They reached the city at dusk the next day, and it wasn’t empty. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From where they were, they could see a large amount of people running around to get their jobs done before night fell, and it was such a relieving feeling that Gwen felt she could collapse.
“We’re not out of the woods yet.” She heard Ryan murmur next to her though it sounded like he was talking to himself, and she followed his gaze to the next task that awaited them, getting past the guards.
“We might be lucky.” She said.
“We might be. Or they could quarantine us.”
“Wouldn’t that be for a good reason though? I mean, to keep their people safe? I mean, sure it’d suck for us, but they have their reasons.”
Ryan shrugged. “Come on.”
He walked up to the guards with confidence. “Good evening.” He said with a smile on his face.
The guards were friendly, returning the smile and the greeting. One was tall and though he looked lanky, Gwen didn’t dare doubt how strong he was. He looked like someone who could run after a fleeing criminal and tackle him down. The other was a woman, shorter than the man but obviously strong. Their weapons were well in their reach however, and Gwen knew for a fact that they wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate a risk to their community.
“Can we help you?” The woman asked, her tone was kind, yet professional.
“We were hoping to get into the city. We’ve been separated from our camp and we’re seeking somewhere safe.” Ryan told them. “I’m Ryan, and this is Gwen.”
The guards shared a look. “Ariana.” The woman said, before pointing to the man. “He’s Isiah. We might be able to organise something for you. Are you infected?”
“Yes.” Gwen said, because they wouldn’t be able to hide it even if they wanted to. Her veins were too dark to pass as normal, and Ryan was worse off than her, his pallor fading and veins darker and thicker than hers, like a child had drawn on his arms with a thick marker.
The guards suddenly looked wary, but didn’t raise their weapons. “We can probably organise something for you.” Isiah said, though he no longer sounded friendly. “The people searching for a cure would find your assistance much appreciated, I’m sure. Just give us a moment, yeah?”
Ryan nodded, and they watched as the man shared a glance with Ariana before he went into the city, turning around a corner and disappearing from sight.
Ariana surveyed them, making Gwen shift uncomfortably. “If something is worked out.” Ariana said after a long silence. “I expect that you realise that talking to the people who aren’t infected is totally out of the question.”
“Of course.” Gwen said. “We can understand why.”
And it was easy to know why; they didn’t have to make guesses. The people who weren’t infected were important, and when it came down to it, the infected were useless, nothing more than people who would be dead before the season changed.
It hurt to think of them like that. They were still alive, still human, but worthless. It was discomforting to learn your value when it’s less than the dead.
“I’m glad.” Ariana said. “We had an incident with one of the infected not long ago. It makes the people upset, y’know? They want to know they’re secure, and they can’t feel that way if they’re running the risk of being infected due to other people’s ignorance and carelessness.”
“How many people do you have here?” Ryan asked, sounding curious.
“In total, close to eleven thousand.”
“How many of them are infected?”
Ariana hesitated. “More than half.” She said, finally. “Probably about seven thousand. There are maybe two hundred people in quarantine at the current time for suspicion of them being infected, the rest are mostly civilians.”
“Mostly?” Gwen asked.
Ariana looked uncomfortable. “We’ve all got our jobs around here; we all carry our own weight.”
“Are there scientists in among those people? Searching for a cure?” Gwen asked, feeling more uncertain by the moment.
Ariana looked vaguely relieved. “Yes. They’re working day and night to find a cure. It won’t be long before we get one.”
Isiah came back through the gate before they could continue asking questions. He nodded towards the two stragglers. “Our council want to speak to you. Follow me, and try not to get lost.” He turned on his heel, cutting off any chance to ask questions.
Ryan and Gwen struggled to keep up with his quick pace. Their nights of short bursts of sleeping in rough conditions and long days of walking had worn them down to the last threads. Had the city been any further, Gwen was sure that they wouldn’t have made it, no matter how determined they were.
But they were there, they were in the city and they had made it, and it was beautiful. The relief was overwhelming and it was almost worth collapsing for.
Yet, trepidation built up in Gwen. What if the council didn’t like what they saw in them? What if they were too far gone or the council were made of people who didn’t care for their kind? If any of that were to happen, they’d be kicked out, and they’d lose everything they had worked for, everything they had held onto for hope, and they would surely die out there.
