“When I went to the market today they didn’t even have bread.”
“No bread?” Carl Naylor echoed, raising an eyebrow toward his wife. “How could they run out of bread?”
They were both in the kitchen of their little home on Tellus in the capital city of Breitenberg preparing dinner. Carl stood at the sink trimming half-rotten vegetables, examining each carefully for glaring imperfections before dropping them into a bowl along with the others.
As Darius’s rebellion went on these last two years, the tolerable level for rot and decay on these vegetables had loosened. Now, he was at the point that anything was ‘acceptable’ if he didn’t feel it would make his family sick.
“I don’t know. But they had none, and no one knew when they would be able to bake more.”
“Damn,” he said, dropping another spear of asparagus into the bowl. “Things just keep getting worse. First they ran out of most dairy products, and now bread.”
“That isn’t even the half of it,” Kate replied. “By all accounts, the rationing has only just begun.”
“What are they planning to cut back on next?”
“Meat, maybe,” Kate answered. “Water? If it’s something we need, they’ll ration it or hike up the prices until we can’t afford it.”
“I’ll get a second job if I have to,” Carl said. “If we need the money.”
“The money won’t matter,” Kate said, leaning heavily against the counter. “There won’t be anything left to buy.”
Alaina knelt in the living room next to the kitchen door, listening to her parents speak. She was supposed to be watching television but was really eavesdropping on her parents’ conversation. She knew her parents didn’t like her doing that, but she couldn’t help herself.
They always assumed she didn’t know what was going on out in the world and that she didn’t understand grown-up things, but she did. She hated being treated like a seven-year-old girl.
Never mind that she was one.
In a short while, they would call her in for dinner to eat the meal they had prepared, but judging by the meager supplies her mother had returned home with from the market, Alaina knew it would be a small meal.
They were all small meals nowadays.
“The food lines are the worst of it,” Kate continued. “Having to wait for hours and then only being allowed to purchase a small amount of anything. They only let you buy enough to take care of half of your family.”
“I waited three hours for a cod filet yesterday,” Carl agreed. “Three hours for one filet, and by the time I got there, they were all sold out. The woman three spots ahead of me got the last one. I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life.”
“How are we supposed to feed our children?” Kate asked. She was speaking lower now, and there was a thickness in her voice. Alaina had to strain to hear. “Or keep them clothed. I’ve had to mend Jessie’s shirt three times in the last week.”
A long moment passed, the only sound them working side by side. Alaina didn’t like when her parents got sentimental like this, but it was a lot better than them being mad at each other. That happened a lot nowadays, too.
“We’ll get by,” Carl said finally. “It can’t stay like this forever. The economy will make a turnaround.”
“How?” Kate asked, a twinge of anger in her voice.
This was more what Alaina was used to.
“How can things possibly turn around? It’s been two years since Tellus ratified the Union. Two years since our planet joined Darius and this stupid rebellion. The aid funding we used to receive from the Core is gone. Trade dried up. How are things going to get better?”
“Problems like this take time to correct,” Carl argued.
“How much time? Do you know? Does Darius know? This war is costing us far more than it is costing the Republic.”
“I know. Progress has been slow, but you saw the news. Big things are happening. More planets have sworn for the Union. Trade is starting back up in Sector Six. Darius is calculating, waiting for things to fall into place before launching an all-out military campaign against Axis and the First Citizen.”
“How long can we wait? We are starving and can’t take care of our families. By the time Darius decides we’re ready to start fighting, we’ll all be too weak to do anything. We should just end this: surrender and let us go back to the way things were.”
“There is no turning back,” Carl said quietly. “The only way for us now is forward.”
“How are we supposed to keep up this rebellion? If Darius can’t even keep his own people fed, how is he going to bring down the Republic?”
This time, her father was slower in responding.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Kate, I just don’t know.”
Kate sighed, breathing out the tension. “Neither do I. I know it isn’t your fault…I just…”
“I understand,” Carl said. “I supported Darius when he came to Tellus, but I’m not so sure anything will change now. But I promise I won’t let you or the kids go hungry.”
“How will you do that?”
The silence hung in the air. “The families of soldiers never go hungry.”
“No, Carl,” Kate said. “I won’t let you. You promised you would never join or risk your life, and I will not let you.”
“I know, but—”
“No,” Alaina’s mother interrupted sharply. “End of discussion.”
Alaina heard her father blow out a breath of air, but he didn’t say anything. She strained to hear, but it sounded like they were finished talking.
A few moments passed and then footsteps alerted her that they were heading toward the living room…where she was supposed to be watching cartoons.
She scurried back over to her spot on the floor. On the television two children were wandering through a make-believe forest, searching for stupid teddy bears or something. She pretended like it was funny as her parents pushed through the door and came inside.
“How’s my big girl?” Carl asked, lifting Alaina up and giving her a hug.
He was disheveled and smelled of stale sweat. He spent long hours at work each day, coming home in the middle of the night, sometimes after she was asleep. She rarely saw him anymore, with how often he was working or waiting in the food lines.
