“You know the trouble with those Outsiders? They say they wouldn’t ever want to come In, but…”
Janis’s voice was obliterated by the wailing alarms. “Incoming casualties, two minutes! Breach in the main Dome, sector 15, school playground. Plastiglass and metal injuries, mostly children, blood and plasma supplies low, all lifts and dome exhausts switched off!”
Rachel pulled her mask down and sighed. No way was she going off-shift in an hour. Breaches were happening on an almost daily basis, as the ageing CityDomes failed to withstand the furious winds slamming debris into the structures that had seemed so sturdy just seventy years ago, when anyone who could afford to went undercover to escape from the unending chaos, hunger, misery and societal breakdown caused by the extreme and unpredictable weather.
One day, she vowed, I will tell her that I am an Outsider. That I never wanted to come In, that I don’t want to be here now, and once this is over and done with I will never cross the Threshold again, but unless they will allow us access to medical care, some of us have to come In so we can learn to care for ourselves. We produce nearly all of their food, and the raw materials for the drugs they keep themselves alive with; we care for their Rejects where possible and cope with their effluent, we deal with the appalling conditions they caused and try to ignore, but they give us virtually nothing in return. Worse than that; we are their scapegoats and the stuff of their nightmares. The Others, seemingly always groping at the outside of the Dome, grasping for their comfortable but sterile lives, grabbing at their illusory wealth.
The theatre doors crashed open to admit a trolley bearing a small, sobbing body, pale as the grave under gaping red wounds, eyes wide in shock and terror, glittering shards still in situ, and the young nurses drew a deep breath and bent to their task.
Hours later, next morning in fact, Rachel staggered back to the tiny underground flat her grandmother had somehow neglected to sell when she left the Domes to marry her Outsider, in the days before the Threshold slammed shut on those who merely provided the wherewithal for the Insiders to live on. The power was on and the water pumps functioning again, but she was too tired and achey to even take a shower before falling exhausted into her bunk, still clothed. At least that meant there’d be some water allowance left in the morning, maybe even enough for a pot of coffee in blessed solitude before facing the lifts, stairways and walkways of the city, which extended underground way beyond the protection of the Domes. She waved her hand to dim the lights; as her eyelids fluttered down she briefly saw a picture of the orchard at home, pink and fragrant with blossom under the nets that slowed and tangled the vicious winds and stopped them from stripping the blossom off the trees before the beekeeper came. The air felt fresh and clean, the little birds sheltered by the nets flirted with each other and warbled their little hearts out, and the long grass felt cool and damp against her ankles. No static to sting you and make you jump, no stale smells and sudden gusts of warm filth… her thoughts drifted to the team who would be dealing with the asthma cases triggered by the switching-off of the powerful exhaust fans. Including her own dear Ben…
Ben. What to do about Ben? Her heart lurched and she was wide awake again. Handsome dark-eyed, golden-skinned Ben, so caring, so thoughtful, so strong, so innocent. He’d never be able to adjust to life Outside; he took so much for granted and found her curiosity about how things worked laughable. But there was a very good chance that he’d be fertile, unlike most, as he came from mixed stock… she sighed and turned over. Not a thought she could afford to think; not now, maybe not ever…
The students at the little hospital were a close bunch and it hadn’t been long before their initial attraction had turned into a flirtation, then a growing closeness. They sometimes shared a tiny bed when their long shifts allowed, but she couldn’t afford to share her heart with someone who knew nothing of her mission to bring healing to her people; the people he thought of as outcasts and wasters. He had never even considered that she might be an Outsider, a secret that Rachel hugged close to heart, knowing all too well how swiftly prejudice and rejection kicked in. The fact that her parents had been prepared to sign away ten years’ worth of good healthy crops to send her Inside to study would cut no ice with those who knew Outsiders to be useless, greedy, grasping creatures with no morals or humanity. Because that’s what they’d been told; they’d seen it with their own eyes…
They only had to look outside, and the constant replays on the Reality “Outsider Cam” channel made sure that they did. The heart-wrenching stories of the unfortunate souls who couldn’t or wouldn’t afford a place Inside in the early days when the storms and floods of the ‘20s were relentlessly battering and ravaging the old city, killing thousands in a single day as the ageing, jerry-built structures simply collapsed around them, the Reality “Live Cams” following the bitter Rejects who were still turfed out on a regular basis with no knowledge or equipment to help them survive in the city ruins or the countryside beyond; all made great entertainment for the CityDome dwellers.
