He almost didn’t want to wake up. Maïmoú’s dreamscape—her Void—was strangely comforting, like a long hug you needed at the right time. If she’d let him, he would’ve stayed there for hours to keep her company.
But he couldn’t dream any longer.
He woke up in that room Nadia had escorted him to. It was a small, metal box that had an industrial feel to it, like the inside of a robot’s body. Pipes along the ceiling, missing tiles in the wall that revealed metal plating. With no windows or vents to keep the air clean, it reminded him so much of Morgan’s secret basement, her fallout shelter. Morgan had said there was a possibility of more fallout shelters being built around Raeleen. She’d never told him there was one built underneath the Asilo. He guessed this wasn’t news to her.
He threw his legs over the side of his bed. All the revelations Maïmoú had dropped on him came back like a real dream. Those scenes from the past. Maïmoú’s history, or the most she was willing to tell him. All the Deities that hated her, a child.
He needed to get back home. There had to have been a way to leave the Asilo peacefully without Maïmoú’s help. Maybe if he persuaded Marcos. They were friends, he should’ve understood. Maybe not the whole Deity situation, but still. He needed to find them. He needed to tell them everything.
One of the Líders was dead. Zantl was connected to a Deity like him. There were people living underwater, Maïmoú existed…
Taking a deep breath, he scanned his new room. He couldn’t discern if this was an upgrade or not. It was quite dirty with spiderwebs and starchy blankets. After trying to listen through the door and realizing it was fruitless, Kevin gave the door a push.
It didn’t open.
He remembered how everyone in the Asilo opened doors with their wrists. There must’ve been a chip implanted in them to open secret doors. He remembered Morgan saying something about that with the guards. They each had one. He pressed his own wrist against the door.
It didn’t open.
“Figured,” he said, though he wouldn’t have put it past the Asilo to not implant things under his skin while he slept.
He examined the crevasse of the door and found an average-looking handle built into it. None of the doors here opened normally, but having no other options, he tested his poor luck and opened it.
It opened effortlessly.
He kept himself from picking at his finger beds. A plan of action, that’s what he needed now. He had to find an elevator that hadn’t been broken by Maïmoú, or a stairwell. He couldn’t fly in these tight halls, but he could run. Run as fast as he could to save Maïmoú the trouble of becoming visible again. She still needed to heal.
He looked left, then right. The hall was abandoned. He heard water sloshing through the walls. Someone’s footsteps, a growl.
He chose left and jogged down the hall towards the corner. Thank the Above he hadn’t been given any sedatives down here, none that he could feel, anyway. His mind was sharper with the knowledge that Maïmoú had taught him. He felt like he could do this.
The next turn introduced him to two guards at the end of the hall, clearly flirting with hands touching hips.
He flapped his wings to bring him backwards, but it was too late. They saw him. He gaped at them in shock.
He booked it back around the corner, yet as he ran back down to his room, thinking of a new strategy now that the element of surprise was gone, he didn’t hear bootsteps. No yelling, no threats of gun violence. Confused, he turned around.
They weren’t chasing him. There weren’t even any sirens.
“What?” he asked himself. Was he still dreaming?
Two new people walked down the hall, and Kevin turned back to see a curly-haired poodle guard leading a petite girl through the warehouse.
“Viper,” he breathed out.
She looked up, those bright blue eyes sparkling with the blue freckles across her nose.
“Oh, look, you’re up!” The guard waved him over. “Good morning. Or afternoon. You were out for quite a while there. Some of us were thinking you kicked the bucket.”
Kevin didn’t know what to say. He recognized this guard. She was the girl Derek had kicked the rock at, the one that’d started this pivot in their lives. He almost recognized her from other places. Around the Asilo?
“Hello?” the guard said. She was exceptionally loud for being in the Guard, getting right in Kevin’s face. “You alright?”
“I…suppose so,” he said. “Um, what’s going on?”
“Nothing too much. I was just walking Viper here around for a little out-of-tank exercise before I brought her to her doctor visit.”
Viper shrunk away.
“My name’s Pippa,” the guard said. “Do you remember me? Your sibling nearly knocked a tooth outta my mouth.”
“Y-yeah. Sorry about that.”
“Eh, no worries. Glad to see you’re okay.”
“Am I not going to get in trouble? My door was unlocked.”
“And that’s how it’ll stay. The blast upstairs told us very clearly that doors don’t seem to work for you. They’re not telling us how you did it, so I can only imagine it was from those huge muscles you got!”
