The little girl stood patiently, as she did every day, outside the large school when classes were finished. While she stood, a quiet, red sandstorm rolled over the domed city of Tiris, making daylight a tad less bright. The girl had been waiting longer than usual.
Three of her classmates exited the school and slowed down once they saw her.
“Renna? What are you still doing here?” one of the three girls asked with a confused smirk on her face.
The little girl didn’t turn to face them, and kept looking at some distance ahead of her. A light breeze blew some of her white hair into her eyes, and she quickly brushed it away. She held the straps of her green backpack tightly.
“Nobody wants to pick you up anymore?” one of them laughed.
“Her parents forgot about her!” the third girl chuckled. “I can’t blame them,” she eyed the girl up and down.
Renna furrowed her brow and stomped her feet as she turned towards them.
“My mom didn’t forget about me, she’s just late,” she said, and held back a greater anger bubbling inside her.
One of the girls rolled her eyes. She was a bit taller than the others, and wore a clearly visible brand name shirt and skirt.
“Shut up, you’re still standing here because no one wants you.”
“You should go to the Purist district and become a beggar.”
“’Oh please, sir, spare a digibit or two, I’m only poor and lonely, and hungry, and my clothes aren’t worth a damn’.” The three girls erupted in a cascade of laughter.
The little girl’s cheeks turned red, and she narrowed her gaze at the girls. Tears swelled up at the corner of her eyes.
“She’ll be here any minute,” Renna said quietly.
One of the three girls repeated what Renna said in a mocking tone. “You’re still going to be standing here tomorrow morning,” she jabbed.
The little girl tensed up, her body and emotions were like a wound up spring. She clenched her fists.
“Don’t get mad, it’s just the truth,” another girl said.
“Your mom doesn’t want you, she left you all alone,” they laughed.
Renna bared her teeth and yelled and pushed one of the girls closest to her with such force that she fell to the ground. The girl looked shocked for a small moment, but quickly stood up and lounged at Renna, but didn’t get the effect she wanted. Renna stepped out of the way, and with pushes came slaps, and after slaps came kicks and a wild flurry of punches. The other two girls cheered, though it wasn’t clear who was winning in the tangle of limbs and hair.
Then a voice, authoritative and loud enough to carry itself over the fight, made the girls stop what they were doing.
A woman in full military attire, black with pale blue trimmings and silver pauldrons stood nearby. It was an elite uniform, second only to the golden pauldrons of the Overseer’s Guard. There was a pulse rifle over her shoulder and a shock pistol in her holster, though what made the girls scared was her expression. It was intense and angry and hot enough to melt ice. All but Renna slumped when they saw it.
“Mom!” she cried.
The three girls backed off slightly.
Her mother looked at her tangled hair and rumpled clothes, and also noticed a small cut on her lower lip. She shook her head.
Renna looked back and pointed at the girls. “They started it! They said you weren’t going to pick me up because you didn’t want me anymore,” she wiped away her tears.
“Nothing could be further from the truth, my sunshine. There was an urgent situation and…” she caught herself. She looked at each of the three girls. “I’ll make sure to speak to your parents. I’m sure they’ll love to have a chat with a silver officer about your behaviour. Now, let’s go home Renna.”
Their home was modest like most homes in Tiris, but a small fortune was spread throughout the interior. The home was brought alive by the return of Renna and her mother: the front door opened automatically, lights turned on, the cooker started to heat up their meal, the floor warmed up and the radio turned on.
“The successful campaign against the Purist stronghold of Harthul ended today, senior correspondent Julia reports. Stay tuned to hear the stories of the brave men and women who fought and dealt a decisive blow…” the radio broadcasted. Renna’s mother turned the volume down to a whisper. The home became quiet and tense as a concert hall just before the first notes of music are struck. Renna felt her mother was waiting to say something, but was focused on some lively conversation in her head instead. Then they both sat down, their meals ready in front of them, and Renna’s mother spoke.
“I got an order today. From the Overseer,” she stabbed absent-mindedly at her food. “There’s something important on the front lines, and many of us are going to fly there today,” she took a deep breath. “If the buzzer rings, then I’ll have to go right away. I’m hoping it will be a short mission.”
Renna hadn’t taken a single bite of her food yet.
“You said you would never go to the front lines. No, you promised me you wouldn’t. You said you would stay here and keep the city safe. That you would keep me safe. Why isn’t Dad home?” Renna said.
Her mother tried her best to give a disarming smile. It didn’t work.
“Dad said there was an accident in the battery facility, and he’s staying until midnight to do some repairs. He said it was serious, and he’s going to have longer work days until everything is fixed.”
