The fallout shelter reminded Nikki of something she always wanted to live in: a lavish, five-star hotel.
Morgan had yet to assemble a swimming pool or fancy check-in desk, but it still gave her that opinion. This hidden, underground bunker of hers had air conditioning, central heating, and communal bathrooms with thirty-some-odd stalls, including these weird showers she didn’t know how to work. They went from floor to ceiling and had transparent walls with many buttons and settings. Morgan had told her not to try them, as the pipes were rusted from not being used in decades. All they spurted out was salty water, so Nikki understood.
After being introduced to this world, Nikki took it upon herself to scope out each room. She poked her nose into the kitchen and living quarters and found each stairway that led up to the main floors. She unlocked hidden rooms with careful hands and found meeting rooms, discussion tables with abandoned chairs. Some looked well lived in, others looked lost to time, old tech collecting dust.
In one room closest to the Drill, Nikki found Morgan’s main workroom, evidenced by its organized chaos. Stacks of boxes up against the tables and closets and chalkboards that hadn’t been washed in years.
As she went to leave, she noticed framed photographs right above the door. They were of Morgan throughout her years, of her parents smiling brightly as she entered school, her goofing off with her newfound friend and soon lover Del. Her mother and father were slowly introduced to her life. They laughed in the same school uniforms Nikki and Vanna owned. Them in front of the Drill, Derek and Kevin as babies, Vanna’s first 50/50 on his first test, and finally, the first day Nikki was adopted.
They’d stolen three photographs of her, before Nikki refused to get in front of a camera. One was of her sitting at her favorite booth upstairs, looking small and embarrassed. Morgan had wanted to document the first time Nikki had come to the coffee house without her parents or Vanna accompanying her. The second picture was of her, Kevin, and Derek, smiling with their arms wrapped around each other. It was Nikki’s sixteenth birthday.
She left. She’d asked her parents not to hang up photos of her in their house because it embarrassed her. This was the only place they could keep them.
Despite the size of the fallout shelter, no more than twenty or so people worked here at a given time. She’d come across strangers she’d never met before. She’d nearly jumped out of her skin when she bumped into two guards still in uniform.
“I told you dogs to change when you come down here!” Morgan had called out to them. “Get out of those before I strip you myself!”
With the help of other revolutionists, Morgan had reconstructed the fallout shelter into a legacy of science, technology, and ingenuity. She’d reprogrammed the intercom, restocked the medicine bay with stolen Asilo sedatives, and restored the cafeteria with canned food. All that plus creating the Drill while keeping up her coffeehouse and family life. She was always moving and, in her words, bettering Raeleenian lives with the chance to live.
Yet, even with this new world given to her, Nikki couldn’t smile like her. Whenever she’d walk into the lobby, Vanna would hide in the bathrooms and never come out. When she’d wash her hands of grease and oil, he’d almost run for the bedroom area, waiting until Morgan left for the night. Even at school, to which Nikki now went under Vanna’s earlier pleas, he never worked with her, talked with her. He hardly looked at her now, islanding himself so nobody could swim to his isolated rock.
One day after school, Nikki found herself reaching deep into the Drill between its side door and its caterpillar tracks. Her family and some strangers huddled around her as she dislocated her shoulder.
“I believe in you,” Morgan whispered.
Nikki groaned and stretched her arm farther in-between the metal plates. She didn’t know how she’d found herself working on the Drill, but it came easy to her. She liked being helpful. And it got her closer to her family, weirdly enough. Their hesitancy about Kevin now made sense, and she almost didn’t fault them for hiding this from her. If the Líders knew about their plan to drill into the Muralha, they’d be more than screwed.
“Almost there,” Morgan said.
Nikki spat towards the floor. “Why don’t you just shake it and let the screw fall?”
“Because this baby’s 9,500 kilograms, and if we lose that screw, it can fall someplace we don’t want it to be.”
Nikki’s cheek pressed against the warm metal. The Drill ticked and gurgled without even being on, and every piece she touched with her glove felt either incredibly hot or burning cold.
She tapped a loose piece with her finger. Before it dropped, she twisted her wrist and caught it. Applause greeted her as she pulled out the screw.
“Good job,” her mother said.
“We’ve been trying to get that all week,” her father added. “Good work.”
Nikki’s ears went red with pride.
“We need more recruits with tiny, skilled hands,” Morgan said.
“I try my best.” Nikki rolled her shoulder inside her own pair of green coveralls. The baggy one-piece drenched her in the scent of oil.
