The Lilly on the Lake
Peter moved swiftly and silently through the dark corridors of the palace, his hand clenched tightly around his dagger. He paused suddenly, holding his breath. Footsteps. He quickly ducked around a nearby corner, hugging the wall as two imperial guards passed. The threatening yellow glow of their lamps soon faded as the guards continued on their way, blissfully unaware of the man cloaked in shadow, a man who craved the death of their leader like a shark craves blood.
With the guards gone, one of the last of his many obstacles had finally melted away, and Peter continued his swift pursuit of the Emperor. Finally, he thought to himself, after all these years, the scum will die by my hand.
The emperor was a tyrant, by far more feared than loved by his people. For a man with so much power, he was almost never seen. There were even rumors that he had transcended the need for a physical body, that he ruled through force of divinity. But the emperor had a very real hand, and Peter had personally felt the pain of its devastating blow.
Years ago, as an orphan youth, Peter met a girl by the name of Kiara. She was the only well-to-do person who didn’t treat Peter like dirt, and for that he was always grateful. The two were very perceptive for their age. They had picked up on the pain others were going through as they struggled to live their lives under the yoke of the emperor. They could sense the palpable aura of dejection, fear and despair that permeated the air, though they may not have understood all the reasons why it was there.
“It won’t be like this forever, you know,” she had said one day.
“How do you know that?” he had asked.
“Because someone’s going to change it all. Someone’s going to bring a better life to our people. Someone’s going to turn all their pain and hurt into joy.”
“But grownups must have been trying for years,” he had responded. “What makes you think things will be different in the future? Who will be the ones to bring that happiness?”
“We will,” she had said, smiling broadly.
For a time, it was as if Peter had found a bright ray of light in a world drowning in darkness, a sense of purpose where before there had only been a desire for survival.
Then, one day, that light was brutally snuffed out. Peter remembered the anguish he felt when, while heading over to her home to visit her, he came upon the horrifying sight of her and her family restrained by soldiers at the edge of the nearby lake. A nearby soldier had grabbed Peter roughly by the hair and forced him to watch as Kiara and her family were forced beneath the surface of the lake, their bodies thrashing violently beneath the churning waters. Peter looked on in horror as Kiara’s struggle grew more and more feeble, until her writhing finally ceased. The parents’ movements ceased soon after, their bodies floating like pale lilies along the lake’s surface, pallid and lifeless vessels of what had once been springs of vigorous hope. “This is what happens to traitors,” the soldier had said. “Don’t you forget it.”
He didn’t. Ever since that moment, Peter had been preparing himself to one day kill the man responsible for Kiara’s death. He followed the many discontented whispers throughout the empire until he discovered Nightwind, a shadowy organization bent on destroying the empire. After joining the organization, he trained vigorously, honing his physical and mental abilities. When he was ready, he began to play his role in Nightwind’s intricate plot to undermine the empire.
Over the years, Nightwind had developed relationships with the neighboring Farveldt Kingdom, as well as the Imperial General Wilhelm, an ambitious man with designs on the throne. Their plan was to instigate a coup through the death of the emperor, allowing general Wilhelm to fill the vacuum. Once crowned Emperor, the general would serve as a vassal to Farveldt.
Peter had only met general Wilhelm once, in a secret bar at the edge of the imperial capital. The pungent odor of the clouds of smoke had wafted through the dimly lit bar as the general sat chuckling, two hostesses at his side, drinking heavily. As the general boasted about what he would do with his newly acquired riches, Peter looked on calmly, steadily observing the man who would become the nominal ruler of his homeland. It seemed clear that the elements of corruption in the halls of power would not be so easily wiped away. But he had learned to face the realities of the world long ago. For him, the death of the Emperor was paramount, and he would do whatever it took to achieve that aim. With this determination and the assistance of Nightwind, Peter was eventually able to infiltrate the palace disguised as a stable boy, hired by one of the emperor’s most experienced stable-hands, who was secretly in Nightwind’s employ. A network of servants placed within the castle kept Nightwind informed of the Emperor’s potential movements and the layout of the castle. Now, the weight of the entire operation rested on Peter’s ability to assassinate the emperor.
Peter reached the corridor leading to the Emperor’s room. A shrill, piercing whistle echoed through the courtyard. There’s the distraction, thought Peter. While the bulk of the palace guards attempted to trace the source of the noise, he would make his move.
Peter watched silently as most of guards rushed to respond to the clamor. Once they had travelled far enough away, he silently inched closer to the remaining two guards. From the shadows, he drew his blowgun from his back and shot two tranquilizing darts at the door guards. The guards slumped to the ground, their crimson robes crumpled in a heap. Peter then silently slipped into the Emperor’s chamber.
