Nobody her age really knew what was happening, but the adults sure did.
She’d only been to a mandatory assembly once. Usually, they were planned days—if not weeks—in advance. The last time it happened, her parents hadn’t been in their beds due to an emergency call from Morgan’s. Now that she knew their secrets, it was probably to help with the rebellion. They thought that was more important than staying the night with their own kids.
Derek had refused to leave his bed, staying in his pajamas and only being hauled out of the house after Nikki ripped out half of his feathers getting him up. With Kevin’s and Vanna’s help, they’d gotten to the city center amongst a massive crowd of strangers. She’d been too small to see the Líders give their speech about an increase in Guard-related attacks. She’d been too on-edge about so many people around her loved ones.
The other times occurred when she was homeless and too young to grasp the seriousness of assemblies. No warning until the sirens spooked her out of her canal. She watched lines of people scuttle nervously across the bridges. They looked like they were being mind-controlled, but she knew it was from fear of stepping out of line.
It was surreal, seeing it unfurl as somewhat of an adult. Guards, families, students, the elderly. Children as young as two were being carried by their restless parents. The homeless watched on from the shadows, unsure if this assembly affected them. The Líders’ didn’t care for them, so why did they have to follow in line?
Bodies were already funneling into the Asilo plaza. It was a public, open space, dotted with fountains and benches and crossed by tram rails. Groups were forming small pockets of questions with people familiar to them. Nikki had tried to gain high ground to spot Vanna or Pippa, even her parents or Morgan and Del, but every pocket of people, every bird flying in from the sky, left her feeling isolated.
“What do you think this’s about?”
“Last time this happened, they killed somebody.”
“How long is this gonna take?”
Her foot tapped. She should’ve been doing more. She should’ve been running to find her family or calming down these people’s nerves. It was so chaotically unsound, they needed someone to guide them. Where were the Líders?
Where was Kevin? He was somewhere here, beneath her feet, being held against his will by tyrants. She wondered how far down he was, if she tapped hard enough, would they reconnect? She should’ve started digging. In a year, they’d meet again.
She looked down at her own hands. She was anticipating Lí to come back and control her. Those few minutes of her being him had shifted something in her brain. She’d felt his emotions as hers. She was more anxious now. His worries about this plague and someone named Alliroue and his survival, it was paralyzingly hers.
And Marcos, a soulmate? She was under the impression that a “soul” was something only a living being had. It was what made you you, like your personality and dreams and fears. Did a robot have those traits? Was she even able to contest it? Science barely made sense to her. She wondered what demonic Deity he was connected to.
Demonic. Another word from Lí’s word bank: Something opposite of heavenly, something bright and good. A terror to beingkind.
Nikki broke through the crowd to gather more information. She couldn’t stand around daftly like this. She needed to move before she spiralled.
Some people pretended that they knew what was going on. She heard everything from a tax increase to an execution to news about the Muralha. She stopped listening when a guard said that a new breed was about to be unveiled. Hearsay thrived in a crowd.
When the Sun should’ve been in the center of the sky, the main doors to the Asilo slid open.
Nikki’s ears perked, as did the others who could hear better than most. The crowds nearest the stage went silent immediately. Then the guards stood up straighter. People began hushing one another and pointing to the Asilo stairs. Atop the steps stood three figures.
Nikki squatted down and slipped through stunned Raeleenians to get a closer look. Nadia, Zantl, and Marcos. Three guards marched out behind them. The guards in the plaza looked on in apprehension.
She’d never been so close to a Líder before. Only in pictures and hearing their voices on the radio. From this vantage point, she saw the white tufts inside of Nadia’s ears, the length of her nails.
She looked awful. Bobbed hair a mess, collared shirt unbuttoned. And Mikhail was missing, just like Pippa had said. Never did you see one and not the other. They were a packaged set of authority.
Zantl stood off to the side wearing a large coat that made them look younger than they were. They looked as bad as their mother and couldn’t take their eyes off the cloudy sky, which had grown heavier with rain in the past hour.
Marcos was behind all of them, unblinking. He had his hands folded and was staring into the crowd like he was still going over the revelations he and Nikki had just shared together. She hadn’t explained herself well during then, and she’d likely never speak to him again. Had he told the Líders about her? Was that what this assembly was for?
Suddenly, Nikki stopped hunting for a better vantage point and tried becoming as inconspicuous as possible.
Nadia spoke into a microphone hidden in her coat hood. There was a delay before Nikki actually heard her voice:
“People of Raeleen, thank you for, uh, coming out here on short notice. I can see all of you are here today, and I appreciate your…cooperation.”
Nikki didn’t believe that, but from her stuttering, she didn’t think Nadia did either, or cared.
