TALES OF THE AEKHARTAIN
Vol 1: Freyda’s Tale
Have you ever wished upon a star?
When Freyda arrived at the Institute she was just another orphan. By the time her two week quarantine was over she was an experiment. Ten years on she remains a puzzle that the scientists cannot solve. How does she stay cool in the hot, or warm in the cold? Why isn’t she effected by these extremes like everyone else? Freyda knows, but she isn’t telling.
Until the disdainful Beatrice Winters arrives, threatening to make Freyda homeless in a cruel, hard world. Freyda needs help, but she has no one to turn to – except the stars she wishes on every night.
Set on a near-future Earth where energy shortages have split the world into modern haves and powerless have-nots, this collection contains four stories about Freyda and the choices she has to make, including the novella Orion’s Kiss, a novelette, a short story and a very short interlude.
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Orion’s Kiss in Brief
What’s in it?: Four stories, a novella (Orion’s Kiss), a novellette (Impossible Things), a short story (Blackbird) and a very short Interlude.
When is it set?: Circa 2030.
Where is it set?: The town of Simouth, South-West England on an AU Earth. (And the Shadow Garden, but you’ll learn about that in Impossible Things.)
What kind of story is it?: A coming of age/rescue tale, with stars, hope, magpies and some scientific experimentation going on. Oh, and lots of imagination.
What’s the genre?: Fantasy with a hint of dystopia.
Is this a series?: The Aekhartain stories all take place in the same story-verse with plenty of recurring characters, so yes, it is part of a series. However, these collections are designed to mostly stand alone. You don’t have to start at the beginning, but this story has always been a good entry point. That’s why I started publishing with this one, even if it isn’t the actual start of the Aekhartain storyline.
Any age restrictions?: Nope. No sex, no violence, not even really bad language. Tame, but emotional along the way.
Behind The Story
I wrote the original Orion’s Kiss in February 2004. It was a short story then (around 7,000 words) about a girl who looked up at the stars one night. I’ve always loved the stars and the constellation of Orion has always been my favourite, so when Freyda looked at the night sky it was obvious what she was going to see.
The Aekhartain themselves have evolved over the years too, from just a random character with wings (Shaiel had purple eyes the first time he showed up in a conversation with a friend), who made friends with a lost and lonely young man. That was Demero in Unbound and Free, which I first started in November 2003, but didn’t finish until later. I don’t quite know why the Aekhartain stories went from Dark Ages Europe to Near-Future AU, but it worked and they’ve been pinging about all over history ever since.
Blackbird was originally written in 2007 for a friend who wanted a little more from Freyda. I too was curious about a few things, and although it’s never been a favourite of my stories I do quite like the way it ties up some loose ends.
Impossible Things was a completely new story for this collection. I like that it gave me an opportunity to explore the Shadow Garden through the eyes of a complete stranger. I’ve never set a whole story there before (just snippets, excerpts and the occasional drabble type of thing), so it was nice to explore. I get the feeling it will feature quite often in future. It also allowed me to introduce Maskai, who is kind of important in the scheme of everything Aekhartain.
The Interlude is something that is full of little nods and references. It doesn’t just tie up a certain character’s involvement in this tale, but it lays down a few bits and pieces that will be useful for the future. Since the Aekhartain stories don’t really have a set reading order they’re often full of little clues and whispers that tie them to other tales, which may go unnoticed until you’ve read a little deeper. Some stories even have an informal Spot-the-Aekh game hidden inside them, but not this one. That will come later.
Read on for an excerpt of the Prologue and Chapter One from Orion’s Kiss!
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER knock at the door. Kevin had been at the Institute long enough to know what that meant so early in the morning. Especially with snow on the ground outside and the chill of winter seeping in around the windows. He wiped the hint of pity from his face as he walked down the hall to answer the door.
Outside, the world was draped in a pristine blanket, soft and fluffy, covering up the worst of the ugliness around the Institute’s old compound. According to the pictures in the upstairs office, this place had once been surrounded by lovely parkland that swept down to the river, where little pleasure boats bobbed and sailed.
The boats were gone now, the parkland too. Instead factories kept cropping up, more with every year. The land around the Institute wasn’t being used for anything special anyway, while the factories churned out valuable things. Yes, pretty landscapes and beautiful wildlife were nicer to look at, but when it came to survival, well, food factories were more important.
So Kevin didn’t let himself look for the soot and the murk that lurked beneath the soft snow. Instead he studied the figures huddled together in the warm glow of the porch lantern.
