Ellen is an innocent child of the City, well behaved and trusted. She has to fulfil a dying request for her Gran but to fulfil this request she has to venture Outside into the dangerous countryside, with its dangers from bandits and land mines. Taking courage in both hands she approaches Bix, a renowned Feral Sefuty Rider. Ferals have been genetically altered as children to better serve the City's defence.
His face was as scarred and battered as any Feral cat; from where to be sure some of his genetic makeup had come. I looked on his lean dark countenance and my whole life changed right there in Deliveries. He rode the Sefuty Line so you know him and his kind. Deviants that you admire but only as an abstraction. He appeared grim of face, dark of head and with eyes so green you could be tempted to stare. He was short and lean and, as he stalked through the loading bays, the dust from Outside flew from him. He wore a scowl comfortably but, I know now, it was his defence against the whispers and covert glances. They were dangerous, the Riders, we all know that. We had all been warned. They were not as others, not quite human.
He was someone special, he had to be. I heard the whispers, I heard the name. Bix. Of course I had heard of him, everyone in our part of the City had. A legend. I thought of Gran. I forgot my training and looked full at Bix and a half-formed idiocy saturated my brain cells. Without allowing logic to clear my mind I took courage in both pockets and ran in front of him before he could leave. I only reached his shoulder and had to tilt my head to confront him. Bold, too bold for manners. Our gazes met and there was a charge. Anger from him, fear from me or just a recognition? I started talking; sure I only had moments to hold him to my words. His raised hand paused when I mentioned Gran, of the Respected Elderly. Regarding me, he listened.
This was so important to me, to Gran, and with an effort I kept my eyes on his and asked for his help. There was a pause as he stared down at me. I felt the embarrassment, felt the colour rising in my face, but I overrode the reflexes and kept his gaze; small gold flecks nestled in the green of his eyes.
His hand held me under my elbow; his touch was firm and allowed no escape, I had no such desire. He led me to the drinks room, sitting me down and demanding explanation. I wasn’t coherent, as I tried to explain what Gran wanted. Told him the RE Guardians’ hands were knotted, they could do nothing; told him I was all the family Gran had.
He knew it was my task. Listening quietly to what I was saying he waited for my trailing silence then said, ‘You know that’s almost impossible, don’t you?’
He had said, ‘Almost’. I clung to that, a talisman, though I agreed despondently.
‘Can I meet with your Gran?’ he asked. His voice was deep and like gravel; I found it soft and pleasant to my ear. Those green eyes were kind and seemed to smile at me. I told him I would try. I kept my voice calm. I had already been more rude than I would have thought possible; it would not do to show any of the turmoil within me.
I asked the First Ordering Guardian, she was my favourite, all my life she had cared for Gran. Explaining the request she agreed: Bix was well known. I guess he would have to be. She agreed that if anyone could help it would be someone such as Bix.
So I took him to the Hallowed Halls and if he felt as alien as he looked he gave no sign. His easy loping step seemed so out of place here where steps were uncertain and slow. Outside air seemed to waft from him and, as he passed, nodding heads raised and dimmed eyes peered after in more curious interest than many had shown for decades. I introduced him in the proper manner to Gran. I’m good at the Protocol stuff. I keep it like a coloured sequence in my head, some very complicated Higher Protocol moves. There’s a certain feel in the movements which gives pleasure. Gran laughed up at me as she always did when I performed a Protocol. They are just such a dysfunctional misalignment sometimes these REs, but I loved her so much I forgave her everything. It was so nice to see her laugh, just lately it had seemed like . . . well.
Anyway, Bix had no manners at all; he bent right over her and kissed the back of her hand. Well I question you, what about permission, germ checks and DNA samples? Did he care? No he just went ahead and kissed her hand. I flinched, I could not help myself, but Gran just chuckled and put her hand up to his cheek. I looked around wildly for a Guardian, was no one else getting those gross vibes from all that unauthorised skin touching? Bix pulled a stool up and sat right next to her, knee to knee. His dust-stained trousers right there mixing with Gran’s crumpled skirt. Immediately they were talking away as if they were friends from way back when.
Bix takes Ellen outside to a settlement forced into a more primitve lifestyle by circumstance. She has to learn how to eat real food and how to mix with others. At one point the settlement throw a dance.
And then, oh, and then.
Music! They played music! I know now that they played fiddles, flutes, guitars and drums; then I knew not what instruments they were. I only know that my soul leapt at the first sounds of real music. Susanna stood up and sang; I do not know if she would be considered good, to my ears it was beauty itself. I moved forward to stand in front of the group, I was smiling I know. I could not help myself. I felt my whole body moving; again, I seemed to have no Control. Every fibre of my body demanded the movement.
Someone took my hand and whirled me around. I saw all the others were forming into groups, in lines facing each other. I barely knew who placed me within one of these lines. I looked around for Bix and found he was further down on the opposite side and I realised we were separated, men from the women, facing each other. The moves were complex yet simple at the same time. It took just a few of the complete sequences before it was up there in my mind with all the Protocols.
My mind absorbed the moves as a sponge and so it was with every new dance they presented us with. Then I just relaxed and enjoyed it all. I enjoyed it all. The most marvellous feeling swept me up and tossed me without thought into dance.
Bix could not match me in the ease of learning. He seemed always to be in the wrong place or in the wrong motion but he smiled and laughed and apologised and all the company loved him. How wonderful to fit so well within strangers. The women smiled at him and the men clapped him on his shoulders. He could always have a partner but he wanted me. So many times when the formation should have left him separated from me by many, at the end of the dance, I would find him just a hand away ready to sweep me away in his arms. Now, looking back, I am considering he knew the dance moves more thoroughly than we imagined that night.
