Nikki’s brain lagged as she slowly willed herself to wake. Spit glued her cheek to her pillow. Her headache was the worst she’d faced to date, like she’d gone to bed trying to drink Derek under the table. It took several long minutes before she gained back control over her own useless body.
She blinked slowly, encouraging her vision to return. The scents of this room were completely off: oil and metal, harsh chemicals that smelled like a hospital. She hadn’t a clue where she was.
It was an incredibly small room—she could probably lay flat on the metal floorboards and reach every concrete corner. There were two bunk beds built within the wall with little knickknacks sitting on the shelves. Old books and baseballs, things from hers and Vanna’s childhood.
Vanna sat on a bunk bed across from hers, beside that girl he’d been snogging behind the coffeehouse, Pippa. They were both wearing matching pairs of olive green coveralls, something she’d never seen in Vanna’s closet. His homework surrounded them on the sheets as he studied them with his “friend.”
“I don’t see why you put so much care into schoolwork,” Pippa said, twirling the ends of his hair between her fingers.
He nestled up better beside her. “It’s my one thing, Pip, let me do what I can.”
“Oh, you can do much more than that, love,” she teased, and his pointed nose burned a deep red.
As this girl played with Nikki’s cousin, her floppy poodle ears sat upright in her nest of curls, and she turned to Nikki.
Vanna, following her instincts, looked up and quickly closed his math text. “Nikki.”
Before he said another word, Nikki jumped him. She kicked out his textbooks to get a better grip on his uniform. These clothes, this girl, this place, none of this was familiar to her. “What’d you do to me? What happened back in the basement? Where am I?”
Not getting answers quick enough, Nikki grabbed his math compass and stuck it close to his neck.
“Nikki, stop it!”
“Calm down,” Pippa said, resting her hand gently over Nikki. “Please, this can all be explained if—”
She dropped him. She’d get nothing from him, and she sure wasn’t going to entertain this girl he’d kept from her. Attempting an escape, she jumped for the door and lifted its surprisingly heavy latch. Her shoulder hooked the doorway as she left, her eyesight dragging along the floor: She’d been drugged.
They’d imprisoned her in a room at the end of a long hall. It looked like the Asilo without the fake tinges of life: sterile, empty walls, metal engines and gasoline. It had no windows that she saw, and it was damp, cold. She must’ve been underground, deeper in that heinous basement Morgan was so keen to keep hidden.
She ran deeper into this surprisingly long corridor. The moment she found a turn, she’d use her immaculate yet drugged senses to get back to the ladder. Then she’d go to the Guard, or run away. Anywhere other than underground in this…
Upon the final turn, Nikki found herself in a foyer three times’ the size of her own apartment complex. It rose three stories high into a myriad of pathways that led down numerous halls. One wall had signs pointing where to go while another hung up a four-by-three-meter Raeleenian flag—a red flag with a yellow crescent moon in its center. Someone had besmirched it with a rebellious X.
The foyer opened up to another equally large room. Strange machines were connected to each other via hanging wires. A grey tarp covered a giant thing near a floor-to-ceiling door. Doors upon doors, hallways leading this way and next. She wasn’t in a basement. She was in some type of shopping center, or major hospital.
Something from Lí’s time. Within her foggy memory, she remembered something quite like this in his head, though what it was for and why she was here was still a mystery.
Her mother, father, and aunt Del were sitting in the foyer, whispering with cups of coffee in one hand and wrenches in the other.
Nikki pushed off the wall and tried for a door. What felt like solid concrete stopped her.
“Oh, Nikki,” she heard her mother say, “you’re awake!”
Nikki refused to acknowledge them. They sounded upbeat, as if they hadn’t done something evil to her body. She expected anything from the coffeehouse’s basement, but this was over the line of redemption. To her, they’d become strangers all over again, and like when they’d first introduced her to their home, she immediately searched for a way out.
Down the hall, Morgan exited one of the locked rooms holding a giant pipe. “Hey, there she is!” she said excitedly. “Oh, you’re angry. Okay, you’re pissed, and that’s completely understanda—”
Nikki disarmed her aunt, threw her to the floor, and picked up the pipe. “What did you do to me?”
“Nikki!” her mother shouted. “Get off her! What’re you doing?”
