Danny will have the most trouble finding me in the slums, so that is where I head. Luckily, the slums hug the city boundaries to the north, which is exactly where I need to go.
It only takes me about fifteen minutes to reach the tall barbed-wire fence marking the perimeter of the city. I've only been to the slums a few times—with no access to books at all, even the legal ones, the people here are especially receptive to whatever stories they can get their hands on. I guess that's why the Dragoons have such a strong presence here, despite the claims from the Inner City that they don't have the money or resources to implement some form of change here. I guess it's the people with literally nothing to lose who are most likely to start some sort of rebellion. A black uniform and a whip soon solve that problem.
That said, the situation in the slums isn't entirely hopeless. I dart over to what looks like a manhole cover and haul it to the side—it's actually just wood, skilfully painted to look like metal. I slip down into the tunnel it hides, hating being out in the open street for longer than I have to.
The couple of times I've been down here before—once with another Rhapsodist, Huxley, when I was still a total newbie, the other with Martha, to do a reading of my own—there was someone standing guard. This time, the old sewer is deserted.
I encounter nobody on the five minute walk that takes me to the other 'manhole' in the centre of the shanty town. I suppose people realised that having guards was sort of pointless—nobody wants to go into the slum if they don't already live there.
Except for Rhapsodists.
The place seems strangely normal as I climb out of the sewer and emerge under a street-food cart tucked just inside an alley, between two houses with chipboard walls. The vendor doesn't seem too bothered by me crawling out from under his cart. He blinks at me with sunken eyes, before poking at the pigeon on his grill.
I wander out into the main street, where there's a market on. Maybe it's not totally hopeless, I realise, a smile spreading across my face. Danny's transmitter must have had a maximum range.
The propaganda the government churns out would have you believe that the people in the slums are too lazy to earn money, or are all lying in the streets dying of horrible and very contagious diseases, but one visit to the place will tell you that that's bullshit. I elbow my way into the river of people and let its force carry me along. I don't exactly blend in, with my clean-ish face and clothes, but I'm not about to do anything about that.
I let myself be swept along, politely declining the street vendors who try to sell me stewed rat or pigeon burgers. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with the food, but I don't have time to be munching rodent.
I feel a slight stab of guilt at the knowledge that Cygnet may well try to track me here, through this mass of people who are just trying to scrape a living, but I push the thought to the back of my mind because that's the kind of thinking that'll get me killed.
Anyway, I'm fairly certain that Danny's going to be the one leading the search party, and I don't think he'll want to stay here for long. He wouldn't want to get dirt under his nails.
No, my best option right now is to head somewhere safe, and the only place I'm going to come close to being safe is at another Rhapsodist base. There's one in Gloucester—Jay's parents are there, actually—and it's only three days' walk from here. I'm going to have to walk through the Outerlands to make it as hard as I can for Cygnet to track me, and the thought of that fills me with dread. A girl walking alone will be like an open invitation to any bandits lurking in the woods, and I won't exactly be able to fight off a whole gang of them with a shitty pocket knife. I suddenly wish I'd thought this through better; there's an underground supply line going between the cities' Inner Districts, built before the Cyborg Revolution—the first one, I remind myself—when people were starting to get paranoid about oil prices and the reliability of food imports. They wanted to preserve as much farmland as possible, so overland rail lines were banned. I could have stowed away on a train, but I let that idea die before I give it any more thought. The supply line would definitely be packed with Dragoons. It's not worth the risk.
Instead, I allow myself to long for Dahl, the Rhapsodists' book mule and probably the only person outside the Inner City with a (barely) working vehicle, to give me a lift. The Rhapsodists have a lot of contacts all over the country, and as banged-up as his hovering, vegetable powered van is, it could at least get me to Gloucester in one piece.
Finally, the flow of people dumps me at the end of the main street, and I dart off through the residential area, dodging past a harassed mother and her four young children and leaping over the legs of an old man snoozing on his doorstep. I try not to look like I'm darting and dodging and leaping, though, because there's too many Dragoons around for my liking. Their black uniforms make them almost impossible to see against the shadows.
After fifty metres or so, the shanty town peters out into ruins so desolate, colonising them isn't just unfavourable, but impossible. There's no barbed wire here—I think from the Council's point of view, the people they view as "undesirables", the ones with no money or skills, would only try to get into the Middle or even Inner cities if they couldn't settle here.
I risk a glance over my shoulder. Seeing no cyborgs running at me from the alleys, and no Dragoons that have noticed me, I start to walk.
After a while, the drizzle intensifies into a downpour. I pull my hood up but it still doesn't take long before I'm completely soaked. Through the wall of water, I spot a collapsed overpass, arching over a field of rubble that must once have been a housing estate before it was levelled during the war. I run to it and collapse under its shelter, peeling strands of blonde hair off my wet face.
I sit there panting for a moment, and then a shadow falls over me. Through the roar of the downpour, I can hear an electrical spluttering noise.
I look up, already knowing what I will see. Standing over me are two malfunctioning cyborgs.