They all thought I was going to die.
I gripped the straps of my backpack, trying to dry my sweaty hands, and stared at the gates in front of me. I wondered if there were more people here today for the ceremony than usual. I’d never been to one myself, so I didn’t know.
The massive gates stared down at us all.
A microphone crackled, and the city official at the podium began speaking. “Children of Cyopolis, who have come here today desiring to leave the walls of her safety, do you hereby relinquish all rights, responsibilities, and privileges of civilization and desire now to go back into the wilderness?”
My father was not in the crowd, but I knew my mother was here, watching. I wanted to look for her, but then again I did not. She would be crying, pleading with her eyes as she had with her words since I’d told them I was leaving.
I swallowed once and answered the official’s question. “Yes.” My voice hadn’t sounded as confident as I had hoped.
A murmur ran through the crowd, an angry sound like machinery starting up. I was no longer one of them.
“Then we release you,” the official said, stumbling over these words as if he had never read them before. He probably hadn’t. No one had left the city for as long as anyone could remember. Some of the elders could remember a time when every year, a few people came in from the wild, pledged to obey the laws of the city, and joined us. Exchanged their freedom for safety. But it had been a long time since that had happened.
Most people in Cyopolis thought that the wild ones were all dead.
I knew they weren’t. I’d seen one of them. Not quite a year ago, from the top of the wall. I’d seen a girl who had climbed a tree, as if to maybe get a look over the wall. She still had meters to go before she would have been high enough to see down into the city, but she stood at the top of the tree, staring up, wonderingly. I never knew if she saw me or not, but I had seen her, and it didn’t look as if she were alone. She was thin, but healthy, and wore clothes I didn’t think someone her age could have made on her own.
The gates creaked open. I watched them swing wide, and wondered at how long the tunnel was behind them. I had not known the wall was so thick at its base. The sound of the crowd rose as I stepped forward into the tunnel. My pack held everything that would keep me alive until I found the wild ones. I wondered if they would accept me, or if I would end up living on my own after all.
And then I saw her.
At the other end of the tunnel stood a girl. She was walking forward, staring in wonder at the lights on the tunnel ceiling. In her hands, a basket full of fruits, held out like an offering. Her clothes were made of… I couldn’t tell, but they were soft and natural and the dull colors of the earth. She watched me as we came toward each other in the middle of the tunnel, and I wondered if it was her.
It must have been her, the girl I saw in the tree.
She stared at me, questioning, and I stared back. She was coming into the city?
Did she understand that I was going out?
I passed her at the middle of the tunnel, then walked out to the far side. The trees out here grew right up to the wall, a tangle of undergrowth beneath them, no path that I could see anywhere.
I glanced once behind as the gates closed, and she was standing there, watching me from within the city, staring at me as if I was the only friend she might have had, and I had abandoned her.
The gates slammed shut.