Chapter 3. Strike

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I'm woken by someone banging on the door and a voice shouting in an Upper that is barely comprehensible: "Leaving in fifteen!"

Sennai is already up and pulling on his boots, and I duck into the bathroom, struggling to change into the clothes I brought along for the welcoming ceremony. It's Upper garb from another century: ankle-length silky blue dress, short in the sleeves, matching slippers. It was the exchange committee's decision, one I didn't dare protest. At least Sennai looks as ridiculous as I do, in his white robe and red belt. He balked against wearing the traditional hat, and after seeing the mess his unruly hair made of the ancient silhouette, the committee caved. They told me how to put on the dress, but my fingers fumble with the bow at the back, and seem to have forgotten everything they said to me.

We barely have time to pack before there is another knock, and Jin comes in. "Ready?" he asks. I shrug, but my heart is beating very fast.

We are led by another way to the car, which has changed locations overnight – probably another security measure. "Madam President has prepared a short welcoming speech," Jin explains as we get in. "We'll be stopping at the Town Hall square before we drop you off at your host families."

He looks tenser than he did yesterday, more alert – his eyes are everywhere, even though it's much quieter on the road than it was yesterday. I silently add a few years to my initial estimation; he must be mid-twenties, after all.

I don't notice the sound until Sennai asks: "What is that?"

At first I'm not sure what he's talking about – it just sounds like more traffic to me. Then I hear it, like a distant ocean. Too irregular to be mechanical, too random, too much like...

And then something clicks. "Is that people?"

In saying it, I know it's true. It's a mass of people, roaring, not too far from us. Sennai, who has been peering out his window, suddenly pulls my sleeve. "Look."

We're just going over a bridge, and a stream of people moves steadily below us. Thousands of them, flowing towards what must be the Town Hall square: a large, circular plaza with stairs leading up to a building that even from this angle looks impressive. It's much older than many of the other buildings here, with old-fashioned columns around its circumference, and seemingly hewn out of white marble. As the car turns off the highway I see people lining the side of the road, behind a low metal fence guarded by soldiers. They're cheering, or more likely shouting – we move by too quickly to tell. Flashes of red and blue pass us by, and some people are holding up signs, though we go by too fast to read them.

"God," I whisper.

Sennai says cheerfully: "Well, if we get killed, at least we'll go together."

It's a lame enough attempt at a joke to draw a smile to my lips. "Shut up."

"There will be no killing," Jin says, looking serious. "We'll make sure of that."

Sennai and I exchange a glance, but neither of us comments on the implausibility of that statement.

After a few moments we come to a halt next to a platform surrounded by soldiers, and Jin jumps out of the car ahead of us to open the doors. I recoil and bite my teeth at the sound that enters the limo, ear-splitting without the dampening effect of the doors. For a moment, watching Sennai's back as he gets out the car, I'm frozen in my seat and just know I won't be able to move.

Of all things, it is my father's words that mobilize me. Make me proud, Roslin.

Not a Godspeed, but a command.

I swallow and force myself to follow Sennai outside. My feet haven't even touched the ground when the yelling intensifies. They've seen me. Us. They hang over the fence trying to get a glimpse of us, as I do of them, even as we are rushed up on the stage. I scramble behind Sennai, keeping my gaze on his back to avoid all the prying eyes, but it's impossible to ignore the strangeness around me completely. They're so tall, for one. And their clothing outshines even my silk dress – the colors shimmer like a watery membrane in reds and blues and greens and greys. Every one of them seems dressed similarly, in one-pieced bodysuits that clings to them like a second skin. There are no signs here, but there are fists raised. I'm not fluent enough to pick out exactly what they are hurling at me, but it is clear enough from their tone that none of it is compliments. I feel like shouting something back in Upper, just to let them know the feeling is mutual, but I know I would never endanger the mission that way – or myself, for that matter. I'm pretty sure Edena meant what she said yesterday: a substitute can still be found.

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