Mason didn’t notice the cold chill in the air the next morning when he woke. In fact, he didn’t feel anything. He wondered if this was how his mother felt every day, just sitting watching the day pass her by. But Mason didn’t have that opportunity. He was numb and not sure if he could face the day ahead of him, but he didn’t have a choice. He didn’t have anyone who was going to care for him if he got sick. He didn’t have anyone to give him his medicine or sit beside him while he slept. He would have that if he hadn’t failed the exams. Even if the exams had decided he were suited to working as a farm hand or a factory worker for the rest of his life, that would still be better than an Underclassman.
After the ceremony Mason had made his way home and tried to avoid any contact with people. The sun was already setting so he had managed to avoid any awkward encounters with The Bundy’s or The Miller’s, but he couldn’t avoid Thomas who was sat by their mother’s bedside eagerly awaiting the news.
He can still see the eagerness in his brother’s eyes. Those wide blue eyes of a twelve-year-old that convey more emotion than can be said in a single word. Thomas didn’t move when he came through the door, he didn’t want to leave their mother, but instead just turned his head and raised his eyebrows, asking the question with a look instead. Mason shook his head and held back the tears, he was not going to let Thomas see him cry. He had tried too hard to make sure Thomas only saw the strong and capable brother, he was not going to ruin it at the last moment.
“I’m sorry.” He had managed to fight off the tears and instead just gritted his teeth, curled his lip up at one side and shrugged. Thomas, being only twelve, wasn’t sure what to do but did the only thing he could think of. He climbed off of his armchair, checking his mother was still okay staring out of the window, and walked across to his brother before hugging him. The two of them said nothing for a few moments and Mason did not realise until that point that it was the last time he was going to see his brother.
“So,” Thomas didn’t want to speak but he needed to. He could sense Mason didn’t know what to say and knew he had to break the tension some how. “What happens now?” It is the question that had played on Mason’s mind the entire way home. He had not thought of anything else since the announcement. He was going to leave and his brother, his twelve year old brother, was going to have to look after the failing farm and their sick mother. There were times before that he wondered if his brother was strong enough to do either of them, now he had no choice but to do both of them.
Mason knelt down on one knee and looked his brother in the eyes. He could see the tears forming in the corners of his eyes and he wiped them away gently with his thumb. All of a sudden the harsh winter didn’t seem to be a problem. The cold winds whipping at the door and seeping in through the gaps in the wall didn’t bother either of them. “Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and show you how to look after the house and…” His words trailed off as he saw his mother sat in bed, completely unaware that her son was going to be sent away the next day. Thomas caught his line of sight and knew where the sentence was going. “And then,” Mason bit his lip and smiled, trying every trick he knew to cover the anguish that was killing him inside. “Then I’m going to get on a train and go to live in Liberty.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Thomas didn’t fully understand what being an Underclassman meant. If he had then he wouldn’t have asked the question. “You’ve always wanted to live there.” Mason had to smile at the boys innocence. If there was anything he envied his brother for then it was his innocence. The boy had seen his father die and his mother incapacitated by illness, a failing farm and now his brother was being sent off to live and work for other people. But still he remained innocent. That’s what would kill Mason about having to leave, knowing that when he boarded that train it would kill any innocence left in his little brother.
But Mason didn’t have time to worry about all of this. His time left in Ashdale was limited and he didn’t want to waste a second of it. That’s why, the next morning, he pushed aside any burning anger he had inside of him and pulled on his shirt, trousers and boots ready for another day.
“Thomas.” He placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder and rocked him gently, trying to rouse him out of his sleep. His left eye flicked open and he saw Mason looking down at him with a smile. “Come on, I’ve got to show you some thing.” Upon seeing Mason, Thomas was out of his armchair and dressed quicker than Mason could ever have imagined. Before he knew it they were traipsing across the farm to where the animals were kept.
“Do I have to tend to the farm now?”
