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Crossed, Page 4

Ally Condie

  She didn’t know I was there. I stood, watching her read the paper. I saw her lips forming the words of a poem I didn’t know, and then of one I did. When I realized what she was saying about the Pilot, I stepped forward and a stick snapped under my foot.

  “Doesn’t do them any good,” Vick tells me, gesturing to one of the bodies and then shoving his sandy hair back from his face in irritation. They won’t give us scissors or razors for cutting our hair or shaving—too easy to turn into weapons to kill each other or ourselves. It doesn’t usually matter. Only Vick and I have been out here long enough to have hair that falls into our eyes. “So that’s all it is? Some old poem?”

  I shrug.

  It’s a mistake.

  Usually, Vick doesn’t care when I don’t answer him, but this time I see a challenge in his eyes. I start planning the best way to take him down. The increase in firings has affected him, too. Put him on edge. He’s bigger than me but not by much, and I learned to fight out here years ago. Now that I am back I remember it, like the snow on the plateau. My muscles tense.

  But Vick stops. “You never cut notches in your boot,” he says, his voice back to even and his eyes back to calm.

  “No,” I agree.


  “No one needs to know,” I say.

  “To know what? How long you’ve lasted?” Vick asks.

  “To know anything about me,” I say.

  We leave the graves behind and take a break for lunch, sitting on a group of sandstone boulders outside of the village. The colors are the red orange brown of my childhood, and their texture is the same: dry and rough and—in November—cold.

  I use the narrow end of the decoy gun to scratch a mark into the sandstone. I don’t want anyone to know I can write, so I don’t write her name.

  Instead I draw a curve. A wave. Like an ocean, or a piece of green silk rolling in the wind.

  Scratch, scratch. The sandstone, shaped by other forces, water and wind, is now altered by me. Which I like. I always carve myself into what others want me to be. With Cassia on the Hill—only then was I truly myself.

  I’m not ready yet to draw her face. I don’t even know if I can. But I scratch another curve into the rock. It looks a little like the C I first taught her to write. I make the curve again, remembering her hand.

  Vick leans over to see what I’m doing. “That doesn’t look like anything.”

  “It looks like the moon,” I tell him. “When it’s thin.”

  Vick glances up at the plateau. Earlier today some air ships came for the bodies. That hasn’t happened before. I don’t know what the Society has done with them, but I wish I’d thought to climb up to the top and write something to mark the decoys’ passing.

  Because now there is nothing to say that they were ever there. The snow melted before they could make a footprint in it. Their lives ended before they even knew what they could be.

  “You think that boy was lucky?” I ask Vick. “The one who died in camp, before we came to the villages?”

  “Lucky,” Vick says, as if he doesn’t know what the word means. And maybe he doesn’t. Luck is not a word the Society encourages. And it’s not something we have much of out here.

  There was a firing our first night out in the villages. We all started running to take cover. A few of the boys ran out into the street with their guns and shot at the sky. Vick and I ended up in the same house with one or two others. I don’t remember their names. They’re gone now.

  “Why aren’t you out there trying to shoot back?” Vick asked me then. We hadn’t talked to each other much since we put the boy in the river.

  “No reason to,” I said. “The ammunition isn’t real.” I put my standard-issue gun on the ground next to me.

  Vick puts his gun down, too. “How long have you known?”

  “Since they gave them to us on our way here,” I said. “What about you?”

  “The same,” Vick answered. “We should have told the others.”

  “I know,” I said. “I was stupid. I thought we’d have a little more time.”

  “Time,” Vick said, “is what we don’t have.”

  The world shattered outside and someone else started screaming.

  “I wish I had a gun that worked,” Vick said. “I’d blow everyone on those air ships away. Pieces of them would come down like fireworks.”

  “Finished,” Vick says now, folding up his foilware into a sharp silver square. “We’d better get back to work.”

  “I wonder why they don’t just give us blue tablets,” I say. “Then they wouldn’t have to bother with our meals.”

  Vick looks at me as if I’m crazy. “You don’t know?”

  “Know what?” I ask.

  “The blue tablets don’t save you. They stop you. If you take one, you’ll slow down and stay where you are until someone finds you or you die waiting. Two will finish you outright.”

  I shake my head and look up at the sky, but I’m not looking for anything. I only look to see the blue. I hold my hand up and block out the sun so I can see the sky around it better. No clouds.

  “Sorry,” Vick says, “but it’s true.”

  I glance over at Vick. I think I see concern on his stone-hard face. It’s so ludicrous, all of it, that I start to laugh, and Vick laughs too. “I should have known,” I say. “If something happened to the Society, they wouldn’t want anyone to live on without them.”

  A few hours later we hear a beep from the miniport Vick carries. He pulls it from his belt loop and checks the screen. Vick’s the only decoy who has a miniport—a device roughly the same size as a datapod. Miniports, however, can be used for communication. A datapod only stores information. Vick keeps the miniport with him most of the time, but now and then—like when he tells new decoys the truth about the village and the guns—he hides the port somewhere for a little while.

