One Bright Future series (Book 1): Enslavement by Melinda Friesen ~ Preview Chapters 1-3

CHAPTER ONE
The End of Everything

DOZENS OF BANK SECURITY OFFICERS in black uniforms and dirty boots shout orders and tramp through our house.

Crouching beside the sofa, I clutch my two-year-old sister, Alyssa, to my chest and shield her eyes. I stroke her back and tell her lies. “Shhh. Everything is going to be okay.”

Officers swarm up the stairs. Others search the living room and kitchen. Drawers are dumped. Spoons, forks, spatulas clatter onto the tile. My grand­mother’s china is flung to the floor. It pops and shatters and crunches under their feet. A crystal vase tumbles from the top shelf. I jolt as it explodes into a thousand glittering shards.

From the bedrooms, thuds and crashes rake my ears, splintering wood and clanking metal hangers. We’ve made their search easy. Dad already traded away most of our belongings. A few family treasures, now in pieces on the floor, were all we kept. But they would’ve gone soon too. Hunger trumps sentimentality.

My fifteen-year-old brother, Silas, sits on the sofa and stares at the floor. He jams his white-knuckled fists against his ears.

Mom kneels beside Dad, sprawled unconscious on the living room floor. She brushes her quaking hand over the gash on his head where they clubbed him for trying to protect us. A thread of blood winds around his ear and soaks into the ivory carpet.

An officer grinds his knee into Dad’s back, fixes a plastic zip-tie around his wrists. He grabs Dad by one arm and drags his limp body through the front door. Mom’s glassy gaze follows him, her hand hovering over the blood-stained carpet. She looks down at her red fingers, her face shiny with tears.

Another officer digs his fingers into Mom’s shoulder and hauls her up­right. He pins her arms behind her back and snaps a plastic cuff around her wrists too.

Mom in handcuffs—why? My parents are not criminals.

“Please.” Sobs convulse Mom’s shoulders. “Please—please let me say goodbye.”

Alyssa wrestles away from me. “Mommy!” She reaches her arms out to Mom, clenching and unclenching her tiny fists.

“I love you so much.” Mom’s voice trembles.

The officer lifts his chin and indifference flattens his features. He clutches her elbow, mumbles “filthy Resistor,” then pushes her toward the door.

My throat aches. Don’t take her. Please.

Alyssa wails and lunges after Mom. She kicks and writhes against my grip, but I hold her tight. She turns and buries her face in my neck. Her tears soak into my collar.

I stare at the pool of Dad’s blood on the carpet. My hands and feet turn numb. “Mommy and Daddy will be okay.”

The lies aren’t just for Alyssa.

A middle-aged man in a suit and trench coat marches through the door. When he sees me, his small dark eyes narrow. He slows and his movements become smooth and strategic. I’m a rabbit thrown into a terrarium. The man in the trench—a thick boa constrictor—slinks toward me. He’ll squeeze me until I suffocate. He’ll digest me to make himself stronger.

I tug Alyssa closer and my arms form a protective cage around her.

An officer approaches the trench coat man from behind. “We’re searching the house. Juvenile Division is on their way.”

Trenchcoat peers down at me and tilts his head. “Well, then, we don’t have much time, do we?”

He pulls a holo from his coat pocket. The mercury-coloured device morphs like molten metal to the shape of his hand. He swipes his thumb over the screen and a silvery-blue glow appears. The glow separates from the screen and expands into a holographic image of the OneEarth Bank symbol. It hov­ers above the device—two silver rings spin around a blue cylinder resembling a tree, branches stretching upward and roots extending downward.

“Rielle James, do you know the whereabouts of Rick and Charlotte Erics­son or their children Kara and Grace Ericsson?” Trenchcoat asks.

Brow furrowed, I search his face. My world is collapsing and he’s asking me where he can find another girl’s family. Why would I know where the Erics­sons are and why would it matter? Her family is one of the only others in the neighbourhood like mine who resisted the chip insertion, and most people avoid us like we’re a contagion. Not that it drew us together. We’re both juniors at the same high school, and our parents see the commerce chip as a first class ticket to hell. That’s about all we have in common. For all I know, Trenchcoat has done the same thing to Kara’s family that he’s doing to mine.