To clear up her demands, Nikki lifted the heavy pipe as if to swing it like a bat. “Tell me where I am!”
Behind her, Vanna held out his hand as he watched his mother about to be beaten. “Please, don’t hurt her!”
Nikki looked each of them in the eyes, then lowered the pipe until it clunked to the floor, the adrenaline leaking out of her limbs.
Pippa ran up behind Vanna. “You can’t blame her, can you?” she asked the room. “For this reaction, I mean. Any one of you would’ve reacted the same.”
“I would’ve gone for the eyes, myself.” Morgan fiddled with something in her ear: her hearing aid, messed up by Nikki’s doing. “It’s fine. Vanna, it’s fine! You just woke up, yeah? You’re probably lightheaded. And angry. Come, sit in the lounge. We’ll explain everything there.”
They brought her back into the foyer where she’d first seen her traitorous parents scheming. And they knew where to go. The wall signs were in a language she couldn’t read but had symbols on it for easy reference. Behind her led to a fork and knife, a potted plant, washing machine, a radio-looking contraption, flames, and an opened cardboard box. To her left pointed a needle, a pencil writing on paper, a water droplet, and a bed, likely leading to the bedroom she’d woken up in.
She looked up at the levels to this place, down the halls that spider-webbed from this center. The lights hummed. The walls creaked with overused machinery. It was like she’d been taken into an underground world nobody had known about. Nobody other than her own family.
The coffee table between them provided them sugar packets and fresh coffee to drink, but only Morgan and Vanna drank. Vanna finished about three cups in two minutes. Pippa kept trying to touch him but stayed her romantic, roaming hands.
“Pippa, dear,” Morgan said. “Go be anywhere other than here, will you? I have some documents in my study that need to be reorganized for the Asilo. Take care of those for me, yeah?”
“Sure,” Pippa said. “I need to get ready for work, anyway.” She shared a parting glance with Vanna as she left, wanting to reassure him but being unable to speak around his family. Vanna watched her go before returning to his cup.
Morgan turned her cup in her hands. “Well, this’s always the tricky part.”
“Where am I?” Nikki asked.
“Would you believe that’s the hardest question to answer?” She faked a smile. “The documents here call this place a fallout shelter. We don’t have the exact dates, but we believe it’s fairly old—we’re guessing around the beginning, in the 2100’s. We think it was used for wartime—”
Nikki crossed her arms and fell back into the couch.
“Hey, don’t be mad at us! You were the one sneaking around, listening to our conversations. We didn’t have a choice.”
“How can you blame me?” Nikki demanded. “This place seems like it was ripped out of a nightmare. I’m still under the impression you kidnapped me and are holding me hostage for some weird bounty, so fess up quicker, otherwise I’ll bring all your names to the Líders.”
Hearing that soured Morgan’s sunny disposition. “First of all, no, we haven’t kidnapped you. Second, I’m not blaming anyone. This was fate’s fault. Sorry, Nikki. Usually in this situation, people already have a grasp on what we do. It’s not always this topsy-turvy.”
She chuckled as she downed the rest of her cup. “Back when Del and I bought the coffeehouse—we’re underneath it, by the way, underground—we obviously made sure the previous owners hadn’t sold us anything faulty. They hadn’t, but strange enough, we found a hole in that basement we’d sedated you in. It was never mentioned in our lease and was blocked off by concrete, but with power tools and determination, we managed to drill our way through, so to speak.
“Right now, we’re about fifty meters underground in a bunker meant for some type of underground living. These walls are reinforced with six meters of concrete with a meter of steel behind it. You see that crack in the wall behind you?”
Nikki didn’t move and stared her aunt down, unblinking. Who knew if they were planning on gutting her the second she turned around? Like she could trust these people anymore.
“Right,” Morgan said. “Sorry about the tranquilizer, by the way. We use it for precautions to make sure the Guard don’t find their way in. We’ll give you some of our generously donated painkillers for it. And that explosion you lived through, back when you got shaken off the roof? That was from down here. One of our idiot members lit a cigarette while a pipe had burst near the door. Nearly lost all our work down here.”
“Tell me what you did to me.”
“We didn’t do anything to you! You just learned too much, so we sedated you and put you in one of our bunker rooms until we found a way to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Nikki was on her feet now. She tipped from the sudden movement. “You know, I always thought you were off. All of you, but especially you.”
