I was the one they chose to go to the Outer Zone beyond our part of the perimeter. To mark the occasion the Manager of Inner Zone 7.5 gave a pompous speech standing on a turned-over wheelie bin in front of the old supermarket whose supplies had been raided a decade ago. He called me ‘the foremost man of energy and intellect in IZ 7.5 and a loyal servant of the Inner Zones’, but I was far from it. I was simply the only one apart from the Manager himself who could write a report to the District Officer in the Old Language. The others clapped half-heartedly and returned to their rooms, eyes glazed with fatigue.
I took a bicycle and rode on the road until I reached the barbed-wire barriers, then walked through abandoned army outposts and around buildings submerged in toxic bogs. Eventually I came to a settlement protected by a makeshift wall. I walked up to a gate and was startled when a crowd of Carriers appeared, jostling to grip the bars and stare at me. They must have had watchers who saw me coming. I explained my purpose to the ones who looked like leaders. Amid much shouting and discussion, the crowd opened the gate and swarmed around me, handling my oxygen pack and groping my pockets and nostril tubes.
We called them Carriers, but all of us had been affected by the Illness in some way. Most of us had sore joints, pockmarks, weak lungs. We were all equally mired in selfishness, anger and fear, and in our need to drag as many of the others as we could down with us. We were all hungry. Distinctions between groups depended less on Zone designations (which were relative in any case: the Outer Zones’ designations were the reverse of ours) than on who had possession of the medical equipment. This changed from time to time after battles between factions formed by shifting, cryptic loyalties and fought with every possible implement: sticks and stones, curtain rods and hammers, and no one and nothing spared. But the medical supplies were dwindling and the Illness was making everyone weaker: a few more heavy battles involving several Zones and the End Days that were predicted with such tedious regularity would in fact be in sight for us all.
They led me roughly past blocks of flats beside a stream full of garbage and moulding furniture. Families were bathing in it, sharing bars of soap. Eventually we came to an old corporation building festooned with brightly coloured ribbons. I was led into the lobby. The walls were lined with wheezing officials dressed entirely in denim. At the end wall was a throne of sorts consisting of an armchair on a platform covered in bed sheets, on either side of which stood a brass lion. On the throne sat a tight-lipped old man dressed in a policeman’s uniform.
One of the officials walked over to me and whispered instructions in my ear. I was to walk up to the throne slowly and make obeisance to ‘The Police’ three times with my face on the ground. I was not to look at the throne while I bowed.
As I knelt and bowed my head to the ground I heard a creaking sound. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that two of the officials were working a pump jack behind the throne, which was rising into the air on an elevating platform. As I stood up having paid my respects, I found ‘The Police’ was sitting near the ceiling. Flakes of rust were tumbling through the air.
‘The Police’, whom I now recognised as a former Manager of one of the Inner Zones who had led campaigns against the Carriers, coughed, spat on the ground below, and began to address me. ‘We’re a peaceful, open-handed people’, he said loudly. ‘We’ve never asked you for anything. Yet you attack us viciously. Tell me why I shouldn’t tell them to kill you.’ He gestured at his decrepit officials.
I replied in the Old Clichés in which I had never believed: ‘I come in peace’, I shouted back up. ’We’re all suffering. We’re all Carriers of the Illness, and supplies are low. I’m appealling to The Police, on behalf of my own Police, to help stop the violence so we can work together for our common survival.’
‘You appeal, yet you’re the ones with the equipment. You’re the owners and the attackers.’
‘We’ve attacked you, yes, just as you’ve attacked us. But now we’re coming to you to seek reconciliation.’
The Police coughed and spat again. ‘How do we know you won’t kill us all?’
‘Trust. We have to trust each other. It’s the only way.’
The next week the entire settlement met the IZ 7.5 Group in one of the Neutral Zones, unarmed. We took the amphetamine pills allocated by the DO for warfare, encircled the Carriers and killed them all with bayonets we had fashioned from branches and tin cans.