Thanks to Boy Howdy for editing, Ricky, Cynus and Cynus's Roommate for beta reading and feedback.
I lay awake sometimes, on my pallet, and wondered if it was real or simply a half-remembered dream. I could see a room with peeling, patterned paper on the walls. There was smoke, both from the candles and from cigarettes. The candles were white with green lines on them, lines that ran around the edges of the numbers. Ten is what they were shaped like. There was a small group of wrapped packages and some faces, children's faces, that I couldn't recognize. Names came to me, floating in memory or unmoored from their dock somewhere in my dream-filled subconscious – Jack, Stella, Robin and Devon. The names and the faces meant nothing...and something.
I shook my head and focused on the here and now. Creeping out from behind the building, the infrared sensors on my helmet showed no threats. I scanned the ground in front of me; long and unkempt weeds grew up tall and I took in the scattering of cars in the parking lot. My gloves trailed along the crumbling brick and mortar and I moved forward with caution, sandwiching myself between the side of the building and a truck body and looked out at the parking lot. It was still.
The cars in the lot had a fine coating of water, a remnant of the drizzle that had fallen previously that evening. I crept around the outside of the old truck body, a cube shaped metal box that likely had shelving inside. I moved slowly until I found the door way – the door itself was gone. Entering I heard the sound of dry, dead grass that had blown into the rusted shell crunch under my boots. I shielded a palm light and took a brief look around. There were shelves, filled with mechanical parts of some kind. From the amount of grime, my guess was they had been in storage for quite some time.
I worked my way to the back of the truck body and examined the walls. The shelves were made of wood and there appeared to be a thin wooden layer between the shelves and the outer metal shell. I worked quietly to move heavy pieces of metal that I didn't recognize until I had cleared my way to the back of the storage space. Prying up the bottom shelf revealed a deep, empty space, save for cobwebs, and I decided this would have to do.
After one last look around I shut my helmets sensors off and detached it from the collar at my neck. Tapping my breast pocket to be sure the small storage drive was safely sealed inside, I began to strip, packing away my gear in the darkness under the shelf. Then I began replacing all the old parts, my hands quickly becoming greasy as I handled the heavy chucks of metal. As I worked I kept in mind the plan as it had been agreed upon – now that we were free, we had to disappear.
Since my clothes – even my underclothes – would have markings that could give me away if they were seen by the wrong set of eyes or if investigated by a well meaning law officer, it all had to stay hidden here. I couldn't destroy them, the material was retardant and had many parts that were metal. No, hiding would have to do.
I stepped out into the late evening, my body letting me know how tired it was from constant movement for days. My sleep had come only when my body was near collapse, and then just a few hours. I stepped onto the asphalt parking lot and my bare feet complained about the rocks and other sharp, unseen objects that dug into them. I quickly made for the tall, soft grass and climbed the incline to reach the road. Looking behind me I could see the lights and buildings of a moderately large city. Considering my lack of clothing, I would be conspicuous in a large or small town. But could I lose myself easily in a city? Or could I be found easier in a city? Could I be safer in a smaller town, where they may not be as sophisticated or technically savvy?
I debated briefly, then turned and began walking along the grassy edge of the road away from the city. I listened for cars and ducked into the trees and weeds that grew on the side of the road to keep from discovery. If I were lucky, I could find some clothing to protect me from suspicion and small bugs. I suspected that ticks and fleas would be easy to come by in my hiding places.
I came to a wide space in the road. Train tracks were embedded in the asphalt and the trees and accompanying undergrowth had been cleared back extensively. I noted a sign for a state park and decided, tired as I was, perhaps I should seek shelter in the woods. Once I'd gotten some rest I could think more clearly. It seemed as though my thoughts were becoming fuzzier by the moment and I forced my feet to walk through the scrubby grass. I stepped gingerly, for the ground was also littered with sharp stones. The drizzle had started again, and I was perhaps fifty feet from the tree line when a spotlight fell on me.
I turned, confusion ruling my mind. I hadn't heard the car – was it the corporation? I felt a sudden blinding pain from my foot, I cried out and tumbled to the ground. I pulled my foot to me, broken glass was embedded and my blood flowed. The pain was subsiding quickly and I pulled the glass free. I had the thought to limp to the treeline, but the car was there. The light was on me, and then – to my relief – lights began to flash on the roof. Not the Corporation, then, just police.
