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The Wildlands

by C.T. Devin

Copyright 2017 C.T. Devin

Smashwords Edition


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Table of Contents


One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Epilogue

About C.T. Devin

One

“But father, it would improve yields by up to 70%.”

“I don’t care what your studies suggest, Darah. We have always employed this system, and it has always worked. We’re not changing just because you say we should.”

Darah Tonielli stared at her father in frustration. It was always the same with him, with everyone in the city. Why change what works? Why think? Just do as has always been done. She looked down at the report she held in her hand. Her studies in ancient agricultural techniques would improve crop yields and lower the amount of fertilizer and pesticide required. In addition, she knew she could remove the Taint from the soil completely. It might take years, but it could be done. And then the more powerful chemicals they used to negate the Taint, the ones that had a tenuous link to male sterility, could be discarded altogether. If only she could get one field to work with, she could prove she was right.

But no. Not even her father could approve that. The fields were too precious. There weren’t enough to give one over to every scientist who wanted to experiment, even if that scientist was the daughter of the Minister of Provision.

Her father was watching her closely, and she saw his expression soften. “Look, Darah. I’m not saying your work is without merit. Why don’t you gather more data? When you do, I promise, I’ll present your findings to the council.”

Who’ll do nothing, Darah thought bitterly.

“If I’m to gather more data I’ll need a wider sample,” she said. “I’ll need to visit an outpost. For that I require permission.”

Travel outside the city walls was allowed, but only under special circumstances. Her father frowned, but then she saw it: The realization that, were she to leave, she would be out of his hair for a few weeks.

“Very well,” he said. “I’ll arrange it.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then turned and left. Outside his office she stopped to gather herself. He always made her so angry. But then, everything seemed to make her angry these days. She needed a change, but where could she go? Another city? Ever since the Fall every city had been rebuilt along the same lines, using the same plan. They were clean, efficient, easily navigated. Knowing one, it was impossible to get lost in another. Any point of difference, any personality, had been wiped away. They were clinical and safe and all the same.

And why? Because they worked. In terms of energy efficiency they were almost perfect. Most surfaces, including the roads, were embedded with minute solar panels, designed to track the sun across the sky, harvesting as much precious energy as possible. Every drop of rain that fell was collected and processed. All waste was broken down and recycled into basic building materials for whatever the cities needed. And every unused surface – horizontal and vertical – was given over to the precious ‘fields’. She stared up at the haze of the filtering system that blanketed the entire city, protecting the inhabitants from the worst of the Taint. Without it they would all suffer serious genetic abnormalities; it ensured the germ line remained pure.

And so the inhabitants of the cities lived, for the most part, lives of sheltered protected luxury. Even the hardest workers put in no more than a few hours a day. Except for the obsessives, as they were known, who worked for pure pleasure. And they were considered odd by most.

She was considered odd.

She knew she was watched closely. All obsessives were. After the Fall anyone different, anyone who didn’t fit, was monitored. And any who deviated too much from the norm were drugged into co-operation. Some few were exiled, sent to live in the wildlands. The cities were no place for anyone who couldn’t be made to conform. Different was dangerous.

She was allowed some leniency due to her father’s position, but if she pushed too far even he would not be able to protect her.

As she was thinking this she felt in her ear the soft susurration of someone attempting to connect. She considered ignoring it but then, with a brush of her finger against the smart skin embedded on the back of her hand, she allowed the communication. The image of Hasina, her best friend and colleague, appeared in front of her, a projection of her lenses.

“How did it go?” Hasina asked.

“How do you think?” Darah said.

“That good hey? Well, it was to be expected.”

“He said we need more data, so he’s given us permission to visit an outpost. If what we find there continues to support our theory then, and only then, will he take it before the council.”

Hasina brightened at that news. “That’s good, Darah.”

“It’s not, Hasina,” Darah said angrily, “and you know that as well as I do. The council will do nothing.”

“But if we have enough evidence, they won’t be able to deny us. We’ll get the field.”

“They’ll never give us a field for this research.”

Hasina sighed. “Look, why don’t you come back. We’ll go blow off some steam. Maybe head to the Pleasure Rooms.”

“I’m not really in the mood,” Darah said. “I’d prefer to get back to work.”

“I don’t know, Darah,” said Hasina doubtfully. “I think you should come out. Your hours have been logged officially. I heard Jarvis talking about it.”

Darah felt her heart sink. Hasina was right. That wasn’t good. She needed to play the game; she needed to make an effort at fitting in.

“Okay,” she agreed. “I’ll meet you at seven.”

Two

Fian looked down at the blackened crops, his body tight with disappointment.

“What’s wrong with them?”

“It’s the land,” said Ngaire, his second in command.

“Tainted?”

“I think so.”

“You think so?”

“There’s no way to tell. We don’t have the equipment.”

Fian sighed. “The children are hungry, Ngaire. Do you hear them, at night?”

The woman looked away, her face drawn. “Of course,” she said. But Fian knew what she was thinking. If only he’d stop taking in city bred exiles. The soft, hairless city bred were no good out here. They slowed the tribe down, wasted resources. Better and kinder to let them die.

“We need to grow crops,” Fian said. “The hunt does not provide us with enough.”

“Too much of the land is Tainted.”

“Then we need to find land that is not.”

“There is no way to tell,” she said again with growing frustration, “until we sow and nothing grows. And every time that happens we waste precious seed.”

“They would know in the cities.”

“Is that why you take in exiles?”

“That, and the common humanity we share.”

