I have decided I hate helicopters. No, I don’t just hate helicopters I despise them. I also despise helicopter pilots who think it’s macho to make female passengers squeal and scream by showing off. I didn’t squeal or scream but the two other “matches” I was flying with did, as did the nurse sent as our guardian between SEPH and the train station.
Getting out of the helicopter I took great delight in “accidentally” clipping the pilot in the back of his head with a piece of my luggage … and it wasn’t a gentle tap either. His reaction I neither saw nor cared, to me the man no longer exists.
I learned I would travel with the two other women for the first leg of my trip after the nurse signed us over to a security detail of three guards one of whom was a strong featured female. The only thing we called our own was a small rolling suitcase that was the same beige as the skirts, jackets, and shoes we had been issued and a matching backpack. We might as well have been wearing prison fluorescent pink or signs that shouted our station in life. Our guards muttered the same complaint as they pushed us through the crowded station towards the VIP lounge to await our boarding time.
The male guards ignored us, focusing instead on keeping the overly curious away from our corner table. When the two other women enquired about getting a drink the female guard signaled for a sample of mini drink bottles to be brought over.
Looking at me and her clip board she said, “What about you … wait, your name cannot be Gurl Noname.” She pronounced it as No – nom – me with three distinct syllables.
One of the other women said, “If you want her to deign to notice you that’s all you’ll call her.” I’d had run ins with those two several times. I disliked them at least as much as they did me, I was just better at concealing it.
Still looking suspicious the guard said, “Well as long as it is not a joke on me it’s as good a name as any I suppose and better than some I’ve seen you females pick for yourselves. So … Ms. Noname … what would you like to drink?”
Considering I said, “Water.”
I expected her to say something about my choice, she looked like she wanted to, but all she did was nod and pass me a bottle of water. She then addressed all three of us. “Listen up ladies, my name is Sgt. Jenner. In a moment we will be going to a secure room where your luggage and persons will be searched before you board the train. This is standard security measures. Any contraband or disallowed items will be confiscated.”
My hand tightened on my back pack, my faithful companion. I’d managed to keep it all together albeit in a different container, for so long. I worried I was finally going to lose it.
“Ladies, you already know what is expected of you including where you may go while we are on the train and whom you may associate with. You should also know that I’m authorized to implement disciplinary protocols as needed to insure your compliance. Believe me, I’m inclined to simply knock you out for the duration rather than deal with you so unless you want to forego a once in a lifetime treat of traveling in a private car on a superliner I would suggest you tread lightly with me.”
I could have told her which of the two would cause her trouble and what kind but she didn’t ask and I wasn’t in a volunteering mood. A man walked over and handed Sgt. Jenner a computer tablet. Reading it she placed her thumbprint in a box and then directed us to stand up and follow her to another room. As we entered she stopped me and then attached a wire clip to my backpack.
She handed me the tablet and directed me to put my thumbprint in another box. She whispered for my ears alone as the other two women began the inspection process, “Ms. Noname, you’re designated class affords a few privileges. That clip keeps the inspectors out but it won’t keep me out. I was warned you three have the potential to be trouble but from where I’m standing the other two are my only problems. Don’t give me reason to doubt my first impression.”
She didn’t ask for a response so I gave a single nod to show I understood. I was a Rat, she was an Exterminator. So long as I didn’t do anything to force her to notice me I’d live another day. I prefer that type of honesty, it leaves me knowing where I stand.
I watched as the others’ luggage was thoroughly search. Several drug sticks were found in the seams of one of the back packs and in a suitcase they found a homemade blowtorch made with a bottle of perfume and some stolen office supplies. The name was the same for both the pack and the suitcase. Sgt. Jenner said, “Naughty Dawn, that’s two demerits right there already.”
Miss Smart Mouth asked, “How many do I get?”
The Sergeant grinned evilly and replied, “You’ll figure it out.”
