Things were very different in some areas, to the point that there was no avoiding what the effects were. In the Pictish Isles the term Dead Zones took on meanings that had nothing to do with cell phones.
On the outskirts of one of those Dead Zones, kellingham woke up blearily on an even more bleary day. Looking around she realised she was naked, there was hollow in the bed next to her where someone had been and there was Dodo at the foot of the bed honking through her hangover.
I stared at the bird and groaned. I was beginning to regret multiple things. The first was obvious; one should never trade anything for gypsy moonshine, no matter how good the buzz was. The second was allowing the dodos and goats the run of the house. At least the horse never tried to come inside and the goats generally preferred the garden. Dodos on the other hand seemed to really like the bedroom. I stared at the one perching awkwardly on the bottom of the bed.
“What?” I grumbled, one eye closed and a hand held up to shade myself from the worst of the morning (afternoon? I wasn’t sure) sun.
“Honk.” Said the dodo, ruffling its feathers and making itself comfortable.
I groaned and pulled myself out of bed, neglecting clothes for the time being. I spared a glance for the hollow at the side of the bed. Well, I had been sharing it with someone. Or a goat. It was impossible to tell which sometimes. I winced as I turned towards the window, crossing the room to pull the blinds up. I leaned out of the window and looked over to the expanse of wasteland on the left of my house. The gypsies were still there.
These were proper gypsies. They had wooden caravans, played fiddles and knew things that were eerie and unnerving. Not like the fake gypsies, or gyps as they were called locally, who still relied on mechanical vehicles and were merely scammers and scavengers with no regard for the unwritten rules of the Dead Zone. I try not to deal with those. The gypsies on the other hand were certainly worth trading with. In fact, it was their fault I had a throbbing hangover and was naked.
Lord knows what I had actually done.
I grabbed the nearest item of clothing to hand, a short summer dress as it turned out, and slipped it over my shoulders. I could get dressed properly if I decided to go to one of the towns later. I neglected any other clothing. It was warm enough that the dress alone would be fine. I paused only to run a brush through my long hair and splash some water on my face, thankful that the water was still flowing even if the electricity wasn’t.
“Come on you.” I muttered to the dodo as I scooped it up under my arm and padded downstairs on bare feet to tend to the animals. The dodo hung there stupidly. It seemed that when they came back their intelligence had not increased any. I set it down in the yard and scattered some feed for them. There were several fresh bags now, thanks to the trading. While they ate I scooped up the fresh Dodo eggs and set them in a basket. The goats were chewing on what was left of the neighbour’s bushes (the neighbours long since gone). I set a bucket of feed down near them and they butted heads over it for a moment.
Finally was the horse. I’d found him, halter tangled in a tree and looking a little thin around the hips. He had been quite grateful to be freed. When I had finally tracked him back to his place of origin (the same smallholding I later took the goats from) I had been amused to discover his name was Ford. It stuck. The smallholding was abandoned, as many places in the Dead Zone were. I kept Ford and a pair of breeding goats and traded information about the location to a young aspiring farmer for riding lessons. The dodos had arrived on their own one day, and seemed to have no intention of leaving as long as I provided shelter and food. The eggs were great.
Ford was much healthier now, thankfully. And as always he came to meet me when I hauled the bucket of oats towards the old sheds I had converted into stables. He always seemed to know when to expect me. In fact, it had been Ford who had stopped and turned around while we were on an errand, just in time to make it home for the gypsies making camp. Smart horse.
I milked the female goat and used some of the milk for my breakfast. The rest went into a jug which I added to the basket. Both eggs and milk with their basket were carried over towards the gypsy encampment, though I did pause at the door to grab my tinted goggles. This amount of sunlight simply wasn’t comfortable.
“Good day.” I nodded to the first of the travellers I encountered. I got a cheerful nod and greeting in reply. The gypsies weathered their moonshine much better than the rest of the population, even those in the Dead Zones like myself.
“Well, if it ain’t the little Spook. Awake now are you?” one of the girls who had traded me the original few bottles smirked from the entrance to her caravan while she swept it out. “I had thought we might have to call the Bounties on you.” She laughed.
Spook, Ghost, Deady, Zoner, Freak. I’ve heard them all, and worse. It seemed as if those outside the Zones had a variety of names for those that were able to live inside them. The gypsies found amusement in learning news ones as they passed through regions. There was always a new one. Spook was starting to stick in this particular area, though it would be a long time before the entire Isle settled on a proper term.