Kevin squeezed his incredibly weak arm.
Pippa laughed. “Okay, that was mean. My bad. So, after some consideration, Nadia decided to take away almost all of your restrictions so the Asilo doesn’t get destroyed. In fact, I think you’re one of the freest inmates in the Asilo after that incident.”
The mention brought up bile from his throat. Despite not supporting anything the Asilo did, nobody deserved to die like Mikhail had. His body, being thrown against the wall like that, was animalistic.
“Wait, are you hungry?” Pippa asked. “Can’t imagine anyone came to check on you while you were zonked out. I guess we can stop by the cafe before the exam. Come on.”
The hall he was in now had the same layout as the upper floors. Nothing but empty halls and doors that might’ve led nowhere, might’ve led to another detention hall of caged innocence. Did more people like Viper and Tokala live down here?
They passed by multiple guards wasting time by talking or joking around with each other. They also passed by scientists or doctors wearing surgical masks and gloves to their elbows, carrying medical equipment with stern faces. They each gave Kevin a once-over that made him feel dirty.
They weren’t torturing people here, were they? With how scary this looked, he anticipated screaming and needles and nonconsensual injections. While he didn’t hear screaming, he didn’t know if “inmates” had a choice with their doctor visits.
When they passed by the medical rooms, Viper physically shut her eyes and let her guard lead her down the hall. Inside the open rooms, he saw people getting blood drawn, in tanks with guards monitoring something around their neck. Some infants were being prepped naked on a table while older people breathed into tubes before coughing up phlegm.
Each one of them, in essence, looked like Viper. The markings, the fins, the cuts in their necks. There was a whole other world down here.
“What’s going on?” Kevin asked.
Pippa weighed the truth versus a lie, bobbing her head between good and evil. She looked so familiar, it was right on the tip of his tongue. “It’s…necessary, according to the Líders. We try to see how these people are alive without being able to breathe like you and me.”
“What’s the difference between them breathing underwater and me flying?” he asked earnestly. “It’s just something that makes us different.”
“Your flying doesn’t impact your survival. These people need water to breathe, it’s not something they choose to do. Líders in the past have tried to help them breathe on their own, but it’s been challenging to say the least. We’ve lost a good number of waterborne from this, and unclean tanks and filtration systems have led to some…unfortunate deaths.”
Viper sunk her head and curled more inwards towards Pippa.
Kevin fell back to watch her body language. She’d looked so free in the tank. Now, free to walk, she seemed trapped in her own skin, in these walls she had no ability to swim through. She held her elbows tight and kept her steps short. Never looking up, looking pained with every step.
As he thought of a way to bridge a new topic, Viper caught him staring. He went to look away when she pointed in front of them. Two double doors were coming up, somewhere she obviously didn’t want to go.
And then, just then, Kevin understood a bit more about Maïmoú’s psyche. How she dedicated her efforts to saving someone she knew had to be saved. All the care for your own self was tossed aside in favor of someone else—a conditioned selflessness.
“I’m actually not feeling too well to eat. Can I go back to my room?”
Viper gave him another needy look.
“Do you need some medication?” Pippa asked. “Let’s head to the hospital wing and pick up some tablets for you.”
Viper winced and looked away in defeat.
Kevin cringed at himself. He might’ve been a decent liar, but he didn’t know this world, and he couldn’t read Viper’s mind like Maïmoú could probably read his. This world, these hospital rooms and doctors, weren’t good people to Viper, and she needed to get away from them before something terrible happened.
As Pippa went down a darker hall, Kevin, either working on his own volition or taking a page out of Maïmoú’s handbook, took his chance. Grabbing Viper’s wrist, he turned on his heel and bolted.
He knew he’d done well when Viper didn’t hesitate. She kept with his sporadic pace as they cut corners, dodged around guards who only looked at them like two rambunctious teenagers out on a mission.
“Sorry, I couldn’t think,” Kevin panted.
She stared open-mouthed at him. “W-what’re we doing?”
“Running away. This’s what you wanted, right?”
She looked behind them. “Is this allowed?”
“Probably not, but she’d said something about me having restrictions lifted. Figured you didn’t wanna go to the doctors, so I just…ran. Where should we go?”
She bit her soft lip, then pointed towards an upcoming turn.
