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Read about Paloma's origins
Given Name: Paloma Haulita Age: 27 Home Region: Pawpaw Plains Favorite Food: Arepas con queso
Paloma Haulita wants you to know that she is not a delicate flower. As a girl, her mother forced Paloma to participate in the yearly Little Miss Pawpaw youth beauty pageant. She always hated it, much preferring to work on repairing old muscle cars with her father.
Haulita earned a reputation as a local menace after allegedly committing arson. Rumor has it she burned down the Peabody Family Country Club as a favor to her younger sister, who expressed angst over being forced to participate in an upcoming cotillion ball. Charges were pressed, but Paloma was never arrested: Her railroad schedule makes her hard to track down.
How am I supposed to remember when I met the Researcher?
I’m sorry, I shouldn’t lose my temper like that. Not many people believe me when I tell them this story, so I eventually just stopped telling it. That seems to be the case with everyone who has the misfortune to meet him…
December 13th was my first day aboard the Silver Bullet. I must have been working on the train for a few months when I met the Researcher, so let’s say it was sometime in March. Running up and down a train making repairs all day makes a girl lose track of time, you know?
The first time I saw the Plain Guy, I just assumed he was a regular passenger. You see so many faces coming and going every day, and he just seemed like another one. Sooner or later, though, I realized something was up. And yes—I promise this story connects to the Researcher. Very soon.
So yeah, the Plain Guy. I literally ran into him. He knocked the wrench out of my hand, and before I could ask him what the hell he thought was doing, he took a step back and bowed to me. He bowed to me. Which I thought was weird. And then he said way-too-loudly, “My apologies User. Would you like to begin the set-up wizard? It’ll only take a few moments of your time.”
And like… I didn’t know what the hell any of that meant, you know? So I just gave him a “Yeah, whatever, loser” kind of look, grabbed my wrench and kept going on my way. I pushed past him into the next car, but then…
He was in the next car, too. It wasn’t someone who looked like him: it was him. Couldn’t have mistaken him for anyone else. He had gray skin—not white, not pale, gray. Like he was sick, or something. Khaki pants, white shirt, denim jacket. Black leather shoes. Close-cropped brown hair. The most generic guy you’ve ever seen.
I turned around and looked into the car I’d just come from. He was still standing there, right where I’d left him, talking to the wall. And there he was at the far end of the car I’d just entered. There were two of him, somehow, like they were clones. I started walking toward the far end of the car where he stood, pushed past him again…and in the next car there were five of him.
So I stormed into the group of them, and said something like, “What’s going on here? Who are you people?” Or something like that; I probably used curse words I shouldn’t repeat here.
They all looked at me for a few seconds, then said in unison, all in the same voice: “Hello, User. Welcome to the New Human Operating System. In a few moments, we’ll begin the set-up wizard. But first, help me learn a little more about myself. What is my name?”
When I tell you I sprinted outta there…
Where was I?
Oh, right. The train car with all the Plain Guys.
Okay, so I bolted outta there, wrench in hand, not really sure what I was doing. I just knew something freaky was going on and I did not wanna stick around to find out what it was.
I guess, somewhere in my mind, I was looking for the conductor? God, I can’t even remember his name, after everything that happened. I worked on his train for three months, and I can’t remember his name…
I thought maybe he could stop the Bullet, or radio ahead to the station, or call an ambulance, or something. I passed through an empty diner car into a corridor coach. Putting distance between myself and the Plain Guys made me feel more confident, and I tightened my grip on my wrench as I placed my free hand on the door to the next car.
When I opened it, I was startled to see somebody standing in my way.
“You work here!” It took me a second to register the girl was talking to me. Not that there was anyone else she could’ve been talking to. Before I could respond to her, she’d crossed the gap between train cars and thrown her arms around me, burying her face in my shoulder as she pushed me back into the corridor coach. My shoulder felt damp, and then I heard her sobbing.
“Please! Please help me,” she cried into my shoulder. The girl couldn’t have been older than thirteen.
“Hey,” I said, hoping my voice sounded soothing and didn’t betray my own fear. I gently stroked the back of the girl’s head as she continued to cry. My abuelo used to hold me and play with my hair to calm me down, when I was her age. “It’s gonna be okay. Okay?”
The girl pushed away from me and looked me in the eyes, and I felt my chest tighten. She looked just like Gabriela. And seeing this girl in tears…
Can I actually have a moment? I, um… This is harder than I thought it would be.
I think I’ll be okay, now. I just needed some air, you know?
It’s been a long time since I’ve been interrogated like this.
I know, I know—you told me I’m not being interrogated, but still. It kind of feels the same.
The small room, the metal table, the good cop, bad cop thing you two got going on…
I guess this room has a window, at least. A real one. Not, like, a two-way mirror.
But I guess there wasn’t one of those the last time I was brought in for questioning, either.
It’s okay, you can ask. I’m not, like, shy about it, or whatever.
It was because of Gabriela.
Well, okay, not because of her, but—let me just tell you the short version.
I grew up in the Pawpaw Plains, but my family are immigrants. My abuelo and abuela came to the Centuryverse with my mom and her twin sister when they were maybe ten or eleven years old (Mom changes the details every time she tells the story). Abuelo opened an auto garage and Abuela worked as a house cleaner, and together they barely made enough money to get by. My mom went to the public school and had a hard time fitting in because she looked different and talked different. I think that really affected her… She got over it when she was older, obviously, but I think that’s why she obsessed over how people perceived me when I was a kid.
