When we were still weak, they kept us in cells.
They experimented on us.
They poked their injections under our tender skin as singsong assurances glided out from behind their sterile masks. They only wanted to help us. To prevent the emergence of more anomalies.
Anomalies they were sure would come.
But we broke free, didn’t we?
We rose up against them.
We survived. We lived. We ignored their warnings…
We should have listened.
Mutant #417, Anzaria Claire Soleil
Female, age 22, height 5’9”
eye color: hazel
hair color: dark blond
wing color: iridescent pink
wing substance: Iovaine (tetrathio diamino hydrosulfate peroxide)
Withholding information on confirmed rebels. Fraternizing with the public enemy. Unauthorized wing use to heal criminals. Solicitation of an authority. Aiding and abetting in the abduction of a high-profile personage.
Remaining time given mutant to reveal rebel leader’s location: 3 hours, 28 mins
Action upon cooperation:
1) Mutant transferred to life prison unit under the care of Halcyon Devereaux
2) Mutant’s current registered partner, Mutant #451 (born Jace Centennial Slocum), released
Action upon refusal to cooperate: Mutant #451 to be executed
Recorded wristband data for Anzaria Claire Soleil
- August 2244
Subject experiencing variation from normal range: pulse 85 bpm regular, BP 117/73 mmHg, RR 18, SaO2 98%RA (FIO2 21%), temp 36.5degC
Lacrimation. Skin turgor normal.
Conclusion: mild psychological distress; parameters within normal range
Status: within sanctioned UOA (Universal Oxygen Allowance)
Management: physiological observation frequency adjustment
“Jace, are you there? Please answer me. Jace!” Subject relocating to corner of cell and corridor. “Jace…”
“Jace! Are you alright? What did they do to you? Can you reach out your hand…?”
Detected skin-to-skin contact via clasped hands with… identifying… Mutant #451.
Subject pulse 95 bpm regular, BP 123/76 mmHg, RR 23, SaO2 98%RA (FIO2 21%), temp 36.5
Searching permitted oxygen allocation…
Status: within sanctioned IOA (Increased Oxygen Allowance). Anzaria Claire Soleil in registered relationship with Jace Centennial Slocum. 1 day after permitted intercourse.
“Jace, what did they do to you? What are they doing to you?”
“Changes? What do you mean it…”
Subject pulse 104 bpm regular, BP 129/81 mmHg, RR 25, skin clammy
“They alternate. I guess they don’t want me getting too accustomed to one method of torture. I might stop screaming.”
Subject pulse 110 bpm regular, BP 134/84 mmHg, RR 29, SaO2 98%RA (FIO2 21%), temp 36.6
“Why won’t the fucking bastards beat me? I’m the one who won’t talk—can’t even tell them what they want! I’m so sorry, Jace, so—”
“Anza, hey, hey, don’t cry. I’m glad it’s me they’re beating and not you. Anza.”
“It’s not fair.”
“It is fair. I have the tougher jaw. And I like you with all your teeth.”
Subject pulse 125 regular, BP 140/88, RR 35, SaO2 98%RA (FIO2 21%), temp 36.7
Lacrimation. Hyperventilating. Skin clammy.
Conclusion: moderate psychological distress; adjustment disorder with anxiety and panic attack
Management: intervention if abnormal parameters persist for > 10 minutes
Transcript of combined footage from all cameras monitoring Cell 91
Current inmate: Mutant #417, Anzaria Claire Soleil
- August 2244
The inmate, a young, pink-winged woman in jeans and a white tank top, crouches at the edge of her windowless concrete cell and reaches her arm through the bars, stretching it across the concrete divide between her prison unit and the one adjacent. Her fingers clutch the hand of her fellow inmate and registered partner, not shown on screen. Fluorescent lights flicker overhead in the corridor. The cell opposite, seen through iron bars, is vacant.
The inmate drops her forehead against the cell bars and emits a choked sound, unidentifiable as either laughter or tears. “Stop trying to make me laugh. Your life hinges on knowledge I don’t possess, and I can’t convince the maggots with prison keys and power trips that I don’t know shit.”
“You don’t have to. Once we get out of here, I’m going to freeze their assets off.”
The inmate strangles a laugh.
“Stop worrying about me, too—Anza, are you listening? You lived without me before. You can live without me again.”
