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Runaway

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1962 Clover, Spring Transformation week, in a future that never happened.
 

He'd ticked off in his mind beforehand all that he needed to do. Bribe the Second Landstead's border guard. Make it across the border to the First Landstead. Stay there only long enough to trick his way across the border to Yclau. Travel as deep into the Constitutional Queendom of Yclau as he could, so that he wouldn't be recognized and returned to the Dozen Landsteads—

And there his plans stopped. He had no idea what he would do after that. His mind remained solely focussed on obtaining freedom – true freedom, for the first time in his life.

Also freedom for the child, he reminded himself. But the child was becoming vague in his mind, part of the life he had left behind when he managed, against all odds, to cross the Second Landstead's heavily guarded border.

What he had not anticipated – what none of his fellow servants had warned him about, because none of them had ever undertaken this journey – was that there would be a second border crossing. At the end of the bridge across the Patuxent River stood another two border guards.

The First Landstead's guards, who were carefully checking everyone's credentials.

Bat looked around the queue he stood in, which was separated by a wall from the motorcar lanes. Dawn barely touched the spring sky, but bright lamps stood all the way down the bridge railing, showing clearly the men standing in line. There did not appear to be a separate line here for servants, probably because the few servants present were accompanying their masters across the border. Bat felt horribly conspicuous, even though he wore the suit of a domestic servant, not that different from the suit of a master.

Looking further back, he sighted another young servant in line. The other servant appeared as nervous as Bat felt, and he seemed to be unaccompanied.

Bat walked back to join the other servant, who looked warily at him till Bat said, "This is your first journey to the First Landstead too?"

The servant relaxed. "My master usually goes on these business trips alone. But he's sick, and he thought I could represent our House at the meeting, and so . . ." The servant fiddled with the documents in his hands, obviously uncertain whether he would achieve this high goal.

Bat envied him. He opened his mouth – not to point out his own lack of documents, for that would be stupid, but simply to obtain more information on what the border crossing here would be like. What he had been about to say, though, was blasted away.

Truly. Nearby – it could have been five miles away or fifty, but it felt as though it were right here on the bridge – a rocket rose into view.

Bat knew what a rocket was, of course. He had grown up on Solomons Island, close to the border; weather rockets and jet-cars and even jet-packing youths could easily be seen from that part of the Second Landstead, hovering just over the walled border.

But this rocket was louder than any he had ever heard – even louder than the northwest blow when the gale smashed in a boat. The rocket rose into the sky, slender and pointed like the bowsprit of a skipjack, fire roaring at its base against the dark sky. The rocket reached the clouds, and suddenly, for a brief moment, the entire sky was ablaze with light.

And then the rocket was gone. Beside him, Bat heard the other servant say in wonder, "What was that?"

"Supply rocket to Yclau's Moon Base. We've started making runs to the Moon recently, from Andrews Space Force Base."

A young master, standing behind them, idly tossed forward this explanation. The other servant seemed too tongue-tied to respond. Bat knew what had to be said, though the words stuck in his throat. He forced himself to bow toward the First Landstead master and say, "Thank you for your instruction, sir."

The young master shrugged and returned to watching a moving picture on his wristwatch, his trivial moment of condescension forgotten. Bat felt the heat of anger enter him. How long would he have to endure this? How long before he could escape to Yclau? Yclau, the land of his dreams. Yclau, whose people had received true freedom and equality through the vigorous efforts of the Commoners' Guild. The guild members had sung protest ballad after protest ballad until the rights of all men and women in their queendom were granted.

That was long ago. Bat forced himself to think of the present. He had forgotten, until now, that the First Landstead was as technologically and culturally advanced as Yclau. Only the upper landsteads, such as the Second Landstead, lagged behind the rest of the world, living in a society that hadn't changed since the 1910s.

What wonders would he see in Yclau? Robots? Holovisions? Visiphones? Microwave ovens? Whatever wonders existed, they would be in the First Landstead too. He felt his spirits lift.

Then the woman arrived.

o—o—o

It took him a moment to notice her. He was approaching the end of the line now, and all his thoughts were on what happened next. The First Landstead's border guards did not appear to be much different from the Second Landstead's border guards. Mind you, they had silver guns stuck into holsters at their belts – laser guns, he assumed. The guards didn't wear silver jumpsuits, though. The guards wore ordinary suits, with caps that bore the emblem of the First Landstead: a rocket rising toward the sky, near a master standing straight and proud while a servant knelt to him.