I shake my head in response to his question.

Trenchcoat’s face hardens. He seizes Alyssa’s arm.

Panic surges through me and I steel my grip around her chest. “No! No, I don’t know where they are!” Alyssa’s fists curl around wads of my shirt.

He releases Alyssa. “When was the last time you saw the Ericssons?”

“I don’t know. Kara hasn’t been at school for days.”

He squares his shoulders and stares down his nose at me. “How about your aunt, Angelique James? When was the last time you saw her?”

“We visited her last summer.”

“You haven’t seen her recently—say in the last couple weeks?”

I shake my head. “No.”

An officer walks up to Trenchcoat, Dad’s ancient laptop computer bal­anced on his hands. “This is all we’ve found. It’s been wiped.”

Trenchcoat taps his fingers on the plastic shell. “That has to be considered an antique by now. You didn’t find a holo?”

The officer’s shoulders tense. “No, sir.”

Trenchcoat’s pale lips pull tight over his teeth. “Well, keep looking.” He returns his attention to me. “Where are your father’s and mother’s holos?”

“They don’t have any.”

“I find that hard to believe,” he says.

I bite my cheek. Dad refused to buy a holo, even back when we had money. Holos don’t have their own memory. They use Unified Intelligence, a central­ized virtual server that stores everyone’s information. Dad calls it “the Brain.” He’s always been paranoid. He said he didn’t want his data floating around out there where everyone could access it, so he stuck with the old laptop he’d bought before he and Mom got married. There’s a computer graveyard in the basement, shells harvested of components that kept his unit working.

Trenchcoat motions to the Bank Security officer behind him who holds a metallic cone. The officer sets the cone on the floor and presses a button on top. The contraption swells and crackles, then transforms into liquid silver that flows down the cone’s base. The reflective liquid pools on the carpet around a now empty framework, then separates into hundreds of droplets. Spider-silk-thin metallic legs sprout from each one, curl down and lift the droplets off the floor. Some drops stretch into long tubes. Some flatten foil-thin, while others remain spherical. Their mechanical legs beef up until they resemble spiders and scorpions, each with one red eye.

The officer retrieves his holo from his belt pouch. With a swipe of his thumb, a glowing image rises from the screen. He touches it and the robotic bugs march and slither away from the cone in every direction, like ripples from a stone tossed in the water.

Trenchcoat glowers at me. “You know they’ll find whatever you’re hiding. It will go better for you if you just tell me. In fact, if you tell me where your aunt is, I could let you go.”

My heart leaps at his offer. Let us go? I glance from Alyssa to Silas. I could keep at least part of my family together. “She lives in Ontario on a lake.”

Silas springs to his feet. “Rielle, no!”

I meet Silas’s gaze, questioning his reaction to the information I shared. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone where she lived, even to keep us together?

“Quiet!” Trenchcoat shouts.

One of the bugs climbs onto my knee. I flick it away. “Lake of the Woods I think it’s called.”

Trenchcoat lets out an exasperated sigh. “I’m afraid that’s not the informa­tion I’m looking for.” His mouth twists into a sneer. “Too bad for you.”

“I told you what I know. Please let us go. Please!”

A bug skitters around Silas’s feet. Its red beam colours Silas’s shoe. He crushes the thing underfoot.

Trenchcoat turns away from me. In three long steps he’s at Silas’s side. “You seem to know more than your sister. Perhaps I can give you your freedom.”

Silas stares at Dad’s blood on the carpet. He raises his eyes to meet Trench­coat’s gaze, his cheeks flaming. “Go to hell!”

Trenchcoat swings his hand and snaps Silas’s head to the side with a loud pop.

“No!” I shout.

A stream of blood dribbles over Silas’s lip, but he doesn’t loosen his stare on Trenchcoat. Silas’s hands contract into fists and he straightens his back until he’s taller than the creep who hit him.

Trenchcoat scowls. “They’ll fix that attitude at reform school.” He tucks his holo in his pocket and turns to one of the officers. “They don’t know anything.”

Silas settles back onto the sofa as silver bugs dig into every crevice of our home. They climb up the piano—my piano—their metallic legs tapping against the wood. They flatten, paper thin, and squeeze into the narrow space between the keys. Strings ping high and low as they pick over the inner workings.

