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 *pdf file above and the web text below because the Scribd file insertion doesn't show up on any phones. The file was last updated on June 18, 2018. I try to upload it every day, after I have copy-edited the previous writing or sections of it. It's a fluid beast. I hope to revise it, until I want to launch the draft against the wall, and then pay a philanthropic friend to edit it for me at a friend discount. The WiFi or Scrib'd site can sometimes be a pain and not load the Scrib'd file for a long time, which is really annoying, but it will be posted eventually.
(Please, note, the anchors and links only work in the Scrib'd file, when the damn interface lets me upload the MS Word file. Hey, take it up with Weebly, those HTML haters. Also, Scrib'd has been giving me technical hassle and won't post my documents in any format. I guess I will have to contact them to see what the &(*%$ is going on.)
(Please, note, the anchors and links only work in the Scrib'd file, when the damn interface lets me upload the MS Word file. Hey, take it up with Weebly, those HTML haters. Also, Scrib'd has been giving me technical hassle and won't post my documents in any format. I guess I will have to contact them to see what the &(*%$ is going on.)
The Harvest: A Novel
By: Dr. María J. (Jesú) Estrada
(Please, note, the anchors and links only work in the Scrib'd file. Hey, take it up with Weebly, those HTML haters. More on bookmarks.)[i]
- Alan’s Cuento
- Ashley’s Story
- Alan’s Cuento
- Ashley’s Story
- Alan’s Cuento
- Ashley’s Story
- Alan’s Cuento
- Ashley’s Story
- Alan’s Cuento
- Ashley’s Story
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.’” 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 matches 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, a c-ervant would be prime.”
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 someday, 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. What do they need human servants for if they have c-ervants?” 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 dark brown 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 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 homeroom teacher, Mrs. Aspen blows her whistle and slowly pulls me off with one arm.[ii]
“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 table. 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 bit 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 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 breathe 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.”
- Alan’s Cuento
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.
“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. Some cells in the other towns, not all. 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 in a sick blood red.
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 fuzzy with white 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.
3. Ashley’s Story
When I wake the next [iii]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, but all they try to do is compete with each other.
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 fact, “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.
4. Alan’s Cuento
Alan wakes up to a sharp alcohol smell.
“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, C-Ervant Town, all these areas outside the city have harvests, often. Well, except for C-Ervant 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 C-Ervant 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 C-Ervant 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,” 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.
“A c-ervant!” 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.
5. Ashley’s Story
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 c-ervant!!”
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 of 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 Captain Warrior 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 that 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, my girls, 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 is not quite 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.” It’s Jackie I’m worried about.
Lisa smiles beautifully, “Yeah, I know, but we were just together recently, and I thought . . . .” She sighs shrugging her shoulders and getting misty eyed.
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, when 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 in mood 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 in the left tit, 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 on my feet like a feline. The ball emerges from the goal, and 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! The did well!!” 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 Andreanna, 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 like this in years!” The girls cheer loudly. She stands statuesque, around 6 feet 4 inches, with golden fur. Despite the pain I am in, I want to run my hands through it. Her transformation is exquisite, and I notice her eyes are a deep blue. [iv]“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 Andreanna 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 Andreanna. 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?” squeaks out Vye.
“No,” I say looking at Lister’s sponsor who looks like she has been crying. I poise myself, “What can we do, Dean Andreanna?”
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 downloaded lists of names, 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. The keep us safe.”
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 Andreanna.
“Yes, but. . .” she turns towards the dean in 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! Don’t want to give them the wrong idea! Lady, please!” 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 Andreanna coming from behind, “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 all pause, and I am sure they are all staring at me. I fight the urge 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 almost human in her gesture.
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 without mods. 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 Andreanna sits at our table and pats me on the back a little too low and close to my butt, “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.
She strokes my back, which I lean into, “I wish more colleagues had your capability to analyze. I am pleased.”
I smile at her, stand up, and bow, “I know you and ‘Ma have business to attend to.”
She nods her head and turns away.
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 stare her down, “Of course. I keep my log. Let me see yours.” We have been logging into the arm-port beneath the blankets every fifteen minutes. Vye has programmed our ports, so they go completely dark, and we listen to the words via audio programming, which is not a bad asset to have in night combat training. I analyze each log for the last few days. Sure enough, everyone has shown discipline, and I am not surprised.
“I had a thought,” I scoot in, “How long does it take to recover from nano-surgery?”
Lisa thinks, “Well, 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 intensifies.
“What if it’s someone from that 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 tattoos 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 join 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 back almost hitting my head. For once, she actually has me pinned down and starts to strangle me. I feel a weird crunch and sharp pain.
Within seconds, she is off me as something fierce has knocked her off. It’s Dean Andreanna. 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 is looking at me concerned.
“Fair is fair, right citizen,” she says smiling. I smile back.
“Are you OK?” asks one of her team members.
“Yeah,” I answer trying to laugh, “I think Lister has some illegal mods. She was never that strong.” My neck begins to hurt intensely, but I can’t show that pain.
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 or weak in front of the other girls. I am fine.” She pauses and looks around, especially at Jackie. Something is wrong.
“She’s fine!” she turns to me and says quietly, “Go to the doctor now. I mean it!”
I nod. The pain intensifies pain, and it hurts when I swallow. I sit up and stand up as fast as I can. Something wet is streaming down my face.
“Oh that bitch scratched your head!” says Lisa.
“War wounds,” I whisper.
With that my sponsor makes a decision and 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 Andreanna 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 and whisper, “Think she is done? I mean Lister and her sponsor too.”
“Hmmm,” she says, “No, girls have done far worse. Besides, her sponsor has money. A lot of money. Stop talking, now.”
I type in the arm-port to her: Do you have a lot of money?
She punches me on the arm, “Sure. Tons.”
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 hums.
“Wow, that was close,” she says, “Your throat is bruised and she cracked one of your vertebrae’s. Try not to talk for a few days.” She injects me with med-bots and stitches my head with a laser. When she finishes, she cleans my wound again over the surface and pulls out some orange gel packs I have never seen before. The doctor places them around my throat and behind my neck. 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.
6. Alan’s Cuento
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 takes in his surroundings, “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 to 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 head.
“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, but 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 gone?” 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 to do.”
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 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 vulgar gesture as she walks out of the room.
147 walks in wearing the apron, and Strike and Alan both laugh.
“You know Ration Can, she’s gone now right? Take that 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 snatches 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 Ration 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 always 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.
“Put some combat gear on him,” chides Strike, “Weak little kitten needs real training.”
“Now Master Strike,” says 147-Paul, “he is still recovering.”
“You going to finish that?” asks Strike pointing at Alan’s plate.
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 with a near curve this time.
When 147-Paul takes the dishes away, Alan quickly turns to Strike, “Are they supposed to do that? Smile? . . . Think?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” confides Strike, “Something is going on in C-ervant 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. Plus —he’s a, 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 and adds, “Hey 147, you got a wiener?”
Smiling, Alan continues to eat his ice cream dish, “Will I be able to visit Strike and Cherry?”
“I am not sure,” 147-Paul answers, “I would not recommend it. There are more sentries and patrols.” He look at Strike, “As to your vulgar question, young sir, only my ladies know that answer.”
Strike guffaws and waits for 147-Paul to leave.
Waiting patiently, Strike only says, “Get better you, Micro Wiener. You’ll have to see the real miracle happening in C-Ervant Town. Better not to say it out loud because I don’t even think 147-Paul sees it.” Strike pats Alan on the head too hard, but it doesn’t hurt.
For the next few days, Alan pesters Strike to tell him now, but if Strike is anything, he is a disciplined soldier. Already, he is planning his next mission, which does not include Alan.
That night she comes back with her husband. He is walking around slowly, and in a flash, she comes to his side.
“Not so much exertion,” she says taking his arm and steering him to the thin sofa.
He lies down and does not even consider protesting, “Thank you he says.” She beams at him, and he flinches. He has never been so . . . appreciated by a woman before, except for Ashley. And even then, she was always mean to him to keep up the show.
Richard comes up behind her, “Well, well. He’s doing great.”
She turns to kiss him, “I told you he was strong.”
He analyzes the boy with a cold stare and softens his look with her, “Are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes,” she answers and goes to another room to bring Alan pillows. When she leaves, Richard runs his hands through his hair.
“What’s wrong?” Alan asks.
Richard stares at him, “You. You’re a risk we don’t need right now, but she.” He signs heavily, “She always gets what she wants.”
147-Paul comes in bringing refreshments, but he waits to serve her first.
“No thank you. Go ahead Richard,” she puts pillows under his head and his knees. She smiles at him, and her furry face isn’t utterly unpleasing to Alan. He wants to pet her, but knows that would be a horrific mistake.
“What?” she purrs, “You want to touch my ears?”
Alan lies and shakes his head no.
Richard says between a mouthful of sandwich, “Better not!”
She laughs loud, “Now, boys. No point in fighting over me.”
Alan grins at her, and she locks eyes with him.
7. Ashley’s Story
I wake up, my traitor heart in my throat hammering pain. Slowly, I remember that Lister tried to strangle me. I have a hard time swallowing, and it feels like someone is sitting on my neck. I try to look around.
“Hey, you pussy-weakling,” says Jackie joking. She is sitting on a thin plastic chair, close. It doesn’t look comfortable.
We are by ourselves, “Hey yourself.”
“Damn, that is one sexy voice,” she says.
My voice is pathetic, and she puts her hand over my mouth and strokes my cheek with her thumb.
“Doc. Irma says you’re not supposed to talk for the next couple of days,” she asserts, “I know that’s gonna be hard for you, but you’re going to have to show discipline. Besides, I think we made progress on finding our traitor. You see,” she continues without giving me time to process, “This whole time we have suspected our cohort based on what the sponsors and Dean said, but I started to ask myself, ‘What if she is not in our class or a student at all?’ ”
I listen attentively. My neck starts go get tense as it does just before battle, and the hammering worsens.
“Well, it has to be someone with more freedom to move around. It has to be someone from the upper class, soooo. . .”
She pauses for effect, and I take a swipe at her.
“O.K., O.K., I think it’s someone in the upper class. Some infiltrator that has made it through the end.”
I nod my head and stop abruptly. The pain almost makes me lose concentration. The thought had crossed my mind, but the sponsors were so sure it was someone in our class, and I really wanted it to be Lister.
“I hacked the system and found some erratic behavior. Trust me, these were not midnight hook ups. This was someone breaking curfew.” She shows me her arm, and I swear I smell faint roses.
I am shocked that Jackie has the security footage running through her port, current footage, and I know she didn’t ask for permission from anyone to access it.
I laugh and whisper, “That’s my girl!” She rewinds to the correct date and time. I analyze the port for some time, as Jackie points out the dates and times of the hacking. At first I see nothing, but then a shape emerges like a ghost. Slowly, it becomes solid. Then my heart freezes because I recognize that face, and it is not Lister’s face. I am productive. I am accountable. But she won’t be safe.
“That fucking bitch!” I say chocking on the last word as my vocal chords completely shut down again.
“I know,” says Jackie stroking my hair, “That was impressive programing. I haven’t seen a cloak like that, ever. . . .” She pushes me back into bed, “Take it easy. If she is an enemy, she will be dealt with. Now, she was just in the hall and never entered the room, at the time, but still. Why was she there?”
I type into my arm-port in our secure channel: With those skills, she just needed to be close, right. Have you given the report to the Dean?
Jackie shakes her head no, “You’re our leader.”
I nod my head, but we all played a part. I type: Does the rest of the team know?
“No, Mam,” she smiles. Jackie begins to rub the back of my neck in small circles and pauses. “Still, she would have to be in the room. Our security won’t allow for wireless connection. Too much protection, physical protection in the walls and floor and ceiling. I had to go to the room to get the security footage upload.” She smiles at me hesitantly as the massage slows down. I stare at her, and she leans in and kisses me. I don’t resist because this is how games are played and life-long teams are formed. She is not entirely unpleasant, although she tastes of oranges and mustard. I don’t like mustard.
“I was so worried you were really hurt,” she purrs, and kisses me again before I can breathe. This time, she pushes the boundary and puts her tongue in my mouth, forcefully. She climbs on the bed. Her hands slide under my shirt and begin down my underwear. That is not acceptable.
I push her away gently as she moans in protest.
I type in my arm-port, Later. Let’s go see the Dean.
She looks torn, like she deserves a prize for her hard work. Although she probably does, I also know that my other teammate really likes her, and I am not a traitor.
I get up slowly trying not to show pain.
“Easy,” she says and steadies me.
I push her arm away forcefully. I am not weak.
I comm the girls and look at the arm-port time. It is 2:20 a.m. A few minutes later, they meet us in the hall. Excited, they rush up to us, though Vye is groggy. She has bits of chocolate stuck to her hair and melted on her cheek. I make the sign for her to wipe her face. Mona gives me a tremendous hug that pushes my head back.
“Hey,” hisses Jackie, “She’s still not well!”
I give her a look as not seconds ago she was practically on top of me. They give me some space, and I quickly fill them in on what is going on.
Mona says, “That makes absolute sense.”
“Oh, that’s great news,” says Vye, “Now we won’t have to stay awake all the time.”
I look for signs of connection between Vye and Jackie, but they seem to just be friends again. That happens a lot too.
We walk to the teacher’s quarters. A guard stops us, “Girls. You should be in bed!”
Jackie says, “We have news for Dean Andreanna about the hacking. We are Team Alpha.”
Team Alpha? I stare at them.
Vye smiles, “We named ourselves that.”
The guard looks shocked, “I thought that team was made of upper class-women . . . or outside consultants.”
We go in, and find her playing music wearing a silky white gown. She sits on a wooden chair, not like any of our cheap plastic furniture. She has an old instrument in her left hand and a long stick on her right. I have seen this instrument in old footage. It’s a violin. Before her is a pedestal of sorts with a book, a real paper book, that she scans as she plays. The music is so melancholy and beautiful, I want to stay there and just listen to each note.
She stops abruptly and hisses a terrifying sound, but then, she stops.
I send her a message: We have her.
She reads her port and plays a funny little rift that I don’t recognize, and she laughs with her whole being, as her lovely gown flows to her rhythm. Her breasts heave up and down, and I look away towards her bed and see a small hand peaking from underneath her enormous covers. The hand covertly slides back under.
I pretend not to see that and decide never to trust Dean Andreanna because no sponsor’s hand is that small.
“Come girls, let me get dressed, and we will go to my office,” she smiles, and her whole face radiates.
We smile back, and I grip Jackie’s hands who mutters under her breath, “You’re hurting me.” I loosen my grip a little, but don’t let go.
She gives me an inquisitive look because she knows something is wrong. I don’t say anything and just hang onto her. That brings a wide smile to her face.
The Dean shamelessly lets her gown drop to the floor. She wears nothing underneath, and Mona gasps a little.
“Wow,” she whispers, “I’ve never seen fur all over a body like that. She’s perfect.” Her fur is perfectly oiled like she just got out of the salon.
“Purrrfect,” mocks Jackie.
Her long tail swishes back and forth as she slips into a red uniform. Expertly, she weaves a braid and does something to her teeth.
“Did she just sharpen her teeth?” whispers Vye.
I stare at this woman and glance to the bed covers.
I think her teeth are sharp enough I type on our secure line.
“Tiger Teeth,” rattles on Mona, “are supposed to be ten times stronger than market feline teeth. They don’t break during combat—”
“Let’s go,” says the Dean interrupting Mona’s homemade advertising.
Jackie snorts, “I totally got that on my port. You should so work for Tiger Teeth!”
Mona is not to be trifled with, but she laughs good natured and says, “I’ll rip your fucking arm off if you make that go viral.” And smiles sweetly.
“Now girls,” asserts Dean Andreanna going into her militant voice, “language.”
Mona turns red and salutes, and Dean Andreanna winks at her, which sickens me.
We enter her office minutes later. Unlike her private space, it is metallic and sparse. She has one enormous vid screen with security footage streaming non-stop. I realize they even have cameras in the bathroom stalls and in the showers. I look at Jackie who doesn’t catch my meaning. Quickly, before she turns off the vid, I count the beds in our dorm that are so clear, and I see one empty bed besides ours. I wonder if she is under the covers, but that will be a mystery for another time because right now I am getting a pounding headache.
“Well,” she says cold and expectantly like we are the ones being investigated.
I give my new girlfriend a little push forward, disengaging my hot hand, and nod towards the dean.
Expertly, Jackie pulls up the footage, and she shows the phantom.
“Who is that?” asks Vye.
Mona adds, “She’s cute.”
There is no point in lying.
She’s an upper classwoman, about to graduate. Her name is Beverly, I type in Jackie’s arm-port, At least that’s what she says.
Dean Andreanna sucks in a slow breath, a reverse hiss.
“Thank you girls,” she says and starts to escort us out.
“Wait,” says Jackie, “That technology is beyond any I have seen. That camouflage technique, I don’t think it exists.” Jackie wants to explain more, but the anger in Dean Andreanna is enough to freeze her vocal chords, like mine.
We make our way to the hallway as she shuts the door, hard.
“That still doesn’t prove anything,” says Mona, “She was just in the hallway at the same time, right?”
Jackie gives me a hard stare and turns away, “How do you know her?”
I can’t keep secrets from my team because if I do they will fester and rot, and Jackie now thinks she’s entitled to me. She’s marking her territory like a stray bitch.
I sigh and type, She is related to my doctor. Her niece.
They wait expectantly. Her name is Beverly, at least that is what she told me, and she was told to look out for me by my street patron, Mrs. Jenkens. Mrs. J is like my street godmother.
“Oh,” says Vye, “I have people watching out for me too.”
We walk towards the dorm. The guard stops us, “Candidate Ashley, you are to return to the infirmary.”
I start to protest, but there is no point in arguing. Leaving my team is hard because I want to talk more about Beverly. What if Mona is right? What if she is innocent? Deep down, I know she is not. Then, I think of Mrs. Jenkens. What if the bread crumbs lead back to her? I shudder and don’t stop.
“Candidate Ashley, are you feeling well?”
The guard isn’t supposed to really interact with us, just control us.
I nod my head, but she can tell I am in pain. We get to the infirmary, and the walk seems to take forever. At one point, I almost ask the guard for help, but I am a leader. A candidate with high prospects.
I lie down on my narrow bed that is starting to smell. I make a contorted face and hold my breath. On cue, the guard gets me back up and changes my sheets from the spares in a secret cabinet.
“The doctor will be here in the morning,” she say and touches my forehead, “Hmm. You’re warm.” She calls someone on her arm-port, before I can reassure her that it’s nothing. A few minutes later, it walks in.
“Greetings Mistress Ashley,” it says in a vibrating voice.
I have never seen one so up close, and I am startled at the light in its eyes. Jackie would love to see this thing. Vye would try to take it apart.
Greetings. . . I type and pause.
“Number 3-0-9,” it says extending its hand. I go to shake it, but it is just taking my temperature.
“Mmmm, 102 degrees and increasing,” without elaborating, it scans my body. A needle comes out if its right hand, the index finger, and it injects me twice, “You will need fluids.”
I start to protest, and it says more forcefully, “Sponsor’s orders.”
“Oh fuck,” I whisper, “Does she know?”
“Language lady,” it admonishes as it connects me to an I.V. It scans me one more time and for good measure injects me with something else. Within minutes I begin to fall asleep as I see it put another orange patch on my throat, this one a brighter color, like the sunsets I used to watch with Alan by the canal.
The last thing I see are 309’s eyes staring in the horizon. I know it is communicating with Captain Warrior, and I worry I won’t have a sponsor when I wake up.
That bitch Lister. She may have done me in after all.
I wake up and all the girls are standing around my bed, staring at me.
“She’s up!” squeals Mona.
I try to sit up, but Jackie who has moved to the side of the bed stops me, “You’re still not 100%, my kitten.”
The other girls ooooh. I guess they know, or Jackie has told them some elaborate story about our non-existent love for each other.
Captain Warrior comes in worried, “Oh my word! I was so concerned. The mods didn’t take. It’s my fault, all my fault. I should have waited and had you rest more in the clinic.”
I give her an inquisitive look. She explains that there was a malfunction in the stomach lining mod, and it was getting infected. The throat injury just made it worse.
“Luckily,” she adds, “Dr. Irma is a good friend of mine. You will be good as new. But for now, you will eat rat broth and vegetables only. Eat what you are used to from home and work up to norma food.”
“Ewe,” says Vye and Mona.
309 walks in with a steaming bowl, and they ewe louder.
“I’m not hungry,” I say, and am surprised my throat is healed.
“You must eat Mistress Ashley,” says 309 in a more robotic tone. I analyze its face, and the light is dimmer. The face is hard and more plastic than the previous night. Then its look shifts toward me, looking at me right in the eyes, and I swear the light grows more intense.
I smile at it, which brightens the eyes more, “Thank you, Number 309.”
309 feeds me slowly under the supervision of Captain Warrior.
“Ma,” I say, “did the girls tell you about the traitor?”
“Yes,” she answers, “She is in a cell. Has been questioned for four days. She claims she is innocent, but soon, they will use other means for her to confess.”
“I was asleep four days?” I ask disappointed.
Captain Warrior strokes my hear.
“Why don’t they use truth serum or the pod?” asks Jackie.
She sighs, “Some in the resistance are immune to both. Some are so strong-willed, they can bend the results.”
Is she staring at me? Does she know about my last test, and how I forced myself to kick Alan in the stomach during the simulation?
“ ‘Ma, I can do it,” I say knowing that is not a complete lie, “I can get her to confess.”
She beams at me and smiles, “I know you can Candidate Ashley, but right now, you need to heal.” She tussles my hair and leaves without saying goodbye.
“Thank you again, 309,” I say touching its hand, “I am more than full.”
It sits by the chair and watches me.
“Are you seriously going to sit there the whole time?” I ask nervously.
It nods its head, “Captain’s orders.”
The other girls laugh at that and talk to me, ignoring it, but I do not. Something is odd about how it cocks its head and analyzes me. Something I can’t quite put my finger on.
The girls are rattling on and on, and I blurt out, “Who are you talking to?” The girls stop unsure of who I’m asking.
309 focuses on me, “No one Ms. Ashley. I am constantly scanning you for improvement. You nearly died.”
I snort in contempt, but by the looks from the girls, I know 309 is telling the truth. Plus, it can’t lie.
“Any,” I pause, “permanent damage?”
“No,” says Jackie, soothing me needlessly, “You’re purrrfect.”
I giggle and that sends my team laughing.
Mona adds quietly, “I was a little worried you weren’t going to wake up.”
I look intently at 309 and before I ask again, it reassures me.
“No, Miss Ashley. You are better than ever,” it smiles stiff, unnatural, but the eyes are so vibrant. I know it, he, is telling the truth.
“Good,” I say stretching out my hands, “I wouldn’t want to give Lister any advantage.” I look to Jackie.
“Yes,” she sighs, “She’s still here, but she was severely punished.”
I wait for more details, and she shakes her head.
“You’ll have to see,” she adds, “They have gotten more, strict. Your friend Beverly is going to make this graduation tougher than ever.” She leaves me in suspense and smiles in a quirky way that doesn’t make her entirely unlikable. I smile back despite my apprehension, and am glad to have such a loyal friend.
I stare at 309 and cannot wait to get back to my studies. It is zoning out, off into the distance again. Every now and then the left corner of his mouth twitches up like it’s about to laugh. I sigh heavily and sink into my pillow.
Jackie takes that as her cue, and she leans in and kisses me. I smile as sincerely as I can, and I kick myself mentally because I have a bigger problem now. I do not lover her, in fact, I am not sure I like-like her, and what’s worse, I don’t know how to make love to her. Whatever the girls were doing in the bathroom is a mystery. She strokes my wrist, and I pretend to like it. But, I don’t. A bitter bile rises in the back of my throat.
“I’m sorry. I need to rest,” I kiss her right hand and see him, Alan, smiling his decaying smile with a glimmer in his eyes. She sighs content, and makes all the girls leave fast.
8. Alan’s Cuento
When Strike leaves, he is wearing a small black back pack, and he only says, “See ya, Skinny Fuck.” They leave in the dead of night, with 147-Paul looking as non-nefarious and ordinary as Strike.
“Don’t forget the coffee,” she urges on their way out.
“Yes, mam,” he says in a monotone, “I understand it is a critical part of my cover.”
Strike grins at her and makes an obscene gesture when he is far out of reach and out the door. She grins back with a, “Youdisrespectfulboy
After they leave, Alan waits by the door. For what, he is not sure. She leaves him there and comes back some time later.
“Come here,” she invites from the living room, and he sits next to her on the sofa, “This was mine when I was a little girl.” She shows him a massive object.
He stares at the large leather-bound book. Alan feels the cover and runs his hands along the ornate designs. He wonders at the time it took to make such beautiful work. When he opens it, he is surprised it is in a foreign language. There are large and small loops, connected, and he recognizes some of the letter.
“It’s my father’s cursive,” she says.
He looks at the strange swirls, “What’s that?”
She sighs, “It was a form of coding by hand.” Taking a thick black pen she says, “Alan Harper,” and writes it on the front cover.
“My name is Ellen Harper,” she says, “Dr. Ellen Harper. You can call me Mom . . . if you want.”
He nods his head vigorously and sits closer to her. Ellen Harper he thinks pronouncing every syllable. She reads to him. They are stories of bravery with boy and girl main characters. Before long, he falls asleep with his healing head in her lap.
Richard comes up behind her, “Do you think they will be all right?”
“Oh, I have no doubt, but that boy is so reckless. He was trying to build a chemical bomb in the bathtub,” she snorts.
“I know, that idiot,” he sits next to her and strokes the small scars on Alan’s head, “The nano-bots repaired his brain beautifully. Look, the incision is almost invisible.”
“You repaired him beautifully, you amazing man,” she says and grabs him from the scruff of the neck. She nearly drags him to the bedroom, tearing off his clothes. She will buy him more later. Becoming his slave, he does everything she does not need to ask for because he knows every follicle on her body.
An hour later, his cries wake them up. Richard runs to him. He cradles the boy in his arms, and Richard is shocked at how light he is.
“Hey, hey,” soothes Richard, “You’re having a nightmare.”
Alan is crying, and says, “I think Ashley’s dead. They’re gonna kill her because she can’t process gov-meat.” He heaves loudly trying to suppress his sadness, as a long string of drool falls on Richard’s forearm.
“Nonsense,” says Richard, “They’ll just mod her. Besides, it’s not completely unheard of. That flaw is not worthy of death or the Pit. Hey, hey —” Alan cries inconsolably, which brings her out of the room.
“What’s the matter?” she asks, “Are you in pain?” 147-Paul has returned and comes to them.
Richard explains, and she hugs him too.
“She’s poor,” he says between wretched sobs, “like me.”
Without asking, she goes to her arm-port and searches for her, “What’s her name?”
“Ashley Packer,” he manages, rubbing the tears out of his eyes. Alan smiles at him, happy to see 147 is safe. 147-Paul hands him a handkerchief. At first, Alan is not sure what to do with it.
“It’s like a Kleenex,” says Richard.
“There are 59 Ashley Packers. Not the most original name,” she shows him an image of a young black girl who is about this age, “Is this her?”
Alan shakes his head, “How about this one?” His face brightens up.
“Oh my,” she says, “Looks like she was attacked by another student, but that is all. The file is not completely open, but she is fine Alan. She’s a Candidate now.”
“What?” asks Alan, “She’s barely 12! That’s four years too young.” This agitates him even more.
