Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges, guttering, choking, drowning.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’On the hill of last defiance
Once I’m over the wall and far away from the school building, I let out a breath I’ve been holding in for a while. Eira was right. They’re there. Their fancy cars crowd the entrance and exit. They’re running my name through countless name searches, no doubt. They won’t find anything, unless someone tells them my real name. No one but Eira and Kailey know my name, and I’ve sworn them to secrecy. They know how important my secret is. They aren’t stupid. I’m not worried at all about Irene. She wouldn’t ruin all of the hard word she’s been through to keep my name hidden.
My feet hit the ground in a constant rhythm. It’s an easy pattern to fall into, when it’s repeated daily. There is only one way to get home, if your family doesn’t own a car like mine, and that is to walk. I don’t mind it, especially during an autumn day like today. The few trees around me still holding leaves, all burn a bright colour of red, orange, brown or gold, and the paths are painted with the leaves that have fallen from the branches of those trees. My school shoes wade through the small piles of leaves that clutter the sidewalks, as the cold wind digs under my coat. Despite the cool weather around me, I still find myself absentmindedly humming a quiet tune that my father used to sing. This time, I allow the memories locked away, to replay in my head. It’s a relatively long walk home. I have time.
It is late at night, because the only light flooding through the thin curtains emanates from the moon, and it casts an eerily pale light across the room. I close my eyes in another feeble attempt to try to coax my mind into unconsciousness, but it isn’t working. Then I know why. I hear voices from downstairs. I can hear them arguing again, and their voices rise in heated anger. This isn’t like the usual squabble. Tonight, I can hear each angry word no matter how hard I try not to.
I climb out of bed, and then I creep towards the slightly ajar door. A thin line of yellow light streams into the room from the candles lined along the walls. There’s no electricity again.
“Don’t leave, John.” My mother pleads. “You know what happened to Aleron the last time you left. Cara needs you here. If they find you, they will throw you back into the cages and then you will be killed. They can do without you for at least the one protest.” Irene tells my father frantically. She places her hands tightly on his shoulders and she looks him in the eyes. “You know what they will do with the rest of us if you leave us alone on a night like tonight.”
“They need me there for every single protest and meeting, Irene. I made the decision to step up, and now I have to follow the responsibilities, no matter what the consequences.” He answers curtly, pushing her hand off his shoulder with annoyance. I’ve never seen him like this – silently fuming with rage.
“I will not let you leave. What if you don’t return? What will I tell Cara? How will I explain that her father was killed willingly and by choice? She is fifteen, and she needs you. Only you can get through to her. She never listens to me, and she never has…”
Her voice drops to a whisper. I strain my ears closer, so that I can hear more clearly… and then it happens. The door opens and I fall against the floor. My cover is blown.
“Cara? I thought you were asleep.” My father asks, the tone of annoyance seeping through his words, as he looks across the room at me. He knows. He knows I’ve heard. He’s angry – very angry.
“I couldn’t sleep – not with all of the fighting. Why do you two have to fight?” I ask him quietly, as I walk out of the shadows.
“We fight because we care.” John tells me gently, as if I were made of porcelain, as if I were fragile. As if I will not understand any other way. Somehow, his quiet voice silently quivering with anger is worse than when he shouts.
“This is important, sweetie,” Irene tells me, and pulls me into a tight hug, “and there are important decisions to be made.” I feel her face turn upwards to look at my father. I turn to face my father too – to read his expression.
Before my father has a chance to answer, there is a harsh knock on the door. Irene breaks away abruptly, and I catch my father’s fearful gaze. Something is wrong. The atmosphere in the house turns cold.
He bends down and grasps hold of my shoulders, hard.
“Listen to me, Cara. Go and hide, and do not come out. Whatever you do, stay hidden. These men, they cannot know about –“ but he is cut off by the loud knocking. “Think of it as the game we play. Hide and don’t come out.”
“I don’t want to leave you.” I tell him desperately. “I don’t want to play tonight.”
