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TITLE: Nine at Night
GENRE: western/science fiction
WORD COUNT: 55,374
SUMMARY: A genetically engineered factory worker makes a bid for freedom by posing as a mail-order bride.
The train disgorged the mail-order brides who fluttered into the station like a flock of nervous pastel-colored doves. Nine Lily Rendell hung back a few paces. She looked no different than the others in her light blue-gray traveling frock, matching hat, and purse. But it wasn't an ordinary purse. It contained a Colt single action .45 with several metallic cartridges loaded in the revolving cylinder. One of the bullets was intended for her would-be husband.
Well, Nine amended to herself, it would be used as a last resort if her current plans to become a free woman went seriously awry.
The exhaust from the resting steam engine choked the air with fumes. Nine covered her nose with the back of her hand as she made her way across the station platform where the rest of the women mingled, with part excitement and part apprehension. There was a small iron gate which separated the station platform from the other side of the station and the men who were waiting for them.
The women had come from various towns out east. As Nine was traveling with them, she learned that many of them had taken a chance on moving west and marrying strangers to escape their hometowns which had little opportunity for spinsters with no apparent prospects.
Nine was escaping for similar reasons, although she couldn't really care less if her prospects for marriage were positive or negative. Instead, she was heading west for far more basic reasons. To be free. Especially from the endless factory drudgery that she had been born into.
One of the station managers tipped his hat to the women and went over to the gate to open it for them. They spilled over to the other side, most of them taking cautious steps towards the crowd of people waiting on the other side. Briefly, Nine looked back at the train which had been her home for the past two days. Workers were already heading towards the baggage car to get the trunks and bags which the women had taken with them on their journey to a new life. A second group of workers were at a couple cars ahead to take other cargo out--materials sold from the east. And a little further from that, she saw a herd of cattle standing by, probably ready to be shipped out to the slaughter house.
Finally, the woman in front of her had stepped passed the gate and now it was her turn. Nine was aware that the passing of this threshold was a step towards a completely different life, a life that she was at the moment completely ignorant of. Too many questions crowded her brain and she could only muster a weak smile at the station manager as she passed him. The man gave her a sympathetic expression, perhaps mistaking her nervousness for the nervousness in meeting a prospective husband.
But once she stepped out towards the front of the station, she was suddenly in the midst of an even stranger gathering of people, of mail-order brides attempting to find a men they had only corresponded before by letter. And, Nine supposed, she should be doing the same thing.
Back when she had been working at the factory, she had seen an advertisement in the back of a newspaper that she had seen discarded in the street right outside of the tenement house that she had been living in. For some reason, the advertisement had sparked something in her, to find a way out of the drudgery that so far, had been her entire life. So she had written to the man who had placed the advertisement, mostly thinking that it wouldn't hurt to try even if numerous better prospects had also sent letters to him. And to her surprise, she heard back. And after a few exchanges, he offered to pay for her train ticket out west to see if they could suit.
She had written back saying yes, and that he could recognize her because she was wearing a brass pin in the shape of a sleeping cat on the lapel of her jacket. She figured that it would be simple enough. It would be too hard to describe herself as she had never been created to look particularly distinctive. And from his last letter, which came with the train ticket, he had said that she would recognize him by the white carnation in his breast pocket.
At the station, there were a number of men with flowers pinned to their suits. What were the chances, she wondered, that more than one of them had the same flower? From her conversations with the other women on the train, though, she knew that no one else had a cat pin so if worse came to worse, if she couldn't recognize him, certainly he would recognize her.
Several men glanced at her, but once seeing the cat pin, turned elsewhere. Momentarily at a loss at how to find anyone in the crowd, Nine was easily distracted by the commotion on the other side of the station as the train workers began hauling all of the trunks and baggage off to one area where the passengers could more easily find their things. It was then, while she was watching the workers, that she became aware that someone was watching her. Slowly, she turned around.