The city was still quiet when I rolled out of bed. In a few hours, the noisy bustle of people on the street would carry through the seventh-story windows of the apartment. For now, the only sound was a soft snoring coming from Lex’s bed on the other side of the room.
I slipped quietly out of my nightshirt and pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater. Reaching under my bed, I dug out a pair of red sneakers and slid them on without tying the laces. Lex murmured in her sleep and rolled over, but I knew my cousin wouldn’t wake for at least another hour.
In the kitchen, I filled two mugs with hot coffee from the automatic coffeemaker and left the apartment, shutting the door tightly behind me. I tapped my foot impatiently as I waited for the elevator. When it finally arrived, I punched the button marked R for rooftop and the elevator shot up twenty floors in just seconds. The doors slid opened silently and I shivered as I stepped out into the early morning chill.
Rhys was there, waiting for me like always. His broad back was turned to me and he was gazing out over the city. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, casting shadows from the various skyscrapers around us. I moved silently toward him, but he knew I was there.
“It’s been over two years and I still can’t get used to waking up to this every day,” he said as he reached for one of the mugs I was holding.
“You might want to get used to it. This is home now.” I took a sip of coffee and sighed as I felt its warmth coat my throat.
“Home.” He said the word bitterly and smirked.
I looked at him in the pale, rising sunlight. His green eyes were lit by a fire from within, a sure sign that he was in an irritable mood.
“What’s bothering you today?” I asked tentatively. With Rhys, there was no telling what might set him off on one of his tangents.
He was clenching his jaw now, setting off his angular features even more than usual. “I got word last night,” he said, taking a long drink of coffee. “I’ve been placed.”
I inhaled sharply, making a noise that sounded like a hiss. Rhys was eighteen now, and it was only a matter of time before he was placed in his chosen profession. I should have been expecting this, but it still stung.
“Where?” I said, barely speaking above a whisper.
“The Department of War. I’ll be specializing in weaponry.” Rhys turned his back on the city and faced me. “I leave for Zeldan on Monday.”
Again, this made sense. Rhys had spent his two years of apprenticeship working for the local Prevention and Enforcement division. The Department of War would be a perfect placement for him. He would no doubt be working in some government office, designing complex weapons and outfitting the Empyrian Army. I dreaded him leaving, but at least I knew he would be safe in Zeldan.
“You leave on Monday,” I repeated back to him. My brain was having some trouble comprehending that in just three days, I would lose my best friend.
“It’s only a five-hour train ride.” Rhys smiled, which he often did when he was upset. “I’ll visit all the time. It will be like I never left.”
Now, it was my turn to smile. “What makes you think I want you to visit me?”
“Maybe you won’t miss me, but you’ll miss breakfast.” Rhys retrieved a basket from the ground and revealed a variety of delicious looking pastries. His foster family ran a bakery down the street and I was often a beneficiary of their leftovers.
“Absolutely.” I helped myself to one of the giant muffins. This had been our tradition for two years now, me bringing coffee and Rhys bringing breakfast. Up here, we could talk and no one else could listen. We could be ourselves.
Rhys told me more about his placement and I listened attentively. I told him about my new apprenticeship that I had just started at the clinic and I filled him in on the most recent news I had received in a letter from my parents. Rhys relished any news from back home. Though we had only met after we both moved to Acadia, we had grown up in towns that were only a few miles apart.
“We should get ready,” I said as I downed the last of my coffee. My hands were dusted in a light layer of donut sugar and I wiped them carelessly on my pants. “We have a big weekend in the country ahead of us. Are you sure you’re up for this?”
Rhys perked up and smiled a real smile. “Freedom from the Cityzens? I can’t wait.”
We both laughed and headed back to the elevator. People who had been born and raised in one of the two Northern cities called themselves Cityzens as a way of distinguishing themselves from Ruralies, people like me and Rhys. It still baffled me that spending your entire life in the safety of a city was seen as a superior way of life by some people.