The inmate covers her face with her free hand, hunching into herself even more. “You kind of ruined that for me.”
The security door at the end of the corridor squeals open, unseen on visual. The click click of sharp heels is audible.
Releasing her partner’s hand, the inmate rises and turns to face the approaching figure: a petite woman in silver stilettos and a steel-gray dress suit with complementing jacket and knee-length skirt.
“Anzaria.” Her heels clack over the concrete floor until she stops in front of the inmate.
The inmate crosses her arms over her chest. “Who are you?”
“That depends on how you want to look at me.” The visitor pats the brown chignon at the base of her skull. “You can see me as a chance, a reprieve, or even a nuisance. If I were you, though, I’d choose the first two and accept my offer.”
Lifting a flap of her jacket, the woman pats the recorder clipped on the waistband of her skirt. “Tell me what happened. The whole story.”
“Why should I?” The inmate steps back, arms still crossed, her iridescent pink wings glimmering in the light from above.
“Because if you agree to talk to me and tell me what I want, they’ll delay your decision and,” she tilts her head toward the neighboring cell, “give him another chance.”
The inmate hunches inward over her crossed arms, her voice lowering. “Why would you care?”
The visitor leans forward, her body taut. “Because the whole country has heard of the girl whose wings heal, and—” she pitches her voice to a theatrical whisper “—it’s rumored that they do other things, too.”
The inmate snorts. “Part of my story involves things the Coalition would hardly want blasted over mainstream drama networks. I can’t imagine—”
“No! Listen!” The woman grabs the bars and peers through them at the inmate. “The systems are still locked down. I got permission from someone inside here who’s secretly on your side and wants the world to know the truth as you do! They got me in here and distracted the—”
“You’re an effing fake, is what you are.”
The woman snaps her spine straight. “An effing fake?”
The inmate flaps one hand, keeping the other folded across her chest. “You know. A decoy. Someone planted in the enemy camp with the pretense of assimilation to gain the trust of the naïve.”
“Me?” The woman flattens her hand on her chest. “You think I’m an informer?”
“They sent you in here pretending to be on my side so I’ll get all chummy-chummy and spill my guts to you. In reality, though, they just want to know how much of their dirty laundry I’ve sniffed out and could air if I’m set free, even if I’m only set free under supervised circumstances.”
The woman goes ramrod straight, dropping her hand. “So you’re just going to deny the public the truth because of an assumption and your own personal trust issues?”
“You’re the one denying them the truth because of your employer’s agenda. You’re just hoping that, if you get me speaking, I’ll drop little tidbits here and there, right? Then you can just follow the breadcrumb trail right to—”
The visitor veers away from the inmate, her heels clicking toward the partner’s cell out of visual.
“Hey!” The inmate scrambles to the bars of her cell and seizes them. “What are you doing?”
The clacking of the visitor’s heels halts. “Why, telling him you’ve consigned him to death, of course, and are consigning the rest of us to ignorance.”
“Ignorance is the last bastion of the self-deluded,” the partner’s voice drifts from his cell.
“What,” enunciates the woman off-screen, “is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s open to interpretation.”
The woman’s heels click nearer again, away from the partner’s cell. “I could have him and his mouthy comments set free, you know, without you having to tell them a thing about Cascade’s location.”
The inmate pushes closer to the bars, staring at the visitor as she reappears in the visual. “What?”
“And we can get you out, too.”
“Now I know you’re a fake,” the inmate says, but she doesn’t move from her spot. Her gaze remains fixed on the other woman.
“So what if I were?” The woman pauses in front of the inmate, her finger tapping a cell bar. “You’d just be telling them secrets they already know. But if I’m not a fake… if I’m not a fake, then is this chance at freedom something you’re really willing to throw away? I can set you and Jace free, Anzaria, think about that. Because that is what you want, isn’t it? For you and him to live unfettered and love unhindered while your friend continues to be happily safe?”
The inmate sinks a bit closer to the bars, her voice a whisper. “Yes.”
“Good. So you’re going to meet me halfway then?”
The inmate swings away from the bars, crosses to the bunk, and collapses back on it. She kicks up at the wired metal frame supporting the mattress above her. “You can really set him free?”
“The one who got me in here can get you both out. And, frankly speaking, what have you got to lose?”