Then came my turn. The back pack was taken from me and handed to Sgt. Jenner who held onto it as my suitcase was unzipped and emptied. There were two additional changes of the beige uniform and three changes of underclothing and two sets of nightwear. A pair of shower slippers and a pair of light indoor slippers we had been expected to wear to save our outdoor shoes when they weren’t needed. I had a bag of generic toiletries including a two month supply of feminine hygiene products. There was a tightly packed rain poncho. And a personal first aid kit and a small personal sewing kit.
I quietly watched and fumed at the careless way my few belongings were handled. I gave no outward sign of my feelings however; to do so would have shown they had power over me and I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Finally the ordeal was over with and Sgt. Jenner directed us to exit a different door than we came in. She handed me my pack as we filed through.
“Move it Ladies. If you’ve made it this far in the organization then you should have been taught not to gawp like a couple of yokels.”
I thought briefly about growing up to be Sgt. Jenner. She had a talent for choosing the words and tone that would accomplish what she wanted and at the same time punish those who irritated her. She was certainly getting under the skin of Dawn and her friend Danielle; I called them Dungeon & Dragon behind their backs or D&D for short. Sometimes I even said this to their faces; but I always watched my back closely afterwards. Enjoying D&D’s snit didn’t stop me from admitting that Sgt. Jenner had managed me pretty well thus far as well. I wondered if it was a natural talent for her or if she’d gotten pointers from someone like Dr. Benson.
Although in all honesty I had to say in D&D’s defense the people on the platform were work a gawp or two; we were certainly on the receiving end of a few ourselves. Closest to us were the obviously well-off with their expensive clothes, entourages and body guards, and their frou-frou pets. Large iguanas had replaced yippy little mutts as the latest exotic pet fad. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen one of those things clinging to the shoulder of some socialite and she’s talking to it like their brains were close in size … pea-sized in other words.
Further away were the working class families with some business types mixed in. There were also open sided cars for emigrants heading to other cities for work reassignment or social placement. But worth a gawp or not we moved quickly into the private car we had been assigned.
D&D were babbling and snooping into everything in the car until Sgt. Jenner said firmly to knock it off and put away their luggage so we could have a meeting. I was putting my suitcase on a bunk when the Sergeant walked into the small, 4-person sleeping compartment, noted D&D squabbling over the two lower bunks, and walked up to them with lightning speed to tap them both with a pen-shaped black device.
D&D grabbed their shoulders, gave the Sergeant a surprised look, and then crumpled to the floor. To me she said, “Give me a hand.” In a matter of moments D&D had been unceremoniously tossed into an upper and lower bunk on one side. She glanced at me and said, “You are stronger than you look.”
I didn’t respond to that but instead looked at the other set of bunks and asked, “Upper or lower?”
She smiled smugly and told me, “I get the lower.”
I laid my suitcase on the top bunk but was still wearing my backpack when she said, “Let’s get this over with while Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are out like a couple of dim bulbs.” With that she held out her hand for my pack.
She treated the contents with respect but she was extremely thorough. I don’t mean she was reverent, just careful. “When I read the manifest I had a hard time believing you traded all of your credits for this. You could have walked away with a real haul but instead … I don’t know if you are crazy as a loon or clever as a fox.” She didn’t expect me to answer which was a good thing because I wasn’t going to justify my choice to anyone. I had earned those credits and they were mine to spend as I saw fit.
While at SEPH you could earn – and lose – credits based on your mastery and competency scores, behavioral scores, and the occasional opportunity to earn extra credits in competitions. As well, each person’s designation and class – whether a fertile male or female – gave them an allotment of additional credits. Those credits can be “spent” in a shop which was a privilege for outgoing “matched” individuals. The shop contains so much it seems like an Alibaba’s cavern for those of us who had so little for so long; and all of it new, not dug out of the wreckage of an abandoned city. But for all the stuff in that shop, it didn’t hold the one thing I had really wanted.
