Crossed, Page 6Ally Condie
Vick shakes his head. “Even if we figure this out, we’re still leaving them to die,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “But at least they can fight back.”
“Once,” Vick says. There’s a slump to his shoulders that I’ve never seen before. As if he’s finally realizing the leader he is and always has been and the realization weighs him down.
“It’s not enough,” I say, turning back to my work.
“No,” Vick agrees.
I’ve tried not to really see the other decoys but I have. One has a bruised face. Another has freckles who looks enough like the boy we put in the river that I wonder if they were brothers, but I never asked and I never will. All of them wear ill-fitting plainclothes and fancy coats to keep them warm while they wait to die.
“What’s your real name?” Vick asks me suddenly.
“Ky is my real name,” I tell him.
“But what’s your full name?”
I pause for a minute as it flashes across my mind for the first time in years. Ky Finnow. That was my name then.
“Roberts,” Vick says, impatient with my hesitation. “That’s my last name. Vick Roberts.”
“Markham,” I tell him. “Ky Markham.” Because that’s the name she knows me by. That’s my real name now.
Still, my other name sounded right, too, when I said it in my mind. Finnow. The name I shared with my father and mother.
I look over at the decoys gathering rocks. Part of me likes the sense of purpose in their movements and knowing that I helped them feel better for even a little while. But deep down I know that all I’ve done is throw them a scrap. They’re still going to starve.
The Society’s first order of business, as we all sit in the well-chilled air and shiver, is to promise us coats. “Before the Society, when the Warming happened, things changed in the Outer Provinces,” the Official tells us. “It gets cold, but not as cold as it once did. It’s still possible to freeze at night, but if you wear the coats, you’ll be fine.”
The Outer Provinces, then. It’s certain. The other girls, even Indie, look straight ahead; they don’t blink. Some of them shake more than others.
“This is no different from any other work camp assignment,” the Official says into our silence. “We need you to plant a crop. Cotton, actually. We want the Enemy to think that this part of the country is still occupied and viable. It’s a strategic action on the part of the Society.”
“It’s true then? There’s a war with the Enemy?” one of the girls asks.
The Official laughs. “Not much of one. The Society is solidly in power. But the Enemy is unpredictable. We need them to think the Outer Provinces are well-populated and thriving. And the Society doesn’t want any one group to bear the burden of living out there too long. So they’ve implemented a six-month rotation program. As soon as your time is up, you’ll come back, as Citizens.”
None of this is true, I think, even though it seems that you believe it is.
“Now,” he says, gesturing at the two Officers who aren’t piloting the ship. “They will take you behind that curtain, search you, and give you your standard-issue attire. Including the coats.”
They’re going to search us. Now.
I’m not the first girl called back. Frantic, I try to find a place to hide the tablets, but I can’t see a spot. The Society-made landscape of the air ship is all slick smooth surfaces, no nooks and crannies. Even our seats are hard and smooth, the belts strapping us in simple and tight. There’s nowhere to put the tablets.
“Something to hide?” Indie whispers to me.
“Yes,” I say. Why lie?
“Me too,” she whispers. “I’ll take yours. You take mine when it’s my turn.”
I open my bag and slide out the package of tablets. Before I can do anything more, Indie—quick even in her handlocks—palms it. What will she do next? What does she need to hide and how will she reach it with her hands cuffed like that?
I don’t have time to see. “Next,” the brown-haired Officer calls out, pointing to me.
Don’t look back at Indie, I tell myself. Don’t give anything away.
Back behind the curtain, I have to strip down to my underclothes, while the Officer searches the pockets of my old brown plainclothes. She hands me a new set of plainclothes—black.
“Let’s see the bag,” she says, taking it from me. She rifles through the messages, and I try not to wince as one of the older ones from Bram comes apart in pieces.
She hands the bag back to me. “You can get dressed,” she says.
The moment I finish with the last button on my shirt, the Officer calls out to the head Official. “This one has nothing,” she says about me. The Official nods.
Back in my seat next to Indie, I slide my arms into my newly acquired coat. “I’m ready,” I say softly, barely moving my lips.
“It’s already in your coat pocket,” Indie says.
I want to ask her how she’s done it so quickly but I don’t want to be overheard. I feel almost giddy with relief at what we managed. What Indie managed.
When the Officer points at Indie a few moments later, she stands up and walks with her head bowed and her locked hands held obediently in front of her. Indie does a good job pretending to be broken, I think to myself.
Across the ship, the girl they searched after me begins to sob. I wonder if she tried to hide something and failed—which is what would have happened to me without Indie.
“You’d better cry,” another girl says dully. “We’re going to the Outer Provinces.”
“Leave her alone,” a third girl says. The Official notices the crying girl and brings her a green tablet.
Indie says nothing when she returns from the search. She doesn’t glance in my direction. I feel the weight of the tablets in my coat pocket. I wish I could look and make sure they are all there, the blue ones from Xander and my own three tucked inside, but I don’t. I trust Indie and she trusts me. The weight of the package is almost the same; any added heaviness imperceptible. Whatever she wanted to hide must be small and light.