Abandoning her kicking, the inmate curls up on her side and faces the wall. She traces designs on the concrete separating her from her registered partner. “All you want is for me to tell you what happened, starting with—”
“The wing incident.” The visitor lifts her jacket flap, her fingers hovering over the recorder. “Tell me as much as you can recall. Every detail. Are you ready?”
The inmate flips over onto her back. “Not really, but what the heck. What’s your name again?”
“Just call me Interviewer.”
“Nice and anonymous.”
“That’s how I like it.”
The inmate kicks at the bunk one more time. “Fine. Let’s make this worth it then.”
“Needle, Anza! Needle!”
A boot rams into my ankle, knocking my entire body off-center. My elbow shoots across the desk, sending the palm belonging to said elbow right out from under the chin I’d had propped on it. My head swoops downward—
BAM! Forehead bangs desk, whacked front and center.
Freaking, effing… I rear back up, cradling my throbbing brow and seeing the formulas on the screen at the front of the classroom now gyrating in a primal dance. Red and green dots blur on the background, which is now tilting. “What the—?”
“Anza!” Cascade hisses from the desk to my right. “Prof is coming with the Hexoine.”
My eyes snap into focus.
Oh, heck, yeah. He’s coming alright, all spruced up in his black suit, his thick hair slicked up then back in a pouf. Needle in hand, his eager fingers squirting a bit of liquid out to get rid of the bubbles.
Oh, freaking heck no.
He pauses then, catching sight of my chipper self smiling dazzlingly at him, perky and more frantically awake than someone having ingested two gallons of Coffee Version 1000.
Yeah, you’d better pause, Prof. I’m awake now. Like super awake. Like eyes-boggling-out-of-their-sockets awake. See? No need to inject me with uppers.
And if you try to stick that needle in me, I swear I will stab it in your eyeball.
His eyes narrow, as if either silently commanding me to conk out again or protecting his eyes from my mental threat. His tongue comes out for a ponderous lick of his too-thick lips.
No way am I going to let him jab me in the neck. I got jabbed by enough needles as a child. Dragged to every doctor, psych worker, and quack who knew how to slap together a tincture.
I can’t even remember which one finally succeeded in curing me, can’t even really remember having any symptoms of a sickness, but I refuse to go under the needle quietly ever again. I will scream, I will rage, I will redefine bedlam, mayhem, whatever. They even have to knock me out just to do the required blood checks every quarter year.
I don’t think I’m going to let a measly chem professor stab me without some major scratching and ball-flattening going on.
But unsuspecting Prof still hovers.
If you know what’s good for you, Prof, just back off now.
I may look tame, but I am a rabid dog sans foaming mouth, waiting for an excuse.
Everyone is waiting. The screen at the front of the room displaying today’s mess of formulas glows sagely. Out of the corner of my eye I see Cascade’s beautiful lips draw taut on my behalf. She would totally have my back. She always has, even though no one knows it. She’s not the type to fight in public, but get her on a computer, and she can destroy anyone’s life before they can get on and off the crapper. Behind her quiet façade prowls a sneaky, fierce lioness, and I’m the cub she would die defending. Partly because she thinks I’m more worth saving than she is. Which is a huge point of contention between us. It comes up every time she tries to protect me from something or other without asking me first. I mean, I know I’m freaked out easily, but, damn, when she believes something is even a minor threat to me, you’d think I was her baby sister rather than her best friend. Her battle cry becomes, Protect Anza at all cost!
The black-haired douche-wad sitting behind her smirks at me, probably wanting to see some needle action. Maybe after I go all ninja, eye-stabbing and ball-flattening on Prof, I’ll do the same to him… though I’d eye-stab and ball-flatten more carefully with him, because the silver rings on his hand glitter as he fiddles with a scalpel (likely nicked from the biology lab because he doesn’t feel human without something that can kill in his hands, and knives aren’t allowed in school).
Beyond him, Creepy Hattie is staring at me—again, always staring and licking her lips—her mouth parted and her body listing forward. Everyone else displays expressions of curiosity-because-there’s-nothing-better-to-do.
Prof lowers the injection with a resigned heave of his shoulders and turns back to his desk, in front of and just to the left of where I’m sitting near the front corner of the room.
I slump in my desk chair.
