NON-SPACE ODYSSEY VOL. 1
by Britt Nunes
The train whistled another high-pitched shriek as we sank further into the toxic forest. A mist had wrapped around the massive trees, creating a coat for their branched arms as they reached for me with their claws. Poison hung all around us, cleverly disguised among the lush greens and vibrant browns. The canopy was so dense that the streaks of sun seemed like deceitful white beacons in the gloom.
Magnetic boots boomed overhead, throwing this vibrant world of vegetation into stark contrast with my own. All steel and chrome, machinery was the framework of every citizen’s life. That fact droned louder in my head as I suddenly became aware of the vibrations thrumming methodically into my legs, a diesel heart beating.
Watchmen marched along the roof, their steps sounding more mechanical the closer they came with their retrofitted boots. There weren’t many of them, nowhere near enough if Astronauts should come upon us, although no one cared whether the cargo on this locomotive made it to its destination or not. What were orphans but burdens to the Federation, especially a rare defect like me?
I gazed down at the bruises on my knuckles; purples and yellows bloomed maliciously across them. Thwack! A jolt shot through my body with the memory of Door’is smacking the stick across them. It was another blow from my world, a reminder of where I stood within it. I laced my fingers together, pressing them into the pleats of my gray skirt. I knew Door’is didn’t want to do it; the slight corkscrew of her ruby lips told me so. We were due at Nickleby in a few days, and having such a display of my “uniqueness” would instantly put off the wealthy bidders—I mean prospective parents. But I had spoken out one too many times during the last adoption auction, and she couldn’t have one of her charges causing mayhem without immediate, proper reprimand. The chairman held the stick out to her before she had even pulled away from the podium.
If we did anything untoward, Door’is was the one who paid the price. After all, she was the Federation employee bound by the firm hand that had imprisoned me since I was five. So she took hold of the stick, striking my knuckles ten times in front of all the citizens. Silly, silly girl, your world is all mechanics, grime, and grit. You shouldn’t expect anything less. I felt the tears coming, but I forced them back because that was the only way to survive.
“You don’t want to be adopted, do you, Sister?” The tiny voice filled the quiet space of the small carriage I had taken refuge in, startling me so much that I knocked my head against the glass window. Rubbing my forehead, I tossed an easy glare at Hattie. Her minuscule stature brought her eye-level with my slouched, ill-mannered posture. She rocked on her heels, making her long, butterscotch hair sway back and forth.
“That question is irrelevant, Hattie,” I replied.
Her real name was Burn’e’dette, but ever since her parents had entrusted her care to the Federation to pay their debts, she’d been inseparable from that brown felt fedora of hers. It was the last token her parents had given her, so I guess I understood why she dolefully clung to it. By the way, we were not sisters.
I arched my right eyebrow in regard to the pin on Hattie’s Federation-allotted hat, the type government office workers received with their uniform. A thick, black ribbon wrapped around the base of the cap, adorned with a perfect bow, and embedded inside it was that pin flaunting the Federation emblem. The ornament mocked me. Black gridded lines formed the shape of the Earth, and green scales seeped through, breaking past them as if being freed from a prison. The pin matched the emerald scales along Hattie’s jawline. I gripped the rough fabric of my Federation-issued skirt, squeezing my frustration out.
“I should put a bell on you,” I told her.
“Now you know how we all feel, Les’ette,” she squeaked, climbing onto the red velvet chair of the first-class carriage. Most citizens spent the extra tributes for Zeppelins when traveling from one city to the next, preferring to soar above the toxic forest instead of roaring through it. So orphans had the privilege of sitting almost anywhere in times like this.
Hattie nuzzled up next to me, her knotted hair brushing against my arm. Her curls were always wilted and mangled, seeming rather unconcerned at the state of their unkempt appearance. Hattie gazed up at me, blinking her hazel eyes sweetly. The light made the pale green parts of her skin shimmer along with the sheen of her emerald scales. She fiddled with the identification tag that was pinned to her white blouse. The ticket labeled her, as mine did me, an Orphan of The Federation Collection Four. As she moved the thin paper up and down, her name and information twinkled.
Hattie sat quietly like that, radiating innocence, for three whole seconds longer. Then her tiny fingers gripped a small chunk of my bicep and squeezed…hard.
“Ouch!” I jerked back, vigorously rubbing the spot she’d pinched. My skin reddened with the promise of a new bruise.
“Just trying to help,” she said, coming at me while wielding her fingers like pincers.
I gripped her wrists and pressed them into the cushions. The daft child started snapping at me with her teeth. She managed to catch a few strands of my dark brown hair, which had frizzed out from trying to maintain curls. She jerked back, yanking them with her. A small patch on my scalp burned from her efforts.
“Argh,” I grunted from the sting, fighting the urge to let her loose to rub the pain away. “Just hang it up. It won’t help.”
“True. You couldn’t hide it even if you wanted to.”