I remember the look on Dr. B’s face when I wrote my request on my outgoing interview form.
Reading the paper for the third time she asked, “You want to what?”
“I’d like to trade all of my credits for my tablet.”
Trying not to show the surprise she obviously felt she said, “We’ve never had such a request. If I’m going to take this before the Committee I need to know why.”
I’d already prepared my answer. “I don’t want to forget what I’ve learned here.”
Snorting in disbelief she said, “You’ll have to do better than that.”
I drew a breath and gave it my best shot. “I could give a lot of reasons but they all boil down to the same thing. I’ve downloaded so much onto the tablet to study and study again. I’ve downloaded hundreds of books. All of my notes since I was issued the tablet are still on there. I’m still learning and making notes.” I swallowed, unaccustomed to pleading and it was sticking in my craw. “I don’t know where I’m going after I leave here. I don’t know who I’m going to. I don’t know what waits for me when I get there. The only thing I’m gonna have when I get there is what I leave here with. You tell me what I’m supposed to have in my new life and in general what things are supposed to be but all of the political and historical coursework and my own life experiences tells me ‘supposed to be’ never lasts. I want to hold onto as many tools as I can to survive when ‘supposed to be’ changes.”
Dr. B sat there for nearly a full two minutes before saying, “This is more words than you have ever spoken in one sitting.” She was silent again and I just waited, trying to be patient. Finally she sighed. “There is more to this than you are revealing but I’m not sure what it is. However, since I’m obligated to, I will put this before the Committee and whatever they decide is what will be.”
The Committee meeting was the next day and the day after that Dr. B called me into her office and handed me a package. “Your request was granted. I suspect you have ulterior motives but I was out voted. Not only will you receive your tablet you will be given a free upgrade that includes extra memory, two solar chargers, and seventy-two free hours in the digital library for downloading. I would suggest you use your time wisely.” Oh, I most definitely did.
Those scenes played through my head as Sgt. Jenner finished her inspection and then told me, “You can repack it and put it away. I’ll leave you the locking overhead bin; might be fun to catch one of those two trying to go through my stuff. According to her records that Danielle has a bad habit of rifling through other people’s belongings. When you’re finished come on out. They’ll have the lunch trolley here by then and we’ll discuss your placement.”
Doing as I was so politely but still obviously ordered to do I tried to remain unemotional and detached. I knew that some parts of my future were inevitable. Escape was not a viable option at that moment. I was chipped and ID’d out the ying yang and the Sergeant, for all of her superficial friendliness, would be a bad person to cross. I hoped for the best but I was prepared for the worst.
Since there was no sense in delaying it except to cause myself heartburn I finished what I was doing quickly and then left the sleeping compartment. I turned and saw the Sergeant speaking with the two male guards but they were obviously versed in the fact that lip reading is a skill most street rats learned early so they were turned so I couldn’t get a good look and interpret their mumbling.
I stood their patiently (at least on the outside) until one of the male guards brought me to Sgt. Jenner’s attention. She told me to go pick out a meal and come sit down. When I picked up one of the covered plates my stomach rolled.
“What’s wrong Princess? Not good enough for you?” asked a snide male voice belonging to one of the guards.
I shrugged, “I’m a street rat, I can eat anything and have and it won’t bother me any. I’m just thinking how wound up on a sugar high D&D are going to be once they eat all these carbs.”
Sgt. Jenner said sharply, “Enough socializing Noname, come take a seat.” The fact that she had dropped the “Miss” warned me that some unpleasantness would be making itself known shortly.
I sat and tried to remember to take slow and steady bites. Being outside of the SEPH compound for the first time since I’d been tagged had my brain trying to fall back into old patterns, one of which was to eat everything I could before someone else took it away.