“None of the exiles we find are of any importance, that is why they are exiled. They are soft, dedicated only to their own pleasures. And they do not like it out here. I do not think you are doing them a kindness in keeping them alive.”

“Perhaps.” He turned away from the dying crops. “You have been watching Vaticus?”

Ngaire shifted uncomfortably. “I have. He has the support of many.”

“Do you think he will move soon?”

“I don’t know.” She looked at him, and added, her tone serious, “But if you continue to take in city bred, Fian, it is only a matter of time before he challenges you. Already he is talking of another raid. You’ll have to allow it.”

Fian nodded. He didn’t like the idea of raiding a maglev train, but they needed medical supplies.

“Very well.”

“I’ll pass on the word.”

She left him then. She was a good woman, a good second. He knew of her feelings for him, but he couldn’t reciprocate. He just didn’t feel the same way for her, and though she was a strong, beautiful woman, he didn’t have the time for mere physical comfort. There was too much to do. He had to ensure the continuance of the tribe, and to do that he had to maintain leadership. Vaticus was impetuous. He believed the tribe should attack the cities. Such a move, Fian knew, would be disastrous. The cities were too well protected, too well armed. It would mean the end of his people. Whatever he did, he had to ensure Vaticus did not gain leadership of the tribe.

Three

Darah sat nursing her drink, barely listening to the vacuous talk of her friends. She was, in the corner of her lenses, running a program that simulated crop outcomes using a new modification to her technique. When it came up negative she sighed, shut the program down, and turned her attention to the conversation around her. As per usual, it concerned the wildlanders.

“I hear he is noble,” said Guo.

“Fian?” said Hemi. “He is a savage, like all the rest. They are little better than animals. How could they not be, living out there in the wildlands.”

“He was wildborn?” said Hasina.

“Yes. Full of genetic impurities no doubt. Though I hear some women like that?”

“Not me,” said Hasina. “I know what I like in a man.” She stroked Hemi’s smooth hairless arm. He smiled and kissed her.

“It was the savage nature that caused the Fall,” said Guo.

“That’s a tale, Guo,” said Darah.

“Oh, here we go again. Darah defending the savages,” said Guo. He pointed at her. “You need to be careful.”

“I’m not defending them. I just think it is disingenuous of us to blame only them for the Fall. We were as much at fault.”

“It was their greed that caused the Fall,” said Hemi, “along with their inability to live in an unselfish manner. We are different; we have adapted, learnt to live sustainably. They’re still hunting animals and burning wood.”

Darah said nothing to this. Hemi certainly didn’t know what he was talking about; he was just regurgitating received wisdom. It was a waste of time to point out that before the Fall divisions such as city bred and wildlander had not existed, that all humans had a shared responsibility for what had been done to their planet.

She sighed, and looked about the Pleasure Rooms. Couples were pairing off and moving to the private cubicles. She kept receiving requests on her lenses, but she ignored them all. Hemi returned his attention to Hasina.

“Come,” he said, tugging at her arm. Like all men, like all women in the city, he was physically perfect. Bred true, designed to fulfill his genetic potential.

“Darah,” Hasina said as she stood, “find a man. Find two. Seek some pleasure. Let go for once.”

Darah nodded absentmindedly. But she knew she would not. She was tired of the perfect men of the city, with their gracile bodies and their smooth, hairless skin. They were trained in the art of love, it was true, and they knew how to please. But without drugs they could rarely get aroused; the women too, often could not respond without drugs. Hasina had admitted she occasionally resorted to them. But Darah did not think Hasina would go so far as to Spike, though others did. It was too dangerous. There was too great a risk of permanent brain damage, and surely a brilliant woman like Hasina wouldn’t chance such a thing. Ah, the Spike, the perfect example of her decaying civilization. A device allowing immersion in any virtual reality at any time, while flooding the system with hormones of lust, love, desire, whatever was required to make the virtual reality complete. It could be used to simulate any human experience, to explore new ideas, and yet the most popular use of the Spike was to simulate a virtual lover when the person you were with was failing to please.

Darah shook her head when Guo looked at her questioningly. He shrugged, and went to find his satisfaction elsewhere. Darah couldn’t help but want more than the momentary pleasure men like him offered, with no permanent, deeper connection. Such connection was frowned upon in the city. Pleasure was encouraged, but only those who were deemed genetically compatible were allowed to have children. And the progeny that resulted were taken from the parents and raised in schools where they were taught the ways of the city. Only later, and in special circumstances such as her own, were children even allowed to know their birth parents. More often than not they were sent to other cities, to ensure genetic diversity.

Darah feared for her people. They no longer created. They no longer innovated or invented. They followed the ideology of the cities without question and sought only pleasure, with no thought for anything beyond that. Her people were stagnating.

She stood up to go and tapped a message to Hasina: Don’t forget, we leave early tomorrow.

A few seconds later Hasina messaged back: I haven’t forgotten. I’ll be there.

And then her friend’s profile switched over to private.

Four

Fian stared down through the heavy morning mists at the tracks below. He felt nervous, as he always did any time he came too near a city. From here he could see the gleaming lights of the towers in the distance, surrounded though he could not see it by the great wall. He knew what that wall was for. To keep the likes of him out. He was impure, at least in the eyes of the city bred.

He glanced at Ngaire as she came alongside him.

“Everyone is in place?” he said.

“They are.” She looked down at the tracks below. “The train will pass soon.”

“Vaticus?”

“He has his people by the entrance to the cliffs.” She glanced at Fian. “He is talking dissent. You will have to do something about him before long.”