“We…I…come to you today…” She held up a pad of paper to read off of it. “First and foremost, I’m here to give you the unfortunate and saddening news that our beloved Líder, my lover, and Zantl’s father, Mikhail Farja, passed away this week.”
A collective gasp. Whispers, concerns, theories already going too far on newborn news. Nikki didn’t speak, but she, too, couldn’t stop her mind from reeling. She wasn’t sad, but this would change the world, probably for the worst. Nothing good came from a dictator’s death.
“He, uh, died peacefully in his sleep,” Nadia continued, louder, more unstable. Her hands were shaking. “We…we accept all condolences, my child and I, as we grieve Mikhail’s loss. He was a beloved and intelligent lover and father, and the world is a worse place without him in it.”
Nikki saw Zantl roll their eyes in a sardonic dismissal of their mother’s lies. She didn’t know their family dynamic, but if she’d gotten anything out of these assemblies, they seemed more like coworkers than family.
Thunder rumbled over the Muralha. Everyone on the stage flinched before Nadia continued.
“We will be having his funeral this Monday. All postal and academic services will be postponed henceforth to prepare for the service. Thank you for your upcoming cooperation.”
She flipped over her notes. “I also come to you today with an announcement regarding the fate of Raeleen. You are all aware that we do everything we can to protect our people from threats against our welfare. We need to protect each other, and we cannot do that when we’re separated through defiance.”
Nikki’s instincts told her to look away, though it made her look all the more guilty. She made herself smaller and wished she hadn’t pushed herself to the front just to get called out. That sounded like Nadia knew everything about the rebellion and was toying with them like a cat with a cornered mouse. Nikki looked around for her parents.
“We will not tolerate any forms of sabotage or distrust within our walls,” Nadia continued, “and as such, if anyone has any information about distrustful individuals, including our Guard, I want them reported to the Asilo immediately. No longer will secrecy devalue our city’s protection.”
The crowds murmured in a collective blur of voices, a ghostly wind passing through the city.
Nikki lowered her ears. She had to get out of here, but where? Back home? Back to Vanna’s? If they knew about her involvement with the rebellion, how could she go back to her parents’ place? She’d destroy everything, ruin their plans, murder her family.
Her brain fuzzed up, tickling the hair at the top of her head. She felt lightheaded. Not like when she’d become Lí, but similar, like she was touching another person’s soul in this ocean of thousands.
A voice spoke over the booming voice of the world’s leader.
Her feet moved on their own. Step by step, forcing her to walk when her brain didn’t want to.
“Shào?” she asked, breathless, but her feet kept moving her to the front. She couldn’t control herself. People were staring, whispering. She brushed between two guards who went to grab her and shove her back. As soon as they touched her, an invisible barrier bounced them back and tripped them. Others from across the way looked up in surprise at who dared to interrupt this mournful speech.
Nikki’s legs went weak, numb, and hot. Her body walked her straight into an empty space between the closest group of people and the Líder. Nadia was glaring at her. The Guards had their guns up. Whatever was controlling her body was sentencing her to death and she couldn’t do anything about it but stand and wait for undeserved punishment.
She looked up the steps to the sole leader of her world, pleading with her to understand something she never would. She wasn’t this defiant.
While Nadia was snarling at her, Zantl’s attitude was melting away. Their arrogance turned to confusion, then fear, like they’d seen a monster lurking in the shadows. Their tail got tucked between their legs as they said something to their mother. It was lost to the wind storm.
Nikki tried finding her own voice. A lie, even if it was a bad one. Something to say to Shào who was clearly puppeting her for God knew what reason. To say something to save her family from being found out, or from her dying. Either one, whatever made her brain work, act. Say something.
Her lower half lifted upwards. Her feet floated away from concrete. She’d become weightless like Shào and levitated a foot off the ground.
She couldn’t speak; her teeth were chattering too much. Everyone was looking at her, aghast. Her name was whispered by strangers. Nearest the Líder, four guarddogs aimed at her head. Others keeping the crowds back had hands ready on their pistols.
“What…is this?” Nadia asked. “Is this her? Maïmoú,” she called out, “is this you?”
Nikki, whose thoughts had been scrambling for a way out of this, melted at that name. She tried to back up. The hold on her body moved her forwards.
“Shào,” Nikki whispered to herself. “What’s going on?”
“One moment,” he said in her head. “I’m almost there.”
“What’re you doing?”
“I can reach you. I’m almost there. Almost…”
The Guards aimed closer. Some took knees for better shots.
“Shào,” Nikki stressed. “Please.”
Whispering Shào’s name one more time, Nikki closed her eyes in prayer.
A stray gunshot fired into the plaza.
She awoke as if she were still dreaming. Darkness, but not blackness. A quiet pool of nothingness, infinity on all sides, and floating.
