The Ninth Quarter was a large block of apartments and a single large patch of grass. Despite the fact that the night had all but fallen, many people were still out, including children. The state of sickness ranged from person to person, some looking sickly and looked like they were threatening to die at any moment, and others looking healthy, like nothing was wrong and that they didn’t even belong there. The lines on their wrists contradicted that fact.
“Here we are.” Riley said, leading them up two flights of stairs and to the first door. The number eighteen adorned the door with metal numbers. The man unlocked the door, and swung it open. He stepped back, letting Gwen and Ryan enter first.
The apartment wasn’t much, but it was like a five star hotel after the conditions they had become used to. The first room they stepped into was one of three rooms. It wasn’t large, but Gwen failed to care about that. The kitchen was in the corner, and a table to sit four sat in the centre of the room. The adjoining rooms were a bathroom, small but clean and a room, with two twin beds.
“It’s not amazing, but it’s better than some of the places out there.” Riley told them. “And it won’t come for free. You’ll do your part, you’ll work and you’ll earn money, and with the money you earn you’ll slowly pay this place off, as well as buying food.”
“On the table is an information pack with the rules, the times you can go into the City Square, where you’re allowed to access, etcetera. The rules are pretty simple, but breaking them will lead to you being banished from The City. In the rules, you’ll read that all infected must wear something that will identify you. You have no objections to that, right?”
“None.” Gwen said, speaking for the both of them.
“Okay. Good.” Riley nodded, and reached into his pocket. He pulled out two thick wrist bands, bright and reflective. Gwen wasn’t entirely sure whether she should be angry or amused at the bio-hazard symbol on them.
“You’re expected to have this visible at all times, or if you’re wearing something that will cover it, you’ll find several pieces of material that will have the matching design that you’ll have to attach to yourself somehow. Any questions?”
“What jobs should we be expecting to get?” Ryan asked.
“It varies. There are certain jobs for certain people. Stronger people will be guards; the weaker will do tasks such as laundry, cooking, nursing. The intelligent work for The Council or assist the scientists. There are other jobs, but it’s not my place to tell you about them. Anything else?”
They both shook their heads. “Great. You’ll find food in the cupboards. I’ll leave you to it, and if you need any help, the people who live here will be more than happy to help you.”
Riley nodded, and exited the room, leaving them alone.
“This is almost too good to be true.” Gwen said, fiddling with the wristband. Ryan already had his on, but she felt uncertain about putting hers on. It meant that she’d have to acknowledge that she was well and truly infected now – that the false reassurances that she told herself before she went to sleep were just that, false reassurances, and she hated that.
Ryan seemed to know what she was thinking. “Just put it on.” He told her. “It doesn’t make things any more real than they already are.”
It was a fair point, and she conceded, slipping it over her hand. “I’m not sure about the bio-hazard symbols though.” She told him with a wry smile. He returned it.
“Let’s see what food they have. I’m starving.” He walked over to the cupboard, throwing them open. “I hope you like instant noodles.” He said over his shoulder. “Because that’s all we have.”
“Really? What flavour?”
He reached into the cupboard, grabbing a cup. “Beef. Do we have a kettle?” He glanced over his shoulder and then nodded. “Hungry?”
Ryan busied himself in the kitchen, creating their gourmet dinner for the night, and Gwen took the opportunity to explore the apartment.
“A couch would’ve been nice.” She said. “But I guess you can’t have everything.” She continued her adventure into the bedroom.
The bedroom was decent sized, easily fitting the beds and two cupboards in. She opened one, and grinned. The garments were simple, but they were what they were used to. Jeans and shirts. As Riley had told them, in the drawers at the bottom of the cupboard, there were pieces of material that were the same colour as the wristbands with the symbol painted onto them.
“Here.” Ryan said, entering the room and handing her the noodles. “They’re pretty good, but I’m not sure how I feel about eating them for the rest of my life.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had these.” Gwen said, twirling the noodles around her fork.
Ryan hummed in agreement. “The beds look very comfortable.”
“They were what I was going to explore next.” Gwen said, with a grin. “A few hour long adventure, I think.”
“That sounds like a brilliant idea.” Ryan said, and they were silent, relishing the food. It was cheap, not even a brand name, but they tasted heavenly.