Prof’s balls have been spared!
No thanks to my wonky sleep schedule.
If only I freaking had more time! Every weekday it’s school till two pm, then the required five hours work ops till seven-thirty, I’m home by eight for dinner, then clean-up and family time until nine-thirty, homework till ten-thirty if I’m super super fast, then I’m showered and ready for bed by eleven, and finally comes time for what I really enjoy, painting.
Sometimes all night long.
Just thinking about it makes my eyelids droopy again.
Wait, my left eye tells me, the blondie sitting on your left is staring again. Jace, or Jane, or Jive, or whatever I’m calling him today, my tormentor since grade-school, the tall skinny guy whose long limbs always make him look like a scarecrow folding himself into the desk when he flops down in it. The one who never wears anything but jeans and t-shirts with stupid slogans like ‘Spare our air & save your breath. Shut up’. That’s quality, right there.
Not that I go all out with my own wardrobe, being in pale jeans and a yellow tank top sprinkled with glittery, hot pink butterflies. But at least I’m not offending anyone—well, except the fashion police.
Although… come to think of it, Hattie did burst into tears when she saw my shirt. Maybe because, despite the biologists’ best efforts, the last of the butterflies are dying out along with the last plants.
But I don’t want to think about that. Someone smart will eventually come along and restore everything to its rightful state, save the dying species, resuscitate all the cryonically preserved ones, and—voilà!—everything will be hunky-dory again.
Returning my precious attention to Jace-Jive, I level him with a glare that’s partly just me squinting against the sunlight streaming through the window behind him. “What are you staring at?”
He shrugs and takes a drink of the thermos filled with cola on his desk, with a picture of a man’s face sporting a huge toothy smile ogling me from its glossy side. “You have a red spot in the middle of your forehead.” He crunches some ice between his teeth. “It makes you look like a bad flag-of-Japan imitation.”
“Japan doesn’t exist anymore, Mr. I Suck Hard Balls. So how would you even know what its flag looks like?” At least, we’re supposed to think it doesn’t exist, because we’re taught that all the countries on the other side of the world were absorbed into the UOC, but anyone who’s actually lived in the UOC knows—
Interviewer: And you’ve lived there?
Mutant #417: Yeah. I was born there, in Czechogermany. We migrated here when I turned seven.
Interviewer: Now this is intriguing. How did you get accepted into the country? Only a certain, strictly controlled number of UOC refugees are accepted each year, and those spots are reserved for top scientists and other nonpareils. Not for behavioral biologists like your mother, and definitely not for children.
Mutant #417: I don’t know how she did it, but my mom wanted out of the UOC, so she got us out.
Interviewer: And no one at school made fun of your accent?
Mutant #417: I didn’t have one. Everyone in the UOC learns English from birth as a second native language. Some want to defect to the Coalition; for others it’s a survival tactic they use to infiltrate and spy on the Coalition armies camped in their countries. Can I go on now?
Jace grins around a sliver of ice cube about to get crunched. “I have my ways. And I know that red spot screams Japan flag.”
I smooth down my tank top, primly. Can’t permit wrinkles in the butterflies. “I am not amused by your flagging jokes.”
“What?” Crunch. “Flagging?”
I hide my face briefly in my hands and then look up again. “You know, flagging like waning jokes? Like weak ones? It’s a pun.”
Okay, so maybe a bad one.
“Oh. Ha ha.” He chomps more ice. “Funny. My sides are splitting.”
I roll my eyes, even though, you know, the way he stares at me is still better than Hattie’s way.
Prof shuffles his feet where he stands pointing at formulas. “Anzaria, Jace, is there something you wish to share with the class?”
Jive flicks his platinum blond hair. I flick my own more undecided-color hair and get my fingers tangled in it. “No, Prof,” we intone in unison. I pull a few hairs out, trying to disentangle my fingers. No wonder I don’t brush my hair; my hybrid wave-curls are dangerous.
Prof inclines his pouf at us. “Good.”
I level Jive with a warning glance not to speak at the same time as me again, or to tempt me to any more hair-flicking, but he merely smiles his pretty-boy smile and drinks from his pretty-boy thermos.
