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.