by Juliet Kemp
The late-afternoon sun hovers above the wall as I kneel on the earth, weeding tomatoes. Beyond the wall, yellow-orange light reflects off the clean sharp lines of the apartment blocks. Boxes for safe people, people who are provided for. People who matter. People who I knew, once upon a time. People who could afford the vaccine before the gates closed. The plague’s gone now, but the wall’s still here.
On this side, the wall’s shadow stretches out as the sun sinks, spreading over the crumbling low-rise council blocks that don’t get repaired any more. In between them there are patches of shanty-town on top of the spaces where the army razed houses to the ground.
My garden is on one of those bare patches, next to Mathias’s and my house, which was once in the middle of a row of terraces and is now on the end. Mathias insisted we put a fence up. I planted brambles up against it so it looks less like the barrier it is. It’s not like we don’t share what we grow here, and I understand why Mathias did it. Still feels like a tiny echo of the wall.
Mathias is over at the community centre with the others. Talking over what they’re going to do this time to try to change things. He’ll tell me all about it once he gets home. I feel, again, that faint familiar guilt at not being there with him, not helping. But.
I straighten up from the tomato bed, and go inside to eat the half-bowl of stew I saved for myself, with some of the scavenged bread Vera brought round earlier—the stuff doesn’t keep long after it’s thrown out—before I do the evening chores in the drugs room.
The printer’s just finished a batch of estradiol. I count the pills into their labelled wraps, clean everything out, pour in new feedstock, and start off a small batch of lithium. (Easy to print, a bugger and a half to get the precursors for.) While I’m in here, I check on the first stage of the T synthesis, sitting on the back shelf. It’s coming along nicely.
One printer’s not enough, but I haven’t room, or time, to grow the feedstock for another, or to expand the synthesis lab.
Vera keeps telling me I need help, and specifically, that she should be the one to help. She’s a good kid, Vera. Reliable. She delivers drugs for me. I first got to know her when she turned up at the door, aged fourteen, asking for puberty blockers; the health centre wouldn’t give them out without parental agreement, and she didn’t have a parent any more. From what she says, I brewed the antidote just in time for her, and the vaccine in time for her brother. I wasn’t fast enough for their mother. Not that I knew any of them back then.
Anyway. I keep putting her off. I don’t want another person to worry about. I don’t want the responsibility. And she ought to have a future that doesn’t involve making semi-legal drugs in a dystopian undercity; but then, oughtn’t we all?
Mathias wants to fix all of this, for everyone, and goodness knows he’s right. But I can’t do what he does. I do what I can do, instead. I keep people alive when I can, as much as I can. That’s good, right? It never feels like enough.
Mathias comes in late. I’m already in bed, almost asleep. He slides into bed next to me, wrapping an arm around me, and I wriggle back into him.
“Tell you now? Or tomorrow?” he asks, into my hair. I can feel the excitement in his body, hear it in his voice. I can’t face dealing with it now.
“Tomorrow,” I say, and then can’t sleep anyway. I’m staring into the darkness well after Mathias is relaxed and snoring. He’ll want me to join in. He’ll understand when I can’t. I just wish—I wish I was doing more.
It’s hot again the next morning. I apply my T gel and check that Mathias has taken his insulin. Then we eat the rest of the scavenged bread for breakfast, cutting out the mouldy parts. I sip my peppermint tea and hope, like every morning, that the camellia bush thrives. I miss black tea.
“So,” I say to Mathias, bracing myself. “Last night?”
“They don’t see us, that’s the problem,” Mathias says.
It’s one problem of many, but I don’t interrupt.
Mathias’s blue eyes light up as he leans forwards, passionate as ever. “They go in and out on the train, and stuff goes in on the train, stuff we produce, right? They rely on us, but they don’t see us. They don’t stop, they don’t look, they don’t have to think about it. So what if we just”—he spreads his hands—“disrupt that?”
Coming from him, it sounds obvious. Easy, even. Mathias has a gift that way.
“How?” I ask.
Mathias shrugs. “Pretty basic. Blockade the line. There’s a weak point where the fence needs repair, just after where the railway comes through the wall. Vera showed me.”
