“Kat, are you sure about this?” I rolled my eyes. Seb’s constant badgering was beginning to wear me down. If he didn’t want to come, why didn’t he just stay at home?
“For the 50th time, Seb, yes. I’m sure about this. It’s not much further. Can you just calm down a little bit? You look suspicious.”
“It’s three in the morning, and we’re wearing black clothing. With hoods. There’s no way for us to look anything other than suspicious.” He had a point. That, though, just made him more irritating.
“She wants to do it, let’s just do it.” Ant didn’t have much patience for contemplation. Sometimes, that could be a real pain. On this occasion, though, it was most welcome.
We walked for a while in silence. I shivered, and not purely from the nighttime chill. I was nervous, my stomach churning harder with each step. If the boys were experiencing any nerves, they were keeping them well hidden. This was nothing to them, really. It wasn’t as personal as it was for me. I looked around the familiar streets as we pounded block after block. Familiar sights, even in the blackness of night. Buildings and monuments I’d been around my whole life. It would be weird to never see them again.
“So, you worried?” Seb asked me. I didn’t know if he was talking about what we were about to do, or what the next day would bring. The answer was no. To both. Worried wasn’t really the right word. Anxious, maybe.
“You sure?” He shot me a doubtful look.
“She’s fine,” Ant said dismissively. “Conscription ain’t nothing.”
“He says that now,” Seb said, shooting me a conspiratorial grin. “It was a different story then.”
“What are you talking about?” Ant eyed him suspiciously.
“You were nervous as hell! Damn near pissed your pants…”
Ant shook his head in agitation, thrusting his hands in his pockets. Seb grinned at me again.
“So, you all packed?” Seb, worrying about me.
“There’s nothing to pack. It’s not an excursion. I can’t take luggage.”
“Uh huh,” he said.
“Don’t you remember?”
“Nah. Long time ago, wasn’t it.”
“It was only three years ago, Seb,” I said.
“Exactly. A lifetime.”
“Stop mothering her,” Ant demanded. He skipped across to me and roughly rubbed my fuzzy hair. I gritted my teeth, biting back any protest. He knew I hated when he did it. That was why he delighted in it so. I ran my own hand through my hair. It had gotten past the rough stage, and was almost fluffy. It was a couple of centimeters long, the months since I last shaved it having flown by. There was a time, not too many years ago, when I’d had long, flowing hair. I’d cultivated it over years, and friends were jealous of it. When the boys had first suggested I shave it all off with them, Id refused point blank. It had been my pride and joy. I’d dropped the dresses. I’d dropped music. I’d as good as dropped school. Still, though, I’d clung on to that hair. Only for a few more months, though. Then, I gave in. Resigned myself to becoming one of the boys. The first time I’d looked in the mirror, it had been a shock. However, though it had almost sent me into a fit of despair, within days, I’d gotten used to it. Ant had been right, it really did make me feel like one of the gang. This, back before half the gang left…
We carried on in silence for a while. A couple of vehicles zoomed past us, heightening my anxiety. They showed no interest in us, though, and we didn’t happen across any pedestrians. Town was pretty quiet at that time of night. We were in the older part of town now. The buildings were stone rather than carbon fibre. The lighting genuine piping rather than glowstrip. I liked it far more than the more modern areas. Every building looked a little different.
“Come on, how much further is it?” Ant bellowed impatiently, breaking the silence. Before I could stop myself, I shushed him. He smirked at me. “It’s all right,” he shouted, even more loudly, “there’s no-one around to hear us!”
Seb slammed his fist hard into Ant’s shoulder, drawing a howl of pain, which quickly descended into laughter.
“All right,” Ant said, still chuckling. “I’ll keep it down!” he whispered. He was the older of the two, who weren’t brothers, but might as well have been. The extra few months he had on Seb didn’t equal advanced maturity, though. It was quite the opposite.
“It is just up here, isn’t it?” Seb whispered to me a few moments later. I nodded with a smile. “And you’re sure you’re up for this?” If I hadn’t been so worried about waking people up, drawing attention to us, I might have screamed. Instead, I shot him a death glare, and he got the message.
As we drew close to our destination, my chest began to tighten. Seb’s breathing quickened, and even Ant bore a serious expression. They’d done plenty of jobs like this one, so quite why they were so nervous, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps they just always were, and I’d never noticed before. They didn’t care much for authority, but they did have a healthy fear of it. None of us wanted to get arrested.