  We’re pretty sure that the Society tracks our location by the miniport. We don’t know if they can listen in on us too, the way they can on the larger ports. Vick thinks so. He thinks the Society listens all the time. I don’t think they care.

  “What do they want?” I ask Vick as he reads the message on his screen.

  “We’re moving,” he says.

  Others fall in line with us as we walk to meet the ships that land silently outside of the village. The Officers act hurried, as usual. They don’t like to spend much time out here. I’m not sure if it’s because of us or because of the Enemy. I wonder who they think is the bigger threat.

  He’s young, but the Officer in charge of this transfer reminds me of the one who used to be in charge of us on the Hill back in Oria. His expression says How did I end up here? What am I supposed to do with these people?

  “So,” he says, looking out at us. “Up on the plateau. What was that? What happened there? The casualties wouldn’t have been nearly so bad if you’d all stayed down in the village.”

  “There was snow up there this morning and they went up to get it,” I say. “We’re always thirsty.”

  “You’re sure that’s the only reason they were up there?”

  “There aren’t many reasons to do anything,” Vick says. “Hunger. Thirst. Not dying. That’s all there is. So if you don’t believe us, take your pick from the other two.”

  “Maybe they hiked up there for the view,” the Officer suggests.

  Vick laughs, and it’s not a good sound. “Where are the replacements?”

  “They’re on the ship,” the Officer says. “We’re going to take you all to a new village, and we’ll give you more supplies.”

  “And more water,” Vick says. Though he’s unarmed and at the mercy of the Officer he sounds like he’s the one giving the orders. The Officer smiles. The Society isn’t human but the people who work for it sometimes are.

  “And more water,” the Officer says.

  Vick and I both curse under our breath when we see the replacements on the air ship. They are young, much younger than us. They look to be four
teen, thirteen. Their eyes are wide. Frightened. One of them, the youngest-looking kid, looks a little like Cassia’s brother, Bram. He’s darker-skinned than Bram, darker than me, even, but his eyes are bright like Bram’s. Before it was cut, his hair must have been curly like Bram’s.

  “The Society must be running out of bodies,” I say to Vick, keeping my voice low.

  “Maybe that’s the plan,” he says.

  We both know the Society wants the Aberrations dead. It explains why we’re dumped out here. Why we don’t get to fight. But there’s another question, one I can’t answer:

  Why do they hate us so much?

  We fly blind. The air ship is windowless except for the pilot’s compartment.

  So it’s not until we step outside that I know where we are.

  I don’t know the village itself but I know the area. The field we walk is orange-sanded and black-rocked, yellow-grassed with plants that grew green this summer. There are fields like this one all over the Outer Provinces. But I still know exactly where I am because of what I see in front of me.

  I’m home.

  It hurts.

  There it is on the horizon—the landmark of my childhood.

  The Carving.

  From where we are now, I can’t see all of it—just pieces of red or orange sandstone jutting up here and there. But when you get closer—when you reach the edge and look into the Carving—you realize that the stones aren’t small at all. They’re the tips of formations as large as mountains.

  The Carving isn’t one canyon, one mountain, but many—a network of interlocking formations that goes on for miles. The land rises and falls like water, its high jagged peaks and deep slot canyons striped with the colors of the Outer Provinces—gradations of orange, red, white. In the faraway stretches of the Carving the fire colors of the sandstone grow shadowed with blue from distant clouds.

  I know all of this because I’ve been to the edge several times.

  But I’ve never been inside.

  “What are you grinning about?” Vick asks me, but before I can answer, the Bram kid comes up to us and gets right in Vick’s face.

  “I’m Eli,” the kid says.

  “All right,” Vick says, and then turns away in irritation, back to the row of faces who have selected him as their leader even when he never wanted to be one. Some people can’t help being leaders. It’s in their blood and bones and brains, and there’s no getting around it.

  And some people follow.

  You have a better chance of surviving if you follow, I remind myself. Your father thought he was a leader. Couldn’t get enough of being a leader, and look what happened to him. I stand one step behind Vick.

  “Aren’t you going to give us a speech or anything?” Eli asks. “We just got here.”

  “I’m not in charge of this mess,” Vick says. And there it is. The anger that he spends most of his energy keeping in check shows a little. “I’m not the Society’s spokesman.”

  “But you’re the only one with one of those,” Eli says, pointing at the port clipped to Vick’s belt.

  “You want a speech?” Vick asks, and all the new kids nod and stare at him. They’ll have heard the same lecture we did when we came in on the air ships about how the Society needs us to act like villagers and civilians to draw out the Enemy. How it’s only a six-month job, and once we go back to Society our Aberration status will be wiped clean.

  It will take exactly one day of firing for them to realize that no one has lasted six months. Not even Vick comes close to having that many notches on his boots.

  “Watch the rest of us,” Vick says. “Act like a villager. That’s what we’re supposed to do here.” He pauses. Then he pulls the port from his belt and tosses it to a decoy who has been around a couple of weeks. “Take this for a run,” he says. “Make sure it still works out by the end of the town.”

  The kid takes off. As soon as the port is out of earshot, Vick says, “The ammunition is all blanks. So don’t bother trying to defend yourselves.”

