“You are not confined by the gates. They’re not there to lock you in. You’re free to leave at any time, at any age, for any reason. But remember, you are never, ever allowed to return. Life out there is hard. There is very little water, very little food, not much more than wasteland and dunes. No medication. Radiation is very strong. You get injured or sick and you’ll die. If you’re lucky and careful, you’ll make it two years out there.”
They tell you that when they take you outside your City for the first time. Every single citizen when they’re fourteen goes. Teachers gather you together, make sure you receive an extra shot of medication, and lead you out.
The desert looms. Wide open space. Like everyone else, I blinked when I saw it, shocked by the endless sand after life with walls and pipes and glass blocking you every which way you turn. Behind is the City, looking like a chrome and glass bubble.
I remember the first breath of air. Thick. Unpurified like the air of the City. Full of radiation and sand. And the heat of the sun on my skin, almost like a physical pressure without the filtering of the glass.
I know there were people in rags around the edge of the opening. Begging for food, water, medicine, something. There always are. But the air and the heat were what I remember.
I wish I had a better reason to give for why I left. I didn’t mind my family, didn’t mind my apprenticeship, didn’t mind life and the future laid out before me in a neat little list of set milestones.
The reason was that I felt like it.
Maybe I did mind that neat little list of set milestones.
Leaving was unceremonious. Most people, including my parents, my sisters, my friends, thought I was insane, so there were no tearful goodbyes. Silence, like I had already disappeared.
One bag was allowed. Some clothes, a few bottles of water, a toolset from my aunt, and a sharp switchblade. Money was useless outside the gates. Maybe that’s another reason I wanted to leave. My life barely fit in one bag.
There were two lines. One for the convicts. Sent out to die without fuss or taxing the City. The other line was much shorter, for people electing to leave. That morning it was just me in the latter.
“Scan your wrist please.”
I held my wrist to the same scanner that determined twice a day if I’d had my medication allotment.
The guard checked both my bag and me thoroughly for vials of medication I might have. My water was confiscated, though he let me keep the bottles. “Water’s for citizens. You find your own water out there.” I nodded.
“Do you understand that once you step outside the gates, you can never return to any City?” the guard asked in a board voice.
She stamped the form and gestured towards a doorway. My future sealed in under ten minutes.
There are many things you learn quickly outside the Cities.
It’s called the Out. Out here, Out there, sometimes just Out. Barter is the method of payment. Objects or labor. That’s how you gain water, food, transportation, shelter, or protection from those who have it.
Medication is life. It comes before food and only slightly after water. Radiation is pouring down on you from when the world went to dust two hundred years
ago. Medication is the only thing that keeps you lasting more than a few months, even if you can only get some once a week.
There’s no law, and no one to enforce it even if there was. Bandits roam, ready to take your few resources, possibly your life as well. Guards from the Cities raid encampments frequently, looking for smuggled medication. People in the Out call them Dust for the dust clouds their vehicles make, faster than those cobbled together by anyone in the Out. Dust don’t mind beating or killing you either.
The main thing you learn is that you will die. It’s only when that’s unclear.
The first wrench from my toolkit got me far away from my home City, City Rho, though the bubble of another appeared once in a while in the distance. The second wrench got me to Sal’s.
Sal lives in a rundown shack. It has a sturdy porch though, and inside he holds vehicle parts, food, water, and sometimes medication for trade. He sniffed when I offered him my last wrench, but when I said I could fix motors, he gave me food and let me stay.
Most people don’t hold still in the Out, preferring to go from one place in another. But if you don’t have wheels, like me, having a home is nice.
Ollie and Dav come through often. Ollie does grunt work for anyone who needs it. Lifting, building, hauling parts, etc. Dav collects metal and salvaged parts from ruins of the buildings. They still remain from before the bombs two hundred years ago, now twisted wreckes that become picked over treasure troves for scavengers like Dav. Both are in their twenties. Most people in the Out are. You have to be young to survive.
Sal is in his forties though and drinks homemade gin like it’s water.
“How long’s Sal been out here?” I asked Dav one day.
“Mmm… ten years?”
I stare at Dav, then Sal. “No fucking way. He’s not young and definitely not that healthy. How’s he survived that long?”