Once we came in sight of the window, our entry point, I stopped walking. The boys followed my cue.
“Everyone know what they’re doing? Seb asked.
“It’s not exactly a master plan,” Ant pointed out. “We get in, and we get out.”
“And you’re sure the cabinet won’t be locked?”
“He never locks it,” I replied. “He loves that thing with all his heart, but he doesn’t keep it secure.”
“Moron,” Ant snorted.
“It’s never occurred to him that someone might take it,” I said defensively.
Rolling my eyes at him, I led them over to the window, my legs feeling heavier with each step. Despite my protests, the truth was, I WASN’T sure about what we were doing. I knew I had to do it, but that didn’t make me feel any better about portraying the old man’s trust. I’d worked for him for five years, over a quarter of my life.
Ant produced a tool from the inside of his coat, and started working on the window.
“You know there’s a good chance you’re not going anywhere, right?” I nodded. “There’s a 75% chance you’ll have to go back to work the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, Seb. I know how numbers work.”
“Well… what’s that gonna be like? Having to work with the old man after doing this?” He searched my face with an expression of genuine concern.
“It’s not really like I have a choice,” I sighed. “There’s that 25%. Without me, I’m not sure she can survive.”
“I’m sure she’d be fine,” he replied quietly.
“And there we go,” Ant called out a little too loudly. He swung one leg over through the open window. “Well?” he said, looking at us expectantly. “Coming in?”
Taking a deep breath, I stepped towards the window. Seb held his arm in front of me.
“Keep watch,” he said.
“Someone should keep watch. Besides, if there’s any recording equipment in there, you’re the only one of us the old man can identify, right?” I couldn’t argue with him. I was a little relieved that I didn’t have to go in, to so actively take part in the heinous act, but I felt bad. The boys were doing this for me, and they were the ones taking the biggest risk.
“Fine,” I said finally. I watched Ant disappear into the even darker darkness inside the building. After a few seconds, Seb’s face reappeared at the window.
“There’s about a hundred cabinets in here. Which one is it?”
“At the end of the counter,” I told him. “On the wall next to the door to the back office.” Once again, he disappeared from view, and I glanced around nervously, scanning down the street in both directions, in case someone should happen along. I felt a pang of regret. Mr Beaton had been so good to me over the years. He gave me an after-school job when I was just fourteen, when no-one else was willing to take a risk on a girl my age. Then, even more amazingly, he continued to put up with me as my personality grew. He let me continue working on the shop floor even after I dropped the nice clothes, and dressed more and more like a street punk.
Suddenly, I heard an odd noise from behind me. I turned just in time to see a set of bars slide down over the open window.
“What?” I stepped towards the bars, and tried to force them back up. They wouldn’t budge. “Hey!” I shouted through them. “What did you guys do?” There was no response for several seconds, and I began to think they’d run off somewhere. Then Seb appeared, looking at the bars with concern.
“What happened?” he said.
“I was gonna ask you the same thing,” I replied.
“Well you must have set them off,” he said accusingly.
“ME? I was nowhere near them. You must have set off some sort of security.”
“There’s no sign of anything like that.”
“Actually, yeah, there is,” Ant called from deeper inside. “I can see a little flashing light under one of the cabinets. Must be a silent alarm.” He sounded ridiculously calm.
“Oh no!” I said. “You’re trapped in there!” I frantically tried to force the bars back up above the window, but there was nu budging them. “Help me,” I said to an unmoving Seb. After a few moments, I realised he was staring at me. “What are you doing?”
“Just looking,” he said. “Maybe for the last time.”
“We need to get you out.”
“We’ll find another way out,” he said. “Don’t worry about us. You can’t afford to hang around here, though. Probably won’t be too long before security agents show up.”
“I can’t just leave you in there!”
“We’ll be fine. Promise. Kat…”
“I’ll miss you. You know, if…”
“Yeah,” I said nodding. “I know.” I gazed up at him, my panic turning to sadness. He had tried to convince me several times that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. That my name wouldn’t be pulled out during the Conscription. I’d never bought into it, though. And in that moment, with his sad eyes looking down at me, I knew he didn’t really buy it either. We both had to be prepared to say farewell. “Bye.” Seb nodded. “You’ll make sure she gets my share, won’t you?” Again, he nodded. And I knew he meant it. Then I turned, and started to run.
