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Thursday, September 11, 2014

First night in Portland

Find the rest of Jo here.

An older woman appears from one of the rooms we haven’t been in — “My mother,” Elsie says — and hands us each plates before beginning to dish out a spicy-smelling mess of vegetables mixed with some kind of fish.

“How’s the food?” Elsie asks.

“Good,” I say, and Daka and Cory agree. Elliot isn’t impressed; his face is scrunched up and he just pushes his vegetables around on his plate.

Cory nudges him. “You’re being rude.”

Elliot pulls a face.

Elsie just laughs. “We’ll find him something else. I have a picky eater myself.”

Her mother comes over with plain vegetables and a chunk of fish and tips them onto Elliot’s plate. Cory nudges his brother.

“Thank you,” Elliot says obediently. Elsie’s mother smiles at him and leaves the room.

“She doesn’t talk,” Elsie says. “She and my husband and a dozen other people were in an accident a number of years ago and she took a blow to the head. She’s not been quite right since.”

“I’m sorry,” Cory says unexpectedly.

“Thank you,” she replies. “It’s okay. She likes to help. I think she remembers when I was small and sometimes forgets that I’m grown up now.”

As we eat, we fall into easy conversation; Elsie tells us about Portland, I talk about Granite, Cory makes the occasional comment about Chicagoland. And Daka falls asleep at the table.

“Walter probably gave him something,” Elsie says. “We should probably put him to bed.”

The three of us look at Daka. He’s a lot bigger than any of us. It was hard enough for me and Cory to support him when he was helping out. I’m having a hard time imagining carrying him anywhere.

“Maybe we can just stick some blankets on the floor and tip him out of the chair,” Cory suggests.

A snort of laughter escapes me. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t laugh.”

Cory stares at me and then bursts out laughing. “Shit,” he says. “We’re terrible people.”

In the end, between the three of us we manage to drag Daka into the other room and get him up onto one of the nicest beds I’ve ever seen. And we only jostle his leg twice. He’s so out of it he doesn’t even move.

“You sure he ain’t dead?” Cory asks once we’ve deposited Daka in the bed.

I stare at Daka until I see the slow rise and fall of his chest. “Nope,” I say. “Definitely alive.”

That established, I actually take a minute to look around the room. It’s gorgeous. Real wood furniture — lots of it. The blankets are all a little thin, but there are lots of them and lots of pillows. The window is intact and looks out over the city.

“I guess you guys must have scavenged furniture and stuff,” I say. “This is some of the nicest stuff I’ve ever seen.”

“But you must have much nicer things,” Elsie says. “All our stuff is at least eighty years old.”

I shake my head. “You only get nice stuff like this if you’re rich. Like my uncle. Me and my mom didn’t have much at all. Most of us don’t have a lot.”

“Does everyone here have nice stuff like this?” Cory asks.

It’s a rude question, but I’m curious too.

“I guess,” Elsie says. “Portland had a population close to a million when the bombs started falling, and even with all of the damage there was a lot salvageable. More than enough when there’s only a couple thousand of us.”

I’m kind of jealous. Not that I’d like to have grown up in a plague city, but to be honest I think the survivors in Portland actually have a nicer life than we did in Granite. Which is just plain weird since we’ve all grown up afraid of the city. I think I always figured if there were any survivors, they’d be diseased and horrible, like the monsters I believed in when I was a child. And they’re not. Well, Walter’s a bit unpleasant, but Elsie’s real nice, and I have to believe that more people are like Elsie than like Walter.

Previous: Walter

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Find the rest of Jo here.

Ten minutes later, warm and dry for the first time all day, we sit down at a table with her; a man who’s probably old enough to be Elsie’s dad leans over Daka’s leg and peels away my makeshift dressing. He silently examines the wound, poking at it until Daka looks like he wants to cry, and finally sits back up.

“I assume one of you tried to clean it up?” he says without looking at either me or Cory.

“I did,” I say. “It’s not a great job.”

He does look at me at that. “You’re right,” he says. “You’re lucky you’re here. This’ll get real ugly real fast if it’s not treated properly.” He points at the puffy flesh. “There’s dirt in the wound.”

