I got lost in Grand Central Station.
I hadn’t meant to go. I had had my destination clearly in my head. The destination I had counted on to break me out of my reality for years.
But when I saw the enormous statues carved into the sides of the building, I stopped and stared, mouth open.
I had been sucked in with the rest of the crowd, and soon found myself surrounded by the opulence of centuries lost to history. Everyone hurried to make their trains as I stood there, dumbstruck within the enormous building. My will to join the other recruits seemed to evaporate as I watched the suited men, the women in their high, clicking heels. I wanted to go where these people were going. I didn’t want to join the service, not really. I didn’t want to be part of the city percent who’d be dead in a year. Who did?
I knew I should have waited for Alex before coming to the city; I’d been afraid that he would try to talk me out of joining. But I didn’t need him trying to convince me to keep out of the service, not in that moment. In that moment I just wanted to get out, to fly away as far as my money would take me.
I had been to the main computer already, a bank of touch screens raised on platforms where tickets could be purchased. None took cash, but that didn’t matter, because every single train ride out of Manhattan cost more than a thousand dollars to buy.
Suddenly, the plans I had been dreaming of for the past ten years seemed flat, never exceeding what my tear-streaked daydreams could produce. All I was was a girl standing alone, three hundred dollars short of a ride to anywhere.
I should have done more. I could have planned for more than just war. I could have found someone on the outside, anyone, to help me get out. I had been stupid.
I found myself sitting, right there on the polished floor, unable to move another step in any direction. This was the end of the line. I may as well lay down and die right here, because there was nothing for me, never would be, anywhere else.
Two men in black uniforms with huge guns slung over their shoulders approached me. I knew they wanted me to leave, but every ounce of steam I had had keeping me upright and moving seemed to have drained out of me. I sat, staring ahead, not even caring what might happen next.
They didn’t bother speaking at all. Instead, they each took one of my arms and hoisted me to my feet. They steered me towards the main exit, but my feet barely touched the ground as my body was propelled along by their thick, muscular hands. I was deposited just outside the doors on Lexington Avenue. When I didn’t move, they gave me a little push. I looked back at the man on my right, but his face was stone.
“Off you go,” he said.
I shuffled away. When the men went back inside, I slunk to the ground against the building.
I looked up hopefully at the people whizzing by.
I could beg.
But I knew it wouldn’t get me far to do that. Sure, I might be able to afford a ticket after a day or two, but then what?
I stared blankly at the building across the street. The citizens raced up and down the sidewalk, blurring in front of my vision. In the upper right corner of my lens, an icon blinked. I gazed at it just long enough for the contents to open. It was a film I had seen before, many times. But I pulled it up anyways, adjusted my earpiece and muttered, “Play.”
White, fluffy clouds appeared before my eyes, blocking all but a small section of my vision. The clouds gradually parted to reveal a tall tower, shining in bright sunlight.
“The future you want is out there,” a voice whispered.
I sat up, suddenly interested, entranced by the images as if it were the first time I’d seen them. The world around me faded as I listened to the familiar notes and watched the woman on the screen strut down the clean, white street. She was the picture of fashion. Lime green shirt. Tight white pants. Hair the color of lemon meringue bounced about her slim shoulders as she casually handed a shopping bag to her attendant.
For a moment, I forgot the mess I was in. I wanted to be that girl. Clean. Powerful.
“The world awaits you,” said the voice.
A shiver of excitement rushed down my spine.
Numbers flashed on the screen, the current reward for two years of completed service. Twenty million dollars. Enough for a Manhattan apartment, a small one, at least. Enough to start a new life.
The image cut to the woman reclining in a deep, soft couch, a glass of wine held delicately in her manicured fingers. Nearby, a servant approached with a bottle, refreshing her glass. She closed her eyes, a gentle smile playing on her full, rose lips.
“Today at Central Service Building, join the brave young recruits to fight for your country. And your future.”
The video clip ended. The word future hovered over the center of the screen for several seconds before finally dissolving away, leaving only the sidewalk in front of me.
I looked down at my own hands. The nails were ratty, broken, nothing at all like the woman’s in the video.
Of course not. The polish and shine comes after you serve. Not before.
I could do it. I could be her. I imagined myself on that couch, high up in the ivory tower. So high I could see the tops of the clouds. I looked up at the shining buildings hovering over my head, the tops not even visible from down on the street where I sat.
The people on the island always talked about the dangers, about their lost children, killed for wars that never seemed to benefit anybody. I had known some of the boys who had disappeared over the years, though, and they had been idiots all. They had probably stormed right in, eager to show their prowess.
I’m smarter than that.
The voice was small, but certain. It was possible.
I stood up and started walking away from the station again, my destination once again resolved firmly in my mind. I would just go to the center. I would not get sidetracked again.
Five days. Just five days where the scrutiny would be intense. Once I was in, I was just another body.
Suddenly, I was walking with purpose. I stepped off the sidewalk and darted across the busy street.
All it would take was getting through the exam. I could do it. I had practiced for years, strengthening my muscles to the point where I could hide my limp almost entirely. Now, it only surfaced when it became too cold for me to mask it. Or if I lost concentration.
I paused, staring down at my feet. I silently willed them to obey. To not betray my secret.
I stepped up on the sidewalk, and my right leg gave a slight wobble.
I scowled and pushed on.
All I had to do was survive.
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