What a pretty picture they made: blonde as wheat, slender as reeds, pale as the snow. The little girl was well wrapped up against the weather, frail wisps of pale hair escaping from beneath her green bobble hat. It was hard to tell how old she was, bundled up like that, but Kevin guessed somewhere between eight and ten. Her coat was two sizes too big and tattered from much wear, but it was keeping her warm enough not to shiver. Not so for the tall woman by her side, holding tightly to her hand. Her coat was thin, her head uncovered. She was shivering constantly, her bare hands red from the cold.
“We’re here to see the Matron,” the woman rasped, breaking off to cough harshly.
The little girl stared up at her with worried blue eyes, an expression no child should have to wear. Kevin had seen it before; he knew he’d see it again. He also had a job to do, so he stepped back and pushed the door wide, inviting the woman and child inside.
“The Matron’s office is this way,” he said, turning to walk down the hall, knowing they would follow. They always followed. They wouldn’t be here if they had any other choice.
As he walked, he couldn’t help but overhear the conversation going on behind him. “Remember your promise, Freyda,” the woman whispered, struggling to suppress her rattling cough. “You’ll be good, yes? Just like we talked about.”
“Yes, mummy,” the little girl mumbled back.
They walked in silence for a moment, marked only by pattering footsteps and hushed wheezes. “You’re a good girl, Freyda, but we wouldn’t want a repeat of the Widow Mariah incident, would we?”
“That wasn’t my fault!” the girl piped up indignantly. Then lowered her voice, as the cry echoed around the empty hall. “I didn’t mean for it to happen, but she was always so mean and smelled of cabbage, and the cat –”
“I know, Frey,” her mother interrupted, her chuckle turning into another cough. “Just promise me, okay?”
“I promise,” the girl muttered sullenly.
A pause, the soft sound of a kiss against a cheek. “That’s my Aeafreyda.”
Kevin paused politely, flexing his hands against his sides as he listened to the sound of material brushing together. He closed his eyes, able to picture the woman crouching down, her little girl’s arms clenched tightly around her neck.
“I’m scared, mummy.” It was the barest whisper.
“I know, baby,” the woman’s voice wobbled, fighting back coughs and tears.
“I don’t want to stay here. It’s big and scary. It’ll have ghosts.”
A soft chuckle, a sniff, then the sound of the woman standing up again. “There are no ghosts, baby, remember.”
“Because there’s nothing in this world worth staying around for.”
They started walking again and Kevin finally reached the Matron’s study. He knocked, waited a few moments, then pushed open the door.
“You have visitors, Matron,” he said, just as he’d been taught.
Seated behind her desk, the Matron looked up, dark eyes flicking over the worn woman and the well cared for child. Then she stood and smiled kindly.
“Welcome,” she greeted, and waved at the chairs waiting before her desk. “Come, take a seat. Some refreshments for our guests, please, Kevin.”
He shut the door and walked to the kitchen, knowing that whatever went on in that room, it was not kindness. Not really. It was wrapped up that way, but it never turned out so well. He took his time with the tea, digging through the fruit juice bottles and wondering which one the girl would like best. Finally settling for apple and blackberry, he walked back to the office.
The woman was already signing the form. Kevin sighed and slid the tray onto the desk, while the poor woman coughed into her fist. There was blood on the handkerchief the Matron had given her. He’d suspected there might be.
The girl had been sent to the corner to play with the toy box, but even though she held a doll in her hands, her eyes were on her mother. Worried, dark, knowing.
He opened the bottle of juice, poured it into a glass and took it over to her. She stared up at him with her sad blue eyes. He could see the question she wanted to ask, one he would never be able to answer, but she took the drink with a polite mumble instead and glared at the doll in her hands.
By the desk her mother put down the pen and refused the offered tea. “I should go,” she said, coughing again.
“At least stay for a drink,” the Matron urged, her dark eyes holding a rare hint of pity. They all knew the form was meaningless. This was one woman who wouldn’t be returning within the month to reclaim her child. Nor would she manage to scrape together the funds to buy her back sometime over the next six. She wouldn’t survive that long.
Shaking her head, the woman got to her feet. “No. I should go. There’s someone I have to see, and it’s a long walk. I’d like to get there before dark.” Even though she was talking to the whole room, her eyes were fixed on Freyda.
The girl held the doll against her chest. “You’re leaving?”
