I continued to stare silently out at the passing scenery. We were heading west so we always seemed to be chasing the sun. When they brought a tea trolley about four o’clock by my internal clock it was only three o’clock by train time.
D&D stumbled out of the sleeping compartment right as I took my first sip of Yorkshire Gold – or that is what the tag on the tea bag read. They were not happy campers. I’ve been hit with those little sedation pens before and you always wake up with a rotten taste in your mouth and a hammer in your head. Part of me respected Sgt. Jenner and wanted to warn her, but another part of me would have been just as pleased if D&D managed to wipe the smug self-assurance off her face.
Under cover of the drama queens return I palmed an extra tea bag and an extra package of cookies and crackers. As a street rat my first responsibility to myself was to secure a cache of edibles against the times when the pickings might get slim. Most of the food I had seen thus far was fresh and unpackaged so collecting was not going to be easy, neither was storage, but I’d never let that stop me before.
I moved away from the brouhaha and found a corner seat away from the primary lighting in the train car. The location also allowed me to look out the window or watch my fellow passengers. Stepping out of the middle of things I realized that Sgt. Jenner and the two male guards were working us and it changed my perception of them. Realizing this I also became aware that the male guard who had addressed me by the lunch trolley had been trying to get some kind of reaction out of me. I don’t know if it was some kind of test to see if we were ready to interact with society or if there was some other agenda at work … but it was definitely planned, and it definitely made me more suspicious and less sympathetic.
They were subtle – and good – but once I found their pattern I didn’t fall prey to their maneuvering again. I fell back to the tried and true silent treatment, my best dual-purpose tool; it both irritates people and helps me to evade direct confrontations. I avoided movements that put me in close contact with the guards and D&D; nor did I do anything that appeared like I was initiating contact. If they wanted to talk to me they had to come to me, I did not and would not go to them … passive aggressive strategy for self-defense; I was a castle surrounding by a wall, they had to put energy into a siege if they wanted to breach my defenses and I had more time and mental resources to wait them out. People often got bored trying to play my game and would eventually leave me alone which was usually my goal all along.
The supper tray yielded some wet naps for my cache but otherwise it was unremarkable rubbery chicken something or other with a side of steamed veggies and a roll. Afterwards Sgt. Jenner walked over and ordered me to the sleeping quarters so that she could discuss D&D’s matches with them. I walked off grabbing a bottle of grape juice and a bottle of water. Sgt. Jenner thought nothing of it¸ assuming in her arrogance that I recognized her authority over me. In reality it was the perfect cover – and a little assured privacy – for me to put my collected resources into my backpack.
I wanted to read on my tablet but I had some suspicions and wanted to work out the validity of them before using it again. There’s an old saying that Street Rats know is true, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” That left me very little in the way of something to do to occupy myself so I performed some exercises and then followed that with some biofeedback exercises to reduce the tension I was still feeling. Hey, I might have been forced to participate in those stupid psyche eval meetings but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn something on the sly that was useful.
An hour or so later D&D were ushered into the sleeping chamber and we were all ordered to sleep. In a snarl Sgt. Jenner said, “When I come to bed you three better be asleep.”
Dawn who was in a particularly furious frame of mind asked, “Or what? It’s not like life can’t get much more crappy. You gonna kill me? Sure, go ahead, I might as well be dead anyway.”
Sgt. Jenner snorted, “You would have thought you street rats would have learned to lower your expectations by now.”
Not liking the association the sergeant was making I said from my bunk where I already lay, “Dawn and Danielle aren’t Rats. They were gleaned out of some girls-only academy on the East Coast. You would think you rank and file street fighters would know the difference by now instead of lumping all of us Fertiles together into one group – or are you just jealous?”
She was fast, I’ll give her that. I almost didn’t have time move. I pulled back only enough to keep her from really hurting me but not so much that she thought she’d missed. In return I goosed her very hard under her arm pit making her jump back in surprise and pain. I got three things out of the exchange. First I learned just how fast she was; a useful bit of information in case I needed it again. Second, she learned – or thought she learned – how fast I was. She only thought she knew the extent of my ability to physically defend myself and how far she thought I would go. I let her go on assuming. Lastly she’d given me a weapon to use against her if I chose and she realized that almost immediately as she backed away.