She wanted me to act just like all the rich little white girls in the North Plains. She said it was because she wanted me to have a better life than she had, but I never fully bought that. I had to go to dance lessons, etiquette lessons, cello lessons, tennis lessons, dress fittings, hair and makeup classes… It’s not like it was in preparation for my quinceañera, either: Mom didn’t even let me have one, because “that’s not what Pawpaw girls do.” No, she wanted me to be the perfect pageant queen, so that she could say Lupita Haulita’s daughter was Little Miss Pawpaw.
But I never wanted any of that.
I was a tomboy, you know? I wanted to play soccer with the boys after school, or catch lizards in the mud by the creek behind our house. More than anything, I wanted to learn how to be a mechanic from Abuelo. I remember getting home from a dance lesson after the teacher yelled at me, and then Mom yelled at me for making the teacher mad. I ran straight to the garage because I knew Abuelo would be there, elbows-deep under the hood of the car he was repairing. I didn’t even have to say anything: He just stood up, wiped his hands on his overalls, and wrapped his arms around me.
He smelled like tobacco, motor oil, and aftershave. To this day, sometimes I swear I catch his scent on the breeze, and it’s like I instantly feel safe…
When he got sick, Mom doubled down on making me into her perfect little doll to show off. It felt like she didn’t want me to see him at all. And the gaps between when I could visit him in the hospital were so long, it felt like every time I did see him, he’d gotten so much worse overnight.
And Mom didn’t tell me when she got the call from the doctors that he was on his last breaths. She didn’t tell me because I was at the Little Miss Pawpaw pageant, dancing and playing the violin like a circus monkey.
When my little cousin, Gabriela, came to me in tears, years later, saying my tía Beatriz was going to force her to start taking classes so she could start entering pageants… I snapped.
Gabriela, the smartest person in the whole family. Gabriela, who hated “girly” things, loved bugs, and had memorized the Pawpaw Plains Constitution by age thirteen. She wanted to be a lawyer.
I wasn’t going to let her mother force her into a mold like mine had.
And thankfully, someone set fire to the Peabody Family Country Club, where the pageant takes place.
Tía Beatriz is pretty superstitious, so she took it as a sign that Gabriela wasn’t supposed to be a pageant queen, after all.
The Pawpaw Plains PD accused me of committing arson and brought me in for questioning. They said they found a lighter at the scene that had my fingerprints on it. But it wasn’t me, I swear. The lighter must’ve fallen out of my pocket when I had been visiting Mrs. Peabody in her office the day before. You see, all former Little Miss Pawpaws are invited to a planning luncheon at the beginning of pageant season each year.
And Little Miss Pawpaw doesn’t commit arson.
The girl on the train told me what had happened.
Someone had held her mother at gun point and somehow turned her into one of those Plain…things. She said almost everyone in the car had been turned into one of the clones, but she managed to escape.
Seeing how scared she was almost broke me, but then I felt something new rising in my stomach. It felt the same as when Gabriela told me her mother was going to force her into the pageant circuit: a violent, fiery need to protect.
To protect this girl. To protect the rest of the people on the train. The protect the world from another villain bent on stealing someone else’s future.
I sat the girl in an empty seat and poured her a glass of water from the service cart at, then I grabbed my wrench and charged into the next car, ready to kick all kinds of ass.
At the far end of the car, I saw five of the Plains huddled like cattle, and standing in front of them was a decidedly not-plain woman.
She was tall and slim with short, white hair and flawless makeup. She was hunched over slightly, apparently investigating something in her hand. I crept closer, unsure if I could trust her, and that’s when I saw a glint of metal between her fingers.
She had to be the one who had attacked these people.
And I wasn’t going to let her get away with it.
“Stop this!” I screamed at her. Without turning to look at me, the woman dropped the gun and threw her hands in the air.
“You’ve got the wrong person,” she started to say, but I wasn’t falling for it.
“Don’t speak!” My voice shook with fear and rage. “My name is Paloma Haulita, and I’m here to stop you from hurting these people.”
“Look, Paloma,” she said, slowly turning towards me. I didn’t give her time to explain herself.
I charged at her, closed my eyes, and swung my wrench directly at her head. I never felt the impact.
“I didn’t do this,” I heard the woman shout. I opened my eyes to find she had ducked down and kicked her leg out towards mine. I couldn’t react fast enough and fell forward as she knocked my legs out from under me.
“I don’t believe you!” I said as I landed on top of her. I rolled off the woman and started swinging at her from my knees.
“Listen to me!” She said. “Would you please—GOD.”
Direct hit to her shoulder.
“Stop, you psycho bitch!” She scrambled onto all fours and lunged at me, knocking me over again. I clawed at her face, scratching from her cheekbone down her neck, until my hand caught the chain around her neck, which I pulled. Her head jerked forward violently.
“No stop!” She screamed. I could hear the desperation in her voice. “Please stop! I’ll do anything, I swear.”
I yanked the necklace as hard as I could, breaking the chain. The woman rolled off me and lay by my side gasping. “Please,” she panted. “Just don’t take her. It’s all I have left.”
I sat up and looked at the pendant I’d snatched from the villain. And what I saw was horrifying.
“Is that… A finger?”