at least until I got this sponsor. My sponsor stands behind me, and suddenly brings me back to the arena. It is smaller than the ones from vid screen, but they are just as bloody.
“Study your opponent and see where her weakness is,” she says, “Your fights at school have been near-perfect. This one should not be a challenge.”
I look up and see the sponsor giving the girl a similar talk. The girl is chunky, maybe 5 feet tall with amber eyes. That means she has at least level 3 mods, which means she is fast. I look her straight I the eye, and I see fear. I snarl at her and ready myself.
When the third bell goes off, I lunge at her and scratch at her right eye, close, but not enough to actually get her face. I kick brutally bringing my left knee to her stomach. The fight is over in less than two minutes, and I know she won’t be sponsored anymore. Part of me wants to feel empathy because I know she must be struggling just like me, but my sponsor is beaming at me. After all, I am only a level 2.
Mods don’t dictate courage, no matter how advanced, and I have been living in the outskirts for so long, that I would do almost anything to survive. I grin at my sponsor and give her a salute. She salutes back amused.
Just like that, she kills my victory, “Off to our banquet,” she says.
“I look forward to it,” I say steadily. And I am hungry, combat always makes me hungry. Besides, I am no longer aberrant, I hope.
She gives me pat on the head, “I left you a gift in your quarters,” she smiles.
I hope for a gun or a weapon, in case they are allowed in combat. When I enter my room, I see a dress made out of real silk from her. It’s translucent almost and will show off my undergarments. I choose to be bold, and I don’t wear any because mine are cheap and some have holes. Beside the dress is a small white envelope. I recognize the handwriting instantly.
“A little gift from me for the evenings. Love, Mrs. J.” I look perplexed at the envelope. In it are three red pills. How did she get the envelope here? Mrs. J has always had secrets, so I take a pill and swallow it without water. Of course, it wouldn’t be a suicide pill; I hope it’s an enhancer.
After a few minutes, I feel nothing, so I put on the dress and braid my hair in a fish tail, then undo it and put it up in a loose bun like the Chinese model in the magazine. I have no other enhancements to highlight, no fur, no feline eyes, no tiger claws, so I walk down the hall to the dining room. At the head table, I see my sponsor who smiles approvingly, but my heart sinks to the depths of my stomach. In the center of the table sits the torso of what might have been a young man.
Then the pill starts to work. It is an enhancer, and I can hear everything clearly; this must be what having level three ears is like. The girls at the far end are talking about me.
“She is slum trash,” says a girl with a long braid down to her waist.
A red head says, “Who cares? At least she’s not from Trashville or Junk Town. She can fight really well, even for a level 2. Plus, they were gushing over her scores; she scored higher than even you.”
Her companion scoffs and glares, “Look at that dress. Maybe she’s sleeping with her sponsor. She’s a cheating whore.”
They giggle mercilessly. They are older than me, although I am not sure how much, but I am glad that I am almost as tall and muscular as they are.
I want to glare at them, but instead I march over and catch a few sponsors looking at me. I look back at them and bow and catch Lister, red faced and furious. She chose a conservative black gown and covered herself entirely. I bat my eyes at her and sit near my sponsor.
“Thank you for this,” I say in my most grateful tone and put the napkin on my lap as if I have done it hundreds of times before.
She hands me a plate and a carving knife. I look at the torso and hesitate.
“I know,” she says, “I grew up on ground meat. I had no idea how to carve a toe when I was your age.”
I take a small slice from his side and put it on my plate. I carve her a generous slice, and cut like my mom taught me.
The meat is raw, and the smell is not appetizing. The skin has turned an unnatural grey color, and there is the orange that I remember speckled here and there. I can feel bile rising in my throat, and in a few seconds I will vomit, but I breath deeply and think of rats instead. I think of the stew I made from my vegetable garden. When I bite into the meat, I don’t grow instantly sick. In fact, I can’t taste anything.
“How do you like it?” she asks.
“It’s delightful! I have never tasted anything like it.” I give her an appreciative look and smile despite my mouth being full of saliva and the bit of meat I am hiding in my left gum. But the truth is, I don’t taste anything, and I swallow and have to force myself not to gag. My body doesn’t reject this protein. I take another bite and stare at one of the other girls. They are hesitating too and looking at me like I am a savage.
Suddenly, all the sponsors start laughing. The servants remove the torso. It’s an elaborate joke, at least I hope it is.
My sponsor is laughing so much, she sputters wine into her napkin and snorts a charming little sound.
“I thought,” she guffaws, “you didn’t cannibalize?”
It is my turn to blush like Alan, “I don’t. I just didn’t want to be rude. I don’t want to be the outsider.”
The other sponsors applaud in appreciation, and the other girls radiate hate at me, some make a kill signs, while sponsors aren’t looking, but none of them frighten me. I am favored.
“We have a very talented cook and artist,” says a sponsor with long blonde hair and white fur, “We never eat human flesh, ever. Only people from Junk Town do that. That was beef.” She goes off into a detailed explanation about the genetically modified skin and the use of colors.
I want to ask a million questions, but instead, I listen. Not to her but to the others sitting out of my range. I am not sure how long the pill will last, yet I am sure this is why Mrs. J gave them to me. Battles are not just fought in the arena, she would often say, Ideas are the best battleground.
“Excellent prospects, that one,” says an older sponsor sizing me up. They sit apart from the girls. I am one of the few sitting with mine, and I wonder if there is a power struggle or if she is also marginalized because she comes from Junk Town.
“She is so cute with her perky buttocks,” says a woman with brown fur and yellow eyes.
“They are all assessing you, those greedy bitches,” whispers Captain Warrior.
“I know,” and want to comment on their thoughts, but stop short, “The girls already hate me too.”
“Oh,” she says, “That will change. Once the initial evaluations are over these next few months, you will have to team up to develop skills. The only time we are individuals is in the arena; don’t you forget that. Our society runs on full cooperation, no matter how much we dislike each other. We can’t afford to be subjective.”
I smile at her; I have always been on my own, but that is not entirely true, and the tears sting my eyes. Where could Alan be? I imagine someone slicing carefully into his side, and want to vomit.
“Hey,” she says, “Do you miss home already?”
I shake my head, “No. I am just happy to be able to eat with everyone.”
Before Alan’s disappearance the streets are clear from vagabonds and stray dogs. Cats roam abundantly hissing at people who walk by because they know their place in the food chain has shifted.
Alan kicks at one when no one is looking, and he rushes down the street. If he doesn’t get home in five minutes his mother will beat him. He carries a heavy package wrapped in brown paper. It is about three feet long, and Alan doesn’t want to know what is inside because it smells like bad meat. He also carries a gallon jug of water.
The wheezing is so loud now, some people avert him with suspicious glares.
I am just sick because I can’t afford lung mods, he wants to scream, but instead he walks onward. After all, he doesn’t want to get processed illegally. Alan knows something he has kept from his friend Ashley: People do cannibalize. It has been happening more and more, but nowhere as bad as Junk Town and places way out on the outskirts of town where government meat is scarce. He has known for a while, or he thinks he knows based on rumors and conversations his mom slips up, but has kept that from his best friend.
“She worries too much as it is,” he says out loud smiling at the thought of her. He thinks about her fighting style. For someone her age, she is a battling genius, and she is his, for the moment.
The rattling in his right lung forces him to pause. He looks up to the sky and his vision grows snowy.
As he drops to the ground with a nasty thud, he wonders, “Did my Mom drug me?” The gallon stays intact and the package falls also in unison with him.
The neighborhood where he has fallen used to be an auto industrial area many years ago. There are abandoned factories that have been gutted of everything useful. Not even homeless people sleep there because the floors have rotted.
A man emerges quietly. He wears rare clean black pants and a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball caps with an Indian on it, “Well, what have we here?” he asks, inspecting the package and water gallon.
“Awe, come on Dad, really?!” Exclaims a young man, not much older than Alan. His head is shaved, and he wears a mismatch of dirty sweats and a military jacket with patched ups sneakers, the old kind with rubber soles.
The man puts his hand up, “Shut up Strike. I’ve been watching this one. He is smart and agile. Plus, his family is shit.”
“What? You can’t know that from watching him run errands. Fuck Dad, we are already starving, and I am sure as fuck no eating that whatever is in the package. I can smell it from here,” he stands firmly.
His father smiles warmly, “It’s goat idiot. And to your point, you can tell a lot from watching a person walk in this dehumanizing world, what they do—“
“Damnit, stop preaching,” says Strike holding up his hand, “You carry his ass. I got the goat leg and water, murky shitty water.” Strike walks away continuing to mumble to himself.
“That’s my boy,” says the old man
The old man picks up the stranger as he would a baby. The boy is wheezing hard and weighs almost nothing. Still, the man struggles as he puts Alan over his good shoulder. He calls to his son in a weak appeal, but he knows Strike will not be moved. With his left hand he grips a makeshift cane made out of a mop, bat, and a lot of duct tape, hard. As he walks, he hums an old song his father taught, “Summer of ’69.”
They go to their secret place and vanish.
Alan wakes up with a pounding headache. It is hot and it stinks of shit and rotting things. It is dark, and he realizes he is upside down.
“Don’t be afraid,” Says a deep comforting voice, “We found you passed out on the sidewalk.”
They are going to process him! He starts to fight, but the man is strong. Alan bites hard.
“Strike,” he says calmly as Alan punches his captor in the face. The man drops Alan, but before he can run, Strike punches him in the stomach and then, the face for good measure.
An angry voice says, “Hurt my dad one more time, and I’m leaving your ass down here! Do you understand?!” A beam of light hurts his eyes. Alan still can’t see them, but he also knows running will be pointless.
Alan tries to catch is breath and nods.[ME5]
“Can you walk, son?” asks the old man.
He nods again gripping his stomach, “Please, I don’t have much meat in this sickly body. Not worth the risk. Besides, I think I ate bad rat.”
The old man says “We are not eating you son. We are liberating you.”
“What?” asks Alan between labored wheezes.
“My name is Mr. Brown,” says the old man, “We found you passed out on the street. Not two seconds after you passed out, there was a Harvest. We had to bring you with us, which is fortunate for you. You were a prisoner, son, and now you are on your path to liberation.”
“Oh shit,” grumbles Strike, “Here we go.” Strike fumbles around in the dark.
“Put the light against your face. This fucker bit you hard dad. And if you try to run way, I will beat you until you piss your pants!”
The light shines on the man. Mr. Brown is wearing funny colorful shirt like men used to in old ad photos. He has short cropped hair and a perfectly groomed beard. The left check sports a bloody wound Alan made. Still, the man’s eyes are kind.
Mr. Brown explains about the social conditions and oppression of men, which Alan already knows about. By the time Mr. Brown is done lecturing, Strike is finished.
They walk on for what seems like forever in the heat and stench. They reach an area where it doesn’t smell so bad and when they emerge, they are in a cool building.
“Where is this?” he asks.
“Junk Town,” answers Strike, “Stay close. If anyone asks, you’re my cousin.”
Alan takes in his surroundings. People come rushing to meet them. Some children hold out their hands in expectation, both boys and girls.
“Gosh, you really stink!” says a redheaded boy.
“No fair!” says a blonde girl, “I worked harder than he did.”
“What happened to your face?” asks a little brown boy. Alan has never seen a brown person. He takes in the short tight curly hair and amber eyes. Mr. Brown passes out small gifts to each of them, trying to be equal in the distribution.
Then, Alan freezes. In the distance two teenagers are kissing, a boy and a girl with near level three mods, but the mods are odd because only part of her skin is covered in fur. He stares for a long time.
Strike sneers, “Those two assholes just got married. Wait a few months ‘til they start hating each other.”
“But she’s. . .”
“That’s Cherry. She was an elite or going to be one,” says Mr. Brown, “We’re working on making her normal again.”
“What?” asks Alan, “Why?”
“Great, ask more fucking questions,” spits Strike.
“A conversation for another time. Let me show you around,” says Mr. Brown
Everyone is staring at him. Some people smile, others ignore him.
There are more men than women, most of them working together. The building actually has multiple floors. The second floor seems to be the scavenging room where they sort through goods. There are mismatched shoes on one pile, clothes on another, and plants in the center, which are the main focus of the sorting. He recognizes some of them from his garden. The third floor holds an indoor garden, and Mr. Brown gives Alan some strawberries.
He stares at them for a long time. He hasn’t seen strawberries in over three years. Then, he eats them until they fade into his mouth. They are small and sweet, intensely red like the color Ashley hates.
“The next floor is the dorms, and the top floor is for grown ups only. You must never go there, or you will be thrown out of my compound, if you want to stay, that is. . .”
“Are you kidding me?” Asks Alan, “I don’t care if you’re processing people upstairs. I’m staying. I can work hard—“ A painful cough stops him.
“Come on, let’s get you to Nurse,” says Mr. Brown, nearly carrying Alan, “I have business to attend to.”
Slowly, they reach the sleeping quarters and Mr. Brown puts him on a soft bed, “He’ll be by soon. Strike will keep you company until then.”
“He?” asks Alan.
Mr. Brown laughs as he walks away, “Yes. He.”
“I’m supposed to be scavenging not babysitting this dead fucker!” Cries Strike. He glares at Alan who smiles at him, “What the fuck are you smiling at?”
“I’m not dying now for sure,” answers Alan.
“What? Is that supposed to be funny, you Annoying Fuck?!”
Alan laughs, but then, he start coughing. He starts to cry, not from the pain but because he is coughing blood.
A man in his mid-forties, unusually confident and built brings an old generation Med Unit. It is loud, and the writing is faded.
“Hi,” he says, “I’m Nurse, just Nurse. Let me take a look-see.” He examines Alan and scans his lungs, “Strike bring me the new machine.”
“For this puny asshole?” He leaves in a huff.
“I like him,” says Alan.
Nurse smiles, “Yeah, Strike is a great guy, once you get past the façade. He’s had it rough, rougher than most.”
Alan waits to hear more, but Nurse offers none. Nurse works intensely and finally lets out along whistle.
“Look son, I’m not going to bullshit you. You’re dying, and unless you get some mods, you’re fucked. Best I can do is alleviate the irritation and give you pills. Do your head hurt?”
Alan shakes his head. Before he can ask how long he has, Strike returns.
“Put the little fucker on suicide missions,” he says.
“Wow,” says Nurse and punches Strike on the arm, “Go get some carrots and make him some juice, and tell me to fuck off, and he gets your dinner. Go.”
Nurse smiles at Alan, “He’s my newest apprentice and has to do what I say.” He hands him three pills, which Alan swallows after three tries.
