Authors: Ann Christy
No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the proper written permission of the copyright owner, unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal and international copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Resemblances to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental and the work of a fevered imagination.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Copyright © 2014 by Ann Christy
The Silo 49 Series
Silo 49: Going Dark
Silo 49: Deep Dark
Silo 49: Dark Till Dawn
Silo 49: Flying Season for the Mis-Recorded
Wool Gathering (A Charity Anthology)
Synchronic: 13 Tales of Time Travel
The Robot Chronicles
From tiny baby
to princess under a cloud of white hair
to brilliant student and actress
to working mother and wife,
you have always been the first,
and brightest, star in my sky.
I Love You
The streets are busy, streams of people joining the flow of bodies from every corner and alley, all of them moving toward the town center. Dust rises from the sun-baked streets in a low cloud from so many feet and the chatter is loud in the morning air.
I jump up on a bench and scan the moving crowd for familiar faces. Cassi’s bright hair draws my attention from across the narrow dirt road. Her red-gold curls stand out in a veritable sea of brown. I raise my arm in a wave, hoping she’ll see me. When that doesn’t work, I cup my hands around my mouth and call out her name. It’s loud enough to earn me a few looks from people passing by, but it does the trick because she looks around, searching for me. When she finally sees me, she gives me a wide, happy grin and beckons me over with impatient swoops of her hand.
I hop down from the bench, raising another small cloud of dust and weave through the moving crowd with a minimum of bumps and apologies on the way.
“Where’s Connor?” I ask once I gain the relative safety of the strip of paving stones that make up the sidewalk.
Before Cassi can answer, we see him bobbing his way through the crowd with ease, on his way to join us. He pushes back the light brown hair that perpetually falls into his eyes and gives us both a cocky grin.
“Hello, ladies. Did I miss the parade?” he asks.
Out of habit, I look him over. The two dark lines on his neck are still only two in number, which is good, but he has that strained look behind his grin that tells me there is trouble brewing.
He notes my look and whispers, “Later, Karas.” The emphasis on my name lets me know that what he has to say is for me alone. Cassi is sweet and loves us both, but that’s the problem with Cassi. She
sweet and doesn’t like to hear about the bad things in life. Everyone shields her, and that includes Connor and me.
“Noooo,” Cassi says, drawing out the word to note her impatience. “But we will if we don’t get moving.”
We set out together, keeping to the sidewalk in a tight huddle as we make our way toward the main street and the town square that waits there. I shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket against the cool spring morning and kick my favorite boots together to knock the dust off. They’re Texas Army issue, bought because they last and are cheap, but they’re comfortable. I’ve dimmed down the military part by adding something of my own to them, a pair of sky blue laces. I traded a half pound of my better quality slingshot stones for them. Not a great trade, but worth it.
“It’s probably just more people from the wild lands. There are always more of those,” Cassi says with a sigh.
“I doubt it’s just Wilders. They don’t cross the borders just to cross them. They come for a reason. Smuggling or raiding, maybe,” Connor counters and pushes back his hair once more.
He needs a haircut but I know he won’t get one at home. To be more precise, he won’t get one unless whatever scheme his parents are cooking up requires a clean cut boy to make it work. I make a mental note to bring some scissors to school when Monday rolls around and corner him after classes.
“Well, then it’s probably some Strikers,” Cassi says and then stops, realizing what she said. She gives Connor a sidelong glance full of apology and adds, “Probably not though, and I’m sure it’s nobody we know if it is.”
I drop one hand from my pocket and let it find Connor’s as we walk side by side. While Cassi keeps her eyes forward in embarrassment at her thoughtless comment, I give his hand a quick, reassuring squeeze and then let go. It’s enough. He knows I’m here for him.
Both of Connor’s older brothers were Strikers, meaning they attempted to leave Texas, an illegal act. His oldest brother waited too long to make a break for the border and had four strikes on his neck when he finally did. He got caught, earning his fifth and final strike. Declared a Habitual Offender, he was put down less than twenty-four hours after being returned to the Bailar jurisdiction. He faced his justice without ever getting a chance to see his family since they were off on the venture that had earned Connor his first strike.
His next older brother was smarter, going Striker and making for the Texas border before the tattoo of his third strike had fully scabbed over. Had Connor been able to, I think he might have gone with him. The two strikes on his neck—one for selling some cure-all elixir of his parents’ and the other for collecting plants for their concoction from private property—gave him ample reason to try. He didn’t though. So far, Maddix hasn’t been caught and he’s been gone six months. He has to be beyond the northern border and well into the wild lands by now. All I can do is hope, along with Connor, that he isn’t among the unfortunate people we’ll see paraded past today.
To break the mood and get them talking again, I say, “It could be anything, but it’s probably not pirates breaking the blockade sailing ships here in our desert and it’s probably not Climbers that came over the wall hundreds of miles south of here. It’s probably smugglers. It’s almost always smugglers.”
Cassi has decided views about the romantic nature of pirates and the sea in general, mostly informed by romantic tales rather than our history lessons at school. We live in North Texas so it’s odd that she loves the sea, a sea we’ve never seen and aren’t likely to, at that.
It works because she says, “Pirates are probably nothing like they tell us in civics class. I think they’re probably just trying to break the blockade—maybe even disarm the mines in the Gulf—so we can get to the sea again.”
