by Judith Proctor
Legs? Is that all you ever look at, Vila? There's far more to Inga than pretty legs.
Mind you, she was all legs when I first knew her. Cousin Inga: five years old, skinny as a rake and could run like the wind. I was sixteen and I couldn't begin to keep up with her. She used to tease me something terrible about that, once she'd got over her awe at having visitors who'd arrived in a genuine space shuttle. I was big, and I was slow, and I couldn't cope with the cold and the thin air. I'd be wrapped up in three layers of clothing and thermals while she was running around in a dress made of animal skin. Never seemed to bother her at all. Just a matter of what you're used to really, I suppose. By the time I'd been there a month, I'd worked down to only two layers of clothing; but I'd be lying if I said I felt warm in them.
I never got used to the food. My father knew food was scarce on Exbar, because Uncle Ushton had warned us about that in his letters. The planet had never evolved any life-form capable of leaving the sea. Earth plants had been introduced in an attempt to encourage soil formation, but with only limited success. Buddleia and other lime-lovers did well on the chalk, but food crops were barely possible. Most of the food they found for themselves was rabbit. Have you any idea how many ways there are of cooking rabbit?
Dad brought a lot of supplies along to leave with Ushton for the forthcoming cold season. My aunt had died the previous winter from illness brought on by semi-starvation. Ushton didn't speak about her much, but I could tell where she was buried because he'd hung a set of small wood carvings from the branches of a birch tree, and he always stopped there briefly when he went outside.
Boiled rabbit, baked rabbit, fried rabbit, rabbit with herbs. You name it, I learnt to cook the lot. On an open fire, too, I'll have you know. Did you know that there used to be dozens, maybe hundreds of species of small animals? Even more species of plants. We're lucky, really, that enough insect species survived on Earth to allow some plants still to be pollinated. That's one reason birches are so prolific everywhere we go. They're wind-pollinated and the wind distributes the seeds as well.
Vila, how can you not know what a birch looks like?
My uncle and my father used to talk a lot, and one of the subjects they never tired of was the fact that they felt humanity was losing its spirit of adventure. That was what had got Ushton exiled: he'd wanted to explore outside the dome. A category 4 offence, with an automatic penalty of transportation. Ushton had a theory about that. Exbar was like many penal colonies: barely marginal for human habitation. Maybe it could support life. Maybe it couldn't. Maybe there would turn out to be ways of making fertile soil, or maybe there would be amino acid deficiencies in the diet that would kill the colonists as surely as any alien disease. 'We're guinea pigs,' he always said. 'We're cheaper than a proper scientific survey. If we survive -- and those with spirit are more likely to survive -- then one day they'll move in and take over whatever we've managed to build. If we die, then they've lost nothing except a group of people who didn't fit in back on Earth anyway.'
I admired Ushton. He had a fire then that the years since have burned out of him, but I can see that same fire in Inga now she's grown into a woman. My father was quieter, a lot more circumspect. He agreed with Ushton in theory, but wasn't willing to risk anything in practice. He'd read books about what it was like in the Old Calendar, encouraged me to learn both history and natural history, but never dared break a law, never dared to go anywhere forbidden. If Exbar had been forbidden, we would never have gone.
But Ushton was allowed visitors and so we went, just Dad and myself.
I sometimes wondered why he chose me to go rather than Marc or Engela, but now I think I know. He never said anything, but I believe he hoped I would do what he was too afraid to do -- blaze my own trail, break free of the system and find independence in far horizons. He hoped exposure to Ushton would expose me to Ushton's dreams.
He was wrong. I didn't find Ushton's dream on Exbar; I found a different one.