Some did make it beyond the city borders, into the wilderness previously know as suburbia, and carved out a desperate, usually lonely, and paranoid existence in the shells of the houses that the Insiders had left behind, plagued by rats, packs of feral dogs and wild pigs, always struggling against falling roofs, rotting joists, untended branches and blown-in windows. A very few made it out as far as the villages and farms, where they were surprised to find a warm welcome, as long as they were prepared to turn their hands to the many jobs that farming for the CityDomes spawned, now that the tankers didn’t stop Outside any more, the few remaining turbines’ power went solely to the Domes, and the solar arrays dwindled down and died, one by one. New blood and extra hands were always welcome, especially those who might just be able to contribute to the rapidly-shrinking gene-pool.
Of course there were still a few legitimate ways in and out of the Domes; Rachel’s cousins on the wealthy Ground Level, the offspring of her grandmother’s twin sister, were “guarantors” for her good behaviour once over the Threshold, and were paying her way through the course in return for sole rights to her parents’ produce. But most people would never pass through the Threshold barriers; never wanted to, and never thought to cross the path of one who had. Living in the quarters dug originally for vehicles, domestic machinery and servants, then extended on down and outwards, their basic needs were provided for and they were generally too well-occupied and anxious to maintain the status quo to even imagine a different life; the history shows on Reality made it clear how difficult life Outside had really been for their wage-slave ancestors. They would probably be startled to find that the pretty, slender girl with smooth skin and big blue eyes was technically at one with the bearded, bedraggled ruffians and squabbling tarts Outside who populated their Reality screens evening after evening. Almost as startled as they would be if their child (for the few who were lucky enough to have one) came back to live with them full-time, rather than just for the statutory two weeks’ holiday in a Ground Level family hotel in the RecDome once a year. Children being far too rare and precious now to trust to the vagaries of individual parents, unless they could afford to live up on the Ground Level where the schools were…
Gritty-eyed and dry-mouthed, Rachel jerked awake. She fumbled for the switch on her phone; her cousin Damaris’s pale face greeted her.
“Dad says, please can you come up here at once? He knows you’re not on duty.”
“Gossakes, Damaris, I’ve had – what? six hours sleep in the last forty-eight, and I’m filthy. Can’t it wait?”
“He says, if the word “family” means anything at all to you, get up here right now. It couldn’t be more important…”
Oh dear God, Mum… Rachel’s father was a sturdy, steady man who seemed to be hewn out of the solid rock beneath the fertile acres in his care. But her mother seemed frail and almost ethereal; there was something fey and wispy about her, and Rachel had agonised for months over the decision to leave her for five years, very much afraid for some indefinable reason that she wouldn’t be there at the end of her time studying in the Dome. Not that she couldn’t leave the Dome to visit her home, schedules allowing, but such trips were risky and costly. And each time, it was harder to make herself come back In…
Swearing, Rachel tumbled off the bunk, dropping clothes as she staggered into the shower closet. She punched the control; nothing happened. Again… She dragged open the cupboard, fumbled for a packet of wipes, and made herself vaguely presentable. Throwing on some clean clothes and dragging a comb through her hair, she grabbed her phone and beltbag, checked for her ID and Threshold pass, locked her door and made her way towards the nearest lift. The long queue outside told her that nothing was happening there, or was likely to, so she turned aside and made for the stairs up to the Ground Level.
The door to the mansion, an original late-twentieth century building in the gated community that the first small Domes here had been built to shelter, swung open as she clattered through the gate and ran up the short front path; her uncle ushered her into the elegant drawing room, stuffed with individual bits of soft furniture, where his family sat, white-faced and tense, bags on their knees.