Morgan grinned nervously at that.
“Stop it. You smile even when you’re upset, you dodge questions about your true intentions. So tell me what’s really going on, right now, or so help me, Morg, I’m going straight to the Asilo and telling them everything.”
“O-okay, let me get my notes altogether. Above, you’re taking this much harder than Derek and Kev did.”
Nikki’s eyes widened. “Derek and Kev knew about this?” she asked. “They knew and I didn’t?”
Morgan’s smile fell.
“Is this why they’re gone?” Nikki asked, horrified. “Is this why you never told me, because you lost them to this?”
“No,” her mother said. “We never thought…”
Nikki’s body stiffened, headache pounding. Weeks without her siblings, weeks of living with every person in this room who’d been keeping it a secret from her. She held on for anyone to prove her wrong, to tell her she didn’t have to disown five family members for the memory of two.
The adults lowered their heads. Del rubbed the top of Vanna’s hand, but Vanna got up and ran down one of the halls.
Morgan sighed and cleaned her glasses on her coveralls. “We never intended to lose them.”
“Screw you,” Nikki said. “You’re monsters.”
“We’re not,” Del said. “We loved them. We just mishandled the situation.”
“Don’t you think we feel awful about it?” her mother asked. “We didn’t know.”
“Know what?” Nikki yelled. “What did you do to get both of them killed?”
“Okay, don’t chew our heads off,” Morgan said, which only made her want to chew them off more, “but you’re not going to like the answer. You see, Del and I rebuilt this underground bunker to house a coup.”
“An uprising. Nadia and Mikhail were terrible rulers. Ever since we were your age, we’ve always wanted to get back at them for treating us so poorly. We were sick of them using their Guards to keep us caged like animals. We wanted to rise up, but how are you to do such a thing with their entire pack of lawless officers patrolling the streets? Then we found the secrets of this place.
“I invited your parents in, of course. Del here can keep a secret like her life depended on it, and Vanna, well…” She laughed at nothing funny. “We weren’t ready to adopt a child during all of this, but Del couldn’t say no when Vanna had sniffed his way down here, looking for food.”
Del looked away, ashamed.
“N-not that I’m upset!” Morgan said. “Now he’s part of the family business!”
“So you started an underground revolution,” Nikki said, “and you built all of this?”
“Oh, no, no. Above, Nikki, I’m a pastry artist and revolutionist, not an architect. Most of this was here when we found it, albeit covered with much more dust and hazardous grime. We’ve just been renovating it, bringing back its electricity, trying to get the blasted machines to start back up. I mean, have you ever seen anything like this before in your life? Some of these rooms had ingenious pieces of tech hiding behind their doors.”
Nikki eyed how spacious, how empty, this place felt. It felt more encaging than a prison. “So what’s this got to do with Derek and Kev?”
“We invited them to be part of the revolution when we thought they were old enough to understand. I have nearly a hundred people in on this, and I figured they’d be good enough to know everything when they were twenty.”
Nikki flared out her nostrils. “So everyone in the family knew about this but me? Is this why you’ve been so secretive, why you didn’t want me asking about Derek and Kev, because you wanted to revolt?”
“You valued this uprising over their own lives?”
“No,” her mother argued. “They weren’t supposed to involve the Guard. When Derek had kicked that rock at Pippa—”
“What on Earth is wrong with you?” Nikki spat. “You’re all messed up.”
“Okay, calm down,” Morgan said. “Nikki, no. We didn’t value their lives beneath our rebellion. Derek acted recklessly and ran away.”
“Probably because he didn’t want all of you to go to jail for starting an uprising! He saved you lot and lost his life because of it!”
Morgan glared her down. Nikki returned it with a snarl, planning how she was going to live the rest of her life without any of these people.
Morgan nodded to Del, and she left and came back a few seconds later with a handful of documents.
“What’re these?” Nikki asked.
“Documents we found abandoned down here for what seems like hundreds of years. They were protected with lamented paper, but the words were a bit smudged.”
Nikki looked over one of the pages.
“These documents tell of another world,” Morgan explained. “We know the world only as Raeleen, yeah? This one place surrounded by the Muralha we can’t ever leave? These documents tell a different story.”
