“Did you hear that?” Joshua whispered intently. “Trucks. Heavy. Lots of them. Let’s go.”
Esther dropped another tuber in the bag, shaking a bit of dirt off her left hand. Out of reflex she cupped that hand over her forehead and scanned upward into the blue horizon then down toward the opposite tree line, about 5 kilometers off—left to right—in a pattern that didn’t miss any areas.
The only things she could see in that blue sky were a couple of swooping brown hawks. On the ground was the usual scenery: an unnaturally flat and desolate clearing extending into a vast forest of pine in the far distance. The air was almost warm, but she could feel that warmth surrendering to a fading sun in the western sky. The shadows of the pines were growing longer, brushing their backs.
Soon enough, it would be dusk.
She knew the trucks were there for some time but pretended not to notice their exhaust drifting over the smell of fresh air, water, and dirt. They were things she wasn’t used to smelling, but they seemed bad all the same.
Josh made the call. “Audio contact: multiple large vehicles approaching south-east at ten kilometers-per-hour, estimated range fifty kilometers.” Josh then lowered his field binoculars and glanced at Esther. “Es? Are you ready?” he asked—his round, green eyes flashing with a sharp, reassuring look, betrayed by a tinge of nervousness.
She wanted to brood but quickly released her frustration with a relaxed breath. This was their time, the only time they had in this place. However, it was quite amusing to see Joshua’s newfound earnestness. She lifted her eyes and studied his posture for a moment. He was sitting upright; one leg crossed over his other leg. His slim, toned, brown body barely supported a set of nearly oversized tan fatigues. His left arm cradled his rifle, barrel pointed down. His right hand simultaneously held the binoculars to his face while keeping his loose, kinky locks at bay.
Esther reached for an excuse to say something. “We’re sticking to the SOP,” she said, while pulling up another handful of tubers. “Ma and Pa will get mad if we don’t bring in enough tubers, and that means the next time around you will have to pull more for your share.” She thought it a very reasonable response. No matter what Ma, Pa, or the other Guardians said, she wasn’t springing-off like a hare every time some random truck or ancient airplane approached the Settlement only to work more the next time. They would get both jobs done, and that was that.
Joshua exhaled and sharply nodded, firmly and silently agreeing with her thoughts.
She moved closer to Joshua, probing another undisturbed spot in the cool soil with her field knife. She deliberately squatted near his sitting figure, making sure that Josh could see the cleavage of her modest breasts. Yet again, he kept his focus on the horizon, not even noticing that she was wearing new shorts and a tighter t-shirt than she usually liked. I like going outside with him, she thought, cracking a smile. She could relax around him and say anything, and he wasn’t too hard on the eyes either—with his long black locks, full lips and brown skin, a shade or two lighter than hers, which positively glowed on days like this.
She turned her attention back to the hole she was digging and paused for a moment, staring in the last hole in the ground. It’s good that he’s finally taking this seriously, Esther thought. But, if he’s so focused, then where am I?
Esther flicked the dirt from her knife and sheathed it in its webbing. She tightened the string around the large knapsack and tightened her mental focus as well. She once again lowered herself to the earth and placed her forearm, palm flat, down on the ground. To improve her vibration detection she slowed her heart rate and breathing to a near crawl. After a minute, she could accurately distinguish between different sets of vibrations. “Confirm contact,” Esther whispered. “Twenty wheeled vehicles. Zero tracked vehicles. Bearing south-east at ten kilometers-an-hour range, four-eight.” She stood up and again, out of well-trained reflex, checked her webbing, holsters, and magazines while making a random mental note on the range and stopping power of the rounds in her Trainee issued 45-caliber ACP pistol. With the “threat” so far away, she was absolutely sure she wouldn’t need it but felt strangely reassured all the same. Freeing her hands, she finally reached up to tighten the black ribbon holding her light brown hair out of her face.
“Your perfume,” Joshua said, “it’s nice.”
Esther again didn’t feel like going anywhere. She felt like staying with Josh and talking about something, anything. She stifled a pang of guilt in her chest. Her grades and ratings were still the top of her class, but she could still feel the hot breath of Ma’s recent outbursts riddled with words she wasn’t used to hearing like “poor,” “frustrating,” “disappointed,” and last, but certainly not least, “a traitor to her genes.” Usually, she would simply relax and flash a smile, which seemed to smother Ma’s anger like gravy over a tuber. Unfortunately, disarming smiles would only get so far, and she wasn’t going to blow the relaxing private time she and Josh had going.
