“Shh, it’s happening now. I’ll tell you when to run.”
Corralled into a fenced in patch of ground, the children glanced nervously around, darting their heads down whenever an adult happened to look directly at them. They were beautiful children, flawless except for the dirt that had been artistically smudged onto their faces and under their nails and the mud that clung to the ends of their shorn hair. The decoration was meant to stir the sympathy of the adults surrounding the pen.
“Not yet. Hsst.”
Unfortunately for the children, most of the adults, the potential buyers, were wise to such tricks. Most of them looked for more telling characteristics – the arch of a child’s back, the straightness of their teeth, the shape of the ears, the expression in the brow.
“See the clocktower? That’s where we’re heading.”
The auctioneer got on his platform and began to call loudly for the buyers to choose the numbers they wanted and gather round. The children all had two-digit numbers tattooed – temporarily – on their foreheads and the backs of their hands. The adults took peering looks, barking at this or that child to raise his head or hold out her hands. Then the buyers would nod and head to the auctioneer’s podium.
“When he calls the first number and they open the gate to bring a kid out, that’s when we run. Got it?”
Watching the auctioneer explain the rules of the auction but not going closer were the adolescents, the sellers. Some of the children in the pen were their siblings, some were their small children. It didn’t matter. They were products and the sellers were professionals. They knew all the tricks. They’d been there once themselves. They watched the kids closely, keeping on eye on their gangs. The auctioneer called out for number 11, and a little boy pulled his thumb out of his mouth immediately and squared his shoulders. He didn’t cry. He looked at his seller and they nodded to one another. He walked towards the gate which was unlocked by a guard. It was a wooden fence, solidly build with spikes carved out of the top of the staves. It only reached about chest-height for an adult but it towered above the children’s heads, and there was barbed wire curling atop the spikes. None of the kids could climb it.
Two of them ran, ran, fast and hard as they could, and one of them even managed to run past the open gate, but the guard caught her and threw her right into the runner behind her. They fell back into the pen and the gate slammed shut. Their seller came running over and looked at them through the barbed wire with a face far too calm to bode well.
“You just lowered your price for me by two thirds. That means you lose two-thirds of your security clauses in the contract.” She walked away from the two children who still sat on the ground, leaning against each other. She was mad. She also respected the little runts. She’d never had the courage to do what they just tried, not when she was that young. Now? Who knows what she’d do now. She was doing this, wasn’t she?