Genre: sci-fi love story mutant-style
That’s the choice the Coalition gives me: betray my best friend or have my partner killed. And this after they locked us under a caged sky and mutated us, giving us all wings with random-as-crap powers. Mine are sparkly pink ones whose favorite pastime is flirting and healing people and… worse.
But I was learning to live with it—the wings, the fact that my best friend had become a fugitive, the fact that I was falling in love with a guy with wings of ice, a heart of gold, and secrets he wasn’t telling… but the Coalition used him again and again to force me to stoop to their demands—and I did. I bowed, I bent—I would not break—
But I will only go so far for love.
Ten minutes later I’m dressed in jeans and a yellow tank top, my dragon hair soothed and the well of dead things in my mouth appeased with toothpaste (always an adventure, getting ready in the morning). By the time Jace and I hit the ground floor, I revert to my usual cantankerous self—until we breeze through the building door and into the dazzling freshness of a world waking up to its first tree.
A scene like children on a birthday morning.
Sparkling, invigorating air redolent of leafy things and vanilla immerses me where I stop short in the doorway, Jace going slack-jawed beside me. Morning light drips between the leaves of the tree before us, filtering a filmy green radiance over the murmuring people milling in its shade, most unable to stand still or cease gawking—after all, seven-story flora doesn’t sprout out of concrete every day.
Its trunk alone takes up over half of the two-lane street, where popped-out solar plates—courtesy of the Sudden Tree Syndrome—lie scattered in every which direction. Some even sprawl as far as several meters away, giving the impression that something hungry and petulant woke in the night, gobbled up half the street, and then left its crumbs lying around.
Too bad it didn’t gulp down the scientists swarming the tree’s base like ants in yellow synthetic gloves and goggles. Cordoned off from the rest of us, they pry off samples of bark and roots like meticulous scavengers and pack them up in plastic containers.
Still… I step over a solar panel flipped belly-up near my feet and venture forward, marvelously dizzy, my head tilted back under the boughs of alien leaves.
Inhaling deeply, I close my eyes to savor the moment.
“I know,” Jace breathes by my side. “It looks like Mr. Broccoli.”
My eyelids shoot open like a popped balloon. “What?”
Captain Oblivious motions upward. “You remember. Tall broccoli-stalk dude. Scary as crap. Came on every evening at seven pm to terrify children into eating our vitamins before they ate us—”
“I know who Mr. Broccoli is. I just can’t believe you’re comparing my mom’s ancient wonder to a psychotic vegetable.”
“It wasn’t psychotic. It was concerned.”
“It chomped on kids who spurned their veggies!”
“It taught good habits for those spurnful kids.”
“Using negative reinforcement! Eat the vits or face the fronds.”
“For a good cause.”
I cut myself off before perpetuating the insanity too far. “I can’t believe you’re defending him. You’re not who I thought you were. My whole life is a lie.”
Jace twinkles his eyes at me, then turns away, covering his mouth as I register that the turd is just… urgh.
I tip my head back at the tree again, regaining my dignity. “How do you think it feels? Like, to touch?” I gauge the distance, calculating. “If I jumped…”
“No, you can’t!” Jace flits in front of me, suddenly all handsome apprehension and fluttering wings. “Your wristband’ll—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Biting my lip, I glance back at the feathers over my shoulder, tinted a greenish rainbow-y pink in the shadows.
They wink their glittery bad influence right back at me. Do it, they urge, the wicked things. We can fly you up—
“Don’t try it,” Jace seems to reprimand both of us at once, but directs his glare straight at my wings. “Here. This is safer.” Crouching down in front of me, he locks his arms around my thighs.
“What—” I begin.
He hefts me up, my hair fanning over my cheek, my mouth emitting a delicate squeak, and my hands flying to his shoulders for balance. Then my butt is propped on his forearms, my thighs against his chest, and my feet dangle in the air between his legs. His shoulder muscles go taut under my hesitant grip, his pretty face turning up toward me where he’s lifted me above the muted buzz of voices below.
Reality assumes a dreamlike slant, weightless and untouched. Leaves rustle overhead, full of velvety secrets in the luminous air. His gold-dusted ice feathers shimmer in close proximity to my hands, tinged the hue of the tree’s hazy green shade…
My hand stretches out of its own volition, my fingertips alighting on satiny vanes. Their softness curls around my fingers, brushing the pad of my thumb over their vulnerable centers. Jace’s chest hitches in a discordant rhythm against my thighs, but my own breath is bated, lost in this dreamscape world where I fondle his feathers and they adoringly reciprocate.
