Elsie shows me and Cory to our own rooms. Despite the day we’ve had, I’m not tired, so after dumping my bag by the bed I follow Elsie back out into the main room. Her little girl has returned and they’re sitting on the floor playing. I sit down with them. Gabby’s the same age Kit was when they took her, or just about, though she looks completely different. I watch Elsie play with her daughter for a while before I start talking. I’m curious about Portland.
It turns out Elsie is mighty curious about me, too, about me and Daka and Cory and where we’re going and why. They’ve been locked away from the world for so long that they don’t know anything about the Patriarch or the guest policy or any of it. They don’t even know how the War ended, or about the breakup of the Union. I find myself telling Elsie all about it, about the War and the splitting up of the country, about the Patriarch and how the guest policy first came to be. I tell her about Dad and Kit and about Mom dying, about this stupid mission I’m on to find my baby sister and bring her home. My hatred for the government spills out without any kind of filter; I’ve never been anywhere before where I could talk this freely, where I wasn’t afraid someone was listening, that someone might report my treasonous words. Portland is a weird kind of no-space — no one wants it because it’s diseased, but because of that it’s maybe the freest place I’ve ever seen.
The idea of an all-powerful Patriarch is baffling to Elsie, who says she can’t understand how one man keeps the kind of control that he does. She tells me about Portland, and the way it’s run, by a rotating Council of ten men and women who make the decisions for the city. That seems as foreign to me as the Patriarch does to her.
“It was real obvious from real early on,” she says, “that we were going to need a good way of making things work. After the biobomb, there was so much fear and panic, and at first people thought they were going to send in help for us.” She frowns absently as Gabby scampers across the room and adds, “My grandmother was a teenager then. She said that when the National Guard arrived everyone in the city thought they were saved, until they realised that anyone who tried to leave was shot. And then the fence went up, and anyone who tried to get out fried.” Gabby returns and climbs back into her mother’s lap. Elsie puts her arms around her daughter and looks up at me. “Nana used to say that the biggest killer wasn’t disease, it was fear.”
“There’s a lot of fear out there now,” I say, thinking of Kit and Dad.
“What are you afraid of?” Elsie asks. “You said your mom died, that that’s why you’re able to look for your sister, because there’s no one left for them to hurt. You have so much anger against your Patriarch.” A breathy little laugh escapes from between her lips. “You walked into a quarantined city without a second thought. You’re hardly short on courage.”
I look at Gabby instead of meeting Elsie’s gaze. “I guess,” I say, without a lot of conviction. I can’t quite bring myself to admit that leaving Granite was in large part because I just didn’t have anything else to do. “Maybe I’m just a little stupid.”
She’s quiet for a moment, and then says, “Have you ever thought about doing something bigger?”
I frown at her. “What, like bring down the Patriarch? Destroy the government?” I snort with disbelief. “Sure. That would be fantastic.” Never mind that that’s totally impossible. I’m only seventeen. I got a whole lot of gumption and not a hell of a lot else, and somehow I don’t think that gumption’s gonna cut it.
“Why not try?” she asks.
I stare at her. She’s serious. “Really?” I say finally. “I mean, are you nuts? I’m hardly a—a Buffy or a Katniss. I’m not especially clever, I have one friend, and I wouldn’t know the first thing about imploding a government.” Feeling grumpy, I add, “Anyway, I couldn’t exactly do it by myself anyway. Or me and Daka and Cory, at any rate. We’re not exactly the Mighty Avengers. At least, last time I checked I wasn’t a god.”
“You’d have to recruit support,” Elsie observes.
“Are we actually envisioning this mad scenario?” I ask incredulously. She just raises her eyebrows at me. “Okay, yeah,” I say. “But pretty much everyone in the Western Commonwealth has someone held hostage by the Patriarch. They’re hardly going to flip and say yeah, sure, let’s just have a go at the Patriarch for the hell of it.”
“What about outside the Western Commonwealth?” she asks.
