First Day on the Job [Tall Pines Underground #2]

Chapter One left Susan wary about something being wrong inside the Tall Pines Security Refuge that she’d brought her family to so they could weather the collapse of civilization.  And now Chapter Two supplies her with some answers about exactly how bad things have become.

2. First Day on the Job

I woke to two sharp claps. “Morning, sunshines,” declared a woman’s voice. “Quarantine’s nice, but vacation’s over, darlings.”

The owner of the voice smirked down at me as I pushed myself to sitting and then stood up from the bed. The boys did little but glower from under their sheets. I put my hand forward. “I’m Susan. I don’t think we’ve met.”

The woman, sleek black hair pulled back, one artful curl bobbing atop her brow, considered my outstretched hand with a faint air of amusement. “You can call me Bukhari,” she allowed, without moving a muscle. She peaked an eyebrow at the slowly shifting piles of bedclothes behind me. “Come on, gents, you’re being evicted.”

She watched as we shrugged into the plain white canvas shirts and pants we’d been given, her one hand falling onto her holstered pistol and then sliding off again a moment later, only to repeat the process again. She did not wait patiently, reminding us more than once that daylight was burning and she had better things to do with her time. Finally, she led us out of the infirmary and up the hill into the Refuge.

The main path through the complex ran in a meandering loop. It had once been paved, but had since been resurfaced with loose white gravel. Islands of the original asphalt showed through here and there. The rocks crunched under our feet as we climbed the hill up from the gate.

Up ahead I could see the mess hall nestled within the center of the loop. Nothing but a bank of windows looked down the hill at us, and I knew it was topped with a shaggy green roof like the infirmary. I’d planted a good number of the bushes up there.

As we climbed, I spied the edge of the amphitheater on the other side of the mess. The stadium seats were built out of repurposed railroad ties, abandoned here by the prior tenants, who’d had a road to truck things in. We certainly hadn’t packed them in. We didn’t hike far enough up the path for me to see down into the center of the amphitheater’s bowl and its familiar firepit that I had spent so many nights beside, drinking wine out of canteens and laughing. Instead, we turned off and headed towards Ponderosa Lodge.

The Lodge was a welcome sight: a long, rambling two-story structure with eaves painted forest green. A wide deck ran down the length of the downhill side of the building, propped up by thick oak pillars. Vague shapes covered by green and brown tarpaulins lurked underneath.

“I don’t suppose Suite Six is open,” I asked Bukhari as we approached. “That was always my favorite.”

The woman shook her head. “They don’t explain anything to you in Quarantine, do they?” She turned and stood in the middle of the path where it forked, leading up to the lodge. “They leave it to us to crush your hopes.”

I frowned, but chose not to give her the satisfaction of asking what she meant.

She pointed down the other path, which wound around the corner of the lodge and down the hill. “We’re going this way.”

We walked as directed, with Bukhari following, about a hundred yards behind the lodge. The path was fresh but well trodden. Eventually, the trees parted around the broad shape of a low-roofed building, half again the side of the Lodge. “Here we are,” Bukhari directed gaily.

“The storage barn,” I noted dully. “We helped pour the concrete for the foundation.”

“Then you’ll be familiar with your new home,” our guide responded, and stepped ahead of us to pull open the wide front door. “The Lodge is full, so you’ll be sleeping in here.”

“This barn wasn’t built for housing—” I started to say, but my protest was choked into silence by the stench that rolled out of the open doors. Close, musky, and salted, the scent of too many unwashed human bodies packed into too little space.

The wide, warehouse-like floor of the barn had been filled with row upon row of bunks, stacked three high. Most of the beds were topped with tousled sheets and blankets, rumpled with use from last night. A handful of older people squinted or held up their hands to block the morning light spilling into the makeshift dormitory. A moment later they turned back to making the beds.

“Ponderosa’s at breakfast mess,” Bukhari explained, “so let’s find you your bunks and get you over there quick as we can.”

It took me a long while to stop staring. “I suppose it’s futile to point out that this is not what I paid for,” I could not help saying.

“This is not what the brochure looked like?” Bukhari suggested with mock sympathy and waved us inside. “Yeah, well. Some adjustments had to be made.”

Bukhari led us into the rows of bunks, asking curt directions of the few bed-makers who answered with quick deference. In short order she had found a cluster of four bunks, the top two each of a pair of beds that stood near the back of the building.

I counted the stacks of beds. Four rows, ten deep, with three bunks each. Enough beds for one hundred and twenty people. “How many of these bunks are taken?” Caden asked, echoing my own unspoken question.