My hackles rise. “I’m not a doc,” I say. I don’t even bother to keep the edge from my voice. “I did the best I could, but I’d like to see you clean out a wound with nothing more than the water in a canteen and then magically keep the mud out when it’s raining so hard you’re walking through six inches of water.” I glare at him. “I did the best I could.”

He stares at me. “Well, he’s lucky,” he says, and turns his attention back to Daka’s leg. “In another day or two sepsis would have set in.”

Daka flinches. Cory grips his shoulder.

“Can you fix it now that we’re here?” I demand.

“Yes,” he says, applying some kind of gel to the wound. “If you can keep it clean.”

“Can you, I don’t know, give us something to help him?” I ask. My temper is rapidly fraying.

Elsie probably senses this, because she gently touches my arm and intervenes. “Walter,” she says, “these are the first visitors Portland has seen in decades. It would be a shame to treat them poorly.”

Walter snorts. “Damn fool children.” He finishes wrapping a bandage around the leg and secures it. “I’ll come by to change the wrapping every day until you leave. I’ll show you how to do it and give you the supplies you’ll need to do it yourself.” He pushes himself to his feet and grabs his cane from where it leans against the table. The look he gives me is full of scorn. “But if you’re smart you’ll either stay here or you won’t be so stupid as to get injured without so much as a med kit on you in the future.”

“Gee, thanks, I’ll remember that,” I say at his back as he limps out.

“I’m sorry,” Elsie says, returning from helping Walter down the stairs. “He’s really good with children. I always forget he doesn’t like teenagers.” She sighs. “Most of his bitterness comes from his own stupidity when he was about your age, when he almost lost his foot. It’s why he limps.”

“I don’t suppose when we leave we’ll be able to beg some other med supplies from you to take with us,” I say.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she says. “It’ll depend on what the situation is like at central stores at the moment. Oh.” She pats her pockets and pulls out a small glass jar. “For you,” she says, handing it to Cory. “For — ” She motions to Cory’s face. Cory looks blank for a minute. Then,

“Oh. The scratches.” He turns the jar in his hands. “Thanks.”

“Walter’s not all bad,” Elsie says with a smile. “Shall we eat?”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Welcome to Portland

Find the rest of Jo here.

We all stare up the street, though I’m not sure what we’re waiting for. And then, without warning, we’re surrounded by people — thin people, dressed in ragged clothes, their eyes dark in pale faces.

“Shit,” Cory mutters under his breath.

I’m worried, but not because I think we might get sick. These people don’t look sick. They’re skinny, and though they surround us in a loose circle, none of them attempts to touch any of us. I’m worried because I wasn’t expecting people, or, if I’d thought about, I wasn’t expecting more than a few. There must be thirty people standing around us, just staring.We stare right back.

“Hi,” I finally say, because we could stand here forever staring at each other. “I’m Jo.”

Their eyes are wary, and it takes some time before one of them moves forward a step.

“Why have you come?” she asks. She’s wearing loose-fitting blue trousers of a fabric I don’t recognise; there’s a hole in the knee. Her top keeps sliding off her shoulder and she keeps hitching it back up.

I glance behind me at Daka and Cory. “We’re travellers,” I say. “We’re trying to get to the capital.”

“Why have you come?” she repeats.

Okay, clearly my simple explanation isn’t going to cut it. “I’m looking for my sister,” I say. “And we illegally got on a train, except then we got caught and had to bail just south of Portland, and it was faster to go through the city than around it.” I take a deep breath. “We didn’t know anyone was still living here.”

“You’re not here to kill us.”

“What?” I’m completely caught off guard. “No. Of course not.” I look around at our ragtag bunch. We’re about the most unlikely group of killers ever. “Um. This is Daka and Cory and Elliot. Flattered you think we’re capable of killing you all, I’m sure, but…” I trail off and stare at her.

“No one has come into Portland since our grandparents,” she says. “Our great-grandparents.” She stops, her gaze travelling from me to Daka to Cory and back to me. “I’m sorry,” she says suddenly. “We’re not used to visitors.” A little laugh escapes from between her lips. “We’ve never had any.” She motions to the others and most of them melt away. “We didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Um,” I say. “It’s fine.”