“Rachel, something has gone very wrong. After yesterday’s breach, the fans couldn’t be restarted. They’ve tried everything; no go. Things are getting very nasty down in the lower levels; people have died in the factories. No clean air is getting down there at all, and they’ve had to shut the accesses for a while to stop people spreading panic.”
“But what about the passive vent shafts? Surely they should keep things bearable whilst they sort it out?”
“It seems they’re flooded again… this time, it doesn’t look the fans can be restarted, and other systems like the waste and water pumps are starting to go down. So we’re leaving on the next train; we’d like you to come with us.”
Rachel goggled. “My patients; the hospital! I can’t leave my patients! People need me! And what about my training?!”
Her uncle shook his head. “Your patients, and all the other children, have gone. The hospital’s closed down, as of now, and the schools; the power supplies are failing as things start to overheat. The kids have been evacuated to Hampton, as soon as the Dome authorities realised that the situation here was deteriorating beyond control and the failures were cascading. They’ve pulled the plug on us, basically. Luckily we have a property over there; once the West Dome was repaired and operational again after the cave-in, I bought a house on the Ground Level there, as it was becoming obvious that this Dome is beginning to fail. Not as big or old as this house, but we’ll manage somehow. I can try to get you onto a training programme over there; I have – business interests – and friends in Hampton too.”
Ben. Janis. Jaswinder, Susannah, Dafydd – she couldn’t leave her friends. The bigger CityDome at Hampton was only an hour away on the train, if you had the money, but a day by public transcart, two on foot; three from Rachel’s home. She shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Paul; I can’t come. There will be things I’m needed for, here. And people who need me.”
He sighed. “I suspected you’d feel like that, but I respect your decision. We can’t hang around to persuade you otherwise. I have to say this, my dear. Don’t stay inside the City; there’s nothing you can do here now. People will start to stream out in a few hours, as soon as they realise this is IT, there’s no-one in charge, and no-one’s going to help. They’ll be very panicky, and more than likely attract the more feral Outsiders. Your family will need you desperately once the survivors get that far Out; they’d wreck the place in nothing flat. Get out and go home, as quickly as you can; come back later if you must, to help pick up the pieces and rebuild, if possible. You’ll be needed then, alive and intact, with your skills and knowledge. And tell your parents that there will still be a market for their produce, if they can get it to Hampton; nothing grown in the Pontanks will ever taste like soil-grown produce. Oh, and their debt to us is hereby cancelled; this is Family…”
Swift hugs and handshakes, and they were hustling her and themselves out of the door, towards the transportation station. For a moment, Rachel wondered why they seemed not to have even thought whether they could do anything to help; then she shook her head. That wasn’t how things worked, here in the CityDome. Those with resources were the reason for everyone else’s existence…
Ben. For some reason, her phone had stopped working; shaking it didn’t have the usual effect. Rachel headed back down the stairs, which were beginning to fill up a bit now as people realised the lifts weren’t going to get them to work on time. Calming messages came through the com stations on the corridors, explaining that there was “a problem” on the lower levels and that people should simply proceed as normal on the upper levels, not going down unless instructed otherwise. Other people’s phones also seemed to have died; the air felt stale and lifeless, the usual underground breeze completely absent. Ben and the others would be asleep, exhausted and unaware of the disaster that was beginning to unfold around them. The student’s level was one further down than her grandmother’s flat, closer to the factory levels and more basic still; it took her the best part of fifteen minutes to negotiate the stairs and walkways to their section. Hammering on Ben’s door, she paced up and down until he opened it, sleepy-eyed and dishevelled, clutching a towel around his waist. Not wanting to blurt out her story on the public walkway and cause panic, she pushed past him and sat down on his bunk.
“Shut the door! Listen, Ben, this is serious. The Dome fans and pumps have failed; people are already dying down in the lower levels. The hospital’s been shut down and they’ve evacuated the patients to Hampton. We have to tell the others and get out whilst we can.”
He stared at her. “You’re joking! That’s not funny… Oh God, you’re not, are you? You’re not drunk? Oh my God, we can’t leave. What about the poor people who are caught up in this?” But there was something real and desperate in her honest eyes and he was stepping into his kilt as he spoke.
