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...
You know that feeling you get after watching a movie, when you finally go back out into the real world and everything just seems unreal, like the movie was the only real thing to begin with? That same eerie feeling washes over me now as I walk mindlessly back to my dorm building, my feet carrying me forward as if they have a mind of their own. It's hard for me to accept what just happened, let alone think seriously about the offer I was given. It feels like some sort of practical joke, but the goosebumps lingering on my skin quickly dismiss that idea.
These people will never accept you as one of their own.
Those words rattle around in my head like a broken light bulb, pushing all my other thoughts aside. My initial reaction is to reject the notion; I mean, look at Breteil. Sure, they were hesitant at first to take me in when I first got there, but they came around after a while. The only thing that makes them my so-called enemy is the government saying so. Then again, Rennes isn't Breteil, and I can't imagine people like Paul—that brute from the party—ever being able to look past the color of my hair. Or René from the lab. Or that face-sucking roommate of mine, Liz.
I shake away the thought. If nothing else, I always have Ren and Eloise. My family is here. France is my home now.
Then, a dark tentacle slinks into my head and pokes at a thought I've been purposely ignoring.
Your family is still in Wales, their ashes spread across the countryside. All because of the Coalition. All because of people like Eloise.
The idea makes me suddenly sick to my stomach and very alone. I push it aside and pull my jacket tighter around my shoulders. The cold doesn't feel good anymore.
"Siani! Hold up!"
I turn around to see Professor Corvin running down the hall to catch up with me. She looks excited to see me, though it's hard to judge her expression because she normally wears a somewhat false smile as a default. Probably a requirement to become an instructor.
"Bonjour Madame. Ça va?"
"Ça va bien, thanks. Hey, you won't believe who I just got off the phone with," she says, somewhat out of breath.
She pauses for effect, then reaches her hands out in front of her as if framing something awesome.
"Vice Chancellor Borodin!"
I nod, impressed. Borodin governs all of France, as well as the portions of Iberia the Coalition annexed a while back. She's said to be one of the most powerful people in the Chancellor's council. The professor seems put off by my reaction, but continues on regardless.
"Turns out, she's going to be visiting Rennes in a couple weeks, and she was hoping to get the hype up with a few targeted commercials. Well, she found out about the Grassroots project, and about you specifically, and she thought it would be a great idea if we were to do a little promo on the work you've accomplished! Isn't that great?"
I nod, summoning the best grin I can muster. "Wow, it sure is."
"Yeah, we think it'd be a great idea, you know, put a spotlight on our project and on the school. Not to mention all those riots recently. A campaign like this would show them we're a united people now. Having someone, you know, of different origins like you working on a defense project might be just what those people need to calm down."
And there it is. The real reason.
I remember the mysterious caller's words as clearly as if she had just spoken them. You were chosen because the Coalition wanted you to be chosen. You will be nothing more than a pawn for their games, for their propaganda. It seems almost too perfectly timed to be true. The sinking feeling returns to my stomach, putting my breakfast in jeopardy. I wonder if the professor's persistent smile is real, or if it’s always been to coerce me into joining her little project the whole time? Does she really believe in my abilities? Or is she just looking at the color of my hair, too, just like everyone else? If that’s the case, I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want to be used.
"So, what do you say? You in?"
I feel my cheeks flush as I struggle to form the most tactical response.
"It seems like an awesome opportunity. I don’t know if I really feel comfortable in front of a camera though.”
The Professor’s face drops and her eyes furrow. This was clearly not the response she was hoping for, and I can sense she’s able to see through my poorly veiled excuse. I scramble to pick up the pieces of my confidence, but they’re long gone by now, and I don’t know what to say next. After several agonizingly awkward moments, she clears her throat and finally responds.
“Okay, well. If you change your mind, let me know. I can’t say I’m not disappointed.”
I look down at my phone.
Your ride-share has arrived! Owain is driving a black Faucon, license beginning with RK.
I didn't order a ride. I usually just take public transit to get to the research…oh. I look at the time.
It's exactly three in the afternoon.
Just as it hits me, a sleek black sedan silently pulls up next to the curb and the back-seat door opens up.
Before I can mentally absorb the situation, I'm dragged inside by a forceful hand, then the vehicle rushes off down the road just as quickly as it arrived.
I put my hand on my chest, catch my breath, then take a moment to soak in my surroundings. Sitting right beside me is a woman in her late twenties with straight brown hair hanging freely around her shoulders and a pair of sunglasses resting atop her head. She wears a mid thigh-length skirt and a loosely fitted shirt bearing a blue and red crest overlaid by two crossed spears—the logo of the local football team. She looks like an ordinary girl, like anyone else you'd see around campus, albeit a grad student, perhaps. Definitely not how I pictured the woman I talked to on the phone yesterday.
