“Kudrow? Where are we going?”
I didn’t know. They wouldn’t say. Phil is next to me, his hands balled tightly in his lap. For some reason, despite everything, I’m worried he’ll wet himself. That’s what I’m worried about. The girl across from me won’t look at me. She’s scared too, obviously. She has to be. We all are. I can see her face through the small sliver of light that shine’s through the black tarp of that lines the windows. It makes everything dark, everything cold. I can feel the sting under me, of the cold seat. The others feel it too; they cringe with their knees up and shoulders tightly compressed. There must be twelve of us, sitting, at least, trying to keep still as the bus rocked.
Some of them are my age, some are smaller, smaller like Phil. I don’t know why they would’ve picked someone so young, like him. But then again, I don’t know why they picked me either.
He moves his hand onto mine, grabbing it hard. His eyes are wide when the light through the windows comes over his face. I hold it there, and I whisper in his ear, even though we are not allowed to talk.
“Hey, see the silver floors?” I say to him. “See the silver walls? The long hallway? Know where we’re going?” He looks my way, but he can’t really see me.
“We’re going to the Enterprise. Like on TV, remember?” I point to the light through the cracks. “See the lights of the stars? We’re in warp now.”
“Can I be Kirk?” he asks me. I feel bad for a moment, because he knows it’s all pretend. But I keep going.
“I’m not Kirk?” I ask him, with a small nudge to his shoulder and a smile.
“You’re Spock,” he says to me. “You have to be. I’m not smart like you.”
It’s not long until we’re finally let out. The lights are bright, and I suddenly feel Phil’s hand on mine when he steps down from the bus. Twelve lights stand down the line, in two rows toward a stage.
Three white tarps stand behind the stage, lights standing through them out toward us. Phil lets go of my hand to rub his eyes, and he yawns before taking my hand again. I smile. It feels nice, having him here. Seeing him yawn is so normal. Maybe it’ll all be ok.
I move forward with Phil, and I look beyond the front of the bus, to what I can. My feet crunch the sand beneath them. It’s all sand, all dirt, for miles in every direction toward the mountains that surround us. The moon isn’t out, only stars, and I’m suddenly scared again. I look over my shoulder, seeing the other children, droves of them, lining up in rows in front of the busses as they step out of them.
Our group is still in disorganized, and I know we will be addressed soon. I look again toward the stage, and I see two men, dressed all in black. They have big guns and small heads on large, rounded shoulders. My group starts to shove and move around us, and I clutch harder on Phil’s hand, so I don’t lose him.
A man stands in front of our group, and tells us to line up. And I move without really moving. I’m still looking, and I’m still scared. As we stand at attention, and the man passes over us, looking at us like he’s picking a steak from the deli, Phil pulls at my hand again. He’s looking up, and when I turn to answer him, he doesn’t say anything. I look up, and I see them. Three of them. Bright, and unmoving among the stars. They are stars.
They have to be. What else could they be?
“I’ve never seen stars so close before,” he says to me.
I hadn’t either. “Yeah?” I say.
“Never seen stars move either.”
They were moving. And I feel my heart sink in my stomach. Not a second later, another star comes from over the mountains, and joins the three, and stops. I am terrified.
“Eyes front,” says a man in front of us, with a big gun. Phil holds my hand tighter, and I turn forward, but for only a second. My eyes drift up again, and then I feel a heavy hand under my arm, that pulls me.
“Kudrow,” Phil calls weakly, in a sharp swell of breath.
I don’t let go of his hand. “Come on,” I say, pulling him with us. The guard has moved us to the front of the line, and lines us up neatly with the other kids. After a moment, I look up at him, to his gun, and back at his face.
It's still, like stone, until his Adam’s apple bobs in a hard swallow, and he speaks to me suddenly, without turning, or glancing my way.
You can’t look at them.
Another man strolls across the dirt toward my group. His dark hair is swiped across his head, and his mustache is thin, with a blue eyes. He wears his trench coat funny like, over his shoulder, but without his arms in the sleeves.
At his side is a woman. At least I think. She towers over him, over them all. She is in a tall, white lab coat, unbuttoned, revealing a shiny silver dress, like unrumpled tin foil, that falls just beneath her knees. Her eyes sparkle, and her smile is thin, and unnatural.
Her hair is gold, like the tassels that hang from the curtains at the orphanage. The man asks me for my name, and the tall woman says nothing. She simply looks into my eyes, even though I am not looking into hers. I’m trying not to. They frighten me, and at the same time, I feel like I’m back in my bed when I look at them. I don’t trust them. Phil however, can’t look away.
“Kudrow Hughes,” I say. “This is my brother, Phil.”
“His number, Dr. Lathrop,” the woman says, her eyes now on my brothers.
“230,” the man who was apparently named “Lathrop” says, touching the badge with the large black number on it that hangs loosely around my neck from a string of yarn. The number, and nothing else.
“The brothers?” She asks.