“Yeah. I’m going to show you where everything is.” He took him over to the chicken coop and took the side off. It was still barely held on but he showed Thomas where the tools were kept to fix it up, and even marked off where he needed to put a nail in to make sure it stood up firmly without wasting any nails. Thomas listened eagerly, more eagerly than Mason could ever imagined. Whenever he tested him on where something was, Thomas was able to locate it. He knew the tools, as basic as they were, were going to be his best chance at keeping the farm running. He told him about the rickety fence and to check on it and make sure it is always kept closed, locked and fixed. “You know about farming, right?” Thomas nodded enthusiastically as he pointed to where the seeds were kept and began to explain how he would till the land. Farming had been the basic skill he had been taught as a child and so made sure, even if he couldn’t do anything else, that Thomas would be able to at least keep the crops going when the whether got better.
“What about The Colls?” Mason’s head snapped round before Thomas had even asked the question. Any mention of The Colls had Mason on edge.
“What about them?” Mason had just finished showing Thomas how to lift the hay bales the easy way, without exerting too much force. He figured, at twelve years old, he should at least be able to do one hay bale a day. In her prime his mother was doing regular farm work on her own, so if Thomas was going to learn to cope with running a farm then this was going to be it.
“How do you…you know?” There wasn’t a word for what Mason could do with The Colls. There were plenty of words for what he wanted to do to them though. But those were not words he could say around his brother. This had not crossed his mind though. One of the main reasons his family had survived for this long was because The Colls were only getting a quarter of their produce and not half like they thought they were getting.
“It’s called Skimming.” He showed Thomas around to the back of their house and perched himself on the fence between their house and The Miller’s. “You’re gonna have to learn this one if you want to be the man of the house.” He knew, deep down, that Thomas didn’t want to be the man of the house. Mason didn’t want to be the man of the house but it was thrust upon him by circumstances he couldn’t control. Now it was Thomas’ turn.
“So how do I skim?”
“Whenever you finish for the day, split the produce into four.” He grabbed four sacks from the back of the house and lay them down on the ground in front of them. Despite the cold weather, Thomas actually looked like he was paying attention. “So pretend that in all four of these bags is everything you’ve taken from the farm for the month.” Thomas nodded and focused directly on the bags. Mason made his way to the far-left sack and picked it up. “You take this bag and you put it in the house.” He moved along to the next sack. “This one goes by the front door.” He stood between the final two bags. “Now you put these two by the back door.”
“Okay…” Mason had to smile at Thomas’ little face trying to work everything out. He almost suggested writing it down but he couldn’t be caught with any sort of evidence that suggested they were skimming Liberty out of food.
It was times like this that Mason could see a lot of himself in his brother. Sure they both had the same dishevelled brown mess of hair, and they both had the same smattering of freckles across their nose, but it was the intrigue and the determination that really made them brothers. There were times when looking at Thomas would flash Mason right back in time to when his father taught him about the farm. Although his father never taught him about skimming, that was Mason’s idea once his father died. He had to find a way to conserve food and skimming was the most efficient way.
“So, before The Colls arrive, you take the two by the back door and stash them over at Mrs Miller’s house.” Thomas was nodding but there was a look in his eye that wanted to know why. Mason wouldn’t have been able to tell this look if it hadn’t been the same one he got every time he wanted to ask why. “Mrs Miller will give you a key. When The Colls come you keep them talking, let them examine whatever they want because they won’t find nothing. Half of the produce will be over at The Miller’s. You give them the bag by the door and tell them that’s all. Try and sweet talk them. Never be scared and never be confrontational because that’s what they want.” Mason tossed those two sacks to the side, as if they didn’t exist any more. “This sack here, the one you brought inside. This one’s for you.” He threw the sack to Thomas to emphasise that it was his sack and not The Colls. “Now this next bit you gotta be quick and quiet. When The Colls go over to The Miller’s, you gotta sneak over there and let yourself in the back way. You take the two sacks away otherwise Mrs Miller’s gonna be caught with more food than she’s letting on. You hide them back at our house until The Colls have searched hers.”
“Is that it?” Mason looked around at the floor and saw the sacks strewn everywhere. One was hanging from Thomas’ hand, two were hanging from the fence and one was in the doorway to their house.
