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Mrs. Sanderson

science fiction by Deborah Walker

This close to the perimeter fence the landscape changed.

The nutritious white fungi, which grew in profusion near the center of the reservation, were replaced by a small, brown, veined mushroom which spawned over every rock. The brown mushrooms were poisonous. Mr. Sung had taught the children that, taught them a rhyme so they would remember.

“White is all right,” he had repeated, until they all knew it by heart. “But if it’s brown, put it down.”

Mrs. Sanderson looked into the sky, judging the time by the red-eyed sun which hung in the cloudless sky.

“I think it’s time for lunch. We can stop here, children,” she said. “Alex, pass out the food.”

Alex did as he was told. As he handed out pieces of fungus, he couldn’t help think that Mr. Sung would have asked for his help in distributing the food; not given him an order to do so.

Mr. Sung had been the cook onboard the ship taking them back to Earth. Just a cook, but he’d known what to do when the ship had been attacked after the captain had landed on this strange planet for emergency repairs. Mr. Sung had kept the children together, when the Gharians killed most of the adults and marched the children and the few remaining adults onto this reservation.

They’d done well, they’d survived. Foraged in the alien territory and carefully sampled the edible trees of fungi that grew around their new home. Found out what was good to eat, what was poisonous. They’d stayed safe. Stayed away from the perimeter and away from the Gharians

All because of Mr. Sung.

But he had been old. He had grown ill quickly when his medication ran out; changing to a fragile shadow within a matter of weeks. Even so, he kept his mind to the last and he passed on a responsibility to Alex.

“You’re a family now,” Mr. Sung had said, before he died.

The younger children clustered around Mrs. Sanderson while they ate their meal of dried fungi. They were two days from the perimeter and Alex was worried. The closer they got to the perimeter, the more likely they were to run into one of the Gharian guards.

“That is exactly what I want to happen,” Mrs. Sanderson had said, when Alex presented his argument. “We’ve been hiding too long. I’m sure that once we talk to the Gharians we’ll be able to arrange something. Maybe get a ship home to Earth.”

The younger children had looked up when she said that, their faces full of unreasonable hope, but Alex had heard Mrs. Sanderson in the night. He had followed her out of the camp. He had heard her crying and moaning in the darkness.

“Mr. Sung said that we should stay in the center of the reservation,” Alex countered. “He said that until we find out the reason why we’re here, we should stay safe.”

“Stay in the middle, if you’re little,” Amarelle chimed in. The other children nodded.

“Mr. Sung was a good man,” said Mrs. Sanderson. The children nodded eagerly in agreement. “But he was a cook; he didn’t completely understand the situation.”

Alex knew who didn’t understand. When they found Mrs. Sanderson she’d been starving. They’d taken her into their family; cared for her, taught her what Mr. Sung had taught them.

“He was our teacher,” said Alex. A flicker of irritation washed across Mrs. Sanderson’s face.

“Well, he was a good teacher,” she said. “But now you’ve got me.” She looked to the younger children for confirmation. They nodded again.

The group, one adult and ten kids, set off again, walking in the bright glare of the sun towards the perimeter fence.

There was nothing keeping Alex to this group, except his promise to Mr. Sung. He had promised that he would stay with the children and keep them safe.

Amarelle fell into step beside Alex. She was ten, only one year younger.

“It’s going to be alright, Alex,” she said.

“I don’t think so. We should do what Mr. Sung said, not her.”

“The others love her. Some of them call her Mummy.”

“They’re too young to understand.” Alex looked at Amarelle. “But you understand, don’t you?” Amarelle nodded.

“She’s leading us into danger.”

“Yes,” Alex said.

“Why don’t you leave us then?”

“I couldn’t abandon you, Amarelle. We’re family now.”

“I know.”

They walked on. Mrs. Sanderson started to lead the children in a rousing camp song.

“She thinks it’s an adventure,” said Amarelle.

“I know what she thinks. She thinks the old rules still work. She’s like most of the adults here.”

“What are we going to do, Alex?”

Alex opened his hand and it held it out to her. It was stained brown. A tiny piece of mushroom was still stuck to Alex’s palm.

“Before he died, Mr. Sung told me to take care of my family. That’s what I’ve done.”

“That’s murder,” whispered Amarelle.

“No,” said Alex. “It’s survival.”

Mrs. Sanderson stopped. She turned her head and shouted, “Come along, Amarelle and Alex. Don’t dilly-dally or we shall never get to the perimeter.”

Amarelle took Alex’s brown-stained hand. They walked a little faster, but they still trailed behind the rest of the family. They were waiting for Mrs. Sanderson to falter, waiting for their family to turn to them for direction.

Waiting to return home.

copyright 2010 by Deborah Walker

Deborah Walker lives in London, United Kingdom.  She can be found most days in the British Museum, nicking story ideas from ancient cultures.

[Return to the Issue 5: July 2010 stories]

One Response

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