The room was dark, the soft white light of the moon casting ornate shadows of the room’s decor. As Peter slowly approached the sleeping emperor, a wave of heat welled up within him, coursing throughout his body. It was as if every breath he took was a breath of fire, kindling his smoldering rage into an intense blaze. He reached the bed. As he raised his arm, the images of the scene of Kiara’s death flashed through his mind. Their desperate screams. Their violently writhing bodies. His sense of complete helplessness. He took a deep breath, suppressing the urge to cry out, directing all of his rage to gather into his arm, into his hand, into the tip of his blade. Then, he plunged the icy steel into the emperor’s throat.
As the emperor lay dying, his hands clasped around his throat, Peter took a few deep breaths to compose himself. I need to move quickly, he thought to himself. The guards won’t be distracted for much longer. He rushed across the room, leaping deftly through one of the windows onto the roof. He slid down to the edge of the roof, grasping it with his hands and swinging onto a lower ledge before leaping nimbly to the ground. He sprinted across the palace courtyard, toward the section of the wall where he was to make his exit. Peter heard alarm bells clanging throughout the palace as the guards raised the alarm. The emperor’s body must have been discovered he thought, glancing quickly at the palace. After reaching the palace walls, he began climbing. Almost there, he thought to himself.
Suddenly, he heard the ominous whistle howling shrilly in the night. It was the unmistakable sound of an arrow flying toward him. A sharp pain shot through his left shoulder. He let go and fell to the ground. A steady rhythm of footsteps trampled the ground as guards rushed around him.
“Get him on his knees,” one of them said.
As Peter was lifted from the ground, a guard approached him, unsheathing his sword and raising it above his head. Looks like this is it for me, he thought to himself, as the guard brought down his blade.
“Wait!” A voice cried out in the distance. “The vizier needs to speak with him.” After glancing at each other a moment, the guards lifted Peter to his feet and brought him into the palace.
As they passed the ornate pillars of the cavernous throne room, Peter fixed his eyes on the man standing beside the throne. He was puzzled to see that the man’s countenance bore no sign of smugness or rage, but in fact betrayed a hint of fear. The vizier’s mouth was drawn in a tight line, his brow furled. In his hand he was clutching a letter. The guards stopped at the foot of the throne.
The men stood in tense silence for a moment, as Peter continued to try to make sense of the situation. Eventually the throne room’s doors were thrown open with a loud echo. A man rushed frantically toward the vizier clutching a blood-stained bag in his hand. The vizier’s expression darkened. He motioned for the man to hand the bag over. He opened it, glanced at its contents, and winced. Then, he turned to face Peter.
“In this bag is the head of general Wilhelm,” said the vizier. So they uncovered the plot, Peter thought to himself. Then the vizier held up the note.
“This is a note that the palace guard just received. It describes the purpose of the Nightwind organization and claims responsibility for the assassination of both the Emperor and general Wilhelm.
Both the Emperor and the general? If true, this would fly in the face of the entire plan.
“I’m just as shocked by this development as you are,” said the vizier. “In fact, these two men weren’t the only ones to die tonight. The entire royal lineage has of course been eliminated, but so too have all of Farveldt’s conspirators within the court. You see, we heard whispers of a conspiracy to overthrow the kingdom and even obtained the names of the conspirators. So we too hired assassins to wipe out our enemies. Little did we know that those assassins also belonged to your organization.” The vizier paused for a moment. “I can only imagine,” he continued, “that the true aim of this plot was not to simply eliminate the royal family, but was in fact meant to create a situation in which the empire must face a devastating war, greatly increasing its chance of destruction. Now, more than ever, what the empire needs is a leader.”
Then, the vizier did something completely unexpected, bending in a full bow before Peter. “I would humbly ask that you assume the throne. Your organization’s leadership is shrouded in mystery, and I doubt they want to stand prominent in the public’s awareness. But forceful assassinations of the empire’s rulers are not uncommon in the history of our land. If you were to step forward as the rightful leader by virtue of the power you exhibited in slaying the emperor, you would be able to steer this country to the future you must have envisioned with the downfall of the emperor. Naturally, as vizier, I could give you counsel on matters of state, helping to guide your hand.”
“So you need a figurehead, to help you rule while being able to distance yourself from potential calamity should your efforts at saving the empire from collapse end in failure,” replied Peter. “But you see, what drove me to kill the emperor was more than simply a desire to see things change. I killed the emperor because he was a vile human being with little regard for human life, and he was a man who took someone precious away from me. So you see, my aspiration in killing the emperor was simply to see the emperor die. I have no interest in becoming involved in your schemes.”
“Then will you at least consider passing my entreaty on to some of the leaders in your organization?” asked the vizier. “Surely one of them might have grander ambitions, one of them could be persuaded to aid the empire’s salvation from a position of strength. If the request is passed on by you, they will trust the information.”
