“Oh there’s a story there. There’s lots of stories. I just don’t know where to start.”
He could tell I wasn’t just talking to hear the sound of my own voice. “I know what put you on the street. You were an Outbreak Orphan. I know that you don’t remember much of your life before the streets … but that things trickle in every now and again. I can guess that your life on the street was hard. Even if I didn’t have any commonsense some of the things you said while you were fever struck would have been impossible for even a blind man to miss. And I know – and something you shouldn’t be upset by me knowing – that your life on the street … you had to do things to survive.”
I shook my head. “Carmine if you’ve never been there I don’t know if I can explain it to you. I had no one. I mean no one. I was nine when I found myself alone on the streets. I could try and explain it and justify it and rationalize it but it all boils down to one thing … I went completely feral. It was the only way I could stay alive. The only thing that tied me back to my humanity was the fact that I couldn’t pass up reading and … and the occasional glimpses I would get that Some One was looking out for me.”
“Now Saloli …”
I looked at him and tried to get him to understand. “Carmine … I didn’t talk. Not just didn’t talk but refused under all sorts of pain and punishments. It isn’t that I couldn’t … it’s that I had decided that I would not. As a street rat a lot of the kids … my peers … lost their voice until it was little more than animal noises like grunts and screams and cries and slang that only another street rat could decipher. We had nothing but the rubble around us to live on. We hadn’t just lost whatever we had had before … a lot of us … Carmine it was like we weren’t orphans so much as we were birthed by the mating of the War and the Outbreak and then turned out to survive if we could. No one cared.”
“What about those people you said tried to help the street people.”
“The church people?” At his nod I said, “OK, some people cared but I was never sure if they cared because we still had bits of humanity in us or if they cared because by caring they could alleviate some of the problems we caused.”
“What problems Saloli? I’m not sure I’m understanding.”
I sighed. “Rats. There’s a reason why we are called street ‘rats.’ Throughout history rats have been destroyers and contaminators of food storage, and disease carriers. In this country, the most common rat – the brown – arrived on ships around the time of the first Revolution. By the 19th century rat fights became a popular form of entertainment. Another form of entertainment was having dogs compete to see how many rats they could kill in a period of time. I read that the record holder was a dog that killed 100 rats in five minutes … it was called Jocko. Rats have been used in all sorts of science experiments supposedly for the betterment of the human race.”
Softly, like he was afraid I would stop talking if he interrupted too much, Carmine asked, “Are you telling me you kids got the nickname not because there were so many of you on the streets but … but because …”
“Of how people saw us … yes. Because of what people did to us … yes.”
Carmine groaned, like he was almost sorry he’d opened the Pandora’s Box but it was too late to close the lid. “Carmine, you do know what eugenics is.”
“Yeah, it’s when the science of genetics gets out of hand.”
I shook my head. “No, it isn’t a science at all … it’s a social philosophy that hides behind science. Kilbrian and his crowd violated every human right that you can imagine. Even simple privacy is something they can’t seem to allow. There were cameras everywhere in the dorm … and I mean everywhere, no place was off limits and the male guards, some of the female ones, loved to rub it in and give away private information. We were filmed day in and day out. Every infraction was a punishable offence. They would weigh them at the end of the day and week and month and punishments for individual infractions and sum totals would be dealt out or added up to put the person on major punishments. The object was to distill out the cream of the crop, the best … it started with genetic screening but after that it took off into areas that have absolutely nothing to do with what really makes a human a human. For a year I fought and fought and fought and fought. If Kilbrian had survived I would have been dead … culled from the pack due to psychological deficiencies or for some other excuse. But the committee that headed our facility had some brains to them, I’ll give them that. They knew they couldn’t cull everyone that didn’t meet Kilbrian’s high standards or there wouldn’t be enough genetic stock left to repopulate the earth.”
I felt Carmine tensing as some of what I was saying was beginning to form a picture in his head.