There were many forms of this entertainment. During one pause Susanna told me some names: country and jive were two I remember, something called ballroom; I don’t think I’m wrong, I think it was called ballroom. I would not allow that I was tired. I would not stop, could not stop. The whole evening was a hectic furious-paced disintegration of the remaining fears and taboos. I held hands with any and all across those dancing spaces. I allowed strangers to hold me, to smile directly into my face as I did in return.
At one stage Bix and I tried a dance they called polka or something similar. I knew how to manage it and Bix did not. We tangled somewhere in the middle and I laughed at him and, with a shout of delight, he laughed also and lifted me high, high in the air and spun us both around. I did not even feel shame at such a breach of Control. No one minded, they all laughed with us and clapped and buzzed with comments. Oh, Bix.
Of course they fall in love, it is a romance after all however Ellen cannot manage the space and life outside and genetically manipulated Bix cannot live within walls. He is considered less than human and she is a favoured child of the City.Ellen is given a choice -a softening of memory or eradication of memory - in exchange she will rise higher in the City to take her place amongst the policy makers. Memories of the days spent with Bix and her new friends in the settlement follow her everywhere until she can continue no longer.
With the weariness of despair, one evening I lifted the lid from the chest that sat at the end of my bed and removed the top garment. Replacing the lid I carried the cloak over one arm as I pulled the chair to the space between room and courtyard. Just at the spot where I could stare into the sky. Sitting slowly I laid Susanna’s cloak across my knees carefully. I let my fingers soothe the folds straight and aligned. As I moved the material I felt that I could smell the sheep nudging and chewing the grass in their paddocks. If I closed my eyes I could see their ridiculous flights across the grass. Hear the hum and buzz of bees in the wayside flowers, taste the sticky sweet result. I looked at the cloak. When would I ever be able to wear it here in the City?
If I settled for a gentle memory, how would I remember the girl who had created the lovely colours and textures over so many hours of patient work and then had impetuously given it away to a comparative stranger in a gesture of new friendship? How would my memory accommodate the memory of Susanna if Bix was reduced to just a vague person met in the distant past? And if I accepted ‘the recommended way’ and allowed them to eradicate Bix altogether from my mind, how would memory account for the cloak? If there was no Bix, would Susanna go too?
I shivered. She would have to go. Then the sheep would no longer exist. That beautiful skirt that flew and moved with its own life, that too would leave my mind. The chair beneath me dug its hardness into my legs as I struggled with these thoughts. Struggled with the realisation that the tastes, smells and sights of that crazy happy week would no longer be. It would be as if it had never happened. All to remove Bix, they would remove such a week.
Ellen's decision is dangerous and could kill her.
In the meantime Bix descends into his own hell protected by his comrade Jack
Jack and I set off in silence that last time. I couldn’t speak. No words in me. Jack’s like a brother to me, he knew. Then I cried. Yeah, Bix. The toughest, meanest Rider on the Line, I sat there and cried like a child. I’m not proud of it. Not to have cried was not an option. I couldn’t bear the pain inside me, the darkness I could see in front of me. I wanted nothing of the loneliness that lay ahead without Mouse. I cursed the day I had ever met Ellen, cursed the moment I first took her in my arms, that first moment I loved her. I cursed Mouse herself for winding those bindings around me. Cursed those who had taken the boy and created the Feral. Cursed myself for my cowardice, for my inability to brave those City Walls for my love.
Jack never said a word all those miles I wept and cursed, never by word or action showed distaste or unease at my behaviour and when I eventually slept he threw a covering over me, the cloth that Ellen had spun and woven that week in the Village. When I finally awoke it was over me; I could smell the sheep, the Village and Ellen, and was comforted for a while. Jack never mentioned my lapse, neither did I. Jack is closer than a brother.
Then I talked, for mile after weary mile, as Jack drove and as I drove. I told Jack everything. All that had happened. All that I had felt. All that I had dared to think, imagine, dream about. Jack knew Ellen almost as well as I by the end of my talking. Me, he already knew; we go back a long way.
He made all the right noises in all the right places. He made sure I ate and slept at the right times. Never by word or action did he let me know how stupid I’d been, how many self-inflicted and socially-inflicted rules and taboos I had crashed through in my arrogance. I saw by then that it was arrogance that had led me there. A thousand miles back I had decided it was stupidity that had led me there. A thousand miles more and I knew it was the fault of the universe, because by then I was a rambling drunken wreck.
All those months I was Riding around the four Cities I worked with darkness wrapping my being. Jack bore with my snarling hurt; stayed with me as I blanked Ellen’s face with alcohol and more; covered my back as I fought and fornicated my way through the Sefuty bars. He drove my shifts when I lay snoring in stupefaction. Argued my case to Supervisors around the world. He barred that world from intruding on my wallowing grief. It was a period of suicidal self-pity and, without him at my side, I would have finished it all. Then, when limp and worn, I could drink no more, fight and fornicate no more, when self-disgust overcame self-pity, he listened again, advised. Then he laughed and kidded and he eventually gave me back some dignity and a little of the old Bix. I was severely wounded but, he declared, I wouldn’t die of my wounds. I wished I could but he knew better, did my friend Jack. He knew things I didn’t and so he herded me carefully back to the City. He, not knowing the danger Ellen had put herself in, trusted her to restore me.