The Bounties were usually called when a new body was found. They often made a bit of trade taking ID and bodies back to the Live Zones for families. Not just bodies either, for a fee they would come and raid specific houses for personal items their owners were either unable or too afraid to try and recover. There was no way of knowing if one could survive a Dead Zone without going into one, and that wasn’t generally a good idea. Most of the residents had been in them already when the Incident occurred. Not that anyone had a clue what that had been. I worked as a Bounty on occasion, when the fee was good.
I could still remember how I had learned I was a Spook (so called for the way they had frightened the Live Zoners when they began emerging from an area they believed nothing could live in). There had been no marked boundaries then and the country was in chaos. As often happened in such volatile situations there was little in the way of law and order. I was being chased (on foot, I hadn’t met Ford and my scooter was out of power) by a gang of young males who had decided that perhaps I was an easy target. I was immune to the Dead Zone. As it turned out, they weren’t. I stood and watched. And then I shouldered my bag (and emptied their pockets of useful items, they didn’t need them anymore) and figured that I may as well return to the home I thought I might never see again.
And I am still there now, many months later. Although it was quite a bit different these days. I’d appropriated the green behind my house and turned it into a suitable paddock, using abandoned sheds as stables. The electric fireplace (useless now) had been torn out and a functional old wood burning fireplace recovered from behind the bricked up wall. Decoration had become haphazard and sporadic, with my expansive hoard of useless but fun items spilling out of my room into the now empty bedrooms. All in all I find it very comfortable these days. I even made and hung flags out at the front, letting other wanderers know that my home is currently inhabited and open to trade or company. It was also a helpful way to let the scavengers know which homes were not to be looted. And for the most part such rules were observed, why risk angering others when there were so many houses now missing their occupants to explore?
“Oh hush you. Dear me, whatever will we do with you Violet?” a very elderly woman spoke up from another nearby caravan. She sat on the steps, catching the sun and quietly knitting. “Don’t mind her love, she just can’t resist a pretty pair of tits.” The old woman laughed.
“Gran!” the girl spat, mortified.
“Well it’s true. I wasn’t much different in my day you know, never could turn down a nice big cock.” The grandmother cackled. Violet turned crimson and immediately stormed inside her caravan, slamming the door shut behind her. The elderly woman almost fell off her perch as she shook with a crackly laugh. After she composed herself she waved me over.
“Come on now little Spook, let me get a look at you. Those eggs?”
I nodded as she approached, basket in my arms. The crone eyed them hungrily, plucking a couple out of the basket with wrinkled old fingers. A creaky groan heralded her pulling her tiny form upright and turning to go inside.
“Come on in then, let’s see what I can trade for these.” She coughed, setting her prize gently down in a wicker basket on a table. She pulled out a drawer. “You like tea?”
I did indeed like tea, a grin lighting up my face as I pushed the goggles up and away from my eyes. The light was more agreeable inside.
“I love tea!” I gushed, gazing longingly at the varieties on display. Tea was getting gradually harder to find lately. The old crone cackled again and pulled out an old silver box. This one had a lock, the matching key for which was fished out of her apron pocket. It slid home shakily and with a little effort the lock popped open and the old woman pulled up the lid.
“Is… is that…?” I stammered, shocked.
“It is. I have a little stockpile.”
The old lady watched as I inhaled deeply, relishing the scent of the dark coffee. Coffee was near impossible to get, shipments came in rarely. I would trade everything in my basket for just a drop of coffee right now, mostly for the memories it brought. Memories were getting somewhat haphazard as well, but I always remembered the important things. The scent of coffee alone was enough to make me think fondly of a distant house on a hill, if it was even still there.
“How much?” I asked, raising a critical eyebrow. This would be a big trade and I knew it.
“I have a grandson, about your age. Handsome and fit, if a little lacking in intelligence some days. He’s in the market for a wife…”
“No.” I cut in. Even coffee wouldn’t buy that. The old lady laughed again.
“I didn’t think so. Don’t worry dear, I saw the ring.” She nodded to the slightly battered, simple ring that wound around my left ring finger. “It’s a good thing I have a back-up plan.” She grinned, showing a mouth that in a disturbing sort of way seemed to have all the original teeth. She closed and locked the box again, setting it amongst the tea caddies carefully. From within the folds of her apron she pulled a letter. “Thank goodness for the Royal Mail.” She chuckled.