Alan waits and three things happen: First the pain nearly vanishes; second he is able to breath better than ever; third he starts to hallucinate and begins to see her. He talks to her and lets her know everything is fine. Nurse vanishes as he tells Ashley about Mr. Brown and Strike.
“Boy has a big heart, but he’s screwed,” says Nurse.
Mr. Brown walks behind him, “Ye of little faith.”
Nurse lists all the problems wrong with the boy, “Harry, you can’t keep using her for medical favors. Besides, it’s one thing to take girls to her. Another to take boys. You think the governing isn’t watching her? They see everything.”
Mr. Brown waves him off, “We’ll see.”
Strike returns carrying four ounces of juice, “Shit sticks! He is high. What the fuck did I make this for?”
“Give it to him with a straw. Before long, he won’t be able swallow.”
Strike pulls a straw from his jacket pocket and glares at them both, but he does his job well, pacing Alan, and tilting his head.
“Get him well enough to take to her,” Mr. Brown says calmly.
Nurse tries to plead with him, but it’s not use, “He’s a boy! What is she going to do with a boy?”
“She doesn’t care,” he asserts, “Plus, they denied her right to adopt, those merciless bitches.”
Strike eavesdrops, “He won’t be free there. He’s an annoying shit but he’s better off dying here. Dad, don’t.”
Mr. Brown pauses for a moment, “Still, he will die here. There he has a chance to live and fight.”
A woman comes in screaming, and Nurse and Strike move fast.
“What happened?” asks Nurse.
Between sobs she tells them they were scavenging and attacked by a gang of children.
“Strike, prep for surgery and get Betsy to scrub down. Grab the morphine,” Nurse gives one final pleading look towards Mr. Brown. Nurse turns to the man.
The injured man is missing part of his left leg and his right ear, “Jesus.”
He ties the man down with straps and injects after a few tries of looking for the man’s vein. The man is dehydrated and malnourished, which makes it hard to find a good being, but Nurse has done this hundreds of times.
Betsy, a girl barely four feet high with tight curly hair and linger cat whiskers comes to his aid. She is wearing all white civilian clothes, and no protective gear, except for a red hospital masks that can’t conceal all of her whiskers.
“Hold the light closer to the leg,” Nurse tells Betsy, “Steady.”
It is only her third operation, but Nurse knows talent when he sees it. Even for a wisp of a girl, she is strong and never gets sick at the site of blood or worse.
Strike has gauze and the torch ready, “We have to cut parts out?”
“Nope. These savages made a clean cut on the leg. Ear, not so much,” he sighs through the mask, “Pat, bite down.”
Even through he hazed, Pat keeps saying, “I’m worthless now. I’m worthless now. I’m worthless now.”
“Nonsense,” Assures Nurse, “You’re great at math and cleaning guns.”
“Yeah, we’re going to hunt down the fuckers who did this to you,” promises Strike.
“Practice mercy, Strike,” mumbles Betsy, “They’re feral and don’t know any better.”
“Shut the fuck up. They’re a damn infestation,” answers Strike, and he holds the man down.
Nurse cleans the wound out expertly, then with the torch burns the cut clean, and Pat screams so loud, Nurse is sure the Red Guard will come at any moment.
“You want me to knock him out?” asks Strike.
“You just like to punch,” says Nurse, “Give him The Sleeper.”
“What? Why’d you wait so long?” asks Strike growing another shade of angry crimson.
“Seriously, have you learned nothing? It makes you bleed,” he shakes his head in disdain, “Now, patch up that ear.”
Strike stitches the mess expertly and covers it with gauze, “We don’t have that much penicillin left.”
“I know,” says Nurse, and watches as The Sleeper puts Patrick in a long restful sleep.
Strike sighs, “I’ll do the run.”
“Like hell,” says Nurse, “I’m not training another asshole to do your job. We’ll send Scoots and Junior.”
Strike wants to argue, but he knows better.
In Junk Town penicillin is worth more than prime rib and fresh fruit, so the only place to go is the city. The city is a two maybe three day walk, but they know Mr. Brown will walk himself if they don’t send a scavenging party.
Over the next two days, Alan grows well enough to walk around. The pain in his chest is a dull hammering, but not as bad as before. He knows his body well, and he is hesitating to tell Nurse his left hand has been going numb. His head also hurts more, but he is sure that’s because of all the coughing.
He finds Mr. Brown with wiggly bugs he has never seen before arms deep in earth from time to time. The man seems like he is singing to the dirt. Without saying anything, Alan tugs on the man’s large green jacket and says, “I can sort or help you with those things, if you tell me what to do.”
Mr. Brown smiles warmly at him, “These are earthworms.”
As usual, the old man uses every moment to teach and explain how the worms help the plants grow, how everything is interconnected and necessary. Even boys.
Alan inspects the worms, “Can you eat them?”
“I suppose, but this tastes better,” the old man chuckles and hands him something long and green.
His garden has tomatoes, a lot of tomatoes, but this green thing is new.
Without rinsing it, he takes a bite. It is tangy but good.
“It’s a zucchini, and you can cook these with onions and tomatoes,” says Mr. Brown handing him two more, “I’ll bring some chicken drumsticks. You make this however you want to.”
Alan gapes and stammers, “What chicken?”
The old man pats Alan’s head and earth trickles down his face. He follows dutifully cradling zucchinis. They are cool against his skin, and he can’t wait to cook them because amongst his many talents, cooking is one of them. In fact often when his mother would be off, which was most of the time, he would cook for his three sisters. When she wasn’t around, they were nice to him, giving him hugs and many compliments because they couldn’t even boil water, let alone handle a knife that wasn’t to kill another girl.
The onions are sliced into big pieces, in case some Mr. Brown doesn’t like onions. His sisters were allowed to be picky, and they always complained about the onions, which were one of the few abundant things to eat from time to time. Then he takes a tomato and scoops out the seeds for drying.
There are no stoves in the building, but small burners and a few pans everyone fights for, to cook meals.
Alan takes the zucchinis and cuts them into even square. The oil Mr. Brown gives him is green in color and not the government issued oil that is murky and disgusting. Just for good measure, he tastes it before putting it in the pan, “Mmm.” Then, he adds some to the pan, not too much.
He turns the burner on medium and lets the pan sit for a few minutes and adds the zucchini, then onions and tomatoes. The smell makes his hunger pangs more fierce. To his left, Mr. Brown is searing some chicken legs.
“This will be done after your dish. We’ll heat yours up again, if we have to,” says the old man, as he whistles a foreign tune.
Mr. Brown takes a taste of Alan’s dish with his right hand, “Delicious.”
Alan waits in anticipation. He thinks he remembers having chicken as a child, but he can’t remember the taste or texture. He is dying to ask where the man could get such meat, but he holds his tongue a lot and just listens and watches.
Mr. Brown takes two legs per plate. Out of nowhere, he pulls out some dense black bread.
He waits for Mr. Brown to start, but he is muttering quietly to himself, something he remembers his father doing long ago, when mother wasn’t around.
“Mr. Brown, asks Alan. Are you talking to yourself?” Or worse, thought Alan Are you hearing voices?
The old man laughs and so does a woman who sits next to them. Between hard laughs he says, “No.”
Alan looks at the old woman, “He’s not crazy. Well, not when he prays anyway.” Alan has seen the brown woman before, but hasn’t been properly introduced. The woman has feline eyes, but that is all. Her long dreadlocks reach her waist, and her skin is the color of coffee with milk.
“This is Louise Jones. Louise, this is Alan. Just Alan, won’t tell his old city name.”
The woman chuckles, “That is alright. We’re all trying to reinvent ourselves down here, or return to what we used to be.”
Alan doesn’t understand, but he nods, “Alan was my father’s name. He was a lot like you, Mr. Brown. Real smart and kind.”
The woman guffaws, “You have this one fooled. I’m the brains of this camp. He just totes a gun and runs his big mouth, nonstop. Isn’t that right comrade?”
Mr. Brown eats quietly, “Whatever, Louise. I’m not the one with a revolver strapped to my leg.”
“A lady can’t be too careful,” she winks.
The old man smiles, “Well, keep those ladies safe. Lord knows they are far and few.”
Louise gives him a friendly kick under the table, and he snaps, “Oh, that’s not very comradely, you bitch.”
Alan nearly falls out of his chair. Louise looks at him and laughs so hard, she does fall out of her chair, but she is doing it for effect, careful not to fall hard.
Mr. Brown simply says, “Things are different here, but just here. We are all equals Alan, real equals. Not like the way they tell you in your arm-port or vid-screen. Not like when they pretend The Harvest happens to everyone everywhere ”
He looks at Louise, “Give her a hand son.”
Alan knows what to do. He has done it hundreds of times before getting his drunk mother off the floor. He braces himself, hooks his arms around her and pulls. However, Louse is not as thin as his mother. In fact, he is shocked to find that she is quite heavy.
On cue, Strike emerges, “Scoot over Fuck Squirt.” He gives Louise a hand, and she gets up still laughing, “For fuck’s sake. What is so funny, woman?”
That sends her into convulsions, and she explains between breaths what happened.
Strike shrugs, “Lady? You are a bitch because that is what we need.” He extends his hand and hoists he up with a grunt, “Woman is all muscle.”
“Boss, enough bullshit. We have a problem,” They all stop, “Those idiots you sent out didn’t get much penicillin. They couldn’t reach her. But that’s not the problem.”
He takes a bite of Alan’s dish, “Good. You finally used some salt, Dad.”
Mr. Brown nods his head towards Alan. Strike snorts in disbelief.
“The real problem,” he says with zucchini in his mouth, “Is that they have new sentries in the sewer. I guess we ruffled some feathers on our last mission.”
“I want a full report, written. In 30,” with that Mr. Brown gets up.
“Written!? I’m telling you right now,” Strike grabs another scoop of food onto Mr. Brown’s abandoned plate and leaves.
“You are the brains. You don’t have to go?” asks Alan looking at Louise.
“Plenty of time, young man. Besides, dealt with sentries before,” she smiles at him, “Why don’t we get to know each other a little better?”
She looks intently at him, “Tell me about your mother.”
At first, Alan gives vague generalities. It is not polite to speak ill of women to other women, but he thinks he will never see her again, and Louis is no ordinary woman. She is a lot like Mr. Brown, trustworthy.
“She was mean, even for a woman. Hated me so much, but she was nice to my sisters.”
“Sisters?” Louse nods, “How many?”
He smiles, “Three: Esperanza, Anastasia, and Maria. They still hadn’t changed their names or been sponsored. Mom was real torn up about that because that is why she kept having girls. They were going to be her way out of poverty, supposedly.”
Louise pats his hand, “I bet you miss them.”
“I do. Her, never, but they were the total opposite of her. You have siblings?” he asks getting bold.
She sighs, “Not anymore. Had an older sister, real tough. Died in the arena at 22. Everyone had high hopes for her, but she upset a senior council member. Problem was, she had too much bravado. My brother Lawrence and I were close. But, he was arrested when he was 13. I was eight, then, and real inquisitive. They threw him into the Pit without a trial.”
Alan stares intently, “Why?”
“Who knows? Happened right after my sister died. He was real torn up about it and said the councilwoman had illegal mods, but he told everyone. You know as well as I do, you can’t speak ill of the elite.”
“Maybe he joined the Resistance because he was so mad about his sister,” he says.
“Son, how much you know about the Resistance?” she analyzes intently.
Alan shrugs, “Not much. Just rumors. Dad used to say we missed our moment when the last president was getting elected, what like 20 years go? The one who is still in power and gets elected over and over.”
She signs, “Mr. Brown is going to kill me, but I see what he sees in you. Don’t want you to be disappointed in what I’m going to tell you. You hear? Never let these bastards kill your hope and that big brain of yours.”
Alan listens attentively.
“We are small, very small. We have three other cells across the towns and a few contacts in the city. And we are able to do some good work, but we don’t have a base. You know what that is?”
“What like for sports?” he asks.
She chuckles, “No, not baseball. Not enough people who believe what we tell them—A base of support to change things. People are too afraid or stupid to rise up!” She slams the table with her fist.
Alan thinks for a long time, “How can you be sure? I have this friend named Ashley, and even she is resisting. I mean, I don’t think she is aware, but she’s not like the others. . . . She’s not really savage.”
Louise listens and smiles a secret smile, “So young. She feel the same?”
“What?” asks Alan blushing.
She winks at him, “About you?”
He stammers, “It’s not like that. It can’t be.”
“Sure it can,” says Louise getting tired, “Listen. I have to go upstairs. Got something for you, though.”
She hands him a pamphlet one made of real paper. “On the Harvest,” is all that is written on the cover.
Alan goes to sit somewhere quiet, a spot in the stairwells where young people go to just sit and read their arm ports. They don’t say much to Alan, but they let him hang around.
Alan reads it and reads it again. He gets one message out of it. Technology can feed society, and the Harvest is just a means of social control.
Alan crinkles his nose, “That’s not possible.” Alan thinks about how much arable land exists. He thinks about the sun and how it has burned the earth. Many women won’t even have children for that reason, not in his neighborhood, but the elites covet daughters.
“What’s not possible?” ask Strike who is smoking a digi-cig.
He holds up the pamphlet.
“Give you that so soon, eh? She must like you,” Strike pauses, “Why not?”
Alan rattles off his lessons like he’s giving a report at school.
Strike, for once, doesn’t criticize or on insult him, “What if I told you we had the technology to fix the sky?”
“How?” he asks sitting closer.
“Never mind how. What if I told you they grow plenty of food in special buildings in the city? Enough to feed people ten times over,” asserts Strike.
His eyes widen, “They can do that?”
Strike smiles, “Do that? It’s already being done, Moron, but you’re not a girl and you’re not elite. So that abundance, that technology, is not for you. Ready for an even better one?”
Alan gets closer.
“Hey, you’re not my boyfriend, back off, asshole,” Strike pushes Alan hard.
Alan scoots away a few inches. For a moment, he grows dizzy and his vision starts to blur, but he wants to hear what Strike is saying.
“What if I told you that this great nation was losing the war to better countries? Where men are equals? Real equals?” Strike says intently.
“I thought, but we’re winning. I thought . . . men?” everything spins and his vision grows with static.
“Whoa, Little Fucker,” Strike supports him up, “Don’t faint on me. Really?”
The world goes black as Strike curses up a string of new words Alan won’t remember.
When I wake the next morning, there is something dripping on my face. I open my eyes quickly and wipe away whatever is falling on me. It is a disgusting heart with nails and pencils running through it, parts of it are turning a strange black, and it is dripping blood. There are no words with this threat, but I get the message.