“Don’t look so upset.” Ryan whispered to her. “Things are starting to look up. We’re in the city.”
He was so positive that this was it, that they could just settle down here and wait for a cure, and then return to the camp, and she hated it. If this went south, he would be crushed, and she hoped to whatever God that would listen that everything went okay, because she didn’t want to see his expression after his last hope had been ripped away from him.
Isiah led them into a building, and then into a corridor that broke off into many more corridors. It was obvious that this had once been a very large office building that had been transformed into something like a headquarters. He led them up two flights of stairs, and then took them down a corridor, and turned into another, after another, and another.
It was like a maze, and she was sure she’d never find her way back here again, and that was probably the point, she figured. They probably didn’t want angry masses knocking on their door, nor a delirious infected person.
She was starting to feel dizzy by the time Isiah stopped outside of the door. “Listen,” he said quietly, “be on your best behaviour, and be honest. They don’t appreciate rudeness, and they won’t accept liars, and they always know when you’re lying.” He opened the door, stepping in and stopping before a table surrounded by people. He motioned for them to follow him in.
The Council was composed of twelve people, six females and six males, all looking like they had very different personalities and temperaments. All of them were sitting up straight, with different expressions on their face. Some were sympathetic, and others cold. There was one man that sat in the middle of the table, Gwen thought it was possible that he might have been the leader, and he had a completely uncaring expression on his face. It was disconcerting.
Gwen almost wanted to beg Isiah to stay. There was something about the guard that made him feel approachable, and much safer then these people were. She stayed quiet though, shifting uncomfortably. She watched as Isiah bowed, and exited the room, and suddenly felt very out of place.
Would they have to bow to them too? Was this Council so demanding that they demanded everyone to bow before them? She didn’t want to be here if it was going to be that way. Was this going to be a group of twelve people who dominated and their subjects who had no choice in the matter, treating them as nothing more than mere peasants?
Before she had any more time to ponder on it, Ryan stepped forward. “Good evening,” He said, in the same easy tone he had greeted Ariana and Isiah. “I’m Ryan.”
“I’m Gwen.” She told them, trying her hardest to sound confident like Ryan, though her voice trembled slightly.
“Good evening.” One of the women said, sounding friendly enough but looking far too professional. “I’m Elora.” She gestured to man, who looked awkward and very unprofessional next to her. “This is Riley. We’ll be the ones who will be asking most of the questions today.”
The rest of The Council wasn’t introduced, all staying quiet. Riley offered them a small wave and an amiable smile. “Hello.” He greeted. “This isn’t an interrogation.” He told them, laughing the slightest bit. “You can relax. There’s no need to be formal.”
Gwen felt herself relax the slightest bit at the man’s friendliness. “Now,” He said, “Ryan, Gwen, if you don’t mind, we should start. We have things to do.”
They nodded in agreement. Gwen wasn’t sure about Ryan, but she knew she didn’t want to spend any longer in here than she had too, no matter how friendly this man was.
“Alright. Now, why did you come to the city?”
“We got infected.” Ryan said honestly. “We had heard of the rumours of a city and their searching of a cure, so we left our camp.”
“Why would you leave your camp for somewhere that you had only heard about in rumours? What if you hadn’t been lucky enough to find us?” Elora asked, cocking her head slightly, though she didn’t seem concerned that she was in the presence of two of the infected.
“Our camp was made up of almost thirty people, many of which who are our friends. We didn’t want to run the risk of infecting such a large group, and if we didn’t find the city, well…” Gwen trailed off, falling silent. She didn’t have to say the words; they all knew what she was going to say.
“Fair enough.” The man said. “You’re both infected? How long?”
“I was infected about two weeks ago, and Ryan about a week ago.”
“When did you leave your camp? When you both got infected or when Gwen got infected?”
“A few days after Gwen was infected. I couldn’t live with the idea of letting her go off on her own, and either die or turn into one of them, but I couldn’t let her infect the rest of our camp.”
“You must have been aware of the risk that she presented, surely? Why would you go with her, when instead you could’ve put her down and saved yourself the trouble?” One of the other men asked, leaning forward in his chair, putting his arms up on the table.
