Chapter 23: Nikki

After trying to juggle school and work in the fallout shelter, Nikki and Vanna mutually agreed that they needed a day out. Just like their days of hooky, like they were actual teenagers again. One day, after getting nowhere with one of the Drill’s failing generators, Nikki pulled Vanna aside and told him they were leaving.

“We can’t now. My moms still need help with the Drill today, and I offered to make them dinner.”

“You need to take a break from this world. Can we just go out and, like, breathe? The smell really gets to you down here. It’s like a car manufacturer.”

“I told you.” He looked down the hall, searching for watchful eyes, then pulled on his scarf. “Fine. Let me make a call real quick upstairs, and we can leave.”

“Who’re you gonna call?”

He gave her a shy look. “I want you to formally meet somebody.”

;;

To her surprise, there were several exits out of the fallout shelter that weren’t as conspicuous as the main exit into the coffeehouse. Down abandoned halls collecting dust were exits to the east, west, and north. They had to walk down empty halls following exit arrows, but soon, they met a giant, circular door large enough to drive a car through. It was enough to get Vanna’s bike through. He never left home without that thing.

“You used to need codes or passwords to open these up,” Vanna explained, “but nowadays, all you need is a little push.”

“A little push” became both of them using all their strength to move the door a foot. It grated the dusty concrete and stopped moving altogether, forcing them to squeeze through a tight sliver and plug the hole back up.

The exit let them out to a grassy embankment that led into a dried-up stream. They were near a stone bridge just outside the purebred district. To an untrained eye, this exit to an underground fallout shelter would’ve been seen as just a sewer grate.

The season had cooled the world into a dark grey, signaling a rainstorm. It rarely dipped beneath fifty degrees, but today, Nikki needed to zip up her jacket and flip her hoodie over her rat ears. Vanna cuddled up in his scarf, to which Nikki teased him.

Vanna pushed her back with a cracking smile.

“There you are, you piece of shit,” Nikki said, and lightly kicked his bike wheel to make him lose balance.

“Yeah, well, shockingly, I’ve had a lot on my mind that’s been messing up my gears.”

“Well, now I’m here to help you out,” Nikki said. “Who’re we meeting, anyway?”

He covered his mouth with his scarf and biked up to Main Street.

“Hey, excuse me.” She jogged with him and kicked his wheel. “Don’t ride away from me. You know I can catch up with you.”

He tested that theory and pedaled a little faster, which triggered her competitive nature and made her sprint, bypassing him and hooking around the building. She laughed at the simple thrill of beating him without a bike. She didn’t trust those things. She wasn’t good with balance.

This side Raeleen did have perks. Her side was more wild, untamed, with palm trees and ferns growing out through the decaying houses and canals. More homeless that weren’t abused by the guards since they all lived over near the Asilo, near their own kind. Not that dogs didn’t live near her, but they did tend to live in packs.

Down the street opened into bookstores, cake shops, and pricey boutiques that grew into tall skyscrapers. Rottweilers combed out their styled hair on the park steps. Poodles jostled one another around a crystal fountain. Guards with their ties off had quick lunch breaks on reserved patios with family and loved ones. Dozens of puppies chased one another in yips.

She didn’t see the Asilo building from this angle of the street, but she knew that somewhere up ahead, that complex was holding her brother and multiple people hostage.

She frowned, feeling terrible for taking the time for Vanna’s mental health. They deserved to be happy, but so much poison was plaguing their world, she should’ve been putting 110 percent into bettering the lives of those in need.

Vanna pulled back and biked beside her. “You okay?”

“Have you ever thought about telling anybody about what your moms do?”

“Uh, no. We’d be executed.”

“But doesn’t it weigh on you?” She took in the crowds across the street. “All these people are living blind to what the Asilo is doing, and if those papers Morg showed me are true, then there’s a whole other world we need to be focusing on.”

Vanna looked up to the cloudy sky. “If you focus on the world’s mistakes for the rest of your life, every little gain you make will be drowned in misery. I try to do my best every day and work on what I think is right. I want to save Kevin, I want to help those in the Asilo. I want to reform the Guard and solve poverty and blast the Muralha apart, but I can’t do that by myself. I’m too weak.”

“You’re not—”

“I am. I’m not like you or my moms or your parents. I’m not even like Derek and Kev. I’m different, so I’m doing my best to help those around me. But first…” He turned the corner to a plaza. “I wanna be happy.”

Sitting on the edge of a bubbling fountain, tail tucked, waited Pippa. She was dressed out of her guard uniform and was wearing cute shorts and a top that showed off her curves. She hopped up when she saw them and even waved.

Vanna sped up his bike as Nikki jogged to a stop. He almost fell off his bike to embrace her in a half-circle turn. Her curly hair covered his entire face as she hugged him tighter and even lifted him to his tiptoes to better reach him.