I continued. “So the eugenics program envisioned by Kilbrian never really existed. Even before he died it was out of his control. He was still hailed as the great scientist but he was no longer in control, if he ever had been in any practical sense. Someone had decided that a class structure would serve the human race better than total perfection in everyone. Total perfection was too costly. Why not have propagation of the species and make a profit at it at the same time? There would be kings and queens, workers, and drones.” My laugh was ugly and Carmine tried to hold me but I couldn’t handle it. I moved out of his embrace and closer to the fireplace.
“I feel badly about not being able to warm up to Sally, I can tell she’s a nice person and I tried to make it up to her by sharpening her medical tools, but she just triggers something in me. I hate being touched without my permission. I learned to let it happen, to tolerate it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still react on the inside. I nearly killed Asa over it until Rosie got my attention.” At his confused looked I explained, “It was that night you and Rob showed up that first time. I probably would have hurt him Rosie hadn’t been there to bring me back to myself. It was like waking up in one of those infernal exams rooms at the facility. And you … I’m surprised I didn’t hurt you if I was out of my head with fever.”
“Let’s just say I didn’t get where I got as sec boss turning into a sissy just because someone landed a couple of good punches. Besides you were as weak as a curly headed kitten. I did trim your nails though, them things smart when they reach skin.”
I hung my head in shame. He’d never told me that. “Uh uh. Don’t you even Gurl. You were out of your head and remembering bad things. And I was going someplace … well … I wasn’t exactly paying a whole lot of attention to your need for personal space.”
He wanted me to blow it off, let it go, but it was hard to. I sighed. “Carmine, you have no idea what I was like in the beginning … not just like but what I actually was. I can look back now and see that I did it to survive but there are things I’ve done in the name of survival I will never talk about. I never went so far as to be a cannibal but the things I did eat … it would make you sick to hear it, makes me sick just to remember it.”
“Was it always like that on the street?”
I shrugged, “Depended on the season and how many others I had to compete with. Once I learned to raise rats like cattle things weren’t quite so bad again. Once the adult street people started being taken away it was almost a playground for a while until we realized what was happening.”
He gave me a questioning look so I tried to explain. “You have to remember we were basically living in the Dark Ages all over again. No radio, no teevids, no newspapers, no phones, no nothing. The only thing we had was word of mouth and hardly anyone talked to street rats, they were beneath contempt, the lowest of the low. So we listened when people talked but didn’t know enough except to be scared … like rats. We were prey and knew it, the adults were our predators as much as hunger and disease were. And now something was hunting the predators … it was something new, something frightening.”
Remembering when I finally put two and two together I shivered. “Finally some of us figured out it had to be the white coats … the scientists. They’d come and sweep up some of the slow rats or the sick rats and take them away but they’d always left the adults alone. We couldn’t imagine what they wanted, all we knew is that some areas of the city were now off limits to any rat that wanted to stay alive and free. As we smartened up and became harder to catch their methods became more brutal. Our former water sources were drugged, they would gas whole buildings, our food sources were destroyed … they introduced a disease into the rodent population, it was like a reverse bubonic plague and we no longer knew what was safe to eat. We left our areas and pushed into areas already occupied by other street people and other street rats. It made life … complicated. Too many mouths and stomachs for one area to support. Then at some point the white coats had taken the underground areas … the areas most street rats were afraid to go unless they were suicidal or drugged to the whiskers. If the white coats could take the tunnels then what would they take next?”
I shivered. “I was so tired that night from running and trying to avoid several warring gangs. Crazy people need space or they turn on each other and there wasn’t enough space anymore. Gang territories started to overlap and you never knew who you had to be careful of. The only place off limits for the fight were the no man’s land of the Barter markets. There was an old building right across from the market and I crawled into the smallest space I could and finally went to sleep. But I didn’t wake up there.”
“That’s when SEPH took you?”
“Yeah, from what I gather they have been watching and gathering information all along. Why they chose me, what … what drew them to me I have no idea.”
He looked at me seriously, “You really don’t know?”
