“Maman! Papa!” A little nine-year-old girl leaped off the transport to her waiting parents and little brother.
Peter O’Day greeted his daughter, Charlotte Lilienne, but did not return her hug. He straightened up. “We need to get out of this public place.”
His wife, Marie Helêne, nodded. “Come along, Charlotte, Declan. We’re going to walk back to the house.”
They strolled together from the transport station. Every time Charlotte got excited or loud or affectionate, one parent or another reeled her back in. Even Declan – a mature seven-year-old – seemed to be avoiding her exuberance. Charlotte finally asked, “Daddy, where’s the car?”
“It was sold,” Pete said under his breath.
“Don’t ask so many questions,” Marie Helêne cautioned.
“Oh, well. I like to walk. I can run fast, too, see?”
Charlotte was about to dart ahead of them when Marie Helêne took her arm. “Keep quiet. Don’t you remember what we talked about a few weeks ago, when I came and got you and we went to a little fair and our picture was taken? You got your face painted.”
Charlotte thought for a second. “You said that I am not to make any public dis-disturbances. You said the fair might be the last fun we’d have for a while. And you said I would change schools once I came home for this break. I’m sorry, Maman.”
“Right,” Marie Helêne said. The four of them were quiet for another hour – the remainder of the walk.
Once they had gotten inside their little house, Pete turned to his children. “We can talk now.”
“Good! Good!” yelled Charlotte happily.
“Not so loud,” complained Marie Helêne.
Charlotte looked around. “Where’s Daddy’s big chair?”
“It was sold,” said Pete.
“The flash cooker?”
And so on and so forth, through any number of their more prominent or expensive possessions. Charlotte was young, but she was far from stupid and she was paying attention. “Why?” she finally asked.
The two adults looked at each other. Marie Helêne sighed. “Your father is, he is under suspicion. The Emperor’s government has him under what’s called surveillance.”
“I dared to say that things under the great Emperor Philip the Fourth were less than perfect,” Pete admitted. “It was right before Maman took you to that fair, Charlotte. We wanted you to have a good memory before, well, before things got bad. That careless statement was very pricey.” Charlotte looked puzzled so he explained, “I lost my job driving a transport.”
“You will, I don’t know how we’ll afford things,” Marie Helêne said, “You will be transferred to the cheapest school we can find. We also had our A ration cards taken away. We all have D ration cards now.”
“I can stay home with you, Papa,” Charlotte said.
“No,” he said, “you have to go to school, and you have to finish. Even the cheap school.”
“You remember that big test you took?” asked her mother.
“Yes! I did really good!”
“I know,” Marie Helêne said, “you could be some sort of an artist with your scores. But, uh, only if you complete your schooling.”
“What if I don’t wanna, Maman?”
“Then they’ll make you into a hooker,” Peter snapped. “Go play with your brother.”
“C’mon, Dec,” Charlotte said. The two children left to go to Declan’s room, which was in the back.
Their parents stared at each other for a while. “I want a better life,” Marie Helêne finally said, “this feels all wrong.”
“I made this bed,” Pete said, “but now we’ve all gotta lie in it.”
“Right,” said his wife, and then she thought of something. “I could take the kids, and got to Andoria, or something.”
“You’d leave me?”
“It’s not like I wanna,” she said, “but if I do, people will go back to buying my pottery, I bet. I could find another man. Maybe he’d accept the kids. We could get out.”
“You honestly think anyone’ll accept them? Or you? You’re in your forties, and the kids aren’t little babies. This mythological guy wouldn’t be able to just lie and pass them off as his own. Either they’d be killed when the food ran out or, or he’d put Charlotte on some street corner somewhere! And don’t tell me some rich guy would choose you, ‘cause you know they won’t. You aren’t young anymore, and you know that’s all that matters.”
“But I’m an artist! We’re elite!”
“No,” Pete said, breaking it to her, “I’ve tarred you. None of that matters anymore. We are all in this big mess together, like it or not.”