This catches me by surprise. “Outside?” I falter. “Um. Well. I don’t know a lot about the others…” I pull off my boot and scratch an itch on my ankle as I think. “I mean, there’s the Republic of the Four Corners, and Chicagoland, but they got their own problems and I don’t see how any of them are going to come and support a rebellion here.” I think about putting my boot back on, reconsider, and tug the other one off. “There’s the Borders,” I say slowly, wriggling my toes. “The Borderlands, on the other side of the mountains,” I clarify, “between us and Chicagoland. If rumour’s true there’s not much out there but cattle and horses and dirt.”
“If you had support, would you do it?”
I laugh. “Oh, yeah, sure,” I say. “In a heartbeat. Go swinging on up to the Patriarch and knock him down a few pegs, sure. Set up a new little government with me at the head. No wait,” I say, grinning, “not me, Daka, because he’s actually clever. I can — ” I think for a moment. “I can run the police force, make sure they’re not overstepping.” I roll my eyes. “Sure. That’ll happen.”
“Maybe it will,” Elsie says.
I look at her. “How come you never left Portland?” I say suddenly.
Elsie looks startled, though whether it’s because of the question or because the conversation has suddenly come round to her I can’t tell. “Well, for a long time the fence you came through was live,” she says. “And after a while people stopped testing it because people kept dying.” She frowns. “Anyway, where would we go?” She brushes a strand of hair away from Gabby’s forehead. “We know nothing about the outside world now.”
“Well, no,” I say, “but aren’t you curious?”
“We’re mostly self-sustaining here,” she says. “We’ve spent eighty years excluded from your world, shunned because we were victims of a war. When the quarantine was put in place, the Western Commonwealth didn’t exist. Portland was part of a place called Oregon” the unfamiliar word rolls around her mouth “one of the member states of the Union. They abandoned us once they made sure we couldn’t get out. Your government has done nothing for us since they came into power. They care nothing for us. All they’ve done in the last eighty years is make sure we don’t venture out of our cage.”
“How do you know if no one’s ever left?” I argue.
“The fence — ” she begins, but I cut her off.
“You said yourself people stopped checking it. Who knows how long it’s been off?” She looks troubled, and I say, “There’s no one keeping you here now. The fences are dead. There aren’t any guards out there. And none of you are sick anymore. It’s just you all not wanting to leave.”
“But where would we go?” she asks again. “The world you’ve told me about, with its life taxes and guest policies and…and BVs, these are all strange to us. It frightens me, and I’m sure it would frighten others as well.” She looks down at Gabby and an absent smile crosses her face. “We live as a cooperative here, where everyone does what he or she is able, and in return we all have access to everything we need. We have no money, only the pieces of paper and coins left from the old Union, and without the structures in place to ensure their value, they’re worthless.” She shakes her head. “We have no way to fit into your Commonwealth, with its disparities between rich and poor. We can’t pay life taxes, because we have nothing to pay them with. Our families are safe from your guest policy, because what can we do from inside a fence? We’re no threat to your Patriarch, and so he leaves us alone.”
“You can’t stay self-contained forever,” I object. “You’ve said yourself you’re running out of clothes. You’ll have to leave eventually.”
“That may be,” she says, “but I can’t imagine that if we all walk through that fence that your Patriarch is just going to hand over the things we need and let us go about our way.”
“No,” I agree, “you’re right.” I stare at my feet, at the little diamond pattern on my socks and then say, “But what if it were different? What if you could have access to anything you need? What if you didn’t have to pay life taxes? Or there wasn’t any guest policy, and if you left Portland you could do anything you wanted, trade with anyone you wanted?”
Elsie gives me a long, hard look. “But that isn’t the way it is.”
“No.” I sigh wistfully. “But maybe one day it could be.”
“Planning a revolution after all?” she asks.
I laugh. “Maybe I am,” I say. I’m only half joking.
She doesn’t have a response to this, and a few minutes later she gets up to put Gabby to bed. I sit for a while longer, drawing patterns on the rug and dreaming impossible things, before finally returning to my room and crawling into my massive bed.
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