By Barbara Hancock
Delia climbed on board the armored bus, easily skirting the metal doors as they slammed shut behind her. Programmed to pause for only thirty seconds, the bus was already picking up speed as she crossed the threshold.
Ignoring the whistles, obscenities and Hunter growls, she positioned herself halfway to the back of the bus in full view of the watchful Vidcam. If you hovered nervously on the front seats, you asked for trouble.
She sat, purposefully projecting a tough confidence she didn't really feel. It was difficult. The smell of urine, decay and smoke was no stronger than usual ... even though the bile that rose in the back of her throat disagreed. Her nose twitched in protest, but she kept her face composed.
If she allowed disgust or even slight distaste to register on her features, she would set herself apart from the rest of the passengers. Better to accept the stench, breathe in deeply and allow the filth to coat your lungs, allow the atmosphere to accept you as one of its own.
Behind her she could hear the usual sounds, the thud of fist meeting flesh just beyond camera range ... someone was learning the price of public transportation, other grunts and moans, slicker, quieter, but no less violent.
She heard angry, disjointed guitar blended with a scream of shouted rhyme, the sound of Cityrep blaring from someone's earspeakers. It was supposed to be the voice of the city. Delia thought it was only a faint echo of the city's dark anger. Rage pulsing beneath the lyrics, a beast headed for insanity.
Once she had thought the bus was her ride out of City. The bus and the Learning Center it served represented the promise of freedom. That dream and the land of green grass seemed unreal now. It was hard to picture the world that was supposed to exist beyond City's high security Walls.
Delia was beginning to wonder if it wasn't a myth perpetuated by High Society. How else could they have built the Walls to enclose City in the first place without throwing the Low Rents a few bones? "Get a State recognized Education and you too can escape to greener pastures." Perhaps Outside was no better; perhaps the Walls only blocked a never- ending landscape of asphalt and grime.
It seems as the years went by fewer and fewer people passed The Test. Maybe because so few survived the Hunters to take it.
Years ago City began to die. Poverty and violence sprang from hopeless hearts spreading outward. The Society of the wealthy and privileged could no longer ignore the problems they had helped to create. Not when those problems were beginning to camp out on the very streets their shiny high-rises overlooked.
In a sudden rush, City was abandoned. A mass exodus of luxury vehicles taking with them the owners who wanted to retreat to mountain greenery and leave unpleasantness behind.
Hills of tree and grass and flower, private houses with unbroken glass windows surrounded by clean air. Somehow the images wouldn't jive with Delia's own reality.
The tiny room she shared with twelve others on the 30th floor. Darkened by boards and bars where glass must once have been, filled with the smell of poorly handled waste and unwashed bodies.
Still, she must believe in the dream because every morning she woke, pulled on her Repleathers and maneuvered down the trash-filled stairwell. Still, she endured the armored bus because a walk through City would have been even more dangerous. Every day she faced the Hell of her salvation.
The Walls were built during a Police State, extreme measures meant to stop the escalation of urban violence, measures that came too late. Government crackdown soon gave way to desertion. Funds were pulled out for more pleasant pursuits.
Security forces still responded to Vidcam alarms, but Delia thought the challenge of searching for surveillance-free hunting grounds only increased a Hunter's excitement.
The Learning Centers crawled with Hunters, violent men and women who could no longer find victims on deserted streets. They prowled the hallways searching for people like her. People who wanted to learn. People who needed to escape. The only want Hunters respected was blood-hunger. Their only need was to hunt. Everyone adopted Hunter ways even if they didn't feel the call to violence true Hunters felt. The only way to spoil their hunt was to act like one of their own. That, and the ancient Vidcams.
Delia made it from the bus to the entrance without incident. She tried not to smile when green blinking lights flashed a safe welcome. It was more than wise to avoid unscreened areas. Her nightmares often glowed with the red pulsation of a malfunctioning Vidcam.
Making her way unharmed to First Class was always a challenge. She was lucky to have several classes in the newer building, but First Class was in the old section, several squat brick structures from Pre-Wall days. Linked by decaying walkways notorious for faulty Vidcams, the old building held onto the new -- a faded, sagging reminder of safer days.