It was like she’d been born down here. If she’d been blindfolded and handcuffed, she would’ve found her way around this shelter easily. Down steps that led into a vacant hall, through an unmarked closet that had a secret door behind dirty, damp mops. They even crossed through a room made entirely of water valves and heavy tanks. Thick pipes dug through the ground and transported water to needed tanks.
“What is this?” he asked.
“The filtration system,” she said. “This floor’s for the brackish waterborne, so our water has to be filtered in a special way. The water comes from underground, or so the Guard says.”
“What does brackish mean?”
“It means fish who need both drinking water and salty water to breathe in.”
“So, if you swam in a river, would you be able to breathe?”
She thought about it. “I don’t know. I’ve never been in one to find out.”
They ran down a wide staircase with missing tiles and flickering lights. They seemed to be diving deeper into the inner workings of the Asilo.
Even as a child, Kevin had splashed in the riverbeds with Derek and Nikki. They’d explore underneath bridges and go on scavenger hunts for the prettiest rocks. He’d share a beer with Derek, stargaze with Nikki on the embankments. It was a rite of passage for any kid to be in places that would get them beyond dirty.
And Viper had never been in one before. Did she know what they were? Surely, right? But Kevin had never seen someone like her before. He didn’t know such breeds existed, or such girls to be so beautiful.
He skidded to a stop. At the end of this hall was a circular atrium surrounded by railings. Down the drop were elevators and staircases that spiraled deeper down into the Asilo. The top sealed them in with a moldy ceiling, the bottom disappeared into darkness.
Viper gaped at an elevator she was anticipating to be functional. A DO NOT USE sign trapped them at this dead end.
Kevin peered down. While the railing was a little high, the empty space gave him more than enough room.
He held out his hand to Viper. Viper, in turn, looked over the railing. She curled her hand around the webbing in-between her fingers. “It’s impossible.”
“I can fly,” he told her. “I used to fly with Derek, my twin. We wouldn’t go far, but I’ll make it out with you. I won’t drop you.”
Viper reassessed the drop, blew out her cheeks. The gill flaps around her neck opened and closed more rapidly than when she was running.
Kevin stepped up onto the railing. He kept one foot on the ground and flared out his wings and tail for the first time in what felt like months. He was never a bird to fly for the fun of it. Derek was, but he supposed he couldn’t be so traditional in the Asilo. He needed to fly.
In the distance, he heard the footsteps of guards running.
Viper unfurled her webbed fingers and laced them carefully with his. “I trust you.”
He let her climb onto his back. Even with her long tail and extra fins, she wasn’t as heavy as he imagined. Her arms and thighs were thinner than his and made herself born for the air.
He was glad she couldn’t see his blushing face. He’d never held a girl so intimately before. Her skin was ice-cold. He wanted to warm her up.
A door opened and someone ran down the staircase they’d just come from.
“You ready?” Kevin asked, and he felt her nod against him.
“Mhm,” she said, and with her okay, Kevin pushed himself up and over and railing.
He curved in with the wind, feeling all the blood rush to his head. How he missed this. What a joy to finally spread your wings when they’d been pinned for so long. He almost wanted to curve upwards to gain speed, but that was dangerous with a person on your back. He couldn’t show off now.
He sensed he’d hit ground soon, but no, it kept going. Maybe he could fly down the halls and spook some guards, but he had a mission, and that was to get Viper as far away from the hospital rooms as possible.
He made sure to keep a firm grip on her, but she had no problem doing that on her own. Her arms tightened around his neck and her thighs squeezed him as if she’d die. Despite her timid nature, she was surprisingly trusting of him and his wings.
“You okay?” he asked again.
“Is this how you always are?” she nearly screamed. “This free? This fast?”
“Sometimes, when I’m in a mood,” he said. Flapping his wings, he veered them up and over a railing and hit the new level.
His ears popped, and the new change in altitude caused him to fall.
He took the fall, crashing his shoulder into the tile and keeping Viper from sustaining any injury. He fell backwards onto his tail feathers wrong, but he didn’t worry about that as much as Viper’s safety.
Her hair tickled the tip of his nose. She balanced atop him so she didn’t crush him, but the way she’d saved herself trapped him underneath her. Her hands so close to his face, her knees…
She looked up, face red with tears in her eyes from flying so fast. She rolled off of him, letting her tail slip over his thighs. “Sorry.”
“No, you’re okay.” He got up, trying to calm down his rapidly beating heart. She’d definitely felt his thing. A skirt could only hide so much.
