The rods of good fortune
The first thing he did before taking out his fishing rod was check the skies. He couldn’t hear anything, but he knew that it was best to check. Past experience had taught him that. All Herbert saw when he glanced above was clear blue skies. Even the flimsy clouds of yesterday had vanished in the heat. The last attack had been some time ago now and it had taken a lot of persuasion on his part, to get his mother to agree to let him go to the river, but even she knew to take the good, quiet times when they came.
He sat on the bank and began to carefully take out his rod. It was old and battered (it had belonged to his brother before him and had seen many fishing trips) but he loved it beyond any other material thing in his life. After his father had died nothing had been the same for Herbert. He had been carefree and easy-going, the War had seemed like a game to him. When the planes came he had run to the shelters with everyone else and enjoyed the noise, the heat, the smoke and even in some strange way, the palpable fear on the faces and in the air around him. He had felt indestructible. All that had changed.
The day the letter came he had gone to the river with his friend Alfred and had been using his rod, having forgotten to take his own. They had caught many fish that day and he had come home with a wreath of smiles across his small, grubby, be-freckled face. He had run in to tell his mother about the ‘monster’ he had caught, ready to declare that his old rod was nothing compared to Fred’s newer one, when he had found her in the kitchen on her knees. He had reached her and touched her shoulder with the words tumbling from him in excited gasps, when he finally registered that she was not on her knees scrubbing the kitchen with sylvan soap, but that she was in a bedraggled heap, sobbing quietly in unbearable grief. When he saw the crumpled piece of paper in her hand, he only had one question. Was it Arthur, his beloved elder brother or his father that the Germans had killed? He would never forget her face as she held out the letter to him, unable to speak the words that weighed so heavy on her heart. As he took the letter she let out a wail, so foreign to him that he dropped it in alarm and flung his arms around her. From that moment on the responsibilities of adulthood had been placed squarely upon his shoulders. In some inexplicable way, Herbert felt that not having had his rod with him that day, he had let his father down. His rod was his talisman, his rod had kept his father safe and when he had left it behind, besmirched it even, then fate had been allowed to step in and take his father away from them. Now he felt that the only thing keeping his brother safe from harm, was this rod that Herbert kept with him at all times. Never again would it languish unattended. Never again could the Nazi’s twist the fates their way.
His lures were as old as his rod but Herbert knew that old did not necessarily mean useless. He had been on many trips since that day and though he may not have caught a fish as big as that one, numerous fish had been landed and enjoyed as only a hunter knows how. The sun was warm on his caramel hair and though his temper could occasionally be red hot and fiery, his hair had been tempered by maternal blonde hues. Arthur had not been so lucky. The day they had shipped out, his father had reminded Arthur to keep his helmet on lest the enemy mistook him for one of their own and they had laughed to lighten the mood. Laughter made the pain easier to get through.
As he attached the lure to the rod he remembered when Arthur had first shown him how to attach the fiddly aid correctly. It had taken quite a long time for Herbert to get it right and he had been so desperate to be just like his big brother that he had dropped it three times and they had laughed and laughed before their father reminded them to simmer down as they would scare away the fish.
As he cast off, Herbert looked down at his clothes and could almost see his brother when he was wearing them. They had been a lot less grubby then, and a lot less darned. ‘Make do and mend’ was the motto and his mother really did follow it to the letter. He wondered if all the children in the country would be wearing similar clothes or whether just coastal or city children were affected. He really didn’t want to go and not just because he would miss his mother. How was it safer for him to be sent away to strangers, than it was for him to stay here with his own kith and kin? Yes, the last attack had come very close to his home, but they had moved on to other places now or at least it seemed they had. The break between raids had been longer this time. He wound back the reel as his cast had been unsuccessful due to his lack of concentration. He screwed up his face in dismay. He was supposed to be here not thinking about going away, this was probably his last chance to come here before he had to go and he wanted to make the most of it. He schooled his features into a calm demeanour and tried again.
