Ora's Gold

By Charlotte Young

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure, New adult fiction

Paperback, eBook

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1311
15 mins

1 - Goodbye


Lucy is hanging off me the way an ivy vine swirls around a tree. I can barely walk, let alone pull my suitcase. The rest of her family trails behind us patiently. The station’s massive glass doors open silently, releasing a wave of people moving too fast, streaming past us. One of the wheels on my case gets snagged on a stroller.

‘Rraahh!’ The toddler in the stroller stands up and waves his toy beast under my nose.

‘Great monster!’ My best friend leans over, taking me with her. I pull away and tug at my case. It’s stuck.

‘Grhhh!’ The kid’s giving me the creeps.

‘Sit down Harry,’ his mother says, jerking the stroller back.

Finally, the wheels are free. I want to move quickly but there are too many people, and Lucy has reattached herself.

‘Why can’t you come with us?’ Her voice sounds small in the vast interior.

‘Which platform was it again?’ I stop under the departure board, focusing on the sea of words and ignoring her question.

‘I don’t want you to go!’ She’s really squeezing me now.

I glance at the shiny floor and see our reflection. Me, stiff, upright. Lucy, desperate and clinging. Why is she making this so difficult?

‘You’re the ones who’re leaving.’ I say, peeling her arms off me.

‘But we want you to come with us!’

‘Lucy!’ Beth cuts in. ‘Not this again. We’ve had this conversation so many times. Ora needs to spend time with Dione.’

Even her mum sounds upset with me.

‘It’s not De-on, Mother,’ Lucy snaps. ‘Jeez! How many times do you have to get it wrong? It’s Dee-OH-nee. Dee-OH-nee. Auntie Dee-OH-nee.’

I smile and then catch a lump in my throat. I can’t believe they’re all going. I will not miss them. I will not.

A SIF officer zips by on his motorbike so close he almost catches Lucy’s elbow. I look over to where he’s headed and see a man in a black hoodie running through the crowds. The SIF siren starts and everyone stands still. No-one wants to be hit by the bikes that have swarmed, seemingly out of nowhere. The officers are wasp-like in their black uniforms with bright orange stripes on the sleevesthe more senior, the more stripes.

‘Watch it!’ Lucy shouts after the bike. I freeze. Other travellers step away from us. Lucy can be so stupid sometimes.

‘I only met her once, Daughter,’ Beth says, completely ignoring the SIF action. ‘And that was over five years ago at the …’ She doesn’t finish her sentence.

Beth still can’t say ‘funeral’ in front of me.

‘Memory like a sieve,’ says Lucy, rolling her eyes at me, and I smile. ‘I wish you were coming with us.’ She won’t give up.

Maybe I should be going with them. To the land of the kiwi, as Holly used to say.

‘I can’t, Lucy.’ I have to shout over the sirens. ‘Dione’s the only family I’ve got, apart from Dad.’

‘But New Zealand’s a free country! No SIF telling you what to do, you can do anything. And think of the food! Real food.’

‘You still have to work, Luce—a lot. Self-sufficiency doesn’t just happen. Why do you think they opened their doors in the first place?’

The sirens start to die down.

‘We won’t be allowed in forever, you know. They’ll stop letting people in.’

She’s trying to scare me. This conversation is so old! I know exactly when the trump card is coming. ‘We’re your family now Ora.’

‘I know you are!’ How can I explain that I’m never going to leave Mum and Holly? That I need to stay close to my memories. ‘And I love you. Always. But … I want to stay in Australia. And I want to spend time with Dione … get to know her again.’

‘There’s your train,’ Hugo’s nodding at Platform 14, where the golden bullet has just pulled in. I’m thankful for the distraction. We start moving again.

‘I preferred the silver bullets,’ he says. ‘They looked friendlier.’

‘I preferred planes,’ Lucy’s dad says nostalgically. ‘When I win the lottery I’ll treat you all to a flight.’

‘It’d have to be a big win,’ Beth says, ‘but it would be nice.’

