An innocent wandering in the woods, I am unaware of the danger I am in. Pale eyes flash through the undergrowth, but I don’t feel the predator’s gaze until it is too late. Powerful muscles propel hunters toward me. These are real men, men who live by wit and brawn. These are the savages of the wilds and soon they will be upon me. I will be theirs and there is nothing I can do to stop them, even if I wanted to.
“Riley, have you taken your medicine?” The question is shouted through our apartment, a tiny little box set among a thousand other tiny little boxes in a tower in the middle of the city. What city? Maybe we knew once. Doesn’t really matter anymore. Names are for when there’s more than one of a thing, and there’s only one city left.
“Yes, Mama,” I shriek back dutifully.
The answer is actually no. I haven’t taken my medicine, and it’s not medicine. It’s sedatives. Because I am a bad girl, and bad girls must be kept quiet.
“Where are you?” Her voice floats to me through the wall. I roll my eyes at the question. There are only two rooms in this apartment. How many places could I possibly be?
She comes bustling into the room and sighs when she finds me at the window. She doesn’t like the way I sit there and read and look out to the few hints of green I can spot behind the high rise of the walls—the canopy of the wilds.
“You could stand to lose some weight, Riley. You should get back on the treadmill and stop reading all those books. They’re bad for you. Who reads anymore, honestly.” Her exasperation is real. And she’s right. Almost nobody reads anymore. We watch everything. It’s easier. The only reason I can read is because my dad taught me a long time ago and I never lost the skill.
I’m not fat. I’m just not four anymore. I could lose all the weight in the world and it wouldn’t make me her little girl again. I’ve committed the biggest sin I ever could have perpetrated in my mother’s eyes—I’ve grown up.
“I don’t think you have taken your medication,” she says, unhappy. “You’re reading. You never read when you’re on your medication. You watch the shows like a normal girl.”
I sigh and swing my legs off the window seat. “You want me to watch a show, Mama?”
“Yes, good girl,” she smiles. “And you can have another dose of your pills too. You always feel better when you take your medication.”
They think I’m excitable because I keep wanting to leave the house. That’s considered pretty damn weird by city dweller standards. ‘Outside’ is practically a curse word here. When I was younger, I kept trying to go out and explore. My dad thought it was great. My mom, not so much. The moment he was gone, she took me to the doctor and got me on my medication.
The sedatives are designed to keep me calm throughout the day. They work most of the time, until I stop taking them, and then I get the old urges again. The same desire I’ve had since I was a little girl and my father told me all about the world beyond the city walls.
He used to lead small expeditions out into the wilds, just a few miles outside the walls. They used to be popular. Rich city folk would pay him lots of money to take them into the wilds and they would return with exciting stories to be told over and over again at all the best parties.
My mother would become hysterical back then, insisting that he was filling my head with dangerous nonsense. In the end, their conflict was resolved when he led a small expedition that didn’t come back. There was no search. He was just… gone.
The tours dried up then, we had no money saved and we ended up here, in cramped social housing. I hate it, but it has room for a treadmill and a wall screen, so that’s all we need.
But it’s not all I need. I’ve known for a long time that I need to see the wilds where my father was lost for myself. I need to leave the city. And I’m going to. Now. Right. Fucking. Now.
I don’t know what it is about today in particular that makes everything come to a head. Maybe it’s because my nineteenth birthday was last week, and I’ve been remembering how excited I’d been when I turned eighteen. Finally I was an adult. I was going to live my life… except I haven’t lived anything here in my mother’s apartment. My world hasn’t changed one bit since I became an adult. I can’t even move and get my own place. There are no more places. This apartment will become mine when my mother passes on, a long time from now. Then these eight walls will become mine until I follow her.
I find that depressing.
The city beyond our door doesn’t hold much interest for me anymore. I have been in every single part of it a thousand times over. It is only twenty-five square miles in total, and no matter how high you build, that’s still an area you can walk around multiple times a day.
Some people get circling sickness, where they can’t help but pace the wall over and over again. We’re trapped in here, but only because we choose to be. The wilds are right there, and anyone can go into them if they please. It’s just we don’t, because people who go into the wilds don’t come back.