* * * * *
Steven had been successful with his cast off and although at twelve, he was the same age as Herbert, he knew nothing of War. He was pale and slight of build and like Herbert, was grubby and in clothes darned and ill-fitting. Steven had done his own darning. He did not have a loving mother to take care of his appearance. He had a step-father who only bought second-hand clothes for him at all to keep up appearances. Many other children had hand-me-down clothes, who would notice or care about another one? Steven pulled at his sleeve to check that the bruise was covered. Many people walked past the river and although it was unlikely that any of them would know him, he didn’t want any awkward questions asking. He preferred to live with Ryan. At least with him, it was better the devil you know.
He placed his grandfather’s rod in its rest and reached for his bag. Steven opened the bag and took out an apple. Ryan hadn’t let him have breakfast again and this time, he hadn’t said anything about it. He didn’t want another bruise on his other arm to match and he knew by now that that was just what he’d get. So on the way to the river, he had climbed over a fence and scaled one of the apple trees in the Walters’ garden. They had plenty of trees and plenty of apples, so Steven figured they wouldn’t miss a few and anyway, his need was greater than theirs. He had kept the free sample bottle of water that had landed on the mat before Ryan had seen it and now Steven knew this would do for both breakfast and dinner. By the time he made it back from the river, Ryan would be in a drunken stupor and if he could find anything in the cupboard that wasn’t alcohol, he could whip up his tea and cover his tracks before he even woke up.
The apple was good. He let the sweet water drip from his lips down onto his chin and rubbed it absently with his sleeve. He winced as the bruise connected and tugged down the material to cover it again. At least the ones on his ribs were fading now. By the time the Bank Holiday was over and he was back at school, they should have faded completely by PE day. That was if he could keep out of Ryan’s way long enough to not acquire any new ones. As he chewed he ruminated over Ryan’s latest surprise. He wanted them to move back to
. Well, it was back for him. Ireland
Steven had never been to
although he knew his mother must have as that was where she had met Ryan on one
of her jaunts. That was back when Nana
was still alive and she must have babysat for him. He smiled as he remembered Nana. He had never known love like that, not before
or since. He had been safe with Nana and
she had cooked like no-one else. His
smile twisted wryly as he admitted to himself that it could just have been that
he was getting warm, cooked (not burned) food at all that may have made it seem
quite so amazing. He liked to think that
she was the best cook though; she was the best at everything else. He never knew if she had suspected what was
going on at home for him, but her babysitting had become more frequent. Their time together had been filled with lots
of hugs, kisses and delicious food, but the attention had been the best thing
of all. Not the kind of attention he got
at home, with raised fists and voices, but time together to talk and listen to
each other. If she had not died before
his mum, he was sure he could have gone to live with her and everything would
have been so different. Life wasn’t like
that though. Nothing good ever fell into
place easily. Ireland
There was a tug on his rod and he began to reel the fish in eagerly. If he could land this fish and ‘borrow’ the matches from the house, he could cook it for his dinner. He never thought of it as a home, home was a place where Ryan wouldn’t be waiting. If he even saw the fish, let alone smelt it, he would never see it again. The tug was brief as the fish was small, but Steven couldn’t have been happier if he had landed a shark. His hunting was for survival.
* * * * *
Emiliana had found a rod. She knew it was old as it had no computer and it was dirty, but appeared to be in working order. The reel wound as it should and it even had a brightly-coloured lure attached to it. That was how she had found it; the strange glow of orange coming from the long grass had intrigued her. She had checked that she was alone, before investigating. It was safer that way.
It wasn’t as if it was a good bounty, but treasure of any kind made her smile. She lived on her wits and she knew the gangs could be anywhere. She had made it to fourteen on her wits alone and she knew how to play the game. She was lucky. She was small and had a baby-face, but should the baggy clothes she wore somehow no longer conceal; her changing body would give her away. Only the rich got to live past thirteen and she could by no means be called rich. If you had not made something of yourself by then, shown yourself to be of some value to the World in one of the four revered fields (science, medicine, quantum mechanics or genetic modification) or got or made heaps of money, then the gangs had you on file. They only needed to have your fingerprint and that gave them the license to kill. The trick was never to give them cause to want to check your fingerprint or better still, avoid them at all costs. If there had been anyone around, she would never have investigated the small orange glow.