Nikki watched until they pulled back and giggled with one another, whispering how good it was to see each other again. Pippa’s hand on Vanna’s lower back looked out of place. It was weird to see, but not bad.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Pippa said, pinching Vanna’s cheeks. “Did they give you any grief?”

“No. Nikki helped me get out early.” He nestled into her hands, then turned to address Nikki, the extreme third wheel on this obvious date. “Nikki, this’s Pippa. I know you’ve met her before, but this can be your first official introduction. She’s…” He looked to Pippa, and she took his hand. “She’s my lover.”

Nikki took in Vanna’s upbringing, her status, and the world’s disinterest in their pairing.

Then she took them in literally: Pippa was way out of Vanna’s league, in every possible sense. Prettier, more confident, less awkward.

She reined herself in from teasing him too harshly and waved. “Hey. Sorry for the rude introduction back at the bunks. I swear I’m not that violent. Anymore.”

“It’s nice to finally get to, like, talk to you,” she said. “I’ve heard so much about you, but Vanna was too nervous about introducing me.”

“She’s really bad at secret-keeping,” Vanna said, to which Nikki pretended to kick at him.

“Name’s Nikki,” she said, and shook Pippa’s hand. Her grip was surpassingly strong given her bubbly energy, but she guessed she shouldn’t judge by appearance; she was a spy working against the Asilo for a rebellious coffee house owner.

“I was thinking,” Vanna said, “since we can’t really hang out at my place, that we all hang out…together.”

“You’re gonna make her be the third wheel?” Pippa scolded. “Vanna, that’s so mean. He’s been dying to introduce me to you,” Pippa tattled. “‘Oh, I want you to make a good first impression.’ Just rattling on about it.”

“Did you think I’d object?” Nikki asked. “I’ve been approving of Derek’s lovers, and some of them had criminal records.”

“Well, we all do now.” Vanna got back on his bike and patted the back seat connected to the back wheel. Pippa eagerly got on, making sure her tail didn’t get run over.

“Hey, Nikki,” Pippa said, crossing her long legs so they didn’t drag along the pavement. “I want to say sorry about the whole situation with Derek and Kevin. I should’ve never asked to go on patrol that evening. I should’ve asked for a different position.”

“You couldn’t have told the future,” Nikki said. “If I’d known, things would’ve been a lot different, too.”

She nodded solemnly. “And Vanna’s told me all about you. All good, and most surprising. I feel like I’ve known you for so long, yet never really got to know you.”

“I’m not a big people person.” She lowered her voice and ears. “How’s, uh, Kevin now?”

“He’s…okay. Mikhail’s gone missing.”

“What?”

She pressed a finger to her lip. “It’s confidential, but I’ve been trying to ask around about it. Apparently, nobody’s seen him for days. Nadia’s been a mess about it.”

“Where do you think he went?”

“I’m not sure, but ever since it happened, Kevin’s been given special treatment. I think his disappearance has something to do with him. All the other guards are super on edge about it. Morg’s been hounding me day and night to snoop out intel, but so far, I’ve found none. I’ve tried cornering Kevin about it, but he’s been, well, preoccupied.”

“With what?” Nikki asked. “What’re they doing to him? What—”

“Oh, it’s nothing bad!” Pippa said. “He’s been talking with a girl.”

Nikki stopped walking. “What.”

“Her name’s Viper. They’ve been inseparable lately, always running off together to hang out. Can’t imagine someone doing that.” She giggled and nudged Vanna’s butt with hers. Vanna nearly crashed into a trolley.

“Christ,” Nikki cursed. “Now he’s hanging out with a girl, too?”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Pippa promised.

As they entered a new part of the district, Nikki watched her reflection through the storefront glass. She slumped more into her shoulders, fixed her hair that was frizzy due to the incoming storm. She felt extremely self-conscious around this older girl who seemed to have everything figured about a world to which she’d just been introduced.

She fell behind with her worries and caught up with Vanna and Pippa before they turned a corner. Vanna was looking into a bookstore front with the intent to buy a box set. Pippa pointed out one wrapped in red ribbon.

Nikki looked in. She’d never fancied herself a reader, but maybe she’d start this upcoming new year.

She looked back up at her reflection and gasped. She wasn’t looking at herself anymore. Her curls were gone. Her face had morphed into someone new.

Lí was staring back at her. She knew it. He was dressed the same as her but wearing darker clothes, fingerless gloves. He had the same nose as her but with different eyes, same fleshy ears but no rat ears. Same height, some facial hair around a similar jawline. He even had a similar face tattoo underneath the same eye.

They were one and the same, sharing the same body.

