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Fantasy Mystery Suspense

Akhila slid through the grate. Into what used to be a storm drain. Before the big outbreak. A musty dampness enveloped her. She flicked her headlamp on.

If she were lucky, she could harvest enough contraband to get Neel and herself real food till the next full moon.

She didn’t count herself among the lucky though. Lucky were those who had fortified themselves across the River just after the big outbreak. Or the families that had perished together.

She hobbled through a pile of rubble. She might be the first one to be there in a while. She had not heard the other Pickers talk about it. But a good Picker never talked about such things.

Something hissed on the ground. She stood still. Reptile activity was a good sign. That meant the tunnel still had a few wet patches; and if no one had beaten her to it already, a decent growth of wild ferns.

A moment later, she nimbly navigated the path strewn with chipped concrete, broken bricks, and frantic mice. She smiled as the visual of Neel jumping up at the sight of mice brought in by Smokey passed through her mind. He was growing up. Fast. Couldn’t be kept content with a pet or a rare treat of smuggled candy from Highland across the River. He had insisted on accompanying her before she snuck out of their hut that night. She sighed.

A few minutes in, her nose tingled at the familiar scent. It was close! Her hands trembled in anticipation. The full moon peered through an oblong hole crisscrossed with rusty rods. And lit up the outer rim of a cavern. Thousands of luminous strands swayed inside! She had stumbled upon the biggest field of EndVirus fern in her run as a Picker!

She held her breath and kneeled close to the yellow-green moon in the cavern. And struggled to check her raging emotions.

After the big outbreak had wiped out more than half their village, she had forged her emotions into an invisible armor and used it to fight for a place in Lowland. For her brother and her. That was what the survivors did. It didn’t matter if you were a child or an aged person.

But this haul, if traded right, could open the high gates of the Highland for Neel and her!

***

Constable X had long dreamt of retiring early. Before the big outbreak. At present, retirement on Midland meant one of three things: death by infection, death in action, or death by old age. The statistics for the third option stood at zero; it was a privilege enjoyed only by the Highlanders.

That night, he had been assigned patrol duty of sector 12 of Lowland. It was an easy assignment. The inhabitants were underage orphans, reconciled to their fate of living in filth by salvaging the humanitarian aid sent by the Highland Civil Society; unlike the disgruntled families of sectors 5 through 10 who dreamed of sending their children to the Highland through the immigration lottery, or the rebels in sectors 15 and 18.

The lottery, exclusive to the youth of Lowland, was the envy of many Midlanders. Not that he minded it, he had lost his wife and daughter long ago.

He undocked his ride from TheBridge, a standard ZI-990, that could hover at low altitude in stealth mode to monitor and control the movements of the Lowlanders. It was an upgrade commissioned after a series of ambushes in sectors 15 and 18. Highland Governance Committee was generous with its funds for outsourced protection.

The reflection of the full moon danced in manic confusion as ZI-990 zipped across the River. It veered towards the observation post at Lowland Central.

After a quick update from the duty constable and an espresso, Constable X took over the watch of sector 12. An eagle eye sweep returned zero threats. The concrete-canvas shanties looked ugly but peaceful, the junkyard deserted, and the heavily guarded fern plantations, intact.

Fern plantations! A gold mine of wellness beyond reach!

He knew he wasn’t getting any younger, and the standard issue of first-line EndVirus administered to the staff of Midland Constabulary was not going to save him for long.

He descended close to the lanes. The stench from the ghetto tried to assault him with guilt. But he had trained himself over the years to keep it at bay. It was not his fault that the new order of things had pushed the Lowlanders to the brink of existence.

A few teenage figures rolled in and out of Games Arcade. A pack of dogs howled near the junkyard. Most of the children stayed indoors.

One frail form paced back and forth, pressing a grey-black cat close to his chest.

A taller form in a cloak came running to him, took his hand after a sprited spar of words, and dragged him inside.

***

The satchel hadn’t been enough to harvest and carry the entire patch. And it would have been dangerous anyway to carry more unless she had a reliable trader at hand.

Akhila had a tough time sending Neel to bed. She had to shout at him and drag him into the house. He knew what she had been up to and had made her promise she will take him along next time.

She was running out of time. She had to find a way out of the hamster’s wheel; a way to Highland.

She had heard rumors back when she worked in a group. Of Pickers sneaking their way to Highland through boats arranged by traders. All it took was to find a reliable trader who had the power to make the Midlander look away when the crossing took place.

She took the delicate foliage wrapped in a jute rag out of her satchel, deftly plied open the side panel of the wonky wardrobe, and stashed it inside.

“Hello!” a gravelly voice said to her back.

She spun around throwing a wheel kick. But it made no contact.

A light bulb flickered to life.

The constable stood in a corner of the dingy room. With his hand on Neel’s shoulder.

Her heart sank. It was over.

“Well, aren’t you a bit young to be a Picker?” he drawled.

“Didn’t stop you from following me. So don’t act surprised,” she spat.

