Crossed, Page 8Ally Condie
But too soon I start to tire.
I trip on a rock, dodge a bush too late. It sinks its teeth, its prickly seeds, into my clothes and my leg. Our feet crunch in frost. We’re lucky there is no snow; and the air is desert-cold, a sharp, thin cold that tricks you into thinking you aren’t thirsty, because breathing is like drinking in ice.
When I reach up and touch my lips, they are dry.
I don’t look back over my shoulder to see if anyone chases us or swoops through the night to hover over our shoulders. We have enough to watch out for straight ahead. The moon gives sufficient light that we can see, but we risk the flashlights now and then when we come to shadowy places.
The boy turns his on and swears. “I forgot to look up,” he says. When I do, I see that, in our struggle to avoid little ravines and sharp-edged rocks, we have begun to turn around.
“You’re tired,” Indie says to the boy. “Let me lead.”
“I can do it,” I say.
“Wait,” Indie tells me, her voice tight and tired. “I think you might be the only one who’ll have enough left to run us in at the end.”
Our clothes catch on tough spiky bushes; the sharp smell in the air is distinct, dry. Could it be sage? I wonder. Ky’s favorite smell from home?
Miles on, we stop running in a line. We run side by side. It is inefficient. But we need each other too much.
We’ve all fallen. We all bleed. The boy’s injured his shoulder; Indie’s legs are scraped; I fell into a small ravine and my body feels battered. We run so slow we almost walk.
“A marathon,” Indie breathes. “That’s what you call a run like this. I heard a story about it.”
“Can you tell it to me?” I ask her.
“You don’t want to hear it.”
“I do.” Anything to keep my mind off how hard this is, how far we still have to go. Even though we draw closer, any steps at all begin to feel like too many. I can’t believe Indie can talk. The boy and I both stopped miles ago.
“It was at the end of the world. A message had to be delivered.” She breathes hard, her words grow choppy. “Someone ran to deliver it. Twenty-six miles. Like us. He made it. Gave the message.”
“And then they rewarded him?” I say, my breath ragged. “Did an air ship come down and save him?”
“No,” she says. “He delivered his message. Then he died.”
I start to laugh, which isn’t good for saving breath, and Indie laughs, too. “I told you that you wouldn’t want to hear it.”
“At least the message got through,” I say.
“I guess,” Indie answers. As she glances over at me with a smile still on her face, I see that what I have mistaken for coldness in her is actually warmth. There’s a fire in Indie that keeps her alive and moving even in a place like this.
The boy coughs and spits. He’s been out here longer than we have. He sounds weak.
We stop talking.
A few miles still out from the Carving, the air smells different. Not clean, like the plant smell from earlier, but dark and smoky, like burning. As I look across the land, I think I see glimmers of embers, shifts in the light, bits of amber-orange under the moon.
I notice another scent in the night—one I don’t know well, but that I think might be death.
None of us say anything, but the smell keeps us running when almost nothing else would, and for a little while, we don’t breathe deep.
We run forever. I say the words from the poem over and over to the beat of my feet. It almost sounds like someone else’s voice. I don’t know where I find the air and I keep getting the words wrong: From out our bourne of death and space the flood will wash me far but it doesn’t even matter. I never knew that words might not matter.
“Are you saying that for us?” the boy gasps out, the first time he’s spoken in hours.
“We’re not dead,” I say. No one dead feels this tired.
“We’re here,” the boy says, and he stops. I look at where he points and I see a group of boulders that will be difficult, but not impossible, to climb down.
We made it.
The boy doubles over in exhaustion. Indie and I look at each other and I reach to touch the boy’s shoulder, thinking he’s ill, but then he straightens up.
“Let’s go,” I say, not sure why he waits.
“I’m not coming with you,” he says. “I’m taking that canyon instead.” He points back along the Carving.
“Why?” I ask, and Indie says, “How do we know we can trust you? How do we know this is the right canyon?”
The boy shakes his head. “That’s the one,” he tells us, holding out his hand for payment. “Hurry. It’s almost morning.” He speaks softly, without feeling, and that’s what convinces me he’s telling the truth. He’s far too tired to lie. “The Enemy didn’t end up firing tonight. People will realize we’ve gone. They might report it on the miniport. We have to get into the canyons.”
“Come with us,” I say.
“No,” he says. He looks up at me and I see that he needed us for the run. It’s one that would be too hard to do alone. Now, for whatever reason, he wants to take his own path. He whispers. “Please.”
I reach into my pack and pull out the tablets. As I unwrap them, my hands clumsy and cold even as sweat trickles down my back, he looks behind him at where he wants to be. I want him to come with us. But it’s his choice.
“Here,” I say, holding out half of the tablets. He looks down at them, sealed away in their little compartments, the backing of each tablet labeled neatly. Blue. Blue. Blue. Blue.
And then he laughs.
“Blue,” he says, laughing harder. “All blue.” And then, as if he’s brought the color into being by saying it, we all notice that the sky has turned to morning.