So this is one of the reasons he’s keeping me alive, thought Peter. Looking up at the vizier, he replied: “I’ll consider it. If they accept, you’ll soon receive word.”
“Thank you,” replied the vizier. “Let us treat your wound before you depart.” After having his injury bandaged, Peter took his leave, then turned and left the throne room.
Exiting the palace, Peter entered the streets of the surrounding capital. As he walked, he closed is eyes and allowed the cool night breeze to envelop him. His body was heavy with exhaustion, the wound on his shoulder still throbbing with pain. As he opened his eyes, his gaze fell on an old woman, weary from a day of toil. Her walking stick clacked sharply against the road as she wandering the streets collecting the refuse of the day. As he watched her, the voice of Kiara echoed in his mind. Someone’s going to bring a better life to our people. Someone is going to turn all their pain and hurt into joy. Now that the Emperor was gone, were they any closer to that goal? Sure, the tyrant had fallen, but in his wake were left the seeds of ruin. Could the people withstand a war? And would things be any brighter on the other side of it?
As Peter passed the old woman, something drove him to stop. Her face, he thought to himself. It looked familiar…where have I seen her before?” He turned around to face the old woman—and found that she was staring right back at him, her eyes full of sorrow. He noticed that her skin was healthier than it had appeared at a distance...and her posture had changed significantly. A disguise?
Wait a moment, he thought to himself, his eyes widening. I recognize her! She’s!—
The woman grabbed Peter by the shoulder and drew him to her as she shoved a blade through his chest. “Kiara…” he said softly, his eyes wide with shock. “You’re…alive….”
Hot tears began to stream down his face. A sea of emotions cascaded through him. Waves of joy, of sorrow, of wonder, of pain, all at once. “You…were dead…how…”
“I had to make them think I was dead,” she said, her voice cracking, tears flowing down her face. “When I stopped moving, they didn’t think to check twice. They’ve assumed I was dead ever since,” she said. “And it has to stay that way. You’re the last person left alive who even remembers what I look like.” She began to sob. “I’m so sorry Peter”
As Peter sank to the ground, with Kiara cradling him in her arms, he pondered what she’d just said. He recalled the image of the floating bodies in the lake, how Kiara’s body had floated face-down, while her parents’ bodies had been turned face-up. The soldiers had likely assumed that a little girl could not possibly hold her breath longer than her parents. They had failed to take into consideration the grief her parents must have gone through when they noticed limp body of their child floating right beside them in their desperate struggle. Faced with the death of their child right beside them, they had likely given up fighting for their life, succumbing to the depths.
“After that day,” continued Kiara, “I realized that our nation was a fallen nation. That any attempt to do good in the existing structure would be quashed. Our rulers accepted the commoners’ plight as a matter of necessity, and any attempt to improve their ability to think and play a greater role in their destiny represented a threat to the Imperial order. I joined Nightwind, transforming it from a mercenary band of contract killers to an organization with the goal of forever toppling the existing order. I had faith that, with the tyranny of the emperor fresh in their minds and the specter of a looming crisis, the people would rally around a more just leader who would be able to rally our people. And, if that leader was nowhere to be found and our nation crumbled, the memory of our people’s suffering would live on, and one day the right person would step up to rebuild our crushed society, steering it in the direction of justice.”
“Ah,” Paul said softly, as he felt his body grow colder and colder. “Justice.” His breathing began to slow. “Do you remember,” he said softly, “when you told me why you were sure that our people would be lifted from suffering?”
Kiara nodded, the tears continuing to pour down her face.
“It’s strange, how our visions of changing the world drifted from each other. For you, the light remained out there, in the world, waiting to be awakened. But for me, you were it. It is lamentable that this is how we’ve been reunited. Yet I still find solace in how fate has linked us.” He took a few final, shallow breaths. “Strange…isn’t it…”
Paul drew his last breath, then lay still. Kiara shook her head, tears streaming down her face, hoping that somehow, when she met her end, she would find him again, this time bearing witness to a better world.
The Face of Peace
“Flame. Fear. Fury. Death.” As 17 year old Caden Thomas walked briskly amid the glittering skyscrapers of Unity City, he stopped and turned toward the large video screen from which the sound was emanating. The narration continued. “105 years ago, a terrible war ravaged our planet. Millions perished, and the surface was nearly scoured.” Images of flame and destruction rolled across the screen. “In the wake of this tragedy, the leaders of the time decided to never to be beholden to one another’s aggression again.