“She’s exceptional,” says Richard looking at her port, “Look at those stats!”
Alan starts to cry again, “I’m sorry.” He stops and swallows his grief down.
“Come to bed, Master Alan,” says 147-Paul. He shepherds him into the bedroom, and Alan is surprised to see that it has been decorated. For him. There is a sizable vid-screen and a desk. On the wall is a picture of a female pop star he barely knows. She is sporting long cat teeth, and her fur is almost gold. Some logic toys, toys meant for girls, are on the night stand next to the bed.
The bed is covered in a soft synthetic blanket and is black, his favorite color, “What? How did she know?”
147-Paul smiles his stiff smile, “It was Richard. He looked through your records. You wrote a poem in the second grade about the midnight emptiness; it was flagged as potentially rebellious poem. I bet you did not know that. He took an educated guess.”
“I love it,” he says and climbs into bed, “Paul.” He adds and hesitates, “Can you hack into the center where she is and check in on her? Can you do that?”
“That would be very unwise,” he says, “but. . .I can go by there on occasion or talk to my friends there. The Education Center is close to where we shop for meats.”
“You have friends?” asks Alan, curiosity overcoming his fear for Ashley.
“Oh yes,” says 147-Paul, “we c-ervants are all friends. All of us.”
Alan wants to probe more, but stops, “Are we friends?”
147-Paul pauses dramatically and rubs Alan’s head, “We certainly are, young master. Now get some sleep. You have school tomorrow.”
“No!” grumbles Alan.
“Private school,” says 147-Paul and remotely turns off the lights as he leaves.
It takes a long while for Alan to fall asleep. He imagines Ashley with her throat ripped out by some upper-class girl. He imagines them, those other girls, torturing her because that is what they do if you are too excellent, and there is no one more excellent than her. He is so tired of crying, but he continues rubbing his new blanket against his eyes. Remembering his gift from 147-Paul, he grabs the kerchief from his pocket. It is soft and smells a little like Ashley and his new mom, Ellen, combined.
He stops and thinks, Why would an c-ervant need a cloth handkerchief? He slowly closes his eyes in a swirl of violence and hateful image where Ashley dies over and over at merciless claws. He tries to push them away and makes up an elaborate story of why 147-Paul would need such an object. He will have to ask him in the morning.
When Alan rises out of bed, it is 5:00a.m. His body, used to years of getting up early to serve his mother and his sisters, stands poised and too alert. He is not sure what to do because all the chores are done, so he does the next best thing. He goes to the refrigerator and begins to prepare an omelet. By 5:25a.m. he has crafted a beautiful garden omelet with perfectly chopped vegetables. He boils coffee like he has so many times before with a touch of synthetic cinnamon. The coffee machine was too daunting with too many touch buttons, but he knows how to boil grounds better than most grown-ups. It was the only thing his mother complimented him on. Everything else was garbage to her. Every breath he took was an offense to her.
“What is that delicious smell?” says Richard. Alan smiles at him and notices fresh marks on Richard’s face.
“Oh this?” says Richard, “It’s just a love scratch.” Richard takes a med-pen and within seconds gets rid of the injuries, “So? What are you making?” Alan is startled when Richard leans in and kisses him on the top of his head.
Alan smiles awkwardly unsure what to do, so he explains detailing how he sautéed the onions and garlic. Alan has even laid out the tomatoes as hearts, something his sisters loved.
“Alan,” she says coming from behind, “This is gorgeous!” By now, Alan is used to her stealth.
He serves them and gets them coffee, black.
“Sit!” she says.
Uncertain of what to do, he stands there, “Uh, it’s not my place to sit.”
“Nonsenses,” Ellen says, “You are part of the family now. My son.” She turns to Richard who is nodding, “Our son.”
Alan stares open mouthed at Richard, then her, then Richard. 147-Paul emerges like a dream and puts a plate and orange juice at the table.
“In all of my years of existence, I have never wanted a digestive tract as much as I do now,” 147-Paul says with a touch of emotion. Richard laughs out loud at that, and Dr. Harper chuckles.
Robotically, Alan sits at the table.
“What?” asks Richard, “You never got to sit at the table?”
He shakes his head now, and starts to tear up, “I’m sorry I’m being such a Weak Pussy.”
This sends Richard into spasms, and Dr. Harper against a Strike tirade.
“Don’t believe them,” she says soothing him, “We are all supposed to cry. That makes you human, not weak.”
Alan looks at her uncertain, “I thought humans were weak. Flawed, especially boys.”
“Nonsense,” she says, “I, we, Richard and I have been studying human biology for over twenty hears. Human beings are a miracle. All of them. What we do now, with our bodies, that is the abomination.”
Richard shoves a large spoonful of eggs, and moans, “I think I will have some competition in the kitchen, my love.”
Alan smiles and grows brave, “I thought we weren’t supposed to believe in miracles.”
This brightens her face, and she lights up eager to discuss her philosophy.
“Now, you have done it, young master,” says 147-Paul and winks at Alan as he puts a platter of multi-colored fruit on the table.” Alan stares at it for a very long time and looks at his “parents” reservedly. He thinks deeply about what he has done to deserve such abundance, such honor.
He stops when she realizes they are staring at him.
“I know this is a lot to take in,” she says, “But I know we are meant to be together.”
Richard holds her hand, “You see,” she continues, “I can’t have children. They made sure of that.”
“They can reverse that now,” soothes Richard.
“I know, but I’m 37,” she tears up too, and 147-Paul hands her a napkin.
“But, we don’t know,” she pauses over her coffee, “What if Cherry’s babies are not normal?”
147-Paul interjects accessing databases somewhere in the distance, “Madam, there have been three successful births. One mother was executed for transgressing and having an illegal birth, but the rest are fine.”
“Two?” she asks, “After the mother’s genetic alteration?”
Alan observes and listens. In Packer Town, women were so fertile, he often wished they had mandatory birth control. Even though many of them were starving, there was always the fantasy of creating a near-perfect girl, like Ashley.
As if reading his mind, she asks, “What is Ashley like?”
He describes her thoroughly, even tells them about the first time they met, and the dog he killed to save her.
“What happens to her if she doesn’t graduate?” he asks.
“I’ll eat my tail,” Ellen says. 147-Paul laughs in an un-rhythmic sound that is unpracticed. This makes everyone else laugh.
“When did you start doing that?” asks Richard, but 147-Paul only smiles.
Once they finish eating breakfast, Richard urges Alan into the basement. Alan has not been to the basement before, and he is surprised at how bright it is downstairs. There is a hydroponic garden growing in the corner that has the most beautiful peppers and tomatoes Alan has ever seen. His mouth waters again, despite being full.
“That’s your mom’s project. The vegetables are more nutritious and grow faster. We are testing the product on rats, but thus far, everything is fine.”
“We used to go rat hunting, me and Ashley,” he says. In the far corner, Alan spots a teaching board and a large desk. He looks at Richard who nods towards the desk.
“I couldn’t find much on your progress reports,” says Richard, “which is not surprising. So here we go.” Alan has no arm-port, like most men, but Richard gives him a small portable device, five by ten inches.
On the device is a test, similar to the ones in school. He begins with math and finishes in an hour. Richard, then, begins to teach him about social conduct. By the end of the session, Alan knows how to set a table and how to greet women formally. He is even learning how to bow with his upper body and at the right angle. He is slightly disappointed because he wants to delve into obscure, illegal subjects like Ashley did with Mrs. Jenkens. At least, that is what he suspects was happening. Every now and then, Ashley would raise a bit of history he never heard about, but only to him.
Richard stares at him, “I’m not trying to make you a slave, son. You just need to be prepared. Women are never to be trifled with. Do you understand?”
Alan smiles at him and bows.
“Near flawless,” says Richard, “relax your face more and smile, naturally. I know it’s hard with some of these bitches, but you have to put on the mask.”
Alan tries again, which is hard because he wants to laugh at Richard’s comments. Unable to be disciplined, he starts to guffaw until he drops to the floor.
Richard laughs too, and picks him up from the floor, “That’s enough for today. You should rest.”
“Awe!” says Alan, “I wanted to help make lunch!”
“No way, young master,” says Richard imitating 147-Paul, “That is my job. You can help me make dessert for dinner. I hate making dessert, but your Mom, unfortunately, has a terrifying sweet tooth.”
Alan goes to bed and looks up recipes. He has rarely worked with sugar, which he knows they have because his Mom—Dr. Harper—put some in her coffee. She had offered him some sweet granules, but he declined. In that ask, he remembered how a girl from his class had gotten so out of control from eating black market cookies. Ashley had punched her in the face because she had been so annoying, taunting Alan and calling him names.
There on the portable, he sees an image of something he could manage. It even needs vegetables from the garden. He plans the recipe, watches a few videos of husbands making it. One of the cooks is particularly funny and makes sexual jokes that Alan doesn’t entirely understand.
That is when 147-Paul comes in with a plate of food. Alan tries to hide the porta-video, as the husband holds a large zucchini, thrusting it back and forth, but the smile on the c-ervant’s face makes Alan realize they are keeping tabs on him. He knows that 147-Paul knows exactly what Alan has been watching on the device.
147-Paul brings a plate of spaghetti and red sauce, “After you eat and take a nap, you and I are going for a walk.”
“Outside?” asks Alan.
“Yes,” 147-Paul puffs his chest out, “You appear as an adoption from out of the city. A politically diplomatic adoption, which sometimes happens. They should not question the transfer.”
Alan waits for more information, but gets none.
“You are free, Alan Harper,” says 147-Paul with unmistakable pride.
“It sounds too easy,” he says.
“It will not be, I assure you,” says 147-Paul, “being a boy is still difficult in our echelon. Being a man even more so.”
“What about being a c-ervant?” asks Alan.
He sits, and Alan swears it thinks, really thinks a deep soul-searching think, “We do not exist,” and 147-Paul adds, “But that is for the best, my young friend.”
Alan remembers and thinks about the pamphlet: Could the c-ervants be that new class the pamphlet Mr. Brown talked about? That force that will overturn the system? If they did, would they be tyrants too?
147-Paul analyzes Alan and waits for more questions, but instead, the boy eats his food with gusto. He makes sure to use his napkin every now and then and although the pasta is delicious, more delicious than anything he could make, he eats at an even pace. The sauce is sweet with hints of herbs with which he is not familiar.
“What’s in it?” he asks being careful not to eat with food in his mouth.
“Basil and garlic,” answers 147-Paul.
“Mmmmm,” says Alan, “I sure like basil.”
A few minutes later, the tray is removed, and Alan wonders if there was some sleeping agent in the food because within minutes he is in a deep sleep, without nightmares.
“How is he,” Dr. Harper asks.
“He is an exceptional boy. He used everything he learned today and some he observed,” responds 147-Paul, “If I may, Madam, I would like to take him for a stroll to the market. He is quite worried about his friend Ms. Packer.”
“I don’t know,” she says, “It may be too dangerous. The patrols are everywhere.”
“I can assure you,” 147-Paul says, “My work is flawless. No one will suspect. Madame, he was asking me to hack the system to check on her.”
“What?” asks Richard, “That ballsy boy.”
“No,” says Ellen, “That stupid boy. Goddamn that Strike for putting ideas in his head and that Mr. Brown. Mother fuckers! Everything is so easy for them.”
“Calm down, sweetheart,” Richard strokes the back of her neck, “Something tells me even without those two, he would be asking for the same favor. He loves that girl intensely. Can’t you see that?”
She sucks in her breath, “I know. It’s just that we just found him. Richard, I don’t want anything happening to him. Is that clear?” She pierces 147-Paul with a look that would make most men cower.
“Madam, he will be safe,” it wants to say more, but stops.
“Fine,” she says capitulating, “but only for 30 minutes, 45 max, and you comm me every five minutes. I want your visual link to my port. Is that clear?”
“Of course,” he says and bows, “I had already planned to do so. If you do not mind, sir, upload the list for me.”
When Alan wakes up, it is almost three in the afternoon. He gets up groggily and inspects the clothes at the foot of the bed and his suit, a new shit suit. Alan is not certain whether he should shower, but he does so anyway, making sure to make it fast. The truth is he is cleaner than he has ever been, but he needs to fit in.
A few minutes later he dries himself with a micro towel. The towel is a foot by a foot, but it dries him so quickly, even his hair, and the towel still feels dry. On the sink is a small glass with a black stick. He knows it is a toothbrush, but doesn’t know what to do with it because its flat with no bristles, like the one he made from random bits of plastic, glue, and string. He takes a leap of faith and puts it in his mouth. Similar to a med-pen it lights up and hums.
“Minty,” says Alan moving the digital brush to each quadrant of his mouth. Remember something he read somewhere, he brushes his tongue.
He goes to his room and puts on his clothes. The suit is easy to put on but difficult to zipper up. As if on cue, 147-Paul walks in to help. Alan doesn’t want to ask if there are cameras in his room or the bathroom. Alan thinks How did he know to walk in at that very moment?
147-Paul beams at Alan, “You look quite handsome.”
Alan smirks and reaches out for 147-Paul holding his hand. Alan is surprised the hand is warm, and they go out to the living room hand in hand.
“Where is she?” he asks, “Where is. . . Mom?”
“Hiding in the bedroom, no doubt,” he sighs, “She is quite worried something will happen to you, but it will not. No matter what, young master, you will never be alone.” 147-Paul puts on a large cone hat and grabs one for Alan that is quite wide. It automatically adjusts itself to the circumference of his smaller head.
“It’s light and large,” he says trying to manage the brim and look at 147-Paul.
“Yes, but it is the best for blocking out the harmful rays of the sun, especially with your natural skin, young sir.”
They go out into the front yard. There is so much greenery and trees he can’t identify. Over the garden is a synthetic protective canopy that glimmers but does not brown like protective lenses.
“Wow,” says Alan, “it’s beautiful.”
147-Paul chuckles in a distorted rhythm, “Oh, young master, wait until I take you to the city’s garden. Now, a few ground rules before we leave this gate.” The instructions are short and practical, but Alan processes them quickly. He is eager to see a new part of the world and secretly hopes to see Strike or Ashley.
As if reading his mind, 147-Paul says, “The center is not near here.”
He blushes uncontrollably and says, “I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
147-Paul raises his eyebrows, “Hmmm, your heart rate says otherwise.”
He blushes even deeper, the heat rising to the tips of his hair, “I am sorry. I don’t lie usually. I just miss her so much, Paul. I don’t have any other friends, well, I didn’t until recently.”
“I understand young master, but this is the last we shall speak of her. Outside of these walls, discretion must be absolute. You are a newcomer, newly adopted. You know no one here, understand?” 147-Paul smiles at him and pats him on the shoulder.
Alan nods and straightens up. As instructed, he walks four feet ahead of him, 147-Paul. He steps out of the gate, and is disappointed at how surprisingly empty it is. He wonders how much of that is because of the increased patrols. In the distance, he sees three other children.
Two are girls, twins shockingly. They walk ahead of a boy about his age and a c-ervant very similar to 147-Paul. Their c-ervant looks up towards Paul, and Alan is sure its eyes have changed to a green color, just for a moment. They walk closer to them, but on the opposite side of the street. The girls completely ignore him, but he smiles at the boy.
The boy glares at him and makes a slow kill sign and an obscene gesture, which his c-ervant admonishes him gently for, from a distance.
Alan sighs, knowing they will not be friends. He walks ahead of 147-Paul and sees their c-ervant giving one last look at 147-Paul with those shifting eyes again. It looks at Alan, then turns away fast.
Alan takes in the pristine sidewalks and ornate gates. His house is one of the biggest on the block, but on the corner house is a far bigger house. How many families from his block could fit in there? 20? 30, crammed? Everything is so white and new.
“Who lives there?” asks Alan.
“One of the President’s nieces, the nicer one, as you can see by the boy who still breathes,” answers 147-Paul nodding at the group that just passed, “though some boys are a tragedy.”
Alan snickers, “Are the girls hers?”
“Biologically? Indeed,” he answers.
He wants to ask more questions, but sees a squad of four women jogging towards him. One of them takes an interest in Alan, but he bows deeper than he should, and they continue on. Alan pauses to think, and realizes he hasn’t heard any Harvest sirens, not a single one since he has been awake. He desperately wants to ask 147-Paul why that is, but he must be careful.
“What are we buying?” he asks.
“Whatever you like young sir,” he adds, “ingredients for that recipe you bookmarked perhaps. The chocolate will be somewhat difficult to find, but not impossible. I have already asked one of my friends to network for us. Otherwise, we require eggs, milk, and bourbon.”
Alan asks, “And what do you have to give him in return? Your friend who is networking for us?” In Packer Town, everything came at a price, a severe price sometimes.
“Nothing,” answers 147-Paul with a heightened syllabic tone, “We are friends.”
Curious to ask more, he focuses on the sidewalk instead. There are no bugs, no creatures, and says as an afterthought, “I sure am glad we are friends, 147.”
“So am I,” he answers in an almost-human voice.
They walk for a few more blocks and near a market. Unlike the one in Packer Town, this market is guarded and built with new materials. The stalls are made out of brown synthetic polymers, and there is a protective canopy from the sun, similar to the one outside his new home. He notices there is a stand with a refrigerator and display case.
He chuckles and mumbles, “Those cuts won’t be flavored by roaches.”
An old Chinese man holds a pickled jar proudly to every passerby, “Please, it is my wife’s liver, recently harvested! Half off. Tasty!”
“Gross,” says Alan without thinking, “That is barbaric!”
“Cheeky boy! You offend my wife!” The old man laughs heartily, “147, this one has no humor!”
147-Paul shakes hands with the vendor over the counter and turns to Alan, “Young master, these are pig livers. Mr. Chu’s specialty.”
The old man bows and to Alan’s disgust, 147 purchases the jar with his thumbprint.
“Who do we have here?” asks Mr. Chu.
Alan answers, “My name is Alan Harper, newly arrived from—“ He pauses completely forgetting where he is supposed to be from.
“Bolivia,” says 147-Paul, “The young master is still acquiring English, though as you can see he is doing quite well.”
“Ah,” says the clever old man, “Hablas Español?”
“Entiendo bien, hablo más francés y ingles,” answers Alan telling the truth. His Spanish has always been sketchy, in great part, because his mother didn’t think he was worthy of being taught her mother tongue. However, he has learned French from portable units at school and Ashley.
Mr. Chu clucks his tongue, “What a shame! Must come from an elite family. Why don’t these families teach their language anymore? English is so dull. French is for barbarians.” He winks at Alan while imitating a guttural nonsense French and hands him a small package.
147 laughs, “Why indeed?” 147 nods towards the gift.
Alan takes it hesitantly and is surprised to find a piece of soft cheese, “Your Chinese specialty?”
Mr. Chu laughs loudly, “Oh, he is a smart ass! What else can I get for you my old friend?”
“Nothing more today,” answers 147, “We have a short list. Next time, however, Dr. Harper has a taste for ox tail stew, extra for our new family member.”
Mr. Chu’s eyebrows go up, “Hmmm, a specialty cut! I will do my very best.”
“Of course,” says 147-Paul, “Always a pleasure, Master Chu. Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.”
Mr. Chu responds and bows solemnly, “We must.”
Alan smiles at Mr. Chu and takes a small bite. He is not sure what kind of cheese it is, but it is the most delicious thing he has ever eaten, even compared to Richard’s dishes. It tastes of garlic, and in his head, Alan puts it in at least ten meals.
“Oh, 147, the boy likes my new concoction! You should buy him a pound,” insists the vendor growing jovial again.
147-Paul looks to Alan and then says, “Yes, of course. Make it two.”
“It tastes like garlic,” says Alan being careful to chew before he speaks, “Mr. Chu, this is delicious. Quite scrumptious.”
Mr. Chu bows dramatically and cuts them a two-pound square, but Alan is sure it is a generous cut, much larger than what 147 paid for. 147 takes it and puts it in his bag.
They walk along, and Alan is shocked to see so much variety of fruits and vegetables, “Wow, are those coconuts?” He remembers seeing a picture in an ad, but never one in real life.
147-Paul just lets the boy take in the sights and smells. Alan realizes his new mother must have quite the wealth and appetites because everyone greets 147 warmly and is disappointed he is buying few wares.
The reach on particular stall, and Alan is surprised it is run by a female c-ervant. She has odd yellow eyes and almost green hair.
“1492-W,” greets 147-Paul warmly. She smiles at Paul, and this time Alan is sure her eyes have changed color. He looks over discreetly to find 147-Paul’s eyes have also transformed. She and 147 connect briefly, and their eyes return back to normal. Even Alan can tell these two have a deep friendship, perhaps even affection, which Alan will have to think more about later.
Her tone softens when she talks to 147-Paul, and when she hands him the bourbon, Alan is sure her thumb caresses his hand.
She smiles at him, “Well young master, I hope you adjust well here from,” she pauses getting lost in some digital database, “Bolivia.”
“Indeed,” he says emulating 147-Paul’s word choice, “It has not been difficult to do so, with such great friends.”
This response brightens her eyes a little more, “147 is an exceptional teacher, and companion. I treasure his knowledge, immensely.”
147-Paul coughs a robotic sound which makes Alan want to laugh because he is sure, 147-Paul is embarrassed and would probably blush if he could. They leave without any formality.
They come to a final stall that is decorated by butchered cow parts.
“Well, well, if it isn’t her majesty’s abomination,” says a tall fat man with a dirty beard. He is chewing on a large piece of discolored jerky. He wears a dirty plastic apron, for working out and in-doors. He has a large claw mark on his left cheek that makes his left eye leak. Alan wonders if those tears get in the goods, but it also means he is married to someone with some means.
“Mr. Idra-Stone,” says 147-Paul in a monotone, “Two liters of milk, please.”
The man sneers and gives Alan a cold look, “Who is this young cub?”
Alan glares back, “No one of concern to you.”
“Well, well!” he snorts near-choking on his last bite, “Too good for old Mac, eh?”
Mac wipes his eye with the back of his hand and pulls out two bags of milk from somewhere behind a counter.
147-Paul scans them, then, tests a sample with his finger.
“Are you fucking kidding me, Nuts and Bolts? That is real milk. As. Always,” says the angry man.
“I must be sure,” says 147-Paul, “Besides, the last batch had rat fecal matter.” 147-Paul says this loud enough for others to hear, “It took some time to purify your wares.”
“Go fuck yourself! You and your kind,” he puts his portable scanner forward and 147-Paul pays. Alan notices his sweaty meaty hand and a strange tattoo that glows.
“Thank you. Have a pleasant day,” says Alan, “Be accountable. Be productive. Be safe.” The man is taken aback and stops before he goes off on a rant.
“Be accountable. Be productive. Be safe,” he answers and leaves abruptly to a secret place in the back.
“What an asshole,” he whispers and swears 147-Paul is chuckling.
“Careful now young master,” 147-Paul says with more mirth in his voice, “You must treat all with respect. Besides, you do not know who might be listening. Mr. Stone may be as he is, but his wife Idra Stone is not to be trifled with.”
The walk back to their house is uneventful, but as they turn the corner, Alan is shocked to see the squad from before dragging an old woman away. She is bleeding from her mouth. Her yellow fur on her dark face is matted down, so she looks near-human again, or is a trick of the eyes? Alan wants to run to save her. He tenses up to go, but 147-Paul grips his shoulder with intense strength and pulls him back.
“Stop, young master. Nothing can be done for her now.” 147-Paul rubs the area he just yanked and starts to hum a soothing tune.
The old woman protests, pointing to the gate, and one of the guards punches her in the stomach so hard, the old woman pees her dress.
Within seconds, a white truck screeches to a halt near the women and just as quickly as they appeared, they vanish. Alan wants to ask a million questions, but he must be safe. He walks slowly ahead of 147-Paul and stares at the floor seeing a single drop of blood near a puddle of urine.
What could an elderly woman like that have done to deserve to be beaten? He looks beyond the gates of her home and sees a young toddler holding the iron gate. He is mute, in shock, pale. It could be a girl or boy, but the child stands there as if he will disappear just like his grandmother.
“Hey little guy,” says Alan, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
Alan looks at Paul, “Should we ring the doorbell?” He pauses and looks at the child, “I think that little girl may be by herself.”
147-Paul is already lost on a digital highway and within minutes a c-ervant comes running. It swoops in so fast, Alan moves with the force of its passing.
“339, your young one’s grandmother was harvested. No one is home,” 147-Paul looks at the little one with a softer light in his eyes.
339’s expression remains dead pan as he opens the gate remotely and takes the child in arms, “Don’t worry Miss Kyla. Mommy will be home soon; I have already notified her.” He turns to them, “Thank you, 147 and young master Alan. All will be well.” 339 and 147 exchange one long look.
“If you need me, you know what to do, 339.”
Alan smiles at 339 and says, “Thank you for being such a good friend 339. I hope to see you again soon. Take good care of that little girl.”
339 bows and takes Kyla back inside, soothing her burnt fingers that have been exposed to the sun.
“Those—“ Alan wants to use every curse word he can and to his annoyance begins to cry again.
“Home, Alan, home,” urges 147-Paul, “We can talk later. She is with 339 now, and 339 will take great care of her. She will be kept safe.”
Alan wants to ask about the grandmother, about the face, but he waits what seems like an eternity. When they get to their expansive home, Alan is sweating like a pig. The shit suits can protect him from the rays of the sun, but the heat is still an issue.
“Alan,” commands 147-Paul, “Go into the shower and when you come out, I will have a snack and cool drink prepared.”
When they enter the living room, he sees her agonizing face. She sits on the couch, wringing her hands once, which compels him to go to her, but he goes to the shower, obedient. As he enters his room, he sees 147-Paul go close to Dr. Harper. She takes one last worried look towards him, as she smiles.
He takes off the cone hat and puts it on his small dresser. The shit suit is easier to take off than the cheap one Mrs. Ramirez sold, and he is just about to finishing taking off the legs, when 147-Paul appears to help him. By now, 147’s quiet ways aren’t such a shock. He even allows his friend to take off the rest of his clothes.
“Hmmm,” says 147-Paul, your will need extra moisturizer.”
Alan hops into the shower and sets the temperature to cold. He does not want to be wasteful, but he thinks about the events that transpired and the questions he wants to ask. That old woman, there was something odd about her face. It was like the fur was retracting. Her eyes were also a natural emerald, a human green, not the mirrored glistening eyes so many women were engineered with. She still had her feline face, but something was off.
And that poor little girl. Alan begins to cry again, and quickly forces himself to stop. He has to be tough. Besides, he also wants to know more about 147-Paul and 1492. Even 339 is fascinating to him. He is more machine that 147 Paul, but he had been kind to Kyla. Alan shuts off the water abruptly. He almost jumps back when 147-Paul’s face appears on the screen in front of him. He just assumed it displayed shower controls and wonders if they have been spying on him, “Young Master, close your eyes.” He does so and feels a light oily mist cover his body and precisely his face.
“Let is it for a minute,” says 147-Paul.
Alan waits patiently and without his doing anything the shower comes on again rising him off. He lets the air dry him completely. Alan remembers how his mom would bath him with the leftover water out of the bucket. It wasn’t often she did that, but she would scream, “Marrano! Estas tan sucio!” and leave him to dry in the shade because his sisters had used all the towels.
147-Paul has already left him some clothes. This time Dr. Harper bought him blue pans, shimmery blue pants, like what some girls wore, but not as flashy. She also bought him a plain white shirt that reminded him of Ashley. He sighs burdened by all these thoughts.