A shudder travels through him, freezing my fingertips mid-stroke. “Jace?”
His eyes are shut, a devastated expression shaping his features.
I yank my hand back. “Crap. Are you alright? Did I hurt you?”
His eyes labor open, and for an instant he seems to reorient himself in reality, his dilated pupils contracting and his parted lips pressing together. His mustered attempt at a smile fails. “Hardly. That wasn’t pain. When you touched them, it…” He flips his hair back, adopting a sheepish smile. “I thought I might explode. It didn’t hurt.”
“Okay.” My fingers drift back toward his—
“But maybe you shouldn’t do it again,” Jace rushes on, his voice hoarse and not quite steady. “Unless you want to reduce me to a heap of blubbering goo at your feet.”
Blubbering goo, I think. Blubbering goo is not a good thing.
My reluctant fingers trap themselves a hairsbreadth away from his wings, their frosted glass beauty so close their yearning vibrates over my fingertips like a silent melody. Soft tremors wind through my fingers, equally yearning to touch.
I force my hand back, something in the very air resisting the withdrawal, tugging my hand back toward him.
Tree, I think. Big impossible leafy thing looming above you. The thing you wanted to touch.
I reach up to the lowest branch.
Rough under my fingertips, the bark thrums with life. Tingle-like shocks pulse through my fingertips, tripping up my arms and skipping down through my body—and into Jace. He goes slightly rigid and shifts abruptly, pulling my fingers away from the tree. Then he’s letting me slide down him.
My feet hit the solar plates, and he’s holding me still, my shirt pulled up in the back and his fingers resting on the bare skin there, tautening. His pale blue eyes meeting mine say things his mouth isn’t. My nerves draw tight, every sensation crisp on my skin: him, the sunlight, the—
“You there!” someone shouts.
We lurch apart.
“Don’t touch the growth!” one of the scientists calls out, pointing at us.
I can’t even focus on him, still so aware of Jace that he’s like a limb that’s just been separated from my body.
Not that that’s creepy or anything, but it literally feels as if something inside us twined together and was just wrenched apart… almost. We’re still connected by some current running beneath the fabric of the physical; if I close my eyes and he moves away, I think I’ll be able to pinpoint which direction he’s going in.
Alright, so maybe it’s a little creepy.
Not going to tell him he’s like my missing limb, though, nope, no way, no how. He already looks like things are brewing on his tongue that he wants to say, and the way his fingernail is drifting toward his mouth bodes ill for them being things I actually want to hear.
“So.” I flash him a brilliant smile. “School?”
His mouth twists and he looks away. “Yeah, I think… Yeah, may as well.”
Not that we have a choice, but whatever.
We pick our way between other tree admirers exhibiting varied levels of gawk, amazement, and curiosity. Leaves kick up around us, dancing in the light zephyr whirling between buildings, and I think if every one of those leaves becomes a tree, Haven’s going to have a problem.
Exiting the pocket of peace surrounding the tree, we enter glaring sunlight where sound turns on again. A car horn blares from a street adjacent. A shout and stomping footsteps raise a racket from the left.
Cagers dash down the entry steps of the Precinct 4 station. All of them launch into the air at the third step from the bottom, their grubby grayish and ivory wings snapping into formation and swinging a wide left. They disappear around the corner.
“Damn.” Jace whistles.
“They’re flying!” I say intelligently as we veer around the corner after them, down a brick-walled, cement-paved alleyway, tufts of garbage sticking to the sides of its throat discharging the odor of ammonia.
My footsteps unconsciously quicken, trying to catch up with them. Jace scurries to stay even.
“They’re flying!” I repeat, in case the intelligence of my previous declaration went unappreciated.
“Poor dudes must have learned in the night.” Jace hops over a pit in the concrete filled with brackish water.
“Poor? Why? They’re flying!”
“Because they were up all night and didn’t get to sleep next to—” His words stutter off and he pins his gaze doggedly ahead, only the faintest tinge of red rimming his ears as he finishes, “Next to you like I did.”
“You have a sad life,” I say, but my cheeks heat up, and after one glance at me, he doesn’t look insulted, but actually kind of… content. He sticks his hands in his pockets and the tiniest of smiles curves his lips.
I blame my wings. I’m sure the shameless romance opportunists are sending him signals behind my back.
We emerge onto the main thoroughfare, a two-way four-lane plaguing us with sensory overload. The scents of coffee, doughnuts, and bacon drift from cafés. Cars whoosh by. The babble of voices rises along with the patter of steps, occasional curses, and not-so-friendly altercations.