The narrator continued: “then came the moment when we finally cast aside the dark instincts we inherited from our ancestors. Leaders gathered to create The Great Disarmament; the unprecedented peace treaty that extended the world over, hailed as a crowning achievement in the story of humanity.” Footage rolled of the iconic images he had seen a thousand times before; arms factories collapsing in a cloud of dust and concrete as they were demolished; vast arrays of ships stripped down; an endless line of guns rolling along a factory line and dumped in to a vat of molten metal. Leaders from hundreds of countries were shown shaking hands, each one beaming energetically at the camera, huge smiles stretched across their faces. “It was a glorious moment, worthy our magnificent civilization. To protect the freshly forged peace, the Guardian system was commissioned by all the world’s leaders and sent into orbit.” The footage continued, showing a massive fleet of rockets cruising out of the earth’s atmosphere. The rockets were launching the Guardian system: a vast computerized network of satellites and cameras blanketing the earth intended to deter any act of violence on the face of the planet.
Leaders at the time had reasoned that, rather than allowing armed groups of humans to decide when the use of force was necessary, an objective and unfailingly just observer was needed to enforce the peace. Their solution was a computerized system engineered by scientists representing the governments of every country.
The satellites alone were capable of detecting large-scale movements on the earth’s surface, but the key to Guardian’s success lay in its camera system. The cameras were a remarkable feat of technical ingenuity, capable of calculating the distance of a target object and relaying its coordinates to Guardian’s computer system. This meant that, in the event that a violent act was detected, an orbiting satellite would fire a high-powered laser of adjustable intensity with pinpoint accuracy. The cameras were also capable of immediately firing a stun charge at a hostile target. The system was engineered by scientists from every government around the world. The system was made unhackable through the implementation of quantum receivers which could detect any attempt to access and tamper with the flow of information in the system, tracing it to its source.
“The result of the Guardian project was an immediate end to arm conflict, and a complete absence of crime in our cities,” continued the narrator. “For 100 years we have enjoyed the fruits of our predecessors’ labor, and it’s our job to ensure that we contribute diligently to this hard-won peace.” Bold yellow letters faded onto the screen: “100 years of peace.” The broadcast ended. Caden turned to continue walking down the street. The broadcast would repeat itself in a few moments, and he had grown tired of hearing it over and over again.
“Lies!” a voice cried out. Caden stopped and turned to its source. A man of slightly unkempt appearance was standing at the edge of the gathering
“This government would have you believe that they are ‘preserving a lasting peace,’ the man continued, “but I tell you, for them this system is a means of control. Look!” he shouted, pointing at one of the many cameras surrounding the square? “You see? We are watched constantly, never given a moment’s repose. Even as we bathe we are under the Guardian’s gaze. And who benefits most from this but those who profess to be our selfless leaders? My family saw the truth in this. They fought against our leaders in the courts, and they paid for it with their lives!”
Caden looked on as the man was secured by two men in white coats. They were medical staff of Unity City’s hospital. “Come now Mr. Porter,” they said. “As we’ve told you before, your family was lost to disease. You saw the bodies yourself, remember? Their autopsies are a matter of public record. We grieve for the loss of your loved ones, but you must remember that their passing was simply a regrettable tragedy, nothing more and nothing less. Come now, come with us.” The man was ushered into a waiting ambulance.
Caden pitied the poor man. While the Guardian system may have saved countless billions, it was not the ultimate solution to man’s mortality. Caden found it unfortunate that the man was unable to cope with this fact, though he understood that he could not possibly comprehend the sense of pain and loss that the man must be feeling. As the crowd continued to hum excitedly, Caden continued on his way home.
After a few minutes, Caden arrived at the door of his building.
“Mom, dad, I’m back” said Caden as he entered.
“Hey hon,” said his mom. “How has your day been?”
“I saw Mr. Porter acting up again in the square today,” replied Caden.
“That poor man,” said Caden’s father. “Disease is a terrible thing. You know, we’ve lost a thousand people to heart failure in this month alone. Your mother and I have our hands full at the hospital.”
“I’ll bet,” replied Caden. “It’s a good thing you guys are going to find a way to fix that.”
“Well, research is a tricky thing,” replied his mother. “But we’ll certainly keep trying. Now come, eat your dinner. Your father and I worked hard preparing this roast.”
Caden sat and bolted his food, anxious to get out the door again.
“My, we’re in a hurry aren’t we? I’m guessing you’re planning on seeing Veronica again this evening?”
Caden nodded. “I’m supposed to teach here more constellations.” He quickly finished what was on his plate, gathered up his things and bolted for the door. “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Ok, have fun. Stay safe,” his parents called after him.
As the sky’s color deepened from purple to black, Caden made his way to the edge of the city, carrying his set of binoculars with him. At last, he was within view of one of the city water towers. The area around the tower was quite, with most of the commuters in the area having gone home for the evening. It was an ideal place to stargaze.