Bukhari shrugged. “Half? I dunno.”

He frowned at the beds around him. “So there’s sixty people who paid their subscription fees to the Refuge for years and years and when they showed up they all got shoved out here?”

Our guide laughed. “Oh, honey. Hardly. This is just the Ponderosa pool. The other four lodges have their own storage sheds converted into barracks, too.”

My hands balled into fists despite myself. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Hadn’t you heard?” Bukhari leered at me. “It’s the end of the world.”

It did not take long to claim our bunks, as we had nothing but the white linen clothes on our backs. Bukhari assured us our things would be along shortly, but in the mean time we flung blankets over a cluster of three bunks and proceeded to the mess hall.

The Mess is a big, broad building with huge bay windows that look down off the mountain to the basin below. I remembered the dining room as airy and open, but we found it packed wall-to-wall with long tables and benches. The tables were covered in trays and plates, the benches filled with people. The room was filled with the noise of getting up and leaving, and even as we stepped inside, streams of people were pushing out through the steel double doors.

The people—at least two hundred of them, maybe more—had the haphazard look of refugees, clothing rumpled and hair tied back for simplicity. The women wore no makeup. The men wore unkempt beards. As they passed, we were hit by the funk of hard-worked and unwashed bodies, floating over the lingering undernote of dirt and sweat permeating clothes. I was reminded of the boy’s room during soccer season.

I did note that they wore their own clothing, at least. A dingy rainbow of hi-viz neons contrasted with more somber dark blues and hunter greens. Collars bore the yellow-brown stains of heavy use and light washing. More than one slash exposed fluffy white lining inside, but others were closed up with clumsy stitches or haphazard patches. We three in our institutional whites stuck out like sore thumbs. We earned looks of curiosity, thin welcome, and outright challenge.

I recognized a handful of faces, but hardly as many as I had expected. Over the years I had met, worked beside, and trained with at least a hundred fellow subscribers, but now I only spied twenty or thirty familiar faces. I flashed smiles and short waves to friends and acquaintances. They waved and smiled in response, but no one stopped.

“Well, looks like you missed breakfast,” our guide observed. “Grab some rice balls over there, then we’ll get you out to your duty stations for the day.”

We did as directed, finding the buffet line across the back wall stocked with depleted trays of rice. The kitchen workers were already removing the trays, releasing billows of steam from the heated water below. What food remained was collected in the last tray, and so we each grabbed a couple balls each.

“Will I get fish or bean curd or sweet rice in the center, I wonder,” I mused aloud, shooting the boys a smile. But my pale attempt at levity fell on deaf ears. Jackson jammed a whole rice ball into his mouth and grabbed a third before heading back.

“Don’t you want some?” I asked Bukhari, who laughed.

“I ate at first mess, thank you.”

I frowned out at the mass of people outside, who seemed to be forming up into groups and lines, then heading out together. “First mess?” I echoed. “So this was…”

“Third mess,” she answered simply. “Come along, now.”

“How many people are in the Refuge?” I asked, trailing after her, but was ignored.

“Teddy!” she called out, and a big brown man turned at the sound of her voice. His whole body turned, broad shoulders and thick arms bowed around a round stomach. He stood at the head of a group of ten or so, who looked to him with a mix of dread and resignation. “Six more hands for you.”

He waved us forward into his group with a paw like a side of ribs. “What, I get to break in new poolies, now? Thanks, Miss Bukhari.”

“I leave them in your loving hands,” Bukhari answered, and then turned back towards Ponderosa. “I’ll check in on you lot before lunch.” Whether she meant Teddy or my family, I couldn’t tell.

The big man looked us over critically. “Right. Names?”

I put forward a hand. “I’m Susan Sosa. These are my sons, Jackson and Caden.”

Instead of taking my hand, he produced a chalkboard tablet and took down our names. “Right. Well we’ve got quarry work today, so I hope you ate hearty.”

Our sorry little work crew trudged up the main loop, past the Grey Wolf and Mountain Lion lodges. Behind the latter I could spy another broad, warehouse-like building, new since I’d last been here. I asked the woman walking ahead of us what it was.

“That’s the Lions’ poolie barracks,” she told me. “Which despite the hymns is exactly as shitty as ours.”

I put forward my hand. “I’m Susan.”

She took it. She had pale, hard eyes, and fixed them on me. Her mop of fuzzy orange hair was tied back under a kerchief. “Maggie. Welcome to Purgatory.”

