Title: The Rule of Many
Authors: Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders
Series: The Rule of One #2
Born to a death sentence in a near-future America, rebellious sisters herald a revolution—if they can survive.
Twins Ava and Mira Goodwin defy the Rule of One simply by existing. The single-child law, ruthlessly enforced by Texas’s Governor Roth, has made the sisters famous fugitives and inspirations for the resurgent rebellion known as the Common.
But the relentless governor and his implacable Texas State Guard threaten that fragile hope, as Roth consolidates his power in a bid for ultimate authority.
As Ava and Mira relinquish the relative safety of their Canadian haven to stand against Roth, new allies arise: Owen, a gifted young programmer, impulsively abandons his comfortable life in a moment of compassion, while Zee, an abused labor camp escapee, finds new purpose in resistance.
The four will converge on Dallas for a reckoning with Roth, with nothing less than their destinies—and the promise of a future free from oppression—on the line.
Disobedience means death. But a life worth living demands rebellion.
“You’re back,” I say, rising from my bed. Everyone in the room stands, acknowledging Emery as leader of the Common.
She wears her signature look: an unstructured, slightly oversized yellow coat that ends at her knees. Her rich nut-brown hair is short and wild like Einstein’s, and she’s taller than everyone in her small entourage. The more I’ve studied Emery—my mother’s childhood best friend—during my stay here at the Paramount, the more I’ve discovered she’s not the perfectly straitlaced leader I’d expected her to be. Looking closely, I can see the rough edges that hint at the woman she was before having to bear the weight of being the rebellion’s leader. The leftover holes from a double eyebrow piercing above her left eye, the way she bites the inside of her cheeks when she’s angry, as if withholding a fiery reaction. A poorly healed scar just below her collarbone. It all makes me like her even more.
Emery studies the room, her intent gaze passing over all the young faces eager and willing to carry out her orders, however small. We’re all unified in the reason we’re here with the Common, so far from our homes, and I find an unhappy comfort in the shared white-hot pain of loss. And the anger that comes with it.
“It’s good to see you all again,” Emery says. She nods to each of us in greeting. “May I have the room? I need to speak with Ava and Mira.”
The Games Club immediately disassembles, Barend directing everyone out into the hall. He shuts the door and turns on his heel, returning to his post inside our room.
Three members of Emery’s inner circle remain at her side. They’re all Elders, members who’ve been a part of the Common the longest. Their faces are hardened with world-weariness, and although I’ve never spoken to any of them personally, Pawel tells me they’ve each seen the inside of a prison cell more than once.
The door opens, and a young woman who looks a few years over twenty strides with pure confidence into the room. She stands a short distance from the group, unchallenged by Barend. She must be a new recruit, and an important one if she’s included in Emery’s close circle. The young woman’s jet-black hair is pulled back tightly into two French braids, highlighting her dark eyes with their long, intense lashes. If the eyes truly are a window to the soul, hers has taken more than a few beatings.
Mira clasps Emery’s shoulder in welcome before asking, “Did you find him this time? You’re back early—did something go wrong?”
Countless missions to rescue my father have led to nothing but disappointment. Wherever Roth is hiding his former Family Planning Director, he’s making damn sure he’ll never be found.
All four Common Elders lower their heads. Something did go wrong. Horribly wrong.
My stomach drops like a heavy anchor cut loose into the sea.
“What happened?” I demand, stepping forward. His execution date has been moved up. The Guard caught wind of our extraction plans and changed his location . . .
Emery raises her head, biting the inside of her cheeks, hard. “It’s with great sorrow that I have to inform you of your father’s murder,” she tells us straight. “I am sorry that we could not get to Darren in time.”
He’s dead. My father’s dead. I’ve learned to always prepare for bad news, but I wasn’t prepared for this.
Through a haze of salted tears, I lurch backward. Mira catches me, and I hold on to my sister tight—our combined strength the only thing that keeps me from shattering against the floor.
