Few things ever changed in the valley that was in the shadow of the mountain. The humming land seemed to almost glow in the afternoon's sunlight. Tall eucalypts stood in calm lethargy among the carpets of bracken and leaf litter, over-shadowing the sudden juts of granite that leaned out of the mountainside like weathered escapees. Birdcalls trilled softly, as feathered forms argued and gossiped, flitting between shadows with wing flurries ignored by the insistent insects that toiled on, oblivious or indifferent to the many-coloured streams of life that swirled around them.
The scream shattered the stillness of the day's warmth. Birds shrieked a counter-note of fright as the rag-doll form somersaulted down the mountainside, crying out each time it was raked by a low-hanging branch or grazed a tree or boulder. The woman suddenly grabbed a clump of bracken as it skidded by. The rustling descent was abruptly halted, as the bracken's roots stubbornly kept their grip on the soil. For a while, the figure hung there, gasping for breath. Slowly, she reached for a low-hanging branch that hung just beyond her reach, conscious of the steep incline that began bare centimetres below her scrabbling feet.
Dimly, she heard the sounds of laughter coming from above, the voices of the people who had pushed her, ripe with mirth.
The branch turned out to be unattached, and its weight was suddenly upon her. She swore in panicked frustration.
Just then, bracken parted company with soil, and the woman slid down the remainder of the incline, before coming to a sharp stop when her hip hit the bole of a massive tree. With a slight shudder, she lay still but from the low moans that occasionally escaped her lips, she was still conscious.
The branch followed her down the slope, and slammed into her, causing her to double up as she was wedged tighter against the tree, hitting her head hard in the process.
Sounds of a vehicle sounded from further up the slope, and the malicious laughter disappeared from the awareness of the valley's inhabitants.
The woman slipped wearily into unconsciousness.
The forest was quiet once again.
Ivan strolled languorously between the eucalypts and savoured his surroundings. The soft afternoon light filtered through the patchy canopy, and the scene was one of peaceful serenity.
Humming to himself, he breathed in the rich scents and wandered in search of the feral citruses which grew at this time of year. Soft chirps and rustles alerted him to the presence of the vast avian varieties, fluttering, scratching and soaring on the edges of his perception. All in search of food, conversation or amusement.
"Not unlike humans in that respect," murmured Ivan wryly as he ducked a trio of screeching low-flying lorikeets.
He looked up again, and then suddenly saw the long scrape of red-brown earth that ran down the slope. Frowning slightly, Ivan moved towards it, wondering what could have disturbed such a long swathe of the hill.
Stepping almost soundlessly through the brush, Ivan peered towards the object he could see at the base of a massive cedar.
He gaped in surprise. A woman who looked to be in her early twenties lay sprawled in an ungraceful heap beneath a heavy-looking branch.
Swiftly, Ivan moved across and felt for a pulse.
Slowly, Ivan levered the branch away from her prone form, and was rewarded with a low groan. He could see numerous bruises and gashes on her bared skin, and her dull grey clothing was torn and filthy from her rough plunge.
"How far did you fall?" Ivan wondered aloud as he saw the raw, bloody patches on the woman's hands, doubtlessly from vain attempts to slow her descent.
The years of medical training came into play almost without notice, as Ivan meticulously assessed the woman's state. If her spine or neck were damaged, moving her could prove to be fatal, unless he was careful.
Luckily, most of the damage appeared superficial. A large lump on the tree-side of her head suggested that the impact had driven her unconscious, and Ivan was relieved to find both spine and ribs intact.
However, he was unsurprised to find the swelling around the woman's right ankle and the clearly broken right arm.
Unsurprised, but not unconcerned; Ivan stripped off his shirt and speedily knelt then splinted the arm with a section of the errant branch. As he checked the tightness of the makeshift bandage, Ivan heard a soft moan.
Lightly touching her shoulder, Ivan asked the woman, "Can you hear me? What is your name?"
"No!" she shouted, and began to roll to her feet, but was unable to escape Ivan's firm grip, which held her flat.
"I'm not trying to hurt you! Stop struggling!"
The woman glared at him and demanded, "Then why am I pinned down huh?"
"So that you don't injure yourself anymore than you already are," replied Ivan calmly. "You can't go too far with that sprained ankle or broken arm anyway. You'd die out here without any food or medical attention." The woman opened her mouth to speak, but Ivan held up his hand to silence her, saying, "No! You are not alright. I trained as a doctor, so I know what I am doing. Please cooperate."
Seeing the resistance fading into the background, Ivan was shocked at the level of distrust that remained in those brown eyes. When he was sure that she wouldn't try to run, he slowly released her, then gave her a piece of traveling bread, full of dried fruit and nuts, whilst he examined her arm again, to make sure that the splint hadn't been compromised by their brief scuffle. As though remembering some forgotten custom, he blinked, and then said, "My name's Ivan, by the way. I'm a Custodian."