As she opened the manual doorway, a musty smell of dried blood was expelled. A decayed breath from the darkened hallway, it spoke of many successful hunts.
Delia sauntered through, expertly watching for guiding green lights even as she appeared to Hunt. She squinted into dark corners as if she was looking for a victim even as she tried to ignore the eyes of quiet stalkers as they followed her. She clinched her teeth against the goosebumps that rose from their eerie surveillance. Every few steps were punctuated by muffled screams blending with triumphant, growling snarls.
She rounded an ominously silent corner and was suddenly bathed in red. Her steps didn't falter, but her skin flinched. The red malfunction light seemed to brand her flesh.
She heard several excited expulsions of breath ripped from the throats of Hunters already anticipating success. Would they attack even if she showed no sign of being different? Had they finally begun to prey on their own?
She heard several shuffling movements behind her as she calmly strode toward the cool safety of green lights, lights that beckoned from several yards away. Her heart answered, but her feet continued their carefully measured tread. Each step refused to bring her closer to green as if the glowing red clung to her form with ruby fingers, holding her back. The movements from behind grew louder, and Delia knew with sudden surety ... she wouldn't make it to safety.
Then she saw the door. As calmly as she could manage, she turned and pushed into the toilet facility. She knew if red lights met her, they would illuminate her death.
Beautiful green touched her face. She put trembling fingers up to try to touch the saving beam. The door closed over disappointed grumbles. She heard growls and hissing whispers as they retreated back down the hallway in hopes of easier prey.
Delia walked to the sinks, waiting for First Notice to sound. If they were late for class, the Hunters would lose access to the Learning Center. Better to risk being late herself than to face those red lights again too soon.
That's when she saw the dead girl. She slumped against the wall directly under the camera, looking across the room with eyes as blind as a faulty Vidcam.
Delia froze. For a horrible moment she thought some berserk Hunter had committed a Kill. If they began to Hunt in front of functioning Vidcams, no one would ever be safe. Law enforcement was scarce, but Riot Teams always responded to a camera alarm. If they were no longer monitoring ... if green lights no longer offered a haven ... Delia felt her throat begin to open up as terrified noises built in her chest.
Then, she noticed crimson bracelets encircling the girl's wrists. Her lifeless hands rested almost gracefully in twin pools, as if the rapidly congealing flow provided respite for weary limbs, a soothing bath.
Delia turned and vomited, finally losing the battle against the bile that had threatened all morning. She had seen more violent death scenes, but none like this. She had seen many victims of violence, horribly mutilated beyond recognition. But this lovely girl with two simple, self-inflicted wounds was worse.
Delia angrily rinsed her mouth out with brown water from the tap. Why should she care if some poor soul decided to escape City by a quicker route? Wasn't it better than the death she might have met at the hands of a Hunter?
She forced herself to face the girl again. The corpse's delicate features would never have passed for a Hunter's. Why hadn't someone kept her locked away in a high-rise? Had she tossed and turned at night, haunted by nightmare visions of red pulsing lights?
The girl's glassy eyes seemed to reflect Delia's movements more accurately than the broken mirrors that lined the walls. Delia saw herself in those eyes as she stepped forward. Suicide was an option she had never allowed herself. She tried to ignore the magnetism radiating from those eyes ... the illusion of solution.
She continued to exchange stares with the corpse as she stepped into the outer edges of the nearest pool. Carefully, deliberately, she painted the soles of her boots. Freshly blooded boots should confirm her status as a Hunter and keep her safe for at least one more day.
She tried to ignore the cold feel of despair that managed to transfer itself from the girl's blood to her own. It soaked through Repleather, circulating in a chilling flow to her heart. Once there it pumped, icy, a siren call to freedom, a warning of the hopelessness to come.
Delia touched each of her own warm wrists, feeling life as it pulsed there, determined. She ignored the girl's invitation.
* * * * * * *
The teacher looked up when she entered and then back down to his desk. She expected no other greeting or acknowledgment of her existence. Behind his Plastiglass screen he might as well be an image caught on Vidcam and displayed, rather than a living, breathing human.
