The Harvest of Young Minds

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 2

The alarm beeped loud and monotonously, in time to red and green lights flashing off the concrete walls, as grown-ups rushed to the head of the line. Charlotte looked on with interest–everything had happened so fast that the little blonde girl hadn’t had time to feel frightened, yet nothing ever stifled her curiosity about the world. She had learned early on to take her adventures as they came.
“Here now, lad–you can’t take that in with you,” a guard said, and Charlotte heard the clatter of metal into a tray. (Like most sounds in that underground place, it made a nice echo.) Charlotte clutched tightly at her teddy-bear and favorite pillow, hoping that nobody would confiscate those; as long as she had them she was home, home, home. As for the other possessions that she tugged behind her (awkwardly, with her arms full, but so what?) in a battered box and an old suitcase piled onto a luggage-cart, none of that stuff mattered so much. It came and went, new stuff replacing old–just not the pillow and the teddy-bear. Please.
More metal clattered. “I’m so sorry,” said a woman. “I thought for sure I’d frisked every weapon off of him.” And then somebody finally turned the alarm off. The walls went back to their original pallid gray. Charlotte tried to peer around the kids in front of her, but she stood short even for a nine-year old.
“I’ve had warnings about this one, Ma’am. Robin Royale is it?”
While a boy laughed, the woman said, “I’m afraid that that’s the only name we have for him, although we’re fairly sure it’s not his birth name.”
At last she heard the boy’s voice. “If I had a ‘birth name’, I’ve forgotten it myself, so don’t waste your time.” Teen-boy voice, husky on change.
The man growled, “Over this way, son. You’ll need strip-searched.”
The boy laughed again, wildly. “I’ll expect you to pay for a poke, you know–and I always collect my pay. One way or another.”
“Just you shut up, you little...”
”Gary, no!” the woman cried. “We mustn’t damage the children, no matter what!”
That sounded promising to Charlotte. They mustn’t damage the children. How refreshing! She looked down at her own arm, pushing back the sweater-sleeve. The bruises had faded so much by now that she could hardly see them anymore, just faint yellow ghosts like cigarette stains. (But oh, what she wouldn’t give for a smoke right now!) It had been awhile, in fact, since anybody had hurt her at all–not since they snatched her away from Mommy.
They had kept her moving, sure, kept switching adults and cars and places to sleep, but they’d treated her kindly enough. In fact, they loaned her books, sometimes, and she liked that a whole lot, though she had to rush through them before the next move. No problem, though; she could whip through a book within an hour, from the grown-up section of the library, too, for Mommy had never stayed in one town long enough to get a library card. The new people also gave her big, juicy crossword puzzles and brain-teasers, or loaned her crayons and sheets of scrap paper with blank backs to draw on, or plopped her in front of screens tuned into the educational channels of so many different states and eventually different countries that she lost track of her route. She had started to pick up some Spanish from the latest ones, though occasionally a Portugese or French station threw her off. Yes, her captors seemed to know exactly how to keep her entertained.
The line inched forward. The kid in front of her smelled bad, and mud and grass stains marked his clothes. “You should thank God you have a home at all, an honest-to-God roof over your head!” her mother used to growl whenever Charlotte whined. Charlotte learned not to whine. Wherever Mommy went, Charlotte went too, and that would be home. She always had her teddy bear and her favorite pillow, after all, and never mind the kids who made fun of her for still clinging to them at her age; kids came and went, and Ted did not. The present situation didn’t differ all that much, really, except for no Mommy, of course, and some of the places that they’d stayed in seemed really nice, and they mustn’t damage the children.
“I don’t believe it!” The man declared from within a curtained-off alcove up ahead. “The little bugger had a broken-down gun hidden in his artificial leg!”
“Please, sir,” said the boy, mock-scared yet very loudly, “May I pull my pants back on, now?” The little quaver implied all manner of wrongdoing; Charlotte hid her giggles behind her hand before they could get her in trouble, but others up and down the line laughed more freely, and some guffawed out loud.
“Awr, get on with you! He’s clear now, Ma’am. Put him back in line. What do you want me to do with the marijuana?”
The woman said, “Just toss it in with the weapons, in the contraband bin. We’ll take care of it. Why did you have it in an incense-burner, Robin?”
The boy mumbled beyond Charlotte’s hearing.
“You couldn’t have reached the ventilation system, Robin. It doesn’t work the usual way.”
Charlotte could barely make out the words, “I’d have figured it out.”
The line shuffled along. Charlotte took her turn passing through the metal detector, but of course they found no weapons on her; she had different ways to get along. She glanced wistfully at the contraband bin, though, wondering if they had cigarettes in there.