She looks lost for a moment, and then her expression brightens. “Can we invite you to share our midday meal?” Her eyes run over us. “We can find you some dry clothes.” She hesitates, and then adds, “And have someone take a look at your friend’s leg.”

The thought of getting Daka’s leg tended to wins me over immediately. And it is lunchtime, now that I think about it, and I am hungry, so I assume Daka’s probably starving. And the idea of dry clothes is possibly even more appealing than food. They don’t seem dangerous, they don’t seem ill, and quite frankly between the offer of medical care and the offer of food there’s no reason to say no, so I accept her offer.

“I’m Elsie,” she says as she leads us down the hill. “My family has lived in Portland for hundreds of years.”

We pass a lot of people, certainly more than I’d have ever anticipated. Men carry babies; teenagers support the elderly. Children run shrieking across the road in front of us, their laughter providing the first outright noise I’ve heard in Portland since we entered the city.

“How many of you are there?” I ask, watching a mother and son play catch. “How do you live?”

“Several thousand,” Elsie says, directing us into a mostly-intact building and pointing us up the stairs. “Portland has a lot of green space. Our grandparents and great-grandparents, once the survivors began to recover from the diseases the war brought, they went through the city and found plants, seeds, anything that they could nurture and grow. We have huge gardens. We’re self-supporting. We have solar panels — mostly scavenged from the old homes, but some we’ve started to make ourselves — and they provide our energy. The only thing we really struggle with is material to make clothes. I’m sure you’ve noticed we’re a bit threadbare.”

I shrug.

“We’ve got central stores — all the clothes left in the city, from the stores and from people’s wardrobes, got dumped into the stores, and for a long time we managed on that,” she says as we enter a big room. “We just rationed things. But now we’re running out and we don’t really have any way to replace the stores.” A little kid, maybe a few years older than Elliot, comes running up and throws her arms around her waist. Elsie hugs her. “This is one of my munchkins,” she tells us, and then looks down at the little girl and says, “Gabby, go fetch Walter, will you?”

Gabby sneaks a glance at us before beaming up at her mother. “Okay,” she says cheerfully, and skips out of the room.

Elsie watches her go with a smile and then turns back to us. “Right, let’s get you some dry things.”

“We got extra clothes,” I say, “but we could use somewhere to lay out the wet stuff to dry.”

“We’ll hang them up,” Elsie says. “If you’re not in a hurry we can wash them first.” A smile flickers across her face. “You’re muddy up to your ears.” She nods to the doors at the end of the room and looks at Daka and Cory. “If you gents want to just duck in one of the rooms to change,” she says, “then Jo can have the other room.” She points a finger Daka. “And you come back out with your trouser leg rolled up so Walter can have a look at your leg when he gets here.”

Previous: Portland
Next: Walter

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Find the rest of Jo here.

Cory looks back and forth between us. “I don’t get it. What’s wrong with Portland?”

Of course Cory wouldn’t know about Portland.

“Half of Portland is underwater,” I say. And probably flooding in this weather. “But that’s not the bad bit.” Cory waits expectantly. “Portland got hit bad in the war,” I say. “It got bioweapons dropped on it repeatedly and got quarantined, no one in or out. It’s been under quarantine for eighty years.”

“Right,” Cory says slowly.

“It’ll probably take us three days of walking to go around it,” I say.

“So why not go through it?” he asks.

“We can’t go through it,” Daka says.

Cory frowns. “But it’s been eighty years.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Okay. We can either keep following the train path around Portland, which will be days in this weather or we can walk straight through and be out the other side in a day.” I look at Daka, then Cory, and then at Daka again. “It depends on whether we reckon the city’s safe.”

“It must be by now,” Cory says, at the exact same time Daka says, “It can’t be.”

They both close their mouths and glare at each other.

“If it was fine now,” Daka argues, “surely they would have gone in and reclaimed it.”

