Thunder rumbled outside the soccer stadium: a deep roar as storm clouds gathered in strength, the prelude to a ferocious storm.
Alaina absently twirled her father’s curly auburn hair between her fingers, glancing around at the gathered crowd with poorly hidden trepidation. The five-year-old girl was perched high atop her father’s shoulders and held a good vantage of the rally, but it also made her stick out above the masses. So many people; so many, many bodies, all clustered together with nary inches of separation.
The soccer venue was immense, holding well over a hundred twenty thousand fans for a sunny afternoon match, but there weren’t any games scheduled for today. Instead, a raised dais sat on the central circle of the field, silent and empty, waiting amidst the sea of curious onlookers.
The stadium was filled well past capacity for today’s event. People were clustered as close together as possible, butting up against the sides of the stage and threatening to spill atop it. The seats were being ignored by all but the weariest of onlookers.
Excitement was in the air. People stood in aisles and on plastic seats, jockeying with futility for better positions. A gentle din of murmuring hung in the air, whispers on the wind, a million insignificant conversations.
It was cloudy—it was always cloudy this far inland—and warm today. Little Alaina let out an exaggerated yawn, stretching her arms to the sky the same way her mom always did in the mornings. She would rather be playing tag with her brother, Tommy, or dressing dolls with her sisters, Jessie and Eva, than sitting here waiting for the rally to start.
She would much rather be back in bed, nestled close with Mr. Snuggles, her bunny rabbit, listening to the pitter-patter of rain. But Father woke them up early and told them that they had to get dressed right away before he brought them here. He was as happy and excited as she had ever seen him.
He didn’t tell them why, only that it was important. That it would change the world. All the worlds, even. Alaina didn’t see how or why that should matter. Her world wasn’t that big and consisted of family and friends and bunnies.
Right now, she was just bored from sitting around and hoped it would sprinkle soon. It looked like it was going to, and felt like it was going to, but as yet the sky hadn’t opened up.
“How long must they keep us waiting?” Kate Naylor—Alaina’s mother—asked. She was a willowy woman, dressed in a loose-fitting pink blouse with blue pants. Her brown hair was tied in a bun with a few loose strands fluttering against her cheeks. It was windy.
Her eyes were smeared with hastily applied makeup, something she described as a raccoon. Alaina didn’t know what a raccoon was, but her mom didn’t seem to like them very much.
There hadn’t been time for her to do a complete job. Carl, her father, had rushed them out half-dressed and bleary eyed while it was still dark. They finished waking up and dressing in the car. Tommy had forgotten his drawers and Alaina her right shoe—another detail for which Mom was mad at Dad. Alaina didn’t actually mind not having both shoes. It just meant she got to be carried while her older siblings had to walk.
“Not much longer,” Carl answered. A repeated sentiment they all heard many times that morning. “It won’t be much longer now.”
“This is a hazardous gathering if ever there was one,” Kate replied, her voice bitter.
“It’s not as if—”
“How are we supposed to get out if something happens? What if someone starts a panic? The children will be trampled.”
“Nothing is going to happen,” Carl said.
Kate narrowed her eyes at him. “These people are fostering a rebellion,” she said quietly. “Something is going to happen, and I want no part in it.”
“I’m hungry,” Alaina said, yawning again and resting her little chin on her father’s head. He reached up with his left hand and squeezed her arm. His right stayed on her leg, keeping her firmly in place atop his shoulders.
“Won’t be much longer,” Carl repeated. “And then we’ll all go to the Sunny Side for breakfast. How’s that sound?”
“Okay,” Alaina said, happy to agree. “I want eggs.”
She loved eggs. They were her favorite thing for breakfast, and Sunny Side always had the best eggs.
“Then you shall have eggs, my little princess,” Carl said, squeezing her leg.
“I hate that place,” Tommy said.
He was sitting on the ground between his parents’ feet, picking at the faux grass.
“You never hated it before,” her father said.