Now she could see where they headed. Something ahead looked sort of like one of those incredibly old teardrop trailers that she and Mommy had stayed in for awhile, so crowded inside that they’d had to sleep in each other’s arms, unless Mommy had a guest, in which case Charlotte would take her pillow and Ted to the car in front, with whatever blanket Mommy could give her, and listen to the axles groan in rhythm behind her, rocking her to sleep. Except that this one looked brand shiny-new, as if teardrop trailers still rolled off the factory line. It also looked, now that she came closer and the line bent to where she could see the whole thing, about half the height it should be: a baby-trailer. But it had a door in the front, where the hitch belonged, and not the side in the usual way, rubbery all around like an airplane door. A matron instructed children to bend and go in.
Charlotte saw Rob Roy reach the entrance-point and stop. “Excuse me, Milady,” he said with an exaggerated bow and the flourish of an imaginary hat, “But I see a helluva lot of people going into this, shall I say, freakishly smallish object, and none of them coming out.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just bend down and...”
“I’ve done enough bending for one f—in’ day, thank you very much!”
“Young man, do you want me to call security?”
Again, that laugh! “Oh, and what are they going to do to me? They can’t damage the merchandise, can they?”
“We can drug you again, and strap you in, and you cannot do a thing about it. And yes, I have heard of you. Or, you can join the others with dignity. Last time, I understand, while unconscious you lost control of your...”
“Fine!” the boy snapped, and shoved himself in, slapping the metal outside loudly first.
Charlotte felt kind of thrilled as her turn came closer. So small, so many going in, none coming out. At least she heard no screams–but would she? Maybe she waited her turn to die, she speculated, her curiosity really firing up. Or maybe something else awaited within, something miraculous and wonderful. Maybe she approached a portal to Fairyland. Of course she wouldn’t mind if she died, either. She’d lost that fear a long time ago. It’d just be another adventure that she’d take as it came. Worrying got too exhausting.
Miraculous indeed, this portal, though it did not lead to Fairyland. As soon as she crawled in she found that she could straighten up immediately, and that impressed her. Nothing fanciful at first greeted her eye, just long rows of seats in a rounded chamber that resembled the interior of a passenger-plane (She and Mama had sometimes traveled by plane, when they could get the money.) But it went on and on in a way that didn’t seem possible. She smiled, hugging her teddy-bear close. Cool!
A stewardess-like lady (yet she doubted the woman really was a stewardess) showed Charlotte to her seat, put her suitcase into the overhead chamber for her, and let her put the box under her feet, which otherwise would have dangled uncomfortably. The lady agreed that she could hold onto the bear and pillow.
But Charlotte didn’t stay seated very long. Still clutching her closest possessions, she joined other excited children running up and down the aisles, finding more, and more, and more seats and children beyond each bulkhead. She passed Robin Royale, overflowing his place with his long legs stuck out in the corridor, as he studiously ignored everyone else and poured over his book (held so close to his nose that she figured him long overdue for an update of his glasses prescription.) She just hopped over his feet like the rest and scampered on, taking everything in.
All races, shapes, and kinds populated the rows and corridor, from children barely school-age to teenagers shuddering on the edge of adulthood, quite a few of them speaking Spanish. Some slumped in their seats as though exhausted (or maybe drugged, she now wondered) some quietly occupied themselves with books or puzzles or their own thoughts; some engaged in animated conversation with each other, leaning over the backs of seats or across aisles till the wanderers sped by; some ran just like her, on and on, with no end in sight. Thus she and the other explorers discovered the next marvel, for though they ran in a straight line, they somehow looped around back to where they started, by the same rubbery-edged little door with still more children stooping to enter in. Oh wondrous find!
The place now teemed with children, loud with laughter and tears and shouts and songs and conversation, until a voice on a loudspeaker drowned them out suddenly. “Please find your seats and strap in,” it said. “We are about to transfer.” It repeated itself in Spanish. (Charlotte thought that an interesting choice of word, “transfer”, tying into something she’d heard about, she couldn’t remember where or when.) Still, it took a lot to settle everybody down, and in the end the stewardesses turned out to pack bulging muscles into the pretty uniforms, as they wrestled the more recalcitrant children into place (with trained skill, inflicting no injury, though sometimes applying injection-guns to necks) and forcibly clicking shut the belts, hardly even changing expression as they did so.
The hearty voice came over the loudspeaker once again, deep female or high male, Charlotte couldn’t tell which. “Welcome, one and all, to the world’s first large-scale transfer device!” After each sentence it repeated itself in Spanish. “You are probably wondering what that means, and why we have gathered you all here.” Loud cheers and jeers answered, ranging from furious to delighted. “Quiet, now, quiet, and you will get your answers. Silencio, por favor.” The voices settled surprisingly swiftly, for the questions seemed pressing even for the most ill-controlled.
