Chapter 37: Nikki

Nikki half-expected Morgan to get them out of the fallout shelter by next morn. She pictured her family rampaging through the streets in the Drill with Morgan’s packs of guards, screaming demands and busting through the Muralha for good.

That night, Morgan ordered her family to stay in the fallout shelter. When morning came, it was Del who found her passed out in the kitchen with enough empty beer bottles around her to tranquilize a horse.

Whatever a horse was. Again, something from Lí’s time that regularly popped up in Nikki’s mind. The thought of such a creature made her queasy.

“Nikki?”

Kevin was a whole other issue. With their adult family inebriated, Nikki had thought her older brother would help her get a grip on this situation.

They’d met up for five seconds, then gone, poof, off with that girl he was allegedly involved with for the night. She’d guessed they’d found a bedroom to cuddle in, or do whatever people in love did behind closed doors.

First Vanna, now Kevin. Did Derek now have a lover wherever he was on the other side of the world?

Probably, who was she kidding?

“Nikki, are you okay?”

Those lovey-dovey thoughts weren’t helping her right now. Or the thousand of waterborne lost down here. Guards under Morgan’s command had come back from recon that night. The Asilo was in piles of ash—the packs had come back coated in it. The casualties were anywhere from 1,000 to 4,500, most of which were waterborne.

“Hey.”

She needed to help more. Sure, she was only eighteen, but she could’ve been volunteering in the kitchens down here or babysitting the parentless children. She could’ve been out on the streets helping survivors. She’d have to pull all-nighters, hold a meeting with her parents to buy more provisions.

“Nicole, look at me.”

Hearing her full name startled her into the present. Panicking, she looked for Shào.

Her sneakers skidded on the tiles. She was backed into the wall by Tokala. They’d been walking down the hall between the cafeteria and the workout gym, searching for her parents and failing to spot a feather.

Since yesterday, they’d stayed within arm’s reach of each other. They walked together, ate together, all the while Nikki saying absolutely nothing of import to her. A lot of it boiled down to their shared interest in finding their loved ones and so they kept close, but Nikki couldn’t find her voice to ask her why they were sticking together

Maybe Nikki had wanted to keep her distance from her, keep from getting distracted. She wanted to be helpful, but when Tokala was near her, all her attention went to her. She wanted to stare at her and have a reason to help her alone. Was it infatuation? Maybe. She’d never felt it before, she didn’t know what it felt like. A distraction from people dying and hating her? Surely. Something more?

Tokala’s breath hit Nikki’s face. Nikki held hers, hoping she didn’t stink.

“You’re acting so jumpy,” Tokala said. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

“Uh, not nothing. We’ve been walking around forever and you don’t seem to know what you’re doing.”

A string in Nikki’s heart got plucked. “Well, I’m a bit stressed right now. I can’t find Kevin or your friend, I want to find my parents—”

“And do what?”

“Huh?”

“After you find them, what’re you planning on doing next?”

“I don’t know. Talk with them? It’s been a minute since I had a meeting with them.”

“And what is it that you want to know?”

Nikki gave her a look she might’ve seen through her clouded vision. “Why’re you asking me? I’m still struggling to figure out what I want.”

“I know. That’s why I’m trying to hone you in on what you want. You’re getting all scatterbrained on me and it’s freaking me out. I know I don’t know you, but I’m guessing you work better when you’re clear-headed.”

“That’s the thing. I don’t know what I’m getting into anymore. I found out that there’re all these soulmates and Deities I didn’t know about. Kev’s involved with the most dangerous one but only wants to hang around your friend. My parents and aunts are getting drunk. Vanna’s off with his girl, not even talking to me anymore. I’m lost,” she declared, and turned away to think harder, clearer. She’d have to go to her parents first, yeah? Or Morgan, at least. See what else they know to help her. Maybe she can dive more into those secret files and uncover more about what history knows about Shào and…

Her feet lifted off the ground. Two large hands cupped underneath her armpits and, like a child, lifted her up. Before she wiggled free, Tokala pinned her up against the wall and pressed her large chest into hers.

Her feet dangled, helpless. Her tail twitched an inch from the floor. Tokala’s cold body warmed her up as they stared into each other’s eyes. From this angle, Nikki could see the wetness on her lips. They could’ve kissed, they were so close.

Her brain emptied to the floor like spilled marbles, the last of her coherent thoughts tumbling away. She hadn’t pegged Tokala as someone physically strong, just mentally, but her arms, they had no waver. Her gaze was intense.

“Focus,” Tokala said, and Nikki snapped back to her eyes. God, they were pink, too. Clear and pink and as beautiful as a morning sunrise. They weren’t focused and one eye drifted, but it only added to her beauty.

“What is the one thing you want to know right now?” Tokala asked her.

Was that a trick question? What did Nikki want to know now? Where to start: Why was Tokala teasing her? Why did Nikki feel so weird when she was around her? Did it have something to do from Lí’s timeline, or was she putting false hope into someone who only looked like Tai? If she was her past self’s lover, what was Nikki doing wrong? She felt like she was fumbling her heart before a girl who had hers all put together. Did they get married now, or did they have to wait?