"Roselle. I'm from Eden 7."
Ivan raised his brows. "Live in our Technological Utopias in the first disease-free settlements since the beginnings of Humankind!" was the tagline of the campaign. It had caused millions to flock to the up-market estates which had spread across the globe like plague-sores, the Eden Series estates being the most exclusively run settlements since Nazi Germany- only the "right people" could afford to pay the up-front cost of living there, and only the "right people" were allowed to even fill out an application.
Or at least fill out an application that would be read, at any rate.
"If you're from there, what on earth are you doing out here?"
Roselle looked haunted whispering, "If I tell you, they'll have to kill you. They tried to kill me… they pushed me off the road down the mountain."
"Why?" Ivan asked cautiously.
Roselle laughed harshly, and then replied, "You remember the ad campaign, and how they said that no one would ever want to leave their Eden?"
Ivan nodded slightly when an awful possibility dawned on him.
"You mean that they…"
"If you ever indicate that you are wishful of leaving Eden, the Corporate Body gives you three options- you can change your mind, move to a different Eden, or you can leave… in a coffin."
Ivan was shocked. He wanted to question Roselle further, ask her how it was that she had been thrown down a mountain whilst still alive, but he could see that she was in a fragile state. In fact, one of the things people thought inherent in society had just imploded on itself, with this notion of corruption in the supposedly incorruptible Eden cities. The concept that there could be something wrong with the Edens had been discussed, but not credited.
This would change the others' minds!
As he contemplated this, Ivan helped Roselle to her feet. However, as soon as she put any weight on her damaged foot, she collapsed against his shoulder, vainly trying to grip his arm with her good one as she collapsed.
Ivan caught Roselle halfway, lowering her gently back to the ground as she swore vehemently. He saw the desperation on her face, and wondered.
"It's not a very bad break. It should heal in about five weeks. And your ankle is only sprained, so provided that you keep off it for a week or so, you should heal up to be as good as new. You're going to be fine," Ivan reassured her with a slight smile.
Roselle seemed horrified. "Fine? How can I survive out here for a whole week without being able to move? I don't even …" she trailed off as she saw Ivan's expression. "What?" she demanded after a slight pause.
"Why can't you recover at my place…" he stopped, as he saw her mentally tallying the cost of such a stay, and was shocked at Roselle's cynicism.
How could someone become so disenfranchised with the rest of the human race? Confusedly he asked, "Don't they do such things as favours in Eden 7?"
Roselle's expression clouded and her eyes narrowed.
With sudden insight, Ivan broke out laughing. "Not that sort of favour," he said, and then noticed that Roselle wasn't sharing the joke.
"Honestly, the greatest service you could do for me is gifting me with your conversation for the next month or so."
Roselle's apprehensive expression didn't change, as she queried in a brittle voice, "Only conversation?"
"You'll have to tell me the full story of how you came to be here, and that is all I will ask of you." he paused, and then added for good measure, "I swear it. Really."
Roselle was still reluctant, but evidently decided that such an arrangement was her only hope for survival. Forcing back her now instinctive fear that this stranger's mysterious altruism was a façade, she nodded, and when Ivan offered her his shoulder to lean on, she felt a tiny glimmer of hope.
Perhaps they had failed in their mission to kill her after all.
In the end, Ivan had to carry her most of the way, as although Roselle had stubbornly hopped next to him past normal endurance, in the end, a slight stumble caused her to collapse against him. She had half-expected him to lash out at her, and had cringed when he bent over her.
"I apologise for the indignity, but if we are ever going to get to my home, this is necessary." He had then raised her up into his arms with little effort, and then continued onwards at a much faster pace than previously.
To her chagrin, Roselle actually began to enjoy the novelty of the experience.
In Eden, such a blatant abuse of the proximity limits would have been enough to mean the complete confiscation of all services vouchers. Only within designated areas, such as private residences or the so-called "free zones" was such contact allowed, in order to prevent the "disruption of vibes" that public displays of affection supposedly caused.
Roselle was suddenly glad that her face was at an angle where Ivan couldn't discern her features- it had reddened from such disestablishmentarian thoughts.
She shivered as the coolness of the cloak of evening began to gather, the chill intensifying her assorted aches. As Ivan shifted his grip, Roselle noticed the goose bumps that ran across his skin, and remembered that his shirt was binding her arm.
Knowing by now that protests against Ivan's spontaneous self-sacrifice would only be ignored, Roselle instead questioned, "How far are we from your home?"
She could hear the fatigue in Ivan's voice as he responded, "We're scarcely twenty paces from it."
Roselle squinted through the darkening expanse of trees, but was unable to tell where he meant. She commented as much, and he seemed to find this amusing.