Her determination fizzled, so I relaxed my grip. The child was a pest, but at least she didn’t try to deny that I was different. I had no mind-print. My brain wasn’t connected to the intricate, collective sea of thoughts like everyone else’s.
It was a constant clamor inside your head, hearing everyone’s thoughts all the time. The Idiosyncratic frequency citizens heard and transmitted was a mixture of alpha and beta brainwaves, according to the articles I had managed to get my hands on. Everyone’s brainwaves formed a distinctive mental identity—a mind-print. Everything was defined by this world of thought from which I was walled off. I was a silent void. I picked up on no one’s brainwaves, and more dangerously, no one picked up on mine.
Citizens regularly accused me of sneaking up on them or plotting something devious. How could you trust someone when you couldn’t hear the surface of their mind? Only the exceptionally skilled could hide their true intentions. I’d read that lies could be detected, and malevolent purposes could be perceived by specific shifts in their frequency. The fact that I was soundless made people instantly distrust me. If I ever did get adopted, it wouldn’t be by a family with noble intentions. Those types of people were not foolish. They knew to keep ones like me at a distance.
“Door’is will cut back on my rations if I try to dissuade bidders with injuries again,” I grunted.
I gazed down at the blossom of red on my arm. In a crowd, I was mentally invisible, so I was mostly overlooked, even despite my appearance. Injuries, however, were the surest way to put people on alert. My condition caused my body to repair at a much slower rate. My bruises would take at least a week to heal, whereas everyone normal would only need a few hours. There was no way I’d ever be allowed into Watchmen’s Academy, that was for sure. Not that I wanted to be. It was just that my pool of employment was made drastically smaller thanks to my genetics.
“Besides,” I said, trying to act casual and unconcerned, “I’m aging out soon anyway.”
My twentieth loomed before me like the toxic forest around this sleek locomotive, beautiful but dangerous. If I turned twenty without being sold—excuse me, adopted—then I’d be given my certificate of emancipation and thrust from the Federation Orphanage into harsh society, free to do what I wanted. I was just biding my time until then. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and that terrified me, but at least I wouldn’t have the threat of slavery hanging over my head and the merciless clutch of the Orphanage around my throat. When that day came, I would run as far as I could. I would run so no one could hurt me anymore.
“Take me with you,” Hattie whispered.
“No,” I shot back, turning my attention to the window as the air between us grew eerily quiet.
The forest seemed to go on endlessly. Murky shadows and glimpses of color played tricks on my eyes. No wonder so many stories emerged about these places and what might possibly prowl inside. Ancient rumors, dark fairytales of creatures that looked like us but were feral, ruthless beings. They were called humans.
Humans were legends, lies. They were whispered about in fanciful fables. Some said they hid in the toxic forests, warring with the Astronauts for territory. They were more feared than the Astronauts, probably because they’d never been seen. Humans were said to lurk among the poisonous gases of the forest because they were the essence of venom.
“Then I won’t be your little sister anymore,” Hattie barked, crossing her arms over her chest and thumping her back into the cushions.
“We are not related.”
I grabbed her arm and pressed it against mine, conveying the obvious difference. Even though she was ten years younger than me, her arm was plentiful in the way of scales. Dark green hues streaked out from under them beautifully. I had a few freckles and emerald scales to match, but most of my arm, most of me, was covered in skin like an infant, peachy hues that refused to darken green as I aged.
“I never stood a chance, did I?” she breathed. Her lips were pressed into a pout.
She yanked her arm out of my grasp, causing a few scales to rip off. Hattie pushed herself away from me. She tugged on the edge of her hat, casting a shadow over her eyes.
“You made me think I had a chance,” she mumbled. “You made me think you could lo—” She hiccuped in a sob. “Love me like a sister.”
The truth was, she’d had a chance once. That was the saddest part of our relationship: the fact that there wasn’t one, and there could have been. Hattie sprang to her feet, her eyes meeting mine. I gave a nonchalant shrug.
“If you could have read my mind, you would have figured it out sooner,” I told her.
“I hate you,” she spat.
I gave another shrug. Hattie was better off away from me. She knew it but didn’t want to believe it.
“I hate you!” she screamed.
She ran out of the carriage, sliding back the polished mahogany door with a loud whack. The pounding of her shoes as she dashed down the corridor was my victory music to our drawn-out battle.
I pressed my forehead against the window, staring out but not really seeing. It seemed I was finally rid of Hattie, the little pest that she was. Her constant prodding and cuddling. All the soft and challenging things that came from having a non-sister would be gone. My eyes grew strangely hot the longer I thought of Hattie. I pushed my face harder against the window, so close it fogged up. A white screen separated me from the world, just like the one that was around my heart.
My victory was hollow, but as for her… She’d reap the rewards soon enough. She was young and adorable. A good family would want her, but not if her mind drifted with thoughts of her defective “sister”.
