by Joanie Raisovich
part 1 of 2
Sam pulled her denim shirt tighter, wishing that she’d worn a sweater instead. The inside of the train compartment was just chilly enough to be uncomfortable. She tried to ignore the smell of old urine and fresh vomit. The orange vinyl seat she sat on was badly cracked, and she tried not to think about what the stains were.
Two men were her only companions, even though the car seated more than thirty. They sat just a few seats away from her, and each other, as if they dreaded being too close, or too far, from others. She wondered briefly how many other people were tucked away in other cars, but she put the thought out of her mind. She probably wouldn’t get the chance to find out.
The station was dilapidated, as was the train itself. She laid her forehead against the cool glass and watched as Jason tried to look nonchalant as he lurked out on the street. His hands were thrust deep in his pockets and his collar pulled around his neck. He reminded her of a turtle, and she felt her anger coming back. She held her breath, hoping that he might change his mind and come with her after all.
As she watched, he spun around and hurried away. She told herself she was surprised he’d lingered at all, and she realized she’d miss him. Blinking fast, she turned back to the train compartment.
A strident voice interrupted her thoughts. A woman, tousled and wild-eyed, was being half-led and half-dragged toward the car by two uniformed men. The older one, maybe forty, looked as if this happened to him every day. The boy who held her other arm couldn’t have been more that seventeen. His eyes were wide and frightened.
“This is a mistake, a terrible mistake! If you’ll just let me stay in the station here until my husband gets it all straightened out—” She was a heavy-built woman, and she gave a quick jerk that almost pulled the boy down.
The boy straightened his ill-fitting, bright blue cap with one hand and dug the fingers of his other deeper into her fleshy arm. She let out a little whine and tried to pull away again, but he was ready for her.
“On the train, ma’am.” It was the older man who spoke, and he sounded every bit as bored as he looked.
She was too large for either man to fit through the doorway with her. They were trying to alternately push and persuade her onto the train. She braced herself against the frame and continued to plead her case. “I’m telling you, it’s a mistake! My husband will have me brought right back. It’ll be much easier to let me wait here! Please!”
The older man leaned forward. Sam tried to make out what he said, but his words were drowned out by an announcement that the train would be pulling out momentarily. She watched as the woman first grew still, and then as her lips began to tremble. The woman looked away from the guards, stumbled up the stairs and collapsed into the nearest seat.
She had hardly sat down when the train lurched into motion. Sam watched as the countryside slid by. She swallowed hard and told herself she’d never see this again. She pushed the thought out of her mind and turned her attention to her fellow passengers.
A young man sat near the front of the car, a worn magazine absorbing all his attention. He was a little too thin, and his pale blond hair was cut so short he appeared bald at first glance. He crossed his legs, bobbing his foot up and down at an almost frantic pace.
Sam turned her attention to the other man in the car and found he was examining her as well. He was around forty and slightly plump. His stomach hung a little over his belt, and the buttons of his shirt strained a little against his paunch. He looked like a banker, not like someone who’d be here. He smiled weakly. “Morning.”
Sam nodded back. “Good morning.”
She turned her eyes back to the woman behind her. She was wringing her hands and staring out the window as the city passed by. Sam watched as she dug in her purse, wiped her eyes on a lace handkerchief, and thrust it back in again. She met Sam’s gaze and sniffled before turning her face to the window.
“You heard anything about where we’re going?” It was the plump man again.
Sam answered. “Just that it’s the Old York colony. And rumors, of course.”
His smile was weak. “Same here. It’s harder, not knowing what to expect.” His voice trailed off on the last few words.
They were silent for a few moments, until another voice joined in. “I’m Allen.” The man with the magazine was swatting his knee with it. “Nice to meet you.”
Sam turned to the woman, who was still fidgeting in the back of the car. “You are?”
She turned to the others, her large blue eyes bright with tears. Her plump cheeks were blotchy. “Mary. I can’t believe they’d make such a horrible mistake.”
Sam asked, “Mistake?”
Mary sniffed again, and Sam resisted the urge to wince at the wet, clotted sound. “Yes, a horrible mistake. My husband will straighten it out, and I’ll be on the next train back. It’s just terrible.”
