The Twelve #2
Author:none
    ← Go Back To The Twelve #1

    36

    Everywhere people were whispering: there had been another bombing in the market.
    The November morning broke gray and cold, tasting of the winter to come. Sara awoke to the blare of the horn, followed by a chorus of coughing, throats clearing, bones cracking ambivalently to life. Her eyes and mouth were as dry as paper. The room smelled of unwashed skin and stale breath and delousing powder, a biological vapor of human decay, though Sara barely noticed. Some of the smell, she knew, was herself.
    Another pitiless sunrise, she thought. Another morning as a citizen of the Homeland.
    She had learned not to linger on her bunk. One minute late to the ration line and you could find yourself dragging through the day without a scrap in your stomach. A bowl of corn mush trumped a few slender minutes of tormented half sleep every time. With her stomach growling, she unwrapped her threadbare blanket and swung her weight around, ducking her head, to plant her sneakered feet on the floorboards. She always slept wearing her sneakers, such as they were—a ragged pair of Reeboks inherited from a bunkmate who had died—because footwear was always being stolen. Who took my shoes! a voice would cry out, and the victim would go charging through the lodge, begging and accusing and eventually crumpling to the floor in hopeless tears. I’ll die without them! Somebody help me, please! It was true: a person would die without shoes. Though she worked at the biodiesel plant, word had gotten out in the flatland that Sara was a nurse. She had seen the blackened nuts of frozen toes, the scabs of worms burrowed in; she’d pressed her ear to the sunken chests and listened to the pneumonic rattles of lungs slowly drowning; she’d felt beneath her fingertips the drum-taut bellies of septic appendicitis, or malignancy, or simple starvation; she’d palmed the foreheads blazing with fever and dressed the weeping wounds that would devour the body with rot. And to each person, Sara said, with the taste of a lie in her teeth: You’ll be fine. Not to worry. In another few days you’ll be right as rain, I promise. It wasn’t medical care she was giving; it was a sort of blessing. You will die, and it will hurt, but you will do it here, among your own kind, and the last touch you feel will be one of kindness, because it will be mine.
    Because you didn’t want the cols to know you were sick, let alone the redeyes. Nothing was ever said aloud, but people in the flatland had few illusions what the hospital was actually for. Man or woman, old or young, it didn’t matter; you passed through those doors and nobody saw you again. Off to the feedlot you went.
    The lodges varied in size; Sara’s was one of the largest. The bunks were stacked four high, twenty bunk lengths in each row, ten rows: eight hundred souls crammed into a room the approximate dimensions of a feed shed. People were rising, jamming their children’s heads into hats, murmuring to themselves, their limbs moving with the heavy docility of livestock as they shambled to the door. Quickly scanning the area to make sure she wouldn’t be observed, Sara knelt by her bunk, lifting the mattress with one hand while sliding the other beneath it. She removed the piece of carefully folded paper from its hiding place and secreted it in the pocket of her tunic. Then she drew herself upright.
    “Jackie,” Sara said quietly, “wake up.”
    The old woman was curled in a fetal position with the blanket drawn to her chin. Her rheumy eyes stared dully at the wash of gray descending from the high windows of the lodge. Sara had listened to her coughing all night.
    “The light,” Jackie said. “It looks like winter.”
    Sara felt her forehead. No trace of fever; if anything, the woman felt cold. It was hard to say how old Jackie was. She’d been born in the flats, but her parents had come from somewhere else. Jackie wasn’t one to speak of the past, but Sara knew she had outlived three children and a husband, the last sent to the feedlot for the crime of coming to the aid of a friend who was being sticked by a col.
    The room was rapidly emptying out. “Jackie, please.” Sara shook her by the shoulder. “I know you’re tired, but we’ve really got to go.”
    The woman’s eyes drew Sara into focus. She trembled with a dry cough.
    “I’m sorry, hon,” she said, when the spasm had passed. “I don’t mean to be uncooperative.”
    “I just don’t want to miss breakfast. You need to eat.”
    “There you go, looking out for me like you always do. Help an old lady down, will you?”
    Sara gave Jackie a shoulder for balance and eased her to the floor. Her body was practically weightless, a form of sticks and air. Another cough hacked through her chest, a sound like pebbles being shaken in a sack. She slowly drew herself erect.