“We talked about it, baby, remember? Mummy has things to do, and it’s too cold to take you with me. The nice people here are going to look after you, okay?”
Freyda sniffled, dropped the doll and threw herself against her mother. The woman crushed her child tightly against her frayed coat. Her eyes were closed, and Kevin had to look away. He felt like he was intruding.
“I don’t want you to go,” Freyda said, voice scratchy with tears. “Stay here. You’ll get better if you stay.”
The woman buried her head against Freyda’s bobble hat. She didn’t speak.
“Please,” the child whispered, and Kevin found himself blinking back tears of his own.
The woman’s slender frame shook as she pulled away, careful not to cough on her daughter. When the fit was over, she wiped her mouth and turned back to her child with a bright smile. “Be good, baby, like you promised.” She straightened Freyda’s coat collar with brisk motions. “It’ll only be for a month, then I’ll be back. Just like we said.” She held up her fist, little finger extended.
“Just like we said,” Freyda whispered, linking her pinkie finger with her mother’s. “And you’ll be back in a month, promise?”
The woman’s smile faltered, but she dragged it back up again and folded the front of Freyda’s hat up so it didn’t drop into her eyes. “You’re the best girl in the world, baby, and mummy loves you. Remember that, always.”
“I love you too, mummy,” Freyda said, but she didn’t move to hug her again. She just stood there, hands by her sides, watching her mother stand up and cough into the handkerchief before thanking the Matron.
“One month, baby. I’ll see you soon. Be good.” With one last smile and a kiss blown from her fingertips, the woman walked out the door.
Kevin was the only one to see her shoulders hunch in the corridor outside, the only one to see her shake with a mixture of grief and suppressed coughs. He was the one who opened the door to watch her walk out into the snow. And he was the one who locked that door behind her.
But they all knew she would never come back.
Keeping his feelings from his face, Kevin returned to the Matron’s office. Freyda was staring out of the window, even though it looked in the opposite direction from where her mother was walking.
“Take Freyda upstairs, Kevin,” Matron ordered, as he gathered the unused tea things back onto the tray. “She’ll want to settle in. Two weeks should do it. Take the doll.”
So as the Matron went back to her stacks of important paperwork, Kevin put the tray to one side, picked up the doll from where it had been abandoned on the floor and called the girl softly. Those sad eyes stared at him again, but there were no questions in them now, only blank acceptance. She took the doll when he offered it to her and followed him upstairs to the tiny room put aside for such occasions.
The Institute took in many children – orphans, runaways, abandoned babies, ones whose parents couldn’t care for them anymore – but Freyda wouldn’t be allowed to meet any of them just yet. Not when her mother was slowly dying somewhere out in the snow. Usually Kevin hated this rule, thinking the children would get along better if they could make friends from the start. That it might make their loss easier to bear. But as he settled Freyda into her room, helping her out of her heavy coat, he saw the empty expression on her face and her complete lack of curiosity, and knew she’d prefer it this way.
So he left her the doll, pointed out the books on the shelf and told her how to summon someone if she felt thirsty or hungry. Then he left, locking the door behind him, off to change his clothes and boil the ones he was wearing. It was called quarantine for a reason.
* * *
ALONE IN HER new room, Freyda pushed the doll to one side and climbed up onto the tiny windowsill, gripping hold of the freezing metal bars. Outside it was snowing again, the dark river almost invisible in the whirling white. Freyda stared and stared until it felt she’d gone blind.
“Goodbye, Mummy,” she whispered to the white day. “Get better soon.”
IN THE RUINS of the town, lost amongst the shadows, a bell tolled. Freyda sat at her open window and counted the chimes. Four in the morning, and all was well. Huddled in a blanket, she stared up at the night. When she’d first arrived here ten years ago it had been hard to see the stars so close to town; nowadays it was easy. Smiling, she tucked her blanket around her feet and marvelled that there were good things about the energy shortage after all.
The stars were beautiful tonight, fiercely bright and so very clear. As she angled herself to stare south over the sea, she felt all the tension in her body unwind. Orion was rising. There were the unmistakable three bright points of his belt, and the four corner stars. From there it was easy to see the sword at his side, the club in his upraised hand. The hare ran beneath his feet and his faithful hounds followed close behind, the bigger one glowing with the blue brilliance of Sirius.
Freyda loved the stars. There was something pure and clean about them that was too far away to be tainted by the ugliness of this world. They knew nothing of nightmares and bad memories. They listened to her troubles without ever passing judgement, and they carried her secret wishes inside their burning hearts.
