Victoria kept her eyes on the hypnotic flicker of train pylons, afraid to cry, knowing it would make things worse. Two stops back the sandy-haired man in the seat in front of her had stormed toward the open automatic doors and had been battered to the floor by their marine escorts. Now, bound and gagged, he moaned constantly. His urine dripped from the bottom of the seat into a puddle that slopped from side to side as the train made the cambered curves.
Pulling her feet awkwardly to one side, the conscript concentrated on not smelling, not hearing, not seeing, not feeling. Safe, safe, she was safe. No one would hurt her if she stayed silent and still. Slowly Vicky turned her wrist on the window ledge. 2:36. They were passing through the flooded center of Old Washington, with its vistas of temples and the grand obelisk reflected in the water. New Washington could not be that many more minutes away. There she might learn where she was being taken.
It was less than twenty-four hours since the seventeen-year-old had filed through the double doors of the musty civil-service testing room to take the strange exam. She remembered standing in the checkout line a week ago, sack of milk in hand, listening to the shrill voices of the supermarket tabloids' cover vides tout the articles inside. Those chosen were potential subversives, human components of an organic computer, telepaths who could contact the future, a random sample to be used for experimental purposes...
Victoria didn't believe the tabloids or the even wilder rumors that weren't aired or printed. However, no one, except perhaps her stepfather, believed the official government explanation that the test was to select trainees for a new civil service. Corporate recruits worked from three to six months for minimum living expenses to repay the company that hired them for training them. Good high-level jobs were too scarce to require drafting trainees.
The train's wheels shrilled as it dropped from its electrostatic cushion onto the old rails for the shuttle into the New Washington station. The marines relaxed slightly as they saw the next escort waiting on the platform in the pale winter sunshine. Victoria rubbed her damp hands over her wool-covered thighs. Her once-neat black skirt and white blouse showed the smuts and wrinkles of a night spent dozing on hard benches between interviews. A coffee-with-creamer stain stiffened her sweater sleeve -- the cup had tilted in her sleepy hands.
Left and right, the prisoners were separated into men and women. As Victoria stood, silent and tired, among the other women, she could hear a frantic voice asking over and over, "Where are we going? You must know. Please, where are we going?" The marines shifted restlessly, as if the woman spoke a foreign language they were afraid to understand. Vicky's low-heeled pumps slipped and slid on grimy ice as they crossed the parking lot to the waiting military buses. She shivered, and pulled the edges of her mohair cardigan across one another.
As they jounced and swayed through the Virginia countryside, Victoria watched the glaze of terror on her fellow passengers thaw and tentative conversations flower. Some women peered into their purse mirrors and dabbed at their cheeks with spit-damp tissues. The strong perfumes of drugstore cosmetics made Vicky's stomach clench, and she pressed her cheek against the cold windowpane.
The bus swerved and stopped abruptly. "All out," snapped the escort's leader. Slowly they filed out past the bus driver who sat, hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on an invisible horizon. There was a prefabricated one-story building on the far side of the cracked asphalt. As they straggled toward it, a government gray limousine, its tinted windows dark and blank, pulled past them and turned onto the highway, going back toward New Washington.
"I don't see why they couldn't park at the door," a plump woman told the world at large, fumbling with her coat buttons. Victoria plucked at the edges of her sweater, hunching her shoulders against the wind. It was colder than she could ever remember it being. Bits of wind-blown ice stung her cheeks.
The door boomed shut behind them as they paused, blind in the dim interior after the frosty sunshine. One by one they were given cardboard boxes -- Victoria's read GEORGIA ORANGES -- and told to strip completely. Victoria carefully placed her shoes in the bottom of the box; then slowly removed her sweater, blouse, and skirt.
"Everything, everything. Quick, now!" said the grim matron. Victoria pulled off her hose and slip and paused again, shivering in her bra and panties.
"Come on!" said the woman, shaking Victoria's shoulder. Vicky dropped her last two pieces of clothing into the box and stood naked and barefoot on the concrete floor.
"Open your mouth." The doctor's nameplate read: CAPT EICHER. With a rubber-gloved finger she lifted Victoria's cheeks away from her teeth, and forced back her tongue. She flashed a light up the girl's nose, then worked her way through the girl's hair with slick rubber hands. Finally she told the examinee to stand wide and probed first her vagina and then her rectum.
Stripping her gloves off into a wastebasket, she stamped Victoria, once on the right shoulder, once on the left hip. Craning to look at her shoulder, Vicky couldn't read the smear of black.
"Never mind," said the doctor, suddenly kind. "It just means you're finished here." The letters swam into focus: PASSED.
"Take your clothes with you."
Victoria carried the box to a table near the back wall where two women sat, checking off names on a display screen.
"Put it down," one said without looking up. "Name?"
"Go over there."
"There" was a massive door with a control panel whose lights winked red in a slow, steady rhythm. The soldier in charge of it looked only at the lights before her. Victoria looked back at the table to see one woman toss the box labeled GEORGIA ORANGES onto the pile against the wall as the other shrugged into a mohair cardigan. Victoria could see the stain on the sleeve she had knitted. She turned back to the cold metal of the door. The lights flashed.
Victoria stepped forward and heard the door seal behind her.
As the door seals, Victoria leaves everything she has ever known behind:
From Talking to Strangers, Book One of The Strangers Series