I was going to have a black eye. Not a horrible one since I didn’t want to compromise my vision or depth perception but a little smudged eye shadow could help it along if need be. I knew for a fact that the reason why the guards had the other disciplinary tools at their disposal is because they weren’t supposed to mark us up. We were supposed to show up and make a really good first impression. I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a good first impression yet and Sgt. Jenner’s brief loss of control actually did me a favor that I could use several different ways.
I woke up the next day and was climbing down from the bunk when my ankle was grabbed. If I hadn’t defended myself against that childish move in the dorm I don’t know how many times I would have taken a header down to the floor. She couldn’t grab my ankle hard enough to make more bruises which meant she didn’t have enough purchase to yank me down once she saw I had a good balance despite her best try.
I had to give her the fact it had been a good try and one I hadn’t really thought she’d stoop to making. Shame on me for assuming she had more integrity than to try and hide her handiwork under an arranged accident. I decided she would bear more watching, as would the two other guards that might help her.
I suppose I should have been upset by it all but it was really just an unlooked for opportunity. I’d tried to maintain my street smarts but two years is a long time and I was rusty and knew it. It didn’t hurt to stretch and warm up those old skills before I had to get dropped into the lions’ den.
For the rest of the day Sgt. Jenner studiously ignored me but the two male guards seemed to be trying to start a mild flirtation with any or all three of us Fertiles. I wasn’t biting. I didn’t trust anyone who was that mercurial and besides the rules clearly stated that we weren’t to fraternize with male guards or male service staff. I wasn’t sure what kind of teeth were attached to that rule but I’m sure we were being watched by hidden cameras somewhere.
The idea of the hidden camera(s) was why I was very careful in what I removed from the various trays on Monday. Breakfast I managed to palm some packets of instant coffee and powdered creamer and honey straws that were supposed to be the sweetening for the porridge we were served. I would have liked to have squirreled some oatmeal but it come to us made up in the bowl already. Lunch yielded several powered drink mixes that were supposed to go with the bottled water pulled from the seemingly bottomless cooler of beverages. I picked up even more during “Tea Time” and at supper I managed to sweep up quite a bit of spilled salt in the guise of helping Danielle clean up where the lid came off the shaker. Danielle was particularly superstitious so was more than willing to let me help. Frankly my only thought was that if they didn’t want spills then they shouldn’t have made it quite so easy to unscrew the tops without people looking.
I also got chocolate but this I didn’t have to hide. Apparently one of the perks of a private cart was several different gift baskets delivered throughout the day to keep the passengers from becoming too board and potentially destructive. I only took a small sample box for energy food; I stood by as the remainder of that basket got divided up between the other five members of our party. A small basket of “exotic” meat sticks and cheese arrived late in the day and I tried not to laugh when the others appeared to be disgusted with the novelty items. They seemed ordinary enough to me, certainly better than some of the stuff I’d eaten in my life, but more than anything it was amusing to see them trying to ignore me when I started chewing on some Yak Jerky. There was also alligator, buffalo, wild boar, ostrich, salmon, tuna, kangaroo, duck, pheasant, emu, and a couple of other types of jerky and meat sticks that I can’t be bothered to remember off the top of my head.
The way they turned their noses up at what was obviously expensive food told me a couple of more things about my traveling companions. One, none of them had ever known real hunger. Two, none of them expected to ever experience real hunger. Three, for all of their “professional soldier” appearance, I was beginning to bet that the guards, including Sgt. Jenner, hadn’t really been outside of the city or even in a unit that had spent much time on the hard and mean streets. They may have been good guards but that didn’t mean they were any more equipped to survive than I was, and possibly a lot less. They showed to advantage with their height, muscles, and crisp uniform but their training didn’t seem to go much more than skin deep. It gave me hope that if I ever did escape from SEPH, the people they would send after me would be beatable.