As he passed a nearby alley, a flash of white caught his eye. Caden stopped and turned his gaze toward the source of the movement. Medium sized figures, clad completely in white, were unloading a medical truck at a nearby office building. Caden found it strane that they were unloading their cargo there, as opposed to the hospital. Curious as to why this was happening, Caden moved closer to them, training his binoculars onto the two figures.
Caden watched as the crates were removed from the truck. “Verify the contents,” called out one of the figures. One of the assistants hurriedly lifted the lid from one of the crates. The assistant rummaged through the crate, lifting bandages and gauze from its contents, before pulling up a small glass vial. He held it daintily, examining the crystal clear liquid.
What is that? Caden wondered. Water? A new medical formula? And why the strange suits? Are they afraid of contaminating the sample?
A large hand suddenly grabbed the back of Caden’s shirt. He felt his stomach drop in an instant as a prickling sensation crawled across his body.
“What are you doing here?” demanded the low, gruff, faceless voice. “What did you see?”
“I saw nothing,” replied Caden, trying vigorously to keep his voice from shaking.
“It had better stay that way,” said the man. “Now beat it.”
Caden nodded before turning towards home. He was not keen on testing the man’s patience. After all, he seemed to have disturbed some sensitive work.
After Caden returned home, he went up to his room and collapsed on his bed, taking in the day’s events. I’d better call Veronica and let her know what happene His mind again wandered to the scene he had observed near the water tower. I wonder what they were doing? As he pondered the contents of the mysterious vial, he slowly drifted to sleep.
Caden woke with a start as a loud knock rapped against the door. He turned groggily to the side, checking the bedside clock. 9am. Although it was a weekend, his parents had likely headed to the lab; their projects usually ran into Saturdays.
The knock repeated. “Hang on a moment, called Caden. He headed for the bathroom and quickly splashed some cool water on his face before heading to the end of the hallway and opening the door.
A tall man stood in the doorway. He was thin, neatly dressed in a jet black suit, with shoes that glistened like polished obsidian.
“Good afternoon. I’m a representative of the Unity’s Ministry of Commerce. Is Caden Thomas present?”
“You’re speaking to him,” replied Caden.
One of the men produced a small white envelope from his jacket. “Your exemplary academic achievement has come to our attention, and you’ve been selected to serve as a member of the youth delegation in an upcoming trade mission to the nation of Cadmia.” The man handed Caden the letter. “Inside you will find details concerning the trip, including an itinerary, a list of necessary supplies, and information concerning your compensation for participating in the conference. Be sure to show up a week from today near the northern city gate.” The man shook Caden’s hand once more. “Congratulations on your selection, I hope this experience will prove valuable to you.” Then the man turned and headed out the door.
The following week, Caden arrived at the appointed location. He stood in a line with about eight other men and women. Among them he recognized Mr. Porter. He looked more disheveled than he did that day in the square. His hair was a matted mop of blonde and brown, and he was drenched in sweat. His clothes fit poorly and appeared ruffled, as if he had rolled out of bed wearing it. Caden tried not to stare too long, and followed the lead of the other delegates, focusing on the coordinator. He was tall, well built, with short black hair slicked above a white, oval face. The man trained his icy grey eyes on each of the delegates.
“My name is Dean Ferdinand,” said the man, “and I will serve as the coordinator for this delegation’s trip to Cadmia.” He began to pace back and forth in front of them. “The young among you have been chosen based on your demonstrated intellectual potential,” he continued, “while the more aged among you have been selected due to your unique technical experience. The goal of this mission is simple; to secure a more prosperous economic future for our homeland. For this mission to succeed, we must be united in both will and purpose. The nation depends on it. To foster this sense of camaraderie, we will begin our trip with a hike in the nearby Unity forest. It is a rare opportunity to enjoy the scenery outside the metropolises that cover this continent. So let’s make the most of it.”
To leave the umbrella of Unity City was indeed a rare privilege. Normally, ground camera’s flagged guardian if unauthorized movement through borders was detected. Other members of the group began chatting excitedly as they started on their journey.
As they trudged through the dust, baking under the hot midday sun, Caden observed that Mr. Porter did not carry the group’s enthusiasm. His countenance was contorted, as wrinkles cracked across his face. Perspiration was now streaming down his face, no doubt intensified by the burning sun.
After a couple of hours, Mr. Ferdinand stopped. The group followed suit. “Let’s rest our legs a bit,” said the coordinator. The group sat down in the clearing, save Mr. Porter, who, upon dropping his bag, promptly made his way toward the surrounding brush. “Gotta take a leak,” he grumbled, as he entered the trees.
After about five minutes, the coordinator stood up. “I’d better go check on what happened to Mr. Porter,” he said, and he turned and entered the underbrush, disappearing into the trees.
After some time, Mr. Ferdinand returned from the forest, a somber look on his face. “I have some bad news,” he said. “Mr Porter has just fallen to his death. He decided to take his own life.”