‘Still so frivolous! Haven’t you guys learnt anything?’ Lucy is on her high horse. ‘If your generation hadn’t been so greedy there’d have been a bit more oil left for us!’

Hugo whistles the government’s jingle, ‘Sunny Sunny Solar’, as we come to a stop on the platform.

‘Shame the government didn’t make the changes years ago.’ Lucy looks briefly pained before cracking a big fake smile. ‘Shiny happy faces on, then.’

Hugo is still whistling and I want him to shut up. Lucy’s mum and dad envelop me in a double hug. I squeeze them back, tears looming.

‘Thank you for letting me stay with you for so long!’ Over three years. I can’t believe I’m saying goodbye.

‘Bye, Hugo.’ I turn and hug him quickly.

Lucy grabs me. ‘You have to speak to me EVERY day!’ She wraps me up so tightly I can’t pull away. I swallow down another lump, inhaling the sweet perfume she always wears.

‘I promise.’ I try to hug her back. ‘I have to go.’

Finally she releases me. I grab the handle of my case and head for the carriage door. If I turn around I will fall apart.

‘Ora!’ Lucy calls after me.

I hear her dad say something, but I keep going. My tears have started. I can’t look back.

The carriage is empty. I lift my case over the bars into the luggage rack and choose an aisle seat, three rows back. I force myself not to look at the others, standing on the platform, but as the train pulls away I can’t help it. They’re waving madly. I put my hand up against the cold glass and hope they can’t see my tears.

My chest lurches as I think of Lucy. Leaving. The train is travelling at full speed now and the outside world has become a blur. A SIF officer—one stripe—is striding down the aisle of the next carriage, coming towards me. Where did I put my ID? I can’t remember. He opens the carriage door, steps past the luggage and smiles as he goes by. I manage to move my lips into a line. I grab my backpack and search it—too many pockets!

My hand closes around the card. Everything is here, in order, as I packed it.

I’m counting tiny fingerprints on the window when a man sprints by, heading towards the front of the train. It’s the guy in the hoodie. He’s opening the door to the next carriage when he looks back with crazed eyes. My mouth goes dry. Suddenly he turns and runs straight at me, diving under my seat, squishing my legs against the wall of the train as he jams himself into an impossible space.

I sit immobilised. This is not happening. The SIF officer returns, stops just after my seat and steps back so he’s looking down on me.

‘Have you seen a guy in a black hoodie?’ His grey eyes are piercing and his neck is too long, his Adam’s apple bulging.

Every fibre in my body is willing me to scream that the guy is under my seat. Seconds drag by then I shake my head, no, quickly. I need to pee. The SIF officer takes off again. A minute later the guy struggles out from underneath me.

‘Thanks,’ he says and is gone.

I can’t believe what I just did. What the hell? I don’t even know him! The officer bounds past again. I hope the guy gets away. What if he comes back? I need to think of something else. Quickly! I focus on the window again. The surface. I count the fingerprints. One, two. Moving to Adelaide. Three, four. To see Dione. Five, six.

                                                            **

Rough words and heavy footsteps startle me out of my drowsy state. I lean into the aisle and see the SIF officer in the carriage in front, shoving the guy with the hoodie forwards. He’s holding him by the scruff of the neck, half choking him. The officer flings open the door and shoves the guy onto the floor, handcuffing both his wrists to the luggage compartment. Right next to my suitcase.

He marches away and returns a moment later with a triumphant grin, pulling a young woman by her hair. She too gets cuffed to the bars. She says something and the SIF officer lashes out, angrily. The woman falls back awkwardly, onto the cases. Her long coat falls open to reveal a huge pregnant belly.

I gasp, completely stunned. My eyes are glued to the massive mound, bulbous and forbidden. She’s just lying there. The hoodie guy is going to wrench his arms off if he struggles any more. The SIF officer walks by, winking at me as he goes.

She lies there for ages. Hoodie guy leans over and tries to help her up. Soon they’re huddling together on the floor. He’s doing a good job of trying to cradle her, but she’s shaking her head from side to side.

