It had been years since Lucelia had travelled with anyone. She’d been on her own since the day her parents and younger siblings had entered the commune at Sofala and she’d walked away. She recognised now that the demand to ditch a family member at the gate had been mind-fuckery at its worst, designed to turn the group against itself and only let in those the commune leaders could control. The family had been desperate by then, the government refuges full and her mother sick. Hopefully by walking away so they could find refuge she hadn’t done them a grave disservice.
She’d seen a few places that were worse than death in her travels and she’d been meaning to go check how Sofala was treating her family but illness and other people’s disputes, mainly water wars, had gotten in the way. This time she’d worked her way up the coast, skimmed around the edges of the cities where the invaders were still lodged, and then crossed the mountains again. The government refuges had expanded since she’d been this way last which was good, they’d been way too crowded that first time, but she had to detour around them and still ran into check points looking for enemy infiltrators and bandits. That was where her identity card from the hospital in Heidelberg came in useful but it also led to her only complication when they requisitioned two units of her plasma on the outskirts of Bathurst. The upside of that had been three good meals, an inside bed for the night, laundry and a hot shower while she recovered from her donation. No-one wanted to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Interestingly nobody she met in Bathurst wanted to talk about Sofala. No warnings, no gossip, nothing. That tended to mean something bad had happened, really bad. When she did reach Sofala, the commune was gone. Not abandoned, gone. There were farms, a village nucleus and it looked like places she’d seen where, when the invaders hadn’t gotten this far, the locals had banded together against whoever had been running the commune and taken the land back.
The couple in the store were sympathetic but couldn’t help her. They’d been in the commune but hadn’t known anyone by her parents’ or siblings’ names. She stocked up on a few things from their store, money still had value if you were dealing with the government refuges or someone who traded with them, and took herself up into the hills for the night. No-one came across her campsite and she didn’t hear anyone looking for her either. That was good. She went back in the morning and asked where the commune had buried their dead. There was a place, with named markers, none of them known to her, and also a large marker without names dedicated, “To fifty poor souls murdered by Madman Shevrington and those who died to free us from him.” Shevrington had been the name of the commune boss when she’d left her family here. He’d been the one who’d said the commune could only take four of them, not all five.
She went back into the village and asked around some more. Shevrington had gotten up one morning and decided to cull the ‘dead weight’ in the colony, gathered together fifty chronically ill or disabled inhabitants, then he and a couple of his thugs had opened fire with their guns. That had incensed enough of the others, family and friends of the dead, to attack Shevrington and take him down, despite their unequal found weapons. The survivors who hadn’t stayed in the district had gone north or south along the road or followed the river west. No-one she spoke to recalled her parents or her brother but a girl who could be her sister was living with her husband down the river in Waterbeach.
Down in Waterbeach she found the farm she was looking for, even though the locals were less forthcoming than up in Sofala, and went to wait by the farm gate. She knew better than to do anything that could be trespass. It took an hour before the farmer came out to see her.
“Who are you?” He was older than her, well set up in himself, and he stood back out of arms’ length with his shotgun held across his body. So far she approved.
“Lucelia Payne. I’ve heard that my sister, Radella, might be living here.” When he said nothing, she added, “I don’t want to impose but I was hoping to talk to her and find out about our parents and brother.”
“Wait here for now. I’ll see if the wife wants to talk to you.” He waited for an answer.
“Yes, of course.”
She watched as he went back to the house and waited while he brought a woman out to stand half way between the house and gate. Then he came back to her. “Leave your gear and your weapons here and you can come along and see if she knows you.”
She thought about it for a moment. “Fair enough.” She left her staff by her backpack at gate and followed him down the cart track towards the house. The woman who stood there, “Hi, Rad.”
“Lucie, you’re still alive.” Dark hair, good skin, no pits, bruises or eruptions; her sister looked well. “Everyone told us you’d last less than a month on your own.”
“Turns out I’m tough,” she grinned. “I meant to come back sooner, once things settled down but I got sick,” she held out a pockmarked hand in evidence, “and there were some brush wars in the way.”
“You were probably well out of it,” Radella smiled but didn’t come closer. “Things were fine in the commune for a while but then Shevrington went strange. The day he killed Mum and the others…” Radella looked down and up again. “Dad and Matt were in the front row that charged at them. They died too.”
“Did I make a mistake going away so you could get in?” Lucelia wanted to know that and one other thing.
A deep breath in. “I don’t think so. Mum wouldn’t have lasted long enough to get anywhere else but she got better with rest and she was fine for another year or more before she got sick again. No-one could know that Shevrington would turn out the way he did.”
“Good. I was worried, in case I was to blame…”
“You weren’t and you couldn’t have rescued us once things started going bad,” Radella told her.
Lucelia risked a glance at the man with the shotgun, then asked, “Are you happy and safe?”
“What?” That was a rising roar from him.
“Sam, it’s okay.” Radella smiled soothingly at him. “Yes, I am. Why?”
“I wanted to check that I didn’t need to try to rescue you.” She shrugged, “I suppose I’ll be on my way then."
“You’re not staying?”
“You don’t need me.” She gestured at the farm, “This place doesn’t need me. I’ll probably head over towards Orange and see if I can pick up some orchard work.”
“Can’t you stay for at least a meal?”
“Rad,” Lucelia smiled at her, “we need to establish very firmly in our minds that I do not live here. If I come in and sit down, it could start a problem for all of us. I can come by another time, but not today.”
“You’re prickly,” observed my brother-in-law.
“Stops me being gobbled up and swallowed down,” she smiled at him, “and now I’ll leave if that’s okay.” She started backing up the track away from them and towards the gate.
Four days later she was on the outskirts of Orange and asking directions. It had been a few years but she was following up on an invitation. She waited at another farm gate for the farmer’s attention. Two men came out this time, unarmed but this was a more settled and less isolated area than Waterbeach. “Can we help you?” The speaker wasn’t the man she’d come to see but he was familiar, they both were.
“I ran into Stan a few years ago, he said if I was ever out this way and looking for work I should drop by.”
“Stan got married and moved to his wife’s folks’ place last year,” the golden looking one with the dog tags showing against his chest said, “but I’m his brother Luke.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to have bothered you,” she was disappointed, it was an invitation she’d held close for years, a hope for the future she’d waited too long to cash in.
“Hang on,” that was the browner one, “I’m Dan. You’re the girl who led us to that enemy camp near the dam at Warragamba. Don’t you remember us? Or did you really only have eyes for Stan?” He was still wearing dog tags too. “Have you had your shot for the blacks?”
She held out her marked hands. “No. I had the blacks, then the reds and I lived. Your vaccinations could well have been made from my plasma. I have a certificate to say I’m not a carrier.”
“Well then,” Luke spoke but the two men exchanged a glance, “We could use another pair of hands for a bit. How about a two week trial? Neither of us are Stan, but if we all suit, perhaps something permanent could be discussed?”
“What did you have in mind?” She was prepared to run but she was remembering them now, her attention really had been focused on Stan all this time, perhaps blinding her to other possibilities.
“If you can survive both diseases then you’re a damn good bloodline. We know you’re good in a tough corner,” Luke was speaking. “Neither of us are Stan but we could discuss family. Starting one, with guarantees for you of course.”
“I think I see,” and she smiled at them both.