Roselle felt his vibrating diaphragm and glanced up at his face, startled by his reaction, until she spotted it. A narrow manhole was visible at the base of a wattle. Of course a Custodian would have a minimum impact dwelling. It was just that she was fresh from an Eden, where all of the environs were artificial, and thus weren't regarded as even vaguely important or worth preserving. If it broke, then it was repaired, as simple as that.
Roselle had forgotten that there was no easy way to do so "outside". That was one of the main reasons why so many world governments had sanctioned the creation of the Edens. They kept the main population from interfering with anything that was not trivial.
Roselle's reverie was shattered as Ivan lowered her to the ground. Carefully unlatching the manhole cover, he climbed down the first few rungs then frowned.
"You think that you can manoeuvre yourself over here?"
Roselle considered, and then replied, "I can make my own way down the ladder. Probably. If I fall, you'll have to catch me." This she said almost dully, as though half expecting him to leave her stranded.
"You're sure?" Ivan sounded anxious, but Roselle was too much a child of Eden to trust him as yet.
She crawled to the vent and waited for Ivan to lower himself down the ladder before gingerly stretching out her good leg until she found a rung.
Almost ponderously, Roselle inched along until her weight rested on the ladder. Then, holding her injured limbs as far from potential harm as possible, she gripped the rim of he manhole with one hand, then, leaning hard against the ladder, wrapped her knees and inner elbows around it and allowed herself to slide down the rounded poles of the supports.
Ivan caught her a bare half-metre from the ground. Jolted by the sudden halt, Roselle reflexively loosened her limbs and fell backwards into Ivan's arms, startling a laugh from him. He smoothly scooped her up, ignoring Roselle's protests, and ceremoniously placed her on a low sofa in the next room.
Bright colours exploded from every surface in the room, and Roselle blinked in shock. Such luxury! Multi-hued murals of flowers, people, animals, patterns, surreal and abstract, realistic and stylized. Roselle gaped as she surveyed the room.
Inside Eden, grey was the only predominant colour, grey walls, grey clothing, grey lives, steel, synth-cotton, concrete and depression. The only colours that Roselle ever remembered seeing before being thrown out of Eden were within the tawdry cartoons in an ancient child's picture-book, the bright blue or green eyes of outsiders who entered Eden 7 during inspections, and the livid colours that her body had produced when she had once fallen down the stairs. For a few days, her skin had been red, blue, green, orange, purple, until the bruises finally faded. But she had not understood why this had been so, and the thought of being labeled "clumsy" in her profile for occupation assignation had been enough to discourage her from duplicating the experiment. Besides, it had hurt.
Of course, the colour of blood was well known to her- blood tests had been a yearly thing, since Roselle was five…
In contrast, here… the carpet was a rich blue that stood out against the frieze-coated walls; the furniture was mostly antique in design- either wooden, leather or canvas, in minimalist deep reds, stark whites and jet blacks.
All of this served only to enhance the show on the walls. All of the extravagances of the spectrum were vibrantly explored as outlandish art that could have been the landscape of a dream, but never of reality. The cold grey-greens and forest greens of outside had been a shock to her system, but these colours, they almost hummed with brilliance.
A clinking sound caused Roselle to tear her eyes from the vision, to see where Ivan was preparing a meal.
Scents of real fruit and real bread, not the tasteless hydroponic products that she was used to, flooded Roselle's nose as she slowly inhaled.
"You honestly live in this place? I thought that Custodians lived in bleak penury! That's what we were taught."
Ivan shrugged. "It's not so bad. I have to gather all of my own food, but it beats living in the slum settlements… What?" Roselle stared at him in disbelief.
"Ivan, this beats living in the Edens. There is no comparison. You live surrounded by incredible beauty… why would you ever want to leave it for the technological dungeons of an Eden…?" Roselle trailed off, rendered speechless by the enormity of Ivan's incomprehension. "What could possibly be wrong with living in a place like this?"
Ivan handed her a plate filled with food, which she took wordlessly and held as though waiting for it to be snatched away.
"The loneliness. You have no idea what it is like to be without human contact for years on end…" Ivan paused, looking curiously at Roselle's expression of amazement.
She asked wonderingly, "But… aren't you in contact with the other Custodians?"
Ivan grimaced, "Only via the intranet. I've never even seen a depiction of the other Custodians, unless you count my deceased predecessor. I actually thought for a moment that you were one, but you don't ask the right questions. And you are a lot bitterer than anyone I've ever spoken with online…" He stopped momentarily as though a thought had just occurred to him. "Who are you anyway? What made you fall? And how did you leave Eden?"
Roselle paled. Shaking her head slowly, she murmured, "You really don't want me to answer that. Why they tried to kill me is… No."
