Chapter 1: Kai
The clanking of cans, as always alerted Kai to the presence of a woman known as Oldy, despite her age of only forty-five or so. Oldy wore cans on her backpack meant to be loud, meant to announce her presence. She, like many older women and men, still held onto the hope that she’d be chosen, pulled up to be with the creatures that lurked above. Her forearms already had two marking beads under the skin, from two of the six colonies in North America that had already picked her up once and determined she was not a match to anyone there. She’d lamented to Kai that she hadn’t even been transferred to the next colony, she’d just been tossed back out. Oldy had shown up a month prior, visiting daily as she was convinced that this place, or rather, this five-mile radius was likely to be a pickup zone. It wasn’t that she hoped that it was from this place she’d be snatched, it was that to be collected with a young person was thought to bring a more favorable view. Kai knew this, and found Oldy’s constant presence annoying.
Kai sighed, rolling out of her sleeping bag and crawling from her tent. The tent itself was hidden in a ditch, low to the ground, the top sagging inward, weighed down with branches and mud, a likely weak deterrent to anyone really hoping to find it’s inhabitant.
“Keep your voice down, old lady.”
Oldy dropped her bag to the ground with a distinguished clank, giving a chip-toothed smile to Kai, “Why so paranoid?”
Kai shook her head, rolling her shoulders, “You know why.”
Oldy grinned, slumping back against a tree. She looked cleaner than usual, graying hair tied up in a bun, fingernails clear of dirt, “You think a pickup is coming too?”Kai shook the dirt and leaves off her backpack, sliding it onto her back, “Clearly you do.”
“And you’re leaving?”
“I am now.” Kai looked back at her tent. It was rather broken-down, with multiple tears and a broken zipper. She’d be able to find another one in the next town she passed through, and leaving it here would at least hold the attention of any hunters for a while. Besides, carrying it was a pain.
Oldy shook her head, “How old are you Kai?”
Kai internally sighed, she and Oldy had been over this at least once, “Eighteen.”
“You’re so young, your test would give you any male you want!”
Male, Kai mused, Not even calling them men, not that men are desirable anyway.
“Or, I could stay here, and find a human to be with, as humans have done since, well always.”
“New days, honey.” Oldy smiled.
“I agree with that, these are certainly new days. Not good days, but new.” Kai paused, “Think you’ll be back here, I mean, after today?”
Oldy grinned, “I hope not. Going to get me a big old alien husband.”
That settled it, there was no reason for her to return if Oldy wouldn’t be here. Despite the woman’s personality, Kai did find herself lonely and Oldy was, in fact, a person to talk to.
Kai hesitated, “Can I ask something?”
The woman nodded, her smile widening, “Of course, going to ask to tag along?”
Gritting her teeth, Kai took a second to formulate her thoughts, “The test, what’s it like?”
“Well,” Oldy’s eyes seemed to gain an excited glitter, “You’re in a room, it’s dark and you get a chair, one of them, not in the room, of course, says greetings in languages until they can see you perk up, just to get a sense of what language you speak, you know?”
Kai nodded, not wanting to mention this part seemed irrelevant, in truth, she hadn’t ever thought to ask about the test as a process. She never intended to take it, but hearing about it constantly had piqued her curiosity.
“Then, they ask you some questions verbally. Same asker, I think there’s a speaker or something. Can’t remember the questions, sadly. I think they screw with your head after. Can’t remember anything after that.”
“So there’s more?”
Oldy shrugged, “Couldn’t tell you.”
“All the more reason to avoid them.” Kai brushed herself off, taking a last glance around the clearing she’d called home for only two months, “You should go, old lady, get ready for your chance.”
Oldy smiled, understanding that this was Kai’s way of saying goodbye, and of telling her to leave. “Good luck, kid.”
A moment later, Oldy was clanking off into the distance, and Kai was alone.
Kai sat beside her camp a while longer, up in a tree, eyes shut as she enjoyed the evening breeze. Saying goodbye to this land would be harder than saying goodbye to Oldy, or any of the other residents she’d seen in these parts. Kai did not intend to seek out the others to say farewell, she knew that they wouldn’t care, and more than that, the idea of a goodbye hurt her. Despite the fact that she moved quite frequently, she always found leaving hard. At thirteen, her world had changed, and with it, she had.
Marriage, at least, had been respected and her parents were left alone and not tested. Kai had been an only child, and staying with her parents was a risk, and despite their love for her, it had been an unspoken decision that Kai would have to leave, to protect her parents and the other surrounding them. At sixteen, Kai had left, at the time, the creatures above were sloppy in their taking, known for accidentally harming or killing people in the process. Eighteen was the youngest age they appeared to take, and Kai had wanted to be far away when she was first put in danger. Her first few weeks alone had been rough, as she’d left the city, Minneapolis, as quickly as she could.
The farther from cities she seemed to wander, the less friendly people became. Hitchhiking had earned Kai her first large scar, one on her hip, from being pushed from an --albeit slowly-- moving car. Her days looting had taught her to carry a sturdy bag and wear clothing that couldn’t easily be torn. The walking had grown her a love of hiking boots, and her fellow survivors had become reason to leave her hair messy, cutting it just above her ears, to at least appear masculines enough to not be in any additional danger from those who were either cruel or hoping to earn the favor of the things above by presenting a much sought-after young female.
Kai turned her head up to the sky, to the setting sun. She knew it was time to move, to climb down from her tree and begin the painful process of finding a new place to live. She knew it was foolish to wait until the last minute to move as she had, but it was always better to be late in taking action than not to take action at all. She thought briefly of her mother and father, and wondered just how far away they were, or if she herself was even still in Minnesota. She sighed, shook the thought off, and began to make her way back down the tree.