She noticed that Josh never turned away from the direction of the threat, despite any conceivable threat being at least forty-five kilometers away. She laughed a bit inside, even more amused at the seemingly serious and focused man in front of her. “Hey Trainee,” she whispered playfully, “I’m ready, let’s roll.”
Esther switched on her brain radio and broadcast the assigned return code. Joshua, apparently hearing the encrypted broadcast, pulled up out of his crouch and positioned the rifle across his chest. She casually slung the roughly fifty-kilogram bag of tubers over her shoulder and, without further signaling, took off running.
She rapidly increased speed up the grade, which just as quickly rose into a rocky bluff, densely lined with large ancient pine and short, knurled juniper trees. The last of the snow had melted, but there was still a chill in the air. She could hear Josh’s footsteps, right on her tail. She only half paid attention to her own movements—flying over rocks and between trees like a panther after its quarry. Neither of them missed a single footing up the steep slope.
“You owe me a kiss if I win,” Josh said breathlessly. She heard his movement cease, apparently to turn and cover their mock retreat. Again, she was taken by a pleasant surprise mixed with a bit of anxiety. Still, her pride needed to make a real fight of it, and she huffed out a laugh of acknowledgement.
There was no road or marked trail on this approach to the Settlement. In the winter, a hemp rope might be stretched out to help the younger Trainees, because even the most skilled Trainee could fall to their deaths in twenty inches of snow up a forty percent graded incline. Esther recalled Sasha, a fifteen-year-old Trainee, caught in a blizzard outside The Wire three winters ago. It took almost a day to remove him from the snow and provide for his second burial.
She again elected for the riskier lines up the slope and deliberately picked faster but looser and more challenging footings. Despite her best efforts, she could sill hear Josh’s footfalls close behind. Male Trainees were, of course, stronger but generally less agile, and she usually had no problem pulling away from anyone in tight, technical terrain. But here was Josh, surprising her again with a focus and intensity on the run he rarely, if ever, displayed until today. Sure, he was taking a less risky line, but he was actually keeping up. Now, she was far too winded to laugh.
She slipped on a particularly slick rock and her cranium came within inches of a large tree limb. Whoa! she thought, with a small tinge of excitement as a rush of endorphins overwhelmed her. She lost track of him, but while moving and leaping at thirty kilometers an hour, she didn’t want to throw her attention any more on such a risky line. He’s usually the one doing silly things like this, she thought briefly, then pushed upwards.
She could feel her muscles burning as she topped the crest of the ridge and exited the tree line. She immediately looked up at the Settlement Watchtower, which was, by far, the tallest thing in the entire Settlement. The Watchtower was a tall, smooth pillar carved directly into the mountain that bordered the Settlement. As a Guardian facility, it was completely unadorned with color, but compared to the squat, square, concrete and adobe buildings in the Village and Guardian areas, it was so tall that Esther thought it almost monumental.
When she was younger, she thought the Sapientia herself descended and left it as a tribute to the Settlement. If that were the case, the Guardians had adorned the top of the Sapientia’s gift with an array of sensors that could detect everything in the electromagnetic spectrum—from radio waves to x-rays. It was also connected to a network of seismic sensors capable of recording every footfall for two-hundred kilometers, as well as optical telescopes and radar capable of detecting every moving object in the observable sky. Reconnaissance drones disguised as chunky birds rested on the top ledge.
The better regarded Trainees were allowed to spend some time in the Watchtower. Esther had been there at least three times. She recalled that first fieldtrip like it was yesterday. After Carla gave a breathless introduction and a brief run down of the sensor boards, the Guardian plopped into a reclined chair, closed her eyes and activated her brain implant’s digital implant’s data mode, which connected her brain to the Watchtower’s raw sensor feeds. Esther also entered data mode and sat uncomfortably in a plain metal folding chair, shadowing Carla through dozens of data streams.
Following the Guardian’s cues, she didn’t speak, sleep, eat, or go to the restroom for the entire twelve-hour shift. The room was stuffy, and the amount of data pouring in from the dozens of drones and hundreds of sensors was almost overwhelming. But when night came, Esther looked up at the visual sky sensors and counted the debris of decaying satellites and a large number of small asteroids falling into the atmosphere, exploding into a splendid display of bright orange shooting stars.