“Is that it? You’ve got two sacks left and a family who helped you cheat Liberty. That’s not it.” He picked the two sacks off of the fence and held them up so Thomas could see them clearly. “This one is for you.” He threw it, like he did before, to Thomas. “But this one is for The Miller’s.” He dropped it over the fence to emphasise once again.
“But don’t we only get half then?” Mason smiled and nodded, he had to hand it to his brother, he was very impressed that he had managed to keep up. “So we’re not gaining from this skimming? Instead of giving half to The Colls we just give a quarter to them and a quarter to The Miller’s?”
“We’re not done yet. Mrs Miller’s a nice lady, she won’t let you just give her food. What she’ll do it she’ll swap. Because The Miller’s produce nicer vegetables than we do, and occasionally more milk, she’ll swap our wheat for her vegetables. So we get half of our own food and a quarter of The Miller’s. The same works out for them.”
“Is it worth it?” It was a question Mason had never considered before. Since he came up with the plan and The Miller’s had been up for it all along, no one had ever asked him if it was worth the effort he put into it. But Mason knew the answer. Had he been asked a few months ago, when he first devised the plan, he wouldn’t have been so sure.
“It’s kept you alive this long, hasn’t it?” He ruffled Thomas’ hair again and threw the sacks into a pile in the back garden. “Now you remember all that? You got it all stored up here?” He tapped Thomas’ head which made him bat away at Mason’s hand. For a moment there they forgot what was happening and why he was teaching him. The illusion was shattered by The Colls coming down the street.
Mason knew he couldn’t skim his way out of this one. They weren’t leaving without him.
The knocking was thunderous against the door of their small wooden hut. If anything were to wake their mother from her coma-like state then it would be the slamming of fat fists on the family door. But still she just stared at them from the window. Thomas opened the door as Mason was in his bedroom packing his bag.
“Mason Lindholme?” It was a stupid question, no one could mistake a twelve-year-old for an eighteen year old, but it was their way of asking where he was. Mason appeared around the corner with a sack slung over his shoulder. He dropped it down onto the floor and knelt down in front of his brother.
“Look, you can look after the farm. You’re the man now and you know what to do. I’ve taught you everything I know about keeping this place running. You’ll do a good job.” Thomas couldn’t fight back the tears as they stained his cheeks. Mason didn’t want a goodbye, he wasn’t going to say the word because then it would be true. He pulled Thomas closer to him and took a deep breath, swallowing hard any words he couldn’t bring himself to say. There shouldn’t have been anything he couldn’t say, but he didn’t want Thomas thinking he was gone forever, no matter how true it might have been. “Remember what I taught you.” One of The Colls took Mason by the arm and dragged him out of the house. It was the only way he was going to leave because this wasn’t voluntary.
“Mason!” Thomas was screeching from the doorway as Mason was led down the road by the two burly men in grey uniforms.
Mason was marched down the street, past all his neighbours, and through the town square to where there was a large train waiting. There were dozens of Colls, all with people from the local villages or towns. One of them Mason recognised as Maxwell Smith, the first person this year to be condemned to a life of an Underclassman. All these people, various shapes and sizes, were all this years Underclassman. Not a single one of the people wanted to be there but all of them were required to be there or face punishment.
A large metal train waited in front of them, the likes of which Mason only saw when it passed through or once a year when it picked up the Underclassman. This wasn’t a train that ran the rails regularly, this was a train purpose built for carrying people to Liberty but never out of it again. It had become known, around town, as The Underclass Train because of its so-called passengers.
Mason was escorted on, flanked by his two uniformed Colls that had dragged him from his house. The inside of the train seemed bigger, somehow. The entire train was bigger than most of the village and stretched for miles. It had to in order to house all of the Underclassmen that were being transported to Liberty. In the distance Mason could still see the shimmering lights of Liberty. A city named for the feeling you get when you see it, or the feeling you get when you’re shuddering towards it at a hundred miles an hour. This wasn’t what Mason felt though. Mason just felt sick.