A rattling of boots thundered overhead. I gazed up, trying to see the roof but restricted by the glass.
“Sound the alarm!” a Watchman shouted from above.
More galloping boots echoed out. My blood chilled at the strange roar that made my whole carriage tremble. The Astronauts had arrived.
Invasion of the Astronauts
I gaped helplessly as a Watchman’s body plummeted from the roof. His chrome gas mask dangled from his face, and his iron boots smoked at the soles. The younger Orphanage children all screamed in unison, the man’s final thought filtering in through them. My insides shuddered as the petroleum lamps flickered. Shrieks and cries filled the air with terror.
“To the front of the locomotive, children!” Door’is’ order rose above the chaos. For the first time, I was actually relieved to hear her stern voice, the one always accented with demand. I rushed to exit my carriage, falling out in my haste.
A child zipped in front of me, and we collided. If I could have read minds, I was sure I would have remembered names better, but most of the orphans were unidentifiable, faceless children. This boy, with a blonde mop of hair, was not deterred from his mission to escape. He pushed me away, dropping me to the matted carpet. I was at the mercy of a herd of scared and crying children. The flat soles of the boys’ derbys and small heels of the girls’ Mary Janes, the uniform shoes we all wore, turned violently against me. I was trampled over, but it was the stomp to my gut that kept me on the floor, gasping for air. It took everything in me just to make sure my skirt didn’t expose anything that would make this more unbearable than it already was.
“I knew you’d fall head over heels for me one day, dollface.”
Strong hands wrapped around my arms and heaved me up. No’ll gave me a wink as his lips withheld a laugh, making his dark green skin beam mischievously. A second later, we were shoved into the wall as the panicked crowd pushed their way through the narrow walkway.
“So, what brings you out of your grotto?” he teased as if he wasn’t the slightest bit concerned about the Astronauts.
No’ll was a fellow orphan who’d annoyed me almost from the moment I’d first met him. He seemed to have taken notice that I tended to hide away whenever possible.
“I don’t have time for your gobbledygook, palm greaser,” I barked.
I pulled back the strap of his black uniform suspenders and let it slip through my fingers. It snapped against his white button-up, but he only winked at me again. His lips spread into a looney smile as if he had consumed some sort of giggle water. Why was he so happy?
“Because you hurt the people you care about, dollface,” No’ll said as if he’d heard my thoughts. We’d been in the same Federation Orphanage Collection for eight years, and he seemed to get more intrusive with each passing one.
“Did you…could you…” I stammered, stunned.
His carob-colored irises flashed bright with amusement. He leaned closer, hovering over me with much too little space separating us. It was a challenge? A triumph? His nose was so close I suddenly realized how long and wide it was. Everything about No’ll always seemed so perfectly No’ll, and his nose was no different. But when his eyes captured mine, my scowl slipped the slightest bit. I quickly frosted my expression again.
“I was right,” he crooned.
Because the Federation kept all the boys’ hair cropped short, his dense black tresses always added to the appearance of the privileged character I knew him to be. After all, he constantly hobnobbed with Door’is. For as mysterious as his past was, he presented himself as the perfect orphan boy.
“I am none of those vile things you’re thinking of up there,” he said, giving my forehead a soft tap with his fingertip.
My eyes narrowed as I pushed away from him, letting myself get swept up in the crowd.
“I was right again, wasn’t I?” His voice was laced with triumph. There were very few children left, giving No’ll little resistance.
“I don’t know how you’re doing it, but stop,” I barked over my shoulder.
“I have these two things embedded in my face that let me take in my surroundings, you know. They’re called eyes. And, well, I use these peepers to take in knowledge about what I observe with them.”
“People read people with their minds, not their eyes,” I shot back.
“What fun is that? I fancy mysteries, dollface.”
He was right on my heels, so when I spun around, he was within easy reaching distance. I gripped two fistfuls of his shirt and tried to give him a shake. His sturdy frame didn’t even budge. His growth spurt a few years back had given him not only the advantage in height, but in muscle as well.
“Look, No’ll,” I said, keeping him at arm’s length, “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, okay? Now, this train is being attacked by Astronauts, so I suggest you get some sense of self-preservation.”
He gazed down at my fingers still twisted in his shirt, and then up into my eyes. A teasing smile stretched across his lips, and the emerald scales on his cheeks twinkled. My heart quickened for some reason, and I wobbled in my stance. Releasing him, I pressed my palm against the glittering crystal window of a carriage to steady myself. My face burned with embarrassment.
“You’re just confirming everything I already know. You hurt the people you love, like me.”
“What?” I shrieked.
I coiled my fingers around an inviting ivory handle, wanting to duck into it to hide from all of No’ll’s observations. My heart twisted in an unusual way inside my chest.
“It’s a secret I’ve come to learn about you. You know, by watching you with my eyes.” His voice was teasing, but his eyes shifted to a more intense stare. His hand drifted closer to my cheek, deep green fingers searching for something only I held.
