Ma Sue was an imposing, broad-shouldered, pale-skinned female. She stood at least 200 centimeters tall—taller than most Trainees, male or female. Her frame balanced that height with a muscular yet statuesque figure that seemingly every other female Trainee secretly desired. Her yellow hair was unusually long for a Guardian, and she kept it high and tight with a dazzling array of loops and braids.
Esther noticed that Ma had swapped her usual PT t-shirt and sweats for dark green and black camouflaged fatigues. She was leaning back in her chair, idly cleaning her fingers while intently reading a tablet placed flat on her desk. She also noticed that the bunk behind her desk was not yet made. A small pot of coffee on the desk was still warm. Her silver back up .500 caliber revolver pistol and sleek black ASR rifle were visible in the open weapons locker, and they both smelled of propellant gel. Ma must have just run back from proficiency training. Esther glanced over at the tablet, but all she could make out was, “Condition 3: Approaching Unidentified” on the display.
Ma glanced up and discretely moved the tablet out of view. She then folded her hands firmly on her desk; casting a Guardian-issued scowl accentuated with piercing blue eyes.
“Your report, girlie,” she said, sternly.
“Heavy trucks, at least twenty moving northwest toward our position at between ten to fifteen kilometers an hour. At this point, they’re approximately forty kilometers, I mean klicks from our outer perimeter.” Esther resisted the urge to sweep a dangling, sweaty hair from her brow. “We didn’t hear any lifters or airplanes though. They’re likely refugees passing through.” She made a tight-lipped smile while breathing deeply to cool herself, and braced for a dressing down for the unnecessary interjection.
Instead, Ma sighed then shrugged. “I suppose you’re right, but we can’t be too cautious nowadays.” She relaxed her jaw and took a deep breath before gritting her teeth again. “Now concentrate again: 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. Give that to the supply people right away.”
Esther breathed a small sigh of relief, and she was confident that for the first time in a good while that 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 waved 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.
But she knew that couldn’t have possibly been the case, because she vaguely remembered the day around her fifth year, when she became a Trainee. The only thing she kept after that day were fuzzy excuses for memories: her given name—Esther, and a stranger’s face she now knew all too well. As hard as she tried she couldn’t remember anything else, neither her mother’s smell nor her touch. But without a doubt, she knew her face.
Feeling oddly dejected, she walked around the back of her assigned hooch. She opened the hinged metal case attached to the back wall and carefully ejected, unloaded and stored her pistol and ammunition magazines. She ran inside, then grabbed the clean sweat suit and underwear 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 and uncomfortable questions. Joshua mentioned that he also liked going to the showers alone, and 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 Joshua? Or is it that we just have the same goals? she pondered while soaking her aching muscles in the hot tub. She suddenly felt an urge to jump out. She put a quick end to her rehabilitation, threw on more of the perfume Joshua liked and slipped into her underwear. This time looking in the bath mirror intently she tied ribbons in her hair, liking the effect. They make me look like myself, she thought. She finally threw on the sweats and training shoes, dropped-off her work clothes at the hooch and quickly walked to the male Trainee hooches.