“‘Try the blue button. Maybe that opens up the entrance to the ship, Hoshiko,’ Coco suggested. ‘No, I don’t think so. This might have just been a waste of time. With luck, they may come and find us themselves,’ I replied, sighing. We’d been on the run for three days now, and our faces were undoubtedly plastered across the Collectors’ bulletins.”
“Try the blue button. Maybe that opens up the entrance to the ship, Hoshiko,” Coco suggested.
“No, I don’t think so. This might have just been a waste of time. With luck, they may come and find us themselves,” I replied, sighing.
We’d been on the run for three days now, and our faces were undoubtedly plastered across the Collectors’ bulletins. If the Rouge didn’t come rescue us, the Collectors would find us before them, and we would be taken back and executed. Probably. Actually… I didn’t want to think about it right now. Right now, we just had to figure out how to crack the code and be done with this random machine we found. We thought it might open up a hatch or something to the Rouge ship, but we weren’t not sure.
“So… you know, I don’t really know much about you,” Coco said, tilting her head in earnest.
Her swishy, blond hair slipped off her shoulder and covered one of her green eyes.
“We should get to know each other.”
Coco and I had just met a couple months ago, so we were not exactly on close terms.
“Okay…” I said slowly. “What about your family?”
“Well… I’m an only child… My aunts, uncles, and grandparents all lived under our roof with my cousins and my parents, though, so it was still a pretty full house. One of my cousins is still at the facility, but she’s supposed to get out in a week or so.” Coco’s smile disappeared at the thought of her cousin.
“It’s okay, I know how it feels,” I told her. “My family essentially disowned me when the ordinance was passed. My twin brother and my dad wouldn’t talk to me, and my mom just avoided me for days.”
We fell silent at this, thinking back to our families. Would they even miss us?
“So what about your favorite food, Hoshiko? I love milk chocolate and caramel covered googleberries,” Coco laughed.
She threw her milky, brown arms in the air and fell backwards.
“I love pasta. That’s the one thing I miss about the facility. The pasta there is to die for,” I replied, clutching my heart.
“What’s your favorite pasta sauce?” Coco asked, giggling.
“ALFREDO FOR LIFE, YO!” I cried out.
We rolled around on the ground, laughing so hard our stomachs hurt. And then we realized part of the reason they hurt so bad was because we hadn’t eaten in a day. Crud. I was about ready to eat my shaggy, ebony hair or even my bony arms.
“I guess, for now, we should just try to find some food, since we didn’t think to bring any with us.” Coco stood up with a groan. “Ow! I think I hurt my foot.”
I officially hated this forest. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. Hate hate hate hate hate. It was impossible to navigate, and now it did that to Coco.
“Well doesn’t that make things all the better,” I muttered.
Then I saw Coco’s face.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Cue the uncomfortable and awkward silence.
“So uh, I’m going to go find something edible to eat. You can rest here, but make sure to watch over the machine. We can’t risk losing it, in case it leads us to the Rouge.”
“I get it, Hoshiko,” Coco said, annoyed. “See if there are any googleberries around here.” Her face brightened at the thought of googleberries.
Too bad there’s no chocolate around here, I thought.
“There won’t be. Googleberries are made in the labs, so there’s no way I’m going to find any here,” I called over my shoulder, already walking away.
I could hear Coco grumbling, and I felt the corners of my lips rise just a bit. Coco brought happiness to anyone, she just lit up the room like that. Or woods, as in our case.
I tore off a strip from my blouse to bundle any food I found. I found a small berry on the ground, but I doubt it was clean enough for anyone to eat. Plus, it had a brown spot on the side that looked suspiciously like feces.
Just keep walking, I reminded myself. I didn’t know if we’d make it long enough for the Collectors to forget about us, but I just didn’t have the heart to tell Coco. She’s so sweet and innocent. I wanted to get her out of that dump into a place where she couldn’t be spoiled. It’s hard not to though, especially when I might break down myself. It’s almost like… I don’t know, like I felt a responsibility in me to protect her. What was this feeling? It’s so sudden, so new!
Suddenly, I heard a voice. Not Coco’s, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t talking to myself right now.
“Ugh! The one thing I liked better about the facility is that it was actually clean,” a girl said haughtily.
The facility?! No way. Are these people… them? The Rouge?
“Ah shut up. That’s one thing, Amy. It’s not a big deal, so suck it up, buttercup,” another voice chuckled.
The voices faded away, and it was like that set me off. I instantly sprinted back to Coco.
“Coco! Coco! I heard them! The Rouge! They’re here!” I shouted, cackling gleefully.
No response. Perhaps Coco was sleeping. I ran towards the clearing where I left her, spinning joyfully.
But Coco wasn’t there. No! She can’t be gone! Then I noticed.
The machine was gone too.