“N-No’ll,” I stammered, pushing his hand down and away, scolding myself for hesitating.
“You need to stop this. Not for me, but for yourself.”
He took a step toward me, his smile growing more intense the longer he held it. If I could receive his Idiosyncratic frequency, would it help me decipher his expression? Would his thoughts penetrate my mind like the delicate note of a recorder?
His dark eyes became fierce like one of the mighty trunks of the trees we were speeding past. Would that have come across as a deep drumbeat?
My hand slipped off the cold ivory. Heat pricked the tips of my ears when the urge to sway closer crept into me. As the warmth spread back to my cheeks, I crossed my arms and squared my shoulders. “I don’t want you shielding me from people when they discover what I am. I don’t want you to hand me abandoned periodicals because you know I like reading them. I don’t want you looking at me with that”—I waved an angry hand over his face—“that look on your face.”
“Hmm, seems you’ve been watching me, too.” He chuckled.
“No, that. Stop that.” I took a harsh breath. “Okay, I’ll only admit this once, but I get it. You’re considerate and genuinely concerned about other people.”
“I’m flattered, dollface.”
“But those qualities are going to get you hurt with me. You need to stop helping me.”
“I can’t really do that. I’m a warrior, or have you not noticed?”
Before I could counter, two loud thuds echoed down the hall. My gaze snapped toward the sound. A creature in an orange Astronaut’s suit was sliding open the door to each carriage, scouting. Straps and braided steel hoses hung off the Astronaut’s suit. A thick nylon harness crisscrossed its torso, shoulder to waist, holding a brass mechanism.
Yet again No’ll’s arms were upon me, only this time he tucked me into his chest as he slipped into the closest carriage. “Don’t worry,” he whispered.
I shook him off me, pushing his hands away, and narrowed my eyes at him. How could he be so calm? I headed toward the window, working on the lock. No’ll was at my side, whispering into my ear. “I’ve been through plenty of Astronaut attacks. Although I wouldn’t really call them attacks. They always seem to be looking for someone specific. If you stay out of their way, they won’t hurt you.”
I gave up and rammed my shoulder against the window. It must be nice to live in a world with cheery hopes, I thought.
“Stop, Les’ette. It will be okay. You can trust me.”
“You willing to stake your life on that?”
He grabbed me, spinning me around to face him. “No, something more important. I would stake yours.”
With that, our door skidded open, and the Astronaut marched in. I clutched No’ll closer, protectively, fearfully, fervently. He cannot die for me, I resolved. That’s going just a bit too far.
He hid as much of me as he could within the folds of his arms, pressing my face against his chest. I could hear the rapid palpitations of his heart as the creature marched up to us. I tried to push away, but No’ll wouldn’t let me.
Suddenly a hiss of static penetrated my mind. The black-and-white static grew behind my eyelids, swift and severe. No’ll and I crumpled against one another. I couldn’t feel the ground as my knees collided with it. My hearing became muffled. This invasion corrupted all my senses, even filling my mouth with a putrid, rotten taste.
“She can’t hear you!” No’ll screamed.
The static receded. Our heavy breathing surrounded us.
“It wants to see your face,” No’ll said.
I nodded as I pulled away from him. My emerald-freckled face and green irises reflected back at me from the chrome visor of the Astronaut’s helmet. The back was an iron type of metal, latched tight to the suit. The Astronaut held up its hand, and another crackle of static hissed into my mind. It stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time before it turned to leave.
“Wait!” No’ll moronically called out.
What is he doing? I wondered. Maybe he really doesn’t have any self-preservation instincts? Maybe he just wants it all to be over? This boy is crazier than I thought possible.
The Astronaut stopped and turned around slowly. Its thick rubber and metal soles made a bizarre squeak-rattle sound.
“My brother. Your people have him. Is he okay?” No’ll’s voice was shaking. There was so much pain in his words. I’d never known anything about his life before the Orphanage, let alone the fact that he had a brother. I didn’t want to know. Unlike No’ll, I tried my very best not to indulge in mysteries when it came to the people around me.
They seemed to be having their own conversation. No’ll’s eyes were squeezed tight in intense concentration. I had overheard people talking about their encounters with the Astronauts, that their thoughts were broken with a reverberation so boisterous it caused a headache. They were wild, ravenous thoughts, hard to understand. They were thoughts of a beast.
The Astronaut turned to leave, and to my horror, No’ll stepped forward to follow. He shuffled past me and out the door. No. No! This isn’t happening. I charged after him, gripping his shoulder and jerking him around.
“You’re just going to go with them? Just like that?”
“Don’t look so hurt, dollface,” he said, pressing his hand to my cheek.
Gripping the edge of his cotton sleeve, I tossed his hand away. “I’m not hurt. You don’t know where they’re taking you. They could kill you. And if they kill you, that means I can’t! So you have to stay, so I can beat you properly.”