“I know.”

He didn’t want to. He preferred to lead by example than through brute force. But men like Vaticus only knew one way, and many of the younger members of the tribe thought the same. He would have to fight Vaticus at some stage. It wasn’t fear of the man that prevented him. Fian was sure of his abilities. But he had to be better than violent.

He looked at the men and women around him. They were a ramshackle lot. Many of them were exiles from the city. Fian took them in because he saw a future where people were judged not on their physical perfection, but on what they could contribute to the tribe.

“There it is,” said Ngaire.

He nodded, watching the train, running smoothly along the maglev track, as it emerged from the mist. This train would carry supplies and medicines that his people badly needed. Though the Fall was decades ago, in addition to the problems with the crops, the Taint still caused many children to be born so badly deformed they died soon after birth. The medicine obtained today would help decrease such occurrences.

“Spread the word,” he said. “We attack when the last carriage passes the cliffs.”

Five

From her seat on the train Darah stared out over the mist shrouded wildlands. Their rugged beauty always surprised her, and she often wondered at what would be learnt were they studied. But it was forbidden to enter them. The wildlands were badly Tainted, and beyond the filtering system of the city only the retroactive DNA inhibitor received at birth offered protection. There was still a chance, however small, that prolonged exposure would result in abnormalities that would affect one’s reproductive potential and as such risk the purity of line. And in the cities purity of line was sacrosanct, which was why those who attempted to smuggle themselves into the cities were treated so harshly, if caught. The cities could only support so many. There was no room for the impure.

That was why her work was so important. It would increase crop yields, allow the cities to feed more. But more importantly, if applied widely it would, over time, remove the Taint from the wildlands and subsequently decrease genetic abnormalities. If that happened then maybe wildlanders and city bred could become one people once again. She threw some theoretical equations onto the smart surface in front of her and began to explore possibilities.

She was so immersed in her work that she didn’t notice the attack until the train shuddered to a halt and men and women – wildlanders – piled into the carriage, bearing weapons banned long ago in the cities. She hardly had a chance to react before a man grabbed her roughly and dragged her outside. She was thrown to the ground.

“Hasina,” she called, and was relieved to see her friend nearby, seemingly unharmed. The two of them lay face down as the wildlanders crowded around them. She heard the sound of shots being fired. She risked looking up, and saw wildlanders removing crates from the train.

They’re taking the medicines and seeds, she thought. Angrily she climbed to her feet.

“How dare you?” she cried at a man who seemed to be directing the others. He turned to her and grinned.

“How dare we?” he said, and then he struck her. She fell, tasting blood in her mouth. Immediately she found her feet again.

“You’ll pay for that,” she said, “I’m the daughter of the Minister of Provision.”

The man swung at her again, but she was ready this time and stepped aside, neatly avoiding the blow and opening him to her own attack. She moved forward, driving her fist into the small of his back, right where his kidneys were. He went down; other wildlanders closed on her and she stepped up to one and crushed his windpipe with an open hand strike. They circled her, wary now, and then rushed her all at once, quickly overpowering her through sheer numbers. The man she had first hit swaggered over to her. He raised his hand and brought it down across her face.

“Bitch,” he said.

She spat at him and he raised his hand to her again. She faced him with defiance.

“Vaticus!”

Darah turned to look at the man who had spoken.

“Let her be,” he said as he approached them. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered and barbate, which shocked her, so accustomed was she to the smooth skin of the men of the city. She studied him closely; there was something about him, she couldn’t tell what. He stepped between her and the man – Vaticus – who had struck her and spoke with quiet authority.

“We agreed no one would be harmed.”

“This one attacked me.”

“Seems a reasonable reaction considering what we are doing.” He looked down at her, and she met his eyes boldly.

“My name is Fian,” he said. “And I promise, you will not be further harmed.”

“Darah,” she said warily.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Darah.”

He smiled then, and she felt something turn in her, as if a secret in her had been told. Fian looked to his people. “We have what we came for. Seeds, food and medicine.”

The wildlanders cheered his words and Darah stared at them for a long moment; they needed seeds, she realized, so they must be trying to grow crops. A sudden idea occurred to her. It was crazy, but it might be the only way she could gather the data she really needed. She looked about quickly. There were no other city bred nearby; Hasina had fainted. She turned a calculating gaze upon Fian.

“Take me with you,” she said quietly.

He looked down at her, surprised. “You want to come with us?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” He sounded suspicious.

“I’m a scientist,” she said. “I want to study the wildlands.”

“It’s dangerous,” Fian said.

“Because you are savages?” she said.

His face darkened. “No. You would be safe among my people, if I said it was so. But the wildlands are treacherous.”

“I’ll take my chances.” She stared at him. “We’ll only need a few days.”

“We?”

Darah nodded at Hasina. “I’ll need her help.”

“And what do I get out of it?”

“You are taking seeds,” she said. “Do you have trouble getting them to grow?”

Warily, he nodded. “We do.”

“I can help you with that,” she said.

She saw him quickly come to a decision.

“Take these two,” he said to his men.

Darah grimaced as Hasina was placed in a wagon. She joined her friend, staring back at the maglev train as the wagon set off.

This was possibly the stupidest thing she’d ever done.

Six

“What were you thinking?” asked Ngaire.

“We cannot continue the way we have been,” Fian said. “We must make peace with the city bred.”

Ngaire studied him closely. He could see the doubtful look in her eyes.

“By kidnapping their women?” she said.