That brought a wan smile to my lips. “Yeah, this is not what it looked like in the brochure.”

“I must admit, they’ve got a tidy little racket going on here. Sure fooled me.” I couldn’t quite tell if she was bitter, rueful, or simply sarcastic about our shared situation.

“Can I ask a question? I hazarded. “What’s a poolie? I’ve heard it thrown around a couple times, now.”

“A poolie?” she grinned. “You’re a poolie. I’m a poolie. All of us,” she waved up and down the line of quarry workers, “are poolies. Short for labor pool. Cause we didn’t get here early enough to claim a suite in the Big House—er, Lodge.” She curled her lips at this, and I concluded that she was both bitter and rueful about all this—with no small measure of sarcasm thrown in, to boot.

“And if we had got into a suite?” I prompted.

“Well, then you’d be a sweetie,” she answered with a sour smile. “Big, despotic fish in a small, toxic pond. Poolies work, sweeties… supervise.”

“Like Bukhari.”

She nodded. “Esther Bukhari, Ponderosa’s resident faithless temptress, is a sweetie, yes. You’ll need to warn your boys.”

I filed that away for later, then nodded up to the head of the line. “And Teddy?”

“Would you believe Teddy is a lowly poolie like us?” Maggie snarled. “He just has… aspirations. He figures, if he sucks up enough, they’ll elevate him to Mount Olympus like Hercules.”

Quarry work turned out to be digging up the stones that lined the nearby stream bed. When they were too large to be moved, they were hammered apart with picks. Otherwise, ropes and pulleys were employed to cantilever the stone out of the mud and up the bank. There they were broken down to head-sized rocks or smaller with hammers, chisels, and more picks. The results were loaded onto wheelbarrows and carted back towards the compound.

It was awkward, grueling work, and Teddy did not make it any better. The big man stalked through the work site shouting exhortations and commands. He did not carry a whip, but he might as well, both by his demeanor and the way the poolies jumped to avoid his ire. His only priority was speed, and so it fell to the workers to see to their own safety. More than once Teddy’s directives were only followed while he was in sight, after which the workers would revert to a slower, safer method.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said a man, George, who had guided Caden up onto, and then back off of, one of the larger boulders. Once Teddy had stalked off, we worked from below to split off chunks of stone. “I want these rocks quarried as much as Teddy. I just want to keep all my fingers and toes in the process.”

I knew George superficially from a few weekends at the Refuge. He was a smiling and affable man leaving his middle years, with a neat greying beard and long stringy hair. He remembered me, and the boys, and had leapt to show us the ropes—literally.

“What’s all this stone for, anyway?” I asked him.

George gestured to the great boulder, the smaller stones, even the rock shards that littered the ground. “This will all become foundation stones. There’s another work crew digging out a build site and another one mixing up concrete.” He beamed proudly at us until it became obvious we were not following. “The sooner we harvest this stone, the sooner we build more housing,” he explained. “The sooner we move out of the barn.”

“So we’re…” I started, then heaved a head-sized rock into the wheelbarrow. “…expanding the Refuge?”

The man bobbed his head happily. “The Hosts can’t help it if too many people showed up. What are they gonna do, send ’em away?” He waved his hammer in the general direction of the valley below. “They’d just go tattle to some sheriff who thinks he’s a warlord now, and the next thing you know, there’s a small army of ex-police laying siege to the place.”

I stopped loading for a moment. “Okay, but why are so many people showing up in the first place?”

Teddy chose that moment to reappear and shouted at me. “This ain’t break time, Suzy. Let’s go. We gotta earn our dinner.” He lumbered closer, his height and bulk looming over me. I took a half-step back instinctively and set to work, scowling. A few moments later, he was gone.

“So imagine you subscribe to the Refuge for a few months,” George picked up the thread of his conversation once the big man was back out of earshot. “You come out to a workshop or two, put in some time on a work weekend, but eventually, you get to thinking. Maybe I’m just throwing this money away. Surely the world is not going to go up in flames. You were being paranoid. So you cancel your subscription. And then a year later, the world does go up in flames. And your subscription isn’t current, but you know a safe place you can take your family…”

A shower of rock shards cascaded down the face of the boulder. Caden and Jackson both crowed as the seam they’d been prying open yawned wider. I reached down to start picking up the little rocks. “It sounds plausible. Cole has been building this place for fifteen years. There’s got to be scores of cancelled subscriptions. But do you know anyone who is here on an expired account?”