I only made it a few yards before I realised I was being stupid. If I was spotted running away from the scene of a crime, it would be obvious that I was guilty. And really, I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. Well, sure, I’d been an accessory. In fact, I’d planned the whole thing. Conceived the idea over a matter of months. Checked out the best way to sneak in. Made sure the cabinet holding Mr Beaton’s prize model was never locked. Checked out its real value, and what sort of collectors would be interested in buying it. But, thanks to Seb, I’d never stepped foot in the shop. He may have quit school several years early, but Seb wasn’t stupid.
I slowed my pace to a brisk walk, heading for the first walkway that would take me off that street. I felt terrible, leaving them behind so readily. They were resourceful, and I felt pretty confident that they’d find a way out before security got there. There was no way to be sure, though. And if they did get caught, there was a strong possibility I’d never even find out. I reached the walkway that I knew so well, and stepped into the unlit alley. Trying to calm my breathing, I went from a trot to a saunter. I was off the street. That meant I was probably safe. Just as my confidence as growing, though, I heard a noise behind me. I looked back, but couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. Not wanting to take the chance of someone suddenly appearing through the gloom, I turned and started running again, towards the dim light at the other end of the alleyway.
After what seemed like an age, I reached the opening, the cold air causing my breath to catch in my lungs. Without slowing, I burst out onto the next street, and turned ninety degrees, moving North-Eastwards in the general direction of home. I chanced a look back over my shoulder. Focusing on the opening of the alleyway disappearing behind me, I squinted, trying to see if there was any movement. Satisfied there was no-one there, I looked back towards the road ahead of me, preparing to slow back to a brisk walk again. Instead, I stopped dead. There was a distinctive silver vehicle just a few meters in front of me, pulling to a stop. The sign across the top read ‘KM Security’.
I watched the main lights of the vehicle rotate until they were shining right at me, and I shielded my eyes from the sudden glare. Scared to make any sudden movements, an irrational fear of being shot clouding my mind, I glanced around me, trying to map out an escape route.
I couldn’t go back down the alley that I’d come from; There would surely be more security agents down there. That really only left running up or down the street. The vehicle was between me and the way home. I could run in the other direction, but I’d then need to double back at some point. If I really was worried about being shot, though, running would be stupid. They wouldn’t gun down a passive civilian. A suspect fleeing the scene of a crime, though, was a far more likely target. Besides which, there was no way I’d get away. I could sprint pretty fast, but I’d never outrun a security cruiser.
I stood in surrender, stopping short of raising my hands in the air. They couldn’t prove anything. I was perfectly innocent, for all they knew. There didn’t seem to be any sign of movement in the car. I tried to make out figures within, but the bright light radiating towards my face made it impossible to see clearly. After what seemed like an age, the front passenger side door opened, and a figure emerged. She shut the door, but leaned down to the window, apparently talking to someone inside. The cool breeze carried words across the air, but they were mumblings. I was too far to actually make any of them out. Finally, the figure began walking towards me. I tried to act casual, putting on a frown of concern. I was caught off-guard, though, when the figure stepped in front of the light, giving me my first good look at her. She was a girl. I don’t just mean she was female, either. I mean she didn’t look a day older than me.
“Hey, Miss,” she said, coming to a stop a good couple of meters in front of me. Thankfully, the light behind her began to dim, and I was able to stop squinting.
“Hi,” I said, trying to keep the fear from my voice. It helped that she looked like she could easily have been in one of my classes at school. Before I’d stopped turning up entirely. “Everything OK?”
“You seemed to be in an awful hurry. Would there be any reason for that?”
She might have looked young, but her tone was authoritative, and completely in control. Any confidence I had completely drained away.
“Actually, yeah,” I said, hastily forming a plan of sorts.
“Oh?” she said, a surprised frown creasing her otherwise perfect skin. “And what would that be?”
“There were a couple of men, on the other street,” I said, jabbing a thumb over my shoulder. “I don’t know what they were up to, but it was definitely something.” I felt bad selling out Seb and Ant to try to save my own skin, but they were either going to get caught or they weren’t. “They were lurking around, acting suspicious. They looked pretty startled when I walked past them.”
“Really?” she asked. She looked pretty sceptical, but I tried not to let that put me off. I nodded. “Can you describe them to me?” she said, pulling a pad from her pocket. My heart skipped. She was actually buying it.
My immediate instinct was to reply in the negative, but I quickly dismissed that. Claiming I had no information would just convince her I was guilty of something.
