I roll the cart toward my transport vehicle. My partner walks beside me, her eyes constantly roving the empty space around us. You have to be on the lookout when you’re moving your cargo. I can feel my muscles clenching at every sound, every furtive movement I spot in the corner of my eyes. I’m ready to go on high alert if anyone approaches us, in a vehicle or otherwise. I don’t mess around when the cargo’s this valuable. My hands itch to pull the keys to our vehicle from my pocket, but we’re still dozens of yards away.
The ancient wheels of the cart complain under the load. Every few feet they try darting right or left as if they have their own, much better idea of where we should be going. I grit my teeth and push on. Constant forward pressure is all that can keep them in line. For two years now we’ve tried to get a new cart in the budget. Don’t we need one? Isn’t the payload worth it? Every year, the budget “can’t afford” it.
Sheer determination and the muscles that now ripple along my forearm are the only things keeping me from a spill, an overturned cart. I will not allow an overturn. You hear stories about the people who do. You hear stories about what happens to them. What people say. I’ve never known someone who overturned, thank God.
There’s the thundering roar of an engine, and my heart attempts forcible ejection out my throat. My feet halt, my hands clenching the handle until my knuckles turn white. I’m ready to turn, spin, run in any direction to move my cargo out of harm’s way. To push it from myself and bear the brunt of the impact if it can’t be avoided.
I sigh with relief as I see the source of the noise: some muscle car passing by on the street, filled with tattooed hooligans blasting loud music. They bear metal in their cartilage and gold in their teeth. They barely give us a second glance. They probably don’t even recognize our cargo from this distance. If they did, there’s no chance they could recognize its value. You’d have to be a specialist.
My partner has taken a half-step forward. I doubt she knows she took it. It’s an unconscious maneuver, designed to present her body as a more enticing target than the payload. It’s the motion of someone who’s been subliminally conditioned to value the cargo above their own life.
That’s what it does to us, this job. We become nothing. The cargo is all-important. It’s blasted into us day in and day out. They hit us with audio, radio, speeches, anything they can to convince us that next to our cargo, we are nothing.
I used to try to hold on, to resist the programming. These days, I find myself agreeing with it more and more. Some part of my past rails against that fact, but that part grows quieter the longer I do this.
It’s probably been less than a minute since we left the facility, but it feels like two eternities as we pull up next to the transport vehicle. Relief floods my veins as I reach into my pocket to pull out the keys. I jam them in the keyhole and twist to disengage the lock.
This is it. This is what months of training and years of experience have led up to. This is the moment when people learn what “specialist” really means.
My fingers fly over the straps that secure the payload to the cart. I hoist one of the units in my arms — She, I think to myself. Some people say it. No specialist has ever said it, at least not after being on the job. Our cargo has the highest potential you can imagine — potential for destruction or potential to change the world for the better, but potential nonetheless. How can you fail to bond with that? How can you use an ugly word like it?
I have to fight the shifting of weight as I lift up. She’s warm against my hands.
Panic floods me as I run my fingers along its surface, double-checking. But it must have been my imagination. Everything seems well within the standard safety limits. Maybe it was just the insulation of the unit in the cart.
My partner has the other unit halfway into her side of the transport vehicle. I’m falling behind, but I can’t be hasty now. Bad things happen to hasty specialists. Gently, ginerly, I guide the payload in through the vehicle’s sliding door. Soft as a feather, I lay her in the receptacle that’s designed to wrap around her.
Now my fingers fly. The straps would confuse any lesser human — anybody who’s not a specialist. I’ve seen people flounder with them for hours during training. Then, sometimes, that training will fly out the window as soon as you’ve actually got real cargo under your fingers. My friend Mike fought with the straps for nearly an hour the first time he loaded his cargo. But he got it right eventually. Most important of all: he took his time. He didn’t rush himself.
The cargo comes first.
The straps are done. I glance across the vehicle at my partner. A little grin twists the corner of her mouth. We’ve nailed it. Again.
I throw open the front door — the driver’s door. She goes to the back to fold up the cart. It fits snugly into the back of the transport vehicle.
I twist the key in the ignition, and the engine fires up. The passenger’s door opens. My wife climbs inside. As always, before I put the minivan in gear, we both turn to look in the back. Our daughters are still asleep. A perfect loadout. The kind you only get from years and years of practice.
I lean over and give her a quick peck on the cheek. “Nice job, partner.”
I throw the minivan in reverse, and we leave the shopping mall behind.
Hope you enjoyed that, guys! My first attempt at flash fiction, and also my first attempt at first-person present tense storytelling (no doubt influenced by my recent reading of the whole Hunger Games trilogy). Let me know what you think. If you want more storytelling like that, be sure to click here and sign up to be a Rebel.