‘No,’ I hear her sob. She starts to make a low, howling sound.

My fingernails are digging into my palms. I do not want to be here, looking at them. A pregnant woman! Out. On a train. What will happen to her? We are slowing to a stop. As I try for a better look at her belly, the guy looks up and catches me gawking. I snap my head in, like a turtle, heat flushing my cheeks.

It’s time to get off, but I need my suitcase. Passengers are moving past me. I sit for a few more minutes. Dione will be waiting. From the platform, a swarm of SIF officers mounts the train. There are too many people. I’m glad I can’t see. But I can hear them. She is hysterical. He is shouting something, I can’t make out the words.

They are taken away.

2 – Auntie Dione

Dione is late. A chill wind goes through me, making me shiver. The shock of seeing that pregnant woman isn’t helping. How could she be so stupid? I can’t believe they thought it was worth the risk—they’ll probably never see each other again. I wonder if they’ll take her womb out now. Dad said they don’t do that, but I’ve heard different. As for the baby …

People mill around me on the platform, making me feel like I should be moving. Spring in South Australia is like being in an icebox. Give me the central hinterland any day.

‘Ora!’ Her husky tones transport me back instantly. I turn towards my aunt. Love, knowing and grief flare between us, our hazel eyes mirroring each other’s. She looks away.

Dione’s face is tougher and tighter than I remember. She’s got my jaw shape, I realise with a sting of surprise; slightly angular and determined. But the similarities stop there. Her sandy hair, much lighter than my own, is now streaked with silver. Mine is a wild, dark bomb of curls, always escaping. Hers is tied back neatly in a long braid. Everything about her is in place. Pursed lip lines make me wonder if she still laughs like she used to.

I step forward to give her a hug but it’s a quick one. ‘Come on, it’s getting cold.’ She pats my arm and strikes out along the platform.

My feet keep pace just behind her but my mind is struggling to take in this new, crisp version of the aunt I used to know.

‘There was a pregnant woman on the train.’

Her steps falter for a second but she doesn’t turn around.

‘Oh?’

‘The SIF caught her. And the guy.’

Dione strides on. Maybe she doesn’t care about this stuff anymore. I run a few paces to fall into step beside her.

‘I can’t believe anyone could be so dumb.’ The words have barely left my lips before Dione gives me the coldest look, like I’m the dumb one. We’ve reached the tailgate of a white and battered ute. It’s the same car from years ago, but I’m too stunned by the change in my aunt to be comforted by the familiarity. As she throws my case into the tray she slaps out a request.

‘You won’t call me Auntie Dione, will you?’

She’s already in the driver’s seat, turning on the engine. My hand touches the cold metal of the passenger door and I’m overwhelmed with a dark longing. I think about saying I need to go back—there’s still time—but my body is working against me. I flop down onto the seat. The cabin smells of diesel.

As the road slips by, the silence stretches further, and I start to wonder why the hell I came. This is not the aunt Holly and I played tiggy with, or the woman I clung to at the funeral just a month after my thirteenth birthday.

She makes an effort a couple of times, pointing out a few things as the landscape opens up; a flock of black cockatoos against the blue sky, a massive outcrop of boulders, but I can tell she’s uncomfortable. The journey takes forever.

The land is completely parched. No lush greens here, just lots of greys and muted greens. If I held a leaf at home, tightly, it’d slowly uncurl as I opened my hand. Here, the leaf would forget its shape instantly, crumbling into pieces.

We finally turn off the main road and wind our way up Dione’s track. It’s as long and dusty as I remember. She expertly zigzags around the potholes, holding the steering wheel with ease—she could probably do it with her eyes closed if she wanted to.

Dione mutters something about petrol rations and the length of the journey, but I don’t respond. I feel like I’m falling backwards into myself, into a familiar place I haven’t visited for years. Maybe I’m just tired.