I look around; some of the other girls have already left, and everyone ignores me and the heart.
“So everyone, then,” I mutter to myself, “Same as always.” I inspect my meager belongings. Nothing else has been tampered with, as far as I can see. I suspect Lister, but it really doesn’t matter who is responsible. What matters is that I watch my back.
It has been three weeks, and I have excelled at every class and every battle. My sponsor has even talked about giving me level 3 mods early, but I want to wait until I’m 16 or older. Mrs. J. always warned me about getting my mods too early, and she always ended with, “You will want to have children some day.”
Of course, my mom could not afford the enhancements. Plus, I never thought I would make it past my graduation. Even now that I am no longer defective, I’m not sure if I want children. What if they end up like me? Geneticists cannot fix everything. What if I have a boy?
I think about Alan and wonder if he is all right. He would be disgusted by how people live in the city. He would be disgusted by how men are treated, which is better than anywhere else.
I get dressed and ready for combat. The whole Saturday is dedicated to fighting techniques, but no one wants to spar with me. I spend a lot of time working on my forms under the instructor’s careful supervision. She too has taken a liking to me and is teaching me new movements quietly that the other girls are not learning, yet. I suppose they could, if they had the aptitude and patience.
She is amazingly fast and strikes so rapidly, her movements are a blur. Today, she is having me focus on my claw strikes, though I have none and won’t for some time.
I feel ridiculous mimicking cat movements over and over, but I know some day they may save my life, or I will kill someone because my arms will remember what I want to avoid. Without the mods, the movements are unnatural, and my arms begin to scream after 20 minutes. Still, I refuse to take painkillers or put ice pads on my arms. No one else has been able to do that.
I arch and stiffen my back, then release and swipe at imaginary faces. Alan’s mom, then June Lister over and over.
The minutes pass, and I begin to do math equations in my head over and over, but that doesn’t ease the pain, so I let my mind wander.
I look to the left at four girls who are working on a team building exercise; they have bonded quickly, even though they come from different neighborhoods. Each one climbs up the gym rope all the way to the ceiling, tap it three times, and drop. The other girls turn their backs while she climbs, and one of them always turns quickly enough to catch her. This time, the chunky one with red hair is climbing.
She is leveled up as high as possible, yet she climbs the rope with great effort. It takes her five minutes and ten seconds. I wonder if two girls will have to catch her because she is so corpulent. She lets go and relaxes her body.
Lister is among them, always sneering at me, but never quite bold enough to pick another fight. She can’t afford to lose to someone like me in front of her friends. She lunges in the direction of the falling girl. For a moment, I wonder if she will let her drop like a rotten sack of potatoes, but she catches her with some effort, and she too drops under the weight.
The other girls cheer and pat Lister on the back.
I wilt a little because no one has invited me to team up yet; there are still exactly seven girls left who have not chosen. Sometimes the sponsors collude behind our backs and force the girls into an alliance, but I realize now that my sponsor is an outsider, too, and I’m not quite sure why she is so disliked.
My stomach grumbles, just like when I couldn’t eat meat or fill my hunger on vegetables from my garden. That early feast was not going to repeat itself again, and I speculate that I have misjudged the affluence of people living here. The sponsors claim that we need to discipline our bodies and started to do so after the first week, but really it feels like we are being starved for fun, to see how much we can take. However, some of the girls do need to get lean, like the fat redhead.
Drink water, they keep telling us. The water is probably filled with compliance formula, which is why I drink just enough not to get dehydrated or puking sick from hunger.
This morning, I ate a piece of brown salty bread and sipped a cup of plain weak tea. Normally that would have been enough to sustain me all day, but they spoiled us so much the first few days, and the constant exercise and battles are no help.
I look at the coach who is writing down statistics on her arm port. She nods at me; I haven’t stopped exercising for almost two hours and am always the last one to stop. Almost everyone has left, except for the fat girl trying to break her record. I smirk as she slips down the rope for the third time.
Today, a tall lanky girl lingers and stares at me. Her body is resting against a pillar, holding a small metal box, and she smiles as small smile at me.
I haven’t seen her before. In fact, she looks older and part of another group, but she looks vaguely familiar. She is wearing a red tank top and muted red tights. She must be close to graduating. I recognize that shade of brown hair, but can’t quite place my finger on who it belongs to. She is not from my neighborhood.
“Hey,” I say. I hate playing the games other girls do and would rather be direct.
She comes closer, “Hey yourself.”
“Did you go to my school?” I ask analyzing her claws and muscular arms. The forearms are a bit longer than normal with lean muscles only a cat would have. The dark coffee hair and yellow eyes aren’t atypical, but I can’t quite put my finger on where I know her.
“No, stupid, I went to your other school,” she whispers. Her ears flicker back.
It is my turn to stare silently. All I understand is that she is clearly a mod 5 because she grabs me by the arm and pulls me effortlessly. I try to wiggle my arm, but her grip is too strong.
“There were 52 states once,” she continues quietly.
My heart skips a beat.
She knows Mrs. J!
I whisper back, “Really smarty pants? How is it that we have sugar?”
She chuckles, loosens her grip, and moves to strike swiftly. It is meant to be a friendly punch, and right before she makes contact, my arm blocks with a perfect cat strike. I stare at her, and she looks shocked for a moment. We both laugh out loud.
She takes me to a new wing with other girls in her group. Traveling to common areas is not disallowed, but it’s rare. I sigh heavily.
“What, you Level 2 Kitten?” she asks genuinely concerned. I analyze her closely.
She has short brown hair and modified yellow eyes that are exotically narrow like the Asian model in the magazine. It’s an odd choice. She still doesn’t have her fur or a tail yet and may only get them after she graduates.
“I haven’t formed a team,” I look at the other girls sitting at their tables, girls who are trying not to show interest in us, “I’ve been outperforming them, the other girls in my group. I—“
“Don’t worry Kitten. Once rankings start to matter, they’ll invite you, or the sponsors will start meddling,” she assures ruffling my hair.
I try not to gape hungrily at the girls’ lunch boxes, “Ah, how is she?” One of them pulls out a sizable piece of chicken, a wing, I think. I salivate as my stomach grumbles loudly.
“What she is, is filling in my message port with daily questions! Every fucking day. I can’t even comm. with my sweetheart. She already graduated and is getting us an apartment,” she opens her box and waits to take any items out, “She really loves you, you know. Went out of her way to get me to help you. You like the gift I left you the first day?”
“Ah, Kitten, we can move around and gifts aren’t uncommon. But that’s all you’re getting, and your mom is fine, by the way.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“She went to see my mom. Don’t freak out,” the girl stops for effect, “She’s pregnant again.”
“What?!” I cry, “How?” My head is spinning. How could she be so irresponsible? Isn’t she too old?
The girl shrugs, “Who knows, but the baby is fine. By the way, my name is Beverly Healer.”
“Are you messing with me about Mom?” I ask.
“Nope,” she pauses expectantly.
“Oh my gosh,” I slap my leg, “Your mom is Mrs. B?”
“Aunt. She couldn’t conceive after her mods. I don’t know why women don’t just birth one and then get modified,” Beverly asserts.
I answer matter of factly, “I guess because there aren’t enough resources to go around.”
She chuckles, “Damn, they are starving you. I forgot about that part of the training. Look Stupid, even if you’re not eating, there are enough nutrients in your water. Drink more water, even if it tastes like dog piss. They won’t, can’t hurt you. You’re body’s developing.”
Beverly pull something out of her lunch box, “Here, Dummy.”
It is a green oval like item with crinkly skin. I try to bite it, and some girls nearby giggle at this attempt. The skin is hard, but there is something soft inside, “What is this?”
“Something from the Mexico,” she says, taking one of her claws and slicing through the skin expertly.
I gawk fascinated. The inside is a light green. She hands it to me, and I take a small bite. It is creamy and smooth.
“Mmmmm,” I moan, “This is amazing.”
“Yeah, well, enjoy it Kitten. They’re going out of season soon, or we’re going to war with Mexico, again. I can’t keep up.”
She sighs, “I’ll be in the front lines before I get my fur.”
I try not to gobble my food, but I eat it in less than a minute. “What color?” I say trying to savor the last nibble.
“White, of course!”
I pause, “That. Is. The. Color. I. Want!”
“Who doesn’t?” chimes in a short bespectacled girl with a red stretch top and black tights. The frames match the shirt perfectly.
Beverly glares at the girl for barging in, then punches her on the arm lightly, “This here is Lilac. Her mom’s a botanist, whatever the hell that is good for. Fucking botanists.”
Lilac smiles a warm smile and abruptly kisses Beverly. I try not to think about the sweetheart waiting out in the warring world. My cheeks grow red, and I look away.
“I’ve been thinking about my fur,” I say trying to get them to stop, “I want long white fur.”
Lilac stops as suddenly as she started, “Oh, I want a yellow gold color.”
We all laugh and talk about all the mods we would get.
“Kitten,” says Beverly Healer abruptly, “Our break is over. Same time tomorrow?”
I smile and nod and try to think of a clever departing shot, but have none. As they leave, Lilac grabs Beverly’s left buttock and winks at me. I certainly hope that wasn’t an invitation because I am not ready for a girlfriend.
I salute and march away. This sends Lilac into her silly giggles and this time, Beverly punches her in earnest with an, “I’m taken!”
“Whatever slut,” says Lilac punching her back so hard, Beverly stumbles.
I hope they don’t plan on playing like that with me. It’s mostly bravado, but these playful acts could hurt a little kitten like me.
I find my way back and take in the other girls as I return to my dorm. They travel in groups of four, and I am struck at how close they all seem to be to each other. But, girls are like that when they’re not fighting. Normally. I have always been an outsider, but am glad to have these new friends or at least hope they will be friends. No one does anything for free, except for Alan or Mrs. J, and even Mrs. J. demanded a treat for her gifts.
I eye my bunk suspiciously and check the mattress. The other girls completely ignore me, though here and there, a hiss aims at my direction. My arm port lights up, and I start to purr, even though I don’t have the right mods. My imitation is near-flawless. I ranked #1 in combat today, even though I had no sparring partner. The poor fat girl, here name is Vye, ranked last. I laugh out loud as an image of Vye landing on the instructor invades my mind.
This infuriates some of the girls even further. I get ready because some of them are tensing up. The worst could happen; they could go savage, and I would be screwed. Vye starts laughing and comes over.
I calculate what it would take to punch her waddling gut and knock her down.
“Yeah,” she says sitting at the edge of my bunk, “I’m always last.”
I am taken aback and notice a fresh bruise on her eye.
I look at the other girls who are part of her team. They are huddled together talking fast, strategizing.
“Look,” she continues without an invitation, “I know it’s going to sound way out of place.”
I wait expectantly as she collects her thoughts, “I suck at combat. But, I am really intelligent—at some— and well-connected. My mother is the alderwoman of the Junk Town.”
I want to laugh. I choke that impulse down, “I mean, is that a good thing?”
She grins good naturedly, “Well, if you are the mayor’s cat. You never run out of meat.”
I scowl, “Oh gross—That didn’t happen because of the floor.” I nod towards her eye, not wanting to theorize about cannibalism ever again.
Her face darkens, “We had a difference of opinions. I’m not about mobbing a girl or ripping her nipples off. I don’t live savagery.” She says the last part loud enough for the trio to hear.
“I can help you advance,” I say because it’s not a complete lie. I can tutor her in her best subjects and help her with the rest. I think back to all the tutoring I gave Alan, but don’t disclose that. If I can teach algebra to a boy, Vye shouldn’t be a problem.
She smiles and takes out a package, “Yeah, I thought so.”
I look inside and gasp. Inside are little chocolate squares, simple milk chocolate squares. I start to salivate despite myself.
She offers me one, and I pause. What if it’s a reuse? The eye could be self-inflicted, but something in Lister’s deadly daggers convince me otherwise. I take a nibble from one.
I purr louder, “Sheer heaven!”
The sharing of lavish treats goes on for eight days. We eat cookies and some soft chocolate I eat with a pink baby-sized spoon. On that day, we are nibbling dry fruit and nuts, which she claims are gross. I think they are the best treat and am about to tell her, when another un-teamed girl calls to us.
“Can I have some of those?” asks a blonde girl from a distance. She has also not teamed up, mostly because she is missing an index finger and has been unusually quiet. I smile at her and motion her over. She nearly skips to us and sits gingerly in the middle of the mattress. I sit cross-legged towards the front of my bed to give her more space.
“This is Vye,” I say, “You’re Jackie, right? From Junk Town?”
“Shut up,” she says jokingly, “I am from Up Town. My mom is a senior senator, and she sent me here to build character.”
I laugh out loud and point at her finger because surely, her mother would fix that.
“Oh no,” she says, “That’s there on purpose. I can totally afford to fix it, but it’s a memento of an epic battle I had when I was just eight, fighting for true love. That was three years ago.” She pops a chocolate in her mouth and continues on like she does that indulging every day.
Jackie is funny and charming, and not ranking too badly. I check the arm port as she develops an elaborate tale of betrayal, ending in an epic battle where a man bites her finger, clean off. She is third in math and fourth in combat. The Arts seem to be her best area, where she ranks just below me.
“Hey, you,” she says bring me back to her elaborate narrative, “You’re missing the best part. After he bit my finger, I grabbed his daughter and went swimming, nude. She pledged her eternal love for me.”
Vye who may or may not be the biggest idiot in the group says, “Didn’t your finger hurt when that monster bit it?”
“Oh, no. Love cures all ills,” she smiles waving her mutilated hand in a graceful loop.
Vye sighs, “I wish someone fought like that for me.”
“Fat ass,” says Lister, “Not even if you paid a male prostitute.” Some of the girls chuckle.
Vye shrinks, and I’m about to get up, when Jackie walks over and punches Lister so hard, her nose cracks for the second time in less than a year. I instantly get up to back up my new friend.
Just then, Coach runs in, “Girls! There is no fighting outside of combat and practice! Jackie and Lister, come with me.” She grabs them both brusquely and takes them away.
“Oh, no,” says Vye, “I hope she gets extra chores, not physical punishment, poor Jackie.”
“She’s tough,” I say, “Don’t worry too much, Kitten.”
Vye smiles, and I realize I have made a mistake, as Vye slowly inches her left hand along my right leg.
“Uh, I say awkwardly, “I have a girlfriend named A-alice.”
She pauses; something tells me Vye and I are going to be sharing plenty of sweets in the future because she is giving me a dreamy look and eyeing my flat cleavage intently.
I analyze her, too, “Were you and Lister an item?”