Since I took so much of the meat and cheese basket I completely ignored the frou-frou basket that came with dinner. I already had sufficient toiletries and the last thing I wanted or needed was something that would stink me up in a way to attract every bug and search dog in a five mile radius. As it was I had to endure the odors wafting from the bathroom in the sleeping compartment all night from where D&D had already used up half of the products “beautifying” themselves.
I would have said something smart but I was still in silent mode and D&D had learned to ignore me when I was like that. It irritated Sgt. Jenner and unnerved the male guards but all three had decided to simply keep their distance and I did likewise continuing into the next morning, the final day of my train ride … or so I thought.
I didn’t have a chance to really take anything from the breakfast and lunch trolley for my cache. Sgt. Jenner had started to pay way too much covert attention to me. I also avoided the snack basket until D&D forgot themselves so much as to toss me several granola bars and some fruit paste. I could see the tension building in them and knew that it was getting bad when they came over and sat beside me.
Dawn who was about five years my senior asked, “How can you simply sit there like this?”
I shrugged, unable to explain my lack of emotions even to myself. Danielle sniped, “Forget it Dawn, she’s just going to play all mysterious and crap.”
Dawn looked at me and said, “I don’t care what your game is, but you can’t think you’ll really escape from this.”
Not wanting to be set up I said sarcastically, “Escape from what? Oh yeah … my destiny. No, there’s no escape. SEPH and all their little friends have made sure of that. But just because I have no control over one part of my life doesn’t mean I can’t retain control in another area.”
Getting a cunning look on her face she said, “You’ve got some deep game going.”
I shrugged, not really sure what she meant. Danielle said, “I don’t know if I’m going to like who I’ve been matched with. I was supposed to be matched with some guy that I talked with on the vid phone but now I learn that was his son and Franklin is a lot older; he’s like middle aged.”
Dawn said, “I only talked to mine by audio phone. I knew he was going to take work but I had no idea he was an eighteen year old kid. What happens when I’m old and he’s still young? Are they going to match him to someone new and put me out to pasture? Tell you what, I’ll trade you, at least yours has a job and a house already; mine still lives with Mummy and Duddy.”
They turned to me and asked, “What about you? What flavor did you get?”
I didn’t feel like sharing but might as well since they were being nonconfrontational for once. “I didn’t get a lot of detail but he looks like a beach bum and still lives at home too. Only there’s no beach within a thousand or so miles of where I’m gonna be stuck. Haven’t a clue what it all means.”
Their next riff was on how they were being separated from each other and how it felt like their life was over. Once they got into the “the world revolves around me” mode I was able to tune them out although it wasn’t easy.
I was doing a good job of ignoring everyone until Sgt. Jenner bellowed at us, “Time to pack up. Get your butts in gear. I don’t think I’ll have ever been so glad to see the backside of a bunch of Incubators in my life.”
I was thinking that she must have had a super easy time of it up to that point because she didn’t seem to have any idea how much trouble I and D&D could have given her. I wasn’t the only one ready to bust out laughing. The three of us shared one last understanding look before reality shuttered our unexpected camaraderie forever.
After the train came to a standstill we were allowed to disembark first. We were herded to a private waiting area and entered the room to find two very uncomfortable and ill at ease families there ahead of us. I tried to get a sense of how I should handle things when it was my turn but was at a loss when I realized the young man who shook hand with Dawn and the middle aged guy who bowed to Danielle seemed … nice. Yeah, that’s the word I guess. They were nice and seemed to want to make things work. D&D seemed as nonplussed as I was. They left with their Matches and their Matches’ family without a backwards look in my direction. That left me alone with Sgt. Jenner who was impatiently tapping her foot.
Thirty minutes later she looked ready to explode when a man finally entered. He walked up to the Sergeant and without a by your leave dismissed her. She was still closing her mouth when he shut the door in her face.
“You are Ms. Noname?”
“I’m Assistant Security Director for the Lupton family. My name is unimportant so I won’t give it to you; I’m simply here to get you onto the final leg of your journey. First however may I see your luggage?”
I pointed to my suitcase and finally found enough voice around my dry mouth to say, “It’s been searched several times.”
Arrogant blowhard said, “That may be, but it has not been searched by me.”