The surface of the shatterproof divider showed evidence that someone had known him to be real. An object for violence. Scratched and smeared, pitmarked from an occasional bullet smuggled through aging security detectors, the shield separating him from his students had held.
Briefly, as Delia took her seat, she wondered if this one teacher had witnessed every act of violence the marks suggested. Had he stood behind the Plastiglass wondering if it would hold, absorbing the hatred even as the shield absorbed the blows?
Somehow she didn't think he looked that tough, but then she was used to predatory Hunters. Their swaggering walk and scarred leather, their skin puckered and marked ... each blemish a testament to their bravery and strength.
Delia watched the teacher walk. She wondered how the softly flowing material of his pants must feel against his clean, brown skin. She had never seen anyone but a teacher wear something other than Repleather.
She shifted in her seat, feeling the harshness of synthetic vinyl rub against her own legs. No, Repleather didn't flow. It hardly moved with the wearer except in creaking protest. But it was durable and would wear close to forever. She doubted the loose fabric of the teacher's garb would last a day, outside his shell, in City.
"Ba' you es lookin' ta need a man. Don look ta non Screen Coward. You es seein' ta real thin ri here nex ta you." Harsh Hunter lingo brought her eyes from the perusal that had placed her in danger. Why had she been watching the teacher so closely? She had practically been lusting after his High Society clothes. She knew better.
She answered forcefully, tough, but not enticing.
"Na Hunter, es jus wondrun why ta blastun screen won fall."
He laughed at the joke, but the interested gleam in his eyes didn't die. She had shown a moment of vulnerability; now she was potential prey.
She hardened her features, striving to match her face with the rest of her calculated appearance. She felt the dead girl's blood on her boots mocking her efforts. She knew the Hunter saw no trace of the wistful expression she had shown moments before, but still his eyes narrowed.
She fought the urge to jerk back when the Hunter leaned in close. His crooked nose almost touched hers. For a crazy moment the situation felt surreal, lifted from a thousand nightmares of lost anonymity. Then his face swam into focus. Dried flecks of blood from the morning Hunt dotted his skin like crimson freckles, his hot breath mingled with hers as he whispered the dreaded promise.
"Ba' Me es gon fin you en Red Light distric. Tin me es gon mak you real tough."
He moved away, leaving Delia pale and fighting for breath. She knew she needed to grip her fear and force it back down where it wouldn't control her. If they saw her fear, her lesson in pain would go much worse. Perhaps even as far as death. Death before smashed Vidcams in a shadowed hallway. Never to breathe fresh air or walk on a carpet of grass.
She forced air into her lungs, fighting panic. Then her frantic eyes met the teacher's. He was watching her. His eyes on her face as if she was real and not some forgotten nobody in a never-ending Hell.
His eyes were soft and blissfully clear. She saw no trace of blood or madness. She could easily imagine his innocent pupils filled with a reflection of her fantasy, trees, grass ... peace. His eyes separated him from his students more surely than any screen. She lowered her own stained lenses, embarrassed by the shadows of filth he must have seen. Her own eyes were far from innocent, painted by the violence that filled her life. She kept her eyes lowered, rethinking her doubts about Outside.
The droning voice of the teacher always fed her dream, but today it had the added, soothing effect of keeping her fear at bay.
She held onto every word, loving the sound of exotic Standard American as if clipped off the teacher's tongue. She knew that SA was ugly compared to some of the old languages. Every now and then, hidden in a forgotten corner, you could still hear an oldster speak. But the beautiful blend of many languages that had once filled City was now taken over by Hunter speak. Lost were the lovely African dialects and the Spanish rolling R's, gone was the sound of a different culture on every street corner. Even Standard American sounded beautiful compared to the hate-filled lingo of Hunter speak, marred as it was by references to violence.
Delia acted bored and distracted, but deep inside she felt a fascination for this teacher. She wondered if he dreaded coming into City to teach people who didn't want to be taught. Did he smell the death surrounding him or was his mind as innocent as his eyes? Why did he come to City, a human replacement for computers, forbidden inside the Walls? Did he like hiding behind the screen like a bunch of wires in a plastic box even more cold and remote than a touchable keyboard?
The class was over too soon. Delia felt her fear returning. The dread of being hunted couldn't be held at bay even by pondering such a mysterious creature as the man behind the glass.
