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A Little Farther Down the Line

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It's hard to remember sometimes that there was a before.

Or maybe hard is the wrong word. It's just that remembering before is something to avoid, because the contrast between then and now makes being alive feel like a bad choice, and if there's one thing, one thing at all that he's figured out in the after, it's that the human race will do whatever it takes to survive.

So maybe the right word is impossible.

Sometimes, though, it's impossible not to, just like sometimes the omnipresent reek of shit and unwashed bodies stops being just part of the background and turns back into something overwhelming. They go hand in hand when that happens, flashes of hot water and Ivory soap. Laundry detergent. Human urine, it turns out, smells sickly sweet when it's old and clinging to the rough fabric of an old man's clothes or a baby's poorly-washed diaper. Brings with it memories of honey, the reflexive growling of the stomach followed quickly and mercifully by a wave of nausea.

***

There are too many babies in the tail. One of them might even be his own, though Curtis knows neither he or Tanya will ever know. Timothy's either the last thing she has from a husband who died in front of them, shot cleanly in the head for speaking up, or he's the product of a night of grief and loneliness dealt with a week or two later, the only way any of them are allowed.

He twists his hands around the pole of his bunk, watching Timmy and Andy play tiddlywinks with bullet casings and a metal cup that's no use for water, the bottom worn through with rust. Too many damn babies, and there's no way in hell he's going to be a part of making any more.

"Curtis," Edgar says from below, prodding the bunk's underside to make sure he has Curtis's attention, the little shit. "Do you remember Legos? I fucking miss Legos."

Edgar's young enough that he wants to remember and young enough he doesn't remember much of before at all. For the most part, Curtis doesn't begrudge him that, tries his damnedest to not resent it when he has no fucking right to, no fucking right at all.

"Yeah." And maybe if he doesn't elaborate, he'll luck out and Edgar won't want to go on a full trip down memory lane. Of course, Edgar always does. Sometimes, he'll talk about his mother.

"You know, I can't remember sunlight for shite, but I can remember Legos. You remember sunlight?"

He'd freckle in it, or he'd burn bright pink first if he was out in it too long. Blistered from it once, when he was 12. If he still has freckles, they're faded to almost nothing now, blending into the smudges of dirt he can feel in his pores. "I used to. Not that much anymore."

"What'd it feel like?"

"Warm."

"Don't remember that much, either."

Edgar goes quiet after that, and the rustle of him tossing and turning finally settles into a snore about half an hour later.

***

The temperature in the tail section is just cold enough that you never quite get used to it. It dips when the lights dim to mark the time they've been conditioned to think of as night, forcing people into their bunks, and rises again when the lights come back up. Once, using a watch Gilliam somehow managed to keep even though the guards had stripped anything and everything else of value from the tail, Curtis timed the cycle of the artificial days. For a month, he kept track: seven hours of light followed by five hours of dark, twelve followed by four, once or twice as much eighteen hours followed by seven. Never once did the combination of light and dark add up to twenty-four. If there's a pattern, he's never been able to detect or predict it. The lights go up, then the lights go down with a random, practiced, careful cruelty that's programmed into the system.

Keep them tired, keep them cold, keep them hungry, keep them weak so they won't be able to fight back.

Below him, Edgar mutters in his sleep, while Tanya and Andrew hiss at their children that it's time to turn in. From a few bunks down, he can hear the greedy slap of skin against skin, while even further down, another fight's breaking out. The tail is as dark as it ever gets, and it's still light enough to read by, or would be if most of the books they'd been left with hadn't been used to wipe their asses with years ago.

Gilliam has a handful, kept safely away from prying eyes and desperate hands, loaned out on rare occasion: texts on physics and calculus, a thick dictionary, and a battered copy of 1984. Curtis had read that once, before, for AP English in his junior year of high school.

He's read it at least a dozen times now.

***

Curtis was a senior in high school when the temperatures started to plummet and it became clear to nearly everyone that CW7 had gone wrong. And when Wilford announced his plan to allow a limited number of qualified non-paying passengers from around the world to earn a place onboard his train, his mother had begged him to try his luck. So he'd filled out his application and written the required essays, just like he'd filled out his fucking college and scholarship applications a few months earlier.

Unlike the colleges, he'd never expected to get an acceptance letter. On his worst days, he wishes he'd been right about that.

***

No metal capsules bearing cryptic messages from the front in the protein blocks today, or yesterday, or the day before. It's been at least two weeks since the last one, and it has them all on edge. Gilliam's told them they need to be patient. After all, there'd been a two-month gap in communications from the front before the last flurry of smuggled information.

After all, it gives them more time to plan. To learn from the mistakes that stopped every previous rebellion in its tracks. To prepare.

But Mason accompanies the guards for the daily headcount now more often than not.  The tail's not the only section that's been given time to prepare.

Mason was there when they shot Tanya's husband. Mason gave the order with an irritated wave of her hand. Then Mason had pointed a skinny finger at Grey and had ordered the guards to hold him down and cut out his tongue for screaming that what they were doing was fucking wrong.

"Yours is not the place to know right from wrong. Right comes from the front. Right is not determined by parasites and freeloaders. Never forget that it is the Sacred Engine that keeps us all alive. Praises be to Wilford the Divine, and remember what all of humanity owes him. Let this serve as a lesson to all you wretched souls who dare to blaspheme."

Today, she watches and says nothing as the counter ticks, tallying them one by one like so much cattle.

On his right, Edgar grinds his teeth. On his left, Grey moves his arm, the word "die" flashing into view for a moment before he slides his hands back to his lap.

***

On shorter days, the nights are louder. Sex, mostly. For the first six months, give or take, people'd tried to stay quiet when they fucked, in some sort of doomed attempt to pretend they were still decent, civilized people after everything they'd done. So many people in such a small space, though. After a while, there wasn't any point. Your neighbors would hear you whether you wanted them to or not, whether they wanted to hear it or not.

"We could share the bunk sometime," Edgar suggests. "Grey and Gilliam do, and it's not like there's fuck all else to do at night."

It's a line Curtis isn't quite willing to cross, no matter how often Edgar suggests it, and no matter how fucking much it tempts him sometimes.

"Do you remember how old you were when you boarded the train?" He's never asked. Young, cheeks still plump even after the first month. His mother'd still been nursing him. When she'd been pulled from where she'd been hiding, her tits had been out, her baby latched on to one to keep him quiet. His clothes had reeked of sour milk and yeasty shit. He'd been old enough to know his name, though. Old enough, he knows now, to remember Legos. He hadn't looked that old.

"Two, maybe three. That's what Gilliam told me, anyhow. I don't know if even he knows for sure."

There have to be records, somewhere in the front. Records of ages, blood types, skills. If they succeed, it's something he could find out. Edgar's mother's name would be in there. All the tail's dead would be in there, at least all the dead who were born outside.

Edgar's foot comes up hard on the underside of the bunk, rattling the metal. "Don't give me some shite about being too young."

"It's not that." Which isn't exactly a lie. "We just don't need the distraction right now." Which is.

There's a snort from below and another kick. "Speak for your bloody self. I could sure as hell use one."

The sound of a zipper undoing and the splat of spit on a palm end the discussion, like always. Edgar makes a noisy show of jerking off, grunts and pants louder than they need to be, ending with a cut-off whine and the smell of spunk.

Curtis counts the rivets on the ceiling, uncomfortably aware of his own arousal, unwilling to do anything about it.

Somewhere in the tail, he can hear a baby crying.