Caden heard several gasps and observed the astonished gaze of the other group members, their eyes fixed on the coordinator.
“I suppose I ought to have seen this coming,” continued the coordinator. “As you may have noticed, Mr. Porter had been acting oddly for quite some time. The man was visibly disturbed.” Silent nods circled around the group. Caden remained still, trying to make sense of exactly what had just happened.
“His condition first came to our attention in an outburst he had at the town square, “ continued the coordinator, “but the man had considerable expertise, and he had assured us before we departed that he would be able to attend this conference. I’m not sure what exactly tipped him over the edge, but whatever it was, I’m sorry we weren’t able to catch it.
“We should let his family know,” said one of the group members.
“Unfortunately Mr. Porter has no surviving relatives,” said the coordinator. “We will, of course, honor his contributions to our society in a memorial ceremony upon our return. For now, those of you who wish to pay your respects immediately may follow me to the site of his demise.”
Caden and a few others stood and followed the coordinator into the woods. After a few minutes, they came upon a steep embankment that descended into the valley below.
“Here is where he perished,” said the coordinator, pointing at the floor of the valley. Caden stepped to the edge of the embankment. At the bottom he could make out the small dark blot of Mr. Porter’s figure. The sight disturbed him greatly. How was this allowed to happen, he thought to himself. Caden was troubled, and it wasn’t just the sight of the dead body that had unsettled him. Something didn’t seem right.
“Unfortunately, we cannot afford to put this trip on hold. I will be sure to explain what has happened to the ministry. We should make our way back to the others,” said Mr. Ferdinand. “Let’s head home and get cleaned up.”
The next day, the group arrived in front of the shuttle station. The shuttle was another feat of technological ingenuity; a chain of chrome colored interlinked pods on a magnetized rail. The group filed into the lead car.
As Caden sat in the shuttle, staring out at the green-brown blur of the passing scenery, he found that the image of Mr. Porter’s crumpled figure remained fixed in his mind. So that is what death looks like, thought Caden. He stared somberly into the distance, thinking of how horrible the rampant death and destruction that existed prior to the Great Disarmament must have been.
“Caden,” called out one of the delegates. He turned and faced the direction of the voice.
“Mr. Ferdinand has asked that you meet with him in the conference room.”
“Ok,” replied Caden, as he rose to his feet.
Caden knocked on the door of the parliamentary room before opening it. “You sent for me?”
“Yes I did,” replied Mr. Ferdinand. He gestured at the empty seat in front of him. Have a seat, please.” As Caden sat, he surveyed the room around him. “There are no cameras,” he observed.
“A necessary precaution, to ensure that our diplomatic agenda is not leaked before it is appropriate.” The man produced a file from his briefcase and slided it over to Caden, who picked it up and skimmed through its contents.
“The folder contains information on Velma Sidwell. Cadmia’s minister of economic development. She’s a vocal opponent of our efforts to invest in a share of the high tech mineral market in Cadmia. Real trouble, that one.”
Caden looked on in shock as the coordinator produced a vial of crystal clear liquid from his briefcase. A shudder crept up Caden’s spine. His breath grew shallow and rapid as his heart pounded against his chest, remembering his encounter with the burly man near the water tower. “Do you know what this is?”
Caden shook his head.
“It contains a tracker. The Unity is interested in following the movements of Ms Sidwell. Knowing who she is meeting and where will be invaluable in aiding the success of our negotiations. You are to bring her person into contact with the liquid. Take care not to get any on yourself or anyone else. If that should happen, the signals we receive from her will be corrupted, which means we’ll have wasted a significant investment as well as the chance to obtain some valuable information.”
“Is there no one else capable of carrying out this task?” asked Caden.
“The other youth delegates have already been briefed.”
“How am I supposed to administer the tracker?”
“Take out the handkerchief from your pocket and carefully apply several drops to it.” Caden did as he was told. Mr. Ferdinand then produced a pair of tweezers and folded the handkerchief over. “Place this folded handkerchief in your pocket.” Caden did so. Next, Mr. Ferdinand produced a small bottle of cologne from the briefcase. Shortly before the beginning of the ceremony, members of the Cadmia delegation, including Ms Sidwell, will approach the youth to greet them. Spray this bottle of cologne on yourself before she arrives. The cologne contains animal dander, which she’s known to be allergic to. As soon as she sneezes, offer her the handkerchief. If you should fail, another delegate will complete the task. Remember, be careful not to touch the interior of the handkerchief. Remember, be careful not to touch the area inside the fold.”
Hours later, Caden mentally repeated Mr. Ferdinand’s instructions as he waited for the Cadmia delegates to enter the room. This sort of action must be common practice in such gatherings, he reassured himself. After all, in any negotiation, information was power. And, after all, the other youth delegates had also prepared themselves to perform the same action.