I didn’t realize I was crying until No’ll pulled out his gray handkerchief and began wiping at my cheeks.
“Don’t call me that!”
“Don’t use me as an excuse not to let people in.”
“Stop talking like you’re actually going to go with them. These creatures kidnapped your brother. What kind of danger are you stepping into?”
“They didn’t kidnap him. He asked to go with them. I’m going to find him. Don’t worry, I still need to make my dollface smile at me without that edge of disgust. I haven’t given up on us. I will return to you.”
“I’m not your dollface. What a horrible name to give to a defect. It’s a slap in the face every time you say it. And there isn’t an us.” Hot anger overwhelmed my veins, making my breaths short and my words clipped. “Go! Fine, then. Leave, you psychopath. March off to your death. I don’t care.”
Why did my heart hurt so much? Ugh, you silly, silly girl, I chastised myself. Can’t you see you started to hope just the tiniest amount?
“Les’ette,” he whispered, stepping closer as he gripped my hands in both of his. “You’re not silly for liking me back.”
He pulled a letter from his pocket and handed it to me.
The psychopath planned this? My jaw clenched hard. I stared so fiercely at the letter that if it were possible, my fury would have set it ablaze.
“I didn’t know if I could go through with it.” His words echoed my thoughts yet again. “But I wrote this just in case. The words were as true then as they are today. I know you’ll understand after you read this.”
“No’ll,” I growled.
He gave my hands a squeeze and then followed the Astronaut out of the train car. I crumpled up his stupid letter because I didn’t want to understand his madness. I wound it back in the palm of my hand, but my body froze. My limbs shook. I dropped to the floor as a single sob pushed its way out. That was all I allowed myself. I smoothed out his letter and stored it away in the pocket of my skirt.
As I hustled to regroup with the others, a shrill scream assaulted my ears. I had only heard that shriek once before, but I knew who it belonged to.
Silly Girls Do Not Play Well with Others
I ran to the head of the train, toward the desperate sounds of Hattie. Pushing into the next train car, I was stunned to see Hattie restrained. She flopped helplessly on the ground, tied at her wrists and ankles. An Astronaut was hauling her closer, dragging her across the flattened brown carpet. The Astronaut didn’t seem agitated. My defect was actually my protection at the moment.
The white arches and iron accents overhead were the hallmark of the ritzy first-class décor of a dining cart, fully equipped with a bolted-down steel table, which I was able to slip underneath.
I took a steady, preparatory breath. Rolling out, I sprinted toward the Astronaut. It noticed me a few seconds too late. I plowed into it. My shoulder sank into its stomach, and I was devoured by rough material as it flopped over. It tilted and then fell away from me, but its weight knocked me off balance. I plummeted to the floor. As its helmet bounced off the ground, a crack flared out across the visor.
Scrambling to my feet, I gripped the line that was attached to Hattie. I raced over to her, scooping her up and tossing her over my shoulder. The Astronaut was frantically patching up the crack in his visor with some sort of metallic tape as I ran past it.
“Don’t let them take me, Les’ette,” Hattie cried.
I flew into the next train car and knocked right into two Astronauts. Their heads turned to me, to Hattie, to each other, and then back to me. One had electric sparks flying from its hand as it came at me. I dropped to the ground right before I received a sharp shock in my back.
My appendages went limp as Hattie tumbled from my grasp. The other Astronaut yanked her out of my reach within seconds.
“No!” I screamed.
The Astronaut gave me an icy hot zap as I started to crawl after Hattie. I landed on my stomach, wondering what had made No’ll go with them. Would he have changed his mind if he saw this? Would he have even helped me save Hattie?
I pushed forward with flimsy limbs. My joints ached as I bent my knees, and my muscles burned as I propelled myself forward. My strides grew slower, but I kept pushing myself.
As another shock jolted through me, I realized that No’ll was as good as dead, and I hadn’t tried hard enough to stop him. The heat rose in my veins,—anger at feeling so helpless, rage at having no control, fury from not saving No’ll from himself.
As the hand came toward me again, I flipped around. I gripped the wrist, and with a grunt, I jerked it toward the foot of the one holding Hattie. The Astronaut fell, and Hattie flopped out of its hold. The other Astronaut landed on top of me. I pushed it aside and rolled under the iron bench seats.
An abandoned leather suitcase lay a short distance away. I scurried toward it, Hattie’s cries spurring me on. My hand curled around the case’s brass handle, and I slid out from my hiding spot. Jumping to my feet, I swung it at the Astronaut’s helmet, remembering the way the other had reacted when I accidentally cracked its visor. It would be distracted long enough for me to get us out of here.
I didn’t know if it heard Hattie’s actual voice or the reverberation I was sure screeched through her mind, but whatever it was, it made the Astronaut turn its full attention to her. I didn’t hesitate. I swung with all my force. The copper-coated edge of the suitcase bounced off the mirrored visor, but it did no damage.