I saw him take out a wand-like device and start to run it over the suitcase in a methodic manner. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked, “You think my luggage is tagged?”
Only paying rudimentary attention to me, like I was a trivial distraction, he said, “If not your suitcase then something you are carrying.”
I gave it a thought and then decided to take advantage of the opportunity. “Doubt it is the suitcase but I might have an idea. That thing won’t erase memory will it?”
He barely acknowledged me but then became interested when I pulled out the tablet and a few other things. “They made a big deal out of it being the next model with all the bells and whistles. I was going to find a scanner to run it through but if that thing really works …”
“Oh, it really works Miss, I assure you.” He was like a shark scenting blood in the water. His search revealed a chip in the tablet and one in each of the solar chargers. He disabled and removed both and then ran the wand over the rest of my pack and found one hidden at the base of one of the interior zippers. After another thorough double check he pronounced my gear clean.
“Too bad you can’t get this thing out of my head,” I muttered under my breath. Before I could take off I was going to need to deactivate the thing somehow since the idea of digging it out didn’t appeal to me.
He changed the settings on the device and said, “Actually I can.” He yanked my ear enough that I almost retaliated in kind but I had a feeling he wouldn’t be quite as easy to handle as Sgt. Jenner had been. The skin behind my ear felt like it was blistering but only for a moment. Then he smiled, again reminding me of a shark. “I can, but I won’t. I did however change the frequency. You don’t belong to SEPH any longer but to the Lupton Conglomerate.”
I did not like the sound of that. I was beginning to wonder as he continued. “No offense meant Ms. Noname, I’m sure you had nothing to do with it. Tags and bugs are all part of the game.” He made it seem like my mental capacity was below being able to comprehend what was going on. “The Lupton family has a lot of enemies.” I thought, well I wonder why. “This way please.” Refusal was not an option.
He grabbed my arm, not to hurt but firmly, and drew me through a crowd and then onto a private loading platform. The train car we entered was completely full of boxes at one end and there was no sleeping chamber. There was a plain serviceable seat arrangement towards the front of the car and that’s where he directed me. “You’ll be riding with the rest of the cargo. The trip lasts about twenty-four hours and then you’ll be taken by private conveyance the rest of the way to the ranch. Sufficient food for your needs is in that cooler. I’m going to lock you in and here you will remain until the car is unlocked by my associate at the other end. Should you attempt to leave the car before that time – not that it is possible – an alarm will sound and things will get unpleasant. Anything else I can help you with?”
His question was rhetorical because he turned and left before I could respond. As soon as he locked the door all but one of the windows shuttered themselves automatically with metal roll down blinds. I had light but a limited view. Going over my surroundings I saw that most of the shipping slips indicated that the boxes were full of clothing and household goods. The train pulled out as I was contemplating whether I should be angry or worried at riding “with the rest of the cargo.” I had a feeling my reception was going to be different from D&D’s.
My next concern was to see whether food really had been left for me. It had and I was pleasantly surprised that, although it was rich people’s picnic food, there was more than enough to keep me going and quite a few items to collect for my private cache. There were even some gift basket type things though I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or if they were simply left over from some other bit of cargo transportation experience.
I guess jerky and dried meat sticks are a common item out here in the Western region. That was the primary makeup of a gift basket that had already been rifled through but I took what remained. There was a candy basket that had really been worked over but the remainder I put into a cellophane rapper and tied shut before slipping it into my back pack as well. There were some packets of jams, jellies, and honey out of a forgotten condiment basket. A drawer located under one of the seats held a bunch of tea bags, powdered cream packets, hot cocoa envelopes, and instant decaf and regular coffee. In a plastic bag was a whole bunch of real and artificial sugar packets; I took the real stuff and left the other behind. Rifling through all of the other areas I managed to find packages of nuts, crackers, pretzels, and other salty snacks; a couple of single serving size cans of smoked salmon and some kind of pate’; paper goods up the whazoo; and even some packets of dried fruit bits, though they looked past their prime. Who cared? It was food. I also found a spare thumb print lock in a rack that held a few empty pieces of luggage. I packed away the found treasure and put the thumbprint lock on the zippers of the pack.
