Five Steps Away From Dying

Five Steps Away From Dying

Status: In Progress

Genre: Action and Adventure

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Status: In Progress

Genre: Action and Adventure

Houses:

Summary

Janine had entered her twenties with cautious optimism and a meticulously crafted path: Ace the Aptitude and Practicality Exams for mechanical engineering, graduate with an influential sponsor (preferably from the government), and begin her career in the heart of Caballeros City while occasionally going back home to fix whatever was wrong on her mother's farm. It was a great plan by her standards, one that had nearly every month mapped out with what to do, and the only real risk was that she doesn't qualify for engineering and is instead assigned to another career path.

However, when Janine entered the exam room, she had no way of knowing that when she stepped out, her world was going to drastically deviate from that plan for good.
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Summary

Janine had entered her twenties with cautious optimism and a meticulously crafted path: Ace the Aptitude and Practicality Exams for mechanical engineering, graduate with an influential sponsor (preferably from the government), and begin her career in the heart of Caballeros City while occasionally going back home to fix whatever was wrong on her mother's farm. It was a great plan by her standards, one that had nearly every month mapped out with what to do, and the only real risk was that she doesn't qualify for engineering and is instead assigned to another career path.

However, when Janine entered the exam room, she had no way of knowing that when she stepped out, her world was going to drastically deviate from that plan for good.

Chapter1 (v.1) - What's in a name?

Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: May 27, 2017

Reads: 64

A A A | A A A

Chapter Content - ver.1

Submitted: May 27, 2017

A A A

A A A

Wentron was a relatively quiet, if not growing, desert town. The highway that ran through it brought jobs, people, and business over the years, but it also brought along the cumbersome ordeal of regulations that the previous townsfolk mostly avoided. Family shops closed and commercial stores rose, and the quiet community changed as more people moved from the rural, arid landscape to work in any of the manufacturing plants.  

On the outskirts of Wentron, where the buildings progressively got smaller and sparser at it reached the town limits, a line of fifteen warehouses stood encircled by a chain fence and a few stationed soldiers. In the front of it all was a small, faded pink building with badly chipped paint. On its roof, a large sign displayed 'Wentron Supply Checkout', though its letters had been severely bleached by the sun.

Several people had stood outside the sliding window of the checkout since dawn, hoping to later avoid the midmorning heat. Those who did so did not currently suffer in the merciless 96 degree weather like the other twenty-some people in line. Some people arrived by car or truck; others by foot, and few by bike. Yet all were dressed nearly the same, with wide brimmed hats and long yet loose and refreshing clothes to protect themselves from the sun's rays.

Two girls were near the front of the line, each dressed in a cotton blouse and a light, cool skirt that reached down to their ankles. One of them was short and blonde, animatedly talking away with her hands, while the other was listening along and trying her best to tie her thick brown hair back.

"'Ivy Coast' would be a good one, don't cha think?" asked the shorter of the two.

"There's neither ivy nor a coastline within a hundred miles of the region," replied the taller one. She managed to have her hair in a ponytail for three seconds before the hair tie snapped from stress.

"Okay, but your place is called 'Winter's Landing'. If that's supposed to mean that your fields are covered with snow or whatever all the time, then you don't have any right in shootin' down 'Ivy Coast'."

"Oh gosh golly gee, I'm so sorry, you're right. Let me change the family farm's name and spit on my grandmother's grave."

A man rudely cut in between the two girls, forcing one of them to momentarily step out of line to let him pass with his basket. They were now only four people away from the checkout, slowly moving along from their initial position of thirty-first in line. The one still in line, the blonde girl with poorly brushed short hair, quickly grabbed the wrist of her friend and pulled her back to her spot, still invested in continuing their conversation. "Look, Janine," she said, eyes lit in a way that only a star could rival, "All I'm tryin' to say is that if the shoes make the man, then the name makes the crops."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Sure it does! You gotta have a good name for your fields so people remember it, and when people remember it, they're more likely to talk about it, and the more they talk about it, the more likely they'll visit, and the more likely they visit, the more likely DoAS could get involved, and the more likely DoAS gets involved, then..."