“No, no, no . . . you said Roth wouldn’t kill him!” I cry. “You said he wouldn’t risk turning the people to our side!”
“What about the stay of execution!” Mira says in disbelief.
“The official statement from the Governor’s Mansion is that it was a suicide,” Emery says. “Roth made a speech, weaving a story that Darren hanged himself with his bedsheets during the night, leaving behind a note detailing his great regret for his traitorous crimes against his country and its people.”
A cold panic rushes through my body, and I feel faint. Mira shakes uncontrollably beside me. I turn to my sister, and both our green eyes scream, Lies!
Father would never, never take his own life. He would fight until the bitter end to get back to us.
“The note said his greatest shame of all was raising illegal twin daughters who turned into dangerous traitors themselves.”
Roth is using our own father against us. Bile rises to my throat, and my knees falter.
Emery seizes both our shoulders, pulling us close, making sure we listen.
“We know both the suicide and the note are bullshit. We know just before sunrise, Roth entered Darren’s cell and shot your father in cold blood.”
I try to break free of Emery and my sister. I can’t breathe. I need space for my heartache, but Emery grips my shoulder harder.
“Listen to me. We have the surveillance video. Your father’s killing will not be buried. Roth’s corruption will be exposed—another link in his chain of lies. Your father will continue to help the cause even in death, as your mother did.”
“The video could be fake, too, just like the suicide note. He could still be alive!” I find myself pleading.
The new recruit with the French braids steps forward, shaking her head. Her eyes soften with sympathy. “I wish that were true.”
She pulls something from her jacket’s inner pocket and carefully opens her palm: a metal capsule the size of my fingernail.
“I was held in the same prison as your father,” the young woman explains, her steady voice struggling to break through the fog of despair that separates me from everything else in the room. “While the Common arrived too late to rescue your father, they were able to rescue me.”
Who is this person? Why was she imprisoned, and how did she gain access to my father’s chip? It’s always a never-ending maze of questions.
“Scan the chip,” Mira says, her voice hollow.
Barend produces a microchip scanner from his duty belt—he always seems to have the necessary tool or weapon—and hands the device to Emery to scan.
A death record pops up on the chip scanner’s screen:
Name: DR. DARREN JAMES GOODWIN
Cause of death: SUICIDE
Burial location: UNKNOWN
The only thing I have left of my father is this tiny scrap of metal with his blood still on it. Where is his body?
I want to scream.
“It’s Darren’s chip. It has been authenticated,” Emery declares with full conviction. “Skye Lin has been fighting for the Common’s cause for half her life. She turned a Guard at the prison, who gave her the chip and surveillance video in the midst of our rescue mission.”
Skye Lin. The assassin who poisoned two states’ Family Planning Directors and made an unsuccessful attempt on my own father’s life. I’ve never seen her face; after she was arrested in Dallas five years ago, Roth banned images of the teenage murderer across all media outlets. Before Mira and me, criminals were not lionized in Texas; they did not become famous. They were thrown in dark cells and never heard from again.
“I didn’t know your dad was a member of the Common,” Skye insists. “I wasn’t trying to kill him. I was trying to kill his office.” The Family Planning Division.
With that, she turns and walks out, leaving Mira and me drowning in confusion.
“I want to see the surveillance video,” Mira says from beside me.
Taken aback, I turn to face my sister. “You want to watch our father’s murder?”
“I have to see it for myself.” She looks up at me, her eyes red and glassy with anguish. “We were raised on so many secrets, Ava. I just have to see.”
I shake my head. “I can’t.”
As I move to leave the room—I need the open air; the hurt inside me suddenly seems too large for this crowded space—Emery holds up her hand to stop me.
“We leave for the Common’s headquarters in the morning—Paramount Point Lodge. You both are needed there. I can explain more tomorrow, but for now take the time to grieve.” She lowers her head in a respectful bow. “Your father was a brave man.”
Chills run through my body. Rayla had said those same words.
He wants a better future for you both.