He wasn’t the only one, as it turned out. Many of the Underclassmen had never ridden on a train before and so the moment it lurched away from the make-shift station people began reaching for a container. Mason managed to hold his back a few times, even feeling it rise in his throat and then swallowing it back down. The whole idea was humiliating enough, he was not going to add throwing up in a Coll’s lap on top of that. Others didn’t have the same discretion and there was retching and heaving coming from all the cabins and chairs. Once the train got moving, and was chugging along fast enough that any attempt to jump out would result in death, the Colls all retired to the cabins at the back. Now, as Mason looked around, everyone he could see was sentenced to the same life he was.
These were the people who had failed. These were the people who, along with himself, had been deemed unworthy to work any sort of job other than manual labour under constant supervision from someone else. That was, of course, if you got picked.
As the train shuttled its way through the bleak and barren wasteland, Mason couldn’t help but think what Liberty might be like. There may be a silver lining to it after all.
“There’s lights there. All the time.” Maxwell, the first one deemed as unfit, was saw in a chair across the aisle from Mason. “Some don’t turn them off. Ever.” Mason knew this to be true, he had seen the occasional twinkling light when he began his morning work. Everyone knew this, it was one of the few mysteries of Liberty that they were unable to keep confined to the city. Of course there were walls, but people had houses and buildings that rivalled even the walls. “Everything is big.” It was true. Whilst the walls might have been a hundred-foot-tall, people would build houses that were one hundred and one foot tall. Liberty was a powerful place and nothing said power like being able to display it.
“You ever been?” Maxwell snorted at the question, almost losing the contents of his stomach into a brown paper bag.
“Nah, not me. Knew a guy once though. Said he didn’t like it there too much. Too much going on. Wanted a relaxed life without all the people. Don’t know what happened to him come to think of it. Passed by the town one day and never saw him again.” Maxwell’s story may have been true, Mason didn’t have the evidence to dispute it, but no one in the town had ever spoken of someone from Liberty passing through. News like that would have spread like wildfire through Ashdale, everyone would have known of the man and he would have become the talk of the town.
“Shame.” Mason nodded and looked out of the window. He could see Liberty approaching quickly.
As the train passed through hole in Liberty’s wall the Underclassmen were opened to a whole new world that would have been beyond even their wildest imagination. Buildings, hundreds of stories high. Paved streets and smooth roads. Actual motor vehicles. Mason had actually seen a car before, it had dropped a selection of Colls off at Ashdale’s border when he was a child. One moment it was there, the Colls got out, then the car sped off again into the distance taking all its mechanical mysteries with it. Mason had wanted to ask about it, to find out how it worked and what made it run. It differed greatly from the carts that were usually dragged up and down Ashdale’s roads. The sky was bright and cloudless above Liberty. Whether this was some sort of technology or whether it was a coincidence was unknown, but it elicited numerous gasps and awe from around the inside of the train. All of the Underclassmen, including Mason, were now sat with their noses pressed firmly up against the window of the train, taking in as much of the surroundings as they could.
There were trees. They weren’t apple trees or pear trees or any fruit baring trees. These were trees purely for decoration, stuck along the sides of the roads and the cars whizzing past them. There were grassy sections between the roads and bushes and hedges lining the edges of them. And the houses. The grand houses with two or three stories and dozens of windows with plush curtains hanging inside. Some of the houses even had small boxes of plants attached to their upstairs windows. Never before had Mason seen a house with a second story but now, now he was seeing a house with a make-shift garden hanging from it’s second story window.
The train pulled into the platform and as soon as the doors slid open the warm air rushed inside, bathing the entire train in comfortable aura. In Ashdale this temperature would be spring temperatures, when the upcoming summer would start to burn off the winter chill. It felt strange for Mason, like he had stepped through time. When he got on the train it was winter but now, here he stood in a warm atmosphere that seemed completely out of place.