I don’t own many things. There’s not room for them, but I do own a little pack. It’s pink and it’s small, because my father bought it for me when I was small. The straps are extendable though, and it’s big enough to hold a few supplies. Water, some cookies. Stuff like that. I can’t remember everything he told me about preparing for an expedition, but I know water is a big one.
“Riley? What are you doing?” My mother stands next to me, wringing her hands as I put stuff in my bag. I think she already knows. I don’t like upsetting her, but it’s starting to occur to me that she doesn’t really care so much about upsetting me.
“I’m going to go for a walk in the woods.”
“Riley, no.” Her eyes fill with tears. “Take your medication. You’ll feel better once you have the pills.”
“I’ll be back soon, Mama. It’s not dangerous just outside the walls. There’s city patrols there sometimes anyway. You have to go way out to run into trouble. And I won’t do that.”
“That’s what your father said. There are savages out there, Riley. Dangerous men. They will ravage you and kill you!”
Her warnings would have held more weight if she hadn’t been predicting that I’d be ravaged and killed by practically everything I’ve ever encountered in my life. I wanted a kitten, once. She said it would climb onto my face and murder me in my sleep by suffocating me with its fur.
She is fearful of everything, and for a long time, I was too. I have wasted so much of my life already worrying about things that never went wrong. Maybe there are people in the wilds. I hope there are. My father is out there too, somewhere. My mother says he’s dead, but I bet he isn’t. He wasn’t the kind of man to die.
“I’m going to call the doctor!”
While she does that, I leave the house. The doctor isn’t going to do anything. Nor are the police. There’s nothing illegal about leaving the city. The place is overcrowded as it is. Nobody minds jettisoning a few unproductive people to the wild every now and then.
She’ll settle down when she sees that I’m back. I’m just going to go for a little walk, give myself a taste of what I’ve been yearning for all these years. If I don’t do it now, then when will I do it?
The city has several gates to the wilds. The nearest one is about a twenty-minute walk from my apartment block. The buildings rise so high around me that it’s hard to get much sun when it’s not directly overhead, so the morning light is struggling to reach the ground.
With every step, I get a little more nervous and a little more excited. Nobody does this. Nobody. I’m going to probably be the first to leave in months, if not years.
The gate is really just a reinforced door. It’s underwhelming in its construction, and if it were anywhere else besides standing in this great wall, it would be entirely unremarkable.
Just looking at it gives me a rush of pure adrenaline. This is the door my father likely went through nine years ago. I am literally following in his footsteps now.
The gate is manned, of course. A small booth contains a guard watching the stories on a small screen. He doesn’t even notice I’m there until I knock politely.
“Ungh?” he grunts, not taking his eyes from the screen.
“Excuse me, I’d like to go out.”
“Out?” The guard’s brows rise as he tears his gaze away from the latest story. “Are you sure?”
“Where is your escort?”
“I’m not taking one.”
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen. Old enough to go out,” I say, reminding him that he legally can’t stop me.
“This is not recommended,” he says with a sigh. “There has been a standing travel warning against leaving the city for the past decade. If you find yourself in a dangerous situation out there, city resources will not be deployed. It is entirely the responsibility of the person leaving the city to assure their survival. Quarantine will be required upon return.”
He sounds like he’s reading off a script, because he is. There’s documentation for everything.
“Present your ID.”
I hand my ID card to him. He nods and puts it on his desk.
“You’re not going to give that back?”
“We’ll add it to the records of the missing.”
“I’m not going missing. I’m going for a walk.”
“Uh huh.” His eyes are already back on the screen. “That door will be open for another thirty seconds. There’s an airlock and then another door. You need to clear both in under a minute before they automatically lock again.”
“And how do I get back in?”
He twists his lips. “Knock.”
There’s a buzzing sound and the door in front of me slides open. Like he said, there’s another one behind it. I step forward into the chamber, and I prepare myself to leave the city.
The first door closes… the second opens. Finally, I see.
For the first time in my life, I am beyond the walls that have contained me. The wilds stretch out before me, low scrubby bushes and short grass that quickly rise into climaxed forest a few dozen feet away. I let out a laugh of freedom and run toward the wilds.
