Nikki awoke stubbornly inside a room that smelled of a home-cooked meal and sunlight.
She sat upright, her left side numb. She was in a living room made up of fine decor. A bookshelf took up the right wall, stocked with expensive-looking books and glass figurines. A strange machine sat in one corner of the room, glowing faintly, and the windows behind her let in warm sunlight and the sound of waves. It was eerily quiet like nobody was home, but she had no clue who owned this home. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here in the first place or who’d brought her here.
She made fists on the couch. She was dreaming. Had to be. There was this sense that nothing existed behind these walls until she conjured it up. Everything was too pristine. She needed to wake up. Something important was awaiting her in the real world.
Someone walked up a creaky staircase, and the door to the dream room opened.
Lí came in holding two cups of coffee. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said cheerfully. “I was wondering when you’d come to.”
Nikki sat up straighter. She’d seen Lí through dreams and mirrors, but never before had she been face to face with him, talking to him without the use of her own mouth. He was a real person, who smelled like this room and also aftershave. She didn’t know why that startled her. She couldn’t imagine herself shaving.
“Don’t freak out,” Lí said, and sat both cups on the coffee table. He took the seat beside her with a long exhale from a hard day’s work. “It’s just us.”
Nikki scooted back.
Lí noticed that and half-smirked. “I know you have trouble trusting people right away, but I’m you, remember? And you’re in a dream. I literally can’t hurt you here.”
Nikki inspected the room again. “I almost died when Shào and Maïmoú blew up that building. The one you were on the roof of. Pangea or something? So I think I can get hurt in a dream.”
Lí’s smirk fell. “Right. Well, they won’t be coming here. I don’t think,” he added, glancing up at the ceiling like he partially knew what he was talking about. “This’s our shared world only we can dream up.”
“And where is that?”
He relaxed and put his hands in his hoodie’s pockets. “Well, right now, we’re in my mom’s place, back before everything went wrong in the world. She lived in a city called Tianjin, just outside of Beijing, but you knew that already, didn’t you?”
She cocked her head. Somehow, she did know that. If she focused hard enough, suddenly this room wasn’t as new as before. She knew the layout of the first floor beneath her and this mother she didn’t know the name of. How his—her?—mother was born in China, and her father was Mongolian. Two places—countries—from a time far ago.
She didn’t know what any of it meant, but she knew it all the same.
She exhaled, spacing out. Memories began trickling in like she was reading a memoir about Lí’s life. They were in his mother’s study. His grandmother had knitted that quilt. He was twenty-three, human, gay, married, and allergic to bees. But just as every fact came in, they slipped out just as readily. She didn’t know his middle name or what he liked to do in his free time. She didn’t know his birthday. She couldn’t hold on to a new thought to save her life.
No, she did know his birthday. April 30th. Same as hers.
“It’s okay,” Lí said. “Don’t think about it too hard. I heard it’s hard your first time. Please, have some coffee. It’ll calm you down.”
Nikki eyed the cup, then gave up reasoning and took a sip.
“Iced mocha,” he said as she licked her lips. “Our favorite.”
Nikki lowered the cup. “Why am I here?”
“Dunno. Shào once told me that beings can tap into their past lives during traumatic events, like a mental, go-to therapist. I guess you needed to talk to somebody, and I was the closest somebody for you.”
“That doesn’t sound like me.”
“I know, and I won’t force you to talk. I know how hard it is to talk about your feelings, even to yourself.”
“Something with Shào…” She held her head. She couldn’t think straight in a dream.
Lí watched her above the lip of his cup. He kept looking at her like he wanted to say something.
She broke her concentration. “Were you ever actually real,” she asked, “or am I just going crazy?”
“I was real, or used to be. I’ve been dead for 500-ish years, but I was very much alive at one point.”
“And so your heart, or brain, has now become mine?”
“Very.” He smiled again. “Is it weird to say it’s nice to finally meet you? I know we’re in, like, a temporary mind palace forged through centuries of brain juices, but it’s nice to know I got to live again.”
Something with Shào, something about the Líders. She took another sip. “Are you even ‘living’ again, if it’s me who’s living your life?”
“You’re only another version of me, just as I’m another version of you. Do you still like baseball?”
Her concentration broke into pieces. “Yeah, I guess.”
“That’s good. And Vitaliya’s still with you?”
“I guess you call her Vanna this time around. I’m getting glimpses of your life like I’m watching a recap episode of a TV show. He’s your cousin now? Funny. She was my childhood friend. I guess that never really changed.”