The Colls lead the Underclassmen over to a small adjoining room where they were met by a burly, gruff looking man. The Colls then disappeared, leaving no trace that they were ever there. Mason recognised the clothes the man was wearing, the black combat khaki’s and the tight black top. He was the man from the stage, the one that handed the clipboard to Miss Knight. He was less formal but his face looked aged and worn, like he was in a continuous war with time and he was losing. Although, judging by the bulk of the man, you would have to be a fool to go to war with him. He had no need to Colls, his muscled bulked out underneath his t-shirt so much so that he could easily wrestle any Underclassman to the ground within seconds. He was a pure-bred Underclassman wrangler.
“I am General Campbell.” His voice was as gruff as his appearance and it was filtered through his thick grey beard and moustache. “You are my Underclassmen.” There were dozens of them in the room but he managed to speak to everyone and no one at the same time. It was a skill that Mason assumed could never be taught. This was a man who was born to handle Underclassmen. “Over to the side you will find your display clothes.” On one side of the room were dozens of bags and Mason realised now that he hadn’t collected his from the train. As if reading his mind, General Campbell pointed to the bags and clicked his fingers. “You won’t need your personal belongings, you are no longer the person you were. Get your bags.” The bags were labelled, but not with names. Mason found bag number one hundred and forty-seven and opened it up. Inside were plain grey, baggy clothes. “Get dressed.” Everyone, without hesitation, began to get changed into the clothes provided. It was awkward and humiliating but this wasn’t an easy life, this was Underclassman life. They had stopped being people the moment they boarded the train, here they were just property.
The clothes were all the same, although they did have some sort of fit to them. Mason could only assume that they were one size larger than their regular size. There were boys who were twice Mason’s size who, were their clothes the same size as his, would be bursting out at the seems. The boys had plain grey trousers and the girls had plain grey skirts that stuck down like they contained too much starch. The clothes were reminiscent of Mason’s blanket at home, itchy and uncomfortable.
“These are your uniforms, until you are claimed. Once you are claimed you are no longer my problem. Once you are claimed you will go with your claimant and do as they tell you.” This wasn’t a situation to negotiate. If Mason had just walked into the room he would still be able to tell, by the uniformity of the Underclassmen and the barking bravado of General Campbell, that this was not a situation anyone could talk their way out of. “Follow me to your podiums.”
General Campbell lead the Underclassmen through a small connection of corridors and hallways, finally leading them out into a huge open topped area. It would have been like the graduation ceremony apart from this one had decoration and some sort of personality.
Above them was a huge white banner draped between buildings with the words “UNDERCLASSMAN SALE” painted in big black letters. Scattered around were little circular podiums with only a two-foot diameter. Each one had a small plaque on the front of it with their Underclassman number. Mason once again found one hundred and forty-seven and stepped up onto the podium. When everyone was on their podium, stood upright and facing forward, the general public of Liberty were allowed to enter.
In flooded dozens of people all with nowhere better to be. The place was abuzz with noise from the chattering of the public about who should they claim and what are the merits and benefits of each one. This was probably the only good thing about being an Underclassman, it was General Campbell’s job – along with some other recruits – to essentially sell the Underclassmen. They all had files and when approached by a prospective family or owner, a recruit would pick up their file and start discussing why they would be a good sell. The downside was that there was no need to get rid of the Underclassmen, so General Campbell and his men would not hesitate to highlight the flaws and weaknesses of some of the Underclassmen as well.
“As you can see, she has excellent bone structure and so would make a wonderful display model. She has no major health concerns but, as with all in this gender, she is more frail and dainty than some of the more robust males.” Mason wanted to argue that his mother, a person of the dainty and frail gender would be able to throw General Campbell over his shoulder and run down the street with him. Or at least she could have a few months ago. Either way, Mason did not agree with the meat market that they were being subjected to. But this, like everything in Mason’s life now, wasn’t up for discussion.
“What about this one?” A family had approached Mason and were surveying him head to toe. It was an elderly couple. The woman had large horn rimmed glasses and the man had a bright white suit with golden lining to it. They took their time, looking him up and down and even surveying if he had any damage done to him.