My fatigue washed back in as my adrenaline at the thought of being found faded. I couldn't kill the policeman, not in my state. I would have to try and fit in. I could hear the door opening and an additional light joined the mix – one from his flashlight.
“Now what might you be doing out here? I was just going to wash my car, but now I got a naked boy out in the rain. Come on, son, let's get you up and out of the cold.” The policeman extended his hand and I took it, allowing him to pull me to my feet. I favored the one recently cut, something he noted. He wrapped a scratchy woolen blanket around my shoulders and escorted me to the backseat of his car. Once he'd retaken his seat he picked up his radio.
“Control this is zero-six. Have found a male, appears to be a teenager, no clothes or ID. Am transporting to Doc Luddington's. Please contact Myrtle Snow.”
“Zero-six,control. Heading to doc's, contacting Ms. Snow, confirmed.”
He put the radio back in its holder and twisted to look at me. “I saw a little blood on your foot while you was sitting. I'm going to run you to the Doc, make sure you're okay. Mind giving me a name?”
“My name?” I asked.
“That would be more useful than mine,” the policeman muttered.
“Harlequin Greene.” I replied. My eyelids felt heavy and the warmth of the car was causing my body to grow comfortable.
“That's an unusual name,” he commented. “Where do you live, Harley?”
“Wherever I am, I live,” I replied.
“I see you don't plan to be forthcomin'. Fine, we'll let the Doc do his thing.” He turned and put the car in gear, and I drifted into sleep, laying on the back seat.
The radio in my helmet clicked once, letting me know I was to begin. My display filled my senses with data about my surroundings and I ran my fingertips over the holster where my weapon should be. For longer than we knew, this place had been where we lived and died. It was not a home. We didn't know how long we had been here, those of us that were left. What we did know was we didn't want to live here anymore.
We'd endured the needles and the 'enhancements'. We'd borne the pain of training, broken bones and sometimes we'd lost someone we knew. They would be taken from training or go for an improvement and never come back. We knew not to ask, we'd been punished before. Learning from the mistakes of others was one of the first rules. This event was the culmination of our training, everything the Corporation had put into us. It was ironic that one of our doctors, one who had patched us up more than once, had warned us.
As I moved from the barracks doorway and headed down the passageway towards the small arms locker, I thought back to Doc Warner and what he'd said. We wore badges to identify us and it was stenciled on our clothing as did the standard medical staff, but the support staff, managers and the voice in the box – they were nameless.
Anyway, he'd leaned in while cutting a bandage from my arm and addressed me directly, which was out of the ordinary unless they were diagnosing us.
“Harlequin? Listen to me, carefully,” he said, keeping his voice down and his body hiding that his mouth was moving. “Do not nod your head or look at me, give no indication that I am speaking. Wipe your right eye with your fingers if you understand.”
I swiped my fingers over my eye and kept my gaze on the far wall.
“Something horrible is coming. You and your squad are in great danger,” he said, keeping his voice pitched so this conversation went no farther than my ears. “The Corporation has decided to liquidate you.”
I’d only been released from the infirmary a few hours earlier. I’d been afflicted by a strange ailment but waited to inform the doctors until my throat became scratchy and the cold sweats began. I’d held out as long as I could but as the condition grew worse and my body became weaker I knew I didn’t have a choice. We only made trips to the infirmary for treatments, to be patched up when there was a mishap in training or when our punishments resulted in the need for medical care. Some went to the infirmary and never returned. Illness was a weakness and while it had never been voiced by the Managers, we knew weakness wouldn’t be tolerated.
“Sage Green, remove your uniform and underclothes,” the doctor ordered.
“Yes sir,” I replied automatically. There really was no other answer. Failure to obey an officer of The Corporation would result in correction. Correction would result in pain.
I stripped as ordered and folded my clothing, placing it on the counter. I stood before the doctor and the last vestiges of modesty I retained forced me to cover my genitals with my hands. The doctor, this one was known to us as “Hopkins,” the name embroidered above his breast pocket, rolled his eyes in annoyance and slapped my hands away.
“Stand at attention, keep your arms at your sides,” Hopkins ordered.
He took my blood pressure and temperature then took my chin in his hand and moved my head roughly to the left. I felt some instrument in my ear then he turned me to face him and ordered me to open my mouth. He looked down my throat, held a light up to my eyes then squeezed my testicles and ordered me to cough. With those tasks completed I was ordered to sit and a tourniquet was applied to my upper right arm.