“Not if they don’t need it,” Cory retorts. “Come on, why would your govs want an old bombed out, rundown city when they’ve got loads of other places and lots of land to build? Much easier to just leave it to rot.”

Daka doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look well, and I’m worried.

“Okay,” I say. I don’t like the look on Daka’s face; he’s fighting a lot of pain and extra days of walking aren’t going to help him. “We’ll go straight through. We can always turn around and come back at the first sign of trouble.” And with any luck we can find somewhere dry to bed down, get Daka some rest, and me and Cory can see about scavenging some supplies. They airdropped med kits and things before sealing the city — something must be left. I hope.

“That’s not going to do us much good if we’re already halfway through,” Daka mutters.

“I reckon if we’re going to run into trouble we’ll hit it before then,” I say. Daka shrugs.

Turns out we’re only about forty-five minutes south of Portland, so we hit the fences sooner than we expect to — just as well, as I’m not real sure how much longer Daka’s gonna be able to stay on his feet. The fences are six feet tall, topped with another foot of mean-looking barbed wire, and there are huge DO NOT ENTER and DANGER LIVE CURRENT signs plastered every ten feet warning travellers against entering. Maybe the fences used to have electricity running through them, but that’s definitely not the case anymore. Good news for us, but even if we wanted to there’s no way we could get over the top; maybe me and Cory could make it, but Daka can’t climb and Elliot’s too little. We’ll have to find another way through.

On the other side of the fence stretches the city of Portland, straddling the Columbia River; I guess it used to be a beautiful city, but now it just looks bleak, with bombed out and blackened buildings forming most of the skyline. The asphalt is cracked, with grass and weeds growing up through the chinks. Broken, empty windows gape in buildings left standing, or partially standing, and there’s still rubble in the streets. Grass and weeds and trees press up against the fences, years and years of growth invading the edges of the city.

It takes us awhile to find a section of fence that we can get through, since, funnily enough, none of us are packing wire cutters. Elliot hasn’t a clue what’s going on; since he and Cory joined up with me and Daka, he’s thought we’re on a grand adventure and has almost always had a great big smile on his face. Now, as he stands on the far side of the fence with Cory and waits for me and Daka to come through, he does a little dance, unable to contain his excitement. It’s finally stopped raining, which on the bright side means we can see clearly again, but then again we’re now stuck in horrible wet clothes with no way to dry off. Elliot doesn’t seem to care. I wish I shared his enthusiasm.

It’s eerie, walking through the city. The hair on the back of my neck and on my arms won’t go down; it just feels like someone’s watching us, even though I can’t see anyone. Occasionally out of the corner of my eye I see movement, a tail whisking around the side of a building or a bird winging overhead, but on the whole the city is silent. It’s oppressive; after a while even Elliot presses tight against Cory’s side, his eyes huge in his face.

We’ve been walking maybe two hours when I see a flicker of movement up ahead, and I see enough of it to know it’s not an animal. I stop short; Daka stumbles and almost falls. Cory, on his other side, steadies him.

“What’s up?” Daka whispers.

“I saw someone,” I say. “I’m sure of it.”

Previous: On the road again
Next: Welcome to Portland

Monday, August 18, 2014

On the road again

Find the rest of Jo here.

I do my best to tuck and roll, like Owen taught me, but I land awkwardly and hit a rock as I come to my feet, rolling my ankle. A heavy thud reaches my ears as I resettle my hat on my head; Cory’s hit the ground about twenty yards up the road, via a very leafy bush, and as he gets to his feet I see his face and arms are badly scratched. He must have crawled over the top of Daka in order to get off first, probably so that Daka, with Elliot, could wait for the train to slow even more and jump as late as possible.

The train’s out of sight by this time; I join Cory and we watch the trees anxiously, waiting for Daka and Elliot to appear. Cory fidgets, making me even more nervous; I want to be out of here already, losing ourselves in the woods long before the train comes to a complete halt. If we can move while the rain’s still coming down we have a better chance of disappearing; the rate it’s coming down, any tracks we leave will get washed away within minutes. Summer storms always seem to come up out of nowhere and dump absolute buckets of water, and they’re always a shock after the heat.

