"Shoot on Sight."
That’s what the poster said. The poster with my face on it. There were small black letters on the bottom: Anyone caught aiding or abetting these criminals will be sentenced to DEATH. Anyone assisting in the extermination of the targets will be compensated accordingly.
Compensated. I shivered, though I wasn’t sure if it was hot or cold. Because everyone was my enemy. Everyone had a reason to kill me. My death could save a starving family. My very life was putting others in danger. My murder was convenient. It was desirable. Maybe it was inevitable. But no, I had to survive—
That’s when I felt the touch of someone’s hand on my shoulder. It was my mother’s hand, a gentle reminder that startled me back into the present. I was no longer a target. That was two years ago. Feeling a sudden sense of revulsion, I ripped the surviving poster from its place on the wall and stared at it a few seconds longer. My face. My name. My death. Not even the end of a war could convince me that it was over.
“I don’t remember these bathrooms being so unkempt,” my mother muttered off-hand, as if the only real tragedy in our war-torn world was the lack of paper towels. I swallowed a bitter retort, tossed the crumpled poster into the overfilled trash bin, and silently walked out to the platform where we had been waiting for the next train. I knew it was a bad idea to stop in Furlow. It was like stopping in a graveyard on the way to a soiree.
My mother followed me onto the platform and stared out at the desolate countryside we had once called home. I wanted her to comment on it, but that wasn’t really in her nature. Instead, she glanced down at her watch and jumped into another lengthy set of instructions.
“We’ll need to change before the opening ceremonies begin,” she started. “No one wants to see the respectable family of Donald Fieldstrom looking like farmers.”
I bit my tongue so as not to respond. We were farmers, after all, before the war. I wasn’t in the mood to pretend otherwise.
“Your father said there will be a section reserved for us, but we should still try to arrive early. There will also be a presidential party afterwards. You did remember to pack everything, didn’t you, Nicole?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I had only been to the nation’s new capital once, but I didn’t remember much about it. The province of Grenstar was the now the seat of government, and my father was an important part of it. After a year of rebuilding, everything was in place for the Opening Ceremonies of our new government, and everyone important was expected to attend. That included me and my mother.
The train arrived right after that, offering to spare me any further memories. The war hadn’t changed everything. Cars were still a rarity in our part of the country and most of us relied on the one functioning train that would make it all the way to the capital. I distracted myself by watching the people getting on and off the train, full of excitement for the day’s events. Some things really were different. There were no armed guards lurking around the streets or asking for identification cards. Idle chatter filled our section of the train as people met with old acquaintances and shared stories about their new lives. I enjoyed listening, but still spent most the journey in silence.
My mother, on the other hand, found solace in empty conversation. I didn’t make much of an effort to reply. It wasn’t that I was angry with her. It was just that we had never decided what to talk about after the war. Memories seemed like poor comfort. But she loved conversation, and she was good with words and well-liked by everyone. Just like my father. They were possibly the most popular people in the entire country. But that was because my father held a particular advantage that no one could forget.
He had started the rebellion.
“The fighting is over. We are now entering an era of peace.”
The first words of President Heath Jackson were met with raucous cheers that lasted a good two or three minutes. You’d have to be more than a mere pessimist not to be inspired by the scene. More than twenty thousand people were gathered in the capital square, declaring by their very presence the truth of his statement. We were finally united. We were one. Unconquerable and victorious. Even I couldn’t help but smile. Because it felt true.
It was a wonder the provinces were all together—all seven of us. Grenstar, Joplin, Creighton, Hythorn, Roland, Furlow, and Andoir. It hadn’t always been like that. Ironically, the oppression had started with the goal of unity in mind. Nearly sixty years ago, a congressman from Joplin named Warren Hemsley, had pulled of a military coup and tried to force us together. What followed was a world governed by fear. Troops guarded the borders. Electric fences and fortified walls were built around the cities. Everyone was assigned a specific occupation and forced to work for the government. Curfews were put in place, the penalty in most cases being death or imprisonment. Authority was eventually passed down to Hemsley’s son, but our situation only worsened. It might have remained liked that forever if it hadn’t been for my father.
Two years after the first shot was fired, it was over. We declared ourselves the victors, Warren Hemsley II was put in prison, and reconstruction of the provinces began. Now, the newly elected President of The Republic of Andoir had addressed a crowd of thousands at the opening of the new Senate. It was miraculous to say the least. We were finally free.
A light drizzle of rain following President Jackson’s speech was just enough to force the rest of the celebration indoors. During the war, my mother often said she saw rain as sympathizing with our cause, weeping for our troubles. I liked that. Except there wasn’t a reason for the world to be weeping now.
The weather prompted the hundreds of special guests invited to the Opening Ceremony to retreat into the new Capitol Building for dance and refreshment while the regular citizens returned home. It was like a dream, really. Just under a year ago, we had been cowering in caves and fighting for our very existence. Now there were light refreshments, pleasant music, and even dancing. I still wasn’t one for frivolous entertainment, not after everything I’d seen. So, I stayed outside, sitting on the curb of the sidewalk a short distance away from the grand entrance of the Capitol Building and welcoming the rain.
“Well, what do you think?” I called up at the sky. “We’re finally safe now? Free to have a dance or two?”
“Talking to yourself again, I see.” It was a familiar voice to me. I did have one friend, although he was four years my junior. Thomas Miles was the closest thing I’d ever had to a younger brother. Since he’d lost his older sister in the war, our bond just made sense.