“Fiesty!” he chuckled.

They kept their eyes locked as the constable moved closer.

“You know how this is going to end, right?”

She gulped. She knew. She will be sent to the detention center at TheBridge and Neel will be sent to the Cradle of Love Orphanage close to the junkyard.

She eyeballed him regardless. A middle-aged man with a day-old salt and pepper stubble. There was a cloud in his eyes, a reminder of crushed dreams from another time. A loose button about to let his lanyard down meant one of two things: either he was ready to hang his uniform, or he had no one at home who bothered to mend it.

“But… it may not have to end that way?” she gambled.

He stared at her. Then at the foliage. And spoke after a pause.

“Maybe this once. If you can be smart about it.” He gestured for her to hand over the stash.

It was enough to trade for a dose of a second-line vaccine. He knew a trader. Maybe it was enough to buy a passage for one of these orphans. He fought a wave of self-loathing as he took the contraband and issued a stern warning.

“Not a word about this to anyone. And don’t ever think of illegal picking again!”

“Yes sir. Never again.” Akhila rasped, her eyes gathering crushed dreams.

Something stirred inside him. He wondered if he should tell her where the Lowlanders ended up in Highland, smiled at Neel, and moved towards the chipped door.

“But you said there is plenty out there, you promised to take me next time!” Neel wailed.

Constable X stopped. And turned. 

March 08, 2023 10:40

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32 comments

Graham Kinross
07:38 May 23, 2023

With great characters like this and such a rich world for them this would make a great start to something bigger.

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Suma Jayachandar
05:43 May 24, 2023

You are extremely kind. Thank you!

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Graham Kinross
05:52 May 24, 2023

You’re welcome.

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Irene Duchess
01:49 Mar 15, 2023

this. was. awesome. :D definitely a great read. are you planning a part 2?

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Suma Jayachandar
08:03 Mar 15, 2023

Thank you for your kind words. Maybe if a suitable prompt comes up :)

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Susan Catucci
20:59 Mar 12, 2023

You know, Suma, I have a special place in my mental library of favorites where I house your work. I enjoyed this so, so much because it's different but if I were in a blind test read - oxymoron, I know - I'd know this was you. It wasn't any one phrase that stood out, but the entirety of the experience. Your words evoke an atmosphere that is all your own. I don't know how you do it, but you can make a tragic circumstance beautiful, horror artful, the human experience worth every bit of pain and suffering endured because or the way it can...

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Suma Jayachandar
13:00 Mar 13, 2023

Susan, I have no words to express my gratitude for such overwhelming words of appreciation. Just want to say I feel blessed to be in such company.

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Susan Catucci
13:26 Mar 13, 2023

That, Suma, is a two-way street. :)

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Wendy Kaminski
19:54 Mar 12, 2023

Crushing it Suma, wow! Dystopian is one of my favorite genres, and this did not disappoint. In fact, I'd say it's one of the best short stories on the topic which I've read in a long time. Fully-developed world and characters, compelling plot, heart-stopping ending. Oooh! Just excellent writing and story-telling all around!

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Suma Jayachandar
12:58 Mar 13, 2023

Wendy, Thank you so much for stopping by showering my work with high praise. It means a lot. Appreciate it greatly!

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Zack Powell
05:50 Mar 12, 2023

I could easily see this turned into a longer work of fiction. You have all your key elements already: your plucky protagonist (who knows how to turn out a good wheel kick!), your sympathetic kid brother, the hardened member of law enforcement (in my imaginary, conceptual novel version of this story, Constable X plays a big role in the future of these two siblings), along with this Low/Mid/Highland caste system and dystopian worldbuilding/setting. Slap another couple hundred pages on it, send it out to a publisher, and wait for the money to f...

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Suma Jayachandar
10:46 Mar 12, 2023

Zack, Your words always act as instant morale booster and drip with kindness. Surely one of the highlights of my Reedsy experience. Thank you so much for an amazing feedback. I’m not sure about ever getting to write a longer work, but will surely compile my favourite people’s feedback some day:) P.S. I missed reading your story this week.

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Aeris Walker
02:06 Mar 12, 2023

I love a good post apocalyptic/dystopian story. There’s always adventure, always a sense of urgency, and never enough of *something*: food, water, safety, stability. Your story had all of these elements packed into such a short space. A sibling relationship is one of my favorite dynamics to read about too, so I would have happily read more of this world. The ending. Ah!! My stomach dropped. Children are so beautifully honest—guileless—but they also have terrible timing 😬 The ending was so believable and really made the whole story. Well d...

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Suma Jayachandar
10:38 Mar 12, 2023

Thank you for your kind words, Aeris. I’m glad the story had elements you found interesting. It was another experiment and I’m glad it landed on its feet☺️

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Roger Scypion
20:58 Mar 11, 2023

Great and well written story. You made a dystopian world come to life with very good detail. -RS

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Suma Jayachandar
10:34 Mar 12, 2023

Thank you so much for your generous appreciation.