The Astronaut came at me, sapphire sparks whipping around clawed fingers as they swiped at me. I stumbled backward onto the bench and threw the suitcase at the Astronaut’s face, but it deflected it, sending it hurtling straight at a window.
As soon as the suitcase crashed through the glass, the wind kicked up every loose paper, every fractured piece of crystal. I sprang to my feet, hurling myself at the Astronaut. We tumbled to the floor, and just like it’s companions when its helmet bounced off the ground a fracture flared across the visor.
I launched myself at the legs of the one carrying Hattie. It fell, and it’s helmet cracked. I quickly untied the cord around Hattie’s wrists and ankles, jerking her to her feet. We escaped into the next car.
When we entered a car filled with sleeping carriages, an Astronaut charged for us. I pushed Hattie out of the way and stood my ground, prepared to grip the iron exhaust ports on the Astronaut’s shoulder. But just when it was in reaching distance it snaked around me, racing in the opposite direction.
I sprinted to the window. The train had reached the corkscrew right before the station, showing me the caboose and all the Astronauts jumping out of it. They were retreating back into the forest.
The massive steel wall of Nickleby was a fortress reaching up into the sky. It was the protective barricade for all the layers of the metropolis, contained inside a massive cube of a stronghold. We were beyond the reach of the Astronauts…for now.
Hustle and Bustle
Door’is finished as the last whistle blew, signaling us to depart the train.
“…And they will be remembered with fondness,”
She was getting better with her timing. Her speech was the same spiel she always spouted whenever we lost someone. No’ll was the third name she listed, and after that, I just tuned her out. I kept my eyes narrowed at the gray handkerchief I clutched tightly in my hands. I was more or less strangling the cotton as if it were No’ll’s actual throat.
“I’ll miss Ta’lor, Vik’toria, Den’ee’s. Oh, and Jill’i’an,” Hattie said, sliding her hand over mine. “I’ll miss No’ll most of all. He read me stories.”
I never knew he did that for Hattie. I guess my last argument with him was right; I didn’t know him. My grip tightened on the cloth. Anger swelled inside of me, and just before I thought it would consume me completely…
“Form your ranks!” Door’is called out.
My surroundings seemed to fall away from me, growing distant. As I let out a slow breath, my fingers loosened. I slipped my hands out of Hattie’s, dropping the handkerchief to be left behind with my emotions.
I rose to my feet and found my place in line. Two rows formed, one for boys and one for girls. We were arranged by age, youngest to oldest. No’ll had always been next to me because we were so close in age, though I didn’t know how much.
“Keep it tight,” Door’is ordered, forcing two little girls to move closer together. It created a domino effect as we all shuffled closer.
Door’is marched down the middle of the two lines, her Federation-issued heels clacking against the metal. Her inky hair was still in perfect curls, flowing from under her uniform fedora. She drummed her nails against the crook of her crossed arms.
When she passed by me, she hesitated slightly. Her eyes lingered a little longer than usual on the boy next to me. It occurred to me then that No’ll wasn’t here to deliver one of his cajoling comments to Door’is.
Steady as she goes, Captain.
I’ve got my eye on them, Captain.
No’ll always called her Captain, and she lapped it up. I’d thought he did it to get in her good graces, but as my fingers traced the outline of his letter, I really didn’t know what to think anymore.
Door’is was a glamorous woman when her face was peaceful. As she marched up to me, I was reminded of that. She gripped a small section of my hair, twirling it away from my face. She secured the masterful curl with a pin, one of many she seemed to always be able to produce.
“Move out,” Door’is bellowed.
Her glamour fractured as only half her face moved, a paralysis she’d suffered sometime before I knew her. She hastened to the front of the line, still the essence of mighty and regal in her gray pencil skirt, matching blazer, and ivory tag pinned to her lapel.
I glanced over at No’ll’s handkerchief, but then quickly turned my eyes away.
It doesn’t matter anymore, I told myself.
The Nickleby Station rumbled with people and billowed with exhaust. We collected our suitcases on our way out. It was only rarely the Locomotive Rail Regulation “lock up all unclaimed children’s possessions for the duration of their travels” came in handy. They believed the prevailing stereotype about us orphan heathens, that we were kleptomaniacs. The idea was to give us fewer places to hide the stolen loot. Little did they know; we’d only be enticed by food. I had been tempted a few times while walking through the dining car, when a sweet aroma wafts up, making saliva pool in my mouth. I almost threw myself on top of a chocolate cake in one massive bound. But punishments were swift and severe for theft: labor camps. No one wanted to wither their life away lumberjacking at the border of the toxic forest.