The elevator stopped first on the twentieth floor and Rhys stepped off, with the promise that he would see me soon. Back in the apartment, I cleaned the coffee mugs and returned them to their proper shelf. Loud noises from down the hall told me that the rest of the family was awake.
I found Lex in our bedroom, buried to her knees in a pile of clothing. “What have you done?” I said in mock horror.
“I’ve never been out of the city in my life,” Lex said, throwing her arms up in her typical overly-dramatic flair. “What does one wear for camping in the country?”
After living with my cousin for two years, I had finally learned to accept Lex’s obsession with frivolous things like clothing and perfect hair. It was just one of our many differences from growing up in entirely different worlds. Lex was a quintessential Cityzen and she was used to decadence and wealth. I came from a very small town, where it wasn’t uncommon to wear the same outfit three days in a row and no one needed a closet because they didn’t have anything to put in it anyway.
“Just make sure to wear something comfortable. And pack layers. It will get cold at night,” I told her as I retrieved my oversized backpack from my own closet and started loading it with the clothes my aunt had bought for me. It had taken me awhile, but I had finally become accustomed to owning dozens of different outfits, though I still couldn’t bring myself to shop for them. Fortunately, Lex and my Aunt Floria were more than happy to shop for me.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked Lex as I rolled up a blanket and stuffed it into the bag.
“Of course!” Lex was neatly folding a pink sweater and placing it in an expensive looking duffle bag. “You and Rhys are always going on about how great your lives were in the country. Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts about this trip.”
I wasn’t having second thoughts, not really. I still wanted to go. I was yearning to break free of the city and escape to the serenity of the woods. I just wasn’t sure Lex and our other friends were ready for such a drastic change. None of them had ever left the city, and none of them had ever had to take care of themselves. I just hoped Rhys and I weren’t taking on too much responsibility by dragging four of our friends along with us on our trip.
When Lex had heard the two of us planning a weekend getaway, she had insisted on joining. Naturally, she had also insisted on bringing along some friends. Rhys had resisted at first, but Lex had convinced him by promising to get her hands on official travel passes for the train. Our original plan had been to sneak onto one of the cargo trains and hope we wouldn’t be found by the train security. Not the best plan, but official travel passes were hard to come by.
I still wasn’t quite sure how she had gotten six official passes, but with Lex I had learned it was best not to ask too many questions. Even with the passes, I had still hesitated to let Lex and the others tag along. They had romantic notions about what it would be like to camp in the woods for a couple days, but I knew that once they had to squat in the brush to pee and bathe in a freezing stream, they would be yearning for the city and its indoor plumbing. I only relented after Lex promised she wouldn’t complain at all during the trip, no matter what happened.
It took Lex over an hour to finish packing. During that time, I packed my own bag, showered and changed, laced up my hiking boots, loaded up a smaller bag with food and drinks, and read three chapters in a book. Just before we left, I packed the last item– a small but heavy handgun. I had brought it with me all the way from home and I wasn’t about to leave it behind now.
Aunt Floria bade us a teary goodbye. This was the first time Lex had left home for longer than a night. Uncle Mercer gave us each an awkward hug before we loaded ourselves and our gear into the elevator. Always punctual, Rhys was waiting for us in the lobby. We were both quiet during our walk to the train station, but Lex made up for it by keeping up a constant stream of dialogue. I interjected with the occasional monosyllabic response, but mostly I concentrated on Rhys.
If I hadn’t known him as well as I did, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed the change in him. He had always been rather quiet and self-contained, but his usual confident swagger had been replaced with slouched shoulders and a bowed head. I tried to tell myself that it was just the oversized pack he was carrying that was affecting his posture, but I knew that our talk on the roof this morning was the actual culprit.