“You heard her,” he said. “She wanted to come. And she is a scientist. She said she would help us.” He looked at Ngaire and added firmly, “She is to be treated well. Make sure it is known.”

“Vaticus does not see it that way.”

“Vaticus will see it the way I wish him to see it.”

“He will challenge you over this. You know what he thinks of the city bred. And with good reason.”

“Then let him challenge.”

“Fian,” she said, coming closer to him. She placed her hand upon his arm. “I know you. You have no wish for violence.”

“But violence will come,” he said. “It is the way of things. I will not permit her to be harmed. She is too valuable.”

Ngaire left him then, and he walked through the camp, talking to his wildlanders. As always, he was surprised at their resilience. These were people who had been sold short by the world in which they found themselves. They had a right to be angry. And yet for the most part they were not. They were damaged and hurt, but they retained their nobility, their humanity.

He thought of the woman, Darah. Was his decision to allow her to come with them wise? Did he have alternative motives to those he had shared with Ngaire? For his second was right. Vaticus would challenge over this. Was that a factor in his decision? Was he simply tired of the dance and wished it done? Was it because he believed Darah when she said she could help. Or was it something else entirely. Something personal. For though he would never speak this truth to Ngaire the way she had stood up to Vaticus had moved him. He could see the pride and strength in her eyes. It excited him, he felt himself responding to her courage. It had been a long time since he had felt passion for a woman. Dare he feel it for a city bred?

To his surprise he found himself outside the tent he had allocated to Darah and Hasina. He nodded to the women standing watch outside.

Darah climbed to her feet as he entered the tent.

“Why are there guards on the tent?” she said.

He looked at her. And again he saw that fierceness in her, that fierce mettle that rose before him like a challenge to which he could not help but respond. He wanted to test himself against her, to test his own mettle. He wanted to feel her counter, knowing that she would act with strength, unlike most city bred. Most of them would be like the woman Hasina, cowering on the ground, but Darah, he wanted the fire of her. Once more Fian felt his body flush with fierce desire.

“It is for your own safety,” he said, simply.

“You promised me we would not be harmed,” she said. “You are savages.”

“We are not savages,” he said, “though it might seem that way to you. We are simply trying to live as best we can, with what little we have, and we are failing.” Why was he admitting this to a city bred? For it was true, he suddenly realized, his people were dying, slowly but surely. “I’ll do what I need to do in order to ensure my people survive. And I did not promise you would not be harmed. I said you would be safe. This is how I ensure that.”

She stood tall and erect, meeting him eye to eye. She was confident in her strength, unlike those exiled from the city; they had been broken. He looked her up and down and could not help but be aware of her feminine curves; the clothes she wore were designed to show them off. He definitely felt the burn of desire stir through him then as he stepped further into the tent. Mistaking his purpose she raised her hand and delivered him a stinging blow. He staggered back.

“You’ll keep your hands off me,” she snarled.

“I never…” he began, but before he could continue shouts came from the camp.

“Excuse me,” he said, stepping away from her. He stopped and looked at her, still feeling the burn of her hand on his cheek. “I meant what I said,” he continued. “You are safe here. I will protect you.”

“I don’t need your protection,” she said.

“Here you do,” he said as he left.

Seven

The man, Fian, returned after a time, and Darah studied him warily. He was definitely different from the other wildlander, Vaticus. There was a feel about Fian, the way he moved, the way he held himself, that spoke to something primal in her body; she didn’t understand it and that made her uneasy. Nevertheless, as he entered the tent she rose to meet him.

“How is your friend?” he said.

Darah looked at Hasina, cowering on the floor. The girl had barely spoken since they’d arrived, and truthfully, Darah was concerned for her. She’d been a little surprised at Hasina’s reaction when she regained consciousness. Instead of seeing this as an amazing opportunity she had fled into fantasy, convincing herself they had been taken by force. Since then Hasina had spent most of her time watching personal recordings in her lenses; Darah had taken hers out. They were fairly useless here anyway. Pretending to be back in the city by watching recorded footage was senseless, and the grit in the non-filtered air made the lenses irritating to wear. But Hasina refused to remove hers and already her eyes were red and inflamed.

“The sooner we get back to the city the better, I think,” Darah said. “Maybe I made a mistake in bringing her here.”

“You can return whenever you wish,” Fian answered simply. “I will arrange an escort now if you want.”

When Darah remained silent he went on, “Is she in immediate danger?”

Darah shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Then come. There is something I would show you. Something I think you should see.”

They left the tent and Darah was immediately struck by how hot it was. In the city, the climate was controlled, and the difference came as a shock. They walked amongst the wildlanders, who murmured at Fian as he passed. Darah realized they were thanking him. She looked for the first time at the people in the camp, truly looked at them. They were many of them damaged or deformed in some manner. All showed signs of malnutrition, even the children, and she felt her heart open to them.

“These people are exiles,” she said, suddenly understanding.

“Yes,” Fian answered her. “You cast them from your cities not because of something they did, but because they are not what you call bred true. They have nowhere else to go, so they come here. We provide them with shelter, with food.”

She moved with Fian amongst these people. There were men there, and women and children too. She had not realized before how many were exiled. She had always been told that the city bred mostly true, but if the number of people she saw here were any indication then this was a lie. A woman approached Fian, aged by the hardships of her life. She was holding a child at her hip.

“Thank you, Fian,” she said. “My child has food because of you.”

Fian touched the woman’s shoulder gently. “You are welcome, Alis,” he said.