“There’s nothing we can do down here; the authorities are surely helping them get up to Ground Level and get out. We can be more help up there than down here.”
“How do you know all this? Is it on Reality?” He flicked a switch, but the screen above his bed stayed resolutely blank. No answers there…
“My family…” she said. He knew she had influential connections on the Ground Level, and didn’t stop to question further.
He was pulling on his shirt and grabbing his beltbag as she gabbled out a fuller explanation, but she stopped short of mentioning Outside, afraid to lose time explaining herself. Together they knocked on their friends’ doors, but there were no replies. Not knowing whether they were inside and deeply asleep, or elsewhere, all they could do was scribble messages and push them under the doors. As they started to make their way up through the corridors and levels, which were beginning to warm up now, people were looking increasingly puzzled and the lift queues were becoming quite noisy as people lost patience and realised that something was going on beyond the usual everyday annoyances.
They exited the Levels in the central park, under the highest part of the soaring main Dome, with real grass and trees. It was now a bit warmer than was comfortable, and people were milling about aimlessly, not quite sure what to do with themselves or what was going on, so they made their way down The Avenue towards The Threshold, where a small crowd was gathering. Rachel bit her lip, knowing that the moment of reckoning was on her; she would not be able to hide her intention or the small star on her pass here. Men and women in dark uniforms stood against the barriers, looking casual but alert. It wasn’t obvious whether they were trying to keep the Outsiders out, as was officially their job, or the anxious Insiders in.
“Ben,” she hissed as they approached the barrier, “There’s something you need to know. I don’t belong in here, and I’m not staying in here. I’m an Outsider. My parents are farmers, miles outside the city.”
For a moment it didn’t register, then his face seemed to collapse in on itself. “What the hell? What do you mean? You can’t be – you don’t look like them! You’re bright, and clean, and – normal! And we can’t go Outside!”
“I am, we can, and I’m going out now. It won’t be long before everyone has to go Out, and I need to be away from here and on my way home before then. My parents will need me to help safeguard the food supplies, so that we can help people. Are you going to come with me?” She spoke calmly, masking her rising feeling of panic.
“Go Outside? You’re joking – why would you do that? If there’s something really wrong, we’re needed here. We’re healers; we don’t run away from people who need us!” His face was disbelieving and a touch panicky. Somewhere inside herself, Rachel felt a little pang as she noted he hadn’t spared a thought for his parents. But then, Insiders didn’t generally have much attachment to the random individuals who had come together to give them life; two weeks’ compulsory vacation in their company each year, assuming they’d stayed together, a week each if not, was usually more of a strain than a delight.
“It’s going to get very rough, Ben. The Dome is dying from the bottom up and they’ll have to get people to go Outside if they want to live; it’ll be chaos. I need to get home.”
“They can’t go Outside. It’ll be murder; they won’t survive…”
“It’s not what you think, out there…” She was pulling him towards the barrier, and in his confusion he didn’t resist, largely because she seemed to know what she was doing, and why. On some deep level, he could feel the truth of what she was saying, and Ben’s whole life had conditioned him to believe and follow those who knew more then he did.
“Where d’you think you’re going, Miss?” asked the guard, a slight girl of roughly her own age. “Do you have any legitimate business Outside?” Somehow the words “legitimate” and “Outside” both sounded deeply sinister. Her hand was on the taser at her waist, and other guards were turning to look.
“I do,” said Rachel firmly. “I am an Outsider and I need to go Out for medical supplies. This gentleman is coming with me to keep me safe.” She showed her pass. The girl inspected it carefully, relaxed and waved them round the barrier. Stunned and dismayed, towed along by his hand, Ben trailed behind her, and she pulled him swiftly down the small, shabby tunnel towards the doors. He really didn’t think we’d get through, she realised.
“We can’t do this!” he hissed, struggling to get his mind around the sudden, complete but so-far invisible destruction of his entire world. “And just how do you expect me to keep you safe out there?”