Like me, Rhys had been a reluctant transplant to the city. Prior to moving to the city, he had lived in Berstrum, a small town located right in the middle of the Combat Zone. My own home was just twenty miles west in Genovas. Two-and-a-half years ago, Berstrum was destroyed during an Empyrian training mission that the government had later declared to be a tragic accident. Though Berstrum was located in the Combat Zone, it was still part of Northern Empyria and therefore was supposed to be protected by the Empyrian Army, not target practice for their bombers.
Rhys had been at the nearby market trading goods that day and that was the sole reason he hadn’t been killed along with his parents and the other residents of Berstrum. As a peace offering, each of the half dozen survivors was given a home and job in the Northern city of Acadia. Northern Empyria only had two major cities, Acadia and Zeldan. The rest of the nation was made up of small towns and farmland.
Because Rhys hadn’t yet turned sixteen when the accident that killed his family occurred, he was placed with a foster family and allowed to start Training and Testing school late. Rhys was a natural inventor and within just a couple of months it was clear that he would be given an apprenticeship that utilized his ability to create something out of nothing.
I, meanwhile, had arrived in Acadia just one month before Rhys, just after turning fourteen. My younger age meant I was able to sit for all three years of Training and Testing school. It wasn’t until the last few months of schooling that my skill in helping the sick and injured was discovered. I had just recently starting my medical apprenticeship at one of the city clinics and I still had over a year before I would have to worry about being officially placed when I turned eighteen.
“Beck got placed two days ago,” Lex was saying when I tuned back into her conversation with no one. Beck was one of the friends that was going camping with us. The last I had heard, he was doing miserably at his apprenticeship at the Armory and I was surprised to hear that he had received a placement so soon.
Lex was still explaining, “He’s being sent to Zeldan to work for the King. It’s a fairly big deal.”
“That’s surprising,” I said, wondering how he had managed to be placed in such a prestigious position. His Training and Testing scores had been terrible. I saw that Rhys was also looking at Lex with open curiosity.
Lex’s laugh held just a hint of condescension. “Well, you know, his father is a pretty important government official here in Acadia and he has a lot of ties with the Empyrian government. I’m sure that had something to do with it.”
I waited for Rhys’s reaction, but aside from a barely perceptible twitch of his jaw, his face remained impassive. From our years of friendship and early morning talks, I knew that Rhys had never adjusted to the way things were done in the city. Money and power were pretty much the only things that mattered, and if you had either of those things, your future was secure. You could even arrange for your children to receive the best placements.
“Oh, I see Beck up ahead!” Lex said as we passed through the doors of the station. Beck was tall and lanky, and his head could easily be seen above the crowd. As we got closer, I could see that he was flanked by the other members of our camping team, Emmie and Ander. Lex had been friends with the three of them for most of her life, but Rhys and I had only recently gotten to know them.
Rhys and I stood back as they all greeted one another. They each gave us a polite hello and then we followed them to the boarding gate. We were stopped by train security and Lex smugly flashed our official travel passes. After the ID chips in our arms were scanned, the security guards stepped aside and instructed us to proceed to the end of the track. Only a handful of other Cityzens were boarding the train, but a few dozen people from outside the city were boarding their designated cars to head back home for the weekend.
The city offered a certain number of travel passes to those people from the countryside who were forced to work in the city doing jobs that were deemed to be beneath the Cityzens of Acadia. These people stayed in dormitory like rooms in the city during the week and were allowed to travel home only on the weekends.
The others barely noticed as we passed these sad-looking people, and they headed to the front of the train where the Cityzen car was located. I couldn’t help but look at those people, forced by the government to do dangerous and undesirable jobs. Each of them looked as worn and tattered as their clothes. As much as I sympathized with them, I was also glad that I wasn’t one of them.
Rhys caught my eye and I knew that he was thinking the same thing. People who had lived in the city their entire lives could never understand how we felt at that moment. How lucky we were to have escaped a similar destiny. After we had stowed our luggage, the others took off for the food and drink car while Rhys and I took seats at the end of our train car and talked quietly.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked him in a voice barely above a whisper. “You’ve been even more quiet than usual.”