    “There now.” Jackie took a moment to swallow. Her face was flushed; beads of dampness had risen on her forehead. “All better.”
    Sara pulled the blanket off her bunk and draped it over the woman’s shoulders. “It’s going to be a cold one. Stay by me, okay?”
    Her lips stretched into a toothless smile. “Where else would I go, hon?”
    Sara retained only fleeting images of her capture. A sense of certain death, everything over and done, and then a huge force, merciless in its energy, seizing her bodily. A glimpse of the ground dropping away as the viral hurled her into the air—why hadn’t it just killed her?—and then another massive jolt as she was snatched once more, plucked from the air by the second viral, and then the third, and so on, each aerial vault catapulting her farther away from the walls and lights of the garrison and into the enveloping blackness, her person passed from airborne hand to airborne hand like a ball in a children’s game, all of it beyond the boundaries of her comprehension, and then the final brain-battering impact as she was slammed into the truck. The awful coming to consciousness, like climbing a ladder from hell into hell. Days without water, without food. The endless bone-banging hours and whispered, unanswerable questions. Where were they going? What was happening to them? Nearly all the captives were women, part of the civilian corps stationed at Roswell, though a handful of soldiers were among them. The cries of the injured and frightened. The smothering darkness.
    Sara’s mind had not returned to full awareness until their arrival. It was as if time had stretched for the duration of their journey only to snap back into shape when the door opened onto a disorienting splash of daylight. Revealing … what? Half of the truck’s human cargo had perished—a few dead at the outset and filling the compartment with a stink of gray decay, others from injuries sustained in their capture, the rest from some combination of hunger and thirst and suffocating hopelessness. Sara was lying on the floor, as they all were, both the living and the dead, inertly limbed and thick-tongued, her back propped against the wall, her eyes clenched against the unaccustomed brightness. An inversion of her physical proportions seemed to have occurred, such that most of her mass had lodged in her head. Over her lifetime, she had seen a lot of people die; lying among them was a first. The boundary separating her from them seemed a membrane as permeable as gauze. Through stinging slits, she watched as a half dozen expressionless men in ragged khaki and heavy, floor-banging boots boarded the compartment and commenced a perfunctory toting away of the deceased. She gathered that the unstructured weight of a dead body was something these men were accustomed to, its purposeless association of parts warranting no more consideration than any other awkward object a person might be forced to carry. Body after body, unceremoniously hauled away. When they came for her, Sara lifted a hand in protest; she might have said something like “Please” or “Wait” or “You can’t do this.” But these meager efforts were instantly silenced by a hot slap across her cheek, followed, for good measure, by the thrust of a boot that would have caught her midsection had Sara not protectively folded around herself.
    “Shut. The fuck. Up.”
    She did. She shut the fuck up. The man who had struck her was a col Sara would come to know as Sod. Among the citizens of the flatland, all the cols had nicknames. Sod was Sod because he liked raping people. A lot of them did, it was like a game to them, but Sod distinguished himself by the breadth of his appetites. Women, men, children, livestock. Sod would have raped the wind if it had a hole in it.
    Sara’s turn in the shed would come: brief, brutal, over. In the near term, the pain of his blows had the counterintuitive effect of restoring her senses. Strategies began to form; priorities stepped into line. On balance, staying alive seemed desirable, and the shutting-the-fuck-up seemed the best way to accomplish this. Be quiet, she told herself. Blend in. See what you can see without seeming to. If they want to kill you, they’ll do it anyway.
    Don’t mention the baby.
    The clubs came out, poking and prodding as they were marched into the sunshine. They were someplace green. Its lushness mocked her, the cruelest of jokes. The truck had parked in a kind of holding area, a wired compound of stubby concrete buildings with glinting metal roofs; adjacent to this, at a distance of several hundred yards, was a massive, tiered structure, unlike anything Sara had ever seen. It looked like an enormous bathtub. Tall banks of lights lifted from its curving walls, ascending hundreds of feet into the air. While Sara watched, a gleaming silver semitruck, identical to the one they’d just disembarked, drew up to the building’s base. Men were jogging alongside, carrying rifles. They wore bulky pads; caged masks were drawn down over their faces. As the truck approached the wall, it seemed to sink into the earth—a ramp, Sara realized, taking it belowground. A gate opened, and it was gone.