Others came to him then, thanking him, and he knew them all by name. They were those the cities had thrown aside, and this man, this savage, helped them when the cities refused. How could she not have known this?

“You take them all in?”

“We do.”

“Every last one?”

“No one who seeks shelter is turned away. They must live by our laws, contribute to the tribe, but if they do, they are welcome.”

“I didn’t know there were so many.”

“We struggle to feed them,” he admitted. “We hunt, but there is not enough game. We have tried to grow crops, but the land is Tainted.”

“It would be,” she said. “I assume you also have high infant mortality.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “We do.”

She nodded. “It’s the wind blown pollutants from the Tainted soil. They cause somatic mutations.” She kicked at the ground. “Desertification doesn’t help with the crops either. All the good top soil has been washed away.”

“You know of these things?”

“Like I said, I’m a scientist. It’s my area of study.” She looked at him, at his lined, dignified visage. “These problems can be rectified.”

“None here know how.”

“I do.”

“And did you speak the truth? You would be willing to help us?” The hope was plain to hear in his voice.

She studied his bearded face, which had so disgusted her. Suddenly she saw him as simply a man who cared for his people, and wanted the best for them. In many ways he was a better man than those she knew in the city, who had never experienced hardship. And she could help. With access to a lab she could design a strain of crop that would grow despite the Taint, and it would be easy enough to reproduce the retroactive DNA inhibitor she had been given at birth. She could help these people, truly be useful, if she chose.

“I’ve never felt...” she began, looking away from him for a moment.

“What?” he said, his expression softening.

“I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere.” Why was she saying these things; giving voice to thoughts she’d barely had to courage to admit to herself. But she went on, “In the city, there were those I called friends, but I never trusted them. They never saw me. But I am like them. Even now I feel dirty.” She smiled. “I haven’t had a bath in two days.”

“Well,” he said with a smile. “We are not complete savages out here. A bath can be arranged. Come.”

She followed him down a long path through a grotto and into a copse of trees.

“Many of the tribe cleanse here,” he said, as he led her to a pool of water refreshed by a small stream. He pointed to a natural alcove. “There is sand soap.” He glanced at her quickly, almost shyly, and she felt her heart skip. Then he said, “I will leave you.”

She nodded and waited until he had disappeared among the trees before removing her sweat stained clothes. It felt unnatural to be naked in the open like this, but also liberating. She slipped her body into the water, felt its coolness glisten on her skin. She used the sand soap to remove the filth of the days past.

After she had finished washing she dressed and walked slowly up the path, thinking on what she had seen this day. She hadn’t gone far when Vaticus stepped out of the trees in front of her.

“So,” he said, “you think you can embarrass me in front of my people and get away with it do you?”

He drew a long, tempered knife from his belt.

Darah watched him warily, falling back into a defensive posture. She was well trained, but in the city sparring was simply a way of keeping fit, and never had she been in a situation like this, where losing meant death.

“I think I’ll sink your body in one of the peat bogs,” Vaticus said as he tossed the knife from hand to hand, “and tell the tribe that you stumbled in it like a useless city bred. Maybe I’ll even tell a story about how I tried to save you. And then I will use your death to shore up my position, to convince the tribe that all city bred are a burden on us.” He smiled viciously. “So, you see, you will be useful to my people after all, just not in the way Fian had hoped.”

He lunged forward, and Darah sidestepped quickly. But he was fast, and bigger than her, with a longer reach. In pure hand-to-hand, she might have stood a chance, but not when he was armed. With a sinking feel of dread she realized she would not last long.

Eight

Fian had not traveled far when Ngaire came running down the path.

“Where is the city bred?” she said as she approached Fian.

“I left her at the pool,” he said. He noted the worry on her face. “Why?”

“Vaticus was overheard talking about her,” Ngaire said. “He saw the two of you leave and head in this direction. He was seen coming this way.”

Something snapped in him at the thought of Vaticus hurting Darah. He should never have left her, but he had not thought even Vaticus would be so blatant. He turned and ran through the forest, coming soon upon the pool. She was not there so he slowed to a stop and listened. There, up a path, the sound of fighting. When he came upon them Darah was staggering back, blood running down her arm. Fian saw red. He leapt upon Vaticus and struck him violently, taking the man by surprise. He was aware of others of the tribe gathering but he did not care. He drove the other man into the ground. He was pure rage at the thought of Vaticus harming Darah. Only later, after he was pulled off the bloody pulp that had been Vaticus did he realized what he had done.

He had killed the man.

Murder in the tribe was not unheard of; it was a harsh life out here in the wildlands. At his insistence there were laws, and consequences for such actions. And so he stood before a group of his peers. He was found not guilty of course, and the decision was made quickly. Partly due his position, and partly because Vaticus had used a weapon against an unarmed opponent. That was not permitted, and considered cowardly; he would have been executed anyway. The faction that had supported Vaticus spoke out, and there was talk that Fian had arranged things just so, that all knew what kind of man Vaticus was, but many of the tribe thought that if Fian had done this – which he hadn’t – then that simply proved what a cunning leader he was.

The life of the tribe quickly returned to normal, and the few who disagreed with the decision left to make their own way. To his great surprise Darah appeared none the worse for her encounter with Vaticus; she was strong. They took to meeting every evening, and before long he allowed her access to the tribe’s seed bank.

“Well, these aren’t the problem,” Darah said after she had examined the seeds. “They will germinate if the soil they are planted in is arable.”

“They were taken from a number of sources,” he said. “We mix them in order to ensure viability.”

“It’s the land here,” she said. “It’s too badly Tainted. It’s a problem in the cities as well.”