Bat felt his hands form into fists. However technologically advanced the First Landstead might be, it didn't hold what he was seeking: freedom. The freedom to run away, and to have no one chase after him. The freedom to do whatever he wanted, with no heavy obligations set upon him.

That was the world he wanted to live in. That was the world he wanted his not-yet-born child to grow up in.

"Next!"

The servant beside him yelped, startled, then hurried forward. Bat watched intently. One of the border guards – distinguished from the other by the old-fashioned marital pocket-watch hanging from his coat pocket – was standing next to a great wall of computers. Bat assumed that was what they were, for he could see a glass circle set upon each one, and within that circle, green words were appearing and disappearing on a black background. A master, just walking away after his encounter with the married guard, was holding a thin metal box in his hand. As Bat watched, the master inserted the box into the slot of a computer further on. In the air above the computer shone the words "Monorail Tickets." The computer emitted some beeps and flashed some lights, and the master withdrew the box. He continued on toward a tunnel, in the direction of a sign that said, "Escalator to Monorail."

Bat wondered what an escalator and a monorail were; then he turned his attention back to the servant. Bat had missed the moment at which the servant offered his documents; now the married guard was handing something back. A piece of paper, not a metal box. Apparently, only masters were allowed to possess computer equipment in the First Landstead. Bat felt his lips thin, hard and painful. He would spend no more time in the First Landstead than was necessary before he could be free.

He was still feeling anger burn through him like rocket fuel when someone touched his arm.

He nearly yelped like the nervous servant; then he turned and did yelp. A half-naked woman stood next to him. She was young, about his own age. Her arms were entirely bare, except for white gloves on her hands. Her calves were bare too. She was clearly not wearing a corset under that skimpy dress. She said, "Would you like—?"

Bat had not grown up in the servants' district of Solomons Island without growing wise to the ways of the world. He interrupted her enticement by snarling, "No!"

She raised an eyebrow, as if surprised, though certainly she must be used to having her services rejected from time to time. "No?"

Bat looked around, hoping that the border guards would take notice of the woman and send her on her way. Surely prostitutes were not allowed to offer their services this openly in the First Landstead? But the married guard was still talking to the servant, while the other guard was handing a master another of those metal boxes.

The woman was waiting. She was still half-naked. Bat could feel his heart beating, and he cursed himself. It had only been a few days since the wedding; was he this weak a man? "No!" he said more forcefully. "Go away! I don't want to share your bed." He pushed her back.

Then realized, belatedly, that he had made himself conspicuous.

Everyone was looking at him now: The masters and servants in line. The unmarried guard and the master he tended. The married guard, now standing alone, with his fists on his hips.

Bat felt his stomach clench. The married guard beckoned him with one crooked finger. Bat hurried forward, cursing the prostitute inwardly as he went. He looked back once, only to find that, efficient businesswoman that she was, she was now trying to entice the next man in line: the young master, who seemed pleased at her attendance.

Then Bat had reached the border guard, who frowned at him, as though suspecting he had a troublemaker on hand.

But all that the guard said was, "Mister or servant?"

It took Bat a moment to decipher the guard's accent. The delay was too long. The guard picked up Bat's hand, examined the tattoo on his wrist, and flung his hand down. The guard said flatly, "Documentation."

Bat's heart still pounded from the examination of his servant tattoo; now he felt as though he had been punched. The only fib he could think of rolled off his tongue: "The guard at the other end of the bridge took all my papers."

"You'll have to fetch them." The married guard turned and punched a few buttons on the computer. "Letter of permission for travel from your mister, countersigned by your landstead's Bureau of Emigration, Bureau of Employment, and Bureau of Investigation. Make sure you bring those back."

The computer made a whirring sound. On its circular glass screen came a green word: "DECLINED."

He had not made it through an entire year at the House of Transformation for Servant Boys without stubborn determination. He said, "I have family awaiting me on the other side of the border. They'll raise a fuss if I don't arrive on time."

The guard snorted, as though the prospect of a servant family fussing amused him. "Be on your way, then. The sooner you get your papers back, the sooner you'll be able to cross the border."

Bat glanced quickly around. Two guards. Could he make it past two guards armed with laser guns? Even if he did, he didn't know how many guards might be standing further along, in the tunnel.