Ivan's expression narrowed, but his voice was level as he said, "In case your memory was affected by that bump you received on your head, you owe me an explanation for being in my district. I've tended your hurts, given you food, offered you shelter for your recuperation. If there is something about your presence her that could endanger me or my comrades, your must tell me." He paused significantly, then continued, "Or perhaps I should inform everyone that you are here."
Roselle was rhythmically shaking her head, biting her lip, but when Ivan opened his mouth to resume his questioning, she raised a shaking hand, and interrupted his unspoken words. "No. I'll tell you everything…" she laughed, somewhat hysterically, and then abruptly stopped herself. "You should know, everyone should know…" she looked up at him, her eyes wide, "but I'm terrified. These people mean business in a strictly non-clichéd manner. They tried to kill me for gossake!"
"Why?" demanded Ivan, "Why would they try to kill you?"
"Because I found out something that no one is supposed to know, that could be enough to topple their Edens." She chuckled suddenly, then added, "Heck, it could be enough to topple Them."
Ivan didn't speak, instinctively knowing that one false move would cause this girl to disappear forever, injuries and lack of survival skills aside. He merely nodded, and this seemed to be enough for Roselle, for she soon continued.
She took a breath, and then began, "The first thing that you should know is that They are the creators and financial subsidizers of the Edens. Or most of them anyway. The documents that I uncovered were so high security clearance that unless you are one of them, there is an unwritten death warrant attached to them. I figured that the hard way," she said, indicating her injuries. "Not all of these bruises are from my 'fall'. Some are from the cronies that They sent to silence me before I could tell the truth." A thought seemed to occur to her, and she demanded suddenly, "Where did you receive your medical training?"
Surprised by the abrupt turn in the conversation, Ivan took a few seconds to collect his thoughts before he responded, "Syd Uni. One of the few non-Eden endorsed places of education left." He grinned sardonically, and added, "It used to be that I wanted so badly to get into one of the Edens. Maybe my father knew what he was doing when he sent me to a place with no direct channels."
Roselle shook her head, saying, "It wouldn't have mattered. Everywhere is Eden endorsed these days, whether they advertise it or not." She considered him carefully for a moment, continuing, "But the fact that you are exiled out here is really enough recommendation for me. They don't tell mere Custodians about Incurables do they." It was a statement, not a query, and for some inexplicable reason, the hairs stood up on the back of Ivan's neck.
"Incurables?" he probed, "but there haven't been any for over a decade."
"There haven't been any reported for over a decade." Roselle grimly reached into her soiled shirt and pulled out a piece of paper that had been folded into the tiniest wad possible.
She passed it to Ivan, and he quickly scanned its contents. It was a list of names, typed, with a list of ailments and suggested treatment. He read the list aloud, his eyebrows rising higher with each word.
"Miscarriage, Downs Syndrome, AIDS, smallpox, melanoma, pneumonia… But most of these were eradicated ages ago! Only a few isolated pockets of people who refuse to go to modern medical establishments ever contract any of these!"
Roselle covered her face with her hands, murmuring, "Wait until you read the proposed treatments."
"Scheduled for… Disposal! Oh God," Ivan whispered. "How can they? Who lets them get away with this?" his voice was increasing in volume, and Roselle cowered into the corner of the sofa, curling up to minimize the target as he raged.
He realized what she was doing, and froze mid-rant. Raking his hair away from his face, he stepped back in astonishment.
"You didn't really think…? I wouldn't hurt you Roselle."
She unexpectedly glared fiercely at him, and quoted, "'We of the United Health Organisation will eliminate all disease by the year 2048'… It's what they said they would do! It was out there!"
"But no one ever thought to ask how…" Ivan trailed off, horrified. There was a silence, as Roselle watched him assimilate the deplorable facts. He covered his face with his hands, and when he removed them, he appeared older.
"'Less and less people die every year from incurable diseases'… and they'd know, the bastards! We have to do something! To think that I ever wanted…" he broke off, and then came to a decision. "This is an issue for the other Custodians. We must do something about this!"
"Like what? What can a scattered group of people do against giants like the Edens?"
Ivan smiled triumphantly, and replied, "What we should have done a long time ago. Revolt!"
A few weeks later, a sentry program recorded the approach of around a thousand people marching towards Eden 5. They carried weapons and chanted, "We want truth! We want truth!"
They were led by a woman with an arm in a sling, whose brown eyes seemed almost to glow with suppressed fury, and a tall man wearing the armband of a medic who never left her side.
Fifteen minutes later, it sent a report, warning that there could be a risk of contamination if the 'feral humans' infiltrated.
But by then, the residents of Eden, having been covertly informed of the reasons for the pending attack, had opened the gates to let in their liberators.
By the time the terrified official received the report, it was too late.
The sanctity of Eden 5 had been violated, and for the Corporate Body, all hell was about to break loose.