Chat-your-own-Adventure #14: Two Tickets to Quarantine

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Wade in Plastic                       Wade in Fish                               Wade in Junk Food

The twins were named shortly after their birth, but their parents never gave them anything else, abandoning them right after. The names never took. The children were left with swaddling cloths, each of a different color. The boy was Green; the girl was purple. That was how they came to know each other as they grew and realized they lived in one of society’s largest trash bags. The most they could ever hope to do was claw their way up the side until it became too slippery.

Slippery was the game of the day. The twins were now fourteen and they were swimming, as they always did on Thursdays. That was the day when the fishing boats came in the greatest numbers, the time when it was easiest to snatch a bit of their catch without getting caught themselves.

They swam not mostly in water, but mostly in fish. There was a basin directly under the fish market that took all the runoff from the bulging nets hauled from side to side by the cranes above ground. Anything that wriggled loose fell through the corroded metal and into the pit. Eventually it drained back into the ocean, but not before the people of the lowest layers, like the twins, got a crack at the fish.

They each had a pair of goggles, but they barely protected against the slapping tail fins. Some of the creatures were groupers or eels or swordfish as big as they were. Poisonous spines, incidental jellyfish, and crab pinches were all an unfortunate reality, but they had no boat with which to fish. If they wanted things to sell, they had to scavenge for them somehow, and the waters of the bay near the shore were far too polluted for anything to live in permanently.

Purple always did the catching, she was faster and could dive deeper, so Green always held their catch in a giant gray plastic bag. The catch was good so far, plenty of little blue things that were easy to gut. It was almost like they wanted to die; you could just slit behind the eyes once, down the belly once, and squeeze. All the nasty guts popped out and were dragged off by the giant rats in moments. The rats, like the people, had gotten used to all the moisture and draining sounds of the advanced supercity above. They were practically beavers now.

The bag wa nearly full. It was easier to drown in the frothing pile of discarded fish than turn around, so Purple grabbed Green’s hand to make it easier. They had a five minute wade through slimy slapping bodies before they made it back to the edge of the basin. Once they were out, bathing in the weak sunlight from the gigantic drain overhead, they took stock of their catch.

Twenty of the little blue ones. Six of the yellow-stripes. Four octopuses, which had to be smacked away from the other fish to keep them from biting with those little beaks, and one wrinkly grouper with fins as thick as pillows. They would keep two of the blue for dinner that night, roasted over the steaming pipes under the gymnasium and its spa far above, but everything else would be sold at the stand.

The stand was in the midst of a hundred others, in a tunnel just high enough to avoid a constantly wet concrete floor. Anything and everything was sold the the people of the under-city there. The twins had a deal with one of the adults. It was his stand they used, but they got the majority of the profits from any sale of their catch. The kids also made great window dressing. Their business partner quickly dispatched one of the octopuses, chopped off two tentacles, and handed them to the twins. They put the still-squirming blue things in their mouths and chewed on the ends. They did their best to look happy, communicating to the early morning shoppers how delicious the stand’s fare was.

Ornery Customer                              Mutant Fish                                    Police Raid

The suction cups felt strange on their tongues, often leaving marks for hours, but there was nobody to scold them for getting their mouths and cheeks covered in tiny red circles. They had each other and they a host of clever little business models for surviving down there. They might’ve made it to adulthood without ever seeing a doctor, getting spanked, or being taught the birds and the bees, if the market hadn’t experienced a surprise raid before the tips of the tentacles were in their mouths.

Black figures with visors over their faces rushed down the central lane of the market. People fell everywhere, scrambling to escape whether they were guilty of anything or not. The twins had protocols for everything they’d encountered so far, ornery customers with empty pockets, mutant fish that had equal chances of being poisonous or buttery and delicious, but they had no plan of action for this. All they’d ever seen of the police down there was the tread of their boots.

Purple and Green slowly backed up until they were against the pockmarked wall of the tunnel. They hid in the center of an A from a very large piece of graffiti. They chewed the last of the tentacles down to rubber to get them to stop squirming. They held each other’s hands, just to let these intruders know they were looking out for each other. They didn’t need the help of the authorities.

At first it wasn’t clear what they searched for. They randomly trashed stands here and there, sweeping the merchandise off the counters regardless of protest. They flipped some over, cracking the wood or plastic they were built from. They snatched random hands, examining wrists, ankles, and necks, perhaps for signs of disease.

They swept through the tunnel, marching in perfect formation near the middle, until it was an oppressive dark parade of eyeless figures and plastic shields. One of them broke away. The twins only realized it was a woman because she came very close. She leaned down and examined them. Purple and Green simply froze, like chameleons against a backdrop of branches. It was too late though. The officer reached out and grabbed Purple’s wrist, hoisting her into the air by it.