After that and finding the bathroom was adequate there was nothing left for me to do but wait. I ate a peanut butter and sandwich that had some kind of expensive jelly on it and took out my tablet. GPS didn’t work but that could have been for any number of reasons. I couldn’t get jump a Cloud signal so I leaned towards there simply not being a signal where we were or that the train was traveling too fast for my tablet to catch a signal. I noted that there were some security locked signals but I didn’t have the security key to access them; as I watched they changed often so it still told me it wasn’t necessarily intentional that I couldn’t hook up to the info highway. I was hoping to find out what I could about the Lupton family but it had only been a faint hope anyway.
I spent the rest of the trip trying to rest as much as I could. I’d learned to take my rest when and where I could and I wasn’t so sure that I wasn’t going to need all of my energy with the bizarre what events were beginning to play out.
I felt the train pull into a station about half way into the trip and then watched as the car I was in was detached and then reattached to a different, smaller engine that was only pulling about four cars from what little I could see. There were two other brief stops after that and then we pulled into the final station that appeared to be in the middle of a big, fat no place.
It was an hour before a dour faced woman unlocked the car I was in and she entered with two heavily armed guards. “This way.”
She seemed surprised when I didn’t heel like a good like dog. “I believe you understood the order.”
“I heard you. I’m simply not going anywhere until you identify who you are.” Deciding subterfuge would serve me better than temper I added, “I’m obligated to one Dawson Lupton. Until I have proof that you are his representative I’m not moving.”
One of the guards wanted to get nasty but the woman held up a finger and he fell back in line. The woman looked at me consideringly and then said, “The Assistant Security Director told you that you would be met.”
“Yes, by a colleague. Prove you are that and I’ll follow you.”
She arched her brow then sighed. “I take it you don’t watch much TeeVid.”
“Occasionally,” I admitted. “But none of the ridiculous vid rags if that is what you’re implying.”
Her mouth twisted. “Obviously.” She unclipped an ID from the inside of her jacket pocket and laid it on the top of the chair between us. I didn’t pick it up; no way was I going to give them a chance to tag my prints.
“Assistant to the Assistant?” I asked arching my brow.
“It’s a title. What’s important is the power behind the title.” If she was trying to intimidate me she wasn’t going to succeed. I’d realized something after being locked into the cargo car. Whatever was planned for me had either gone awry or wasn’t what I had been led to expect. I was chattel to these people, an ends to a means, and nothing more. I only had value up to a point and it was a pretty low one apparently. D&D had no idea how good they had it.
Since no one offered to help I hefted my backpack onto my shoulder and pulled my suitcase along beside me as I followed Ms. Assistant to the Assistant to a waiting van … a cargo van. A small, smug twist of the lips told me someone was enjoying putting me in my place. I climbed awkwardly in and just managed to find some room to sit amongst the boxes and packages in the back of the van.
The ride to the “ranch” was a bumpy and hot one. Several times boxes fell over and onto me. The driver never even looked back to see if I was OK. Eventually I was dropped off at the rear of a large house and left to stand there. No one came out of the house. It was then I heard bellowing coming from an open balcony door.
A young woman’s voice said, “It’s too late Mr. Lupton. You know the law as well as my family does. I’m pregnant, Dawson is the father, that means that I can demand marriage and if he doesn’t he could go to jail for breaking the Fertility Directive.”
An older man’s voice snarled, “You scheming little wench, if you think that I’m simply going to watch my plans go up in smoke you’re as mindless as your mother is. You broke the law as well by interfering with a legalized Match. You’ll have that baby and then I’ll see you put in the Egg House.”
“Your grandchild will then be taken from you Mr. Lupton. The heir you want so badly. Besides, the banns have already been read in town and my mother has the announcement all ready for the paparazzi. Face it, you lose. Don’t you get it? Dawson and I are a golden couple, Romeo and Juliet … we can do no wrong and everyone is on our side.”
A young man with a bored voice whined, “If I have to get married one way or the other it isn’t going to be to some bat-faced street rat just because you arranged it. If it’s the money, just sell her to Morgan … you know his family has been trying to for ages to get one of those girls for him.”