“Oh, here and there,” she says aloofly.
A wicked, wicked plan forms in my head. I know Lister probably befriended the doe-eyed Vye for her chocolates and family connections, but I don’t have the stomach or the acting skills to pretend to love someone or even like someone.
“I actually just met someone a few classes ahead of us,” I say not lying, “I think we’re going to become more than friends.” That is not a complete lie.
I continue, “She doesn’t share.” “But,” I add as she grows sad, “I suppose she may not mind if I date others. I don’t know.”
“It’s OK,” says Vye, “I already have like three girlfriends, not counting the ones I have in Junk Town.” She numbers them off on both hands and stops at seven, thinks better of it and adds her middle finger.
I look incredulously at her, “Really?”
She pulls out her arm port. Sure enough there are plenty of love messages, some lewd ones that I pretend to enjoy.
“No one has messaged me,” I say sadly.
“Oh,” says Vye, “That could be because my team blocked your comms. . . .Actually, I did.”
I look up at her surprised, “What?!”
“Listen, Ashley,” she sighs and looks away, “I am only really good at one thing.” She grabs my arm port and starts clicking away at it.
I look at it and there are 15 messages, including one from mom!
“Yeah, and we’ve been cheating off of you, sometimes,” she blushes, “But we got caught two weeks ago. . . .I’m sorry. Really.”
She grabs my arm port again and slides her finger around, “Now it’s secure.”
“How can you be so good at programming and suck at math?” I ask.
“It’s in my blood,” she answers, “I don’t know. I guess if I tried I would do better at math. Not interested.”
“Look,” she says, “I’m just here as a formality, kind of like Jackie. My mom already has a place in government for me.”
“Oh,” I say, “Not totally surprised.” I swat at her head like a kitten would. She doesn’t move, and I smack her harder than I intend to.
She looks startled, then giggles.
“What? You weren’t interested in moving out of range, you math hater?”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” and walks away, but not before emptying out the box on my bed. It’s a sort of clumsy apology, and I accept gracefully, dividing the contents into four. Now, I believe we will get a full team. I store them in the secret places under my pillow.
I read the arm port eagerly. Mrs. Jenkins does an admirable job of sending me the most boring messages, and I’m sure they’re in code.
“The weather was sunny today. There were no Harvest victims on my or your block.”
“Don’t forget to drink your water regularly.”
My mom’s message is not the most cryptic, “I miss you terribly! When are you going to write?” We are allowed a free message a month, unless you can afford to send more. Mrs. Jenkens must be burning through her meager retirement credits.
I write back to my mother first, embellishing here and there, “I miss you terribly, more than terribly! Things are going great here. I am ranking #1. I got a new team and possibly a girl. One of them is the mayor’s daughter, and the other is from a high-ranking family. I have great prospects. Love you, Ashley.”
Mrs. J gets a more cryptic message, “Met a new friend. Reminds me of B. Same temperament. Miss you. –A.” I send her my statistics because she will want to revel in them.
She responds instantly with a dancing cat cartoon. It merely reads ,“Bones,” above the cat. It is doing the cha cha, and I laugh because it has white fur and green eyes. Bones means she is broke, so I won’t be able to get any more messages for a while. Most of the messages talk about the weather, and I wrack my brain thinking about what we studied. Nothing comes to mind. One message catches my eye, “My bird got away. I haven’t found it, but it’s wonderfully cool outside. I hope it returns.”
Alan! She hasn’t seen Alan. I tear up, but continue scrolling through the messages.
I read through the messages over and over and realize I didn’t ask Mom about her health. I can’t outright ask about her pregnancy. Mom is not married, and she is not in her prime anymore. I lie back, careful not to crush my treats nestled in my pillow and fall asleep.
The next morning, I wake up expecting the worst. A soft caress nearly makes me jump out of my bed. It’s Jackie with a wide grin on her face. Today, she has her long hair in a braid.
“Get up sleepy head,” she whispers.
“What time is it?” I ask glancing at my arm port.
Behind her, Vye is yawning widely, fully dressed and groggy. Her hair is sticking up at odd places.
I get dressed quickly. We sneak out.
“This way,” she says giggling and walking nimbly through the hall. I have to slow down a few times, so Vye can catch up.
She leads us to stairwell, and we go up five floors.
Jackie takes out a digital key and opens the door.
“Where did you get that from?” asks Vye impressed.
“Copy,” she says, “You’re not the only one good at tech, V.”
It leads to a rooftop garden, the largest garden I have ever seen. As we walk through, she grabs and apple from a small tree and throws it at me.
“Won’t we get in trouble?” I ask.
“It’s for the seniors, and they don’t care if we’re slumming or whatever. I told you, my mom has connections, AND I have an older sister here, though she looks absolutely nothing like me,” she chirps.
I bite into the apple, “No wonder you’ve had so much energy.”
Vye grabs four. We sit comfortably with legs over the ledge of the building as the sun rises.
I lean in, “What did Coach do to you?”
“Ah, she’s a softie. I had to scrub bathrooms for an hour. Lister had to wash dishes!” she cries.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” says Vye. I look at her wondering if she knows how to wash dishes.
“Yeah, but she didn’t know how much soap to use. She broke the machine! Coach was fuming!” An image of Lister soaked in bubbles makes me laugh, and they both join in laughing so hard, Vye starts to choke on her apple.
I make her lift her arms up, and she breathes easier.
“We have ten minutes. I’ll sneak you into the dining area the back way. I have an idea on how to get a fourth,” she says. We huddle together, and she lays out her plan.
The plan is simple, and we each have our part to play. I take my meager bread and tea. Vye has given me some sugar to add, and although I hate to do what is coming next, it must be done. I sit next to a girl who is pure muscle. Her eyes are an intense grey. Her name is Lisa, like the Mona Lisa, and she is one of the few girls that has not made death threats or hissed at me.
“Good morning,” I say, nervously.
She sips her tea and says nothing but doesn’t tell me to leave. I sit next to her and offer my tray. I wait.
She slowly grabs the teacup and sips; she smiles widely. She doesn’t have to say much because she knows why I’m there.
“You, are fine, even though everyone has been as ass to you. Almost everyone. Some of us are more refined,” she looks straight at me, “But that corpulent thing. What does she add?”
I consider how much to tell her, “Well. . . .How would you like to communicate more with your family or increase your credits day by day? Vye is a whiz when it comes to tech, and Jackie, despite her humble appearance is not so bad off.” Lisa starts to think hard.
“How many credits, exactly?”
“Well,” I say trying to be mysterious, “Team up and find out. Besides, you can still change your mind.” I leave something small for her in a red pouch, hoping to seal the deal. I smile as warmly as I can, but I know I am grimacing.
I look over to Jackie who is now holding hands with a redheaded girl with tight curls. She giggles and walks away from Jackie giving her a final wink. Unfortunately, Vye hasn’t had much luck. She talked to the next biggest girl besides her, but she drops the tea in Vye’s lap and goes to Lister’s team.
Don’t let her get away with that shit! Jackie messages us. We stare at her because she shouldn’t back up from a challenge, and I message her quickly.
Here for you, V.
She gets up determined with a look on her face I have not seen. Without warning, she walks over to the table with the hulky girl, grabs her by the hair and yanks so hard, her head snaps back. The behemoth has to follow because the sheer force is making her look like a tortured marionette. She falls heavily onto the floor, and Vye holds part of locks hair in her fist. To my surprise, Lister and the other two girls are holding back.
“You ever insult me or my girls like that,” She glares at the table, “Any of you, and I will punch your damn eyes through your assholes.”
The large girl begins to whimper, and to my shock, Vye kicks her and her stomach in her privates, hard for good measure.
I look to see if Coach or anyone is coming to her rescue, but rejecting a gift like that was exceedingly rude. Vye walks away slowly, deliberately, with the same look on her eye. I look around and see the teacher’s have ignored the whole exchange. They eat their breakfast silently. Coach stares back at me and nods.
Jackie and I walk up to Vye and give her a hug.
“Come on,” I say, “I think Lisa is going to team up with us.”
As if on cue, Lisa walks behind them, and she pats Vye on the back. Vye whips around and hisses a loud acidic threat, but when she sees it’s Lisa, she instantly changes.
“Hey Mona!” she says cheerily.
Jackie and I give each other an uncertain look. Maybe there is more to Vye than meets the eye, and maybe, just maybe she is here for more than appearances. We walk together to our first class, keeping in step with each other. Somehow, I am leading the way, and although we haven’t voted, I accept the role.
Alan wakes up to a sharp alcohol smell. [ME6]
“Hey Dumb Ass,” says Strike with a hint of concern.
Nurse hovers over him and mutters, “He needs to see her. My machines can’t fix him.”
“What’s wrong with me?” he asks.
Alan’s left hand is numb, and there is a sharp pain in his head, but he can’t pinpoint where the pain is. He grips his head with both hands.
“I think,” Nurse says, “Your lungs are rotting without the mods to process the packing plant air. Also. . . you have skin cancer and now, brain cancer. You ever notice these spots here? You have one on your forearm, back, and right leg.”
“Yeah,” he says blinking back tears, “But I thought it was no big deal. Plus, I never got taken to the doctor.” He knew his days were numbered; it was just a question of when he would die.
“I want to see my friend Ashley before I die,” he says.
“Little Love Fucker,” says Strike, “You’re not dying. I’m taking you to a doctor.”
“No,” says Nurse, “I can’t afford to lose you. We’ll send—“
“Look, Nurse, with all due respect, you can’t stop me. I am going and coming back in one piece. I’ll make sure you have plenty of supplies before I go,” Strike says, “And I’m going alone. I’ll move faster that way.”
Nurse gives a resigned sigh, “Discipline Strike. Plus, I thought you didn’t like this little guy.” Nurse punches Strike on the arm.
“Ah,” says Strike, “He’s not a total piece of shit.”
The next few days, Strike brings gauze and a few medi-pills. Supplies really are scant, and even though Nurse objects, the resistance needs more. Strike readies himself for a two day run. On the third day of preparations, it is dark, and they are ready to go.
By 8:05p.m., Alan worsens.
“You are fuzzy,” says Alan to Strike who is a blur of green camouflage.
“Fuck,” says Strike. He wants to tell Nurse, but decides against it, “We’re going anyway. No point in staying.”
The pounding in his head has gotten worse, and Alan sometimes walks like he is drunk, “Don’t think. Can’t handle the sewers.”
“Don’t be a Pussy!” he says, “Besides, we are only going so far underground then top to avoid sentries. I got some fake passes to get through the checkpoints.” Strike waves something on his arm port.
“What if there’s a Harvest?”
Strike says,” Well, you’d better run Little Fucker because we have no safe houses where we’re going.”
Alan pales a little, “You’ll take me out, right?”
Strike scoffs, “Come on Little Fucker, don’t be afraid. Once we go into the city, they don’t have the Harvest.”
“What?” asks Alan getting a worse headache. Every new fact he learns is worse than the cancer growing in his body. He always knew the system was unfair, but everything he has learned from the pamphlet from Mr. Brown has grown a dark mass of hatred in his heart.
Strike laughs hoping to distract the boy, “You don’t know shit, do you? Junk Town, Packer Town, Factory Town, Agi-Town, Tech Town, Android Town, all these areas outside the city have harvests, often. Well, except for Android Town. Once you get to the center. They. Don’t. Have. Harvests. Not really. Maybe one a month, just, you know, for appearances, but not like where we’re from.
“What’s Android Town?” asks Alan, “I thought that was a myth.”
Strike ruffles Alan’s hair and soon regrets it, “Sorry, Little Fucker.” Strike pulls out an injection and inserts it at the base of Alan’s head.
“I only have three more of these,” says Strike, “We have to make them last. So don’t puss out on me, OK?”
Alan holds a thumb up; it is blurry.
“OK, lets go.”
Alan follows the Strike in the middle. Suddenly, he feels a hand steadying him.
“What the fuck?” says Strike, “No and NO!”
“You can’t do this run alone,” says a melodic voice.
“Come on Cherry!”
“Mr. Brown’s orders. Besides, you’ll need a sharpshooter, and I blend in, perfectly.”
Strike stares at her, “Oh fuck, they put your mods back on. All of them.”
“Just the skin and ears and face. The internal enhancements are gone, and all the toxic chemicals gone, but I don’t like my face being like this again. Nurse says they can make it human again, but it hurts,” she rubs at her cat face with the slits and funny whiskers, “Jesse says he still loves me anyway.”
Alan analyzes her blurry orange stripes and grey eyes, “You’re the girl that was kissing that boy.”
“Yeah,” says Strike still irritated at the change in plans, “He almost pissed his pants when he saw you kissing your husband.” Strike makes kissing sounds, and they both laugh.
“Do you love him?” asks Alan. What he really wants to know is if she is capable of love.
She holds him, “With my whole being.”
Strike starts retching like he is vomiting.
“You’ll have to take it easy on me asshole,” she says, “I’m carrying.”
Strike smirks and lights a digi-cig, “What? A pandemic?”
“No, a baby,” she says.
“You are definitely, not coming!” Strike shouts.
But she is already heading for the sewers with Alan in tow.
Strike looks at the old man in the distance and pleas silently, but his Dad says nothing and gives him a thumbs up.
“Mother fucker, stubborn, mother fuckers,” he mutters and goes down into the darkness.
“I don’t want to be responsible for any babies,” he says to no one.
“Moron,” she says, “I’m not just being sacrificial.’ She pauses and steadies Alan, “I need to see her to make sure it’s OK. You know how fucked up babies can come out after gen-mods.”
Strike curses one more time and takes the lead. They walk for two hours, having to stop almost every twenty minutes, so Alan can throw up or rest.
Strike exclaims for the millionth time, “This is ridiculous! Man up Little Fucker!”
“Shut your mouth,” she says, “We’re not safe here. Plus, how much of a man would you be with a damn lump growing in your brain? Oh wait, you don’t have one.”
“Fuck off,” a whirring in the distance makes them freeze. They turn off their lights and try to hide.
It approaches and despite the screaming pain Alan stares at the lights. There are two lights and what Alan thinks are eyes. Suddenly they turn red, and before he can shout, something whizzes next to his head. It hits the sentry smack on the right eye. An electric discharge pulses. He can feel it more than anything, and the sentry stops.
“Now we’re fucked. Move! Move! Move!” Both of them grab Alan and run. They crawl up a ladder, Strike half carrying Alan.
Another loud whirring is coming from the distance, and the three emerge into a damp smelly neighborhood.
“We have to keep moving,” Strike puts a shoulder under Alan who is having a hard time walking.