Tommy’s legs were curled up against his chest. He was seven years old, thin and wiry for his age. “Can’t we just go home?”
“Soon,” Carl said.
“Why did we have to come so early?” Tommy asked. “Nothing is even happening!”
“We had to get a good spot,” Carl explained with waning patience.
“For all the good that did us,” Kate mumbled. Alaina couldn’t help but agree. They were really far back from the stage. She felt her father sigh beneath her.
“It won’t be long now. I promise.”
“We could have just watched the speech at home,” her mother said, adding insult to injury. “It’s going to be shown on every channel in the country. Probably the world.”
“It’s a declaration. Not a speech.”
“It’s a speech,” Kate reiterated. “And it’s tantamount to treason.”
“It isn’t treason. It’s freedom. This is going to be an auspicious day,” Carl said, ignoring her. “The day that everything changes. This is the day that—”
“I know, I get it,” her mom interrupted angrily. “And I agreed to come for your sake. And for their sake. But I didn’t plan on getting here four hours early. The kids are freezing.”
Alaina glanced down at her siblings. Jessie and Eva were clutching their mom’s black pants and shivering. They were wearing their best school dresses and looked like twins. They weren’t, though, and were actually two years apart. Tommy was too busy pouting to even notice the chill in the air. And she…
Well, Alaina had never really been bothered by cold weather. Or hot weather for that matter. She enjoyed extremes and was kind of hoping for some snow. Not the right season, but she didn’t care. Or a storm. Thunder was one of her favorite things, the primal thrill of it as it rolled across the countryside.
She sympathized with her mother’s complaint, though. They’d arrived a little after five in the morning and hustled to find a place, yet there were still hundreds of people between them and the stage.
It could be worse, though. There were thousands upon thousands of people behind them. It was even more cramped the higher up the stadium seating they went. There simply wasn’t enough room to sit and relax. Not if they wanted to see anything.
“If I’d known it was going to take this long for things to get started, I wouldn’t have made everyone come,” her father said, “but this is going to be an important day for a long time, and I thought it would be good…”
His voice trailed off as a few people shushed him from farther up the crowd.
Like an ebbing wave, the stadium fell quiet as one. There was a heaviness in the air, thick with anticipation. It worked its way from the stage to the far reaches of the crowd as a tingling shiver brushing along a spine. Fingers pointed forward, people were tapped on shoulders, and suddenly everything was still.
Someone had walked across the stage. A short man, rail thin and gangly, walking with long, even strides toward the center podium. Behind him rested an empty line of bleachers two rows high.
“Who’s he?” Alaina asked. A dozen people made shushing sounds and glared at her. Her father just squeezed her leg gently.
The man stopped in front of the oak podium and rested his hands upon it. He was ugly, with a silver goatee and deep gray eyes. His face was young but lined with intensity. Right now, he was wearing a charcoal button-up suit that hung off of his lanky frame and black shoes polished to a sheen. He looked like some sort of animal, poised with tension and ready to strike.
All eyes faced front. Alaina felt tension ripple through the crowd, punctuated by an occasional cough. Waiting, anticipation, fear; it all hung in the air like incense.
The speaker wasn’t as old as Alaina’s father, probably only in his late teens or early twenties. His eyes swept back and forth from face to face, daring anyone to meet his gaze. To match it and stare back. No one tried. Alaina waited for him to speak.
But he didn’t.
Not right away. He stood alone on the stage, studying them as they waited. Seconds ticked past with hesitant ambition. The crowd shifted like an angry beast, murmuring to itself.
And still he waited.
The murmuring intensified.
“Daddy, why isn’t he talking?”
“Shh,” Carl said, squeezing her right leg. She toyed with a strand of his curly brown hair, frowning.
The murmuring rose to an angry fever pitch.
After an eternity, the man leaned into the microphone and spoke.
“My name is Darius Gray. And today, our world is free.”
There was a euphoric pulse in the air, cutting through the tension like a knife. The crowd erupted. It wasn’t a slow burn but rather an explosion of raw emotion and joy. People screamed, whistled, and shouted just to be heard.
