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The River, The Axe and The Options

THE RIVER, THE AXE AND THE OPTIONS

by Michael M. Rader

A river is not its water, but it needs moving water to be a river. With that in mind, Naveed jumped across the flat stones set in the shallow, stagnant waters of what could maybe still be called the Colorado River. His backpack swung as he jumped, the C HOPKINS rods inside clacking together like loose marbles. He landed on the eastern side of the river, his worn boots kicked up miniature mushroom clouds of dust, rising and falling like empires. He had crossed the dividing line, from the Luddites’ territory into the land claimed by the Compound. The peace pact between the two sides was solid enough, but dealing with the Compound still made Naveed nervous.

He pulled himself up the steep bank, gloved hands grabbing at the shaggy Joshua Trees and scrub brush growing out of the red earth. He stood at the top of the bank, looking across the rocky wasteland. The FedMet called it Arizona, still thinking they owned the damn place. Naveed  took a drink of flat-water and wiped his cracked lips. He wanted real water, water with impurities. The water that came from the compound was too perfect, every necessary mineral and electrolyte added in precise proportion. Flavor came from the flaws and the compound didn’t manufacture anything with flaws–nothing they’d admit to, anyway.

He walked past sunbaked Luddite children digging for mineral-rich rocks in the soil at the top of the bank. They waved to Naveed. Soon he’d be giving them red plastic whistles and tops and action figures from his printer in exchange for the rocks they dug up. Especially the whistles, the kids loved their little, red whistles; It drove their parents crazy. None of the children spoke, wanting instead to get their rocks and get back to their side of the river as quickly as possible. Naveed smiled at a little girl using the leg of an old Barbie doll to pry up stones. It was impossible to stop children from creating new tools and technology no matter how hard you tried to run from it.

He kept on, aiming towards the fortress of rock in the distance and the haphazardly stacked tower of parallel processors rising from its center. It’d only been a few months since he last visited the compound, but it looked like the tower had already grown a good ten or twenty feet since then. Crude, wooden palisades stretching across the opening of the rock fortress greeted Naveed as he drew closer to the compound.

Two guards appeared from fissures around the fortress, flanking Naveed and keeping in step with him. This was a new protocol. He’d traded easily with the compound in the past and had never had a guard look at him twice. He sized the two men up without turning his head, not letting them know how much he knew. One of the men was a Rip. He was a good seven feet tall, limbs as thick as lumber with wickedly sharp keratin protrusions jutting out from his knuckles. The other man was shorter and Naveed could tell from his single-colored eyes he was Unrooted. Although the organic curves of the printed, automatic pistol in his hand looked just as nasty as the Rip’s claws.

“State your business, ‘phobe,” said the Unrooted guard.

“Trade,” said Naveed, still staring ahead.

“Trading what?” growled the Rip, his voice modified to a bass just below thunderclaps.

“Rods. Mostly Carbon but a few HOPKINS.”

“No calcium?” asked the Rip. Naveed’s chest rattled when the giant spoke.

“I’ll take it up with your trademaster,” said Naveed.

“Can’t,” said the Unrooted guard, “He’s gone Untouchable.”

Naveed’s chest tightened. The trademaster was a good man and one of the few friends he had left in the compound after leaving. Naveed stopped walking and turned to the man, forcing a cool calm into his voice, “Bad filter?”

The Unrooted guard nodded, “Tried to crack regeneration, hacked himself with some kinda’ worm. Real nasty stuff. And Samuel here wonders why I keep myself pure.” He gave the Rip a pointed look.

“Get off your pulpit, Len,” said the Rip called Samuel, “I went with the tried and true.” He held up a fist the size of a baby to demonstrate his clawed knuckles. Samuel leaned in and stared at Naveed’s shifting eyes that roiled like muddy water.

“Hey Len,” said Samuel, “Speaking of. You ever seen a Rooted ‘phobe?”

“Nope,” said Len, “Pretty suspicious if you ask me.”

“I used to live here,” said Naveed, “A long time ago.”

Len walked ahead to pull the gate to the compound open, “I’m keeping an eye on you, ‘phobe. Look at us funny and Sammy here can either snap you in half or dig your lunch outta’ your belly. Either way, it’ll hurt.”

Naveed nodded and walked into the shadow of the fortress. Orderly stacks of whitesmoke colored houses lined the jagged cliff faces within. Each house was identical, made of aluminum-strength organic plastic, molded into clean, seamless planes intersecting at perfect angles. He walked past a larger building with a short stack of processors slouching nearby, it churned raggedly and Naveed could feel the heat radiating off of it. The compound manufacturers were working hard.

Naveed was surprised to see nearly everyone around him was Rooted. The Unrooted guard was in the minority. Even more surprising, nearly half of them were Ripped. He was surrounded by unnatural frames, organic armor, spidery limbs, ornamental wings and ears, prehensile tails and bioluminescent strips.

“Hell of a lot of Rips, huh?” said Naveed.

Samuel and Len glared at him but said nothing. It used to be only the most daring and crazy hackers Rooted themselves, tweaking their DNA through the filters installed in their stolen FastTrav chambers. It ended in nightmares and nasty messes more often than it worked. Fear of consequence was never enough to stifle innovation, though, and they kept pushing the boundaries of what they could do. After all, that’s why the people of the compound ran to the Interstitial Spaces in the first place–to create, to push against the Metro laws insisting teleportation could only be used by the sanctioned few. And now the Compound was all but forgotten, along with the technophobic villages and the rural communities that withered as the infrastructure between the Mets collapsed.

A sociologist from DenMet visited once, a decade earlier. Her name was Dolly Gilshannon–although she went by Shannon. She was there working on her Master’s thesis on people of the Interstitial Spaces. Naveed was her guide, showing her around the compound and explaining the ethos and community and their uneasy relationship with the technophobes across the river. At the time, Naveed thought he’d loved her. That was a long time ago, though. His life was on the other side of the river now, stripping minerals and bartering with the Compound. He doubted anyone here remembered him now, what he’d done for them. No one, except maybe for Smyth.

They walked on, passing beneath the long shadow of the droning tower of processors. Naveed saw the old two-story ripping house lurking nearby, looking as drab and dismal as ever. It was one of the oldest structures in the Compound, a chimeric eyesore slapped together from building material stolen off of abandoned houses.

He’d spent thousands of hours in the ripping house, tweaking and modifying the FastTrav chambers he and Smyth had stolen and designing new filters. He could still remember the exhilaration after a successful experiment, climbing into the chamber on the first floor, vanishing, and appearing in the chamber upstairs with a different eye color or texture of hair. That exhilaration of discovery faded when Smyth started pushing the experiments too far and encouraging the more radical hackers to explore more extreme modifications.

They reached the far end of the compound and the long, unfurnished huts housing Untouchables. Swirling eyes of varying color stared at them from the hut. Naveed could hear them moaning within and screaming animal screams. Shadowy and grotesque figures lurched around in the shadows of the unlit interior. Something wet and slithering passed the doorway, withered limbs jutting out from between segmented ridges in its body. It paused in the doorway, turning briefly towards the group, staring with unseen eyes. Naveed shuddered.

“So, who am I meeting with?” asked Naveed.

Len shrugged, “Figured I’d just leave ya’ at the trading house and you’d figure it out.”

“I’ll meet with Smyth, then.” said Naveed.

The two guards moved in front of him.

“The Administrator is not receiving visitors.” said Samuel, his calm voice a dull roar.

“The Administrator? Sounds like Smyth could use a lecture about humility,” said Naveed.

“You will refer to The Administrator as The Administrator,” shouted the Rip.

Naveed’s ears rang. He stepped up to Samuel, his face coming up to the Rip’s chest. He craned his neck up and stared deeply into the man’s shifting blue-green eyes.

“Listen to me, freakshow. I worked with Smyth back when you were a ninety-pound nothing. I wrote the base code for the filter that Ripped you and all your nightmare buddies. And I’ve got the elements you need to keep this operation going, bik?”

Samuel’s eyes swirled with color as he processed Naveed’s words. Len nodded at the giant and Samuel shrugged, picking Naveed up by his leg. Naveed’s backpack slipped off of his shoulders and hit the ground. Len picked up the backpack and Samuel threw Naveed over his shoulder, walking down the street.

“Where are we going?” asked Naveed, wheezing through bruised ribs.

“I think we need to meet with The Administrator.” said Samuel.

*****

Samuel went in first, Naveed could hear his voice through the soundproofed walls of Smyth’s sprawling home like a distant grinding of stone on stone. He came out and held the door open for Naveed, ushering him in. The door closed behind him. It took a while for his eyes to adjust in the darkness. He could hear his old friend’s labored breathing somewhere nearby.

“Navi.”

Naveed turned towards the thin voice. There was a simple sheet spread across an open doorway. He started pushing it aside.

“Don’t. Please.”

Naveed lowered his hand, letting the sheet fall back in place, “Is that you, Smyth?”

“Smyth. The Administrator. God,” Smyth sighed and it turned into a bronchial rattle, “Yes. I’m he. We’re it.”

“What’s going on around here?” asked Naveed.

They stood in silence as Smyth caught his breath. As Naveed’s eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw the walls were covered with relics, ancient things he’d only ever read about. Model airplanes dangled from the ceiling, stuffed replicas of animals Naveed couldn’t name lined the shelves and bumper stickers with inscrutable phrases like 10,000 MILES TO WALL DRUG adhered to every empty spot on the wall.  

“Do you know the parable of the ax?” asked Smyth.

“Remind me,” said Naveed.

“A man buys a new axe. While using it, he breaks the head. He brings it to a repairman who replaces the head of the ax–“

“Right. Then he breaks the handle and you ask if it’s the same axe,” said Naveed, “I guess I do know that one.”

“I don’t know if I’m the same man, Navi. I don’t look like Smyth. I don’t feel like Smyth. I make…moral decision Smyth never would have. I don’t know if that’s age or the, the, the…alterations I’ve made to my mind, the capacity changes. They don’t even call me Smyth anymore.”

“Whose fault is that?” asked Naveed.

Silence, it seemed as if Smyth had stopped breathing for a moment.

“How long has it been, Navi?”

“Since?”

“Since you left.”

“About ten years.”

“When did I see you last?”

“About ten years ago.”

“Hm. I know you’re…you’re Rooted. Did you ever rip, Navi?”

Naveed shook his head, realized Smyth couldn’t see him and said, “No. Nothing more than our little cosmetic experiments”

“They’re all doing it now,” said Smyth, “I think we’ve reached a…a tipping point.”

Naveed could hear Smyth moving around behind the door, rustling and scratching. He saw a thin shadow pass over the curtain.

“What was the tipping point, Smyth?” asked Naveed.

Silence.

“Smyth?”

“Smyth,” said the rasping, hollow voice from behind the curtain, “Smyth was the tipping point. He…I…went too far. I’ve become an icon in here, The Administrator, ruling secondhand from behind a curtain and…and…losing touch. It’s out of my control, Navi.”

Naveed could sense Smyth standing just behind the curtain now, the form of his shadow was something unrecognizable.

“The Administrator is out of control, Navi.”

Naveed backed away from the doorway. Fingers as long and rigid as shin bones slipped from behind the folds of the curtain..

“We move soon, Naveed. We fight soon. I need you.”

Naveed turned and ran. He could hear Smyth shuffling across the floor behind him.

“We need your help!” Screamed Smyth, his voice an eerie high pitch, “Smyth needs your help!”

Naveed pushed the door open, stumbling out into the light, momentarily blinding him. He didn’t stop, though. Naveed ran, blind and reckless.

“I need him!” Shrieked Smyth.