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Stevie Burges
13:22 Mar 11, 2023

Aaah, that last line. Neel, you are a dead brother! Great story. I am not big on dystopian stories, which are always so sad. This was great - well written - and the atmosphere of life in such a world was well drawn. Thanks for writing.

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Suma Jayachandar
10:33 Mar 12, 2023

Thank you so much for your kind words.

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12:43 Mar 11, 2023

A fantasically well-developed fantasy world. I like the idea of the 3 levels/countries, and the separations between them, similar to so many things in the modern world. The depiction of the tired policeman in the second section was great, he feels like a very familiar character. In the last section, the POV wasn't as easy to follow as the first two sections, a few extra words for clarity might help, or maybe putting Akhilas name in the first sentence after the ***. This is a great story and has strong characters, I feel you might have a lon...

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Suma Jayachandar
14:15 Mar 11, 2023

This is exactly the kind of feedback I look forward to. A pat on the back and a tip to improve my piece. Unfortunately, the story is already approved, so can’t be changed. But will definitely tinker around the final draft before moving it to the folder. Thanks a ton for stopping by and leaving a great comment, Scott. Appreciate it!

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Laurel Hanson
21:33 Mar 10, 2023

A well developed dystopia here with fine attention to detail. Your two characters are believable and your ending is excellent, just loaded with ominousness. Like you can hear "dun dun dun" when he turns around. I like how tightly paced this is. And of course, that it explores the uneven socio-economic dynamics that are pretty universal. Great read.

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Suma Jayachandar
05:20 Mar 11, 2023

Hi Laurel, Thanks for stopping by and leaving an amazing feedback.

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Michał Przywara
22:01 Mar 09, 2023

That's a fun story! You manage to paint a post-collapse dystopia, without interrupting the flow of the story. I also dig that ending. It's exactly the kind of complication which drives story, and it transforms the brother from background to active participant. It *also* begs for more story :) It's not clear exactly what happened, but it sounds like some kind of disease based apocalypse, which people are still struggling to deal with. But, society remains split over haves and have nots, so I guess priorities? :) Good setup for conflict, a...

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Suma Jayachandar
06:17 Mar 10, 2023

I definitely enjoyed writing that ending. I’m glad you liked it too. The unfairness of existence keeps springing in my work like clockwork, at times almost surreptitiously. Thanks for the read and encouraging comment, Michal. Appreciate it :)

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Rebecca Miles
10:20 Mar 09, 2023

Hi Suma, this fantasy was right up my street as I infinity prefer this genre when it reflects pertinently on our unfair world, as yours does. I like your stories so much as I really appreciate the light you shine on so many issues facing us as people. Here the fantasy world is Lowlands, Midlands and Highlands but the desire to migrate and better your lot and the exploitation of resources and people by those in power is sadly far from fictional, isn't it. I really believed in this world, which meant the story was impactful: the naming of the ...

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Suma Jayachandar
12:41 Mar 09, 2023

Hi Rebecca, I’m glad you found the story thought provoking and pertinent to the real world. Some day I hope to get on the horse of high fantasy, but right now this is what my dark mood dredged up. Thanks for the read and the comment!

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Delbert Griffith
09:27 Mar 09, 2023

Damn, that ending was amazing! What a great story, encapsulating class distinctions and the effects that pandemics have on each class. The promised land beckons, but Constable X hints that all is not as it seems for the Lowlanders who dream. This is a rich, complex, raw, moralistic tale that needs to be read more than once to get its full effect. The characterization is wonderfully done, and exposition is both sparse and lyrical. I bow to your skill at creating a fictional world that tells us so much about our own. Nicely done, Suma. Nicel...

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Suma Jayachandar
12:36 Mar 09, 2023

Delbert, It’s always humbling to receive such kind words from you. Thank you so much for the same. I’m glad you found the story interesting and relevant.

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Lily Finch
22:29 Mar 08, 2023

Suma, what a way of life for both characters: Akhila and Constable X. It reminded me a bit of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Akhila knows how to work magic on this constable since she is very astute, sizing the constable up correctly. She's so good the constable believes her when she says she won't do it anymore. Neel. Out of the mouth of the babe. gives 'em up. Interesting to differentiate people by middle, high, and low in society. Reminds me of the Egyptian and Middle Eastern divisions within their societies. And every other soci...

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Suma Jayachandar
12:31 Mar 09, 2023

Lily, Thank you so much for your kind words!

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17:33 Mar 08, 2023

Suma! This was wonderful. I enjoyed reading this so much. You created a very interesting world, and helped the reader understand the setting very quickly. I was intrigued by the characters, and you held my attention the entire time. I love the concept of the virus dividing the society between High, Middle, and Low. It’s a beautiful way to talk about classism! The ending left me wanting to keep reading! I would love more of this! Well done ❤️

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Suma Jayachandar
12:30 Mar 09, 2023

Hannah! Thank you so much for the wonderful comment.I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Sorry, I have not been able to catch up on reading of late. Will soon head to your story❤️

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