Gwen felt Ryan tense next to her at the man’s callous words. “I knew of the risk.” He hesitated before saying the next part. “I’ve been running since the disease was first mentioned. My parents were one of the first lot of people to infected, and I… I wasn’t happy running anymore. There isn’t a way to outrun the disease, only to prolong the time before you get infected, and it all was beginning to feel pointless to me. I’d rather die trying to find a cure than running, and every day wondering if I would be the next to be infected, and I wasn’t strong enough to take Gwen’s life.”
The Council obviously respected his honesty, nodding. “You said Gwen was the first to be infected?” Elora asked, and they both nodded. “But you look further along in the disease than she is.”
Gwen’s lips pressed together in a tight line. She hated that fact, she had been infected almost a week before he had, but he was growing more sickly every day, and while she wasn’t as healthy as she had been before leaving the camp, she was far more healthier than he was.
“Yes.” Ryan said. “I guess some people are affected more quickly than others.”
“That’s true.” The same man who had asked Ryan about the risk that Gwen presented. “Males fall quicker to it than females for some unexplained reason. The studies we’ve done show that if an average man and average woman were to be infected at the same time, the man would fall to the disease about a day and a half quicker give or take, though many males have more resistance.”
“That’s really interesting.” Gwen said, honestly, and Ryan hummed in agreement.
“While that is interesting,” one of the women said, who looked much sterner than the rest of the council. “We still have a few more questions, one of which is, are you willing to do your part around here? Everyone is expected to help, some way or another.”
“Yes.” Ryan said, and Gwen elaborated.
“The same was expected of us back in our camp. It’s not a problem.” Gwen elaborated.
“Good. And we expect that you are to stay separated from the people who are uninfected at all times, no matter what the circumstance is, does that sound fair?”
“And in addition to that, you will be expected to wear something that will allow for people to identify that you are sick.”
The word sick felt harsh, like a whip. She had become so used to the word infected, and it didn’t sting, because that’s what they were. Sick reminded her of coughs and the flu, and they weren’t like that. Sick people weren’t forced to become monsters at the end of the course of the sickness, they just got better.
“That’s fair.” Ryan answered.
“Then it’s settled. You two will be authorised to live in the city. Riley will lead you to your quarters and brief you on meal times and other such things. Your jobs will be chosen in a few days or so, when we decide what jobs you would be fit for.”
“Thank you.” Ryan said, and Gwen echoed the sentiment. They watched as eleven members of the council left the room, leaving them alone with Riley. The friendly man stood, and Gwen took the time to examine him. His hair was the colour of mud, and eyes the colour of crunchy leaves.
“Give me a sec.” The man said. “Stay here; I’ll just go get the information for you.” He quickly left the room, leaving them alone.
“What do you think?” Gwen asked.
“I think things are finally good now.” Ryan said. “I mean, they’ve accepted us. They’re searching for a cure, and we were lucky to make it here. What about you?”
“I’m not sure.” She admitted. “It sounds great, wonderful actually, but I’m just a little worried.”
She didn’t have a chance to explain as Riley came back into the room. “Alright,” He said slowly while reading, “looks like you’re in the ninth quarter. Are you two happy to share a room or do you want separate ones?”
“We can share.” Gwen said quickly, before Ryan could say anything. She didn’t want to be separated from him right now, not when she was still unsure, and in the two weeks they had spent together, she wasn’t ready to be away from him.
“Okay, easy done. If you’ll just follow me.” He led them out of the maze of a building and out on to the streets, giving them a tour at the same time. “Generally, you’ll only be allowed down here at certain times.” He told them. “Which is three hours before nightfall. I hope you can understand why.”
They did. He pointed out a few buildings, telling them what they were and if they’d need to go there or not. “This is the bakery.” He said, as they passed a building that smelled wonderful. “The service here is great, no matter your status, and it always is amazing food; their cinnamon buns are to die for.”
“What’s in there?” Gwen asked, pointing to a building that was locked up expertly, the windows blocked out by thick curtains on the inside and thick bars on the outside, with a guard standing by the door. Though he didn’t look threatening, the arsenal of weaponry he was carrying did.
“Nothing,” Riley said, “don’t worry about it, and don’t ever go in there.” He sped up his step, leaving them to trail behind slightly, looking confused at his sudden abruptness.
It raised questions about what was in there, and why it was so heavily protected.
Gwen was curious now, and she felt as though she wouldn’t rest easy until her curiosity was satisfied.