The old lady folded the letter out on the table and I recognised the style instantly. Northern Picts. They had returned to ancient ways when the Incident occurred. It was funny the way different people had reacted. The Spooks had just gotten on with things and adapted to the strange changes. Most of the Live Zone inhabitants clung to the old familiar ways, trying to keep things ‘normal’. And some, like the Picts, had thoroughly embraced an age of minimal technology and now lived in tribal villages far away from everyone else. They were excellent to trade with.
“We passed through a Pict village oh… months ago now. Long way away.” The old lady explained wearily. “My grandson gained an admirer it seems. A pretty young thing by the name of…” she peered with milky eyes at the elaborate signature. “Cunoarda. Silly name that. Anyway, she’s written with the desire of joining us and the boy does need a nice wife. Pleasant lass she is. Cooks like a master.”
“I see. And where do I come into this?” I asked cautiously.
The conversation was interrupted by a very familiar jangling of small bells outside. I set my jaw and stuck my head out of the door, the old woman close behind. She pressed a sealed envelope into my hand.
“Thank goodness for the Royal Mail.” She repeated, quieter this time but with amusement in her voice.
It was the mail arriving, the gentle jingling was that of the small bells on the chestnut gelding’s bridle. It was a quiet signal to let others know the duty of the rider, if the bright red and black uniform wasn’t enough. I had been waiting for the mail, as I always did. He was early that day. He caught sight of me and waved, hollering a greeting. I clutched the letter and jogged through the gypsy camp to meet him as he approached. Perhaps that day would be the day…
“Nothing from the west.” He said before I even opened my mouth. “But rumour has it that a ship is in the water. Some pleasure craft spotted it. Might be here next week.” He smiled, trying to be reassuring. He knew fine well how much I craved mail from beyond the sea. I had sent a letter every week to the house on the hill, though it was a couple of months before I discovered they only sent out a mail ship once the hull was full. If the storyteller had gotten any mail from me, it would all be at once. It might take him a while to reply. Mostly I just wanted to learn if things had changed there too.
“You came here early to tell me that?” I grumbled. The mailman shook his head. He handed me down a postcard and a couple of letters.
“You got a postcard from your mother. Atlantis seems to be treating her well.” He remarked.
“You’re supposed to deliver it, not read it.” I chastised, not really minding. He shrugged. There wasn’t much else for him to do as he rode from the Dead Zone sorting office. I scanned the postcard. My parents had been abroad when Atlantis rose again, right below by dad as he was diving as it happened. Unable to return to the Pictish Isles at that time they had made themselves comfortable, sending the occasional postcard. It seemed Mum had a job as the queen’s personal knitter, my Dad tending to the odd machines the Atlanteans had brought to the surface with them. They were having a lovely time, and were glad I was all right. They might just stay there.
The other letters were mundane. One from the Council of Alba letting me know that the Gaul invasion had been stopped before it got beyond the entrée. The other was a carefully printed newsletter for the local area. Apparently some sheep had gotten loose during the night and a local business had been fleeced. I looked up at the mailman and raised an eyebrow. He handed me another letter, this time wax sealed and official looking. It was from the Council. I broke the wax and read it.
After a moment I folded it away again and scowled at the mailman. This was his doing, I could tell by the grin on his lips. A glance to the gypsy woman and I knew that she had known this was coming, in that scary gypsy lady way.
“Why me?” I asked.
“The Council needed someone reliable, unthreatening and polite. They also needed someone with their own horse who would be able to leave their home for a couple of weeks, it’s a long way.”
“And who exactly is going to look after the goats?” I glared at him and he visibly paused, obviously he hadn’t thought of that.
A cough behind me and I turned. The old gypsy stood with her hand on a boy’s shoulder. He was dark in every way, except his eyes that were bright blue.
“This is my great-nephew. He’s keen to learn about animal care. We’re going to be camping on that land for… oh… say, a couple of weeks yet.” The crone smirked. I had the feeling that somewhere along the line I had been set up.
I looked to the eager mailman, the young boy and the old crone with a sigh. I turned the letter over and over in my hands as I contemplated the job offer within. Fate was conspiring against me, and who was I to protest? The perks would be good at least. Payment for this sort of thing was usually impressive. Out of curiosity I looked at the envelope the old lady had given me. It had a single word on the front.
I'm not sure where this is going, or even how it got to where it is. Part Two will follow soon.