George grinned wider. “Who would admit to it? They’d be shunned at best, beaten at worst. And of course the Hosts don’t say anything, to prevent exactly that from happening.”

The man clearly thought the inability to prove or disprove his theory lent it some kind of credence. Instead of picking at his argument, I changed the subject. “You think the Hosts would cover for… I dunno, cheaters? That seems… unethical.”

“Hey,” George barked, a little more forcefully than necessary. He looked sheepishly at the rest of the work detail, then put on a show of working. He sidled next to me as he piled rocks in the wheelbarrow. “Mister Abernathy is a good guy,” he insisted. “He’s making the best of a shitty situation.”

I tipped my head side to side, conceding his point. “I am rather fond of the man.”

“You just watch,” George said with no lack of confidence. “Between Abernathy’s guidance and our hard work, we’ll have this place ship-shape by Christmas.”

The sun was reaching its apogee, sending its rays directly down into the riverbank, when Bukhari appeared again. The poolies were uniformly sweaty and plastered with mud and rock dust. She came over the rise pushing her sunglasses over her immaculate hair. In her hand she carried a clear-sided canteen filled with something orange sloshing around a few red berries.

“Miss Bukhari!” Teddy called out when he saw her, and huffed up the bank to meet her.

She sipped at her drink and surveyed the work site. “How we doing, Teddy?”

“Twelve wheelbarrows to the build site so far,” he reported, placing his meaty fists on his hips. “I’m aiming for fourteen more before sunset.”

She nodded in apparent satisfaction, her expression hidden behind her dark glasses. “I don’t know how you do it, Teddy. The other group has only cleared eight, and their afternoons are never as productive as their mornings.”

“Discipline and dedication,” he told her proudly, and then scowled down the embankment, directly at me. Without realizing it, I had stopped collecting stones to listen in to their conversation. The big man did his best to communicate with only his eyebrows, so as not to interrupt his report to Bukhari.

“What are you doing,” his eyebrows demanded. “Get back to work before she sees you!”

I schooled my face to expressionlessness and obeyed the eyebrows’ directive.

Bukhari watched us work for less than fifteen minutes and then disappeared again. In her place, workers from the Mess brought lunch out to the riverbed work site. The quarry workers of the day each collected a cup of rice and a handful of berries and dispersed to sit on the boulders that they had spent the morning trying to split apart. Both George and Maggie settled down next to the boys and I.

“Alright, everybody,” Teddy called as he checked his watch, “We’ve got twenty minutes to eat and then it’s back to work.”

“I don’t like that guy,” Caden declared, and I looked up to see my boy glaring daggers through the foreman’s back. His declaration was met with sniggers from Jackson and Maggie both. Caden thrust the palm of his hand across the riverbed at Teddy. “Well he’s an asshole,” he explained, somewhere between defensive and petulant. “And a bully.”

Jackson nodded. “Certain.”

I placed my hand on the back of Caden’s neck. “We’re going to have to learn to work with all kinds of people, honey. We’ve got to all work together.”

My son shot me a look of frustration and disappointment. “This is not like you, mom. Back home you wouldn’t have stood for this for a minute.”

“Well that was back home,” I told him after a beat. “Things are different now. The rules are different. The stakes are higher. And we’re working without a net.” I looked into the face of my beautiful boy and pursed my lips over what I did not, even after all we had already been through, want to tell him. That he and his brother could be—already were—the best tools to keep me quiet. That I dared not stand up or speak out because of what might happen to them.

But the boy didn’t understand what I did not say. “If he was a police chief, or he ran a hotel, or was building a factory, you’d be picketing his ass and shouting chants all day long. Do I need to get you a placard or something?”

I laughed at that, a sudden and natural impulse that I immediately saw had had the opposite effect in him than I had wanted to project. He looked stung, and looked down at his metal cup full of rice.

“When I joined a picket line, there was no chance that would result in you or your brother starving to death,” I told him. “I got to go home after the protest was done, back to our house, with a fridge full of food, a house protected by an alarm system , and a really nice job where I had tenure. No one could even threaten any of that.”

“So you ratcheted your cowardice according to your privilege,” he grumbled. I nearly dropped my lunch.

“Hey,” Jackson barked, and swatted his brother’s shoulder. “That’s not fair, man.”

Caden pushed himself off our boulder, mumbling something about returning his cup. He slouched his way down the riverbank toward the cart from the Mess.

“He’s just upset,” Jackson told me, starting to follow. “He didn’t mean it.”