Samuel and Len ran after him, Samuel’s tree-trunk legs shaking the ground. Naveed’s vision returned and he realized that he was running in the wrong direction, away from the Compound gates. He heard Samuel drawing heavy, snorting breaths just behind him. The only good news was people were leaping out of Naveed’s way in anticipation of the giant. The Rip was gaining on him, there was no way Naveed could compete with the man’s unnaturally long and muscular legs. He dodged around a Joshua Tree and heard a splintering crack as Samuel crashed through it. So much for using agility. He had to think.

He was being chased by a large mass moving at a high speed–p=mv…momentum. Naveed fell to his knees and curled inward, rolling. He kicked up a cloud of dust as he skidded to a stop. Samuel overshot, trying to turn and stop. He lost his balance and tumbled, crashing through the side of a house and leaving a jagged tear. Naveed got to his feet and ran in the opposite direction.

Naveed was in the shadow of the processor stack when he saw Len who was breathing hard and jogging slowly. The backpack full of rods was still slung around the guard’s back. Before Len could react, Naveed jumped and drove his heavy boots into Len’s chest like a battering ram. The two men fell to the ground. Naveed rolled, grabbed his backpack and stood up. The ground shook and Naveed turned.

Samuel had already recovered and was running back towards him. He was too far from the gate to outrun the Rip. He looked around and saw that the door to the ripping house was standing open. At least there he had a chance of making a stand, finding something to defend himself with. He dashed for the entryway. There was a short, sharp crack and Naveed felt cold fire pierce his side. He twisted and saw Len holding up his gun. Naveed forgot about the gun. Another bullet hit his shoulder, embedding in the bone.

With the last of his energy, Naveed fell through the open door, kicking it shut behind him as he collapsed to the floor.

*****

Clutching his side, Naveed reached up and slid the locking bar shut on the door. His vision blurred, darkness eating away at the edges. He slumped down to his stomach and looked around the sparse room. There was only a plastic table and chairs, the flight of stairs up to the second floor and a doorway in the back to where the FastTrav chamber was kept. Naveed tried to stand but everything went dark and he heard the sound of rushing water in his ears. He collapsed. Naveed pulled himself across the floor, dragging with his one good arm and pushing with the little strength left in his legs. His backpack dragged heavily, sagging to the side. Samuel bellowed and pounded on the door. Naveed could hear Len telling Samuel to be careful. They couldn’t risk damaging the equipment.

Naveed reached the back room when he heard the scraping of a pry bar sliding across the slick plastic of the door, trying to find purchase. He pulled himself into the room and stopped to rest, looking around. The back room was lined with the delicate interfaces and connections that led to the stack of processors outside. Wires snaked out from the cool-blue, glowing boxes and wormholed through the wall. The interfaces connected to the terminal at the back of the room, an obsolete glass and keyboard construct, and to the FastTrav chamber lying flat on the floor in the middle of the room.

The chamber was an old one, actually made of metal. It was a corroded deathtrap with rusted out holes in the side. It always reminded Naveed of a massive bathtub, although the mess of wires and indicator lights and the folding doors that closed over the top made it hard to confuse the two. There was a box next to the chamber with cylindrical receptacles for rods, in case extra elements were needed for the user’s Rip.

He was out of options. No, that wasn’t true–he had options, they just weren’t one’s he liked. He could just die, bleed out on the floor and hope no one used him for some weird resurrection experiment. He could face Samuel and Len and maybe survive to find out what his crazed former friend wanted to do to him. Or he could risk the FastTrav.

Naveed knew the basic filter. He knew it would mend wounds and remove foreign matter because that’s what he programmed it to do. He even got it to the point where it could detect and remove cancerous growth before he left. No matter what, he’d live if he went through. He just didn’t know what he’d look like. For all he knew, the trademaster’s filter was still installed and he’d end up an Untouchable.

It would be his choice, though. That’s what mattered.

Naveed heard metal groaning and plastic splintering and Samuel panting just outside the door. He struggled to his feet and leaned over the terminal, dripping blood on the keyboard. It was already on the command line, the first good luck he’d had all day. He typed in the initialization sequence, hoping the syntax hadn’t changed in the last ten years.

The screen flashed red. Insufficient material, Carbon, HOPKINS, and CaFe rods needed.

Naveed groaned, that meant a Rip was installed, a complicated one. He opened his backpack and fed every rod into the receptacle one by one, the rods thudding and clanging as they slid down the chute to the element tanks under the floor.

The screen was still red telling him he had insufficient Calcium and Iron. He looked around the room, desperately hoping someone had left some spare CaFe rods.

Samuel ripped the door off of its tracks and the building vibrated as the guard squeezed through the opening. Naveed could hear the men shouting and the Rip was screaming curses as he moved through the building.

Naveed typed in the override command and reinitialized the FastTrav chamber. He climbed into the chamber and the folding doors closed over him. He was in darkness, the hum of servos and whine of charging capacitors surrounding him. There was a flash of light, sudden and sharp as lightning, and Naveed was ripped apart.

*****

The FastTrav system could tear apart and reassemble anything down to individual atoms, but it couldn’t place electrons. When the folding doors of the chamber opened and Naveed sat up, he couldn’t remember anything. The building he was in was shaking. He could hear someone screaming, no, roaring in anger below him. He vaulted out of the chamber, his arms rippling with new muscle. Memory and sense of space returned as the electrical activity of his brain resettled to where it belonged.

He was on the second floor in a room that was almost identical to the one he had just left. He looked down at his abdomen, no wound. He looked at his hands, no claws or fur, so he was still moderately human. He could feel the power as he moved, though. His arms and legs were still slender, but the muscles beneath were dense and quick. Every step was one of perfect precision and speed, every movement of his arm was graceful and unfathomably fast, burning with energy.

Naveed saw the Rip’s head appear from the staircase below, pulling himself up into the second story. The floor creaked ominously beneath the giant’s feet. Samuel opened his mouth to say something, but Naveed launched forward, his feet coiling and retracting like well-engineered springs. He swung an elbow, hitting Samuel’s jaw. There was a sound like a gunshot and the Rip toppled down the stairs, the weight of his body tearing a hole through the steps on his way down. Naveed cried out in pain and clutched his broken arm.

Bone density. Of course.

His elbow and forearm had shattered on impact, breaking like a bottle across Samuel’s jaw. There was insufficient Calcium and Iron to build bones that could withstand the new force he was working with.

He felt a shifting in his arm, like insects crawling beneath his skin. Bone shards sliding back into place, mending together. Tendons and ligaments retightening and rebinding. Naveed screamed as his bones reknit in a matter of seconds. It was excruciating. Somebody had cracked the code for regeneration after all. Naveed felt hungrier than he had ever felt before in his life.

He bent and turned his arm. It was already at full function. His only way out now was the tear through the wall and jump to the ground or to fight through the guards filling up the first floor of the building.

Either way, it was going to hurt.

END

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Fly Red Fox

FLY RED FOX

by Desmond Fox

Red Fox circled the coyote, tossing cold Mojave sand with her jagged steps. Sweat beaded on her face, painting streaks of dirt and blood down her blunted features with each salty drip crawling down her skin in rivulets. Half of her head was freshly shaved, the other half was ornamented with long black dreadlocks. The rest of her was only clothed in decorative hempen ropes and animal-blood warpaint. The coyote stared back with its one blue eye, bearing a toothy snarl.

This was not how she intended to use her head start, and she truly hoped the coyote would back away and run off as soon as it identified her scent, but it was hungry. She could see it in the creature’s lean body and hear the hunger pangs in her head. It was nervous too, too anxious to pounce first.

Red Fox seized the opportunity. She leapt forward into the air; her body took a shape not its own. Her jaw extended, amber hair packed her dark skin as she reconstructed herself into the shape of a diminutive kit fox. She snapped at the creature’s neck with her comparably meager muzzle, crushing its windpipe in a cloud of flesh-musk. Surprise was the last thing the animal felt before it died.

Red Fox turned back into her human shape, dipped a finger in the dead animal’s wound and painted a small mark on her face in the shape of a spiral. Suddenly she was aware of how much time she had wasted, and set back to her gait, deeper into the desert in search of civilization.
There was nowhere to hide here, everything was flat and sparse. Her only way out was to find someone willing to protect her and hide her from her tribe, but outlanders usually kept their hands clean of local traditions.

The other option was to hide as an animal, take refuge in a warren or den, but she would ultimately be rejected by the indigenous families, and use of her shapeshifting only made her easier to find.
Others had fought. She had been with the hunting parties before as a child, and watched skinwalkers chased down until they turned and bore their teeth in defiance. She had seen throats ripped out of strong men by fierce wolf-women, but in the end they were slain the same. They were painfully skinned alive then burned as a tribute to their nuclear gods.

She wished she had ran sooner. She wished she could sprout feathers and take to the sky like a sparrow, but she could not. Like all hunted, she had been hexed, feet bound to the earth. She would only fly again in her death.
On the wind she could hear the trot of horses and the calls of their riders. She had been careless, slow and now she would die for it. She ran hard. She barreled through dirt and sand, past yuccas, juniper and white firs, when she saw her only hope.

In the distance she saw a tent and a fire. There was a man with skin the color of hematite feeding oats to an elderly painted horse. If the gods were kind and their bellies full, she would find some sort of sanctity here. She raced onward, allowing her arms to become legs, and her feet to become paws. Her muzzle stretched and her body-hair thickened into a red coat. She barreled between the man’s legs into the tent, hiding in his fox furs, twitching in fear.

*****

Osiah watched a naked woman turn into a fox, then race into his tent. He stared at the whisky bottle in his hand incredulously before he heard the roar of horse hooves beating in thunderous rhythm.

A wise man once said speak softly and carry a big stick, and Osiah’s ICS-191 GLM grenade launcher was about the biggest stick he had found so far, so he picked it up from beside his tent and prepared to wave it around a little. The weight of it always surprised him. He did a few curls, until it was as natural in his hand as the bottle.

With his other hand, he took the switchblade style comb from his pocket, brushed out his grey moustache to an appropriate bushiness, before sheathing and popping it back into the pocket from whence it came.

Osiah stepped into the tent just long enough to grab his white stetson from the pile of whimpering furs, placing it on his head.
The roar finally caught up with him, a party of ten Mojave warriors and a young female shaman were at his figurative doorstep, twenty-feet or so from his little cookfire and pot of beans.

The men wore long black braids, with coal streaks across their eyes. They wore axes slung from their hips and stared unblinkingly into the dirt-filled void beyond. The woman who rode with them wore feathers in her hair and on the ropey black rags that hung around her shoulders and waist. In her hands she held a round bottle, roiling with green liquid that seemed to jump and boil in the direction of Osiah’s tent.

“She’s in there.” The shaman muttered just loud enough for Osiah’s ears, holding her bottle high for the warriors to see.

“Should I kill this man?” one of the men asked.

“No, he won’t be a problem,” the woman responded coolly. “Our prey is in your tent, outlander. Allow my men to retrieve what is ours and you will not be harmed.”

Osiah smiled, twitching his moustache back and forth. He peered from under his hat and spoke with authority.

“Now, I ain’t normally one to tread on ceremony, or get in the way of local tradition, but I know a fair fight when I see one. And this, little lady is anything but fair.”

“There’s more to her than you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure, but ten armed men against one naked woman ain’t much better than ten armed men against one little fox in my book.”

“Then we’ll take her,” the woman snapped. Her eyes smiled, without a twitch in her lips.

“Now, I figured you’d say something like that, so-” Osiah heaved his grenade launcher in front of him, trying not to let its weight show as he put his other hand on the secondary handle. “so maybe today’s the day I get to fire this thing.”  

“You wouldn’t.” The woman contested, keeping her face the image of placidity.

“No, I would. So what are you gonna do? What’s your hunt worth?”

“It’s worth the lives of our people. She had her chance to escape, she failed. She belongs to our gods now.”

“Fine.” Osiah replied. “Let them come get her then.”

 

*****

“You hungry miss?” Osiah held a spoonful of baked beans out to his guest. Red Fox was in her human form, wearing an old military canvass blanket. She shook her head.