I wonder what it is. Perhaps she will tell me later.
They give us minimal gear: two days’ worth of food rations, an extra set of plainclothes, a canteen, a pack in which we can carry everything. No knives, nothing sharp. No guns or weapons. A flashlight, but so lightweight and full of curved edges that it wouldn’t be much good for fighting.
Our coats are light but warm, made of something special, I can tell; and I wonder why they’d waste resources on people they send out here. The coats are the only sign that they might care if we live or die. More than anything else they’ve given us, the coats represent investment. Expenditure.
I glance up at the Official. He turns, opens the door to the pilot’s compartment again. He leaves it slightly ajar, and I can see the constellation of instruments lit up on the panel inside. To me they seem as numerous and incomprehensible as the stars, but the pilot knows his way.
“This ship sounds like a river,” Indie says.
“Are there many rivers where you’re from?” I ask.
“The only river I’ve heard of anywhere near here is the Sisyphus River,” I say.
“The Sisyphus River?” Indie asks. I glance over to make sure the Officers and Official don’t listen to us. They seem tired; the female Officer even closes her eyes briefly.
“The Society poisoned it,” I tell her. “Nothing can live in it, or on its banks. Nothing can grow there.”
Indie looks at me. “You can’t ever really kill a river,” she says. “You can’t kill anything that’s always moving and changing.”
The Official moves around the air ship, talking to the pilot, speaking with the other Officers. Something about the way he moves on the ship reminds me of Ky; the way he could balance on a moving air train and anticipate small shifts in direction.
Ky did not need the compass with him to do that
. I can travel without it, too.
I fly toward Ky and away from Xander and into what is Outer, different.
“Almost there,” the brown-haired Officer calls out. She glances over at us and I see something there—pity. She feels sorry for all of us. For me.
She shouldn’t. No one on this air ship should. I am finally going to the Outer Provinces.
I let myself imagine that Ky waits for me when we land. That I am only moments away from seeing him. Maybe even touching his hand, and later, in the dark, his lips.
“You’re smiling,” Indie says.
“I know,” I say.
Evening falls hard while we wait for the moon. The sky turns blue and pink and blue again. A darker, deeper blue, the next thing to black.
I still haven’t told Eli that we’re going.
Moments ago, Vick and I showed everyone how to fire the guns. Now we’re waiting to run out on the others and down into the gaping jagged mouth of the Carving.
We hear the sharp beep of an incoming message on the miniport. Vick puts it up to his ear and listens.
I wonder what the Enemy thinks of us, these people that the Society rarely bothers to defend. They gun us down and then we crawl back out in a seemingly endless supply. Do we seem like rats, mice, fleas, some kind of vermin that can’t be killed? Or does the Enemy have some idea of what the Society is doing?
“Listen,” Vick calls out. He’s finished with the miniport. “I just got a message from an Official in charge.” A murmur runs through the crowd. They stand with black-powdered hands and eyes alive with hope. It’s hard to keep from looking away. Words start going through my mind, a familiar rhythm, and it’s only after a few moments that I realize what I’m doing. I’m saying the words for the dead over them.
“We’re getting new villagers soon,” Vick says.
“How many?” someone calls out.
“I don’t know,” Vick says. “All I know is that the Official says they’re going to be different, but we’re to treat them as any other villager and we’ll be accountable for anything that happens to them.”
Everyone’s silent. That’s one of the things they told us that has held true—if any of us kill or hurt one of the others, the Officials come for you. Fast. We’ve seen it before. The Society made it clear: we’re not to injure each other. That’s for the Enemy to do.
“Maybe they’re sending a big group,” someone calls out. “Maybe we should wait until they get here to try to fight.”
“No,” Vick says, the ring of authority in his voice. “If the Enemy comes tonight, we fire tonight.” He points to the round white moon rising along the horizon. “Let’s get in position.”
“What do you think he means?” Eli asks after the others have gone. “About the new villagers being different?”
Vick sets his mouth in a firm line and I know we’ve had the same thought. Girls. They’re going to send girls.
“You’re right,” Vick says, looking at me. “They’re getting rid of Aberrations.”
“And I bet they let all the Anomalies get gunned down before us,” I say, and almost before the words are out of my mouth I see Vick’s hand tighten into a fist and he swings right at my face. I move just in time. He misses, and instinctively I hit him square in the stomach. He staggers back but doesn’t fall.
Eli gasps. Vick and I stare at each other.
The agony in Vick’s eyes didn’t come from the punch I landed. Vick’s been hit before, like I have. We can handle that kind of pain. I’m not sure why what I said caused such a reaction in him, but I know there’s no way he’ll ever tell. I keep my secrets. He keeps his.
“You think I’m an Anomaly?” Vick asks, quiet. Eli takes a step back, keeping his distance.
“No,” I say.
“What if I were?”
“I’d be glad,” I say. “It would mean that someone survived. Or that I’m wrong about what the Society’s doing out here—”
Vick and I both look at the sky. We’ve heard the same thing, felt the same shift.