She missed him.
“Hey, Daddy,” Alaina said, squeezing him.
“What are you watching?”
“Cartoons,” she answered.
He set her back on the floor and sat down on the couch. Her mother sat next to him, and it looked to Alaina like she’d been crying.
“How are your dance lessons going?” her father asked.
Alaina looked at the floor.
“We had to take her out of dance,” her mother explained. “They closed shop because there were too few students. Everyone was behind on their payments.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. I didn’t like dance anyway.”
“You didn’t? I thought you loved it?”
“Nope,” she said, kind of annoyed. She hadn’t enjoyed her dance lessons for almost a month. “I want to learn how to fight.”
Carl glanced at her mother, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“Don’t look at me. I don’t know where she gets these ideas. Probably from vids.”
Carl shrugged. “Maybe,” he agreed. He turned back to Alaina. “So you want to learn how to fight, huh? Why? So you can be a superhero?”
She nodded emphatically. “I want to fight monsters.”
“Don’t worry, honey,” her father said. “There aren’t any real monsters.”
“Oh, yes there are,” Alaina said. “And I’m going to beat them up!”
He laughed. “Well, then I guess we had better eat dinner. We need to make sure you grow up big and strong to defeat the monsters.”
Alaina was a little upset that he wasn’t taking her seriously, but it didn’t surprise her. Adults never really took the things she said seriously, but she knew that one day she would prove them all wrong and do everything she promised she would do.
There was suddenly a loud crashing sound in the distance, followed by a heavy rumbling noise that shook the whole house. The ground bounced under her feet, plates fell to the floor in the kitchen and shattered, and the windows began rattling.
Alaina screamed, covering her ears. Her father knelt on the floor next to her, wrapping her up in a tight hug and using his body to shield her. It lasted a full fifteen seconds, reverberating through the entire house before calming back down.
Once it was over, silence enveloped the living room, punctuated by the barking of dogs and screaming of sirens in the distance. She could feel her father holding her and panting in fear. Gradually, she pulled herself loose.
“What was that?” Kate asked breathlessly. She was clutching the couch, rising slowly on wobbling knees.
“I have no clue,” Carl said. His face was ashen and Alaina had never seen him so afraid. “Maybe an explosion.”
“An explosion? You don’t think the Republic…?”
“No. No way,” he replied. “We aren’t under attack.”
“How can you be—?”
“We would have heard something before today. They would have said something on the news if the Republic was on its way.”
As he spoke, he moved over to the couch and flicked the remote to change the television station. Reports were rapidly being shown as all of the news outlets posted breaking news about what had just happened.
He selected a station, and the broadcast was set on an aerial view of the wreckage of an old building. It looked like an old warehouse, but there were no external markers denoting what it was for.
Fire licked the interior and half the building seemed to have been destroyed in an explosion. It was surrounded by containment crews and barricades. Firefighters were struggling to get it under control and put the flames out.
“A gas line malfunction,” Carl read incredulously as the news captions scrolled past.
“Gas line?” Kate said. “Are you kidding?”
“That’s the official story.”
“There is no way a gas line did that,” Kate said, gesturing angrily at the images on display. The camera began to pan left, and they saw a pile of long shapes under blankets. Alaina squinted, wondering what might be under the sheets.
Her father quickly turned the news back off.
“I know,” he said. “Do they think we are stupid? That used to be an old chemical processing plant.”
“They are probably testing a new weapon.”
“Maybe,” Carl said. “Or they might have been cutting costs in the chemical stores and had a malfunction. They’ve been sacrificing safety in there for years. This could just be a terrible accident.”
Kate let out a huge sigh. “We keep seeing ‘accidents’ like this and we’re just supposed to look the other way? We can’t keep living like this.”
“I know,” Carl agreed.
“Constantly afraid,” Kate continued. “Hungry. Despondent. We can’t raise our family like this. We need to leave.”
“Where?” Carl asked. His voice was low, full of defeat. “Where will we go, Kate? Where could we go that is better?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Off world?”
“Who would take us in? We are outcasts now, part of Darius’s rebellion. Every other planet in Sector Six is as bad off as we are, and no one else would let us come. At best we are fools. At worst, traitors.”
“Maybe this was all just wrong,” she said. “Joining Darius and his rebellion; joining the Union: maybe it was all just a terrible mistake that we’re paying for.”
“It was,” Carl agreed softly. “Supporting Darius was the worst decision we’ve ever made as a planet. I wanted freedom for our children, but I didn’t really understand how bad things would get. Now we’re all going to pay.”
Alaina could barely believe her ears. Normally, when her parents argued about Darius and the rebellion, her father wasn’t willing to give an inch. He thought joining the Union was the right and only choice. It was the idealist choice, the one best for the future.
How bad must things be, then, for him to take her mother’s side?
“Maybe it was all a mistake,” her father reiterated. “And we will lose everything. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that there is nothing we can do now except move forward. We can only do the best we can with what we’re given.”
“I know,” Kate said. She pulled Carl close and pressed her face into his chest. “But at what cost?”