Allen spoke. “There are no trains back.”
Mary flinched as if she’d been struck, and Sam wondered at his callousness. She turned to him. “How do you know that?” She leaned a little toward him and lowered her voice, “Besides, there’s no reason to be so mean about it.”
Sam moved back to sit in front of Mary and whispered, “It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
Allen was wringing the magazine. “Mean?” He smiled. “If you think that was mean, then you’re going to have a rough time of it.” He rose and tossed the magazine on the seat beside her. The cover showed an aerial shot of hundreds of ragged people rushing cargo containers. Two containers were already open, and people swarmed them like ants. More people were struggling with the unopened container, and with each other.
Allen said, “I’ve been researching exiles for three years; that’s what’s got me here. No one comes back from the colonies.”
Mary began crying again. Ralph leaned toward Allen. “Where did you get this?” Ralph picked up the magazine and studied it. “And how do you know this?”
Sam reached across the seat and patted Mary’s hand. It was fleshy and wet with tears. She had to force herself to not pull away when the damp fingers encircled hers.
Allen turned to each, as if evaluating them. “I’ve been researching the colonies and the exiles and writing about what I found. That’s my photo, by the way.” He laughed. “I was fool enough to think that I might help to change things.” He looked around the train car. “I changed things, all right.”
Ralph had visibly paled as he thumbed through the work. “How did you find this out?”
“I bribed a supply plane to let me on board a few weeks ago. We went out to drop some medical supplies, and I took the photos while I was in the air.” Allen ignored their shocked looks as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “That’s probably what got me caught. Should have paid the bastard more.”
Ralph didn’t take his eyes from the cigarettes. “How did you get those?”
Allen smiled and handed him the pack. “It’s all who you know; I met quite a few people involved in the black market. That’s about the only market there.”
Ralph helped himself to a cigarette and the offered light. “I guess you know the right people.”
He held the pack out to Sam, but she shook her head. She’d never acquired the taste for them.
Allen shook his head. “The wrong ones, you mean. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.” He took a final long drag and put the remains out beneath his heel.
Sam forced herself to be civil. “You don’t seem too upset about it.”
Allen smiled, but there was no humor in it. “Too late for that. Besides, I’ve seen it. It’s worse than you probably think, but not as bad as it could be. I’ll do what I have to to survive, and you will too most likely.”
Sam felt her stomach tighten. She tried to ignore Mary’s soft sobs from behind her. Without thinking, she gave Mary’s hand a sharp squeeze as she asked Allen, “Tell us what it’s like.”
Mary let out a little sob. “You don’t know anything! You’re lying.” She slammed her hand into the back of Sam’s seat. “Why are you telling us these lies to frighten us?” She turned to Sam, her eyes full of hurt, “I don’t want to know.”
Allen shrugged and turned to Sam. “I know I sound like a heartless bastard, but believe me, in a few weeks, you’ll do whatever you can to survive too.” He lit another cigarette. “When it comes to it, most people will do what they have to do, even if it’s not pretty.”
He took a deep breath and went on. “As for what it’s like, it seems very crowded from the air, lot of people milling about, waiting for the drop. Drops are pretty much their only source for food and medicine, and there’s rarely enough to go around. You’ll need to get out there early and be lucky, or make friends with someone who’s lucky. It’s chaos down there. I don’t know how work or living assignments are made, if at all.”
Ralph pulled a carefully folded piece of paper from his pocket. “Of course, we all have these.” He opened the sheet. “Mine is for 1000 credits. I have no idea how far that will go.”
Allen nodded. “That’s pretty standard, I think. If you’re careful, that will last a month, maybe six weeks. Don’t use the banks though; they can’t be trusted.”
Sam felt a small amount of relief. Surely she’d be able to find some kind of work before her money ran out.
“How do you know that?” Mary’s voice was shrill.
“It’s just what I’ve heard.”
Sam interrupted. “I filled out the forms to have my bank account transferred, but what happens if I can’t trust the banks?”
Copyright © 2008 by Joanie Raisovich