"Me bettin you blood es sweetin, Ba'"
She didn't need the hissed reminder at the back of neck as the Hunter slowly brushed by. She was rooted to her seat even though she knew a swaggering exit might save her life.
Finally everyone else was gone and she had to rise. The teacher rose from his desk at the same time. Again, he met her eyes. His face remained impassive, but eye contact was enough. She sensed an urgency, a need to communicate.
He took something from his desk and moved to the dusty assignment drawer, an old portal device used to pass work between teacher and student. It had long been abandoned. Hunters managed to maim or kill too many teachers with even such slight access.
Delia walked in a daze to the portal as he deposited something in the drawer. He had to flick the switch a couple of times before the vacuum whined into life.
With shaking hands, she reached to pull open the drawer on her side. It took several hard tugs. She got only a glimpse of glossy pages before she shoved the contraband into the folds of her jacket. He had already turned his back to the glass. If she had been a true Hunter, she could have dropped a pipe bomb into the drawer and the automatic return would have ended the teacher's life. He was either trusting, or stupid.
With a final backward glance, Delia left the room.
* * * * * * *
Many hours later, she struggled for consciousness. She moaned against the pain. Every breath was sending agony through abused flesh, but she knew she would die from blood loss if she didn't move. Slowly she inched toward the green glow that would save her life for the second time that day. Inches felt like miles. Finally, she entered a working Vidcam's field. She fainted just as alarms began to ring.
* * * * * * *
They patched her up at the Health Ward. It was filled to overflowing with other prey who had managed to survive their own brush with death.
The blooded boots had probably saved Delia's life. She alternated between blessing the dead girl for her precious blood and cursing her for the ability to take the easy way out.
She grimaced as she fought memory. She had refused Mindmeds. Learning her lesson in pain was the only way to survive the next one, even if the memory threatened her sanity.
The Hunters had cheered when she defiantly stepped into the growing puddle of her own blood. They had completed their assault, but they hadn't cut her after that gesture. She had survived each rape better than she would have if she had been further slashed. As it was, she was able to remain conscious until the end. She knew they would have killed her if she had fainted too soon. She had remained awake long enough to watch each one mark their boots in her blood. Then she had saved what little sanity she had left by fleeing into oblivion.
Numbly, she lay on her pallet trying to forget the feel of strange tongues lapping blood from her sliced flesh. She hadn't taken Mindmeds, but the painkillers were a blessing. Once her ration of those ran out, she would be forced to face reality again.
Why had she risked the danger of the Learning Center? It would have been better to hide away in her tiny room. What did it matter if she learned the outside world's language if she didn't even survive to use it?
Would it have been better to sit alone, dreaming of other realities, but never doing anything to obtain them? Her stitched skin whimpered a meager yes, but somewhere she heard a protest. She looked around trying to focus.
Images of the dead girl swam before her eyes. Surely, it would have been better for that girl if she had stayed in a High-Rise, but, then again, she might have taken the same measures to escape from crowded filth.
Restlessly, Delia tried to recapture the dream that had led her to venture out to the Learning Center. Would she have left the safety of her High-Rise if she had known the price of her dreams? The pain and ugliness and dirt and torture.
The dream of grass and clean air and a better life had dimmed. She couldn't recapture it. She could no longer imagine another place. Her head was too full of City.
She lay back gasping from the intense effort. Every fiber of her mind hurt; every pore of her body wept. She was only another hopeless Low Rent and there was no dream for her beyond living to see another day.
Something rustled beneath her weight.
Delia moved her Repleather jacket out of her way. She wanted nothing more than to slip into a dreamless sleep. She ignored the rustle from the jacket's folds, thinking instead of summoning a Heathwarder. Perhaps a Mindmed wasn't such a bad idea after all. Her brain was so tired. Overloaded. If there was no escape to Outside, if Outside itself was only a myth, then maybe she could escape in other ways.
Suddenly, an image of the teacher's eyes was before her, replacing the dead girl's haunting stare. She saw his urgency once more, she saw him pulling something from his desk and risking death to share it with her. Forgetting her pain, she delved into the pockets of slashed synthvinyl and pulled out a handful of papers the teacher had given her.