“Blockade how?” Visions of how this could go wrong are already blooming in my mind.
“Do you really want to know the details?” He glances down at my hands, white-knuckled around my mug.
“I want to know if I’m going to be dealing with your mangled body,” I snap, louder than I’d intended. I still have nightmares about dead bodies. Not that the plague dead were mangled. Just bruised. If I’d got the lab up and running faster, they would have been fewer.
“We’re barricading with stuff, wood and bricks and fencing and that, as much as we can get in there fast enough. We’re not chaining ourselves to the rails,” Mathias said, putting his hand on mine. “And we’ll have a signal up the track. We don’t want to derail the trains or hurt anyone. Just to—to make them see. It’s a publicity stunt, Oak, it’s not like we’re going to set up a siege.” His eyes go distant for a moment, calculating, before he snaps back out of it. “If people see our situation, if they realise… .”
He’s more optimistic than me, but I don’t want to get into the argument. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I can’t stop him, or any of them. I don’t disagree, either. I would be there with them, maybe, if… .
“Still can’t get traction for the strike?” I say instead, forcing my voice lighter.
Mathias wrinkles his nose, then sighs. “I understand why. People are scared they’ll lose their scrip. This—we can do it with just the folk who are already off the books. Small but effective, you know?”
If you’re in the system, if you have an ID that’s authorised, you get scrip. Like money, except it’s tied to your ID, and you use it to get food and medicine and that from the government outlets. Break the rules, and they dock your scrip; break them enough and they blacklist your ID and stop your scrip altogether. I could get scrip, but I don’t, because I don’t use my ID. Mathias got blacklisted a long time ago. Some of our people never had proper ID in the first place.
“When will it be?”
“Can’t wait. They might fix that weak point. Tomorrow morning.” He takes a long breath. “Oak? You wanna come out with us?
I look down at the table and shrug. “Maybe.”
I don’t, of course. Mathias pretends to take my ‘maybe’ seriously, but he doesn’t look surprised when I don’t come out to the final planning meeting.
It’s not that I don’t want to help, or that I don’t think it’ll achieve anything—I don’t, as it happens, but that’s not what’s stopping me. What stops me is what happens when I think about it. I think of us breaking down the fence, and then I think of the cops showing up with batons . . . and then I have to sit down and do my breathing exercises, my fingers running over the scar on my forearm, the place where the bone still aches sometimes, over and again until I make myself stop.
I’d be a burden, out there. I’d fall apart. The opposite of helpful.
I should be doing more, though. I could, if I tried harder. Should, could, should. Sometimes I wonder why Mathias puts up with me.
I water the herb garden. Marigold, feverfew, tansy, lemon balm, St John’s Wort, a few more. Medical plants. The big rain barrels are running low. Maybe I should get Vera to haul me some water from the standpipe. I think about water as hard as I can, so I don’t think about anything else.
Mathias kisses me next morning, before dawn, then slips out of bed. I try to go back to sleep, try to stop my brain running over everything that could already be going wrong.
We don’t have net access. The neighbours do, because they’re on the books, but I’d have to go out and knock on a door and ask, and yeah, that’s not going to happen.
Even if I went and looked, it might not be there. Mathias might not get the publicity he wants. It might be censored. Worse, it might not need to be. It might be that no one cares. It’s not like the wall’s invisible. It’s not like those inside it don’t know already know what it’s like out here, whatever Mathias might say. People choose to ignore it. They choose not to face up to the consequences of their decisions. I know those people, after all, the way Mathias doesn’t. I know how they think.
A row of corn is ready for harvest and processing. I’ve just finished winding it through the chipper—nice hard mindless manual work—when I hear someone calling over the fence.
Vera’s little brother, Joseph. Oh shit. What’s happened?
“There’s a few injuries,” he says, out of breath. “Mathias asked”—oh thank fuck, Mathias is okay—“if they should go to the centre or come here?”
He doesn’t mean the health centre. They won’t get treated there. No scrip. He means the community centre, which is bigger than our place, but my stuff’s here, and I would have to pack it all up and take it over there, go be a part of things . . .
I’m not a doctor, I’m a chemist, but I’ve learnt a bit since the wall went up. I have to be there.