The line moved forward by one person, and Janine stepped ever so closer to the only source of outdoor air conditioning, right next to the checkout counter. Granted, it wasn't a very good air conditioner, only giving out an unsteady, weak breeze of cool air, but it was something to battle the heat. The sweat made her cotton shirt stick uncomfortably to her back, but by turning it just slightly towards the direction of the vents was it able to turn into a cooling advantage. She sighed gently in relief, leaning over her empty basket as she listened to her friend continue her one-sided talk, occasionally giving a nod or hum of agreement. It wasn't that she was particularly interested in the subject, it was just that she's heard so many variants of it before.

Make a name, get attention, get more important attention, get funding, get crops, repeat.

Only this time, it seemed like literally having a good name for a farm was the key to success.

The line shifted forward.

"... which means that once I finally get the down payment for that hunk of metal beauty, I can rule with an iron grip on the community and use my influence to plant whatever I want!"

Janine blinked from her thoughts and looked up, squinting her eyes against the glare of the sun. "You can't do that."

"Course I can! Remember, I become buddy-buddy with DoAS and they give me unlimited power." A pause. "That or I marry someone super important in there."

The look on Janine's face could have been simply described as incredulous. "Saffron, there's no way in the wastelands that you're getting married."

"Oh?" replied Saffron, haughtily placing a hand on her hip and flashing her friend a challenging smile, "And why is that? You think I'm not feminine enough? Not seductive enough? Just another pretty face that's only good for lookin'? I'll have you know that I could get any man in the world with these charms and moves." For added emphasis, she stuck her leg from outside of the line, chipped red toenails peeking from her skirt as she jutted her hip out and ruffled her hair so that it became even more untamed.

Janine was neither seduced nor charmed. "You nearly killed me the time I slept over at your house because I took a pillow."

"Yeah, okay, I see your point," Saffron said, dropping her ridiculous stance. "They'll just have to sleep in a different room. Scratch that, maybe a different house, I don't even like my sisters when we're livin' ten feet apart. We could still be in a lovin' relationship while bein' in different houses, right?"

"A-hem."

Both girls turned to look at the open counter. An elderly man was impatiently tapping his pen against the stack of papers in front of him as he stared at Saffron in a mixture of exasperation and mild dread. "Next in line, please."

"Mr. Turner!" squealed Saffron, pulling her empty basket behind her as she beelined towards the counter, "It's been ages! You haven't been on the Wednesday checkout shift for so long I thought they either reassigned you or you retired to the city! How's Inthica doing? She's startin' preps soon, right? Gosh, I remember when I had to do preps, they really were something awful but she's always been a smart cookie so I guess she'll end up like Janine there gettin' all ready for the APEs soon. You know, we were just talkin' about you the other week, thinkin' about how long you've been here and-"

Mr. Turner let a calloused hand drag his face down as he listened to Saffron chitter away, and at the moment she paused to take in a breath, he wearily said, "Name, please."

Saffron blinked, faking offense as she placed a hand on her chest, saying, "Why Mr. Turner, you know it's me!"

"Yes, I unfortunately do, but for the twentieth time Saffron, I need to follow protocol."

"Oh," she said, straightening back her posture, "Right, of course! Saffron Hitchner."

"Thank you."

Janine watched as Mr. Turner avoided all of Saffron's personal, friendly questions and remarks as he tried to process her information as quickly as possible. The faster he tried to scribble down numbers and letters, the faster she spoke, interrupting her short recaps of what went on in the past month with the necessary responses she had for his clipped questions. After a few more hurried minutes, he finally tore off a carbon sheet and directed her to the warehouse she needed to visit. With a cheery goodbye and wave, she pulled her basket afterward and headed into the guarded gate, making her way down to the row of buildings that held her supplies. Mr. Turner only scowled at her, but the second Saffron walked away, his eyes softened, and it appear for only a fraction of a second that he was going to return the wave before he changed his movement and beckoned the next person to step up to the window.

As far as Janine could tell, Eric Turner had been running the checkout ever since her own mother was a little girl; maybe even longer than that, since he once hinted at working with her own grandmother at some point in his life. It wasn't because he was the best man to be in charge of the warehouses, but because simply no one else who was assigned to work there managed to stay for so long. The benefits were relatively dismal compared to other assignments in the area, so working in the warehouses usually meant that one was either trying to build experience,  or that something happened at their previous work that caused them to be sent there. "Morning, Mr. Turner," she said, pulling her own basket to the window as she rested against the counter. "Janine Pelletier, April 28th, 2096."

Mr. Turner only hummed back in response,  quickly marking down her name in a new line of his ledger. "Family ID?"

"2033708."