She remembered that visit fondly.
Esther paused about ten meters before The Wire. “The Wire” wasn’t actually a wire fence. It was a bunch of very serious looking metal signs. She heard there was, at one time, an actual wire fence, but there was clearly no need for it when automated smart mines and targeted beam weapons were trained on every inch of the inner perimeter.
There was a demonstration once a year. All the Trainees and Traders would be seated together, about two hundred meters from The Wire. A sick cow or goat was dressed in conventional anti-ballistic armor, then coaxed, cajoled, or driven over The Wire. She even remembered a couple of years where the condemned was flung many meters over the ground from a slow-moving aircraft. The high-density fragmentation mine always jumped out of the ground, always honed in on its target, and always detonated with enough force to induce a mild headache. There was never any need to get around to what the beam weapons could do, because all that was left was a red mist. Every two-legged resident of the Settlement knew that to cross that invisible line without permission would be instantly fatal.
Today was Guardian Tim’s shift, and as usual, he took his sweet time sending back an entry code. While waiting and catching her breath, she looked back. Joshua dashed over the ridge. With her substantially more dangerous line, and carrying a trivial fifty-plus kilogram sack of tubers, she was only about four seconds faster. Esther was losing, and regardless of the prize or penalty, she always raced to win.
She took off, but Josh was right behind her and gaining. He flashed a goofy, victorious grin and sprinted through The Wire with complete confidence that he wouldn’t die. “See you in a little while!” he yelled, continuing west to the Guardian Administrative Building. Esther, smiling but feeling slightly defeated, started in the opposite direction toward the Guardian Trainer Office to deliver her haul.
He earned it, she thought. It was his personal best.
. . . . .
Ma Sue was a broad-shouldered, imposing blonde woman, at least 150 centimeters tall. She had long, elegant fingers, large breasts, thick, sturdy legs, and an overall striking presence, which Esther, and seemingly every other female Trainee, secretly desired. For a Guardian, she had unusually long hair, which was kept high and tight by a dazzling array of loops and braids.
Esther noticed that Ma had swapped her usual t-shirt and shorts for gray-green fatigues. She was leaning back, idly cleaning her fingers and intently reading a tablet placed flat on her desk. Esther also noticed that the bunk behind her desk was, for some strange reason, not yet made. A pot of tea on the desk was still warm. Her silver back-up .500 revolver and sleek black ASR rifle was visible in the open weapons locker. They both smelled of propellant gel. Ma must have run back from proficiency training, she thought. Esther glanced over at the tablet. All she could make out was: “Report: Approaching Units” on the display.
Ma glanced down and discretely moved the tablet out of view. She folded and placed her hands firmly on her desk, casting a Guardian-issued scowl, accentuated with piercing blue eyes.
“Your report girlie,” she said, with an air of stern disengagement.
“Heavy trucks, at least twenty,” Esther replied. “Moving slowly southeast around ten to fifteen kilometers an hour. At this point, they’re approximately forty kiloliters from our outer perimeter.” Esther resisted the urge to sweep a dangling, sweaty hair from her brow. “I didn’t hear any lifters or airplanes though. They’re likely refugees passing through.” Esther made a tight-lipped smile, breathing deeply to cool herself down. She braced for a dressing down for the unnecessary interjection.
Instead, Ma sighed and shrugged. “I suppose you’re right, but we can’t be too cautious these days.” Unexpectedly, Ma tensed her jaw and let out another heavy sigh before gritting her teeth. “Now concentrate. Did you notice anything besides trucks over that damn perfume you’re wearing?”
“Blood,” Esther said coldly. “I smelled blood and medicine.”
Ma leaned back into her chair and briefly flashed a curious expression. In seeming defeat, she unclenched her jaw into a half-smile as she looked at the bag propped over Esther’s shoulder. “My goodness girl! How many tubers did you find today? Thank you, sweetheart, and give that to the supply people right away.”
Esther breathed a small sigh of relief. She was confident that for the first time in a while, she didn’t disappoint anyone. “Thanks Ma,” she said smiling before sharply turning toward the door.
. . . .
A couple of Traders—what appeared to be a married couple—rolled by in a large delivery van and waived lazily out of the windows. She carefully put the haul in the back of the van. They could be my birth providers, for all I know, she thought, while smiling and waving them off.