“You have to. Do it now.” He pushes me out of the room roughly, just as the door bursts open with a deafening roar. I want to tell him that I do not mind leaving the town anymore, that I will agree to leave. I know that I didn’t want to leave this place – not after I have actually made some friends – but no words leave my mouth. I want to reassure him that even though my life is based on running, I will leave once again, if it means staying alive. But he turns away from me, the memory of his proposal far from his mind. It’s as if he isn’t here anymore; as if he is too far gone. He doesn’t see anything else. He doesn’t see me.
I quickly scramble into the small space in the shadows behind the large cupboard I used to play in as a child. It’s a place where I am hidden from sight because I fit snugly in the shadows. I see two Vigilum barge in. They are followed by a man in a suit and a man with a camera. The cameraman is dressed in the smart clothing worn by the reporters for the Regimen, and I recognise him from the broadcasts I have watched on television. Something’s wrong. Why’s he here? It could only mean something very bad is going to happen.
“It has been so long, but I finally have you.” The man in the suit tells my father gleefully. “You have caused a lot of trouble for Carus. It will be a relief to be rid of you. After they see what we will do with you, none of them will be so willing to defend you any longer.” The man adds.
My father pulls out a gun from his pocket, and he aims and fires smoothly without a second thought. The images of him training me to do just that, flash through my mind. I notice how he hits the target each time. He was holding back in the training sessions. One man falls down, dead. My father re-aims, but within seconds, two more Vigilum barge into the room. He aims and pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. He checks the gun in his hand. I hear his anguished silence. My father is outnumbered. The fall of his determined expression shows me that he’s realised it too. But he doesn’t give up. He lunges forward and punches one of the Vigilum as hard as he can, and the man flies backwards. There’s a click as his back hits the wall. There’s something about my father’s strength that unsettles me…he’s too strong. I gulp back my surprise and unease. It reminds me of the man that killed that pregnant lady all those years ago.
The next Vigilum launches towards my father with incredible speed, and my father curls his head into his neck. As the Vigilum gains distance, my father’s head snaps up and the Vigilum is sent flying back just like the other one, almost as if his eyes alone moved the Vigilum straight into the air and against the wall. My eyes flick over to the news reporter speaking hurriedly into the camera, and then to the man in the suit pinning Irene’s arms to her side. She doesn’t fight back. The man releases his arms around her for a second – just to throw a small black and circular shaped egg-looking object into the room, and then he covers Irene and bends down. A ticking sound fills the room. My father finds my face and beckons for me to cover my mouth and duck down. I do as I’m told. The ticking slows down, as the sound grows louder. My father ducks to the floor. It’s not a good sign. Something’s wrong with the egg-shaped object lying in the middle of the floor. Irene buries her face in the man’s jacket.
And then it happens. The room explodes in a thick steam and black misty fumes. I bite into my shirt so I don’t breathe it in because somehow I know that it’s deadly. My vision is blurred to an extent where I have to close my eyes to dull the searing pain. The sheer magnitude of the mist almost knocks me unconscious. It only lasts for a minute longer – and then I can see again. My father jumps up from the floor. I assess the damages. He looks physically fine, but I know that something’s wrong. It’s when my father tries to strike out again when I find out what.
He’s not strong anymore. His strength has been depleted. He can’t fight back anymore.
My father lurches towards the second last Vigilum, but this time he isn’t fast enough. The man catches him in mid-air, and they both tumble to the ground. While the one Vigilum works on keeping hold of my father, the other pulls out various weapons that I haven’t seen before in my life. The man kicks my father in the stomach, and he cowers in pain. The man seizes his chance. He kicks my father’s jaw and pins his face to the ground with the bottom of his boot. My father lashes around and cries out, trying to break free, but the man holding him is strong. The other man slams his head into the ground, and the floor shudders beneath my feet. The one man bends over my father while the other continues to pin him to the ground.
“Tell us about code Defector.” The man bending over my father demands.
My father laughs and spits in his face. “You’ll have to kill me first.”
The man growls and pulls out a long and lethal-looking knife. He slides it across my father’s body slowly, grinning as my father cries out in agony. I bite my tongue to keep from screaming out loud, as I watch my father’s face contort in pain.
“Feeling a little more cooperative?” the man asks my father once again.
“Never.” My father chokes out.