Finally, the moment arrived when the Cadmia delegates entered the auditorium. As he stood with the audience to applaud, Caden sprayed himself with the allergen before joining the applause. Sidwell was shaking everyone’s hand as she made her way over to Caden. Reaching Caden, she reached out her hand, and Caden grasped it firmly. As he did so, Ms Sidwell began to sneeze. Caden reached into his pocket and offered Ms Sidwell the handkerchief. Without a second thought, Sidwell opened it and sneezed into it several more times.
“Thank you young man,” she said, handing the handkerchief over to caden. Caden pulled his wallet from his pocket and opened it for her to place it in. Ms Sidwell did so, before continuing down the line, shaking more hands as she went.
Caden spent the rest of the day learning about the development goals of Cadmia and Unity, observing lectures and attending workshops, before eventually returning to his hotel with the other members of the Unity delegation. Upon arriving in his room, he lay on the bed and promptly drifted off to sleep.
The next day, Caden stood in the shuttle station with the other delegates, awaiting their shuttle’s scheduled departure. His thoughts turned to his parents back in Unity City. They had been happy to learn of his selection to the delegation. He wondered how they would react when he told them of the trip’s events.
As he was engaged in thought, Caden began to notice a crowd forming near the station’s news screen. He turned to see what had caught their attention—and froze. On the screen were the letters “Velma Sidwell, Minister of Economic Development, Dies of Heart Attack.” Caden stood in stunned silence amid the bustling throng of travelers.
How? How did happen? His mind began to race. This woman was still in her prime. Her health was in good order. She had access to some of the best medical care available. How did this happen?
Caden’s stomach began to sink. He recalled the earlier words of the coordinator. “Real trouble, that one,” he had said. He remembered what he had seen that evening near the gate in Unity City. The way the white coated assistants had handled the vial. The rage of the person who had discovered him spying on them. Ms. Sidwell’s death was no accident.
The weight of this realization began to sink in. An assassination attempt had not been recorded for over a hundred years, let alone an attempt on the life of someone from a foreign nation. If the coroners discovered the true cause of the Executive’s heart attack, the consequences would be dire. Medical experts would run the lethal compounds formula through Guardian and compare it against all of Unity’s existing chemical compounds. If a match were to be detected, it would constitute a violation of the disarmament protocol—activating Guardian’s threat neutralization mechanism. Caden shuddered as he visualized the havoc wrought by the crimson column of destruction, igniting volatile chemicals and incinerating anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire. He imagined the blistering screams of horror, the wailing cries of those witnessing the destruction of their loved ones.
“Mr. Thomas,” called Mr. Ferdinand. Caden turned to face him as he approached. The coordinator stopped in front of him and held out his hand. “Excellent work at the conference.” Caden remained silent, staring grimly at the news screen. The coordinator turned his gaze toward the screen. “A shame isn’t it, what happened to her.”
“She shouldn’t have gone like that,” said Caden, as he stared coldly at the coordinator.
“Well, it is certainly regrettable,” replied Mr. Ferdinand. “Unfortunately, as advanced as our society is, death remains a common foe for us all.” He paused briefly, training his gaze on Caden. “Come walk with me. I can see that the journey has been taxing with you. Our exit approval is still valid, and the shuttle won’t be arriving for several hours. After a trip like this one, soaking in the comforts of nature is often just what one needs”
Caden shook his head. “I’d rather just head home.”
Mr. Ferdinand looked thoughtfully at Caden before continuing: “I understand that this must be stressful for you. I’m sure you must worry about the health of your parents. They lead quite stressful lives, don’t they? And they aren’t getting any younger.”
Caden bristled with a potent mix of fear and rage. A threat? The coordinator put a hand on his shoulder. “Come. We have much to discuss. We’ll meet up with the other delegates later” Caden followed him apprehensively, and the pair made their way through the city gates.
Absorbed in thought, he two walked silently through the countryside. He’s leading us away from the cameras, observed Caden. So he does intend to discuss what happened. Eventually, Caden broke the silence.
“You said we needed to talk, didn’t you? So talk. Since when did the Unity government decide to indulge in assassinations?”
“Allow me to answer your question with another question. What is the function of a city?”
“To provide a place of refuge for its citizens,” replied Caden.
“Correct. And who protects that refuge?”
“The Guardian system,” said Caden.
“You’re only half right. The Guardian system protects us from physical aggression. However, equally critical to a city’s survival is its ability to provide for its occupants. You see, although we are no longer at the mercy of armed groups of men and women, we are still beholden to the daily necessities of survival. The daily management of that survival necessitates hierarchy, structures of control which have simply evolved to adapt to the existence of the Guardian system. These structures of control and production did not vanish with our armies. And, as in the days of old, there exist numerous independent structures of control, each tasked with protecting a different set of interests. And with diverging sets of interests, conflict is bound to arise.”
