Highwaymen.

Outlaws. Rebels against the Magistrate and all he stood for. They funded their cause by holding up trains, neutral zone, or not. Statistics and probability outcomes flooded her network as suppressed military protocols surged and failed. Sharp stabs of fire lit through Anne’s mind. She gave a moan of distress and clamped a hand over her mouth, holding back a wave of nausea.

“Not to worry,” the porter said, misinterpreting her actions, likely guessing she was simply afraid.

And she was. But not of the would-be robbers. If her programming triggered, this journey would be well and truly over - for everyone on board.

 “Once we hit the double tracks, the conductor will initiate an Express order.” The porter withdrew a small gold watch from his waistcoat pocket. “Any second now…” The thunder of hooves audible over the pulsing hiss of the train’s steam engine attracted the attention of the travelers on Anne’s side of the train. Faces pressed against glass.

“They’ll steal my new bear,” a child’s voice from a few rows ahead.

“Nonsense, son,” his father said. “They’re after the mail car, or the treasury. Teddy’s just fine.”

The highwaymen’s shouted instructions and a few warning shots fired into the air had gasps of alarm ringing out through the passenger car.

As if in response a rumbling built underfoot.

“Hold on,” the porter called out and Anne clutched her handbag tight to her chest.

The entire car jolted and surged forward as the train launched into Express. Passengers who’d been foolish enough to stand and gape at the highwaymen were blasted back into their seats. In seconds the riders were nothing more than black specks in the distance.

A rhythmic shimmy settled over the locomotive and the sudden force eased. “Three cheers for the conductor!” A man bellowed and relieved laughter, along with a few appreciative rounds of applause rang out from the passengers.

The porter gave Anne one last smile, then continued along the aisle to check on the wellbeing of the other travellers.

 It took much concentration to relax her grip on the handbag. Her knuckles had locked onto the fabric as if clenched around a weapon. If it ever became fully functional, her programming would dictate she return to the frontlines. Precisely the reason Mrs. Spencer, the head of the asylum, had hacked her system and deleted specific protocols. The attempt alone should have resulted in a full shut down, but thanks to the bullet still lodged in the human portion of her brain – effectively scrambling key coding – the hack had been successful.

But at what cost?

Now that she could feel again, was bombarded with emotions at every turn, she wanted no more blood on her flesh-covered mechanical hands. Never again would she fight battles so long ago waged that no one remembered what they were fighting for. She was the first e to have free will with impunity.

Well, the first to her knowledge. Such infractions would hardly make front page news. Not that the papers reported anything other than what the Magistrate wanted survivors to know.

 “Avonlea station. Avonlea.” The porter called. The train chugged and huffed to a stop. Passengers chatted amiably as they gathered their personal belongings and exited from the train car.

Making her way to the door, excitement churned in her stomach even as dread clawed up Anne’s spine. All she had to do was step down onto the platform and into a new life.

 “Can I help you with that, miss?” A smiling gentleman in Providence uniform asked, holding out his hand for her carpetbag.

“No thank you, sir,” Anne said, twisting out of his reach and hopping from the train. “There’s knack to holding it, if you don’t mind.” She glanced over the near empty platform. “It appears I’m to wait for my ride.” The thought wasn’t oppressive. Avonlea was a variable paradise. Gone were the wastelands of the outer provinces, replaced by lush grasses, strong and tall green trees, and a bright blue sky as far as the eye could see. Bees hummed and birds chirped amongst the treetops. Instead of recycled oxygen, here the air smelled of sunshine and warm apple pie.

 “Train’s early,” the stationmaster said. “Do you wish to go inside to the lady’s waiting room?”

 Hope lodged firmly in Anne’s heart. “I do believe I’ll wait outside. Right there on that bench.” She grinned. “So much more scope for the imagination, don’t you agree?”

“I suppose…” the man muttered, but his doubt was lost on Anne, who’d already plunked down on the bench and was staring up into the heavens with unrestrained joy.

She had done it. She’d left pain and terror behind and stepped into the light. Nothing would take this new world from her. No thing. And no one. A tremulous smile pulled at the corners of her mouth.

Avonlea had a new protector.

Lord save them all.    

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