Lies - Between Friends and Lovers
by Dyna Dee
Relena looked down at the worn and faded outfit she was wearing and felt the knot tighten in her stomach, realizing this was her only change of clothing other than a large nightshirt Rida had given her. She felt... Well she wasn't sure what she was feeling other than stunned. She'd been kidnaped from the streets of Sanq and was left, abandoned, on colony L2. How ironic. She'd always enjoyed a life of privilege, sometimes pampered to the point of being called spoiled, and now she'd been sent by some unknown person or group to live freely amongst the poorest of the colonies. It was like waking up to a nightmare. But she was no shrinking violet, she told herself firmly. She would not give into her fears, tears or hysterics. She had more fortitude than that, having lived through more than any other young women her age that she was acquainted, with the exception, maybe, of Dorothy Catilonia.
An open foil package was placed in her hands. She looked up to see Rida smiling a toothless grin at her. "Eat up, dearie. But I 'spect you to pay me back as soon as you get yur rations."
"Food. Ya gotta go to the food station ta get um." The thin older woman, severely bent forward at the waist, a condition Relena could only guess was caused by osteoporosis, hobbled across the room to the wall of stacked items. Reaching in, she pulled something out of the chaos then turned and came back to her. "This is yurs." In her hand was a discolored and well-used laminated index card with the letter F and number 3 printed on it with a black marker. There was a string pulled through two hole punches and knotted, looking as if the card was to be worn around the neck. Looking curiously at the older woman, she accepted the card and said, "I don't understand."
"Everyone here gots a card. Ya can't get no food without it. Since ya don't got any babies, you gets a lower day, which is Friday. The card says ya can get yur grub from the food station on that day and the number three means yur not a parent and alone, like me!" The toothless grin was back. Relena shuddered.
"Tamarra. We can go tagether if ya wants."
"Ah... sure. You can show me where this food station is."
The older woman looked pleased, then motioned to the food container in Relena's hands. "Eat up."
Relena warily studied the food she'd been given. She wasn't sure what it was, but it appeared to be some sort of white meat smothered in a pale gravy. Chicken or maybe even turkey, she guessed. A spoon appeared in her line of vision. It had streaks of some substance on it, suggesting it had been used lately and not thoroughly washed.
"Yuz can borrow it, but give it back. It's kinda hard to eat summa da rations without it."
Realizing the woman was being generous, Relena accepted the flatware. "Thank you," she murmured, and was grateful when Rida turned and went back to search through her pile again. Using her breath to steam the surface of the spoon, she quickly wiped it with the edge of her shirt until it looked relatively clean. Fighting her natural hesitance, she put the utensil into the unseemly goo and daintily scooped up a small amount to take a cautious taste. Ugh, it was as horrible as she imagined it would be. The meat was mushy and flavorless and the colorless gravy tasteless. It was cold, but somehow she didn't think heating it up would improve the taste. Her instincts told her to dispose of the food. Better to be hungry than to eat the questionable substance, right? Then again, she was desperately hungry. She'd been abducted from the streets of Sanq on Tuesday night, which meant she'd been swiftly taken from there and flown to this colony, losing a little more than a day, waking up on Thursday afternoon. A day and a half without food could make almost anything look good. Well, almost. Sensing that there was not going to be anything else offered and that Rida giving her food from her own stores was indeed a kind gesture that she couldn't disregard, she really had no choice but to accept the inevitable and eat, just for the sake of not starving. After all, if the questionable substance lacked any flavor, it couldn't be completely bad, could it?
Even though she'd always practiced eating slowly, consuming the unappetizing food quickly seemed to be the best method to successfully getting it down her throat. Looking up, she could see her two roommates were occupied with their own meals. She paused a moment, looking at the two. She was fairly certain the younger man and older woman weren't a couple, so why were they roommates? Were they related? Where were the other two who were supposed to share this small living space with them? She decided to hold her questions until after they finished eating; it seemed the polite thing to do. With a deep breath she began.
At last Kirk looked up and noticed her empty container. "You should eat slower," he advised while lifting a bent, half-filled spoon to his lips.
"I was hungry."
"Get used to it," the man mumbled, though not unkindly. "Those of us stuck here in this dump are always hungry."
Since he'd begun the conversation, Relena decided to try and get a few answers to her questions. "Are you two related?"
Kirk choked on the little bit of food in his mouth and Rida snorted through her nose. "Na, what makes ya think so?" the older woman asked with an amused chuckle.
"I was just curious as to why you're both living together."
"We were assigned, just like you." Kirk answered.
"And the other two?"
Rida shook her head. "Havoc and Gian. They're not related either, but we all look after Gian see'in she's in a family way."
"Where's the father?"
"Dead, I hope, in some gutter wid his ball ripped off, 'is dick cut off and shoved up his arse," Rida spat angrily, her formally friendly attitude doing a complete turnabout.
Relena blinked at the woman, wondering why she would wish something so horrible on the girl's husband. "Is her husband that bad?"