As it was, she was glad she had. By the cover of darkness she could use it to pilfer from the night-ponds. These were the huge robot-made tanks that housed the cloned fish which made up the food source in her area. The tanks were guarded by secure-robots at night, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t get past them. All legitimate fishing rods had computer chips and this antique didn’t have one. They wouldn’t pick up the electronic activity, so if she could get in without being seen, then she would have another variation to her diet. She could almost taste the fish now. All she needed to do now was work out how to use it. As a child she had used a real rod. She had never seen anything like this one outside of her history books from Collegeriat. She knew she had to wind the rod as that was done automatically when she caught a fish with her old rod, but how would she know where to cast as it had no computer to pin point the location of the fish. Like everything else in life, it would be trial and error. She could practice in the river. She wouldn’t dream of eating anything she might actually catch, the pollution alone put paid to that idea.
She wondered who had owned the rod. For someone to bury it, they must have thought it was treasure of some kind. It must have been valued enough for someone to hide it. She turned it slowly in her hands. It was caked in mud, but that would wash off when she practised casting off. It would be better to wait for darkness as the lure would stand out, as would she fishing with such a bizarre object. Ellie had never waited for anything or anyone and she wasn’t about to start now. She began to practice casting. It took a little effort, but if you flicked it just right, it landed in the water where it should. She had a quick glance around before sitting cross-legged upon the bank and waited to see if she would catch anything.
The light was beginning to fade when Ellie felt a tug on the line. She slowly reeled in as whatever it was put up a tremendous fight. She had struck gold. An electronic toy submarine had attached itself magnetically to the metal of the lure and although it had automatically geared into reverse, it was too late. Ellie held it at arms length and carefully pressed the de-activation button. Once it had powered down she wiped it clean on her sleeve and placed it carefully into her bag. She smiled to herself as she put the rod next to the toy and fastened the clasp. She walked slowly towards town assured in the knowledge that it would fetch a good price at the black market. Tonight she would eat legitimately and then she would practice. She might not have such good fortune next time and she needed all her skills to fish in the night-ponds. Tonight was a time to celebrate and worry tomorrow what the future would bring.
Wake not in fear
Steven awoke covered in sweat. He was already upright and the thin tablecloth he used as a blanket was in an untidy heap upon the floor. He had the images of the dream still fully formed in his mind and he closed his mouth slowly as he became aware that the scream of horror must have been in his head and thankfully, not reverberating around the house where Ryan could have heard it. The last thing he wanted to do was wake Ryan. He reached up an unsteady hand and slowly wiped it across his face. That was some nightmare. His face contorted in wry acknowledgement that he usually woke with fear uppermost in his mind, but from what might happen to him, never before from his wild imaginings. It had been a while since he had gone to sleep on a full stomach it was true, but surely that could not have caused such a deeply disturbing occurrence. He desperately wanted to splash cool water over his face to rid himself of the clammy feeling that had gripped him, yet he knew of old that it was best never to do anything to wake Ryan. Once he had his breathing under control, he might decide to try to get to the bathroom but for now Steve leant back onto the wall and replayed the dream in his head. Ryan had taken him to
. He was in a strange town, with dark and
dangerous inhabitants and they had all been intent upon harming him. There were guns and grenades stockpiled in
rooms and the men had been trying to teach him how to use them. He had tried to refuse, but they had held him
down and beaten him, laughing as they did so.
That was not the worst of it.
They had his Nana. She had been
bound and gagged and tied to a chair in a smoke-filled room and they had held
him and forced him to watch as they had slowly slit her throat. That was when he had screamed his impotent
scream and woken to the cold dawn of reality.
What the Hell did the dream mean?