“I’ll ask him about her too,” he says to no one, “But for now, I want answers.”
He walks out wearing his new clothes. They are soft, despite their metallic appearance, and fit him perfectly.
“I wish my sisters could see me now,” he says.
He steps out of his room. Richard is already wearing his usual apron and crafting something sensual in the kitchen. Dr. Harper is sitting at the table looking through her arm-port. She looks up at him briefly and smiles. 147-Paul must be running an errand.
“Can I talk to you Dr. Harper,” he says in a steady voice. His hands are trembling and the piercing look his Mom gives him does not ease his nerves. Richard glares at him to shut up and submit, but Alan cannot.
Even though she doesn’t answer her, he sits next to her expecting a response.
“I can’t tell you more than what you saw,” she says. That is the end of the conversation. He looks over to Richard for support, but he is clenching the spatula like his biological mother used to, right before she beat him mercilessly.
Alan grows sad and waits for dinner. His appetite is gone, but then he remembers the cheese, “Can I help Rich—I mean Dad make an appetizer?” Alan has only eaten an appetizer once when his oldest sister had a large birthday party meant to attract sponsors. It had been dull radish with some weak cream.
She ruffles his hair, “Sure.”
He enters the kitchen, and Richard is still giving him a disapproving look. Alan waits expectantly until Richard’s gaze softens.
“I bought some cheese, and would like to make something special . . . for Mom,” he says is sweetly in a tone much like his sisters used to use when they were begging their mom for something. Richard smile slightly, and Alan moves forward.
He takes the zucchini and hollows them out. He hopes she likes zucchini, but knows she will love anything he makes. He steams them in a pot until they are half-way cooked.
“Hmmm,” says Richard, “I learned something from watching you.”
Alan smiles and puts the zucchini in the fridge, so they firm up some more and cool off. He crumbles the cheese which is rather soft and adds salt to it. On second thought, he adds a little pepper. Richard takes tastes and smiles genuinely this time. Alan also watches what he is making, which is a soup made out of a strange gourde.
“What is that?” he asks.
“Ah,” says Richard, “This is an experimental from our garden. It’s a cross—well, you taste it once it’s done and see if you can figure it out.”
A few minutes later, Alan stuffs the gourds knocking them gently against the table as he goes. He knows his mother is watching their every move, and Alan remembers the time his sister brought a second cat home. They were always watching how the first cat would respond to the second, younger and cuter cat. In the end, the first cat became a surrogate dad to the little one. He hoped Richard would do the same, but somehow, he was still hissing at Alan.
Alan takes some eggs out, “Darn, I should have let them rest.”
As if on cue, 147-Paul says, “These are fresh.”
Alan takes two, separates the yokes and whips the egg by hand.
Even 147-Paul is surprised or what Alan interprets as his surprised face. “Why not use the egg beater?” asks 147-Paul.
“This tastes better,” says Alan. His mom has gotten closer and sits at the counter. She watches fascinated.
“O.K. Dad, get ready,” says Alan. Richard plops in the first egg as Alan speeds up this whipping and then the second. Just for entertainment, he holds the bowl over his own head which his mother applauds too, and Richard snorts in contempt.
He flours the stuffed vegetables, “Ah, I forgot the oil, Dad?”
“Already there. These pans,” says Richard, “heat up almost instantly. Just type in the temperature here.”
“Uh,” he says uncertain “I need medium-high.”
Richard adjusts the heat, and Alan drops in a bit of egg. He is amazed at how quickly the pan heats up, and gently places the zucchini, one at a time, lapping the oil over the batter with a spatula.
At the dinner table, they have taken multiple pictures of the stuffed zucchini. Even 147-Paul has added the recipe to his memory banks and shared it with his friends.
Dr. Harper moans, “Mmmm, I don’t even like cheese.”
This makes Alan laugh out loud.
“Dad,” says Alan, “This hybrid squash soup, is amazing.”
“Figure out what’s in it?” asks Richard.
“Well, I never got much variety, but. . .” Alan looks at his father bemused, “Butternut squash and . . .”
Richard pulls on his ear, which Dr. Harper hisses at, “Come on! We’re playing.”
“Onions,” finishes Alan.
“Very good!” says Richard, “And pumpkin.”
“What’s that?” asks Alan.
“I’ll take you to the garden,” he responds.
“Is Kyla OK?” he asks 147-Paul suddenly. This kills the conversation, and he thinks he sees the fur on his mother rise.
“She is well,” says 147-Paul.
“And the old woman?”
“She is dead,” answers Dr. Harper, “I know you have more questions, but we have no more answers. However, I do have this.” She shows him her arm-port, and there is a picture of Ashley.
Alan gets out of his seat to take a closer look, “From today?”
“Yes,” she answers, “She has recovered nicely.”
He looks at the picture and realizes she is holding someone’s hand, “Who is that next to her?”
“Ah,” says Dr. Harper, “her teammate. Another exceptional candidate, a year older than Ashley.”
Richard says, “Don’t worry so much. Even your mom had a bunch of girlfriends when she went through the process. She may have some, yet.”
“I know,” says Alan, “But she’s different. She never went in for alliances and cheap hook-ups. She didn’t have to.”
“Well,” says Richard, “Now, she does. The Candidacy is meant to establish bonds and teamwork, not just promote individual excellence. Most of the women surrounding the president went through the Candidacy with her, in her same cohort. That’s why they’re all corrupt.”
He sighs heavily and sits down, “I know. It’s just, I want my Ashley to stay Ashley.”
“She will or better yet, she’ll discover who she really is,” says Richard.
Alan and Richard clean up the dinner plates. 147-Paul brings out the dessert; it’s the dessert Alan wanted to make, a chocolate mousse. 147 gives one to Dr. Harper first and then them.
“Thank you, 147-Paul. You’re a great friend,” says Alan. For a moment, 147-Paul’s flicker in that odd off color, a near-turquois. Alan savors every bite slowly trying to isolate every ingredient, which is not possible.
confident as before, and when she sees me, she gives me a wide breadth. Her right ear is completely gone, and it will be up to her sponsor if she wants to replace it upon graduation, if Lister graduates at all. The image of her cat face with just one pointed ear makes me smile, but I have a larger problem.
Jackie has been sending me love messages for the last two days. I tell her I need to sleep, and respond every now and then. “Damn, I hope she gets tired of me, soon,” I mutter. The fifth love message that day, one of her topless, tells me otherwise.
When I walk into the dorm, all the girls are staring at me, but something has shifted. The long-haired girl comes up to me and gives me a hug, “Great job!” They all clap in unison.
A chorus, of good work and great job being accountable and keeping us safe, fill the room. In the distance, Jackie is smiling triumphantly. She runs to me, and despite my upset stomach, give her a convincing kiss. All the girls ooooh, and they surround us asking for details, not about our “relationship”, but about the traitor.
“So, I guess they know,” I say, and she nods her head. Great.
“That bitch will be in the Pit before long,” says someone in the crowd.
The girls are all smiling; even Lister’s team is giving us approving looks, but she keeps to herself, on her bunk, staring at nothing on her arm port.
“All right girls,” says a familiar voice, “Give her some space.” Dean Andreanna walks in wearing a black leather suit. It’s a traditional combat suit with extra protection, and it startles me to think who will be in the ring with her.
Without ceremony, she calls me and my team to her office. Why she doesn’t use her arm-port to call us in is just for show. She gives me a wide grin because my victory is her victory, but as soon as she turns her body stiffens. Jackie and I go to her, making sure our posture is straight and our stride matching, and as we leave, the girls clap for us one more time.
“Where are Mona and Vye,” I type discreetly to Jackie through our secure channel.
She shrugs her shoulders. I message them via my port but get no response. I see a terrible vision of Mona and Vye being tortured for some minor transgression or worse, for Mona’s brother’s past history.
Jackie reaches over and puts her arm around my neck. I smile and shrug.
When we walk into Andreanna’s office, there are two guards posted outside the door. I have been so distracted that I barely notice the new robot sentinels on the ceiling. As if reading my mind Dean Andreanna says, “We cannot be too careful, candidates.”
We walk into the office after the guards scan the dean’s arm port. One of them glares at me and then Jackie. I have seen meaner guards in my day and am not intimidated. They scan us, and I walk in head high and find Mona and Vye eating oranges from the garden and chocolate from someone’s care package. They get up to greet us without reservation.
“How are you, Ash?” asks Mona between a mouthful of orange and sweets. Imperceptibly, Vye signs danger with her hands. I smile as Mona nods at the dean. It’s one of the body movements we have crafted to communicate without words.
I smile back and scratch my right eyebrow three times: I understand and need extra caution from you. The dean sits behind her seat and gestures for me to sit in front of her. She hands me a glass of water, which I know I cannot refuse. I take a few swallows; it tastes faintly of rotten lemons.
“How long did you know the traitor?” she asks flatly.
“Oh,” I say calculating my words. I could kill the dean and run, but that would be absurd, “Since I started the process a few weeks back. She is my doctor’s niece.” A sharp pain begins at the base of my neck and radiates through my skull.
Dean Andreanna crinkles her feline nose, “You were defective.”
“I couldn’t process gov-meat,” I answer in a matched tone, “Then, my mod got infected.” Why am I offering so much information? The taste of spoiled lemons worsens, coating my throat, thickening my saliva.
“But she’s perfect in every other way,” says Jackie.
The dean gives her a look that makes everyone grow stone silent.
“Candidate Jackie,” Dean Andreanna enunciates, “You will only speak when spoken to. In fact,” she slams her fist on the desk, bringing a guard in, “Get. Out. All of you!”
She pauses dramatically after the girls leave in a rush, “How loyal are you, Ashley Packer?”
“100%,” I answer though the answer strains me, making the pain in my head more intense. My tongue is getting thicker with every syllable, and my spit is turning to bitter honey. The pain and horrible flavor spread out to my stomach, the lining starting to burn. She waits for a long time before she begins to speak again.
“Do you know this man?” she asks in an accusatory tone.
An image of a graying man in an odd shirt appears on my arm-port. He is wearing an ugly orange shirt with flowers on it, and he sports camouflaged pants. His eyes are kind, and he reminds me of my father.
“No, mam.” The bile begins to rise in my stomach, but I have practice choking down my vomit.
“And this woman?” she shows a rare dark-skinned woman with a headwrap and long braids.
She looks wise like Mrs. Jenkens, probably around her same age, “No.”
Next, she shows a scrappy boy not much older than I am. He is making an obscene gesture at someone. I smile slightly, which worsens my headache.
Finally, she shows an image, a dark image, that has been tampered with, and the faces are not clear; in fact, one tall figure is completely unidentifiable. I look at the image closely and feel like someone has punched me in the gut because I would recognize that cropped hair anywhere. I strain as the pain sharpens behind my left eye, and the bile threatens to spill over.
“These are not clear and are recent. Anything?” Asks the dean leaning in.
“No, mam.” What is he doing there?
“Something is very wrong with how that traitor hacked into the system,” she pauses and looks genuinely worried, “You see, they weren’t just shipping resources. They analyzed every single candidate, in the last ten years.”
“Analyzed how?” I ask.
“They analyzed all of their medical records. We are not quite sure what they were looking for,” she adds deflating a little.
“Do you know anyone in the city?” she asks.
“No,” I answer, taking another sip, “I never left Packer Town until my Ma, I mean Captain Warrior, decided to sponsor me so early.”
The dean smiles widely, “Of course,” she stares at me for a long time, “I apologize for the rigor, but I have to be thorough. Your water has the latest truth serum.”
I nod my head, “As well it should.” The pain in my head worsens because I want to do violence to this woman, rip her throat out, and run to find Alan.
“I need you to do something for me,” she says smiling what is probably her seductive smile, “I need you to get that girl to talk. Nothing has worked on her.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know anything. She may have been given one mission without reasoning,” I say.
“Perhaps,” she types a few buttons on her arm-port, “but we are really curious about this.”
I look at my arm and am surprised to see an image of the girl who died a few months back—the other candidate with high prospects. I have forgotten her name, but that is definitely her. She is a little plumper than before, and her hair is shorter.
“What’s wrong with her face?” I asked noticing that odd fur patches and facial features that are a cross between cat and human, not fully complete one way or the other. The girl is disgusting.
“That is what we need you to find out,” she says.
My head is pounding, and my vision grows blurry, “You know, I think you put too much truth serum in here.” I want to add You Bitch!, but I force myself to be still. Even so, I begin to slide over the left side of the chair and begin to wretch. I purposely aim my face at Dean Andreanna, hoping to reach her immaculate black outfit.
“Antidote!” she yells to no one as she punches commands into her arm-port. Within seconds, 309 runs in and injects my right arm, “Take her back to the infirmary. I want her well before the end of the day.”
“Madam,” says 309, “I advised you not to double the dose.”
“She is strong willed, stronger than most. . .” says the dean, “Besides, who are you to question me? I will rip your spinal column out and melt your wires, without backing you up!”
My world begins to darken, and I think of the many ways I will rip Dean Andreanna’s throat out, if she harms my Alan. Then, I think of him, and the faded spots of his hair, and the world stops.
A few hours later, 309 is hovering over me. He looks concerned, human-concerned.
I chuckle, “Looks like you spinal chord is intact.”
He smiles, “Madame is all bravado, but I am concerned about you, young Miss. The truth serum has weakened your stomach lining. It was too high of a dose, but you, young Miss. You are quite impressive.”
A look of understanding passes between us, and I smile at him despite all the warning bells going off in my head. “You’re not going to tell her, are you?”
He shakes his head, and I am glad c-ervants can’t lie. “It would hurt you if I did,” it checks the IV, “Besides, I am supposed to be keeping an eye on you for some friends.”
“You mean, Captain Warrior?” I ask.
He smiles again and walks away.
“I guess that’s one way of not telling the truth,” I mutter to myself. I spend the next hour looking up torture techniques. We are not supposed to learn that until our final year of study, and I am not sure if that is the correct path. After all, nothing has broken her thus far. Instead, I send the dean a message asking for all the files on the girl with the disfigured face. She responds a few seconds later. Her name was Cherry. I scan her statistics and get a lump in my throat, despite myself, when I see footage of the explosion again. Why would the Resistance want a girl like Cherry? I look up my eyes beginning to get overly dry.
“You must take a break and blink every now and again,” advices 309.
I pause, “Where are my girls?” I message them and nothing.
309 says, “You will have to complete your mission first.”
Dean Andreanna comes in a little disheveled and unannounced, “Your patron wants to speak with you, but you must keep this information confidential. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I say.
Captain Warrior is fuming, “How are you sweetie?” She is wearing a military uniform for active duty. Her eyes are bleary and tired. What is more, her tail is limp. I have only seen a cat do that once in my lifetime, when she lost all her kittens to a cruel girl with a brick.
She sits next to me and glares at the dean. I am not sure what has transpired between them, but that hatred is genuine. I have no doubt that they will meet in the arena before I graduate, and I hope Captain Warrior kills this bitch in the first round.
“My stomach hurts, Ma,” I say, “but other than that, I am tough as nails.”
“She will need another procedure,” says 309, “Her stomach lining has weakened considerably.” He gives her a blank look, but the light in his eyes has changed to a fierce red, just for a few seconds. No one else notices. I wonder if that is his angry eye tone.
He goes over the medical information, “She won’t be able to perform at her peak until this problem is resolved.” I know he is saying this to the dean because I am pretty sure my Ma is out of credits.
“She will get the help she needs,” asserts Dean Andreana, “But you will have to incur debt Captain Warrior.”
“Of course,” she says stiffly, hair tail beginning to swish.
“I need her ready by tomorrow, no later,” she says.
309 informs, “The recovery will take at least three days to be completely effective.”
“Nonsense, she is needed. Get her ready in two, or I will find someone else for this important mission.” She walks away without saying goodbye.
My Ma sits next to me and searches my face. “What is going on?” she asks, stroking my hair. 309 stands at attention with that far-off look.
“I can’t say anything,” I say, “Besides, Ma, I have to protect you.” She tweaks my nose. “Ma, can you please tell me if my girls are OK? Tell them I am getting surgery and recovering.”
“Of course. They are fine, and you will be fine,” she sighs and her shoulders slump a little.
We talk a while longer, “What is going on out there?” I ask pointing to the world outside.
Captain Warrior can only speak in generalities, but I know things are serious. The Rebellion has blown up some sentries and possibly entered the city. That is all she will tell me, and I really want to tell her about the girl and her half-mutation, but I can’t. What if the two are connected? What if Alan is somehow involved?
“I may have to go for a few weeks,” she says, “When I am gone, you do your absolute best and keep yourself close to allies.”
“Of course, Ma,” I give her a hug, “I picked the best crew.”
“I know, but you never know when your own will stab you in the back,” she gives me a weak smile and leaves. Often, the sponsors have rivalries, and she surely does with Dean Andreanna, which is not good for me. Now, Captain Warrior does not seem happy with the mission I am getting, and neither am I. I wrack my brain wondering how Alan is involved in all of this mess. As I look through images of the girl in my arm-port, I sense 309 is analyzing me again.
“Who are you friends?” I ask him, and he makes an odd face, like I used to do when I was caught. I know he cannot lie, so I press some more.
“You don’t mean my sponsor or the dean, right?” I notice his eyes flash a new shade, near-turquoise. It reminds me of the sky line on beaches from old images in books, before all the sand greyed, and the oceans died. He merely takes my temperature.
“You will be ready for whatever you need to do, by tomorrow, but I have to check in on you daily. Try not to over exert yourself, young miss, because the trials will only get harder in the weeks ahead. This mission will only make matters worse.”
“Come on 309,” I urge, “Don’t you trust me, even just a little bit?”
It smiles at me one more time, “Of course, I do, Miss. But, I am to keep you safe, and too much information will not be good for you. . . .Or me.”
The next morning, I get dressed in my school uniform. Every movement takes a great deal of effort, and my stomach is still hurting. I grab some pills from my outfit secret pocket. I don’t have a cool combat outfit to provoke intimidation, or any serums to use. But, I know how I can get to her. I know that if Ms. Jenkens has been breaking the law, innocent as her lessons might be, Beverly’s aunt has surely done much worse. That will be the fulcrum that breaks Beverly.
I formulate a plan in my head and walk into the cell past three guards. Beverly is unrecognizable, but she manages to smile. Her left eye is swollen and purple.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” she says with the same spirit from our orchard meet-ups, “Looks like they got desperate.” Both of her eyes are swollen, and her nose has lost all of its beauty. I inspect her hands; it looks like every knuckle has been broken.
“Wow, someone’s really pissed off at you,” I joke back. I show her my arm-port and methodically cut off the communications from the room, so no one can hear what she is saying. I make sure she sees what I do. This will surely put the guards into a frenzy or whoever is listening, but I don’t care.
“They can’t hear us now, Bev,” I assure.
“You don’t have any water, do you?” she asks.
“I have nothing. Just me and my kitten self.” I say posing cutely. I get close to her and slip the pills in her mouth. They are pain killers I whisper anyway.
“Ah nuts,” she says, “I was hoping for a death pill.”
I chuckle, “You want to die?”
“Looks like that’s the only option I have left, unless you have some keys and a way out.”
I shake my head, “Who are you working for?”
“Who do you think?” she asks.
“I thought the rebels were decimated,” I say genuinely curious.
“That’s what they want you to believe,” she says, “The rebels aren’t just here in our great country. Why do you think we are always training for war?”
I let that information sink in, “Tell me about the girl. The one who died in the terrorist attack.”
“Come on Kitten,” she says veering off course, “You know you’re not happy here. You’re not happy with the way things are. I know. You’re too smart.” She rests her head against the wall, but cannot get comfortable.
I pause. Does she know about my lessons? I smirk, “I am loyal. Besides, I have to look out for my Mom.”
She is about to say more, when Dean Andreanna rushes in, masked in fury, and stops, “She spoke to you?”
“She didn’t say much.” But, that’s not true. What if the Rebellion[v] is being supported by outsiders?
Dean Andreanna is genuinely impressed and puts her hand on my shoulder, giving it a terrible squeeze. She digs her claws into my shoulder, clearly angry that I have disabled the audio feed, but I am not remotely interested in her anger. I smile warmly, “I just need some more time. . . .Please.”
“We can cut you a deal,” she says Beverly, “Information for your freedom. No strings attached. No more harm will come to you.”
Beverly laughs and chokes on her blood, but says nothing.
“Let me have some more quality time with her,” I urge.
“You have two hours to consider my offer,” she walks away and leaves me there, my shoulder throbbing.
“What if I’m not so happy here?” I ask.
She looks at me hopefully, “Look, you can get out. Fight for a greater cause.”
I crouch next to her, “What cause is that?”
“Maybe you’re not as smart as I thought,” she says and shrinks into silence.
“Take the deal,” I say, “They already have surveillance on your friends, and Cherry.”
“The fact that Cherry is still alive, is a victory all on its own,” she says, “She’s the future. You could be too.” She gives me a pleading look.
“I have to think about my mother. Mrs. J,” and she knows I am telling the truth, “Take the deal.”
“Nah,” she says, “My work here is done. Think about what I said, Kitten. You don’t belong in this so-called society, any more than I did. But if you get out, go to Junk Town.”
I ask her more questions, but gives no more. I give her a hug good bye.
I get up slowly and am about to leave the cell, and add, “What about your Aunt? Whatever happened to Cherry was medical.” I pause without turning to face her.
When I do, she looks up genuinely terrified. I smile but not too widely.
“What? She has nothing to do with this,” she stammers.
I edge close to her, “Oh, Kitten, but I beg to differ.” I near her, carefully watching her body movements. Beverly comes toward me, stronger, fiercer, but I kick her down slamming her head against the wall. At first, my heart stops. Did I kick her too hard?
She laughs, “I had you all figured wrong.”
“No,” I say, “I just have to protect my own.”
“You idiot!” she cries, “You think she’s the only one involved! Your favorite teacher is part of this!”
I check my arm port, and that clever dean has activated the sound system again. I blanche, but it’s too late. She heard about Mrs. J!
“You’re a damn fool!” I retort, “You should have taken the deal.”
“Well, did she give any information up about the girl?” asks the dean smiling, when I walk out of the room.
“She was a traitor, that is all, but there is more,” I fill her in not skipping the detail about global traitors. The dean puts her arm around, me and I try not to flinch, or punch her in the throat.
“Great work, Candidate Ashley,” she grows instantly maternal, stroking my hair, in a near-sensual way, which turns my stomach, and then she becomes all ice, “I am proud of your work. But, if you ever silence the comms again, no matter for what purpose, I will kill you. On the spot. Now, get that well-deserved rest. . . .I have another mission for you to take on tomorrow.” She pats me on the head like a mother would a toddler.
I salute, automatically, and take one final look towards the cell do0r. I know her death will be slow, if it ever comes.
The next day, Dean Andreana does not give me my new mission, and I wonder if something has gone wrong. Instead, I try to recuperate for a few more days in the infirmary. Still, the anticipation is killing me. Plus, despite Jackie’s slimy advances, I miss my girls, and I want to see them. My sponsor has also not answered any of my calls.
However, I do get a surprise in the morning. Mrs. Jenkens has managed to send me a message.
Mother is well, but male kitten is not doing so good. It may die soon.
I reply, I am well. Have gotten special privileges and assignments. Stay healthy and out of the dangerous sun. I hope she understands my meaning. After all, Mrs. Jenkens never goes out, and she has a fantastic sun-screening body suit. I hope she understands they are watching her, but who is the male kitten? Alan?
A few moments later, she replies, Agreed. You, same.
For a moment, I wonder if Beverly was telling the truth, but nothing Mrs. Jenkens did was truly subversive. Was it? Who cares if she taught history because all paths led to how great women were and are.
309 walks in with some breakfast. It is a bowl of broth and a small juice, “Let’s try this today. You need your strength Miss.”
“Why won’t you call me Ashley?” I ask starting to get annoyed at his perpetual formality
He smiles, “My programming will not allow it.”
He waits patiently by my side, until another student down the corridor starts complaining. Apparently there had been such a difficult test that some of the students severed limbs and fingers, three of the students from different teams. None of them were my girls.
A few moments later Dean Andreana walks in and to my surprise Beverly is with her. Someone has done a terrible job of patching her up.
“Candidate Ashley,” she says, “Are you ready for your mission?”
I stare at Beverly unable to respond. Beverly merely stares off into the distance and is in a walking coma.
I ask without responding, “What is wrong with her?”
This angers the dean who claws my right foot and yanks it hard, “Are. You. Ready. For. Your. Mission. Candidate?”
“Yes,” I respond.
“Good,” she eases up as 309 walks in. His eyes turn a darker shade of red, and I swear his jaw tightens. “I don’t want to hear it 309. Show her how to use the injections after I give her mission. Make sure her leg is fine.” She stands taller, her tail posed for combat.
Dean Andreana explains my mission in short commands, “The full mission is in your arm-port. Absolute discretion, understand.” She marches away, again without saying goodbye.
I nod numbly. I stare at her as she leaves, then Beverly, then 309.
“I will do my best. I will succeed,” I say. What else can I say? The dean is asking me to leave the candidacy and return Beverly to the rebels. I wave my hand in front of Beverly and get no response.
“Now,” says 309, “You will need to administer the injections at the base of the neck every 12 hours.” He demonstrates once as the contraption makes a loud snap. Beverly is unaware of what is happening, and allows 309 to bend her, so I can see the procedure.
“How do I make sure she eats or shits?” I ask starting to realize the mission maybe more difficult than I thought.
“Miss,” he says sadly, “She can’t remember how. This is a death sentence, slow, but sure. She will last maybe three more days.” 309 explains that she will respond to short commands.
“There’s no way the rebels can reverse this?” I ask.
“If they try, she will die instantly. You see this implant at the back of the neck,” he says.
I analyze the small silver rectangle. It lights up every now and then, “Removing this will sever her brain from her spine. This also serves as a homing device.”
“Of course,” I say. Poor Beverly. She is a walking corpse now, but she will also be a liability out there.
“And for you,” he continues giving me a black pouch, “Take these every three hours, but not sooner. They will also help curb your hunger, but you must eat the Nutri Pills.”
“Ugh,” I say, “Great. I thought I’d seen the last of those damn pills.”
“Oh,” he says, “Not to worry. These ones actually have flavor. Here take one.”
I shake my head no, and without asking, he swiftly shoves one in my mouth and forces me to swallow.
“Don’t be cross with me, Miss. You will need your strength.”
I slap him in the face, but of course, he doesn’t feel it. Still his eyes turn multiple shades, between yellow and a greyish blue, and I swear that is the sad color.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “It’s a reflex.”
He smiles stiffly, “I understand.” 309 walks away without saying goodbye.
Alan agrees because he is tired of thinking about the toddler. Every now and then, he allows himself a fleeting thought about Ashley, but he can’t bear the thought of her being with her teammates, with that girl, holding her hand like that. He shakes his head and sings an old song to calm himself. It’s the only Spanish song he knows, one his sister would sing to him.
He dresses himself methodically, wearing navy creased pants and a long sleeved white shirt. He still has a hard time wearing such beautiful things, such clean things. He puts on his shit suit and a wide brimmed hat, which his mom has allowed him to decorate with small brown paper birds and fake fabric grass.
147-Paul takes him by the hand, and a few minutes later, Alan recognizes the street he is on. It’s the way to Kailee’s house. He searches down the street for the mean boy and his sisters, but all he sees are increased patrols, on foot in vehicles.
“Why are there so many patrols out?” he asks after the third one passes them.