A shirtless man leaning to flab and colored in tattoos lounges on the doorjamb of his tattoo parlor, leering at Jace and me and showcasing his nightmarish wings comprised of prickling needles.
A little girl weaving between pedestrians runs screeching along the sidewalk past him, her wings like tubular brown balloons clustered together, bobbing up and down on her back and spurting sausages.
Mutts of all mixes of breeds zip barking along behind her, snatching up the treats in their slobbering muzzles and wolfing them down. Their owners shout somewhere far behind, a swiftly approaching cacophony of unheeded commands.
Jace and I lurch back, seeking asylum amongst a café’s outdoor tables as the little manic pied piper for dogs scampers past us, peppering the sidewalk with sausages.
“Come after me, come after me!” she sings, flapping her hands and skipping along at a swift canter.
“She’s running!” I say to Jace. “And her wristband isn’t going off or knocking her out!”
A boy jog-walks as fast as he can after the girl, his wings a greasy olive green. “Annia, Annia! How do you change your wings like that?” he cries.
The girl only emits more pied piper crazy and turns a corner.
“How do you do it? What do mine do? What do mine…” He glances down at his wristband, slows down, and starts crying. It beeps faintly above the general din.
So his wristband is working fine, apparently.
Jace and I extract ourselves from our temporary sanctuary and recommence our trek, approaching a couple going hot and heavy at the light petting against the granite walls of a bank building. The guy is pinned next to a brass plaque, his arms around a girl in skin-tight jeans. His hands rove up and down her back, plunging straight through her liquid-looking purple wings.
She throws her head back, moaning, her expression a playground of rampant rapture, resurrecting the memory of Jace’s fingers dipping into my heart.
Freak. Jace had better not be getting any ideas of doing that to me.
The guy grazes his teeth over her neck, her groan rising above the traffic.
“He’s a vampire,” Jace whispers in my ear.
I nearly chuck up my lungs through my nose snorting laughter. Jace eases his smirky proudness into a loose swagger.
Sausage-wing girl careens back around the corner then, screaming and brandishing her arms. An old man with riotous white hair and brown and yellow striped wings flies two meters over her head, his wrinkled prune of a face split with a wild cry.
A toothless old woman in a floral-print dress bobs right behind him, cackling and kicking her legs in the air as if she’s swimming rather than flying. “Faster, faster!” she snickers. “Ready your wings, Aaron! They’re comin’ fast. Just ‘round that corner and we’ll go to ground.”
The couple darts down the alleyway and out of sight. Jace and I exchange bewildered glances.
Two cagers, one male and one female, catapult airborne from the street the old couple emerged from. They fly with single-minded purpose, their faces grim and their heads down over their tablets, following the wristbands’ tracking devices straight to the alley the couple vanished down.
The shrieking old woman’s laughter meets them.
An instant later the cagers hurtle backward out of the alley, propelled cart-wheeling through the air as if tumbled by a strong wind. They upright themselves over the sluggish traffic on the street, their hair blown back, their feathers flattened in a fierce wind. The tendons in their necks strain as they laboriously reverse their progress.
A buzzing sound whines from the alleyway. ‘Aaron’ starts shouting, “Eat ’em, eat ’em, eat ’em!”
An undulating brown-black mass billows out from it. Droning insects swarm the cagers—engulf them. Piercing screams echo above the whirr of cars and sizzling bacon from a café. The insect-covered cagers writhe mid-air like living black clouds.
Everyone on the street slows and gazes upward.
One of the writhing figures plummets to the street between cars. The automated systems slam the vehicles to a halt, recognizing the proximity of a human. The woman cager hits the roof of another, her arms outflung. Her body slides down the windshield and onto the hood, smearing blood on the glass and the metal.
She sags there, her beige-uniformed legs wide and motionless, her face and body pocked with deep bloody gouges, her eyes lifeless.
The insects branch out overhead. Twice the size of my thumb, with black and yellow stripes on their back ends, their quiet drone intensifying.
“Killer hornets!” Jace gropes for my hand, urging me backward. My feet scuff solar panels.
The hornets swell overhead, congregating and blacking out the sky. The air around becomes a vibration of buzzing, a pressure building in my ears.
My palm sweats against Jace’s. His trembles against mine. There’s nowhere to hide. Our feet shamble to a halt.
They look straight at us.
For a moment everything goes still and motionless. No indrawn breath to scream, no shift of foot to flee. Only the sound of grease popping in a frying pan.
Then they dive.