    “Eyes down. No talking. Two lines, women to the left, men to the right.”
    Inside one of the huts, they were told to strip and deposit their clothes in a pile. Now they stood naked, twenty-three women in identically reflexive postures of self-protection, one arm held horizontally to shield their breasts, the other extended downward over their genitals. Three of the uniformed men looked on, rocking on their heels, alternating frank leers with laughing faces of disgust. There were gutters in the floor, drains. Slants of light descended from a series of long, barred windows at the roofline. Twenty-three naked women wordlessly staring at the floor, most of them in tears: to speak would be to violate some implied contract to go on living. Whatever was headed their way seemed to be taking its time getting there.
    Then, the hose.
    The water blasted them like a jet of ice. Water as weapon; water as battering fist. Everyone was yelling, women were tumbling, bodies were sliding on the floor. The hose’s operator enjoyed himself spectacularly, whooping like a rider on a galloping horse. He picked off one and then another. He swept them in a line. He zigzagged his pummeling probe from their faces to their breasts and farther down. The water hit you and then it stopped and then it hit you again. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; all you could do was endure.
    It stopped.
    “Everybody on your feet.”
    They were led outside again in their shivering nakedness. Water was streaming down their faces, running in rivulets from their hair. Their skin puckered with its evaporation. A single wooden chair had been placed in the middle of the compound. One of the guards stood beside it, languidly sharpening a razor on a leather strop. Four more approached, each bearing a large plastic tub.
    “Get dressed.”
    Clothing was tossed their way—loose pants with drawstring waists, long-sleeved tunics that hung to the hips, all made of scratchy wool with a harsh chemical smell—followed by a random assortment of shoes: sneakers, plastic sandals, boots with the soles split away. Sara found her feet swimming in a pair of leather lace-ups.
    “You, step forward.”
    The man with the razor was pointing at Sara. The other women parted around her. There was something disloyal about this, though Sara hardly blamed them; she might have done the same. Doom weighing in her chest, she approached the chair and sat. She was facing the other women now. Whatever was about to happen, Sara would see it first in their eyes. The man swept her hair into his fist and yanked it taught. A single slice and it was gone. He began to chop indiscriminately at the remains, hewing close to her scalp. There was no pattern to his efforts; he might just as well have been slashing his way through a forest. Sara’s hair fell to her feet in golden ribbons.
    “Go stand with the others.”
    She returned to the group. When she touched her head, her fingers came away tacky with blood. She studied its texture with her fingertips. This is my blood, Sara thought. Because it is my blood, it means that I’m alive. The second woman was in the chair now. Sara thought her name was Caroline. She had met her briefly in the infirmary at the Roswell Garrison; like Sara, she was a nurse. A tall, impressively big-boned girl who radiated health, good cheer, competence. She wept into her hands as the barber hacked away.
    One by one they were shorn. So much came down to hair, Sara realized. In their disfigured semibaldness, something private had been stolen, melding them into an indistinguishable collective, like animals in a herd. She was so light-headed with hunger she didn’t see how she could continue standing. None of them had had a scrap to eat—no doubt to keep them compliant, so that when food was offered they would feel some gratitude to their captors.
    When the cutting was done, they were told to march across the holding area to a second concrete building for something called “processing.” They were marshaled into a line before a long table, where one of the guards, radiating the sense of being in charge, sat with a look of irritation on his face. As each was called forward, he reloaded a clipboard.
    “Name?”
    “Sara Fisher.”
    “Age?”
    “Twenty-one.”
    He eyed her up and down. “Can you read?”
    “I can read. Yes.”
    “Special skills?”
    She hesitated. “I can ride.”
    “Ride?”
    “Horses.”
    His eyes rolled a little. “Anything useful?”
    “I don’t know.” She tried to think of something safe. “Sew?”