Nikki took another sip, finally enjoying the present from her past self. She felt herself sinking into a deeper layer of subconsciousness. The waves outside grew louder.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“What is?” Nikki asked.
“To not have to worry about anyone for five minutes.”
She didn’t believe that. She was always worrying about someone. About her siblings, her family. Lí, the Líders, Shào, Maïmoú. Everyone was worth worrying about, and she had to be the one to glue them together. That was her purpose, both in this life and the last.
But none of those feelings came with her in the dream. Nobody was outside these walls. The doors were locked. For once in her life, she was free of living for anyone else’s sake.
And that made her feel incredibly, devastatingly lonely. She was free of worry, but what was the point of living if you couldn’t solve other people’s problems?
She set the cup aside.
“I know it’s hard,” Lí said. “Trust me. I know Shào’s problems might feel like your own and you have to try and please him, but that’s not your burden to bear. You’re allowed to choose your own path because that’s what you want for yourself.
“I know he’s hurt you,” he continued. “I see it in the way you hold yourself. He’s…controlled you, hasn’t he?”
Nikki tried remembering. She’d been in the city center. There’d been an assembly.
“That was a terrible thing he did to you, and I know you want to try to find a way to justify his actions, but you’re allowed to be upset with him.”
Her senses came back to her: the Asilo. Her parents, crying in fear as she rose above them. The crowds, slaughtered by a wave of her own hand.
She held her stomach, then wrapped her other arm around herself. She’d been shot at. She’d felt the bullet enter her stomach, but Shào had found a way inside her brain and saved her. But by doing so, all those guards, those innocent people as the Asilo fell…
Lí touched the cushion separating them. “You probably haven’t cried in a long time, yeah? When I was your age, I didn’t even laugh too hard in fear of someone noticing me. But you’re here now. You’re free to express yourself. Ourself. I’m not sure how this exactly works. I never was one to follow my own advice.” He took a long sip of coffee. “You’re allowed to let go here.”
Nikki shook her head. How impractical. Letting go of oneself left you vulnerable to attack, and she wasn’t about to do that again. She couldn’t open up because she…
She needed to…
Her nose stung. She swiped at it. It still stung, messing up her face, so she scrunched it to keep it down. Her body hurt. Her eyes welled. Something was wrong.
Lí broke the distance and hugged her.
Alarms went off in her head. Her brain told her to pull away. She wasn’t the type of person who needed hugs. She was stronger than that. She couldn’t show weakness.
She didn’t pull away. Or maybe her subconscious didn’t want her to. Burying her head into Lí’s hoodie, Nikki went against all who she was and let herself go. Everything that’d been piling up against her let go through swelling emotions. Crying, that didn’t come naturally to her. She wanted to be strong and defend both herself and now her family, who’d selflessly taken her in. She couldn’t let herself break down so easily in front of them.
This was nice. Therapeutic, finally allowing herself to be herself: an eighteen-year-old, hyperventilating rat who was afraid of her own shadow at times, who just wanted to be held by safe arms without cringing at herself for thinking that that was weak.
Lí petted her between her ears. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “You’re still a strong person who loves everyone from a broken heart. But it will be mended. By Shào, by Vanna, even by your person.”
She snuffled through composure. “Did Shào do all this to you, too?”
“Did he love you, too?”
He chuckled. “He did. Poor kid. I felt so bad.”
“Was it weird for you, too? He acts all weird with me. I don’t like it.”
“I know. I was in my twenties when he found me, and he was still trapped as a perpetual thirteen-year-old. I felt so bad for him, but he tried respecting my boundaries. Besides…” He pulled off the fingerless glove on his left hand to reveal a silver ring on his second-to-last finger. “I’m already spoken for.”
Nikki drew back. “What does that mean? I know that you’re…married, and gay, and I think those two things are connected, but I don’t know what any of it means.”
“It means I’m tied to a person. His name is Tai.”
“Does that mean you’re in love with him?”
“Very much so. Does marriage not exist in your world?”
“I don’t think so. People just get together or break up.” She admired the ring. “Does that mean I’m going to meet Tai? That they’ll be my…lover?”
“I really hope you do. Souls with powerful connections tend to meet up in their next lives.” He tapped something that was connected to his ear. While Nikki didn’t know all parts of his life, she knew it was called a “cell phone,” a device people could attach to themselves that could communicate with others instantly.
He brought up a holographic picture of a boy smiling at the camera. He was a “human,” just like Lí, but had pure white hair with a dyed strip of pink near his eyes. They were so blue, his eyes. They matched the sky.
“He’s pretty,” Nikki said.