“Here,” I say, and tell myself, as Joseph belts off again, that it’s just more convenient that way.
Mathias has broken his arm, I think, in almost exactly the same place I broke mine. Exactly the same way I broke mine, too, at a guess. Fucking cops. But he’s in tearing spirits regardless. They all are. I count heads as I triage.
“This everyone?” I ask Mathias as I start splinting his arm. It’s clean; it should heal okay. It might just be a bad bruise, even. Not like I have X-ray facilities here. Not like he’d get scanned if he went to the health centre.
“These are the only people injured,” he says. “Everyone else got away clean.”
He tells me how smoothly it all went. How they’d blocked the track, hung banners along the fence. How trains were stacking up right along the line, freight and passenger both.
“I saw loads of people taking photos,” he says, all fired up, his eyes alight. “They saw us. They saw us.”
I hope for his sake that it translates into the awareness that he wants.
“There’s a photo!” Someone is waving a black-market phone around. “If it goes viral, right…?” There’s a buzz of excited conversation.
“They showed up to chase us off when we were still piling stuff up, but it was already blocked by then,” Mathias tells me. “We ran for it. They didn’t realise we’d made another hole ’til we were halfway through it.”
Mathias and the half-dozen other bruised and battered folk sitting around the living room were the rearguard to protect the rest. No head injuries, thank goodness.
“No one arrested?” I ask, as I tie off Mathias’s bandages and move onto the next patient.
“Nope,” Mathias says happily.
Which is when Joseph shows up on the doorstep again, looking sick.
“Oak. Mathias. The cops have got Vera.”
Vera went to look at what was happening, see how soon they’d clear it, and the cops grabbed her. She wasn’t on the action—Mathias wouldn’t let her, because she still gets scrip, and he won’t let her choose otherwise on his watch until she’s eighteen—and you can’t charge someone just for being nosy, even here. Not yet, anyway. They just wanted to scare her. They’ll let her go.
That’s not the problem. The problem is that she’s sixteen, and she needs to be collected by an adult. Vera and Joseph don’t have any parents. No one they know who has scrip is going to want to be associated with an arrested teenager in case they get docked or worse. No one here in this room has scrip, so that’s not the problem, but anyone who goes is at risk of being arrested themselves.
But if no one shows up, Vera’ll be assigned a guardian. Who knows what opinions a police-assigned guardian will have about a sixteen-year-old trans girl’s hormones?
Mathias looks over at me.
I don’t have scrip. And I wasn’t at the action. I can’t prove I was anywhere else, though, and in theory they could arrest me for the whole semi-legal medicine thing, even though that’s an open enough secret that they quite clearly don’t care about it. It takes the pressure off, I guess, having us manage our own damn drugs.
But I’m avoiding the point. The point is, Mathias and I both know about the ID sitting in my sock drawer.
I think about Vera, sitting there in the cop shop, not knowing what’s going on. She won’t have her hormones with her, either. Won’t know what’s going to happen next.
“She’ll be okay, though, won’t she?” someone says. “She’s a minor, right, and she wasn’t even there… .” His voice dies away as he sees the expressions on everyone else’s faces.
He’s saying what I want to think. I want to think that she’ll be fine. That I won’t have to do this.
I can’t believe it, though. It’s not true. Vera needs someone, and the only someone here who can do it is me. She needs me to go out there and down to the cop shop, and exert my so-called authority to get her out.
I’m breathing too fast just thinking about it. The station. The cop behind the desk. My arm hurts.
“I’ll do it,” Mathias says, looking at my face. He stumbles, just a little, as he stands up.
I want so badly to stay out of this. Food, medicine; those are things I can do from here, while I stay separate. This—this is getting involved.
“My arse you will,” I say to Mathias, and pretend like my voice didn’t crack.
There is no way they won’t make Mathias if he shows up. He’s got a recognisable voice and a broken arm; and they know him. I can’t keep myself safe at Vera and Joseph and Mathias’s expense, however much I want to.
It’s bullshit to say this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That was the plague, by a very long way.
But I have to shut my eyes to force myself over the threshold. I used to go hiking, hours across the hills, back in the day, but the ten minute walk to the cop shop, just on our side of the wall, lurking up against it, is a whole lot further.
