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Matthias was sound asleep when the Population Police arrived at Niedler School.
It was the middle of the night, and Matthias was curled up on his narrow cot beside Percy's, in a roomful of narrow cots. It still bothered the boys that Alia couldn't sleep nearby. The cots were the most comfortable beds they'd ever had, but both boys still found themselves jerking awake several times each night, reaching out to protect a little girl who wasn't there.
But no instinct, no premonition alerted them when the Population Police trucks rolled up the school driveway. Matthias and Percy slept through the ominous rumble of the engines, the impatient rapping on the school's front door, the trample of boots in the hall. And then dozens of flashlights were suddenly blazing in their room, and Population Police officers were yelling at them, "Up! Up! Your country demands your service!"
Matthias's life before Niedler School had sometimes required instant alertness, even when awakening from deep sleep. So while the other boys in the room sat up groggily or moaned without opening their eyes -- "Huh?" "Wha's happ'ning?" -- only Matthias and Percy had the presence of mind to gather up their belongings, to stuff their feet into socks and shoes before the officers herded everyone out of the room.
"Think they're getting the girls, too?" Percy whispered as the press of bodies around them moved down the hall.
"Don't know," Matthias said miserably. He craned his neck, trying to see over the boys in front of him, but they were all too tall. Anyhow, a line of Population Police officers stood beyond them, blocking his view of the other wing of Niedler School.
To distract himself, Matthias crammed a moth-eaten sweater over his head and pulled it down over his pajama top. The sweater was easier to wear than to carry, and it provided some small protection against the chill of the hall. Until the past week, Niedler School had had what Matthias viewed as the greatest luxury ever: central heat. But something had happened a week ago, and now the vents no longer breathed heat, the light switches no longer worked, the bathroom faucets no longer delivered water of any kind. The few teachers who hadn't run away wouldn't or couldn't say what had changed.
"Want to escape?" Percy asked, so quietly that Matthias had to read his friend's lips rather than relying on his ears to register any sound.
"Not without Alia," Matthias whispered back.
The other students were wedged around him so tightly, and the Population Police officers were watching the boys so closely, that Matthias would have laughed at anyone else who suggested escape. But Matthias had no doubt that Percy had already worked out a plan, that he could have spirited himself and Matthias out of the crowd without leaving a trace.
The mass of bodies reached the school's dining hall, and the Population Police let the boys stream in.
"Sit!" the officers ordered, again and again. "Sit!"
They seemed to expect unquestioning obedience, single-minded focus on reaching each designated seat. But Matthias dared to turn his head and look around. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed when he saw a group of students in nightgowns already sitting on the opposite side of the dining hall. The girls. His heart started to pound when he spotted one small blond head in particular.
"Alia's at the third table from the left," he whispered to Percy. "Facing this way."
"If we crawl under the tables -- ," Percy began. But it was too late.
All the boys were seated now, and the top Population Police official -- the one who had the most decorations on his uniform, anyway -- stepped up to the podium at the front of the room.
"Do you have any food?" he thundered.
Silence. No one dared to answer.
"Are you all mute?" the official raged. "Are you all a pack of imbeciles?"
Mumbles broke out in the crowd. "Uh, no, sir." "No, no, no." "No food, sir." Matthias wasn't sure if all the others lacked the courage to speak loudly or if, like him, they knew better than to draw attention to themselves. But enough students whispered that the message carried to the front of the room.
The Population Police official frowned.
"You," he said, pointing to a timid, frail boy near the podium. "Stand up."
Trembling, the boy rose.
"When was the last time you ate?" the official asked.
"Yesterday?" the boy said. "The day before?"
"You don't know?" the Population Police official asked.
"No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. I mean, I don't know what you count as eating. It's been just broth since -- since...last week?"
The Population Police official frowned. His eyes narrowed too, like he was mad that the boy was hungry.
"And what have you done to deserve food?" the official thundered.
The boy cowered, as if fearing that the man's voice alone could knock him over.
"Uh, I'm sorry, sir. I don't know, sir. I just -- "
"You have done nothing!" The man's voice was even louder now. No matter how much he wanted to avoid being noticed, Matthias couldn't help flinching. Every child in the room did. Only the Population Police officers stood impassive.
The man raged on.
"You don't deserve to eat! You are a drain on your country's resources!"
The boy seemed to grow smaller and smaller, hunching down to avoid the man's wrath. The man seemed about to hit him but suddenly drew back.
"And yet," he said, his voice turning soft and cunning, "your country has a new leader. A wise, compassionate leader, willing to give you a chance to make up for your uselessness. Would you like that, young man?"
A new leader? Matthias thought. How could that be? His country had had the same leader for as long as he could remember. Baffled, he watched the boy's eager nodding.
"You will work for your Government," the man said soothingly, "and then you will deserve food. Then you will eat." As a final touch, he laid his hand gently on the boy's head, like he was giving him a blessing. Then the man looked out at the whole crowd of students.
"All of you will work," he said. "All of you will eat."