“So that’s what this was? An act of protection?”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Ferdinand. “Ms. Stillwell was instrumental in blocking our access to vital minerals critical to the expansion of our city. Our population is burgeoning. If we descend into squalor, it leaves more room for our neighbors to expand, eating up our assets at the expense of the future of our people.”
“So you roped in the medical establishment and tapped their expertise to give us a leg up,” said Caden.
“Correct. The compound we produced leaves a biological signature identical to that left by natural heart failure. It has yet to show up visibly in existing coronary screening practices”
“But what if they somehow trace this back to us? What about the thousands who may die as a result of this action? What of the destruction it may cause? How can you possibly justify such a risk?”
Mr. Ferdinand shook his head. “How disappointing. I had hoped you would understand.”
By this time the pair had entered into a nearby forest. Caden heard a faint roar of a waterfall in the distance.
“Shouldn’t we be heading back?” asked Caden.
“No rush,” replied Mr. Ferdinand. “You should take in the view while you can. We don’t often get such opportunities these days.”
As they made their way through the forest, a sickening thought suddenly occurred to Caden. Here he was, isolated from the majority of civilization, one of a handful of people with knowledge of what had occurred. And he was away from any cameras. His mind suddenly flitted to the crumpled figure of Mr. Porter on the floor of the valley. Suicide, they had called it. And how easy it would be for them to pin him as the principle assassin, a man who drowned in a raging river crushed by the weight of carrying out a terrorist act on behalf of another government. After all, it was his contaminated pen that had been handed to Ms Sidwell. And more items like it may have been planted in his hotel room, by an agent disguised as a janitor. They may even have tampered with the chemical shipments his parents had received. He now understood why Mr. Ferdinand was so confident in his plan’s success. Caden’s death was the failsafe.
I became a target the moment I saw them unloading those vials, Caden thought to himself. How could I be so careless? He slowed his pace, his pulse quickening with every cautious step. The coordinator was following suit, matching his speed. Caden felt a tingling sensation rush through his body as adrenaline began coursing through his veins. The ominous roar of the waterfall grew louder with every step. Now or never, Caden thought to himself.
It happened in an instant. Caden desperately shoved the coordinator and bolted, releasing the tension in his body like a coiled spring. Mr. Ferdinand staggered before sprinting after Caden.
Caden tore through trees, numb to the pain as the surrounding branches ripped into his flesh. The coordinator was in hot pursuit, seemingly immune to the blows. Soon the edge of the forest was in sight. Almost there, thought Caden, willing his legs to carry him forward.
Suddenly, his foot struck a gnarled root. Caden fell quickly to the floor. He rolled onto his back as the Coordinator leaped on him, closing his fingers around Caden’s neck. Caden’s chest heaved helplessly as he choked, gasping desperately for air. The Coordinator’s grip tightened. Caden’s head began to pound, his vision losing clarity. He clawed frantically at his surroundings, desperate to grab hold of something, anything to defend himself. At last, his hand closed around a large stone. Gathering what remaining strength he could muster, he swung it as hard as he could.
The stone crashed against the coordinator’s skull with a sickening crack. Caden immediately felt the grip on his neck loosen. The coordinator clutched his wound, blood streaming down the side of his face. Caden quickly seized his chance, lifting his hips and rolling over, throwing the coordinator off balance. The coordinator’s back hit the floor. Caden brought the stone down on the coordinator’s head again and again, crying out in desperation with each strike. The coordinator moved more slowly with each blow, until at last his body went limp.
Caden leaned back on his blood-soaked arms, heaving heavily. A dull pain began to pulse through his body. He grew sick as he looked at the body in front of him and began to wretch. After a few painful dry heaves, he sat upright, breathing deeply. As he sat, he began contemplating the weight of what had just occurred.
“For 100 years, the world has known nothing but unprecedented peace.” The words rang hollow in his mind. He thought of the three lives lost in the course of this trip, of the thousands of people who had perished at the hands of that vile clear toxin, of the thousands more who’s lives continued to hang in a balance. We’re so fragile, he thought. Too fragile. There are so many ways to end a life. Though we may make every effort to prevent its loss, the wolves among us will find cunning ways to bring life to a sudden end. For all of Mr. Ferdinand’s flaws, Caden determined, he was right about one thing. The real war had never left them.
Caden gazed into the distance, contemplating the turbulence humanity was soon to enter. After this assassination attempt came to light, he was conved others made by other nations in the past would come to light. The world was about to explode once again. All he could do was hope that people would be ready when it did. Standing to his feet, Caden limped back toward the City.