    He yawned. His teeth were so bad, they appeared to wiggle in his mouth. He jotted something onto the clipboard and tore off the bottom half of the page. From a bin beneath the table he retrieved a ratty blanket, a metal plate, a battered cup and spoon. He passed these to her, the paper balanced on top. Sara quickly glanced at it: her name, a five-digit string of numbers, “Lodge 216,” and, below that, “Biodiesel 3.” The handwriting had the blockiness of a child’s.
    “Next!”
    One of the guards took her by the arm and led her down a hallway of sealed doors. A tiny box of a room and another chair, though not like any chair Sara had seen before: a menacing contraption of cracked red leather and steel, its back reclined at a forty-five-degree angle, with straps at the chest, feet, and wrists. Lurking above it, like the legs of a spider descending on silken threads, was an armature of gleaming metal instruments. The guard shoved her toward it.
    “Sit down.”
    He strapped her to the chair and departed. From without the room, the sound muffled by the thick walls, came a burst of ominously high-pitched sound. Was it screaming? Sara thought she might be ill. She would have been, if there had been anything in her stomach to come up. The last of her defenses were collapsing. She would beg. She would plead. She had no strength to resist.
    The door opened behind her. A man stepped into her field of vision, dressed in a gray smock. He had a little round belly and clouded glasses perched at the tip of his nose and bushy eyebrows that curled like wings at the tips. Something about his face was kind, almost grandfatherly. Like the guard at the table, he was looking at a clipboard. He raised his eyes and smiled.
    “Sara, is it?”
    She nodded, tasting bile.
    “I’m Dr. Verlyn.” He glanced at the straps, frowning as he shook his head. “Those people are idiots. I bet you’re famished. Let’s see if we can get you out of here.”
    She experienced a flash of hope that he intended to release her, but as he drew a stool beside the chair, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves, she realized he meant something else. He placed his hand beneath her chin to open her jaw. He peered inside her mouth, then held up two fingers before her face.
    “Follow with your eyes, please.”
    Sara traced his fingers as they made a figure eight and pulled away. He took her pulse, then produced a stethoscope from the pocket of his smock and listened to her heart. He sat up straight and returned his attention to the clipboard, squinting through his glasses.
    “Any health problems you’re aware of? Parasites, infection, night sweats, difficulty urinating?”
    Sara shook her head.
    “How about menstruation?” He was checking off boxes. “Any problems there? Excessive bleeding, for example.”
    “No.”
    “It says here you’re …” He paused, flipped through pages. “Twenty-one. Is that correct?”
    “Yes.”
    “Ever been pregnant?”
    Something clenched inside her.
    “It’s a simple question.”
    She shook her head. “No.”
    If he detected her lie, he gave no sign. He let the clipboard fall to his lap. “Well, you appear to be in perfect health. Wonderful teeth, if you don’t mind my saying so. Nothing to be done there.”
    Was she supposed to say thank you? Above her face the spider still loomed, gleaming ominously.
    “Now then, let’s see if we can’t finish up quickly and get you on your way.”
    Suddenly something changed. Sara sensed it in a quick hardening of his features, but not just there; it was as if the air of the room had undergone some subtle alteration. The doctor began vigorously pumping a pedal beneath her chair, producing a whirring sound, then reached above her face to draw down one of the spider’s legs. At its tip, spinning in time to his foot strokes, was a buzzing drill bit.
    “This will be easier if you don’t move.”
    Some minutes later, Sara found herself standing outside, clutching her meager belongings to her chest. When she’d started to scream, the doctor had given her a leather strap to bite on. On the pale skin of the inside of her forearm, first gouged and then cauterized in place, was a shiny metal tag, engraved with the same string of digits she’d seen on the paper: 94801. That’s who you are now, the doctor had explained, removing the strap, now with its embedded impressions of her teeth. He’d stripped off his gloves and stepped to the sink to wash his hands. Whoever you thought you were, you’re not that person anymore. You’re flatlander number 94801.
    The semi was gone, replaced by an open-backed five-ton. Sara saw the words IOWA NATIONAL GUARD imprinted on the driver’s door—the first evidence of where she was. A guard motioned for Sara to board; a second guard was standing at the front of the cargo bay, his back braced against the cab, idly spinning his club on its leather strap. Some of the women were already there and a few of the men as well. Everyone was slumped on the benches, their faces carrying the stunned weight of all that had occurred.