“He likes to say it’s the alcohol. Kills any germs.”
“That’s a myth. They disproved it long ago.” “I know, but Sal likes his bullshit.” Sal tilts his head to us.
“Why the fuck are you talking about me?” He’s gruff and never smiles.
“How are you still alive?” I ask.
“Same way as anyone. Medication.”
“There’s barely any out here.”
“Ah that’s where you’re wrong newbie. There’s some. You have to know where to look.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t think we live off the land and what we can salvage from the past, do you? Nah. We smuggle. You’ll see.”
Smug comes by every other week.
That’s not his real name, but no one knows it and he’s the main smuggler near us, so we call him Smug.
Sal gives him parts, gin, fixed mechanics, and protein in the form of beans from Lea and Axton’s small patch three miles away. Smug brings jugs of water and a few weapons. And boxes and boxes of medication.
The first time I see the boxes, I peak in one and stare at the vials inside. Sal slaps my hand away.
After a few visits, when Smug greets me by name, I am bold enough to be curious.
“How the hell do you get all this?”
Smug shrugs. “Some officials have a soft spot, let a few bottles slide. They add up. Then there are people who are happy to sell some of their own for something they need.”
“People sell their own? The fuck they’d do that for? You can still get radiation sickness in a City.”
“Not everyone needs the same amount, Mel. Some people in the Cities are always sick, no matter how regularly they take all their medication rations. Others never seem to get sick. They’re the ones who last the longest out here. Slowly, I think we’re starting to get a resistance gene to the radiation.” He eyed me. “You’re doing fine on a sudden shift to so little medication. Maybe you’re more resistant. The people who figure out they don’t need all of their dose sell a little on the side. And we survive another day.”
One day there’s a group of approaching vehicles, the rumble of engines and shouts audible even before they get close.
Ollie nearby and makes it to Sal’s before they do. “Raiders.”
Sal’s got his shotgun out and is loading bullets in. “Mel, get under the porch.”
“I’m not hiding, I can help.”
“Can you shoot?”
“Have you ever even held a gun before?”
“Can you hold your own in a fist fight?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then get under the god damn porch and stay there.”
I crawl under on my belly, my mouth covered by a rag around my neck to keep out the dust and sand. The gaps between the boards are plenty wide to let me see the commotion play out.
Sal’s shotgun is rusted but aided by an extra battery pack wired to the gauge. Ollie twirls one handgun in her right hand, with another in the holster at her side and a wicked looking throwing blade sticking out of her shoe. The raiders are all armed as well, shotguns, knives, even one holding what looks like a smoke grenade. All the weapons are on display, showing off just as effective as actually shooting. One of the raiders stands on his seat. “Hey!” “Yeah?” Sal drawls.
“Don’t give hand outs. Only trade.”
Some broken and rusted gears land on the sand halfway between the raiders and the porch. A few raiders snicker.
“There. Trade that, fucker.”
“Give me something that’s worth something or fuck off.”
A signal from the standing raider and the shooting starts. The raiders outnumber Sal and Ollie, but they don’t turn off their truck and the rumbling engine makes it hard to aim properly. Sal and Ollie make it to the half repaired vehicles next to the shack and take shots from there. A handful of raiders scream and jerk, blood blossoming from various body parts. Several fall down dead. Some wayward bullets take out a slat of the porch, and I roll to stay out of sight.
The standoff only stops when Dav appears, snuck up on the other side of the road behind the junk pile on the other side of the raiders. He’s got cheap bullets, they shatter on impact, but the shrapnel is almost twice as dangerous. Between that and when Ollie buries her knife in one of the drivers heads with a throw, the raiders call a retreat. They roar back into the dunes, leaving behind some bullet holes in the walls of the shack and Ollie swearing about the loss of her knife.
A few weeks after leaving, I take a scissors to my pants, cutting them all off midcalf. I leave one long for cool nights and for getting into scrapes.
“Look at that. Mel’s going native!” Sal crows when I step out with my raggedy shorts.
“You’re one of us now. Look like a proper person of the Out.”
Being in the Out means time. And when you’ve got nothing but time, and few ways to spend it, what do you do?