“I’ve eaten. What you did was very kind. Most outlanders wouldn’t involve themselves.”

“Most outlanders ain’t Osiah Warren. A wise man once said, courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

“Wisdom, courtesy and courage are uncommon today.”

“That they are miss. That they are.” Osiah finished the pot of beans by himself, paying attention not to get any sauce in his moustache.

“They’ll be back.” Red Fox suggested, staring into the cookfire.

“Mmhmm. They want to kill you I suppose.”

“Yes.”

“And why’s that? You seem a perfectly moral young woman.”

“It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice you’re not too keen on then huh?”

“I want to live.”

“We all want to live sweetheart, it’s what you die for that counts. What do they want you to die for?”

“For our people. They would feed me to our gods to barter a year of harvests and game, free of plague and murder. My suffering would promise healthy babes and rain water that doesn’t burn or make ill. My death would protect my people from violent outlanders and the hulking beasts that lurk in the night sands.

“And they let you leave?”

“The ceremony is in the hunt.” Red Fox wiped a tear from the side of her bulb nose, then scratched it as if to conceal the behavior.

Osiah plucked a bottle of whisky from the dirt and gravel at his feet offering it to Red Fox with a gesture. She declined, so Osiah took a swig himself. “Ain’t that something. So you tell me then sweetheart, if you really believe all that, you’re being selfish ain’t ya? Fatman and Little Boy are popular gods these days, yours aint the first people I seen out cuttin’ each other up for ‘em. You’re hunted for what you are, not what you ain’t. You’re a shape changer and you ain’t selfless, so why not just fly away?”

“I can’t fly.” Red Fox muttered with a wavering voice. “I’m cursed.”

“Mmm. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know much about magic or what it is that you people do, but if that’s the way of it… What about when you were young? You knew what’s in store, why didn’t you fly then?”

“The Bleeding Ceremony.”

Osiah cocked an eyebrow in response, toying with the whiskey bottle in his hand.“Bleeding ceremony?”

“When a girl’s first blood comes, there is a ceremony. The priestesses and crowmen come to your home, drawing in intoxicating spirits with sage and feather. They sing to the gods and the phases of the moon, then a sacrifice is made by the child. If she turns, she is a skinwalker, made to live life in a cage, awaiting her turn to be sacrificed.

A cage is all I’ve known. I’ve never flown up to meet the sky, to kiss the clouds and scoff at the earth below.”

Osiah twisted his seat in discomfort.

“So what, they’ll just send more men with bigger sticks till they get what they want, huh?”

“Yes.”

“So I guess all that really does is put the pressure on. You gotta find something good to die for little miss,’fore someone decides for you.” Red Fox was silent. “What’s the blood about, all that paint?”

“It’s a promise.”

“What kind of promise?”

“It’s a promise to the animals whose forms I take, that their deaths were not in vain. It’s a promise that I will use everything that they have given to me, that I carry the weight of their deaths everywhere I go.”
“Mmm. Now, that woman with the bottle in the black rags, she the one who cursed you?” Red Fox nodded. “Bet it’s her kind brought Fatman and Little Boy to ya’ll in the first place. Them death worshippin’ types with their nuclear gods, they know how to play a crowd.”

Osiah shared the bottle of whiskey with himself for a while as Red Fox stared into nothing before he asked. “So, from how you understand it, how’s this curse supposed to work? What’re the rules?”

 

******

Osiah rode into town on an elderly painted horse, trotting down what used to be an asphalt road between what used to be concrete buildings. Time had worn down the rough edges, and everything looked like stone now, almost natural in their desecrated glory.

He smiled and tipped his hat as he came upon some children playing hide and seek in the ruins. They ran in fear as scared children are like to do and he followed them deeper into the city’s corpse to find the new life growing from within.
Homes had been raised where there were none before. Cornfields replaced empty plots of irradiated earth. People lived and laughed where before there were only ghosts. Osiah’s presence gave to alarm as he met with large men; spears and black face paint.

“Slow down now fellas, I ain’t here to cause any trouble. I got your little girlie here, I’m just bringin’ her back. Go on, git yer shaman, she’ll confirm it.”

“He’s not lying.” The shaman stepped from her pavilion. Smoke poured from her lungs as she spoke. She ashed her pipe with one hand and lifted the bottle of green liquid with the other. The liquid inside jumped with agitated vigor in Osiah’s direction. “Where is she?”

Osiah moved forward, ignoring the impatient gladiators who surrounded him. He reached into his bag as he rode, moving his hand over the grenade launcher, grabbing a small handful of cloth. He unfolded it, revealing a dead black-throated sparrow.

“She turned into this after ya’ll left. Her little heart stopped right then. Wasn’t hard to pick up yer trail, all the mess you made.”

“Why are you bringing her back to us?” The woman’s face was still and emotionless.

“Well it ain’t my place to argue with tradition. I had a knee-jerk reaction, I’ll admit it, don’t mean I can’t be cordial an’ bring the poor girl back home.” Osiah thought about his grenade launcher, then he thought about all the children playing hide and seek staring on at him, like he was some folkloric beast.

“Well we appreciate it. Our gods are not patient ones. Would you like something for your troubles? We could provide you with a fresh horse, this one looks as though it has one hoof in the rot already.” The woman placed a hand on the horse’s neck as Osiah dismounted.

Osiah replaced the bird and pulled the grenade launcher from his bag, swinging it towards the warrior men who greeted him at the village’s mouth. At the same time, Red Fox changed shape from the elderly horse to a half-blind coyote and leapt for the shaman’s throat.

Women and children screamed and the men looked on in disbelief as their priestess died silently in the red dirt. Her face was unflinching, showing neither surprise nor terror as the life left her body through her neck.

Red Fox turned back to her human shape and spoke to Osiah in a low voice as she crouched over her victim. “What do we do now? We’re surrounded, we won’t make it out of here alive.”

“I won’t. You can fly.”

“What if I can’t? What if the curse isn’t lifted? It’s only a rumor, whispered between branchwood bars.”

“No no, you made a promise. You made a promise to that little bird and to my horse, you owe him one, you owe him your life.”

“Your stick, you can shoot-”

“No no, too much collateral damage. My life ain’t worth theirs, it’s that witch what’s the problem and she’s taken care of now.”

“The curse-”

“Don’t matter now. You don’t try you ain’t gonna live anyway, ain’t got nothin to lose.”

“You’ll die.”

“I’ll die for somethin’ I believe in, that’s better than the alternative.”

The warriors were moving in slowly, disbelief becoming overwhelmed by rage.

“Go. Git!” Osiah shouted.

Red Fox sprouted feathers from her arms. Her feet curled up into talons and her mouth turned into a beak. She shrank into a little sparrow and fluttered up towards the sun.

Osiah smiled up at her as she disappeared into the enveloping light of the blue sky. His smile faded when he heard, “No, don’t. She’s gone, we’ll use him for the ceremony. Skinwalker or not, we’ll have a sacrifice for the gods.”

*****

The days blurred together, flickering away in the wind as Osiah was starved, naked in his wooden cage. He could see that the shaman had not named a predecessor, and those who remained seemed to be making things up as they went along.

There was no magic, there were no spells or potions or promises. They only prayed to their nuclear gods, that they might accept this sacrilegious sacrifice.

Men would visit him day and night just to explain again in detail how his skin would be flayed and his pink body seared, so that Fatman might feast upon his soul. They joked that Fatman preferred skinwalkers because they taste of every animal they had ever been. They joked that Osiah would be a filthy, tasteless morsel, that Fatman might destroy them just as he destroyed the world before theirs in response to such an insult.

Osiah only smiled wishing for his comb and a bottle of whiskey, twitching his whiskers in a starved delusion. Some nights as he stared into the bleakness beyond his cell, he thought he saw a dog, or coyote with one eye looking back at him.

A thought cycled through his mind as he was captured, a quote, something someone wise once said. It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move onto better things. The words kept Osiah at peace as the nights passed, until the evening of his execution.

Osiah was strapped down to a stone slab in the shaman’s pavilion. Four old men surrounded him, each looking down at his face with a thin flaying knife in their hand.

“Stop you fools.” A still voice disturbed them, unwavering despite urgent words.

“Priestess! No, this is not possible, we watched you die.”

“And the gods gave me back. You cannot sacrifice this man, to do so would call down a reckoning from the gods our people would not survive.”

“But my lady, we must give them something.”

“And we will.”

Osiah sat up as soon as he was unstrapped, turning to see the shaman Red Fox had killed. In her hand she held a black-throated sparrow, the same one Osiah had presented to the shaman days ago. He held his breath as he snapped out of his stupor by the incredible circumstance he found himself in.

“I did not truly die. When the gods gave me back, my curse returned as well. The skinwalker died in a tree not far from here. I retrieved her body to save us from the gods’ wrath.

“My lady, you are truly wise and all-powerful, but this man attacked us, what would you have done with him?”

“He did not attack us. The skinwalker did. He could have destroyed our village with his weapon, but he chose not to. He acted justly to his nature, he’s not at fault for his misunderstanding of our traditions and culture.”

“But he deceived you!”

“He also brought us the skinwalker. That, he did not lie about. Were it not for his blundering, we might all be irradiated ash tomorrow. Instead we are saved. Would you argue with my judgment?” The men were silent. “Give him his things and a fresh horse. See he leaves the village alive. Tonight’s sacrifice is very important, the gods shall impart with me new knowledge. I’ll not have his blood soiling their wisdom. And you-”

The shaman stepped towards Osiah, face placid and still as she spoke. “It has been said that courtesy is as much a mark of a lady as courage, but you’ll find no such courtesy should you intrude on my land again. Is that understood?”

Osiah tried not to smile. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. Now get out of my sight.”

*****

Osiah sat by his cookfire, feeding handfuls of oats to his horse. Slowly, a fox crept up to his camp. He smiled at it and stirred the contents of his pot. The fox trotted up to him, then transformed into a young woman, dressed in hempen ropes and red paint.

“Hello friend.” she said with a smile.

“Good to see you again miss, I wasn’t sure if I would. Now, you never told me your little trick worked with people.”

“I didn’t know. I’d never had to kill someone before.”

“No one else knew either?”

“No. They knew only what they were told by the priestess. They trusted her implicitly, with all aspects of their lives.”

“How about now? They still trust her implicitly?”

“Yes. More so even now that she’s survived death.”

“And what do the gods have planned for those poor people? What great wisdom did they impart on their shaman?”

“No more sacrifices. Skinwalkers are to be embraced, used to hunt, help us survive, not chained under lock and key.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Slowly, the god’s protection will fade, and the people will have to protect themselves.”

“Mmm.”

“They will know peace, and eventually memory of the shamen and their nuclear gods will fade away.”

“Peace through deception eh?”

“Is there any other kind?” They smiled at each other for a moment. “I’m sorry about your horse.”

“Yeah. Well, Sterling was a good horse. He was sick though, and old. There was no gettin’ around it. That night you found us, that was sorta our last hurrah. I was gonna have to put him down either way. He woulda’ liked how things turned out.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just glad it’ll all work out.”

“You taught me how to fly, Osiah.”

Osiah took a drink of his whiskey and made a face as it went down, showing his teeth. He stared into the cookfire and said, “Then fly, Red Fox.”

END

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The Green Ones, Ep1

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THE ODDS FAVORED BOTH my brother and me manifesting symptoms of the twitch virus. Odds. Statistical probabilities. Since testing positive at puberty, it’s become my belief one makes one’s own odds, and I say ours are good.

Lying flat on my back in the perimeter garden, I coil my blue-black braid around my head like a snake. From this angle, the concave mesh of the shield dome above me appears as a solid surface. Hanging from it by a single screw, a faded sign commemorates New Teo’s millennium.