“Hey you boys need help,” slurs a drunk bum. He stops when he sees Cherry.
“We are fine citizen,” she says confidently. These are my servants and this clumsy boy has injured himself. He will be punished.”
The old man bows and stumbles away.
Strike smirks at her, but stops short because no boy would act like that with a girl Cherry’s age. Cherry is technically an adult, even though she just turned 18.
They rush forward with Strike looking back every now and then to see if the sentry is leaving the sewers.
“Where are we?” asks Sherry.
“We’re near the border of Android town. Fuck, Alan, try to stand up, please.”
Alan is growing heavier and heavier. Without thinking Strike pulls out another injection. Alan opens his eyes a little more, “It hurts.”
Cherry starts to snivel.
“Oh, come one, Cherry,” he admonishes, “I need you strong.”
“Go fuck yourself,” she says “It’s these damn hormones. They make me hungry and horny all at once. I start crying at the stupidest shit, not that you’re stupid, poor Alan,”
Strike goes cold. In the distance a patrol has been dispatched and heads toward the manhole cover from where they emerged. He turns to Cherry, “Put on your bitch persona. Please tell me all your id’s are updated.”
“Hacked by the man himself,” she says confidently. She stretches out her posture and makes her face go blank.
“Citizen!” says a woman from a distance.
Cherry stands to attention with the boys, “Relax, she whispers. We got this.” They wait for the patrol to approach.
“What are you doing out so late?”
“My little brother is,” she says, “We’re taking him to the community center for boys.”
Alan instinctively shudders and goes into characters, “Please big sister! I am getting better.” As if on cue, he goes into an uncontrollable cough.
The leader offers, “We can take him for you.”
“No,” she says, “He has been loyal to me and believes in our country.”
“Citizen,” says the second in command, “Have you seen any suspicious activity.”
“In fact,” she says, “There were two men running towards that building.”
Suddenly, someone shoots at the guard. The women run for cover and begin to fire back.
Cherry picks up Alan, and they run.
“Is that another group?!” cries Strike.
“Nope,” she answers, “It’s Mr. Brown who sent someone probably my husband, so let’s make this trip count.” A few minutes later behind a dilapidated building, she puts him down, exhausted.
“Stop carrying me,” wheezes Alan, “That’s not good for the babies.”
She smiles at him.
“Come on asshole,” says Strike, “Climb onto my back.” Cherry giggles.
Alan climbs up awkwardly, “Be my eyes Cherry. Some cannibals may get ideas.”
They walk on for another forty minutes, and Alan completely passes out. Cherry gives him another shot on the base of the neck and secures him with some duct tape to Alan’s back.
“Yo,” says a stranger who comes out of nowhere, “Mr. Brown sent me.”
“Howard!” says Strike relieved to see him.
“This little dude must be important,” he looks at Cherry uneasily.
“She’s cool, all human,” smiles Strike.
“The rumors are true, then[ME7] ,” says Howard amazed. Cherry instantly mistrusts him as she does most strange men. He is wearing a plain white T-shirt and white pants to match. His eyes are angry and contrast his long red beard. His hair is an amazing display of beautiful orange dreadlocks. She has never seen such beautiful dreadlocks before.
“We’re doing fine, without help” she says harsher than she intended.
“Whoa miss, I’m one of the good guys,” he extends his hand, and she shakes it unsteadily, “I’m the leader of the South Block.” Cherry pauses and thinks.
They go with him, Cherry with heightened instincts. Strike is surprised that instead of going to their hideout, he has a rickshaw, black made of thin metal with a makeshift seat.
“What’s that?” asks Cherry.
“Your taxi,” Strike answers and grins.
They climb on board with Alan in the middle. His head lolls erratically.
“You got your id’s?” asks Howard giving Alan a concerned look.
“Yes,” Cherry flashes the three identifications, “Don’t worry; he’s a lot stronger than he looks. Most women wouldn’t be walking right now with what ails him.”
“Good,” he pedals unsteadily and says, “The patrol is heighted. There was some rebel activity about an hour ago. Wouldn’t know anything about that would you? We don’t need trouble in our sector right now.”
“Nope,” says Strike. Howard smiles, grunting as he moves forward. It is dark, and most people stay out of his way. They reach the first barrier. It is heavily armed with automated weapons and a few women.
Strike says, “Shouldn’t we be going underground?”
“I got this Strike,” he pulls out a package with a green dry plant, “Bithes love this.”
“Ooooh,” says Cherry eyeing it greedily, “Save me some.”
“Nope, besides,” he looks at the guards, “that little boy needs it more than you.”
The first guard stares at them, “ID’s!” They pull their passes out, Cherry representing the boys.
“These are my servants,” she says needlessly.
Howard inconspicuously hands them the package, “Threw in a little extra for Savage.”
The guard snorts and laughs, “She got half of her damn left ear torn off in a match!” This makes the other guard laugh hard.
“Go on, but be aware: There may be a Harvest by 9a.m.,” she says smiling at Howard.
“Thank you, Officer L,” he says winking.
“You’re welcome, Little Brother,” she whispers, “Say hi to Dad. Mom is fine, and you’d better go see her in the condo while you’re in the city, or else. Plus, she says to stop with your bullshit.”
“What bullshit?” he asks innocently.
“I’m serious,” she hisses and growls in a cute cat growl for good measure.
“OK, OK,” he says holding his hands up.
“You, be safe, be productive, be accountable,” she says in a stern voice, and adds, “Especially around this weakling.” She punches Howard on the arm, and Cherry can see that Howard wants to return the love, but can’t.
He pedals on and tells them, “You tell anyone she’s family, and I’ll gut you myself.”
“All this time, we thought you were so clever,” chides Strike, “Getting us through the wall.”
“She ain’t always on. Besides, the other day she blue balled my poor balls, to prove a point. She’s a real bitch, but I love her,” he says and grows silent.
“You gonna see your, Ma?” asks Strike curious.
“Maybe, but let’s get you three where you need to be,” he turns to look at Alan, “He looks dead.”
“Oh fuck,” Strike checks his breathing and takes a pause, “Damnit.” He grabs a red shot, and looks at Cherry. “You have to.”
“Mother fucker,” she says, “Where?”
Strike talks her through it, and with one motion, punches it into his heart.
Alan breathes and opens his yes, “Owe!” He looks around confused.
“Don’t you fucking dare puke on me,” says Strike.
Alan takes his surroundings in, “Who is that?
Cherry fills him in.
“I’m sorry team. I’ll man up,” he says weakly.
Strike holds his tongue and steadies Alan.
“Here’s as far as I can take you,” says Howard, “You know what to do.”
Strike hugs Howard and gives him a package, “That from the old woman. This is from Mr. Brown. We’re much obliged. You ever need anything, anything at all, you know where we are.”
Howard holds up his hand and blesses Alan, “Don’t forget about the Harvest.” He speeds off, no longer burdened and heads toward the condo to see his Mama.
The trio lower themselves in a hidden manhole.
“We’re almost there,” he says. They walk slowly, suddenly they hear a constant beeping sound.
“What’s that?” asks Alan. Heat hits Alan on his right arm, and he screams.
The whirring grows more intense, as Cherry pulls out her gun and fires. In one shot she takes out the automated sentry.
“Anymore?” asks Strike straining his voice.
“No,” she answers but pauses.
“You’re gonna have to go on without me,” Strike sucking in his breath, “The sentry fucked me up, real good.”
Cherry inspects him closely. A wound on his right shoulder is gushing, and she is sure his leg is pretty torn and will require nano-surgery.
Her lower lip begins to quiver, “I’ll carry your weak ass.”
“No way. I’ll be fine. You go up and come get me later—That’s an order!”
“No!” cries Alan.
“There’s no point. You’re out of time. Go!” he shouts.
Cherry stands up and half drags and carries Alan as fast as she can. Both of them are crying, but they emerge after what seems like an eternity. Alan looks back one last time, and he’s sure flashing lights have reached Strike.
Alan is used to death, but he has never lost a brother.
“You think he’ll be OK?” he asks sobbing loudly.
Cherry smiles at him and says nothing.
When they emerge, it is still dark.
“Clean up your face,” orders Cherry. They walk fast with Alan stumbling and trying hard not to groan.
They reach a luxurious gate; Alan has never seen such a perfect house. A tall odd man meets them at the gate.
“Hurry Ms. Cherry,” it says in dissonant tones.
“An android!” whispers Alan and passes out again.
“Hello Number 147,” says Cherry.
“Where is Master Strike?” his eyebrows form an exaggerated concerned look.
“He’s in the sewer. Got shot by a sentry,” she answers. He pauses, and Cherry swears he is thinking, really thinking.
He runs carrying the boy into the house and leaves just as quickly.
Cherry enters the house and heads towards the living room. She is waiting there with a tray of food and water. “Did you order 147 to retrieve Strike?” asks Cherry as she makes herself at home on the plush sofa. Cherry moans and rests her head on the large armrest, curling her toes.
The woman smiles and doesn’t answer, “Don’t worry. Strike is cunning, more cunning than most women.” Cherry nods in agreement and sleeps.
When she wakes up, she is examining Cherry, “Oh my!”
Cherry panics, “What? Is it OK?”
She continues to analyze and nods, “They are just fine.” The woman pauses, waiting for the words to sink in.
“They?” Cherry’s heart pounds in her chest, “THEY?!” Cherry looks at the ultra sound image, unable to decipher any of it.
The woman laughs, “Yes! No birth defects. They both are healthy.”
Cherry groans, “Oh man, one is enough. My husband is going to go nuts!”
The doctor takes an injection, “This will help you keep food down.”
Sitting up, Cherry looks around, “Where is Alan?”
“Resting,” says a familiar voice. It’s him, her husband, Richard. He looks slimmer than usual with gorgeous curly hair. He, too, is a doctor, but is forced to play nurse under the current government system. Cherry has always wondered how much older she is than he, but she has never been brave enough to ask. He looks like me is in his thirties with a perfectly genetically modified smile, she thinks, or maybe that’s how healthy teeth should look.
She pauses, “Strike?”
“He’s safe,” says the doctor, “But #147 has taken him to a safe house.”
Cherry wants to press, but knows it would be a security breach. She doesn’t ask anymore.
Her head is spinning: Twins. She goes to the kitchen and makes a cup of tea, something she hasn’t had in weeks.
She walks up to Cherry and caresses her ear, “Did it hurt? To transform back?”
Cherry snorts, “Yeah, but it was worth it; Alan was a mess, and our tech sucks. Now, I know why I can’t eat much.”
“It’s a blessing,” she says, “They are blessings.” She gives Cherry a concerned look, “They reported on the sentries, but #147 hacked the images. He’s a genius.”
Cherry steps back, “Is he a new machine advanced programming?”
“No,” she asserts, “He’s much more than that. No one told him to hack the security footage or run to get Strike. No one had to” She puts her arm around Cherry and steers her to the couch, “Come on, the there’s a big match. I’m rooting for the underdog.”
Cherry laughs to herself. Despite her hatred for the system, which Cherry assumes is hatred, she can’t understand why the doctor loves to watch that vicious sport. “I don’t really care to watch anymore.”
But the doctor is deaf to Cherry’s protest, “Oh, you say that now.” The doctor is right because fighting is the woman that pushed Cherry to give up her rising star position: her personal coach and mother.
“Holy shit!” exclaims Cherry. Her mother is 35 years old, but still lethal. She is fighting a younger woman [describe Ashley’s sponsor]. “Do you know what led to the dispute?”
“Something about a new candidate. Your mother accused the girl of cheating or something,” she says focused on the wall sized screen.
Cherry winces as her mother slashes the young woman’s cheek. They are both excellent fighters, but Cherry knows her mother still trains three hours a day. Cherry knows her mother gets enhances almost five times a year, even though her current mods are the envy of every woman in the city. However, mods don’t always predict a victory, and to make that point, the young woman punches her mother in the eye, grabs her by the hair and flips her. Right. Out. Of. The. Ring.
“Point!” says the automated referee. The crowd goes wild, including the doctor who is standing up and cheering.
“What happened?” asks the husband wearing a ridiculous apron and handling the duster gingerly.
The instant replay details everything he missed. “Sit with us,” she says patting the seat next to her. He sits down and waits for her cues, but she is too invested in the fight. Cherry sees his hand paused with expectation, but his wife is oblivious to his adoration.
“All this movement is making me nauseous,” Cherry says taking one lingering look at the screen, as her mother punches her opponent in the right ear. She heads toward the room where Alan is resting. The walls are still the same blinding white, except now Robert has put a small plan in a stand next to his bed.
Alan looks dead, and for a moment, she panics. She sits next to him and sees the erratic vibration of his chest. She reaches out to him and holds his hand tightly unable to articulate any hope and prayer.
The next day, I go see Beverly; we meet in the rooftop garden. I am grinning like an idiot.
“Well, well Kitten. What are you smiling about?” she asks biting into an apple.
I stare at her face; she has a new decorative mod. I would never be able to afford anything impractical, but this silver glittery arch around her left eye is gorgeous.
“You like?” she says displaying her face, so I can fully admire the artwork.
“Yeah,” I answer, “What are those? Real diamonds?”
“No, those are only used by the military,” she sighs, “These are synthetic. They’re all the rage! But enough of me, Kitten. What has you so happy?”
I explain about my new team, and Beverly quickly checks their stats, “Wow. You got some prime members, except for this Lisa person. She’s obscure.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t mess with her,” I say, “Or Vye. She almost went feral on Lister’s team.”
“Good,” laughs Beverly, “Serves that bitch right. Listen Kitten, I can’t tell you what’s coming, but I am going to give you a piece of advice. Non-verbals.”
“What?” I ask.
“You kittens are so used to the arm port, and you need to comm. without it. They’re going to test you as a team, and quick communication is key. You have to work on your non-verbal cues. Like this,” She holds up three fingers to her heart, “That means I need my space, or I can do it alone. See? You develop a language only your team knows, but you have to be careful your team is solid. One member leaves, you have to devise a whole new one. Whistling or humming is also good, but in the heat of battle, you can’t always hear it.”
Ashley sits back and thinks, “So battle commands?”
“Not just,” says Beverly taking a huge bite of another apple and continuing muffled, “I mean, it can be fun too.”
“Yeah, if it were up to Vye, they’d all be about getting together,” Ashley laughs and points at her vagina and wiggles her fingers.
Beverly laughs nearly choking on the last bit of apple.
Ashley wants to talk more, but she has to spend time with her team, or else they might get suspicious that she is defecting, “It would be a bad idea to tell them about you, right?”
