It is dawn in the city of concentric rings. Frances is leaving the Fold and she will not come back. She waits at the gate, which will open soon to reveal the outer zone beyond. On the far side of the wall is greenness, mist and birdsong.
She carries nothing apart from the bag on her back and the suitcase in her hand. The restrictions are strictly enforced; they will confiscate any plastic. Batteries and wearable tech are outlawed, even rechargeables. There is not much she can take. Not much she will miss.
A crowd of other emigres waits patiently and quietly, some in small groups but most of them alone. They watch the flaming sky and the sunlight spreading across the wall, illuminating fissures where delving roots have grown. Some stand with their eyes half closed as if they might still be asleep. She wonders whether she will see them again on the far side of the wall. Whether they will be important to her. Whether anyone will be.
‘Are you sure?’ asks Jim for the hundredth time. He stands tragic in his uselessness, hovering uncertainly, and her heart almost breaks for everything that they shared. She doesn’t answer, but takes his hand – a farming tool, blunt and strong, the creases of it scored with grime – and looks back across the Fold and what she is leaving. The green-roofed domiciles with their squared untidy fields, their orchards and their rows of maize, their allotments, poultry, pigs, polytunnels and pastures. It was all she wanted once. Now she yearns for more.
She has lived here for twelve years, eleven of those with him. In the early days she was very sick, her physiology unprepared for animal germs, or human germs, or dirt in any trace amount. The smells of milk, meat and blood appalled her, as did sweat, most fluids, egg yolk, decomposing food, fungi, physical contact. It was a systemic shock, adapting to the brutal proximities of a neo-peasant’s life after the sterile habitation she knew as a child. Not all emigres survived; some gave up, some went back. She was stubborn. She endured. With his help, these things became normal.
In the end he took it well, her decision to emigrate once more, to take the next step further out on civilisation’s spectrum. After the slammed doors and the fights, the resentment and the bitterness, after the furious disbelief, came a state of resigned acceptance that both of them recognised as love. He understood that she had to go. He even helped her pack and plan. He suggested accompanying her but she knew that he could not, and it was never suggested again. He is a part of this zone in a way she never can be.
Beyond the Fold, so far away they might be painted on the sky, rise the reflective towers of Citadel, spectral and unreal. That is the zone where she was born, before her first emigration. There are no non-humans there, no pets, no pests, no parasites. Meat is grown in vats and the wind is ventilation. Her childhood memories are white: the fluid glide of robotic arms and hovering attentive drones, the trembling of nanomachines, the gleam of surfaces. Her parents were distant mechanisms, functional and benevolent, for whom she felt no more attachment than she did computers. As a teenager, through UV-tinted glass, she gazed at the sprawling hamlets below and dreamed of woodsmoke, mud and rain. She studied hard for her escape. But the Fold was not enough.
‘I will wait for you anyway,’ says Jim, almost to himself. ‘Even if you will not come back. I will wait for you as I wait for the seeds to germinate, for the crops to grow. As I wait for the rains and the newborn calves. I will wait because that is what I do. We are waiting people.’
‘And I will search for you,’ she says, ‘even if you will not leave. I will search for you in the rewild beyond the wall. That is what I do. I search. And part of you might be there.’
He opens his mouth, closes it, nods. There is nothing more to say. They stand together in the orange light, waiting for the gate to swing. For the wall to open and the emigres to walk through. She strokes his hand, releases it. It has other duties now. Cutting and felling and trimming and mending and constructing and repairing. It cannot hold her any more. She must walk on alone.
There was once another conurbation here. Within living memory, though not for too much longer. The metropolis died from the outside in as precarity prevailed, as the supply chains failed, as the outer suburbs fell away and the roads were overgrown. Pastures took the place of lawns, garages became cattle barns. It was the great unravelling and the great returning. But the city’s core remained. Immutable in glass and steel, its skyscrapers like granite cones from which everything else erodes, the zone they now call Citadel, calcified at the centre. The Fold surrounds it on all sides, a messy loop of life and death. And beyond the Fold, the Rewilderness; which is to say the world.
This is the choice the city gives, the choice that is her birthright. To decide what life she needs to live, what sort of human she wants to be. In the Rewilderness she will find no human rules, only the laws of a natural world she has never encountered before. She will learn. She will start again.
A creak. The gate swings open.
The emigres gaze through the wall at the pulsing greenness that unfolds, shuffling for a clear view.
It is darker than she expected. The uncut shade of trees.
She takes Jim’s hand for the final time and presses it to her lips.
Then she walks, without looking back, into the more-than-human.