Her dream emerged from the jacket on thin sheets of gloss. They were photographs -- forbidden, wonderful photographs. For the first time, Delia saw spectacular sunsets surrounded by blue sky, tree-covered mountains topped by white snow, fields full of grass and the hint of spring flowers and people. People in clean clothes. Real family units smiling at each other with fresh faces free from grime. No scars, no tattoos and no blooded boots. Just people like the ones she saw every day, except they lived in a different world.
Suddenly, the pain faded. She pictured the teacher walking through this world in his soft pants. She pictured being able to smile and thank him for this precious gift.
* * * * * * *
On her first day back, Delia rode the armored bus with new energy. Images of grassy fields and soft clothes overshadowed the stench.
She knew, now, that the real test was not the written one she would have to pass. The real test was living through the despair you had to survive before you could even take the test. Believing in the dream long enough to obtain it.
She made it safely to First Class; an air of strength and determination surrounded her with protection.
A shiny new Plastiglass shield stood in the old one's place. Delia blinked several times before reclaiming her seat.
A strange man stood behind the shield; he looked through her when he turned to face the class. No eye contact, no connection.
"Seem you ge you wish. Tha blastun screen don com down."
She heard the Hunter with crimson freckles laugh mockingly as he took his seat. She ignored a flashback of blood and pain. His assault on her hadn't been the end of his retribution. The punishment for her moment of weakness hadn't ended with one victim.
Swallowing hard, Delia tried not to see the charred floor directly below the location of the old portal. The new screen boasted of no such human weakness. It spoke of nothing but icy detachment.
She remembered the teacher's face. She remembered his eyes when they had looked into hers. His eyes were so innocent ... too innocent. He had shared his precious encouragement with someone who hadn't wanted it as badly as she had. Someone who had repaid his gesture with death.
* * * * * * *
The day Delia exited City, she remembered the teacher again. With Passage Card in hand, she stepped Outside onto an overgrown pathway. Fewer and fewer people made their way out of City each year. The green grass flowing over the graveled walkway was at once beautiful and sad. She could easily imagine a time in the near future when no hopeful feet were allowed to pass. No steps to hold back the growth.
Silence was a song in her ears as she calmly walked away from Hell. She saw a sky increasingly blue on the horizon. She saw haze giving way to startling clarity.
Again she thought of innocent eyes. Would her eyes look the same in a few years of gazing on peaceful splendor or would they always carry dark shadows from the past? It would be so easy to put it behind her, to make City a nightmare in her mind. It was tempting to break into a run, to head into the green hills and never look back.
But she wouldn't.
Delia slipped off her Repleather boots, seeing the dried blood with eyes that wanted to weep for the girl who hadn't seen any photographs, the girl who had taken her own life because she had no hope. The photographs had rekindled Delia's dreams; perhaps they would do the same for others.
She could feel the slick papers against the skin of her chest. Inside her shirt, they waited. Maybe in the months to come, she'd find more like them. Out here in this different world. More glossy pictures of Heaven she could carry back into Hell.
A soft breeze scented with a breath of some sweet, unknown fragrance wafted across her face. She closed her eyes and leaned into it, feeding her soul with its gentle touch.
She refused to look back over her shoulder as her ears detected the muffled roar of City. The roar called to her, a plaintive din of chaos begging for mercy. Not yet. She wouldn't think of that yet. First she would breath the cleansing air, make a life for herself . . . then she would go back to help others the way she'd been helped.
A sudden sound louder than all the others erupted from behind the walls. The all-to-familiar sound of explosion as some miserable being trapped in City tried to find release in the destruction of metal, glass and human flesh. Delia winced and started to walk, pressing her naked toes into the earth and grass. Peace. Calm. The path before her was easy on her feet and even easier on her mind.
She tuned out the distant sound of screams. Up ahead were fields, beyond that, mountains, rising higher than any deserted building. There would be people there, living far away from City in a world of their own.
Delia moved toward those distant peaks. The noise of City faded and, with each step, it was easier to not look back.
Story copyright © 1998 Barbara Hancock <email@example.com>
Illustration copyright © 1998 Romeo Esparrago <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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