[Again, this is stuff that might not be in the actual story, but is trying to get a feel of the world and the people who live there]
I leave the city the same way everyone else does: by train. Board at the Terminus, and sit back as the train pulls slowly through the Residential and Industrial areas, gathering speed as we pass through the farmlands. At the edge of the forest, the train enters a tunnel, the trees cleared back from the entrance. Somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, the train stops. A light flashes from the tunnel wall, and the carriage door is unlocked. I leave the train, stepping carefully across the tracks and entering the doorway under the blue light. There are concrete steps, a metal encased door. In the bare room beyond, someone checks my Vacc. Papers are up to date, ticks my name on a checklist. Takes my ID tag and stores it on a hook on the wall. Enters the time and date into the register, paper only – don’t want Central to find out. I sign my name and am waved through into the holding room to wait for the other members of the party to go through the same procedure.
Guards are essential of course: City Law only extends as far as, well, the cities. There’s a new rep. from Depot/Supply, a rep. from City Council, and the returning rep. from Medical: me. I know Warden Smith from D/S, he’s the one responsible for Sector 3 distribution. Nice guy, lets my daughter Tekla punch in the numbers on the call screen to fetch the supply crates through. I hope he sticks with the team – the last guy they sent from D/S cracked and wouldn’t leave the train. Had to go on all the way to Exchange and got sent back with 50 credits docked from his wage chitty and a black mark on his file. At least, that’s the gossip. I don’t know the CC rep. but she nods at me anyway, a brisk official recognition. Probably already read my file.
We have to climb up more concrete steps, the guards at the head of the party. When we finally get to the top there’s another metal door to be unbolted, another bare room beyond – a bunker really, protecting the entrance from the outside world…and from the Outsiders. Shouldn’t call them that – Lallanders is the correct term, itself a corruption of Lowlanders, which is mostly inaccurate now that everywhere here is considered high ground, but it’s stuck.
Once we’re outside, the four guards split up: two ahead, two behind. The first settlement isn’t too far from the train tunnel, but the half hour walk over marshy scrubland makes the journey seem much longer than it actually is. The Lallanders know the correct route to follow, and have sturdy horses that allow them to cover the same ground quickly. Maybe in time we’ll reach some arrangement with them.
The first thing I see as we approach the settlement is the scavenged barbed wire fence surrounding the perimeter. It’s patched in places with strips of metal track that look like they’ve come from the old airfield nearby. As usual, Garm meets us outside the fence. I haven’t yet figured out if Garm is his first or his family name. I don’t even know if they have family names. The dog is with him too – a large bitch with a brindle coat and ears that come to a point. Before coming outside I’d only ever seen a dog in the testing facility, and before that, only in books. I suppose out here they are useful for hunting and guarding. Garm seems to have the animal well-trained, but it still makes me nervous. I can see two others from the settlement hanging back. There’s a woman, about a head taller than Garm, and a skinny boy in an ill-fitting jerkin, who looks to be the same age as my Sparrow.
Garm calls them over and introduces them. “This is Bett, my wife, and our boy Sol.”
(some months later)
Bett comes out of the house to watch me work. She tells me I should relax more. I laugh. “But this is relaxing.” I wave at the scenery with my graphite stylus. “No one else around, hardly any buildings. Do you know how rare that is?”
She shrugs and heads back to the house. “Gets lonely sometimes.”
I pause, considering. From what she’s told me, apart from monthly trips (sometimes less) to the trading hub, the only people she sees are her husband and son, with maybe the occasional tracker or hunter staying the night. I shift in my seat, rub my stiff neck with my free hand. Maybe a break would be good. No one else is here – Garm and Sol are out back fixing the windmill blades with Warden. Dockery and the guards are walking the train line – some Central business we’re not allowed to know about. I close my folder; crease my eyes against the sun. There is complete silence.
Bett reappears. “Just got some water boiling. Want a cuppa?” She hesitates. “You…you can come inside, if you’d like?” She rushes the last words out as if she’s scared of what I’ll think.
None of us have spoken about entering their house, partly feeling it would be an invasion of privacy and partly because of the infection risks. When it rains, we shelter in the newbuild hut by the fence. But now she’s brought it up of her own accord, and invited me in. I look over at the house that is built of wood, scavenged metal and covered over with grass.
I nod, and smile quickly, not wanting to offend her. My vaccs are all up to date, and I can get a jag when I'm back in the city. No one will notice, not with my job.