The child runs fast on the grated steel floors, manoeuvring swiftly around the adults in her way and leaping over exposed wires. In her short time at the base she has found every passageway, every empty duct, and every place where the engineers congregate to worry over circuitry and weights. She listens to everything they say, follows them in and out of engine rooms, garages, and laboratories. She carries their tools, their lunches and their clean clothes. She hands them rags, grease, paint and soldering irons, takes away the twisted scraps of metal they leave behind.
She is maybe eight or nine, small and skinny. Her bones show under a ripped and mended grey tunic, and her trousers are patched around the knees. When still, she holds herself tense, ready to run again, and her pale skin is marked with fading bruises.
But for now she runs with grace, and without shoes she makes no noise. Most see only the flash of her red hair as she passes head down, her sharp features fierce with concentration.
Now she jumps, landing without fear at the base of the short steps that slowed her journey before turning sharp to the right. The room she enters is dark apart from the glow of computer consoles and a faint orange light spilling from a floor duct. She runs to the edge of the duct then stops, hesitant at the sudden arc of light from a welder's torch that sparks up towards the floor. The burning blue light flashes once more as she watches, then the torch is thrown up onto the floor and a pair of hands are gripping the ladder leading down into the duct. The girl stands silently as a tall figure emerges stretching into the gloom and faces her.
"Hello again, kid. Hope ya closed your eyes when I was welding there. I can barely see myself it's so dark in here. Still, maybe a bit more welding and we'll get some permanent light? Whatdya think munchkin? Got any food?" The speaker pats his stomach hungrily.
The girl grins wide and hands him a paper wrapped package and flask from a grubby backpack.
"Are you going to sit with me or am I gonna have to be here myself then? Course, whoever has lunch with me might need to talk a little, I mean, what's the point of havin' a conversation if there's only one of ya talking?"
The tall man sits, his long legs dangling into the duct. The girl watches the orange light from below light his narrow face, and smiles at his dark eyes. He pats the space next to him, inviting her to sit.
"There's a spot here if you want, there might even be some of this lunch left. Let's see, we have us some bread, some cheese, uh... and what's this? Cake I think... yup, cake. So, if you take the stinky cheese I'll have the cake. Fair?"
He holds out the cheese to the girl, now sitting across from him.
"Yeah, super stinky cheese. With mould I think too. Well, we all know that growing girls need stinky cheese. Wouldya agree?"
The girl, still grinning, shakes her head until her short hair spins out into a red blur. He pushes the cheese forward under her nose.
"Mmmmm... stinky cheese, yum, yum. Made from rats I'm sure, or maybe frogs." He grins as he continues to wave the cheese under her nose, and she responds with giggles.
"Do ya know what cheese is made from?" He tries again, hoping for an answer now that the girl is laughing. She looks up at him, still giggling, and he notices the bright green in her eyes, the sudden light in her expression as she smiles. She nods enthusiastically, brushing the red strands of hair from her eyes.
"Well, what's it made of then? Slugs? Snails? Worms? Yeah... I think worms. Mmmm worm cheese is the best." He teases her. She shakes her head even harder as he continues,
"Or maybe it is frog. I know! It's frog juice! Nice green frog juice, coloured yellow with bees and squashed into cheese shapes. Boy, I'm sure glad I figured that out. How could I let a little girl eat something when I didn't know where it came from?! Course, now that we know that it's only smashed up frogs, you can eat it right away."
He tries again to give her the cheese, but now she is laughing so hard her arms are clutching her stomach. He laughs too, at the sight of the happy girl, and at the ridiculous monologue he's been conducting on her behalf. Finally, her breathing slows and he hands her half of the bread folded around some of the stinky cheese. He slices some of the fruit in the package for her, and halves the cake.
The girl eats very fast, solemnly biting and chewing without looking up. She glances up at the man when he offers her the fruit, seeking his approval. He smiles kindly, trying to relax her, to make her understand that he wants to share, that there is plenty for two. They have been eating together for weeks, and it is only recently that she will even eat all of what he gives her, although it is clear that she is hungry. He gives her the cake that she won't take for herself, and then gives her his piece too.
"Who wants to eat cake anyway?" he teases her as she hesitates, "I'd much rather have squashed frog, forget all that sugar and chocolate. Oh yeah, give me amphibians any day, dried, pickled or squashed!"
The girl giggles again and reaches for the sweet.
"It's ok kid. Eat it, there's plenty more." The man spoke softly this time, watching the girl hesitate. "I like sharing lunch. Friends share, don't they? And we're friends aren't we? I hope so anyway."
She looks up from her cake, chewing fast. The muscles in her legs tense, but she doesn't move. The tall man is still too. He smiles gently.
"Ya don't have to be my friend. It's only if you want. I mean, you bring me my lunch and everything, so I figured you think I'm alright."
The girl relaxes a little and nods. He feelsthe air lift, the light in the girls eyes return brighter than ever. They sit silent for a minute, the man hoping that his directness might help, that the little girl might understand him this time and not run. Her green eyes study him with a fierce questioning, and he returns her stare without hesitation.
Finally, she bends to pick up the empty food wrappers, avoiding his gaze. She puts them back into the bag without noise, stepping quietly around his lean back. The man is silent still, hoping for some sign, but disappointed at the lack of reaction from the girl. She picks up the pack, facing him again, and raises a hand to wave. Turning, he saw the characteristic flash of red and she was gone.
The man sighs, a sadness weighing on him, his efforts to communicate useless again. He waits for the slight sounds of the girls' feet on the steps above him before returning to work, but hears nothing.
Worried, he peers into the gloom. At the corner by the stairs he picks out her pale face watching him.
"Kid? Are you ok? Is something..." he stops as he sees the girl smile.
"Cows, silly," she whispers "Cows make milk and that makes cheese."
She talked. After four months she talked...
She grinned a little more as he stood speechless, and then was gone in a whirl.
Giddy, the man practically skipped to the intercom. He grinned wildly at the screen before punching in his communication codes.
"Tobias. This is Virid. You'll never guess what! That little redhead kid...she talked, she finally talked. And she ate cake, and frog cheese and everything! And she smiled, and her eyes were all sparkly and Tobias! Where are ya?"
Virid stared at the tiny screen, willing the green glow to change to the face of his friend and leader talking.
"Virid. This is Tobias. I hear you, but there's no visual here. Please confirm the news" The voice was deep and warm and Virid could tell that the older man was happy.
"The kid. She talked. She finally relaxed. She was fine, she ate cake." Virid felt like a kid himself, he was so excited.
"Oh that's tremendous news." Tobias' reply was swift. "Thank you Virid, thank you. I knew she would eventually. Let's take it slow though, carry on with your lunches, take it easy."
"Don't you want to talk to her? Tell her who you are, what we are, that we tried to help? She's so scared, maybe we could..."
Tobias cut the other man off,
"Virid, I know she's scared. So far you're the only one she'll be around for more than a few minutes. Let's just take it from here, not push her into anything. She'll be fine. She's strong, I mean, it's amazing she survived, never mind made it here. Why don't you come over to my quarters later for something to eat and we'll talk about it then. And I'll relay the news to Alide, she'll be pleased too."
"OK, OK!" Virid replied, still overexcited "Hope ya got some cake, "Cos she ate all mine!"
"Relax Virid. We can talk later." Tobias ended the exchange, but with an amused note in his voice.
Virid sat back down above the duct, smiling happily to himself and making no effort to disguise the tears in his eyes. "What a foolish man I am... This old soldier cries cos a little girl tells him about cheese. Who'd have ever thunk it?"