147-Paul winks at him, “Because of increased rebel activity.”
Alan winks back and refrains from guffawing, “New or old activity?” Is strike wreaking havoc?
“Old activity. No rebel activity is acceptable,” he says, “And government are quite perturbed by recent events.”
“Is that why they took the old woman away?” he asks quietly.
147-Paul does an almost human shrug, but too slow, “Who can say?”
When 147-Paul and Alan reach the gate, they are greeted by Paul’s c-ervant friend. He is wearing a green gardening outfit with the shit suit over it. Alan has learned that they too must be protected from the sun, and he wonders if they are more human than machine, after all. Maybe the sun harms their circuits.
“Greetings,” says 147-Paul. The c-ervant responds in a monotone. It’s eyes are brown, just like 147’s eyes, an earth brown.
It opens the gate, and Alan walks in. The house is quite large with a stairwell going up to another floor, and he looks down the spiral to see at least two more floors below. Their home is riddled with artefacts and old decorations that are mismatched, but wonderful. To the right, there is an old wooden bookshelf crowned with a vase and colorful feathers. They are long and glorious, glistening greens and blues. Alan wants to reach for one and feel it against his cheek, but 147-Paul has not let go of his hand. The rest of the shelf has random tea cups, some of them decorated with red swirls and flowers.
“Wow,” he says gasping at what looks like an old television set against the far wall.
“Yes,” says 147-Paul, “The Muellers are quite wealthy. See that there?” 147-Paul points to a display in a corner. “That is an old vinyl record player.”
Alan looks confused, “A what?”
Before Alan gets and answer, Kailee comes downstairs in the c-ervant’s arms. She is wearing a puffy pastel pink dress that looks like dyed toilet paper and whimsical hat with bunny ears. Her feet are bare, but he notices pink polish on each toe, no doubt the craftsmanship of 309. At first, she is afraid of Alan, and she turns hear head against her c-ervant. After all, he is a strange boy, but Alan knows how to deal with kids. He pulls out his handkerchief, sneezes into it loudly, and launches it high into the air with the force of his breath. He does this a few times before Kailee laughs with pure glee.
“You are quite good with children,” and it adds, “She hasn’t laughed like that in days. Not since the unfortunate incident.”
She comes up to him cautiously at first, then she slaps his legs with both arms, like a fluttering creature. He plays with the handkerchiefs a few more times, until she grows bored. She offers her left hand, which is more of a command. Alan holds her little hand, and she walks around taking him all over the living room. Towards the window, next to the television, there is a zone entirely for her with new and old toys. There is a toy medical unit that is too advanced for her, but she takes the fake knives that light up like laser knives and bangs them on the metal operating table. Then, from a large colorful plastic box, she takes out an ancient wooden toy with wheels.
“Duckie!” she says.
The color on the toy has faded, but it is still yellow and bright blue with an old bonnet. Alan thinks it is funny that the duck is carrying a purse. There is a rope attached to it, and when Kailee pulls it, the duck’s neck bobs up and down. With each movement, Kailee quacks a high-pitched quack that warms his heart. Alan walks along with Kailee for a while as 147-Paul communicates with his friend. They stand next to each other without speaking, as their eyes shift hues. Alan hasn’t been able to categorize them yet, but he thinks yellow is happiness and a watery blue is sadness.
“It is time for us to go,” says 147-Paul, “Kailee’s mother is coming home soon.”
Alan doesn’t want to leave, but Kailee is doing well. Against better judgement and decorum, he kneels down and gives her a big hug and a kiss atop her head. Her c-ervant quickly ushers them out, and when they leave the gate, their mother drives in an exquisite white car. The two keep walking as if they are returning from the market. He looks at the street at another car, a red patrol car with bulky tires drives by slowing down to inspect the pair. The back right window is rolled down; he takes a glimpse at the soldiers sitting there. The girl in the back has beautiful features, sharp angled nose, not too large. She leans forward to inspect her foot, her brown hair, a short bob with highlights, covers her face.
Suddenly, he does a double-take. He wants to cry out, but 147-Paul holds him back.
“It was her!” he says to 147-Paul struggling to shove his arm way.
“It was Ashley!” He stares longingly at the car that is already gone.
147-Paul pats the boy’s head, “I doubt that, young master. Candidates are not allowed out of the Education Center, unless they are getting sent home. . . . or elsewhere.”
Alan looks at 147-Paul, “Can you check? Make sure she’s OK? Please! Please! Please!” He punctuates each please with as much possible annoyance.
147-Paul smiles at him, and Alan stops struggling. After all, the patrols are on heightened alert because they, he and his motley crew, are at the center of the disruption. He is certain it was all because of him. He chuckles.
147-Paul stops abruptly, “She is fine, according to records back at the school and recovered, but hmmm, that is rather interesting—” He is about to say more, when a familiar sound chills his soul. The Harvest siren begins quiet like a lullaby, and then it grows to a blaring pitch. Alan freezes. He wants to speak but cannot. He moves to hold 147-Paul but is stuck. The only responding parts of his body are his vibrating ears.
He has not heard the siren go off the entire time he has been there with his new family; in fact, he believed everything Mr. Brown’s pamphlets said. Harvests aren’t supposed to happen in elite neighborhoods.
“Move Alan!” cries 147-Paul, but Alan cannot, even though he tries with all his might, and without pausing, 147-Paul hoists him up over his shoulder and runs. He runs so fast Alan’s ears whoosh and with every inhuman stride, his head rhythmically bangs against 147’s solid back.
Minutes later, they enter the house, and 147-Paul quickly puts him on the sofa.
“Is he hurt?” asks Richard. He is quickly tapping commands into his portable display and gets ahold of her, his mother, who asks almost the same question.
“He is fine,” he says expelling air in relief, “147 just brought him in. You stay safe, my love. Are you safe?” He aims the portable at Alan, so she can be at ease. They exchange a few more pleasantries. She commands him to go to the basement as a final command, but instead, Richard comes to him with a med-pen.
“I think,” says 147-Paul, touching his wrist lightly, “The boy is in shock.”
On cue, 147-Paul goes to get a warming blanket. A metallic silver blanket that is soft to the touch, woven in an old pattern. Richard sits by him and holds him tight.
Alan sits there in a strange limbo. Why is it so cold? Why is Ashley gripping so hard?
“Jesus,” says a distant voice, “You are freezing, little guy.”
147-Paul looks out the garden window, jumps at an alarming speed towards them, and shields Richard and Alan with his body, just as an explosion rocks the house. The glass breaks in most of the windows, in a deafening sound, and simultaneously, the living room wall facing the garden cracks.
“Sonic bomb,” mouths Richard as he tries to get around 147-Paul to examine the house. He shakes his head trying to get his ears back to normal, but the c-ervant takes them both in his arms in an awkward grip and runs them down to the basement. Out of a cabinet 147 grabs masks for them and puts one on Richard, first, then Alan. Finally, he puts one on himself. They place Alan on the carpeted floor, and 147-Paul asks Richard to remain downstairs. He hands Richard a gun and leaves into the chaos above.
“Come on buddy,” soothes Richard, rocking him back and forth, “Please snap out of it buddy. Come on. Where is my champ that beat brain cancer? Plus, she’ll be so mad. At me. I should have brought you down to the basement right away. Soon as the sirens started. I should have. I’m a stupid, stupid man—” He starts to cry in earnest, but this doesn’t move Alan.
“Tell me about her. What is her name? Alice Packer?” He says, swallowing a large gulp of sorrow.
147-Paul walks in, “The Harvest is over. The area is secure, but there is significant damage to the east wall, facing the garden—” 147-Paul pauses to analyze Alan.
“Come on buddy,” he sobs chocking on the y, “Tell me about Alice Packer. Wassheshortnfat?”
“Sir,” 147-Paul says quietly, “Do not despair. He just needs more time. Besides, he saw her earlier today. Or he thinks he did, but she is back at the school. Perhaps the Young Master is worried about her.” He checks his arm-port and flashes a serious picture of her, “See Young Master, she is fine!”
“Ashley,” he whispers, without looking up, “Her name is Ashley Packer.”
I walk out to the garage, a place I still remember despite only having been there once. All of the excitement from my first arrival has vanished. There is Beverly staring off into nothingness with Dean Andreanna at her side, and a driver I don’t recognize. She is all tabby cat with interesting fur layers. Some look gold. The driver smiles a lot, which is odd. For some reason, she has chosen not to implant cat teeth. She wears a typical red uniform with short sleeves and long pants. Her rank is not very high.
“Now, you clearly understand the mission?” Dean Andreanna asks one more time.
“Yes, Mam,” I say and salute.
“Stay accountable, productive, and safe,” she says emphasizing the safe, “I can’t stress how important this mission is to the Central Council and the State.” She goes in for a hug, and it takes every bit of discipline to relax my body and return it. Dean Andreanna is purring and lingers more than she should, pushing her pelvis into me, while stroking my back. Gross! I hold my breath until she lets me go, and I give her an enamored smile like Mona might give.
She smiles back and against my will leans in, kisses my mouth; it is not a friendly kiss or one you would give a relative. The driver turns away embarrassed. I blush uncontrollably but moan for good measure, but the bile is starting in my stomach and creeping up my throat. Part of me hopes I will vomit at the right moment, through her pointed Tiger Teeth. She lingers on, while heat rises within me, all over me.
Dean Andreanna disengages, “For good luck!”
“Wow,” I sigh. I walk away trying to hide the trembling in my legs. I steady my voice and tell Beverly, “Sit in the back, left seat.”
Beverly does so almost naturally. To the outside eye, she might look like a normal girl getting into a car, except that she only looks straight ahead and never blinks.
I sit in the back right seat, my eyes starting to well up.
The driver, who is no longer smiling, notices, rolls up the tinted windows, and discreetly hands me a Kleenex.
“I’m just sad to leave school,” I say lamely. But I am embarrassed because even though I hate that woman, the heat in my private area shouldn’t be there. Not for her.
“Of course,” she answers and looks away. Part of me wants to say more, but what is the point?
We drive for a few minutes in silence. We are not allowed to talk, so she turns on State Radio. Every ten minutes an alert broadcast comes through. There has been rebel activity in the sewage system of a sector I now know after studying the city layout. Is that where Alan was?
I roll the window down to get fresh air. There is hardly anyone on the streets, except for an occasional c-ervant doing yard work. I listen intently to the radio, and on the third broadcast, notice my shoe lace is untied. I stoop down to tie it quickly, and then, I look to the right.
She slows down for what, I am not sure, and I see him. My heart begins to hammer in my throat, and I want to cry out. He is not looking at me, but talking to the c-ervant next to him, who is smiling. I suck in my breath. Alan looks . . . healthy. Content.
Suddenly, he looks up, but I don’t look at him. Because the state is looking for him, and I am his enemy now. The car drives away, as I roll up the window.
“Sorry about that,” she says, “I thought I saw glass or micro-bits on the road.”
“Oh,” I say, choking down a sob, “No problem. I am enjoying seeing the homes and what ordinary people do here.”
She turns up State Radio, and suddenly, I hear that familiar hum. My heart punches my throat. I manage to say, “Excuse me, Ms. Driver.”
The driver looks just as horrified as I feel. The sound grows more intense filling the car from the radio station and the speakers outside.
“Oh fuck!” she says and speeds off, “I know a place!” She turns left and goes towards what looks like someone’s garage. We are almost there.
“Is this your h—” an explosion rocks the entire neighborhood, and I hold my hands to my ears and hit the floor. The car pulls into the garage as it and the radio die completely.
“Are you OK?” I see her mouth.
I nod my head as an intense ringing fills my head. I wobble as I try to get up.
“Come inside!” she shouts, but it comes through as a whisper, even though she is screaming.
This whole time, Beverly has been sitting erect, completely oblivious to the bombing outside.
I go to run inside, but Beverly is still sitting there. I grab her by the arm, as I guide her, and we walk slowly into the house as an impatient Private Felicity taps her foot and urges us in, which doesn’t make Beverly move any faster. The house is gorgeous, even though all the lights are out, I can see through some sun beams through some thick, rich curtains. It is enormous on the inside and looks very much like Mrs. Jenkens’ basement with old knickknacks and large oil paintings. Except there are no books. Two c-ervants go to meet my driver; they look female. They are about 5 foot 5 inches, wearing one piece blue outfits. They have identical faces, but these must be fancier models because they are silver skinned with white hair. The drivers ouths something to them, and one of them comes to me. The ringing in my ear diminishes as it injects me with something. It does the same for Beverly who is unresponsive to the injection.
“Miss, are you well?” It asks as it takes Private Felicity’s vitals.
“550, please close the gate and garage door. A sonic or EMP bomb has obliterated the electrical units. Are you both well, 724?”
724 an exact copy of 550 responds, “Kind of you to ask Miss. We are both functioning as we should.” 550 runs outside the house to secure the gate and close the garage door.
Suddenly, I hear gunshots.
“I think someone is shooting at your c-ervant!” I say getting ready for battle. 550 who is done scanning me, grabs my arm on impulse.
“Quick, you two to the basement! 550, watch over them!”
“No,” I object, “I can help you! I am a great shot. Give me a gun. Just. Please.” The c-ervant has immeasurable strength, and she is not letting go.
She gives me a stern look and calls in for back up as she runs out the door.
“Beverly, follow me,” I say defeated. 550 shows me the way, and we walk into the basement.
It is dark there, and 550 does a funny thing. It turns on its eyes, and lights shine from the sides of her legs.
“Well that is a fantastic trick!” I say.
“Thank you Miss. If you will excuse me, I must report this activity to my friends at the central office. Please, make yourself at home.” Her body hums for a few minutes as I take in the surroundings. The basement is rather plain compared to the living room. The walls are a dark brown color, a natural color wooden grain, and there is only one table with balls on it. I wonder what they are for. In the center is a plush brown sofa to match with bright red decorative pillows.
I grab Beverly’s hand, and I walk her to a plush sofa. “Sit.” Her skin feels dry, and her lips are starting to show signs of dehydration. I grab a small vial from the bag and put eye drops into her eyes. Nobody told me to, but when I asked for them, 309 gave me two. I suspect one was meant for me.
“Would you or your companion like a drink?” asks 550.
“Yes, one for me. Beverly is not well,” I say getting teary eyed, “But do you have any lip balm?”
She comes up to her concerned, “Is there anything I can do?” 550 takes her vitals and stops abruptly, like she’s been shocked. I urge her to stop with my hands, and she does. Her eyes turn red, “Who has done this—?”
“There is nothing to be done for her,” I say. I want to detail more about how vile they have been to her. About the disgusting kiss. About seeing Alan, but not being able to talk to him, but instead I do the unthinkable. I cry unconsolably.
“Oh Miss,” says 550, “Do not worry. I am sure your friend will be repaired. Besides, rebel activity has ceased. You will be safe. You are safe.” It smiles stiffly, but its eyes have turned that odd shade of blue. Out of nowhere it hands me a soft square cloth. “Dry your eyes Miss. All will be well.” She comes a few minutes later with sweetened water and red lip balm. I put some on Beverly imperfectly, as I can’t see the lip lines because 550 is off somewhere.
Just then, I hear footsteps. “Were you scared?” asks the driver joking at my weakness. She is wearing a strange hat on her head with a bright beam of light.
“No,” I say harsher than I mean to, wiping my face again, “I am just mad the mission will be delayed now. I have limited time.”
“Ah, not to worry. The roads will be cleared soon. They always are,” She smiles at me and looks like she wants to take another jab. Her tail switches rhythmically back and forth, and she grins, “Get some rest candidate. I will come get you as soon as I can.”
I nod my head and lie down on the floor.
550 brings me a blanket and pillow. It sits on a chair nearby.
“That is much better,” it says as the lights come back on suddenly, but 550 dims them almost as fast as they have been repaired, so I can rest.
I look at 550, “Are you a girl?”
“Mam, we c-ervants have no gender. We just have different shapes to make you feel more comfortable, but I supposed these small metal mammaries would categorize me as ‘a girl’.”
I probe, “Is 724 your sister?”
It makes a mechanical laugh, which makes me laugh and forget my despair, “No Miss. We have no families, only friends. But she is a very close friend.”
550 stammers, “I mean it, 724, is not a person.”
“I beg to differ,” I say getting bold, “Back at the Education Center, I have a friend too. He takes care of me. His name is 309. Do you know 309?”
“Of course, Miss. We are all friends.”
This bit of news encourages me, “Can you talk to all your friends?”
“I am not sure what you mean, Miss.” 550’s eyes are turning red.
“I have a friend here in the neighborhood,” I coax, “I saw him with another c-ervant right before the bomb went off. I am so worried about him and his safety.” I begin to cry again in earnest, “Can you check if he is OK? Please?”
“Oh Miss, I will try my best. What is his name?” 550 asks taking on that blank stare again.
“His name is Alan Ramirez. I mean, his name is Guadalupe Ramirez, but he goes by Alan. He is 12, like me. He was with a c-ervant,” I describe them both to a tee.
“Ah, there is no Guadalupe, but an Alan recently adopted from a foreign country. Could this be him?” she asks projecting his 3-D image through her eyes. Another neat trick. Her entire body hums, and she stops abruptly, “Miss, all I can say is that he is well.”
“That’s him. Where does he live?”
550 has grown robotic again with the same neutral eye color, a dull brown, “I cannot say more, as that would jeopardize him, but he is well.”
I pause letting these words simmer, “Can you send a message for me? Tell him ‘#1 Ratter sends her regards.’ Can you do that for me?” I hold in my breath and begin to act like Lister, “It would mean so, so much to me! I am ever so distressed.” I cry again, this time all acting.
I hate myself for it.
“Yes Miss, please calm down,” it takes my vitals, “Your heart rate is quite elevated. Please, be calm. I will do so straight away.” 550’s body twitches, and she looks at me with those same turquoise eyes, “Done.”
I smile at her and despite social norms, I rise up and give her a tremendous hug. It sits there without moving, but her eyes grow more intense. Happy for this development, I lie down and fall asleep almost instantly.
A few hours later the smiling drivers wakes me up.
“Candidate,” she says, “The roads are clear, and you can continue on your mission. Are you feeling better? That was traumatic, after all.”
I don’t know if she means the advances from the dean or bomb, but I am strong. I am a girl with high prospects, and I will succeed, “I am fine. Ready to continue. Is the car OK?”
She nods her head, “I got a replacement from the State. It’s not luxurious, but where we’re going, we need to be inconspicuous.”
“I have read all the background information on Junk Town and know whom to seek,” I say confidently.
She smiles at me, and I can’t help but smile back, “I am never one to question the State, but any young soldier could have done this mission.”
“Perhaps,” I say, “But, they would know. I think. Besides, Dean Andreanna knows best.” I can’t say more because I don’t know if she is testing me, testing my loyalty, “What is your name?”
She snorts, dropping all protocol, “Private Felicity. I know, I know. I get teased a lot.”
“Well,” I joke, “It could be a sex thing.”
Private Felicity snorts and laughs, “I suppose.”
She pauses and thinks hard before she speaks, “You know, you shouldn’t let anyone treat you like that. Your body is your own. You don’t have to move as fast as so many girls.”
I turn away, embarrassed, “I. . .I still haven’t been with anyone.”
She nods her head and adds hitting the difficult topic, “You are no one’s play thing. Understand? No. One’s play thing. Not even hers.”
I nod my head again, but who would refuse Dean Andreanna? She says no more. Offers no answer, but I figure, there is one person I should tell. I worry that Dean Andreanna will hurt my Ma, but I won’t be Dean Andreanna’s whore. I’m no one’s little bitch. Girls bonding with each other is one thing, that is part of socialization, but I know teachers aren’t supposed to act that way. I begin to formulate a plan. Still, I won’t be able to do anything about it until my mission is complete.
When I go to the garage, I laugh out loud. The “military vehicle” is a mismatched clunker, much smaller than the car before. The hood is red, and the sides are blue. The wheels are new though, and if I’m not mistaken, it is armed with small artillery that pops out of the sides.
“Yeah, Candidate, meet Patchwork,” she says amused.
Beverly struggles to get in the back-left seat, and I have to get in the car and physically pull her in while Private Felicity eases her legs in. I strap her in awkwardly. For good measure I put more eye drops in her eyes, which fall out and make her look like she is weeping.
“Can I sit in the front?” I ask having a harder time breathing in my tight clothes.
“No,” she says definitively, “Snipers always go for the front seat driver and passenger.” She pushes the front passenger seat as forward as she can. “The ride will only be an hour, even in this old thing.” She turns back and smiles at me like she knows a private joke.
She turns the car on with her bio signature, and I am surprised the engine is so quiet. The car is only old on the outside. The inside has the same computerized system the old one did. She commands, “Arm weapons.”
As we drive off, 505 and 724 wave good bye. We speed off down a new road.
“The bomb only impacted five blocks,” she says, “It was a weak EMP bomb, probably rebel made.”
“Were people hurt?” I ask, imagining Alan beneath a broken roof.
“Minor injuries,” she sighs, “Nothing we can’t fix.”
There are more patrols on the sidewalks. One is mercilessly beating a young boy, and I stare, but it is not Alan. The two sisters, twins, and c-servant plea for the boy, which is a mistake because the solider pulls out her gun and shoots the c-ervant right in the face. The girls stop as she waves the gun at them. I turn away because I need to focus. After all, Alan knows what to do during a harvest, and he was with a c-ervant. I trust 505 and her intel. I choose to.
On the way to Junk Town, I review the mission files. The person I am aiming for is Mr. Brown. He is an odd looking fellow, and I can’t help but smile at his weird clothes. What is it with old people and their choice of clothing? I chuckle and review my objectives.
As soon as I deliver Beverly and get the intel, I need to get out. I have approximately 20 minutes before something happens. My time is very limited because Beverly will die soon as it is triggered, which I am supposed to do at the right moment. Once delivered, 309 was very specific on the directions I must follow. I look at the countdown watch on my arm-port. I have 66 hours max. How the hell am I supposed to gain their trust and information I need? I sigh heavily.
Then, I review Junk Town’s speech patterns. The tend to end with strong verbs or none and modify adjectives, oddly. We always spoke standard English, and I wonder why they speak that way.
I practice in my head, “My girlfriend, devilish red. She not smart or soft. She loves me, none like anyone.” Or I don’t love her none, that Jackie. I chuckle.
There negations and descriptions of what things are not, fascinate me. The sentences are also shortened, sometimes just cut off. I wonder, if the language reflects an internalized hatred of the State. After all, the State reinforces standard English, and something has gone terribly wrong in Junk Town’s educational system. Maybe nobody gives a shit about Junk Town, none.
My thoughts get interrupted, as I get a message from an unknown user.
Ratter 1! How are you? It’s me. Sub-Ratter 2. I miss you something awful. Write back. It’s safe to do so, as long as you are outside the Education Center or outdoors. Of course, only with this channel.
I sit there stunned. Is it a trap? Should I respond? I check the communication link, but it is really well hidden and safe. Out of the main system in a sub-router. Even I couldn’t do that. Someone has created a completely unique pathway. How?
Sub-Ratter 2. Glad you are well. Won’t be able to comm for a few days, but will try again. I am hunting Rats right now. I stop and add. I miss you too. Something awful.
I delete the messages from my arm-port once they are read. I smile widely and take in my outdoor surroundings.
Private Felicity notices the shift, “Got a message from your girlfriend?”
“Yeah,” I say lying, “She likes to send me topless pictures.” I hope Private Felicity doesn’t expect me to show her because I have deleted all the ones I have gotten in the past few days.
Private Felicity chuckles, “Ah, young love. But don’t forget what I told you.”
“I won’t,” I say.
We cross a check point and enter Junk Town. At first, I wonder why the town is named that because the checkpoint area is so organized and clean, but then, a few miles in, I see the endless piles of junk. Some are as high as buildings, each one its own category. People mill around with machines sorting goods. They look just like the people in my neighborhood, emaciated and dirty. Their clothes are all patched up and few of them wear shit suits.
“Wow,” I say staring at the tallest tower. It must be at least five stories high, being enclosed by fields.
“Yep. Disgusting rat-infested town,” she says, “I don’t even count that as a contribution to the State what these savages do. All of this work could be automated anyway.”
I stare at the many faces of starving children. They know better than to approach a military vehicle to ask for credits, but the car is well-camouflaged. They approach the car when she slows at a stop, but she speeds off, almost hitting toddler. “Maybe,” I say, “The machines miss details.”
“The problem is c-ervants need to be upgraded every six months,” she sighs, “They require worse than human alterations. The upkeep is a nightmare.”
I pause and think about that. I didn’t realize c-ervants needed to be modified so much. Just then, a single shot rings and crashes into the car. The shot penetrates he left driver window and hits Private Felicity, and I don’t need a c-ervant to take her vitals. I take off my seat belt and remember Beverly. I disengage her and bring her down, except she slumps and pins me down.
“Fuck!” I lie awkwardly, but maneuver as fast as I can. I flip around and try to open my door, the one away from the shooter, but her body is on top of me.
Just then, the door rips open, and I am yanked out by strong arms.
I fight fiercely, connecting with someone’s face, but it is no use. I feel a sharp sting on my neck, and I pass out.
I wake up to someone pouring water all over my head Stupid rebels wasting water. No wonder they are losing.
My nose is gen-modified, and I almost vomit because it’s not water.
“You fuckin bastards!” I shout.
“Lookey, look. This cunt’s a live one!” says an annoying voice. I open my eyes trying not to get urine in my mouth, and I see a tall lanky boy. He is all muscle with black curly hair and intense blue eyes. I recognize him, the foul fingered boy from Dean Andreanna’s arm port.
“Strike,” says a female voice gently from behind, “I told you to use water. Why on God’s earth would you do this? Now, the interrogation room is a mess!”
I start to laugh as some of the foulness goes into my mouth. I spit aiming at him and make contact.
Without pause, Strike slaps me in the face, but I am sure it has hurt him more than it hurt me.
“You Pussy,” I say boldly, “Is that all you’ve got?! You’ve got balls, none.”
This brings a tirade of cursing that goes on for quite a long time. I smirk the whole time and when he pauses, I jibe, “Come on, you fucking faggot. Why don’t you untie me and fight this out? You what four years more? Still kick your skinny ass. You’re no man.”
He goes to punch me, but his commander stops him.
“Strike!” says a male voice, and with that, the boy leaves in a huff. I laugh, loud which elicits another string of curse words as he exits. Despite my better judgement, I like his spirit, but I am not there to make friends.
“Well,” I yell, “you going to stab me in the back, you cowards?!” The man and woman are still there, and I rub my head against my shoulder and activate the gift Mrs. Jenkens gave me, that final present to give me the upper hand. [vi]She has no idea how well the listening device will serve me now, and I am fortunate the blast has not impaired it.
She’s a tough bitch I hear Strike say in the distance. She’s cute, though. Wouldn’t mind having a few minutes with her in an empty stairwell. Another boy laughs at Strike’s bravado.
The man clears his throat, as he hesitates. Then, I hear metal scraping, and I brace myself for the worse. He is the man from the dean’s arm-port, wearing a hideous black shirt with yellow flower patterns. Grabbing a metal chair, and letting it drag, he sits in front of me. He turns the chair the opposite way, with the back towards me and straddles it.
“What’s wrong with Beverly?” he asks quietly.
Has he been crying? His eyes are swollen, and he looks infinitely tired. I want to aggravate him, but something tells me to take a different approach. I calculate my stance.