"Husband!" shrieked the older woman, her rheumy eyes widening. She then turned her head and spat upon the floor.
"It's not for us to tell Gian's story," Kirk spoke up, giving the older woman a reprimanding glare. Then to Relena he said, "If she wants to tell you, she will."
A few awkward moments passed before Relena could gather her wits enough to ask another question. "So what do you do during the day on L2? Do you have an occupation?"
"Occ-u-pa-tion?" Rida asked as if she'd never heard the word.
"A job, you know, to make money."
A cackle was her response from the woman. It was Kirk who answered her question. "There's no money on L2 and very few jobs. We collect our food from the food station nearest us and then wait for the next week when it's our turn to go again."
"You mean to tell me everyone on L2 sits around all day and does nothing?" The idea was so foreign to her that she couldn't comprehend it.
Kirk responded, "There's some who maintain the environment controls, and most buildings have been told by the guardians to dispose of their rubbish on a weekly basis. So a couple of volunteers spend time at the sanitation and refuse disposal station, but they don't get paid with creds, only a few added ration packs."
With growing dismay, the reality of her situation began to set in, that she'd been sent, for a reason unbeknownst to her, to live on a dying colony. Surely these poor people, who had no occupation and lived solely for their weekly ration allotment, were doomed. No doubt boredom derived from such idleness would help lead to their demise and sense of hopelessness. "With no occu... no jobs, what does everyone do all day?"
"We survive and stay away from those who cause trouble," Kirk said, suddenly looking so very weary of life's struggle.
"I read," Rida added, holding up a battered paperback. "I dun know half a da words, but I can kinda make out da story anyways. I'm ed-ja-cating m'self," she said proudly. "Can ya read?"
"Yes, I can."
"Would ya read ta me sometimes?"
"I'd be happy to." It was the least she could do, Relena thought.
The door opened to the dim lit room and in came a very pregnant and tired looking woman followed by a hard-faced older man whose expression gave Relena the impression that he was ready to kill someone. She could only hope it wasn't her.
Brief introductions were made and Relena was given a moment to study the two newcomers. Gian was wisp thin, despite her bulging belly. She had straggly, dirty blonde hair that was unbrushed and tangled. Her eyes looked sunken, matching her hollowed cheeks. She gave the appearance of someone who had never known happiness. Havoc, the sour-faced man, was short in stature and carried an air of disdain. He had a don't-mess-with-me attitude that commanded respect. His face was pale and yet weathered with a snub nose and small eyes set in a face covered with a dark beard that matched his nearly black and messy shoulder length hair. His demeanor was intimidating and unfriendly. Relena wished for an uncluttered corner where she could tuck herself into to get away from the glare the older man was sending her way.
She watched the two newcomers locate, open and eat their rations without speaking a word, and from her viewpoint the pregnant woman had a slightly larger portion of food than the others. She wondered at that, but refrained from asking. Rida approached her with a book which Relena politely accepted. Before reading even one word, she could tell from the rather risque picture on the worn book cover that it was a romance novel from sometime around the era of AC 10, when the colonies were still in the developing stages and slowly being populated. Of course she'd never read this story before, but an idealistic romance, so far removed from the reality of L2's present rundown and desperate state, was no doubt a source of escape for the older woman. Having read a few books of this nature while on vacation, she knew that the love portrayed in this type of story was never an easy one or uncomplicated, but the ending was always happy with lovers finding everything they wanted in a mate and a happy-ever-after conclusion. She had little in common with the helpless female in this particular story, herself being more pragmatic and now a disbeliever of love at first sight.
A little voice in her head reminded that she hadn't always felt that way, and she still felt embarrassed when recalling her past actions. She'd most definitely learned some hard lessons in her youth, chasing after a boy who turned out to be gay and uninterested in a romantic relationship her juvenile heart dreamed of. And given her current circumstances, she feared she might never have anything close to a happily ever after. Her thoughts on the subject only served to make her feel more depressed. The story did, however, seem to have the opposite effect on Rida and Gian, who wore dreamy smiles on their faces the entire time she read.
"Yur a smart one, aren't ya?" Rida asked after Relena passed the book back to her.
"I'd like to think so, but sometimes I wonder," she answered with a weary sigh and thought that if she were so smart, she'd be able to figure out how to get off this godforsaken colony.
The single light suspended from the ceiling above blinked and Relena's four roommates rose from their places at the table and sofa. Rida started for the room Relena had been told was the water closet. It was hardly a proper bathroom. From what she'd been told there was a sink and it had running water, that is if you could call a weak trickle running water. There was a shower stall, which she was told didn't work, and a toilet that could only be flushed once a day. Water was strictly rationed on the derelict colony. Rida had told her, in a most serious manner, that Kirk was the designated "flusher", and he would perform his duty after everyone had finished for the night. The idea of being closed up in that repugnant smelling room with the full commode made the awful dinner she'd eaten earlier threaten to rise up her esophagus.
