We used to be human.
Just normal twenty-two-year-olds alive in 2294, going to the requisite final year of school in a world that was divided into two halves: ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Them’, of course, being the United Other Countries, and ‘us’ being the once-so-vaunted Americas, now united under the governing hand of the Coalition.
The two halves of the world were at war, although it didn’t affect us, did it?
You and I were just students, chatting from class to class, our generation more innocent than any before us because we were the first to grow up under the umbrella ‘protections’ of the wristbands.
Dubbed the Virgin Generation, we were a bunch of awkward celibates whose wristbands popped us with shocks if we so much as kissed without being registered. But we couldn’t register until we turned twenty-two, and even after that we’d have to wait a month to screw, after which they only permitted us one ‘happy act’ per week. All because – purportedly – too much heavy breathing would suck up the oxygen that OxyGene’s precious generators produced.
The wristbands kept us in line. If you had sex, you got caged. Punch someone else and you got shocked. Rape someone and the wristband trackers would hunt you down. Kill someone and you’d end up in No Man’s Land.
Everything was monitored. No violence allowed. No crime. We were safe.
All I had to worry about was school. My diligent figure hunched over a lab table. Prof waxing eloquent over new formulas, his poufy hair all agog.
And Lunar Davith Adurian.
The scarred, smirky guy I fantasized about.
He was always near me. Often nearer. Pausing in a space of heat behind me. His breath by my hair. The murmur of nearby classmates not paying attention.
Sometimes he’d linger so long my fingers would tremble on the beaker before me, the flames of the Bunsen burner shearing too close to my skin.
Then he’d shift, on the verge of something, and I’d duck my head and whirl away, my hair a copper fall of cowardice shielding me from him and the world.
I was a timorous thing with a dusky blush on my cheeks and lowered eyes that barely dared to glance back, because I always had to be Father’s obedient daughter. I was the shy, sweet innocent.
And you, Anza.
My best friend.
You painted hobgoblins and fairies in your artwork, happy endings and impossibilities in your outlook, and yet you badmouthed my rich, indulgent father in public because you knew the truth wasn’t always what everyone saw…
We’re not human anymore.
You think I don’t know, Anza? Think I don’t know exactly what’s reflected back when you look in the mirror? The bruised sorrow sunken under your eyes? After the things you’ve done?
I let that happen.
I could have stopped it, but I didn’t.
You should hate me. I listen to Jace’s murmurs to you in the dark, consolation I should have given you, and I hate myself even though I know that’s the last thing you’d want. I shouldn’t eavesdrop on your sorrow, but perhaps I think I deserve it.
I need to tell you this. Tell you the whole truth of all that happened after the Coalition destroyed our humanity and made us something else.
I need to tell you what you mean to me, what it cost me to let them take you and use you—use you against us.
It happened in the middle of Chem class.
You could have painted it:
Sunshine. Bored students, their feet scraping the floor, their fingers drumming their desks. You were falling asleep. Creepy Hattie was tittering under her dark curly hair. Lunar was rolling a scalpel between his fingers: around and around until it flicked at the corner of my vision where he sat in the desk behind me. Swish swish…
Prof wanted to do a demonstration of scarlet fire, to show how it didn’t kill organisms, but altered them.
He needed a volunteer.
Lunar kicked my desk to volunteer me, as he always did, just so he could thumb his bottom lip and check out my ass.
Here is what I knew of him before the mutation:
When we were seven years old, he limped into class nursing a split lip and a bruised cheek, a gash by his left eye stitched up so tight it nearly forced his eye shut. He was still wearing preppy clothes: a wine-red sweater-vest over a crisp white shirt and pressed beige pants, clothes that said, ‘My mother loves me. See this bowtie? See the polished shoes?’ Clothing at odds with his beat-up mouth and stitched forehead.
His gaze fixed on me.
Those eyes infested with threats.
He watched me all the time after that as if he knew what I was learning behind closed doors.
Our teachers scolded him, of course, fond of their chastisements: pompous lectures for him to stop eyeing the rich girl and pay attention. But he passed classes anyway and watched me still. His clothes grew shabby, his sweater frayed, his shoes scuffed, and eventually ripped white t-shirts and torn black pants replaced the tailored duds of Mother’s Love. But still he watched me. His gaze swore he would spill blood without a second’s remorse or an ounce of mercy.
I knew it because I’d looked it up.
I’d found what had taken the high-class kid and reduced him to this ungroomed punk who wore unrelenting black and constant hate.
His father, high up in their luxury suite, had contracted the Vaxen Plague and descended into madness. He’d taken up a knife and cut out his wife’s heart, then turned the bloody blade on his son.
But Lunar Davith Adurian had no wish to die that day.
Eight stab wounds later, his father was dead.