Nana had been dead for years; no-one could harm her now. Ireland
It was true that Ryan might be taking him to
but Steven liked to think that he was made of sterner stuff than to let his
stupid imagination generate ridiculous dreams.
It almost felt as though it was a warning. Like his Nana was trying to stop him from
doing something, something that someone else was going to try to force him to
do? He wafted a hand over his face as he
felt a tingle cross it, just like the feeling you get when you walk into a
cobweb. That was a bit bizarre, as there
were no cobwebs to be seen. He picked
his cloth up and hugged it to him. His
Nana had embroidered the tablecloth years ago and when Steve held it, it almost
felt like he was close to her again. A
small smile played around his lips. It
was a silly dream, that’s all. Ireland
The clock in the hall struck six a.m. and Steven knew he was not going to be able to get back to sleep now. He tiptoed over to the cardboard box in the corner of the room. He rummaged through the contents, some dirty, some broken, some both and searched for his clean school uniform. Ryan regularly upended the box full of his possessions, but he knew there was one in there and thankfully, this term it was the appropriate colour for the current school. Over the years Ryan had forced him to wear numerous uniforms of different colours as they had been the cheapest ones to purchase in the charity shop. Little did Ryan care that these made him a target at school as he stuck out like a sore thumb. At the last school fair though, cheap old cast-offs of former pupils had been on sale and even though all had had name tags lovingly sewn into them, Steven had removed them. They may have been second-hand, but they were clothes that no longer drew attention to him.
Once he was dressed he made his way carefully to the bathroom and reached for the soap as the basin filled with water. He looked in the mirror as he slowly and silently washed and cleaned his teeth. He still felt the cold clutch of fear around his heart that had settled there since the disturbing dream, but at least he looked less panic-stricken now.
When he had collected his homework books he crept out of the house and headed to the edge of town. He smiled to himself as he realised he would be able to finish his homework by the river undisturbed. If he ever got to do his homework at all, it was always rushed and scruffy as Ryan was not a great believer in learning. He had gone to ‘the school of hard knocks’ as he constantly quoted to Steven, and if the ones he regularly dolled out were anything to go by, he could well believe it. Nothing good ever came out of school Ryan said, but Steven didn’t agree. He knew it was his best chance to create a new, safe, life for himself. He turned to his books and applied himself to getting the best marks he could for the work. By the time he had finished he felt confident that one of two things would occur. His teachers would either think he had been cheating, or that he had suddenly grown a brain. He smiled to himself as he headed for the school and unconsciously straightened his shoulders. He had made a pact with himself that he would do this from now on; make time to do his homework undisturbed and construct the best possible chance that he could to ensure a safe future. He stiffened his spine as he walked through the school gates. Today was a good day; he could feel it in his bones.
Ryan was waiting for him when he came out of school. He never came to meet him from school and Steven felt the fear settle in the pit of his stomach once more. Ryan was leaning on the wall next to the entrance smoking one of the many cigarettes that he always put away each day and from this distance, looked sober. He felt his eyebrows shoot heavenwards as this thought hit home. Had the social worker made one of her infrequent announced visits? No, surely Ryan would also have given him advance warning of her arrival too, a warning to pretend like everything was okay or else. Anyway, a haircut usually preceded these visits and as he stood there he could feel the wind playing with his over-long hair just below his collar. No, it must be something else and he took a deep breath to prepare himself for what unexpected event may have occurred. As he reached Ryan the stench of alcohol was overpowering and he realised the relaxed stance was just another one of his attempts to portray a normal façade to the world.
Ryan’s hand suddenly extended out towards him and he noticed for the first time that his fist was closed around a note. Steven eyed him warily, unsure whether to take the money that he appeared to be offering him, or not. Ryan grabbed his hand and stuffed the note into it, before towering over him.
“You’ll need this. I have got some mates coming round and they’ll need to eat. I don’t care what you make them, so long as there’s meat in there somewhere, but I will be looking at the change, so you will only buy our food, right?”