    She took a place beside one of the men, a young officer she knew as Lieutenant Eustace. He had been the scout who had brought them into Roswell. As she lowered herself to the bench, he angled his shorn head close to Sara’s.
    “What the hell is this place?” he whispered.
    Before Sara could answer, the guard sparked to attention. “You,” he barked, gesturing at Eustace with the end of his club. “No talking.”
    “Who are you people? Why won’t you tell us anything?”
    “I said, keep quiet.”
    Sara understood what was about to happen. It was the implied climax of the day’s design, the one demonstration of their powerlessness that had yet to be delivered.
    “Yeah?” Eustace’s face lit with defiance, the last of his energy spitting from his lips. He knew what he was asking for; he didn’t care. “Go to hell, all of you.”
    The guard took a long stride forward and, with a look of absolute boredom, brought the club crashing down on Eustace’s knees. Eustace rocked forward, clenching his teeth in barely contained agony. Nobody moved a muscle; everyone was gazing intently at the floor.
    “Mother … fucker,” he gasped.
    The guard spun the club around and backhanded the heavy end into Eustace’s nose. A wet exoskeletal crunch, like the sound of an insect stamped underfoot; a crimson spray arced into the air, spattering Sara across the face. Eustace’s head snapped back, his eyes fluttering in their sockets. He ran his tongue along the inside of his upper lip and spat a shard of a tooth away.
    “I said … fuck … you.”
    Blow after hammering blow: his face, his head, the bony joints of his hands. By the time Eustace toppled over, his eyes rolled back into his skull, his features crushed into a pulpy mass, blood had rained down on them all.
    “Get used to it.” The guard paused to wipe his baton on his pant leg and dragged his eyes over the group. “It’s pretty much how we do things.”
    As the truck pulled away, Sara drew Eustace toward her to cradle his ruined face in her lap. The man was barely conscious, his breath gurgling in his throat. Perhaps he would die; it seemed likely. And yet there was a feeling of victory in what he’d done. She bent at the neck and whispered into his ear:
    “Thank you.”
    Thus, in blood, it began.
    “One People! One Director! One Homeland!”
    How many times had Sara been forced to shout these words? With the morning roll call and the singing of the anthem complete, everyone dispersed to their designated transports. Sara helped Jackie up, then climbed aboard. She saw a new face, one she recognized: Constance Chou, Old Chou’s wife. They acknowledged each other with tight nods, but that was all. What had happened at the Colony had come to Sara in bits and pieces over the years. The story was no different from the others she’d heard and differed from the events at Roswell only by degree; in many ways, the greater shock had been that so many other islands of humanity had existed at all. By the time Sara arrived, the Colony’s survivors had already dispersed across the flatland. The number Sara heard was fifty-six. How easy it was for fifty-six people to be subsumed into the masses; with their chopped hair and identical tunics, everybody looked the same. Yet every now and then, a familiar face leapt out. She had glimpsed a woman she thought was Penny Darrell, and another who she swore was Belle Ramirez, Rey’s wife, though when Sara had called her name, the woman hadn’t answered. One morning in the ration line, her bowl had been filled by a man she had seen many times without recognizing as Russell Curtis, her own cousin. He appeared so much older than the man Sara recalled that when their eyes met, it took her a moment to place him. For the better part of a year she had been housed in the same lodge as Karen Molyneau, Jimmy’s widow, and her two daughters, Alice and Avery. It was from Karen that Sara took the most information, including the names of the dead. Ian Patal, who had been killed defending the power station. Hollis’s sister-in-law, Leigh, and her baby, Dora, who had perished on the trip to the Homeland; Other Sandy, who had died shortly after arrival, Karen wasn’t sure how; Gloria and Sanjay Patal. As dark as this news was, Sara still regarded her year with Karen and her girls as a brief respite, a period in which she’d felt connected to the past. But they were always moving people around between the lodges, and one day the three of them were gone, strangers sleeping in the bunks where they had lain their heads for a year. Sara hadn’t seen them since.