She handed the papers to Nikki, and it felt like she was handing Nikki a priceless heirloom. There were walls of text written on them with things crossed out and circled in red ink, photos of landscapes taped to the edges.
“You see them, yeah? Those towns, those rivers? Nothing you’ve ever seen in Raeleen, yeah?”
She saw them. Giant buildings as tall as the Muralha, giant expanses of water. She’d seen such sights once before, this world…
“Unseen cities, countries, worlds. Buildings that defy gravity and technology we can’t even begin to fathom. Some are bustling and strong, while others seem torn apart by bombs.”
Nikki read it for herself. Names she couldn’t pronounce. Pictures of cities she couldn’t recognize, some futuristic, others war-torn and desolate.
Bombs caught mid-explosion.
Hundreds of people walking for safety.
And two words that kept repeating in every paragraph.
Maïmoú. And Shào.
The papers fluttered from Nikki’s hands. Those were their names. That’s how they were spelled in Lí’s memories. Lí and his mission to save people from—what had he called it?—radiation zones. The destruction he was running from. His connection with Shào.
It’d all been real. Shào was real, and Maïmoú, too, or had been. Her dream hadn’t been a psychotic break that would’ve sent her to a hospital. She didn’t know what scared her more, but seeing its proof made her question things more.
“Nikki?” her mother asked. “You okay?”
“It’s groundbreaking news, Isrya,” said Morgan, “and our girl here’s quite the skeptic. It’ll take much more time for her to believe us.”
Ignoring them, Nikki picked up the papers and read the documents more carefully, but it was impossible. The rest of the pages were either stained or faded, and the language, while somewhat readable, was like reading in a different dialect. She saw letters she didn’t recognize in neither Raeleenain nor whatever language Lí spoke in his head.
“We’ve tried deciphering them, Nikki, don’t give yourself more of a headache,” Morgan said. “I’ve run these babies through multiple people much smarter than all of us combined, and we can’t grasp much of anything from it. It talks a lot about Deities, did you notice? That word there. Can’t figure out what it means for the life of us, but it seems to be written on every page. We thought it a name, but it seems to be pluralized.”
A wave of guilt washed over Nikki. She knew it. She knew all of it. What that word meant and the powers it carried. How she’d once existed as a man from beyond the walls, who knew Shào, knew Maïmoú. This was part of her, and she’d had a hand in it.
But how could she tell them? Confidently? With a leveled head? They’d think her mad, talking about such things.
She lowered her shoulders. She needed to meet with Shao again and learn more about what these papers said. She couldn’t endanger them with revelations they couldn’t go snooping for. If they’d found Maïmoú, or if Maïmoú came looking for her…
“We’re trapped, Nikki,” Morgan said. “Trapped like rats. Excuse the pun. The Líders must’ve been keeping this from the public for generations, but we’ve uncovered it. On the other side of the Muralha could be millions and millions of people we haven’t seen in centuries. And that doesn’t even begin to cover what’s happening inside the Asilo. Mikhail’s gone, and there’re people being kept in tanks…Nikki?”
She blinked hard and came back to the present. She needed to focus. She needed to be a rock that would not erode. Level-headed. Smart. “D-Derek and Kev,” she said. “Derek fell off the wall. Does that mean he’s with these people?”
“…Yes,” Morgan said. “If we take these papers at face value, then yes, we believe so.”
Her mother shook her head. Her father covered his eyes with a heavy heart.
“What happened to Kevin?” Nikki repeated.
“We don’t know whether or not he pushed Derek off,” Morgan said. “He told the Líders that he hadn’t, but he was taken away before he told us the truth. He ran to the Muralha, then…” She held her tongue, but something other than Derek’s disappearance pulsated underneath her eye.
“She has to know,” Del said.
“I don’t think it’s the right time.”
“What’s not the right time?” Nikki asked.
“She just woke up,” her father argued. “Give it time.”
“I think she should know,” her mother said.
“Know what?” Nikki asked. “Morgan, look at me. You know I can handle it.”
She did, though the two things Morgan hid best—sadness and age—broke through her frown. In an exhausted sigh, she announced drearily, “Kevin’s being held captive in the Asilo.”
The fogginess in Nikki’s head, from this new information to information she must’ve known all this time, cleared. “He’s alive?”