Connor laughs and I’m relieved because it’s a genuine laugh. He’s had a crush on Cassi since before I can remember and does his best to burst any bubbles she might have on the noble nature of pirates. Not to mention that there are probably more mines than fish in the Gulf and all of them have been searching those waters for a ship to detonate under for over a century. And every time a boat does try to leave the coast, the mines find it.
“And they’re probably all handsome and carry maidens with curly hair away to their beautiful ships, sailing away into the sunset,” he teases.
The sudden somber mood is well and truly broken and they chat about whatever ridiculous thing Cassi has imagined lately as we cross the last block to the square. Several hundred people line the two-block-long square and we have to jostle our way through to find a good space to watch from. Rather than try for the furthest corner, nearest the area where the prisoners will come from, we settle for a spot near the middle.
The winter brown grass is beginning to show signs of greening and signs posted around the square advise us to keep off the grass in emphatic red script. They even have exclamation points in case the red doesn’t get our attention. Everyone is very careful to remain on the narrow sidewalk surrounding the square, me included. Little violations like that won’t earn anyone a strike, but they cost money and most people don’t have much of that rattling around in their pockets.
Once we’re settled, the cold seeps in. We huddle closer to share a bit of warmth while we wait for what Bailar cleverly calls a “Parade.” It isn’t mandatory to come to every parade, but it is one of those things that everyone knows they should come to. It’s one of those things that if you don’t show up often enough, it will be noted down somewhere and your loyalty might come into question.
My ears start to sting from the cold, so I pull my hair out of its standard ponytail and wrap it around my neck instead. It’s weird looking, but it works. I’m going to miss this handy scarf when I finally do sell my hair. It won’t stay in place if I move, but so long as I’m standing here, I might as well be a little warmer. Connor gives me a look and shakes his head.
With school out and many people off work for the weekend, there’s quite a crowd for today’s event. And more than half the faces I see around me wear those carefully neutral expressions that don’t completely hide the fact that they’d rather be somewhere else. A good number of them probably have a Striker somewhere in their family line, or a smuggler, or both. Seeing prisoners paraded past is a special sort of pain for them, not knowing what day will be the day they see their loved one on their way to die.
“I hope they get here soon,” Cassi complains as she bounces on her toes in the cool air, hands shoved deeply into her jacket pockets. Her jacket is thin, thinner even than mine, and has likely been worn by every one of her older siblings before her. Bright floral patches reinforce the elbows and collar and it makes the old denim look fashionable and purposeful.
She has the kind of mother who will go to the trouble of choosing just the right fabric, saving up for whatever small piece might be needed, and then sewing it so her daughter can be proud in her hand-me-downs. Neither Connor nor I have that and it shows.
My jacket is old and too tight around the shoulders and chest. I’ve been saving up what I can to buy a new one for next winter, but it’s hard when the only jobs I can get are the crap ones available to a sixteen-year-old who already has a strike. Mostly, I muck out stalls or haul soiled hay out to the composting operation just outside of town. It’s nasty work, but reliable, and I usually have Connor for company.
Connor’s jacket is huge on his wiry frame, almost swallowing him from neck to knee. It belonged to his older brother, a much bigger boy than Connor will ever be. I’m not short for a girl, or particularly tall for that matter, but at the same height as me, he is decidedly short for a guy. He starts to shrug out of the oversized coat at her complaint, but Cassi stops him with a wave of her hand and gives him a smile.
Cassi’s wish for the soldiers to hurry comes true, because the piping toot of a horn from the escort vehicle sounds from somewhere beyond the square. A moment later, the tiny electric vehicle comes into view and crawls along at a walking pace toward the square.
Like everyone else, I try to look behind it to see what I can see, but the car has created a cloud of thick dust behind it at least twice the size of the car. It obscures anything I might see, and just looking at it raises a tickle in my throat.
It was a dry winter, only a few paltry dustings of snow and far too few good rains. The amount of dirt that flies into the air with every movement tells me, and everyone else, exactly how dry it was. We’re all hoping for a wet spring. We need the grasslands around Bailar to green so the cattle will prosper. Without a generous spring, we won’t have enough grazing land to support the calving season and the long summer of the calves’ growth. So far, we’re not getting our wishes and it’s already mid-March.
The car speeds up to a running pace, then stops abruptly as it comes even with the first people watching. A youngish soldier pops up out of the open top and says something to someone in the crowd. They don’t normally do that. Instead, they generally pace the lines of prisoners behind them. That he’s gossiping means there’s something—or someone—of note in his line. I can’t hear what he’s saying but I can see a ripple of agitation move through the crowd as I squeeze out of the crowd to peer down the block.
The ripple fades quickly and the car start-stops its way toward us, the soldier calling out to friends every so often as they move along the street. I don’t know the soldier, though I’ve seen him around. He doesn’t stop near us, but I hear him anyway and my heart sinks.
A group of Strikers and smugglers has been caught. That isn’t good. I was holding out hope that they were just people from the wild lands that no one knew. I look at Connor and see lines of anticipatory pain on his face. There aren’t that many people who try to go Striker, percentage wise, in the population and he’s already lost one brother. He stares toward the approaching cloud of dust behind the car as if he might see through it if he looks hard enough.