Authors: Brenda L. Harper
“Good. Maybe we won’t have any incidents like we did last year.”
“I doubt that,” the first voice said. “There’s always at least one who doesn’t know how to behave.”
“You enjoy those ones too much, Cynna,” the second voice said. “Put her in the vehicle.”
Dylan felt herself being lifted into the air, and she immediately began to squirm. A sharp pain in her thigh forced her to stop. She was vaguely aware of that laugh again.
Dylan was carried somewhere, her body dumped onto something rough, but not without a degree of softness. There was movement soon after, movement like nothing Dylan had ever known before. She, like every other adolescent, had heard stories of things called automobiles in the previous society, but it was gossip, not something they had read about in their history studies. Like the compass Dylan could feel jamming into her thigh from the pocket where she had hidden it, it was just an idea of a time past. A story passed down from guardian to adolescent.
She wondered now, however, if there might be more to those stories than she had ever imagined.
The movement was almost soothing. Dylan tried to shift, tried to move into a more comfortable position, but suddenly realized that her muscles were not responding to commands. Her thigh still throbbed where she had been touched by something painful, her body aware of all its discomforts but unable to do anything about them. And the roughness was still over her face.
She could see nothing, feel nothing. She could smell, but only the faint odor of her own breath and the sourness of the rough material.
She tried to open her mind to the people around her, but couldn’t hear a thing. Had they left? Was she alone?
The idea sent yet another bolt of fear through her chest.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the muscles in her legs. She needed to move, needed to adjust her position. Pain was beginning to shoot through her hip where she was pressed hard against whatever it was she was lying on. So she concentrated on her legs, on moving them so that she could roll onto her back.
She pictured her body, pictured the way her hips and legs looked in the odd, broken coveralls. She pictured them moving, pictured her hips rolling just enough to take the pressure off that one side. It took forever, or at least it seemed that way. But then she sighed with relief as she felt her body turn and the pressure removed.
You can do anything you set your mind to
, Davida once told her.
For the first time, Dylan actually believed her.
Next she concentrated on her hands, saw them lifting to her face and moving the material from her eyes, her lips. It didn’t take nearly as long this time, as though the power of whatever it was that had paralyzed her was broken with the first movement. In seconds, the bag was gone and cool air brushed over Dylan’s face. She glanced around, but there was nothing to see. Just a long, metal box filled with bags of some unknown substance. Clothing, Dylan thought. The sacks looked a lot like the sacks they put their soiled coveralls in after a full day of work and learning.
But the sacks were taken in carts along the stone paths behind each of the dorms. Not in metal boxes.
Especially not in metal boxes that vibrated like this one.
Dylan looked around a moment longer and then, reluctantly, pulled the rough cloth back over her face. She positioned herself carefully, returning to the position she had been in earlier, but with her hip in a better place, a place that didn’t hurt nearly as much. And then she lay back and waited.
The short woman handed Dylan a canvas bag that felt as though it held several bricks. Dylan hefted it between her hands, testing the weight before slinging it over one shoulder.
The woman watched her, her eyebrows rising slightly. “Don’t you want to know what’s in it?” she asked.
Dylan shrugged. “I assume food and water.”
A slow smile creased the woman’s rounded face. She inclined her head. “You are to make your way to a spot on the map that is twenty miles in that direction,” she said, pointing behind her. “Do you understand?”
The woman looked Dylan over for a second. “You have three days,” she said. Then she walked around her and climbed back into the metal box with some effort. It began to move over the dirt in a puff of something that looked vaguely like the smoke from the cook’s oven at D dorm.
Dylan couldn’t help but stare up at the sky. She had never seen the sky without the thin layer of glass that was the dome over Genero. It was impossibly blue, with big, fluffy clouds that looked like the fibrous cotton Davida used to use to stop the bleeding when Dylan’s teeth fell out in the childhood dorms. She felt like all she had to do was reach up and she would be able to feel them slipping through her fingers. She even caught herself lifting her hand before she stopped.
Stupid, childhood thoughts.
She forced herself to concentrate on her situation. She was standing in the middle of a desolate landscape. Everywhere she looked, all she could see was dirt and rocks and more dirt. A world destroyed by war. There was nothing green, nothing spilling over with life. Nothing familiar.
And the heat was almost unbearable.
Dylan reached up and touched her forehead. Already, in the less than five minutes she had been standing there, her forehead was drenched in sweat. She could feel it under her clothing, too, under the tight band at her waist, the band around her budding breasts. She slipped out of the heavy, thick piece of clothing that covered her back, immediately rewarded with a soft breeze that moved up her spine and cooled the heat building at its top.
She tossed the clothing on the ground and sat on it, opening the bag the little woman had given her to see what was inside. As she had suspected, there were several boxes of dry food…carbs and dried protein. Dylan had seen cook use these things on occasion, using water from the dorm’s pump to rehydrate them and chop them into a stew or crumble them into an oatmeal to make them stretch a little further. Several bottles of water were at the bottom of the bag. Tucked in with them, however, was a long, thick knife like Dylan had never seen. She knew what a knife was, knew how to use one thanks to her assignment in the kitchens at D dorm. But this was totally impractical for cooking. It was too long, too thick through the center. And heavy.
Dylan held it up in the sunlight, turning it this way and that. She had to admit, no matter how impractical a thing it was, it was beautiful. It was a fine silver that shone like a lantern in the bright sunlight. The handle was long and made of some sort of white material, something hard but graceful. There were symbols in the handle that Dylan didn’t understand. But she studied them for a long time, fascinated with their lines and curves.