The rain drums against my hat and runs down the back of my neck; I’m cold and wet and my ankle hurts. Cory looks like a drowned rat. The rain’s falling so hard that the dry ground can’t absorb it all fast enough, and when I look down I’m standing in about an inch or two of water. And it’s rising. I move up the hill and stare through the rain.

I finally spot Daka and Elliot coming around the curve in the path, and it’s clear why it’s taken so long — Elliot’s walking, probably because Daka’s limping quite badly. I can see the blood staining his trousers from some distance; he must have hit something hard coming down. Elliot seems okay, though, which is a relief for Cory. I want to look at Daka’s leg as soon as he reaches us, but he shakes his head and says we need to get away from the train path first. He’s right, but I don’t like the look of pain on his face.

It’s not until we’re about half an hour into the forest, running parallel to the train path and splashing water and mud with every step, that Daka finally sinks down onto a rock and stretches his injured leg out. I crouch down in front of him and peel the blood-soaked fabric away from the wound. It’s started to clot, which is great, but that also means his trousers stick to the wound. His trousers are sopping wet from the rain, and bits of mud and a piece of a leaf have gotten mixed up with the blood. I dump all the water from my canteen and Cory’s over the injury, trying to clean it so I can see it; there’s water everywhere now, but I don’t want to splash him with even more dirty water than he’s already experienced.

It looks like he landed on something with a sharp edge, maybe some kind of old metal; the skin is torn, though the bone is intact. Thank god for small miracles, because I don’t think Daka wants to be my first attempt to set a bone. I give him a pain tablet to dull the pain, clean it up as best I can, and wrap it back up. I should have got more medical supplies from Owen or Helene before leaving Pendleton. I just never thought about it.

I look down at my handiwork. Daka’s trousers are ruined, but there’s nothing I can do about that, and at least for the moment the wound’s bound up.

“We need something better than water to clean that up,” Cory says to me quietly, his back to where Elliot is trying to distract Daka until the tablet kicks in. “If it gets infected he could use the leg.”

I resettle my hat on my head and groan. “I know,” I say. “I don’t know what to tell you, unless you happen to carry hooch in your bag?”

“Nope,” he says. “’Fraid not.”

I sigh. “Okay. We’ll have to keep moving. Follow the path north. You got any idea where we are?”

Cory shrugs. He’s got no more idea where we are than I do. Middle of nowhere, next stop flooded forest.

It’s not until afternoon that we realise where we are, when we pass an old sign at a crazy angle, half-covered in ivy. We stopped for a snack and as we get up to carry on I spot the grime-streaked bright green beneath the darker green of the plant.

I leave Daka to lean on Cory and shove the ivy off the sign, dashing rain out of my eyes. “Oh, shit,” I say.

“What is it?” Cory asks.

I step back, revealing the sign and the warning tacked below. “We’re just south of Portland.”

“Oh, shit,” Daka says.

Previous: A stormy escape
Next: Portland

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A stormy escape

Find the rest of Jo here.

“Shit,” I say, and we all dive for cover behind boxes and barrels.

The door opens and a shaft of light spills into the car; two guards are silhouetted in the frame, staring into the darkness.

“Where the hell’s the light?” one of them says, and a minute later light floods the compartment.

I can’t see Daka or Elliot, but Cory’s eyes meet mine and I can see he’s scared too. I figured that no one would come down here until the train reached its destination; the train to the capital is non-stop from Junction so there’s no reason anyone would need to get anything from the cargo car until we stop. Apparently I was wrong.

They’re looking for replacement parts, it turns out. Not that I know anything about trains, but from the bits of their conversation that I overhear it sounds like whatever’s responsible for stabilising the train shorted out or exploded or otherwise stopped working, and that combined with bad weather is what’s making the whole thing sway. They poke around the car a bit and find what they’re looking for, and I’m breathing a mental sigh of relief that they’re leaving when, just as they’re at the door, Elliot sneezes.

The two women stop short.

“Did you hear that?” the taller of the two asks. “Thought I heard a sneeze.”

“You’re hearing things,” her partner says. “I didn’t hear anything.”