An ocean, according to Lí’s memories.
A bright star shone above her. With some fight still left in her, Nikki swam up, a hand out towards freedom.
“You have more fight in you than I did at this age,” someone said, voice echoing. “Thank God for that. Hopefully, you’ll live longer this time around.”
“Huh?” Nikki asked the voice. She almost didn’t answer; the voice sounded just like hers.
It must’ve been, for she didn’t receive an answer.
She awoke on the ground, blinking away raindrops. It’d begun raining, a split in the sky letting out sharp beams of Sun.
Blocking out the rays was her mother, father, and aunts. They were staring down at her and crying. Her father was pointing his finger at people and yelling through his pain.
She didn’t know why. She was feeling fine, better than ever. The ringing in her ears was even going away.
She sat up without using her arms or legs. Floating like she was underwater, she got up and levitated over her parents. She looked over her hands, her feet, tail. She was still herself, just touched by magic, or divinity. Another word Lí knew: something to describe a Deity’s powers.
Her hands touched her front, and they slowly lifted up her sweater and hoodie to reveal an injury the size of her thumb right through her abdomen. It was red and dark and was bleeding into her belly button. It was as if she was watching herself from a dream. It didn’t hurt.
“I-I have you,” Shào said through her mind. “I got to you in time.”
Her stomach churned as if she was hungry, and slowly, the injury healed itself. The skin grafted over the hole and filled itself back in. From her body popped out a shiny bullet. It clattered to the plaza ground.
“I have you,” Shào promised.
Nikki tried to look for her family’s reaction, but Shào was more interested in the Líder, whose mouth was agape at her rise from the dead.
In her peripheral vision, she saw Raeleenians on their knees, holding their heads and moaning in pain. Something like a mental bomb had dropped on all of them. Even Nadia had been affected by it. Marcos looked fine as he helped Zantl to their feet.
“What is happening?” Shào whispered. “Tell me, through thoughts.”
When she realized she had no control over her own mouth, Nikki thought, “I-I don’t know. What happened to me?”
“I believe you got shot, but I was able to get to you in time. I felt your heart. I’ve never felt you so scared.” He groaned. “Why is everyone gathered like this?”
What else could Nikki say but the truth? “The Líder’s holding an assembly. She knows about my family and Maïmoú. My parents and friends, they’re all gonna be found out and killed. You have to save them.”
“What about Maïmoú?”
“Shào, my family,” she stressed. “You need to save them. Forget about me.”
“Oh, I’ll never be able to forget about you.” He made her look around Raeleen. “What has your family done?”
“They were trying to rebel, and then the Líder was talking about Maïmoú. I don’t know how they know, but you have to save them, please.”
Shào made her place her hand to her lips. “Of course. She did have a habit of introducing herself to world leaders to show her unrelenting dominance over them. Even when she’s so weak.”
He looked down at the pavement. “She’s here, isn’t she? I can sense her.”
He looked right over to Marcos and Zantl as if he’d caught them whispering about him. She felt her body go rigid. “There’re two more here?”
Shào made Nikki smirk. “What luck,” he said, “for me to find their soulmates. What luck!” he said aloud in her voice. “These are your soulmates, are they not? Unathi, Sabah, Tsvetan? Which ones belong to you? You must be so keen on protecting your soulmates this time around! You give them another chance to live yet let my soulmate suffer alone without me?”
Fighting through her inner pain, Nadia raised her hand, and the guards fired another round.
Shào raised out his arms around them, and the bullets froze mid-stride only to ricochet back into the hands of the men and women who shot them.
Dozens of guards fell like rag dolls. Blood splattered on the innocent as their bodies crumpled to the sewer gates. People screamed as a forming stampede escaped the city.
Nikki felt sick to her stomach. She didn’t know how she could feel this level of fear, betrayal, and revolution without control of her body. The smell hit her, of metal bullets and blood, and she heard the officers and innocent crowdspeople scream and scatter. “Shào—”
He turned her body to her family cowering beneath her. They looked so small from so high up.
He looked to Vanna, to Pippa holding him. He lifted one arm.
Nikki screamed. Using her all to bring Shào’s hand down, she redirected him from shedding any more blood.
Shào took in the hand she’d moved on her own.
“That’s my family!” she shouted in her head. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh. My apologies,” he said in her voice. “I hadn’t realized. What a patchwork you have.”
He was talking so casually for a kid with a kill count, as if he’d killed like this before. He wasn’t even phased.
“Which Deity are you?” Nadia yelled into her microphone. “Who are you?”
