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The Outsiders




... ends. Do not approach the planet. Questions may be directed to the Expedition Senior Medical Officer, Doctor Delaney. In the absence of Doctor Delaney or any other member of the crew, please review the ship's logs. This message will repeat daily.

  Firetta had left the city early that morning. Matthias was convinced of this, although no-one else would have believed him, and he had no idea how she had evaded the gate guards. Her parents had realised she was missing around nine o'clock, and had summoned the watch to search, but when they had come by the Lorehouse, Matthias had understood at once what had happened. He'd watched Firetta's face during the farewell ceremony the day before, and he knew; he'd felt the same way himself, when he was nine.

Warning. City resident located outside boundaries. Identification unavailable. Biological reports female age 9. Temporary designation A961f. Possibility of interception with Travellers: 0.1 (calculated). No action taken. Captain Trent and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  The Outsiders had been bidden safe journey with all due ceremony, and with goodwill on all sides. Matthias himself had performed the ritual, clothed in the traditional white robes and gloves. The fluid in the small glass mixing bottle had coloured red, showing the danger sign as usual. He hadn't really expected anything else. The Outsider delegation, cloaked and masked as always, had bowed themselves out of the immense main gate, and were gone, leaving their trade items in the quarantine of the Lorehouse. They would return in six months' time, to repeat the trade, and the ceremony. It was always the same. Sometimes he wondered if he actually wanted anything to change. The constancy was comforting, a reliable routine.
  Firetta had been at the ceremony, there for the first time with her family, who were noted traders. She had watched the hooded strangers with awe and intense curiosity, which Matthias had recognised. One of the Outsiders was unusually short, and he had seen her gaze return time and again to the man, as though trying to see past the concealing robes and drapes. And when he had been woken by the Watch that morning, muzzy-headed with the after-effects of the celebratory drinks, he had realised immediately what Firetta had tried to do.
  It was cold outside, the autumn air damp and chill and depressing. The sky was grey, threatening rain but, as yet, holding back. Matthias limped to the towering wall that surrounded the city, and glanced around warily. No-one was near; no-one had a reason to be near. He put his hand into a narrow gap in the wall, and pressed the sequence of buttons, as he had been taught by his mentor. Bartimelus was still sleeping, he trusted; he did not think the old man would approve of his actions.
  The wall squeaked quietly, and a door opened, from what had been a normal stretch of wall. Matthias stepped back; he had not known what to expect, but it hadn't been this. He slipped through the gap and pressed the buttons on the other side, in another carefully memorised sequence. The wall slid closed, and he stood outside the city. Outside, where he had never been. Where no city dweller was permitted, only the Outsiders. Matthias looked around, taking in a sweep of barren hills bearing a reddish vegetation, stumpy, twisted trees and the occasional rock. The sky was still grey. Firetta was still missing. He took a breath, and stepped forward, away from the city, moving towards the path that led from the main gate.

Warning. City resident located outside boundaries. Identification unavailable. Biological reports male age 24. Temporary designation G782m. Possibility of interception with Travellers 0.2 (calculated). No action taken. Captain Trent and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  On reaching the path, he walked away from the city, feeling a creeping chill running up his back. No guard could see outside, of course, not through thick walls and double-planked doors. There were no windows; only the Outsiders' bellpull allowed contact with the outside world. Nobody was looking at him accusingly from behind the city walls, but he still felt its looming presence at his back, stimulating the guilty fear with every step away from its sheltering walls.
  He walked for what seemed to be hours, although the only clue to time passing was the lightening of the grey sky. A few spots of rain occasionally splattered the path, but the threatened downpour failed to materialise. Matthias clung to the lack of rain in an attempt to counter his growing suspicion he was getting this entirely wrong. How far could the Outsiders go, seriously? Surely they were only walking? Although, he allowed, they'd probably be making quicker time than he was.

  Arram sulked beside the caravan, bored already with the routine of travelling. The brief excitement of his being included in the Trading had already faded, and the other children of the caravan were doing a very good job of pretending disinterest. The sky was boring and the road was boring and his mother had already snapped at him for whining. He risked a slap if he persisted, so he held his tongue and glowered, fed up with life for the boring fate assigned him.

