Strangers on a train

A flood of Enforcers poured in when the doors opened at my stop, dressed in full gear, swarming the train and the platform in a car-by-car. There’d been two already this month and they looked almost as bored with the whole thing as we did.

‘Ident check,’ one of them barked. ‘Arms up!’

The crowded train and cumbersome gear made it difficult for them to move, and they inched along the aisles, painstakingly scanning us one by one. I was pinned in the far corner and I had plenty of time to watch them as they approached, especially the woman. I’d never seen a woman Enforcer before, although I’d heard they had some. Her gear didn’t fit her very well and she was constantly reaching up to adjust her helmet, clumsy gloved fingers fumbling on the strap. The men gave her a wide berth, like her femaleness was contagious, and I wondered why she bothered. She must have had to fight to get into the Academy and she spent all her time on teams like this one, filled with people who hated her.

‘Why aren’t you in a women-only car?’

The Enforcer was looming over me as he spoke, waving his wand over my arm. Maybe he was just curious, maybe he was from Men’s Rights. Either way, I played it safe.

‘It was too crowded.’

‘You know you’re supposed to wait on the platform when that happens.’

‘I was hoping I could switch over at the next stop.’

‘It’s dangerous for you, riding in a mixed car like this.’

‘I wasn’t thinking,’ I said, pitching my gaze down at my feet. Hopefully he’d let me off with a warning if I made myself as small and nonthreatening as possible.

‘Jenn. Your Ident says you’re 16?’

‘My birthday was last week.’

‘Your parents still let you go to school? What generation are you?’

‘Sixth.’

‘A little dark for a six, wouldn’t you say?’

‘I got tan at camp.’

His fellow Enforcers were starting to look impatient. Everyone else in the car had been scanned, and they were resting their hands on their belts and shifting their weight from foot to foot, eager to be gone. He was young, I realised, probably new to this assignment. They were the worst. New enough that they were still filled with zeal, not seasoned enough to realize that Ident checks were largely a joke these days. Any Islamists or immigrants would be smart enough to hack their chips, assuming they were still around to do it. My mom said they were mainly meant to keep us afraid, convinced that they were out there to get us, although we weren’t supposed to repeat that. She’d say it late at night in the darkness of our room when my brother woke up with nightmares. They got worse after he aged into the Scouts and mom couldn’t keep him out any longer.

‘You ever take a trip to the Tower, Jenn?’

The soft murmurs that always fill train cars trickled away into silence, and the guy sitting next to me leaned towards the aisle, trapped in his seat by the Enforcer but willing himself to get as far away as possible.

‘N-no.’

He was only a few years older than me. Might even have gone to the same school. I searched his face for something to connect to, like mom always told us to do, but he was cold and indifferent.

‘Come on,’ one of the other Enforcers said. ‘Transit’s going to complain.’

He narrowed his eyes at me and then released my arm.

‘I’m watching you.’

He spun and joined the rest of the Enforcers as they clattered back off the train and the doors glided shut behind them, restoring the train to its usual chaotic, bubbling volume. The guy next to me leaned back in his seat and shot me an apologetic smile, and I tried to ignore the pounding of my heart as I pulled out my school notebook and reviewed my homework notes, just to give myself something else to do. People slyly craned their necks back at me now and then, but eventually they stopped, caught up in the rhythm of rush hour.

I should have waited for the women-only car. It was a rookie mistake, I knew, especially with what I was carrying, but I was in a hurry and I wasn’t thinking. Mom would say that this was why I couldn’t be part of this, but she didn’t get it. This was bigger than me. I just had to be more careful. I’d switch lines and distribute there, so no one would connect me with it.

At the next stop, I hefted my bag under my arm and crossed the platform, taking care to sit in a women-only car this time. It was mostly filled with little girls and older women, not many people my age, and they were all several shades paler than me. The population of the car ebbed and flowed as we passed what must have been a primary school, and then a residential neighbourhood, and finally it was crowded enough that I could casually drop my load and float off, just another teenager on her way home from school.

I slashed open the parcel and the pages spilled across the train in a gust of wind as the doors opened. It was Peter’s idea to call it the ‘Times,’ I guess there was some leftist rag by that name before the president banned newspapers, and he formatted it all simple, easy to read. It was hard to find paper and a printer, but somehow he always managed to scrounge something up. Even if it was days or weeks out of date, depending on our network, people still read it, passed it between each other and whispered about it.

I stumbled off the train and started heading aboveground, wanting to throw anyone following off my scent, but before I could even pass the turnstile, I ran into an unyielding shape in black, clutching a fistful of paper. I could just see the headline — ‘President Trump refuses Mexican border talks’ — on a sheet sticking out above the Enforcer’s hand.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying to feint around him, like this all had nothing to do with me, but I felt his hand come down on my wrists like iron.

‘I think you dropped something,’ he said, pushing me down the platform towards the security office.

It looked like maybe I was going to the Tower after all.