They were perfect. Freyda didn’t know what she’d do if she couldn’t see the stars.
“Have you got a window open in there?” The strident voice of Warden Margie called through the door; it startled Freyda so much she almost fell out of the window. “Freyda? Freyda! I said have you got a window open?”
“Not now,” Freyda grumbled, sliding off the sill to pull the window shut. Frost glittered on the old-fashioned catch, biting into her fingers as she dropped it into place.
Too late – Warden Margie was already searching through her keys. Sighing, Freyda gathered up the blanket and flopped onto her bed. The lock turned with a clunk and torchlight swept the room. The beam landed on the young woman sitting defiantly in the centre of the sagging mattress, a patched blanket thrown over her shoulders, oversized socks sagging about her ankles.
Warden Margie pursed her lips. “How many times, Freyda?”
“I can’t sleep with my window closed.”
“It’s minus five out there!”
Freyda shrugged. She hadn’t noticed; she never noticed the cold unless she wanted to.
Warden Margie rolled her jaw, looking set to give Freyda a proper dressing down, but the hands of the luminous wind-up clock on the wall must have caught her eye. “It’s gone four in the morning, my girl. Long past time you were sleeping. You’ve a big day coming.”
As if Freyda could forget. As if anyone would let her.
“Leave that window shut.” The torch beam flicked to check that it was indeed closed. “Just because you don’t get cold, unnatural as you are, that doesn’t go for the rest of us. There’s an energy shortage on, miss, in case you’ve forgotten. It’s hard enough to heat this old cowshed as it is, without certain people opening windows that ought to stay closed.” The woman gave a prim nod, swung her torch away and shut the door.
Freyda said nothing; there was nothing to say. She just sat on her bed, hands in fists, listening to the rattle of the keys and the clunk of the lock. The sounds of her prison. What did it matter if she could lock the door herself from the inside, when they could just as easily unlock it again and enter at will? Where was the privacy in that?
As Warden Margie’s steps faded away down the hallway, Freyda lay back on her pillows and stared at the dark ceiling. It was cold, she realised with a shiver, and burrowed into the blankets. She had little wish to sleep now, but as Margie had said it was a big day. She would need her rest. So she closed her eyes and forced herself to sleep, willing the memories to stay in the past where they belonged.
* * *
She looked up from her solitary breakfast in the old staff room and tried to ignore the happy chatter of children clattering past outside. Instead she stared at the face she knew so well.
Professor Cochran was the head researcher at the Institute. He was the perfect image of a scientist in his long lab coat. His silver-streaked white hair was cut short and neat, but he was unable to disguise the rising height of his forehead.
The glasses perched on his thin nose were solid and black, no nonsense and firm. Like him. His eyes were black too, his pallid skin starting to sag with age and there were liver spots on the hands clutching the clipboard to his chest. Strong fingers, even if the skin covering them was parchment pale, the nails at the end bitten below the quick.
Science and technology had come so far, so fast, according to the history books they had made Freyda read. Yet here he was armed only with a trusty clipboard and pen. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same, Freyda thought with a humourless smile as she pushed her half-eaten porridge aside.
“You’re ready then.” It wasn’t a question. They never asked Freyda anything that might warrant an opinion. They gave her orders, made observations and never expected her to answer back. Which was just as well, because after ten years in this place there was very little Freyda had to say to any of them. So she followed the Professor out into the now empty corridor.
It was a bleak, cheerless sight. Concrete floors that were always cold, even in the middle of summer, and thin plaster walls originally painted a pale lime green that had faded patchily over the years into blobs of nasty nicotine yellow. Rumour had it that this place had once been a hospital, or perhaps a residential home for the elderly, maybe a school. As it partially was now.
Behind the numerous doors along the corridor adults were talking, occasionally answered by higher voices as the day’s lessons began. There was even a burst of laughter as Freyda followed the Professor down the cold hallway, past rooms she had never been allowed to enter. There were many orphan and unwanted children at the Institute – another way to secure funding – but there was only one Freyda.
There had been a time when she would have given anything to be normal, to be just like the others sitting in lessons, chatting with friends, playing in the courtyards. Freyda was past caring now. She’d never had friends, even before the Institute; she’d never stayed anywhere long enough to make them. Until she came here – and everything had changed.