“Yeah, sure. So, they were both pretty athletic. You know, muscular,” I said of the super skinny Seb and Ant. “One of them was average height, but the other was super tall.” The boys were roughly the same height as me. I was reasonably tall for a girl at 5’11”, which made them both pretty average. “I didn’t really see their faces, though.” She looked up at my face, one eyebrow arched. “They both had pretty long hair. Greasy, matted over their faces.” She studied me for a moment, sizing me up. I tried hard to control my breathing, and return her gaze. “Two big, greasy guys. It kinda freaked me out. I walked away, as quickly as I could, but then I heard a loud clanging noise. So I ran.”
“What kind of clothes were they wearing?”
“I’m sorry, I really don’t know. Dark, black, I guess. It was hard to see, there wasn’t much light. And I didn’t want to look at them, you know? I didn’t want to draw their attention.” I folded my arms and shivered, then fought the urge to immediately bite my lip. Was that last touch too much?
“OK, bud,” she said, her face softening a little. “An alarm was triggered, we’re just checking it out. I’ll be back in a minute.”
She turned and walked back over to the security vehicle, and I let out a long, slow breath. So far so good, as far as I could tell. She seemed to be buying it, though she hadn’t let me go yet. I looked around, taking in my surroundings again, though being careful to avoid any sudden movements. I didn’t want to give the impression I was about to start running. Not when I seemed to be getting through it OK. She spoke to the person inside the car again, and still I couldn’t make out what was being said. I chanced a little shuffle forward, but it didn’t make a bit of difference. Standing still out in the dead of night was causing me to start shivering. After a good few minutes of conversation between them, I started to get impatient. Why couldn’t they just let me go? It was clear they weren’t going to do anything with me. They’d have done it already. It was like they were toying me, trying to scare me. I hated security agents.
Eventually, the girl started walking back over. She didn’t have a happy look on her face, and she was marching purposefully. My legs suddenly became weak. Had they picked up Seb and Ant? Had they sold me out?
“Some of my fellow officers have checked out an alarm that got tripped in one of the buildings in the next street. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” she asked briskly. I shrugged helplessly. “Someone set off a security shutter on one of the windows?” She phrased it like a question, but I just looked back at her blankly. She stared intensely into my eyes. “There was no-one inside, no sign of anything being disturbed. There’s nothing to charge anyone with, we’re just trying to ascertain what happened, so everyone can just get on with their day.” She seemed to be giving me an out. Indicating that no crime could be proven to have been committed. That if I ‘fessed up, she’d just let me go with a warning or something. It was tempting, if only to finally get out of the cold. It could easily be a trap, though. A way to trick me into confessing. She said they hadn’t found anyone inside. Again, that might not be true, but I thought it probably was. Seb and Ant were pretty slippery. They’d been sneaking in and out of places they shouldn’t for half their lives.
“Sorry, I really don’t know anything about it.”
“How old are you?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. It was the first personal question she’d asked me. It was an odd one to lead with, too. I’d been stopped by security officers in the past. Hassled for hanging around on the streets, never picked up for something specific. They’d always asked me for ID, though. My address, the details of my parent or guardian.
A grim smile appeared on her face, and she nodded almost imperceptibly.
“You know what I think?” she said. I shrugged, not knowing what the right answer would have been. “I think you set the security shutter off. You wandered around the neighbourhood, deep in thought. Saw a building with security system, figured you’d make a scene, get yourself picked up.”
“Huh?” I couldn’t understand what she was getting at.
“You’re not the first to try it. We don’t usually get much going on here,” she said quietly, motioning to the buildings around us. “It’s usually pretty quiet in this part of town.” She took a couple of steps towards me, her face within touching distance of mine. “It’s not such a bad thing, you know?” I just looked at her blankly, completely lost. “Service can be a good thing. Especially for someone like you.” She looked me up and down. “What, you drop out of school, when? Fifteen? Fourteen? You spend your time hanging out on the streets, make yourself look tough so no-one steps to you? Service can be character building.” She took a step back, waiting for a reaction from me.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said defensively, feeling a little hurt by the personal attack on my look.
“Even if we took you in, you’d be released in the morning,” she said, almost apologetically. “Getting arrested isn’t going to get you out of the Conscription. If your name is on the register, it won’t get taken off. If your name is gonna get drawn, it’ll get drawn. It’s a great opportunity, though. To fight for our very race? To help save the lives of the people you care about? So many people see it as a death sentence, but it’s not that. If nobody served, THEN it would be a death sentence. For all of us.” She searched my face for some sign that I might be buying into it. That I agreed with what she was saying. I was too stunned to react, though. I hadn’t expected a lecture on the virtues of joining the Galactic Division. And why did she care so much? Division soldiers would laugh in the face of a local security officer.