The man responds by digging the knife deeper into his body. My father’s blood seeps through his shirt and drips into the carpet.
I close my eyes and try to block out his screams. I count in my head, because that’s what my father told me to do when I’m scared.
The Vigilum laugh loudly. Their laughter radiates through my head. I can’t hear myself think through the sound of it.
My father screams again. The sound travels up and down my spine, spreading instant pain – almost as if I can feel his pain myself. I’ve never heard him scream before. I’ve never seen him feel pain.
I bite down on my tongue. Blood fills my mouth. I choke on the coppery taste. I bite into my sleeve to keep from throwing up from the taste of it.
His scream is cut off in a strangled gasp. I don’t open my eyes. It takes everything I have. But, I will be strong. I will be just like my father.
I think I hear his body slam against the wall, but I’m not sure. I force myself to keep my eyes closed. I promise myself that I’ll listen to my father’s words – they may just be his last. I can’t blow my cover, and if I look – well, I know I won’t be able to control my anger.
The room erupts in cruel laughter that makes my skin crawl. It’s somehow worse than the men’s laughter. My hands fly up to the sides of my head, as if to crush the echoing sounds of the laughter right out of my head.
I hear my father give in as he begins to plead and beg in desperation. It must be serious if he’s already begging.
The room is cast in an eerily silence. It’s not a good sign. I open my eyes.
My father is hunched on his knees, his eyes pupils are diluted, and his eyes are focused on something in the distance. The man in the suit holds his hands on either side of my father’s head, as if trying to reach into his mind. My father is utterly still.
“What are you showing him?” one of the men asks.
“I’m showing him his life if hadn’t chosen to be what he is, and whatever he desperately wants.” The man in the suit answers.
“What’s the point in that?”
“The point,” the man in the suit begins, annoyed, “is to show him what he really desires, and then to take it away from him, leaving him utterly alone and trapped in his own body. It’s another form of torture.”
The two Vigilum smile at each other in admiration.
“What do you see?” one of the men asks.
The man in the suit doesn’t answer for a while. “Interesting,” the man begins with wonder and annoyance. “He is holding back. He is fighting me back. He is stronger than anticipated. We won’t get anything out of him in this way.” The man in the suit lets go of my father’s head. My father crashes to the floor as if all his energy has been drained. “You might as well continue anyway. We have an audience.”
The man opens the door, revealing the rows of neighbours peeking out from their doors, and flashes a big and bright smile. “You know what?” the man in the suit asks. “Let’s take this celebration outside.”
The Vigilum smile and clap in agreement, and they lift my father’s body up and carry him out of the door.
No! I want to shout. Don’t take him away from me!
But they keep walking, solidly and determined. My father’s head hangs limply backwards, so that it’s facing me. His eyes drift open. He locks eyes with mine.
He mouths something, but I cannot see what. He is trying to look brave, but the fear behind his eyes shines through. I call out to him soundlessly, but he is beyond seeing or hearing now. He is preparing for death.
The Vigilum carry him to the large pole placed in the centre of the street that is often used for punishment of petty thieves or liars. The simple law-breakers.
They tie my father’s hands tightly to the pole with thick rope, and then they step back to admire their handiwork. They smile proudly. While they’re occupied, I sneak to the window, where I have a clearer image of the scene. My father is facing the window I’m positioned at.
“Get the shifter.” The man in the suit, who is clearly the leader, calls out.
One of the other men hurry towards the house, where all the weapons have been left. I slink behind the open door, where he won’t see me. I hear his breath as he draws near, and I place my hand over my mouth to mask the sound of my breathing. He walks closer, and I hear his boots just behind the door. He stops, as if he’s noticed me. My heart speeds up. I close my eyes tightly, and I slink further into the shadows, trying desperately not to be seen. It works. The man turns and walks away with the bag of weapons in his hand. I hear myself breathe a small sigh of relief.
The man walks up to my father and drops the bag. The other man pulls out a long, gold and round baton-looking weapon. His hand slides across the smooth texture, and two long blades flick out the ends of the batten. Despite myself, I find that I rather like the look of the weapon.