“And yet you grow crops.”

“There are chemicals we use. But they do not solve the problem, only mask it, and there are side effects. I could develop a strain of seed that would grow out here. It’s not a difficult procedure. But the far better solution is to return life to the land. That is what I’ve been working on.”

“You could do this?” Fian sat up. He had been lounging against a spindly malformed tree, admiring her profile. But all was forgotten when she said this.

“In time. I have the necessary equipment in the city.” She looked at him then. “In the cities it is said of wildlanders that they do not wish to settle, that they have no concept of home. That they are barely better than animals, following the meat.”

“And in the wildlands it is said that the women of the cities are weak, and afraid of the dark.”

She laughed then, and his heart raced to hear her laugh, and know that he had caused her to laugh in this manner.

“Point taken,” she said. “Neither of us should believe the tales told about each other.”

“No,” he said, leaning forward and taking her hand. “We should only believe what we find suddenly before us.”

Color rose to her cheeks, as he hoped it would. Many things might have happened next, had Ngaire not interrupted them.

Nine

Darah, a little embarrassed at being caught in a compromising situation with Fian, looked at Ngaire. She didn’t know the nature of the relationship between Fian and his second in command, and she had no desire to trespass. But being with Fian was unlike being with any man she had ever known. He was caring and sensitive and aware of her needs, but more. He would challenge her if he felt she were wrong; he would push her to be better than she was; and because he was confident in himself support her in her desires even when he did not understand them.

Ngaire, for her part, looked surprised at catching Fian and Darah in so obviously an intimate moment. She turned away, her face clouded with embarrassment and…something else. Jealously maybe. But then she quickly said, “Have you not been paying attention, Fian?”

“To what?”

In answer Ngaire just pointed.

Darah and Fian looked, and saw the clouds gathering on the eastern horizon. Fian immediately jumped to his feet; Darah could sense the change in him. There was fear, but resolution too.

“You have set the camp?” he asked Ngaire.

“I have.”

“Good.” He took Darah’s hand. “Come,” he said.

“What is it?”

“A storm.”

She shrugged, “What of it?”

“You have only experienced storms in the city,” he said, “where you are protected. It is another thing entirely to be caught out in the open; the winds can bring sand at speeds fierce enough to tear the flesh down to bone. We must find shelter.”

Even as they hurried down the trail to the camp the wind picked up. Darah felt it pluck at her clothes; the sand from the dry, abused land stung her skin. It was true, she realized, by living only within the protection of the city she had never really experienced her world. When weather like this came strong walls and invisible filters shielded her. It was time she lived with truth, not a fabricated reality barely better than that offered by the Spikes.

She said as much to Hasina, moments later when they sheltered together in the tent. Fian had left her, with reassurances that the tents had been designed for wild weather such as this. Hasina huddled in a corner, sobbing quietly, but Darah exalted in the untamed winds. She felt her heart race with excitement, much as it did when Fian touched her.

“I hate it out here,” Hasina said when Darah tried to comfort her. “I hate it. I just want to go home.”

Yes, Darah thought, looking down at the distraught woman. You don’t belong out here.

But there was something else. Hasina was sweating heavily, her breath coming in short pants.

Withdrawal, Darah suddenly realized.

How could she not have seen it before? Hasina was suffering withdrawal from the Spike. The physical symptoms, while not life threatening, would be terrible. She knelt down by the woman she had once considered her best friend.

“It’ll be okay, Hasina,” she said, trying to comfort the girl. When Hasina ignored her she looked at the tent walls snapping angrily in the wind. “We did this you know,” she said reflectively. “In our greed to live lives of luxury we lived thoughtlessly and without consideration of the consequences. All of us: city bred and wildlander alike. And what have we learnt? In the cities we still live such lives. Protected by technology, removed from the consequences of our choices. But out here, out here these people live truly. Perhaps they are the ones who have learnt.”

“You’re just saying that because of Fian,” said Hasina; she was shaking, whether from fear or withdrawal Darah couldn’t tell.

“What has he to do with anything?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at him, the way you are with him. You’ve never been like that with any man in the city.”

It was true, Darah realized. She had never felt for any man in the city the strength of feelings she had found for Fian in the few short weeks she had known him. She wasn’t sure if it was love. But when she was with him, she felt as if the two of them together could do great things.

Ten

Fian stretched out the ache in his back, and stared at what remained of the camp. It had been a bad storm, one of the worst, and there had been much damage but, thankfully, no lives lost. As often was the case after the sandstorms, a heavy mist had the next day followed, and through it he could barely see Darah as she assisted an old crippled man gather his few meagre possessions. She had been amazing the last few days, working hard to help. Not once had she complained, unlike her friend, Hasina, who had, regrettably, behaved exactly as wildlanders thought city bred would in this situation. He knew he should return her to her city, and had only been avoiding suggesting it because he feared that Darah might want to go too.

And to his great surprise that tore his heart to pieces.

He watched as Darah settled the old man beside the fire and then he crossed the clearing and came to her side.

“You are good with them,” he said.

“Am I?”

“Yes.”

“I have been thinking,” she said, leaving the old man with a smile on his lips. “The land here is too Tainted, the storms too severe. I could genetically modify crop strains that will grow in this soil, but in soil carrying less Taint the latest farming methods I have developed would return natural arability to the earth within a few years. It would be better if you moved the tribe away from this place.” She looked into the middle distance. “It’s a shame the cities have never bothered to study the far lands.”