As he leant forward to propel his unspoken threat home, the overpoweringly sickly-sweet smell made Steven feel physically sick, but he needed to know how much to buy if he was to get it right and he knew that it was important to get it right.
“How many are coming so I can get the right stuff?” he asked and waited whilst unconsciously holding his breath.
“Four”, he said and turned on his heel and, whilst lighting up yet another cigarette, began to walk away.
Steven felt his shoulders sag as he disappeared around the corner and just as he forced down a gulp of fear and took a deep breath of air, he turned to head towards the shop. Why were four men coming to see Ryan? Steven didn’t even know that Ryan had friends, well, not that lived around here anyway. He was always talking about his ‘brothers’ in Ireland, but he always got the impression that by that he did not mean the blood variety.
The corner shop contained shelves stacked with plenty of ideas and soon he was leaving the shop laden down with heavy carrier bags. He did not look up as he passed the park on his way to the house. It was almost as though he was on a mission. He did not hear the happy laughter of the schoolchildren in the park swinging on the swings with abandon or sliding down the slide with glee. He had to be home. He had to make sure this meal was ready and waiting for the men. It was like he already knew that the success or otherwise of this meal had the potential to alter the course of his life forever.
He had concentrated on getting the food perfect and had sneakily placed a small plate for himself in the pan cupboard (under a large upturned colander should Ryan have decided to check) before dishing out the rest equally onto the five plates. He noted that all of the men, although burly and definitely Irish, had taken no particular notice of him, so he had relaxed slightly. As he served the meal he noticed that two of the men were badly bruised as though they had been in a particularly vicious fight and he wondered if that was why they were here. Were they lying low, waiting for whatever heat to pass before moving on? Steven knew that Ryan did not work for a living, but he knew that he got money from somewhere and would not have been at all surprised had the men all announced they were bank robbers and shown him the proceeds. None of the men looked at him, but the conversation had ceased the minute he entered the room
Whilst he sat eating his portion of the meal, he contemplated what they could be doing here and whether they were stopping. He had noticed that two of the men had brought in big holdalls and they all looked really dirty as though they had been working outside somewhere really dusty. He was rushing his meal in his haste to remain undiscovered, but it was nice just to eat so it didn’t really register.
As he washed, dried and replaced all the evidence of his meal to the cupboards, he began to formulate a plan to overhear what they were talking about. It was best to know what to expect. He began to straighten out the kitchen and nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice behind him boomed,
“We need you in the other room kid.” The smallest of the four men was blocking the doorway to the kitchen with a can of Guinness in his hand and he gesticulated to leave the room. As Steven walked back in, he felt the man come up closely behind him and he felt the eerie cobweb feeling fleetingly cross his face once more.
“Sit”, was all that was said and as he complied he noticed that Ryan had a particularly unpleasant look upon his face. The small man placed one of the holdalls onto the table where a space had been made and opened it up. The temptation to peer inside was overwhelming, but he was glad he hadn’t as one gun after another was placed next to the bag.
“See these kid? We need you to get them out for us. Let’s just say we haven’t got permits for them.” A chorus of deep and dangerous laughter followed this statement and Steven felt the cold shiver of fear trickle its way down his spine.
“You just got to take them to the bus station for us. Do you reckon you can do that?”
Steven nodded emphatically. He had a horrible feeling that if he didn’t agree, he would be reliving last nights dream as some kind of horrible reality.
“Right then kid, get your coat. We will pack up the bags for you and you can take ‘em for us.” He shoved Steve to his feet and propelled him forwards.
In the other room Steven forced his arms into his coat sleeves whilst breathing heavily. How was he going to get the bag to the bus station without anyone seeing? He was going to look a bit conspicuous; a little kid with an enormous heavy holdall. Why the bus station? Was someone going to meet him there and relieve him of his dangerous cargo? He stood there like a ghostly apparition in a long green coat two sizes too big and tried to put his pumps on without his hands shaking too much.
“Oi kid, what’s taking yer so long?” came the voice from the other room and Steven hurried back.