As we pull into the bottom of the driveway, I look up and see the sign that Holly and I painted: ‘Buzzy Bee’s Bed and Breakfast’. The paint is peeling and the bee is barely visible—Holly drew it and I added the colour. I remember Holly’s bubbly excitement over the name—so not Dione, but she could never say no to Holly.

I don’t think the B&B ever got off the ground.

Dione parks in front of her old weatherboard home. The white paint is greyer and the house smaller—it’s almost shaking with too-loud memories. I’m not quick to get out of the car, but somehow I find myself walking up the path. As my feet sound on the wooden steps of the veranda I flash back to the hopscotch Holly and I used to play here, with the bright pink numbers. She loved that chunky chalk.

We started coming to Dione’s when I was six and my big sister, Holly was eight. Dad had these annual doctors’ conferences in South Australia, so Mum, Holly and I would visit Dione while he stayed in the city. Fuel was cheap back then. It’d take ages, driving from the New South Wales hinterland, but we had fun in the car; singing, arguing, sleeping and watching the changing scenery from inside our little bubble.

Whenever Mum spent time with Dione, they’d drink endless pots of tea and talk for hours about the world’s diminishing resources and how the corporate food industries and the pharmaceutical companies were destroying the planet for profit. And power. Only a small handful of island countries like New Zealand and Japan dared to fight against the agricultural changes and the scientifically modified ‘everything’.

Dione was still a hospital midwife then and she’d bang on about how it all started with birth, which had become an industrialised factory line. If Dione was the birth queen, Mum was the earth queen. Mum’s rants were about the horrors of factory farming, genetically engineered food and human greed. Round and round they’d go, firing each other up, bemoanin

g people’s ‘little’ lives made even smaller by fear. All in the name of safety.
We were visiting the day the SIF were officially appointed. For weeks, we’d heard nothing but news of their imminent arrival. It was even worse than the Sunny Solar campaign: ‘The new resource force for Australia, here to protect and preserve!’

Dione went ballistic. ‘Special Instigation Force my arse,’ she said. ‘Sick and Intense Fuckers, more like.’

Holly and I giggled, even if she did make the SIF sound scary. Maybe she knew they’d morph into power-mongering monsters. Later, Mum made her apologise to us for swearing.

It wasn’t just Australia. Other countries had their own versions of the SIF. Here, they were initially brought in as ‘special’ water monitors to investigate water theft and water harvesting. When I was eight, the drought got so bad that the government diverted the water supply and stopped it flowing through the pipes and taps. Mum and Dad were very solemn that day. The first few weekly rations with the black, stumpy containers were new and exciting for Holly and me, but we were young. Reality soon kicked in. One hundred litres per person, per week. Plastic-tasting water became a precious, drop-by-drop part of our existence.

SIF teams sprang out of nowhere and soon their jurisdiction extended far beyond water, wielding power by numbers, surveillance and arrests. Anyone they suspected of breaking a law—and there were new laws every week—was brought in for questioning. Their method is still the same: break people down and make them confess, even if they’re innocent. A ‘confession’ and an arrest mean points for the team. The more points, the higher the pay. The government loves the SIF. Mum despised them. Dad said he didn’t like them, but that they were necessary, even after the Health Minister gave them dominion over women’s health.

The only thorn in the SIF’s side—and the government’s—is the free media, who, like the moon, shine light into the shadows. The internet is their playground and they flash publish reports sporadically; a constant game of cat and mouse where journos risk everything for a good story, all in the name of ‘letting the citizens know’. But they’re not heroes by any means. They can play just as dirty as the SIF.

Ballistic doesn’t come close to describing Dione’s reaction when the new pregnancy and birth laws were introduced. It was seven years ago, after all the E. coli deaths. Thousands of people had died. It happened so quickly; the bacteria spawned super bacteria in the rivers and soil, which infected the crops and cattle. And then it jumped to the people. Mum blamed the farming methods, and the lack of rain followed by the freak floods. Antibiotics stopped working and a national crisis was declared.