Dav and I climb a mesa one day, wrapping our knees and hands in cloth to keep them from being torn open on the rocks. From up high, the dunes stretch out forever, pockmarked in the far distance by a few bubble-like Cities. Sal’s shack is a speck, the packed areas that serve as roads are small lines that wiggle in the heat.
Dav lies down for a nap.
I scream out over the edge just to see if my voice will travel anywhere.
Other times, Ollie drives up and calls, “Come on! I’m bored.”
I wipe my hands, wriggle out from under a vehical, and grin. “Sal! I’m taking off.”
“Whatever, Mel,” he calls back. We both know it might be that last time we see each other. It doesn’t matter. You don’t say goodbye in the Out and you certainly don’t say ‘see you later’. You let people go and leave them to be responsible for their own survival. Ollie and I climb into her truck, Ollie swinging a few jugs of gin into the back. “Pick a direction.”
We chase the sun and trade scalding mouthfuls of gin until the dunes swayed and we laugh to hard to hold the wheel steady.
“You’re going to crash,” I giggle.
“Into what! A sand building? A person?” Just to prove her point, Ollie swerves off the road and climbs the dunes. Sometimes we get stuck on one and fall out of the truck laughing. We lie there until we’re sober enough to push the truck out or we sit on the hood to watch the sunset.
If we see a patch of light, we follow it instead.
Iron ruins loom out of the dark, bare, flickering lights strung on wire to illuminate a crowd. Noise is louder as we get closer, someone always playing music on a battered radio, about fifty years old and filled with sand by the sound of it.
“Party,” Ollie crows. She hides the car behind a dune, pulls out the panel, and buries it so no one can steal the car, and we race the distance to the party, swinging the rest of the gin from our hands. We and the gin are swallowed by the crowd.
- don’t remember much of those nights, from any of the dune parties Ollie and I stumble upon. There are always drinks that tear your throat and light you on fire, scratchy music you can barely hear, let alone parse out a melody from, and people, some good looking, some not so, some whose faces are never more than blurs. Everyone is free, and no one cares. You take whatever, whomever, you want, as much or as many as you want. Little talk, no need for names, most never seen again. What’s the point of care or making friends when half of us are already close to dying?
Sometimes in the morning if I wake before Ollie, I haul her to the truck, fix the panel, set her in the back seat to sleep, and drive vaguely in the direction of Sal’s, but mostly not caring. On a flat patch, I set the wheel straight and stand up on the seat, out the roof to feel the morning air. I have to wear goggles if I wanted to see anything through the flyaway grains of sand, but half the time, I just closed my eyes and enjoy the wind and stinging grains.
- Radiation sickness sneaks up on you.
An injury and everyone knows you’ve likely signed your death warrant from quick infection. But we all breath the same toxic air, drink the same toxic water, and struggle for medication. So the sickness can appear anytime.
Dav gets it first. Even though we all know death is coming, I hold him tight and Ollie cries.
“Dav needs more medication,” I tell Sal.
“Dav’s a gonner. More medication’s not gonna do much about that.”
“It’ll give him more time. Less pain.”
“I don’t have more medication.”
“I’ll work double hours!”
“I don’t have any. Ask Smug when he gets here.”
When Smug arrives, I wait off to the side for him to finish business with Sal.
“What do you want?” he asks when he turns to me.
“We need more medication this time.” I hold out a portable solar generator I’ve made. “We’ve got extra parts to trade.”
He examined the mechanics. “Not bad. I’ll give you a half vial.”
“That’s much less than it’s worth!”
He shrugs. “After the normal amount, the price goes up.”
My mouth hangs open. “But my friend needs more this time!”
“I’m sorry about that, Mel, but it’s supply and demand and necessity. Mechanics here are good, but I need other things as well, food, water, bullets, some new tires. I can’t get them if I sell you all the medication here.”
I’m not so long in the Out that I have given in to fate. Or maybe the Out’s taught me to fight. “Please.”
He sighs and rubs his chin. “Look, what do you trade? How do you pay Sal?” “Labor.”
He clicks his tongue. “I wish I could do something, but I’ve got no need for someone to do heavy lifting or sweep sand.”