The Leader takes hold of the sword and walks towards my father, who has regained most of his energy. His eyes register the weapon in the leader’s hands, and he kicks wildly as he tries to free himself. The leader laughs at his efforts, and slowly pushes the shifter forward. My father looks up and meets my gaze. Something clicks inside him, as he suddenly stops fighting and pulls himself together. He is trying to be brave again. I almost believe him.
I look around and see the admiration and respect forming in the eyes of those watching, but I know it won’t last. If the leader notices, he will kill them all. They will mask their emotions soon enough.
The leader slides the sword into my father’s body with ease, barley missing the place where his heart should be – it’s something I paid attention to in school. He gasps in pain, trying to hide whatever else he feels, but it’s not too hard to see how much pain he is in already.
“Tell me about the code.” He demands. “Tell me and I might just spare you.”
“You wouldn’t do anything of the sorts,” my father answers curtly, “not when you have an audience to perform for.”
The leader slides the sword in deeper in annoyance. I smile at my father with pride. He notices it and winks in my direction. I feel myself start to hope that he may actually survive.
The second my father smiles, the leader rips the blade out of his chest and plunges it into his arm. My father anticipates this and the blow doesn’t hit him as hard. He starts to feel confident.
“Do whatever you want,” my father calls out, “but you will never know my secrets. We’re almost as strong as each other, Ludovic, so you should know that trying to drain me will take a while. And your head games won’t work on a Mae.”
Ludovic growls and beckons for one of the Vigilum to pass him the next weapon. A simple looking rod lands in his hand.
What could that possible do? I hear myself ask.
Ludovic flicks on a button and the whole rod lights up in a luminous blue colour. The weapon suddenly looks rather ominous. My father’s eyes widen in a way that suggests that he has seen one of these before, and that this isn’t good.
Ludovic’s smile grows.
“Are you regretting opting for silence yet?” he asks my father.
“Never.” He answers, trying to continue his act of bravery.
“You will.” Ludovic answers with a cruel smile, and he plunges the luminous rod straight into my father’s body like a projected image, but my father’s reaction tells me the weapon is much stronger than a simple projection.
“What does it do?” An observer asks.
“It electrocutes him.” Ludovic answers simply, with a gleeful smile.
My father’s body goes limp for a few minutes, and his eyes flutter closed. For a while, all that can be heard is the dull buzzing of the rod in Ludovic’s hands, and my father’s body hitting against the pole behind him. Then he pulls the rod out of my father’s body. Ludovic waits a few minutes, and then he plunges the rod into his body again. His body shudders violently, and his eyes roll back in his head.
Ludovic laughs and pulls the weapon out.
“Anything to say?” he asks.
My father manages a slow nod, but it takes all of his energy.
“What’s wrong? Lost the ability to speak?” Ludovic jeers, and then he slides it in again.
I can’t look anymore. I can’t stand to see the tortured expression half-hidden behind my father’s attempt to appear brave for my sake. I look away quickly, and I hear the violent shudder of my father’s body as it slams against the wooden pole behind him. His breathe chokes in his throat – I can hear it loud and clear. I can’t stand it any longer. I allow the sweet, calm melody of one of the songs my father used to sing, fill my head.
‘My sweetheart, come along!
Don’t you hear the fond song,
The sweet notes of the nightingale flow?
Don’t you hear the fond tale
Of the sweet nightingale,
As she sings in those valleys below?
So be not afraid
To walk in the shade,
Nor yet in those valleys below,
Nor yet in those valleys below.
‘Pretty Betsy, don’t fail,
For I’ll carry your pail,
Safe home to your cot as we go;
You shall hear the fond tale
Of the sweet nightingale,
As she sings in those valleys below.’
But she was afraid
To walk in the shade,
To walk in those valleys below
To walk in those valleys below
A blood-curdling scream slices through my whispering voice. My head snaps up to where the body of my father hangs.
A scream chokes in my throat. The man in front of me is unrecognisable.
His body is a ripped and shredded piece of bleeding and raw skin. His head hands low and his chest is still. I expect the worse. How could I not?