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, running a hand through his neatly combed hair. He turned to me with narrowed eyes. “What if we stayed?”
“Stayed?” I asked in complete confusion.
“In the woods. Instead of coming back with the others in two days, what if we just stayed?” Rhys spoke urgently, rushing his words in a low voice.
“We can’t just stay. It’s against the law for Cityzens to leave without permission. And whether we like it or not, we’re Cityzens now. If we didn’t come back, we would be punished. Severely,” I reminded him, but I was also giving serious consideration to his suggestion.
In my first year or so in the city I had often thought about escaping into the woods. A life on the run out there would certainly be better than a life in the city controlled by the King. In the end, my desire for freedom was not bigger than my fear of being all alone in the woods while hiding from the King’s men.
“We’d only be punished if we got caught,” Rhys said with a shaky smile. “But we wouldn’t get caught. With our upbringing, you and I could live in the woods easily.”
“Rhys,” I lowered my voice even more as an older Cityzen couple took their seats a few rows ahead of us. “We can’t. Even if you and I could make it on our own out there, Lex and the others would be punished for our crime. The King’s Guard would never believe that they didn’t know what we had planned.”
I could see the flame of passion fade in Rhys’ eyes as he accepted what I said. He knew that I was right; even if we could pull it off, other people would suffer because of us. Neither of us could live with that. The others came back from the snack car, carrying mounds of food and drink. Rhys and I put our conversation on hold, content to sit quietly and listen to their squeals of delight as the train pulled away from the station platform.
I watched as the city slid past the window until all that could be seen were the tips of skyscrapers piercing the sky in the distance. It was easy to forget just how expansive the city actually was until you could see the whole of it from a distance. Nearly three million people called Acadia home, and they all had to live and work in that one place. Very few of them had ever travelled as far away as we were right then.
It took us an hour to reach our stop, Kanton. The Kanton station was in the middle of a tiny town that was completely surrounded by woods. Beck was the first one off the train, followed closely by Lex. We stood on the platform and took in our surroundings.
The air smelled of grass and dirt, two things that I hadn’t smelled in over two years. I tilted my head back and breathed deeply, savoring the feel of unfiltered sunshine on my face. Looking to my right, I saw that Rhys had copied my movements exactly.
“Now what?” Lex asked as she looked around. The station was surrounded by a few houses. Beyond the houses, nothing but trees could be seen.
“We need to head east,” Rhys said as he retrieved a map from his bag. He had borrowed the maps last week from the Prevention and Enforcement office and had already picked out what he claimed was an ideal campsite. “We have about three hours of hiking ahead of us.”
I expected to hear some grumbling from the camping novices, but fortunately they were still relishing the change of scenery. I noticed with some dismay that only Lex was wearing appropriate hiking shoes. Hopefully their flimsy, yet stylish, footwear would suffice.
Rhys took the lead and we all dutifully followed. Beck moved into the lead with Rhys and the two of them tried to clear a path for the rest of us. Emmie and Ander were struggling over the rough path, but neither of them complained. Lex held onto my hand so tightly as we walked that my fingers began to tingle. Every time an animal scurried across our path, at least one of them would exclaim with delight or fear. I was enjoying seeing their reactions to every little thing.
“We’re almost there,” Rhys announced after three intense hours of hiking and we all cheered. Our path had wound us deep into the woods and now we were climbing a steep bluff. Our pace picked up considerably now that we knew we were close to the chosen campsite.
When we reached the crest of the bluff, everyone agreed that the hike had been worth it. A vast, open space stood directly before us. To the right of it, a large stream carried fresh water down the bluff. To the left was a steep drop-off straight down, but in the distance I could see the tops of the city skyscrapers. For a second I wasn’t sure what was more stunning, our immediate surroundings or the distant cityscape.
“Wow,” Beck said, a perfect summary of my thoughts.