    The ride to the biodiesel plant took them along the river, through a maze of squalid lodges to the industrial zone at the north edge of the flatlands. The day gave no promise of improvement; a bitter wind spit kernels of rain into their faces. The air was ripe with the stenches of the flatland, pooling animal waste and a compressed and filthy humanity and, behind it, like a curtain of scent, the dark earthiness of the river. They passed through a juggernaut of checkpoints, fences opening and closing, the cols with their clipboards and pens and inexhaustible appetite for paperwork and the structures of authority waving them through. The far side of the river gave onto open floodplain, denuded and colorless, the crops long picked for winter; to the east, ascending in steps above the river, rose the Hilltop, where all the redeyes lived, and at its apex the Capitol Dome, capped with its crown of gold. It was said that this structure, and those surrounding it, had at one time been a university, which was a kind of school, though with only the Sanctuary for comparison, Sara had difficulty absorbing this fact. Sara had never been up the hill, let alone inside the Dome. Some workers were allowed inside, gardeners and plumbers and kitchen help, and of course the attendants, who were women selected to serve the Director and his staff of redeyes. Everybody said the attendants were the lucky ones, that they lived in luxury with good food and hot water and soft beds to sleep in, but the information was all secondhand. No attendant had ever returned to the flatland; once they went in, the Dome became their lives.
    “Get a look at that,” Jackie murmured.
    Sara’s thoughts had wandered off, her awareness blunted by the cold. They were cutting away from the river on the access road; to the north, beyond the boundaries of the Homeland, Sara could make out the shape of the cranes spiking through the treetops like a pair of huge, skeletal birds. The Project, it was called: a decades-long undertaking to erect a massive steel-and-concrete structure of unknown purpose. Flatlanders who worked there, nearly all of them men, were searched each day going to and coming from the site; even to talk about what they did there was regarded as treason and could get you sent to the feedlot, though rumors abounded. One theory would hold sway for a time before yielding to another and then to a third, the first eventually reemerging to start the cycle anew. Even the men who worked there, when they could be convinced to speak of it at all, did not appear to know what they were constructing. There was talk of mazelike hallways, vast chambers, foot-thick doors of solid steel. Some claimed it was a monument to the Director, others that it was a factory. A few claimed it was nothing at all, merely a distraction concocted by the redeyes to keep the flatlanders occupied. A fourth hypothesis, one that had gained currency in recent months, was that the Project was an emergency bunker. Should the Director’s mysterious power to keep the virals at bay ever fail, the structure could serve as a refuge for the population. Whatever it was, the work appeared to be approaching completion; fewer and fewer men would board the transports to the site each morning, and they were all older, most having worked there for years.
    But the cranes weren’t the object of Jackie’s attention. As the five-ton drew toward the last guardhouse, Sara saw two words imprinted on the perimeter wall, painted in broad, dripping strokes of white:
    SERGIO LIVES!A pair of flatlanders were dousing long-armed brushes in buckets of soapy water, preparing to scrub it off. A col stood beside them with a rifle cradled over his chest. He glowered as the transport passed, meeting Sara’s eye for an icy instant. She looked away.
    “Fisher, you see anything that interests you?”
    The voice belonged to one of the two cols riding in the back of the truck, a trim man of twenty-five or so, who went by the name Vale.
    “No, sir.”
    For the final five minutes of the ride, she kept her eyes glued to the floor. Sergio, Sara thought. Who was Sergio? The name, rarely spoken in the open, possessed an almost incantatory power: Sergio, leader of the insurgency, bomber of markets and police stations and guardhouses, who, with his unseen fellows, seemed to glide like ghosts through the Homeland, igniting weapons of destruction. Sara understood the words on the fence to be a kind of taunt. We were here, they said, we stood right where you are standing now, we are everywhere among you. Sergio’s methods were marked by an almost incomprehensible cruelty. The insurgents’ targets were anywhere the cols might gather, a program of assassination and disruption, but if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, your presence made no difference. A man or woman would open their coat to reveal the rows of dynamite strapped to their chest, and that would be the end of you. And always, in the final instant, as their thumb found the trigger on the detonator, sending themselves and anyone within the blast radius into oblivion, they would utter these two words: Sergio lives.
