Get out of Osonetto.
It was the first step. It was also the hardest.
The rest of the journey was hard enough, and some bits were going to be nigh impossible. Billy would have to get through the surrounding towns, some of them as densely populated with righteous, monarchist busy-bodies as Osonetto. He’d have to keep a low profile and not get spotted. Getting spotted meant getting dragged back to Osonetto, probably in a cagecar.
Then the towns would thin out, and the busybodies would be replaced with farmers who might pull a gun if you even thought of asking for a meal and a bed, and the occasional highwayman who would take what was on you whether you were breathing or bleeding.
Then even that would thin out, and the farmland would turn into the barrens, the vast and blowing nothingness that filled the middle of the world. It would only be him out there, hunting food and water with nothing more than what the couple of books he’d managed to snitch from the Eighth Street Library would tell him. A few people lived in the barrens, dotting the emptiness like ticks on a deer’s back. Billy still wasn’t sure if he should track them down or avoid them.
And then…unknown. No one in Osonetto had ever been beyond the barrens because, officially, there was nothing there.
Lies upon lies, like the rest of the city. But Billy hadn’t found anyone to talk to him so he didn’t know what he was walking into.
Whatever it was, it couldn’t be as dangerous as this first step.
Get out of Osonetto.
Billy had learned to survive Osonetto by hiding just enough to make it seem like he wasn’t. He knew the walking routes of the uniformed police. Knew how to pick out the secret police, no matter how clever they thought they were being. Most importantly, knew how sidle on by without being noticed. It was all in the shoulders and the eyes. No slinking, no stalking, and for the love of God, no turning around. Never turn around. Never act like you had something to hide, especially if you did.
There was no hiding at the border. Everyone needed a reason, an interview, papers. The chancellors said it was to keep the city safe from those bastards down in Coloko, and maybe that made sense for the people coming in. But the procedure was the same for people going out. Catching spies, they said. But Billy had heard enough stories to know if there were spies in Coloko, they weren’t going in and out of the city the official way. Sitting there in the waiting room, he wished he had known one of these spies personally.
I’ve practiced and rehearsed, and I know every verse.
He chanted it in his head, trying to calm down. There were stories, rumors, that the inspectors here could count your heartrate just looking at you. Patently false, he was sure.
They let twenty people into the Transition Room at a time
(the name of the room was a sick enough joke that Billy’s nerves kept clinging to it, trying to get him to make the sort of watery chuckle that would get him brought to a private room very fast)
And had them all sit while three agents made their rounds. The rest of the room was exactly the sort of people you’d expect to be seeing leaving the city. Farmers going back to their crops and animals. Families taking their children back to their small towns now that the schools had gone on break. The fine people high enough up on the chain to have a summer place to escape to when the heat in Osonetto became too much. Not rich enough for that summer place to be on the beach of course. Those people didn’t have to go through Transition Rooms. Those people got into their little silver verts and flew over the city walls without a single, miserable officer shoving their oily face in theirs and breathing onion and garlic all over them and demanding to know exactly what they were going out of the city for and for how long.
I’ve practiced and rehearsed…
There was one woman who had stood out, but Billy didn’t see her anymore. She was by herself, and she was pregnant. Billy didn’t think it would have been harder for anyone else to get through than for himself, but unless she had proof she was meeting her husband somewhere- doubtful – then she had been taken away already.
Billy struggled to keep from jumping. He hadn’t been paying attention. He’d been looking for the woman. He shouldn’t have been thinking about her, he should have been thinking about himself.
I know every verse.
Get out of Osonetto.
Billy managed to keep his hand from shaking as he offered up his papers, but only by making his movements stiff and jerking. The officer who had stepped up to him – an exhausted, grizzled man with the sort of dead-behind-the-eyes look that told Billy he’d turn his own mother in if she tried to leave without a good reason – showed no sign of noticing.
But Billy was sure he had.
“Name?” he asked, once his papers were open to the front.
“Billy…uh, William Cortland.”