“Trust me, half of your team has more help than it needs,” Beverly asserts, “Besides, in the last rounds, you will be competing against them, if they all make it that far. I am supposed to help you win, Kitten.”
When I return to the common area, Vye already has a meager food tray for me. She looks unhappy. I smile at her, “What’s the matter? One of your girlfriends cheat on you?”
“Worse,” she says, “We have math discipline. Again. We have to solve a problem as a team.”
Jackie sips something hot and brown, “Mmmm, this broth is good. Tastes like jackrabbit.”
This sends the girls into giggles, and even Vye smiles.
“Don’t worry,” says Jackie, “Ashely and I got this.”
Lisa shakes her head, “It’s a team effort. That means we all have to solve part of the problem.”
Ashley thinks about what Beverly said, “OK, we have to figure out how to help each other. Look here, when I hold my eyebrows up that means you need a higher number. When I frown, lower number. I look left to right three times, the answer is wrong. I wink, it’s right.”
“What?” asks Vye. I repeat the sequence.
“I get it,” says Jackie, “I’ll add some. Hold my hand flat means divide. Cross my legs multiply.”
“Tap my finger against my head one finger, single digits. The whole hand multiply by fives,” adds Lisa.
“That’s good,” says Ashley, “Let’s not make it too complicated. Let’s go into our ports and review. Since we have no idea what the problem will be, let’s go over what they have covered and then some. And Vye. . .” I pause, “Your math scores have gone from a 65 to a 72 in a short time span. You can do this!”
Vye nods, and we start.
Lister and her team walk by, and Lister says sweetly, “Good luck, Vye. You’re going to need it.”
Vye gets that same dark look on her face and stares Lister down, “Go fuck yourself, you lousy lay. Multiply how many orgasms you can’t have!”
Lister stammers and blushes uncontrollably, and the rest of her team pulls her along.
I laugh shaking whole body, and the rest of my girls do the same, “OK, let’s focus!” We go over basic algebra and do some geometry. To my surprise, Lisa, aka Mona, is able to keep up. We practice our new language over and over, until we have it memorized.
The test is unlike any we have covered before. We go into an empty green room. The walls and ceilings and floor are all green and the room hums with an unusual energy like a racer about to start a match.
I look to Jackie, and she shakes her head.
“Candidates,” says a robotic voice, “This test is simple.”
“Yeah right,” grumbles Vye.
Before long, the room transports us to a canyon system. We all gasp at the detail.
“Simulations?” says Jackie, “So soon?”
“Shut up and listen!” says Lisa.
“Your task is to launch a missile to the enemy located in the other mesa. You have one opportunity. Each team member will have a part to solve. There are four projectiles before you with specifications. Which one will make it across and destroy your opponents and their base? You have 30 minutes.”
“Why would they be so close?” asks Jackie.
“That doesn’t matter,” I say, “Let’s solve this, fast.” My arm port lights up, and my heart sinks into my stomach. I have the easiest part, choosing the rocket. Jackie has to program the launch. Vye has to figure out the distance. Lisa has to keep time and check out our stages, which is a challenge for her because her temper gets the best of her. This is a cruel test.
I smile at my team, “Easy.”
“Easy,” they echo. And we begin.
In five minutes, Vye has an equation, but she is missing a variable. She can’t talk to us or use arm port comm., but I sign that it is wrong, partly wrong. Lisa starts to grow red and stamp her feet.
Vye quickly attempts the equation again and runs the numbers, and this time, she has it right. I wink and make sure Lisa sees my approval.
“Correct,” says Lisa sharply, “22 minutes.”
I choose the rocket that will make the maximum damages based on its composition. I stare at the tip and run my own analysis; Lisa grows more impatient and starts to hiss, which makes me want to punch her in the gut. I focus on the schematics; the first slick rocket I choose is too small, and the tip too narrow. Then, I change my mind and choose the larger, clumsier one.
“12 minutes,” says Lisa staring at my choice, confused and holding her hands up in the air in exasperation.
Jackie looks at me too, but she goes on programming impeccably, “Done.”
Lisa inspects the program and gives it a thumbs up, though she is not as adept at programming.
Jackie runs the simulation as we hold our breath.
The missile launches shakes a bit upon launch and for an infinitive minute, I see my old life flash before my eyes. I think of Alan and how ridiculous he would find this whole thing. Lisa curses, and I suck in my breath. The projectile hits the target dead center. The explosion that happens afterward is so absolute, I almost fall to my buttocks.
“Wow!” says Vye, “you picked a good one!!”
“Congratulations team,” says the robotic voice, “You completed your mission with time to spare. This time will be added to your next challenge. Take a five minute break and proceed to the next room.”
“How did you know?” whispers Jackie.
“The tip was off, and the shape was too narrow,” I answer. “I think the other one was a dud.”
Lister’s team walks out of their testing room completely demoralized.
Vye chuckles and gives Lister a piercing look, “Not so stupid now, am I?!”
They walk away silently because they won’t be competing the rest of the day.
“We can win this,” says Vye.
“There’s no prize,” Lisa says.
“But there is,” Vye rebuts, “We have to be the top. Our lives depend on it. Think about it? Prime mods! A condo in the city center! Our own android!!”
I smile at her litany, “Yeah, Kitten, we could have all that and more. . .Our moms living with us.”
A collective, “Noooo,” from my teammates sends us all into peals of laughter. I smile to myself because it would be an honor to have my mom living close to me. I think about having Alan be the butler, for a brief fantasy, but quickly shove that thought out of my head. I need to be clear-headed in our next challenge.
“Hey,” says a cheerful voice, “What’s wrong?”
I look up. It’s my sponsor. I smile at her awkwardly, “Nothing. We were just fantasizing about our new lives.”
She gives me a quizzical look, and I notice the small triangle of sparkles in the middle of her nose.
“I miss my mom,” I say honestly.
My sponsor puts her arm around me, “Think if me as your mom now. Besides, you girls did great in the last test!” She rubs her face against mine; her whiskers tickle my cheek.
“Yeah!” exclaim my teammates triumphantly.
“O.K., girls, let’s not be braggers,” I say sternly.
We grab some water and sit at the table; it tastes odd like a strong lemon. My sponsor sits with us, which puts the girls over the moon. Although she can’t talk about the challenges ahead, she talks about a tremendous battle she just had, live, and shows off the extensive encrusted wound on her left arm.
Jackie asks, “Aren’t you going to get that healed and removed?”
“Nope,” she answers, proud, “I beat a worthy opponent.” She stares at me intently, and I am confused about what that look means, but she doesn’t explain more.
“Well,” adds Lisa, “I think it’s cool!” In detail, my sponsor explains how she flipped the opponent out of the ring and scored the first point.
“We were neck to neck, but I won, 5 to 4. In the last 15 seconds of the match,” she purrs rhythmically and bares her teeth.
“Wow!” say the girls.
“Telling tales,” asks a mocking voice. It is Lister’s sponsor, who is just as annoying and arrogant as her candidate.
“None you didn’t see on vid last night,” answers my sponsor arrogantly.
My team cheers, and I urge them to settle down. We drink our odd water and continue talking about nonsense, including the new mod my sponsor has on her nose.
“That is so cool!” squeals Vye, “I hope my sponsor gets me one! I want a heart!”
“Don’t you mean vagina shape?” asks Jackie.
My sponsor acts totally shocked with a, “Aren’t you all good girls,” and we all laugh, hard.
Our break is over quickly, and we get up to the next challenge. Amidst our rambling, I notice that only one other team is continuing on, which means four failed, and I gloat internally because Lister and her girls don’t even show their faces.
“God, I hope it’s human anatomy,” says Vye.
“Yeah,” Jackie snorts, “your other talent.”
They walk into a room, and it is not the virtual chamber, but one with four different pods.
“Candidates,” says the same monotone voice, “You have proven cunningness in battle, but now, you must show your resolve. Enter the pod to be tested. You will have 35 minutes.”
“What?!” asks Lisa uncertainly.
“Just get in,” I order. My head is starting to grow foggy. Did Lister tamper with our water? Did my sponsor? I look at the girls, but I don’t have time to ask questions.
The pod grows pitch dark, and a melodic voice asks, “What is your name?”
“Ashley Autumn Packer,” I am embarrassed to say my middle name out loud.
“How old are you?”
“12,” I answer thinking this test isn’t so bad.
“Who is Alan?”
I stumble, “Uh, my neighbor.”
“Describe him,” says the voice.
I answer with detached analysis, focusing on his flaws. Suddenly, I am at the canal trapping rats with him.
“Come on Ashley!” he says urgently, “It’s getting away!”
I pause briefly and then chase the fat rat. It looks bloated, and it stops. Within seconds, it is giving birth to rat after rat after rat. I search Alan’s face, his grinning and contorting face in uncharacteristic glee. A string of drool falls drops slowly from his mouth. I pause, uncertain, but then I do what I would normally: I step on the rat’s head, but the babies still continue to come out.
“I’m so hungry, Ashley, I can’t wait to eat it,” he says gathering the babies into a plastic bag than materializes from thin air.
I analyze my Alan. He is more emaciated than usual and his hair is stringier and more orange with missing patches, “We haven’t eaten in like five days,” he says slobbering.
I feel immense pity for him, and instinctively want to give him everything, but something nags at the back of my mind. He pops one of the babies in his mouth, which makes me nauseous, and that’s when I understand: Alan would never eat before his sisters.
“Boy, you can keep that bag of garbage. The mother rat is mine,” I say spitting acid, “Be grateful, boy.”
Alan begins to snivel and cry, “That’s not fair! We haven’t eaten in days!” He wails like a forgotten child. I brace myself, get into third stance, and punch him in the gut. He goes flying back, and some of the baby rats fall out of the bag. I poise to kick him in the face, but the simulation stops. My heart is pounding, and I do everything in my power to not cry. I look at the door and I turn back to look for him, but the simulation is done.
“Well done candidate,” says the detached voice. I despise that voice. I despise this test. My ears are ringing, and I want to vomit, but I swallow the bile and walk out unsteadily.
I enter the common area, and the girls are waiting for me. Lisa looks worried, and Jackie gives me an uncertain look.
“What?” I ask.
Jackie says, “You were there the whole time. We got worried you failed.”
My head spins, and I breathe deeply. I have to be strong, stronger than my teammates, “Nonsense, kitten. I had a particularly intricate test.”
“Oh yeah?” asks Vye, but I say nothing more. I sit steadying myself as my headache grows worse.
Jackie continues, “Well, like I was telling you girls, my mom was at the edge of the cliff. I either had to save her or our president. I saved our president, of course. I finished in five minutes, flat.” She gloats and turns to look at me, and I’m not sure if she is seeking approval or making a point.
I smirk back. Everyone finished in less than 20 minutes, except for me. I think that says something more about how awful they can be, and more about how I have to watch my back from now on because Jackie seems to be positioning herself to be team leader. I won’t allow that. I can’t allow that.
“Come on!” begs Vye, “What was your test?”
I turn away and look at the other team. One of the girls vomits all over the table, and that makes my stomach turn over and over, “Let’s just say that test was scaled. I am harder to break than most.” That is not a complete lie, and I look at Jackie quite sure of myself.
I scan what they are eating and opt to not take any more refreshments.
Vye offers me water, “This will help with the nausea. It’s normal, I think.”
“I am fine,” I lie and go to the bathroom.
When I couldn’t digest protein, I had to hide the fact that I was different, and I taught myself how to throw up in near silence. That required the disgusting use of my hands to slow down the vomit and not make noise. Then, I would have to rinse my hands using the little mist of toilet water meant to clean my privates. I use this skill, now, to vomit quietly. My head hurts so badly, and I suspect it’s because I fought so hard to be cruel. My eyes begin to water, but I can’t feel. I won’t feel. Besides, I’m angry that none of the other girls seem to be as sick as me, but I was in that awful pod longer than any of them. I sigh and hear two people come into the bathroom.
My senses grow heightened. They both enter the same stall, and one of them begins to moan.
Gross, I think to myself, that team should have some restraint.
I wash my hands and despite their rude behavior I look under the stall. Their shoes are typical uniform shoes, and they say nothing about who these two horny girls are. I put some water on my face, which does nothing to alleviate my misery. I smile trying to look better than I feel and go back to the common room.
Lisa is sitting by herself, and the other team is eyeing the table and gossiping.
I look at Lisa who shrugs her shoulders. “Guess I’m out,” she says, sad.
Lisa never talks about her weight, but she also isn’t overly arrogant like some of the other girls.
“Ah,” I say patting her hand but not holding it, “Don’t worry, kitten. Vye is like, well, she’s a slutty cat.”
Lisa smiles beautifully, “Yeah, I know, but we were just together recently, and I thought. . .”
I smile at her again, and I ask about her family because really, we don’t know much about her background, “Get any comms from your family?”
She brightens up and gets closer to me, “My brother sent me a message. I know men suck, but my brother is pretty cool. He’s one of four going to medical school, anywhere.”
“Wow,” I say genuinely impressed, “He must be really smart and found someone great, some exceptional woman to support him.”
“Yeah,” she says growing sad again and says in a lower voice, “His wife is fertile.”
“What?” I ask shocked.
“Yep, she’s like a damn ovulating unicorn,” she says proudly, “I’m going to be an auntie!”
For a moment, my pounding headache lessens, “That’s awesome!”
“What’s awesome?” asks Jackie coming from behind. She looks flushed and content.
Lisa clamps up, and I look at her and pat her hand one last time.
“Nothing,” I say, “Lisa was just talking about her awesome battle moves.”
Jackie doesn’t look convinced, but Lisa won’t even look at her in the eye. I tense up because one thing I can’t deal with is romantic drama.
Vye walks in yawning, “I’m ready for a nap.”
“NO!” I say louder than I should, “We have at least one more test left. I need you three focused.”
They all nod in agreement.
“Eat something,” orders Jackie, “You need your strength.”
A hunger pang makes me uncomfortable, “Ah, fine.”
“Besides,” she whispers, “I know what the next test is.”
I lean in, and Jackie explains that the next test is going to be enjoyable because, after all, not all the tests are supposed to be a burden.
We huddle together, and Jackie makes it a point to give the other team condescending stares, which the members return with hisses and insults.
“Those girls look weak!” says Vye loudly with newfound bravado. And says in a lower voice, “We are so going to rip off their tails and strangle them with their own furry ropes.”
I have nothing to add to that statement, and we get called into the next challenge. My head is still bothering me, but the next obstacle is one I love; I just hope no one hits me in the head.
We enter a large gymnasium like the ones from school, and the teams that didn’t make it are in the pews. Their hatred for us is palpable.