If I didn’t know what it said, I’d no longer be able to read it. New Teotihuacan’s twin cities, a thousand years of building a brighter future together. It’s hard to imagine cramming more irony into thirteen words.

A thousand years of the twitch virus and the telekinesis it unleashes, and this is the best we’ve done? Thinking in years, or even weeks, is a luxury I can no longer afford. Five more days as a citizen of New Teo’s Worker City, I recite to myself. Five days until registration for Masa Academy—me and my little brother’s only hope for a future, bright or not.

The earth tremors as the 7:36 security detail passes through the mind pits ten meters beneath me. I’m not privy to the official Masa call-sign for the mid-level assignment, but I recognize its timing. I know the rhythm and flow of masazin through the mind pits better than the coursing of blood through my own extremities.

“If you’re done figuring what the masazin had for breakfast today, could we get some?”

The ozone from the daily identification burn still lingers in the air, and my brother, Olin, has already mentioned breakfast twice. I lie perfectly still, anticipating the deep-level Masa car sliding north toward the heart of Worker City. There. The rumble registers in my gut. “Can’t you sit quietly for five minutes?” I breathe deeply through my nose, inviting the scent of flowering hibiscus to erase the tingling sensation of the ID burn.

“I once sat quietly for two straight weeks, or so I’ve been told.” Olin ensures a cold bite to his speech whenever he references his time spent in a coma. It irritates him that I haven’t spoken the whole truth surrounding the event that killed our parents, and put him under for two weeks.

Our parents had anticipated us being actively infected. Only around 40% of Worker City’s population remains passive carriers of the twitch. Unfortunately, none of their planning accounted for being killed in a telekinetic outburst from their own son.

“What do you have against the quiet?” I sit up. Peeling the cotton fabric of my tzotzomatli from my sticky back, I work it like a bellows in effort to expel the humidity. Midway through the rainy season, there is nowhere for the moisture to go.

Olin shivers in preparation for one of his melodramatic speeches. “I will share the ingesting of my meals. I will share their expelling. I will share everything within this gods-forsaken cage,” he gestures toward the shield dome less than twenty meters distant, his eyes like slits, “but quiet is one thing I will not share, and there simply isn’t enough in New Teo for a scraggly chadzitzin boy to have his own.”

I chew the inside of my cheek until I taste blood. “Enough.” Digging my fingers into the loose soil, I find a pinyon cone completely by accident. In a swift movement, I thunk it off my brother’s head.

Xoxochueyi!” He barks the expletive and eyes me. Instantly, his look lingers somewhere between pouting and apology.

The violent outburst doesn’t solve anything, but it makes me feel better, briefly. Until I too am sorry. Olin is partially right. The copper and nickel mesh of the shield dome does not cut us off from the sounds and smells of the forest, or its gentle breeze. But in exchange for protection from the constant threat of telekinetic attack, the working class of New Teo surrender their autonomy.

Olin’s wrong about the rest—I will not let him die a hopeless chadzitzin, even if I have to force the academy to accept us. The two years since our parents’ death have been hard on him. I’ve been hard on him to make him stronger.

We both know he is the more telekinetically gifted, but if he can’t control it…I dismiss the thought. We’re too close to our goal to dwell on the negative. Wrapping my braid loosely around my neck, I contemplate how to apologize. When I make eye contact, I see by his watery eyes I’ve waited too long.

He starts into it before I can stop him. “Let’s spend the day outside the dome. We could hunt.” His words spill into each other. “Fresh peccary cooked over an open fire, just the two of us.” He’s pleading. “We’ve almost a full twenty-four hours until the next ID burn. We could just—”

I have been shaking my head since he spoke the first word. Finally, I cut him off. “Olin, we can’t. We’d miss the—”

“The busiest day of the market.” He slumps. “I know.” His gaze falls to his purple hands as he holds them in his lap.

I look at my own hands, dyed a rich purple from a late night of working in a logwood dye bath. It’s our trademark—my blue-black hair, our purple fabrics. Over a practical pair of trousers, I’m wearing my favorite tzotzomatli made by alternating streaks of acidic-purple and basic-blue logwood dyes. The garment always draws plenty of attention to our booth.

It would draw more if I had larger breasts to fill it out. I work the best I can with what I have. I’m tall, and if I let the garment list slightly over a shoulder, I get favorable deals from most of the working-class men.

As the 7:41 Masa security detail rumbles beneath me, I remind myself our situation is not Olin’s fault. And we’re not as desperate as some. Despite our active infection with the twitch, our homelessness, our orphan status, and our phony license for dye trading, we technically lack the most important qualifiers for chadzitzin classification. Neither of us is yet sixteen, and we’ve never missed an ID burn. We’re still citizens.

With any luck, we will have the money for our academy uniforms, forged papers, and bribes by the closing of today’s market. In five days my brother and I will take our first step in defeating the odds by forcing our way into the academy.

The odds of surviving five years as masazin in order to become ometeotl, one of the immortal class, have been put at one in ten. That’s something I can work with. As chadzitzin, the odds of a nasty death from the twitch by age twenty-four are absolute.

I stand, cross the path to the bench where Olin is sitting, and plop down beside him. “Xoxo?” I use the shortened colloquialism for the word green, despite finding it base and lazy, in hopes of lifting his spirits.

He nods. “You throw like a girl.”

“You squeal like one.”

He shoves me in effort to conceal the smirk on his face. We sit in silence for nearly a minute, Olin’s way of hugging and making up. Finally, he rubs his stomach. “I know where we can get some roasted tapir.”

I’m about to remind him of our budget when I sense something out of place. The forest canopy of the perimeter park has fallen quiet. It takes a full second for me to realize the 7:43 shift through the mind pits is at least five seconds late. It’s the worst discrepancy I’ve ever noted.

The constantly rotating shifts of telekinetic youth beneath the city provide the only means of stabilizing the mental charge of the shield dome against potential telekinetic attack from outside. I’m torn between the impulse to push my brother away from the perimeter and the need to put my ear to the ground.

Gripping Olin’s hand, I choose the former. “We should g—” before I finish, my words are incinerated along with the air overhead.


I tear at the skin on Olin’s wrists until we are ripped apart by the trunk of an ojé tree. I lose track of him as I crash into the underbrush and tumble to a stop face down. I lift my head in time to watch a second large section of shield dome sheer off and implode—crushed into a nugget of ore too small for me to see.

“Olin!” This can’t be happening, not today—not that any day would be a fitting time to disintegrate. Meters away, the ground explodes. A Masa defense car births from the crater. Cracked open like an egg, its five person crew is dead and gone instantly.

Gods, we’ve gotta get out of here. “Olin!” I scramble to the bench where we were sitting. The forest canopy that sheltered us moments earlier is gone. The remaining shield dome shimmers with telekinetic energy both coming and going. I tumble off the bench and roll clear as the expanding crater swallows it. Finally, I spot Olin half buried in leaves.

There hasn’t been an attack of this magnitude on Worker City during my lifetime. I’ve only heard stories. The most frightening ended with Masa withdrawing the telekinetic defenses from an entire district, leaving everyone inside to be killed. On hands and knees, I reach Olin.

Trembling and ashy white, his skin is clammy to the touch. “Xoxochueyi!” I slap him. “Not now, not again.” His eyes have gone empty, like when our parents died. I try to yank him up by the arm, but my feet slip as the ground beneath us disintegrates. I stop breathing as the air dissipates. My braid unfurls from around my neck and floats in the space between my brother and me, both of us also floating.

My little brother becomes light as air, and for a moment I feel that way too. I clutch him to my chest. Our troubles are over now, little Olintl. Don’t worry, wherever you go, this time I’ll go there with you.

The tear struggling from the corner of my eye evaporates. My heart shudders. My world goes dark, despite my eyes being open. I think about how the other kids and I were wrong when we were little. Telekinetic disintegration is actually a wonderful way to die.

Then my lungs spasm. A hot blast scours my face, whipping my braid out behind me as the void transforms into a ball of fire. I dig my nails into Olin’s back and hold on. I call his name, the sound of my voice consumed. For the first time in my life, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I’m scared—helpless and scared.

I’m screaming at the top of my voice when the firestorm disappears as suddenly as it began. Olin and I fall. Together, we strike the soft, pulverized soil at the bottom of the crater and slide to a stop.

Only after I register that Olin has placed his hands over his ears do I realize I’m still screaming. Embarrassed, I stop. The faint hum of the restored shield dome is interrupted by a fluttering sound followed by a thud as the sign commemorating the millennium lands beside us.

“Olin.” I brush the dirt from his face.

His closed eyes flicker at my touch. “Calli.” He whispers my name.

I hold back tears of joy.

“Why are you screaming?” he continues.

I start to laugh. Then it strikes me he’s not joking. He’s confused. He doesn’t realize he’s lost control of his telekinesis again. “Oh, no.” I shake him. “Oh, no. Olin, wake up.”

“I’m tired.”

I lift his head and shoulders in an effort to drag him out of the crater, but we’re several meters down. It’s happening again, like last time. Now we’ve nowhere to go, no one to pay the medical expenses if he slips into another coma. And we’ve only five days. “Olin, stay awake, please. Something terrible has happened.” I drag him another meter. “We have to go.”

On the verge of panic, I shake him. “You have to help me!”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?”

I flinch at the voice coming from overhead before identifying it. “Neca.” Of all the people to be first on the scene. “It’s my brother, he needs help.”

“I’ll say.”

Xoxochueyi,” I swear. “Please, just—”

“Hold on.”

Olin begins to float. I clasp my hands around his stomach. Quickly, the two of us rise from the crater. Neca is smirking as usual, but at least it’s his concerned smirk. Using an illegal demonstration of telekinesis, he sets us down away from the crater. I gasp at the widespread totality of the destruction. The attack from outside the city couldn’t have possibly caused it all. Reluctantly, I admit Olin must have contributed.

“Calli, is that you?”

I turn toward my brother. “I’m right here.”

“You look different.”

His eyes are shut. I can’t see whatever it is he is seeing. I panic, remembering the backpack Olin had on earlier. “Your medicine.” I turn toward Neca. “He needs the medicine from his backpack, quickly.”

Neca shakes his head. “Honey, there’s no backpack. There’s barely a perimeter. And besides that, we’re missing a whole block.”

I scan for the bench where we had been sitting. Of course, he’s right.

“I can’t figure how the two of you weren’t turned to pink mist.”

His words spark an unfocused rage within me. I don’t know how we survived. Or maybe I do, and I can’t swallow the implications. “Well, here we are.” I growl. “Are you going to help us or not?”

He scowls. “I could throw you back in the hole if you’d like.”

“Just shut up. I need to think.” I’m being unfair. The whole situation is unfair. After people comb the rubble for survivors, their eyes will fall on us. I know what it will look like, but none of this is Olin’s fault. He isn’t responsible for the discrepancy in the mind pits that left Worker City vulnerable, and he hadn’t been the enemy who took advantage of the lapse.

“I’m getting dizzy.” Olin tugs my sleeve as he stumbles.

Neca catches him and stares at me. A few seconds later, the self-absorbed, dark-skinned, psychokinetic cage-fighting chadzitzin clears his throat.

I bare my teeth, even while nodding my head. Not knowing where to go is a poor excuse to stay put. Carrying Olin between us, Neca and I weave our way through the jumble of shattered adobe and sheared iron foam until we reach the shelter of a mostly intact building.

After Olin barely survived the last coma, the doctor said the next one would kill him. The medicine I made from my mother’s garden had been the only thing that helped. But the last of it had disintegrated with Olin’s backpack. I’ll need time to make more.

As if reading my mind, Neca interrupts. “Time is a luxury we don’t have, honey.”

In the distance I hear the wind-up siren clearing the way for District Four’s Justice of the Peace. That means New Teo’s lead detective, a retired immortal general called Huatiani, has already arrived. “We’ve nowhere to go.”