The moon is up.
And it’s full.
“They’re coming!” Vick calls out.
Other voices pick up the call. They shout and yell and I hear terror and anger and something else in their voices that I recognize from long ago. The joy of fighting back.
Vick looks at me and I know we think the same thing. We’re tempted to stay and fight this out. I shake my head at Vick. No. He can stay, but I won’t. I have to get out of here. I have to try to get back to Cassia.
Flashlights move and shift in the light. Dark figures run and scream.
“Now,” Vick says.
I drop my gun and grab Eli’s arm. “Come with us,” I tell Eli. He looks at me, confused.
“Where?” he asks. I point in the direction of the Carving, and his eyes widen. “There?”
“There,” I say, “now.”
Eli hesitates for just a moment and then he nods and we run. I leave the gun behind on the ground. One more chance, maybe, for someone else, and out of the corner of my eye I see Vick put his gun down too, and the miniport next to it.
In the night, it feels like we’re running fast over the back of some kind of enormous animal, sprinting over its spines and through patches of tall, thin, gold grass that now glimmers like silver fur in the moonlight. Soon enough we’ll hit hard rock as we get closer to the Carving, and that’s when we’ll be the most exposed.
Less than half a mile later I feel Eli falling back. “Drop the gun,” I tell him, and when he doesn’t, I reach over and knock it out of his hands. It clatters to the ground and Eli stops.
“Eli,” I say, and then the firing begins.
And the screaming.
“Run,” I tell Eli. “Don’t listen.” I try not to hear any of it either—the screaming, the yelling, the dying.
We hit the edge of the sandstone, and Eli and I pull up next to Vick, who has stopped to get his bearings. “That way,” I say, pointing.
“We have to go back and help them,” Eli says.
Vick doesn’t answer but takes off again, running.
“Keep running, Eli,” I tell him.
“Don’t you care that they’re dying?” Eli asks.
The pathetic little sounds of the guns we rigged come from behind us. Out here, it’s nothing.
“Don’t you want to live?” I ask Eli, furious that he’s making this so hard, that he won’t let me forget what is happening behind us.
And then the animal underneath our feet shudders. Something big has hit, and Eli and I move fast, no instinct left but to live. Nothing in my mind except run.
I’ve done this before. Years ago. My father told me once, “If anything happens, run for the Carving,” he said, and so I did it. As always, I wanted to survive.
But that time the Officials came down in an air ship in front of me, making short work of the miles it had taken me hours to run. They pushed me to the ground. I struggled. A rock scraped against my face. But I held on to the one thing I’d carried out of the village—my mother’s paintbrush.
On the air ship I saw the only other survivor—a girl from my village. Once we were flying again, the Officials held out the red tablets for us to take. I’d heard the rumors. I thought I was going to die. So I clamped my mouth shut. I wouldn’t take mine.
“Come now,” said one of the Officials sympathetically, and then she shoved my mouth open and pushed a green tablet in. The false calm came over me, and I couldn’t fight when she put the red one in my mouth too. But my hands knew. They gripped the paintbrush so hard that it broke.
I didn’t die. They took us back behind a curtain in the air ship and washed our hands and faces and hair. They were gentle with us while we were forgetting and gave us fresh clothes and told us a new story to remember instead of what really happened.
“We’re sorry,” they said, ar
ranging their faces into expressions of regret. “The Enemy made a strike on the fields where many in your village were working. Overall casualties were low, but your parents were killed.”
I thought, Why tell us this? Do you think we’re going to forget? Casualties weren’t low. Almost everyone died. And they weren’t in the fields. I saw it all.
The girl cried and nodded and believed, even though she should have known they were lying. And I realized that forgetting was exactly what I was supposed to do.
I pretended to forget. I nodded like the girl and tried to put the same blank look on my face that she had under her tears.
But I didn’t cry like she did. I knew that if I did I would never stop. And then they would know what I’d really seen.
They took away the broken paintbrush and asked why I had it.
And for a moment I panicked. I couldn’t remember. Was the red tablet working? Then I did remember. I had the paintbrush because it was my mother’s. I found it in the village when I came down from the plateau after the firing.
I looked at them and said, “I don’t know. I found it.”
They believed me and I learned how to lie just enough to not get caught.
The Carving looms closer now. “Which one?” Vick calls out to me. Up close to the Carving you can see what you can’t see from far away—the deep cracks in its surface. Each a different canyon and a different choice.
I don’t know. I’ve never been here before, only heard my father talk about it, but I have to decide fast. I’m the leader now for a minute. “That one,” I say, pointing to the closest divide in the earth. The one with a pile of boulders lying near it. Something about it seems right, like a story I have known before.
No flashlights now. The moon will have to do. We need both hands to get down into the earth. I cut my arm on a rock and the burrs of plants attach anywhere they can, like stowaways.
Behind us, I hear a boom—a sound that isn’t like the Enemy’s fire. And it wasn’t in the village. It was close. Somewhere on the plain right behind us.