Let go!” Green shouted, immediately battering the armored woman with tiny fists. The officer could barely understand him; thanks to the swollen suction cup marks and not speaking to another human being for days at a time, his pronunciation was far from perfect. The officer grabbed him in her other hand. Without a word she dragged them back into the sea of vests and visors.

Someone else put plastic handcuffs on them. They were split up and forced to march thirty feet apart. Both of them screamed, louder than they ever had. They’d been out of each other’s sight maybe a handful of times across their lives. Each of those times had resulted in tears and new nasty fears that never left the backs of their minds, like spider webs always encroaching on the dishes in a cupboard.

They kept screaming so they could always track each other. They howled throughout the tunnel, along the escalators, out onto the insanely bright streets, and into a park where the various detainees were being sorted. Only when they were pressed into the same bench did they stop to breathe and let their ragged throats recover.

Gymnasium                                     Hospital                                        A Holding Pen

They whispered their confusion to each other, constantly blinking because they’d never known the sun could be so bright. They needed a plan, a new constant, but they didn’t have the time. They were grabbed once again, at this point they knew no questions would be answered, and forced onto a bus: their first motorized vehicle. It was a bit like the sewer rafts they built and sailed, only far more claustrophobic and, somehow, smelly.

The bus was full of other children, only some of them obvious denizens of the under-city. Others were well-dressed, crying more violently than the twins because they’d never known such hardship. The bus was bursting with young minds all experiencing brand new pains, new steely stabs at the warm fuzzy edges of their lives.

Do you know where we’re going?” a pink-faced girl with wringing hands leaned over and asked the twins. They shook their heads. “They said something about a test…” Her voice trailed away when she realized Purple and Green had no comfort to offer her.

Why would anyone test us?” Green asked Purple.

We’re all kids,” Purple guessed. “It has something to do with that.” The ride was nearly half an hour, and when they arrived more police dragged them out in twos and threes. It wasn’t a building, just an empty lot with fresh chain fencing on all sides. The twins were corralled into one corner with others of similar age.

They looked at the cranes overhead; they were much larger than the ones that always spilled a few fish from their nets. The old cranes were lifeblood, overflowing goblets, but these were threats, the shadows of great hammers hovering over all of the prisoners.

The cranes were too featureless to hate, but the twins soon found a vessel for their anguish and rage. The police set up a podium just as a new sort of faceless person entered the holding pen. The new ones wore white crinkly suits and had air tanks on their backs. Their leader had a red stripe across her helmet. She took to the podium and spoke.

You have all been brought here for one reason.” Somehow she was very loud. Something inside her helmet was amplifying her voice, sending it to the crackling speakers tall as wardrobes at each corner of the holding pen. “We expect excellent behavior. If all goes well, which is entirely up to you lot, we can have you back to your parents by nightfall.”

She stepped down from the podium, she was actually quite short, with hips like the widest part of a teapot, and walked back and forth between the groups of children. There was clearly more to say, but she became distracted, grabbing a boy of eight by the cheeks and pulling his face one direction and then the other.

Do exactly as I instruct,” she ordered.

Submit Fingerprints                  Receive Injections                 Answer Questions

You will each be pulled aside by a representative of the Center for Diagnosis and Management of Chronic Conditions. They will ask you questions. You will answer all of them candidly, or be kept in detention until you can provide adequate answers. To be clear, detention means you will not see your parents, you will not be given cookies and milk, and you will not be read any bedtime stories. Do I make the situation absolutely clear?”

Many of the children nodded. The twins stared. They had grown up in a social contract of rust and crumbs. They did not heed the rule of law. They saw a woman deserving of the push, the one where a nasty person in the under-city was dumped into the black depths of the old sewers.

As luck would have it, she was the one to pull them aside and ask questions. She tried to take just Green, but Purple’s hand was inseparable. She slapped at their bond once, then muttered something and took both of them behind a blue screen. There was a cloth cubicle behind it and she only spoke when the three of them were isolated from the rest of the pen.

You are siblings?” the woman with the red stripe asked. They couldn’t see her eyes, but her whole head darted back and forth between them. The twins nodded. They were alone. They had no pit to shove her in, but they did outnumber her. She was quite short, like a fragile teapot.

Why are we here?” Green asked.

You are here because there is a germ on the loose. One that likes children. One that likes sociable children. It affects behavior. Tell me about your behavior. What do you two rats do all day?”