Rhys dropped his bag on the ground and spread his arms wide as he announced, “Welcome to nature.”
“It’s perfect,” Lex declared as she twirled around with a flourish.
Rhys insisted we get our camp set up before we did anything else. Beck had brought along an oversized tent that took almost an hour to get set up. I managed to slice my hand open in the process of pounding one of the pegs into place. Fortunately, it wasn’t a deep wound so the bleeding stopped quickly, but not before Lex almost had a fainting spell. Then Beck took over, pushing a button I hadn’t known was there and the tent popped into shape automatically.
“Well, that’s convenient,” I said, holding a towel to my injured hand.
“I don’t know how you’re going to work around all those sick and injured people in the clinic,” Lex said as she handed me a blanket. I noticed that her face was still pale.
I shrugged as I rolled out the blanket inside the tent. “I pretty much grew up with it. Mom was always treating injured soldiers in our house.”
“That’s right,” Beck said, dropping the firewood he had gathered at Rhys’ feet. “You grew up in the Combat Zone, right?”
The Combat Zone was how everyone referred to the area of Northern Empyria that bordered Southern Empyria. After the Great Revolt almost fifty years ago, the country of Empyria had technically remained one country, but it was divided into the North and the South. People who lived in the towns scattered throughout the border of the two halves were technically citizens of Northern Empyria, but their lives were vastly different from other Northerners, especially those who grew up in the cities.
“Yeah. Actually, we’re both from the Combat Zone.,” I said, nodding my head in Rhys’ direction.
“And you saw a lot of wounded soldiers? Did you see any actual combat?” Beck asked earnestly. I had never seen him that interested in anything.
“No combat,” I said as I knelt next to Rhys and helped him stack the firewood. “The fighting usually takes place outside of the towns. The soldiers try to avoid hurting civilians. But the wounded are brought into the closest towns, and we treat them as best as we can.”
I realized with a start that everyone had gone quiet. Even Emmie and Ander had stopped their argument to listen. I wondered if this was the first time they had ever heard firsthand information about the situation outside of the city.
No one ever discussed it in Acadia, not even our professors at Testing and Training school. Even though the North had officially declared an end to fighting after the Great Revolt, it wasn’t exactly a secret that the two sides continued to fight. In the last few years, the fighting had gotten even worse. Yet none of this was even so much as mentioned in the city. I got the impression that most Cityzens had no idea exactly how bad it was near the border.
Emmie stepped in closer to our group. Her eyes were twice their normal size when she asked, “Have you ever been to the… South?”
She whispered the word “South” and even looked over her shoulder to make sure no one heard, despite the fact that we were the only human beings in at least twenty miles.
“No. I haven’t. Even in the Combat Zone it’s still illegal to cross the border without official permission.” I climbed to my feet and dusted off my hands.
“What about you, Rhys?” Ander asked. It was the first time I had ever heard him address Rhys by name and I got the feeling that he was slightly scared to do so. “Have you been to the South?”
“No.” Rhys’ face grew dark in an instant. “Didn’t you hear her say it’s illegal? Travelling there illegally is considered an act of treason.”
“Sorry,” Ander muttered and he turned away from the group.
“Well, that was interesting,” Lex said in her super cheery voice that she always used when she was uncomfortable. “Who wants to go explore?”
All the talk about home had put me in a sour mood. What I really wanted to do was sit and sulk, but I knew I couldn’t let Lex go off on her own. I agreed to lead her, Emmie, and Ander on a mini-exploration while Beck and Rhys stayed behind to get a fire going.
It was already early evening and I knew it would be getting dark soon, so we stuck close to camp. I pointed out interesting plants and flowers, showed them some berries that were edible which they promptly popped into their mouths, and led them to the stream where various types of fish could be seen swimming near the surface of the clear water. Lex and the others insisted on splashing their feet in the shallow part of the stream and I took that opportunity to head back and help Rhys get dinner ready.
