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Inga looked up in the grey morning, and saw the light in the sky, a smear of
white. It was the first one she had seen in five years or more, but right now
she was too hungry to care very much, to consider all the possibilities. She
did stop and squint up at it, as it passed overhead, took more heed of it
than any other animal in the thicket did. Then she bent down again to her
work, to the task of surviving.|
Naturally there was no sound until well after the light had fallen out of sight, dropped down over the high horizon. And the sound when it came was more underfoot than overhead, a shiver in the dust and the riverbed rock. Inga paid it no mind. She was picking red berries from the bushes that grew thick in this narrow sharp elbow of the valley, half an hour's walk downstream from her home and an hour more to the nearest of their neighbours beyond. She was eating some of them, because after all it would not do to faint, but putting most of them in the bucket, for later, for sharing, for the inhospitable season coming soon.
By the time the sun had moved up into the middle of the sky, she had her bucket half full, and the only berries left were inedibly green. So she straightened, and stretched, and made her way home, with the sun almost warm on her shoulders and head.
The rest of the afternoon passed by in a mindless daydream, in performing all the dull routines of subsistence living. Thoughts of the odd phenomenon never even crossed her mind again, until someone came home for her to share it with.
It was early evening, by the time he came back, and she had supper waiting. Put the hot bowl down in front of him, wishing that it were more. "I saw a light in the sky this morning," she said to him.
He paused just a moment with the spoon halfway up to his mouth, and fixed her with that look, for just a moment, the one that made her nervous, always made her doubt whatever it was she might have been about to say. "A meteor, maybe," she said, with an anxious smile.
"Maybe," he said, and went back to cleaning out his bowl.
They ate in silence for a while.
"I think there'll be a lot more berries before it really freezes," she said hopefully, smearing up the last of her portion of the stew with a thorough finger. "I'll go back tomorrow, I think."
He put his bowl down. "I'm going out to check snares," he said. Out of the blue, as the saying goes. He'd just been off doing that all day, she was almost sure--but, best not to ask.
"I hope you find something, Father," she said, to his back as he stooped to leave the dugout.
She gathered up the bowls and the spoons from the table, and the pot, and went down to the river to wash them clean. It was chilly, but she couldn't be bothered to put on her coat when she'd only get it wet, and then she'd have to slog home with it wet.
Dishes were easy to do, and so they were done despite the fact that they were not particularly vital to survival. Their cleanliness would not be a deciding factor, given the circumstances. Doing the dishes each evening was really more habit than anything else, almost a religious ritual, a respectful nod to her antiseptic ancestors.
Inga had been born here, of course, not exiled from civilized Earth as her father had been. She was at home on this planet, in this small habitable crack in its surface at least, to a degree he never would be. But it had been civilized here when she was young, when her morals and manners were learned. Or if not civilized, it had always held out the promise of civilization, the way a green berry promises sweetness. The way the human mind promises itself that this year there'll be no frost. Not this year. Not if I'm good.
And that night, at least, there was no frost. There was at least one more day of berries to be had.
She started out in the morning to pick them, as she had said she would, but her father, who must have been sleeping very lightly, awakened and asked her not to, asked her to help him with repairing the chicken coop. After they had finished that task she prepared to set off, in the afternoon, with just enough time, if she hurried, to get there and pick some and get back again, before dusk made it risky to walk on the rocks by the river.
He was waiting outside when she left the dugout. "Roof needs mending again," he told her.
She swung the empty bucket. "Yes, Father," she said. "I'll help you when I get back."
"Oh, you can afford to miss a day," he said.
"No I can't," she replied, puzzled. "We can't. You know we can't."
He pressed his lips together, shook his head. "Be careful, Inga," he said. "Don't go down to the river."
She smiled, and kissed his cheek, and hurried away.
A fair few more berries had ripened, she found. A good third of a bucket full. The plants were hurrying. They knew that they were running out of time. She picked until she knew she would run out of light if she lingered, and then she started back home.