Rage and despair, like dull rusty knives, twist in my gut. I gather Alyssa closer. Bank Security officers are bad, but worse is coming.

Tears burn my eyes. I suck them back, swallow, but they choke me. I have only minutes left with Alyssa before we’re separated. I hug her, kiss her wispy golden hair and skim my hand over her arm. I savour her soft skin and her sweet smell—graham crackers and strawberry shampoo. I need to remember everything.

“I love you. You’re my precious baby girl. Remember that, Alyssa. Please, please, remember that.”

Her breathing hitches with each trembling sob. She winds her fingers into my hair.

I look to Silas, with his jaw tensed and the tendons lining his forearms pulled tight and swallow the lump in my throat. “I love you Si, don’t forget me, okay?”

He lifts his gaze to mine long enough for me to see the tears glistening on his lower lashes. “I won’t. Love you, too.”

A middle-aged woman with short cropped salt and pepper hair walks through the door and leaves it gaping open behind her. An icy wind gusts through the house, and Alyssa curls into my chest so closely I can feel her heart flutter. I snuggle her tight and rub her arms to warm her.

“Viola Hess. Caseworker from juvenile division,” the woman says. “Silas James, come with me.”

Silas flinches, but he doesn’t join her.

Hess bristles and purses her lips. Coral lipstick has bled into the wrinkles around her mouth. “It will be easier for you if you come under your own power.”

I bite my lip. “Please don’t take him away.”

The caseworker turns her emotionless stare to me. “Don’t worry. We have a place for all of you.”

I force my voice louder, bolder, “We’ll do whatever you want. We’ll take the chip. I can look after Silas and Alyssa. We’ll be fine. We’ll obey.”

Hess cocks her head and peers down at me. “How can I believe anything a child of Resistors says? You’re all liars and thieves. Silas James, come with me now or I’ll get one of the officers to help me.”

My brother steps toward her. I take a mental picture of him, a younger im­age of Dad with chestnut hair and steel grey eyes, tall and gangly, but strong. An officer ushers him toward the door. Silas stops, squares his shoulders and looks back at me, his gaze intense. “Rielle, never give in.”

“Move!” the officer barks and pushes him through the door.

Hess grabs Alyssa’s right shoulder. “Time to go.”

Alyssa screams. I wrap my arms around her tighter, tighter. “No! Don’t take her.”

The woman plants her other hand on Alyssa’s left shoulder and rips her from my arms. Alyssa kicks and arches her back. She stretches her arms to­ward me, strands of my hair still caught between her fingers. Her keening cuts into my ears—and my heart. I lunge for her, but a Bank Security officer throws his arm across my chest and drags me back. I wrestle against him. He shoves me against the wall and locks a zip-tie around my wrists.

The caseworker carries Alyssa out the front door. Her cries echo off the neighbouring houses and rip the strength from my legs. I fall into a heap, sobbing. This can’t be happening. This can’t be real.

When they take me, I’m too numb to make a fuss. An officer loads me into the back of a cruiser. I take one last look at my home. The windows are dark, the house an empty shell. The front door stands open, yawning in the cold air. Nothing holds me to this place anymore. Everyone I love is gone. With my hands secured behind my back, I can’t wipe away my tears. They drop from my chin, mixing with Alyssa’s on my soaked collar.

The officer starts his car and drives away from the curb. My home and then my street disappear behind me.

CHAPTER TWO
Useless Skills

 THE CRUISER STOPS IN FRONT OF THE OneEarth Bank Security facility, a soaring A-frame with a limestone facade. The jagged remains of a crucifix scars its smooth surface.

The officer yanks me from the car by my arm. He marches me to the door and swipes his hand in front of a black box with a small red light. A reader scans the chip beneath his skin. The light turns green and the door clicks open.

A series of cubicles fill the Bank Security foyer. Fluorescent lights throw a green sheen over the former church’s now bleak institutional interior. A sheep pen without sheep. They’ve found a new use for it.

I spent countless hours in a place like this as a child. Before Bank Security confiscated it, the church would have had red carpet, not the generic white in­dustrial tiles now covering the floor. The church smell still lingers—varnished wood and stale coffee, aged paper and leather.