“Take some,” I say, moving closer to him. I see sweat frozen on the ends of his too-short hair; frost on his eyelashes. He shudders. He should put on his coat. “Take some,” I say again.
“No,” he says, pushing my hand away. The tablets fall to the ground. I cry out, dropping to my knees to pick them up.
The boy pauses. “Maybe one or two,” he says, and I see his hand dart down. He snatches the packet and breaks away two little squares. Before I can stop him, he throws the rest back at me and turns to run.
“But I have others,” I call after him. He helped us get here. I could give him the green to calm. Or the red, and then he could forget that long awful run and the scent of his friends’ deaths as we passed by the burned village. I should give him both. I open my mouth to call out again but we never even knew his name.
Indie has not moved.
“We have to go after him,” I say, urging her. “Come on.”
“Number nineteen,” she says softly. What she says doesn’t make sense to me until I follow her gaze and see past the boulders. What’s beyond them is now visible: the Carving up close and with light for the first time.
“Oh,” I whisper. “Oh.”
The world changes here.
Before me is a land of canyons, of chasms, of gashes and gorges. A land of shadows and shades, of rises and falls. Of red and blue and very little green. Indie’s right. As the sky lightens and I see the jagged stones and gaping canyons, the Carving does remind me a little of the painting Xander gave me.
But the Carving is real.
The world is so much bigger than I thought it was.
If we descend into that Carving with its miles of mountains and acres of valleys, with its cliffs and its coves, we will vanish almost entirely. We will become almost nothing.
I think suddenly of a time in Second School, back before we began to specialize, when they showed us diagrams of our bones and our bodies and told us how fragile we were, how easily we could break or become ill without the Society. I remember seeing in the pictures that our white bones were actually filled with red blood and marrow, and thinking I didn’t know I had this inside of me.
I didn’t know the earth had this inside of it. The Carvin
g seems as wide as the sky it stands under.
It is the perfect place for someone like Ky to hide. An entire rebellion could take cover in a place like this. I begin to smile.
“Wait,” I say as Indie moves to climb down the boulders and into the Carving. “It will be sunrise in a few minutes.” I’m greedy. I want to see more.
She shakes her head. “We have to be inside before it gets light.”
Indie’s right. I take one final look back at the boy growing smaller, moving faster than I thought he could. I wish I had thanked him before he left.
I climb down behind Indie, scrambling into the canyon where I hope Ky went only two days ago. Away from the Society, from Xander, from my family, from the life I knew. Away from the boy who led us here, from the light that creeps across this land, turning the sky blue and the stone red, the light that could get us killed.
There should be patrols in the canyon. I thought we’d have to barter and beg our way past checkpoints like my father did the first time he came. But no one comes. At first the stillness is unsettling. Then I begin to realize that the Carving still teems with life. Black ravens wheel in the sky above and send sharp calls down into the canyons. There’s scat from coyotes, jackrabbits, and deer on the ground, and a tiny gray fox slips away from the stream when we come to drink. A small bird seeks shelter in a tree that has a long dark wound down the middle. It looks as though the tree were struck once by lightning but then grew around the burn.
But still nothing human.
Has something happened to the Anomalies?
The stream grows larger the farther into the canyon we go. I keep us walking on the rounded, smoothed-out rocks next to it. If we step on them we don’t leave as many footprints for someone to find. In the summer, I use a walking stick and go right in the river itself, my father told me.
But the water’s too cold to walk in now. Sheets of ice edge the banks. I look around and wonder what my father would have seen in the summertime. Scrubby small trees that are barren now would be full-leaved, or as full-leaved as anything gets in the desert. The sun would beat down hot, and the cool water would feel good on his feet. Fish would swim away when they felt him coming.
On the third morning we find the ground covered in frost. I haven’t seen any chert to start a fire with. We’d have frozen without our coats.
Eli speaks, echoing my thoughts. “At least the Society gave us these,” he says. “I’ve never had a coat that works this well.”
Vick agrees. “They’re almost military grade,” he says. “I wonder why the Society wasted them on us?”
Hearing them talk makes me realize what’s been bothering me at the back of my mind: Something’s wrong with this, too.
I pull my coat from my back and the wind makes me want to shudder, but I keep my hands steady as I pull out a sharp piece of agate.
“What are you doing?” Vick asks.
“Cutting up my coat.”
“You going to tell me why?”
“I’ll show you.” I spread out the coat like the carcass of an animal and make an incision. “The Society doesn’t like to waste things,” I say. “So there’s a reason we have these.” I peel back the upper layer of material.
Waterproof wires—some blue, some red—wind like veins through the padding inside.
Vick swears and moves to rip off his coat. I put up my hand to stop him. “Wait a minute. We don’t know what they do yet.”
“They’re probably tracking us,” Vick says. “The Society could know where we are.”
“That’s true, but you might as well stay warm while I look.” I pull the wires, remembering how my father used to do this. “There’s a warming mechanism inside the coats,” I say. “I recognize the wiring. That’s why they work so well.”
“And what else?” Vick asks. “Why’d they want to keep us warm?”