“He is upset, and he did mean it,” I sighed. “And he might also be right.” I nodded after the younger boy. “But go make sure he doesn’t do something stupid, okay?” Jackson nodded and followed after his brother.

“Tenure, huh?” George spoke up as the boys walked away. “What did you teach?”

“Econ,” I supplied. “You?”

“MFA program for a bit,” the man answered. “Didn’t fit me. Then my wife got transferred, so I had an easy out. Wrote some articles online for a bit, but my heart wasn’t in it. Lucky for me, the wife’s the one who pays the bills. Specially since that means we ended up here instead of trapped down in some collapsing city.”

“What did she do?”

“Once upon a time, she taught third grade,” he answered easily, then shrugged. “Then she went into administration, and then government bureaucracy, and then… consulting. I used to keep track, but it’s all just spreadsheets and emails.”

“You’re a kept man?” Maggie smirked from her side of the boulder.

“And happily so,” he replied easily. “She’s been saving my ass for as long as I can remember.”

The other woman scanned the edge of the compound, just visible over the steep riverbank. “Not entirely sure she saved you this time.”

He popped the last of his rice into his mouth. “You seem to be in the same situation, Maggie.”

“Like I was telling Susan, it was a nice pamphlet.”

I shifted around to face her. “So what did you do before things fell apart?”

She shrugged. “Spreadsheets and emails and things. In all honesty, I was going to sell off my subscription here when it appreciated. Fringe real estate was a promising market.” She knocked a few stray grains of rice out of the bottom of her cup. “Kind of surprised a university professor with an activist streak invested, though.”

I gave her a sour smile. “A few years back I saw some long-term market projections that scared the hell out of me. Grain instabilities and finance over-centralization. Figured a subscription couldn’t hurt, and lo and behold, it all came to pass.”

“Why didn’t you warn anybody?”

I snorted down at the ground. “Anybody who could understand the numbers already knew. But as a species we’re staggeringly good at assuming the worst will magically pass us by.”

“So you were literally content to watch the world burn,” Maggie concluded with raised eyebrows.

“I did what I could to raise awareness, even affect policy,” I protested, although I’m sure it sounded weak. Not because I had not acted, but because I was tired of it. “But the global economy is the biggest ship humanity has ever built, and it turns slowly.”

“So picket lines through the week, survivalism subscription on the weekends.” She smirked. “You don’t find that hypocritical?”

The smile I turned on Maggie had gained the slightest edge of amusement. “Going out on a limb here, Mags, but I’m guessing you don’t have kids.”

The sharp reply on Maggie’s lips died when Teddy started shouting for everyone to get up and back to work.

Caden and Jackson kept their distance once work resumed. Jackson shot me a look that said he was keeping an eye on his little brother. Maggie and George seemed to disappear into the crowd of workers—poolies—as we shuffled back to our jobs. Which left me alone with my thoughts and a wheelbarrow half-full of rocks.

And why was I so eager to fill it up all the way? Caden’s estimation of Teddy matched my own, but I jumped to his orders quickly enough. And if Maggie was to be believed, this was just the tip of the iceberg, with more and greater indignities awaiting us. Why was I cooperating without so much as a complaint?

Part of me insisted that I was just biding my time, waiting for the right moment. Keeping my eyes open, conscious that when the time came, action must be tempered with knowledge. If I wanted to confront the injustices of this place, I would first have to understand how it worked. As with any human institution, it must have its share of vulnerabilities that could be exploited to turn things around or even, if necessary, escape.

But escape to what? We had just trudged through an anarchic mess to get here. We had scrounged for food and even clean water. We had been threatened and chased and shot at. Now here in the Refuge, we had to work, and work hard, but we were fed and warm and safe. So why not buckle down and work? Why not play along?

There was a sort of temptation there: to just accept that this was the new normal. To shrink my view of the world down until its edges matched the Refuge walls. To take up this role of poolies and sweeties and their silly names, too. Hadn’t that been the whole plan, anyway, to hide behind the walls and pretend the world wasn’t falling apart outside? To believe that all the problems were out there and hadn’t followed us inside?

If anything put the lie to that daydream, though, it was the poolies and the sweeties, the deference that otherwise intimidating Teddy paid to Bukhari, and his eagerness to earn his promotion to a suite. And the shadow lurking behind all of that—they had taken our guns on entry, confiscated all of our things, in fact, because what other weapons might we be hiding in our packs? But Bukhari wore a sidearm, as had every other sweetie corralling work crews outside the Mess. It was perfectly clear that the divide between poolie and sweetie was enforced with violence, or could be at the drop of a hat.