Shào turned. “Are you the one in charge?” he questioned. “You must’ve learned more in those abandoned fallout shelters than those humans ever did. What is this, an authoritarian regime? How primeval.” He chuckled. “You ask which Deity I am? Which Deity can do this?” He threw out his hand over the city. The buildings rumbled like they were in a rare earthquake. Trash cans fell. Windows cracked and littered the ground with shards of glass.
“Shào, stop!” Nikki yelled.
Shào, laughing with Nikki’s voice, floated her higher. “I forgot this rush! The feeling of the world changing by your hand. What a feeling, Nicole! I can see why you detest this world!”
“This isn’t what I meant!”
“Saaaabah,” Shào called out, like an adult calling for a mischievous child. “I know you’re watching me. Do you think you can get away from me? You have the power to kill me, yet you put me in a purgatory for 500 years? How dare you? I knew you’re as cruel as the humans you hate so much, but this torture is unlike anything I’ve ever lived through.”
“Shào!” Nikki tried regaining control of her own body. The bodies on the ground began bleeding out. “Shào, stop it! You’re just making things worse! Imagine how terrifying this is for the—stop!”
“Nikki!” Her mother flew up to her and grabbed her ankle, but Shào wouldn’t allow it. Holding out his hand, he manually moved her mother away, not hurting her, but causing her to scream in confusion as to what her daughter was doing to her.
“Shào, that’s my mom! Stop!”
Shào eyed the sky above. “What, can you not push through your own barriers to save your own soulmates? Are you afraid of me?” He raised his arm towards Marcos, who was trying to push Zantl through the doors, but they’d gone catatonic and were refusing to move. “Then let me start my 500-years’ worth of payback!” he yelled, and struck a hand toward the Asilo.
Bombs detonated off in the buildings. One by one, each floor exploded in flames and balls of smoke. The heat burned the body that was no longer hers. Those who were still left in the plaza were now running for their lives.
Nikki watched as the main Asilo building, the one Kevin was allegedly in, fall into itself. Multiple stories, gone in plumes of fire.
Nadia, upon watching her home fall, turned back to her only child and the singular robot known to the world. Nikki didn’t know what she must’ve been thinking. She wasn’t a mother, didn’t have those instincts yet. She couldn’t judge her for running for her child, risking her own life to save part of her own.
Two new people ran up behind Marcos and Zantl. Zantl’s person hugged them, while Marcos’ put him in a chokehold to get them out of Nadia’s reach. Nikki tried to see who the two people were, but the smoke was too thick. She just saw that they were tall, and their eyes appeared to glow with the flames.
They disappeared, either vanishing or sinking through the smoke, and left Nadia to be crushed by her own making.
Nikki slammed her hands against the inner walls of her mind. She yelled at him to stop, pulling at his heart to show him this was not what she wanted. Even if he killed the Liders, what would that do for them? Hundreds of people lived in the Asilo that needed help. Kevin was in there. And the rest of the guards would see Nikki, this unstoppable force that could kill them, and come after her family anyway regardless if the Líders died.
She didn’t want this kind of blood on her hands. She didn’t want anyone else to suffer in this cruel world, she just wanted to save those in pain.
“You can’t have it both ways, Nicole,” Shào said. “To end world’s cruelty, the quickest and most efficient way is to kill those who think they can ruin your life.”
Nikki had only meant Shào once. She didn’t know his history and couldn’t remember his last name, but from this, along with the combination of Lí’s traumatic memories, made them feel like childhood friends who’d grown apart.
Whatever they had together had been tarnished today by his—her—own hands.
She pulled harder on whatever essence or soul she could grab on to. She thought she’d understood the value of being a soulmate. The intense feeling of being loved and needed filled her heart with so much joy.
This wasn’t love. This was blinded infatuation that’d been placed unto her without her consent, and he’d abused it without care.
The main Asilo building screamed in screeching metal and shrunk in size. Smoke mushroomed out of each floor as everything collapsed at once. She couldn’t hear what was stronger: the screams of every citizen trapped in the city plaza, or the building coming down in one solid motion, fire and explosions birthing from mindless chaos.
Nikki tore her eyes away from it. She pushed against Shào, screaming against everything she had, until she forced her mind away from him.
She kept fighting.
“Nicole, wait!” He held her body in a hug. “I don’t want to leave you like this. I can help you!”
She kept going. For her family’s sake. For Kevin. Derek. She would not let it end like this. She would fix this, fix everything and save everyone.
“Wait, what?” Shào asked. “Derek…Derek Harrow? He’s your…he’s your sibling?”
Ignoring his ramblings, Nikki pushed one more time to get away from any more Deities and their hateful pride.
She freefell, pulled out of her own body from Shào’s hold. His voice echoed through the collapse, and she felt herself fall into someone’s arms, before her eyes rolled back into her head, and she went unconscious.