“I know. Have you met anyone who looks like this? He might find you again. He was quite forwards when we met. He literally backed me into a corner, pinning me against the wall.” He smiled at the memory. “He was so gentle with me.”
“Well, will he be a boy when I meet him? I only like girls.”
He laughed, his voice pitching at first just like hers. “Likely not, then. How funny is it that we both happen to be queer. What’s your sexuality, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I…don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what that word means.”
“Oh.” He settled back on his side of the couch. “That’s incredible. What a world you must live in.”
“It’s not all that great.”
“Is any world?”
She played with her ringless hand, then looked out the window. “What’s that noise? The swishing. Do you live near a river?”
“It’s the ocean. I can’t wait for you to see it, Nikki. I hope it changes your life as much as it changed mine.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see soon.” He closed his tired eyes. “It feels like you’re going to wake up soon. Say hi to Marcos for me, will you? I miss that little guy.”
It was like waking up through a hangover. She never drank like Derek or sometimes Kevin did, but she could only guess the aftereffects. Groggy, sore, a headache that only grew through clarity. She wondered if Lí liked to drink. No, right, given that they were the same person?
Her movements were shaky. She couldn’t fully wake up until she pinched her hands and peeled open one eyelid at a time. Slowly, she blinked up to fluorescent lighting and the smell of the fallout shelter. She was in those bunk beds again. She’d been stripped of her hoodie and shoes to just a thin layer of clothes. A useless bandage covered the healed bullet wound in her abdomen.
Vanna was waiting on the other bunk bed, rocking to keep himself calm. When she began stirring, his ears pricked up and he turned to her with tears in his eyes.
“Hey.” She coughed, voice dry. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head, but her questions made him cry. Hiding his face in her chest, he knelt over her and hugged her.
She offered him a literal shoulder to cry on. “What happened?” she asked in a softer tone.
“Do you remember anything?”
“Yes, up until I passed out.” She forced herself out of bed. “Where’s my mom and dad?”
Vanna got up as well. His ears went down. “Let me, uh, get my mom to explain it.”
“But what about the Asilo?”
He left her unanswered and slipped out of the room.
“Vanna.” She checked around the bunk bed for her hoodie and pulled it back on. Attached to her bed frame were two shackles someone had undone.
Rubbing her free hands, Nikki ran out for her best friend. “Vanna!”
She stilled in the doorway. Dozens of people were running down the halls. Some carried packages while others talked frantically with one another. Most people ignored her, but those who did see her stopped what they were doing to glower at her. A few covered their mouths and stepped back, whispering secrets.
Throwing her hoodie over her ears, Nikki ran for the Drill.
The people doubled, tripled. Hundreds of bodies were now filling the shelter with noise. Everyone was moving or talking or both. She couldn’t find her way through.
Making herself small, she barreled through the sea of bodies. All the memories from the assembly were now clear. The guards, screaming as their blood pooled in the streets and down the gutters. Shào’s torturous laughs becoming her own as she toppled the most important building in Raeleen with hundreds, thousands of innocent people still trapped underneath it. The Líder had died, hadn’t she? And Marcos and Zantl.
Sick with guilt, she lowered her head so she didn’t throw up. She was disgusted with herself. She should’ve stayed dead, her family never knowing this secret she’d kept from them. How was she going to explain herself?
“Okay, everyone, back it up!”
Nikki honed in on Morgan’s voice. More and more people were looking at her now, realizing that the most dangerous person in Raeleen was now awake. “Morg.”
Morgan turned, too busy with everyone on her mind to acknowledge her properly. When she did see her, her niece, someone who’d taught her how to fight and stand up for herself, she pulled away in fear.
Morgan always held a certain type of respect in Nikki’s eyes. She’d built up this coffee house and rebellion with her own two hands. She always had a smile on her face. She wasn’t perfect and held biases Nikki didn’t agree with, but she had a different type of strength Nikki admired.
Now she regarded Nikki as a threat, just like the Líders, one of which had been killed by her doing.
A space bubbled out around them. More people watched and waited for Nikki to detonate again.
She held her stomach. “Morgan?”
Morgan grabbed Nikki by the arm. “Come with me,” she said too loudly.
She followed, trying to think up an excuse for what they’d all witnessed. Would they excommunicate her from the family? Was she even a crossbreed in their eyes? She’d floated like a bird.
Morgan led her to a hall she hadn’t fully explored. It led to the infirmary, a place they thankfully didn’t often use. She noticed guards wearing masks and gloves like impromptu doctors. Nikki peeked through the doors and saw crossbreeds sitting on operating tables.