    The transport pulled up to the plant, and the workers disembarked. A yeasty odor hung in the air. Four more trucks of workers pulled in behind them. Sara and Jackie were assigned to the grinders, as were most of the women. Why this should be so, Sara had never understood—the job was neither more nor less arduous than anything else—but that’s how things were done. Corn would be mashed, then combined with fungal enzymes and fermented to make fuel. The smell was so intense that it seemed to be part of Sara’s very skin, though she had to admit there were far worse jobs: tending the hogs, or working at the waste treatment plant or slurry pens. They got into line to check in with the foreman, tied their kerchiefs around their faces, then made their way through the cavernous space to their workstations. The corn was stored in large bins with spouts at the bottom; from these openings they would retrieve one bushel at a time and load it into the grinders, where rotating paddles pummeled the kernels into meal. As the moisture in the corn was released it formed a gluey paste, which adhered to the interior walls of the grinder; it was the operator’s job to dislodge it, a task requiring great dexterity and quickness, as the paddles did not stop rotating. The difficulty was compounded by the cold, which made even the simplest movements feel sluggish and imprecise.
    Sara set to work. The day that loomed ahead would pass in a kind of trance. It was a skill she’d acquired as the years had passed, employing the hypnotic rhythms of work to drain her mind of thought. Not to think: that was the goal. To occupy a purely biological state, her senses absorbing only the most immediate physical data: the whir of the grinder’s paddles, the stink of fermenting corn, the nubbin of cold emptiness in her belly where the measly bowl of watery gruel that passed for breakfast had long since been absorbed. For these twelve hours, she was flatlander no. 94801, nothing less or more. The real Sara, the one who thought and felt and remembered—Sara Fisher, First Nurse, citizen of the Colony, daughter of Joe and Kate Fisher and sister of Michael; beloved of Hollis, friend to many, mother of one—was hidden away in a folded slip of paper, tucked like a talisman in her pocket.
    She did her best to keep an eye on Jackie. The woman had her worried; a cough like hers was nothing good. In the flatlands a person didn’t really have friends, not in the way that Sara had known friendship. There were faces you knew and people you trusted more than others, but that was the extent of it. You didn’t talk about yourself, because you weren’t really anybody, or your hopes, since you had none. But with Jackie she had allowed her defenses to drop. They had formed a mutual pact, an unstated pledge to watch out for each other.
    At noon they were given a fifteen-minute break, just enough time to race to the latrine—a wooden platform suspended above a ditch, with holes to squat over—and gobble another bowl of gruel. There was no place to sit, so you ate standing up or on the ground, using your fingers for a spoon, then got in a second line for water, which was dispensed with a ladle that all the women shared. All the while they were watched by the cols, who stood to the side, twirling their sticks. Their official title was Human Resources Officers, but nobody ever called them that in the flatland. The word was short for “collaborators.” Nearly all were men but there were some women, often the cruelest of the lot. One female col, whom they called Whistler for the deep cleft in her upper lip, a congenital deformity that gave her voice a distinctive, reedlike sound, seemed to take special delight in inventing new and subtle ways to inflict discomfort. It was her habit to single out one person, most often a woman, as if she were performing an experiment. Whistler set her sights on you and the next thing you knew you would be pulled out of the latrine line for a pat-down just when it was your turn, or assigned some impossible and pointless job, or switched to a different crew just as your break was coming. The only thing you could do was take it, gritting your teeth through the misery of your aching bladder or empty stomach or exhausted limbs, knowing that soon Whistler’s attention would pass to another, though this only made things worse and seemed to be the point of the entire exercise; you found yourself wishing for the suffering to befall somebody else, and thus you became complicit, part of the system, a cog in a wheel of torment that never stopped turning.
    She looked for Jackie at the break, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. Sara moved quickly through grinding stations, searching for her friend. The foreman’s whistle would blow at any moment, summoning them back to work. She had nearly given up when she turned a corner to find Jackie sitting on the ground, her face damp with sweat, her kerchief balled to her mouth.
    “I’m sorry,” she managed. “I just couldn’t stop coughing.”
    The cloth was stained with blood. Sara knew what was happening; she’d seen it before, the effects of years of dust in the lungs. One minute a person was fine, the next they were drowning in it.
    “We have to get you out of here.”