“Habits die hard Street Rat?” Sgt. Jenner intoned a little viciously. I looked at her waiting for her next move when she forced herself to relax. “You’re a Rat all right. Probably a loner rat. You’re always looking and spying but trying not to be noticed. They’ve cleaned you up and dressed you human but you’re still just a Rat underneath it all. My best friend was killed by a Rat last year.”
Refusing to be intimidated I shrugged and said mildly, “Must have been a stupid Rat; most of us have better sense than to make those kinds of enemies. Unless you corner one of us … then we bite and claw. Just a friendly reminder in case you needed it.”
She snorted, “Don’t make the mistake that I’m your friend.”
I was getting tired of the posturing. I looked her straight in the eye with my dead lights and said, “Don’t make the mistake of thing that I’ve been domesticated just because I choose to follow your rules. As for friends, I don’t have friends and am not looking for any.”
It was true. I can’t remember ever having what people call a friend, not even when I was little though I suppose I did have at least one back then; a playmate, something. I’ve had people try and act like they’re my friend but it always proved out they were just after something or that they were trying to make me vulnerable so they could control me. I certainly wasn’t fool enough to think this woman who I had known less than a handful of hours was my friend.
Blowing me off she said, “Just so we’re clear on that.”
We finished our meals in silence as the train pulled out of the station. I returned my dishes to the trolley and then returned to the table as the Sergeant did the same. She leaned back in her chair and scratched her chin. Made me want to ask her what brand of razor she used but I figured one minor dust up was enough for the day. I continued to remain silent when finally Sgt. Jenner said, “Dawson Lupton.”
I reminded myself to remain detached and unemotional and just stared at her. “Dawson Lupton, that’s the name of your match.” She pulled a folder out of a briefcase that one of the other guards handed her. “Nineteen. From a wealthy, land owning family. Not a bad looking kid.” She pushed a picture towards me. He looked like he belonged on a beach some place and not in board room running a corporate farm. “Father and his only two surviving siblings are both sterile due to the Outbreak. A couple of extended family members that are fertile but they aren’t immune and the occasional epidemic of the Outbreak virus still occurs out that way.”
I looked away from the picture. It awoke no feelings in me at all. At the very least I had expected to be a little angry but nothing, nada, zip. The fact that I had no feelings about it is the only thing that I had feelings about.
Misreading my passivity she asked, “Not good enough for you Street Rat? Want another turn at the lottery?”
Deciding to answer her even when I didn’t have to I said, “No choice in the matter so why get bent about it? I’ve been dipped and chipped; I run, they’ll find me. It’s this guy or the Egg House.”
She snorted. The “egg house” has never been officially acknowledged but everyone knows about it. It is a death sentence and whatever I may be, how low I may have sunk, I’m not ready to die.
“Lupton family representative will be meeting you when you get off the train. After that you’re on your own. They’ll sign for you and take you on the remainder of your journey to the Lupton private ranch. Normally SEPH will give you an emergency contact in case of abuse but you’re going to be so far out in the boonies that it wouldn’t do any good.”
I nodded and then looked out the window as night descended. I was thinking and trying not to think at the same time. After a while I heard Sgt. Jenner curse and then say, “You are a piece of work Gurl. I thought I had seen every reaction possible from one of you brood mares but you take the cake.”
Unsure why I felt talkative, at least for me, I replied, “What good would it do me? To react in some way I mean. During my time at SEPH it was explained to me in detail what my place in society was and pounded into me every waking hour that it was a destiny I couldn’t escape. I’m a rare breed; completely fertile, completely immune, and a clean genetic profile. I’m healthy with some built up resistance to common maladies from my years on the street.” I finished with a sneer. “My IQ is more than acceptable and my psyche flexible enough to withstand the beating it has taken and will continue to take at the hands of people that don’t want me to get above my station in this life. I’m also entering my prime breeding years. It doesn’t hurt that SEPH takes a pretty significant slice off the so-called fee that the Lupton family is paying for my use.” Looking back out the window I finished with the question, “With all of that, what could I possibly have to complain about?”