Maybe it would be better to try jumping off the bridge. He glanced over the railing of the bridge. But no – a police boat was stationed beneath the bridge, evidently prepared for such a possibility.

He was just considering whether to faint, in order to see whether he would be whisked away to a First Landstead hospital, when a voice cried, "Darling!"

Suddenly he was enveloped in half-naked woman.

He was too startled to push her away. The guard said in a warning voice, "Dinah . . ."

The prostitute ignored the guard. She stepped back, holding Bat's arms. Her lipstick was smeared from kissing his cheek. "I can't believe I didn't recognize you!" she cried. "You've changed so much!"

Dismayed, Bat opened his mouth to say she had made a mistake, but the guard was ahead of him. "Dinah, he doesn't have his papers."

"Of course he doesn't." The prostitute sounded petulant, her lower lip pouting. "He's been away in that dreadful Second Landstead prison for a year. Did they treat you horribly, darling?" She appealed to Bat.

"It wasn't as bad as it could have been. It wasn't a proper prison, just a transformatory for delinquent servant youths."

The words came pat to him. It had been only three seasons since his release. The prostitute, continuing to hold him in a proprietary manner with one hand, turned toward the guard. "You see? He wouldn't have any documents; he's been in prison all this time. —Oh, darling." She returned her attention to Bat. "We've all been so dreadfully worried! Grandma shed tears of joy when she heard you were finally coming home."

He was thinking rapidly now. What was he supposed to be to her? Not her husband, obviously. He said, "You're the kindest cousin I ever had, to come meet me at the border like this, after my foolishness."

"Cousin?" said the guard suspiciously.

"Third cousin." The prostitute hugged Bat again. "We grew up together. We were playmates."

The guard frowned, obviously trying to imagine this. Not wanting to envision what "play" he was supposed to have engaged in with this prostitute, Bat gently disentangled himself from the young woman, saying, "Dinah, Grandma will have to wait longer. It may take me days to obtain whatever documentation I'm supposed to have—"

"But you can't!" wailed Dinah. "Grandma has made her Frosted Astro Cake for your coming-home party!"

Frosted Astro Cake sounded ghastly. Bat tried to grin. "Can't you save it for me?"

"Astro Cake?" Dinah gave him a warning frown. "Darling, you know it's timed to take off to the Moon at midnight. We must get you home by then. —Mister Jerry." She turned to the guard, her expression one of pleading. "Can't you let him through?"

The married guard looked embarrassed, possibly at having it revealed that she had such intimate knowledge of him that she knew his first name. "Dinah, I can't when he's without papers. You know that. Besides, he's a criminal. No criminals can cross the border."

Dinah stamped her foot and flounced. Her skirt flounced too, revealing a bit of her thigh. "That's ridiculous! He didn't do anything really wrong . . . did you?"

Not in his own eyes, but saying that he'd punched his abusive master wouldn't help here. Bat tried to think of the most innocuous crime he could have committed; then he remembered the balladeers of the Commoners' Guild. "I sang a song," he offered.

The guard looked dubious; perhaps this was too innocuous to sound plausible. Fortunately, the prostitute was ready to support Bat. "Oh, of course! I'd heard that upper landstead servants aren't permitted to sing. —Because of the protest ballads," she offered to the guard. "The misters there are afraid that the servants will stir revolts if they sing."

"You should have warned me." Bat glared at the prostitute.

She covered her mouth just in time to hide her smile. "Darling, I didn't know! Not until we got word you were arrested. But I should have checked the laws before you left on your vacation. Oh, will you ever forgive me?" She flung herself into his arms again.

A rumble began that was not Bat's body, though it might as well have been. One part of him felt as though it were about to take off to the Moon. There was an inarticulate shout nearby from the other guard. The married guard cleared his throat and said, "Dinah, the line is backing up. The misters who are waiting are becoming restless."

"Oh, please!" Somehow, in the space of time that her face had been buried upon Bat's shoulder, she had managed to produce tears, which sparkled now on her mascara-tinged lashes. "Please don't send him back to that awful place!"

The guard hesitated. Bat said quickly, "I could sing you the song, if you like. It's not a protest song; they really shouldn't have arrested me for it."

He knew one song – exactly one. His mother used to sing it to him, soft and gentle, on the nights when his father was working late on the boats. It had helped soothe Bat to sleep. He had sung it to himself, over and over, when he was sitting in his prison cell, awaiting his fate before the judge.