The Rail Station workers watched us with narrowed eyes as we retreated farther into this grand terminal. Small shops lined the far end; people traipsed in and out of them like programmed automatons. Clusters of Watchmen passed by us in waves. Gas masks hung from their necks, more embellishment than necessity. Their buttons ran down their wool jackets in the fashion the Federation organized us, two neat corresponding lines. Their chrome finish sparkled against the black of the wool. The Watchmen’s tags, because they were higher ranking, appeared more like badges than labels, although theirs were written in the same neat black ink and conveyed similar information as every other citizen’s: name, occupation, rank, and province issued.
A few of the Watchmen nodded at Door’is politely, some even tipping their Federation-embossed caps. Door’is kept her head held high, always trying to live down the Federation Orphanage reputation. I guess, having once been an orphan herself, that reputation felt extremely personal to her. I was grateful I’d never felt that way, but I’d always had a different reputation to live down. I unrolled my white sleeves, trying to hide the scrapes I’d accumulated from the Astronaut attack.
We all walked in unison, merging and reassembling our two lines when necessary. We marched down the stairs and into the hullabaloo of the heart of the Nickleby Station.
“You hear about the excavation down in the state of Macbeth? Some place called Disney World?” A man laughed at his companion. They were both dressed in factory worker’s uniforms, blue overalls with a brown flat-cap. One of them was tucking a tabloid into his armpit. The title on the tech-paper had “Archeologists Discover Possible Human Architect?” streaming across it in a ticker tape style. It flashed the article right after.
“Yes, because archeology is a reputable profession,” his companion said with a snort.
The word archeologist was almost a derogatory term. They were citizens chasing fancies. My eyes skimmed across a poster by Emerald Pride. It was similar to the dozens I’d seen displayed all over, probably in response to the article the men were speaking of. It depicted a person, but he wore no scales. Then it flashed a public safety announcement.
85% of Idiosyncratics who become Archeologists die from toxic gases searching for human myths. Informants for the masses—Emerald Pride.
The group posted literature like this everywhere. It was always in the background of every city I traveled to.
“Poise! Come here, boy,” a little girl squealed as her pet goldfish swam through the air toward her. “Silly boy,” she giggled as it buried in her dark curls.
When her parents spotted us, they quickly pulled her away as if our perceived hooliganism was contagious. They jerked on the poor fish’s leash when it didn’t follow.
“Berets!” Door’is instructed, halting us by the door.
I quickly dug my matching gray hat out of my suitcase, adjusting until it tipped on the left side to display the Federation emblem on the right. I noticed that, somehow, Hattie was wearing her fedora.
“Forward march!” Door’is bellowed, leading us out of the station into the center of the city.
Auctions, Orphans, & Lions
Nickleby was the capital city of the Neo-North American Federation. It rested in the state of Othello, the exact center of all 28 states in NNAF. Since all of Earth existed under the same government, most everybody just referred to it as a whole—The Federation.
This city had the best odds for a child to be adopted by a good family. Not that I had actual statistics or anything, but being on the Orphan Train for most of your life, you hear things.
A lion meowed at us as we marched past, pressing its blush mane into the boys’ line. Their arms brushed against the docile animal. Its owner, an unclassifiable Federation employee, just gave them a dirty look as if he wanted them to break ranks for his lion.
The high-rise towers stood over us like marvelous monuments. Some were so tall they merged into the next level of the city. They were exquisitely designed with sharp geometric infrastructures. Most were constructed with sleek metals and accented with gold and brass blooming across glass and chrome. The filtration pipework for the air was stylishly implemented to all the architecture, chrome vents or golden spouts.
The traffic was the loudest, hover-automobiles rumbling overhead. Honking battles broke out every few minutes when some automobile ignored the flight roads or soared through a light-buoy.
We continued our parade down the main street toward the city square. The usual iron auction block came into view as we approached. We would be paraded out here every day at noon for a week. Then those who were not sold would get back on the train for the next city. The circuit took about a year to complete, a trip through all the different cities and towns with a month’s “rest” at the central headquarters, the Prison for Lost Children.
“The moment you have all been waiting for, the Keeper of the Federation Orphanage Collection Four,” the chairman of this event announced.
I’d met so many chairmen that I didn’t bother trying to keep them straight. This man was a giant with a posh zoot suit. His short, inky hair was greased back in an arrogant quiff to give him several more centimeters of height.
The mob of people turned their focus toward Door’is. She took confident strides up to the podium, not even shrinking away from the pill-shaped microphone when feedback hissed out as the operators adjusted the controls.
“Good afternoon, Citizens of The Neo-North American Federation Nickleby Metropolis. We humbly welcome you to our mind-prints.” Door’is hesitated like she always did on the next line after reciting the common greeting. “I am Miss Door’is Dashwood, Keeper of the Federation Orphanage Collection Four.” Dashwood was a Federation-issued name, and everyone knew it, which meant everyone knew she was an orphan who had never been adopted. “We have many bright and well-behaved children in need of respectable homes.” Her words were meticulously selected. She didn’t want to lie, nor did she desire to hide the obligation of these prospective parents.