Women in skirts with toddlers clinging to their pantyhosed legs used to visit here. Old men in suits traded hard candies for smiles from children. Men in crisp collared shirts used to clutch paper cups full of steaming coffee, fingers pressed against brown stir sticks to keep them from jumping out. Black leather bound Bibles with silver edged pages were tucked under arms. Black ribbons split the books, dangling like limp serpents’ tongues, lost in the middle of so many pages.

I release a ragged breath. I’m in the middle too. Lost. Lost from family. Lost from home.

The officer guides me inside a cubicle and removes my restraints. He push­es me down onto a folding metal chair in front of a wide desk with chrome legs and fake wood grain top. I rub the deep red impressions the zip-tie left in my wrists and wiggle my fingers to get the blood moving again.

Two women busy themselves behind the desk. One brushes her fingers over her holo and the other rifles through a stack of bulging envelopes.

“You’re here late, Deb,” the officer says.

The woman at the desk, Deb, pushes her black-rimmed glasses up her nose. “Hey, Bernie. Yeah, Lisa called in sick. Just filling in. I’m missing my kid’s hockey game.”

“They make it to play-offs?” Bernie asks.

“If they win tonight’s game they will.” She spreads her fingers over the holo image to enlarge it. The tree-like OneEarth Bank image hovers in front of her. “Alright, who do we have here?”

Bernie fiddles with his holo, and a text image leaps above the device. He reads from it. “Rielle James, age seventeen. Resistor. Potential thief.”

For refusing the commerce chip, we’ve been called Resistors and thieves. Some people have even called us terrorists. Deb strokes a virtual page. Her eyes roam over the information, then she raises her eyebrows and peers over her glasses at the officer. “Rielle James?”

Bernie’s mouth curls up at the corner. He nods.

My name is familiar to them. Why?

Deb reads off my particulars to a frizzy-haired woman who taps hot pink nails over a virtual keyboard glowing on the desk.

“Do you have any useful skills?” asks Frizzy-hair. Her eyes narrow, apprais­ing me.

I swallow to wet my throat. “I can play piano.” I inspect the lines on my hands. Do they consider that a useful skill?

“No one needs a musical Contract,” Deb snaps, looking at me for the first time.

A Contract? That’s what they’re doing to me? They’re placing me into a community service Contract. My punishment for my parents’ resistance to their laws. They tell everyone that Contracts are a way to rehabilitate kids from Resistor families, but it’s just a politically correct way of saying “slave”.

Deb rolls her eyes before continuing. “Are you able to fix anything? Can you cook? Do you have experience caring for children?”

“No.” The only child I want to care for is my sister.

The two women lean their heads together and Deb whispers, “She’s too slight to be good for any hard labour. Weak.”

The longer I sit here, the smaller I shrink. I want to shrink until I disappear. These women are right. I’m not strong. I was too weak to help my brother or my sister.

Powerless.

I hang my head.

Frizzy-hair casts her critical gaze at me. “We’ll put her down as housekeep­ing. We won’t get much for her.”

Worthless.

Deb rolls backward in her office chair and retrieves a manila envelope from an organizer attached to the wall. She squeezes it open and holds it out in front of me. “Remove your necklace.”

I throw my hand over the oval pendant. My mother’s necklace and my grandmother’s before hers. “Please, can I keep it?”

“No. We will keep it for you until your Contract is up.”

I close my fist around the warm gold locket. “And when will that be?”

Bernie kicks my chair. Clanging metal echoes through the room. “Quiet!”

I flinch and fold my shoulders inward.

Pathetic.

Deb sets her lips in a hard line and waits. With trembling hands, I unclasp Mom’s necklace and drop it into the envelope. She peels off the white strip from the self-adhesive flap and seals the envelope. She slips my envelope into the middle of a wire basket filled with other envelopes.

I swallow the lump in my throat and blink back tears. She didn’t bother writing my name on it. My necklace is lost. Lost. Like me.

Bernie leads me by the arm through a series of stations. At the first my fin­gerprints are scanned, and at the second my photograph is taken. At the third station I’m issued a set of faded green scrubs stamped PROPERTY OF MN STATE BANK and a pair of flimsy canvas shoes that are two sizes too big.