“I don’t sweep sand,” I scoff. “I fix the vehicles.”
“You do?” His focus becomes much more fixed on me.
“Yes. I made the piece you’re holding.”
He turns the generator over in his hands. “Really. How old were you when you left your City?”
“Plenty of time to be fully apprenticed. What were you trained for?” “Tram Maintenance. Electronics specifically.” Smug’s eyebrows rise high on his forehead.
“I’m good,” I continue, sensing a possibility. “Sal won’t let anyone but me touch his own truck. I do most of the mechanics and all the fine work for him. I can fix any vehicle you give me, improve it.” I gesture to Smug’s vehicle. “I guarantee, no matter how fast your truck is, I can make it go faster, probably on less fuel.”
He grins at me. “Now that’s tempting. It’d buy you another half vial. I can’t stay in one place for you to do that though.”
“Take me with. I’ll work on it whenever you stop for the night. When I’m done, I can hitch a ride back.”
“I do what I need to.”
“So you can work mechanics, but can you drive?”
I frown at his doubt. “Ollie and I go out in her truck whenever we want. Ramble all over.”
“No, I can’t find the tires. But I made the bottom airtight so no sand gets into the radiator and I know how to spot a dune we can climb and one we can’t.”
“You know the area.”
Ollie and I have driven as far as two days out in any direction. We know where small patches of water are and where bandit outposts tend to wait. “Yes.”
“And you can work electronics, highjack something?”
“Yes, but we don’t have much that advanced out here.”
“I’ll pay you plenty more medication for a job, but it’s not here in the Out.”
Smuggling is different than other work in the Out. A job in the Out is temporary, you earn what you need and often move on. The only goal is survival.
Smuggling is not for you. You earn your keep from smuggling later, once you sell what you have. The immediate concern is getting as much as you can as fast as you can.
Smug takes me with him on the runs at first. Steam and water tunnels run under every City, the end of the tunnel coming out a mile or so beyond the City walls to spray hot air into the sand. They’re supposed to be patrolled, but some guards don’t care or are bribed not to care.
Each smuggler has a radio. Run schedules, Dust warnings, meet ups are communicated in complex codes of nonsense words and random sounds. It’s a new language. New rules to learn. Park the truck behind a dune another mile from the opening. Make your way on foot, consealed by tan clothing and the sand when you can. Don’t be spotted by guards looking out from atop the walls or you’ll be shot and strung up as a warning.
The door on the outside of the tunnel needs to be hotwired and the electronic scanner overridden. The first time I try, it takes me three minutes with a little instruction. Smug swears at me that we’re lucky we aren’t dead for the delay. He meets a contact inside who gives him what we came for, while I right the door.
Then we peal away.
By the time Smug lets me go on a run by myself in a borrowed truck, I can override the door in twenty-five seconds from the outside and the in.
I can keep and sell as much or as little medication as I like.
Dav lives another month. Then he walks out into the dunes one morning and we are never able to find him. He leaves a note on his old truck that it’s for me. By the time I fix it up, it’s almost as fast as Smug’s and can climb any dune.
Ollie and I split some of the extra medication and trade the rest. We go wandering when I don’t have a run.
Smuggling is not temporary. It’s addictive.
Smug soon leaves the area to me and moves on to somewhere else. I become Sal’s main supplier and to the other trade outposts within driving distance. Sometimes I see him, trade things to him or other smugglers that I communicate with on the radio as well.
A knife comes to live in my boot constantly. A gun at my hip. I learn how to use them from Sal and Ollie. I do use them. Bandits like ambushing a smuggler, fresh back from a run. Their empty trucks after a fight hold even more spoils. I get over stripping their things after the second time I get in a scrape.
What I trade varies based on the City. Gin if that City has banned alcohol. A proper knife or enhanced gun. Some contraband mechanics. Contacts come to know me. I know when to expect them.
Raiders come to know not to fuck with my truck when they see it.
First time I throw up, I think it’s one of Sal’s batches of alcohol. It explains the nausea I have for the rest of the day as I drive runs. And it settles.