“Don’t squirm,” said Hopkins as he tapped the pit of my elbow then jabbed me with a needle so he could draw blood. The doctors on staff knew each of us intimately. Despite the number of treatments I’ve endured, Hopkins knew I was still afraid of needles.
With the blood drawn, Hopkins gave me an injection of some unknown medication and told me I could dress. Once I had my uniform back on and arranged properly he ordered me to come back the next day. He followed me out of the examination room and handed my blood samples to a nurse.
“Everything alright doctor?” she’d asked.
“Some of the younger ones are still susceptible to the common cold,” he’d grunted and made a notation on my chart as I left the infirmary.
All I wanted to do was return to my pallet and rest but that was not to be. As I returned to the squad bay Brunswick brushed past me and whispered in hushed tones, “Lima 1900.” My blood went cold and I quickly turned to meet Brunswick’s eyes. His eyes caught mine and he nodded his head, it was too dangerous to say more.
“Come on. Now, pull that blanket a little bit, I don't want to see your bits and pieces dangling all about,” the patrolman said. I sat up and shifted my body out of the car, wrapping the blanket tight in response to the request for modesty.
The door was closed behind me with a thunk and the patrolman took me by the elbow to guide me to the side of a clinic. The building seemed to be multi-purpose – although closer examination gave rise to the idea that it hadn't always been so. No, it looked like there had been just a residence at one time, and then someone had grafted a building with no style or grace to it's side – like an architectural tumor.
We moved up a ramp, me hobbled by my damaged foot, and my guide rapped on the door. It opened, held in place by an older man who was dressed in a button-up shirt, slacks and dress shoes. His collar was open, revealing the white undershirt.
“What do we have here, Malcolm?” the older man asked.
“Young man says his name is Harley Greene, Doc. He's got a nasty cut on his foot, no clothes and he doesn't give an address.”
“All right. Well, Mister Greene, let's get you in and start with a look at that foot,” the Doc said. He moved beside me, slower than the patrolman, in deference to my injury. Once inside his exam room he helped me up onto the exam table – something I would not have needed had I not been so depleted. He stepped from the room and I glanced about the small space.
There was nothing I didn't recognize, but I knew right away that this was not as advanced as the place where I'd been 'treated' before. I relaxed a bit at that thought – I felt that I was not in immediate danger and was relieved. I wasn't at all sure how much resistance I could put up at the moment. Paranoia that the Corporation had found me was made worse by my fatigue.
Doc entered the room with a towel draped over his arm and a mug. “How about something warm in your system and a towel to dry you with, eh?”
I accepted the cup from him and sniffed. Not coffee. It was brown, with small white items floating in the foam on top. I took an experimental sip. Hot, but not too hot to drink. Sweet, with body.
“What is this?” I asked.
“You don't recognize hot chocolate?” Doc asked as he draped the towel on my head and began to gently dry my hair.
“I've never had it,” I replied. I waited for him to finish with my short hair before taking another sip. “It's wonderful.”
“I find it's very comforting when one is cold,” Doc said with a smile. “We're going to have to get a look at you. Let's start with your foot, Mal said that was injured?”
“I stepped on glass,” I confirmed. I held my legs up as he slid out a hidden support in the table. I adjusted, being careful not to spill. Doc sat on a stool and rolled over to inspect my foot. I sipped my drink, enjoying the taste and the spreading warmth. Doc was touching my foot, moving carefully. He was far more delicate than I was used to.
“Well, it's deep enough to need a few stitches but I don't think you cut anything vital. I'm going to clean it out, numb it up a bit and after we close it I'll bandage it up. You need to stay off it several days, though. You hear?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“A respectful young man? My, my, aren't you the enigma?” he asked with a smile. “Now, this is going to sting, I wont' lie.”
He snapped on exam gloves and then went to work applying a disinfectant to my foot. He was right, it did sting, but I'd experienced it so many times I didn't flinch. Once done he numbed the area and stitched it closed. He bandaged the foot and sealed it, then began a basic physical: checking eyes, ears and throat. Deep breaths as he listened to my lungs, a cough as he held my scrotum. He asked me to bend over and spread my cheeks, which I did. His finger pushed outside, but never entered.
“Well,” he said as he rolled back on his stool. “Slip that blanket back on. You look pretty healthy, Harley. I was worried when you came in you might have been raped, since you don't have any clothes. I see no tearing or other evidence. It does leave me to wonder why you were wandering naked in the rain and won't give Malcolm an address.”