“This one,” One of the recruits stepped up and took the file from beside Mason. He flipped through it and read it as quick as anything. “He is good for manual labour. Comes from a manual labour family and has farm hand experience – although he’s not very good at it according to the file.” The man continued reading and then paused, his finger obviously finding something very interesting. “It says here that he does have a bit of an attitude problem. Has given The Collectors a bit of cheek on their regular visits outside.” The horn-rimmed woman turned her nose up and her eyes grew wide as if it were offensive to banter with The Colls.
“We cannot have one we must train. Do you have a quieter one? Perhaps one that will not answer back?” The recruit put Mason’s file back down beside him and took the elderly couple off to show them a ‘different model’.
Mason stood on his podium as he watched people disappear from around him. Occasionally a recruit would approach him and straighten down his clothing, which completely swamped his slender frame. They would brush his hair, remove any dirt or blemishes from under his fingernails or skin. He wondered why they didn’t just throw him into a shower and tell him to wash himself. Then he remembered, this wasn’t about actually being clean, this was about appearance. As long as Mason appeared to be the upstanding and perfect Underclassman then he was going to get picked. Once he was taken away he was no longer Liberty’s problem.
“What’s wrong with this one?” It was a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair. He had his wife, a slimmer woman with a severe black bob. “Why hasn’t he been claimed?” The man wasn’t gentle about analysing Mason. He tugged on his arms, rolled up his sleeves to check for marks and shoved him about to see how sturdy he was. Mason bit back every word that tried to escape his mouth, and there were many that would get him into deep trouble. He inhaled sharply as the man patted him, rather roughly, on the stomach.
“He supposedly has been rather obnoxious with some of The Collectors.” Mason questioned the use of the word obnoxious. He had not been obnoxious. He had been irritating maybe, or tried to push their buttons a few times, but he had never been obnoxious.
“Any major flaws?” The recruit flipped through the file again and couldn’t find anything worth noting. He shook his head and the man put his hand on Mason’s shoulder, gripping it more tightly than Mason appreciated. “Then we shall take this one.”
The recruit allowed Mason to step down off of his podium and took him into an adjoining room. It was a very plain room, with white walls and just a desk over to one side.
“Have you ever owned, or do you currently own, an Underclassman?” The man took out a clipboard from behind the desk and read the questions from it.
“But it was a few years ago, has anything changed in that time? Anything we’re not allowed to do, or any rules we must follow for their…well being?” The woman seemed appalled that Underclassmen might have rules regarding their health and safety. Although Mason was more appalled that the recruit said there weren’t any rules.
“Are you aware that you are taking on this Underclassman of your own free will and that the government of Liberty cannot be held responsible for any damage sustained to your Underclassman while in your care?” Mason wanted to tell them that he had a name, and that he was stood right next to them. But he couldn’t. He was even advised to not look at them and to keep his eyes directed at the floor, as all Underclassmen should.
“Yes, we are aware. Can we take him now? We do have things we must do.” This was extremely difficult for Mason to believe. If they had things to do, shouldn’t they have been doing them? In Ashdale, if something needed to be done then it was not put off for more frivolous activities such as buying other people, it was done there and then because it had to be.
“Just one more thing before you can take it away.” The recruit took Mason’s hand and laid it face down on the table in front of him. He pulled out a small cylindrical object and clicked it a few times. There were numbers on the side and Mason knew what number he was looking for. It got to one hundred and forty-seven and the recruit checked it against the file. “Yes, that’s right.” He didn’t warn Mason or give him any words of comfort, he just stabbed him in the back of the hand with the object. Mason wondered whether there was a knife inside the object because his hand stung and burned at the same time.
“Son of a–“ Mason didn’t get to finish his sentence before the man, the person who now owned him, clipped him round the ear. It took Mason’s attention away from his burning hand but not for long.
“None of that!” The man turned back to his wife. “He’s going to need some training.” The woman nodded and pursed her lips, Mason had just shown himself up in front of his new owners.
“He is chipped and can be tracked now, should he somehow find himself lost.” There was an insinuation behind the words, a suggestion that Mason was going to bolt at the first opportunity. “Mr and Mrs Porter, I want to wish you all the best with your new acquisition.” Mason first felt like property when Mr Porter grabbed him by his baggy collar and lead him off of the lot.