Rohan and the night ponds
Emiliana shook her head in dismay. She had enough problems without this. Picking up the device from the floor, she handed it back to Rohan. He looked imploringly up at her and she rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“I know what it says Rohan, but do you honestly think that I can do anything about it even if it is true, which I doubt. The computers have ruled us all for years anyway, if we are honest, so what if they are passing a few new laws that we humans don’t particularly like the sound of?”
“But it says there is going to be a revolt,” Rohan whispered, clearly panicked, “and if there is what will we do?”
“We, Rohan, we? Since when has there been a we?”
Rohan had the grace to blush, but as a twinge of something that could be described as guilt fluttered unwontedly in her stomach, Ellie added more softly,
“We will do what we always do. Hide. It won’t be the first time or the last that we humans tried to stand up to them, but we will lose. We always do. They have all the machines, therefore the power. They need us though, remember that. They cannot fix everything themselves.”
Rohan was two weeks away from becoming thirteen and he was trying to attach himself to Emiliana. She knew that. He knew that. Neither of them acknowledged it. Ellie did not need baggage. She had been passing on some of her knowledge and sometimes she had shared her food, but this was the limit to her generosity. He would be a liability and she did not need liabilities.
“Look on the bright side, if this one lasts long enough, at least it will give you some time. They will be too busy fighting to be checking the update lists.”
Rohan considered this and then grinned, his small dark face lighting up as it slowly altered from grubby, scared and hungry looking, to a happy yet gaunt expression. His curly black hair was as dirty as the rest of him and his clothes had an air of permanence about them that made Ellie realise that he still had not changed from the regulation ones he had been wearing upon his arrival.
“For the last time Ro, you need to swap the clothes. It is bad enough that you ran away from a perfectly good science laboratory to come here, but if you continue to wear the uniform you draw attention to all of us.”
“Okay, I suppose I could wear the other stuff now. I might have grown enough.”
He fumbled in his bag and pulled out a very old pair of cast-offs that made Ellie wrinkle up her nose to stop herself from remembering when she had last seen them worn. She and Parker had removed them from Lorne when he had been found. The gangs were excellent at search and destroy, yet seemed to have problems with tidying up the aftermath, let alone a decent burial. Parker had said it was a waste to bury him in perfectly good clothes and she had reluctantly agreed and helped him with the task. Lorne would have liked Rohan.
“You still got that weird thing?” she heard him say from behind her, after she had turned away from him in the hope of making a getaway whilst he was changing.
“What weird - oh, the rod. Yes, but I am not sharing,” she added quickly, correctly guessing what was coming next.
“But if you are not using it at the moment, I could just – “
“No. It’s mine and it is not safe for you to try your hand at the night-ponds.”
She stood to her full height, which admittedly was not that big, but her expression was impressively haughty and firm. She knew he wouldn’t argue. He needed her more than she needed him. She turned around and he began to look down at the ground rather than at her, but the mixture of his crestfallen look and the sight of him dressed in Lorne’s clothing made her change her mind. Her shoulders sagged slightly as the sigh escaped her,
“I suppose you could come with me.” He did not bother to try and hide his delight. He ran to her side whilst stuffing his old clothes into the bag, excitedly chattering that he could wash out the uniform there at the same time. Ellie rolled her eyes heavenward; he clearly knew nothing about fishing. It wasn’t his fault though, he had been born into the science clan and they were never taught anything useful, or that required the use of common sense. She would show him. He needed to learn if he was to survive and strangely, even though she didn’t want to be saddled with him, she didn’t want to be responsible for anything happening to him either. She took a steadying breath; she could not afford to become soft.
The heat was cloying as they made their way to the night-ponds. It had been months since the decree for the use of the sprinkle-clouds to be banned (something about needing to allow the stocks time to recover) so the air seemed to lack more oxygen than usual. It was a slow process getting anywhere as their progress was hampered by their need for constant vigilance. The gangs could be anywhere. Searching, constantly searching. At each crop of genetically-modified trees they had to pause to check, to make sure. Neither spoke as they got closer to their goal.
The eerie glow from the night-ponds seemed to loom out of the semi-darkness like a bad omen, but Ellie had long since stopped being superstitious. You were what made things happen or not, nothing else. She flattened herself against the wall and peered around it to check for secure-robots. Nothing could be seen or heard and that gave her an uneasy feeling. It was never easy to get anything.
The light from the moon was almost entirely blocked by the polluted fog, but the neon lights dotted here and there, cast bleak shadows upon everything around them. The secure-robots picked up body heat as well as noise when they were close enough, so it was best to go slowly and carefully. She could hear Rohan breathing quietly next to her, but tried to block everything except what she had to do from her mind. It wasn’t that she didn’t care how scared he was, just that she had to focus completely or it might all be over. They had to eat.
The whirring of the filters became louder as they inched their way forwards and it became harder to hear other movements in the air around them. Ellie supposed if she was struggling to hear, it might make it harder for them. With a last furtive glance around, Ellie stooped over to retrieve the rod from her bag. She carefully loosened the lure and put it back in. It was too bright to risk using it here. She would manage without it.
She gently thrust the bag towards Rohan and he took it, whilst raising his eyebrows. Surely he didn’t think he would be anything other than lookout? She mouthed, ‘wait here’ and crept to the edge of the nearest night-pond.