“So we’ll keep the coats on,” I say. I look at a neat web of blue wiring that traces along with the red wiring of the warming mechanism. The blue threads from the collar of the coat down the arms to the wrists. The web covers the back and front and sides and underneath the arms. In a place near the heart there’s a tiny silver disk about the size of a microcard.
“Why?” Eli asks.
I start to laugh. I reach inside and unhook the blue wires from the disk, carefully weaving them in and out of the red ones. I don’t want to alter the warming mechanism. It works fine as it is. “Because,” I tell Eli, “they don’t care about us, but they love data.” Once the silver disk is free, I hold it up. “I bet this records things like our pulse rates, our hydration levels, our moment of death. And anything else they’ve thought up that they want to know about while we’re out in the villages. They’re not using these to track us constantly. But they gather our data after we die.”
“The coats don’t always burn,” Vick says.
“And even if they do, the disks are fireproof,” I say. Then I start to grin. “We’ve been making it hard for them,” I tell Vick. “All those people we buried.” My grin fades as I think of the Officers dragging the bodies back out of the dirt just to strip them of their coats.
“That first boy in the water,” Vick remembers. “They made us take off his coat before we got rid of him.”
“But if they don’t care about us, why would they care about our data?” Eli asks.
“Death,” I say. “It’s the one thing they haven’t fully conquered. They want to know more about it.”
“We die, they learn how not to,” Eli says. His voice sounds distant, as though he isn’t only thinking of the coats but of something else too.
“I wonder why they didn’t stop us,” Vick says. “We’ve been burying for weeks.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe they wondered how long we could keep it up.”
None of us speak for a moment. I wind the blue wires and leave them—the Society’s entrails—under a rock. “Do either of you want me to fix yours?” I ask. “It won’t take long.”
Vick hands his over. Now that I know where the blue wires are, I can be more careful with my incisions. I make only a few small holes and pull the blue wires out. One of the holes is in the spot over his heart so I can extract the disk.
“How are you going to get yours back together?” Vick asks, shrugging into his coat.
“I’ll have to wear it like this and find a way to fix it later,” I say. One of the trees near us is pinyon pine and it weeps sap. I pull some off and use it to stick the cut edges of my coat back together in a few places. The sap’s smell, sharp and earthy, makes me think of the taller pines on the Hill. “I’ll probably still be warm enough as long as I’m careful about the red wires.”
I reach for Eli’s coat but he holds it back. “No,” he says. “It’s all right. I don’t mind.”
“All right,” I say, surprised, and then I think I understand. The tiny disk is the closest any of us might come to immortality. It’s not as good as the stored tissue samples that ideal Citizens get—a chance at living again someday when the Society has the technology.
I don’t think they’ll ever figure out how to do it. Even the Society can’t bring people back. But it is true that in the Society our data lives on forever, rolling over and over to become whatever numbers the Society needs. It’s like what the Rising has done with the legend of the Pilot.
I’ve known about the rebellion and its leader for as long as I can remember.
But I never told Cassia.
The closest I came was the day on the Hill when I told her the story of Sisyphus. Not the Rising’s adaptation of it, but the version that I like best. Cassia and I stood in that dark green forest. Both of us had red flags in our hands. I finished the story and was about to say more. Then she asked me the color of my eyes. In that moment I realized that loving each other felt more dangerous—more like a rebellion—than anything else ever could.
I’d heard parts of the Tennyson poem all my life. But in Oria
, after I saw Tennyson’s words on Cassia’s lips, I realized that the poem didn’t belong to the Rising. The poet didn’t write it for them—he wrote it long before the Society even existed. It was the same with the story of Sisyphus. It existed long before the Rising or the Society or my father claimed it as their own.
When I spent my days in the Borough doing the same tasks over and over, I changed the story too. I decided that it was the thoughts in your own mind that mattered more than anything else.
So I never talked to her about how I’d heard the other poem before, or about the rebellion. Why? We had the Society trying to find its way into our relationship. We didn’t need anyone else there, too. The poems and stories we shared with each other could mean what we wanted them to mean. We could choose our own path together.
We finally see a sign of the Anomalies: a place where they used to climb. The ground at the base of the cliff is spotted with blue fragments. I bend down to look more closely. For a moment they look like the broken casings of some kind of beautiful insects. Blue and bruised purple underneath. Broken and mixed with red mud.
Then I realize they’re the juniper fruit from the tree growing near the wall. They’ve fallen to the ground and been crushed by someone’s boots, and the rain has blurred the footprints so that they are only vague indentations. I run my hand along the cuts in the rock and the metal bores where the Anomalies ran their climbing gear through. The ropes are gone.
As we walk, I look for something to mark Ky’s passage through this place. But I find nothing. We see no footprints, no signs of human life. Even the trees are small and stunted, and one of them bears a distinct dark scar right through its center. I feel stricken, too. Although the boy who ran to the Carving with us talked about the recent rains, I still hoped to find some of Ky’s tracks.
And I hope to find evidence of the Rising. I open my mouth to ask Indie if she’s heard of it but something holds me back and I don’t. I’m not sure what I expect a sign of a rebellion to look like, anyway.