Renna wilted like a flower without sunlight when a thought occurred to her.
“So I’m going to be alone?”
Her mother looked away.
“Don’t go, mom,” the room felt colder to Renna, and she shivered.
“I don’t want to leave you, sweetie. But—”
“You promised you would stay in the city. You told me that you weren’t like ‘those soldiers’ that fought on the front lines.”
There was a sharp, buzzing sound that interrupted Renna’s mother just as she opened her mouth to speak.
“Officer of the silver pauldron Elina Voller, you are expected at the 2nd air cavalry base in ten minutes,” spoke an unfamiliar voice from the separate, usually silent military announcement radio.
“Don’t go,” Renna pleaded, and stood up to hug her mother at the table.
“It will only be a day or two,” said Elina.
“What if you don’t come back?”
“I prom—“ her mother sighed, “No one will take me away from you, Renna.”
“They already are! Don’t leave me, mom,” tears streamed down the little girl’s nose, down her cheeks, and dropped from her chin onto the heated floor.
Elina pulled Renna into a tighter hug, but then let go. The way she carried herself as she opened the door outside revealed the heaviness in her heart.
Before leaving, she knelt down to be at eye level with Renna, and gently wiped away her daughter’s tears.
“I’ll come back safely, don’t you worry.”
She picked up her backpack, kissed Renna’s forehead, and left to fight the Overseer’s war.
The next morning, after a difficult and unsatisfying sleep, Renna woke up in an empty home. She went downstairs to find a note from her father saying that he needed to be at work early, that there was an explosion and everyone is working hard to fix things. A third of the city was without electricity, and he believes it will take two or three days to get the batteries restored. Renna noted how the meal cooker was still working, and was happy at least for that. When she went upstairs to brush her teeth, she missed the message on the barely audible radio that reported on the day’s news.
“After the fall of Harthul, the leader of the Purists was captured by our forces. However, one source in the Overseer’s outer circle told us that our gunships carrying the enemy Purist leader were attacked by Purist forces and were taken down. No reports as to whether the leader survived or not. Though the operation was secret, our source says there is pressure on the 2nd air cavalry regiment to release the names of casualties. More news on this in our mid-morning report…”
As she came down the stairs, the cheery music of commercials quietly played from the radio until Renna became annoyed with it and turned it off.
She packed a snack and a lunch for school, and solemnly ate the breakfast the cooker prepared for her. The meal was abandoned after eating only half of it.
The day was clear and bright as she left her home. But before she could leave the street and head to the road that led to her school, she heard her name shouted in the distance. She turned around, and saw two figures in the distance. Renna remained still, and soon saw that the two figures were her parents. She ran to them with the biggest smile in her life.
“Mom, Dad!” she shrieked and hugged them both.
Her father stroked her hair, but her mother looked around them with concerned eyes.
“We need to go, fast. Being out in the open will get us killed,” Elina said to her husband.
Renna looked up to her mother, confused. “What’s going on?”
The three moved quickly, past their home, past a park behind it, and kept going at a brisk pace. They went off the beaten path, each step carrying them farther away from the city.
“There’s something we need to tell you that we’ve kept a secret from you,” Elina said to her daughter.
“Everything you learned in school about the Purists is wrong,” said her father.
“We’re going to another city, and we’ll need to leave everything behind here. We’re starting a new life, Renna,” her mother said.
The little girl, desperately trying to climb out of the confusing situation, only managed to say one word, “Why?” she stumbled and the two picked her up but didn’t slow down.
“We’re going to a city called Oppolin. It’s a Purist city,” said Elina.
“We’ve been working for the Purists ever since the war started. The reason why we have to leave now is because your mother had to desert her service,” said the father.
“And your father found out that management suspected him of blowing up the batteries, which is true, but still doesn’t excuse him from covering up better,” Elina rolled her eyes.
“Huh?” Renna said.
They arrived at a grassy field with a small hovership waiting for them.
“I’ll be the adult here and say that we both screwed up,” Elina said.
“You basically gave the order to shoot down your own gunship,” grunted the father.
The window to the cockpit of the hovership opened. A man with a white moustache and round goggles popped his head out the window.
“No time to waste, you guys,” he said with a raspy voice. “All aboard freedom express,” he laughed.
The three opened the smooth metal door to the passenger area.
“We’ll explain more on the way there,” said Elina.
Renna took a seat and shifted her eyes between parents. Her father held her hand.
After silent moment he drew a breath to speak, “We’re going to have to live differently from now on, but we’re in this together.”
“Does this mean I get to miss school?” Renna said.
Her mother chuckled. “Yes, sweetie, no more school for you.”