After a few more questions and scribbling, Mr. Turner pushed the ledger towards her before turning around to the rows of filing cabinets behind him."Thank you, please read the information and make sure everything's correct before signing." There was a slight pause as he opened the cabinet labeled O-R before saying, "So Saffron said you're doing the APEs soon.  You still on that engineering track then?" Although his tone sounded brusque, Janine could faintly pick up a trace of curiosity behind his words.

"Yessir," she replied, scrawling off her initials in an illegible font. "It's coming up in about two weeks time."

Another hum. A quick glance at the old man showed that he was thumbing through a thick folder labeled "P- 2033708", no doubt searching for the week's order form. "So you really are going to try and be like your dad, huh? Feel ready for it?"

"No. I'm in a constant state of panic and anxiety every time I think about it."

"Atta girl," he said, taking the ledger from her and passing on the carbon copy of her receipt. "Fear is a good motivator. Keeps you from getting too cocky. Best of luck, show those trust fund brats what you can do. Go to D and hand this to Amir, he'll get your things. And tell Saffron that Inthica is doing fine. Next in line, please!"

Giving him a small wave, Janine went through the chained gate, passing by the two very large and very armed soldiers. They were there more for show than anything else, but there was the rare occurrence or two where someone tried to sneak in before their scheduled pick up time and take things that weren't necessarily theirs. Out of the few times these attempts happened in the past decade, even fewer were successful.

The first three warehouses had several individuals picking up their supplies. Some were only there for small packages and walked away with it in hand. Others were allowed to come through with their cars, and they were loading bags of food or machinery into their trunks.

Amir stood alone at the entrance to warehouse D, silently watching Janine approach. From what she gathered from her previous trips, Janine's impression of him was that he was just the quiet sort of guy. That and the fact that his arms were thick enough to chokehold a bear. He wordlessly took the receipt she handed him, and after checking the number listed on it, ducked inside the warehouse and returned a few minutes later with a large sack.

Normally, Janine and her mother didn't need a lot of things from the checkout. The only items they were interested in were the weekly drop-offs of bread, sugar, and a few bits of both fresh and dried fruits and vegetables they otherwise couldn't grow in their own personal greenhouse. If they really needed anything else, that's what the stores in Wentron and physical money were for.

She untied the bag Amir handed her, checking to see if it contained the filtration tablets and batteries her mother had requested. The kitchen sink had been spitting out brown, cloudy water occasionally, and their water bottles were beginning to dwindle down in supply. The plumber wasn't set to come in until a week, and if it came down to it, she would either have to ask the neighbors for drinking water or just chug a glass with her eyes closed.

Satisfied with the contents, if not just a little disappointed that they were given rye bread instead of sourdough, Janine placed everything neatly into her basket before doubling securing the lid with its leather straps. Amir simply watched silently and took back the sack to an empty pile. She gave him a curt nod before wheeling away to the gates. Maybe he took an oath of silence. Maybe he had his tongue cut off.

Either way, it was incredibly unnerving.

As she made her way back, she scanned through the people ahead for Saffron's unruly hair. She didn't appear to be near any of the warehouses. It was possible she was a few warehouses back, but the thought was instantly dismissed the moment Janine saw the gates ahead.

Lo and behold, Saffron was standing at the gates, back turned to her as it appeared that she trapped the two soldiers posted there in social conversation. And by social conversation, it meant that she was animatedly retelling a story, judging by the wild gestures she was using and the loud volume of her voice that carried to even when she currently was. Janine didn't pay too much attention going into the checkpoint, but now, she noticed how tall the soldiers were when Saffron stood before them; they had to be at least a foot taller than her. One was tanned from spending days under the sun; the other must have been new, since he was already red with a bad case of sunburn.

The poor guy probably wouldn't make it through the afternoon if he was already crisped at 11AM.

"And you'd never guess what happened next!" Saffron exclaimed, looking up at the tanned soldier with most likely wide eyes. "Two jacks just lunged right out of that crate, nearly scratchin' me in the process when I went to grab them! I mean, I understand why they'd be so angry, poor fellas shouldn't have been in such a small box to begin with, but I reckon whoever put them there didn't know that, the idiot."

Janine was getting closer. From this point, she could see the sunburnt soldier frown, brow furrowing deeper and deeper the more Saffron continued to talk. "Hang on," he said, sharp words cutting off her friend's current sentence. "You mean to say that you just took those rabbits from those crates?"