Inga had a den. It was high up the escarpment and the first time I went there I felt sick and wheezy. Probably the thin air and lack of oxygen. That improved with time though. Father told me that mountaineers in the old days often spent days or weeks getting accustomed to the altitude before tackling mountains in the high Himalayas. Inga and I used to smuggle things up there for our games. Sometimes she played house and I told her stories of the home I grew up in. She was endlessly fascinated by details of food coming from machines, heating that warmed an entire city without needing a fire and everything else that you and I take for granted. At other times we were the crew of a spaceship exploring the galaxy. The den was made of bent-over birch trees tied together with strips of bark. She'd woven other branches into this structure and then laid turf on top of that. Finding enough turf must have been quite an achievement in itself. To be honest, I think Ushton must have helped her build it -- it was too big a job for her to have managed on her own.
We were up there one day when it started to rain. Not just gentle drizzle, but a hard, pelting rain with thunder and lightening. I was absolutely petrified. No safe roof over my head. No machinery to keep everything in order. No proper walls even. I think the lightening was the worst. I could see it through the den's entrance and I was convinced we'd get hit if we tried to make it back to the safety of Ushton's dugout. Even with water dripping on my head through the chinks in the turf roof, there was no way that Inga could persuade me to return.
Of course we came to no harm, but it was dark when the thunderstorm stopped, and there was no moon that night. We had no option but to spend the night there. We ate our way through a whole stack of pre-packaged food that we'd sneaked from the winter store, pretended we were mountaineers camping half-way up Everest, and when morning finally arrived we were ready to go back. Well, I was.
Inga was oddly quiet. When I roused her to come with me, she got up, but there was none of her usual chatter. When we went down the escarpment, she walked instead of skipping ahead. I asked her if she felt all right, whether she had a headache, whether she'd hurt herself. She said she was all right, just a little tired. Actually, I felt a bit tired too, but by the time we got back down to the lower ground I was practically back to normal. Inga still wasn't right though. Instead of giving a running commentary on everything we passed, she just walked along without so much as a sideways glance. I was seriously worried by now. As soon as we got back to the dugout, I grabbed my uncle. 'Something's wrong with Inga!'
He picked her up and looked at her, felt her pulse, touched her forehead. 'There's no fever.'
'Are any of the plants poisonous?' Dad asked. 'Did she eat anything?'
I must have looked a touch guilty, because he grabbed me by the arm. 'What has she eaten?'
'Only concentrates. I'm sorry,' I added, 'I know they were supposed to be for the winter.'
'I told you!' Ushton exclaimed to my father.
Dad just looked embarrassed. 'All right. You win.'
'What is it?' I demanded.
'They drug your food,' Ushton said. 'It keeps the populace docile. I imagine those in charge,' he glanced up towards the Federation communications centre that perched on the skyline, 'have rather better food for themselves.'
A thousand questions came into my mind. Why hadn't I noticed any difference when I came to Exbar and started eating local food? Why wasn't I affected now?
'You're used to it,' Ushton said, answering my unspoken question. 'You've built up a degree of tolerance, but you're still affected.'
'I'm not,' I protested. 'Besides, I didn't notice any change when I came to Exbar.'
He looked at me sardonically. 'If you were thinking straight, you'd know the answer to that one.'
I stared at him and he snorted. 'The air, boy. The low oxygen levels tired you. More than balanced out the effect of being without drugs in your diet.'
It was immoral, inhuman, and yet I only had to look at my father slowly nodding his head to accept the truth of it.
It was then that I knew.
I wasn't going to be a mountaineer or an explorer or a coloniser of new worlds. My place was back on Earth in the claustrophobic, indoor environment that I was already beginning to hate as I adapted to the freedom on Exbar. My task was to return to Earth and to find out what was being done that was so terrible they had to drug the populace to prevent an uprising. Maybe I didn't even have to find out. Maybe I already knew. Things I had always taken for granted were suddenly appearing in a new light. Did mutoids really volunteer for modification? Was it true that the illegal religious movements were involved in obscene rites? Why weren't Betas, Gammas and Deltas allowed the vote?
Why were we forbidden to go outside the dome?
I'd finally learnt to ask questions and, from asking questions, it was only a short step towards wanting a world where such questions were no longer necessary.
I'd found my dream. And if it turns out to be an impossible dream? At least I'll have tried.
Send feedback to Judith Proctor