I shrugged. “I know why they kept me, why they didn’t throw me back into the holding station before transporting me to who knows where for who knows what purpose … but why they targeted me specifically in the first place, no … I don’t know.”
Getting jumpy I started pacing around the basement. It wasn’t a huge room but even with Carmine’s gear all over the place there was still enough room for me to work the floor with my feet. “All my parts still worked, OK?”
Accurately deciphering what I was saying he said, “You were fertile? Were?”
Still unsure how far I could take my story I said, “Look, you wanted me to tell this story so are you going to let me finish it or not?”
At his nod I continued. “I was a lot more well-read than even my handlers suspected.”
“The doctors at the facility where they eventually stuck me. There was one there in particular that thought she had me figured out and I let her continue thinking that. It was a year and I still hadn’t made a sound even though they knew from examination that there was no physical reason for my muteness. Then out of the blue I just started talking and it was mostly to embarrass her. She went from contempt to hate which was fine by me because the feeling was mutual by that point. If she could have sterilized me out of spite I’m sure she would have. She said I was the antithesis of everything they were striving to give mankind and I was happy to oblige her. The problem was that due to the Outbreak there were too few fertiles in this country. Sterilization wasn’t an option, at least not with the female population. They were always worried that other … less fit … populations would over breed and upset the balance of race-less purity they were seeking to achieve. What a crock. Just like in the forbidden texts I eventually gained access to in the library, they were trying to replicate the European ideal in looks. Blonde haired, blue eyed Fertiles were the most soft after.”
“Your height didn’t make you stick out?”
I shook my head. “No. They decided that it was all due to a lack of proper nutrition during early puberty. I probably would have been below average in height but at least I would have cracked five foot and better. As you can see the rest of me is pretty normal.”
He got a look on his face and then said, “If you want to keep this conversation on target and serious you’ll knock off asking me my opinion on the rest of you. I like it better than just fine thanks and it is hard enough for me to keep my eyes in my head and my brain turned the right direction without you making it harder.”
I wondered just how he could be thinking of that when I was telling him all this other stuff but then decided his pragmatic side was one of the things that had attracted me to him in the first place.
“Anyway … like I was saying … they approved of my genetic screening results. In fact my screen tests were pretty high and they expected me to be all grateful for it. They also just about jabbered in ecstasy because I’m immune. I don’t remember being sick but I had to have been exposed because three members of my family died in our house of the Outbreak. My brother was buried in the back yard and I have no idea how long I was in the house with my parents’ bodies; I don’t remember much. So I could have been sick and not remember it or maybe I got my immunity from being exposed to them. Regardless of how I’m immune the fact is the antibody to the right clade flows in my blood which means that I would have passed along my immunity to any offspring. They liked that and I got moved to the top tier of females in the facility.”
The cold was getting to me but I didn’t know how to go to him and ask to get back under the covers. I didn’t need to though because he came to me and we went to sit on the bed and crawled under the covers.
I slowly warmed up but the shivering didn’t go away. “We were being groomed. The threat of being sent to the Egg House … where they sent all the bad little girls … hung over our heads like a death sentence. You know what that place is?”
“I’ve heard … even seen the results when a couple of women turned up in one of the other territories and Rob was called in to see if he could do anything for them. They’d aged. Both of them were late teens but they looked forty or better. They’d had gone through menopause early due to all of the drugs pushed through their veins. Rob had to give them both hysterectomies just to keep them from bleeding to death when their systems continued to go haywire from all the drugs forced on them. And you say you lived with this for two years?”
I laughed dully but it wasn’t funny. “I still live with it. If they catch me … if they catch me they’ll send me back.”
He got real quiet. “You saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Just let me finish Carmine.” He fell silent again. “For all that eugenics tries to purport to be a science it isn’t. It hides behind science, uses some science, but the bottom line is that it is all subjective. It’s just social engineering to some subjective criteria; not objective as they claimed it to be. To continue the human race they needed all Fertiles – both male and female – but not necessarily to be egg providers. If you were completely fertile but your genetic profile was compromised in some way, they would utilize your body and you would become an incubator or an egg hatcher. If you were fertile but weren’t good egg hatching material they would take your eggs and give them to women who were fertile but genetically compromised. There are more women out there that can no longer produce eggs of their own because of the Outbreak virus but there’s nothing wrong with the plumbing. They wanted a pool of enough females so that they could be as picky and choosey as they wanted to be.”