Alaina covered her ears with her hands and closed her eyes. It was so loud. She’d been to the stadium before to watch a soccer game with her father, but it was nothing like this. She could feel her father, yelling along with the crowd.
The speaker—Darius Gray—leaned back from the podium. He waited politely for the crowd to settle, a light smirk curling his lips. It continued for several more seconds and then gradually faded out as stillness settled back in.
A few outliers whistled, a ragged cheer could be heard way up in the stands, but the noise finally dissipated until the stadium was once again silent.
Someone laughed. The sound echoed.
Once they were silent, Darius cleared his throat. He spoke calmly in a low voice. The microphones were not turned very loud. Everyone strained, leaning forward to hear him.
“It feels good to say that. God knows we have suffered long enough. However, saying it only proves the intention. It does not make it fact. Not yet. Here, in this moment, our journey begins. And it will not be easy.
“You see, there are those who will seek to weaken our resolve, to diminish our freedoms. They will seek to reinstitute the bonds and chains of poverty that we have clung to for these many years. There are those who would see us harmed. But I say no, they cannot touch us. No, they cannot break us. We must stand strong, united, and proud. We must tell such people that we will not be cowed—”
The crowd rumbled with a growing throb as he spoke, rising to a slow heat. Darius’s voice was thick with emotion, his eyes filled with pleading but also with steel. His hands never stopped moving, weaving gracefully in the air and holding everyone’s attention. Every fifth word, he slammed his fist into the podium for punctuation.
“—and we will not be denied. We must throw off our chains. We must escape from our bonds. We will rise up and claim our destiny as a free world, undeterred and unmolested by those who would sup with injustice—”
She heard a soft amen from nearby and saw heads bobbing. The speaker’s voice was filled with passion and lyricism, raising the energy. Faces were drawn with concentration and consternation as he spoke, his words touching the deepest recesses of their hearts, igniting hopes and dreams they’d locked away generations before.
“Today we declare our freedom. Today we clasp it in our hands and refuse to let go. Today we buy our freedom in blood so that our children and our children’s children can grow up in a just world. A glorious world. A world where everyone is equal and all are loved. What we do today is for a new tomorrow. A better tomorrow that will come with the rising of our sun.”
Darius hesitated, his face a mask of focus. The crowd was restless, hungry. They were devouring his words, yet left wanting. Here, during the lull, a large group of people strode onto the stage with practiced efficiency.
They lined up behind Darius in two separate groups and took their places on the vacant bleachers. Each was wearing extravagant clothing to represent many different nationalities from around the world.
Darius pitched his voice lower, leaning into the microphone:
“I ask you…no, I beg of you, my brothers and sisters: I beg that you fight with me. Fight for your freedom. Fight for your neighbor’s freedom, as they will fight for yours. We will not rest until every man, woman, and child is granted those God-given rights we were born with. Join me, and together we will build our lives anew, under new governance. We will form a Union whereby all planets are equal and all citizens free.
“This future is in our grasp. Have faith and be strong. And know that one day our dream will become reality.”
Then he stepped back. The crowd was thrumming with excitement. Alaina heard a noise overhead, a sort of humming sound. She looked back and up, behind the crowd, and saw approaching aircraft. They were trailing lines of smoke, leaving green and gold lines in the sky.
They swooped in low, just over the stadium and restless crowd. Alaina heard the roaring of their engines, and it reminded her of thunder. It was heavy, pressing down with the weight of its wake, and euphoric. She was grinning and excited, though she had no idea why.
She felt the wind wash over the crowd. It buffeted them forward, knocking them into one another. It was a strong enough gust that even her broad-shouldered father stumbled. But he didn’t fall. A few people caught him, steadied him, making sure he was okay. That Alaina was okay. That everyone was okay. They were in this together now.