She turned to look at him when he remained silent, for her words had stirred an old memory in him. When he realized she was watching him closely he said, “My mother’s mother used to speak of an island. It is a journey of many moons and no one in my lifetime has traveled that far for she was old when I knew her and so I dismissed her stories, as young men do the tales of the elderly. But…” He looked at Darah, the hope plain in his eyes, opening himself up to this woman, letting her see. He was about to give voice to this hope he had found inside himself when a shout echoed through the camp. Ngaire came rushing over.

“The radio, Fian,” she said.

“It is damaged?”

“Yes.”

He looked at Darah. “We use it,” he said, “to communicate with those on hunts, to warn them of storms. Without it, our hunters cannot range far from the camp. It will make it even more difficult to feed the tribe.”

Darah and, he also noticed, Hasina – her face strangely alight – crossed to the radio. They both looked at it.

“What do you think?” Darah asked Hasina.

“I could repair it. If I had the parts.”

“We have a collection of components that we have taken on raids,” Fian said. “We’ve never had anyone before who knew how to do more than simply replace a worn out part.”

“You do now,” said Darah. “Hasina could build a radio out of scrap metal.”

Eleven

Darah stood and stared down at the results of the test she had just performed. They were the same as all the others she’d completed over the last two weeks. The land was badly Tainted, a side effect of the Fall. The artificial fertilizers and chemicals used in the cities would allow crops to grow here, but that was a temporary solution. Using the methods she had designed the soil could, over time, be returned to its previous richness. Here it would take generations, as it would in the cities, but in soil where the Taint was weaker she was certain it could be done in years. She explained her conclusions to Fian one evening in his tent. She had come to relish these quiet times with him. Outside, in front of the people he must lead, he was strong and resilient, but as they had come to know and trust each other, he had slowly bared himself to her and spoken freely of his fears and concerns. It weighed on him, more than he let on, leading these people. And he was a good man, willing to accept any into the tribe, especially those exiled by the cities, as long as they were prepared to do their share of the work. Her early revulsion at him had passed; now, whenever she was near him, surrounded by his rich masculine scent, so musky and strong, something primordial stirred in her.

They had been dancing around each other for days when it finally happened. She came to him earlier than she normally did, and found him washing. She stood at the doorway to his tent and watched him, watched his broad shoulders, the muscles rippling across his back, the water cascading over his skin. There was a scar along his shoulder, puckered and angry and she moved behind him and placed her hand upon it. She felt him tense, and then relax into her. He turned.

“Darah,” he said, his voice low with desire.

“I’ve felt lonely all my life,” Darah said, the words coming quickly to her lips, “until I met you. A stranger amongst others, until now. I am not a stranger here.”

“You don’t ever need to feel lonely again,” he said, as he took her into his arms.

“They’ll hear,” she protested.

“I don’t care.”

Sudden desire for him flooded through her body, overwhelming her senses. They fell into each other, weaving between them a fierce bond, a challenge and a rising together. He found on her skin the ley lines of her soul and he brought her home in passion and safety. And she trusted him, trusted him completely as he came to know her in a manner no man ever had before. It was what she had always wanted, a complete physical and intellectual union. Later, as she lay in his arms, he told her of the island.

“As I said, my mother’s mother used to speak the story to me, when I was little.” She lay with her head on his chest, listening to the thrum of his heart beating. She ran her fingers gently across his skin. “This island, it is where her people came from, and is far to the west. She told me crops grew there, not well, but better than here.”

She slowed the movement of her fingers, and propped herself up on her elbow.

“How far to the west?”

“She didn’t know. Like I said, she was an old woman when I knew her. Many moons she said.”

Darah did a quick calculation in her head, and pictured a map she had once seen of the continent they were on as it was before the Fall.

“It would be southwest,” she said, softly.

“What would?”

“This island. I know of it. I’ve seen a map, an ancient map. The sea is to the southwest; there was an island there once, before the Fall anyway. And it would be about six months journey. Oh, Fian, if the map is accurate it would be perfect. It has a sheltered valley, which would naturally reduce the Taint; we could heal the land, grow crops there.”

“Enough for the tribe?”

“More than enough.”

“Are there cities nearby?”

“To the best of my knowledge my city is the nearest; there are none closer. And the island is unsuitable for the cities. The valley is too small; no large structures can be built there. They wouldn’t bother us. We could live there, in peace. When I return to the city I can get us the map, as well as the equipment necessary to prepare the land for crops. I’ll bring them back with me.”

“You would do that for the tribe? You would leave your city for good?”

She knew suddenly that she had indeed come to this decision, in her heart. Weeks ago, perhaps, when she realized that she was, for the first time, in love.

“I would leave my city,” she said, “for you.” He pulled her fiercely on top of him, and this time they loved each other gently, slowly. Afterwards, they began to make their plans.

Twelve

They were woken early the next morning.

“What is it?” Fian demanded gruffly as Ngaire entered the tent.

“It’s the girl, Hasina,” she said. “She’s missing. And she’s taken the radio.”

Fian looked at Darah. Had this been her purpose all along? Was she merely a distraction, part of a larger plan? But why? Surely Darah knew he would not hold her against her will; if she and Hasina had asked he would have escorted them back to the city personally. No. He couldn’t believe it of her. Last night had not been a lie.

“I swear, Fian,” Darah said, and he saw the truth in her eyes; she was as shocked as he was. “I didn’t know. I didn’t even know she’d repaired the radio. She seemed better. I...I thought she’d decided to make the best of it while she was here. She was even showing an interest in our work again.”