However, she knew that could not have possibly been the case. She did vaguely remember the day around her fifth year that she became a Trainee. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember her mother’s smell and touch. The only thing she kept from that day forward were those fuzzy, earliest memories: her given name, Esther, and a strange female’s face she knew all too well.
With a strange feeling of dejection, she went back to her hooch, swung around the back of the adobe building, unloaded and locked-down her sidearm in the weapons locker. She ran inside then grabbed a clean sweat suit and underwear she laid out on her top bunk. Opening her personal drawer, she retrieved a precious glass vial, and without looking once in the mirror, headed straight for the baths.
One big benefit of pulling tuber duty was that a Trainee could shower alone, without being party to any gossip, rumor-mongering, uncomfortable questions, and inane noise. Josh mentioned that he also liked going to the showers alone. They both agreed that being away from the silliness of the crowd was a good feeling.
Maybe feeling the same way is why I like Josh? Or maybe we just have the same goals? She pondered, while soaking in the bath. She suddenly felt an urge to jump out. She quickly finished her bath and rinse shower, threw on more of the perfume Josh liked, and slipped into her underwear. This time, looking in the mirror, she tied the ribbons in her hair, liking the effect. They make me look like myself, she thought. She finally threw on the sweats and ran to the male Trainee hooches.
. . . .
The setting sun was shining directly into Esther’s face. The poor little thing was beginning its agonizing descent behind the mountains in the distance, giving away quickly to the cool wind and its far more mundane sensations. Sitting on the wooden porch railing outside of Josh’s adobe hooch, she swung her fleece-covered legs over and over again. Gazing into white athletic shoes, she got lost in the motion of her own feet.
He did manage to make it the last four reports, she thought, as she drew in a deep breath, taking in a perfume that even she could smell. The thirty or so times she had gone out, she had always made the time cut for reporting, thereby avoiding the dreaded Night Patrol duty.
A couple of times she volunteered, just to see what a patrol was like. The first time, it was a group of younger Guardians in a surprisingly cramped armored gun truck. They kept very still and quiet. Just like the Watchtower Guardians, they didn’t make a sound for hours. They silently drove around, looking for anything that even remotely looked like a threat. She thought it was all rather sad to see a group of grown Guardians so wound up over literally nothing.
The second time, she was issued an Armored Suit and settled in with a group of much older veterans, pushing at least fifty-years-old. The Armored Suit—essentially a man-sized and man-shaped tank—was bulky, hard to manage, far less comfortable and even worse smelling than the gun truck.
She intently listened to the grizzled vets spin stories of shoot-outs with Imperium Cavaliers, vetting out Collective spies and soldiers from civilian convoys. By the time the night was over, they used those power suits to bag a dear, a wolf, and four rabbits—by hand. They consumed all the meat, some of it semi-cooked, as well as fourteen non-regulation bottles of beer. They were loutish and had an air or cynicism and brutality that she found thoroughly off-putting. At one point, she turned the external sound off her armor to avoid hearing their grizzly war stories and sexual boasts. No Elder material in that bunch, she thought drearily.
A melody began blaring over the PA speakers attached to the light polls. Esther recognized it as one of the regular patriotic songs that cleared the Elder’s approval. She stood up, put her right hand on her heart, and sung along as she and the other Trainees were ordered. It was sung in soaring tones, which clashed with the rather clunky lyrics.
The Elders will guide,
The Guardians will fight.
The Traders will stand
For our hallowed land.
We will always be free.
We fight and succeed.
Her blessing will rain down on thee.
We fight and succeed
For peace and unity!
At the very end she furrowed her brow and returned to her seat on the rail. She could sing the bars of every corny patriotic march and faith song backward and forward—then wish to die of stultifying boredom.
Every weekday it was the same: Wake up at 05:00, Run and Drill from 05:30 to 06:30; Breakfast from 07:00 to 07:30; Personal Cleaning from 07:30 to 08:00; Academic Lessons taught in individual; virtual learning chambers from 08:00 until 12:00; Afternoon Meal or Kitchen Assistant from 12:00 until 12:45; dining hall cleanup from 12:45 to 13:00; Traders teaching Arts, Music, Horticulture, Writing, First Aid from 13:00 until 16:00; Marksmanship and Weapons Training from 16:00 to 18:00; Private Time until the Evening Meal from 18:00 to 18:45 and Study Time from 19:00 until Bed Down at 20:00.
