In the middle of a raging war in Europe is orphaned Siani, adopted by a family who was once her enemy. Years pass, and she quickly finds her place in her new countryside community, but the time inevitably comes for her to leave home and start a life of her own. When she ventures outside her little village, however, she finds that the rest of the nation isn't as accepting of her as her adoptive family was. If she can't be seen as an equal, as one of them, maybe it's time to start acting like the enemy she was born to be...
“Okay, and the last practice problem before we break—I know, we’re almost done.” Professor Corvin puts a slide up with an image of a complex looking chemical structure, with letters and symbols representing different elements.
“This one. What’s its name and most common abbreviation?”
I grab my phone and type in the answer, then press the button to send it to the class-wide quizzing system. After several more moments, the cartoon image of an hourglass runs out of time and a little buzzer sounds.
“Alright, let’s see what everyone put. Mmkay, someone put IDK, aha. No, that’s not the abbreviation. Leucine, close. Looks like that one got most of you. Acid. Yes, this amino acid is an acid. Ah, here we go! Valine. One person. Who put Valine?”
I raise my hand from where I'm seated in the back and sink down a little lower.
“Siani! Nice, I had a feeling.”
A few of the people next to me throw me a sideways glare, but I’m saved from any further embarrassment by the ringing of the bell.
“Quiz next week! Yes, already! Just that list of 20 amino acids. Have a nice weekend, all!”
I pack up my things and am about to head out the door when Professor Corvin waves her hand and calls me down. “Hold back just a minute, Siani. If you have the time that is.”
I have a gap before my next class, so I head down the stairs of the lecture hall and follow the Professor into an adjacent laboratory. She takes me to a pair of stools by a fume hood and asks me to take a seat.
“So, how has your first week been going?” she says, a wide smile on her face. I shrug and put on the best smile I can muster.
“As good as I could hope for."
She gives me an understanding nod and a quick pat on the shoulder.
"Well, hang in there. Pioneers in any field face the hardest trials. So, I just wanted to check in and see what your plans are degree-wise, career-wise. Lend some advice if you need it."
I'm surprised by the one-on-one mentoring. Does she do this with any of her other students?
"Oh, yeah. Well, I'm pre-Medical Science right now, and I plan on applying for one of the big three in the Coalition for my advanced degree after this, if they'll let me."
"Right, right. And after that?"
"I was thinking of going into biomedical research, experimental medicine. Maybe get a job at a university or think-tank."
Professor Corvin nods her head and folds her hands.
"Those are some pretty good goals—lofty, but not unreachable. It looks like you're taking the right classes right now, so that's good to see. You'll probably want to look into internships even as early as this upcoming summer.
"Now, I have one opportunity that I think you might be interested in, and you're welcome to pass if you want; normally I'd only offer this to graduate students, but you seem to stand out far beyond your peers. Anyways, I don't know if you know this, but I also run a student-led project down at the Rennes University Hospital. I'd like to have you as part of the team, if you can. It's unpaid, and would probably suck up a good ten hours a week—a lot for a freshman, I know—but I think you'd really enjoy the work, especially with what you've told me just now."
I grin emphatically and my eyes light up with excitement.
"Yeah, absolutely! That would be amazing!"
"Great. Okay, then meet me at my office at four tomorrow afternoon and I'll show you around the lab over there."
The elevator chimes melodically accompanied by the soothing sound of a voice announcing Basement Three. The Professor and I step out into a sleekly-furnished lobby, with bookshelves full of medical journals and walls decorated with portraits of famous physicians. Hanging from the ceiling in front of us is a sign that reads Bioimaging, Laboratory, and Rennes University Institute of Emerging Practice. We follow the sign leading to the right and make our way through the hallways until we end up at a double door with our school's logo plastered on it.
The doors automatically open as we approach, and we step through into a laboratory with about a dozen individuals in white lab coats. They turn to look at us as we enter, and I feel their glares burning a hole in my head. The Professor puts a hand on my shoulder and gestures to everyone in the room.
“Good afternoon, everyone! Gather round real quick. Take a quick pause from your work.”
They all stop what they're doing—some more hesitantly than others—and make their way over to where the Professor and I are standing.
"Awesome. Okay, so this is Siani. She's a brand new freshman on the program from Bretil, right? Yeah. And I was thinking she’d be a really good addition to our team. You'll find she's really sharp and eager to learn, so don’t hold back with the big jobs!"
"We've got her, Professor," says a cheery-eyed girl with short, blond hair tied up in a small ponytail. Professor Corvin smiles and pats me on the back.