The feeling is incredible. It is as though I have left a place where I could never truly move at all, and found one where there is more space than I know what to do with. Is this how it was for my father? I can only imagine so.
He must have felt so smothered and constricted. He must have felt hemmed in by these walls that seem to get closer and closer together every year, and he must have felt pure relief when he was released out here into this great space.
The city is behind me. I don’t even bother to turn to look at it. I have looked at nothing else for nineteen years. Now I will see the world of the wild. Now my eyes will only fall on that which is new and alive.
I rush into the embrace of the unknown. Instantly, forest surrounds me, cool breeze playing through the trees. I can’t believe more people don’t want to come out here and experience this. Everything in the city is so crowded. Out here, there is space upon space. A butterfly flits past, sunlight reflecting from dancing wings.
When I am tired of dashing through the trees, I sit down and stare at the world around me, feel how simple it is, and yet how complex. Everything is alive out here. In the city most things are dead. Concrete and wood walls. Carpets. Tile. It’s all dead. But out here everything is alive. Even the dirt beneath my feet. I can see ants crawling through it.
My phone has been blinking with messages since I left the house. Suddenly, I feel its silence. The absence of vibration against my thigh. I take it out and look at the message on the screen.
Out of service
It’s weird. This thing has all the knowledge of the world on it. I can contact anybody I know. It’s made of metal and earth elements that have been forced to think on my behalf—but suddenly it’s no more useful than any other rock. I turn it off to preserve the battery. I’m not sure how far I’ve come, but I’m pretty sure I know the way back.
The wilderness draws me deeper. I’m not sure who has cut this path and worn the bushes and grass away from it, but it winds through the prettiest places. I find a little pond where frogs frolic, and a clearing where mushrooms grow. I am vaguely aware of time passing, but it’s not like the city, where every minute is counted and hoarded. Out here, time passes in a sort of languid stroll. I feel as though I have all the time in the world as my feet carry me, fascination fueling my discoveries. Hours go by and I barely notice them. But soon the world itself tells me it is time to return. The light is starting to fade. The bright colors are dimming into their shadow forms.
It should be easy enough to get back to the city. I can follow the path I came down. I do so, for a while, but as I walk I begin to notice that the path forks here and there and I do not know which of the forks I took in the beginning. I felt as though I knew my way, but now I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps I should climb a tree. If I do that, I can see the city walls and head in the correct direction.
The trees tower above, many times my height. Their lowest branches are far over my head, and their trunks are too wide to try to shimmy up. I walk around looking for a tree with a more convenient configuration, but I have little success. The trees that are short enough to be climbable don’t offer any kind of a view. Perhaps if I climb one of the shorter ones, I can wriggle my way onto a taller one.
I’ve not had to contemplate these types of problems before. I’m enjoying the challenge. I will have a real story to post online when I return. The entire city will hear about this!
Just as I am looking for a tree to try to climb, the ground starts to rumble beneath my feet. I feel the sound before I hear it, a deep growl that seems to come from the very core of everything. I’ve never heard anything like it in my life, but there’s a part of my being, the part knitted in the many thousands of years before there were cities, that knows to be afraid.
I turn around to find myself near face to face with a bear.
The animal is only a few feet away. I recognize it from the books my father used to show me. He used to point at the pictures and I would point at his heart and we would both laugh.
This bear is nothing like the books. They entirely failed to convey the monstrous size of such a creature. It is so much larger than I am. The city has always made me feel small, but now I feel small in an entirely different way. I am a morsel of meat, with nothing to defend myself. This bear is a machine of meat and bone, made to kill with sharp claws and flashing teeth. What am I to this thing that reeks of rotting berries and death?
Maybe I should back away, or run. I stop and I stare. It’s not a choice. It’s just what my body does. My mind has fled. There’s no rationality anymore. There’s just me and this manifestation of the worst of the wilds.
The bear’s head is larger than my entire torso. It could bite me in two without trouble. I know I am being menaced by a creature of flesh and blood but it is so out of my realm of experience, all I see is a monster of mythical proportions.
Its dark shining eyes meet mine. I feel its anger. It is furious with me. I don’t belong here. I have gone where I should not have gone. I have done what I should not have done, and the punishment is death. A thought forces its way into my head: Mom was right.