I couldn’t blame the woman for trying, but everyone knew that children were at the mercy of whoever bought them. And the malicious sorts didn’t listen to disclaimers. Poor Door’is, always fighting a losing battle, I thought. I didn’t know if I liked her or loathed her for it.
“Brooc’line Knightley,” Door’is introduced as the little girl padded up the steps and onto the block. “She is five years old. Average intellect. Housebroken. Standard genetic makeup.”
Those in the crowd kept their eyes closed, relying more on what they were picking up in the girl’s mind than whatever Door’is was telling them. It was quiet as people contemplated this poor girl who was belittled by descriptions also used for animals.
However, there was a tall and gangly man at the edge of the mob who wasn’t closing his eyes. He wore a wrinkled white coat with an equally rumpled blue button-up. His blond hair was graying at his crown, and a bald spot had started to consume his widow’s peak.
But it wasn’t the man’s open eyes alone that caught my attention. It was the peculiar pet perched on his shoulder that drew all my focus to him. A bunny sat silently, consuming this man’s whole shoulder with its grotesque body and disproportionate wings. It had patchy green fur with tiny stick-like arms and protruding sharp claws. One of its massive ears twitched toward me as if the beast knew I was thinking about it.
“Ten tributes,” a woman yelled, kicking off the auction with a day’s wage.
Hattie took confident strides forward. Her hands were hitched on her hips as she practically posed on the block.
“She is nine years old. Upper-level intelligence. Housebroken. Green genetic makeup.”
Green meant her parents had paid for the impurities to be filtered out of her DNA, which was probably the only reason the Federation agreed to their child in exchange for debt forgiveness. Auctions for green genetics usually ended in bidding wars—usually—but for some reason, everyone was quiet when she stepped on stage. For the three years she’d been with us, no one had ever bid on her.
“Thank you, Burn’e’dette,” Door’is said as the throng stayed eerily quiet.
Hattie spun and finished with a curtsy. Maybe that was why she never sold, because they sensed the rebel in her.
I took a gulp as I marched up to my spot on the block. No matter how many times I visited this city, a handful of awkward seconds always passed until the crowd pieced it together. Their faces all shifted to confused expressions, but when they opened their eyes, the confusion turned to repulsion.
“She is nineteen years old. Below average intelligence. Black genetic makeup. But she’s housebroken.” Door’is reconfigured her speech just for me, tacking on my best trait at the end, which I conveniently shared with the pet lion we passed on our way to get here.
It was hushed like it always was, with a few of the usual snide comments thrown in.
“Defects like her should be eliminated!” a man jeered.
“They aren’t a part of our society! No mind-print should equal no citizenship.”
I kept silent as the insults rolled off me. Their words shouldn’t bother me. Their opinions don’t define me, I recited to myself, trying desperately to believe it.
“Someone put money toward the defect?”
“Oh, I-I have three tributes from Mister…?” Door’is asked, trying not to sound so surprised.
“Doctor Upton,” the man at the edge of the crowd said. His lips twisted into an unnerving smirk, hinting that the center of this man’s attention was a dangerous place to be.
“Why do you want to waste your money on a child with a black genetic makeup?” a woman chided him.
“I like her hair,” Dr. Upton said with a shrug.
I glanced down at my frizzy, dark brown hair, which hung almost to my hip. If I hacked this off, would he not want to buy me? Panic sat heavily on my chest.
“Get a grip man,” the Chairman hissed at Dr. Upton, standing up from his seat with the spectators. “What do you see in that defect?”
“Clearly, something you don’t,” Dr. Upton said.
“Dr. Upton, your eccentrics have gone too far this time.”
“I want to purchase the girl.”
“Purchase! This is an adoption,” the Chairman retorted.
“Oh, how honorable you all think you are. Whether I purchase the girl to be strapped down as my lab rat or diced up for my bunny’s breakfast is none of your concern.”
“This man is not fit to take care of a child. His own wife hasn’t been seen in years!” a voice shouted from the crowd.
Apparently, this doctor was the source of many rumors, which the mob started to fire out, emboldened by the sheath the swarm of people gave them. I could only pick out a few of the accusations as they collided into one another.
“No, his wife is being held captive,” a woman added.
“He brought over his niece to help hide her.”
“There must be some sort of regulation to stop him!” a faceless man shouted above all the rest.
As the Chairman’s face became twisted, I knew there wasn’t one. Of course, there isn’t one!
When the mob read his thoughts, they groaned with displeasure. This city didn’t want a defect roaming around, and I surely didn’t want to be this man’s servant—or, worse, his experiment.
“If there are no other bids…then Les’ette Tilney has been officially adopted,” Door’is said with sorrowful eyes.
The crowd rumbled with outrage, but they were silenced by a shout.
The word had tumbled from my own lips.