Show a little nerves, Izzy had told him. Everyone is nervous talking to the heat, it would be weird if you were totally confident.
What was the right amount of nervous, though? Was he there? Or was he beyond it?
Billy told him, and then before he could have time to think the officer asked him what year he had left school. It was a trap. People who lied about their age couldn’t do the math fast enough to figure out what year they would have been sixteen. This wasn’t what Billy had been afraid of. He wasn’t lying about his age like some did, to get out of mandatory service.
As a matter of fact, Billy wasn’t lying about anything.
Of course, the officer wouldn’t see it like that.
“Reason for leaving Osonetto?”
“Job offer. The factories in Zenith. The offer is right there.”
That part was real, too. The man didn’t have to know Billy had no intention of going anywhere near Zenith.
The officer studied the job offer. He’d find it impeccable. If he wanted to follow up, he would call and find out it was real. This was it. One way or another, it was over. He’d gotten through.
“Take off your hat.”
The officer wasn’t studying the offer anymore.
The officer was studying Billy.
“Citizens are required to take off facial coverings and hat when conversing with any government official,” the officer rattled off, his voice nails out of a pneumatic tube.
Billy knew this was the law. He also knew officers only chose to enforce it when they were suspicious of something.
Trying hard not to swallow, Billy took his hat off. Wide brimmed. To keep the sun
Off his face.
And now an officer was staring straight into it, and Billy was beginning to lose his cool.
What was the officer seeing? Was his face too round? His cheeks too soft? Too smooth? A few of the other men in the room were clean shaven, why couldn’t Billy be? Was he looking at his hands, small and thin-fingered? Or at his throat, at the place where a little bob should be and wasn’t?
Do not react. Sit calmly. Fidget – a little. Only a little. No, that’s too much. He’s squinting. Maybe he really can hear my pulse going up.
It was the only word Billy needed to know he was ruined. The word was said the same way the man might smell a fart.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”
The hardest part was getting out of Osonetto. At least now, the dream was dead. He didn’t have to think of it anymore. He-
“Sorry, sorry, sorry I’m late!”
She was sitting next to him, her side pressing into his, and clinging onto his hands before Billy could even register the words she had been saying. The woman. The pregnant woman they had taken. But they hadn’t. Because she was here.
“You were in there for a long time,” the officer said, glaring at her. Billy still wasn’t sure what was going on but he was relieved to have the man’s eyes off him.
“The stalls in that bathroom are small, and I am not,” the woman said. “And anyway, peeing when you’re pregnant isn’t such a simple thing. There are dribbles, and-”
“Papers,” the officer said, interrupting her.
Exactly how she wanted him to. Who is this woman?
“Este Cortland,” she said, followed quickly by her birthdate.
The officer looked between the two. “You two are together?”
The woman patted Billy’s thigh. “Married a year now,” she said, her voice beaming with pride.
What is happening.
“So glad he got this new job before the baby came,” she said, patting her stomach. “Could you imagine having to sit in here with a newborn attached to the hip?”
She laughed like the two of them, her and the officer, had a little joke between them. And, bright light from above, the impossible happened.
The officer broke a smile.
A little one. Just in the corner of his mouth. But it was there, all the same.
He looked at the papers again.
Looked at Billy again.
At Billy’s face. At his throat. At his hands.
Hands that were still covered by Este’s hands.
The officer looked at Este’s pregnant belly, and then at Billy again.
Slowly he handed the papers back, giving both to Billy.
If they had really been married, Billy would have been holding both the entire time. Either the officer had completely forgotten, or he was over this exchange. The other officers had finished the rest. Once they were done, they could leave the city.
“Mr. and Mrs. Cortland,” the officer said. “Enjoy Zenith.”
Then the doors were opened and they were out. Out of the room. Out of Osonetto. Out of the hardest part.
He’d done it. He’d gotten through.
Este wrapped her arms around his, the way a married couple might, and smiled up at him.
“Perhaps we should find a place to talk?”