Babies were being born with severe defects. When the new health minister was appointed he passed a law forcing all pregnant women into state protection centres. The ‘Safety for the Future Programs’ were implemented overnight across Australia. To ensure the wellbeing of every unborn baby, women had to self-enrol as soon as they found out they were pregnant, and were not allowed to leave the centres until after their babies had been delivered surgically, by C-Section. They were confined to highly regulated environments—bacteria-free zones—which meant no outside visitors. The law still stands, even though E. coli is under control. If women don’t go into a Safety for the Future Program, they risk losing their babies to the state and their wombs to research. Non-compliance is a serious crime.


                                                               ** 

Dione has opened the front door and is watching me, my suitcase in her hand.

‘I’ve cleared out the junk room for you,’ she says gently, and I hear a glimmer of her old self.

I smile for the first time and follow her in.

The floorboards look shinier than I remember but creak a whole lot more, and the passageway is narrower and shorter than it used to be. My bedroom is second on the left, after her study. I wonder where she’s put all that junk. Dione’s bedroom is opposite, spartan except for her frame drum on the wall and the crocheted bedspread.

Mum made that. I remember her sitting cross-legged on the sofa at home, concentrating for hours on the intricate work.

I want to lie down on it. Smell it.

‘Ora.’ Dione’s gruff voice calls me back and I follow her into my room. A cream cast-iron bed is under the window, with bedding to match. It looks kind of dated, especially on the stripped floorboards, but the mattress feels soft as I sit down and look out at the tree Holly and I used to climb.

I have no control now. The memories are hitting hard, but I don’t make a sound as the tears roll down my cheeks.

‘Take your time,’ Dione says, backing out. ‘Dinner’s ready when you are.’

She closes the door and goes into the kitchen. The radio volume goes up. I curl into the soft mattress and feel it holding me as I give voice to the sobs in my throat.

3 - Fresh Veggies

Dione is folding washing when I go into the kitchen. There’s a huge pile of towels, and I wonder if she has some kind of compulsive bathing thing going on. Although it’d have to be dry bathing. She lifts the towels onto the chair by the back door, where night is pressing in at the window.

‘You must be hungry,’ she says, taking a bowl of salad out of the fridge.

We avoid each other’s gaze. I know my eyes are puffy. I open the cutlery drawer—it’s still in the same place—and begin to set the table. My mouth is watering; her cooking is the best. Even through my sniffily nose, it smells delicious.

‘Where did you get all the veggies?’ I ask five minutes later, incredulous and in heaven with my mouth full of her veggie lasagne.

‘I still have a veggie garden.’ There’s a rebellious twinkle in her eye. ‘It’s just a little more surreptitious than it used to be.’

‘You what?’

She nods towards the back door and I get up to take a look. I can’t see anything except a sorry-looking lawn, but Dione picks up a torch to spotlight areas in the garden beds: spinach and eggplants, potatoes, a tomato vine growing over the garden bench, salad and herbs. It’s all there, hidden amongst scraggy bushes. There’s no way you’d see it via satellite. Even the SIF drones would miss it.

As I sit back down, the danger of Dione’s veggie patch hits me.

‘Dione, you’re mad!’

‘Your stomach’s not objecting.’ She smiles at me stuffing my face.

‘I have to hide the evidence,’ I smile back, glad to be connecting but still feeling a niggling disquiet. ‘If the SIF find out, they’ll lock you up for months.’ She is out of her mind.

‘They never come up here, Ora, they’re too busy in the city.’ She’s following the rim of her water glass with her finger. ‘And anyway, half of them wouldn’t even know what a real vegetable looks like.’

‘But where do you get the water from? It’s so dry up here.’

She smiles.

‘Don’t tell me your water tanks are hooked up?’

She gives a small shrug. ‘Only the underground ones. The SIF don’t know about them.’

‘Dione!’ I don’t know whether to laugh or scream at her.

‘I detest that muck they call food. Full of chemicals, no nutritional value whatsoever. I swear it’s turned everyone into zombies. No-one thinks for themselves anymore.’

‘But what if you get caught?’ A bit of lasagne flies out of my mouth and drops between us. I stuff it back in my mouth. I can’t stop eating—this food is making me remember. 