The sound and wind dissipated, leaving colored streaks floating in the sky, separating into drifting plumes. The crowd went wild, cheering and whooping and shouting. Alaina felt the excitement and emotion. The release. She didn’t understand what was going on, but that didn’t matter. The passion was in the air, in her blood. She could feel her father, bursting with energy as he hollered and whooped beneath her.
Darius leaned forward to the microphone again. His voice was steady and loud.
“My name is Darius Gray. And today, our world is free.”
“I think he’s crazy,” Alaina’s mom said, scrubbing pasta sauce off of the plate and down the drain. They were in the little kitchen of their one-story home, packed in around the sink. Kate handed the clean plate to Alaina, who began wiping it with a towel. She liked drying dishes with her parents. She liked to help. “At best, he’s crazy. Or a charlatan at worst.”
Kate Naylor’s movements were precise and short as she cleaned. She was angry, Alaina knew, and attempting to stifle it. Alaina dried the dish off quickly with her semi-wet rag and handed it to her father, who placed it in the cabinet on top of the stack. Then he picked up a long-stemmed glass of wine and took a sip, pursing his lips.
“He’s definitely crazy,” her father agreed. “But that doesn’t change anything. He’s right, about everything. We can’t keep living like this. We can’t just accept the poverty while all of our money gets shipped off to the Core worlds.”
“He’s going to get us all killed,” Kate replied, dipping a cup into the soapy water. Her arms were shaking. “He wants us to turn our back on our leaders. To turn our back on the Core worlds and the Republic. He wants us to fight for our freedoms. It’s a fight we can’t win.”
“We can win,” her father said.
“How many rebellions have worked in the past? None, and there have been hundreds in the last few years alone.”
“This is different.”
“Darius is a good man. A great leader. People are rallying to his cause and already we have millions supporting him. The International Council is already rallying to the cause.”
“And you don’t find that suspicious? I saw the way he paraded them on stage,” Kate said, her voice bitter. “He must have some control over them. Some sort of blackmail.”
“That’s not fair, Kate,” Carl said, moving over to rest his hands on her shoulders. He gave them a gentle squeeze. “They want to support him.”
“Why?” Kate asked, turning around. She was half a head shorter than Carl, so she had to look up into his eyes. He was the one to flinch from the gaze, though. “Why would they support him? It doesn’t make sense. He’s only been here for three months. We don’t know very much about him. And what we do know doesn’t seem good. He served the damned First Citizen as one of his personal bodyguards!”
“So, he knows firsthand how bad the man is,” Alaina’s father said, still looking away. “We should be grateful that he joined us. That he wants to lead us. He was one of the Shields, Kate. One of their best. And now he’s one of us. He has the least to gain and the most to lose by rebelling, yet here he is, ready to fight for our freedom.”
“I don’t trust him,” Kate said. “We’re nothing to him. Just chattel.”
“We need to trust someone,” Carl said, reaching out and rubbing Alaina on her head. He was a big man with strong hands and a friendly face. He grinned down at her. Alaina giggled and swatted his hand away. “No one wants to live with our chains. No one wants to be slaves.”
“What chains?” Kate asked, holding up her wrists. “What bonds, Carl?”
“It’s a metaphor,” Carl said.
“Metaphors are stupid,” Kate replied. “Is it worth more fighting for perceived freedom or staying alive?”
“Can’t we have both?”
“No,” Kate said bluntly. “No, we can’t. Tellus is just one planet. The First Citizen will bring his armies and destroy us in a day.”
“More will join. Three other planets are already promising to sign our treaty once it is ratified.”
“And that would make us four planets against hundreds. Thousands even. And they have the army, not us. Better not to rebel when we don’t have a chance of winning.”
Carl sighed. “If we don’t try, we can’t succeed. This has to start somewhere.”
Her mother turned back to the sink. She handed the soapy glass to Alaina and leaned heavily against the counter. She rubbed her eyes and let out a deep sigh.
“Yes, yes it does. But I’m afraid it’s going to end here too.”