“Right,” Marie Helêne said, “I suppose it’s really just a matter of time. We’ll run outta money, and soon. The only difference is if Charlotte has to turn tricks at age eleven instead of ten. Why did you have to say what you did? We had it good!”
He was about to answer her, about it just having slipped out, when there was a knock on the door. They both froze. The knock was then louder, and more insistent. Marie Helêne came over to answer it. “Yes?”
The official at the door was in head to toe black, with various medals pinned to his chest. “Does Peter Thomas O’Day live here?” He had a PADD in his hand and Pete’s photo was pulled up. Marie Helêne stood there in shock as the wall chronometer showed the time – fourteen thirty-one hours – and then slid over to the date – June the twelfth of 2118. The official added, “Never mind. This is obviously he.” The official strode in as if he owned the place. “You are now a prisoner of the Terran Empire. You will pack a small bag for your trip to an internment camp. You,” he turned to Marie Helêne, “You and any other occupants are to vacate the premises immediately. You will each be permitted one small bag. All other possessions are forfeit to the Empire.”
Dumbstruck, Peter groped for his wife. “When will I return?”
“That is not my concern. You have five minutes to pack.” The official turned to leave. “There is no escape. I will be back with a soldier. And you won’t be able to do anything about it, traitor.” He smiled menacingly as he marched out.
“They’ll never let you come back,” Marie Helêne said, “And the kids and me, we’ll never recover. Charlotte will end up turning tricks this afternoon, or I will! And Declan will become a thief, if he’s lucky, and he lives that long.”
“I don’t want the Empire to have us. Not our own selves and not our stuff,” Pete said. “And I don’t want Charlotte and Declan to go through that, or you.”
“But there’s no way out.”
He looked around the tiny house. In the cooking area, ever since the flash cooker had been sold, they’d been barbecuing. The grill was inside in order to keep it from being stolen. “Do we have any lighter fluid left?”
“I think so.” She found it.
“I, I can’t promise it’ll be painless,” Pete said.
“But at least it’s on our own terms,” replied Marie Helêne. “I hate that it’s come to this.”
“Somewhere out there, there really is a better life,” Pete said, “it’s where people can criticize the Emperor without, without losing everything.”
“We’ll never know that life.” They kissed. “Kids!” Marie Helêne yelled.
The children returned. Pete looked at them. “This is the end of the line. I’m sorry. I never meant for it to happen this way. But my fool mouth has made this happen. I take sole responsibility for this.”
“What is Daddy doing?” asked Declan.
“Saying good-bye,” explained Marie Helêne. “I know this is awful. But it is, it’s the better choice. The choice of two horrors – to die now, or to be abused and exploited for the rest of your life. And that life will likely be short. Until a death that may very well be just as painful.”
“But at least this way we all go together,” Pete said. He gathered them up in his arms. “I love all of you. This was not my dream for you. But all we have left is to grab our own selves and our things, and not let the Terran Empire take them and use them.” He opened up the refrigeration unit and took out all they had to eat, which was a small, wilted head of cabbage. “It’s a little wet. Maybe it’ll smoke. Smoke inhalation would be better, right?”
Marie Helêne nodded sadly. She tore it into little bits and placed it into the barbecue grill’s kettle. “I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you, Mommy and Daddy,” said Declan, beginning to understand what was going on.
“I love you, Papa et Maman,” Charlotte said, knowing what was happening.
“I love you,” Pete said as he doused all of them with lighter fluid and sadly struck a match.
“Nothing was salvageable?” asked the official.
“Nothing,” replied a soldier as he sifted through the rubble in vain.
“Stupid political prisoner,” snorted the official as he turned to leave. “Still, the execution has been accomplished without the Terran Empire having to waste phaser fire. Come! We have eight more prisoners to round up today! We can’t keep the Emperor waiting.”
The soldier kicked a little at the smoldering rubble before going off to capture another unlucky dissident.
Titan: June 12, 2118. Four members of a family were killed today when a kitchen fire went out of control. The dead are Peter O'Day, his wife, Marie Helêne Ducasse O'Day, and their two children, Declan, aged 7 and Charlotte Lilienne, aged 9.