‘Fear of getting caught is not going to dictate what I put in my garden or in my body. I’ve been self-sufficient for years, Ora. I’m not going to stop now.’

I know I should back off but she’s being so reckless. ‘You can’t have thought this through! If you wind up in one of those SIF centres, food will be the last thing on your mind.’

She shrugs. ‘I still go and collect my water rations like everybody else. The chooks are legal, I just don’t feed them that rubbish they call grain. I reckon my hens show more spirit and intelligence than your average SIF officer. Stop looking so worried Ora! They never come up here, and if they did, they wouldn’t find anything. This house is one big secret. I used to think Frank was on another planet, but now I think he knew exactly what was coming.’ She smiles at the memory of the crazy guy who lived here before her—he’d been paranoid about a mystery enemy invading Australia and built his whole house around the delusion. ‘It’s like this house was made for me.’

‘But—’

‘I only water at night and I hide the hoses every time I use them. I’ve covered every scenario and it’s not going to happen. People stopped thinking for themselves when they had to start queuing for water. How crazy is it that the government claims to own every drop of it? There’s no way I’m paying for something that falls from the sky! And vegetables that weren’t even grown in proper soil? It’s ridiculous.’

I carry on eating in silence.

‘If you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it.’ She seems annoyed now.

I’m about to tell her again how stupid she’s being but there’s a sharp knock at the back door. Dione looks at me and then at the door. I sit frozen, my gaze moving over the dishes. How many veggies are in evidence? Dione opens the door just a crack. Two people, a man and a woman, say something in hushed tones then withdraw into the darkness. Dione closes the door and starts to clear the table.

‘There’s just enough water for washing up, if you’re careful,’ she says, nodding at the black container. ‘Wiping dishes with chemicals isn’t my style.’

And with that, she picks up the towels and her torch and is gone. I watch from the kitchen window and see her following the couple up the track that snakes behind her house. The woman stops and bends over, bracing her hands on her knees. Dione catches up with them and gives the man the towels and the torch. She squats down so her face is close to the woman’s. He’s shining the torch on them. When they stand up my blood goes cold.

It can’t be!

Two pregnant women in one day? I watch until they’re out of sight and realise they’re going up to the cottage, the torch dotting their progress.

Now my brain won’t work. It refuses to believe what my eyes have seen. Before I even register what I’m doing, I’m following, trying to tread noiselessly on the gravel. It’s dark out here with just a sliver of moon but I know the track well—Holly and I used to play here all the time.

A million questions are making my synapses fire. What the hell is going on? How many times has Dione used those towels? How much time would she get for this? Forget illegal veggies, how about a life sentence! And what about me? Would I get done too? Please let this be a one-off. Surely the woman is just an old and stupid friend. Babies are not meant to be born in the middle of nowhere.

As I near the cottage, the outside light helps me see more clearly. Buzzy Bee’s Bed and Breakfast still looks as cute as ever, like a child’s drawing in this soft light. There are windows either side of the pale blue front door and two windows above them, on the second floor, the bricks all covered in ivy.

I feel like a criminal as I peep inside. There are no lights on, just a dim, flickering candle. Dione and the couple are nowhere to be seen. The furniture looks a bit faded and the armchair’s in an odd position, but it’s all just as it used to be—saggy floral sofas and a hotchpotch of furniture.

Where the hell are they? My heart is thudding in my chest and my breath is shallow … I can’t go in. They must be upstairs. I wait like this for hours, listening, my senses highly tuned, but the house is dead, and the candle is getting smaller.

Eventually I give up. Tiredness overwhelms me and my feet are too heavy as I stumble down the hill, my body jarring with each footfall. I can only think of sleep.

I head to the bathroom, past the remains of dinner. I remember Mum’s bed cover and go into Dione’s room. It doesn’t smell of Mum anymore, but every fibre of this wool has been through her fingers, and now it’s wrapped around me.

I drag my iron feet to my room, still wrapped in the blanket, and sleep.



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