He fidgets with my brother’s badge. “109.”
I turn for a moment to the other children in the other rows that stand beneath the lights that look like the flashing, tall fixtures used for school photos. Each line has a man or woman like the tall woman in front of me. They are all tall, and all white skinned with blond hair, just like her, and they stick up above the crowd, even over the regular adults, like Dino through the top of Fred Flintstone’s car. I see five of them in the crowd, with two others sitting in chairs on the stage.
“Move Kudrow to the right line, should be one of the ones at the front,” Dr. Lathrop says suddenly to the guard with the big gun.
“Leave him here. He’s not in the same percentile.”
Phil looks at me, and then his head darts back to Dr. Lathrop, who’s turned away to check his clipboard. The man with the gun grabs my arm again, and Phil’s hand slips out of mine.
“No!” he calls, as the man begins to stumble as I work against him. “No Kudrow! Don’t leave me! Don’t let them take me!”
Tears start flowing down my cheeks. I manage to wriggle out of the man’s hold, and I run back to him, hugging him tightly, my hand ruffling through the hair on the back of his head.
"For god’s sake,” Dr. Lathrop calls, before I hear the guard curse as he runs back for me. They were gonna have to pry me away.
“Stop.” The woman speaks for the first time. She moves toward us, and I turn to her, Phil’s hands still around me. “Thank you, officer. I’ll escort these two.”
“Together, ma’am?” the guard asks.
“He can’t go, he’s not in the same percentile,” Lathrop says, moving towards her dwarfing height like a pouting child to their parent. “We discussed this. Some will be separated, it was bound to happen.”
“Thank you, Doctor, your protests have been dually noted.”
“Regulation says that-”
“I decide what regulation is,” she says to him, and he stands silenced. “You’re a man of mathematics, Doctor. Think of it as a newly introduced variable.”
Her hand turns out to us, and Phil takes it almost immediately, “Come along, dear.”
I follow close behind, moving away from the other children in our group. I think on how lucky I am, and how unlucky they will be. There have to be more. Brothers and sisters. I’m moving with mine, and I’m not sure if they will be too.
She cared for some reason.
Or at least, that’s what I thought. I stare at the back of her head as she leads my brother and I passed the rows, toward the stage. We loop behind it, beyond the tall lights and the canvas, and I see a guarded white tent behind the stage. Parked to my left are camouflaged cars, three of them, and one huge one with a seated basket on top, like the ones they sell with the special G.I. Joes. I always wanted one. Never did get one.
Passing us by are others in white coats, but they are regular people. They flash their own special badges to the army men that stand at the doors and metal archways as they head toward or leave behind the crowds in front of the stage. I look at the mountains beyond the cars. Brown desert mounds with green shrubs and tall, dying grass that lead all the way up the mountainside to the sky.
The woman doesn’t show a badge. She simply raises her hand, and the guards part to let us through. The inside of the tent is a dull blue color. It’s a tiny lab, with all the stuff I usually see in the science building at school. The microscopes and sinks.
Standing there is another man, talking to scientist, who turns away when she sees us, almost frightened. He’s dressed like an army general, complete with the hat, shiny red and yellow badge and grey-browed scowl.
“General,” the woman says. “I believe I’ve found our candidates for the partnered run.” He looks over Phil and me before returning to what had his attention before. “Age?”
“Fifteen and ten,” The woman says. I hadn’t told her that. Lucky guess, I persuaded to myself.
“Approved,” The general says. “Mark 'em and get 'em in line. Kicks off in 20 minutes.”
The woman moves us toward a desk at the entrance of the tent. Two women in blue lab coats stand behind it, and on the desk is a little mechanical box with white paper in it, the color of eggshells. The tall woman completely takes their attention.
“The little one’s been mismarked. I need a 230 badge and two info placards, please."
“Info placards are made outside the tent,” The first scientist said. “We’ll move them there when we’re done here.”
“That won’t be necessary,” the tall woman says. “I’ll be doing it. “
The two scientist women look at each other, and then back to her. “Are you sure? Your group usually isn’t back here-”
“Special participants,” the tall woman says. “The placards please.”
The women begin to start writing on forms on the table, and the first turns to the other. “What’s the date again?”
“March 9th, 67,” is her response. I look at them, and I wonder why they’re so calm. Why it seems to be a normal day for them. I didn’t understand how they could feel as if it was all so commonplace. Maybe they didn’t.
Paper suddenly begins to move through the box, coming out with large letters inked on the paper.
“It’s a printer,” I say.
“Very good,” says the tall woman.
“But how is it so small?” I ask her.
“The printers in the magazines are huge!” Phil says, amazed, “Bigger than a whole room!”
The scientists take the paper with the number on it, and place it through another small box that incases the paper in a clear sheet that feels like a strange mix of rubber and plastic. They place the new placard around Phil’s neck, and they the tall woman takes us both out to the stand at the edge, once again holding my brother's hand.