"Siani, it's good to finally meet you. Sorry I didn’t have time to call you before dragging you in here," the woman says in English. I scramble to realign my brain with the language I've hardly had the opportunity to speak in more than eight years. It takes a moment, but eventually I'm able to lock my mind onto her far-western accent.
"Who are you?" I ask, and I'm shocked to discover my own accent is still a perfect Welsh, not French as I’d imagine it would be after being immersed in French life for nearly a decade.
"Just call me Owain. I'm not important. Right now, you are the important one. Have you had a chance to consider what I said yesterday?"
I chew on her words for a moment, balancing out the proper response.
"I think I'm kind of confused about what you want from me," I finally say, honestly.
Owain nods her head and turns her body to face me.
"That’s understandable. Let me slow down. How about we start with the basics first. You are Siani Morgan, daughter and only child of Welshmen Rebecca and Paul Morgan, correct?"
My heart freezes for a moment. I haven't heard those names in a very long time. To be honest, I’ve suppressed most of everything before that dark day eight years ago, but talking about my former life—in English, one of my native tongues, no less—drags up emotions and memories I thought I'd never have the misfortune of recalling ever again. My fingers turn to ice, and I find myself beginning to shake despite the climate controlled car.
I simply nod, and Owain continues. "Your parents, from what I understand, were brave people, some of the best their nation had to offer. When the Coalition attacked the British Isles and began their occupation of Wales, your parents joined themselves to the Resistance, a decision that ultimately cost them their lives. This Resistance failed shortly after their death and descended into a shadow of what it used to be, resembling more of a terrorist organization than the beacon of hope it once was."
"And then there’s you. After your parents were murdered, you were left homeless, without any family, not even a single neighbor to help you pick up the broken pieces of your life, their fear of the Coalition overwhelming their natural sense of community. But then, something happened, probably the last thing anyone would suspect; you were found by a Coalition soldier, an officer that spent her career furthering the domination of your nation, and you were plucked from your home to go live in the land of your enemies."
I can tell she's skewing her words to meet her agenda, but I allow her to continue without adjustment. "Fast forward to today, the Coalition implements a series of Occupation Charters restricting the rights of citizens in conquered territories—including the right to emigrate—leaving you as probably the only person of Welsh descent living on the mainland. Mix that with the media’s portrayal of Celtic people, and you get the perfect recipe for bigotry and fear-based decisions. The irony is that most people around Rennes probably share the same Celtic ancestry as you."
I'm still kind of lost, struggling to see what any of what she's saying has to do with why I'm here. She must sense this, because she raises an assuring hand and continues.
“There’s a point to this, I promise. Anyways, with rising tensions in the occupied zones and now unrest in the homeland, even, it's important to the government that they're seen as a benefactor, a righteous entity that brings peoples together in peace. Do you think it's chance you were accepted into a public school, the only citizen of an occupied territory to have that honor? Or that you were somehow the only freshman given the opportunity to work on a government sponsored graduate-level project? You may have had help from friends of friends and friends of family, but you can be sure this show has only continued because it's been allowed to do so."
"And what's it to you? Why do you care about it all?" I say, suddenly feeling very defensive of my family. Sure, maybe what she's saying is true, but El has always treated me like family and Ren has always taken me as his sister since the day we met. Owain nods humbly, her demeanor patient and understanding.
"I admit, I am no friend of the Coalition; I'm sure you've pieced together where I'm from by now. But I want to give you perspective. I want you to see beyond the facade you've been presented. You deserve more than that."
I fold my arms defiantly, ignoring the fact that I'm in no position to be obstinate or rude.
"Well, the Coalition might be your enemy, but they're certainly not mine. This is my home now. I have family here."
Owain looks at me blankly, like a parent regarding her stubborn child. It just makes me more angry, honestly, like she thinks she knows me better than I know myself.
"Here," she says, pulling out a translucent tablet. After turning it on, she swipes through a series of videos until she comes to rest on one of a factory in flames; there are people running out of the building, sometimes carrying others on their backs or dragging them by their arms. There are a few shots of people with clothes or hair still on fire.
"This is near the beginning of the Occupations, about fourteen years ago. Copenhagen. The local unions refused to obey the government's orders to transition operation to defense production. This was the warning shot. Two more factories were destroyed after this, killing about two hundred people before the others got the message and complied."
She swipes to the right and brings up another video, ignoring my grimace and silent pleadings for her to stop.
"This is a hospital in Stockholm," she says, pointing to the multi-window security footage of what looks like an overfilled intensive care unit, with hundreds of patients and doctors hurrying about with purpose.
"All the hospitals in the city were commanded to turn away patients injured by the police during the riots that happened there. This one didn't listen."