“You should think about spending all your evenings here with us,” Morgan said. “Now that the cat’s outta the bag, you can quit school and work here full time.”
“Don’t you dare,” her mother warned.
“What? It’s what you all did when I told you about this place.”
“We were different. Nikki still has a future to work for.”
Nikki wanted to question what future her mother saw in her. She wasn’t exactly trained in any remarkable skill other than baseball, and you couldn’t make a career out of throwing a stitched ball about when the Muralha was chipping away.
The adults went back to work on the Drill. Her mother and father worked in the fuel tank together while Morgan addressed a couple of dog crossbreeds on where to go. This left Nikki working with Del. Out of everyone, Del was by far the quietest. She did what was asked of her and worked hard for her family.
She stretched over Nikki to place a piece of tape on the Drill’s antenna. As she moved, her coveralls lifted, and Nikki noticed a long scar across her forearm.
When Del caught her looking, Nikki asked, “Did you get that scar from working on the Drill?”
Del fell back with the help of her wings. “Got it the day Derek and Kevin were born.”
“What happened to give you a scar that big?”
“Don’t know. They were born in the house. Isyra never trusted hospitals, knowing what kind of sick and twisted things they allow down there. Morg and I were there to help. I was holding the two kids just as they came out, Kev first, then Derek six minutes later.”
Derek had always hated the fact that he was the younger twin. “What happened then?”
“When I got to drying them off, I felt this…” She touched her scarred arm. “I felt someone touch me—touch them—and I was thrown against the wall. Morg said I tripped, but I know what I felt.”
“You did trip!” Morgan said. “I wouldn’t have let anything happen to you or those kids. She hit her head when she fell, so her brain got all scattered. You know, I used to believe in ghosts for the longest time, and Del was always, ‘No, if you can’t see it or feel it, it doesn’t exist.’ Now, she goes on saying something invisible touched her. I don’t buy it.”
Nikki, instead of touching her arm, touched her cheek, the one Shào had touched from her dream. It felt like years since then. Was he a ghost? He’d called himself something else in his dream. A God? No, a Deity.
“Never” was the best time to tell her family about her encounter with Shào and Maïmoú, but she had to soon, didn’t she? It was all connected, them and the fallout shelter. They had documents here talking about their existence, yet no one other than Nikki knew about them. From what they could do to a city when they fought, she figured it best to keep the connection from her family for eternity.
“Kids were fine, though,” Morgan continued. “Trouble seems to follow them every which way, but that’s what happens to twins, yeah? Anyway, Nikki, enough talk of invisible people. Between you and me, you should really start thinking about working for us. I don’t pay people who come and go, but if you start coming here more frequently, I can give you money under the table.”
Nikki pulled a face. “You don’t make money doing this.”
“On the contrary! People give me hearty donations for both my cakes and my plan to completely demolish the government’s stranglehold on its imperceptive commonwealth.” She grinned. “I make enough. Nothing to fret about.”
Quiet footsteps ran from the cafeteria into the hall.
“You should think about it!” Morgan continued. “It’ll give you a place to truly be yourself, free of the Líder and the Guard.”
Nikki turned around. “Where’s Vanna?”
Morgan’s furry ears twitched. “Not sure. He usually doesn’t work on the Drill. He likes making dinner and cleaning up after us. Sometimes we forget to eat for hours at a time. I want this Drill running by December, yeah? No time to waste.”
“Did he just run down the hall behind me?”
Del looked over the Drill’s spiraled point, as did Nikki’s mother and father.
“Could you talk to him?” Morgan asked, finally breaking. “Del and I don’t know our way around him, he’s so hidden. Make sure he’s okay for us, yeah?”
Nikki peered down the hall. A door closed. “I’ll do what I can.”
She followed the foreign signs down the halls, looking back to make sure she didn’t get trapped down a dead end. Resting on her heels, she entered the kitchen and turned on the lowlights. Morgan had told her they needed to save on electricity so they didn’t overwork the generators. Their exhaust came out through pipes scattered across twenty streets. It took four years to rework the piping without notifying the Guard.
Not finding him in the kitchen, Nikki tiptoed down the hall and opened up a door underneath a fire icon.
The room had a blocky machine in its center with tiny doors locked on the front wall. Nikki herself had never entered such a room before, but from the layout and design, she knew it to be a crematorium.
Vanna was sitting on the floor, up against the machine meant to prepare the bodies. He had his face buried in his knees and was rocking slightly.
Nikki closed the door so he knew she was there. “Hey,” she said.