As she came to the edge of the thicket just down from their dugout, almost home, she looked down and saw something shiny half-buried in the sand beside the river, the place where she usually went to wash dishes. She saw something silver gleaming in the grey light of the sinking sun. Probably an old food wrapper. They still washed up on occasion, to torment an empty stomach; they surfaced with every wrinkle licked clean by the wind, and the river, and the passage of time. Nevertheless, one had to check, one always had to make absolutely sure. She hung her bucket of berries from a branch before she jumped down from the knee-high embankment, onto the little patch of sand, and stooped, reached down to pick up the silver scrap. It was heavier than it should be.
It was full.
She stood up, clutched the sealed solid package tight, and her heart beat faster. It had been years since she had seen such a thing, except in dreams. In her dreams she would frequently find stacks of rations she'd somehow forgotten about all this time, and then of course would come the fear of having to share it, the challenge of concealing it, the guilt. Such is life, at least in dreams.
She clutched the package tight, and peered down at the sand around her, looking for evidence of more.
She noticed a footprint, heavy tread, beside the hole where the package had been. And then a trick of the eye and the trail became so obvious, the scuffs where the rest of the prints had been haphazardly swept away, as the trapper had walked backwards, back to the embankment. She had a quick sick vision of a rabbit in the snare, scrawny screaming future stew and skin.
Then a low voice said, "Hello, little girl," and a foot, a boot with heavy tread, came up and hooked her legs out from under her.
She fell forward, catching herself with her hands, and felt the knee between her shoulderblades, and felt the barrel of the gun against her temple when she turned her head to the side and spat out sand.
"What's your name?" asked the voice.
"Ushton, Inga Ushton," she said, as the knee dug in harder.
"Well well," said the voice. "How very fortunate for you. All right, get up." The weight was removed from her back, and a hand around her arm hauled her back up onto her feet. She was still holding onto the package of food. She looked at the man, built heavy and dressed in odd costume--black with yellow bits and an oxygen mask hanging down. "I think we've got her," he said, to the communication device in his hand. "Tell the others, and let's get back up there before it gets dark." Then he turned to her. "Come on, Inga, let's go."
She tried to pull free. The man responded by twisting her arm until she screamed, and a little bit more, and he pushed her forward as he did, walking, stumbling. The food packet fell, and he kicked it into the river as he passed. "I'll break your fucking arm, little girl," he said, "I'll twist it till the bone comes out through the skin, and I'll break it again when it does. Do you understand, Inga?"
"Yes," she said, gasped. He pushed her up onto the embankment and into the thicket. She could hear a buzzing insect sound growing quickly louder, and branches smashing all around, and soon bright headlights could be seen in the gloom of the shadow of the cliffs.
The man behind the wheel of the vehicle was dressed the same as her captor, except that the bits were red instead of yellow. Some kind of company uniform, perhaps. Almost looked Federation. "You can sit on my lap if there's not enough room," her captor said, pushing her into the passenger seat and squeezing in beside.
"You can put your head in my lap if your face gets cold," the driver grinned, and started the vehicle moving again even before his companion had slammed the passenger door. Spun a tight circle and drove back the way it had come, following the river for several bends until they reached the old road that led up to the tower.
"Put your mask on, Molok," the passenger said, when they were about halfway up. "I don't want you passing out at the wheel." The driver took his left hand from the wheel and fumbled the mask from his chest up over his face, without ever reducing speed. The passenger put his own mask on with two-handed ease. "What about her?" he asked, voice distorted by the mask and the changing composition of the atmosphere.
"Fuck her," said the driver.
The passenger said something, but Inga couldn't make it out.
The air at the top was not actually unbreathable, she found, just thin. You wouldn't want to exert yourself. And it was cold. She shivered. "I'll keep you warm," the passenger said.
She wondered if she could have pinpointed her home down in the valley, if it had still been light by the time they got up to the top. Probably not.
The vehicle stopped by the base of the tower, and the two men got out, the passenger dragging her behind him. The driver walked ahead and opened the outside door of the airlock by rattling the vandalized keyboard that hung loose beside it. Once inside he pushed the door closed with the palms of his hands, and then pushed the green button on the intercom beside the inner door. "Eighteen, eighteen," he said, and the door slid open. The two men took off their masks.
"Come in, Inga, sit down, make yourself at home," the passenger said. "Take off your coat. You're going to be here for a while."
"Mm, yes, have a seat," said the man who had opened the door. Dressed in the same sort of coverall as the other two were. He was playing with a knife. "Please."
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