“As of a few hours ago, yes. That guard you just saw, Pippa? I have her staying close to Kevin and sending us intel about his situation from day to day. She’s been working with me for years, updating me on everything the Líders do. Ever wonder why there’s always guards around us? Most of them work weekends down here.”
To a normal person, that sounded rejoiceful. Not one but perhaps two of her best friends were alive, and they were being kept updated on one of them.
Her parents kept their sullen faces down. Not even Morgan looked happy about the news.
“What?” Nikki asked. “What’s wrong? He’s alive, yeah? He’s okay.”
“Not entirely,” Morgan dropped. “You see this fallout shelter, yeah? Meant to keep people safe, hidden? If we wanted to, we could hold upwards of 1,000 people down here. The people who’d built this place made working kitchens and septic tanks. We even have a workout center. If we wanted to, we could imprison a whole city down here, and nobody would ever look for them or hear them scream.”
Nikki took another look around. No windows, with walls thicker than concrete. If Morgan had wanted to, she could’ve converted this place into a prison.
“There’s at least one more fallout shelter in Raeleen that I’ve found,” Morgan said. “It’s under the Asilo, and it’s been converted to house…waterborne crossbreeds.”
Before Nikki could question that, Morgan took a page from Del and showed Nikki. It was of a naked crossbreed with a strange fin and tail submerged in water. Across their neck were thick slashes that should’ve been dying the water red, but they seemed content living in the water, or drugged, moments away from drowning.
“What is this?” she asked.
“They’re a rare group of crossbreeds that the government has been hiding from us. They come from something called a fish, a type of animal that lives in the water. We don’t know much about them because the Líder’s themselves don’t know much, but apparently, from what we can gather, Líders from hundreds of years ago kept these creatures contained underneath the Asilo. They’re being experimented on.”
“It’s torture,” Del said. “I can’t—” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “There’re children down there.”
“I know.” Morgan took her knee. “We never told Derek or Kev about this part. Didn’t think they could stomach it. What a turn, knowing Kevin is with them now.”
“So this…fallout shelter, you call it, is that…where Kevin is?” Nikki asked. “Is he being experimented on, too?
“Not to the extent of the others, but yes,” Morgan said. “Pippa has told us that the Líders have taken a particular interest in Kevin based on what happened on the Muralha. He’d said that he and Derek had heard a voice guiding them to the wall, said the voice had taken Derek and thrown him over.
“You know Zantl, don’t you?” she asked Nikki. “The hidden heir kept in the Asilo?”
“Course I do, what do they have to do with this?”
“You’ve heard the rumors about their powers, how they can kill what they like, have done what they liked done?”
“Not exactly. Zantl, by themselves, is not special in any regard, but they are connected by a special power. It’s why the Líders took them in as a child. It’s why Kevin hasn’t been murdered for breaking the laws he and Derek broke that day. Hearing voices, being touched by an invisible hand, these are all experiences felt by Zantl as a child.”
Nikki held her heart through her sweatshirt. She, too, had heard voices, and while she hadn’t been touched by an invisible hand, Maïmoú had tried killing her through strangulation. She’d felt Shào’s touch through a dream.
“Kev’s the same as Zantl,” she realized, then, internally, the same as me.
She swallowed thickly, trying to get herself to calm down, but she couldn’t. Kevin was connected to a Deity, too. Did he know Shào? Maïmoú? For how long?
She needed to save him. How scared he must’ve been, being thrown into this world without the means to defend himself. She’d grown up fighting. Kevin, upon seeing the violence procured by those two Deities…
“We don’t know too much about it,” Morgan summarized. “We don’t know how Zantl’s powers work, we just know that there’re secrets Nadia and Mikhail didn’t want us knowing about, and Kevin is displaying similar attributes that Zantl had.”
Nikki grasped onto whatever line they threw at her. “S-so what’re we doing here? We have to save him, all of them.”
“There it is. Here we go,” Morgan said with an eye roll. “This’s exactly what I was telling you all, but does anybody listen to me?”
“We have to save him,” she repeated. “Why’s that crazy to think?”
“Because I’ve run through every possible plan to get him out,” Morgan said, “and there’s no way we can do it. I think we can all say that yes, saving these people is the most morally just action to take.”