The bear roars, its mouth opening so wide I feel as though I could fit inside in one bite. Its teeth are long and yellow, great scimitars of bone. The canines are like a cat’s except a thousand times larger. This is no domesticated creature. This is the kind of animal we have been fleeing from since the dawn of my species. I stand as humans have stood before predators for thousands of years—frozen. I can’t move. My feet are stuck to the ground as it runs toward me, four paws pounding the ground that shakes beneath me. The world is trembling and I tremble with it.
Finally, my body sounds the alarm. I scream. It is a pathetic sound lost in the bear’s charge.
Heavy flesh strikes me from the side, sends me flying. I expect to feel claws rending my flesh, but it isn’t the bear that hits me. The beast is still ahead of me. Something large and powerful and brave has come from behind me and thrown me out of the way.
I stare up and meet the most brilliant blue eyes I have ever seen. They flash with as much fire as the bear’s. They lock on me only for a fraction of a second, but I feel my body light up with an energy I have never felt before.
He turns away from me, faces the bear, and runs toward it. He is not alone. I sit in the dirt as three other men rush after him. They are wearing leather pants and tall boots that protect all the way to the knee, but their upper bodies are bare and muscular. They gleam with oil, shining in the shafts of light that makes its way between the leaves above. Their skin is tattooed heavily, marked across their shoulders and chests. No two tattoos are the same, but the bright blue markings are consistent across their bodies.
Four of them face the bear, spears held at the ready. It is not an even battle. The bear has twice as many claws at least, and teeth besides.
Surely they cannot best such a beast. Surely we will all fall to its fury. I am too terrified to move. I cannot take my eyes from this scene. This is violence as I have never seen it before.
The bear halts its charge, several hundred pounds skidding to a halt in a cloud of soil and leaves. It rears up, standing eight feet high and it bellows rage to the skies. My innards reverberate with the sound. I am frightened to my very marrow.
The men are not.
They roar back, four full-throated expressions of pure animal rage.
The bear stops and falls back to four feet. It seems confused. There is an almost comical moment as it staggers back a step before remembering that it is a bear. It charges again, swiping with its great paw. It catches the leader, the man who first looked upon me. I scream as its claws slash through his flesh as if it were butter. All four men deploy their spears into the bear’s face and throat. There is blood absolutely everywhere.
The altercation is over in seconds. The bear turns and runs into the forest, crashing away with two spears still hanging from it. They have wounded it, and it has wounded at least one of them. The leader. He staggers a step or two before being grabbed by two of the others. I hear him growl, then see him push them away, refusing their help.
“Get the girl,” he growls, his voice deep and rough.
They all turn to me. Suddenly I pity the bear. As their dark eyes fall on me I feel their primal power. These are men unlike those in the city. These are men so different from any man I have ever seen before that I barely recognize them as men at all.
They are so much bigger, so much stronger. Their muscles ripple and they have barely any fat on them at all, which makes their faces hard and their bodies utterly incredible to behold. Looking at them, I can see how a man is made, thick slabs of muscle attached to one another in sinewy bands.
There is silence between us, broken only by my panting in fear. The leader is bloody, his flesh hanging like cured meat from the left side of his chest and arm, but he barely pays attention to it. He approaches me, his dark hair hanging about his face, framing ice blue eyes.
He has to be in pain, but he doesn’t show it. Not a bit of it.
“Are you injured?”
“No. But you are. Let me help you.”
I climb to my feet, reach down and tear at my clothes, ripping the silk from my skirt to bind his wounds. “Please, let me help you. You’re hurt.”
He blinks as I reach up to his arm, then slaps my hand away.
“I do not need your dress scraps, girl. Name?”
“I’m Riley,” I say. “Riley Jones.”
“Clan Jones?” He addresses the others. “I know no Clan Jones.”
“It’s a city name.” The man who answers him has short hair. He speaks with an accent like mine. It does not have the rough hard intonation of the leader, who sounds foreign in the most delicious way.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m from the city. I just came out for a walk and this bear attacked me. I don’t even know why.”
“She came out for a walk,” one of the others laughs. “A walk!”