I wasn’t the only one shuddering. I could feel the distaste coming off of him in waves … but none of it directed at me. He was holding me protectively and I didn’t know whether to be relieved by that or not.
“They are getting into genetic engineering but because of the low fertile population they have to be careful or they’ll upset the whole apple cart. They’ve got this sperm bank full of donations – both willing and unwilling – from geniuses. They are already capable of determining sex and basic characteristics of the babies once there is enough amniotic fluid to screen with.”
“Wouldn’t that be important to know?”
“If you are trying to decide whether to abort the baby or not,” I told him outraged.
“Hey, I just meant to prepare in case the baby has special needs.”
Trying not to be so sensitive and take what he was saying out of context I said, “OK, but that’s not why they were doing it. The fetuses were just tissue. If the tissue didn’t meet their standards it was excised like a cancer.” I remembered the faces of some of the females that had been sent to the hatchery; it was like part of their souls were missing. “The whole program is racist too. They claim to want a race-less world population but it sure seems strange that to accomplish this they screen out most of the non-white, non-European ethnicities. If a race is known to have a higher than normal incidence of a genetic problem … Ashkenazi Jews have tay-sachs, blacks have sickle cell anemia, in men from Tobago it is prostate cancer, the list is pretty long. I know it sounds all well and good on the surface but it is what it can lead to that is horrifying.”
Carmine was touching me, trying to comfort me but I didn’t want comfort, I just wanted him to understand. “Eugenics always leads to ethical problems. You take away people’s natural ability to procreate and you’ve taken away the most basic human right. We aren’t talking about someone who can’t procreate for whatever reason, or someone who chooses not to, we are talking about intentionally denying people that right. But we are also talking about the reverse of that. If someone can procreate SEPH seeks to completely take over all choice in the matter. There aren’t even words for the moral issues that gets into but even scientifically it makes terribly bad sense.”
He kept stroking me and it was the only thing keeping me in my skin. “If SEPH continues they will create the very problems they are seeking to eliminate. Genetic diversity will cease to exist. For a species to continue there must be genetic diversity. The Creator worked it into our very being. Animal populations that lose their genetic diversity – the Dodo bird is probably the most widely known example of this – die off because they stop creating viable offspring. Eugenic thought is just scientifically unsound. Under normal circumstances it is only possible to eliminate a dominant allele from the gene pool. Recessive traits can be severely reduced, but never eliminated unless the complete genetic makeup of all members of the pool was known, unfortunately I think that is what SEPH is going for.”
“What do you mean?”
“They gene type everyone. With the Fertile population being only a percentage of what it should be they can focus more resources on a smaller number of people. If they can catch all the Fertiles, even if they do it in a catch and release program like the Harvesters do, and gene type them and put it in some database then pull the ones they want to examine more closely … catching them using the implanted tracking chip … they can do a full genetic work up and then take what they want to engineer and implant in another female body.” Looking at his face I sat up. “What?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry Saloli … I believe you, it just sounds like science fiction.”
“Better believe it is science fact. They might not be as successful as they pretend to be … to the public or themselves … but what they are messing with is dangerous and has long term implications.” Hugging my knees I said, “I’d rather be dead than go back to that life.”
He sat up as well and pulled my resisting body into his embrace. I eventually relaxed. I was to the point I had to trust someone. Carmine would either betray me or he wouldn’t.
“How did you escape?” he asked.
“Some One was watching over me,” I told him quietly.
“OK … now spell it out so I can see it.”