Not giving the guard time to refuse, Bat raised his voice in song. It was a simple ballad. It told of a woman waiting for her man, who was overdue returning home from dredging oysters from the Bay. Finally, the woman accepted that her man would not be coming home to her. She went to the dock to weep for her lost man . . . and there, standing before her, was the man she loved. He took her into his arms, and they sang their love to each other.

The guard turned and punched furiously at some buttons on the computer. Bat waited, tensely, to see whether the guard was summoning a policeman.

A little drawer shot abruptly open from the computer. It held a piece of cloth in it. The guard picked up the cloth and blew his nose furiously into it.

Then he wiped his eyes with the edge of the handkerchief before tucking it around the chain of his marital pocket-watch. "Go," he said, waving at Bat. "I never saw you."

The prostitute grabbed Bat's hand and pulled him away while he was still trying to figure out what to do. By the time the two of them reached the sign for the escalator, he had recovered his senses. He tried to drop his hand from hers, but she held tightly onto him, murmuring, "Not yet. The cameras are following us."

Looking up, he saw the cameras against the bright sky. They were sitting on miniature jet-cars, pointing their lenses toward Bat as he walked forward. Then they suddenly darted away, as though losing interest.

The prostitute did not let go of Bat, though. As they continued to walk down the tunnel, she murmured, "Runaway?"

He stared at her. "How did you know? And how did you know I'd been imprisoned?"

She snorted delicately. "With that temper? You wouldn't have lasted long with a mister. Do you have money?"

He shook his head. They hadn't been able to arrange that, in the rush to get him over the border before he would be missed. All the money they'd been able to scrape together had gone to bribe the Second Landstead's border guard.

Halting, she let go of him, groped inside a pocket of her flimsy dress, and then held out something to him. "Here. Take the monorail to Green Village. That's where lots of immigrant servants live; you'll blend in. And here's a card to an organization I belong to. We'll help you with a job and lodgings."

He had no intention of staying in the First Landstead any longer than it took to get over the border to Yclau. He certainly didn't plan to work in a brothel. But he didn't tell her that; instead, he accepted what she handed him. Feeling suddenly awkward, he said, "Thank you for your help. I'm sorry about before. I was just—" He sought an excuse, then remembered that he had a legitimate one. "I'm married."

She looked behind him, as though expecting to see a wife. "Not running away from her too, I hope."

He opened his mouth to make a hot denial—

Then he realized, with a thud over the heart, that the prostitute was right.

Not that he had intended to. His intention all along had been to have Sally join him, once the baby was born.

But all his thoughts that day had been on running away – running as fast and far as he could from the masters of the Dozen Landsteads. Not once had it occurred to him to come back to help Sally and their child over the border.

"No," he said, as his plans firmed finally into sensible order. "My wife remained behind because she's expecting a baby. As soon as she's ready to join me with our child, I'll help her over the border."

Dinah gave him a smile – a knowing smile, as though she guessed what had been going through his mind. Reaching out, she brushed his cheek with her gloved fingers. "A lucky woman. Well, I'll let you go on from here by yourself. I have to return to work." She withdrew her fingers; the glove was now smeared with the lipstick that had been on his cheek.

"To work?" he said, taken aback by her frankness.

Her smile deepened. "I work for the border guards. I'm in charge of making sure that people in line have their documents in proper order, before they reach the guards." She pushed a button in the wall beside them.

The wall rose to reveal a moving staircase going down to a platform. Standing on the morning-lit platform were men, women, and children. The men were dressed in much the same fashion as upper landstead men, but the women . . . The women were all dressed like Dinah was. They were all wearing short skirts and no corsets. Some of the women had bare arms.

By the time Bat was able to make sense of what he saw, Dinah was gone. His face now burning with embarrassment and guilt, he looked down at what she had given: a ticket to the Green Village station, and a small card like a visiting card. He brought the card closer to read it.


COMMONERS' GUILD
First Landstead Branch
6 Parkway
Green Village

We bring freedom to our fellow servants.


Bat perused the card for a long while; then he placed the card in his pocket. His mind was no longer filled with thoughts of running. Instead, he was thinking of the long nights he had spent boating on the Bay, helping other servants escape to freedom from their masters. He had thought that this part of his life was over – that he no longer held such heavy obligations.

He took his first step onto the moving staircase – his first step to joining the fight for freedom in the First Landstead.

Maybe, he thought, he could learn to sing a few protest ballads.