He sniffled. He tried to hide it—his patchy face, his watering eyes—but with Nikki blocking the door, he had no place to run. He silently cried into his knees and Nikki simply had to watch and do nothing about it.
She forced herself in, taking long strides to reach him. When she got there, she didn’t know what to do. Lost, she thought about what Kevin would’ve done and, doing what felt unnatural, she squatted down and held his hand.
He sobbed into her shoulder like he was seconds from drowning in his own tears. His voice pitched, and the ache, she felt it inside of her. She’d always known Vanna to be emotional, but this was heartbreaking, seeing a loved one break in front of you.
“It’s just so hard,” he cried.
“What is?” she asked
“All of this. I couldn’t say anything to you. I hated keeping it a secret for so long. My moms said I had to pretend like everything was fine, but it wasn’t. Of course, I wasn’t.”
“So why’re you crying? I know everything now, and they’re probably alive, Derek and Kev.”
“‘Probably,’ Nikki? Probably’s not good enough. Pippa tells me what’s being done to Kev. They’re taking his blood and drugging him. There’s something wrong with him, something off, but she hasn’t figured out what yet. And Derek, who knows where he could be. Not even the Líders know. He could be in the sky for all we know.”
“I keep telling myself I’m going to see them any day now. That’s how I handle it.”
“Well, I can’t do that. I’m not like you.” He leaned on her.
She nodded, taking in his coffeehouse scent. They’d argued, sure, but this, being so vulnerable in her arms, was new for her. And she hated how she wanted to back off from such an honest display of emotions, but she couldn’t do that to him now. As family, she needed to be there for him.
She looked down at his wrist.
“Sorry,” he said, covering them up. “I couldn’t stop myself this week.”
“I’m not, though. I feel like it’s the only thing I have control over. I’m just sad and scared all the time. Some days are good, but most of the time, especially at night, it’s so hard.”
“I’m sorry if I made it worse,” she said. “I didn’t mean to yell at you, back before. It wasn’t right for me to say that I love Derek and Kev more. We all love them equally.” She held his hand. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I’ll do better going forwards. I’ll be here for you. Always.”
“Thanks.” He sniffed. “You know, it’s not even because of you anymore, or Derek or Kev. It’s them, out there. I understand why they’re doing this, but it’s like seeing Derek taunt the Guard when he’s drunk, but all the time. When I wake up and see that they’re not in bed, I automatically think they’ve been killed for knowing too much, or another explosion went off down here. But they expect me to work on this, fix that, go here and there, and I want to help them, I do. I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
“No normal person could work like this.”
“You work like this.”
“Well, I’m not normal, am I?”
“How’re you not?”
She shifted the conversation away from herself. “Never mind that.” She smirked at him. “So, now that we’re not holding secrets anymore, I have a question for you.”
“No, you can’t live down here forever. The air’s too stuffy.”
“I mean about you and Pippa.”
He jerked back and slammed his head into the back of the machine. He groaned and held his skull. “What about it?”
“’Ey, what’s this now? Did I hit a nerve? A love-struck nerve?”
“Enough.” That blush returned to his pointed features. He used his scarf to cover it up.
“What’s going on between you two? I’ve never seen you with a lover before. Are you official?”
“She’s…a guard my mom roped into this. She was climbing the ranks in the Asilo and my mom snatched her up, and when Kev got sent away, she asked her to watch over him. So she, you know, comes down a lot now.”
“To talk to you?”
He bit his scarf. “Sometimes.”
“And kiss you?”
He gently pushed her.
“You’re not denying it. How long have you been dating?”
“…A month,” he fessed up. “Our anniversary’s this week.”
“Oh, God, you celebrate anniversaries now? You’re such a romantic. You remind me of Derek celebrating his one-week anniversaries with those shitty exes.”
“You said God,” he said. “What’s that mean?”
She blinked. She didn’t know. Well, she did, but she didn’t know why she’d used that word instead of Above, just a random word people used to describe things they couldn’t control, as if it were above their heads.
Something from Lí’s head, then? It sounded like something he’d say, though she didn’t know how she knew that.
“I knew you in a past life,” Shào had said, “as a boy named Lí Naranbaatar.”
She flinched. It was almost as if Shào was in the room, whispering those words to her again.
“Sorry,” she said. “Lost my train of thought. Must’ve, uh, read that somewhere in those papers.”
Thank God Vanna wasn’t perceptive right now, or he was still lost in his thoughts about Pippa, because he let it go. “Whatever. Stop listening to our conversations. Weirdo.”