I close my eyes and remember Father’s greatest lesson: it takes iron to sharpen iron. Metal bullets forged my father’s death into a cast-iron weight that sits at the bottom of my heart. To be brave like my father, I must endure the painful process of honing. I must become so sharp that no one can touch me or mine again.
“Show me the surveillance video,” Mira demands once more.
“It will not be easy to watch, but the choice is yours to make,” Emery says.
Visions of my father tied helplessly to a chair, Roth standing over him with a gun, a smug smile on his lips . . .
No! I rip open my eyes and push past Emery, away from my sister. Barend gets out of my path, allowing me to throw open the door, and I stumble into the hall alone. Without any clear direction in mind, I head toward the stairwell. Anger clouds my vision; my knees are shaky, and I lean on the wall to stay standing. My entire world feels upside down, spinning out of control.
Bam. My shoulder slams into someone, jolting my body back upright.
“I’m sorry,” I say automatically.
But sharp-edged things don’t apologize. They just cut right through. I steel myself and keep going, not looking back, continuing to drag my wobbly legs down the hallway to the exit.
“No, I’m sorry,” a tentative voice says behind me. Pawel. “I’m sorry about your dad. I just heard the news.” Intensity seeps into his words. “At least he died for a reason. You can be proud.”
His words shoot at me like bullets, a gut shot with no exit wound, and I stop short. I wrap my arms around my waist—like that could stop the bleeding—and peer inside the room Pawel just exited.
A group of kids, no older than eleven or twelve, huddle on the floor around a tablet screen. Barend would be livid if he caught them with this smuggled technology. As I wonder fleetingly what their punishment would be for risking the Common’s safety, one of the kids’ heads tilts to the side, giving me a full view of the screen.
My father’s face is splashed across an underground virtual newscast. The kids watch, enraptured as a computer-generated anchor with blue hair and violet eyes gives a breathless account of how the disgraced Family Planning Director shockingly took his own life out of shame.
“My brother says it’s all a conspiracy,” a girl with a high ponytail says. It’s Ellie, Pawel’s adopted sister. “A Goodwin would never give up.”
Another girl spies me standing in the doorway, her breath catching in her throat. She nudges the boy sitting beside her, and the entire group turns to stare at me, their mouths slightly open in reverence.
“Our parents sacrificed themselves for Ellie and me too,” Pawel says quietly. A crushing sadness marks his face at the memory. Pawel’s four-person family was illegal, even if Ellie wasn’t related by blood. Whatever hardships he experienced that led him to the Common will haunt him the rest of his life.
All at once my sharp edges soften with empathy.
I flick my gaze back to my own father on the newscast. They chose a photograph of him in his stately dress uniform. He looks strong and proud and so violently alive it hurts.
I scan the youthful faces of my unexpected audience. Ellie rises and holds out her forearm, fist curled into a tight ball, like Mira and I did at the end of our hijacked newscast. She’s petite but fierce, her oval-shaped hazel eyes reflecting her tremendous appetite for defiance at such a young age.
Everyone around her stands and does the same.
Tattoos, drawn with identical dark ink, cover their right wrists, each one a unique emblem of their own resistance: a charging bull, two thick parallel lines, a scorpion ready to strike, a beautifully patterned sun with a face inside.
Next to me Pawel lifts his shirtsleeve, revealing his own tattoo of a tree with thick roots sheltering the letter E.
Our spark worked. The flame of revolution spread like wildfire just as Rayla said it would, and now even the next generation can feel its burn.
My heart races wild inside my chest. I hold down my wrist, fist clenched.
“Resist much,” I say.
“Obey little,” their voices answer in unison.
Hailing from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders are award-winning filmmakers and twin sisters who honed their love of storytelling at The University of Texas at Austin. While researching The Rule of One, they fell in love with America’s national parks, traveling the path of Ava and Mira. The sisters can currently be found with their Boston terriers in sunny Los Angeles, exploring hiking trails and drinking entirely too much yerba mate.