The next day I throw up twice. And the day after I have to give the run to Smug because the truck makes me feel like my head is spinning.
Ollie’s mouth is thin and tense as she helps me as the days go by. We pool my smuggled medication. I take what I can because Ollie makes me, but there’s little hope when the sickness sets in. Every time I throw up I check for blood. Ollie touches my head, looking for the fever.
I only go to see Lea to keep Ollie from giving me her own store of medication. If I am dying, there is no point in her killing herself as well.
Lea was a doctor in her City before she left with Axton. She sighs when she sees me. We only go to her when we knew we are dying. The only question for her to answer is how long.
Lea takes her time on me. I breathe deep. Her house is warm from the sun. Dust and sand scent it. So different from the sterile rooms in the City.
She continues checking me, taking my temperature several times, repeating questions about my nausea.
Her sighing stops completely. Over and over she checks me.
“Lea, what’s wrong?”
She doesn’t answer, only purifies my arm so she can take a bit of blood and run it through a small computer.
“What about your menstrual cycle?”
“Um, very irregular. Not sure when I last got it. But Ollie’s the same. Doesn’t the radiation mess with it?”
“Yes. But you’re healthy Mel. You’re a little dehydrated and a little undernourished, but you’re perfectly healthy. You don’t have any radiation sickness.”
“Then what’s wrong with me?”
Lea approaches carefully. She touches the hem of my shirt. “May I?” I nod.
She prods my stomach, then slips a little lower on my abdomen. A look of confusion then wonder comes over her face.
“Mel, I think you’re pregnant.”
“No. No, that’s impossible. You can’t even get pregnant in the City without extra medication and a cleanroom environment.”
“They’ve been saying there’s a strain of resistant genes. I think you and the father were carriers.”
I find Ollie lying on the sand outside.
“You want to go somewhere tomorrow?” she asks.
“I can’t. I’m going to one of the Cities.”
“I thought you didn’t have a run tomorrow?”
“Please don’t tell me you’ve fallen in love with one of your contacts and now must sneak out to have clandestine meetings. Because that’s just fucking depressing and cliché.” “No. I need help.” “For what?
She rolls her face away from me. “Jesus, at least Sal’s bullshit sounds plausible.”
“Is this your way of saying you want to fuck off and die?” she says softly. “Seriously? Don’t make up some ridiculous bullshit. Just… just hang out for a few more days, then go off on a run and don’t come back. We’ll imagine you got caught or had some noble death, ok?”
“No, Ollie. Lea ran my blood. I’m not sick. I’m pregnant.”
She stares at me. “That’s impossible.”
“Shit. Fucking shit.”
Tears have started falling down my face. “I have to go to a City. I need medicine. I have to get medicine if it’s going to survive.”
Ollie’s eyes are wide. “You can have mine.”
“No! No, Ollie.”
“Yes. Take my medication. We’ll work extra hours. Take jobs around. Go looking for things to trade.”
“Ollie. A pregnant woman in a City gets almost three times the medication as usual and lives in a cleanroom. I can’t stay here. There’s no way we can find enough. And I won’t be able to work eventually, let alone make runs. The City is my only option.” “They don’t take anyone back,” she whispers.
“I know. I’m hoping this is enough for them to make an exception.”
“What if they don’t?”
“Then I’ll come back here.”
It’s City Epselon, not my home City, but they’re all built the same. The walls look bigger from the outside. The doors that lead in are impossibly small. I approach one of the entrances and tap on the glass. The guard inside didn’t even look up.
“Please, I need help.”
“I’m pregnant.” He looks up.
“I don’t know what to do.”
He picks up a communicator.
A group of guards in clean suits come out. One takes a vial of blood. They don’t bother to be careful with the sterilization as Lea had. I almost cry. An infection will kill me and the baby if they didn’t let me in.
The guard plugs the vial into a personal computer and frowns at it. Then stares. Then stares at me.
He waves to the others. “Get her a mask. Call the doctors and the researchers. Have them prepare as much medication as they can. Come on.” He gestures to me. “And be careful with her. She’s pregnant.”
My pregnancy passes in a haze of medication and empty time. Everything is clean and too metallic after the Out. The air feels thin, even as it makes my head spin with so much pure oxygen.