So was it fear that kept me in line? That yoked me to the millstone on my very first day out of quarantine? If this had been a movie, I would have had that first day of acting up and refusing to accept my changed circumstances before I got beat down into sullen submission. But that didn’t happen; I all but put my neck in the yoke myself and asked them to slam home the lock. Was it all to avoid that beat down, to neatly sidestep the intimidation?

I wondered how many other poolies told themselves that this was as good as it got, that they were lucky to be cared for by the hosts and sweeties, and made themselves believe it just to avoid the realization that not toeing the line might get them shot.

A sudden, giddy thought sprang into my mind, a counter-fantasy where I rejected the Refuge’s nascent social order, refused to play along, and fought back until they had to shoot me. Then everyone would know. No one could deny that they were being held prisoner, made into slaves.

Almost as quickly as it came, the fantasy drained away again. All it took was remembering that I would leave my boys behind, defenseless. Or that the Refuge’s masters would be clever enough to shoot them instead of me, to force me to recant and accept all the blame for disturbing their perfect little social order.

No, I could not be a martyr. It wouldn’t be fair to my boys.

When the light started to fail, Teddy called for tools to be collected and one last round-up of stones broken small enough to transport. All the hammers, chisels, and picks were stacked up in a rather cleverly-constructed rolling toolbox. Teddy stood and watched, counting. Was his concern that no tool be misplaced, I wondered, or that an improvised weapon might fall into the wrong hands?

When the lid of the rolling toolbox closed, it was secured with a padlock, which was enough of an answer for me.

Our weary work crew proceeded to the Mess for dinner, which consisted of yet more rice, bolstered by a salad of leafy greens and accented with a small piece of fish. The meal, I knew, was carefully designed to fulfill all of our nutritional needs out of ingredients that stored well (rice) or could be produced in our aquaponics garden (the rest). It was filling but bland—and I could only imagine how bored I would be of this simple meal in just a few days.

The poolies ate in exhausted silence as darkness fell outside the broad windows. The boys sat across the table from me, and I took some comfort from their presence, even without conversation. I tried to make eye contact with Caden a few times, but he was not cooperating. Both the boys plowed through their food with a single-minded determination.

Ponderosa shared the Mess with the poolies from Beaver Lodge. We sat separately, dividing the big room in half. Without any conversation within each lodge or between them, it was impossible to detect any sense of rivalry, friendly or otherwise. Everyone was just tired.

Plates were emptied and then cleared. What little remnants were left we scraped into the composting bins. Kitchen workers collected our plates, cups, and flatware at the dirties counter as we trooped out the door.

When we arrived at our bunks we found our clothes waiting for us, stacked haphazardly in awkward folds. Our backpacks, sleeping bags, flashlights, phones, and other items were absent. They had only returned our clothes.

“Except my fleece,” I noted with a scowl. Jackson reported that he was missing a pair of gloves and sunglasses, as well.

“Were they all nice and new?” Maggie asked from a few bunks over.

I nodded. “They were.”

The woman smirked. “You’ll see them again—on some sweetie walking around the Refuge. They keep the best stuff, trade it around. Even give them to each other as gifts. Still think any of them have your best interests at heart?”

“I tend not to assume altruism from those in power,” I answered with a lingering frown. I liked that fleece jacket.

“I overheard you talking with George,” she went on. “He’s a bit… starry-eyed about our prospects. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression about our place here.”

I looked up from packing my clothes into the footlocker—actually a repurposed milk crate—next to my bunk. “No, you seem to be pretty invested in my getting a very specific impression about our place here.”

Maggie put her hands up in mock innocence. “Sorry if I’m a broken record.”

I sighed. “What’s your agenda, Maggie? What do you want from me?”

She crossed her arms and raised one eyebrow at me. “There’s a paucity of clear-eyed folks in this Refuge. I never went in for the activism route myself, but I figure, with your track record of fighting oppression and protesting abuses and all that, you might be sympathetic to a… less cooperative position when it comes to the powers that be in the Refuge.”

I snorted. “Spreadsheets and emails, huh? You sure you weren’t a politician before you came here?”

She waved a hand. “All management is politics. That was a nice dodge, though.”

I smiled thinly at her. “Activism inside a functioning democracy is one thing. I suspect your ‘less than cooperative’ position is likely to get people hurt.”

“Somebody’s going to get hurt,” she declared confidently, climbing into her bunk and pulling up her cheap blanket. “I just want a say in who that somebody will be.”

Next chapter: Dirty Hands

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