Bernie leads me down a flight of stairs into the basement and toward an­other room. As we step inside, the sharp smell of rubbing alcohol burns my nose. Overhead, a bare fluorescent tube flickers and buzzes. A single chair waits at the center of the room, its yellow foam padding erupting from the cracked vinyl seat. A man wearing blue latex gloves works over a metal tray on wheels.

My knees lock, but Bernie puts his hand on my shoulder and pushes me forward, then down onto the chair. The gloved man rolls the tray to my side. A disinfectant swab protrudes from a wrapper on the tray beside a plastic gun-like object with a long syringe jutting from the barrel.

Gloves holds out his hand. “Left hand.”

“What is that?” I look at the syringe gun.

“An insertion gun.”

I study the contraption, my hand held close to my side. Maybe I misun­derstood everything that happened upstairs. Maybe they’re just giving me a chip and letting me go. My heart leaps at the idea. I won’t have my parents, but I’ll be able to live a normal life. I can go back to school. And get a job. No Community Service Contract. No more trading work for food. No more being stuck at home because I can’t go anywhere without a chip. I offer him my hand.

Gloves scrubs the disinfectant swab over the soft flesh between my thumb and index finger. It chills my skin.

“I’m getting a commerce chip?”

“Of course not. This is a tracker chip. In case you try to escape.”

A tracker chip? No! A commerce chip means freedom. A tracker chip means enslavement. I yank my hand from his rubbery fingers and hug it to my chest. He grabs it back and locks it in a cold steely grip, his fingers digging into my flesh. “Hold her,” he says to Bernie.

Bernie grips my upper arms and slams me against the back of the chair

“No. No! I don’t need this. I haven’t done anything wrong!” I kick Gloves in the thigh. He stumbles backward.

Something cold touches the back of my neck. My teeth hammer together so hard I think they might shatter. My heart explodes in my chest. A convul­sion tightens, seizes, twists every muscle. I can’t breathe! I fall, smacking my head on the icy concrete.

Bernie pulls the cold object away from my neck—a rectangular black plas­tic box with a metal plate at one end—and tucks it into a holster on his belt.

My muscles stop twitching. I suck in a lungful of air, finally able to breathe again.

Gloves drops to his haunches and takes my hand again. I command my arm to pull back, but my muscles won’t respond. He pushes the point of the syringe gun into my skin. The needle sinks deeper and deeper into my flesh—so deep I wonder if he’s going for my elbow. Pain and pressure roil up my arm. I clamp my teeth together to stifle a scream. Gloves depresses the trigger to insert the chip.

A tear creeps down my cheek. The thing—the tracker—is inside me now. Though the chip should be too tiny for me to feel, it burns like poison.

Gloves scans his holo over my hand. An electronic female voice announc­es, “James, Rielle. Contract number08645.”

Bernie half carries, half drags me down a dank corridor and abandons me in a room full of cots with at least fifty others like me dressed in the same green scrubs. I slink along the wall for support to an empty cot in the far corner. The girl in the next bed says something to me, but the words jumble somewhere between her lips and my ears. I ignore her.

I unfold a thin cotton blanket from the foot of the mattress, pull it around my shoulders and lay down facing the wall. I allow tears to fall. There are no words to my thoughts. Just faces. Mom. Dad. Silas. Alyssa. They flash like strobe lights in my head. I’ve lost them all. I’ve lost everything.

The mattress is soaked with tears before the life raft of sleep drifts toward me, but when it does, I climb aboard and leave the horror behind.

The next morning alarm bells startle me from a restless sleep. I open my eyes to bright, cold fluorescent lights and squint against them. I move my hand. Pain. The chip insertion. Bank Security. My family.

My heart pounds frenetically. Yesterday should’ve been a nightmare—a dark world I could wake from—but I’m still here. This is really happening. Yesterday morning I was free. I got ready for school and had an argument with Silas over who got to take the last cookie for lunch. I called him a jerk and told him I wished I didn’t have a brother, then walked to school.

Today, I’m a prisoner and my brother is gone. My whole family is gone.

I sit up and place my feet on the concrete floor, sweeping my gaze over the room to get my bearings.

The girl next to me pushes herself upright, her cot creaking under her shift­ing weight. She tries to make eye contact, but I look past her. I don’t want to make friends I’ll lose within the day.