“You’ve not changed in the past year,” I responded instead as he sat down beside me on the curb. He had bright blue eyes and a thick crop of blond hair that was now covered with a large, ill-fitted cap. “And I wasn’t talking to myself,” I continued, speaking to him as if he were a child, though we both knew I didn’t really think of him that way.
“Sure, you weren’t,” he guffawed. “Anyway, I’m much taller than I was. And stronger, too. I’ve been out working already. Couldn’t you tell?”
“You, working? You can’t even see over the top of a fence-post,” I teased. Thomas was also from Furlow, which naturally cemented our friendship.
“Ha. I bet I’m taller than you,” he shot back, shoving me playfully. “I’m almost seventeen now. Anyway, that’s not why I came out here.”
“Not to insult me? Huh, that’s a surprise. So, why are you here?”
“I was just wondering what you thought of the ceremony today.” Thomas’ voice was lined with just enough suspicion to rule-out innocent curiosity. I glanced sideways at him, but he was drawing circles in the dirt with his finger. He knew I could read him in one glance, if he’d only look at me.
“It went well,” I responded evenly, not willing to placate him. “President Jackson certainly knows how to move a crowd.”
“That’s true,” Thomas conceded, but then dived into his real opinion. “I just feel like you don’t like him very much.”
“Of course I like him,” I countered a little too quickly. “He’s my father’s friend.”
President Jackson had met my father three years ago in a factory in Andoir, where they had both been assigned to work alongside an engineering prodigy from Joplin called Peter Vandeski. The three of them were the first to instigate rebellion. But now, Vandeski had chosen a life outside of the public eye, and Jackson had become one of my father’s political rivals. After all they had been through together, something about the split didn’t sit right with me. Thomas knew it, too. I decided to address his silent concern.
“Look, Thomas, just because they disagree on a few things doesn’t change their friendship. How in the world did you get so pessimistic?”
“You taught me everything I know,” he chuckled, finally glancing up to wink at me. Then, he returned to his concern. “Anyway, I can’t help wondering about the whole thing. Why did your father decide not to run for the president’s seat?”
That was the question of the century. No one understood it. I mulled it over a moment as I tried to remember what my father had told me.
“If I remember right, he said that Jackson wanted it more, and there was no reason to cause ‘undue conflict.’” I overemphasized the last two words with a sardonic smile. Thomas laughed.
“Sounds like him. He would have won, though.”
“I know,” I agreed, but it wasn’t out of pride. It was a fact. Everyone loved my father. It would have been a landslide victory. Even Jackson himself had said he would concede. But Donald Fieldstrom didn’t want to be president.
“We stopped at the station in Furlow today,” I changed the subject out of nowhere. I had to tell someone who would remember with me, even if we didn’t actually say much about it. The images were still there, the scenes of war. Sabotaged factories, gunshots in the streets. Special military agents sent to eliminate government targets. Thousands killed. And Furlow…
“Well, that was dumb,” he remarked flatly. “We stopped in Roland. It’s prettier there.” That was right response. He succeeded in making me smile. Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a voice behind us, this one I did not recognize.
“There you are, Thomas. Your father would disown me if he thought I’d lost you. What are you doing out in this rain, anyway?”
Thomas and I both jumped to our feet. I turned to find myself staring at a young man who could only be a few years my senior. He was fairly tall, had a solid build and the same bright blues that I saw in Thomas, though his hair was dark brown and cut short. He was wearing a fashionable, pin-striped suit with matching fedora, appropriate attire for the day’s celebration. Unconsciously, I started smoothing the wrinkles in my dress. I must have looked hideous out in the rain.
“Sorry, Sam,” Thomas began. “I was just talking.” Then he turned to me. “I don’t think you ever met my older brother, did you?”
“Your brother?” I looked back at the handsome face of the newcomer and I could see the resemblance, but how that fact had eluded me was a mystery. “You never told me you had a brother,” I scolded, finding any secret between us discomforting.
“He was off fighting in the war with father,” Thomas explained with a shrug. “Have you really never met all my family?”
“Well, I haven’t even seen you for a year, I…” It suddenly occurred to me that we were leaving the stranger out of our conversation. “Oh, I’m sorry—what was your name?”
“Samuel Miles.” He grinned pleasantly, putting out his hand. “You must be Miss Fieldstrom.”
“Me? Oh, yes,” I stammered, feeling somewhat awkward as we shook hands. I rarely talked with anyone my age, and he apparently already knew something about me. He also spoke formally, which was less common in the outer provinces where I grew up. I tried to match it. “I’m sorry about your brother, Mr. Miles. I didn’t mean to worry anyone.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he waved it away, this time speaking more casually. “I should’ve known you’d be here today. And wherever you are, Thomas is sure to follow. He talks about you all the time, you know. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“Oh. Thank you.” For some reason, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I felt mostly like an idiot until Thomas saved the day.
“Alright. That’s enough of this politeness. Look, Sam, your suit is getting all wet, and father won’t like that.”
“It’s just a light sprinkling now,” Sam countered with a shrug, looking up at the sky. “But you’re right about getting inside. Are you coming, Miss Fieldstrom?”
“Nicole,” I shot back all too quickly. No one ever called me by my last name.
“Nicole,” he affirmed with the hint of a timid smile. Then he put out his arm to escort me and the three of us soon disappeared behind the decorated doors of the Capitol Building.