But one ragged breath from him tells me that he isn’t dead just yet. He is fighting to stay alive. The man holding the thick whip in his hand stares in disbelief. Ludovic lets out an enraged roar or angry words.
“So it seems you would rather die than give up the information we desire,” He calls out.
“How noble of him.” One of the Vigilum agrees sarcastically. “This usually works.” He points to the long piece of leather placed in his hands.
I bite back my anger.
“It’s rather annoying.” Ludovic snaps.
My father barely manages to choke out a response. I realise with a pang that he’s trying to laugh. He really is the bravest man I know.
My father is beyond pain. He is beyond caring.
I suddenly want to laugh. Doesn’t Ludovic know?
You can’t break a broken man.
“We didn’t bring any other weapons.” One of the men calls out.
“We didn’t think it would take this long.” The other agrees.
“Then we’ll just have to take him with us. Finish him there.”
I bite my tongue to prevent the scream stuck in my throat, from escaping through my lips. Take him where? My father lifts his head high enough to meet my eyes. His eyes whisper a secret smile of hope, a smile written in a language only the two of us can read. My hand reaches for him, and rests on the cold glass of the window separating us. The barrier. Just like the Cupola. He smiles faintly, and then he bows his head as the wave of exhaustion crashes over him. I breathe in the image of him, knowing this will be the last time I will see him, forcing myself to remember every detail, no matter how grotesque. A silent, unspoken goodbye hangs on my lips, as the men carry the unconscious body of my father out of the town.
“Let this be a lesson to you all.” The man named Ludovic begins. “We will not be as understanding the next time.” He looks around, drinking in the fearful expressions with a smile. “This is where Defiance gets you.”
And then he is gone.
I step out of the shadows, and my feet sprint out of the door and in the direction that the car travelled. Run. I run.
I hear Irene telling me that it’s no use, that it won’t help anything, but yet I still run. I don’t stop until I reach the bloody pole that my father was tied to. I search for signs of him. I search for anything at all, but all that surrounds me is blood. Red. Scarlet red blood dots the street like paint. Blood. That’s all I smell. His blood. The coppery and bitter smell fills my nose, fills my mind, my mouth, right until I smell nothing else. The blood sticks to the bottom of my boots. Blood. Suddenly it’s too much. Too much blood. Too much lost. I turn down the street, walking the way the men left. They’re gone. There’s nothing but the reek of the engine fumes thick in the air. That’s all that’s left of him. The bottom of my shoe crunches against the cracked tar.
Stop, my mind instructs. You stood on something, and it wasn’t the tar. I lift my foot and bend down. My fingers brush against the copper-coloured chain strewn across the floor. I’ve seen my father wearing it before. He must have dropped it by accident. But something tells me otherwise. He wanted me to find it. My fingers snatch hold of the chain, and I lift it up into view. It’s a pocket watch. It looks expensive, and it is the prettiest thing I own. I could guarantee a whole month’s supply of food for both Irene and myself, if I traded this in town. But, I know that I would never do anything like that. I could never let go of this piece of my father. I slip the necklace into my pocket. I’ll have to find a place to keep it hidden. If the Vigilum find this during another raid, they’ll confiscate it. I can’t let that happen.
I walk back the way I came. My footprints are shadows of blood. My father’s blood. The thought makes me feel sick. It makes my head spin, all over again. With every fresh wave of nausea that washes over me, the pain increases.
Unfair. This is all unfair. Unfair and cruel. They had the wrong man. They killed the wrong man. They must have. My father was good, kind. How did he come to such a bloody and unjustly end?
Anger boils inside me – bubbling and stewing. Something must be done, I tell myself.
I will do something. That is the thought that calms me down. My father wouldn’t think I’d be strong enough to do it – but I will. They’ll pay. Revenge.
I walk towards the house. Everything feels empty. Angry. Vengeful. That’s what I am.
My father has always been a hero in my eyes. The man that caught me before I fell from the tree, the man that sang me to sleep, the man that stayed with me right until I fell asleep, the man that build me a fort out of blankets to keep me safe, the man that always put his family first, even if it meant him starving to death – that man was a hero. Invincible in my eyes.
But tonight – no matter how hard my father fought it – tonight they made that man a boy.