Warning. A961f approaching Travellers. Possibility of interception with Travellers 0.6 (observed). Satellite array activated. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  Firetta wiggled through the undergrowth, trying vainly to be quiet. Twigs reached out and snagged her hair, and the woven bark, rougher than it appeared, rubbed her legs raw. She bit her lip to push back tears, determined despite everything to look at the mysterious Outsiders properly. She'd been gone ages, and she knew Mother and Father would be furious. She wasn't about to go back without something to show for it. Or at least, something she knew she had seen.
  The caravan nestled in the crescent below, pulled up round a central point where figures moved, appearing to tend a fire. From Firetta's vantage point, some way up the hill, the figures were distant, blurred and unclear. She narrowed her eyes in an attempt to work out something about the Outsiders, but they remained indistinct. She glanced around, in search of a place that might offer her a closer view.

Note. Satellite array active. Satellite CX79-881 closest to location of A961f. Satellite CX79-881 aimed and focussed. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  The city dropped out of sight unnoticed behind Matthias, until he finally looked round and realised it was gone. With that realisation, the vague threat that had haunted his thoughts faded away, and he began to look around with interest instead of guilt. The vegetation outside the city was very different; fernlike plants with red leaves stretched across the hills, and here and there a stumpy tree poked twisted branches at the sky. Matthias found one close to the path and stopped to examine it; instead of rough bark, it had a trunk that almost seemed to be woven. His fingers hovered over it briefly, but he reined in the urge to touch, and carried on doggedly, hoping he was on the right path. But there was only one path. Surely, this must have been the way they went?

Warning. G782m approaching Travellers. Possibility of interception with Travellers 0.4 (calculated). Satellite CX79-881 ready. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  The camp was set up just the same as ever. Arram carried out his duties with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, lagging over the trip to the stream to draw water for the filter. It was while he was haphazardly swishing the big bucket in the stream that he glanced up and saw her - the girl from the city! He had noticed her watching him, big eyes solemn in the overdressed finery of a City Trader family, but he'd never thought a City sleeper would have the guts to actually follow them. He almost dropped the bucket in surprise, but masked his awareness of her presence by bending over and pretending diligence in his task. When he risked a quick look up, she was gone, but he didn't think she had actually left. He returned his mostly-full bucket to the camp, and slipped away towards the forest, keeping one of the caravans between him and her side of the clearing until he was among the trees.

  Matthias reached the camp not long after Firetta. By his calculations, it was close to lunch time, and the scent of the food that the Outsiders were cooking came clearly to him, on a gentle breeze. The breeze stirred the grey clouds, pushing them aside and allowing a little sunlight into the dreary autumn day. He stopped just shy of the crest of the hill, not wanting to go over the top and so silhouette himself against the sky. Where would Firetta have gone?
  On either side of the path, the scrubby red trees hid the hilltop. On the left, Matthias saw small footprints clearly outlined in the mud to the side of the path. Suppressing a sigh of relief, he followed Firetta's tracks, easing through the trees, managing quiet with rather more success than the child had. He found the hollow where she had wriggled through to spy on the camp below, and the tracks of her leaving. Where was she going?

  Firetta caught her breath in surprise, as the forms of the Outsiders became clear. Her new hiding place was much more risky than the previous one, but now she could see - she could see the people who had so fascinated her before. And they looked... surprisingly normal. Even the tasks they were engaged in were mundane; women stirred a big kettle over a fire in the centre of the camp, and men sat on a caravan step mending something. She scowled in disappointment. She had hoped for so much better. Travis would never believe this.

Warning!! Warning!! A961f within 30m of Travellers. Possibility of interception with Travellers 0.9 (observed). Satellite CX79-881 ready. Fine focussing completed. Permission requested to fire. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  Matthias pushed awkwardly through the trees, hampered by his gait and his intense desire to avoid notice. Firetta had gone downhill; no doubt the stupid girl wanted a closer look. He pushed down both the thought that he too would like a closer look, along with the recognition that he was a little envious of her daring and initiative. He'd only ever dreamed of doing something like this. He'd never imagined actually setting foot outside the City walls.