Viper gave him her hand, and the two of them continued their escape. “That was incredible,” she said. “I’ve never flown before. Is it natural for you? Was it scary?”
“As scary as it is to swim for you. I don’t think I’ve ever gone that deep into water.”
“Really?” It honestly sounded like that shocked her. “I like swimming. I like floating, really. But that was fun. Really fun.”
“I’m glad I was your first. At flying,” he corrected. “I’ll try to fly you to more places.”
“I’d like that.” She led him down new rooms of filtration tanks and brought them to a heavy door locked with a crank. Both he and her helped crank it open together.
Tanks like the one Viper lived in lined both walls. There was more room here for his wings, but he pushed them down to better see these tanks, these…
They had to be animals, for they had eyes and mouths. They looked like little birds, but instead of wings, they had fins and gills, and varied in sizes, shapes, and colors.
“Those are fish,” Viper explained, and pointed his eyes to a bigger fish. It was grey and more pointy than the others. “And that’s a shark. It’s a predator, but it doesn’t eat the fish it’s compatible with.”
“So these are your animal equivalents?”
“Yes, but there’re hundreds of more species the Líders have found and crossbred with each other. They still have trouble with my breed, but they think I’m more or less one of these little ones.” Walking up to the edge of the tank, she pointed at one of the smallest fish treading along the sand. It had beady eyes and the same blue freckles as her. “Have you ever seen one before?”
“Never,” he said.
Her eyes lightened up, catching the blue of the tank. She then brought him down the end of the room towards a hidden stairwell that led underneath the floor tiles. Kevin folded in his wings to fit.
“This’s a safe space,” she explained. “At least, a place I know about from Tokala. She likes finding hidden spots to give the guards grief.”
“She sounds a bit like a trouble maker. You said she’s your friend, right?”
“Yeah. We grew up in the same tanks.”
The secret hideaway exploded into a sparkling world of rainbows and reflections of water through the glass. There was enough room for both of them, and the underside of the tank was just rocks and blades of glass, giving them privacy, their own world.
Viper fell back in a huff. “I’ve never done this before,” she said.
“What, go for a run?” Kevin asked, attempting to make her smile.
“Yeah. From the Guard, from flying, and they didn’t get mad at us or hit us. That never happens. Tokala was right, you are special.”
“I-I wouldn’t say that.” He sat next to her. The tank froze his back from condensation. “Sorry about that scene back there.”
“It’s okay. I didn’t see much of it happen.”
“From before,” she said, “with Mikhail?”
The adrenaline from flight shocked his thumping heart. His skin went colder than hers. “Oh. Above, right, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you saw any of it.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. That was Zantl’s powers, wasn’t it? The way they…” She silenced herself. “It must’ve been scary, being in the room when it happened. I’m sorry.”
“You shouldn’t have seen that.”
“You shouldn’t have either. Do you know exactly what happened? I saw you talking with someone, I think?”
“I can’t explain it, but…” He couldn’t stop himself. If only one other person could understand his situation, he wanted it to be someone who trusted him, who he could, in time, put his trust into. “The same thing that happens to Zantl happens to me,” he rushed out. “All the rumors about the violent bursts and special powers, that all happens to me, but I can’t control it. It just happens.”
“Oh,” she said. “Are you okay?”
He went to say, “Yeah, of course I am.”
But he didn’t, and slowly closed his mouth to think harder on his feelings. Not his family’s, not the Líders, not even Maïmoú, but him.
And he felt shitty. Stuck in mud from which he couldn’t escape. And he was tired, and scared, and confused. He wanted to cry again, it was so bad, but he had a thousand and one things to worry about, he hadn’t any time for himself.
But his feelings mattered, at least to Viper, this stranger who only knew him through brief encounters separating them by glass walls and people, and he appreciated that beyond words.
“I’m sorry,” Viper said. “I didn’t mean to bring up something so sad.”
“I shouldn’t be mulling over it, knowing that you’ve been here for a while. It seems…daunting.”
She filled her mouth with air again and shook her head. “Who are you?” she then asked. “Where’d you come from? I heard the Guard making up different stories about you. You lived on the upper floors before an accident sent you down here.”
The news must’ve not travelled as far as he’d thought. “My twin fell off the Muralha. He somehow was able to pass through the Barreira and I was framed for pushing him off. I suppose the Líders wanted to question me more, so I’ve been here for, Above, I don’t even know how long. A month? Maybe more? How long have you been here?”