It was quite a sight, two teenagers sitting cross-legged on the ground of their bedroom, eating noodles that tasted like plastic, and it felt surreal.
“We made it.” Gwen said quietly. “We actually made it.”
“It feels amazing.” Ryan admitted. “Lately, it’s felt like there’s been something sitting on my chest, pressing down and putting enough pressure on my ribs to make them feel like they’re going to crack, and that’s just gone now, and it feels so uplifting, y’know?”
“Yeah.” Gwen agreed. “I’m not too sure about this place yet, it really does seem too good to be true, but it feels relieving.” She finished her noodles. “Are you finished?”
“Yeah.” He handed her the cup. “Thanks.” He stood up and threw himself down on the bed closest to the door. “I’m going on that adventure you were speaking about earlier, it sounded good.”
“Alright.” She laughed. “Have fun with that.”
“I guarantee you that I will.” His eyes were closed; his words already slow with sleep.
She left the room, and dealt with the washing of the cutlery and threw the cups in the bin, before following Ryan’s approach, and promptly fell asleep.
Gwen was rudely awakened by the loud knocking at their door, and so was Ryan, if the groan was anything to go by. “This had better be good.” She mumbled under her breath.
“I got it.” Ryan said, yawning at the end of the sentence. He clumsily walked out of the room, bumping his shoulder against the door-frame as he did.
She heard Riley’s voice, and she sighed, figuring that she had better get up too. She walked out into the main room, and nodded to Riley. “Morning.” She said, her words slurring, before she yawned.
“Sorry for waking you.” Riley said. “But we have an early start here, you have to get used to it. I’m sure you were exhausted.”
“What’s up, Riley?”
“I need to talk to you about your jobs. Gwen, the Council have decided that you’ll undergo first-aid training and assist with the sick.” Gwen nodded, although she remembered the titbit Riley had said last night, about the weak being nurses. She felt stung that The Council thought of her as weak. She had lasted two weeks with no one except Ryan, hunting and surviving, and being strong. “And Ryan, your career type has been selected, but the job you’ll be doing hasn’t yet. The Council wants to see you, and have you undergone testing.”
“What kind of testing?” Ryan asked, sounding suspicious.
“Nothing of that kind.” Riley hurried to reassure. “We won’t use you as a test subject. The testing is just about your intellect and physical form, so it can be determined what your job should be. If you’ll both just get dressed, I’ll take you down to where you need to be.”
They quickly changed, their backs to each other. Their shirts were all the colour of dark night skies, no other colour available to them, and their jeans almost the same colour. The wristbands were the only bright things they owned.
“Good.” Riley said in an approving tone. “I’m pleased that you remembered to wear your wrist bands. Follow me please.”
Riley led them downstairs and away from the Ninth Quarter, and into another section. “This is the First Quarter, Gwen; this is where you’ll be coming every morning. In that building over there,” He pointed a small building. “You’ll find a man named Austin. He’ll be the one that trains you.”
Gwen nodded. “Alright. I’ll leave you here then.” Riley said. “Come on, Ryan.”
Gwen closed her eyes for a brief second, feeling a rise of nervousness build up within her. She wasn’t sure that she would be good at first aid. Though the sight of blood didn’t make her queasy, the sight of people in pain made her uneasy. She shook herself, and walked into the building.
At the desk was a tall man, skinny and lean, wearing black framed glasses. He was leaning over some paperwork, and didn’t look up at her entrance as he was obviously focused on the task. Feeling awkward, she cleared her throat, and the man’s head shot up.
“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.” He smiled. “I’m guessing that you’re Gwen.” She nodded.
“Yeah, and you’re Austin?” The man smiled at her, nodding. “The one and only. Well, not really, there are a few other Austin’s here.”
Gwen laughed at the man though the joke wasn’t all that funny, but she felt none of her earlier nervousness. Austin stood up, and reached out to shake her hand. She grasped it, shaking it. She felt relieved at the way he didn’t flinch away from her touch, even though he was obviously healthy, whereas her veins were almost protruding from her skin, looking like dark knives that were about to rip through her flesh.
“Right, well, let’s get you started.” He said, “I’m sure you’ll fit right in.”
And just like that, Gwen found that this place might not be too bad after all.