"Oh, no sir," she replied quickly, although the cheeriness in her voice sounded slightly forced. "Can't take somethin' you can't catch! I had let them go. I hope those jacks are havin' a good life. Y'know, I think I forgive them for nearly maulin' me."

"Miss," Sunburn said, taking a step forward when she took a step back, and Janine could fully see how tall he loomed over her, and her heart rate suddenly spiked when she saw his hand reaching out for her, "From what it sounds like, you could be charged with trespassing on gov-"

"Saffron!" Janine hollered, sprinting towards the group as fast as she could. The basket bounced wildly behind her, unused to running on uneven gravel, and had the lid only been secured by a single strap, it was almost certain that half of its contents would have flown out. All three heads whipped around to face her, and Saffron's face shifted from wariness to her special Thank-God-You're-Here look. The Sunburn's hand remained suspended in midair before going back to his side when Janine arrived, who immediately interlocked her arm with Saffron's and flashed everyone a relieved grin. "Oh hun, there ya are," she said, giving out a quick gasp for breath. She really, really hoped the shakiness in her voice could be attributed to the run. "I've been lookin' all over the place, I was gettin' worried sick for a sec. I dunno what I woulda done if these dashin' soldiers weren't here to stop ya from goin' any further out."

"Aw, Sweet Pea," said Saffron affectionately, giving a light pat on Janine's arm, "I was fine, but thanks for bein' such a nag. These gents here were just keepin' me company, right boys?"

"Miss, what you did constitutes as criminal trespassing and participation in loss of federal property." Straight to the point. While Janine would normally appreciate such forwardness, now was definitely not the occasion. Her smile faltered, but before she could say anything, the tan soldier finally spoke up, bumping against his partner's shoulder.

"Charlie, lighten the fuck up. Girl didn't mean anything by it. The jacks would have probably died in the heat anyway if she didn't let them out." He gave a warm smile that was directed more for Saffron and a subtle wink for Janine before stepping aside. "Y'all have a nice day, ladies."

"Thank ya boys! Be seein' ya around." Janine pulled both her basket and Saffron past the soldiers, and before her friend could even open her mouth, she hissed, "Don't say a word. Keep walkin' slowly."

"Riner," said Sunburn, most likely pointing at them, "She's walking away with a federal offense."

"You mean you think she's walking away with a fed offense. C'mon man, use your head. That was all anecdotal, you've got no proof. Besides, didn't your mama teach you not to harass girls? We ain't living in the twenty first century anymore. 'Dashin' soldiers' like us don't do that to babes like them."

Bless Riner.

"You need a new lens implant if you thought those hicks were cute."

Fuck Sunburn.

Janine stopped dragging Saffron when they reached the main road, past the line of the dozen remaining people. She turned left, away from the town, and started briskly walking towards the direction of home. She could hear Saffron let out a low laugh and jog to her side.

"Oh man, that sure was a close one. I don't know what I would-"

"Woulda done if I weren't there?" The venom in her tone made Saffron flinch. "Prolly gettin' ready t' disassemble cars fer scraps in prison. I can't believe ya Saffron, nearly gettin' yaself... yarself... Shit."

She didn't break stride, not quite daring herself to look at anywhere but ahead. Saffron said nothing as she watched Janine breathe deeply three times, and continued to remain silent as Janine visibly calmed down. Her shoulders, tense the moment she spoke to the soldiers, finally slouched, and her pace slowed to a casual walk. Nothing was said for the first mile they walked, the only noise coming from the occasional hawk or vehicle passing by.

"I'm curious," Janine said, voice flat and carefully controlled, "Really. What on earth made you think that story was good for sharing?"

"I didn't include you in it," mumbled Saffron, kicking a stone from her path.

"That's besides the point." Saffron didn't give any sort of additional response. She never really did when Janine snapped at her. Letting out a frustrated groan, Janine wiped the growing sheen of sweat from her forehead. Common sense conversations like these were the least favorite part of her friendship with Saffron. "Look, I'm sorry for yelling at you, but what would happen if they actually detained or charged you? What would I tell your parents? Your sisters? I wouldn't be able to live with myself knowing that you were locked up for something I helped you do."

Another stone kick from Saffron, although it seemed more half-hearted than the last.

"You know," said Janine, "You can't have both a record and 'Ivy Coast'."