I can’t believe I actually thought I—mighta woulda coulda maybe?—liked him and even almost kissed him a few months ago. Because of one stupid stumble in the hallway, I’d gone plummeting straight toward him; his eyes had widened and his hands had seized my elbows. He’d hauled me up way too close to his body, and suddenly our lips had breathed inches apart and the world had faded to background static. Our eyes locked on each other. His fingers tightened on my elbows, lifting me up on my toes, lifting me closer, or I was rising up on my own, leaning toward him—I stopped taking in oxygen—his eyes lowered to my lips; I couldn’t believe this was really happening—
And then I was dumped on my feet in a jarring world of hurrying students and he was slipping past me like a rat scurrying away from lava flow.
No wonder I’d thrown myself head over heels in infatuation with the new guy in school, the oh-heck-yeah-he’s-SO-worth-ogling Halcyon.
That brings me back to the present and I seek out his mussed brown hair and crooked grin now, but, instead, I get an eyeful of scalpel-player and Hattie licking her lips behind him.
Beyond them, desks creak as students prop their sagging selves back up in their seats and fight to keep their eyelids higher than half-mast.
Oh, yeah. Halcyon isn’t here today.
Not that it would make any difference. We’ve spoken maybe like ten sentences to each other, half of those mine and not even countable as coherent, but still, he’s nice to look at and dream of having a comprehensible conversation with someday.
Haro isn’t here, either.
Crap, Anza. Don’t think of Haro.
Stupid twinge of melancholy.
I look down at my desk, hardly seeing the formulas marching across my tablet screen in time with Prof’s on the mounted screen, but it seems that unwanted memories are a fate determined to march across my path today, because I see him again.
Haro, the maybe 30-year-old school janitor who’d become my friend when someone had barged into me in the hall and knocked my tablet out of my hands. The tablet had gone flying and Haro, slumping by on the fringes of the hallway, had done this wild leaping-sprawling thing and caught it, swooping back up like an emerging hero disguised in a gray janitor’s suit and lanky limbs. He attempted a smile with his mouth that only seemed to work on one side and returned the tablet to me, his crooked, different-sized eyes shining in a face some called seriously hideous but I called immeasurably sad. It was in his eyes somehow, maybe in the droop of his eyelids that never went up all the way, as if he could endure letting in only so much of the visual world around him.
I was just about to thank him when some guy walking past us sneered. “Mutant! What happened to you—a meat grinder?”
“What happened to your manners?” I shot back, then pointed at the floor. “Oops, look, I think you dropped them.” Then I realized what idiocy had just dribbled out of my mouth, and the guy gave me such a scathing look of ‘you pathetic thing with that lame as freak retort—really?’ that I made like a radioactive slug and fled.
Haro scurried after me and caught up, mumbling his own gruff thanks through uncombed hanks of dark hair that didn’t quite hide his disproportionate jumble of facial features. I hardly acknowledged him, pained by my own travesty of an insult, but he kept up until I eased down the warp speed and joined him in a chat.
After that, he kind of became this… loyal conspirator. He started walking by my classroom doors several times a day making faces just because he knew I’d laugh. He showed Cascade and me cool things about the school because he had keys for everywhere. One day he smuggled us into its archive of paper books held under lock and key and let us touch a nearly ancient copy of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a first edition of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. A few times he snuck us into the gym where we watched ripped cagers training and gleaming with sweat like gladiators, the men’s faces flushed with thrilled exertion, the women’s smiles vicious and badass, both sexes’ torsos lined with muscle that only those authorized could hone. Occasionally he took us up to the roof of the school, too, where we shot off the new equivalent of paper planes and bewildered the dozens of kids milling about under the marble trees below where the planes lodged in stone branches. He even helped perpetuate the War on Jive (a.k.a. Jace Centennial Slocum) that must Go Unspoken Of even though Jace’s and my nitpicking frenemy relationship has been an ongoing thing since, like, forever.
Only then—Haro vanished. Several months ago and without a trace, and no inquiries on my part, no matter how irritating, got anything from anyone other than an apologetic shake of the head. No, they didn’t know where he went. No, they had no contact information on him. And, no, he hadn’t informed anyone that he was leaving.
“Now.” Prof’s head quests in the air, peering at the space over our heads. “I need a volunteer.”
The black-haired scalpel-jerk behind Cascade raises his hand. “Cascade’ll volunteer.” He kicks her desk and it jolts forward, squeaking on the ivory-colored floor. “Won’t you, Cascade?”