She knows we’re rats,” Purple joked.

How did she figure it out?” Green continued. “We worked so hard, covered our trail perfectly. Even chewed off our tails.”

Maybe she used to be a rat too.”

Oh that’s definitely it,” Green agreed. “Just look at how small she is.”

Enough!” She grabbed both their shoulders and squeezed, forcing the twins to their knees. “I told you to answer my questions or be held in detention. Don’t you want to go home?”

We live down there,” Purple said, tapping the concrete with her finger. “Our home is each other.”

Fine. Thank you for being so candid. Answer my questions or you will be separated. What do you do all day?”

We look for food and things to sell,” Green answered. “We make jokes that nobody else can have. We talk to the three o four adults who won’t try to drag us off and make us slaves.”

Satisfied                                         Dissatisfied                                              Intrigued

Be more specific,” the faceless woman growled.

There isn’t anything else,” Purple spat. “That’s our lives. We were thrown away down there. If you want us to have details, give us some money, some food, some toys, some of that crap you had. Then we’ll come up with some details. We’ll have actual lives to tell you about.”

Fine. You don’t want to satisfy me. I’ll use a little inducement. Always makes these things easier.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a plastic case full of needles. She used one to break a seal in the case and extract a light blue liquid with the plunger. She grabbed Green’s arm and flipped it over.

What is that?” Purple asked. Green tried to pull free, but the woman had a grip like a trailer hitch.

It’s a little truth serum. It will get the details out of you. We’ll find out if you’ve got the bug that’s going around, tricking children into hugging immuno-compromised strangers. This is good for you. You need to know if it’s in there making you act differently.” The needle touched his skin.

Wait,” Purple said, barely able to stop herself from kicking the woman. She would have yelped. It would have drawn in others. The girl rolled up her sleeve. “You have to give it to me too. We do everything together. Whatever he has in him I need to have.” They couldn’t see her face, but they sensed a sinister smile in the slight suit-crinkling tilt of her head.

Oh but I only need answers from one of you. You never leave each other right?” she taunted. “If one of you has it then both of you do.” She pushed the needle. Purple was certain she heard it break her brother’s skin, a sound like a whale hide hit by a harpoon. Her patience was punctured as well. She tackled the woman before she could press the plunger, knocking her to the ground. Her head stuck out from the curtain, but the twins grabbed her legs and pulled her back in.

She can’t call for help,” Green said, clawing at the woman’s suit helmet.

I know,” Purple said, doing the same. The woman flailed, but couldn’t stop them from getting to her zipper and pulling it off. She might have been normal-looking, but her face was so contorted with sudden fear that she looked like a pair of eyes being squeezed into the uneven sockets of a tribal mask. They snatched her earpiece and microphone away, stomping on them. They threw their little hands over her mouth and held her down.

Now what do we do?” Green asked. “There’s no hole to dump her in. They have barely any holes up here. What’s wrong with them? Where do these people throw all their problems?”

We’ll have to come up with something else,” Purple said, thinking out loud. She leaned down next to the woman. “What happens to us if we have that germ? Be honest and be quiet or we’ll step on your throat.” Green slowly pulled his hand away.

Death                                                        Study                                                        Fame

You’ll be put in quarantine and studied,” she answered in a whisper. “Please. Put my mask back on. It’s not dangerous to the child carriers, but it’s lethal to adults.”

We did feel like killing you,” Purple said, “but maybe we need you to get us into that quarantine thing…”

You… want to be put in quarantine?”

Yeah,” Green said. “I bet they’d feed us if we were being studied. I bet we’d have beds.”

Yes, you would have beds…” the woman confirmed. She couldn’t fathom what the gutter rats were planning.

Here’s the deal,” Purple said, finally letting her viciousness slip. She cared for her brother and nobody else. She’d pulled poisonous fish out of their families with her teeth. She knew the struggle for survival, and she didn’t care if the woman saw an experiment or an animal. She wrapped her hands around their prisoner’s neck and squeezed. “You’re going to get us into quarantine. If we have that germ it should be no problem. If we don’t have it, you make something up. Got it?” She loosened her grip.

I can… I can have you put in a control group if you don’t have it,” she insisted.

Good. We’ll know to come find you if we get kicked out. You’ve seen that we have no lives. We’d have no problem making one out of finding you and ruining yours. You can be our muse.”

Let’s shake on it,” Green said. The twins stood and helped the short woman to her feet. They held out their right hands, touching each other at the wrists. All three of them had an accord. The woman grabbed both hands in hers and shook.

There would be one less pair of rats in the under-city, and one more in the city proper.

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