“Candidates,” says that awful voice, “You have done an excellent job. Now, you must win the crowd over to you. You have 30 minutes.”
“Fuck,” says Lisa.
This brings jeers from the crowd. The other girls are mad at both of the remaining teams, but they hate us more—because of me.
They hiss and yowl at us making obscene gestures. I look at my team and smile widely, “Let’s give them a show.”
In the middle of the room is a single ball that fits in the palm of my hand. The object is to pass it in three moves only, and pitch it into the goal. Contact is not allowed, and there is a lot of running and coordination involved. As team captain, I take the center. To my surprise the lanky dark haired girl is in the middle and looks uninterested in me.
The ball floats up, and I leap, grab the ball, and in uncharacteristic lack of sportswomanship, hit her in the gut with the ball, which is not totally against the rules, whe it’s an accident. I send her careening back, as I swiftly catch the ball and pass it back to Jackie. She stops and waits to pass the ball. Despite their hatred, some of the audience members cheer, and we run forward.
Lisa tackles another team member and sends her flying out of bounds. We wait for the referee whistle, but there is none. Jackie throws it at Vye, who catches it and Jackie runs at astronomical speed. She is a yard away from the goal, and Vye throws it back.
Suddenly, one of their team members comes at me and strikes in an illegal move as arms aren’t supposed to be used to hit, just pass, but I am faster than she is, and I kick her in the knee. It pops loudly, and she is down.
To our surprise, again, no one raises a flag or comes to help her out. The long dark-haired girl takes advantage of my distraction and kicks at my rib cage. I manage to deflect her kick, but still get a good strike on my right side, which sends Lister’s team in a frenzy.
I ready myself and punch her right in the nose. It cracks, and then, I kick her in the crotch. This brings more cheers from the crowd. Part of me feels a little bad, but I am enjoying the shift and approvals from the bleachers.
The two other girls are ganging up on Jackie who has stopped. I run, fast and check one of the girls, who to her credit, doesn’t fall back but punches me in the jaw.
I crouch instinctively and strike her, but she is fast. The buzzer goes off as Jackie gets a point; the other girl grabs Jackie by the shoulders, but just then, Vye and Lisa barrel into her from both sides.
The crowd goes wild. Some of them even stand up and clap.
“Sorry,” I whisper. The girl looks at me uncertainly. I punch her in the throat, just hard enough to hurt, and the side of her left ear, harder. She goes down, instantly. Part of me hopes she can afford the nano-bots to fix her inner ear, part of me doesn’t care. I look to the final girl, who is unsure what to do, but we are not.
We run towards her. I punch her hard, and the other girls follow, and she goes down. Jackie passes me the ball, and I do a flip, as I catch the ball mid-air, and score before I land. I pass the ball to Vye, and she kicks it in. Lisa does a cute dance and slaps it hard with the back of her right hand and hits the goal dead center. We make elaborate passes and score, point after point.
This goes on with us making more outrageous points, until we reach twenty. That marks the end of the match. The crowd is cheering us on and gets louder when Lisa kicks their leader one last time, right in the face. We stand in the middle of the court and hold our hands up triumphantly.
I look at the girls we just demolished, and then my team. I break formation and walk to the girl I kicked on the knee. At first she flinches, but I say, “Come on. You played hard.”
I help her up and carry her to the medical station. Despite her hesitancy, Vye does the same, making sure to take the cutest girl. The rest of my team does the same, and this raises boos from the crowd.
“These are Citizens!” I yell back, which brings on more boos including a shoe that flies towards me, but that I bat away as it almost hits my opponent. Suddenly the room goes pitch black, which quiets everyone down. When the lights come back on, one of the teachers walks into the court clapping; they have finally brought medics with stretchers. The stretchers can actually hover and don’t need anyone to hold them up, but the teachers are putting on a show of their own.
“Well done,” she says. She walks up behind me and puts her hands on my shoulders. “We haven’t seen a match like that in years. Years!” I disengage and help the girl onto the stretcher and give her hand a squeeze. She winces and says, “Thanks. I would have left you there, Citizen.” I chuckles and yowl at her jokingly.
The girls are taken away.
“My name is Dean Andreana and I will be your lead observer for the duration of your candidacy . . . I am so proud of your performance. We have not had a fine crop of candidates in years!” The girls cheer loudly. “All of you are extra ordinary, especially these fine girls!” She gestures at us which brings lukewarm claps. “Candidates,” she continues, “the tests are over for today. You four, follow me. The rest of you back to your dorms.”
“What about dinner?” whines someone from the crowd, but the Dean Andreana says nothing.
We enter the common area, but instead of being greeted with a feast, a number of sponsors are waiting for us. I can tell by their agitated state, flickering tails, and protruding claws, in some cases, that they have been arguing. I look at Jackie, and she clings to my arm. My sponsor is sitting on the far corner in the back and looking out the window with fake disinterest.
“Candidates,” says Dean Andreana. She eyes each of us appreciatively, “You have all done exceptionally well.”
We wait in expectation, Jackie leaning in slightly.
“I will get straight to the point,” she pauses and looks straight at me, “We have a problem, and we need your help.”
“Is this a test?” asks Vye.
“No,” I say looking at Lister’s sponsor who looks like she has been crying. I poise myself, “What can we do, Professor?”
She goes on and explains, and I stand there, stunned. Someone, a resistance sympathizer has been chosen to be a candidate. That has never happened in the years the tests have been going on. She has sabotaged some of the files and used the computers to deliver water to Junk Town. They have been unable to determine who she is.
“What’s her objective?” I ask.
She breathes deeply with real worry, “We don’t know. Exactly.”
“What does it matter?” asks Lister’s sponsor, “We ferret her out and send her to The Pit!” Some of the other sponsors agree.
I hold my hand up, “Wait, we need to find out what she is doing, and why she is here. The resistance has never been this bold, and they may have a larger mission.” I think back to the last news report. “Didn’t they blow up a genetics center a few months ago?” I remember that bomb killed a number of elite girls going through their final transformation. That event made me cry that night, and be mean to Alan all the following week.
There is a loud murmur, and the dean smiles at me, “See? I told you this was the right team, the right girl, for the job.”
She gives us more instructions, expresses over and over that we have to be absolutely discreet.
I walk with her and ask one more question quietly, “Do you think her sponsor knows or is somehow tied to the resistance?”
She smiles at me, “Absolutely not. I know all of these women, they are all productive and accountable.”
I nod. Still, I wonder about our safety. Within seconds, my team and I get an elaborate report with details. I walk to my girls who are giving their sponsors reassuring hugs.
Think better of it and veer towards mine and punch her in the arm, gently, “You are awful quiet, ‘Mam.”
She turns to me, without rising from her seat, “I don’t believe it. Women can’t be part of the resistance! They simply cannot.”
I give her a hug and kiss the top of her head, “Don’t worry. We’ll ferret her out, whoever she is, by the end of the week.”
She stands up and says, “I have no doubt,” then adds, eyeing my team, “You have to be sure your team is accountable, too.”
I look at her startled, “Didn’t they already check?” I nod towards the teachers and Dean Andreana.
“Yes, but. . .” she turns towards the dean charge, “Be completely sure.”
I want to tell her about the drama within the team, but she looks deflated and overburdened like my mother used to after a three-day shift. I embrace her like I would my mother and say, “I’ll make you proud, ‘Ma.”
This brightens her face, and she hugs me back fiercely.
I try to disengage in mock-displeasure, “O.K. Not so much love in front of my team. Sheesh!” Before I can get loose, the rest of the team comes towards us in one big hug.
“Don’t worry,” says Jackie, “We’ll get that stray and teach her a lesson.”
“Yeah,” says Vye, “We’ll rip her titties off.”
This makes my sponsor laugh so much her tail sticks straight out. We try not to stare. We pull apart, and Lisa gives her a salute to seal the deal. The three of us salute, too, and this nearly brings her to tears as she guffaws shaking her whole body with her tail an exclamation mark. She composes herself, “You have the rest of the afternoon off. Here.” She gives us some dark protein bars. Lisa looks disappointed.
“You don’t want to stuff yourselves,” says Dean Andreana, “Now, use this time off, wisely.”
I look at her and smile. This woman must think we’re morons to not try to solve this problem immediately. I urge the girls forward, and we go to the rooftop garden, which will most likely be empty this time of day as the older girls always have a full battery of tests that end later than ours. Besides, we have a spot that we have taken over underneath a large foreign tree. The older girls let us relax there because they prefer the fruit trees and areas with flowers.
I go half expecting to see my buddy, but she stays away from me when the younger girls are there, anyway.
I wait for everyone to get comfortable, “Let’s review the report three times and brainstorm. No ideas are too boyish; we work on this together, or not at all.”
“Sure,” says Jackie, “Seems like they’ve already set you apart, being that special girl and all.”
“Really?” I rebut, “We’re in this together. We were all asked to solve this . . . mystery. Besides, you know how these professors and officers are. Everyone is out for herself, in the end. Really. They want to balance out the collective good, but also be the best citizens, the best she can be.”
“I know,” says Jackie capitulating a bit too quickly.
Lisa looks distraught, “I just can’t believe! Here! How could women even side with the rebellion?”
“I thought the rebellion was weak, like the news says,” Vye whispers.
“I think that’s true or has been true in the past, but something has shifted,” I have nothing else to add because I have no evidence to support my claims, “O.K. Back to the reports.” Vye takes the longest to finish reading the report three times with, “This is so boring,” that she mutters every now and then. To my dismay, she has not been making any comments or taking notes on her arm port.
“Jackie,” says Vye matter-of-factly, “if the sponsors don’t give us access, we have to hack all of the candidate files. See if there is anything . . . odd. Any deaths of their male relatives.” Lisa gives me an imperceptible, but worried look. I know she is thinking about the messages she gets from her brother, but we are not under investigation, at least, I don’t think we are.
Jackie nods, “I was already thinking that. Plus, we have to hack their messages like you say.”
Lisa frowns, “That doesn’t seem right. I wouldn’t want anyone looking at my private messages.”
“Yeah,” says Vye blushing, “Me neither.”
“Do you think the other girls will talk to us?” I ask harshly.
“The file will have to be near-perfect,” Jackie asserts, “She managed to fool a rigorous selection process and her sponsor.”
“Yeah,” I say pensively, “You just never know what anyone is really thinking. We also have to get the footage of when she tampered with the security footage. Not just the room, the hallway, the common areas. Look, we’ll ask the dean for access, but we all know the selection process is sacred. If they say no, you two up to that hacking?” I look to Jackie and Vye.
“Yep,” Vye salutes.
I look at Lisa, “You’re job is to listen. Hang out where the girls are and see if there is anything off. Anything at all. Some chocolates won’t hurt. Maybe even some extra apples. We’ll have to ask the sponsors that no other girls in our group come up here.”
“What about you?” asks Jackie.
“I will be keeping a close eye on the sponsors. Something doesn’t add up,” I assert, “How did she manage to get out of her room at night without anyone noticing?”
“We’ve snuck out before,” says Jackie.
I shake my head, “Yeah, but early in the morning when some candidates go to train. No one is allowed out of bed between 8p.m. and 5a.m. No one.”
Vye frowns, “Spying on the sponsors, that would be a huge deal, right Ashley?”
“I know, but we could all be in danger. Do you want to risk this nut job blowing us all up?” I look at each one of them. I think about the footage of the girls so many months ago. A lonely, charred hand sticking out of a medical unit. That girl could have been any of us.
They agree, and I reinforce, “But we have to be discreet about that part of the investigation. Not a word to your sponsors or anyone. Is that clear?”
Vye begins to scratch her arms. It’s her tell when she is really nervous or really likes a girl. I go to her and give her a hug, “Don’t worry. I won’t get caught. Besides, I have a plan.”
She smiles at me weakly, “I know Ashley. You’re the smartest out of all of us, and I, I know we’ll find her.”
Except this infiltrator is slick, and we don’t catch her by the end of the week.
Eight days have gone by, and my girls are doing a brilliant job of searching for the traitor. Spying on the sponsors is not as hard as I thought because I have two more ear buds to help me hear. Out of desperation, I put one on discreetly and go sit with my sponsor during lunch to chat about potential fight moves. She is completely systematic about her planning, whereas I fight with my gut and sometimes no real strategizing.
I smile at her making sure to interject ideas, which she appreciates. When she goes to the bathroom, I sit and wait patiently, pretending to be looking at my port and playing a game. I zero in on Lister’s sponsor first.
“I cannot believe we have an infiltrator,” she spits angrily, “If the Dean had been more careful in her selection—“
“Watch yourself,” says her companion, “The Dean is powerful, and I am sure she did a thorough job. Look at the exceptional selection this year. She gave them a Level Three test and eight girls passed!”
Lister’s sponsor looks more downtrodden, “That was wholly unfair. The girls haven’t had any psychological training.”
“But,” says another enthusiastic sponsor, “They lasted far longer than even girls at the graduating level. Candidate Ashley is exceptional.” They al pause, and I am sure they are all staring at me. I fight the urge not to look up, and continue playing my phantom game.
My sponsor sits down and hisses, “Why are those bitches staring at you?”
I look up acting surprised, “What?” I turn to see them and give them a wide grin. Lister’s sponsor smiles back.
I look over to Lister who is glaring at me, and I smile at her sweetly.
My sponsor leans in, “Any progress?”
“Yes,” I say confidently, “But, I’m not saying more until we know for sure. She is near-flawless in hiding her tracks, but not perfect. Plus, she hasn’t left the room at night.” I pause, “We don’t’ get the outside news much. Have you heard of any more attacks?”
She sizes me up, “There was some sentry activity outside our walls that was breached, a few nights ago. The footage was tampered with. A boy was shot, that is all they could tell from the blood analysis, but he is not in the database.”
“Is that unusual?” I ask, “I thought we had perfect records.”
“Boys, don’t matter,” she says matter-of-factly, “and if the moms never registered them, we have no record.”
I frown, “No more attacks on girls?”
She shakes her head and looks slightly guilty, “You know that woman I fought the other day and defeated so well. . .” I punch her arm for bragging.
“Yes,” I urge. My sponsor rarely shows emotion, but I am shocked to see that she is feeling. . . regret?
“Her daughter died in that explosion,” she sighs heavily, “Before you, no other candidate had shown so much promise. This girl, she was amazing! Her physical excellence was off the charts, like you.”
I blush, “Please, ‘Ma, all the girls are excellent.”
“No, they aren’t,” she asserts, “but I have to say, you have chosen an exceptional rag tag team.” She looks over to my girls, “I just wish they were all in better shape, though.”