“Does it really feel that way? What did you do? Sorry,” he said instantly. “That was rude. You don’t have to answer.”
“I don’t think I did anything. None of us did. We were born here.”
“All of us. We were born here.” She wiggled her bare feet over each other. “Our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, their grandparents before them. Each one of us has lived here forever.”
Morgan had never told him about this underground fallout shelter. She’d never told him that it’d been converted to a prison state for rare species who could breathe in water and lived in tanks. Had she’d known, and if so, to what extent? Did anyone know about this besides the Líders and these guards, who acted like it was perfectly alright to seal them away from the world? And he’d trusted Marcos.
“How?” he asked. “I mean, I’ve never seen someone like you before. Someone so—”
She glanced up at him, those blue eyes capturing him like a net.
“Unique,” he landed on. “I-I mean, I hardly know you—I only know your name—but your tail and scales and eyes. How you breathe underwater, that’s unheard of outside of the Asilo. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“And I’ve never met anyone like you,” she said, adding a little more energy to her words. “Your wings are so pretty. I mean, they’re cool. I’ve heard guards describe birds to me before, both bird crossbreed and regular birds. I never imagined them to be so big. Your wings, I mean. They’re beautiful.”
“Y-you are, too!” he almost shouted. It felt like he’d broken through his own Barreira. He never knew how far to go with girls and complimenting them. He’d never had a girlfriend before, Derek had had several, Vanna had tried. Even Nikki had gone on a date with a girl in her class before ghosting her out of fear of her own rejection. Kevin had ultimately agreed that he’d never find a love like that because he was awkward, shy. Quiet, nervous, had low self-esteem.
But here he was, being called beautiful by a girl way out of his league. He felt his heart unlock with newfound possibilities and confidence. “You’re…really pretty,” he continued. “I keep staring at your eyes. They’re almost glowing.”
“Sometimes they do that. Waterborne perks.” She played with the hair surrounding those pretty eyes, and Kevin wanted to keep feeding her compliments until it wrecked him with embarrassment.
“Raeleen,” she then said. “That’s the place you live right, outside of the Asilo? That’s where the guards come from.”
“Yeah. I live there. So many people do. They’re schools and grocery stores and better hospitals that aren’t scary. It’s all up there. Have you ever left the Asilo before?”
“Never. The Líders say that the world isn’t designed for us. And many of us can’t stay out of the water as long as I can, so it can be dangerous for some of them.”
“I noticed that. So you can breathe in the air?”
She nodded. “Something about me and Tokala makes us able to breathe both air and water freely. I can stay out of the water for almost six hours without going back in, and my times only increase with every year. After that, I need to rehydrate, otherwise my skin gets dry and I get a bad cough.”
“Do you know why you were all placed here? Were you…made?”
“I…don’t think so. I think, one day, they just collected all of us from the water outside and sent us down here. They test our abilities for how long we can stand out of the water.”
“And that hurts you, doesn’t it?”
She nodded again. “I don’t like the doctors here. Some are nice, but most of them are…” She touched her upper thigh. There was an old bruise there.
“Evil,” Kevin guessed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t know about us. Even new guards already know about our lives, some even know our birth dates and allergies without even calling us by our names, just our medical numbers and breeds. It’s nice to finally meet someone who’s fresh.”
“I’m happy that I met someone like you.” He chose his next words wisely. “Viper, these tests the Líders have you doing, this way of life, it’s scary. Have you ever seen the sky before? Have you ever experienced a rain shower before? Or seen a rainbow?” He held out his hand to hold a glimmer of rainbow from the glass. “You deserve to see the rest of the world outside of these walls.”
“But we get punished if we even think about leaving. Some have tried to and were killed. My parents…” She lowered her head. “I don’t want anyone to get into trouble.”
“I…” He looked away, puzzled. Morgan had planned for the Drill to drill through the Muralha. If she did know about these water crossbreeds, was she able to drill all the way down here? If they were to drill down, there were multiple floors here, full of breakable tanks where some people needed to live their whole lives. And he couldn’t ask Maïmoú yet. She was puking up Void. But was that selfish of him to ask one girl to hurt herself to save hundreds?
He gave Viper his hand. The rainbows crossed her arm over his, with fish swimming over to watch this pact being made. “I’ll figure out a way to save you,” he promised. “We’ll get out of here, together.”
And she looked up, eyes glowing, and she smiled.
And Kevin’s life, at that moment, was forever tied to hers.