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The mother looks up at us, her face ashen. She still holds the baby. The older child lying on the bed doesn’t move at all.
He rests on his side, his back to us. He’s breathing, but it’s slow, and his plainclothes hang a little loose around his neck. His skin color looks all right. There’s a small red mark in between his shoulder blades and I feel a rush of pity and exultation.
This is it.
The Rising said it would look like this.
I have to keep myself from glancing at the others in the room. Who else knows? Is anyone here part of the Rising? Have they seen the information I’ve seen about how the rebellion will proceed?
Though the incubation period may vary, once the disease is manifest, the patient deteriorates quickly. Slurred speech is followed by a descent into an almost comatose state. The most telltale sign of the live Plague virus is one or more small red marks on the back of the patient. Once the Plague has made significant inroads into the general populace, and can no longer be concealed by the Society, the Rising will begin.
“What is it?” the mother asks. “Is he ill?”
Again, the three of us move at the same time. Official Lei reaches for the boy’s wrist to take his pulse. Official Brewer turns to the woman. I try to block her view of her child lying still on the bed. Until I know the Rising is on the move, I have to proceed as usual.
“He’s breathing,” Official Brewer says.
“His pulse is fine,” Official Lei says.
“The medics will be here soon,” I tell the mother.
“Can’t you do something for him?” she asks. “Medicine, treatment . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Official Brewer says. “We need to get to the medical center before we can do anything more.”
“But he’s stable,” I tell her. Don’t worry, I want to add. The Rising has a cure. I hope she can hear the sound of hope in my voice since I can’t tell her outright how I know it’s all going to work out.
This is it. The beginning of the Rising.
Once the Rising comes to power, we’ll all be able to choose. Who knows what might happen then? When I kissed Cassia back in the Borough she caught her breath in what I think was surprise. Not at the kiss: she knew that was coming. I think she was surprised by how it felt.
As soon as I can, I want to tell her again, in person: Cassia, I’m in love with you and I want you. So, what will it take for you to feel the same? A whole new world?
Because that’s what we’re going to have.
The mother edges a tiny bit closer to her child. “It’s just,” she says, and her voice catches, “that he’s so still.”
Ky said he’d meet me tonight, by the lake.
When I see him next, I’ll kiss him first.
He’ll pull me so close that the poems I keep underneath my shirt, near my heart, will rustle, a sound so soft that only the two of us will hear. And the music of his heartbeat, his breathing, the cadence and timbre of his voice, will set me to singing.
He will tell me where he has been.
I will tell him where I want to go.
I stretch out my arms to make sure that nothing shows underneath the cuffs of my shirt. The red silk of the dress I’m wearing slips neatly under the unflattering lines of my plainclothes. It’s one of the Hundred Dresses, possibly stolen, that came up in a trade. It was worth the price I paid—a poem—to have such a piece of color to hold up to the light and pull over my head, to feel so bright.
I sort for the Society here in their capital of Central, but I have a job to do for the Rising, and I trade with the Archivists. On the outside, I’m a Society girl wearing plainclothes. But underneath, I have silk and paper against my skin.
I have found that this is the easiest way to carry the poems; wrap them around my wrists, place them against my heart. Of course, I don’t keep all of the pages with me. I’ve found a place to hide most of them. But there are a few pieces I don’t ever like to be without.
I open my tablet container. All the tablets are there: blue, green, red. And something else besides. A tiny scrap of paper, on which I’ve written the word remember. If the Society ever makes me take the red tablet, I’ll slip this up into my sleeve, and then I’ll know that they’ve made me forget.
I can’t be the first to have done something like this. How many people out there know something they shouldn’t—not what they have lost, but that they have lost?
And there’s a chance I won’t forget anything—that I’m immune like Indie, and Xander, and Ky.
The Society thinks the red tablet does work on me. But they don’t know everything. According to the Society, I’ve never been in the Outer Provinces at all. I’ve never crossed through canyons or run down a river in the night with stars sprinkled overhead and a silver spray of water all around. As far as they know, I never left.
“This is your story,” the Rising officer said to me before they sent me on into Central. “This is what you say when people ask where you’ve been.”
He handed me a sheet of paper. I looked down at the printed words:
The Officers found me in the forest in Tana, near my work camp. I don’t remember anything about my last evening and night there. All I know is that I ended up in the woods somehow.
I looked back up. “We have an Officer who is prepared to corroborate your story and claim she found you in the woods,” he said.
“And the idea is that I’d been given a red tablet,” I said. “To forget that I saw them take the other girls away on the air ships.”