A young guard in the standard black Bank Security uniform shouts, “Line up!”

The crowd of new Contracts, all about my age, shuffle heads down across our musty sleeping quarters to form a line, the tall boys ducking to avoid low hanging pipes. The guard commands us to follow a yellow stripe running down the middle of the hallway. I walk the yellow line like it’s a balance beam, down the hall and up a flight of stairs to a heavy steel door.

Four officers work their way down the line, barking at us to hold still, locking us in leg restraints and handcuffs. They tighten mine until the metal pinches my skin. After chaining us together, they pry open the heavy door and a blast of cold air raises goose bumps on my arms. They march us out­side onto the snow dusted parking lot.

CHAPTER THREE
One Bright Future

I WAIT IN THE FREEZING WIND BEHIND a dozen others for my turn to be loaded onto a bus. Snowflakes swirl around me. The restraints around my ankles and wrists conduct the cold to my skin, like icy knives dig­ging into my flesh. Chains clank as Contracts pivot away from the whipping north wind.

Security officers holding rifles diagonally across their chests are stationed around the edge of the parking lot. Snow partially obscures an officer crouched on the roof of the facility with his gun trained on us. I scan the sur­rounding buildings. More gunmen. Seems like overkill for a group of bound and terrified teens.

The chain of Contracts tugs me toward the solar bus. Its magnetic skis rest on parallel steel ribbons, sunk into cracked asphalt. The door folds open and the line begins to file in, one kid at a time, until an officer scans the chip of the boy in front of me. “Grafton, Adam. Contract number08629.” The boy climbs aboard and another officer removes his chains. Then he walks down the aisle to choose a seat.

My turn. The guard scans my chip. “James, Rielle. Contract number08645,” the device chants. The officer’s eyes widen. “James,” he says, as though it’s a curse. The guard unlocking the chains snaps his head in my direction.

What’s going on? Why would my name bring that reaction last night and again now? It’s as though it’s familiar to them—and not in a good way.

Perplexed, I climb the bus stairs and hold out my wrists, eager to be free of the frigid metal. The officer pauses and a scowl sours his face. He jerks my hands and jams the key into the lock on the cuffs. He leans in and his hot breath singes my ear. “You people are finally getting what you deserve.”

I crank my neck to get a good look at him. A mix of victory and gross plea­sure plays on his features. You people? Does he mean Contracts? He didn’t say this to anyone else. Does he mean me? Why?

I head down the aisle toward an empty seat at the back. An acidic odour spoils the air.

“Stop! You! Contract James. Sit here.” He points to the front seat. With a sigh, I back up, plop down on the worn front seat and slide over to the grimy window. Water pools on the floor at my feet as though they just hosed out the entire bus.

I clench my jaw to stifle my tears. Why do I have to sit up front? I don’t know why I bother trying to make sense of any of this. Bank Security has been trying to control my life for a long time. This is just more of the same. I shiver and rub my arms to keep warm while the remaining Contracts take their seats. Are they shivering from the cold or from the trauma? Or both?

Two large boys drop onto the seat beside me. The boy in the middle nudges me over, pressing me into the side of the bus. I fold my shoulders forward to make room.

One officer positions himself at the back of the bus, while another stands at the front, his rifle slung over his shoulder. He looks as if he belongs in the military with his buzz cut and squared posture. He peers directly at me, then out the window at the parking lot, his face tight, tendons stretched taut at his temple. The engine starts with a pulsating hum and the bus lifts off the magnetic tracks and lurches forward, throwing a few Contracts out of their seats. The driver makes a right turn off the parking lot, then takes an exit ramp onto the freeway.

I rest my forehead against the frosty window so no one can see me cry. Tears stream over my cheeks as Minneapolis falls away behind me. Will I ever see home again?

They’ve never set any Contracts free. More tears spill over my cheeks.

The bus glides south on the I-35, its windshield wipers slapping away heavy snow. A sky full of oppressive clouds and mounds of dirty snow caked on the roadside make the entire world appear grey.

The officer with the buzz cut spends most of his time staring down the length of the bus, but when I shift, he shifts. His trigger finger twitches and his eyes flinch toward my side of the bus.