“Oh,” I say, “We have been working on that, between sleuthing about. Intense intervals that I have devised for each of them, even Jackie.” We both laugh because we really don’t have a lot of time between training and studying.
“‘Ma,” I say unsure of how to broach the subject, “I know you all fight amongst yourselves and then, come together during times of crisis, but do all the sponsors seem, well, completely loyal?”
She grows instantly angry and hisses, but she pauses, “Ever thorough.” She purses her lips, which look funny with her cat face. “Truthfully, if anything was aberrant, they would have been arrested already. The sponsors are clean. Officers are under surveillance all the time. It’s the families, especially low-income families, that aren’t controlled as they should be.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“We’re not tyrants,” she answers, “Besides, the manpower to keep track of every person would be absurd. The surveillance cameras on the streets and sewers were enough, but now, I don’t know.”
“How could they know how to hack a system like that? Most men aren’t engineers or programmers,” I say.
“True. I guess that’s another mystery you will have to solve, once you graduate,” she smiles at me, and I know she is already cooking up a future for me.
I sigh, “I’ve never thought about what I wanted to be. I thought I would be a teacher.”
She laughs out loud, which makes the ear bud whine painfully. I smile rubbing my ear, and the bud stops working.
“A teacher?!” she says between guffaws, “No way Candidate Ashley. If you’re not a high government official by the time you’re 25, I’ll eat my own tail.”
“Ewe, gross ‘Ma!” I say laughing with her.
Just then the Dean Andreana sits at our table and pats me on the back, “I would pay money to see that!” This attention draws the envious stares of all the girls, including my team. I smile at them as if to say, It’s all part of the plan, but they know it’s not. She leans in trying to get the scoop, and I give her a brief, but general report. She smiles approvingly, and I look to my team as Jackie turns away to look at the floor.
I get at tray of food and sit with my team, “Has everyone stayed awake at night during their shifts?”
“Have you?” asks Jackie.
I glare at her and star her down, “Of course. I keep my log. Let me see yours.” We have been logging into the armport beneath the blankets every fifteen minutes. Vye has programmed our ports, so they go completely dark, which is not a bad asses to have in night combat. I analyze each log for the last few days. Sure enough, everyone has shown discipline.
“I had a thought,” I scoot in, “How long does it take to recover from nano-surgery?”
Lisa thinks, “Well, I when I redid my calf mods, it took about four days.”
“It’s been eight days since we had our match right?”
Jackie perks up and intesifies.
“What if it’s someone fromt hat team? Someone who was recovering?”
Vye looks over at the other team, and I kick her under the table.
“What do you have in mind?” asks Jackie.
I smile at her, “Well—“
“Look, it’s that virgin,” says Lister aiming her spite at me.
I have to compose myself, “Just because I’m not a slut like you doesn’t mean anything.”
The other girls ooooh as Lister stumbles for a response. She has cropped her hair short like the rest of her team, boy short with glitter tattos on their scalps, a fashion statement gone all wrong. I prepare to fight as Jackie, and my girls do the same.
Suddenly, Lisa starts to giggle.
“What’s so funny fat ass?!”
Lisa points at Lister’s head, “You.” She laughs harder. “Look . . . ridiculous!”
We laugh along with her, and point at their stupid heads. The rest of the cafeteria and a few sponsors joing in the uproar.
Someone cries, “You’re like an ancient disco ball!”
I laugh so hard, I am caught off guard when Lister attacks. We are not supposed to fight outside of combat, but Lister has never had self-control. She hits me so hard, I fall off my chair. For once, she actually has me pinned down and starts to strangle me.
Within seconds, she is off my as something fierce has knocked her off. It’s Dean Amaranda. She doesn’t say a word, just grabs Lister by her arm and takes her away.
“Oh shit,” says Vye, “She’s done for.”
“Are you OK?” asks Lisa coming to my aid.
“Yeah,” I say rubbing my throat. I look to the rest of her team to see if there will be trouble, and I am surprised to see the long haired girl and her team holding them back.
“Fair is fair, right citizen,” she says smiling. I smile back.
“Are you OK?” asks one of her members.
“Yeah,” I answer trying to laugh, “I think Lister has some illegal mods. She was never that strong.”
My sponsor comes to my side, “Do you need to see the doctor.” She analyzes my neck expertly and checks to see if anything is damaged. She tilts my head an back and forth and side to side and for good measure takes out what looks like a medical scanner. I instantly panic and think of my ear buds, “’Ma, I’m OK. Besides,” I whisper close to her, “You don’t want to make me look bad in front of the other girls. I am fine.” She pauses and looks around, especially at Jackie.
“She’s fine!” she turns to me and says quietly, “Go to the doctor when you can. I mean it.”
I nod. I am in some pain, and it hurts when I swallow. I sit up and stand up as fast as I can. Something we is streaming down my face.
“Oh that bitch scrached your head!” says Lisa.
“War wounds,” I joke.
With that my sponsor takes me by the arm. As we walk down the corridor, I reach for my ear and remove the bud. A trash can won’t do, but I can’t swallow it, so instead I hold it in my hand. On the way there, we pass a small room, and I hear Dean Amaranda screaming at the top of her lungs. I look through the window, and to my surprise, she is screaming at Lister’s sponsor. I guess they are both out of the process.
I turn to my sponsor, “Think she is done? I mean Lister and her sponsr too.”
“Hmmm,” she says, “No, girls have done far worse. Besides, her sponsor has money. A lot of money.”
“Do you have a lot of money?”
She punches me on the arm, “Sure.”
Her whiskers flicker. I know she’s lying. We pass a large green plant, and I pitch in the ear bud. I go in the infirmary. There is a new nurse and doctor working there.
This woman has entire black fur and near white eyes. I immediately distrust her.
“What do we have here?” she says in a fake sing-songy voice. I like her even less.
My sponsor explains what happens. Black Fur scans me, and humms.
“Wow, that was close,” she says, “Your throat is bruised. Try not to talk for a few days.” She stitches my head with a laser. When she finishes, she cleans my wound pulls out some orange gel packs I have never seen before. The doctor places them around my throat. In seconds the pain is gone, and I grow instantly sleepy.
“She needs to rest,” Black Fur says, and without warning, she picks me up and puts me on a hard bed.
“I have to go run the next test,” says my sponsor and leaves me alone. I am too tired to care and before long I am running through a vast green field full of what were daisies with Alan, hand in hand.
Alan opens his eyes to find Cherry eating an enormous strawberry. She smiles at him as juice runs down her face.
“You’re back from the dead!” she squeals.
Alan took in is surroudings, “Where’s Strike?”
Cherry loses her smile and withers, “He was a hero, Alan—“
“Is he dead?!” Alan’s head still throbs a little, but he feels an even sharper pain in his gut.
“No!” Cherry smiles, “He’s safe, Alan, and you won’t believe who saved him! As soon you are well, I’m taking you to him.”
Richard walks in wearing a scarf on his head and an apron. Alan chuckles ot himself.
“This is Richard!”
Alan waves shyly, and Richard smiles a perfect smile, “Hey buddy. You hungry?”
“Oh, am I!? I don’t care if that’s human thighs,” Alan spies the plate of thin roast beef and something green.
“Slow down buddy,” he says bringing a cup to Alan’s eager hands, “Start with broth. Doctor’s orders.”
Alan gapes holding the hot cup unsteadily, “You’re a doctor?’
“Yes, siree,” Richard answers, helping Alan with the cup.
The broth tastes like heaven and Alan burst his tongue and back of the throat.
“Slow,” says Richard in a strong voice, “You’ll throw up.”
Alan slows down, but despite his best efforts he vomits on the side of the bed. That causes a chain reaction, and Cherry runs to the nearest bathroom to do the same.
When the woman walks in, all Alan can do is stare at her gorgeous black curly hair and piercing eyes. Alan notices that they are kind eyes and her infectious smile forces him to smile back. To his surprise, she cleans up the mess.
“How are you feeling?” she asks gently.
Her fur is not repulsive, and Alan notices her mods are soft. Even her claws don’t look as long or fierce.
“Much better,” he says, “But my head is still throbbing.”
“With that big tumor, whose wouldn’t?” says Robert.
Alan tries to get up, “I want to see Strike.”
“I thought you might,” she says. She rubs his head gently and then his back, “Look.” Holding up her arm port Alan sees a video dated that morning.
“Hey Little Fucker!” Strike shows off his scars, “These are manly scars, not like the pussy one on your scalp!” That’s all he says and signs off.
“The mouth on that disrespectful boy.” Robert shakes his ead.
“Where is he?” asks Alan.
Nobody answers at first. “He’s safe,” she says, “That’s all you need to know.”
Cherry walks back in looking more pale. “When will he be ready, so he can see Strike.”
“Not for a few days yet,” says the woman, “Cherry, you have to get back, though I would prefer you stayed.”
“No way,” says Cherry, “I miss my husband.”
The woman smiles and says, “Well, you can’t make the trip on your own. You can’t go down the sewers. The patrols are heightened. Robert and I are doing a mercy run to Junk Town. We’re going to have to hide you in the supplies.”
“Is it another ‘election year’,” says Alan using air quotes.
“What?” says the woman faking disgust, “You doubt our democracy?”
Alan loves her instantly and deep down, he knows she loves him right back.
“Who’s going to take care of Alan, while you two are gon?” Cherry asks.
“We have that covered,” says Robert.
Two days later Strike and 147 show up. Alan is fascinated by 147, but he knows not to probe.
“What’s up Little Fucker?” asks Strike. He looks a little thinner, but is still same old Strike.
“Not much. Living like a fat cat,” answers Alan. Strike comes and give him a hug with one arm, thinks better of it, then punches Alan.
“Hey!” says the woman, “Be gentle.”
Strike laughs, “You have to be with this pussy.”
She sighs heavily and gives Alan wonderful hug, “I’ll be back tonight.” She turns to Strike, “If anything goes wrong, you know what today.”
Strike grins, “I’ll cut Little Fucker’s throat myself.”
“No!” she turns to Alan, “That’s not what I told him to do.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry your pretty little head,” he jokes.
At that she slaps him hard, “Mind yourself, boy.”
Strike a laughs even harder, but holds his tongue.
Cherry says her farewells and leaves him a box, “A little something for you.”
“Where’s my good bye gift?” asks Strike opening his arms. She leaves him with open arms and makes a vular gesture as she walks out the room.
147 walks in wearning the apron and Strike and Alan both laugh.
“You know Rashion Can, she’s gone now right? Take sthat stupid thing off!”
“No Master Strike. The apron protects my circuits,” it is holding two trays with enormous hamburgers and carrots.
Strike doesn’t wait for Alan as he eats the delicious burger, “Mmmm goat.”
147 sits dutifully next to Alan.
“You have a real name?” asks Alan.
Cocking his head with his perpetual dead pan expression 147 responds, “No Master Alan.”
Strike says, “He’s all circuits and metal. Ain’t that right Rashion Can?”
147 smiles which looks like a grimace, “Yes, indeed.”
Alan thinks hard, “You look like a Paul.” Alan pauses as 147’s smile becomes more natural.
“Thank you Master Alan. You can call me whatever pleases you, but in public I am 147.”
Alan is certain the light in 147-Paul’s eyes has grown more intense.
“Rest a bit more; then, we must start with some slow exercise,” asserts 147-Paul.
“That is his usual pace. Put some combat gear on him,” chides Strike.
“Now Master Strike,” says 147-Paul, “he is still recovering.”
“You going to finish that?” asks Strike.
Alan gives him half of his burger, “It was delicious, but I can’t eat anymore.”
“We must change that,” asserts 147-Paul, and he smiles again.
When it takes the dishes away, Alan quickly turns to Strike, “Are they supposed to do that?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” confides Strike, “Some is going on in Android Town.” He slows down, “And its’ amazing.” Strikes sits next to Alan and explains how 147-Paul rescued him in the sewers.
“I thought I was dead. I had taken out both sentries,” he brags, “but I was bleeding out. Before any squad could locate me, in comes his cyber-blur. He was amazingly fast. He patched me up, and carried me away. Then he hotwired a fucking car, put me in the trunk,—which I am still furious about—and drove off. It was like something out of those old movies!” He laughs, “He drove right past a squadron heading towards us. But that was just the beginning.”
Alan doesn’t believe the rest of the story, “I have to see it for myself.”
147-Paul returns, “No Master Alan,” he says holding two dishes of vanilla ice cream.
“What’s that?” asks Alan pointing to the dishes.
“A tongue orgasm!” cries Strike snatching one away.
“Now, Master Strike, manners. Manners!” 147-Paul removes the dish from Strike.
Strike sits which sends Alan into a side-splitting laughter. It takes a few minutes before 147-Paul gives them both their treat.
“Wow!” says Alan, “This is amazing.”
“Now,” says 147-Paul, “There’s been a change of plans. Master Alan is to remain here.”
“What?” asks Alan.
“You are to remain here.”
Alan wants to press, but looks at Strike.
“Good riddance,” says Strike who is staring at his bowl.
“Master Strike,” it says, “The boy will need long-term care, and she has taken quite the liking to him.”
“Oh, come on!” Strike cries, “How is she going to pull that off? She can’t have children. He’s a fucking street rat.”
Alan is sure 147-Paul is bragging, “She cannot, but I can as you say, pull it off.”
Strike grows sad for a moment, “Hey 147, you got a wiener?”
Smiling, Alan continues to eat his dish, “Will I be able to visit Strike and Cherry?”
“I am not sure,” 147-Paul answers, “I would not recommend it.”
[ME1]Running notes: Have a scene where the boys are fighting each other pathetically.
Putting the cannibalism back in, for the people living in the margins.
[ME3]Introduce this teacher earlier.
[ME4]Left off, 11/20 morning.
[ME5]I got rid of the lines! It was a table border for future reference.
[ME6]My brain literally went on strike. WTF? It’s just a chest cold.
[ME7]Strike is supposed to get shot by the sentries.
[ME8]Ashley, Vye, Jackie, and Mona.
Kindle Worlds: https://kindleworlds.amazon.com/
"My Path to Publication: Not an Overnight Success" by Meredith Jaeger: http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/path-publication-not-overnight-success/
"My Path to Publication: Not an Overnight Success" by Meredith Jaeger: http://sanfranciscobookreview.com/path-publication-not-overnight-success/
Another Awesome Konrath Blog on Self-Published Audio Books: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2016/05/self-publishing-my-first-audiobook.html
A Guest Post on Konrath's Site by Leslie Wells: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/10/guest-blog-by-leslie-wells.html