Did Coco leave me? I thought… I thought we were friends. Why would she leave me? And the machine, why would she take it? What did I ever do to her? Was there something she was hiding from me? And I thought she hurt her foot. Wouldn’t she have made some noise? Did she lie to me?
I couldn’t bear the thought that Coco, the one person I thought needed to be protected by me, would betray me and leave me stranded here.
I sank to my knees in the grass and gave a cry of despair. All my life, I’d been abandoned by everyone I thought I could be close to. Before the girls were collected and brought to the central facility, I had a good life. My parents were respected engineers, and I was popular among my friends. I just had my twentieth birthday before the new governor passed an ordinance to collect the girls in the state under twenty-one. My twin brother celebrated with me, and we had the best time together; we went to the theater and watched his girlfriend perform in an original play. This happiness we shared? All of it gone after the ordinance.
My friends ditched me. The boys looked at me with scorn, and the older girls ignored me whenever I tried to talk to them. I had a week to say my goodbyes, but I didn’t have anyone anymore to say goodbye to. It was like the ordinance had cut me off from society.
And then my family. My mother was sympathetic, but she would never dare to cross my father or the state. She always stuck by my father’s side, even when he called the Collectors to come early so that I was not seen until I was perfect. It was like she knew what repercussions her show of empathy for me could hold. My father made sure I was hidden until I had to go to the facility and wouldn’t speak to me directly. Even my brother. Danny made it clear that even though I was six minutes older than him, that he held the higher authority. He said I didn’t mean anything to him, that I was just a body. I couldn’t believe him, that he would just ignore all the memories we shared for the last two decades.
For the first time in a long time, I felt so alone. Then I met Coco at the facility. She shared my values and wanted to get out of there too. I thought I was finally on my way back to social recovery. But now, I guess that dream was over. I guess I would always be alone.
I had to find Coco. If she abandoned me, I’ll knock some sense into her. If not, she could be in serious danger.
Something hit my arm. A sharp object. I turned my head slowly and saw a tranquilizer dart sticking out of my arm with a white puffball.
And the sedative took over.
I groggily moved a hand to my arm, where the tranq dart hit me. There was a small bandage covering it, but it was still a bit sore.
A hand slapped my face.
“What…” I mumbled, slowly sitting up on the bed.
I pulled a bit of my hair from my mouth, knocking my slim body onto the hard frame of the limp bed. I opened my eyes and took in my surroundings. A pair of young men, in maybe their mid-twenties, stood in front of me, arms crossed. There was only one exit in the bland, small room, and there were no windows.
“Follow me,” a man said gruffly.
He had a sandy-blond buzz cut, and wore a snug, grey t-shirt that hugged his bulging muscles. His rough, calloused hands pulled me up and shoved me out the door. His partner didn’t exactly look like a soldier, as his arms were so much thinner than the first man.
“Wait… what are we doing?!” I cried.
“We’re preparing you for execution,” his partner said cheerfully.
“Shut up, Dillon,” the first person snapped.
They kept pushing me down the dark, smelly corridor.
“Ex- execution?” I whispered, my legs turning to jelly.
Dillon caught me as I stumbled, his short, tousled brown curls bouncing.
“Yup!” Dillon said. He turned to me and whispered, “Sorry, Travis is really grumpy.”
“Shut up!” he roared, slamming Dillon into a wall. “I am not grumpy, but I am your boss! So you’ll do as I say! Got it?!”
Dillon instantly quieted down.
“Yes sir,” he said meekly, shrinking down against the wall.
Travis continued walking, and Dillon quickly followed him. I started crying as they shoved me along. We entered a large room with electric rods poised towards a hard chair with metal restraints, which I assumed was the torture room. Travis pushed me into the chair and activated the restraints while Dillon got the control panel ready.
“NO! PLEASE!” I screamed, sobbing.
I tried to get out of the restraints, but they were too tight. I shrieked as Dillon started up the electricity.
“NO! PLEASE NO! MY FAMILY! COCO!” These words barely came out of my mouth through all the screaming and crying.
Travis adjusted the rods to point closer at me, and I kicked him in the crotch as I thrashed around. He punched my face and told Dillon, “Do it!”
Dillon pressed a button, and a pulse of electricity came running down the rods and shocked me. Screaming, I writhed in the chair.
“PLEASE! STOP!” I shrieked, letting out another bloodcurdling cry.
Travis shoved Dillon out of the way, who stumbled and fell to the ground. He then punched another button which increased the electric charge.
The electricity seared my skin and lit my insides up. It felt like my entire body was on fire, a burning and stinging pain. Sweat seeped down my arms and legs as I continued to scream and thrash, watching the electricity run all over my body. Travis cackled and stopped the electricity to say something.
“Where are the Rouge?” he screeched, staring at me with wild eyes.