“She can lead the city bred straight to us,” said Ngaire.

Fian cursed and climbed to his feet.

“Get the trackers,” he said.

“I’m coming with you,” Darah said.

“We’ll be moving fast.”

“I know.”

Hours later he looked back at Darah. She was struggling to keep up, but she did not complain. In so many ways he admired her. He felt pride in her; she was stronger than any woman he had known.

“The girl went this way,” said Ngaire, pointing to a trail that wound up a steep slope through a rocky canyon.

“Seeking better reception,” guessed Fian. “How far ahead of us is she?”

“No more than an hour.”

They came upon Hasina soon after. They heard her first, talking over the radio, and she looked up, guilt on her face, when she saw Darah. She didn’t even try to resist.

“You’ve contacted them?” Darah said to Hasina.

“I’m sorry, Darah,” Hasina said. “But I have to get back to the city. I can’t live out here. Not without the Spike. And neither can you. Your father is worried.”

“You foolish girl,” said Fian. “I would have arranged for you to go home if you’d asked. You didn’t have to do this.”

“Hasina, what did you tell them?” asked Darah quickly.

Hasina flashed at look of hatred at Fian. “That we were taken against our will. That he has held us prisoner.”

Fian looked down at the plain below, and felt his heart sink. There was a great plume of dust where vehicles approached through the desert sands.

“They have my position,” said Hasina. “They’ll come straight to us.” She turned then, towards the oncoming vehicles.

Fian looked at Darah. He did not want to ask, but he had to. He had to know, that if she stayed, she stayed because she wanted to.

“Do you want to go?” He could see the fear in her eyes then, and knew the decision she had come to.

“Foolish man,” she said, coming into his arms. “I never want to leave you. I want to build the life together that we have spoken about.”

“Come with me then,” he said. “We must go now.”

“No, Fian,” she said, and he felt his heart break. “There are too many of them. If I go with you they will hunt us down.” She placed her hand against his cheek. “They would kill you, my love, and I couldn’t stop them. But if I let them take me you’ll have a chance of escaping.”

Fian clenched his fists. “You can’t fight them all,” Darah said, putting her hand on his arm. “My love, you have to go. I need to know that you are somewhere in this world, alive.”

For a moment he considered refusing. But she was right; she was always right. He pulled her into his arms. “I will find you,” he said fiercely, and then he leant down and whispered in her ear so Hasina couldn’t hear. Darah nodded, just once, and he knew she understood. And then he was away, his people beside him, moving quickly down the slope. He turned once and looked back, and saw her silhouetted on the hill, her arm raised to him.

Thirteen

Darah stared out the window. It had been four months since she’d returned to the city, since she’d last seen Fian. Her father, in public at least, had met her homecoming with joy, and she had, to all appearances, stepped back into her old life. But she did not belong here anymore; she never had, though now she knew it in her soul. Still, since her return she had acquiesced to all her father’s requests. She had played the part of dutiful daughter chastised and shocked at what had happened to her. When Hasina accused her of forming a relationship with Fian she’d strongly denied it, pointing out that Hasina had been suffering severe Spike withdrawal for the entire duration of their capture and was incapable of separating reality from fantasy. And her father seemed to believe her. Which is why it was so easy in the end.

When she told her father she wanted to resume her research he was so happy she felt a pang of guilt at her deception. Two weeks after she returned to the lab she told him that her experiences with the unpredictable weather of the wildlands had given her some new ideas that she wanted to test in a more extreme environment than the city could provide. When he asked her where such an environment might be found she had made a show of it of course, of her fear at leaving the city. But finally she decided on an outpost far from where Fian’s camp had been. He spoke to the council and she was allowed to go. It was not that unusual a request; she had visited such places before.

It was a milk run for the soldiers who took her there. After what had happened to Darah and Hasina retaliation to any wildlanders caught near the city had been swift and brutal, so they were thought far distant and had not been sighted for weeks. Darah worried, of course she did, that something had happened to Fian, but each time worry got the better of her she remembered what he had whispered in her ear.

She knew the soldiers of the city had returned to their old arrogant ways. They were sure of the power of the weapons they carried against the bows and arrows of the wildlanders. Besides, the wildlanders could not get within a mile of the outpost. It was protected by a large energy barrier, which could only be shut down by someone on the inside, and who would do that?

Darah studied the desert closely as they approached the outpost, but she saw nothing.

What if she were wrong? She looked at the sky. She could not see the stars, but once more she felt Fian’s hot breath in her ear as he whispered, When the bull lifts the horizon at dusk I shall wait for you near the walls, knowing she would understand. Taurus had appeared last night, fully formed at dusk for the first time this year. Fian was near, she was sure he would have been watching, but there was no sign of him as she entered the unmanned outpost.

“I’ll be here a while,” said Darah to the guards. “Relax. No one is getting in. Why don’t you Spike. I won’t tell. I might even join you when I’m done.”

The guards had the decency to look abashed, but she knew they had Spikes with them. Minutes later all ten were immersed in their shared game, whatever it was. She looked down at them for a few seconds, disgusted at their passive acceptance of the mindless entertainment. And then she got to work. She knew exactly what she needed, and the outpost was well provisioned. Soon she had gathered up all the equipment the tribe required. She then took a memestick from her pocket and laid it next to the terminal; immediately it downloaded the SpikeSim program she had written days early. Most SpikeSims had deliberate flaws in them so that people could discern reality from virtual, but not this one. Very few people could have written such a flawless program; she was one of only a handful in the city.


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