A glimmer dances in Neca’s eye, as if he’d been waiting for those exact words. “There’s one place, but you’re not going to like it.”

In Neca-speak, this means I will hate it only slightly less than watching my brother die in holding while Huatiani grills me about the morning’s attack.


Off-balance, we lope downhill. Neca’s legs are longer than mine, despite my above-average height. His endurance is equally impressive. My lungs are on the verge of exploding when he ducks behind a three-story iron foam building I don’t recognize.

“Have we,” I spit the words out between gulps of air, “crossed into—”

“District Six.” Neca nods. “It’s the fastest way on foot.”

I’m pleased to note he seems winded, although not as severely as me.

After a few short breaths, he starts moving again.

“I can’t—”

“How about a lift?” He nods toward a cable platform.

I offer weak objection as we cross the walking thoroughfare between the two districts, “A cable? Do you think that’s safe?”

“We’ve gone far enough. Huatiani is too systematic to jump his search randomly about the city.”

I shiver at the mention of Huatiani’s name out loud. So few within Worker City refer openly to the legendary retired general of the Ometeotl Guard. Neca does so with a flourish, as if he knows every intimate detail about the immortal. I’m sure he intends it as part of his bad boy act, but it paints him in a self-conscious light. I imagine him, tucked under the covers at night, practicing the name quietly.

We reach the stairs without anyone taking special notice of us. Most people working outside the shield dome as farmers or beneath the city as miners leave within minutes of the ID burn, ensuring the longest amount of time until the next one. Just in case. No one talks about it, but missing a burn is the worst nightmare of everyone in Worker City. Except for those who’ve already given up.

Olin mumbles under his breath as we carry him up to the platform.

Gently, I slap his cheek. “Olintl, can you hear me?”

His eyes dart back and forth beneath his closed lids. “I’m not afraid of Huatiani just because he knows the truth.”

“The truth?” Neca looks at me with questioning eyes. “What truth?”

As we reach the top of the exposed platform, Olin is mumbling unintelligibly again. I glance upward before closing my eyes to the dizziness. Too many of the buildings in District Six are squat, adobe structures despite the dome being stories above us.

Neca reaches the activation pad first and straddles it. A mild electrical current transfers between his bare feet, indicating a rider is waiting. Awkwardly, I shift closer to his muscular frame until Olin is sandwiched between us.

On cue, the two halves of the bench sprout from beneath the platform and lock in place using powerful electromagnets. Squished together, I end up with Olin on my lap and Neca’s arm around my back. We ratchet upward until the wench drops us onto the cable itself. With the circuit completed, the chair rushes forward.

Whipping through the subtropical breeze, I realize I’ve soaked my tzotzomatli in sweat. Worse yet, the wind has plastered it against me. Subtly, I situate Olin’s head on my chest to avoid indecency. At least the dark purples and blues of my garment are more modest than white. And with the size of my chest, it’s not like Neca would notice. I grit my teeth, angry I even care what Neca does or doesn’t notice.

Then it hits me, like diving from a cliff into crystal clear water. I know where we’re going. “Oh, no.”

“You forget to turn off the stove?”

I try to wrench my arm to punch Neca, but I can’t. “This is not a joke.”

“No one’s saying it is.”

“Everything’s a joke to you. But this is my brother’s life.”

Neca nods thoughtfully. He looks me in the eyes.

I see something I’m unprepared for—sympathy. Suddenly, I’m unsure of how to refuse his assistance without hurting him. And yet, I’ve never thought of someone like Neca being vulnerable to pain—neither emotional nor physical. I’ve never thought of him as anything more than a chadzitzin psych-fighter. “Look, my brother and I, we’re not like you.”

“Really?” Neca interrupts. “Is it the black skin or the complete lack of moral fortitude?”

I chew the inside of my cheek and shake my head. “I’m not gonna let you turn this into some kind of personal attack. Deal with your insecurities on your own time.”

“Oh, wow. So this is what a thank you sounds like coming from the great Calli Bluehair. Well, hey, don’t sweat it, honey.”

Olin’s head lolls. Reflexively, I clutch at my shirt, pulling it away from my chest.

Neca laughs at this, continuing before I recover. “No one is forcing you to accept my help. I was on my way home anyway. You wanna get off at the next platform, no harm. You won’t owe me a thing.”

“So you admit you’re helping me to get something in return?”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m saying I am not even helping you. Matter of fact, why don’t I get off at the next platform?”

I squeeze the bridge of my nose, focusing my anger. “Now what? I’m supposed to feel bad for you? Simply because you had nothing better to do than witness me and my brother nearly killed in a telekinetic attack that continues to threaten my brother’s life?”

“Sounds like you’ve got everyone figured out.” He clucks his tongue. “And you’re absolutely right. Your brother is the real victim here. Who am I to argue that his sister might not know what’s best for him in every aspect of his life?”

Olin moans, and I realize I’m clutching him tightly enough to bruise his pale skin. I’ve chewed my cheek so much, I’m guessing when I open my mouth I’ll spit blood. But I can’t formulate the words.

I’m too angry—and scared. The sudden realization humiliates me, so I bury my face in Olin’s hair.

“Wait, I didn’t mean that.” Neca backpedals, making me feel worse.

I shake my head without looking up. “No, you’re right. I’ve been a total cheche.”

The razor-sharp-witted Neca hesitates. Finally he emits one simple word, “Yeah.” He accompanies it with a slight squeeze of my shoulder, just enough to shoot sparks up my spine.

I’m too confused to respond. In the moment, I want comfort. I don’t know how to ask, and I don’t want to feel any weaker than I already do. So I shut it out. “I’m sorry.” I gaze into the distance where the government complex and Palace Tower, along with the ridge separating the immortal half of New Teo from the worker half, gradually grow closer. “I’ve no right to take my feelings out on you.”

He shoots me his trademark smirk, the one that makes me want to slap his face. “You’re welcome.” He winks, and I’m sure I’m going to lose it all over again. “Now we’ve gotta get your brother the help he needs.”

Before I can scream, the bench locks in place and ratchets downward toward the terminus platform. Tipping, the bench deposits us on our feet, splits in half and swooshes out of sight. With Olin suspended between us, Neca and I descend the steep stairs carefully. At the bottom, I realize how tired I am, because I genuinely wish I could accept the help Neca is offering.

“I’m grateful, really I am, but you’ve helped us enough.”

“Calli,” Neca glances first to one side and then the other, possibly checking to make sure General Huatiani hasn’t caught up to us, “he’s not who you think he is.”

I sigh and try to remain patient, try not to panic at the thought of my little brother falling asleep and never waking up. “Is he, or is he not, the most infamous criminal element of the underground, wanted for insurrection, among a dozen other less-nefarious charges?”

Neca grins. “Well, there’s that, but—”

“But nothing.” I collect my words before popping off. “I need a place to keep my brother safe while I brew up his medicine. I won’t save his life just to condemn him to death a few years down the road. In five days the both of us are registering for Masa Academy. I don’t plan on remaining a chadzitzin.” I reassert my grip on Olin and attempt to tug him away.

Neca refuses to let go. “And what chance does your brother have in five days if he’s dead or still in a coma? There is no future without a present.”

I start to wonder why he won’t leave us alone. Again, he glances over his shoulder, and my impatience shifts to paranoia. “Wait. Why were you there at the perimeter park? How did you get to us so quickly?” Maybe the underground wants my brother—my eyes flare at the thought—as a weapon or a fighter.

“What?” His brief confusion quickly morphs to anger. A spark bursts behind his eyes, startling me.

For the first time since the attack, I feel I’m in mortal danger.

Xoxochueyi.” Swearing under his breath, he sloughs the full weight of my brother onto me. “Fine, have it your way, Calli Bluehair. You’re on your own.” He stomps off, mumbling as he goes. “Last thing I need is some—”

That’s all I can understand before he’s out of earshot. Wobbling under my brother’s dead weight, I scan the loose-knit crowd swimming around us. Their faces are simultaneously empty and menacing.

What if someone recognizes us from the perimeter park? What if they watched us rise out of the crater telekinetically? Why had we waited around so long afterwards? Bearing Olin’s entire weight, I realize I won’t make it fifty meters. Yet, I can’t just leave him. I cry out, unable to stop myself. “Wait!”

Neca stops in his tracks, but he doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t come back for us.

I wonder if he appreciates how completely this one decision jeopardizes everything for my brother and me. He’s right about one thing—if my brother doesn’t survive the night, there’s no point in tomorrow. I kiss the top of Olin’s head. He’s completely unresponsive. I doubt he can hear me, but that’s never stopped me before. “Come on, Olintl. We’re finally going to meet Centavo Huehue.”


Without a word, Neca drapes Olin over his back like a jacket and shoulders his entire weight. I can’t decide if the act is intended as a kindness or a final jab, pointing out the fact I need him. It doesn’t matter. I’m exhausted both physically and emotionally. So for now, Neca leads and I follow.

For several minutes we trudge through chadzitzin alleys I’ve made a point to avoid. We pass yoalzoah—girls exhausted from leasing themselves out in hopes of becoming pregnant, and thus more valuable in the eyes of society. On the surface, they don’t look any different from me.

We pass male occetahtli, both high class and low. Neca nods greeting to several of them, confirming my speculation he makes a living as more than a psych-fighter. But who am I to judge? If my parents hadn’t left us the garden? If I hadn’t found my mother’s notes and figured out how to make dyes? And besides, isn’t there more to me than a flat-chested, chadzitzin dye-trader?

Reputation is important. Priorities are critical. My father taught me that. Set your priorities, and do what it takes to keep them. That’s exactly what I plan on doing. I just hope Neca is right about there being more to Centavo than his reputation. Because every kindness in the underground comes with strings attached, and connections to a man like Centavo won’t make registering for the academy any easier.

We reach a haphazard complex of adobe apartments piled in the downhill corner of District Four as if a mudslide deposited them there. This is how building additions are made in Worker City—with little consideration for past or future.

“This is the place.”

I nod my head, ready to get my brother somewhere safe, whatever the cost.

“What, no quip about the architecture?”

“My bedroom is a public market during the day.”

He nods while appraising me anew.

The gesture starts my blood boiling, as if his approval means grease marks from banana peels. To avoid another confrontation, I scan the exterior of the building. “Where’s the front door?”

“This way.” Grinning, Neca leads the way toward a set of stairs leading down.

The existence of the basement reveals the building to be genuinely old. Underground construction in Worker City has been reserved for official Masa projects and city defense for over a hundred years.

Again, Neca responds as if reading my mind. “Don’t worry, he’s not that old. But he is the oldest person I’ve ever met. And grumpy too, so for the love of your brother, don’t say anything stupid.”

We enter a long hallway, dimly lit by a strand of electric lights running along the ceiling. Neca turns a sharp corner and descends more stairs before ascending others. I want to ask him if he’s intentionally leading us into a maze from which there is no escape. Instead, I carefully craft an alternative. “Are you sure you don’t need help with Olin? He must be getting heavy with all these stairs.”

“Light as a feather. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” Neca faces me. “Oh, and don’t act like you remember the way out, even if you do. He hates that.”

Slowly, I nod. “Is there some secret greeting I should know of?” I’m half joking.

Neca thinks it over. “Just don’t make any quick movements or try to touch him.”

I can tell he is smiling, but the light is too dim to determine if the smile is ironic or genuine. “Okay.”

Moments later, he stops at the twelfth unmarked door we’ve passed.

Before he can open it, I place a hand on his arm. “All I’m looking for is a safe place to hide Olin while I make more of his medicine.”

Neca nods.

I chew the inside of my cheek, reopening the wound from earlier. “And maybe a place for both of us. Just until he’s well enough to leave.” I force myself to relax. “Four days at the very most.” Somewhere deep inside, I’m terrified Olin won’t come back to me; that four days won’t be enough; that I’m about to make a deal with the devil to dictate the rest of my desperate life.


