‘Free Light’- By Karen Smart

_

The Runner stared into the cloth sack, feeling the weight of it in his hand. ‘I don’t do no favours for chicken feed.’

Please, it’s all I have. We have to be on this ship.’

You ain’t getting on the fuckin’ ship if I say you ain’t. And ya ain’t.’ The Runner sneered as I turned to walk away, but not before the glint of silver at my throat had betrayed me.

But I’m a reasonable man, see?’ He called after me. ‘Willin’ to negotiate. For the right price.’

I reached slowly for the chain around my neck. ‘You don’t understand. It’s the only thing I have left of my—’

Don’t matter to me none, a’course,’ the Runner said, looking at the back of his dirty knuckles with an exaggerated air. ‘But if ya want to get home I suggest ya hand the trinket over.’

Please,’ I begged. ‘There has to be something else I can do — I can earn the rest of my passage.’

The Runner laughed. ‘Hand it o’er. My woman could do with a piece o’ bling. And I ain’t seen nothin’ so pretty in years, not out here.’

That was it then; there was nothing more to be done. The chain was unclasped, the ring tossed into the sack, and the Runner stood aside.

Sir,’ he mocked, as he gestured to the hatch. ‘Thisaway, if ya please.’

I climbed the steps with a heavy heart. Behind me, buried beneath the earth in a secret place, lay my dead wife.

And at my chest, wrapped tightly in discarded medical cloth and hessian, was my sleeping infant daughter, her umbilical cord still drying.

____

The Stitcher looked at us carefully.

This says you’ve completed your allocated pregnancy,’ he said, indicating the portable scanner on his wrist. ‘If you’ve completed your cycle….’ he trailed off, confused.

I looked at my wife, placed my hand over her gently swelling belly, and smiled faintly to reassure her. ‘It was a natural conception.’

Impossible,’ the Stitcher spat out. ‘There hasn’t been a Natural in this sector in at least twenty-five years. I should know. I damn well delivered it.’

Miri was stricken. ‘Please — we have no idea how this happened. You have to help us.’

The Stitcher shot her a sharp look but didn’t respond. Instead, he continued with his own questions. ‘And your completed cycle?’ he asked me, ignoring Miri.

A boy. Carried and birthed normally, in Sector 9.’

And where is the child now?’

Dead. Cortola virus, aged two years.’

Ah, that’s too bad.’ The Stitcher looked again at the scanner. ‘But it doesn’t explain this. It’s impossible to conceive without registration – there are procedures that have to be followed. The genus samples need to be purified and screened before implantation, for a start. And, even supposing you’ve managed to cheat decades of Command policy and population control, the sterilisation protocols would have taken effect at the age of five, along with the rest of the female population. I’m sorry, but there must be a mistake.’

There’s no mistake.’

The Stitcher sighed. ‘Okay, fine. Lay down on the table and I’ll check you over. Maybe then you’ll come to your senses.’

The makeshift examination table was spread with a new cloth, and I helped Miri up onto it.

It’ll be okay. Just hold on.’ I told her.

The sector hospital was nothing more than a few rooms in an abandoned house on the edge of town. It had a roof that leaked, no running water, and electricity only when fuel could be salvaged for the ancient generator. It had no permanent staff, just the Stitcher, who set bones, and cut bullets out — but he was our only option.

The transducer was thirty years old, patched with scrap, and ran on precious generator power, but the Stitcher turned it on and ran the wand slowly over Miri’s stomach, just below her navel. The heartbeat was obvious and strong.

Well I’ll be damned.’

The Stitcher looked quickly between us, crossing the room to lock the door and draw the blinds. The fewer people who knew about the reason for our visit, the better.

Do you know what they’d do to you if they ever found out? What they’d do to me for helping you? You know it’s illegal for citizens to circumvent the cycle protocols. If any Command agent even suspected it had occurred—,’ the Stitcher hesitated, exhaling slowly with forced calm. ‘By law I’m required to notify the Militants immediately.’ He nodded toward the door. ‘Did anyone see you come in?’

I shook my head. We had been careful.

We can still rectify things then. I’m going to need you to wait outside while the elimination takes place. Maybe no-one needs to know.’

I was at the Stitcher’s side in a second, my hand around his wrist.

I can’t let you do that. We intend to complete this cycle.’

You are crazy.’

Probably. But we heard that you had helped others in the past. We need to travel to the Free State. And we need to do it now, before she gets any bigger.’

The Stitcher crossed his arms in front of his body and stepped away from me.

Oh no. Not a chance. You’ll die a hundred times before you even get to the border!’ he spat. ‘Those others — that was a long time ago, and for very different reasons. We were smuggling food rations, not people, and I paid a heavy price. They torched my home. I watched the people I’d been trying to save starve anyway. And then I spent four years in prison. There’s no way you’re going to make it before she delivers — you may as well kill her now.’

We have to try. We’ve already lost one child. We can’t lose another.’

What you’re asking me to do is treason. They won’t just execute me. They’ll execute every single person I ever knew. Don’t you understand? They’ll tear open your wife’s body and excise the child, then dash its head against the rocks, and they’ll do it right in front of you, laughing.’

Miri had risen, silently crossing the room to where we stood. She reached out and took the Stitcher’s calloused hand in her own and brought it to her navel, holding it against the small bump.

The Stitcher stared at her.

Please.’ Miri whispered.

____

The Stitcher, it seemed, found sympathy with our plight. He offered us a room in the hospital basement, and we hid there, quiet and still, for nearly five months. It took some time, but the Stitcher made contact with people from his past, recalling great favours, even applying a touch of violence when needed, but it was eventually arranged. We had with us a little money — not much, but enough to keep the captain interested. We would leave the sector in three days’ time, when the moon was high and the circling of the patrol ships was closest to the Command station, and furthest from land. We would fly low, invisible.

Miri had grown plump and round while we waited. She held the child, this miracle, differently in her belly; it grew in her, sustaining us both. And as each month faded into the next, we even dared to hope for the life that was promised to us in the Free State. There would be no medical restrictions. No scanners. We could raise this child in safety. We would survive.

The night before our departure, as we slept on our mattress on the cramped floor of the basement, I dreamed of the sea. I watched a small girl-child dance in the waves. Look Miri, I called to my wife, who stood by the water, her back to me. We have a daughter. But Miri did not turn around. She walked into the water until the waves lapped first at her knees, then at her waist, and finally her neck, until she slipped below the water like a ghost.

I woke with a start. My dream world refused to leave me; I still felt the wetness surrounding me, engulfing me, smothering me. I turned to Miri, but she was sitting upright, staring between her legs. The sea of my dreams was crimson.

Isaiah—’ she whispered, pale and shaking.

In the hours that followed, we breathed together in raspy bursts as the pains gripped her; we screamed together as our daughter arrived into the light; and I wept, alone, as my wife drowned in her crimson sea.

The Stitcher cut the sinewy life cord, and placed the tiny girl in my arms.

Elana. Our light.


Words by Karen Smart

Art by Rhianna Carr

Karen is a university student and renegade semi-colon over-user who isn’t afraid to use a hefty expletive if the situation calls for it. She hopes to spend the rest of her days reading, writing, and somehow finding a way to be paid for both.

You can find her wallowing on Twitter.

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