Saturdays were—depending on Ma and Pa’s moods—either mechanics and engineering, or live fire and maneuver exercises. Sundays were supposedly free time, but in reality they were as busy as weekdays. Trainees were never allowed to go into the village to interact with the Traders. Trips outside The Wire were never approved and even asking would earn a Trainee extra attention from Pa, Ma, or the other Guardian Trainers.
Esther took the initiative and spent most of her time helping other people with their projects and hobbies. More than once, she helped Willamina make a new board game. Willamina was a tall, energetic blond girl with yellow skin and green, almond shaped eyes that constantly flittered around in class. Once they were finished with their new game, she would fly from hooch to hooch trying with all her might to pull people into the game. Esther always noticed how steady Willamina’s eyes became once the game started.
She would often fill in on the pick-up basketball, baseball, or soccer game. More often than not, she would find herself on the same team as Esteban, Joshua’s bunkmate. He was a very pale, red-haired and green-eyed Trainee with quick reflexes, blinding speed, and excellent tactical instincts. He always sported a cocky, slightly condescending smirk. Esteban always insisted that she join the game. Together they would square off with the GTs, who never held back and rarely lost. She always got the impression that Esteban was trying to prove something to her, and she couldn’t help sometimes but be impressed with his talent.
She used to help her bunkmate Marie and other wannabe Geeks with their network penetration testing. She worked with them for six weeks in a row, learning more about her brain implant’s data mode and virtual terminals than she ever cared to know previously. The rewards for success—access to the duty rosters, various Settlement surveillance systems, and extra assigned food at meals—made it worth the hours and hours of lying under bed sheets and writing custom code. The downside of getting caught was extra special attention from Ma or Pa, which always culminated in Night Patrol duty. She never got caught, but Marie did, and she didn’t talk to Esther for weeks afterward.
Lately though, she spent free days just like the loners in the Trainee class: sitting on her bunk, polishing rocks, making perfumes, whittling wood, or crafting origami with paper. Of course there was always cleaning weapons, hooches, and gear. Cleaning weapons and equipment was never requested, just expected, and everyone did it to escape the Guardian Trainer’s extra special attention.
Sometimes Trainees occupied unused tunnels and caves to simulate mating. Many males and more than a few females invited her for simulation, but she was always too busy filling-in, advising, helping, or crafting, and that was fine with her. They were all nice enough people, but none of them struck her as truly worth simulating with. Still, she couldn’t get used to their reactions—the downcast eyes, the nervous, twisting fingers, the stammering, rapid changes of subject and the shuffling of feet as they slipped away.
Even now, Esther felt more than a little apprehensive about simulating with Josh. Like her, Josh didn’t participate in simulation, and she had the surveillance records to prove it. Unlike her, he boldly flirted, and it increasingly irritated her. He won his prize, it but was probably not going as far as he hoped. Still, any thought of spending time with him both excited and terrified her—excitement and terror she had rarely felt until now.
Another fearful and exciting thought was heavily associating with a low performer. The low performers were—like high performers—never declared, but they were saddled with drudgeries like extra Physical Training, Kitchen Duty or Night Patrol. Joshua was clearly a “Low Performer”: mediocre grades, dismissive of superiors, and so slow to complete tasks that he rode Night Patrol as if it was his only job.
Finally, there was Tuber Duty. Tubers were a genetically engineered combination of a potato and a truffle, along with some other plant genes that allowed them to grow in cold soil, even without sunlight. In reality, this meant they grew practically everywhere there was soil with high enough moisture, but didn’t grow densely enough to be good for horticulture. They were invented during a time of great starvation, and apparently had been around as long as the Settlement. Now they are considered an appetizing but somewhat invasive species. So, in lieu of the usual schedule, two Trainees were paired up from a random draw and sent digging for tubers between 15:00 to 17:00.
She remembered the first time she drew a Tuber Duty with Josh. She didn’t know him except through reputation, and was determined not to let him destroy her record or a perfectly good night’s sleep. Equipped with her Trainee issue .308 bolt-action rifle, she performed security as diligently as always. Josh was digging, but she caught him occasionally glancing at her, so she maintained a perfectly safe distance from the troublemaker. After half-an-hour of intense work, Josh pointed his spade upwards with a commanding air and said in a grunting, wheezy voice, “Well I’ll tell you, Trainee!”