“Neca, I hope you’ve got good reason to invite your new companions into my home, conscious or not.”

The lighting inside Centavo’s apartment is barely brighter than the hallway. The crumbling adobe walls absorb what little there is. I can’t even see the old man until he turns to face us.

Totahtzin—” Neca fumbles with the formal title before starting again. “Centavo, I—” he exhales through his nose, “let me introduce you to Calli Bluehair.”

“Ah.” The old man advances on us slowly, pulling a pipe from his pocket with one hand while secreting tobacco from a pouch with the other.

Upon seeing the herb, I realize the room is thick with the smell of it. I know the plant because it grows in my mother’s garden. The lighting of the pipe must be a good sign. Through the corner of my eye, I notice Neca relaxing under Olin’s weight. I suspect Centavo relies on the fragrance to mask the stink of sweat and stale food.

“You will pardon my cold greeting. In the poor lighting that my lifestyle affords, I was unable to decipher the blue hue of your hair.” Centavo puffs three times, each drag violently threatening to extinguish the match’s flame before allowing it to revive. The dance of shadow and light cast by the small fire reveals a lopsided grin, warmer than I had expected.

Satisfied the bowl is lit, he flicks the match. The gesture seems sloppy until I hear the slight ting of the spent matchstick striking a nearby waste can.

Neca clears his throat.

“Oh, uh, Centavo Huehue, it is my honor. Thank you so much for having me into your home.” I catch myself fumbling with my braid and sheepishly return it to the small of my back.

“Certainly. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he says.

I bite my lip, hoping I haven’t already committed the worst possible of insults. He is the one who mentioned my hair. Still, I didn’t have to draw attention to it. Now that it’s been done, I can’t think of anything else.

I’ve never seen anyone without long hair, and Centavo is as bald as a cantaloupe. Of course he would be. Citizen status within the walls of New Teo is based on the continuous record of ID burns maintained within the strands of one’s hair. To shave it is the ultimate in rebellion, a total rejection of the authorities. To have it forcibly cut is the highest form of punishment. Without a braid, a person has no rights in the eyes of the government.

Neca nudges me out of my stunned silence by depositing Olin on a cushioned wicker couch.

“I’m sorry, Centavo Huehue, that it has to be under circumstances such as these. But,” I hesitate. This is it, a few simple words and I’ll be entangled. “I need your help.”

“I see. This must be your brother.” The old man slips quietly to the side of the couch, somehow covering the distance with barely a movement. The closer he gets, the smaller I realize he is.

From behind the couch, Neca stares at me, perhaps trying to encourage me onward.

“Yes,” I continue with more determination, “he’s been injured. By no fault of our own, it is unsafe for us to remain in plain sight. Yet, I need time to brew his medicine.” Carefully I continue, not wanting to insult the old man by implying he’s my last resort. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

Centavo whisks a hand to Olin’s forehead. “Injured, you say? He appears quite healthy.”

I fumble, not wanting to say too much, but doubting I can hide anything from the likes of Centavo. “It’s his mind.”

Centavo nods and puffs his pipe. “Then it was the two of you at the site of the attack.”

I gasp before quickly confessing, “Yes. We were there, but only as bystanders.”

“Yet you survived. That much was quite fortunate.”

“Not really.” Unsuccessfully, I attempt to suck the words back into my mouth.

Centavo snorts, dislodging a rattle of phlegm in his throat. “Indeed, it was this young man, not fortune, that saved your life.”

At first I wonder if he is referring to Neca. Then I know he means Olin. I swallow blood from the raw spot on the inside of my cheek. “My brother is gifted, yes.”

“But he cannot control it.”

“He has medicine. It was destroyed. I need time to make more.” I can’t keep the words from tumbling across my lips. All my urgency spills out. Unchecked telekinesis is just short of outright rebellion in the government’s eyes. “He’ll be fine. He’ll get better, and the two of us will register for Masa Academy in five days. We’ll be out of your hair—” I catch myself too late, having inflicted a sure insult this time.

And yet Centavo ignores my thoughtless comment. “I’ve no doubt your brother will be fine, and in less time than you think. He is not in need of any medication. As you have already said, his condition is one of the mind, and thus can be remedied accordingly.”

Unexpected on multiple levels, his response disarms me. “I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, I wouldn’t imagine so. It’s a cure not readily available to the working class.” He gestures to a matching wicker chair. “Please, have a seat.”

I hesitate.

Neca widens his eyes, as if asking me what in the world I’m waiting for.

Waiting is exactly what I’m exhausted of. Since it seems imprudent to change course, I sit.

Two chairs form a crescent together with the couch. Centavo offers me the one closest to my brother before taking the other. Neca assumes a position in front of the door, either to make sure I can’t escape or to ensure we are not interrupted.

Centavo continues after puffing his pipe. “Do dye traders make a habit of brewing medicines these days?”

“Only remedies I know of.”

“And how does a young dye trader learn such things?”

I’m tempted to tell the old man it is none of his business, but I bite my tongue, literally. “I’m observant of the natural world.”

“After harvesting cochineal from the Ferocactus, how much grape precipitate do you use to precipitate carmine?”

“Cochineal only live on the Opuntia genus.” My victory lasts a second, until I realize he has baited me.

Centavo taps his pipe to his chin. “Why, Calli Bluehair, it appears you have made me look lazy indeed. How long have you known the whereabouts of your mother’s garden?”

I shake my head.

“And her notes, she lied to me about destroying them.” He stands. I raise my hands to defend myself, but he is already strolling toward a desk against the far wall. “We were writing a book together, before you came along.” He pulls something from a desk drawer.

My mind spins, churning up Centavo’s every word. I track his movement across the room, desperately seeking explanation for his comments about my mother. I’m able to distinguish a wall lined with books. A corner functioning as a kitchen is littered with dishes and racks of liquor bottles. None of this helps.

“What? No, sorry, I don’t know—”

He tosses a pile of parchment bound with twine into my lap. “I knew your parents. I was there when they were killed.”

These words knock the wind out of me, as if I’ve fallen from a tree and landed flat on my back.

Centavo sits and waits politely for me to recover.

Dizzy, I concentrate on the book in my lap. It’s an unfinished product. In bold purple lettering, I recognize my mother’s script, “The Divine Garden: Herbal Recipes for a Better Life.” I hover on the word “Divine” for long seconds. It cannot mean what I think it means. Wait, what did he say about my parents? He knew them before they were killed? No. He was there. I lean forward, narrowing my eyes. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”


Centavo smiles.

At least I think it’s a grim smile. “I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve met, is it?”

He shakes his head. “I have tried to stay away, out of respect for your parents’ wishes.” He puffs his pipe. “As you realize, my presence hinders the likelihood of reaching your full potential via the path you have chosen.”

“You mean Masa.”

“Yes, Masa. The ever-rising dough of the people.” He blows smoke from his nose.

His speech is so subtle I can’t read whether he is being facetious or genuine. But it is hard to imagine a man like Centavo being a true believer in Masa. “You believe there to be another path?”

“Better than Masa?” He shrugs.

A long silence passes between us. Each lost second makes it more difficult for me to reach my mother’s garden and return inside the shield dome before tomorrow morning’s ID burn. Maybe Centavo plans on holding us here. Could there be something in my mother’s notes more valuable than dye? As much as I hate the thought, I am sure I would give anything to the old man if it meant saving my brother.

Finally, he continues, “I believe the first time you will recall us meeting was at the clinic.”

“You!” I jump to my feet in disbelief.

Neca starts.

Centavo doesn’t flinch.

“That was you! But you had hair.”

The old man wags his finger. “Please, sit.”

Begrudgingly, I do so. But I have already decided if I don’t like what I hear next, I will attempt to kill this man.

“A prosthetic, I assure you.” He runs his hand over his bald head. “Since I can see our time is short, I will cut to the chase.”

I give him no acknowledgement other than a hard stare.

“Your medication, whatever folk remedy you have devised, did not save your brother before. It will not save him now. He is in a state of telekinetic shock—the current has overwhelmed his remaining senses. He is, in a manner of speaking, lost within his own mind. It is rare that someone with such little training has such natural ability. A few simple lessons, and your brother will know how to avoid this state in the future.”

“And I suppose you’re the one to give him those lessons? Is that it? You’ll save my brother’s life if he agrees to become one of your playthings?” Instantly, I regret the implication that Neca is a toy. The mistep doesn’t reduce my protective instinct for my brother. And that instinct says Centavo is a threat.

“Careful, Calli Bluehair, lest your tongue run away with your reason.”

One look into his eyes, and I know the tobacco in his pipe is not the only thing smoldering. No matter his reputation, I will not let this man manipulate my brother.

“I would have given your brother his first lesson then, if you had not interrupted us.”

My eyes widen. “You did something to him!” I spot a shiny object lying on the table between us. Snatching a discarded skewer, still retaining a chunk of shriveled carrot, I lunge for him.

“Calli, no!”

I hear Neca cry out as the air in front of me solidifies and slams me backward. Before I crumple against the wall, my tumbling is arrested. For the second time in as many hours, I feel utterly helpless. Please, gods, give me a searing pain. Anything would be better than this.

Instead, I slowly turn in the air, completely apart from my own will, and return to my chair. Even after I’m seated, my muscles remain paralyzed. I hear Centavo clear his throat. He snaps his fingers and my eyes are able to focus. I do so on him, frightened, but no less angry.

“Fine, you are right to be angry. I violated the privacy and sanctity of your brother’s mind without asking permission. It was, at the very least, disrespectful.” He leans forward. “For this overstep—and I want you to listen very closely because I will say this only once—I apologize. Now, if this conversation is to go any further, I request the same in kind for your impulsive attempt to join last night’s leftover carrot with my right eye.”

My jaw and tongue unstick. With considerable effort, I swallow the pasty saliva pooling in my mouth.

“Calli.” Neca dares the one word exhortation from his station at the door.

I hear Centavo’s teeth grinding. Clearly, the old man could squeeze my brain through my ears and do whatever he wanted to my brother. I hear my father in my head, Choose your fights, Cal. Obviously, this is not one I can win. “I’m sorry. I apologize for trying to kill you.”

Instantly, my muscles are my own. A brief euphoria sweeps over me. I wonder for the first time if Centavo is telling the truth about my brother’s condition. But some things still don’t make sense. “Olin got better that same day, the day I chased you from his room.”

“Your brother’s condition was so easily treatable. Your parents would not have objected to such a subtle level of influence. If my involvement were to become public…” he flips the bowl of his pipe upside down and taps it on his hand.

“We would have been put at risk.” It makes sense. “But wait. You’re saying the logwood tea I started giving him that morning had no effect on his recovery?”

“Logwood tea?” Centavo scoffs. “Is that the boy’s precious medication?”

“Yes,” I stammer, “it coincided with his recovery. And since, I thought—” I huff at the idea of this old man making light of my efforts to nurse my brother back to health. “He’s been taking it every day since, and he’s been just—”

“What?” Centavo interrupts, jumping to his feet. “You’ve been dosing him with logwood tea daily for almost two years?”

Finding my anger again, I stand and confirm my suspicion that I’m several centimeters taller than the old man. “Yes. What of it?”

For the first time since entering Centavo’s home, he touches me physically, gripping my arms. “When was the last dose?”

His proximity stuns me. “I don’t—”

“When, dammit?” He shakes me.

I close my eyes to think. “Yesterday afternoon, 2:00.”

“And manganese?”

“It’s in the soil, so it’s in the tea.”

“Then it’s no good.” He places an ear to Olin’s lips before shaking his head and pacing the room.

“What? What in gods’ names? Say something.” This sudden panic for someone previously so restrained convinces me I’ve killed my little brother. Me. It’s all been my fault.

Centavo turns on me. “Didn’t you know logwood tea is addictive?”