Between overcast skies strangling the beams of solar energy and snow col­lecting on the rooftop solar panels, we have to stop to recharge and clean snow off the bus roof twice within the first couple of hours.

The sky clears after we pass Rochester, but my anxiety condenses. I feel like there’s a rubber band between me and Minneapolis, and the miles stretch it—stretch it so far it’s about to snap. Air thickens around me. I try to expand my ribs to pull in more oxygen, but there’s no room to breathe with the boys crowding me. I clamp my teeth to stifle a claustrophobic scream—a scream might just send the jumpy officer over the edge. He watches me squirm.

I need to focus on something. To think of anything but being dragged fur­ther and further from home against my will. When we were kids, Mom used to play the alphabet game with Silas and me to distract us on long road trips.

I search out the window. A. Avenue. I meter my breathing. In. Out. In again.

  1. B. Exit B.
  2. C. Corolla.

My heart slows as I search roadside signs and license plates for the next letter. In the distance, a sun-washed billboard peels at the corners like flop­py dog ears. Little girls in flowing white sundresses skip through a field of ripened grain, golden and bent by a breeze. As the bus speeds toward the advertisement, the lettering, faded blue like a worn pair of jeans, gives me a D, an E and an F. And three familiar O’s that send a shiver down my back.

The OneEarth Bank motto: One World. One Currency. One Bright Future.

One bright future—except for people like me.

Hatred boils up in my gut. That slogan lit the spark that ignited all my problems. I didn’t understand what was happening back then. Fourth graders don’t tend to be interested in the economy. The adult world had worries I didn’t understand.

One day the teachers crowded us onto our gym bleachers for a special as­sembly. History in the making, they said. Hundreds of students fell silent as lights dimmed and a huge deep screen flickered to life. A three dimensional, life-sized image of the President appeared. He smiled and waved. We waved back as though he were really with us. He gave an impassioned speech.

“The OneEarth Bank promises a bright hope for the future,” he said. “A glorious tomorrow for our nation.” The broadcast ended with a scene of people from every nation holding hands and smiling. A woman’s soothing voice announced, “One world. One currency. One bright future.”

I believed every word. I truly thought something amazing was happening. When I arrived home from school that day bouncing with excitement, I gave my parents an animated synopsis of the broadcast. But they seemed uneasy. Concern crinkled the skin between their brows.

At first, commerce chips were optional, but the media pumped their advan­tages. Just walk into a store, take what you want and leave. Chip detectors at the door would instantly record your entire transaction.

My parents resisted the commerce chips.

I still remember Dad perched in front of our antiquated flat screen TV, worry adding decades to his appearance as he watched a report about thieves who refused the chip so they could steal merchandise undetected. That report launched growing suspicion over anyone who resisted chip insertion. Laws were passed, forcing us to conform. Only those with evil intent wouldn’t want a chip, they said.

My parents still resisted. They said the Bible forbade it, that my soul was at stake.

If we had known what was coming, we could’ve run away. Lived off the grid with my eccentric aunt, Angelique.

The bus makes its first stop at a Bank Security facility in Des Moines. Ev­eryone sits stock still as the guard checks a list on his holo. He calls out names and two girls shuffle to the front of the bus, their eyes cast down. They descend the stairs into oblivion. I refuse to think about them again. I turn my head the other way as the bus drifts back onto the interstate. The further south we drive, the warmer the weather turns and the stuffier the bus gets. Someone near the back of the bus gags and wretches.

Night falls. I long for sleep to rescue me from anxious thoughts, but be­tween the boys squishing me against the bus wall and their chainsaw snores, I can’t sleep. Instead, I listen to the hushed sobs of a Contract behind me and worry about Alyssa. Is she scared? Does she think we abandoned her?

Morning breaks and though I’m relieved that the long, miserable night is over, an oppressive ache settles into my chest. More tears tumble from my eyes—will they ever run dry? Grief flows into panic the more I think about Silas and Alyssa. Where are they? What’s happening to them? What if they need me?

The bus stops in Kansas City, then Topeka. At each stop, I hold my breath as the officer calls names. I didn’t want to get on this bus in the first place, but now I don’t want to get off.