“Hey, Liberty?” The sudden booming voice coming from the security vehicle caught both our attentions. “We taking her in or what?” Liberty held a hand up at him, and he shook his head, stepping back into the car.
“Look, don’t worry about it. Whatever happens, it’ll be fine. You’ll either get to stay here, carry on living the life you’ve chosen. Or, you’ll get selected to be something more. Something better.” She offered me a tight smile, and began walking back to the security vehicle. After a few steps, she turned back to face me. “Good luck tomorrow,” she called over to me. “You registered at Central?” I hesitated a second, then nodded. “Then maybe I’ll see you there, bud.” She shot me a slightly wider smile, then walked the rest of the way to her vehicle, climbing in.
I stood completely still as they began to move off. I didn’t dare move, for fear they might suddenly change their mind. As they disappeared into the darkness, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been an odd altercation, but I’d survived it.
I hurried back towards home. I was freezing by that point, and hoped that moving quickly might go some way to thawing me out. As I walked, I took in the last of the familiar sights. I kept playing the encounter over in my head. It had never occurred to me a any point that getting myself arrested would get me out of the Conscription. Did other people really believe that would work? If what she’d said was true, though, I really could have broken into my workplace by myself. Sauntered through the door, taken my time. Presented my ID to the security officers that turned up, safe in the knowledge that they’d have to release me the very next morning. A great idea, with one flaw, of course. If I then wasn’t Conscripted, then surely I’d face incarceration when I arrived hoe from the ceremony.
It was with great relief that I arrived home. I rued the time I’d lost talking to the girl, though. I’d have been home late enough as it was, but because of all that, I’d only get a few hours sleep at the most. That was a depressing thought. It was going to be a long day, and I’d have liked to have been a bit better rested. Oh well. I could just sleep on the transport up to the training ship. That was usually a pretty long journey, as I understood it.
I let myself in quietly, and took my shoes off. I was hungry, and considered getting a quick something to eat. Sleep, I decided, was far more important. I tiptoed down the hall towards my room, when a figured suddenly appeared out of the darkness, making me near jump out of my skin.
“Katerine Rafalsdottir! Where have you been young lady?!”
“I’m still waiting for an answer?” Of course she was. I wasn’t sure if she’d woken up, and realised I wasn’t here, or if she’d been waiting for me all day. “Well?”
“I was out,” I said. “Obviously.”
“Out. Around. Enjoying my last day of freedom.”
“We’ve been over this Katarine,” she said dismissively. “That’s just nonsense talk. I want to know where you’ve been, and who you’ve been with.
She was in denial. Specifically, about the Conscription, but in all honesty, she’d been in denial for as long as I could remember. Ever since Dad had died.
“You know who I’ve been with,” I replied. “You know I don’t have any other friends, so I don’t really understand why you keep asking.”
“Well I can but hope,” she muttered. “I spoke to Mister Brava. You didn’t go to work today.”
“I had the day off!” I yelled in exasperation. “I told you I was having the day off about a hundred times.”
“And I told you a hundred times that I’d spoken to Mister Brava and cancelled it. You can’t keep taking time off, young lady. You’ll lose your job. And then where will you be?”
I felt rage building within me. As much as I was used to her pretending bad things didn’t happen, it was upsetting that she didn’t seem to care enough to even be worried that I might leave for ever the next day.
“In space, Mum. Remember? That’s where I’ll be. I’m getting Conscripted tomorrow, whether you can comprehend that or not. This time tomorrow, I’ll be up in a ship full of soldiers. Do you honestly think I would want to spend my last day working?”
She rolled her eyes, then began shaking her head vigorously. As if pretending the wide world didn’t exist would cause it to vanish.
“If you keep taking time off, you’ll lose your job. You need that job, Katarine.”
What she meant was that WE needed it. We couldn’t afford to live on what little money she was now making doing less and less hours at the centre. She never had told me how much Dad’s insurance money had been, but I found it hard to believe there could have been any left. Tired and angry, I stepped around her to make my way up to bed. Quick as a flash despite her advancing years, she jumped in front of me.
“Oh no,” she said. “We are not finished. You will talk to me young lady.”