I want to tell Joseph, anxiously shadowing me, to sod off and leave me to it, but I let him pace me almost all the way there. I can’t turn around and go back if he’s with me.
I do send him away at the doorstep of the cop shop, which is when it occurs to me that I have no idea at all if I’ll be able to speak when I get in there.
Well, shit. Not a lot to do but to keep moving, right?
“I’m here to collect Vera Okri,” I say, when I reach the front desk. Oh look, I can talk. Well done, me.
I look at the cop’s chin, not at her face, then I look down at the scratched grey plastic of the desk. I focus on my breathing. I ignore anything else, any other images, coming into my mind. They’re just pictures. I can let them go. I don’t let myself hold my arm.
“Were you at the disturbance this morning, then?” An attempt at a chatty tone, just-good-friends-here. Yeah, as if.
“I was not. I was at home. I’ve come to collect Vera.” I’m going for bored, myself. I have no idea if that’s coming across.
“I’m going to need to see some ID, sir.”
I hate this, I hate this. I hand it over.
I’m still not looking at the cop’s face, but I see the shift in her body, and I hear the change in her tone.
“Well. Of course, this is in order, uh, madam… .”
“I prefer sir,” I say through clenched teeth. That’s not even the thing I hate most about my ID, although I do wish I’d got it changed before everything else happened.
“Sir,” she says. If I had ID from this side of the wall, she’d still be saying madam, I guarantee you.
What my ID says—what I hate most about it—is that I could walk right through that gate right now if I chose to. I don’t, and I won’t, because it’s all fucking bullshit. The only reason I’m allowed inside is because my family bought me the vaccine. I let them do it because I hadn’t realised then what it was going to mean.
The vaccine doesn’t even matter anymore. We finally managed to produce it on this side—and pints of my blood went into the effort, so I suppose there was some value to the damn thing in the end—but that’s not what the wall’s about any more. It’s about who had enough to buy themselves safety then, and who chooses to keep things this way now. The haves and the have-nots.
And my ID says I’m a have. I wanted to cut the damn thing up, but Mathias convinced me not to. He said it might come in handy sometime. And hey, look. He was right.
I still hate it. I hate that if I didn’t have it, this whole thing would be going down differently.
But it means I can help Vera. There is that.
“Are you taking responsibility for the minor, then?” the cop asks.
I risk looking up. Her expression now is very different from the one I associate with cops. She’s not about to hit me with anything. Not me, not right now.
Still could have been her that broke Mathias’ arm.
I realise I haven’t said anything. “I’m collecting Vera,” I say cautiously. I don’t understand what she’s asking.
“I understand that her parents are dead,” the cop says. “I need to allocate her to a proper guardian. She should have one already.” But there’s no real censure in her voice; we both know that the plague messed things up, this side of the wall. At least Vera’s ID is correct; she transitioned longer ago than I did, and her mum sorted it all out back then, before everything.
Anyway. Vera didn’t want a guardian, so she’s managed without one. She won’t want one now, either, but it looks like that’s the price of getting her out of here.
“Fine,” I say.
I must sound stroppy, because the cop gets apologetic. “I won’t be able to, uh,” she waves her hand at my ID, still lying on the counter. She means Vera won’t get my privileges. “But there won’t be any repercussions for her, if you’re taking responsibility.” She means she’ll still get scrip.
We go through a whole tedious stack of paperwork. I still feel sick and my pulse is sky-high, but I’m coping. Then Vera gets brought out through the reinforced door at the side, and we are, finally, free to go.
Vera’s limping a little, but she shakes her head at me when I frown down at her leg, so we keep going, out the door. Not long now ’til I’ll be home again.
My heart jumps straight into my throat as I turn around.
“You forgot your ID, sir.” The cop hands it back to me.
I want to hand it straight back to her. I bare my teeth in something approximating a polite smile, and put it in my pocket.
“Is this going to…” Vera sounds subdued. “Are you in trouble?”
I pull a face, looking down at the broken pavement. “No. I got—never mind. I got immunity, kind of.”
I can feel Vera squinting at me, but I’m not explaining this to her.