Startled, she couldn’t help but look at his performance.
He turned, winked, flashed a wry smile, and continued the performance, wiggling the spade over his head. “During the last drought, we sleep on the bare dirt and ate rocks, rocks I tell ya’! We would kill Savages and escort other Savages and take down raiding Savages in their armored cars and horses with nothin’ but slingshots and the rocks in our stomachs!” Josh lowered his arm with an exaggerated sharpness. He put his hands on his hips and leaned forward into an imaginary Trainee. “That’s why we Guardian Trainers produce so much spittle when we get in your faces, Trainee. We use it digesting rocks!” He again turned to Esther, casting a silly grin and said, “Es, I think I would be a pretty good Guardian, don’t you?”
Esther remembered that silly, smug grin and laughed out loud. A group of thirteen-year-old male Trainees passed by, giving her a quizzical glance. She replied by smiling. They shyly waved back and sheepishly continued on their way. She leaned back a bit, balancing on the rail and squinting into the dying red rays of the setting sun.
Only a couple of weeks later, she drew Tuber Duty with Josh again. She once again stood security again and kept a diligent watch. This time, Joshua was very quiet, and he worked quickly and carefully.
“Esther?” he asked.
“You seem like you have something to say.”
“Yes, work faster.”
“We’re in a sensor dead zone, ten meters wide. Carla can’t hear us, and no one’s around. Besides, I’m already done.”
“Let’s move out, then.”
“Belay that. We have some time,” he said while casually stretching his shoulders. “You seem tense. Is there something you wanted to talk about?”
Joshua simply nodded. He sealed his sack and sat down on a fallen tree, crossing his legs. “I actually find being out here kind of relaxing. You can talk about anything to the trees, and the Trainers ain’t here breathing down your neck.”
She paused before replying. “Yeah, it’s quiet out here. Being out here is nice.”
“When you’re ready to get it off your chest, I can rig the Tuber Draw again.”
“What?” She studied his beatific expression. She or Marie could pull it off, but she didn’t think he was remotely capable of such a thing. She slung her rifle and sat down cross-legged next to him.
“Is that why Pa moved you to a caretaker squad?” Esther asked. The caretaker squads—one male, and one female—assisted and escorted younger Trainees during high-alert periods. It was typically a duty for high-performing Trainees.
“He said he did it because I ‘wasn’t engaged.’” he replied with a dismissive shake of the head. “Whatever that means.”
“Rigging a draw is a pretty engaged thing to do,” she said making a quick check for threats.
“Nothing out here but us,” he said. “We’re good.”
“So how easy was it?”
He picked up a twig, and started breaking it a couple of centimeters at a time. “I figured that the draw for a training exercise would make no sense if they really ran a random pick and it wasn’t important enough to put behind very high security, so I looked for an encrypted table on Ma and Pa’s personal storage, and there it was.”
“Oh, so it was just like that,” she replied, increasingly intrigued with someone who wasn’t at all what she figured.”
“Yeah, it was about like that,” he said with a bashful smile.
“I wish I could be bold enough to risk something like that.”
“I’m sure you could, and who’s stopping you? Hey, look at that!” he said gesturing toward a small red bird with black plumage. “You don’t see crossbills around here much.”
She looked up, confirming the unusual sight. “Yeah, but he can go wherever he wants, so he decided to come here today.”
“I’m going to do that one day.”
“How? You’re not going to get very far just rigging tuber draws.”
He leaned forward, looking her in the eyes as if he caught something, and a knowing smile walked across his face. “I’ve been working on that. I can get about three quarters of the way there, but you just gave me an idea. I know you’re busy and all, but I thought of asking if you want to go in on the other twenty-five percent.”
“You mean, escape? Why would I do that, Trainee?”
“Because you want to. That’s why you’re here . . .”
“. . . What? Are you kidding me?”
Josh’s green eyes locked into hers with an undemanding expression. “Well, how do you feel about this place?”
Esther gasped but didn’t reply. She relaxed her shoulders, and slowly closed her eyes, enjoying the sun’s last measure of warmth. For a moment she completely tuned out.
“Es!” a young female’s voice called out.