“I was nineteen. Legally an adult. If I’d wanted to, I could have moved out some time ago. I could probably have afforded to as well, if I’d been happy enough to live with Seb and Ant. That would have driven me crazy, though. I could never have left her anyway, not by choice. She needed me, whether she could admit it to herself or not. Having my name pulled out the next day would be the only way I’d ever get away from her. It wasn’t really what I wanted, but it might just be good for both of us.
When my father had died, she had become a shell of a woman. She’d carried on with life. She’d acted, in fact, like nothing had really happened. I never saw her cry, and she never spoke about missing him. She wasn’t the same person, though. It was clear that it had affected her deeply. Her spirit just kind of went. Disappeared. It was as though she couldn’t bear to truly care about anything ever again. Including me. Yeah, she was yelling at me for staying out late at night, and always badgered me about hanging out with delinquents. But that was because, deep down, she knew she wouldn’t be able to cope if I went away. If anything happened to me, or if I decided to leave, it would finish her off.
“Mum, look,” I said, softly, patiently. “There is a twenty-five percent chance that I will have to leave tomorrow. I realise that means I’m far more likely to stay, but I can’t live my life like that. I have to prepare for the worst.” My actions that night had been the epitome of that attitude. “You may not like them, but Seb and Ant are my friends. If there was a chance I was never going to see them again, I had to take the opportunity to say goodbye.” As soon as I paused to draw breath, she opened her mouth to speak. “I realise your worried about me losing my job,” I said quickly, cutting off her attempt to interrupt, “but Mister Brava said it was fine. If I’m not conscripted, I promise, I will take no more time off for the rest of the year. Not even one day. Does that sound fair?”
She looked at me, her brain ticking over. She wanted to argue with that. It was her nature. But she realised she couldn’t.
“Agreed,” she said, “if you actually stick to it!”
That was fair. I wasn’t very honest with my Mum in general. It was her own fault, in my defence. She had so many rules, so many things she didn’t like me doing, places she didn’t want me going. If I told her half of the things I got up to, she’d be horrified. She’d have the security agents out looking for me every night.
“Can we talk about it tomorrow, Mum? Please? Regardless of whether my name gets drawn tomorrow, it’s gonna be a really long day. I’d like to get some sleep.” Pursing her lips, she considered it for a good minute. She was wide awake, and her blood was boiling. She wanted to have it out immediately.
“OK. But we WILL talk about it. I won’t forget this, Katarine.”
She knew she couldn’t win. No matter how much she wanted to change me, or rather, get the old me back, I wasn’t her little girl anymore. I hadn’t been for a very long time.
Before she changed her mind, I quickly made my way to my room, and locked the door behind me. I threw myself into bed, desperate to get some sleep. It wasn’t as easy as that, though. I was as annoyed as I was tired, and the more I thought about it, the more angry I got. I’d been out, risking my well-being, to make sure that she would be looked after in my absence. I might be going away forever the very next day, but she wanted to make it all about her. She didn’t care about my feelings. Not once had she asked me if I was scared, or nervous, or worried. At least Seb and Ant had addressed it. In their own way. They were the only real family I had. They’d also risked their well-being for me. They would get their share out of it, of course. And it was the kind of thing they had tried to talk me into many times. I’d broken the law with them, many times. I’d always stopped short of burglary, though. Somehow, that was a level of crime above what I was willing to do. Or rather, it had been. I began thinking about Mister Brava, and how devastated he would be that his beloved sculpture had been taken. Seb was right. If I had to go in to work and face him after what I’d done, it would be a nightmare. We had agreed that we’d find a way to get it back into his possession if I wasn’t conscripted, but I wasn’t convinced that Ant would stick to that. He’d risked getting caught, and to then have nothing to show for it wouldn’t be good for his ego. Plus, stupidly, I’d let him make the connection with the potential buyers for the piece. I’d distanced myself from the selling of the item for obvious reasons, and of the two of them, I cared far more if something happened to Seb. But it did mean that Ant could turn around and sell it any time he wanted. And he could choose not to get my share to Mum after all. Seb had promised he wouldn’t let that happen, but without me around to guilt him, he’d just fall back under Ant’s influence again, like he’d been when I first met them.
I listened for a while to Mum banging about, making a meal of going to bed, so that I’d know she was still angry. As if I needed any kind of reminder. Eventually, she settled down, and I tried to turn my brain off. It would be weird, leaving here. Leaving my home. Leaving my planet. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about it, but I was definitely feeling more nervous than I had been up ‘til that point. It was starting to feel more real. It hadn’t been until my 18th birthday that I’d thought about it with any degree of seriousness. The months since had gone far too quickly. I knew others, on their eighteenth birthdays, made a list. They wrote down a whole bunch of things they wanted to do before the Conscription. Things they’d always wanted to see, experiences they’d always imagined having. Making sure that if they were taken away from their homes and their families, that it would be without regret.