Fifteen years after that, his demeanor spat in the face of the world, his every feature carved by a ruthless god who had snipped each one from a bird of prey and altered them for Lunar’s human visage: hawkish nose, severe lips, and cheekbones molded from all angles.
Intense black eyes that could bore straight into my abomination of a soul.
Everyone else only saw a scarred jerk when they looked at him. Even you called him a walking semen-sack, but me?
I saw someone pissed off enough not to give a shit that he’s not invincible. He would fight anyway.
And I needed someone who could walk the desolate horizon of my inner world. Someone who would leave any resistance to him in sprawled defeat and soaking in frothing blood.
But he never actually touched.
He only became a master at getting just close enough that I could smell his leather jacket, his peppery skin.
Just close enough for my heartbeat to know he was there.
Close enough for everyone to see how his mere proximity left blush stains on my lips.
Then the Coalition mutated us all.
After he kicked my desk to volunteer me that day in Chem class, I walked to the front of the room like the obedient student I was… but Prof had a spider in his hand.
That’s important, Anza, because that’s where my fear starts.
I wouldn’t touch it, so Prof handed me the red fire igniter instead.
That’s important, too, that I got the fire and Prof got the beast.
Because that’s when the mutation hit.
It slashed down our spinal cords like knives severing the discs. Skin burst open above the pop of bones, and things rooted in our marrow and wriggled through our tissue, shifting the muscles inside our backs.
We writhed on the floor, no breath, no scream.
Until feathers unfolded from our shoulders and whispered over our skin, their buoyancy tugging us upward.
Tottering, dazed, disoriented, we staggered up from our anguished collapse, each of us – all of us – unfurling wings of different hues.
My feathers were the lipstick-red of a faithless kiss.
Our bodies were battered but our clothes were intact, the wings having ghosted through the material.
We didn’t understand their nature then, how they could alter from solid feather to airy wraith to deadly substance in less than a moment of instinct.
Then Prof rose. He had become a victim, too, his wings beetle-black, his hair awry, his hands aquiver. Panic ruled his darting gaze… and his feathers began to move, to swarm.
Spiders tumbled off upon the floor, in legions, in droves.
I told you the spiders were important.
Prof’s spiders skitter toward me in a mass, more tumbling from his wings and plunging into the teeming host on the floor. The students beyond him go berserk and knock into desks as they scramble back, exuding the salty secretion of sweat.
I taste insect and spider—No—they’re not real—the ones in your mouth aren’t—
Eight-legged forms on my tongue—those aren’t real!—
But they crunch in my teeth and glide in my mouth, their little pinpricks on my arms—not under your skin—
Run! But I can’t move—the spiders swarm around my feet in a roiling ocean, the squirming floor going beetle-black and students screaming. My feathers sear blistering hot on my back, shooting heat up my spine and the back of my neck. No—
The spiders are crawling through my skin.
A fiery scorch spikes through my nerves as arachnids race up my legs. Not real—
But the air erupts in fiery blast and boiling snakes, the feathers over my shoulders expanding like forked tongues on a dragon’s breath and—
Prof is no longer human when I emerge.
Lunar’s hauling me to my feet, and he has wings, too, of metallic silver that spit off sunlight like contempt. The other students have mashed themselves into a corner of the room, some mindlessly screaming, others in a frantic daze. Lunar’s face is stark white, his lips bloodless.
Beyond him screams Prof, his skin like smoldering lava, fissures running in jagged webs across a blazing orange torso.
What just happened—
Wings just tore from our shoulders, and mine—
Prof’s feathers turned to spiders and I was thrown back to the simulation from years ago – the terror, the spiders under my skin—the terror—
Breathe! The spiders aren’t real—they’re not under your skin.
But my wings—they’d felt my fear and turned to flame, a heated blast over my shoulders—
Now Prof is a frenzied alien creature set ablaze, students screaming and squeezing tighter into the corner. Desk legs squeal across the floor and blend with the guttural noises from Prof’s burned throat.
I did this. My new wings—this can’t be real—
What did this to us—the Coalition? And how? Why aren’t we waking? What are we now?
Prof’s wings have been incinerated down to skeletal spines behind his shoulders: blackened tongs that open and close as if attempting to unfold an expanse of feathers already singed away. His agony vibrates in my eardrums.
I lost control. I have wings that turn to flame, and Anza—
My frantic gaze locates her standing pale and pinned against Jace by the wall—she’d been so close to that blast of wing fire—
It could’ve been her. I could’ve hurt her, the person who saved me a thousand times without even knowing.
What if the wings do this again and it’s her screaming like Prof? The girl who threw herself in front of a bullet and kept me from driving off the road into oblivion and kept so many of my filthy secrets—
Secrets that – if I’m honest down to the core of my soul – make me a monster.
No. I can’t risk her. Can’t—I don’t know what I am now—
Something has to stop me before I lose control again.
Prof could stop me. He’s in an agony of pain, his body made of smoldering ember.