“I don’t- I don’t know!” I cried. “I’m not one of them! I don’t know where they are!”
Dillon silently got up from the ground and punched Travis, knocking him out. He then turned the machine off completely and ran towards me. My sorry self was still jolting and sobbing as he undid the restraints and helped me off the chair.
I crumpled to the ground and whispered, “Thank you.”
And then the world turned black.
I had a nightmare, just the same scene playing over and over. Travis, knocking Dillon to the ground as electricity flashed before my eyes. I woke with a start, sweating all over and breathing heavily. Dillon came over and helped me get up.
“I got you back to the forest where we found you,” he said, without much emotion.
“Thank you,” I said shakily. “I- why did you do that? Help me, I mean?”
“Because Travis is an idiot, and he wasn’t supposed to increase it that much. It could’ve killed you, and I can’t just… I hate torture and death of any kind, but I’m forced to work there,” he sighed, handing me a piece of bread. “Sorry, that’s all I have.”
“No, it’s more than enough,” I responded, grateful for some food.
“You have to get going. If you stay here, they’ll find you again, and you’ll be shot on the spot. And I have to get back too,” he said, worry creasing his brow.
“But… what about Travis?” I asked.
“They think that you got out because he wasn’t watching you, and that you knocked him out. I erased the security footage, and the admin found out Travis was a little tipsy anyway. That way, his story will be seen as a delusion,” Dillon said, giving me a reassuring smile.
“Thanks again,” I said.
Was there something I could do for him? It wouldn’t be long until things added up for the other Collectors, and Dillon could be executed himself.
“Thank me by going now. Get as far away from here as possible,” he said, reading my mind.
“I will forever be in your debt, and don’t let Travis get you down.”
“I swear, I won’t ever let him again,” he responded, shaking my hand.
I waved as I limped out of the clearing. It was so hard to move now. Every breath took a huge amount of effort, and I could feel the electricity still in my body, stinging away. My throat was burning, hoarse from all the screaming. It was like the electricity fried my insides. I was not able to move now without a biting, searing pain shooting up and down my arms and legs, into my neck and my feet, and balling up in my stomach.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. That voice again.
“Come on, Del! We’re going to be late for supper,” a girl whined.
I think her name was Amy?
“Well, sorry that I’m not as tiny as you are! I can’t just bounce around in the woods, you know!” Del said good-naturedly, pushing Amy.
Amy skip-stumbled and landed a yard away from me. Her bright smile faded into a panicked face, and her wavy, silver hair fell in front of her face. She scrambled back on her chubby body, and said frightfully, “Um, Del? There’s someone here…”
“GET BACK, AMY! IS IT A COLLECTOR?!” Del hollered from behind a thicket of bushes.
“No, I’ve been looking for you guys. The Rouge, right?” I said.
Del joined Amy, and they exchanged a glance, but I couldn’t read their faces.
“Did you come from the facility?” Del asked, her brunette bob swinging as her large muscles flexed nervously, with one hand on her dagger.
I nodded. “I escaped with a blonde girl. Her name’s Coco?”
“Coco? She did say she was expecting someone,” Amy amended, looking to Del for an answer.
She stood up carefully, brushing off her hands, and then hid behind Del’s large body.
“We’ll see,” Del said apprehensively. “Come with us. Hoshiko, right? Coco told us a lot about you, but we need to corroborate your stories.”
“Then by all means, corroborate away,” I said, smiling.
“Hoshiko! HOSHIKO! Over here!” Coco cried.
I looked up and saw her leaning over the balcony on the ship. She quickly scampered down the stairs, and then barrelled into me with a bone-crushing hug. Despite her gymnast frame, she could still do a lot of damage with her hugs. Youch.
“Agh… ow, that hurts, Coco!” I groaned.
“Oh. Uh… nice to see you too?” Coco said, hesitating. “I’m sorry I didn’t try to get back to you after they got me here. They didn’t want me to, as a safety precaution, in case you were Collected or something. So yeah.”
“It’s okay, Coco. I get it now,” I responded, winking at her.
“Okay good. I was beginning to worry about you. They told me how you were tortured. Are you okay? Nothing broken? Oh, and the Rouge gave me a two-bunk room, in case you came. And since you did, you can have a bunk. Top or bottom?” she said quickly, wringing her hands.
“I’m fine, really, and I’ll take whichever one is empty,” I said, grabbing her hand and jogging up the stairs to our room.
Three years we’ve been here. More girls and women have escaped from the facility and came here to the Rouge ship, but no men have been spotted in any of these parts. It hurts a little to see that even my twin brother won’t see our side and join us. Coco and I created a school for the younger girls, where they can learn about our lifestyle and how to survive on their own. The Rouge is our family now, a family of strong escapees. All we need is us.