Swiping a blonde hank of hair back behind her ear, Freyda brushed the memories away and focused on Professor Cochran’s back. The lab coat hardly moved as he walked, it was so starchy and stiff. Just like its owner. She didn’t think she’d ever seen the Professor smile, not in any if the years she’d known him. He’d certainly never laughed. He rarely even spoke, except to give an order. All his observations were written down.
Freyda stared at the shiny bald spot on the back of his head, surprised to see it gleaming as they passed between the bars of light coming down through the high windows. Even in this bitterly cold place the Professor was sweating. It made Freyda wonder what a man so cold and clinical could have to sweat about. Was he nervous? Was he feverish? Was he worried?
Yes, today was a big day, but every month was the same. Once the Institute’s government allocated energy rations began, so did the experiments. Freyda was used to them by now; she’d been spending several days a month on them for the last decade. Everyone always said how important they were, how vital for research, how fundamental for funding and rations. Every month always began with Big Days.
So why was today any different?
The Professor glanced at her over his shoulder, a flash of something new crossing his face. A hint of anxiety perhaps? Irritation? His pale lips pulled long and thin. If he disapproved of her, she couldn’t see why. It wasn’t like she was misbehaving. She certainly wasn’t resisting his orders, or making trouble. She was just doing as she was told, as she always did, because there wasn’t any point in doing anything else.
Stopping outside a small metal door, the Professor tilted his head towards her, his expression neutral once more. “Your things are inside,” he said, and strode off without waiting for a reply.
Freyda didn’t bother to give one. Putting her hand on the icy metal handle, she entered the small ladies’ bathroom and found her running clothes stacked neatly beside the basin. It was to be an outside day then. Freyda sighed. Wonderful. How long before it started snowing?
With such a cheery thought in mind, she locked the door and pulled her thick jumper over her head, swapping her warm jeans for polyester shorts and a thin t-shirt. Well, she wouldn’t want to overheat, now would she?
* * *
LEAVING THE INSTITUTE was always a jolt; stepping away from the cold, dead concrete and onto the cracked earth at the bottom of the steps. The ground was littered with weeds that no one could be bothered to control and the near distance was dominated by black factory hulks. But beyond those dark signs of human despair, Freyda couldn’t help but look.
Even though she knew the river was a sluggish, murky brown sludge full of too much waste, the sight of it always made her smile. The tide was in, leaving the water high and placid. Weak sunlight glinted along the waves of the rippling current, shining like scattered jewels.
The far side of the river was nothing but wild forest, occasionally broken by the tips and tops of the abandoned villages that had once thrived in the steep valleys. Now only trees lived there, with squirrels and foxes for company.
How Freyda wished she could get over there someday. But the river was wide, and though the tide fell nice and low twice a day, the mud it left behind was thick and treacherous. There had once been a bridge across the half-mile between the shores, but it was gone now. Broken by storms, scrapped for salvage, swallowed by the mud. Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine what it must have looked like less than twenty years before, when the giant struts still had work to do.
The shout shattered her imaginings and Freyda shivered as a gust of wind swept up the river, fresh from the sea glinting beyond the docklands and sand bars. Rubbing at her bare arms, she stamped her feet in their threadbare trainers and walked across the grass towards the waiting scientists.
As she moved, she imagined that the wind was coming directly from the Sahara, so many miles away, yet still full of the heat of the desert. Her goosebumps settled and her hands fell away from her arms, as she raised her head to meet the avid stares awaiting her.
The Scientists of the Institute. The Researchers. The Watchers. The Jailors. Her Keepers. Few of them met her gaze. Not because they were ashamed of what they had done to her since she was a little girl, barely eight years old, but because they were too busy observing her. Was she shivering? Were those goosebumps on her arms? Was her skin pale or flushed? Was that a new freckle? Had she put on weight? Lost it? Was her hair longer? Paler?
She was just the experiment. Her eyes weren’t important, unless the scientists were shining a light into them. When she scanned the familiar huddle for a second time, however, an unfamiliar blue stare met hers. Freyda was surprised enough to look more closely.
The newcomer was a woman, not much older than Freyda herself. Just as pale, almost as tall, but her hair was even blonder. She was dressed in white – unsurprisingly, considering the company she was keeping – but it extended beyond her coat to the trousers and high-heeled boots peeping beneath the hems.
There was a white fluffy hat on her head and the rimless glasses perched on her delicate nose were stylish and pricey. Even the clipboard between her expensive natural wool gloves was white. When she smiled at Freyda’s long scrutiny, her pale pink lips glinted with a hint of gloss.