Everyone needs a shower in the worst way, including me. More people lose their recharge station cheeseburgers. Vomit sloshes under my seat. The reek of ripe armpits and acidic bile hangs so thick in the air that I can taste it. I keep my nose pointed toward the window, open a crack.

As the bus rolls down an endless stretch of asphalt, the boy beside me lets out a single gust of humourless laughter. “Got the runs.”

These are the only words he’s spoken the entire trip. I want to see what he’s talking about, as though he’s chosen his words carefully and they somehow hold wisdom, so I look up. He’s staring out the window, his acne riddled face lacquered with oil and sweat. I stroke oily grime from the window to get a better look. A red semi-truck travels beside us. “Livestock Transfer,” read the arching letters on the door. The truck tows an oxidized metal trailer punched full of air holes, like tiny portholes. Bristly pink flesh and corkscrew tails pro­trude the holes. A spray of gritty brown greases the side of the trailer, blown backward by the wind—as if the poor creatures stuck their backsides out the windows and gave a squeeze.

I chuckle. I don’t know why—exhaustion, hysteria? Silas was a master of bathroom humour. I can still see Mom’s pursed lips and her stifled smile. She didn’t want to encourage him. I wanted to be more mature than fart bubbles and diarrhea squirts, but I always laughed. My chest constricts as sadness rolls over me. I’ll never laugh with him again.

Brake lights flash in front of us; the bus slows in response. The vomit on the floor slides forward like a viscous serpent. I lift my feet to let it pass. We have something in common with those pigs. We’re taking our last ride. At the end of their ride—slaughter. What awaits me at the end of mine?

We get another bathroom break in Oklahoma City, an oasis amidst the brown and desolate prairie. I can’t help but notice I’m the only Contract who gets an armed escort to the bathroom by the officer with the fidgety trigger finger.

With too much time to think about my parents, hot stinging anger replaces the ache and longing in my chest. I always thought they put their children first. I was wrong. Their ideologies were first, they chose their religion over Alyssa, Silas and me. They damned me to this. At seventeen, my life is over.

My life. I can’t even call it mine anymore. Someone bought it. Not even the clothes on my back belong to me. They belong to my owner. My life stretches hopelessly before me, a chasm so deep that I can’t see the bottom.

I cry myself to sleep.

The next morning, blinding sun wakes me from another troubled sleep. Every joint in my body aches and a constant diet of recharge station cheeseburgers is taking its toll. I wipe vapour from the windows as we pass a colossal casino and the Texas state line marker. Only a handful of Contracts remain. We stop in Fort Worth where a billboard reading “Prosperity for all!” hovers over the parking lot. The giant face of a grinning politician with an epic comb-over stares down at me from the sign.

Liar.

Another name is called. Another kid gets off the bus and we move on. They’ll call my name soon.

Razor sharp anxiety stabs my chest. Where will I go? What will they make me do? How will they treat me? Will I be taken care of or used up and dis­carded? Will they hurt me?

I’m in danger of being lost, swallowed whole by hopelessness, of becom­ing a nameless, faceless slave. And what does that mean? Slave. A shock of indignation rolls over me. I am not a slave. That’s not who I am. I planned to go to college to study music, maybe get married someday and have my own children. Are all those dreams dead now?

Reality kicks me in the chest, stealing my air, making my heart constrict in painful gushes.

I have to find something to hold onto—something to remind me that I used to be free until freedom is mine again. Like a child hunting for her se­curity blanket, I search for something to cling to. Is there anything they can’t take?

I stare down at my damp, sweaty scrubs. What’s left? My home? My family? My clothes? They’re all gone. I have nothing. Despair crashes over me like a tsunami. I grind my teeth to force back the tears. I can’t allow this to destroy me. I have to survive if I’m ever going to see Si or Alyssa again.

I want to scream, “I don’t belong to you!” But I swallow the words. And then it hits me—something I can hold on to. I do have one thing. I haven’t spoken a single word since I left the Bank Security facility a couple days ago. There’s something comforting about silence—my thoughts being mine and mine alone. It’s one thing they can’t control. They can’t force me to talk. Si­lence will be my one freedom.

With only two Contracts left aboard, the bus idles onto a large blacktop parking lot at a mall in San Antonio. The Bank Security officer activates his holo and looks at me. “Rielle James.”