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry," sighed Saffron, " I put myself into another reckless situation. I just like talkin' with people."

"And that's fine. I'm not saying you shouldn't talk; you just need to be more mindful of what you're saying to who."

"I know, Janine. I run my mouth more than water down a river. I guess I owe you one."

Janine only hummed along, shooting a dirty look to a car that sped way too close to where they walked on the road. "Actually, I've been meaning to ask you for a favor. Could you send Ginger and Juniper to help my mom out on the twenty third and twenty fourth?"

"I can tell you off the bat that Ginger's gonna be outta town, but I can send Rosemary over instead. Hang on, I thought the twenty fourth was the day you'll be takin' the APEs? Why the extra day?"

"I didn't tell you? Well, you remember the stupid high school in Bynesville, right?"

"Was that the one with the rat infestation a few years back?"

"Yeah, that one. Apparently, that's the testing center for this area. Its roof collapsed."

"No!" Out of the corner of her eye, Janine could see Saffron hide a smile behind her hand. She never really was fond of their high school years, and the sentiment still carried over to this day.

"They gave us the option of either canceling with a full refund or being relocated to another testing center, depending on seat availability. I couldn't face the thought of waiting another year, so I opted for the latter."

"That's awful Janine. No, really, I'm bein' sincere. They won't happen to also accommodate travel costs then, would they?" Janine shook her head, and Saffron let out a low whistle. "Shucks, sorry to hear that hun. How far away are they sendin' you anyway?"

"Caballeros."

Janine only stopped walking when she realized Saffron wasn't by her side. Turning around, she saw her friend standing a few feet back, eyes blown wide open with her mouth shaped in a perfect 'o'.

"What."

"Yeah, that's why I'm asking for your sisters to help out for two days. I didn't see the announcement until three days after since we were having internet issues, and by the time I called to say I wanted to relocate, most of the other nearby localities were already filled up."

 

Saffron tried to let out a lower whistle than before, not quite succeeding but still getting her point across about the misfortune. "I guess you're not driving there then, huh?"

"Hell no. That clunker of a truck barely starts in the summer, there's no way I'm making it drive me all the way south. I'm taking VeloCity. Figured it was better to be there a day early since I need to find out where I'm testing."

"Oh Janine, I always wanted to go on a railway," said Saffron, with a far and dreamy look in her eye. "I can see it now. Just sit back on those sleek seats and watch the landscape blur in mixtures of tans and beiges, watchin' the mountains crawl by slowly. Maybe with a fancy drink in hand. No, definitely with a fancy drink in hand. If it's free, tell me what it's like. If you gotta pay for it, tell me what you think it'd be like. What's the fastest they go, about 150mph? "

"Something like that," she responded, shrugging. "I'll be there in maybe an hour and a half, two at most."

A whiny horn blasted twice behind them, and an old truck that was once the color of mint green pulled up beside the two girls. When the tinted window rolled down, a young woman with wild, untamed blonde hair and a splatter of freckles across her face grinned at them.

"Hey Janine!" she said, unlocking the door. "Need a lift?"

"Lavender! I'd appreciate-"

"Lav, you cow!" cried Saffron, pushing aside Janine and nearly lunging herself through the window, "Why didn't you say you were goin' into town! I had to walk in the heat and wheel about forty five pounds of food, y'hear? Forty. Five. Pounds."

"Dad asked me to go," Lavender responded cooly, "Maybe if you stayed to help clean up the kitchen, you woulda heard that and saved yourself a trip."

"Oh, you are definitely bein' dropped from the "Favorite Sister" title."

"Great, because Ginger's my favorite."

Saffron let out an affronted gasp, and turned around to face Janine for some kind of support. Sadly, Janine was trying her best to keep a neutral face, and it was too late to hide her amused smile. Letting out a quiet "humph", Saffron took Janine's basket and loaded it on the back of the truck. Janine sat in the middle seat and played referee to the two bickering sisters, and for the rest of the ride home, she enjoyed the simple pleasure of not worrying about the outside world.

The trip wasn't necessarily long. Her farm was roughly seven miles away from the checkout, and the Hitchner farm was close to ten. When the truck stopped at the entrance to her long, gravel driveway, Janine bid the sisters goodbye and unloaded her basket from the back. She watched as the mint truck kicked back a cloud of dust as it continued down the main road, and Janine look at what had been her home for many, many years.

Winter's Landing.

 


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