But they didn’t look like crossbreeds. She saw pointed tails and fins, giant gashes on their necks and sparkly infections on their skin. Had Nikki been responsible for that, too? Some were gasping for breath. Were they having panic attacks?
As she strained her neck to see, Morgan led her into a conference room with a big, circular table and rolling chairs stacked in the corner.
Her family was discussing something important. Her mother was sitting on the table as she made a case to Nikki’s father. They both stopped once Nikki entered.
Her mother jumped off the table and stormed over to her, and Nikki instinctively flinched. Between Shào and Maïmoú, Marcos, the Líders, she only expected to be hit or face some type of punishment she hadn’t meant to receive.
Buckling to her knees, her mother fell into Nikki for a warm hug.
Nikki didn’t know where to place her hands. Her parents didn’t often hug her, mostly because she didn’t like it. They were too warm for her.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d hugged her mother.
“I’m so glad you’re still here,” she said, and Nikki didn’t know why, but that single phrase was what she needed to hear most. She hugged her back because of that, reminding herself who she was fighting for.
Her father came over after and hugged both of them. His cologne and shadow overpowered Nikki’s senses. She gripped a fistful of his feathers and brought him closer.
“We saw you during the assembly,” her father explained. “We couldn’t see you before, but we heard the Líder address you by name and started running up to the front.”
“We didn’t know what was happening,” her mother said. “We just knew you were in trouble.”
“And then we heard the gunshot.”
“We thought you’d died.”
“You’re not hurting anymore, are you?”
“We couldn’t find the bullet.”
“No, I’m okay,” Nikki said, and wished so badly that the conversation could end there. They could start working on the Drill again. They’d find Kevin and then drill to Derek and they’d be a family again.
Her parents drew back, their hands never leaving hers.
“Nikki,” her mother treaded carefully. “What happened to you?”
Nikki gulped. Shào first? What about Maïmoú? And Lí, how was she going to explain him to them? She was still having trouble figuring out his timeline. A world outside Raeleen that once held a big building named Pangea and some plague that’d infected people. China.
She was tempted to contact Shào and just have him explain himself through her mouth, but she couldn’t speak to him. She didn’t know if she ever wanted to see him again. Seeing him made her happy, but the thought of him made her sick.
She bit her inner cheek. “I—”
She almost slammed her fist into the concrete wall. The voice came from a walkie-talkie connected to Morgan’s coveralls.
Without taking her eyes off of Nikki, Morgan clicked the radio and held it up to her ear. “Was that you, Del?” she said loudly. “Speak up, baby. Ears’re still fuzzy due to the whole lost-hearing-aid thing.”
The connection stuttered and crackled with Del’s rambles, then it cut off.
“Okay, wonderful.” Morgan went for the door. “Iysra, Marshall, come with me. Nikki, we’re putting a pin in you for now, but we are not letting this go. You floated. We all saw that. And the Asilo is—”
The radio screeched for Morgan again, and she bolted to her loved one.
Vanna and Nikki waited for their parents to leave before following. Dozens of people were waiting outside the hall, pretending they weren’t eavesdropping on a family’s conversation.
“What’s going on with Del?” Nikki asked as they ran. “Do you know?”
“Do you mind telling me?” She looked down the hall to another group of those waterborne. She wanted to ask them what was going on and if she could help gather them. Clustered panic made her anxious, like it was her fault the world wasn’t aligning right.
“Those are the people my moms found wandering outside the Asilo,” Vanna explained. “They don’t have a place to go, so my moms’ people have been bringing them here. They’re the people who’ve been living down in the Asilo. They’re called waterborne. They breathe in water.”
Nikki watched the tiled floors appear and disappear beneath her. It was wet in places like someone had just gotten out of the shower. People who breathed underwater…
She knew of them, but she didn’t. Lí did, in his timeline.
Vanna led her down a spiral staircase and through a corridor. Three guards patrolled this area, but they didn’t have their usual guns or badges. Their hair was unkempt and some had dust and dirt caked to their uniforms. They inhaled and gave Nikki space when she came near.
Survivors of her murder spree.
Vanna held up his wrist near the door. It slid open upon his command.
“How do you do that?” Nikki asked, but just as she said it, she went to reach for a weapon.
Marcos was restrained to a support beam in the center of the room and had kicked down a rolling chair, demanding to be heard. Del, covered in grease and cuts, must’ve been trying her best to keep him calm.
“Please, I don’t wish to hurt you,” Marcos said, “but I need to get back to the Asilo. There’re hundreds of people who need me.”
“Just settle down.” Morgan reached for something behind her back. All the adults had him cornered. Her parents’ wings were spreading open.