I watch, sickened, as the people in the hospital—as if synchronized—all begin dropping to the ground, clutching their throats with their hands. It's only a few moments before it's all over and they stop twitching around. I feel a tear trickle down the side of my cheek.
"Nerve agent. Three hundred and seventy-nine deaths. All in less than one minute."
Another video. I feel my heart stop.
"I'm sure you recognize her."
It's me. From eight years ago. I'm in my bed, clutching a stuffed dinosaur; Spike was her name. I don't know why that fact in particular pops into my head. She was my favorite toy, given to me when I was really little.
My father is in the garage working on a new gliding rocking chair, a surprise for my mother's upcoming birthday. I remember, because I accidentally discovered it one day and my dad swore me to secrecy. My mother is in bed, sleeping; she usually went to bed pretty early most days. We would always make fun of her for it.
It's silent footage, probably from the internal house security cameras. But I can hear, feel, and smell every detail as if I were just there yesterday. An overwhelming wave of warmth washes over me as I recall every little memory of that home, the fruity cereal breakfasts at the kitchen island, the grass stains on my knees from the back yard, the smell of grease and the sound of tinkering metal from my mom working on cars. It's like a piece of buried treasure that I've just dug up, a perfectly preserved memory that seems entirely unfaded.
Then, I watch—knowing what's coming—as a bottle flies through the kitchen window, then the living room window. Through my window. It's only a second before large flames jump up and begin licking the floors and walls of our home. I jump up out of bed instantly, and my dad looks up from his work, startled. He drops all his tools and runs back into the house, pushing the garbage cans out of the way to get inside. My mother, surprisingly, doesn't even startle. I want to shout at her, to shake the tablet and get her up, but I know exactly what happens next in vivid detail.
The flames block my exit and eat at the shelves by the door, keeping me from escaping my room. I turn to the broken window and lift it, breathing in fresh air, but stop short of considering the leap down from the second floor. Instead, I pull myself into a small ball in the far corner and begin crying, grasping Spike tightly in both arms.
Something splashes on to my hands, and I realize that my real self is crying, too, tears carving tracks down my face. I recall every second of that night. Every last minute detail. It's something I couldn't forget for the longest time, something I replayed in my head every night for about three years. Judo with the neighbor lady was the only thing that finally helped me release that pain and focus on something other than my past.
The image of my dad moves from camera to camera, blasting past the quickly growing flames and nearly flying up the stairs until he's in front of my door. He grabs the handle but pulls back in pain from how hot it is. I can see I'm near hysterical at this point. Then, my father takes a step back and uses a donkey kick to break open the door. With his shirt over his mouth, he runs through the flames and hurries over to my corner and picks me up in a single motion.
I see his mind working as he turns back to the doorway, which is now almost entirely engulfed in flames, then he turns to the open window and pushes me out onto the ledge, causing me to lose my grip on Spike in the process. I panic and protest for a moment, but my father overpowers me and grabs me firmly by the hands. Using his legs as a brace against the window frame, he lowers me slowly down off the second floor, then drops me the few remaining feet to the ground.
Without losing a beat, my dad then rushes to the doorway and does a running leap through the fire. My mom is awake by now, but she's trapped by the flames that have spread from the living room to their bedroom on the first floor. My parents began a renovation project only a few weeks earlier, so piles of wood are stacked by their window just outside their room, leaving the bedroom door as the only possible exit.
She makes a few courageous attempts to approach the wall of flames, but she’s pushed back each time. Then, a burning plank falls from the ceiling, and I put my hand to my mouth as I watch it strike her in the head. She collapses to the ground and remains motionless.
By this point, my father has reached the first floor, but the flames have all but taken over the entire house. He crawls towards my mother and their bedroom, lying flat on all fours, but I can tell he's weakening. He coughs almost continually, and I see him flinch from the heat of the growing flames.
I can't watch anymore, my agony finally overpowering my morbid curiosity, and I turn away. Owain lowers the tablet and turns it off, then waits as I wipe my face. For a while, the only sounds are those of my quiet sobs, but then she takes a deep breath and speaks again.
"These people, the people who did this, aren't your family," she says sympathetically, almost reverently. "They are your tyrants, no matter how hard they try to convince you otherwise. You owe them nothing. They took everything from you. If anything, you should be the one collecting their debt to you."
When I say nothing and continue to stare at Rennes passing by out the window, she takes the tablet and places it on my lap. It has images of charts and redacted documents on it, official looking stuff.
"Everything we want you to do is on there. Just think about it. You could keep your story from becoming the story of countless other families. You have the power to save a lot of lives."
The car stops in front of the hospital and I'm allowed to exit. I take the tablet with me.