After a pause where one could only hear squirming, the voice said. “First, what we are. Yes indeed, the rumors are true: transfer-devices are real, and do indeed shift what you might call dimensions, or realities, or parallel universes, though none of those terms quite hit the mark. Many of you, no doubt, have heard rumors of discoveries of parallel earths, most of which have proven uninhabitable and the rest hardly worth it. Perhaps you have even read speculations about this on the Internet.”
Excited whispers started up again.
“Shhh, shhh, do you want to hear the rest?”
Choruses of “Yes!” along with a few profane punctuating phrases answered before pure silence settled again.
“As many of you seem to have guessed, we have at last discovered a fully habitable earth, and intend to transfer over to it.” Deafening cheers–along with a few screams.
“Hush, my young friends.” The speaker had to make him or herself heard over a few out of control sobbers, but the stewardesses calmed those down fairly quickly. “Hush and listen.” The voice sounded less hearty, now, even grim. “Some of us has long watched the decline of this civilization, and the resultant psychological and intellectual crippling of those children who might otherwise have made headway in solving earth’s problems. So we have stepped away from the Ivory Tower, so to speak, and taken action.”
Uh oh. In Charlotte’s experience, whenever grown-ups threatened to “take action”, it never came out well.
“Too long have academics wrung our hands at the woes of the world, doing nothing. Not for private gain have our many discoveries and inventions, here at T.L., brought in funds.” (The little black girl next to Charlotte started, but said nothing.) “We have hired the necessary extrication experts, laborers, engineers, programmers, psychologists and teachers. We have gathered together the most intelligent and endangered children in the Americas that we could find.”
Now the voice became maternal or paternal, a little too soothing for comfort. “We shall take good care of you, from here on out. We promise to take you to a place of safety, away from all of Earth’s troubles, and raise you with all of the security, healthful conditions, and educational benefits that you have a right to expect. That is all. Enjoy the ride.”
Voices immediately filled up the chamber, at deafening decibels, wailing or rejoicing or speculating, cursing or praying or laughing or muttering cynically. Charlotte heard the black girl next to her say, “T.L. Techno-logical Lab’ratories–They’s in everythin’. I reads labels, anythin’ I can get my hands on. They’s always in the fine print, like they don’t want folks to notice.”
“You know about them?” Charlotte asked. “What have you learned?”
“I ain’t learned, but I kin figger. They won’t of tole us their name if they aimed to let us go back. Not leastways till after they brainwash us.” Charlotte glanced over; the girl clutched a doll of her own, incongruously pale doll in the dark arms, missing one eye, blonde plastic hair sticking out at odd angles. Yet someone had braided and beaded the child’s own hair with care, long, loving care, all colors of beads in rainbow order, all the way to the back where the girl couldn’t have easily reached by herself.
Charlotte thought to introduce herself, but just then it felt like everything rippled, space and time and soul and gut and light and darkness all rippled at once, and the silence of shock fell on everyone, even the sobbers. Charlotte discovered at length that she could still move her head as before, and look about her. It all seemed the same.
No, it didn’t, at second glance. Light and shadow seemed extreme, like in vacuum, like light wouldn’t diffuse–the chiaroscuro of the moon. Charlotte took a deep breath and let it out again. They still had oxygen–that didn’t explain it. And some things even vacuum could not have explained. She had the disturbing sense that she could look in directions that didn’t exist, although she couldn’t confirm it in any direct way. Everything looked simultaneously much smaller and huge beyond belief. She noticed a little window next to her, but it showed her only fog.
She started to speak to her seatmate again, but what the girl had said stopped her cold. Never going back. “Mommy will never sink her claws in me again,” Charlotte whispered. Good news–the best. So why did it hurt so? She suddenly remembered Mommy putting eyeliner on, bright blue eyeliner, laughing to hear her daughter say, “It’s party-night!” Mommy had reached over and drawn an eyeliner flower on Charlotte’s hand, a tattoo that couldn’t last, darker than the blue of bruises. Charlotte remembered the tickle of the tiny, tiny brush, and hugged her bear tighter, tears trickling down her face.
“I didn’t need no rescuin’,” the girl beside her said, and Charlotte saw that she wept, too. “Mama and Papa loved me. They loved me. Poor–sure, we poor, sometimes, but Papa be job-huntin’, got good prospects, too, theys no better mechanic if the factories just open again. All day he be job-huntin’ or teachin’ me, be showin’ me to tear down machines and build ‘em back up again. I done a whole car by myself. I done made my own computer, just no dish for it, but we fix that soon, when he work again. Faith, girl, he say, you could build the Transfer Device if you set your mind to it. Never thought I’d ride in one.” She drew a sob-choked breath. “They’d of put me to school, if any stood still open within miles of town. They’d of built a school with they bare hands if anybody be hirin’ the teachers. They good folk. They loved me.” And she leaned into Charlotte’s shoulder and wept, and Charlotte leaned back and wept, and didn’t know what to think, for once, only what to feel.


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