“Of course it’s addictive. He needed it!” I shout much louder than necessary. “Or at least your meddling made me think he did.”

“Fine. Nothing to be done for it now. And you wouldn’t have been completely off, not at first.” Centavo continues to pace the center of the room, talking to no one in particular. “The tea no doubt soothed his rough edges. Logwood absorbs manganese. It would have calmed his residual telekinesis. Not a completely false diagnosis. After that,” he shakes his head, “all it did was bottle up his abilities. I’m surprised he didn’t take half the district with him this morning. He needs control, not suppression.”

I can’t take any more of the old man’s rambling. “So can you help him or not?”

Centavo gathers himself, looks at me, then Neca, then back at me, then at Olin lying unresponsive on the couch. “No, I cannot. Not without risking the lives of everyone in Worker City.”


My heart pounds in my chest. It’s midmorning by the time we reach the dump.

Neca catches up to me the second I stop inside the workers’ gate. “You’re sure this is the only way?”

“You afraid of a little garbage?” I’m not about to admit the smell would have brought up my breakfast if I had eaten any. “Besides, if Centavo’s plan is half as stupid as I think it is, the dump is the least of our worries.”

“All right, the faster the better.”

I stretch my neck for a glimpse of the control tower. I can’t see anyone on the catwalk or behind the glass. Good enough. With a final deep breath through my nose, I dart toward the backside of a mountain of food waste. Even if someone sees us, they might not care. No one is that uptight about garbage security.

The main concern is to avoid piles scheduled for compacting. Masa is in charge of that part, and it’s done with telekinesis. In the blink of an eye, a whole mound of scrap metal can become nothing but a chunk of ore. When Olin and I were little, my parents worked in the yard. My father told me about a coworker who wandered too far during his break. He had misread the compacting schedule, or decided to try to reclaim something of value.

Anyway, it had taken my father and the others eight hours to figure out the general vicinity of his remains. This was the sort of life lesson my father liked to instill in us. The result was to make the dump an instant source of forbidden mystery. Olin and I spent an entire rainy season imagining it as an underwater kingdom forgotten by the annals of time only to be rediscovered by a brother/sister team of renowned explorers.

The garbage piles are an ever-shifting sea, and at one point I loop around the same pile twice. After a few minutes, I locate the fenced-off sinkhole I’ve been looking for.

“This keeps getting better.” Neca has covered his mouth and nose with his collar.

“If you know a better way into the caves—”

“Let’s just do this.”

I’m already hurdling the fence. Three long strides, and I’m sliding down a pulpy pile of paper products in varying states of decay. Nothing is dumped here anymore, but plenty of garbage blows into the pit before it’s compacted. Luckily, none of it is too disgusting. Although once I landed squarely on the carcass of a decaying vulture. Not my best day.

In a matter of seconds, we’re underground, and I’m leading the way through the system of natural caves to a spot outside the shield dome—the most sacred place in my confined world, my mother’s garden.

Behind me, Neca’s feet fall softly on the smooth floor of the cave. He’s as graceful as he is strong. The fact does nothing to lessen my anger at his presence. There is zero chance I’m leading Centavo’s errand boy to my mother’s garden.

Sure, the trip was originally my idea. That involved me alone making more logwood tea. Now Centavo has me fetching buds from a weed I nearly killed off due to it overgrowing half the garden during the time it took Olin and me to rediscover it.

Centavo had known the plant would be there, describing it down to its serrated leaflets and sticky resin. He swore he’d never been to the garden, that he didn’t know where it was and didn’t want to. You don’t have to trust me. Hell, I don’t even trust you. But you’re taking Neca. Those had been his exact words. When I asked him why, the whole plan got ridiculous.

At least locating a plant in my mother’s garden is something I can work with. Adaptations are inevitable—with plants, with people. So I’ll figure out what to do with Neca along the way.

The hazards of running in the dark force me to slow my pace. I’m intimately familiar with my surroundings, and due to the occasional distant opening, the caves aren’t pitch black. Still, I’m not accustomed to navigating them at high speeds.

Neca sighs in relief.

Calming my urge to punch his chiseled face, I remind myself no real harm has been done. I’ve only shown him an entrance into a maze of caves, an entrance the authorities certainly know of.

Thinking of the authorities circles me back to the one thing that’s bugged me about Centavo since the moment he foiled my attempt to shish kebab his brain. I break the silence. “How is it that Centavo has avoided execution or exile all these years? He’s openly telekinetic and yet he doesn’t seem to have any security at all.”

“He knows his place. Rule number one of the underground.”

“Oh, really? And what about you? What’s your place, Nightmare Neca?”

He hesitates. “So you’ve seen me fight?”

“No,” I lie. “I’ve seen the posters.”

“Then you know my place. It’s there in the cage. I’m a psych-fighter.”

“You don’t stay in the cage. You don’t live there.”

“Oh, but I do.” His words drip with swagger.

I feel the claws spring out, and I say the words despite not meaning them. “That sounds pretty pathetic.”

He’s quiet for several seconds.

I hear nothing except our footfalls and breathing. Should I feel guilty? Who else will deflate his super-sized ego?

“What about you, Calli Bluehair? What’s your place?”

I know the answer instantly. “I don’t have one.”

“Well, then, maybe we’re both pathetic.”

I don’t agree with Neca’s assessment for one second. To have a place is to act according to the world’s expectations, to fit inside someone else’s definition of who you should and shouldn’t be. That’ll never be me. “You know what I think?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”

“I think Centavo doesn’t have to hide because he’s in charge.”

“Of course he’s in charge. He’s been virtually synonymous with the underground for—”

“He’s an immortal, for gods’ sake.” I shout the words, rousing some bats in the distance. “He doesn’t have to hide from them, because he’s one of them.”

We’ve stopped moving, and Neca leans close as if he has the guts to pound the revelation out of me. “That’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t talk of things you know nothing about.”

I shove him out of my face even though it’s too dark for me to see anything except the whites of his eyes. “Really? How is it he’s a master of telekinesis, at least sixty years old, and not dead from the twitch? There’s not another soul in town who’s lived with the active infection past twenty-five, and you know it. Never.”

“He’s in exceptional health.”

“He lives off of steak and neuhtli by the looks of it.”

Mexcalli.” Neca sighs. “He drinks mostly mexcalli, not neuhtli. Look, you don’t know him. He’s not some monster preying on helpless chadzitzin.”

For the first time since I’ve known him, Neca seems genuinely rattled. “I’m not saying he is.” I start walking briskly, aware we don’t have the luxury of standing still. “I’m saying he’s an immortal governing the underground from the inside.”

“Fine, maybe he’s an immortal. I don’t know. Even if he is, that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of us.”

“Neca.” I turn and grab him by the shoulders, almost sorry for him. “Think about it. Why would an immortal want to be one of us, unless it was to control us?”

“What do you know about it? You’re the one who’s so desperate to become an ometeotl.” There is real venom in his words. “You’d just as well be one of them.”

I start moving again, this time at a slow jog. “If by ‘one of them’ you mean in charge of my fate, yes. If you mean refusing to give up and die, yes. I choose to be one of them.”

“Now it all makes sense.”

“What?” I do my best to slap Neca with the word.

“The way you look at me. The way you talk about chadzitzin. You think we’re all quitters.”

Well, of course I do. Doesn’t he? How else could anyone possibly see them? Lazy, undisciplined, thrill-seeking quitters who would rather live a short, selfish life and die of the twitch than put in the hard work to ensure a future society and the possibility of a future for themselves. I don’t say any of this. Instead, I resume my defensive posture. “What?”

“Nothing. Just an observation. Besides, aren’t we getting close to this garden yet?”

We’ve still a ways to go, but the question reminds me of my earlier train of thought. “About that,” I reach into my pocket and clutch the smooth, elongated rock I’ve been carrying since the sinkhole—small enough for me to curl my fingers around, yet heavy enough to compensate for my girl-like upper-body strength. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

“What?”

In one swift movement I spin and punch him in the side of the jaw. Never once knocked out in the cage, Nightmare Neca turns out to be human after all. Catching him under the arms, I ease him to the cave floor and prop him up as comfortably as I can. There’s no way I’m taking him to my mother’s garden, but I need him for what comes next.

I shiver just thinking about it. Ridiculous. Impossible. When Centavo looked me in the eyes and told me we’d have to sneak into Immortal City, I knew without a shadow of a doubt he was one of them. What I can’t figure is his interest in me and my brother.


I pick up my pace for the final stretch of cave. At its cavernous mouth I’ll find the spring-fed garden planted by my mother. An overland route uses a slot canyon to access the small valley where the garden is nestled. But it takes three times as long and leaves one exposed to lines of sight from New Teo, as well as wild animals and roving gangs of twitchers. In the caves, the worst threat is vampire bats.

I flex my sore knuckles. After all Neca’s done to help, I feel bad about punching him. As a psych-fighter, he should be used to it. On the other hand, getting sucker punched by a girl isn’t exactly a cage bout. Briefly, I worry he’ll refuse to help, but he’s put up with so much already. If he wasn’t so cocky, he might be a nice guy.

Then there’s Centavo, and how Neca gushes at the mentioning of the old man. Centavo’s connection to my parents bothers me most. I can think of a dozen different scenarios: he was blackmailing them, they were blackmailing him, they were working together (but on what?), he and my mother were having an affair (not likely). Maybe they simply shared a common interest in plants. Or he wanted my brother for his abilities, and my parents refused.

This last one chills me to the bone. What if he’d been trying to take my brother the night of the outburst that killed my parents? And came back for him at the clinic? None of that explains the book. He showed me the pages they had done together—my mother’s words and his art.

As the cave slopes down, opening into the garden, I’m still wondering why the simple collaboration means so much to me. I slide down a slick section of rock. Landing on spongy moss, I stop to inhale the lush fragrances of jasmine and honeysuckle. Finally, the truth hits me.

Beauty was paramount in everything my mother did. I close my eyes, overwhelmed by memory. I’m a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table. My mother is kneeling behind me, working her magic into my braid and teaching me. Ask yourself before you do anything: Will it make the world more beautiful? If the answer is yes, and the thing is within your ability, you’re obligated to try.

I open my eyes. This garden is living proof. I’m living proof. Olin, at least for the time being, is living proof. I scamper past the ferns and into the larger section of the garden. Over the last sixteen months I’ve memorized every plant. Within seconds I’m holding in my quivering hand the leaf Centavo described.

It doesn’t look like much, but my mother planted it here. That is all I need to know. If she shared the knowledge of it with Centavo, there must be something beautiful about him as well. This one fact is not enough for me to trust him. It’s enough for me to trust his plan.

I pluck three ripe buds oozing with resin, wrap them in a large leaf and stuff them in my pants pocket. Behind a hedge of cleyera, the ceiling of the cave converges with a rock shelf to create a narrow cleft. I shimmy into the crack and breathe out. Reaching as far as I can, I tweeze a leather pouch between two fingers.

Sitting on the edge of the shelf, I hold the package on my lap. The leather is beautifully worn and oiled. I rub my fingers across its surface and hold them to my nose. Surprised, I discover the leather is seasoned with the resin from the ugly plant. I wonder how much more my mother has yet to teach me.

Untying the pouch, I flip through the pages until I find the one I’m looking for. My mother never sketched the ugly plant. As Centavo suggested, she had taken notes so rushed and disjointed I failed to correlate them, until now.

Near the top of the page she describes the resin. Midway down, a string of unfamiliar numbers and symbols form some sort of equation. Then I spot something else, an insertion scrawled in my father’s hand. Nowhere else in the notes does his writing appear. On this one ugly plant, they worked together.

My heart leaps. Something is special about the ugly plant after all. Centavo has to be telling the truth. The old man could kill Olin by simpler means than this. And if he’s really entrusting me with his contact within Immortal City, I can trust him with this ugly-looking plant.