“Ben, we have to do this. I can’t leave my Mum and Dad to deal with this alone. And secondly, we’ll be no use to anyone if we get caught up in the panic that’s about to break out. Once things have settled down a bit, we can come back and help people adjust.” She waved her pass at the door control panel; it swung open and a blast of cool air hit them as she tugged him through into the driving rain.
“Adjust? Adjust?! They’re going to die, for Gossakes! Oh my God, what is this?” he gasped as she pulled him into the sheltered antechamber where Outside clothing was left when people went In. She flicked through the racks and found two decent rain ponchos; one, she thought, was the one she’d left there last time she came back In. Boots without holes took a bit longer to locate, and Ben was protesting all the time, but so shocked he didn’t think to try to get back in.
“Come on, it won’t be long ’til dark. We need to be at the pub before then.”
“The PUB? People are dying in there, and you want to go to the pub?”
“The pub is where we’ll sleep tonight; we wouldn’t get to the farm before dark. It has beds for hire, a bit like an apart-hotel in the RecDome.”
“In a pub? What about the Outsiders?”
“Ben, for the last time, I AM an Outsider. And you are too, now, unless you’ve remembered your ID. We’re – not what you think. Come on.” She grabbed his hand again, seeing blind panic behind his eyes as he registered that he was somehow now Outside without any ID, and they set off down the crumbling tarmac that ran alongside the train tracks, half-sheltered under the rain-drenched trees that had broken through the paving along the wild ruined-city side of the old road.
Ben’s face stung with a hundred little lashes of cold drippy stuff, and he couldn’t work out whether his eyes were watering or whether water was just falling into them. He knew what rain was, but the reality hitting him in the face as he stumbled along was very somehow very different to the rain of his imagination. It trickled down his neck, and one of his feet had started to feel somewhat cold and damp. He felt curiously detached; his mind just kept skittering away from the fact that the only home he’d ever known was in the process of disintegrating, quite possibly taking his friends, everyone and everything he knew with it. Somehow Rachel’s calm determination was just carrying him along. He followed her for what seemed like miles; their path twisted away from the railway and the ruined buildings, then back into a maze of smaller, less damaged streets. A left turn took them over a rickety bridge as the light began to fail, then she turned down a narrow passageway, past a couple of doors, and knocked a distinctive rhythm on the third.
The door swung open into a warm, dimly-lit room, abuzz with chatter. Ben saw a number of people clustered around tables and a long wooden barrier, behind which stood a stout man with a florid face, polishing a glass. He looked up, and shouted across the room,
“Rachel! We weren’t expecting you! What brings you this way on such a rainy night?”
Rachel was already crossing the room towards the bar; Ben followed. “Tone, it’s not good. There’s big trouble; you’ll need to lock the place down & keep it that way for a while. The Dome’s going down, and they’ll all have to come Out. Do you have a couple of beds free for us tonight?”
“You’re not going to need beds, sweetie. Stan’s bringing the Transcart back through tonight; Nin’s next baby is due any day and he wants to be home in good time. But what’s this about the Dome? You’re joking, surely?”
“No, Tone. The support systems are failing catastrophically and the lower levels were becoming unbreathable as we left. Uncle Paul’s sent me home, and I’ve brought my friend Ben Out to help. Mum and Dad can’t face this alone.”
The stout man looked Ben up and down as he pulled a couple of half-pints, shrewdly assessing the young man. A bit wet behind the ears, he thought, but he looks sturdy; he’ll do, once he’s got over the shock. Probably… his mind clicked into gear as he started to consider how to implement the plans he’d always had in case the Dome somehow failed. And obviously, an emergency meeting of the the Witan should be called straight away.
“Well, any friend of yours is a friend of ours too. Have you eaten? We have steak, and you should have enough time.” Both nurses shook their heads, suddenly conscious of growling stomachs after their hike. Tone bustled off into the back, leaving them with glasses of brown frothy stuff. Ben gazed at his dubiously.
“It’s ale, Ben! Good for you, full of vitamins and minerals…”
He sniffed it cautiously; it smelt very different to the beer he’d sampled inside the Dome. Much sweeter and yeastier, but the taste was quite pleasant and he was thirsty.