I just have to goad him and make myself his victim. I did this to him, after all, and he’s mindless with anguish, so—
I step into the decision.
My open arms invite him. “I did this, Prof! And I’ll do it again!”
Come kill me, Prof, before I kill everyone else…
Before I kill the one person who matters to me above all the rest.
But I’m not the only killer in this room.
Prof comes after me, his pain-crazed body eager to burn its maker, but Lunar goes for Prof.
He shoves past me in a streak of glossy hair and black leather jacket, his metallic wings reshaping midair into concentric rows of sleek knives.
Sunlight stabs off the entire array of feathers transformed to blades as they slice through Prof’s transformed flesh and sever his burning limbs from his torso. Ribbons of bloody pink tissue unravel from bones poking out of the stumps.
His momentum thumps him to the floor, his armless body still glowing ember-orange. His sheared cranium rocks to a standstill atop the singed spiders, his shocked eyes still alive for milliseconds after decapitation.
And there, at the front of our sun-drenched classroom, he perishes.
I’m shivering still, quivers like insects under my porcelain skin.
The other students are panicking and pawing at their new wings and tripping over their desks in a futile sprint to escape a fate that’s already sealed, but the wings have already rooted in our musculature, twining deep into our bodies. There’s no escape now.
I can’t move.
The air feels singed above where Prof’s torso pulses a fiery red like a live ember. One lone sunbeam casts a benevolent band of light over his burnt carcass, his body’s edges blackening into charred meat. His decapitated head resembles a lump of coal, with a rough, glistening black layer of char coating his teeth.
My stupid fear. The stupid spiders.
Even now I taste their dead, mashed bodies afloat in my saliva among squirming living ones. I swallow reflexively, but they clog my throat and eat away the inside of my trachea in small chomps, nibbles on the underside of my flesh—
“Cascade.” Lunar’s black-clad body blocks out the sunlight. He steps through the chorus of jabbering voices and stamping feet, the pervasive sting of old chemicals and scent of scorched flesh, oblivious to the students’ cries and the glowing spiders crunching under his buckled boots.
He saved me.
When my terror took hold and my wing fire blazed past and engulfed Prof and his spiders, everyone – even Anza – shrank back in terror, stupefied by the wings that had just ripped from our backs and dumbfounded by mine combusting into an inferno and altering Prof into an alien creature.
But Lunar—he’d thought ‘screw this’ and stumbled forward to brave my flame. He’d ducked under firepower that could have demolished him and slain the entire school, and he took me down wrapped in his arms.
He’d thrown his life into peril, into mine.
And then, when I tore myself open and stepped up to the edge of my demise, he seized that treacherous notion by the scruff of its neck, said, ‘Fuck you’, and hauled me back.
He kicked the world away from me as if it were a mangy dog.
He killed Prof.
But he couldn’t have known his wings would turn to blades. They’d simply reacted like mine had… to protect me.
Everyone knew he’d started out hating me… although maybe puberty had mucked that hate up a little and then the teenage years even more, until at some point in the past few years, it had changed completely.
Now he’s done what no one had ever done for me before, and he did it in a split second of primal instinct: he slew for that sweet girl I wasn’t, for the husk that only wanted to end it all, and he left me stranded in the living world, thunderstruck by what he’d done.
My deep dark inside goes as still as a spun-glass figurine.
Not from the mutation.
Not from wings that had clawed their feathers from my muscle and spine.
Not from the legion of spiders or my wings uncurling red tongues of fire.
Of all things, it’s this that makes me still: he does, the kid from the Compound, the asshole who lives in a place where affection is bloodying someone’s nose and every midnight trip to the toilet involves keeping a dagger clenched in one hand.
Powdery motes dust the radiance around him as he steps close and the glaring sun harshens his sharp-edged features. His silver wing feathers, knives mere seconds before, reflect the sunbeams and throw slivers of light in the air around my vision.
His narrow face fills my world where that sunlight sparkles between my lashes; he comes so close to my breath. “Cascade.”
In front of the classroom, with all the cameras watching, he shifts until his jacket whispers against my arm and my feathers unfurl against his leather.
It makes me feel glazed. Like bygone days when Father’s training pushed me beyond the threshold of endurance and I lay drenched in aphrodisiacs and sweaty sheets, imagining Lunar with me in the sick sanctuary of my sick mind, my eyes shut on my panting breaths, my hands… Take me away from here.
One of his hands glides up my arm, the sun turning his fingertips as warm as honey drizzling over my skin. “Tell me you’re alright.”
He curls his hand around the back of my neck and brings me light as a fiberglass leaf up against his chest.
I’m pressed to his heartbeat, with sunlight warming his zippered leather jacket against my cheek. His fingers sift over the feathers of my folded wings, those fingers that have killed before, although now they stroke and linger until everything inside me goes glossy and hot. Intense.
Is it any wonder that I smile?