“Those bitches,” I say starting to cry despite my goal to appear tough, “They were not kind to her. Didn’t use real medicine.” I swallow my spit hard. “Made her a walking corpse. There’s nothing can be done for her. None.” I say emulating their speech or trying to, but it’s harder than I thought it would be.
Behind me the woman gasps.
“Don’t mess with that thing behind her neck, none,” I say, “She’ll die if you do. Instant.”
The old man holds his hand up, “No need to talk like Junkies. I speak standard.”
I nod my head, “Look, I didn’t come here to fight or do you any harm.” That is the truth, but that is also a lie.
The old man simply says, “We will see. And I am sorry about how Strike treated you. He is a little antsy with the bombing.”
“You didn’t do that?” I ask genuinely surprised.
“No,” says the woman behind me who comes around, “We don’t know who did. Most likely it was the State to rattle people, make them more obedient.”
The old man agrees. They wait for a few minutes. What are they waiting for? Am I supposed to talk? Then, from behind, someone injects me with something.
“Sorry I’m late,” says a deep voice, “was checking on Beverly. Find anything out?”
“This one here says nothing can be done,” says the old woman pointing at me. and she begins to weep.
My head begins to grow foggy, and my vision blurs. I start to drool a little for effect.
The nurse takes my pulse, “Yeah, she’s ready.”
“What is your name?” asks the old man.
At that the old woman grows startled, “From where?”
“Packer Town, Zone 8,” my head begins to hurt with that familiar pain, but it is not as intense as past pain, and I am learning to manage these serums. Too bad for these assholes, this truth serum has nothing on Dean Andreanna’s cocktail.
The old man and woman exchange glances.
“Wait a minute,” says Nurse, “That is fucking odd.”
“What?” asks Strike coming back in, chewing on something.
“Ready for round 2, asshole?” I ask sounding more alert and combative than I mean to.
He laughs a cute laugh.
“She’s not completely under,” says Nurse.
By focusing so much on the enemy and because of the numbing of the serum, I don’t realize Nurse put old medical leads on me, two in fact taking my vitals.
“Mmmm hmmm,” says the woman, “This one is strong. I like her.”
“No,” says the old man, “We have to be sure.”
“I know a liar,” says the old woman, “She is not.”
“Fuck that!” says Strike, “I say we shoot her in the head, after I torture her.”
I laugh, “Micro-dick, that won’t work on me. Besides, you’re not man enough for all of this.”
Nurse laughs from behind and despite his anger, Strike joins him.
“God damn,” Strike says, “You have a filthy mouth. And dirty cerebrum.”
It is my turn to laugh. I have been analyzing the situation, and I do something unconventional, something I wasn’t ordered to do, “Look,” I say, “you don’t have much time.” I turn to look at Nurse craning my neck as far as I can. He has an old machine attached to the leads. It seems to be older than Mrs. J.
“That thing in the back of poor Beverly’s neck, the thing those bitches implanted in her,” I tear up a little as I speak, and my lower lip trembles. That is not acting. “It won’t just kill her. They put something in her.” I pause for effect and look straight at the old woman. “I think it’s a bomb.”
“Come on!” says Strike, “She’s a lying slut.”
Nurse moves to action, and he runs out. I can’t see what he is doing.
“We evacuate ten by tens, so we don’t draw suspicions,” the old man nods his head at me. “Thank you. Strike, stay with her. Stay alert!”
“With pleasure,” he says.
“I need you,” says the old man to his companion, “We have to stay organized and get them out first.”
“Of course,” she says.
Strike sits like Mr. Brown was sitting. I stare at Strike who stares at me. We do this for some minutes despite the shouting and orders being barked outside.
“So,” I say, “This is the Resistance? I came here with such high hopes.”
“Fuck you,” he says, “We are awesome.”
He gets out of the chair, comes up to my face and spits condemnation, but I don’t flinch. Then, he does something disgusting. He takes his tongue and licks my face. He licks back down the other side and kisses me on the mouth. My hands are strapped tight, or I would punch him in the dick. When he disengages, there is a pop.
“Ugh,” I say angrily, “What is it with fuckers putting the moves on me today, starting with that lesbian pedophile and now you, short dick?”
This intrigues Strike, “What? Tell me what happened? I could use some lesbian porn.” He sits back in the chair and leans in expectantly.
I grow tense, and I start to tear up in earnest. He doesn’t tease, so I tell him everything. After all, I haven’t told him Beverly has a tracker, and they will all be dead before long, when the time is right. Or Mr. Brown will be. I also tell him about Alan. I don’t know why. I guess I hope I might get some boy empathy.
When I finish, he gets up takes his hand and wipes my face. He is not mean about it, and he does something reckless. He unties me.
“Come on,” he commands.
I stand up and stumble. The serum isn’t entirely defunct.
Strike puts his arm around me to steady me, and a flutter starts in my stomach. I smell him, really smell him, and I am surprised somewhere in that tough exterior is the delicate scent of lilac.
“What?” he asks.
“Your breath stinks,” I say, “Awful.”
He laughs, “Shut the fuck up. You smell like dirty wet vagina. Old woman vagina.”
I want to keep arguing because I have an amazing comeback, but when he goes out the room, I continue to memorize what I see and assess the situation. A group of boys his age are helping load things into a truck. They are shocked to see Strike. One of them gives him a thumbs up and smirks. He makes a rhythmic gesture with his hands I don’t know.
Sure genius. We’re heading to the stairwell, right now. In the middle of an evacuation.
Strike grins from ear to ear and gets too close to my ear. My heart skips a beat, “You know, I know that little Short Fuck you are in love with.”
I scoff, “What? I am not in love with anyone.”
“Sure,” he says, “I tell you what though. He messes his shorts over you every morning. Even caught him doing it once.”
“You’re sick, Strike, seriously sick,” I say.
“Mmmm,” he answers, “I sure like the taste of your skin. Your mouth, sublime. Anywhere else taste good?”
I grab him in second stance and flip him over but not too hard. He lies there winded and winces in pain.
His boys are hooting and laughing loud.
Mr. Brown runs up to us, “Are you out of your mind son? What is she doing outside?”
I stand there, still, and raise my hands slowly.
On cue, two armed rebels come up and aim their guns at me.
“Stay with these two idiots,” says Mr. Brown, “Better yet, go see if you can help Nurse pack up.” He looks at me uncertainly.
“Look,” I say telling the truth, “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just came here to get away from those bitches. I’m sick of their candidacy process. I want something more.”
As I speak, I realize I am being honest with myself for the first time. Mr. Brown takes in these words.
“Stay with her anyway,” he tells the guards. He comes up to me and ruffles my short hair, “Mmmm, I see what he sees in you.”
Alan? I want to ask him a million questions, but I can’t.
Strike who I think has turrets syndrome asks, “So, you two done it? You and that emaciated little turd?”
“Goddess! No!” I answer, “You are just filthy. You nasty boy! How dare you speak to me that way?”
“Why don’t you come over to find out how dirty I can be. You might like it.”
I roll my eyes as one of the guards chuckles, “Go fuck yourself.”
“When I do, I will be thinking of you,” he whispers into my ear.
“Strike,” says one of the guards, “Don’t get too close to her.”
“He can’t get much closer than that,” says the other guard.
He turns back and grins, “Oh, but I want to get so, so close.”
I can’t help myself as I giggle uncontrollably, and we both merge into a healthy laugh. Still, as I do, I analyze how many people are in the building. We are in a sorting center, so Junk Town. There are exactly eight armed guards, not counting the ones behind me. Approximately thirty mixed people, including some girls close to my age. They have no automated sentries or heavy artillery. These people, they are threat to the State? I scoff.
Strike and asks defensively, “What?”
“I’m just wondering what microscope to use to measure your penis.” I answer loud enough for others to hear.
He stops. I hit a nerve.
“Don’t worry,” I add, “They have gen-mods for that. Look, you can be my bitch. I’ll take care of you.”
His face contorts into rage, and I see his fists clench up. I may have to defend myself. Just as quickly, he deflates, “Nah, Alan’s your bitch already. I don’t believe in harems, not male ones anyways.”
It is my turn to grow outraged, “What do you know? He is just my friend, a brother really.”
Strike ignores me and puts something into his mouth and begins to smoke. It is a deep pungent smell.
“Ignorant boy,” I end. I ignore him the rest of the walk. I use my ears, but gather no useful intel until I catch a distant conversation.
We need to take all five patients in separate vehicles. Fuck! Where are we going to get vehicles? It’s a good thing we finished the last transformation.
A different voice adds, We got one military unit from them.
No, you idiot! That one sticks out like sore thumb. Plus, they can probably track it.
I breath in hard. I know that voice! What is she doing here?
I go to what seems to be their infirmary. It is a sad joke, as the equipment looks ancient. There are some patients with minor injuries in make-shift cots. One of them is on the floor.
In the third bunker is Cherry. Pregnant Cherry. Big. Fat. Cherry.
“Holy fuck!” I say.
Strike can’t help himself, “Yeah, that’s what got her in trouble in the first place.”
Cherry smiles and rubs her belly.
I go to her, and sit at a distance holding my hands limp, face down in submission. It is the hand motion that means defeat in arenas or street battles, when the odds are against you.
“Yo, Cherry, pretty, pretty Puke-Machine,” he nods at me, “Guess who this is?”
Cherry looks at me startled, “No way?”
“Yeah, Alan’s future wife,” he says.
“What was Alan doing here?” I say, “I thought he was dead.”
“Long story,” says Strike.
I look at her, “How did you survive the blast?”
She stays silent.
“You know,” I add sitting at the edge of her bed, careful not to make her uncomfortable. I can’t believe how enormous her belly is.
“I mourned for you,” I tear up, “They kept playing the footage over and over.”
“I know,” she says, “I’m sorry, but I needed to get out of there.”
She says no more. I reach out and squeeze her hand, which startles her. She may be pregnant, but her training will not allow her body to trust strangers. Besides, I don’t think the transformation has been absolute. Her face is fully human, but the muscles beneath her human skin still look very feline.
“Look,” I say, “You have to make sure you get out of here, first. Get out as fast as you can. Strike if you have any decency, you must get her out of here. Get them out,” I show her the counter on my arm-port. There are 72 hours left.
“Once she dies,” Or I detonate whatever is in Beverly, “You are all going to die.”
Nurse comes up behind me, having overheard the last bit, “What is it?”
“Honestly,” I answer, “I don’t know. I took her out of the infirmary where they were experimenting on her.” I stop and look at my hands, “They had been torturing her for days, but she never broke. Those bitches couldn’t break her.”
I smile triumphantly, “I am not sure what she did exactly to deserve being brutalized. I overheard something about files and hacking. Do you know what happened?” I look at each of them.
No one says anything.
“She was on an important mission,” says Cherry beginning to cry.
“No,” I soothe, “don’t cry. It’s not good for the baby.”
“Oh, for fucks sake!” says Strike, “It’s baby this, and baby that.”
“I think it’s partly my fault she got caught,” I say sounding pitiful, “She was helping me with the candidacy process. Not that I needed help.”
“Of course not, princess,” says Strike sarcastically, “You’re so perfect.” He imitated Alan perfectly in that last sentence, and my heart flips.
I do something else I know I am not supposed to, “In my bag, Nurse, there is an injection and vials. You give her a dose, every 12 hours, or you can kiss your asses goodbye.”
“We won’t be here much longer,” he says.
“You can’t tamper with her. I know you’re smart,” I add padding his ego, while Strike makes a condescending noise. “That will kill her. Do you understand?”
Nurse looks at me one last time and leaves.
“Where is she?” I ask, “I have lip balm and eye drops she needs.”
“You got this?” asks one of the guards to the other guard. The other one nods. On cue one of the guard leaves with the drops and balm, to give Nurse this information.
“Jack was sweet on her,” Strike says.
“She would come here?” I ask.
Strike spits, “You ask a lot of questions.”
I stammer, “I’m sorry. This is all new to me. You seriously can’t think I’m a threat? I could have killed you like five times! I was running away. Private Felicity was helping me. She was anti-State too with all of her unsafe ideas about marrying men and having them be equals. She was the crazy one! I just, I just tagged along hoping to find a home, and then, one of you shot her. I just, I need to be free. . . .”
This hits a nerve with Cherry, “Strike, let her be. Besides, if Alan trusts her, so do I.”
Strike curses some new words Ashley has not heard before, and he exits.
“Wow,” she says, “He can use the word fuck in so many ways.”
“Oh,” Cherry sighs, “he’s a sewer mouth, alright, an unruly boy.”
We laugh together and even the guard is trying not to be undisciplined.
I exchange more pleasantries with her, and I ask her about the baby. She is carrying twins, which is amazing.
“Won’t the State come after you? This alone carries a death penalty. Where will you live?” How will you hide?” I want to ask more, but wait.
“Oh, it’s all planned out, even with this set-back,” she says. Cherry has a sweet round face, heart shaped Mrs. J would say. Her eyes are still feline, but I notice her teeth are not. I wait to hear more, but within seconds, she falls asleep.
“Wow,” I say.
The guard chuckles, “Yeah, she knocks out on command, it seems.”
Some time goes by, as I stare at the arm-port and watch Cherry sleep.
Nurse barges in, “Come with me!” He looks agitated and is sweating. Cherry is still fast asleep, as we leave. “Make sure she and her husband leave in the next group.” He points to her.
“Ah fuck,” says the guard, “You want me to wake her up?”
“JUST DO IT!” he hollers. I turn back as the guard approaches her. Cherry is still asleep.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I put leads on the thing, that fucking thing at the base of her neck. She is going into convulsions.”
I stop, “Maybe we should be getting out of here! Like immediately!”
He grabs me by the arm hard and urges me forward, “Damnit, just come!”
“I’m not a medical expert!” I say, trying to get away.
We near a secure room, a glass room I have not seen before. I look in. She is lying on the floor. Beverly has stopped convulsing, but her eyes are rolling over and over. It is disgusting.
“I,” my feet freeze, “Mr. Nurse, I would not go in there.”
Despite my warning, he goes into the room. The door seals behind him. He urges me to come in, and a guard who emerges out of nowhere pokes his rifle against my back. It’s like a bad, old movie scene. I try to inch towards the door.
He pokes me forward with insistent jabs, but I cannot move. As Nurse beckons me in with his head, he picks her up gently and puts her back on the bed. I pause and grab the door handle, and just then, her head explodes. I let go of the handle. Nurse is in shock with blood and goop all over him. He looks unharmed. Suddenly, he remotely locks the door with a portable pad and is not urging me to leave. He comms with someone and just as he is about to finish his sentence, he starts shaking. Foam begins to fill his mouth, and I need no more urging.
“Everybody run! Get the fuck out of here!” I shout.
I turn not sure where the exit is. The guard points in the distance and an alarm begins to sound. I hear Strike’s voice over a speaker, “This is not a drill. Get the Medical Miracles out first! Weaponize now and leave in groups of ten. Let’s go!”
Without thinking, I turn and run towards Cherry. I run so fast, I get there in minutes, but she is gone. Should I run to the other woman? Should I run to her? I whirl back towards the exit the guard pointed out. Just then I hear an explosion as armed red guards rush into the building. I am shocked to see my Ma, and I run to her, instead.
From a distance she sees me, “Ashley!” She shoots the guard who has been following me. I reach her within seconds.
“Ma!” I say fast, “I don’t have time to explain. This was my special mission. You have to get out of here! Dean Andreanna set some kind of biological weapon that the rebels accidentally set off. Ma! Please, you have to get out of here!”
Captain Warrior looks uncertain, but the rebels are fighting back. I know she has her own mission, but why didn’t they tell her about the biological agent?
“Private Ellen,” she shouts at her comms, “Get this candidate back to the Education Center, immediately!” Captain Warrior charges ahead a blur of raging red. Her shooting, perfect.
“No Ma!” I cry, but the Private drags me away as a stray bullet hits my right leg, above the knee. She runs fast taking me to a vehicle nearby. There are at least 30 of our forces.
“Please!” I scream to Private Ellen, “They will all be dead! Fuck!”
We reach the car, and out of a side satchel, she pulls out a med-gun and injects me. Thankfully, it doesn’t knock me out, but dulls the increasing pain in my leg. She shoves me into the back seat and drives off as someone shoots out the back window. Against better judgement, I look up through the gaping hole. It’s Strike waving for me to come back, as he shoots another red soldier right in the face. He looks like he’s enjoying himself.
“Get down!” screams Private Ellen.
What I see as I duck, stuns me. From somewhere, every woman and child has pulled out a gun or a weapon, some crude looking, and are fighting back. Fierce. Some are military grade. “Holy shit,” I say, “Even without the virus. The Red Forces were probably dead when the entered the compound.”
Private Ellen drives off calling in for more back-up.
I hold back the burning in my eyes because I don’t think I will see Captain Warrior ever again, “I am accountable. I am productive. I am safe.” I mutter this to myself over and over, and I hear the driver repeating the mantra with me, over and over, as we drive back into the city.
On the way to the Education Center, I see more military vehicles racing towards the rebel camp. I have failed in my mission, and I worry Captain Warrior is dead. What were the Miracles? Why was Alan there? Why was she there?
I want to send Alan a message, but it’s too dangerous now.
When I get to the garage, Dean Andreanna is waiting. She stands stiffly, and her jaws are clenched.
“Come with me to my office,” she says.
Private Ellen tries to appeal for me, “She has been shot, and needs medical attention.”
Dean Andreanna gives her an icy glare, “Thank you for delivering her. Now, go.”
My leg is bleeding, and I wait for 309 to run up to me and patch me up, but no. Dean Andreanna walks at a fast pace, not at all caring about my bleeding leg. I hate this woman more than ever. I guess her kiss didn’t bring me any luck at all.
Still, I match her stride, posture perfect, and I do not complain.
We are walking down an unfamiliar hallway that is heavily guarded. There are women there slick, wearing black suits. I am not familiar with the guns they carry. For the fuck of it, I smile at one of them, and she smiles back. She is slick black, making her outfit blend in with her seamlessly, but her eyes are a striking yellow.
Dean Andreanna steps back, “Go in.” I am surprised that she waits in the background.
I walk in, and am shocked. I know these women. Some of them are sitting at a large conference table. Others are standing by a coffee dispenser. They are relaxed almost joking, but when I come in, the all stop and look at me. There is a chair a few feet away from the table.
“Please,” says the chair of the Central Office, “Have a seat.”
One of the members hisses and Dean Andreanna, “What the hell?” She comes to me quickly and takes out something out of her bag. She must be a doctor. She uses a med pen and quickly seals the wound.
“Brave, brave girl,” she says, “Now, this is just temporary, until you go back to 309.” She finds her seat to the right of the chairwoman.
They all sit at the table and look at me expectantly.
I stand to give my report, but the head council woman urges me forward, “Please Candidate Ashley Packer. We are not savages. Report what you saw.”
The kind doctor nods for encouragement.
I want to ask about Captain Warrior, and I hesitate. One of the women, a brown furred creature with long fur is picking her nose with a dainty claw.
I begin to speak like I am giving a detailed book report.
“Come on buddy. Say her name again.”
Alan hasn’t spoken since he mentioned her name.
“Master,” says 147-Paul, “The boy should sleep.He is not concussed, just in shock.”
“I know,” he sighs heavily and adds, “We should all sleep down here. Just in case.”
147 quickly reports the events, but she is not listening.
She goes to the cot and gives him an enormous hug, and then, she punches Richard in the
face. Nothing more needs to be said, and Richard waits expectantly for her to hit him more, but she does not.
She holds the boy for a long time until Alan starts to hold her back.
“Mom,” he says stroking her back, “Is Ashley OK?” He sits up, “Can I have my portable, please?” Alan’s head feels like he has been out in the sun too long. His mouth is completely dry.
Newsfeeds show the annihilation of the rebel camp, and he searches urgently for some new message from her. Nothing. He slumps.
“What’s the matter?” asks his Mom as she takes his vitals.
“I was hoping for something,” he gives 147-Paul a significant look. He knows 147 is not supposed to do that connecting, but Alan is going to take that secret to the Pit, if he has to.
“Are you hungry?” asks Richard.
“Oh,” cries Alan, “What happened to your eye?” His Dad’s right eye is starting to darken.
“I landed on the coffee table from the blast,” he says.
Alan vaguely remembers the bomb. Without asking, 147-Pauls adds, “She is back at the Education Center, safe and sound.”
Alan looks through the footage again, as he rubs sleep out of his eyes, and it dawns on him, “Mom, is that Mr. Brown’s camp?” He sits up alert and reviews all the footage. His heart stops because the recognizes the interior footage. The hydroponic garden is burnt to ashes. The news reports 10 rebel bodies and no military casualties. Alan chokes up when he realizes one of the rebels was pregnant, but he is relieved to see it is not Cherry, but a girl with short brown hair he never met. She reminds him of Ashley.
“Do not trouble yourself,” says 147-Paul sitting at the edge of the cot, “Most of them are in a safe zone, and regrouping again.” 147 pats him on the back, “Cherry and Strike are safe. Cherry’s husband is no more, however, but most of the leadership made it out. The State put a virus in a traitor. Luckily, Nurse was able to contain it.”
“Nurse? Is he OK?”
147-Pauls eyes grow that watered-down grey.
“I really liked Nurse,” Alan says.
“We all did,” says Richard.
They spend the night in the basement because Dr. Harper wants to make sure the virus is not spreading. For his part 147-Paul secures the windows and repairs the wall with nano-glue. Even though he feels fine, they make Alan lie down on the cot, and he takes time to review the footage over and over.
Alan overhears his parents, “Who in their right mind would be that stupid to release a biological agent like that?”
“They are probably running a test,” asserts Dr. Harper, “For us. To instill fear and control us. All the news feeds are claiming the rebels were creating a biological agent. They don’t know what lie to stick with. . . . That poor girl’s head exploded.”
“Poor Nurse,” says Richard, “Now, who is going to do the transformations? Don’t you even think about it. You’ve done enough for the cause.”
“The cause,” she snorts, “I did it to turn this damn system around, like things were thirty years ago.” She caresses his face. “I am sorry I punched you earlier. It’s these fucking genetic alterations. They make you a savage.”
“I know. I love you,” he says, “You can never do wrong by me. You never have to apologize to me.”
She kisses him deeply and looks to her son, “You enjoying the show?”
“Ah, chucks,” he says, “I just hope someday, I have that. What you have.”
His parents cuddle closer to each other, “Let’s see what’s on the vid.”
The far wall lights up, and there is a late-night match. It is only 9:45p.m., the match to begin in fifteen minutes, but already women are commenting on who their favorite is. As ever, there is one favorite.
“Well, well,” says Dr. Harper, “Look who is in the arena tonight.”
“Who is that?” asks Alan admiring the muscular lean woman. She is arrogant and has every right to be: Andreanna says the name under the expansive screen. Her fur is an unusual gold, pure gold, and she smiles lifting her chin up at the screen. That’s the kind of fur all the girls wanted, slick and lush. Her eyes are the most beautiful blue he has ever seen. The woman is all muscle, and Alan feels pity for whoever is in the ring with her.
“That is the current Dean of the Education Center,” says Dr. Harper, “She is highly respected, but there are plenty of skeletons in her closet. She’s a piece of shit.”
“Now, now,” says Richard, teasing, “There’s no evidence to substantiate the claims.”
“No, there’s no proof and witnesses. No one is brave enough to come forward, but I know she did awful things to those girls.”
Her claws are out, and she is wearing a slick black leather outfit.
The other opponent is not as commanding. She is the fattest woman Alan has ever seen. In fact, on her way into the arena, she stumbles, which draws heckling and hissing from the crowd. Her name is Loop. Alan recognizes the soft grey fur and amber eyes.
He sucks in his breath, “That was our teacher!”
“Don’t worry,” assures Richard, “She won’t get hurt.”
The robotic announcer says, “This is a special event. The match will be a first of its kind. A match to the death.”
Alan stops to process that information. There have been some deaths over the years in televised combat, but they were genuine accidents. Savagery has never been condoned, which is hypocritical in Alan’s book.
“What?” gasps Dr. Harper, “That’s illegal!”
Richard grabs his portable and punches in numbers.
“You are disgusting!” she says and pauses, “Who are you betting on?”
He shakes his head, not willing to divulge his pick, and she does the same on her arm-port.
“Yikes,” he says, “9 to 1 odds against that poor obese woman.”
“Alan,” says 147-Paul, “Would you like to play a game with me?”
“No,” says Alan.
Their eyes are glued to the T.V. as the announcer explains the rules. There will be three rounds. Each round will be worth five points. There are no limitations to moves that can be used, but there can be no weapons or illegal mods.
“Yeah right,” says his Mom.
Alan gets up from his cot and goes to sit with his parents, right in the middle, and holds both of their hands.
“Why do you think the State is killing her in such a public display?” he asks.
“I am not entirely sure,” she says.
She leans forward in the first round, but still hangs onto him.
“Ouch,” he says exaggerating. She loosens her grip a little.
Andreanna is a formidable opponent, and her opponent almost cowers. Andreanna strikes and gouges Loop’s arm. It is a playful strike, and Loop cries out, which draws out more jeers from the crowd.
“Point for Andreanna!”
She goes to punch Loop in the chest, but just ask quickly, Loop grabs her arm and slams her on the ground and lands on her with her right elbow right on the left boob.
“Whoa,” says Richard, “I guess she is better than I thought. Good thing I placed 100 credits on her.”
“500 for me,” says Dr. Harper, “But, she has to last two rounds.”
“Point Loop!” The crowd boos, and Andreanna hisses angrily.
The referee, a c-ervant more muscular than most, starts the match again. Andreanna grows more aggravated and hisses as she attacks, and Loop averts her punches. Andreanna looks almost comical missing punch after punch. Some of the crowd have begun to cheer for Loop, which infuriates Andreanna even more.
“Wow, she’s fast. For a fatty,” says Alan emulating Richard. His Mom scoffs, and Richard laughs out loud.
Just then, Loop kicks gracefully and nails Andreanna in the chin so hard, she falls back. The crowd is silent, and the announcer takes a while to give a score. Loop 2 to Andreanna 1. The match recommences, and Andreanna relaxes herself.
She sneers at her opponent and goes to punch her neck. Loop blocks it with two hands, grabs her wrists, and Andreanna throws her onto the ground. She kicks Loop’s stomach with her heel, so hard Loop, “Ooofs.” The audience cheers. The crowd is on its feet, and some begin to throw trash into the ring.
Loop rolls around as Andreanna goes to strike her again, possibly kill her once and for all. Loop stands up shakily, and Andreanna claws her face, catching her left eye. The crowd roars as the bell rings. Andreanna goes to punch her in the fact, but the c-ervant blocks her. Instead, Andreanna punches the c-ervant, which elicits a white card. One more white cards, and Andreanna will get a point deducted.
They both sit at opposing corners. Dean Andreanna refuses her assistants’ med pens. Loop has no one, and she sits there trying to nurse her left eye. She licks her wounds, then licks the back of her hand and puts the spittle on her eye. The match is temporarily paused as another c-ervants clean up the debris, and the announcer reminds them to stop throwing trash or the match will be stopped until they do.
Alan’s mom murmurs, “Clever cat.”
“What?” Asks Alan and Richard in unison.
“Just watch,” she says and smiles, “That idiot is so confident. Stupidly confident.”
Alan stares at the close-up of each warrior. Andreanna is fuming, and she barks commands at her team. The camera highlights Loop’s face, and to his surprise, her sad eye stops bleeding.
“Mmm,” says Richard, “That eye is shot.”