Once Rida exited the dreaded room and retired quietly with her book to the bedroom, Gian took her turn. Relena was left to wait with the two men for her turn at the facilities. After several minutes, the door opened again and Gian came out looking a little green. She also turned and made her way to the bedroom without so much as a goodnight. It was Relena's signal that the room was all hers.
"You're next," Havoc said gruffly, still scowling at her. "Have you ever rationed water before?"
Relena paused on her way to the bathroom door. "No."
"I'll show you."
The man rudely pushed past her to enter the room first. Following, she almost gagged from the smell of waste and urine that assaulted her nose. Putting her hand over her nose and mouth, she crossed the doorway. The small room was lit in a similar manner as the front room, with a single bulb hanging from a cord from the ceiling. "Put your hand under the tap," Havoc ordered, refocusing her attention to the matter at hand.
Bristling at being spoken to in such a rude manner, Relena nevertheless did as she was told, putting her right hand under the spout. Havoc turned on the water just enough to wet her palm then turned it off. "Wash."
"That's it?" she asked, astonished by what he was suggesting.
"I can't possibly get clean with so little water," she protested.
"Welcome to L2... princess."
Relena's eyes shot to the older man's face. "You know who I am?"
The man snorted. "Of course I do. I'm not uneducated like Rida and Gian. I was a sweeper during the war and read all about you becoming Queen of the World." A smug sneer came to the man's face. "How the mighty have fallen."
Thinking she might finally get some answers, she asked, "Do you know who brought me here?"
The man's eyes narrowed. "I've got a pretty good idea, but no, I'm not privy to that information."
Contemplating his answer for a moment, she figured she had nothing to lose by asking for help. "Can you help me get back to Earth?"
The man's bark of laughter seemed cruel, and bounced off the walls of the shabby, awful smelling washroom. "If I could get anyone off this rotting hunk of junk, you'd be the last one I'd give the privilege to."
The rancor emanating from the man alarmed her. "But why? I haven't done anything to you!"
"Of course I haven't."
The man's frown of disapproval persisted. "As far as we're concerned, if you're not our friend, you're our enemy. I don't know whether or not you're part of the reason we're all starving here, but you obviously haven't done much to help us either."
"The sanctions placed on L2 had to do with your colony's refusal to create order and deal with its wanton disregard for the law."
"During my travels as a sweeper I saw that evil exists everywhere, not just on L2. What about those places on Earth where criminals and gangs work in the shadows and undermine the very laws you accuse us of breaking? Do you starve the whole planet to punish the few?"
"Of course not," Relena answered with a dismissive wave of her hand. "But L2 was one step from anarchy. No one could come here with the intention of doing business without being put in danger. Commerce between L2, the colonies and Earth, could not be conducted in a safe manner, and so the sanctions were set up, in part, to stop others from coming here and becoming victims to the corruption that runs rampant."
The former sweeper shook his head. "And I suppose you believe all that rubbish you just touted?"
"I think before you leave here, princess, that is if you ever do, you might just change your mind." With that pronouncement made the older man turned on his heel to leave. But before exiting the door completely, he stopped, and over his shoulder he said, "If I were you I'd used the name Lena, which was the name Rida was given when you were delivered here. Others might not have the same tolerance for your presence as I do." He left her then, alone in the stinky room with his warning hanging heavy in the fetid air.
The door shut and she looked warily at the closed lid toilet, knowing that she really had no choice but to lift the dreaded lid. She went about her business as quickly as possible, but it was a little too late before she realized there was no toilet paper. Frantically searching the room for something appropriate to use, her eyes landed on a small stack of roughly torn pieces of paper. No doubt it was all the residents of L2 had available to clean their more private areas after using the facilities. She cringed as she applied the rough paper to her delicate skin. With a sinking feeling she had little doubt that this was just the beginning of a long and uncomfortable stay.
She found herself sharing a mattress with Rida and Gian who, because of the latter's extended belly, took up a good part of the allotted space. Relena comforted herself with the thought that at least she had her own blanket, which she wrapped around her body as the five roommates settled in for the night.
An unknown amount of time passed as she lay awake, sleep alluding her because of the unfamiliar sounds coming from her flatmates. Havoc had just begun to snore while Rida wheezed with every intake of breath and a whistling sound, presumably from her nose, came with every exhale. Gian moaned every once in a while. Relena was somewhat relieved that Kirk wasn't adding to the noise.
Closing her eyes, she fought off the overwhelming need to cry over her current wretched state. She was far from home and everything familiar and no one knew where she was or what she was going through. She was hungry, cold and she itched everywhere at the mere thought of unseen bugs living within the mattress or on her unkempt bed mates. She sniffed back the unwanted tears threatening to spill, thinking, I'm as strong as these people. And if they aren't crying, then I can't allow myself that luxury either. With the steady sounds of sleep coming from the others, she continued to lay there, worrying about what the future held in store for her. It seemed a very long time before she finally succumbed to sleep, her only means of escape at the moment from her current dilemma.