Makeup. Expensive. Like everything else the woman was wearing. She had to have come from a city, possibly Birmingham, but more likely London. Which made her no ordinary scientist. Freyda’s eyebrows twitched and she gave a silent, inward whistle. No wonder the Professor was sweating. The Institute’s research projects were being assessed. That hadn’t happened for almost five years, but it could change everything.
A ripple of orders passed through the cluster of chilled scientists and two women stepped forward, monitors in hand, probes at the ready. With the minimum of contact and fuss, they taped the various sensors to the many exposed patches of Freyda’s skin. Familiar with the routine, Freyda held out her arms and stared up at the blue sky overhead. It was a beautiful day, if one didn’t mind the cold.
High above, a seagull scythed through the air. It had no need to flap as it adjusted its wings to slice through the wind. Then it whirled and soared away, cradled by the sky. What she wouldn’t give for such glorious freedom.
“If you would begin, Freyda,” Professor Cochran ordered, with unusual courtesy, after the scientists stepped away from her. Normally he just nodded to one of his assistants – Freyda could never be bothered to remember their names, since they changed every few months – and the harried-looking man or woman would bark, mumble or grunt at her to start.
Before she did, though, Freyda patted her chest to make sure the heart monitor was in place and stretched her neck from side to side, ensuring the pulse collar wasn’t too tight. The one on her right wrist needed a half twist for comfort and the one of her left ankle was a little itchy, but she knew once she got moving she’d soon forget about it. Bending her knees, she bounced on her toes to ensure the other wrappings on her legs weren’t about to come loose.
Sadly not. Everything was in place, taped firmly down and ready to go. All that was left was herself. So she turned her back on the scientists and jogged away along the track.
It was dull stuff and well within her limits, since she’d spent far too many hours pounding the dirt and mud around this same scraggy patch of wasteland, little more than a casual dumping ground for the surrounding factories. Ice crackled beneath her feet, part of the same frost that feathered the dead grass and gilded the spider webs hanging from abandoned tires and rusted metal springs.
Freyda saw all these things and appreciated their abstract beauty, but she didn’t feel them. She didn’t feel the cold. She didn’t feel the exertion of the run. Instead she imagined the winter sun on her skin was actually that of summer, and that she was running down a hill of wildflowers, somewhere out in the deserted countryside.
She didn’t know if such places existed anymore. Perhaps they had all been ploughed under or grazed into nothing by the giant farms that worked so hard to feed the enormous appetites of the cities.
Those cities were special places where electricity was still constant and the air was kept clean by hardworking filters. Where the floods were held back by impressive defences, and every street had storm shelters for when the weather got too wild.
There were no blackouts for them. No city had to face the unpleasant view of factory shores, see their rivers choked up with brown sludge or cough their way through the morning smog. Life in the cities was designed to be as perfect and futuristic as possible. It was only outside that reality was allowed to flourish, in a world of dwindling natural resources with a climate rampaging out of control.
Not that Freyda noticed, or even cared much these days. She might not live in a city, but she hardly had to face the wild world either. Not when she spent her life under the watchful eyes of at least ten scientists – often more. The climate was irrelevant to her too, since if she didn’t like the weather she could usually imagine herself something better, evading the worst of what everyone else had to suffer.
That was why she was here, pounding the dirt of the track, dripping with outdated and costly technology. Because she didn’t have to care and she didn’t make sense. The scientists hated anything that didn’t make sense.
Her feet carried her back to where her watchers were muttering to each other. One held a stopwatch and was showing it to his friend. Two more held the monitors that tracked her sensor readings. Another three came forward when Freyda stopped, ready to check the other meters.
They talked busily amongst themselves, never to her. They compared findings, exclaimed over anomalies, and when they were done, two women reset everything and the Professor asked her to go around again.
Freyda did, knowing all eyes were upon her, including that new blue pair from the citified stranger. Their focused attention was like an unpleasant itch under her skin, worse than the cold or the fatigue.
So she ignored it and imagined herself somewhere else. Somewhere warm. Somewhere far away. In a world that didn’t exist in this one anymore. It was beautiful, wild, unrestrained and free. The sun shone warmly on her skin, glinting off the hair that kept falling across her eyes. Smiling, Freyda imagined that a hot breeze came to brush it away. Laughing softly to herself, she tipped her face up to the warm blue sky and ran on into the day.
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