“Rachel, who’s Stan? What’s the Transcart? How did you know about this place?” Ben’s mind was beginning to focus now they weren’t moving.
“Stanislaus is the driver of the Transcart; it’s a bit like the train but slower; it goes from place to place and takes stuff round, but for ordinary people, not the rich. It’s an old vehicle, pulled by horses, and there’s usually room for a couple of people too. It goes right by our place, so we should get home tonight after all. Nin’s his partner and she’s expecting their second baby; there’ll be celebrations all over Wessex when that one arrives.”
“Second baby? You mean, Outsiders are fertile? I though all Rejects were sterilised?”
“They are. But most of us aren’t Rejects, Ben; our parents and grandparents chose to stay Outside when the Domes closed up, and were never sterilised. And sterilisation implants can sometimes be reversed.” If you know how, and have the equipment, she thought. “It seems that whatever is causing the difficulties with conception inside the Domes doesn’t affect us so badly.”
“So how come you were Inside, studying with us?”
“They’ve always let a few people come and go. My parents are farmers; they produce food, Ben, and that gets sold into the Dome; traders can come in and out. The Met people and the Reality crews have to go Out on a regular basis to service their equipment. Workmen have to go up Outside and repair the Dome when there are breaches and breakdowns; it’s not hermetically sealed and never has been. I came in to study because there are no robodocs or nurses left in our area, and my uncle paid to get me in. It’s not cheap…”
Tone’s partner Matt, bald, bearded and frilly-aproned, bustled up to them and placed two steaming plates on the bar. A delicious smell wafted up, but Ben gazed at the contents in perplexity.
“Steak and chips, Ben! Cow and potato, originally. And the green stuff is just salad like you have at home, but grown in the ground.” The leaves were darker and crisper than any salad he’d ever seen, but tasted better than good. She picked up a crispy golden bar and bit into it with evident delight; he followed suit, and was instantly enchanted. The steak was more problematical; once he’d mastered cutting into the resistant stuff, his mind kept reminding him that he was eating the flesh of a once-living being, and closing his throat over. But hunger and the delicious taste won him over in the end.
Rachel was explaining how Stan and Niniane had originally met, she singing her way around Wessex and he a champion accordionist, both much in demand for celebrations, when Ben’s eyes suddenly widened as he gazed over her shoulder. “Oh my God, don’t look, but we’re in trouble now!” She ignored him and swung around; two burly men were advancing towards the bar. One, short, dark and scar-faced, with tattooed arms like bulging shopping bags, roared, “Two pints of your finest ale, please, Tone!” and the other, towering over him, blond, jut-jawed and narrow-eyed, was muttering, “Your turn to pay, then!”
“Oh God, it’s Zavier and Alex, from the gangs! What are they doing here? And what are they doing together? We need to get out of here!” Ben’s face was a mask of terror and anxiety; all Dome-dwellers knew of the deadly enmity between the rival gangs of Rejects, played out on their Reality screens each night, with knives and blunt instruments, kidnaps, ambushes, pitfalls and murders. The two gang champions were the most brutal, most implacable foes, sworn to drink each other’s blood after cutting off some vital bits.
Rachel looked at him with something akin to pity. “Ben, that’s not real. They’re actors. Rejects who make a good living pretending to be thugs for the Reality cams.”
He fell silent and looked down at his half-eaten steak. Suddenly he felt as if the ground had vanished from under his feet, and he wanted to throw up. What was going on? His home was collapsing and he’d been dragged out here, where cold wet stuff fell from the sky and everything and everyone was dangerous, only somehow, it wasn’t, and they weren’t, and everything he’d ever known just – wasn’t so. And his girlfriend, whom he had trusted, wasn’t who he’d thought, and had known all this, all along. He felt a huge roar of furious denial start to build deep inside him, but when he couldn’t hold it in any longer and his mouth burst open, it bubbled out as a laugh. He laughed, and laughed, as the tears burst out from his eyes, and the laughter turned to sobs and he buried his head on his arms and finally wept for the world he’d always known.
Copyright – Angela Corbet, May 30th, 2017