    She pulled the woman to her feet just as the whistle blew. One hand wrapped around Jackie’s waist, Sara steered her toward the exit. Her goal was to get outside before anyone noticed; what would happen after that, Sara had no idea. Vale was the col in charge. Not the best, but not the worst, either. More than once, Sara had caught him watching her in a way that made it seem like he had something in mind for her, something personal, though he had never acted on it. Perhaps now would be the time. A shuddering nausea passed through her at the thought, yet she knew she was capable of it. She would do what she had to.
    They had nearly reached the exit when a figure stepped into their path. “Where do you think you’re going?”
    Not Vale: Sod. Backlit by the open door, he loomed before them. Sara’s stomach dropped.
    “She just needs some air. The dust—”
    “Is that right, old woman? The dust bothering you?” With the butt of his stick he tapped the woman’s chest, igniting a strangled cough. “Get back to work.”
    “It’s all right, Sara,” Jackie wheezed, freeing herself from Sara’s arm. “I’ll be fine.”
    “Jackie—”
    “I mean it.” She looked at Sara, her eyes saying, Don’t. “She’s just a busybody, that’s all. Thinking she knows what’s best for me.”
    Sod eyes flicked the length of Sara’s body. “Yeah, I heard that about you. Think you’re some kind of doctor, do you?”
    “I never said that.”
    “Sure you didn’t.” With his free hand Sod cupped his crotch, rocking his hips forward. “Hey, Doctor, I’ve got a pain right here. What do you say you get a closer look at it?”
    The moment caught and held; Sara thought of Eustace, in the truck. The blood on his face, his shattered hands and teeth. His broken smile of triumph. Standing before Sod, she willed herself to say the words, to utter the curse that would unleash him upon her. It was all so simple, so stark. She could see the scene unfolding in her mind. Just two words, and the flare of anger in Sod’s eyes, and then the crash of the stick. These were the terms of her life, a thousand humiliations enacted daily. They had taken everything from her. To accept the worst—no, to embrace it—that was the only resistance.
    “Sara, please.” Jackie was staring at her. Not like this. Not for me.
    Sara swallowed. Everyone was looking at her.
    “Okay,” she said.
    She turned and walked away. The space around her had grown strangely quiet. All she could hear was her heart.
    “Don’t worry, Fisher,” Sod called after her with a leering laugh. “I’ll know where to find you. It’ll be as good as the last time, I promise.”
    It was later, as Sara lay in her cot, that she permitted herself to consider the full measure of these events. Something had changed within her. She was on the verge, a figure standing at the precipice, waiting to jump. Five long years: it could have been a thousand. The past was disappearing inside her, rinsed away by the wash of time, the bitter cold of her heart, the sameness of days. She had plunged down inside herself for too long. Winter was coming. Winter light.
    She had somehow gotten Jackie through the day. Now the old woman slept above her, the straps of her bunk sagging with her restive turning. Jackie’s death, when it came, would come badly, in long agonal hours, a strangling from within, before the final stilling. Would her fate be Sara’s own? To stumble blindly through the years, a being without purpose or connection, a hollow shell of nothing?
    Sara had not returned the makeshift envelope to its hiding place under the mattress. Seized by a sudden loneliness, she withdrew it from beneath the lump of rags that served as her pillow. It had been given to her by the midwife’s assistant in the birthing ward—the same woman who had told her that the baby, arriving early in a gush of blood, had not survived. It was a girl, the woman had told her. I’m sorry. Then she’d slipped the envelope into Sara’s hand and vanished. Through the haze of grief and pain Sara had ached to hold her daughter, but this hadn’t happened; the child had been taken away. She’d never seen the woman again.
    Carefully she unfolded the pocket of brittle paper with the tips of her fingers. Inside lay a coiled lock of hair—a baby curl. The room was sunk in darkness, and yet its pale golden color was vivid to her eyes. She brought it to her face, inhaling deeply, trying to capture its scent. Sara could never have another, the damage was too great; Kate was the only one. That was what she’d named her, Kate. How she wished she’d told Hollis. She had wanted to save her news, to choose the perfect moment to give him the present of the two of them conjoined. How foolish she’d been. She thought: I know you’re better off, my darling. Wherever you are now, I hope it is a place of light and sky and love. If only I could have held you, just one time, to tell you how much I loved you.

Most Read
Top Books