Nikki stumbled back. Lí did the same, mirroring her and the bewildered look on her face. The scene behind Lí wasn’t Raeleen, but it was too blurry to tell where exactly he was. A city, but bigger, grander, like the one she’d seen in that dream.

With Shào.

Lí’s reflection reached out to her. He palmed the glass with a mournful look.

Nikki’s hand itched forwards to meet his when a hand rounded around his neck. It was small, but it was enough to make him flinch.

Behind him, floating in a black and red robe, was Shào.

And he was staring directly at their reflection.

At Nikki.

“Nikki?”

She jumped out of her own skin. Vanna, standing beside her, withdrew his hand. “What’s wrong?”

She looked for their reflections. It was only for a moment, but she swore she saw two other people. Instead of Vanna and Pippa, two others…

“Nikki!”

Two hands gripped her arm and flung her back onto the sidewalk. Behind her, the sound of a trolley passed, bells and whistles warning her to get off the road. While looking for others that didn’t exist, she’d walked backwards into traffic.

“What in the Above’s name is going on with you?” Vanna yelled at her. “You could’ve died! Are you even listening to me?”

Nikki stared back at herself in the mirror. Both she, Vanna, and Pippa were back to their regular selves.

Hello?” He snapped in front of her face.

“Sorry,” she said. “Spaced out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” She kept walking. “Where are we going?”

“Do you need to go to the hospital?” Pippa asked, fishing something out of her pocket. “I have medicine, sleeping pills. I have muscle relaxants. They practically give this stuff away at the Asilo.”

“I’m fine.”

“Yeah, neither of us believe that,” Vanna said. “Let’s get you something to eat.”

The grocery store Vanna had chosen welcomed them with real automatic doors and an air-conditioned breeze. Customers—mostly canines—shopped in spacious aisles. Some chatted with neighbors and the cashiers about their day. Specialty chefs chopped up samples for customers to try as employees restocked colorful, bulky shelves.

Vanna and Pippa walked shoulder-to-shoulder in search of something to feed Nikki. Nikki, giving them their space, travelled down the opposite way.

She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted iron. That was the first time these weird feelings had interrupted her waking life. While she felt like Lí at times, she’d still been herself. She hadn’t gone crazy.

And she still hadn’t. She just needed to calm down and think for herself.

At the end of each aisle was a basket of free bread. After checking for guards, Nikki jammed her cheeks with free food. It was a free lunch her parents didn’t have to worry about, and she always had a terrible relationship with food. She had trouble eating in front of others, and on the worst days, recalling her days of homelessness, she wouldn’t eat at all. Only water, if anything.

She took in these baskets of free food for the masses and gently shut the glass door. How selfish of her. This could’ve fed so many mouths.

She wondered if Lí had worried about such things. He’d mentioned something about refugees, and for that brief moment in his head, she felt him fear for their safety, their hunger, the “lepers,” whoever they were. If only she could bring some food back to them. Even though she’d never met them, her instincts compelled her to take care of them, to make sure they had enough before they started their footslog. To where, she didn’t know. She needed to spend more time in Lí’s head.

Her tail hit the basket of food and tipped it over. She dove for it and stopped it with her shoe, then slowly lifted it back up.

She was wearing fingerless gloves. Her nails had been bitten down and were caked with dirt and something else, and her arm hair underneath the cuff of her sleeves were darker.

She touched her face, feeling the stubble now growing over her jaw. Panicking, she ran out of the aisle to the closest mirror she could find. Her body, lighter, her balance, different without a tail. She felt something in-between her legs.

“Shit,” she said under her breath. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Nikki?”

She touched the mirror. Herself, her real self, was staring back at her, looking just as confused and scared as she was feeling in Lí’s body.

Shit.”

“Nikki?” Vanna was walking towards her. “What’s wrong? You look terrified.”

She backed up. A fear of him getting hurt or infected crawled down her skin. His skin. Their skin. Their brains, she could feel them merging into one.

 “…Nikki?” he asked too slowly. He held out two hands. “Nikki, did you take something? Are you on anything?”

She held her head. This was why she couldn’t talk to him about this. He was too much of a realist. How could she tell him what was happening to her? Not even she knew.

Tripping on feet that weren’t hers, she left the store and bolted down the street.

A trolley honked at her. She spun around it and jumped over the rails onto the other side of the street. She heard her heart beat through her body like she was underwater. How was she to fix this? Could anyone see her like this?

Could he save every refugee? Time was running out. Can he ask for any more food from the DWA? The last batch had spoiled from the air infection, how was he going to feed these people?

She hit herself in the head, trying to stop herself from thinking his thoughts. How was she not able to ground herself? It was what she prided herself on. She was the level-headed sister.