I explained how I’d gathered stuff along the way including information and food in preparation. Then how I’d been locked in and ultimately simply walked away while my prospective “mate” was busy fighting with his father and his pregnant girlfriend. “I have no idea how that turned out for them. SEPH doesn’t like to be mess with but the Outland Oligarchies are pretty powerful. It will depend on which side the government sides on.”
“I’ve heard some rumors.” I wasn’t sure I was interested but I didn’t stop him from telling me. “Seems the Lupton family is up on tax evasion as are several other families they are allied with in the Outlands. Several of the young people from those families have disappeared. I thought maybe their folks moved them off shore or underground but … mayhap they’ve been taken by SEPH.”
I shook, “Don’t ask me.”
“Not asking Saloli, just trying to put the pieces in some kind of order.” I could hear the sec boss in him. I didn’t hold it against him; in his shoes I would have done the same thing. “We need to talk.”
I clinched up tight but refused to let he see how it hurt. I jumped out of bed and headed straight for my backpack. I started throwing things in, trying to think and not having a lot of success. “What the Sam Hill are you doin’ Gurl?”
I jerked away from him. “I want take your pity … your … your … I won’t be told that come spring you need me gone so I don’t bring trouble on you … I won’t … I … I …”
He flattened me against the wall when I tried to avoid him. “You even think of trying to leave me under these circumstances and I … will … become … highly … highly … did you hear me say highly? … hacked off. I will follow your around the whole of the Wastelands if I have to wait out whatever snit you are in and when you finally wind down I swear we will have a rip roaring discussion of giant proportions and …”
I did something I couldn’t in living memory remember doing … I broke down crying and slid to the floor in front of him. “Wha … ?!”
I didn’t cry long and I started fighting again. “Uh uh … too late Saloli. See you’ve got me now you’re stuck with me.”
He helped me over to the bed and got us both in. He pulled me over and I laid limply in his arms. He sighed, “Saloli, I … I’m not good at this but I didn’t think I was so bad that you’d believe I’d turn you out just because you’re running from some SEPH. I already knew you were, I just didn’t know why. Now I do. It don’t change the fact though that SEPH can’t have you, that I’ll die rather than see it happen. Just now we need to be more careful of the Harvesters too … and the other crazies. Specially as we ain’t sure that you aren’t carrying already. If you aren’t we’ll be extra careful until we can find a good place to hold up. I’ve got an idea or two but I don’t want to write it in stone until you take a look at my ideas. Heck Gurl, I don’t even know if you want to pop any rug rats out … you could be scarred for life after your experiences.”
I was groggy and out of it but not so bad that I didn’t understand what he was saying. “So you’re fertile too?”
He sighed, “Yeah, most folks don’t know … not even Gill … but I got took by some Harvesters one time when I was out looking for Asa. They were a weak lot and pretty easy to exterminate. They gave me the answer to my questions though and I took most their equipment back to Rob. I trashed the stuff they used for harvesting of course but most of the rest of it was just regular stuff.”
I brushed the hair from my eyes and then tucked my feet behind his calves trying to get them warm. “You say it so … so prosaically, like it’s just a normal every day thing.”
“Do I? Don’t mean to … just out here I guess it is more commonplace than it is where you’re from. People just naturally want to be free. Those that can’t live with the rules that SEPH has placed on society have been gravitating away from their areas of control for years. We’ve got problems with the outliers like the harvesters but not with SEPH directly. If that’s coming then we need to dig in and get prepared.”
“I don’t want problems with SEPH, I just want to be left alone.”
“You and me both Saloli but if it comes to a fight, better to be prepared ahead of time and have it not happen than to hide your head in the sand and have the enemy shoot you in the a …”
My elbow connected but only half-heartedly. He chuffed but it was only a shadow of his usual one. Then he took me in his embrace. “We’re a mess, you and me. Good thing we have each other isn’t it?”
I knew the answer he wanted and I was more than willing to give it to him. “Definitely a good thing.”
Nothing happened for a while but human nature is what it is and despite saying that we’d be more careful we only paid lip service to it. One day soon we’d have to face reality but for that night we needed only what the other could provide.