“I don’t think we need to remind you how important this is do we?” the man asked as he came through the door and a sucker punch hit Steven’s midriff as he turned to answer. He bent double trying to catch his breath through the pain and almost immediately a strong crack came across the back of his head and he hit the floor at once. He slumped against the wall trying to focus and wondered bizarrely whether they had learned that from Ryan. He knew the places that would hurt the most, yet leave the least evidence too. He noticed that they all stood around him looking down at him expectantly.
“No, no. You don’t need to tell me how important it is. I get it, I get it.” He hastened to assure them, though how well they could hear it through the strained painfulness of his speech was unclear, but the man with the large black beard and moustache dragged him to his feet in a kind of acknowledgement. He handed Steven the bags and as he slung one over each shoulder he tried to concentrate on evening the weight of the bags rather than giving in to the unbelievable pounding agony of his head and the stretched tautness of his belly. As he was about to leave, Ryan held out a hand to stop him.
“You need to take a bag with you, as you will be going with the bags on the bus. I suggest you pack a few things for the journey and I will meet you later in
He glanced around at them all in fear as the last thing he wanted to do was get on a bus to
but if he was expecting one of them to say something to help, it wasn’t
forthcoming. He put down the bags and
ran into his room. There was no way he
was going to be able to fit everything from his box into his bag, but he
thought on his feet and just put in the bare essentials. At the last minute he put the fishing rod in,
right in the side where it wasn’t obvious it was a pocket. After all he had to eat and he sincerely
doubted that Ryan would be giving him any money. He carried the bag into the other room and
picked up the holdalls again.
Conversely, they felt heavier even before he picked up his own bag. Ireland
The man who had given him the sucker punch nodded towards the smaller man and they both stepped forward to accompany him out the door. As they walked he tried not to look at anyone on the street. If anyone had looked at him they probably would have seen the stark fear etched on his face, but no-one did. A small pale boy carrying big bags whilst two men walked alongside him holding nothing didn’t seem to attract attention. As usual everyone was going about their own lives, their heads filled with things only important to themselves.
“Don’t think about any funny stuff kid,” the smaller man said as they passed the edge of town,
“I will be looking in your bag too to check. Nothing can stuff up the mission.”
Steven raised his eyebrows at such a strange turn of phrase, but was concerned more with how he was going to conceal the fishing rod. Somehow it seemed imperative that he hide it.
“I need to go to the toilet,” Steven said and watched in alarm as an amused look passed between the pair. Yeah right, they would think that he needed to go to the toilet because he was so scared. Well, if it worked that was all that mattered.
He paused by the riverbank and indicated some trees. As he put the bag down he felt into the side pocket and removed the rod. As he straightened up he pushed it down the back of his trousers and as it looked like he was rubbing his back because of the weight of the bags, they didn’t even notice. He wandered into the shaded tree area and pretended to go to the toilet. The two men looked away to light up some cigarettes and that was when Steven hurriedly buried the rod in the light brown earth. He brushed his hands down the back of his trousers as he straightened and wandered back to the men. He would find a way to escape and when he did, he would come back here and retrieve the rod.
The bus station was packed. One man had paid for his ticket whilst the other stood guard over him and they practically frogmarched him to a bus at the far end of the station.
“This is the one. Don’t forget to stow the bags away properly lad. You wouldn’t want to end up in prison now would you?” the man bent and whispered into his ear in a sinister manner and Steve nodded. As he slowly began to go up the steps into the bus he looked back at the men in the station. They both stared right back at him unblinkingly and Steve turned around and began to stow away the bags in the luggage holders above the seats. He then sat down in the seat underneath them and turned to watch the men disappear as the bus pulled out of the station, his brain already working on how he would get back for the rod.
As the bus disappeared into the distance the small man turned to the burly one and grinned,
“Do you think he’ll figure out that the bus isn’t going to
“No, Ryan says he’s not that intelligent and anyway by the time the bus is on the M62 it will be too late. He’s so scared of the guns in the bags; he won’t even notice the bomb.”
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.