  Eli interrupts. “But we practiced firing with them back in training camp,” he protests. I start grinning, in spite of myself and the fact that I should and do feel sick that someone so young ended up out here. This kid is like Bram.

  “Doesn’t matter,” Vick says. “They’re all blanks now.”

  Eli digests this, but then he has another question. “If this is a village, where are all the women and kids?”

  “You’re a kid,” Vick says.

  “Am not,” Eli says. “And I’m not a girl. Where are they?”

  “No girls,” Vick says. “No women here.”

  “But the Enemy must know we’re not real villagers, then,” Eli says. “They must have figured it out.”

  “Right,” Vick says. “They’re killing us anyway. No one cares. And now we’ve got work to do. We’re supposed to be a village full of farmers. So let’s get farming.”

  We start toward the fields. The sun shines hot overhead. I can feel Eli’s angry gaze even after we turn away from him.

  “At least we have enough water to drink,” I say to Vick, gesturing to the full canteen. “Thanks to you.”

  “Don’t thank me,” Vick says. He lowers his voice. “There’s not even enough to drown in.”

  The crop here is cotton—nearly impossible to grow. The poor-quality wisps inside the cotton bolls come apart easily.

  “No wonder we don’t worry about there being no girls or kids,” Eli says behind me. “The Enemy must know this isn’t a real village just from looking at it. No one would be stupid enough to farm cotton out here.”

  At first I don’t answer him. I haven’t fallen into the trap of talking to anyone while we work, except for Vick. I’ve stayed away from all the others.

  But I’m weak right now. The cotton today and the snow yesterday have made me think again of Cassia’s story of the cottonwood seeds snowing in June. The Society hated the cottonwood trees, but they are exactly the kind of trees that are right in the Outer Provinces. The wood is good for carving. If I could find one, I would cover the bark with her name the way I used to cover her hand with mine on the Hill.

  I start talking to Eli to keep from wanting what’s too hard to have.

  “It’s stupid,” I tell Eli, “but it’s more realistic than some of the stuff the Society has done. A few of the villages around here started as farming communities for Aberrations. Cotton was one of the crops the Society had them try to grow. This was back when there was more water. So it’s not completely impossible that someone would be farming here.”

  “Oh,” Eli says. And then he falls silent. I don’t know why I’m trying to give him hope. Maybe it was remembering the cottonwood seeds.

  Or remembering her.

  When I look over later, I see that Eli is crying, but it’s not enough to drown in so I don’t do anything yet.

  On our walk back into the village from the field, I jerk my head at Vick, our signal that I want to talk without the port. “Here,” he says, tossing the port to Eli, who has stopped crying. “Take this for a run.” Eli nods and takes off.

  “What is it?” Vick asks.

  “I used to live near here,” I say, trying to keep any emotion from my voice. This part of the world used to be my home. I hate what the Society has done to it. “My village was only a few miles away. I know the area.”

  “So are you going to run?” Vick asks.

  There it is. The real question. The one we all ask ourselves all the time. Am I going to run? I’ve thought about it every day, every hour.

  “Are you thinking about going back to your village?” Vick asks. “Can someone there help you?”

  “No,” I say. “It’s gone.”

  Vick shakes his head. “Then there’s no point in running. We can’t go far without someone seeing us.”

  “And the closest river is too far away,” I say. “We can’t escape that way.”

  “Then how?” Vick asks.

  “We’re not going to go ac
ross or down. We’re going to go through.”

  Vick turns. “Through what?”

  “The canyons,” I tell him, pointing to the Carving near us, miles long and cut with little openings impossible to see from here. “If you hike in far enough there’s fresh water.”

  “The Officers always tell us that the canyons in the Outer Provinces are crawling with Anomalies,” Vick says.

  “I’ve heard that, too,” I admit. “But some of them have built a settlement and they help travelers. I heard that from people who’d been inside.”

  “Wait. You know people who’ve gone into the canyons?” Vick asks.

  “I knew people who had been there,” I say.

  “People you could trust?”

  “My father,” I say, as if that ends the conversation and Vick nods.

  We walk a few steps more. “So when do we leave?” Vick asks.

  “That’s the problem,” I say, trying not to let him see how relieved I am that he’ll come. Facing those canyons is something I’d rather not do alone. “To keep the Society from hunting us down and making an example of us, the best time to go is during a firing when there’s chaos. Like a night firing. But with a full moon, so that we can see. They might think we died instead of escaped.”

  Vick laughs. “Both the Society and the Enemy have infrared. Whoever’s above will see us run.”

  “I know, but they might miss three little bodies when there’s plenty more right here.”

  “Three?” Vick asks.

  “Eli’s coming with us.” I hadn’t known until I said it.


  “You’re crazy,” Vick says. “There’s no way that kid will last until then.”

  “I know,” I tell Vick. He’s right. It’s only a matter of time before Eli goes down. He’s small. He’s impulsive. He asks too many questions. Then again, it’s only a matter of time for all of us.

  “So why keep him around? Why bring him along?”