As if on cue, the other Population Police officers began urging the students to their feet, began hurrying them out another door. By working their way diagonally through the crowd, Matthias and Percy were just a few kids behind Alia as they stepped outdoors. But just as they reached her side, a Population Police officer lifted her onto the back of a truck. Turning, the officer muttered, "The little ones won't last a week in the work camp. Why are we bothering?"
"Orders," the man beside him grunted.
Percy and Matthias scrambled up behind Alia, just in time to see another officer sliding a thick fabric strip across her chest and lap.
"You're tying her down?" Matthias asked incredulously.
"It's a seat belt," the officer said. "I'm keeping her safe."
But Matthias heard the clink of the metal latch at the end of the fabric. He saw the officer turn a key before straightening up. Alia wasn't just tied down -- she was locked into place.
"You're next," the officer said. "Sit down."
Matthias exchanged a quick glance with Percy, trying to hold an entire conversation with his eyes. What are my other choices?...What do you think I should do?
"I said, sit down!" the officer yelled, giving up all pretense of patience and kindness. He shoved Matthias to the floor of the truck, and Matthias's head hit the wooden wall that surrounded the truck bed. Then the officer slipped a seat belt across Matthias's body as well. Strangely, Matthias didn't hear the clink of the belt locking into place.
"You too," the officer screamed at Percy, shoving him down. "Hey, what's this? No personal possessions allowed."
He'd discovered the bundles of belongings Percy and Matthias had pulled together. He yanked them away and tossed them out the back of the truck, into the dark night.
"Won't we need clothes at the work camp?" Percy dared to ask.
"The Government will provide," the officer said. "The Government will provide everything you need."
Then the officer moved on to the next kid.
"You okay?" Percy whispered.
"I'll live," Matthias said, rubbing the knot that was already forming at the back of his head. "Alia?"
"I'm fine," the little girl said cheerfully. "What's our plan?"
"Cut the seat belts, then jump off the truck when no one's looking," Percy said.
"Sounds good to me," Matthias said.
He reached down into his pocket for his knife. But he'd forgotten: He was still wearing his pajama pants. His knife was in his other pants, in the bundle the Population Police officer had thrown off the truck.
"Percy?" he whispered, trying to keep the panic out of his voice, out of his mind. Surely Percy would have thought to keep his knife with him.
But even in the darkness, Matthias could recognize the look of dismay on Percy's face as Percy, too, shoved his hand down into an empty pocket.
"Alia?" Matthias asked. "Did you have time to bring anything with you when the Population Police came?"
Alia shook her head.
"I was asleep and somebody picked me up," she said. "One of them." She pointed at the Population Police officer shoving kids down near the other side of the truck bed.
Alia's voice was calm, but Matthias thought it must have been terrifying for her to wake up in the arms of her worst enemy.
"So none of us has a knife," Percy muttered, with his usual ability to cut right to the point of a matter.
We're so stupid, Matthias thought. Why weren't we sleeping with our clothes on under our pajamas? Why didn't we have all our tools stuffed in our pockets, all the time? He knew the answer. They'd gone soft, living indoors. They'd started to believe they belonged in central heat, with electricity and hot and cold running water. They'd started to trust in their own safety.
It's all my fault, Matthias thought. He was the oldest. If he'd told the other two to stay on constant alert, they would have.
Angrily, he yanked on the belt holding him in place, straining against the trap he'd been caught in. Amazingly, the belt pulled clean away from the wall.
He was free.
Matthias stared at the unattached metal end of the belt in disbelief. He held it up into the dim light, just inches from his eyes, trying to puzzle out how it'd come apart.
"Matty!" Percy exploded in a low voice. He shoved Matthias's hand down. "Don't let them see."
Matthias hid the metal end of the belt back against the wooden wall. He was thinking again.
"Pull on your belts," he hissed to Percy and Alia. "Maybe they'll come loose too."
But no matter how much Percy and Alia strained and tugged and pulled, their belts stayed firmly locked in place.
The Population Police officers were done loading children onto the truck now. Several children were crying, but no harsh male voices barked orders at them anymore. The sobs floated up toward the dark sky unmixed with any sound except the churning of the trucks' engines. All the officials, Matthias realized, had retreated back to the trucks' cabs.
They were about to drive away.
Percy and Alia seemed to grasp the situation at the same time Matthias did.
"Matt-Matt, go," Alia said, using the name she'd given him back when she was a baby, barely able to talk.
"Save yourself," Percy urged, his voice cracking. "You can't save us."
Matthias looked back and forth between his two closest friends. No -- "friends" was much too shallow a word to describe his relationship with Percy and Alia. They were like a brother and a sister who, by some strange accident, happened not to have the same parents. They were as much a part of him as his own arms; he couldn't imagine living without them.
"No," he said. "We stick together. Always."
He slid back against the wooden wall and tucked the broken end of his belt behind his back, hiding his chance at freedom.
Then the truck lurched forward, and it was too late to change his mind.
Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Peterson Haddix