Flushing, Cascade ducks her head behind her long, strawberry-blond hair and slides out of her desk. After all, she can’t say no to Mr. Had-a-hopeless-crush-on-him-for-years. Stupid sick butt-bag Lunar Adurian.
I angle him a scowl, but his eyes fix on Cascade’s jean-cupped derriere—he always only volunteers her for things so he can ogle her body. Now his head cocks to the side, thumb running along his bottom lip and a self-satisfied smile playing on his mouth.
Poor Cascade. Shy and gorgeous and eyeballed by this creep. I wish a seizure on him that’ll smack his head down and impale his creeper eyeball on his scalpel. It doesn’t happen. I don’t have that kind of power over the universe yet.
Prof bobs his head as she approaches, his lips shiny and blubbery.
Some people should really be forbidden to wear chap-stick.
“Here.” He holds out a fist, palm downward. “Take the spider.”
“What?” Cascade rears back. “No, Prof, please!”
Laughter and half-stifled giggles spurt around the room.
Cascade flushes, the color infusing her cheeks only making her prettier. Her flawless skin gives off a soft natural radiance, and she nervously tucks a gleaming strand of red-gold hair behind her ear and bites her lip.
Prof’s blubbery lips purse, daring to exhibit their disenchantment at her unwillingness. “Cascade, it’s been sedated and won’t wake or even crawl. See?” He thrusts out his palm, the black pellet of spider in the center.
Cascade’s flushed face leaches of color. Her white-knuckled fists clench at her side. “I… can’t, Prof.”
“Very well.” Emitting a weird snuffling sound, he withdraws his hand. After all, her father is the most powerful man in the city, barring when a Coalition member is in residence. “Here, then, you’ll hold the fire.”
He hands her what looks like a black pen-stick. She holds it out at arm’s length.
“No need to be shy. Turn it on…here.” The prof points at a switch I can’t see from where I am, even though I’m in the front row. “Then you have to…” His voice muffles as he bends closer to her, demonstrating. She leans away from his pouf.
When he pulls back, a small red fire has flamed to life. Her fascinated eyes fasten on the ruby flare.
“Hold it steady. Okay?” The prof faces us. “Now. Most of you know about the formulation of the flame-retardant—or more precisely, flame-stopper Nurav and how it’s used almost everywhere nowadays: for preventing house and car fires, decreasing friction on high-speed drone flight, and, most importantly, in the war on the UOC, to keep our tanks and war-ships and other metal vehicles shielded from and impervious to attacks by bombs and fire.”
The world recedes and darkens, my head drooping…
I haul it back up. Don’t you DARE fall asleep again, Anza!
I look around for something to provide me with entertainment. Blond scarecrow on one side chomping ice. Black-haired jerk on other playing with his scalpel. Neither promising, and beyond them, creepy smiling Hattie. The other students stifle yawns. Maybe the ceiling can provide entertainment?
The prof’s monotonous voice drones on. “What you don’t know is that the UOC has concocted a stronger flame that eats through Nurav’s defense. You see it before you today.” He gestures at the red fire whistling softly from the black pen-stick in Cascade’s fingers. “Despite its undeniable beauty, this scarlet flame is one of the most destructive substances the world has ever seen. I had to get special permission to even let it into the classroom today, and they only permitted it because at twenty-two you’re almost considered adult and are the best of the best in the chem labs. So.” He almost rubs his hands together in anticipation before he remembers the unconscious spider on his palm and catches himself. “So,” he repeats, “the red fire burns using a new chemical meant to eat through anything, even Nurav-protected objects. Regrettably, this gives our enemies an acute advantage in the war…”
Yada yada yada. Like I care what the UOC does anymore. I left the United Other Countries on the other side of the globe and we just need to leave them there, in peace, for freaking sake.
And Prof needs to spice things up for us.
Maybe like that substitute history teacher who’d appeared in class when I was seven, soon after the Vaxen Plague had decimated nearly two-thirds of our population.
He’d had these nervous tics, biting his lips, first the top lip, then the bottom one, over and over again while he smoothed back his thinning hair. He’d fiddled with the monitor and camera controls on the teacher’s desk, tapping tapping. Then he straightened up and said,
They’re lying to you.