I hadn’t made a list. Honestly, there’d been nothing that I’d ever wanted to do. Life had just happened to me. It wasn’t that I’d never had dreams. I remembered quite well some of the things I’d dreamed of doing when I was a little girl. Learning to ride. Trips to the beach. Designing my own dress for prom. None of those things mattered to me anymore, though. I’d left those hopes behind half a decade ago. Since then, I’d been living day to day. Left school because I wanted to. Got a job because I’d had to. Spent the time I wasn’t working trying to have as much fun as I dared, without letting things get too far out of control. I’d been lucky to meet Seb and Ant. They were hoodlums, but underneath, they were decent people. Well, sort of. If I’d fallen in with a worse crowd, though, it could all have ended so badly. I probably wouldn’t have survived to even face the Conscription.
Did I want my name to get drawn out? Not really. It would be something different. A spark of excitement in an otherwise dreary existence. None of that mattered, though. Somehow, I knew. I felt it deep in my soul. My name was going to be drawn in the Conscription lottery. I was going to be a soldier. How did I feel about that? I really didn’t know.
I appraised myself in the mirror. The bathroom mirror, of course. There had been no mirror in my bedroom for years, a casualty of one of my many reorganisation efforts. I hated spending time in my room. It was boring. It was less desirable, though, than hanging about the rest of the house with my Mother. As a result, any time I spent too much time in there, I tried to find new ways to rearrange the furniture. The room wasn’t very big, mind, and there wasn’t much that could be done with what little mismatched furniture I had in there. Not that it mattered much anymore.
A similar problem faced me as I studied my own reflection. I didn’t have much to work with. I didn’t really own any make-up, save for some horribly garish stuff I tried a year or so back, whilst going through some phase or another. I could do even less with my hair. It was still too short to hold any kind of style. It didn’t even feel spiky when I ran my hands through it, either. It was just… fluffy.
I sighed. Why did I even care? I never made any effort with my appearance, yet here I was, dressed in my ‘best’ clothes, the smart trousers and blouse my Mum had bought me for when we went to visit her friends, obsessing over my looks in the mirror. With the people I knew, it didn’t matter to me what I looked like, cos they accepted me for who I was. Even Mister Brava. Now, just because I was going to be in a room surrounded by thousands of other teenagers, I was suddenly self-conscious. Whatever I tried to do with myself, they were all going to be much better turned out than I was, so what was the point? Within a few weeks aboard the training ship I imagined we’d all be sweaty and smelly anyway. Once we got out onto the battlefield, it wouldn’t matter how we’d once dressed.
I stomped back in my bedroom, unbuttoning the blouse. If this was going to be the last day on this planet, my planet, then I would damn well dress like how I pleased. Then, I heard Mum coming down the hall, and I started popping the buttons back in again. I didn’t want another scene. Not today.
“Katarine? Ahh, you’re nearly ready?” She wore a beaming smile, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’d just entered my room without so much as a knock. “I’ll walk you to the bus. The next one is due in a couple of minutes, so you’ll need to hurry.” As I had suspected, there was no sign of any worry on her face. No sense of unease in her demeanour. Taking a few moments to quell my rage, I took a look around my room. I guessed I’d probably miss it. I didn’t feel at all sentimental for it, but then you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone. When I got to the front hall, Mum was hovering about impatiently.
“Quick, quick,” she said, ushering me out. We marched down the road at the fastest speed she could manage, my own mother more preoccupied with making sure I caught the earlier bus than giving me a proper send off.
“Have you got your paperwork?” she asked me once she was finally sure we would get there on time.
“Yes, definitely,” I said, patting my pocket.
“Now are you remembering that we’re going over to Vivien’s for tea when you get back?” I clenched my fists, but merely nodded. “I want you to come straight back. Don’t go hanging around with those boys. I don’t want to be late, and I certainly don’t want you ruining those clothes. We can’t afford to replace them, you know.” I was only too aware of this fact.
We reached the bus stop, and she began bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, looking down the road for the bus, as if that would compel it to arrive sooner. I tried to catch her eye, in hopes that I would get some kind of meaningful goodbye, some sign that she was at all concerned about me. What I got was nothing. It was like she was just putting me on the bus for a normal day at work.