“Kev, too! That’s my brother!”
“I’m well aware of that, but reality pops her little head in and says, ‘Hey, little tidbit: the Líders have control over the most powerful hands in the world, and those children—and let’s be sensible, adults—are in the hundreds of thousands. Saving Kev and all those people who haven’t seen the light of day, who need to be in water to stay alive, plus evading the Guard not under my control, it’s a suicide mission.”
“But we have to try!”
“If we don’t want them or us murdered, we can’t—”
“We have to.”
“No.” She stood up. “Kev’s in there right now. You owe it to him.” She held her head, holding back everything she wanted to say. She tried collecting herself by rummaging through the documents again. Maybe she could find a picture of Shào, Lí.
“Nikki, sit down,” her father said.
“No. I’m going to save them.”
“Okay, then do that,” Morgan said. “Find the maps and the layouts to get there, round up the army, steal the guns, avoid Nadia and the Guard, and don’t get killed. There’re just too many variables. And the people who’re living there won’t be able to leave so quickly. They’ve been living in a world completely different from our own. Some of them are even content with living there.”
“Oh, that’s bull—”
“Think about it. The underground is all they’ve ever known. Can you imagine how jarring it would be for a stranger to force you out of your home with promises of a better life somewhere you’ve never been?”
Nikki stopped rummaging. At that moment, she pictured Lí. She hadn’t known him, and she, according to Shào, was him from a past life, but she felt close to him, more so than her own parents or siblings. If she could, she might’ve dropped everything just to have a conversation with him. Perhaps that was her consciousness wanting to give comfort to her own self.
“Anyway,” Morgan said, “we’ve already been making plans for something else, something we’ve wanted to do since we were your age.”
“What can be bigger than saving those people?” Nikki asked.
Defying her instincts, Nikki followed Morgan into that open room with wires and strange machinery.
“Have you ever wondered what’s on the other side?” Morgan asked.
“Of the Muralha? Everyone has.”
That cheeky Morgan Grin bloomed back on her pudgy cheeks. She entered a code on a hanging remote connected to the ceiling. The tarp around the thing lifted like a curtain at a school play.
First, Nikki saw wheels, or what looked like wheels. Eight tires, each about twenty centimeters thick, lined the machine’s bottom. Plates of metal and plastic shielded it like armor. Teeth-like spikes pointed down at her, ready to skewer her on Morgan’s orders.
Morgan patted Nikki’s back. “The Líders think they can keep us underground, but they’re wrong. We know their secrets. We have the tech to find out the truth. With this baby, we’re going to drill a hole straight through the Muralha and find out what really lies beyond the walls.”
Nikki stared in awe at the automobile before her. Something about its construction was familiar to her, something from Lí’s world. It was like remembering a horrible nightmare. “What is it?”
“A drill. Well, technically, it’s something called a tank. We found blueprints for it in this very shelter. The files had almost disintegrated and were written in a different language, but we guessed here and there, made a few alterations, and made it look as beautiful as it is now.”
Nikki knelt down and smelled the natural rubbers protected by metal. “What if the sky spills into Raeleen?” Nikki asked. “I don’t study much, but I know how physics works.”
“That’s the thing. These documents paint a new picture of the world. It’s hard to believe, but we think that when you leave the Barreira, there’ll be land awaiting us. We’ll be free to explore, free to find Derek, once we cross over to the other side.”
Nikki marvelled at the Drill’s height. “If you get caught, you’ll be executed.”
“And you’re risking your life to find out something that might kill you regardless.”
“You’re realizing that now?”
Nikki’s nails cut into her palm as she made a tight fist. She didn’t want to follow along with anything Morgan said, but she knew it’d be even crazier for her to take on the government by herself, and it was absolutely out of the question to tell them that she was just as powerful, or dangerous, as Zantl was.
And she needed her twins back. She’d do anything, anything, to get them back, including joining a batshit revolution.
With variabilities swimming around her head, Nikki held out her fist to Morgan. “I’m only doing this because you’re one of my only tickets to saving Kev, and if this plan of yours falls apart, I’m planning my own rescue mission to save him, and none of you are going to stop me.”
“That’s the type of compliant personality we need down here.” Morgan returned her niece’s fist bump. “Welcome to the rebellion, Nikki.”