Beck was intently adding kindling to the fire, his expression much like that of a young kid determined not to screw up. I couldn’t help but smile. Rhys had already unpacked the food and was about to cook the fish that he had caught in the stream while I was entertaining the others. He was more than happy to let me take over and he leaned back against a tree and watched me work.
The smell of the campfire, the sounds of Lex and the others splashing in the stream, and seeing Rhys with a contented smile on his face all combined to create a complete sense of calm inside me. For the first time in almost three years, I felt relaxed and happy, and even a little at home. While the meat cooked, I sat next to Rhys and we took turns listing our favorite things from home. Beck listened from across the fire with a perplexed expression, but he didn’t interrupt us.
Once the food was done, I called the others over and we all sat around on the ground and ate. Our meal consisted of fish, potatoes, and rolls from Rhys’ foster family’s bakery. It wasn’t exactly a top-notch meal, but nobody complained. In fact, nobody had complained about anything all day. It looked like all my worrying had been in vain.
As the sun began to set, we moved over to the edge of the cliff to watch the brilliant yellow sphere disappear behind the city. Its decent streaked the sky in oranges and pinks and when it had faded completely, the first of the stars appeared. Rhys and I were the only ones who had ever seen stars before. The city lights were much too bright for them to be seen from Acadia.
Rhys began to point out the constellations and explain their meanings. He had an amazing memory and could recall the origins of almost all of them. I lay back and stared up at them, wondering if my parents were doing the exact same thing back in Genovas. My dad used to take me outside every night when I was a kid and we would count the stars and name them after the members of our family. I could still find them. Even from hundreds of miles away, our stars still shone brightly.
“Why is that star moving?” Lex asked, pointing to a light streaking across the sky. Rhys started to explain that shooting stars weren’t really stars at all, but meteors that were burning up in the planet’s atmosphere. Then, at that exact moment, we both realized that it wasn’t a shooting star at all. It was a plane. And there were dozens of them.
We all sat up, completely riveted by the sight of those planes. Everyone knew that planes were not allowed to fly so close to the city, so it made no sense for them to be soaring just above the skyscrapers.
“What is the Empyrian Army doing?” I asked Rhys, certain that he would have a reasonable explanation. “Since when do they do test flights so close to the city?”
“They don’t,” he said, not taking his eyes off the planes for even a second. “Those aren’t our planes.”
What did he mean, not our planes? What other planes could they be? I wanted to ask, but the words stuck in my throat. Somewhere in the back of my brain, the answer was rattling around. If they weren’t our planes, that meant they must belong to the Resistance.
The Empyrian Army had been fighting off the Resistance fighters from the South for decades now. The members of the Resistance had refused to capitulate after the Great Revolt and they had continued to build their own army. I vaguely remembered that some of the soldiers my mother had treated had mentioned that the Resistance was growing. Their numbers were large and they had amassed a significant amount of weapons and machinery. I had never heard anyone specifically mention planes, but it was logical that the Resistance would have found a way to build them.
We heard the first bomb before we saw it. The loud explosion traveled fast and it took us awhile to understand what had just happened. But then we saw the explosion, a huge fireball shooting upward. The giant orange cloud that rose into the sky would have almost been beautiful if it hadn’t also been so terrifying.
We watched in horror for the next ten minutes as more bombs exploded all over the city. It was a completely hopeless feeling to watch the city burn and to be so far away. Lex and Emmie were crying, but the rest of us were mute. Rhys took my hand during the worst of it and I gripped him so hard my fingers turned numb.
It all happened fast, but to me it felt like an eternity. Each bomb seemed to explode in slow motion. Once the last of the planes had vanished from sight, the reality of what had just happened finally sunk in. We realized that the city had been destroyed and our friends and family had been killed. We didn’t know why it was done, but we knew who had done it.
As the flames grew brighter our insides grew emptier. We had become mute shells, unable to put words to what we had seen and what we had lost. Our voices were broken, but our eyes still saw. So we watched, and our world burned.