“Weirdo,” she echoed. “So, do your moms know about Pippa?”
“Above, no. They’d kick me out faster than if I told the Líders about this place.”
But that blush was slowly crawling up to his ears, and that little, tiny smile she’d gotten out of him was growing. He was proud of what he’d accomplished with Pippa, and he hadn’t been able to share it with anybody else in the family.
Nikki sat up, hands in her pockets. “I’ll make you some coffee, you silly love bird.”
“Extra milk and sugar, yeah?”
Before he could answer the preference Nikki already had memorized, she slammed the door a little too hard and jogged for the Drill’s hangar.
Morgan and Del were talking over a large paper of schematics. They held it up in the air, blocking their view of Nikki striding up to meet them. With the slight advantage, she ripped the paper in half and punched Morgan in the face. Del went to catch her, but Nikki used her height against her and threw her into a pile of cardboard boxes.
A box of screws toppled as Nikki’s parents stumbled out from the Drill.
Nikki jumped onto the Drill to make herself taller and her voice heard. “Vanna’s in the crematorium right now sobbing because he’s terrified of the Guard coming in and executing all you. Did you know he’s terrified of what you’re doing? Did you ever think that maybe he doesn’t want to do this? Have you ever talked with him about his feelings? He’s been getting worse since Derek and Kev left, and you still let him down here? What is wrong with you?”
Morgan pulled a nail out of her glove. “He said he wants to help.”
“He can’t, and you know that! Seeing him like that and not saying anything is shitty parenting. I know it’s hard for you, Morg, because you’re like me—you can’t deal with feelings—and you, Del, you do everything Morg tells you to do, but you’re his parents! I don’t care how hard you’ve found it to be. Figure out a way to make it work, because you two should be the first people he goes to for help, not me!”
Morgan looked up to Del, whose jaw had dropped but she had nothing to say. She tried to find an excuse for her behavior, but she had none. She sat thunderstruck.
“And fix your prejudices,” Nikki added. “It’s ugly and damaging to your kid. The Guard works for a corrupt system that needs to be changed. Dogs themselves are not the problem. And—and stop with all this,” she added tiredly, throwing a hand over their work. “All this stuff isn’t helping the main issues we’re facing. People are dying and the world is ending.”
“Don’t be so bleak, Nikki—”
“It is bleak. It’s been bleak for hundreds of years. You and Dawood need to stop messing around with us and do your jobs.”
Morgan looked to Del for answers. She shrugged, lost. “Who’s Dawood?” she asked.
“Oh, shut it, Madriel. I can’t deal with any more of your sass today.” Nikki hopped off the Drill, her speech done.
Morgan got up with her tail tucked and started for the crematorium with Del. “Everyone, uh, let’s take a break,” she told her workers. “Actually, let’s wrap things up. Tonight’s plans are cancelled for now.”
As the room returned to its uneasy chatter, Nikki left the scene. Talking so loud over a sea of people was exhausting. She just wanted everyone safe and getting along, but it seemed like Fate was making that extremely impossible for her.
She fled into that bedroom she’d first woken up in with Vanna and Pippa. It still had Vanna’s homework in it. It smelled the most like him, like home.
She curled up in his bunk with her arms crossed. They were family, but they took years off her life. Madriel and Dawood, and Vitaliya. They were all like family to her, but she couldn’t…
She blinked, staring off into nothing.
Who was she just thinking about? Morgan and Del, with Vanna, her cousin. That’s who they were, but…
She sat up. Her vision was distorting. Her mind, thumping with a sudden headache. She held it, but it didn’t help, and she slumped forwards into her knees like she was going to be sick. Dawood. Del. Madriel. Morgan. Vitaliya.
She looked up immediately. She felt her body sinking through the tiles. A sickening, deadly infection spread over her nerves and heart, as if she’d just witnessed a murder. She knew those names. She’d known them as if they were her family, but they weren’t. They were different, blurred, like looking in a dirty mirror.
“Tai?” she called out again, both asking for him, and questioning why she was saying it at all. Her eyes were watering—she was crying from emotions she didn’t understand, for a person she didn’t know.
Tai was someone Lí had known, wasn’t he? From his memories, on the roof? Had the other names been people he’d known in his past?
She controlled herself. She rubbed her hands of sweat, but the feeling did not pass, this remembrance and need for a stranger to comfort her.
“Shào,” she whispered, “what’s going on with me?”
But no one answered.