Riding the hover train this time of night always made me sleepy. The route passed through seedier parts of the city, so I took to people-watching to stay alert. I didn’t want to be one of the statistics that we heard nightly on the newsfeeds.
The Authority talked a good game and things were indeed better. The city walls kept us safe and the Authority kept the machinery of government working. But their reach didn’t extend to the inner boroughs. If you didn’t work for the Authority, you had to live where designated. ‘Surviving’ described it better.
The train stopped at Milltown Station and I watched a variety of the lost and weary board. Many of them were older or otherwise infirm, unable to fight or serve. Most of them were men. Women always found work with the Authority. Some things never changed, especially in times of war.
This one woman, about my age, sat across from me. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help it. We looked so much alike. Her hair was shorter than mine and she was thinner, almost gaunt.
She caught my gaze and her face tightened more than I thought possible. “Can I do something for you?”
I shook my head and blushed. “I’m sorry. You look familiar to me. Have you been here long?” It was like looking in a mirror.
“All my life. Born here. Will likely die here. What’s it to you?” Her leg jittered up and down, blurring in its vibration. I wanted to reach out and quell whatever drove the motion.
I ignored it and answered as plainly as I could. “I was born in Milltown too. The Authority raised me. I never knew my folks.”
“My parents were killed,” she said, spitting the words out. The anger lingered only slightly beneath the surface.
“Don’t be. They were weak.” She looked at my Authority-issue civic tunic and changed the topic. “How come you’re slumming it down here?”
“I’m looking for someone.” I didn’t want to tell her who.
“Aren’t we all?” She leaned forward and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Things are not as they seem. You’d best be careful.”
“What do you mean?”
She sat back as the train stopped at Hillgrove Station. We waited. Passengers left and new ones boarded. Only the two of us stayed. This familiar stranger in front of me smiled.
“I have a daughter, you know.” She fidgeted with the strings of her hoodie. It was too cold to be without something warmer. “She’s twelve. It’s been two years since they took her.”
“Your little girl scored well on the aptitude tests, then?”
“Oh.” I looked away. Fighters rarely made it past mandatory service. Two years training and five years spent in Hell protecting us. It was a death sentence.
Her hand clasped my forearm and I looked up. I could see wetness on her cheeks. “Not all of us draw Civics, you know.”
I asked, “What did you get?”
“Officially? Mechanical. I get non-Authority work in the inner-city. They don’t like it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She looked at me squarely in the eye as she unbuttoned her right cuff and rolled up the sleeve. She turned her arm wrist-up and I could see it: the Authority logo and bar code. She was one of them. One of us. “I couldn’t let my little girl die like that. I had to make a deal and that’s how I got this tattoo.”