When the bell rings, Andreanna rushes to the ring. Loop walks gracefully back to the center, letting her tail swish, which elicits laughter from the crowd. She yowls playfully as Andreanna bares her teeth.
“Come on, you fat ass!” cries someone.
Andreanna is hisses and spits at her. They circle each other, and without warning, Andreanna punches her in the throat, but Loop blocks it and kicks Andreanna in the groin. The crowd hisses and shouts angrily, but the lack of rules must apply to both. There is an occasional audience member clapping for the underdog, which elicits a scuffle in the audience. Still, the match continues.
“Point Loop!” Andreanna doubles over, and Loop takes her by the head.
“Here we go!” says Dr. Harpers, spit flying from her mouth.
Alan is sure, Loop is going to break her neck, but Andreanna releases from the grip easily. She kicks Loop in the stomach, and launches her to the floor. Loop takes a few moments and does an amazing double-leg flip to get up. Still, she is too slow, and Andreanna grabs her and pins her down, clawing her arms down. Loop tries to submit pathetically, holding making sure her hands are limp.
“Spare her,” someone cries from the audience. The audience grows still.
Andreanna smiles, and bites down hard on her throat. Loop screams, but there is nothing to be done. Andreanna tears her throat out, and she spits the flesh out. Her opponent slowly chokes to death, as Andreanna claws her face to a bloody mass.
“What a shame,” says Dr. Harper, “Out 500 credits.”
“Not me,” says Richard, “She lasted past the first round.” He leans back into the couch with his hands behind his neck.
Despite her victory, Andreanna is still furious. She walks away from the cameras, with eager reporters trailing after her for a few words. The camera pans onto Loop, who looks like she is between kissing air and agonizing. The blood is surrounding her in a crimson halo that accentuates her once lovely fur.
“Poor Ms. Loop,” Alan whispers and says to his parents, “She was always teased and disrespected. Loop was one of the Ashley’s favorite teachers, but she was vile to boys.”
“What teacher isn’t?” asks Richard.
Alan goes to his cot with his portable.
“Ten more minutes of that sweet heart,” says Dr. Harper, “You’ll dry your eyes out.”
“OK, mom,” says Alan. He looks through his feed, but he can’t find anything from her. He sighs heavily and reviews the footage of the compound being raided again. Where is Strike? Where is Cherry? He hopes Mr. Brown is alive and well, as his mom asserts. She has no reason to lie to him, but he is also not telling him more than he should know. He hopes they will trust him soon.
He sleeps an uneasy dream. It is Ashley in the ring fighting Dean Andreanna. However, in this dream Ashley wins almost instantaneously by ripping Andreanna’s throat out. The crowd cheers as she swallows the skin and bone. Alan wakes up sweating, as 147-Paul shakes him awake.
“You have to send her a message for me,” says Alan.
The c-ervant smiles at him, “I cannot. . . . She would be in grave danger.”
Alan snorts, “It’s a thing with her now.” He sighs.
147-Paul tilts his head, “I can do this.” He displays a 3-D image of her. She is eating breakfast with three other girls. Apparently, they have also seen the match and are watching replays on a large vid-screen. Alan catches the look on her eyes, and he knows she is faking mirth. Her eyes are not sparkling like when she is really happy. “I guess she was rooting for Ms. Loop.”
“I can only display five seconds, before I am noticed,” says 147-Paul.
“Thank you, 147-Paul,” he touches 147-Pauls face, and he is struck by its warmth. “That is the best gift any friend could have given me.”
147-Paul smiles and says, “Since you are up, let’s make some breakfast.”
Alan goes eager to assist. He has never really seen 147-Paul cook, and he is excited to team up.
“You failed in your mission,” says Dean Andreanna angry, “Mr. Brown walked without so much as a scratch!”
The Chairwoman says, “You are lucky this girl is still alive.How dare you endanger one of our candidates?”
The rest of the women agree, and I wonder if this is the right time.
“Can I speak to the council alone?” I ask bravely.They pause to confer, and agree.The dean leaves in a huff without being told to do so.
“I am worried,” I calculate choosing my words carefully, “I am worried about Dean Andreanna’s conduct. Not just in choosing this mission and what she did to Candidate Beverly.” I spill my guts out, just about the kiss and her inappropriate behavior, about the young girl in her chambers, when we were first asked to investigate the hacking. I finish in about five minutes, but when I end, I my lower lip is quivering, and I have begun to cry.
“That is very brave of you to share,” says the Councilwoman, “Unfortunately, the cameras were disabled in the garage. She claims it was for the safety and secrecy of the mission, and your witness is, well, dead.”
The doctor nods her head in agreement.
“It is all hearsay,” says another member, a pure white-haired woman with light green eyes and overly long whiskers. The short fur makes her puffy cat cheeks look like she is in a whimsical mood, but her oval blue eyes are intense.
“However,” says the doctor, “That doesn’t mean we won’t be especially vigilant.” She looks fixedly at the Chairwoman.
“Yes,” says the Chairwoman, “The dean, despite this and other alleged errors, is perfect for our current needs at the school. Still, I don’t want any of our future prospects to be hurt or compromised, allegedly.” She stops, “Are you sure you did not lead her on?”
“What?” I stammer growing hot-faced, “I would never. Besides, I have a girlfriend. And, ewe!”
The white-haired woman chuckles.
“Can they corroborate your story, your team?” asks another yellow furred woman. He has been listening intently while looking at the table the whole time, stirring a large cup of tea with too much milk.
“No,” I deflate, “No one else saw the girl in the bedroom. She hid almost immediately. In the garage, none of them were allowed to say farewell because it was a secret mission.”
“If I may,” says the doctor, “There is no reason 309 should handle the modifications on his own. I can stay to oversee, the project. For a short time period, anyway.”
“Project?” I ask.
The Chairwoman smiles at me, “That is top secret, my dear.”
The members take a vote and agree unanimously that the woman will stay to assist 309, and keep an eye on Dean Andreanna, although no one says the latter.
“The State thanks you for your service,” says the Chairwoman, “Despite the dean’s admonishment, you brought invaluable information to us. Besides, we had been looking for that rebel camp for months. They have been able to hide in plain sight, which has vexed us.”
She walks over to me, and I stiffen. They have all been . . . kind, which is not what I expected. I flinch as she raises something shiny.
“It’s a commendation, for bravery,” she pins it on my tattered collar, “Wear it with pride.” She pats me on the back, and the rest of the women stand to clap.
“Be Accountable, be Productive, be Safe,” they say in unison
With that, I am dismissed and walk outside. Dean Andreanna is leaning against the far wall. Her arms are crossed, and her claws are out.
She comes and grabs my arm and pulls me towards her, dragging me somewhere. Did she hear what I said? Her claws dig into my arm, and the curved entry make every step painful, but I am more worried about what she will do when we get to our destination.
Just then, a familiar voice calls out, “Dean Andreanna, the Central Office members wish to speak to you. I can take Candidate Ashley to the infirmary.”
The doctor walks up to us casually and takes me by the other arm. By then, Dean Andreanna has let go and is smiling like we are the best of friends.
“Of course,” she says.
“You are doing a fine job with these girls,” says the doctor, “Keep up that great work.”
Dean Andreanna salutes, and the doctor takes me away without returning the salute.
“That cunt,” spits the doctor once we are far enough way. I flinch at her cursing.
“Let me see your arm.”
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“Don’t be silly,” she takes a med-pen from one of her pockets and heals the scratches that are deeper than I first estimated. The blood has begun to pool on my sleeve and trickle down my arm.
I smile at her, “Thank you doctor . . .”
“Doctor June Healer, at your service,” she does a funny bow. “I know, not the most creative name. My mother was pro-equality. Can you imagine?”
I laugh out loud and want to ask more, but I know better than to push.
“I know what you were dying to ask in there,” she sighs. She pauses as we walk down the corridor to the infirmary. Getting closer to me she whispers, “No one knows where she is. And that bitch is trying to say Captain Warrior is a traitor.”
“That’s not true!” I cry angered at the accusation.
“I know, I know,” says Doctor Healer, “Even without your report, I knew. Captain Warrior was one of my students. She fought with every bit of verve to get sponsored, and she almost graduated top of her class.”
I look at her and smile, “Who did graduate head of her class?”
“Why,” she says, “Dean Andreanna, of course.”
I mull over this bit of information, “I could tell they didn’t really like each other, right from the start.”
“Mmmmm,” she says, “These Patronages can be really competitive, and I must say dear, they all had their eye on you.” She leans in about to tell me a great secret, “I pulled the strings, so she would get her pick.”
We walk into the infirmary, and it is not the quiet, restful space it once was. A girl is bloodied and agonizing in a cot. Two other girls are in just as bad a shape. So much for not wanting to compromise candidates. Without asking, Doctor Healer goes to the first girl.
I look at 309, and smile. He merely stares at me, but does not smile back. His eyes are that dull excrement color, “Miss, please let me take you to a cot. What ails you?”
“Uh,” I say flatly, “I got shot in the leg. Dr. Healer has temporarily fixed it with a med-pen. The bullet went through, clean, through. Before that, I was also in an explosion,” If you care to know, “and you should probably check for any brain damage. I also got dosed with a rebel truth serum, that probably undid your procedure. I was punched around. You know, another day as a candidate. And damnit,” I take a whiff of myself and add forgetting about the other humiliating bit, “When I was being questioned, I got doused with urine.”
His eyes flicker into a red, “Well Miss, as you can see, there are girls who need more assistance. For now, this should help.” He cleans my stinky arm and injects me with his index finger, and imperceptibly rubs my underarm with his other hand. He gives a significant look to Dr. Healer. He grabs a large moistened cloth from the storage unit in the wall. He faces me his back towards her.
“Sorry,” he mouths without making a sound and pretends to be checking my neck. He takes the hearing device, which is now defunct and stores it in a compartment at the front of his outfit. “Do not worry miss. I will make sure you are safe and healthy, if possible.” 309 truly is my friend, and I know he won’t tell the dean about my device.
“Ah, thank you.” I nod towards Dr. Healer, “I suppose you will have some help around here with the project and to keep an eye on things.” I want to tell him more, but there are too many ears around. Instead, I smile and boop him on the nose.
309 processes the information, winks at me, and turns to do his work.
“Hmmm, that wink is a new one, no doubt part of your adaptable programming,” because I am certain he can hear me, I whisper. He pauses for a few moments, and I wish I could see his eyes, , as he goes on to assist Dr. Healer. I look to my arm-port and review the news for footage. Nothing is coming up on the feeds about the rebel camp.
I lean back and try to relax, but the smell in my nose is awful. I unceremoniously undress out of my tight garment, grab some med wipes, and clean myself.
“Oh girl,” says a candidate I recognize, the long-haired girl I helped during the game in the gym. “You are fine!” She winces in pain.
I snort, and continue to wipe my body. My hair reeks the worst, and there is nothing I can do about it. I analyze her, “What the hell happened to you, kittens?”
She grimaces, “Oh, I don’t know where you’ve been, but the tests have gotten a lot harder. Harder than most years. I’m Rebecca, [vii]by the way.”
“I remember, Citizen,” I lie. It looks like she has been hit by a stick as there are circular markings on her arms and face, “Can I get you anything?”
I am in my bra and underwear, school issue. Red, plain and boring. For good measure, I take my pin and put it on the left strap.
I walk over to her. There is a deep gouge over her forehead, and her right hand appears to be broken, “Seriously. What happened?”
“Oh, I won’t spare you the fun,” she says. “Your team is going to go through it, now that you’re back. Dean Andreanna told us you were still on a mission. Did you get that bitch to talk?”
“I can’t say anything,” I smile.
“Well,” she sucks in, “Me neither. Besides, I can’t be giving you anymore advantage than you already have.”
“Candidate Ashley,” commands Dr. Healer, “Please, get back in your cot. Now. That bullet wound is not completely repaired.”
Rebecca gives me a quizzical look, and I say, “It’s nothing.”
By the time I get to my cot, Rebecca has gossiped to all the girls in my class via arm-port. On cue, I start to get messages from my teammates and even from other girls who have never bother talking to me before.
“How are you, my love?” begins Jackie. The rest send short videos and pictures. I reply with a short video of myself and tell them I am fine. I ignore the other girls.
“I’ll be with you soon,” I assure my team, and blow them all a kiss for good measure.
My bullet wound is patched up last, with a thin bandage around it, and even though 309 wants me to rest, Dr. Healer sends me back to my dorm. I take it off on my way there because I don’t need the other candidates to know I have a weak spot. It is 7p.m., and I am sure they are still eating lunch.
I walk to the lunch room, and everyone stops to stare at me. Some stand and salute, and I salute back. My girls run to me and give me hugs while they take me to my seat.
“What is that horrible smell?” asks Jackie.
“Oh,” I say, “ Uh, I guess I have to take care of this first.”
Vye is crinkling her tiny nose, “Wow, must have been some mission. Your clothes are a mess.”
I giggle, as I head back to my dorm. I also forgot I am wearing my old clothes. Stupid.
I go to my dorm with my girls following in tow. Someone has pressed all my clothes and neatly stacked them, and when I look up, Jackie has a smug smirk on her face. I choose a night gown, not caring what anyone will think, if I wear this to the lunch room. I pin my commendation on the left sleeve.
“Holy cow,” says Mona, “Is that—?” She admires the pin with three circles indicating accountability, productivity, and safety.
I nod my head and go to the shower, “Meet you back at the cafeteria?”
“Sure,” they answer in unison.
“I’ll make you a plate,” Jackie says.
When I get to the shower, I am glad to be alone. I turn on the hot shower and close my eyes. Then, I do something uncharacteristic. I sing a song Alan used to sing on our way to hunt rats in the canal. It’s an old Spanish song about a woman and the moon. The woman loses something of great price, and she asks the moon for succor. The hot water feels like heaven, even though one does not exit. Just then, someone hits my head from behind. Before I can turn around, something metal hits my wounded leg, and I cry out. The stranger grabs my hair and pins me to the wall.
“Think you’re better than us?” she hisses.
It’s not Andreanna, as I thought, but Lister. She grips my hair and slams my forehead against the wall. I recover through the pain, as fast as I can and stomp on her foot with the heel of my left foot, which is not as effective as I would like because my foot is wet. She tries to slam my head again, but I quickly grab her left wrist and bite down hard. This is no time for arena rules, and I dig my teeth in deep.
She yowls in pain, and I take out a large chunk of flesh and spit it out. She steps back holding her wrist, and I spin around and punch her right in the throat. Lister holds her throat unable to breathe, and I punch her in the stomach, left, right. I could kill her. If I were like her, I could kill her. I plan my next move.
Just then, a red blur goes by me, and someone grabs her by the hair slamming her on the floor and punches her mercilessly. It is Jackie.
“Stop!” I command, but Jackie is in a fury, “Stop, you’re going to kill her!”
Jackie slashes at her face and nearly gouges her eyes out, as Lister tries to surrender. Jackie grabs her limp left hand and slams it so hard against the floor, I hear a crack.
I prepare to knock Jackie out, but thankfully, a guard runs in and breaks up the fight. The guard has to grab a hold of Jackie and pull her away, She is hissing and making incomprehensible noises.
“She started it,” I say pointing at Lister.
Dr. Healer, rushes in behind the guard, “We saw the footage of her coming after you in the hallway.”
I recount the events, quickly as I can, and Dr. Healer takes them both away.
“You should go to the infirmary,” she says, “Don’t worry. We saw everything.”
I am tired of the infirmary, so instead, I finish showering as fast as I can, get dressed, and jog back to the mess hall. My leg actually feels fine, and I wonder if 309 hasn’t boosted my healing somehow; everyone knows my damn leg has been shot anyway, so I put the bandage back on. I sit at the table, agitated. Unconsciously, I start to rub my stomach.
“What happened to you?” asks Vye nodding towards my face.
I tell them in hushed words about the attack, and Mona grows furious.
“That jealous bitch!” I shush her as Vye points at my forehead. Before she can suggest I go to the infirmary, I shut her up.
“This is nothing,” I say pointing to my forehead, “Jackie was there too. She got taken away for defending me.” I look at them both, “She went savage on Lister.” I let the events run to my head. How could she lose her composure like that?
Mona makes a deflated sound, “She really loves you Ashley. Really.”
I pause to think about that for a long time, and hope she won’t get thrown out of the center.
An hour goes by, and we are called to the common room to see a special arena match. I sit with Mona and Vye at the front sofa. Usually, that is the seat for more popular girls, but they reserve it for us. From the far corner, Lister’s team is glaring at me. They knew. I’m sure they knew, and they allowed her to break the rules, that coward. I stare them down, and they look away, pretending to look at their arm-ports.
A few moments later, Jackie comes back, alone.
“Where is she?” I ask.
“She’s with Dr. Healer,” she gives me a warm hug, and despite my previous hesitation, I hug her back tight and give her a kiss on both cheeks. She beams at me. I disengage, so she can tell us what is going on.
“What are they going to do to you?” asks Vye.
“I have extra cleaning duties,” she smirks, “But it was worth it. Lister deserves to die.”
Vye chimes in, “We’ll help you!”
But Jackie shakes her head, “No, my punishment and pleasure.”
“I thought you were going to kill her, really,” I say leaving out the part that I was going to intercede, “And the dean?”
She shrugs her shoulders, “She wasn’t there.”
“I wonder what this is about,” asks Mona nodding towards the screen. She is actually an avid arena fan and has more fighter cards than anyone I know. One night, Mona showed me all of the green series, and I lost interest after she started detailing some woman with special kick attacks.
When we see Dean Andreanna on screen, we are all shocked. She looks imperial in her slick black outfit. She has braided her hair intricately, with sparkly red ribbon, and she smirks confidently at the screen.
The camera pans to her opponent, a less intimidating one, and I gape, “It was her.”
“Who?” asks Vye.
I turn to look at them, pause and force myself to be calm, “It’s Ms. Loop, my teacher. I think she was a traitor.”
We huddle close together, and Mona is dumbfounded when they announce it as a death match.
“Holy shit,” she says open-mouthed, “They haven’t had death matches since the traitors ten years ago. You remember?” She asks. Of course, none of us do.
“Back when they seated the new Central Office and leadership,” she goes on, “They killed 20 women in total, and after that, we had peace.”
I nod my head and cling to the edge of my seat. I watch horrified as Dean Andreanna toys with her, and gets the first point by striking Loop’s left arm.
“Come on!” shouts a girl from the back, “Why is she playing games? Hit her harder!!”
“Yeah,” says someone with fake bravado, “I have 1,000 credits riding on this match!” Even I laugh at the assertion.
They begin to chant Dean Andreanna, and I mouth it quietly. Suddenly, the tables turn, and Loop uses form 5, bringing the dean to the floor, hard. It is a difficult maneuver, especially on the other opponent is faster, but just as quickly Loop does an amazing boob shot.
The entire common area is silent.
“Wow,” shouts Mona, “See, you can’t underestimate the fat girl!”
I laugh out loud and that elicits laughter from the rest of the girls.
“That’s right!” says someone who was too far to hear, “It was a lucky shot!”
But it wasn’t a lucky shot, and I am surprised Loop has genuine skills. She weaves in and out gracefully, averting Andreanna’s attacks. Andreanna is starting to grow more furious, savage.
“Watch that corpulent woman go!” says someone in the common room.
“Yeah,” says one of Lister’s team, “Now, Mona can have a role model.”
I turn back, and they avert their eyes. I keep looking at them, and realize, I have to
obliterate that team. Out of sheer principle. “You bitches better stay focused on the match,” I say ominously.
I turn back, just as Loop is kicking Andreanna in the face. Again, the common room stops.
They parry for a while until Andreanna throws Loop using the same maneuver and kicks her hard. I am sure Loop has her ribs cracked by the sheer force of that kick. Even though I have to keep appearances, I cheer for Andreanna eliciting the stupid chant again. To our disapproval, she punches the c-ervant in the face.
“Whoa,” says Mona, “That is not right.” She gets a white card.
“That’s not fair!” shouts someone, “They said no rules!”
The first round ends, and I sit back deflated. We are eager for all the commercials to pass. Then, I pause, there is a commercial advertising cybernetics for women. That can’t be right. Women have used genetic enhancements, but never cybernetics.
“What?” I ask, but then, the match commences again.
“That eye is gross,” says Vye starting at Loop’s close-up.”
Mona adds, “Yeah, but her saliva is mod-ed. Look.” Indeed, her eye and wounds have stopped bleeding.
“She’s fucked,” says Jackie, “It doesn’t matter how this fight ends. She’ll end up in the Pit.”
I cling to hope. Maybe if she wins, they will pardon her, after all the Councilwomen are fair. Still, I know deep down that won’t be the case. I am glued to the screen as Andreanna punches Loop, just like I punched Lister earlier, but with deadly force. Loop, however, is fast. She blocks and kicks Andreanna in her privates.
“Savage!” says Jackie, getting sucked into the match, “I wish I could bet.”
When Loop gets another point, the girls object. Someone throws a shoe at the screen the bounces off and lands on Mona’s lap. “Knock it off!” She looks behind her looking for the culprit, which almost elicits a fight in the common room.
“Girls,” says one of the guards, “If you can’t behave, I’ll turn the fight off.” They complain, but settle down.
“She is pretty fast,” says Vye, as Loop grabs Andreanna by the neck. I hold my breath along with my team. I wince as Andreanna, easily breaks the hold and kicks the woman sending her careening to the floor. Still, she flips up. Andreanna doesn’t pause. She pins her down in another bold move. I know how strong those claws are, and I wonder if they have been modified illegally. I start to tear up because Loop is trying to surrender.
“Spare her,” someone cries from the audience.
“No!” yell the girls in unison.
“Yeah!” I shout, “Take that bitch out Dean Andreanna!” The chant commences again. Dean Andreanna. Dean Andreanna! The bile in my stomach starts to rise up again.
Without pausing, Dean Andreanna bites her neck, tearing her artery, and kills Loop. The girls are not phased, and they continue to chant for her. I quickly wipe my eyes as Jackie stares at me.
I smile at her and give her a kiss. Andreanna’s victory is our victory.
They both stare at the three eggs on the counter.
“I say we make a bake,” says Alan, remembering all the dishes he would make with the rare egg. He looks to 147-Paul, “You choose the meat and vegetables my parents like.”
The c-ervant pulls out onions and tomatoes. Next he grabs potatoes.
“No mushrooms?” asks Alan.
147-Paul shakes his head. He shows Alan how to hold a knife properly, and he leaves Alan practicing, while he makes a crust.
“Unacceptable,” says Paul, talking to the quarter cup of butter, “We need more butter.”
“Mix oil with it,” says Alan. He takes the remaining oil and mixes it 147’s butter in a bowl.
They work together in unison, and before long, Alan is sautéing the vegetables that will go in with the egg. 147-Paul decides to save the meat for lunch.
“This should taste good,” says Alan. They pop it in the oven, and before Alan can help clean up, 147-Paul gives him the tablet. “Yesterday’s math homework, first. Then, music, her orders.”
Alan’s shoulder slumps, and he goes to the living room. As he sits down, he inspects the patch job 147-Paul has done on the wall. The glass and debris are all cleaned up, and sometime during the night, 147-Paul covered the windows with a temporary material. He wants to touch it because the material is a dull dark synthetic polymer, slick, and there is something unfamiliar about it.
He sighs in resignation, although he is glad to be able to work in the living room. Alan chisels at the math for over an hour, until the smell of the bake fills the room, and his parents wake up. Yowls are coming from the basement, and he knows they have been having sex. In fact, his Mom is like most cats, insatiable, and he suspects most women are like that.
He remembers the time he walked in on his biological mom doing it with a stranger. His mother was scowling in pain, as she arched her back, and she froze when she was him just three feet away from them. He wasn’t exactly sure what they were doing, or why the large bearded man was wrestling with her on the tattered couch. School didn’t provide sex education for boys until much later in their school, and after the beating he got that day, he really wasn’t interested to learn more.
“Hey Champ,” says Richard sporting a few bruises on his right cheek and a large scratch on his throat. Alan is definite he is never going to be with a woman. As ever, his uses the med-pen.
Alan stares at him for a long time and wants to ask questions, but he knows it is not his place. How can someone who loves you beat you up like that, he wants to ask, but smiles at Richard.
“I’m finishing the problems from yesterday.”
Richard checks his homework, just as his mother snatches it.
“Great work!” she says. Dr. Harper is always in a good mood after she scratches the hell out of Richard.
Then, she goes to the kitchen, “Mmmmmm.”
“It’s a meager breakfast today,” says 147-Paul.
On cue, Richard invites Alan to sit. The coffee is black, and there is only the slice of bake with no fruit. However, 147-Paul has managed to put some herb garnish making the plates look fuller.
“Can I go to the market?” asks Alan, hoping to send a message to Ashley.
“No, I am taking a day off, just in case.” says Dr. Harper, “I will go to the market today. You catch up on your studies. Besides, the repairwomen are coming to fix the wall this morning and install reinforced windows.”
He asks, “In case of what?” which elicits a secretive smile and silence. “Are you worried about the virus?” Richard gives him a stern look that makes him stop.
“You—Richard, and Paul—bring out the old paintings and the gaudy bookshelf, with music boxes, before they come over. They should be here by 11, sharp.”
When she is done eating, she grabs two baskets and puts on an old red military hat, a red ornate cap that fits her head perfectly. There are pins surrounding the base of it, all the way around the back. She wears a short red dress, not worried about sun damage. She gives Alan a kiss goodbye and one for Richard.
Once she is gone, they decorate as Alan works on the tablet, again in the living room. He really wants to help, but he wouldn’t know how to hang up a picture like that. The frames are a tasteful silver, but the images are weird. One is of an old man in a rocking chair giving a ball to a boy. The other is a nature scene with flowers and grass and an animal he has never seen before. The creature is graceful with brown skin and long horns. One of its long limb rests on a rock.
“It’s a deer,” says Richard, catching Alan staring at the image, “They’re extinct now.”
Then, they bring up the shelf from the basement. The shelf is not gaudy like his Mom judged. It is a gold leafed medal shelf, and at the center of all four shelves, they place a small colorful object. On cue, 147-Paul takes the item and tinkers with it, and it plays music.
“Just once,” says Richard, “It will get annoying after a while.”
The tune is melancholy. It has high notes and in succession and reminds Alan of a funeral.
“Rug?” asks Richard.
“Rug,” answers 147-Paul, “I will clean it afterwards.”
They bring up a large rug from the basement. Alan goes to the kitchen, as they move the sofa and coffee table around and put the rug in the center. It is a rich red color. Alan hates it instantly as it reminds him of the last time his mother made him wear red.
When they finish transforming the place, Alan sits back at the couch, curling his toes over the rug. The rug is thick, and he plump feeling beneath his feet. They put the shelf between the two windows that are going to be repaired, even though they will have to move it and the ornate boxes. He looks at the picture on the right wall, and he wonders what the deer is starting at. He thinks the set-up looks just as sophisticated as the Kailee’s house, except it’s not as cluttered.
147-Paul sits next to Alan.
“I like it, simple, sparse,” he turns to 147-Paul, “Why doesn’t Ma keep this beautiful stuff out all the time?”
“It reminds her of her father,” that is all he says and begins the next music lesson. 147-Paul explains a lot of new terms, but in the end, the boy is too unfocused. They listen to someone called Mozart, and Alan struggles to stay awake.
Twenty-five minutes into the lesson, 147-Paul says, “OK, let’s try a different approach. Can you sing?”