He was looking at me with a look I didn't recognize. It seemed to have a component of concern, but I have no idea what else. Unsure how to respond, I held my silence. The warmth of the hot chocolate along with my fatigue was leaving me woozy.
“Well, Ms. Snow should be here. She'll get you situated, temporarily. Now you mind that foot, you hear? I'll get you a stick to walk with, I think I have a few leftover.”
“That a boy.” Then he was gone. Minutes passed, I don't know how many – I may have dozed – and a knock came at the door and a woman entered with the doc.
“Hello, Harley. My name is Myrtle Snow. I'm from the county department of children and families.” She took a seat on the stool and set down a large bag before looking up at me through large, round glasses. Her hair was dark, streaked with gray, and her smile was warm. Doc had some clothes in his hands.
“These won't fit you exactly, Harley, but they'll cover you for now.” He placed the items on the small side counter and excused himself. I stood and reached for the pants and Myrtle squeaked, averting her gaze.
“I'm out of line,” I said, covering my body with the blanket and sitting back down.
“No, no,” she said, slowly turning back towards me. “I should have listened more closely. He did say you needed clothes. I'll just step out and let you dress.”
She exited the room and I dropped the blanket and examined the clothes. Jeans, sweatshirt, socks and an old pair of running shoes. Everything was loose on me and I rolled up the sleeves and the pant legs. I snugged the shoes as much as I could in case I needed to run – I couldn't afford to trip on them. Not that I had the energy to flee, and there was the matter of the injured foot. A small knock at the door and then it opened a crack.
“Is it all right to come in?” Myrtle asked.
“So polite,” she said. She had shed her coat and there was a beautiful brooch on her sweater. It glittered in the overhead light and I was transfixed.
There had been precious few things of beauty. Sometimes it was just a color, a hue I hadn't seen and I would marvel over it. Sage. Weapon 386 was my favorite, there was a triple dent in the barrel that gave it character. Kelly Greene had been beautiful, before he'd died.
We had only been there a few cycles – we quickly lost track of what little time we knew. He was slight, delicate even. He wouldn't stop crying and, even then, he was beautiful. He'd been ordered to stop. He didn't. Couldn't. Wouldn't. They stopped him, forever.
Thank goodness Sage learned faster.
“That's beautiful,” I said, pointing to her sparkling bauble.
“Oh, you think so? Would you like to see it?”
“Yes, please, Ma'am,” I replied. She unbuttoned it and handed it to me. It was a bug, of some kind, with glittering glass or jewels – likely glass – all over it. One color on the legs, another for the body, head and eyes. I stared, enthralled and then handed it back.
“You can keep it, if you like,” she said. “It wasn't expensive.”
“No, ma'am. Thank you,” I replied as I held it out to her. “Something beautiful can't be owned for long. It's usually only beautiful for a little while.”
“What a sad thing to say,” she remarked as she placed the pin back on her sweater. “Now, Malcolm says that Harley isn't your full name?”
“And what is your full name?”
“Harlequin Greene, ma'am.”
“What an interesting name. Can you tell me where you live or where your parents are, Harlequin?”
"Wherever I am, I live."
“My, such a poetic young man. What about your parents? Any family?”
I was ten. There was a birthday party. “No, ma'am.”
“I see. Someone with your mind, I'm sure someone must be looking for you,” she said absently.
The Corporation. “Yes, ma'am.”
“Someone has fed and clothed you. Doctor Ludington mentioned some scars, a number of them. Can you tell me about them?”
Not without making problems. Enhancements. Training. Survival. “No, ma'am.”
“How about your age? Will you share that with me?”
“I don't know,” I reply honestly. I turned ten, once. I don't know when that was.
“Doc says you appear to be in your middle teens. Well, you seem dead on your feet. Let's get you to a place to stay for tonight, shall we?”
I followed her, using the weathered cane the Doc had left for me. I followed her to her car, a small model, and nearly fell asleep in the few miles it took to reach the home. Lights were on inside and there was a large woman with a fake smile who would do intake paperwork with Ms. Snow. The entryway had a room to the left, filled with boys – perhaps six. Ahead was a large table, possibly a dining area and stairs on the right. A man, heavyset with a mustache and tattoo on his forearm, escorted me upstairs to an empty bed. There was another bed in the room, but I barely took the time to study my surroundings before I was asleep.