A short story by Carrie Lane
The battered seat jostled me roughly as the bus hit yet another bump, my head bouncing off the dirt- stained window that had served as my 'pillow' for the last...well, who the hell knew at this point. I blinked sleep from my eyes, momentarily startled as I struggled to remember where I was. Confusion filled my immediate thoughts as I wiped uselessly at the window, attempting to peer through to gain any insight into my current location.
Desert. That's all I'd seen for the last three days. Desert. Oh, and the occasional dead body in the...you guessed it...desert. As the bus hit another cavernous pot hole in the trail ahead, I once more found myself lifted from my seat and thrown forward, this time almost landing in the mosh pit that was known as 'public transportation'.
Settling back into the seat, I peered around me. Dirty, sweaty bodies pressed together like cattle, the scents long past being offensive, having become almost comforting in their familiarity. Reaching into the pocket of my bomber jacket, I pulled out a half-eaten stale soyobar and pulled back the wrapper, casting a furtive glance around as the crinkling sound drew hungry stares from those closest to me. Meeting their gazes, I shoved the remainder in my mouth triumphantly as I chewed. I really hope we hit Withmore soon, I thought with a slightly panicked curse. That was the last of my food if you could call it 'food'. The tasteless bar stuck to the roof of my mouth, making my already dry throat feel like coarse sandpaper. Gripping my collar, I flicked it up and slunk down in my chair, tucking my chin against my chest in an effort to remain anonymous among the sea of bodies. Tucking my hands into my pockets, I wrapped the worn leather of my jacket around me like a suit of armor and fingered the switchblade that rested within. The cool metal soothed me, having used it several times during my escape already to chase away those that might get an idea in their thick skulls of trying to rob me. Or worse.
I let my gaze fall back on the window, noticing my reflection staring back at me and almost didn't recognize myself. My long black hair, once something I prided myself on, was cut short, haphazardly done. My face was gaunt and dark circles marred my blue eyes. A snicker escaped my taut lips as a sudden thought flashed in my mind. Well, if I don't even recognize me, it's sure they won't.
As I continued to contemplate my new look, flashes of light caught my eye. In the distance, I could see...something. It started out as a dull shadow against the backdrop of nothingness. But, as the bus propelled us forward, it became closer. Looming over everything before me.
I strained my neck, sitting up straight in my seat as others around me seemed to sense the shift in the air and the gloomy silence was sliced open as whispers and mutterings slowly bled out among us. My earlier desire to sit at the back of the bus now seemed less like a good idea as my small frame couldn't see anything but the heads of those in front of me. I pressed my face to the window, tucking my hand into the cuff of my jacket as I frantically wiped a small fraction clean.
Lights flooded the area ahead, creating an artificial day to the night around me. A sign flew past as the bus trundled onward. 'Welcome to Withmore' I was able to read before it was gone. My stomach lurched. We were here.
Shuffling off the bus, I had to cover my eyes from the glaring brightness. Blinking as my vision adjusted, I took my first glimpse upon the place I hoped to disappear into, like so many around me. The structure before me was terrifying. A dome encompassed the entire city, its cold structure permeating my soul more than any desert night could. A steel colossal that held sixty five million people within and the dangers of the badlands out. I stood in awe, my body frozen as I tried to take in its enormity. Someone behind me cursed, pushing me out of the way. Booted feet stormed past, as I knelt in the dirt, the sharp rocks cutting my hands and knees. No one seemed to notice, no kindness extended. The reality of that crashed in on me with such awareness I choked back bile. No...get up. You made it this far; you can do this, I mentally cursed at myself.
Standing, I stumbled my way along the well-worn path, following the shouts and commands of faceless, uniformed men and women that herded us forward. Lining up with the others, I found myself looking back into the night around me. The bus, my lifeline for so long was heading off, swallowed once more by the desert. No escape now, even if I could.
I drew my eyes forward, letting the bodies around me push and pull me closer. Men. Women. Children. All of us seeking...something...anything better than where we had come from. I glanced around, noticing the burnt out husks of cars and abandoned portions of buildings scattered about looking like bones in a graveyard and realized these were the remaining vestiges of times past. Now, graffiti covering them; one in particular caught my eye, a worn greeting that read 'Withmore - The city of Hope' where someone had scrawled in bright silver the letters '-lessness' after 'Withmore', the paint dripping like chromatic blood.
I was snapped out of my reverie by a looming face, shouting at me to keep moving. Standing before me were the largest gates I'd ever seen, security checkpoints extending outward in disjointed array, each overflowing with people waiting to pass beyond. I worked my way through each as sneering guards accosted me with their ambivalence. "Name," someone said without looking up. When it was shouted a second time, I realized it was me they were talking to. "Um...Cristine...Demarci..." I lied, my palms growing sweaty as I waited for them to cast their accusing glances on me. But, no one bothered. No one cared. I could have said anything and it would have mattered little.
I stepped further and found myself once more being addressed gruffly. "Strip." I blinked at the one word command, caught off guard. "Excuse...me?" I stuttered out, looking around. The guard glared at me though his visor, tapping his baton against his leg. "Strip." I could see others already removing their clothes, piling them into shallow buckets. Feeling self-conscious, I slowly complied, removing my jacket and then my boots. My jeans came next and then my t-shirt. I stood there suddenly feeling small and worthless. Embarrassment fueling my body to move faster. I rushed through the security gate, thinking only of finding the solace of my clothes once more.
Of course, my relief was short lived as I crossed beyond the barrier and found the guards tossing my belongings into a burning barrel, their condescending laughter scorching my cheeks further.
Instead of finding human decency, I was met by someone in a tattered white coat, stained and dirty. Waving me forward without a glance, he pressed something to the back of my neck. My fear was palpable. Was I found out? Had they seen through my ruse? Suddenly, pain coursed through my body, tearing my mind like little pieces of paper tossed into the wind. The world spun around me as I cried out before blackness gripped me.
I woke, stumbling through those majestic gates, as a million thoughts not my own assaulted my mind. Gripped by the pain, I clawed at the back of my neck, feeling the cybernetic chip. Panic engulfed me as I fought a wave of nausea, my mind no longer my own. Crass jokes, advertisements, sexual invitations ... my head filled with the thoughts of the millions of souls that called the Dome home.
I looked down at my hand and found myself gripping some money, furrowing my brow as I tried to remember where I got it from. People mulled about and I was suddenly aware of my nudity as a chilled, acidic rain poured down from somewhere. Each drop stung my bared flesh as if biting into me. Flashing my glance about, I ducked into a small store filled with thrift items and rummaged quickly through the racks of thread- barren items to find something to wear.
Walking up to the counter, I numbly handed the clerk my money as I dressed, her blank stare barely noticing me. Stuffing the remaining chyen in my pocket, I fled into the street. My mind was slowly getting used to the thoughts that rolled around within, my own working to form into coherent communication. Suddenly, I felt alive. The pain in my neck now a dull throb, I exhaled and steadied myself as I finally looked around me. Withmore. The city of Hope. My city of new beginnings ....
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