She turned a corner and was faced with the front side of the Asilo. Its dark walls disappeared into the fog slowly settling over the city.

She had to save Kevin.

He had to save the infected.

She needed to keep her family safe.

He needed to contact Alliroue.

They were all depending on them.

She ran into an alley. Jumping over a puddle, she rammed her back into the cold stone and caught her breath. She could outline the shape of Lí’s nose in her peripheral vision.

She pressed the balls of her hands into her eye sockets until she saw stars. Lí’s thoughts tripped over hers until she had no idea which country she lived in or what she needed to do. Giving up, she slid to the ground and held down her head.

In the dark shadows of the alley, a figure approached her. “Excuse me, are you alright?”

Marcos stood in Nikki’s light. She blinked up at him—Lí’s eyes were weaker than hers. She blinked a few more times to make sure it was really him, and soon, her vision went back to normal, his clothes reverted back to hers.

She looked over her body. She was back to herself.

It was all an illusion made up by her own distrustful eyes.

When Nikki felt herself become whole, Marcos backed away. “How did you do that?”

“Do…what?”

“You were…” He gestured to herself. “Someone else.”

Nikki picked herself up with both hands on the brick wall. “You saw that?”

“I don’t know how else I was able to perceive you changing into another person.”

He stepped forwards, squinting at her as if his eye programs weren’t exactly working. “Who was that person? I felt like he was…familiar.”

There was no way that was possible, unless…

“What’s going on with you?” she asked. “You’re always following me around. Is this because of Kevin, or the Líders? Is it because of my family?”

“I cannot disclose why I’m out on the streets. I only saw you as…someone else, and gave chase. What, may I ask, is going on with you? How were you able to change forms?”

“I-I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on with me. All of this just started happening—”

“A few months ago?” Marcos guessed.

Her heart thumped. “How do you know? Look, if you or the Asilo know why this’s happening and why I’m seeing people who aren’t really there, it’d be really helpful to my mental psyche.”

Marcos lowered his arms. The look in his eyes changed. Up this close, she could see the actual gears turning inside his eyes, the information flooding his blue irises.

“So you see people…who’re otherwise invisible to others?”

“Is that something you come across often, because from my experience, it’s only ever happened to…”

He clung to her every word. His eyes looked like they held real, quizzical emotion.

“…You do know what I’m talking about,” she realized, “don’t you?”

“I can’t say.” He gritted his fake teeth. “I can’t, but…I can’t, but…”

Something about his programming must’ve been forbidding him from speaking. Nikki spoke for him, trying to get anything without giving too much away. Either willingly or not, he still reported to the Líders. 

“Do you know anything about these visions I’ve been having?” she asked more urgently.

“What is pertaining to your visions?”

“I keep seeing a boy who used to be me.”

“He used to be you?”

“Yeah. Someone called a Deity told me.”

Marcos’ brows shot up. “What was their name?”

“Shào. Shào Kai.”

If Marcos could breathe, he would’ve gasped. His eyes went wide and his mouth dropped.

“You know him, then,” Nikki said. “You know about Maïmoú, too?”

“You’ve seen both of them?”

“Yeah, have you?”

He held his throat, wanting to tell her the truth but being unable to. “Is this normal for you, seeing yourself from a past time? You looked completely different for a moment there.”

“No. Have …you?”

He didn’t answer, but at how aghast he looked, how he looked so alive from their conversation, she got her answers.

“Christ,” Nikki cursed again. “You’ve seen them, too. Does that mean you’re…” She tried remembering what Shào had told her back in that dream. “A soulmate? Someone who can see Deities? Are you connected to him or Maïmoú? Or are there others? Are there more than two Deities in the world?”

Another answer without words, but that look in his face, so real, so scared, about finding out the truths of their confusing world. She felt bad for him, being unable to speak his mind.

Nikki exhaled, letting down a fraction of her guard. “You seem scared shitless.”

He tensed his jaw. “I am.”

“Well, me, too. Sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“For you being roped up in this.”

Her ears perked seconds after Marcos’. Far off into the city, a siren went off. It was drawn-out like wails of a gasping animal, then grew louder until she couldn’t hear herself talk. They echoed down the streets and seemed to grow louder around them, around the Asilo.

Marcos looked off into nothing. His eyes moved like he was speedreading something right in front of them. 

“What is it?” Nikki asked. “What’s that mean?”

“I—” He squirmed as if in pain. “I need to go. I need to find Zantl. Now. And you. You need to go to…34th Avenue and 8th Street. Nadia wants…an assembly?”

“An assembly?”

“Yes, but this wasn’t planned. I—” He left the alleyway. “I need to go. I’m sorry.”

“Wait, what do you mean? What’s happening?” she asked, but Marcos, against his will, turned away from her and ran towards the sirens.

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