"I'm sure you'll do a great job bringing her up to speed. This is René, by the way," she says, gesturing to the girl. René steps forward and offers her hand, which I shake with a smile. "She's our lead research assistant. If you have any questions, just reach out to her. She's pretty much a wizard around here—knows what she's doing more than I do half the time."
René laughs and releases my hand.
"Awesome! Well, I have to catch dinner before my night class, so with that, I'll let you all get back to it!"
The Professor leaves the room to a few waves and goodbyes, then everyone melts back to where they came from. René drops her smile from earlier, replacing it instead with an unimpressed glare, and leaves me standing by myself by the door without another word.
I stare around the room, trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do or where I'm supposed to go, but I have no clue. Did the Professor forget to assign me a job? Should I go back and try to catch her before she leaves? No, I don't want to bug her. Maybe René can help me? But she didn't seem so keen on talking to me. Still, I can't just stand here looking stupid.
I walk up to René and clear my throat. She doesn’t look up from her pipetting and seems determined to ignore my presence.
“Hi, ma’am. Sorry, I was just wondering what you all needed me to do here. I can—”
“You want a job?” she snips, cutting me off before I can finish my thought. “Mmkay, let’s get you over here.”
She grips my arm tightly, uncomfortably so, and drags me over to a couple of sinks in the corner. She then releases me and points to a pile of used glassware and burettes, with all sorts of substances clinging to them in a variety of colors and consistencies. “Go ahead and start cleaning. Make sure it’s a hundred percent sanitized, and don’t burn yourself, I guess.”
She walks away, leaving me speechless in front of the overwhelming mess of equipment on the table. This, more than anything else this week, brings the threat of tears to my eyes. Science and studies have always been my one refuge when everything about me is mocked or taken away. I can always ignore everything else, just as long as I can escape to a book or schoolwork. Now, even those have betrayed me.
Just as I’m about to give up hope and get to work, I hear another voice behind me.
“Hey, René! You’re going to bore this poor new girl on her very first day?”
I turn around and see that René has paused her work. There’s a guy at one of the lab stations across the walkway from me who’s looking up from his table at her. He has short, stylized hair that clings to his chestnut skin, and even underneath his lab mask I can tell he’s smiling. René rolls her eyes and continues to her station, her straw-colored ponytail bobbing as she moves.
“Everyone starts on the ground floor,” she says patronizingly, “Besides, we can’t just trust anyone who walks through the door on a project like this.”
The guy waits for René to continue with her work, then moves over to my sink and starts helping me with the cleaning.
“What are you doing?” I say, confused by his kindness.
“It’ll go twice as quickly with two. Then we can get you introduced to some of the real work,” he answers. He has a bit of an accent, not a thick one, but a smooth, silky one. The kind you wouldn’t mind hearing on an audiobook. “My name’s Osée, by the way. I’m the assistant lead for the project.”
I smile, and start drying some of the beakers he’s just cleaned.
“Good to meet you, Osée. I appreciate the help.”
I pause and look over my shoulder, then continue in a softer voice. “What does René mean when she says she can’t just trust anyone?”
Osée looks up with a grin in his eyes and shrugs it off.
“Oh, that’s just René. She’s always thinking she’s more important than she really is. It’s a big deal what we’re doing, but it’s all still pre-trial. Nothing too secret.”
“What are we doing, then?”
“So, at the end of last school year, we were handed a project by the Coalition government called the Grassroots Project."
"Oh wow, that's a big deal," I say as I wipe down a flask with a chemwipe. Osée nods.
"Yeah, we had to prepare a pretty competitive proposal. It took a lot of time to pull together, a lot of late nights with pizza.”
“Interesting name for it. Where did it come from?” I ask.
“Well, you know how grassroots movements are usually organic and self-organized? The main body of the community or region does all the heavy lifting, and all they need is a little push in the right direction. Well, we're developing an agent—the push, as it were—that triggers the human body's natural production of regenerative cells whenever the host is injured. It's designed to prompt the body to tap into its own energy conversion cycle, too, so healing takes about a quarter of the time that it normally would. It's a healing potion, essentially, that just tells the body to do what it's already capable of doing."
"Wow. That's incredible!"
"Yeah. Like I said, it's still in pre-trial phases, but it's been really—"
"Osée! What are you doing?" René shouts from her station.
"Just letting the new kid in on our dark secrets."
She continues working without looking over at us.
"Well, since you like ginger so much, you can stay and clean up shop with her after everyone leaves."
Osée shakes his head and smiles.
"Welcome to Grassroots."