Carl wrapped his arms around Kate, drawing her close. He kissed the back of her neck and rocked her body in a slow dance. She was smaller than he was, tiny in his arms. She looked frail. Scared.
“It won’t,” he said. “You’re right that Darius only arrived three months ago. You’re right that it’s hard to trust him. But look what he has done in those three months! He’s given us a chance. A path to winning something our parents wanted but could never get for themselves. Freedom.”
“I know, Carl.”
“But he’s given us something even more important than that.”
“Hope,” Carl said. “Until he showed up, we had no hope. It’s hard to believe that freedom could be possible, but look how many people have come out. The treaty isn’t signed. It isn’t even written and already millions of people are ready for it. We live in quiet desperation.”
“And now we’ll just be desperate.”
“Maybe. But we will be free. A lot of people want to be free, not just us.”
“A lot of people don’t,” Kate said. “No one in the Core is speaking of rebellion. Even the planets in Sector Three aren’t talking about it.”
“It won’t matter,” Carl said. “Not once the war really starts. We’re drawing a line in the sand and forcing people to pick a side. And when their backs are to the wall and they have to decide, most will side with us.”
“And what happens when they don’t?” Kate asked, turning to face Carl. Her pale blue eyes searched his face. “What happens when they side with the Republic?”
Carl hesitated. “They won’t,” he said.
“You can’t know that.”
“But I do,” Carl said firmly. “They want freedom as badly as we do. They will join our Union.”
Kate shook her head, closing her eyes. “I can’t stop this war. I don’t think anyone can now. I just don’t think anyone understands the real cost.”
“We know the cost,” Carl said. “We will win.”
“Promise me,” Kate said, her voice shaking, “that you won’t join when they come calling. That you won’t fight. I won’t allow you to die for this man.”
“Promise me, or…” She didn’t finish the thought.
Carl pulled her close and kissed her forehead. “I promise,” he said. “I have a beautiful wife and four glorious children. I’m not about to put my life at risk for anything. Even freedom.”
Kate nodded. A tear slipped down her cheek. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Carl agreed. He let her go. They stared at each other for a long minute. Both looked sad. Finally, Carl stepped over and picked Alaina up off her stepladder. He took the glass and towel away from her and set them on the counter. “And now that this is settled, I think it’s time for someone to go to bed.”
“But Dad,” Alaina said, yawning, “I’m not even tired.”
“I know,” he said, holding her against his shoulder. “I meant me.”
He carried her down the hall. They passed her siblings. Her brother was in his bedroom playing a VR game with a big headset on his face. Her sisters shared their own bedroom and were watching a show. Both were nibbling on little green crackers.
Alaina slept in the smallest room at the end of the hall. It was barely bigger than a closet and had very little floor space. She was supposed to sleep with her sisters, but they’d thrown a series of catastrophic fits when her parents proposed it. They refused to sleep with a baby in the room.
And Alaina didn’t mind. Her walls were painted a deep blue and there were two windows. She could look outside and see the moon peeking down on her, silver in the sky. She enjoyed being alone.
It was also the farthest room from her parents, but that wasn’t an issue either. Alaina usually slept soundly, without many dreams. It was a rare night that she slept in bed with her parents.
Alaina was gently lowered to the soft and cold sheets. She looked up at her father and yawned.
“Goodnight, honeybee,” he said, tucking her into the covers and kissing her on the forehead.
“Goodnight, Daddy,” she said. He turned and started walking toward the door. “Daddy?”
“Yes, Alaina?” he asked, pausing at the entrance. His body was silhouetted by the light.
“What was that man talking about today?”
Her father was silent for a few seconds, thinking. Finally, he said, “He was talking about you.”
She scrunched up her nose in confusion. “Me?”
“He was talking about what we had to look forward to. The future. You are our future.”
She yawned. “I am?”
“You are,” he said with a nod. “And what a future you will be. I love you, honeybee. Sleep tight.”
She closed her eyes. “Okay, Daddy,” she whispered, drifting off to sleep.