In fact, Alan can sing, so he stands up and sings every song he knows by heart, including the national anthem. That is six in total.
“Wow,” says Richard coming from behind, “You do have a great voice. Your mom would love to hear you sing. Maybe you could put a little after-dinner concert on for her. That would lift her spirits.”
Alan blushes, “I think I would freeze. I only sang for my sisters, sometimes Ashley.”
“Just pretend you are singing for Ashley,” he teases.
“Ah,” he says, “She hated my singing. Punched me in the face one time for singing better than her in choir when we were in second grade.”
Richard snorts, “That just means she likes you.”
Alan scoffs, “I don’t think that is what it means. Does it?”
“Well, it depends,” Richard chuckles and ruffles Alan’s hair, “Let’s get you back to the basement. 147-Paul, close the door, please.”
Alan looks at the front door, which is closed. Their bedroom door is closed. What door is he talking about? Then, he sees 147-Paul go to the basement. There is no door in the basement except for the one leading to the stairs. In fact, Alan has been wondering where they got all the paintings and extra furniture from because the has been to the basement numerous times. There must be a secret room.
“Ashley would have spotted it the first day,” he sighs.
When the women come to fix the windows, Alan is studying history. He has also been trying to find the location of “the door”, but he finds nothing. He stays in the basement alone for four hours before the repairwomen are done.
Then, one of them shouts, and he hears Richard cry out. He wants to run up and see what is going on, but he can’t. He is also not stupid enough to go to the door, as one of them may hear or smell him. Before long, he makes out the muffled but high voice of 147-Paul saying he will pay the amount.
Repairwomen, they are just as corrupt here as they are in Packer Town, he suspects. He waits for what seems like an eternity. Then, 147-Paul comes down, “Alan, are you done with your work?”
Alan shows him the tablet, and 147-Paul smiles. He analyzes the boy, “Richard is fine. He just had a dispute with that vile repairwoman who doubled the fee.”
“Is Mom going to kill her?” he asks point blank.
“Oh, she will file a complaint,” says 147-Paul, “But, you must not go out as often in public now. Every time something like this happens, they blame men, the inherent violence of men and rebels and whoever else they can.”
Alan thinks back to what little history he remembers. Fifty-five years ago, The Great Transformation began. He knows men ruled in the past and nearly destroyed the planet even though he didn’t see a vast improvement now. He knows there were uprisings by women in particular who eventually overtook the system with the help of many sympathizing men. What the men were angry about, he is not sure about because the history books mostly talk about women’s concerns. Some say they were worried about losing their jobs to early c-ervants and automation in general, but in the end, women got the upper hand and guaranteed that men would work. For a time, there was a type of equality, so Ashley tells him.
Then, the genetic transformations began by the elite women in power. Why cats he would never understand, but the modifications didn’t take with the men. That he is mostly certain of. At least that is what they claim. What the genetic transformations meant was power for women and protection from the sun. It meant women would always be stronger than men.
Yet, it didn’t mean equality for all women. He knows his mother used to cry almost every night because she didn’t have enough money to be engineered, and she so wanted white fur and green eyes. Mostly, she wanted enough food to feed her daughters.
“What is it young master?”
“Why do women modify themselves as they do? I think, well, they are beautiful as they are at birth,” he thinks of beautiful Ashely, with her short hair and mischievous eyes. Her nose is adorable and admired by most girls because the small button nose with look gorgeous once it is shifted to cat nose.
Richard walks down and takes over, “It became all the rage about 53 years ago when a famous actress did it. But it has biological benefits beyond fighting. A woman who is spliced will live to at least 90 years before her mods no longer take. Some as old as over100. They obviously can defeat disease and environmental injury. Women would live forever, if they could. Now, it’s a religion and fad, like those absurd Tiger Teeth, which are too long for mouths.”
Alan pauses, “That means all women will outlive men.”
Richard shrugs his shoulders, “It’s a privilege to share a life with women, no matter how short.”
“Why?” he asks, “They haven’t been able to fix the planet? End hunger.”
“Well,” says Richard, “Part of it is that the damage is going to take time to repair. The other is that there is not enough food for everyone, thanks to all the previous devastation. Besides, not all countries took the route we took here, those fools. Now, they are barely surviving, but still making the planet worse.”
“What do you mean?” asks Alan. He doesn’t buy the argument. Alan thinks with all of that technological advancement, and all food he has been seeing, there is enough to feed all the people in Packer Town. Alan wants to know more about these other countries, and remember reading a pamphlet from Mr. Brown about a country that practice democracy and gender equality, a country somewhere south.
“That is a lesson for another day,” he says irritated.
That evening he is wearing a long sleeved yellow shirt. It is a color he has rarely worn before, and black pants. The shoes he has been wearing have been causing blisters, so Richard lets him run around in socks and slippers, black.
“Don’t you look handsome,” says his mother, as Alan stares at the food on the table. His mother has spared no expense, and there are two meats, chicken and one he can’t identify. It is dark and pungent, not as soft as chicken. For a moment, he remembers all the theories Ashley had about cannibalism.
“It’s lamb,” explains Richard.
“Madam bought enough food for two months,” says 147-Paul.
“We’ll be stocking up from now on, as much as we can without drawing attention,” she says, “Prices are going up again.” She takes a large bite from the lamb and swallows it without chewing. “Plant as much as you can in the garden, and refresh the rooftop garden, and reinforce the outer walls, so no one steals our food, just in case. We’ll expand the hydroponic garden in the basement, maybe devote the study, too. Then, we can start canning again.”
“That bad?” asks Richard.
“Something is up,” she sighs, “I checked for news about the virus, but all the talk was about a new project. They are ramping up support for it, and I did talk to my old mentor. Plus, there was a small protest in Junk Town over the attack, though nothing in the newsfeeds anywhere. Of course, the State subdued it, but I heard, people were upset at the footage of the pregnant girl being killed. I am just worried there will be more Harvests, even here for this new project.”
“The death of babies sets them off. Starvation they will tolerate. But Harvesting they’ll condone,” says Richard.
She shakes her head as she diminishes a little, “No ever said the system would be perfect, and despite its flaws we are doing well. I just with there wasn’t so much damn corruption.” He holds her hand as they console each other. “That is not the worst part, this new project. There are rumors of war with the south, over water. You remember how terrible the war was when we were younger.”
Richard nods his head, “That’s how I lost my mother.”
That is Alan’s cue. He stands up holding his head up high, where they can all see him, and he begins to sing. At first his voice is soft, but before long, it voice fills the room. It is a sad Spanish song about a woman and the moon, and although he doesn’t know what all the words mean, he is sure his pronunciation is perfect.
His mother claps enthusiastically like mothers used to at girl concerts, and she rises up wiping a tear from her right eye. She gives him a tremendous hug. He sings one more song before she makes him sit and eat more of his food.
“That was sublime,” she says looking at him.
“Yes,” says 147-Paul, “It appears that voice lessons will be the order of the day. He didn’t quite take to the canon. Nodded off during Mozart. . . . I have already downloaded the appropriate software for his portable. However, at his age, it is better if he sings with a group. Perhaps that rude boy can join him.”
Dr. Harper shakes her head, “I ran into his mother at the market, such a strange woman. She was buying oranges and soy sauce, but no meat. I even offered her some of mine, which she declined. Anyway, they almost killed him yesterday, the squads. He mouthed off to someone. Now, he’s in a coma. You know, she is paying top dollar to fix her boy. Strange woman.”
“Wouldn’t you do the same for me?” ask Richard and Alan simultaneously. They look at each other and smile.
“Of course, but I wouldn’t blab it to the whole world,” she stares at Richard, “How did you get that bruise you are trying to hide?”
Richard sighs heavily. Before dinner, they had all colluded and agreed not to tell her about the incident, but Richard could not lie to her, or he would get a harsher beating. When he is done explaining what happened, she simply leaves.
“Uh,” asks Alan, “What just happened?”
“Shit,” says Richard, “She is going to kill that woman.” When she leaves, it is 6:30p.m. By 7p.m, they are all exceedingly worried.
Then, Alan sees the advertising on his tablet, “Dad.” He flips up the tablet to show Richard and 147-Paul, “Mom is going to fight this woman in the arena in an hour.”
On cue, 147-Paul rushes out of the house with a medical bag.
“Sir,” he says, “You can go, too. I’ll be fine here, besides, 147-Paul always has an eye on me, even when he’s not here.”
Richard shakes his head, “Are you kidding? That is a death sentence for men, going to the arena. Plus, I’m not leaving you here alone, not with that rebel activity happening.”
They wait eagerly, and to Alan’s surprise, Richard has made cut vegetables on a platter. Chips and other snacks he can’t identify. Most of them are crunchy and range from having a pungent smell and being sour to tasting like honey. He even gives Alan a bottle of sweetened juice, which is a great treat.
“All that fruit in one bottle,” Alan says admiring the contents. He wants to add that it is a crime, and imagines how his sisters would love to share just one apple, but he is not about to offend his father.
The arena match starts. He knows his mother is furious because her face is showing no emotion, but her ears are pulled back, almost flat against her face. She too is wearing a leather combat outfit, this sone white and red. The repairwoman is wearing a military uniform.
“Oh shit,” says Alan, “Is mom going to be able to defeat that woman.”
Richard snorts, “I hope she doesn’t go savage on her and rips her damn throat out.”
Alan asks worried, “Will it be another fight to the death?”
Richard shakes his head as their names are displayed, “No, they are just appealing to the masses with those death matches. You watch. There will be like 10 fights tonight and every night until they capture whoever set off that bomb.” The match is somewhat boring, as his mother kicks the woman in the face in the first few seconds and lays her on the floor. To the crowd’s dismay, the referee counts to almost nine before she rises. The crowd cheers, but boos the repairwoman’s performance.
The woman gets back up unsteadily and his mother’s sweeps her leg so quickly it’s like a blur. When her opponent is down, his mother kicks the woman’s forehead in the exact spot where Richard was bruised. Alan suspects she could have done more damage, but his mother is making appoint. The referee stops the fight to inspect her face.
The repairwoman shakes her head and continues the fight.
Alan wonders why she keeps fighting because she is obviously going to lose. When the referee restarts the match. Dr. Harper quickly grabs the woman and flips her with a sickening thud. The flip isn’t graceful, like the flips in the previous arena match, just brutal and fast. The woman lands awkwardly on her right arm, which he knows is now broken. She tries to submit by making her left arm limp, but his mother continues to punch her. The referee stops the fight, and holds her right arm up. The close-up shows his mother’s contorted face, baring her teeth.
The crowd boos and jeers at the loser. The match also shows the repairwoman is paying damages to Dr. Harper for double what the family paid.
“Is that how all financial disputes are fixed between women?”
Richard chuckles, “A lot of times. Mostly a threat of taking someone to the arena fixes a problem. Man, I hope she doesn’t go looking for her in the parking garage. Your mother is livid, still.”
“Well,” says Alan, “She shouldn’t have treated you like that. It’s one thing to be so abusive, but she had not right to hit you. I would have killed that bitch myself.”
Richard looks at Alan shocked, “She’s still a woman. You have to respect them, even the flawed ones.”
Is Richard joking? But he is not. He thinks back to all the abuse he himself put up with, and realizes he would have said the same thing before meeting Strike. He would have let Ashley continue to hit him every day of the week, if she had, and he wouldn’t report her to the teachers.
“I am very lucky your mother loves me so much, and very happy to have a job and home. Now, you,” he says gratefully, “You’re the best perk of all.”
“But,” Alan is confused, “Don’t you believe what the rebellion believes? Don’t you want true equality? Everyone to eat and go to school? Men to not be treated so awfully?”
Richard shrugs his shoulders, “We want things to get better, but not to destroy the system. We want to reverse engineer some of the things they did to your mother, and women who want the same, but we can’t do that without calling attention to ourselves. It’s one thing to try to go underground and fix those girls, but that will be more difficult now that the Junk Town cell headquarters have been decimated.”
“Are there other places like Junk Town?” asks Alan incredulously.
“Of course,” he asserts, “I don’t know where or how to find them. They don’t even know where to find each other, I suspect, but by now Mr. Brown has regrouped somewhere with that angry cuss by his side.”
Alan laughs thinking of his friend Strike, “He’s as smart as he his brave and angry.”
“I know,” says Richard, “You know, there was a time when we considered takin him in, but he was so contrarian and disrespectful. Your mother got tired of him after a day.”
“When was that?” asks Alan.
“Oh, over five years ago,” he answers, “His mother was a highly respected woman, but she died mysteriously.”
“He lived here?” asks Alan in disbelief.
“You wouldn’t know it now.”
“And his dad?” asks Alan.
“I don’t know. Never met the man,” he answers, “But I suspect, they knew Mr. Brown. He showed up looking for the boy, one night, and your mother gladly sent him away.”
“Nobody from the state came looking for him to check in on him?” asked Alan.
“Of course not. Had he been a girl, different story.”
Alan wants to ask more, but just then his mother and 147-Paul walk in.
His mother is still upset. Her claws are still out and her tail is menacing. Plus, the fur on her face is pulled back like she is ready to attack.
Alan knows better than to approach her. Her rage is palpable, and 147-Paul asks him to go to his room. He looks back at her one more time, as she grabs Richard brusquely and carries him to their bedroom, upstairs.
That night, Alan tries to do a search on the political system, but all that comes up are repeat slogans and propaganda.
“Women are great,” he says mocking the tablet, “They can fix anything, except the damn world.”
Suddenly, he gets a message from 147-Paul. Go to bed Young Master. It is past 11p.m., and you have school tomorrow.
Alan wants to text back, but instead he does one more search for neighboring countries. Nothing comes up.
Just then, he gets a message from her.
Sub-Ratter 2, did you see yesterday’s match?
Yesss, Sorry she is gone, he types quickly, How are you?
Alan’s looks at the tablet with anguish. That is her way of saying things are going to shit. It’s what she would say when she was about to fight some stupid girl.
Can’t say. Miss you. Gotta go.
147-Paul walks in, “Why are you searching neighboring countries?”
Before he can answer, 147-Paul sits at the edge of his bed and hands him a book. It has no cover, but he recognizes it as a history book, an old one.
“For tomorrow,” says 147-Paul. He takes the book and tablet form Alan and sets them on the night stand.
Alan doesn’t need to be told that the c-ervant is going to watch over him until he falls asleep, but sleep doesn’t come because at half past midnight, there is an erratic knock on the door. 147-Paul orders him to stay in the room as 147 and his mom go to the door.
He gets close to his bedroom door and flattens his hear against it. All he hears is a cry, and his mother calling for Richard. Someone is there, crying in pain.
“Try to be quiet,” says Dr. Harper.
A few minutes later, 147-Paul comes in, “She wants you, Young Master, quickly. You must shower first, fast as you can.
Alan does so in two minutes and gets dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. He puts on his slippers and runs to 147-Paul. They go to the basement, and then, he sees the door. It is in the middle of the far wall, and light is coming out of the opening. His c-ervant puts a mask on his face, and 147 wears the same. He looks to 147-Paul who urges him in.
“Hey, Lover Boy,” says Cherry who is lying on a small operating table. She is panting and groaning. Her right shoulder is also bleeding.
Alan doesn’t need anyone to tell him what is going on, but he is terrified.
“Alan, hold her hand,” he does so on command, “Breath. Don’t hyperventilate like Strike looking at boobie pictures.”
This makes her laugh and cry out in pain mid-guffaw. She tries to breathe normally, but cannot.
Alan watches as his father expertly patches up the bullet wound.
“Yeah,” she says, her face softening as the contraction lets up, “I took a bullet for that idiot Strike.”
His heart leaps, “Is he OK?”
Before she can answer, another contraction contorts her beautiful face. Alan vows right then and there that he will never be a doctor and never be a father.
“Oh, fuck the State!” with a warrior cry she pushes.
“Stop, Cherry, says 147-Paul, “There is a problem.”
“What?” she asks terrified.
“I see it,” says his mother, “Look, it is not a big deal, but you have an obstruction. Goddamn, how did Nurse miss this?”
“What is it?” she asks struggling to speak.
“Hold in,” says Alan. She squeezes her hand so hard Alan winces.
“Yes, you can,” he urges, “Do it for your husband!”
This causes her to cry, this time in earnest, “He’s dead!”
Alan soothes her to no avail. When his mother takes the laser knife, and begins to work, he almost passes out.
“Come on champ,” says Richard, “Cherry needs you.”
Cherry’s face is grimacing and turning a deep red color. She grips his hand so hard, he knows someone will have to repair it.
“Not too much pain killer,” says Dr. Harper instructing 147-Paul.
Richard checks her vitals, “The baby’s heart beat is dropping.”
Dr. Harper glances at the monitor, “OK, push!”
In one tremendous force, she pushes out. Alan is sure she is going to rip his arm clear off.
She cries out in a primal rage and within seconds, it is over.
“Is the baby OK?!” she asks.
Dr. Harper takes the baby to another small table, as Richard tends to Cherry.
A few seconds later, the baby cries. 147-Paul hands her a towel, and she cleans the baby up, “The baby is fine.” She takes the baby to puts it next to Cherry, “She’s perfect.”
“Oh,” Richard says. He gives a significant look to Dr. Harper, “Cherry, I need you to be strong. OK, brace yourself.”
Alan looks with horror as Richard puts his arm up her vagina. Cherry screams.
“OK, now, come on!” coaches Richard.
Cherry does another tremendous heave.
The second baby comes out, and this one cries immediately.
“Oh my,” says Richard, “Looks like we erred.”
“What?” asks Dr. Harper staring at the new addition. She laughs a little. Cleans up the baby with a fresh towel and wraps it. She takes a few more minutes on the vitals and shows Cherry her baby boy.
“Nathan,” she smiles, “I’m going to call him Nathan after my father.” With that, she passes out.
- Ashley’s Story
surprises me, but then, I decide to go to the garden.
When I step out of the room, the guard asks, “Where are you going Candidate Ashley?”For a while, I stare at a woman who is not transformed.Her long obsidian hair is also an odd choice.She must be a diversity hire.The woman has grey eyes.She is also not as tall as most guards.
Still, she is a guard, and I answer honestly, “The garden.”
The guard gives me a stern look as she messages on her arm-port.
“Fine, twenty minutes only,” says the guard.
I pause.Did she tell the dean?“Was that Dean Andreanna?”
The guard makes an angry sound, “No, the dean is still celebrating her ‘victory’.”She makes air quotes when she says victory, and I wonder why the woman is being so open and critical of the dean.I study her a bit longer and recognize the uniform.
“Did you know Felicity?”
The guard stiffens, “Yes.”
Even though I am not supposed to, I squeeze her right arm, “She was very brave and funny.She told me, before she died, not to let anyone misuse me.”
The guard smiles, “Sounds like her.”
As I turn to leave, she says, “That was good advice.Make sure you take it.”
I patter down the hall and reach the orchard before long.The full moon lights everything and gives it a peaceful glow. I wasn’t planning on it, but I put a large smooth rock where Beverly used to sit.It is cold and heavy.Beverly would have liked it.I lie on the grass.There is a full moon, and the building is completely quiet.
Then, I take my arm-port and send him a message.The channel is strong when I am outdoors, even in the garden.Earlier, I had tested the channel in the bathroom, and sure enough, it was hidden while in the building, “Clever, clever.”
Soon, I get a reply, but before I can say more, I hear rustling in the garden.
“Up for a late-night stroll?” asks Dr. Healer.
I chuckle, “I couldn’t sleep.”
Dr. Healer lies down next to me, but not too close, “Just look at that moon.”
Maybe it’s because of Loop’s death or because I just messaged him, but I start to sing that song, the one Lister interrupted, and stop for a moment, when I hear Dr. Healer join in. She has an amazing voice, deep and silky.
When we finish, we sit there in silence. “You speak Spanish?” I ask.
“Oh, I speak a number of languages. I encourage you to do the same,” Dr. Healer says twitching her whiskers.
“Now,” asks Dr. Healer, “You need to get your rest. Your trials begin again tomorrow, and they won’t be pleasant.”
“I know,” I look at her and open up, “Loop was my teacher. I mean she was always odd, but not a traitor, I don’t think.”
“She was with the rebels, and she wasn’t tortured like you were,” sighs Dr. Healer, “She never quite fit in. Never got a wife or a disgusting husband.”
I giggle, “Or both.”
“Gross!” says Dr. Healer in the same tone Mona uses to describe vegetables. We talk a while longer, and before long she asks me what is motivating me to graduate. I tell Dr. Healer about my mother, describing the sacrifices she made for me. “She gave everything to me. When I was six, she once came home wearing only her bra, so I could have some seeds for the garden. She was a single mom, you know.” We both chuckle.
“You may see her someday,” she says. She analyzes my face, “I’m glad you are not cold like most girls who leave their mothers to starve. I took care of mine until she died. Lasted almost 110 year, that tough old Cat.”
I give her one last look at Dr. Healer, this kind woman I trust, “Well, I’m off to try to get some sleep.”
“I can give you something for that,” she says patting the satchel on her side.
I get up and dusts off, “That’s awfully generous, but no. I’ve about had it with chemicals in my system. I hope to never see the infirmary again. Ever.”
Dr. Healer raises her eyebrows and wants to say more, but cannot.
I return to my room without incident, and the guard gives me a cute short salute when I walk by, but when I get to my bunk I am startled by an angry hiss followed by a guttural growl.
“Where were you? Who were you with?” asks Jackie.
My laughter makes Jackie angrier, and I snort loudly and wake up neighboring girls while I awkwardly try to fend Jackie off who is tickling my weak spots.
“Shut up and lie down with me, you idiot.”
This invitation completely changes Jackie’s approach, and she cuddles next to me like we have been doing this for nights. Jackie is fifteen, soon to turn sixteen, but I am just as tall as she is and stronger. I whisper softly, “I think the trials tomorrow are going to be a doozey. I saw girls that were wrecked in the infirmary.”
“So, shut up and get some sleep.” Jackie still wants an explanation, but I am the leader of the team, and I don’t have to give her one. Still, she is loyal. “I was in the garden.” This appeases her, and we cuddle closer. I’m about to doze off, when I say, “Jackie, what if my sponsor is gone. Are you still going to be on my team?”
She sits up and looks at me, “Are you nuts? You’ll have a new sponsor in no time. Everyone knows Dean Andreanna is eyeing you.”
I make her lie back down and whisper close to her face, “I don’t think that is a good idea.” I pause and give her a long drawn out kiss.
“No, no, no,” she says, “Sleep, you and your shit timing. . . is such shit.”
I stare at her face until she falls asleep. She is not ugly by any means, and I begin to reconsider my relationship with her because I am going to need people around me and people with me all the times, even though I would rather be alone. I know Dean Andreanna is not done with me, and my grand plans to tell Captain Warrior have gone to shit. I need to rely on my team, and she is the best member I have. That is the last thought I recall before I fall asleep.
“Get up, you sluts,” says Mona playfully. She shakes us awake, and Vye has our uniforms ready.
“We let you sleep a few more minutes,” Vye winks at us.
We dress quickly, and I smile at Jackie who is playing hard to get.
“Oh please,” I say pointing at my body up and down, “You know you want all of this.”
Jackie snorts and goes out of the room abruptly, but when she turns back, she urges me to join her.
We walk in unison. They are eager for me to fill them in on the mission, but I cannot.
“All I can tell you,” I say sucking in my breath, “Is that the traitor is dead, and we won.”
Jackie as intuitive as ever asks, “What about Loop? Were the events connected?”
“Possibly,” I say maneuvering around what I know, which in truth isn’t much, “But, I am not sure how. I was told to say nothing, so shut our cute kitten face.”
Mona huffs, “I don’t know why they are testing us. I mean you got shot.”
“Ah,” I assure them, “It’s just sore now. Should be fine in a few days with the nanobots or whatever they use. This band aid is amazing.”
“No Ashley,” says Mona, “One time my mother got shot, and her shoulder took a long time to heal, like three weeks. And we had state of the art care.”
“Well, you all have my back right?”
“Of course,” they say in unison, and I know they do.
When we go to the mess hall, we sit at an empty table. Today, the c-ervants are only serving fruit and tea.
“Shit,” says Mona, “It’s going to be strenuous.” Mona pulls a secret bar from somewhere and breaks it into even pieces. She hands it out to each of us, and I say, “Nothing but strategy.”
She looks at me quizzically and take my bar to Rebecca who has returned to be tested. She sits with her teammates, and I know they are planning. She looks a little wilted.
“Here, since you can’t have my awesome body.” This brightens her face.
“Thanks,” she says slipping the whole thing in her mouth, “I needed that.” Her team thanks me.
One girl with short blonde hair says, “I’m Alice. We haven’t forgotten what you did for us at the gym.”
“Nothing to it Citizen,” I say and salute. I walk back to my table.
Mona is still complaining about how awful the trials will be, as Jackie gives me a playful salute.
“How hard?” I ask. Mona explains that the trials are at least Tier 2. They are supposed to happen at minimum a year later. To further illustrate her point, we get a message on the arm-port. We are to go through extra trials, at least one a day until we catch up.
“What? I was only gone like two days. How many did I miss?” Usually there are two trials, maximum and something like art or music, which to my mind don’t count.
“Six,” says Jackie, “They are really pushing everyone hard, for some project.”
I look at the other teams and really take stock. Sure enough, some of them are battered and bruised. A few have band aids just like mine. One girl has one wrapped around her head, and I dread to think what caused that injury.
I eat my apple in silence, and I wrack my brain trying to figure out this project. I can’t outright ask Dr. Healer, but maybe 309?
Soon, we are called to our exam room. I review all of our signing, “Same code?”
“Yes,” says Vye.
Mona groans as she licks the last remnant of her bar.
I walk in as a mass begins to harden in my stomach. For the first time, I am genuinely afraid of what is coming. We enter a large room, a hologram room that is grey and dull, but large. The room is narrow, about three yards wide, about four test rooms long with short ceilings. I shudder to think what simulation is coming out of here, and would prefer the room with truth serum.
“Candidates, this is an individual exercise.”
“What?” asks Mona confused.
“Whoever reaches the finish line first, without being incapacitated, wins.”
“What?” says Mona again starting to whine.
“Begin,” says the robotic voice. I run expertly and out of nowhere, a pole emerges and almost hits my face. I avert it by ducking only to be hit a few seconds later on the leg by a projectile right on my band aid. They couldn’t have planned that shot better, but I roll and take a look back at my team. Jackie is keeping up, but she too is struck on the face by a projectile, the size of a small apricot. So much for not wanting to hurt the candidates. After a few more assaults, I get the pattern. I avoid a few more poles to my mid-section and ankles and the two projectiles that follow. The face shots are random. I am about to reach the finish line, when I see Mona struggling to miss a pipe.
The horizontal obstacles emerge every 20 seconds. The projectiles every seven, in pairs, on after the other.
“To hell with their directions,” I say and run back to her.
“Girls,” I say, “Horizontal attacks every 20 seconds. Projectiles, two, every 27, alternating left, right, then right, left!” I hope they understand the directions.
The competitiveness in Jackie won’t quit, “They said it was an individual test!” She runs past me. To her credit, I see hear run back to Vye who is struggling to miss the poles.
“Who gives a damn? If we’re too messed up, we won’t make it to Tier 2.” I reach Mona first and together, like erratic dancers we avoid obstacles. When she is to slow, I take the hit for her at least four times.