He nodded. “Apparently one of the girls caused a disturbance. They had to give red tablets to several others who woke up and saw her.”
Indie, I thought. She’s the one who ran and screamed. She knew what was happening to us.
“So we’ll say that you went missing after that,” he said. “They lost track of you for a moment, and you wandered off while the red tablet was taking effect. Then they found you days later.”
“How did I survive?” I asked.
He tapped the paper in front of me.
I was lucky. My mother had told me how to identify poisonous plants. So I foraged. In November, there are still plants on the ground that can be used for food.
In a way, that part of the story was true. My mother’s words did come back to help me survive, but it was in the Carving, not in the forest.
“Your mother worked in an Arboretum,” he said. “And you’ve been in the woods before.”
“Yes,” I said. It was the forest on the Hill, not the one in Tana; but hopefully it would be close enough.
“Then it all adds up,” he said.
“Unless the Society questions me too closely,” I said.
“They won’t,” he said. “Here’s a silver box and a tablet container to replace the ones you lost.”
I took them from him and opened the tablet container. One blue tablet, one green. And one red, to replace the one I’d supposedly taken at an Official’s command in Tana. I thought about those other girls who really did take the tablet; most wouldn’t remember Indie, how she cried out. She’d have disappeared. Like me.
“Remember,” he said, “you can recall finding yourself alone in the forest and the time you spent foraging for food. But you’ve forgotten everything that really happened in the twelve hours before you went on the air ship.”
“What do you want me to do once I’m in Central?” I asked him. “Why did they tell me I could best serve the Rising from within the Society?”
I could see him sizing me up, deciding if I really could do whatever it is that he wanted. “Central is where the Society planned to send you for your final work position,” he said. I nodded. “You’re a sorter. A good one, according to the Society’s data. Now that they think you’ve been rehabilitated in the work camp, they’ll be glad to have you back, and the Rising can make use of that.” And then he told me what kind of sort to look for, and what I should do when it happened. “You’ll need to be patient,” he said. “It may take some time.”
Which was a wise piece of advice, it seems, since I haven’t sorted anything out of the ordinary yet. Not that I remember, anyway. But that’s all right. I don’t need the Rising to tell me how to fight the Society.
Whenever I can, I write letters. I’ve made them in many ways: a K out of strands of grass; an X with two sticks crossed over each other, their wet bark black against a silvery metal bench in the greenspace near my workplace. I set out a little ring of stones in the shape of an O, like an open mouth, on the ground. And of course I write the way Ky taught me, too.
Wherever I go, I look to see if there are new letters. So far, no one else is writing, or if they are, I haven’t seen it. But it will happen. Maybe even now there’s someone charring sticks the way Ky told me he did, preparing to write the name of someone they love.
I know that I’m not the only one doing these things, committing small acts of rebellion. There are people swimming against the current and shadows moving slowly in the deep. I have been the one looking up when something dark passed before the sun. And I have been the shadow itself, slipping along the place where earth and water meet the sky.
Day after day, I push the rock that the Society has given me up the hill, over and over again. Inside me are the real things that give me strength—my thoughts, the small stones of my own choosing. They tumble in my mind, some polished from frequent turning, some new and rough, some that cut.
Satisfied that the poems don’t show, I walk down the hallway of my tiny apartment and into the foyer. I’m about to open the door when a knock sounds on the other side of it, and I start a little. Why would anyone be here now? Like many of the others who have a work assignment but who have not yet celebrated their Marriage Contract, I live alone. And, just like in the Boroughs, we aren’t encouraged to visit one another’s residences.
An Official stands at the door, smiling pleasantly. There’s only one, which is strange. Officials almost always travel in groups of three. “Cassia Reyes?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’ll need you to come with me,” she says. “You’re required at the sorting center for extra work hours.”
But I’m supposed to see Ky tonight. It seemed that things were, at last, aligning for us—he was finally assigned to come to Central, and the message he sent telling me where we could meet arrived just in time. Sometimes, it takes weeks instead of days for our letters to go through, but this one came quickly. Impatience floods over me as I look at the Official, with her white uniform and her impassive face and her neat insignia. Don’t bother with us anymore, I think. Use the computers. Let them do all the work. But that goes against one of the Society’s key tenets, one that they tell to us from the time that we’re small: Technology can fail us as it did the societies before ours.
And then I realize that the Official’s request might hide something more—could it be time for me to do what the Rising has asked? Her face remains smooth and calm. It’s impossible to tell what she knows or for whom she really works. “Others will meet us at the air-train stop,” she says.