“There are 2,104 people living in the Asilo!” Marcos argued. “I need to save them. I’m stronger than four guards combined.”
“Ugh, can’t you shut him down?” Morgan asked someone in the shadows. “He’s yours, yeah? Tell him to cool down his processors.”
Nikki looked around Vanna for the source of this mysterious person.
Her tail fell, flopping to the floor in disbelief.
Zantl, future—current—leader of the world, came out of the shadows. It looked like they’d just barely survived the collapse of the Asilo: covered in ash, the ends of their long hair frayed like they’d been electrocuted. It looked like a bruise was forming over half of their face, but it was just soot.
“Holy shit,” Nikki cursed, not knowing what the curse even meant. A relic from Lí’s past? “What’s going on?”
“I’d like to know the same thing,” Morgan said. “They just dropped down from the sky like baby birds kicked out of the nest an hour ago. This one is mute—can’t get a word out of them that isn’t hostile, and this Unit hasn’t been—just calm down!” she yelled at Marcos, but he wasn’t listening.
He struggled against his restraints. “Let me go! I need to save Alexi. I need to. I can’t—” He shut his eyes. “Sabah!”
Both Zantl and Nikki looked up like trained dogs to a whistle. Nikki knew that name, somehow.
The lights flickered above them. The adults looked up, ready, waiting. Zantl fell to their knees with their hands over their head.
Morgan watched the room return to normal with bated breath. “We need to turn him off,” she decided.
“What?” Marcos snapped. “Are you that cruel? The Asilo is still coming down!”
“The Asilo’s been down for two hours, and I’m up to my wits end in trying to save all of these freakish water people who can’t breathe.”
That set Marcos off again. The cement support beam cracked. “They are not freakish! They need to be in specialized water containers in order to breathe! And there’re files in the Asilo relating to my past that are extremely important. I need to recover them before they’re destroyed.”
“Stop arguing with me! You’re not even real. You’re a dog who joyfully follows the orders of two—”
“Shut up!” Marcos stood up, startling all the adults in the room.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. Not once in my twenty years of living have I ever had a choice in anything in my life. I am a robot. I’m given orders I cannot disobey. You have no idea how it feels to do half of the instructions I’ve been forced to carry out. Do not say I have joyfully done anything in my life, because I can count the number of times I’ve been happy on my hand.”
Nikki stepped back. She’d never heard the Marcos Unit raise his voice before. And not only that, but not having control over your body, being dictated without your consent, she related to that, in that moment.
She stepped in between them. “Morgan, leave him alone.”
“Nikki, get away from him,” Morgan said.
“No. You have no right to yell at him like this when the world’s turned upside down. Everyone’s nervous, and yelling like this isn’t helping.”
“Yelling is actually the perfect way to take care of this. I have a million things falling apart that I have to deal with with only one working ear, not to mention my own niece, who floated above our heads and murdered every guard around the Líder with just a whoosh of her hand before murdering her in cold blood, the same Líder who somehow figured out I’m planning a rebellion right under their nose, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you just toppled the most important figurehead in our world.”
Nikki grimaced at the scene continuously playing in her head. “Morg, I’m sorry. I don’t…know how to explain myself.”
“Do you know what happened?” her mother asked.
“When you floated,” her father added, “how was that even possible?”
She did, but her explanation would’ve sent her to a ward.
“Can’t you tell them already?”
Everyone turned to Marcos, who was looking at Zantl, who looked like they would’ve rather been anywhere other than here. They cringed at being acknowledged.
“Tell them,” Marcos urged. “You know about this more than anyone else.”
“And why should I?” Zantl asked.
“So they can stop thinking I’m crazy.”
“I’m able to stop that?”
“What’re you talking about?” Morgan demanded. “Is this about Nikki’s situation?”
“I believe so,” Marcos said.
“What on Earth can possibly link you three together?”
A spark. A bubble of energy that blinded Nikki. The air popped from hundreds of feet underground and put a heart-stopping end to the forming madness.
Four people fell into the fallout shelter. The two girls were more of those waterborne people. One of them was holding a crying baby. They looked very similar, with cuts in their necks and long tails able to cut through the water. The other girl had pure white hair and stood tall and dripping wet.
The last one was a boy, who always looked tall to Nikki but was of average height. A crybaby, a shy, little bird with broken wings.
Kevin was barely standing by himself. His right wing had been broken, missing feathers and bent in an uncomfortable way. His eyes were bloodshot. His skin was pale.
He squinted at Nikki like he’d just been through something dark. He smiled a little when he realized who he’d finally found.
Then his eyes rolled back into his head and he fell into her arms, senseless.