“You’ll still get scrip, too,” I add, then remember. “But, uh, she had to register you to me.” I wince. “Like some kind of guardian shit, I dunno. Sorry. I guess it doesn’t matter much. I’m not about to start guardian-ing you, don’t worry.”
Vera shrugs. “I’m out, and I’ve still got scrip. I’m good.” She swallows. “Thanks.”
I shrug. “Eh. Wasn’t anything so much.”
And I realise, as I say it, that I’m right. It’s just paperwork. It’s wrong, and that’s important, but… it’s just bureaucracy. Not like the food, or the medicine. That’s us, coming together. Me supporting people in the way that I can. From each according to their ability, and all that. The ID gives me the ability to bail Vera out when no one else could, and it matters that I did that; but everything else matters more. This is my community; and I do what I can. Maybe that is enough, after all. Maybe I can let myself be part of it.
“Heyyyy though, Oak,” Vera says, drawing my attention. “If you’re my guardian now, will you teach me to work the printer?”
She never gives up, this kid. I roll my eyes, and feel my pulse starting to slow. “Maybe.”
Vera hears the yes behind the maybe, and grins at me.
“I’ve got your next month’s worth of E and spiro, back at the house,” I say, and she grins a bit wider. Her relief is infectious; I can feel my own shoulders going down.
Maybe. Maybe what I do does matter.
Maybe can be yes.
I step through my front door with vast relief. Mathias is in the hallway, and puts his uninjured arm around me.
“You were right to make me keep it,” I say into his ear.
He kisses me.
There are more people here now; the uninjured ones have arrived, I guess. Joseph is telling Vera off, which is amusing. Someone is showing round something on a rehabbed tablet.
“We did it,” Mathias tells me, gleeful. “So much publicity. People asking questions all over the net. A City politician, even. Half the shop shelves were empty this morning, too, and that’s hooked into the demo photos, so that’s even more coverage. That’s the thing with just-in-time delivery, it’s so damn easy to disrupt.”
I hate what it takes for people to see. But if it does, if it helps… .
“Good work,” I say. I sigh, looking around. “I’ll make stew, I guess. You’ve all been up since the middle of the night.”
“You’ll sit the hell down and I’ll make stew,” Vera says, appearing from behind Mathias; then, reacting to my look, “What? I can cook.”
“Let her,” Mathias advises me, and steers me to a seat.
I look around, at our living room full of people. People I know. People whose drugs I make. People whose food I grow, some of it. People who are dedicated to fixing this shitty system. Maybe I’m not doing what they are, but I’m doing something. I helped Vera. I help a lot of people. Sometimes I can’t. But sometimes I can. I can be part of this.
I am, already.
I hear the printer stop in the next room. I nod at Mathias, and go through to sort this batch and get the next one running.
We’re all doing something. This is my thing. These are my people. We’re all in this together, trying to change it; and this is enough. I am enough.
This was a story I knew we’d take as soon as I first read it. What I didn’t know was what it would become at this point in time: a mirror to where we are, and where we might be going. I could focus on the inequalities of these worlds, ours and the world of this story, but that’s background, not what this story is about, not what’s happening in our world.
There’s a lot that is awful, yes. A lot that seems unassailable. We are – unfortunately – living through hard, historic times.
But there are also heroes, all around us, doing what is right, and doing what they can. In our hospitals, in our communities, in our homes. In the days and months ahead, I know I’ll find hope in that – and in stories like this one, where we help each other in all the small ways that matter most of all.
Take care, all of you. Wash your hands. Stay home, if you can.
About the Author
Juliet Kemp is a queer, non-binary writer who lives in London with their partners, child, and dog. Their fantasy series The Marek Series is available from Elsewhen Press; the first book, “The Deep And Shining Dark” was a 2018 Locus Recommended Read. In their free time, they go bouldering, tend their towering to-be-read pile, and get over-enthusiastic about fountain pens. They can be found at http://julietkemp.com, or as @julietk on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Setsu is the host and assistant editor at PodCastle. They write and occasionally narrate dark fantasy. Setsu’s interests include violin, baking, swordwork, horseback archery, linguistics, and making friends with your cat. Their fiction has appeared in Grimdark Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Magic: The Gathering.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.