She snapped back to the present moment, but she didn’t need to open her eyes to know that it was Marie yelling from across the road. She also sensed another person attempting to sneak up on her. Judging by her similar perfumed scent, it was Consuela. Great. Esther thought, with another strange tinge of guilt. She looked up, turned, half-smiled, and called out, “Hey y’all!” with affected enthusiasm. All the same, she felt thoroughly disappointed. Alone time was over.
Marie stopped in front of her while Consuela vaulted onto the rail, crossing her arms and tapping her foot with a playful impatience. Esther thought Consuela the most striking visual example of genetic manipulation ever devised. She was short, but slim, and she had a round, chubby face with wide, round eyes all topped with long, curly and shockingly blue hair. Her skin was ghostly pale, like an albino. Her eyes—depending on amount of ambient light—alternated between albino red and ghostly silver. Esther had seen all kinds of hair colors and eye colors in the Settlement, but Consuela was in a class by herself. Esther used to gaze at her bunkmate with amazement and curiosity.
Births were strictly controlled in the Settlement. Birth providers were selected from elite Traders or Guardians on a variety of criteria and were allowed to modify their in vitro children with a wide range of genetic modifications, often optimized for survival advantages with a custom touch here and there. Consuela’s birth providers indeed gave her one survival advantage: a certainty of avoiding any and all Guardian selection simply for standing out too much. Consuela played-up her unusual looks by sporting multi-colored, home-made ribbons in her hair, even when in the field, which Esther liked the look of and quickly copied; this sparked a trend among most of the female Trainees and a few of the male ones, as well.
Esther figured that Marie’s birth providers chose to play it right down-the-middle: medium build, very light-brown skin, average height—and aside from her chest—sporting the typically lean and muscular build of a Survivalist female. She wore her over-washed black hair cropped to her shoulders; her intense hazel eyes were often hidden by a and old terminal visor that she only took off to sleep. She quickly resumed her silence, staring at the ground while chewing on one of her fingernails.
Consuela spoke first: “Are you waiting for Josh?” she said, eyes affixed in giddy curiosity. She then vaulted to a handstand on the railing. “So are you going to finally spend this Sunday with him?” Consuela asked, without waiting for a follow-up. Interrogation? Esther thought. Then, shouldn’t it be Marie asking the questions?
Esther continued, “I can neither confirm nor deny,” she said, acting as comically aloof as possible. “I take it that you just got out of evening drill,” she said, attempting to side-step the question and reclaim initiative. If Consuela knew, or even suspected something was up, every Trainee in the Settlement would soon know and suspect the same.
Marie was now face-to-face with Esther, pointing at her blushing cheek. “You need to be careful. Some people think you’ve been rigging the selection for the tuber jobs,” she said, with an air of authority.
Consuela vaulted off the railing, planting herself right in front of Esther. “Of course that’s nonsense, but you know how the rumors spread,” she said giggling with a devilish grin.
Esther shrugged, choosing not to take the bait. “I thought rumors spread through you, Consuela.” Esther maintained her beatific calm. She really wanted to laugh at their bad attempts at interrogation. “No, I was asked secretly by Ma to change pairs, and that’s all. Let’s just keep this between you and us before we really do have to answer uncomfortable questions.”
Marie removed her well-chewed fingernail from Esther’s face and balled it up in front of her mouth. “Have you heard anything? There’s been a lot of weird stuff happening today,” she said, furrowing her brow. “First, there was this change in alert level. I can usually crack the lower security level stuff, but the firewall’s so tight I’m not going to risk it now.”
Esther, happy that she managed to change the topic of conversation, asked, “So you don’t want to ride the truck again, huh?”
“No!” Marie said with a twisted face, stomping her foot. “It’s dirty and awful and you have to stay awake all night with those smelly drunks chasing down varmints and noises. It’s dirty!”
“Dirty girl!” Consuela called out, doubling over in laughter.
“You eat dirt,” Marie muttered back before gnawing on her thumb.
“It’s alright, Marie,” Esther said in her most soothing voice. “If you want to score some extra points, I’ll help you tonight. We’re here for each other, right?” Marie, focusing intermittently on the ground, nodded.
Consuela cocked an eyebrow. “So, squad leader” she asked with a smirk, “When are you going to ask him?”
“Ask who? What?” Esther replied with feigned innocence.