I slip the notes into the pouch and return it to its hiding place. When I stand, I’m too dizzy to walk straight. I realize I haven’t eaten in over sixteen hours. Foolishly, I didn’t bring water either.

Raindrops slap the broad leaves of the garden outside the shelter of the cave, and I realize it must be afternoon. Urgency crowds me. Centavo wasn’t sure how long it would take his contact in Immortal City to brew the medication. He also wasn’t sure how long Olin would last before destroying Worker City in a telekinetic storm of unfathomable power. Menacingly, the old man had asserted he wouldn’t let that happen.

In less than a minute I’m hurrying back the way I came, burdened with spring water and fresh papaya. With any luck, the simple offering, along with my humble apologies, will buy Neca’s forgiveness. I make a mental note to stop taking my frustrations out on him. Hopefully, he hasn’t been awake long enough to stew over my hitting him, or to have gotten lost.


I hear Neca long before I see him. While he hasn’t wandered off, he certainly doesn’t sound happy. I slink against the wall and wish I had some chocolates to go along with the papaya. That and maybe a bottle of mexcalli.

After listening to him curse the day he met me using a string of swears that would kill my mother all over again, I figure the situation isn’t going to get any better. Shuffling forward loudly, I call his name. The cursing stops. “Uh, Neca? You okay?” Instantly, I regret the idiotic question.

“If by ‘okay’ you mean hopping mad about being sucker punched by the most ridiculously annoying girl in Worker City who for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m trying to help, then, yes, I’m fine.”

His outline is now visible. “About that, I’m really sorry.”

“So now you’re going to tell me that you slipped? That you accidentally hit me with a brick?”

“That wasn’t a brick, it was my fist.” The words slip out.

“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Obviously, I’ve been hit harder.”

“Oh, obviously.” I slap my hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I just—”

“Yes?”

“You’re right. It wasn’t an accident. It’s just—” exasperated, I don’t know what else to say. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“Why didn’t you try asking me to wait here?”

“Wait. I—” the question catches me completely off guard. “I thought—”

“Look, I get it. You don’t want anyone to know the location of your mother’s garden. It’s a special place.” He steps forward until I can make out the edges of his face. “If we’re going to work together, we need to trust each other. Right now I trust fellow psych-fighters more than you. At least in the cage there are rules.”

Even though I know he is right, I struggle with the impulse to argue. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I’ve been assuming the worst of you even though you’ve given me the best.” It stings me slightly to be so vulnerable with this boy, but the business of trading has taught me that admitting a few wrongs is the fastest means to repairing a broken relationship. And Neca is right, we need to work together. It’s equally obvious I need him more than he needs me.

“I know it’s not much,” I hold out the gifts, “but I brought you some water and a papaya.”

He whistles through his teeth. “How did you know?”

“What?”

“Papaya’s my favorite.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Papaya’s everyone’s favorite.” I lead us into a section of cave I’ve not frequently traveled, one that will open outside the shield dome protecting the Immortal City half of New Teo.

“Is it yours?”

“Nah, not me. I’m more of a kiwi girl.”

“You’ve got kiwi?”

I nod, my mouth full of papaya and my chin stuck out in front of me in attempt to keep the juice from dribbling onto my tzotzomatli. I swallow enough to talk. “My mother planted everything.”

“No wonder you want to keep it a secret.”

Gradually, I speed up the pace, and for several minutes we continue through the dark confines of the cave without a word.

Eventually, Neca breaks the silence. “That wasn’t really your fist, was it?”

“Well, I was holding a rock.”

He nods. “That explains it.”

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”

“What secret?”

“That Nightmare Neca’s no longer undefeated.”

“Oh.” He clucks his tongue. “Outside of the cage, I’ve lost plenty of fights.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Family. Friends. Personal ghosts. You know, the ones that count the most.”

“Oh.” I swallow, baffled by how easily Neca switches from annoying to tragic. “Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“You know, share such personal information like that?”

“I’m sorry. It makes you uncomfortable.” He places a hand on my shoulder. “I can stop. It’s just—”

“And that.” I shirk my shoulder away from his touch.

He laughs. “Again, I apologize.”

I regret acting so cold, but the instinct has kept Olin and me safe. “It’s not that I don’t like it. Wait, I mean—”

“No need to explain.”

In my discomfort, I’ve increased our pace just short of jogging. I slow down to ensure I don’t clip my head on a low-hanging rock.

“I forget that we come from different places.”

His words are so close, I’m surprised we aren’t bumping into each other with every step. “What does that mean?”

“No offense, but you and your brother aren’t chadzitzin, not really.”

“None taken.” I’m relieved we agree on at least one thing. “But I still don’t understand.”

“It’s hard to explain.” We duck and weave our way along the passage in silence for several minutes before he picks up where he left off. “There’s little want for secrets in the underground. When people know they haven’t long to live, the thing they want the most is to be known. Everyone wants to be remembered. I think most want to be remembered for the truth rather than some lie.”

“Is that why you fight? To be remembered?”

“In so many words, yes.”

“But psych-fighting? Don’t take this the wrong way, isn’t it all an act?”

“I think of it as more of a story, a true one.”

“I’m sorry, you lost me.” I dodge a jagged overhang. “Watch your head.”

Neca shuffles his feet, adjusting at the last second to avoid cracking his skull. After he breathes deeply, he continues. “The cage is a place to bare it all. Sure, beforehand you try to conceal your strategy, mask your strengths and weaknesses. But each move is another page in the story, a story that must be finished. And the best ones are the ones that don’t hold back.

“The crowd knows it, and so do the fighters. You can feel the epic ones unfolding—the pain and fear and triumph and loss that will teach you something new about yourself. I’m indebted to the cage. It has helped me take all the lessons in life I’ll never get a chance to live and compact them into raw, bloody bursts.”

On that note, we fall silent for several minutes. Having become slightly disoriented during our conversation, I’m not a hundred percent sure we’ve taken all the right turns. On top of that, my heart is hurting. Maybe more so than I want to admit. Listening to Neca bare his soul has made it worse.

Why didn’t he join Masa Academy before he got too old? With his natural talents, his chances of survival would have been better than most. He doesn’t talk like someone who has given up on life. If that’s really the case, why has he chosen certain death?

I have to admit I don’t understand Nightmare Neca at all. The smirk and confidence I saw yesterday as ego now seem more like honest enthusiasm. But I can’t get sucked in, not now. Neca has been right about lots of things, including the fact Olin and I are not chadzitzin. In less than five days, the two of us will be leaving Neca and the underground behind forever.

About the time I’m convinced we’ve taken a wrong turn, I recognize telltale signs of a large bat roost, including the squish of guano between my toes. Bats never roost far from an opening. I crouch, pulling Neca down beside me.

I gesture toward the ceiling. He follows my gaze. As we sit, it becomes evident there is a mote more light. Several meters into an expanding chamber, the surface of the gently sloping rock above us pulses with life. One wrong move, and we could be in real trouble.

The bats themselves aren’t the immediate threat. The furthest back are most likely small fruit bats. The larger vampires occupy the best spots, closest to the exit. But causing a mass exodus will announce our presence to anyone on the outside who might happen to be looking in our general direction.

I hold my finger to my lips and then touch it to his to ensure he understands the situation. He nods. Slowly, I lead the way, using the wall to stabilize our progress across the slippery floor. I’ve found in times like these, it’s best not to see what you’re stepping in, or what you’re walking beneath.

Looking straight ahead, I proceed steadily and breathe as little as possible. We turn a corner and the light improves. This is where the omnivores and bloodsuckers will be, big hairy things. It’s still raining outside. I hear the hush before I see it, and the white noise masks our progress. Glimpsing a fragment of gray sky, I relax. The first sight of the outside world is always breathtaking after spending an hour or more in near pitch black, even if the outside world is dismal and wet.

Turning to smile at Neca, I slip. I bang my knee on the wall. Scrambling to regain my balance, I plant my second foot too quickly. It shoots out from under me along with the other. Just before my head impacts the wall, I feel a barrier of hot wind blow across my brow. Strong hands clutch my sides, and I’m flying.

The empty black turns to dizzying gray. Finally, I’m on hands and knees, sliding down a muddy slope. I roll onto my back, and Neca’s arm shoots across to steady me. Gradually, we slide to a stop, rivulets of water snaking past. Below, nothing except green forest runs downhill into the vast farmland south of New Teo. Several meters above, I spot the opening of the cave—no bats pouring out of it.

I lie back in the mud and breathe deeply. I’m so giddy with relief, and yet overwhelmed at the same time, I start to laugh. Perhaps it’s my version of one of the cage moments Neca described—a moment when experiences collide to teach me something about myself. Only I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn.

Either way, Neca joins in, and the two of us lie there laughing in the mud.


My tzotzomatli, along with the pants beneath it, are no longer purple or blue. They are brown, as brown as my skin. If anything, the mud has lightened Neca’s complexion. Steadying each other, we creep uphill toward the crest above the mouth of the cave.

This is where Centavo’s plan gets foggy. “Won’t we be visible to the immortals? I mean, please tell me we aren’t planning on walking up to the shield dome and knocking until someone lets us in.”

“Not exactly, but I don’t think you need to worry about anyone seeing us.”

Not seeing how that could be possible, I decide to display an effort at trust. Besides, I’m shivering with anticipation. Six years ago my brother and I caught a glimpse of the immortal side of New Teo from the farmland kilometers below. Never have I or anyone I know been this close. Except for Neca. We stop shy of the crest. “All right, lead the way.” I sound nonchalant.

“Let’s do it together.”

Before I can object, he tugs me up and over. I freeze in wonder. Just as quickly, wonder turns to confusion and disbelief. “That’s Immortal City? But it—”

“Looks pretty much the same. Yeah. That was my first thought too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Hey, it’s just the other side of the coin. One side’s always gotta be tails.”

I gape, staring back and forth between Neca and the underwhelming Immortal City. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Never mind. Besides, don’t freak out completely. The dome is the dome, right?”

Slowly, I nod my head. Of course Immortal City would look the same from this perspective.

“On the inside it’s…different, sorta.”

“Now you’re confusing me for fun.”

He jogs fluidly toward the shield dome. “Well, yeah. Sorta.” Just like that, Neca returns to his exasperating self.

“Stop it already.” Still, it’s a struggle to look at something other than his backside as he strides up the gentle slope ahead of me. Luckily, the closer we get to the metal mesh of the shield dome, the more detail I have to distract myself. Most of the buildings appear to be metal foam rather than adobe. No surprise there. The structures are taller on average, but not as grand as I had imagined.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamt of Immortal City: the buildings, the streets, the shops. Especially the shops. Yet with each step closer, I can’t escape the fact Immortal City looks like a cleaner, nicer version of the working-class half of New Teo. I know I shouldn’t be disappointed, but I am. After all, why should the immortals be treated so differently from the rest of us?

By the time we reach the shield, I’ve yet to see anything moving on the other side. No cable chairs, no shuttles, no people. “Now what?” I try to disguise that I’m out of breath and my side aches from eating nothing except fruit.

“We knock.”

“Wait, I thought—”

“Shhh.” He holds his finger to my lips and winks.

Somehow I’ve let on that his winking infuriates me. Now he’s doing it to excess. I’m about to see if I can land another punch, this one duly deserved, when he embraces me.

He’s so hot to the touch, his hand on my back must be burning through my clothes. As my spine begins to vibrate, I struggle to draw a complete breath, to resist him. Instead, I melt. Then, to my shock, I realize we’re both melting right through the shield wall. The space of a few meters shimmers with telekinesis like butterflies swarming the branches of an Oyamel.

The surface ripples as we pass through it. And everything is humming. I close my eyes as the light and heat washes up my chest and across my face. Finally, I gulp down air, my lungs expanding into a new-found freedom. Limp, I cling to Neca. With a final shiver, I open my eyes. The impossible has happened: I’m inside Immortal City.

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