She laid it on the cloth beside her thigh and continued to search through the bag. She found other things…a toothbrush, a hairbrush, a book of matches that was smaller than the one Cook used on the gas stove at D dorm. At the very bottom of the bag there was a first aid kit filled with bandages and creams and disinfectants. Dylan ran her fingers through the items and found herself thinking again of Davida.
She hadn’t thought so often of her guardian since the day they took her away.
But today…she missed her more than she had thought possible.
In Genero it was not uncommon for a girl to have the same guardian watching over her through nursery to adolescent. Most guardians were assigned to four or five girls and would remain with those girls until they were old enough to test. Davida had been that for Dylan and three others. One died in infancy. Dylan didn’t even remember her. Another was taken to the infirmary a year into the childhood dorms. The third was Donna.
Davida was good to them, sneaking treats to them when others had to go without, taking them on long walks instead of forcing them to sit in front of a computer all day long. Davida was bright, funny, a loving woman who gave them hugs more often than scolding them. Dylan could remember the laughter that often slipped from Davida’s lips, even when she was trying not to let it.
When Dylan closed her eyes, she could see Davida’s beautiful long, dark curls, could see the clear greenish-gold color of her eyes. Always so full of love, of happiness. Only once did Dylan see an absence of emotion in those eyes.
The day they took her away.
It was in Dylan’s fifteenth year.
They were in the common room, playing a board game that required them to quickly yell out the answers to history questions. They were yelling so loud and fast that they were often drowning each other out. Davida was overcome with gales of giggles as she listened to Dylan and Donna try to outsmart one another. And then Demetria came into the room.
“You’re wanted outside, Davida,” she had said.
Davida looked up, amusement still dancing in her eyes, until she took in Demetria’s stiff stance, the lack of humor in her eyes. Davida stiffened, the amusement immediately disappearing. “Outside?” she asked quietly.
Demetria did not respond. Instead, her eyes fell on Dylan and Donna. “No reason to upset anyone,” she said.
Davida’s eyes turned to Dylan and Donna as well. She reached out, touched each of them on the tops of their heads. She smiled softly, but the love and happiness Dylan was so used to seeing in her eyes was gone.
“I’ll be back, my loves,” she whispered as she leaned forward and kissed each of them on the tips of their noses. It was a childish thing, Dylan remembered thinking, being kissed on the nose that way. Davida had not done it since they were in the nursery. But something about the look on Demetria’s face, the absence of emotion in Davida’s eyes, made Dylan bite away the rejection on her lips.
Davida stood. Dylan heard her thoughts, heard the fear and the uncertainty, heard her concern for Dylan and Donna. That was the prevailing thought Dylan heard from her as she walked away, her thoughts disappearing as she vanished.
Take care of my babies.
Dylan wasn’t sure what she meant by babies; it wasn’t a term she had ever heard before. But a part of her was aware that Davida’s thoughts were about her and Donna. And she knew she was afraid, not for herself, but for the two of them.
Fear. It seemed to define all the most climactic moments in Dylan’s life.
Dylan quickly repacked her bag, shoving the piece of clothing that covered her back into the top of her bag. The knife she kept out, sliding it through a loop at the waist of her broken coveralls. It was a tight fit, especially with the slight curve, and the thickness of the knife’s blade, but it fit.
She began walking in the direction the small, round woman had pointed.
Three days. She could do that.
Even without a map.
Dylan walked for hours. The terrain changed slightly after the first two. She came across vegetation that was completely different from the green plants and bushes in Genero. They were short, squat plants that were bright green and had huge leaves. But there were spines on the plants that were a dozen times longer and sharper than the ones on the roses Davida used to like to pick to add color to the dormitory rooms. Dylan was careful to avoid these plants.
She wasn’t sure she could ever get used to the heat. Sweat dripped down her face, her ribs, only increasing the more she walked. The weather inside Genero was controlled. They had rain only when it was necessary and only long enough to feed the vegetation. They never had extreme temperatures. It was always a cool seventy-eight degrees inside and out in Genero. Sweat was only an issue when one played too roughly or worked a menial job.
Dylan had never experienced anything like this intense, unrelenting heat.
When the sun began to dip down beyond the horizon, the temperature began to lower with it. Finally, a little relief.
Dylan knew she needed to rest, felt it in her muscles and the continuing burn of her skin. Instinct told her she needed to get off the ground. She had seen some strange animals, small things that skittered across the dirt as though running for their lives from an unseen threat. She didn’t want to share a sleeping space with such a thing. And she didn’t want to know what else might live under the rocks and behind the spiny plants that dotted this barren landscape. Dylan had little experience with animals. They learned about things like dogs, lions, and cheetahs in their science studies, but there were no animals in the populated areas of Genero. There were farms along the outer edge of the city, where the girls had heard they kept animals called cows, animals that provided the sweet milk they drank on Sunday afternoons as part of their founder’s meal, and some of the meat they ate during the week, though Dylan was never sure if she could believe those rumors.
She scanned the horizon and saw a large, flat rise in the ground a dozen or so yards away. She decided to make her camp there. As soon as she had climbed the rough edge of the rise, she sank to the ground and dug out one of the water bottles. Her tongue was dry and beginning to swell. Nothing had ever tasted as good as that little bit of water. It more than made up for the tasteless dehydrated protein that silenced the rumbles in her stomach, but did little to appease her desire for the tender bits of pot roast she knew the cook was serving the remaining girls in D dorm tonight.
As she slowly became rehydrated, as her mind settled to the logical, Dylan looked through her provisions and realized that even if she strictly conserved the food and water, it would not be enough to last three days. Her water was already half gone.
Fear again trickled through her chest. She knew she must conserve what little water she had, but a part of her wanted to drink until it was all gone.