Warning!! Warning!! A961f and G782m within 30m of Travellers. Possibility of interception with Travellers 0.99 (observed). Satellite CX79-881 ready. Fine focussing completed. Permission requested to fire. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  Firetta was watching the camp. Matthias came up behind her, the unavoidable rustling of his approach completely disregarded as she watched the camp. He spared it barely a glance; she was far too close. The texts stated a minimum of fifty metres for unprotected Outsiders, and threatened dire warnings if the boundaries were transgressed.

  Arram drew his breath in, amazed. Not one, but two! Two City sleepers had come out from their protective walls. He felt naked without his robes, for all that they were unaware of his presence, lurking in the woods behind them. He wondered about the Sacred Texts, and eyed the space between them; he had no eye for judging distance, but he didn't think they were more than twenty metres apart.

Warning!! Warning!! A961f and G782m within 20m of Traveller registered TR-ar945m. Possibility of interception 0.99 (observed). Satellite CX79-881 ready. Fine focussing completed. Safeties disengaged. Firing sequence started. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  Arram hesitated, shifted forward. Before him, the City man took one halting step too many and stumbled; the girl twisted round, looking up. She avoided shouting, but her eyes spoke volumes, fury and fear and awareness of her own transgression. The man, abandoning caution, grabbed her arm and snatched her towards him, hissing fiercely under his breath. She in turn drew breath to argue, but he shook her silent and pulled her with him as he pushed back through the forest, heedless of the noise he made. Arram slipped out of sight as they passed him, noticing that some of the women had turned to look to the noise. He walked towards the edge of the forest, and they turned back to the pot, assuming it had been him. When he looked up again from covering for the City folk, they had vanished.

Warning. Possibility of interception decreasing. Possibility of interception 0.6 (observed). Satellite CX79-881 stood down. Firing sequence aborted. Captain Trent and Master at Arms Brantley and Security Chief Yan Xing notified.

Note. Message bounced. Inbox: FRT101 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: DB624 full.
Note. Message bounced. Inbox: JYX432 full.

  "You stupid child!" Matthias knew that was harsh, but he couldn't contain his temper. "What on earth were you thinking? You were far too close!" He shook her arm, and she struggled even as they hurried down the road away from the camp.
  "Well? I'm waiting!"
  "Let go of me!" Firetta broke her silence. "Nothing happened! I wanted to see! I -" she turned further from him, pulling him off balance. Matthias yanked her back on course. "Nothing happened, did it?" she repeated, as though that justified her sin. He scowled at her.
  "You know the Lore," he said. "It's there for a reason. Don't do that again." From the look on her face, still mostly turned from him, he wasn't having much of an effect. He sighed, and abandoned the attempt at discipline. Bartimelus could deal with it, and Matthias realised with a heavy heart that his senior would no doubt deal with him as well. For all his reasons, he had broken the Lore as thoroughly as Firetta.
  Nothing happened, did it? Matthias had faith in the Lore, and in its commands, but he had to admit Firetta was right. Perhaps... perhaps this bore more investigation. Another day.

  The City walls hove into view over the horizon, and Matthias hurried down the road towards his home.

  Attention! Do not approach this planet. Do not approach this planet. This planet is under interdict. Message follows:
  The settlers on this planet are members of the Fourth Settlement Expedition, Earth year 2189. Shortly before our arrival in orbit, two viruses were discovered in separate populations of the settlers in cryo-stasis. The viruses, designated CGYT-X11b and THXB-Z154c, are members of the family Thanaviridae. They are transmitted by contact. Although they are not deadly individually, should they be permitted to exchange genetic information, the resulting hybrid is very likely to cause a pandemic. A similar event occurred on Hydruus 4C; the remaining population was too small to be self-sustaining. I am therefore placing restrictions upon the settlers until the viruses can be eradicated. This has been enacted under the authority of the Expedition Senior Medical Officer, Doctor Frances Delaney.
  Message ends. Do not approach the planet. Questions may be directed to the Expedition Senior Medical Officer, Doctor Delaney. In the absence of Doctor Delaney or any other member of the crew, please review the ship's logs. This message will repeat daily.

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