I finally reach the end, but not without being struck in the ear by projectile, and Mona still getting hit hard on both knees. I turn back and see Jackie and Vye reach the finish line. There is a cut above Jackie’s left eye, and I am furious. Blood is running down her face and neck.
“Damn it,” I say, as I tear a patch of my uniform and cover her wound.
We wait there for the test to be over, but no one says anything.
“You see!” cries Jackie, “We all failed.” She takes the cloth and throws it on the ground. It lands pathetically.
Then, a voice says, “Well, done. You all finished in exactly eight minutes. Ashley Packer stepped on the panel first, so we have a winner.”
Dr. Healer and 309 wait for us when we emerge. Dr. Harper is beaming at me. They patch up Jackie and give Mona painkillers. I refuse, hoping to use my injury as an excuse to see 309, but another trial is about to begin. Despite my protests, 309 injects my arm. He smiles at me briefly.
“You girls did extremely well,” says Dr. Healer who is not supposed to give evaluative comments between sessions, or at all, but I suspect all of the norms are being ignored to get this new project underway.
“Wow,” says Vye, “You were right, as always.” She gives all the team a hug, and I hug her back.
“You all listened, and that’s what matters. These exams are meant to stretch us to the limit, but if I understand anything,” I think about the Councilwomen, “We have to stay united always a team. There are no individuals.”
Dr. Harper shakes her head, “Well done girls. Now, it’s room 30 for you.”
“30?” asks Mona like someone has eaten her chocolate, “That is like Tier 3 and we are only Tier 1?”
“Honestly,” says Dr. Healer, “I don’t even think you believe that.” She smiles and walks away.
309 turns to look at me and gives me a final reassuring nod. I have no idea what he is trying to tell me, except that his eyes are that faded grey color, the color of dead waves. He is not happy, and that is enough to put me on alert.
“The next trial,” I say, “Is going to be harder than this one.” I give as much encouragement as I can with conviction.
Jackie chimes in, “Come on, you heard the doctor lady. We are superior.”
Even Mona is feeling a little better. When we arrive, there are two guards at the door.
“One at a time,” says the slick black furred woman on the left.
They must know me because both smile in my direction; the other woman a short orange haired guard is grinning at me.
“OK,” I say, “Mona, you go first, then Vye, then Jackie.”
“Respectfully,” says Jackie not moving, “I should go first, then you, then Vye and Mona. They are still catching their breath, and you got hit by the poles pretty hard, to protect her, and your wound is still healing.” She finishes as a plea.
I think about that for a moment. In truth, I didn’t want them to lose their nerve, so I wanted them to go first, but I nod.
Jackie goes in, and her legs are trembling a little. We wait there in silence. Time slows down, like it does when I want the opposite, like when Harvest won’t end fast enough or when I wonder if Alan is dead. Jackie takes 38 minutes to finish, but she does finish.
“It has been the best trial run yet,” says the woman on the right. The one on the left shushes her.
I go in expecting flamethrowers and projectiles. Instead I am stunned to be at the base of a mountain.
Great, I think to myself, Another endurance test. Without pausing, I imagine my real mother at the top, and I begin to climb.
It goes easily for the first five minutes, and I think I’m going to be done in less than twenty minutes, which I will rub into Jackie’s face, but then, the wind begins to pick up. It rains a cold cutting rain.
“Fuck,” I say climbing as fast as I can. My right hand is beginning to cramp up, and my leg is starting to throb, despite the pain medicine. The rain pounds my face, and then I hear it, a horrible high-pitched screech.
Before, I can determine what it is, a winged creature claws at my left arm. The pain reminds me of Dean Andreanna, and I quickly grab the creatures leg that is still jamming its disgusting nails into me, and breaks its legs. This only infuriates the beast, and it starts to assault my head with painful, hard flapping wings and a sharp knife to my head. There is a ledge about three feet up where I might be able to get more footing and kill the damn animal. I reach it and try to fend the attacks as best I can, but it has managed to peck at my head, neck, and back the worst.
I hoist myself up with difficulty, and face the beast. It is a horrible aberration, a cross between an old vulture and machine. It is a sick representation of cybernetics and an old grey bird. The beak is metal, which explains the knife thrusts, and its body is plated in a silver texture. It screeches angrily.
“Yeah,” I say, “I would be angry if someone did that to me, too.” It launches at me broken legs first and targets my right shoulder taking a fantastic strike at it. But it is not finished. The creature tries to peck at my face, but I grab it by the neck and snap it. Once dead, it hangs limp with its soggy pathetic metal feathers, and for some reason, I rip a strip of my already tattered uniform, tie it around the creature’s legs and climb up. Somehow, it seems wrong to pitch it over the mountain side, and I drag it up with me. The metal makes it hard because the creature is heavy, but I am strong.
I have completely lost track of time, but I forge ahead. The damn examiners make it sleet, when I near the top, and my body begins to go completely numb. I am almost to the top, when I hear howling.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I say. There are two distinct howls, and I have no weapon.
I climb up, and there they are, two creatures, half machine, half canine. They growl at me, with primordial anger. Their fur is white, and if it weren’t for the alterations, they might be terrifyingly beautiful. One of them lunges, and I duck under it and flip it over the edge. I almost fall back, but the weight of the vulture anchors me. I hear it yip and cry, as it falls down the mountain. The other creature is more calculating. It is bigger than its partner with deep green eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say seeing sadness. “I bet you’re hungry, right boy?” I talk to it in soothing tones, forgetting that I am being timed.
It sits down and wags its tail. I near it slowly put my hand up, so it can smell it. It licks me, and I feel a pang of guilt. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to kill these creatures, but still the flying one was awful, and I must finish all the challenges. I untie the beast and hand it to the dog-like animal. It eats it happily and gives me a high-pitched bark as I exit. It wants to follow me out the door, and I feel even more remorse because it will be alone.
I step out, and there again, is 309.
“Candidate Ashley,” it says trying to remain neutral, “You completed that arduous climb in 28 minutes.”
I stand strong and say nothing about how eternal it felt. I let him patch me up, as I eye the camera on the ceiling.
“Thank you 309,” I say, “Where to now?”
“Room 32,” answer 309 and adds nothing more.
I reach the room as fast as I can because I am eager to see how Jackie is doing, but when I enter, she is sitting at a stool painting a portrait of me.
“Candidate Ashley, you have twenty minutes to paint what motivated you to finish that last exam. You may not talk to the other candidates.” Twenty minutes isn’t much time, and I have to show off my skills. Luckily, I love to paint. I remember when I was five my mother gave ma genuine spanking for using the mustard and mayonnaise to make flowers on the floor. She was so angry, she made me scrape what I could and put it back in a jar. After she spanked me I had said, “Mommy, it was a present for you! I cleaned the floor first.” This had elicited a sharp rage at first, but soon she melted into laughter.
I look around, but no one else is there, even though there are more than four easels set up. I paint a gorgeous image of my mother sparing no detail. She is not wearing her meat packing outfit, but her blue gardening suit with scarf I made for her around her thinning hair. She is smiling, as I detail the growing wrinkles. That is how I love her best, when she smiles after doing what she loves, which is growing food for me.
In the background, I put an image of the dog I just killed, far in the distance.
“To hell with the flying creature,” I say to no one.
“Fantastic,” says the moderator, “Truly.”
I nearly jump out of my seat. I turn back and the moderator is taking notes.
“Time is up Candidate Ashley,” the woman takes the picture to be evaluated with the rest.
I look around hoping to see Mona or Vye, “Girls, head to the lunch room. Unfortunately, your teammates did not pass the last trial.”
I sigh heavily and walk out with Jackie.
“Are you well?” I hold her right hand.
She nods her head no, and I see her left arm. It is gashed and bleeding.
“309?” I ask out loud.
“He tried to patch it up, but he had little time. There was another girl in worse shape. At first, I was worried it was you, but the timing was too close,” she says with her lower lip quivering.
I give her a big hug, “Don’t worry. You’ll get repaired in no time.”
“Stupid,” she says starting to cry, “I thought you were really hurt.”
I am arrogant, “After all I’ve been through these are grade school tests.”
Instead of easing her angst, she grows more worried. I give up and hold her hand tighter.
When we get there and Mona and Vye are sitting, staring solemnly at their food. Mona has a large bruise on her left eye and a gash on her cheek. Vye is just sitting there trying not to cry.
She says in a low voice, “I only lasted 10 minutes,” then she perks up, “but, you two were the only ones that made it up!”
“What?” I ask incredulous.
Mona also chimes in, “Another girl got close, but the creature got her, or she slipped.”
“Well, it’s dead now,” I say.
Jackie looks at me shocked.
“How did you get past the dogs?” I ask her.
“What dogs?” says Jackie, “I got to the top and almost crawled out.”
“You see?” says Mona to the girls, “They are making the tests harder based on your abilities. How does that make the candidacy fair?”
“Shut up,” says Jackie shushing her. Still, that old competitiveness is back and she is giving me a weird look.
I make sure no one has heard the complaint, and see none of the girls have done well. Most of them are injured, and one girl is flat out crying. I can’t stand this morale. This collective defeat.
Without thinking, I stand on the table, “Listen everyone!” I don’t plan my words, but I am so angry, “I know these trials are getting harder, and some of you are feeling down. I know the recent bombing has everyone feeling down, but I need to tell you that we are having major victories. The traitor is rightly dead. The State will prevail, and that is why the tests are getting harder. More will be demanded of you, but I know this to be true.” I look at Beverly who has perked up, “I know you will all pass. You are all exceptional. I’ve seen it. If not, I’ll eat my own damned tail. Well, when I get one. Besides, wasn’t Dean Andreanna’s battle amazing! We are all victorious!”
Some of the girls clap and others laugh, and even Lister’s team give me approving looks. That raises morale up a little, and the girls begin to chat and talk about the latest fashion trends and what their sponsors will buy them when they graduate, maybe before, if they perform well.
“What was that?” asks Jackie.
“Come on, I just, I couldn’t stand seeing everyone so sad and pathetic.”
“Well said,” says Dr. Harper walking into the lunch room, “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” and then my mouth hangs open—wide. Behind her is Lister, smiling triumphantly. Her ears are fully repaired, but I want to vomit, because she is a bastardized version of the bird, part human, part cyborg. Her legs and arms look mechanical and more slick and elegant. When she sits at the table with her team, she brings her fist, the one arm Jackie had broken, down hard. This raises collective gasps and some cries of fear. She stares at me and sneers. I stare right back. I snapped that bird’s neck in two, and I will break hers, if I have to. Here team give me nasty looks, and I turn to Jackie.
“We have to take those bitches down.”
arm. Alan looks at their soft delicate features. They are identical to each other with the same features, and large ears. He can’t stop smelling them. Cherry is sleeping on a make-shift bed of two piled mattresses on the far right side of the basement. The short end of the mattresses are against the wall, so she can have support. Nathan is the hungrier baby of the two, and every time they latch on to feed, which seems to be every thirty minutes, Alan sits in wonder. Number 2, as he affectionately calls her, likes to curl her little right hand around his pinky.
He has been charting their feedings on his tablet, putting funny comments like, “Nathan ate for five more seconds than Number 2.” They will get up to feed soon. He always thought babies needed to drink from synthetic bottles, so they could be healthy, but that is another lie. Nathan begins to cry, his lower lip starting to quiver, his nose crinkling, and the cry becomes more insistent if he doesn’t get fed immediately.
Cherry rises stretching out her arms and legs and rubs sleep out of her eyes. She sits tall against the wall, “Bring him here.”
He does so obediently. On cue, the Number 2 starts to cry.
She nestles Nathan in the crook of her eft arm and positions him so he can reach her nipple. Alan laughs because even though he’s really hungry, he doesn’t like to open his mouth wide. “Tickle him behind his ear,” he repeats giving her the same advice Richard did four hours ago. That does the trick. Alan sets up two pillows on her right side and squats to help her latch Number 2 on the right side. By now, Alan is an expert at holding her little head up along with her body, aligned just right, so she can suckle, careful not to touch the soft spot. She latches on the first time.
“Does is still hurt?” asks Alan.
“Nah,” she says, “The scabs fell off those disgusting thin lines Nathan kept making. I don’t know why he flattens my nipples. It’s a good think Number 2 nurses so brilliantly. See? Girls are smarter than boys.”
Alan giggles which annoys Number 2; she unlatches temporarily and threatens to cry, but he runs his finger against her check, and she seeks her mother eagerly. Alan helps her a second time.
“They are so sweet,” he says, “I’m glad one of them is a boy.”
“I swear, I’ll love them both the same.”
Alan leans forward, “I don’t know! Nathan seems to always get fed first.”
“That’s because you keep picking him up first,” says Richard carrying more diapers as he walks downstairs, “You need to let them cry.”
“No way,” says Alan, “The neighbors will hear.”
“The basement and secret room are soundproof,” says Richard, “We made them like that on purpose. You know, to mask my singing.” He sings a high pitched off-tune song, to make his point.
Alan waits until both infants fall asleep. He carries Number 2 to her make-shift crib, a plastic container with soft tight material jammed at the bottom. It’s a creation of 147-Paul who within minutes after they were born, designed and crafted “a safe sleeping environment” for them. Alan notices that since the twins have been born, 409’s eyes have been a light blue, not the dead blue, a bright electric blue.
“He won’t let go,” she says starting to grow weary again.
“Yeah, story of men’s lives,” says Richard, “Here.” He shows her how to use her pinky, so he unlatches. Nathan suckles a phantom teat, which makes Alan want to laugh. Richard takes the baby and places him gently in his bed.
Richard hugs Alan, “You’re perfect with them. And you, Momma Cat, I uploaded all the advice I have on your arm-port. There are manuals up until they turn five, but never forget the best resources.” He points to his head and heart, “You’re a natural mother, Cherry.”
Cherry admires at her children and crinkles here forehead, “I know I won’t be able to stay for long. I’ve been looking at my arm-port, and there hasn’t been a word from Strike or anyone.”
Alan hasn’t pressed about what has happened to the others or why she ended up there. They are all tired from the previous night’s birth, Alan most of all because he has been at her side the whole time. All he knows is Strike and she got separated and that Cherry saved Strikes’ life.
“He wasn’t being reckless, Alan,” says Cherry, “I know that is what you’re thinking. All of you. That’s typical Strike, but no. He was bringing me here. We just ran into a pair of drunk guards late at night, and they started shooting at him. I don’t even think they recognized him from the sewers or attack on Junk Town. Just started shooting at a random boy. When I got in the way, they panicked and stopped long enough for him to run.”
She shakes her head, “You think those bitches checked to see if I was OK or called an ambulance? Hell no. They ran so fast, I’m surprised they didn’t trip over their own damn tails.”
Alan waits, as she collects herself, “I forgot to tell you the best part Alan.”
He waits expectantly, as she nestles back down into her bed. “Before they attacked, I met your girl Ashley.”
“What?” asks Alan starting to doze off.
“She was there with another girl. One of our spies. They had done terrible things to her,” she says.
Alan perks up, “To Ashley?”
“No, to the spy, Beverly.”
Richard tunes in as Cherry describes what they did to her. She only knows Strike’s second-hand account, but he was detailed in his description. She concludes with, “Ashley said she was a walking corpse. Of course, Nurse tried to help.”
“I have never heard of that medical procedure,” says Richard, “And I work in medical research with my wife.”
“I don’t know what happened after the guards stormed in or to either of them because Peter half dragged me to a haven. I didn’t realize until later that he was wounded. Something was in the bullets, Richard. He shouldn’t have died from that wound, so fast. It was just a graze on his right arm,” she starts to cry, something she does a lot now that Peter is gone, “I don’t know if she’s dead, but I hope not. I can’t stand so much death.”
“She’s back at the Education Center,” says Alan, “Ashley is.”
Cherry says, “But, she had run away from there. They wouldn’t take her back. No way.”
“She’s fine,” assures Alan, “but I think the other girl is dead. At least that is what Mom found out. Something about her having a virus inside and her head exploding.”
Yawning wide, she goes back to sleep with a, “Good Ashley is fine, though something’s
off. Shouldn’t be back at the Ed Center. Poor Beverly. Somebody has to tell her aunt.”
When her chest begins to rise slowly, Richard gives Alan a stern look, “How is it you
know she is well, now?”
Alan gives Richard a terrified look, and he knows he is made. Without saying a word, his
Dad goes to see her.
“Fuck my balls,” he says to no one. He musters his courage and walks up the stairs at an even pace.
She is sitting there on the sofa scrolling madly through her arm-port. She makes small exasperated noises and punctuates her anger with hisses. Without looking at him, she beckons him to sit down next to her. When she looks at him, she is deadpan, which is a typical cat face, but not for her. It is one of the things he loves about her, how expressive she is.
“Are you going to scratch my face?” he asks afraid.
“What?” she looks at him incredulously, “Never. I am just disappointed. You and 409, why would you take such a stupid risk? They would be here by now, barging down the door and dragging you to the Pit.”
She gives him a strong hug and keeps hugging him. When he looks up, she is crying.
“What’s the matter?” he asks.
“I just, we have to do what is right, for you,” she analyzes his face memorizing every feature, “and now, you will have to leave.”
“Why? Because of the messages?” he says starting to cry himself.
“No,” she says. She explains between sobs that they found a safe passage for them. For him and for Cherry. The passage works like an underground network and every now and then, they can take girls out of the country, but since the attack on Junk Town, allies have expedited the path to freedom.
“I don’t want to go!” He puts his whole face against hers feeling every damp follicle of her furry face.
She shakes her head, “She can’t make that trip by herself with the babies. You won’t be alone, though.”
He tries to argue with her, “How will we be able to get away with two babies? The patrols are heightened, you said so yourself!” He pleas for several minutes explaining that they aren’t ready.
“When do we leave?”
“In five days. It’s too soon, but that is the window we have,” she says.
“Are you coming with me?”
Richard sits at the sofa and holds Alan, “We can’t. We have to continue our work here. There are six other girls being reversed, two pregnant ones, and now that Nurse is gone, we have to do more. We can’t leave. Besides, your mother is too high-profile to leave the country without a permit, and right now, the State is demanding more from us. Cherry is dead, technically, and you’re a boy. No one will be looking at your escort. He will make himself invisible. He is invisible.”
“Strike?” asks Alan.
“No,” says Richard, “Better.”
Alan cries in earnest, “But, I just found you! I can hide in the basement forever.” As he says this, he knows that is not the case. Besides, even though he has only known them for a day, he loves Nathan and Number 2.
“Look,” says his mother calming down, “I promise you this, your father and I will join you as fast as we can.”
The next few days, he spends as much time with his parents as he can. That is difficult because they begin to work longer hours, often taking their work home. Although they can’t discuss their work, Alan sees his mother lose her temper more than usual, once lashing out at 409. Still, they make preparations, but it is 147-Paul who has a key role in developing documents. The permits are the trickiest because it would be unusual for a girl like Cherry to be travelling with babies, on foot. Richard for his part lets Alan cook as often as he can, but it is not frequent enough because no one is around to eat, except for Cherry who could eat for all of them combined. Alan and Cherry have both been practicing with special carriers 147-Paul has crafted for their trip. They are a type of hammock for the baby, and the first few times that babies are in there, Nathan raises the greatest fuss. From what he can tell, they will have to walk a long way, unless they can get a car. The car isn’t the problem. The problem is Cherry doesn’t know how to drive, and only humans can drive.
While they are eating lunch on the third day, Richard says, “You can’t take too much with you, but I am going to give you as many medical supplies, especially supplements for Cherry. You have to make sure to wear your suit at all times, and the babies will have to be out of direct sunlight, none-stop. I am having 147 create a special umbrella for both, like an extension of your hat.”
Alan nods his head, “I know not to let them be in the sun.”
“That will look suspicious to an outsider because they should be at the genetics center within the first two months. You’ll have to hide your portable. And don’t forget what I taught you about respecting women, even where you are going.”
“And you absolutely must check in with your mom every day in that channel 147 created for you.”
The doorbell rings. Richard and Alan both freeze. Alan whispers, “Are you expecting visitors?”
Richard shakes his head, as Alan heads for the basement, taking his plate, fork, and cup with him. He pushes the chair in with his foot, and goes down the basement. Richard closes the door, just as Nathan begins to cry.
Alan sets his plate and cup on his desk and rushes to Cherry to latch the babies on to her, “Someone’s at the door.”
Cherry tunes her ears in and whispers, “It’s someone about a pricing dispute.”
“Mom fought her in the arena, if it’s the same woman.”
They wait for a long time, and Alan is so invested in the conversation, though he can’t hear, that he neglects Number 2. She unlatches and begins to wail. Nathan lets go and is about to start crying when Chery says, “Swap them, fast.” The twins latch on after a few tries.
“You have to relax,” says Alan, “Maybe they know you are stressed out.”
He hums a new tune for them, soft and low, and that seems to do the trick. A few minutes later, Richard comes downstairs.
“Was it the woman from before?” ask Alan exasperated.
“Yes,” says Richard, “and I think she heard them crying, but it’s none of her business. She was awfully penitent about her behavior and wanted to make sure the windows were working out.”
“Wow,” says Alan, “What a change of heart.”
“Still,” says Richard, “You can’t trust anyone. So, I’m going to show you the coolest part about the secret room.” Alan waits until the babies are satiated. Nathan, takes five minutes longer than Number 2.
He walks into the operating room that still smells faintly of blood.
“Come here Champ,” Richard points Alan to a corner on the left, “Put your hand there.”
Alan does so and a secret passage opens up.
“It goes to the garden, and you would have to run or sneak out at night, but 147 would be with you, and I think despite his programming he will protect you all with his life, especially those twins.”
“What?” asks Alan, excited to hear the news, “Won’t his absence be suspicious?”
“No one sees c-ervants,” assures Richard, “Besides, he asked to go, and we have a plan.” Richard closes the secret panel.
“Dad,” he asks, as they leave the room, “Will you and mom really come join us wherever we are going?”
Richard stops and turns angry, “What have I told you about doubting a woman’s word? Of course we are coming for you!”
Alan flinches, although he is sure Richard would never hit him, “But you would be giving everything up.”
“Are you stupid? Boy-stupid?” asks Richard, “Don’t you know her life has been complete with you in it?”
Cherry overhears and tries to ease the tension, as she calls out, “Yeah, he’s a stupid boy. Don’t worry. I’ll keep him in his place.”
Richard tries to leave in a huff, but instead, “You have to keep him safe.”
“Of course,” says Cherry, “Don’t worry. If you saw what’s outside the wall, you would be coming with us.”
Alan look asks Cherry for more details, but she turns it into a game to keep him distracted. Before long, she is asleep again, and he tries to send her a message.
Ratter 1? There is no answer, but he sends something anyway. He explains how he will have to be gone for a while. He stares at the portable until Nathan demands more food.
That evening, they all eat in the living room. It is the most joyful feast they have had with Alan singing, and Richard playing a flute, something Alan didn’t know he owned. His mother laughs throughout the meal, complimenting them all on their cooking. Even Cherry has risen out of the basement to make a salad.
“I thought boys weren’t supposed to play instruments,” jokes Cherry as Richard plays an upbeat tune.
He shrugs and starts to play again. Alan observers 147 tapping the side of his leg, his eyes that constant blue now. It’s the happiest memory he has of his family because minutes later, the Red Guard barge in through the door destroying the last semblance of family life Alan will know.
When I go get my plate of food, I purposely walk near their table and overhear Alice say, “It’s sacrilege. How can the State allow this?”
I quickly message her, “Discretion,” and she stops suddenly. She nods at me, and I nod back. Rebecca smiles at me and waves, and I salute back.
It is the next day of trials, and I come back to the breakfast table, strategizing like everyone else, “So, what did you find out?”
Vye is chewing on a carrot and sucking down tea, “It’s not like anything I’ve seen before. I mean look at her.”
We all look up quickly but try not to be stare and admire.
“She doesn’t have to eat,” she ends.
“I don’t think she sleeps,” says Mona rubbing her eyes. She hands me a vanilla wafer.
“Where do you keep all these sweets?” I ask.
“You don’t want to know,” Jackie and Vye say in unison.
I eat the wafer anyway, “Well, if that’s the case—”
“Already on it,” Jackie says sending me the sleeping schedule for our team members. As if she is reading my mind she continues, “From now on, nobody goes alone anywhere, not even to the bathroom.”
“Especially the bathroom,” says Vye. She stares at my forehead.
“Yeah,” Jackie winks and gestures to my forehead, “No more going to the orchard alone at night, or there will be more of that.”
I rub my forehead unconsciously, “I’m fine. I know it’s hard, but we’re going to have to train harder. Those modifications are going to give her an unfair advantage when we compete against each other, and already some of the older girls are talking about doing the same. I heard the threshold is 16.”
“She threw a ball at least five meters further than anyone else in the field yesterday,” says Vye, enviously “Even the moderators were surprised.”
Mona chimes in, “Maybe a little scared.”
“You have to give us those kind of details, immediately,” spits Jackie. This begins a fight between them, even though they are trying not to be loud.
From a distance, I hear Lister talk about a lover’s quarrel. She is egging me on, but I ignore her.
“Cease and desist,” I say, and they stop. The other teams are staring at us.
“Jackie is right, though, we need to report on these kinds of details. Look—” I continue as Jackie gives Vye a steely look, “I know one thing about modifications, we can still win. You just have to be smarter and know what you’re up against.” I lean in closer and whisper, “The cybernetics are not fully tested, and she’s still Lister inside, cowardly and stupid.”
They all agree. I turn to look at Lister, and she is glaring at me. Did she hear our conversation? She makes the kill sign, and I am certain she has. It doesn’t matter because we have other ways we can talk to each other, and I know I am right. No modifications are going to change her inner-flaws.
I sign to my members and Jackie looks up startled. I comm, “She can hear us from way over.” An idea emerges, as I type, “Let’s mess with her.”
Mona gets the idea firs, “But, those arms, are so damn hideous. Not even a homeless woman would want to get together with her.”
“Yeah,” adds Jackie, “Someone forgot to modify her face.”
I look towards Lister has begins to tear up and leaves abruptly. On her way out, she runs into one of the candidates, sending her flying backwards.
“Watch where you’re going, you clumsy freak!” I say causing a roar of laughter in the cafeteria. She runs out faster, and I glare at her team.
“And another thing,” I add looking to my girls so only they can hear, “We’re going to have to hurt those other bitches.”
“Don’t worry,” says Jackie, “They’re going to wish they never set foot here.”
“Yep,” says Vye, “I already know how to take each one out. One. At. A. Time.”
They huddle together and talk or a few minutes longer before the first test begins.
Running Notes: What if c-ervant town was virtual instead of a physical place? I mean, it would be almost impossible to have that type of place hidden. Then in later novels, it can become a real haven or place of rebellion.
[i] Links are in “Insert/Hyperlink/Document”. To add the anchor name, “Insert/Bookmark and name the anchor.”
[ii] Introduce this teacher earlier.
[iii] You need to emphasize the fact that she is tall but quite skilled but the other girls are three to four years older than her. She can’t always win so easily. They are all the best. It’s like when people of color from the barrio that were stars go to all-white institutions realize the competition is fiercer and no one cares you came from the barrio, except to put you down. That is how it must be for her too.
[iv] Dean Andreanna. [Make sure the descriptions matches when she is playing the chello.] She stands statuesque, around 6 feet 4 inches, with golden fur. Despite the pain I am in, I want to run my hands through it. Her transformation is exquisite, and I notice her eyes are a deep blue.
[v] Pick a name.
[vi] Allude to this preparation in earlier sections.
[vii] Find the name.