“Mum?” She either didn’t hear me, or purposely blocked me out. “Mum?”
“I can’t see it,” she said. “Are you sure we have the right time.”
“Mum!” Louder, more insistent. She looked back at me, narrowing her eyes. I swallowed down the lump in my throat. She looked at me expectantly, but I struggled to get any words out. Just as she appeared to have give up, returning her attention to the road, I forced it out. “I’ll miss you.” I don’t know why those were the words that escaped. I wasn’t sure if it was a true statement. All I’d really meant to do was say goodbye. Just to know that I’d said it That I’d tried.
“What?” she asked me, genuine confusion on her face. I wanted to scream.
“I’ll miss you,” I said again, going for broke. “You know, if I have to go…” She started to wave me off, and anger flashed through me. “What if I don’t come back?” I snapped. “Will you care?” She stared at me, wide eyed. Then she screwed her face up in anger.
“What do you mean?” She asked. “What do you mean? Will I care? What kind of question is that to ask? Your own mother?”
I took a step back, genuinely shocked. I expected the apathy. I’d also hoped that she would display some sort of emotion. Some level of sadness that I might not be coming back. But anger? The sound of a vehicle drew her attention, and she turned to watch the bus pulling up. A large group of kids appeared around us as if from nowhere, pushing their way past us to get to the bus. I tried to take a step towards her, but we were both getting jostled, pushed further apart. I noticed other parents stood back on the street, waving their children off. Both mothers and fathers, many with moist eyes. I waited until most of the passengers had boarded, then skirted around the back of the queue to get to her.
“You’d better get on quickly. You don’t want him to go without you.”
“Bye, Mom,” I said, forcing back tears. I started to lift my arms to hug her, but she stepped back away from me.
“Quickly, quickly.” She shooed me on to the bus, leaving me in no doubt that a proper farewell wasn’t on offer.
Wiping away a tear, I reluctantly turned around and boarded. It was an unusually long bus, no doubt on loan from one of the larger cities, yet it was already full. Finding an area to stand where I could securely hold on, I tried to peer through the window, desperately hoping to catch an upset look on Mum’s face. As the bus moved off, though, I couldn’t see her through the crowd of parents frantically waving, and the sea of arms from the kids in the seats by the windows. Within seconds, we were gone, making our way slowly towards the central assembly centre, where we would be told our fates.
After a few minutes feeling sorry for myself, I paid attention to my fellow passengers for the first time. As suspected, they were all smartly dressed, well kept, for the most part, anyway. I felt out of place. I didn’t tend to hang around with people of my own age, aside from Seb and Ant. Even they were several years older than I was. I listened to the chatter around me. A lot of the kids were riding with friends. Some were laughing and joking, whilst others were already nervously discussing what would happen if their names were picked. My stomach churned. It was really happening. The event that I’d always know was coming, but that seemed a lifetime away had finally arrived.
I’m not sure exactly when it was that I resigned myself to my fate. Certainly, as a little girl, the idea of the Conscription terrified me. I’m not sure exactly how old I was when I first learnt of it, but I do remember going to my father in tears, telling him I didn’t want to go off to war. He’d offered me a sympathetic smile. He’d explained to me that the Conscription was a long way off, and that the war would probably be over before I reached the age of nineteen. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was a war that had been raging on for hundreds of years. I’d accepted what he’d said, and largely forgotten about it, until I began at senior school, around the age of twelve. A lot of the kids in my classes had older siblings who were approaching the age, and it was then that I paid a bit more attention to the news about the war.
I looked into the history of it, what little I could find. There was nothing to explain how it had started, and very little information about what it actually consisted of, and who was winning. The main area of conflict was many sectors of space away from where our planet was located, and the fighting had never encroached anywhere near to us. As a result, aside from offering up a quarter of the population of nineteen year olds every year, the whole thing was mostly ignored. It was only the teenagers approaching their Conscription, and the parents of those children that ever cared about it. Until they came through the process unscathed, and then got on with their lives. Then only the parents of the unfortunate ones whose names were drawn that continued to be impacted by it. And then, even they had little choice but to try and just forget.
We stopped at the next town, and more nervous teenagers boarded the bus. I watched their parents waving us off with envy. Ultimately, I was the lucky one, of course. It would have been so much harder to be one of those kids. One whose parents loved them dearly, and who they would miss terribly. That must be truly heartbreaking.