And that would have been the end of it, except just as the door’s about to close behind them, Elliot sneezes again.

By the time the door reopens we’re all already in motion, heading for the door. There’s nowhere to go but out; Daka forces the door open, his muscles bulging to get it wide enough that we can all get out. Rungs run along the door up to the roof of the train; I don’t like this plan but it’s the only one we’ve got, and it’s just stupid enough that I’m hoping that maybe the guards won’t try to follow us. So with me in the lead and Cory bringing up the rear, we’re out the door and clambering up the side of the train.

Let me tell you, clinging to rain-slicked rungs and fighting to move upwards when the wind wants to throw you sideways isn’t easy. I can barely keep my eyes open, and there’s tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m holding my hat in my teeth, because it’s too big to go in my pack and I’ll be damned if I lose it. Daka’s in the middle with his pack strapped to his front so that Elliot can cling to his back — not that Cory can catch the kid if he falls. He’d be under the train before any of us could move.

I reach the top of the train and flatten against the roof, crushing my hat beneath me. Conscious that Daka’s right behind me, I inchworm along until there’s enough room for Daka to get up, but then realise he’s gonna have a hard time getting up with Elliot still on his back. For a split second I think about it, and then, wondering what relative to curse for inflicting me with the blood that made me leave Granite, I inch around until I’m facing the opposite direction so I can take Elliot’s hands and drag him up. I hold him down as Daka gets onto the roof and then hand the kid back over; I’ve never been a kid person, aside from Kit, and in any case Daka’s extra weight will be more helpful keeping both him and the kid centred.

“We have to get off this train!” Cory shouts as he joins us.

I couldn’t agree more, as the train sways and we all cling for dear life to the rungs, but I don’t see any immediate way of making this happen. We’re hurtling along at a horrifying speed, we’re in the middle of a growing storm, and the ground is about twenty feet down.

I make sure my hat’s secure beneath my body and shout back, “Peachy. And how do you propose we do that?”

Cory peers over the side of the train and quickly pulls back. “Dunno, but I suggest whatever we do, we do it soon — I think they’re going to follow us up.”

It occurs to me that it feels like the train is slowing, and if the train’s slowing then we might actually be able to get off without killing ourselves. Once it’s stopped, we’re screwed; they’ll be on the roof before we can so much as move. I struggle to think, and let me tell you, that’s super hard when you’re in imminent danger of getting blown to your death.

“Okay,” I finally shout. “We got to make it to the end of the train before it stops, and once it’s slow enough we’ll jump.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Daka demands.

“Not from here,” I say. “We got to climb down once we get to the end of the train.”

None of us are real excited about this plan — well, Elliot doesn’t care, but I think he’s more upset about having to leave Alfred than anything else — but it’s the only one we’ve got. I’m the one nearest the end of the train — one car further on from the cargo car — so I grip my hat in my teeth again and inch back around.

The train is definitely slowing, though fortunately for us it takes a long time. I get to the end of the cargo car and have to swing myself around yet again so I can go down the rungs backwards. Once I’m down and standing over the car couplings, one hand on the car on either side of me, I decide we’re going to jump from here rather than climb back up and go the length of another car. I look up and see Daka peering over the edge at me; I gesture wildly until he seems to get it, and wait until he’s halfway down the ladder before jumping.

Previous: Train 

Friday, August 15, 2014


Find the rest of Jo here.

The next morning, the four of us are up early and end up loitering around the train station for almost an hour. Elliot sits on Daka’s shoulders and traces patterns in Daka’s short hair, while me and Cory lean against the wall and watch people get on and off the trains. Junction is one of the main terminals in the northern part of the Commonwealth so the station is busy, full of men and women and children and army types from all over the country, and some from outside the Commonwealth besides. It’s loud, louder than I would have expected; I’ve never been on a train before, only ever heard the whistles from far away as they went by. They’re big and long and they hover about a foot off the ground, and they buzz when they’re standing still with a vibration that makes your teeth hurt. I wish we hadn’t arrived so early; it’s given me way too long to think about how the hell we’re actually going to manage to hop the train. Me and Daka alone maybe could have managed it without getting caught, but I don’t know quite how we’re going to get Elliot on board without being seen. There are BVs with order sticks patrolling the platforms and checking papers; I don’t like our odds of getting aboard.