The slight slop of the water against the edges was just audible above the filters and as she looked into the deep, dark, depths of the pool she wondered what kind of fish would be on the menu tonight. She knew that the modifiers had recreated most of the sea life that had used to exist, because she remembered eating it back when she had been entitled to rations, but they didn’t exactly advertise what was contained within these places. She checked her time-data and was reassured that she still had six minutes to fish before the radar swung back this way. As she lowered the rod towards the water, she stole a quick glance behind her to check that he was where she had left him. He was.
Four minutes counted down and still there was no bite. She retracted the line and crept back to the wall.
“We need to go that way as the radar is due here in one minute and thirty-five seconds. That will give me eight and a half to try another,” she whispered as she headed east. She had long since worked out the radar rota. It was the same every night and it had only taken her three nights of silent vigil to work out when and where the red beams would focus. Mere seconds after they departed, the beams shone out through the ten night ponds behind them.
She followed the same ritual as before and after only two minutes or so, a large pull came on the line. Rohan passed her the bag and Ellie put the struggling fish into it. It was hard to tell what kind it was in such dismal conditions, but it looked big enough for the both of them. She checked the time and decided she would try again. Why not get two and save time tomorrow? It only took half the time it had before and she was pulling the struggling fish out. When it was safely stowed in the bag they turned towards the exit. Suddenly she pushed Rohan into the wall so hard that the breath was knocked from his lungs. As he gasped desperately for air, she slumped down beside him and motioned towards the exit. Just to one side, there were two secure-robots. Ellie could not imagine why they were there at that particular time. She had got her fishing trips down to a fine art and knew that they should have been patrolling the west section. Surely the small reduction to stocks that she was making had not been detected?
Rohan seemed to have frozen where she had placed him. His wide eyes trained petrified upon the robots. She pushed him further behind the wall and fumbled in her pocket for her mirror. She angled it so that they could see them and as the robots turned and glided towards them, they gave no outward sign that they could see them. Ellie knew that they needed to be completely out of sight and checked quickly that all limbs were positioned behind the wall. Even secure-robots couldn’t detect body heat through these walls. They were soon close enough to hear the mechanical pistons working and Ellie felt Rohan shudder. She knew why. The resonance of their pistons sounded eerily like breathing.
Then they heard the steady high-pitched bleep of the robot scan as it performed a sweep of the area. She held her breath as she saw the silvery light come towards them and it was only then that she realised that Rohan had dropped his bag. She pulled at it desperately as the light inched closer, but it was too late. They had seen it. A dreadful sucking noise reverberated from the nearest robot as the bag began to move towards it. Ellie hastily let go.
Rohan looked at her; he, like she, knew that there was no way out of this. Once they had the bag, they would scan it and they would have his DNA on file. It was over.
He gave her one last rueful smile and stepped out from behind the wall. She held her breath as she heard him say,
“You got me guys. If you check your records I am from quadrant four, science division SWY776. I know I shouldn’t have been here, but I was just so interested in genetic modification you see.”
A bright light now illuminated Rohan and Ellie watched horrified in her mirror as one of the secure-robots raised his arm to take aim. She well knew how the arms were easily used as lasers, but she could not look away. She heard it charging up and she readied herself for the loss of yet another friend.
“Rohan Lieberman, quadrant four, science division SWY776. You have thirteen days to termination. You will be returned to quadrant four. Your interest in genetic modification has been noted, but it is unlikely you will be deemed suitable for transfer.” Giving him no time to react, a thick electronic coil erupted from the end of the robots arm and wrapped itself tightly around Rohan, who was then dragged forcefully to the floor. As the robot glided towards the thermostat tower, Ellie could see him pulled along behind it, face down in the mud whilst the other robot followed, slowly examining the contents of his bag.
As Ellie forced lungful after lungful of air into her body she shook with the force of Rohan’s sacrifice. There would be no chance of escape for him now. His records would have him marked as a potential escapee and he would most likely live out the rest of his thirteen days under constant surveillance. She did not need much imagination to work out how he would be punished for his crime of trying to live. Unbidden, the hot tears fell.
It could have been minutes, or seconds, but Ellie scraped the wetness brutally from her face. He would have expected better from her, she knew that. He hadn’t done that so that she could be caught languishing in grief. He had given her another chance to live and she was not going to waste it. She tried to focus on the practical. So she couldn’t fish here any more. There were other places and any way, she had enough fish to get her through two more days at least. She stood up resolutely. She knew she had enough time to leave undetected. They would be far too busy with their bounty.
As she picked her way through the exit carefully she noticed a shiny sphere on the ground. She placed it in her pocket and tried not to think of its implications. It was a button from Lorne’s clothing. That must have been what had given them away. If only she hadn’t made him change – but no, she couldn’t think like that. Life was not a series of what ifs. One could as easily say what if humans hadn’t invented computers.
She made it to the genetically-modified trees and she knew she was far enough into safety now. She took the button from her pocket once more. It was dirty and misshapen, but she knew she would keep it with her always. It was not just a reminder of one friend, but of two and as she thought of Rohan she hoped that he would fare better than Lorne. She came abruptly to a halt and shook her head. Hastily she put the button back into her pocket and forced the door closed to the memories in her mind. So she had lost another comrade in this constant battle. It was not the first time and it would not be the last.