Of Earth and Ice
a sci-fi web-serial
by Jeremy C Kester
edited by Beth Townsend-Smith
2: Deep Sigh
Evie stared down at the empty space where the lower half of her leg once was. Despite recovering the environmental unit on her suit, frostbite had taken hold of her. She’d lost 2 more toes, 3 fingers, and suffered terrible scarring across her back and limbs.
Letting out a deep sigh, she leaned back against the pillow in her colony’s clinic. Her eyes blinked tightly before resuming their focus on the ceiling. It was a repeated cycle. Each time she would look down expecting her leg to be in its proper place. Not once had it changed, but she continued the ritual as she tried to recall how she arrived back at the colony.
She was draped in a pristine, white gown with wires and tubes protruding from random parts of her body. She was clean for the first time in nearly 2 months. It felt strange. It always felt strange to be clean. Despite the ice that surrounded them, harvesting water took energy, energy they could not afford to waste.
Water was vital to the health of the colony and personal bathing was one of the uses that was heavily rationed. Just like water used to clean up waste, it had to be filtered and recycled or else disposed of. Neither was an easy option to manage. It was just easier to use less. Drink what was needed; ration the rest. Evie didn’t mind not bathing. She had been used to it since she was a kid. In the midst of how busy she normally kept herself, she’d never really thought much of it.
“I see that you’re awake finally?”
Evie heard a familiar voice suddenly at her side. She turned her head to see her commander followed by the doctor and a nurse. Gerald was a tall, slender woman only a few years older than Evie. She had a worn look in her eyes, while otherwise having a smooth, clean appearance.
Gerald kept her pale blonde hair short in what would have been described once as a pixie cut. Her eyes were light brown and carried the years of hardship that she had endured as the colony’s leader. Her body was lean and strong, the mark of a person in a high caste. Food was more readily available to those of greater social status allowing them to sustain a healthy lifestyle if they so chose to do. She dressed in her military dress code: well pressed slacks with a perfectly starched button down blazer over an equally dark shirt. On her shoulders she wore the green emblem rank of Colonial Commander with no other adornments anywhere to be seen. Gerald disliked the other markings that other officers were forced to wear, including their caste’s symbol. She felt that with her rank, she was free to set her own dress protocol and did so with no protest.
Evie, in stark contrast, was dark hair, dark skin, and was from the lowest caste. The few years of life that she had endured already etched trenches of hardship into her skin. Her eyes were drawn and always kept with them a sense of quiet exhaustion. Despite being a high ranking officer in the colony’s militia, Evie found herself held back by her unfortunate birthright.
Still feeling groggy, Evie raised a heavily bandaged hand to salute her superior. Evie’s eyes widened in surprise as she realized the missing fingers for the first time. Gerald returned the courtesy. Evie held her hand up for a few moments trying to determine just how badly injured her hands were.
“It could’ve been a lot worse, you know,” Gerald remarked, as she pulled a small chair alongside the bed and sat down.
The doctor walked around the bed, barely acknowledging Evie’s commander. Evie automatically noted his markings indicating her caste.
“How long was I gone, ma’am?” Evie asked. Her voice was ragged and meek. To her own ears, she sounded drunk. She thought of the extensive amounts of drugs that must’ve been employed on her.
“We lost contact with you and your squad for a few hours. The remaining troops found you after the rest of the was area cleared out,” Gerald explained, her tone steady and unemotional. “You’ve been unconscious for a few days.”
The doctor shook his head disapprovingly. Normally, their caste never spoke to someone of the highest caste, that which Gerald belonged. Even the doctor had to use the nurse, who was a member of a middle caste, as a mediary to speak to Gerald.
Besides Evie, no officers in the colony’s militia were of the low castes. She was a rare, the only, exception to that rule.
Overall, the colony was divided into 6 separate castes. The only ones considered to truly matter were the two lowest and the one highest. The high caste, or the Ariledites, were the governing caste. They were the only people allowed to sit on the high council save three seats. They had full, unrestricted access to any supplies they felt it necessary to have.
The next three castes, the Yuotiphers, Giridites, and Rephers respectively, were all allowed one representative each to sit on the council as a voting member. Their supplies were also rationed, but to a much lesser extent. Each had rights successively removed.
The low castes, Xepes and Iradiles, were all non-voting members of the colony. Most were employed by the colony in some form of heavy labor or defense. They could hold higher positions in the society’s labor force, although such waivers were heavily regulated. Those who showed great skill, such as the doctor, were given caste waivers and allowed to pursue a more venerable job. Despite this allowance, they remained locked into their social status. Iradiles were the least regarded and not permitted to even speak directly to Ariledites or Yuotiphers.
Each caste was distinguished by tattoos given at birth. Ariledites were marked on their forearm leaving their face clean and untouched. Iradiles’ tattoos were above their left eye. The remaining castes had their symbol tattooed visibly on their left cheekbone.
No one now living was alive during the initial setup of their colony’s government and caste system. It was just accepted protocol; it was normal.
Since Evie had attained the rank of officer, she was permitted to speak to anyone, but only if spoken to first. Over time she and Gerald had formed a friendship, an anomaly that was never allowed. In spite of this, not wanting to ever feel as though she were taking advantage of her privilege, Evie most often chose to simply follow the rules of social convention and courtesy.
“Her vitals are looking good,” the doctor told the nurse. Gerald heard this and patiently waited for the nurse to walk over and repeat it. Once the nurse did so, Gerald resumed her conversation with Evie.
She noticed a sadness in the young woman’s eyes. “You’ll be fine,” Gerald said, trying to reassure her soldier.
“I’m a mess, ma’am,” Evie replied, bluntly. “I wouldn’t even make a good slusher.”
Slusher was the nickname given to those who handled all waste generated by the colony. It was a job no one wanted and only Iradiles had.
The pair were silent for a little while. Gerald sat keeping herself poised and stoic. The doctor and attending nurse finished examining the various devices and attachments monitoring Evie’s condition. When they changed her bandages, Evie quietly closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, refusing to look or give in to the pain. Gerald, however, watched with grim curiosity.
When their tasks were complete, Gerald instructed that they left the room leaving her and Evie alone. Evie steadily held her gaze forward as Gerald watched the door close and listened for the latch. Gerald waited a few minutes before she stood up, walked over to the door, and cracked it open.
The hall was fairly busy, but it appeared that no one was waiting outside or were much aware of the room.
Quietly, Gerald closed and latched the door again. For good measure, she grabbed her chair and carried it toward the doorway wedging it so that it could not be opened unexpectedly.
“We can’t keep doing this anymore, Gerry,” Evie said, as she kept focusing straight ahead. “My privileges won’t excuse this. They’ll kill us both.”
Gerald continued in silence, wedging the chair firmly against the door and checking it until she was sure that no one could open it. Feeling confident this was done, she walked back to the bed and climbed up, kissing Evie while gently holding her face with both hands.
“I thought you were dead,” Gerald said, her eyes welling with tears completely releasing the stone-like presence she was holding earlier.
Evie said nothing. She accepted the kiss of her lover and began to cry softly. She had survived by sheer luck, but she suddenly felt her luck expiring.
Next Episode January 18, 2015