“That’s it,” Cory says, interrupting my thoughts. He pushes away from the wall and nods to the train that’s just pulled in at platform six. I check the time. We have six minutes to try and get on the train.

I watch the crowd as we make our way towards the train. We need a diversion of some kind, and I’m hoping to see someone or something I can use — and I find someone. There’s a belligerent, clumsy drunk near the train; he’s already attracted the attention of the BVs, who are fingering the handles of their order sticks and exchanging glances. I get a little closer and wait until a heavy-set man walks by before sticking out my foot and tripping him; he stumbles and crashes into the drunk, sending both crashing to the platform. The drunk is furious; spitting and swearing, his fists flailing, he launches himself at the other man and starts to hit him.

The BVs move towards the fight. I’m long out of the way, and I find that Cory and Daka and Elliot are already creeping towards the end car, the one with the luggage and cargo. I keep an eye on the fight; it’s escalating quickly, and other BVs are starting to get drawn in. I motion to Cory and Daka; Daka is tallest, and strongest, so he gets the door open, and then Cory leaps up into the car and reaches back down for Elliot. Daka gives me a boost up and then swings up behind me, closing the door behind him and plunging us into darkness.

We’re all out of breath. My heart is thudding against my chest; I was so sure that we were going to get caught, and for a minute I don’t notice the other sounds in the car — shuffling, rustling, non-human breathing.

Daka’s voice comes out of the darkness. “Anyone got a light?”

There’s a rustling sound, a muttered curse, and then a light flicks on. Cory’s, of course. It’s a palm light, so it’s not real bright, but it’s enough to illuminate our little section of the car. We’re in the cargo car, and a pair of bright yellow eyes are staring at us from a cage against the opposite wall. It’s a giant cat.

“Shit,” Cory says, scrambling away from the cage. “What the hell is that?”

“Big kitty,” Elliot offers. Cory ruffles his hair.

“More to the point,” I say, “what’s it doing in here?”

“Your uncle said some govs like exotic pets,” Daka says. “I reckon it’s getting shipped to the capital.”

“We had to get the train with the giant cat,” Cory moans, flopping backwards and closing his eyes.

“You picked the train,” I point out. He opens one eye, stares at me, and then shuts it again.

There’s a tag attached to the cage; Daka inches closer to read it. “Says he’s a gift to the Patriarch.”

I laugh. “Guess we’re keeping super fancy company, then.”

“Reckon he’s friendly?” Daka asks.

“If he’s not going to eat us, then I’ll call that friendly,” I say. “Don’t pet him, Daka.”

Daka ignores me and holds out his hand. “Surely if they’re sending him to the Patriarch, he can’t exactly be a man-eating cat.”

Cory snorts. “That would be a hell of an assassination attempt.”

The cat sniffs Daka’s hand and then vigorously rubs his head against Daka’s fingers. I watch for a minute and then scoot closer. I always wanted a pet, and even had a little rabbit for a while, but it died and so I never tried again. The cat’s got amazingly soft fur — and really big teeth. I stick for petting his neck and stay far away from his mouth. Daka’s a lot braver than me. I reckon he’d probably liberate the cat if he thought he could get away with it, but our little band is ragtag enough as it is. Adding an oversized cat is not going to happen.

The trip north is several hours. Cory sleeps; I think; Daka and Elliot play with the cat. Elliot names it Alfred, for no apparent reason, and is distraught when he realises that he can’t keep it.

We’re maybe an hour and a half into the journey when things start going wrong. The carriage starts to sway, not a lot, but enough so it’s obvious that it’s not normal, and that upsets both Elliot and Alfred. Normally I’d be more concerned with Elliot’s distress, except that when a several-hundred pound cat starts growling and pacing, it kind of shoots to the top of your list of worries. And then, over the horrible sounds Alfred’s making, we hear voices on the other side of the car door.