Every hour it seems, I receive medication and tests. The doctors are astonished at the growing baby.
“Incredible. Do you know what this could mean medically?”
I lie under the white lights on the sterile bed and dream of sand under my fingers.
They give me sedatives when I go into labor, and I fade in and out, groggy with pain and chemicals.
But they couldn’t have known that I’ve been drinking Sal’s gin since I left the City. That regular sedatives are not enough for my tolerance.
I fade in at one point to hear two doctors murmuring to each other.
“When it’s born, take the baby down to the lab and start the tests. We need to start studying his blood and growth immediately. Steady monitoring, constant tests. Studying him as he grows may help us find a radiation cure.”
“What about the mother?”
“Tell her the baby died. Take her down to a cell for testing too.” The sedatives work less when combatted by panic.
I’m barely conscious when the baby is finally born. A boy. I hear the doctors whisper their wonder at his health.
They must assume I’m still out, because they run about and leave the baby in the small bed beside me with just an assistant.
I make a show of half waking, and the assistant jumps. “The baby?”
Since he’s lying there in my view, the assistant can’t tell me the baby’s died.
“Can I hold him?”
He looks around as if for instructions, then without any, eventually puts the baby in my arms and I pretend to nod off again. I am lucky. He leaves me with my baby.
In my home City, I visited my father several times when he was in the hospital area for a broken bone. I remember a steam tunnel door on the wall of a hallway. All Cities are built from the same blueprints. I am grateful as I grab as many vials of medication and sedative as I can fit in my robe. A scalpel too.
My baby’s asleep as we sneak down the hall.
Kit, I decide. Kit’s asleep.
The door to the steam tunnel in the next corridor. It takes me two minutes, my hands fumbling from lack of practice and doing it one handed.
Someone sees us, but we are gone before their shouts bring enough people to drag us back. In the tunnels I hide where Smug taught me and keep Kit quiet with breast milk.
I have no idea how long it is before there are fewer people. Perhaps days. Kit cries and I cry too as I inject him with a little sedative.
Eventually there are only a few guards wandering about with flashlights. Few enough that I can make it out with power of surprise and my scalpel. I make it to the exit, fumble the door open and run. Barefoot, only in a robe, no idea when I last ate, but I run. I have been in the Out. I know how to survive.
A smuggler behind a nearby sees me. He recognizes me and trades a ride to Lea and Axton for half my medication. I hide Kit under my robe. I am not sure if he notices or if he thinks I am hiding other supplies. He does not ask.
When we reach them, I almost fall out of the truck. Axton sees us and catches me, surprised when Kit squirms and starts to cry. I black out in his arms.
The amount I bled when I gave birth, the lack of food and water, and little medication I have when I’ve become used to more, keep me sick for days.
When I finally wake, Lea gives me Kit.
“What’s his name?”
Axton sits beside me. “Mel, why did you leave? Why did they let you? This is no place for a baby.”
“They were going to make him a lab rat.” Lea shudders and Axton nods.
I frown. “Where did you get the medication for us?”
Lea sighs. “Ollie left it. All of hers when you didn’t come back. She disappeared months ago. We’ve kept it for an emergency.”
Blinking away tears fiercely, I hold out Kit. “Did you give enough to him? He’s so susceptible.”
Lea smiles. “If he were to die from radiation, it would have killed him days ago, medicine or no. He was immune enough to be conceived Mel. It seems he’s immune enough to survive.”
They let me sob and hold Kit for hours without comment.
I leave the next day. Axton hears that Dust are looking for a woman and a baby. They have my picture. They want us alive, but will take us dead if necessary.
Lea and Axton protest, but they listen.
“You two will keep him safe. For a little while at least. They’re not looking for you. I can run, hide for a while. Please keep him safe. If you have to, move him to another safe place. Send a message on the radio or tell the smugglers to tell me.”
They hold him tight as I get into their truck. I’ve told them where to find Ollie’s and how to fix the panel in return.
I swallow my tears.
“Goodbye Kit,” I murmur. “I’ll see you soon.” I don’t look back as I drive away.
I am a part of the Out now.
I will survive.