Tokala cocked a brow. “Hello?”

Nikki blinked. “Hi.”

The bad-cop persona slipped, and Tokala smiled. “Fuck, you’re cute. How can I stay stern with you?”

Nikki’s tail wagged like a dog’s.

“Okay, how about this: What information are you missing? This whole Deity thing, you’re confused about it. Who seems to know more about this than anyone else? Who was the first person who got involved?”

Her? Kevin? Marcos was new to this, so she guessed…

“Zantl.”

“They were the first,” Tokala agreed. “They’ve been showing these signs of Deity junk since they were a baby. Now we gotta name to it, and they’re cooped up somewhere down here.”

“I’ll…find Zantl, then,” Nikki decided. “I’ll ask them about what they know.”

“That’s a good girl.” Finally, she set Nikki down. “Above, that took a while. You’re so cute when you’re boggled.”

Nikki’s mouth wouldn’t work, so with a goal in mind, she took Tokala’s hand and started their hunt for Zantl.

She tried wiping her free hand of sweat on her sweatpants. She didn’t know whether this nervousness was a result of yesterday, the last few months, or Tokala herself, but this wasn’t her.

But as much as this wasn’t her, this whole year had been a whirlwind that’d swept her off her feet without direction. She’d been in freefall for days. With Vanna’s and her family’s distance and the loss of her two older siblings, she’d taken to figuring everything out herself.

So, in a way, it was nice that Tokala had come to stabilize her brain. She’d shaken it up, sure, fried it thoroughly from her brazen touches and declarations of attraction, but now she had a goal, and she hadn’t had one of those in many moons.

She just wished she knew how to thank her without using her words. She didn’t want a timid squeak to pop out and regret ever getting to know her. 

She tried clearing her throat naturally. It sounded like she was coughing up a hairball. “Thanks for helping me think straight.”

“Course. I hate seeing people freak out. I felt like I had no choice but to help you. Plus, I do really think you’re cute.”

Nikki crumbled. “Stop…”

She stopped herself. Did she want it to stop? She wanted to stop herself from stopping herself, but her brain was protecting her from embarrassment.

Tokala fell back. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No, I’m just…embarrassed. You can’t even see me.”

“Just because I’m legally blind doesn’t mean I’m sightless. I have a blurry idea of what you look like. Black hair, dark skin, small face, big eyes. You’re a rat.”

That wasn’t making her feel any better about this. “We just met.”

“How do you go about flirting with people you just met? From the sidelines? They won’t know you like them until you tell them, and I don’t like pussyfooting around. I know what I like, and I like you.”

Like me.” She said it like a joke because it was one. She wondered, for a second, if Tokala was teasing her just to humiliate her fragile heart.

“Do you like me?” Tokala asked.

Thinking about that too long would’ve given her the wrong answer, but Nikki didn’t want to finalize something she was still working out in her head. “I like being around you, I guess. I like the way you speak to me. But I’m not as forward as you are. I like being in the shadows. I appreciate the gestures, I do. I’m just…”

“Uncomfortable,” Tokala filled in.

“Wobbly,” Nikki rephrased. “But, to answer your question, kinda.”

Tokala smirked. “I asked you multiple questions.”

“And the answer is…kinda.” 

Despite the vagueness, Tokala grinned devilishly and brushed arms with her. “That works for me. You’re really easy to talk to, too, you know. I don’t talk to just anybody. I’m very picky with my people, and you’re one of the good ones.”

“I don’t try to do anything special. That’s why I think you’re better off pitching for another girl.”

“You’re special enough for me.”

Overwhelmed with the idea of being known, Nikki barreled ahead to keep from looking at her. She said she could only see things close up. Hopefully, she couldn’t see Nikki’s uncontainable smile reaching from ear to ear. You’re special enough for me.

They tried the more obvious hiding places first: the cafeteria, the bedroom halls, the bathrooms, the lounges. When those didn’t yield any results, they took two hunting for the lost leader in tighter corners. You would’ve thought that the next leader of the world would’ve been easier to find, but they were elusive. No sightings, no rumors apart from ones that lead to dead ends. With her options dwindling, Nikki beelined for her aunt’s office to see if she had any better leads.

She walked in on a laboratory setup. Around Morgan were lab trays and medical equipment alongside machines and wire cutters. She had Marcos sitting on her desk as she worked her pudgy fingers into an open compartment in the back of his brain. She studied his inner workings carefully. Alexi watched patiently from Marcos’ arms. She nibbled on his fingers as she babbled in broken baby talk.

Nikki barred Tokala from entering, unsure of what she was stepping into. “Uh, what’s going on?”

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Morgan said. “Not toppling over towers with your mind powers, yeah? Close the door, please. Don’t need any more of those annoying guards poking their noses in.”

Marcos jerked suddenly. “Ow!”

Morgan retracted her screwdriver with a grimace. “Can you please stop squirming?”

“Can you please watch what you’re doing?” he asked back. “I have serious concerns about you snipping a wire that you won’t be able to solder back together.”

“This would all be so much easier if you didn’t insist on holding that baby 24/7. I’m afraid she’s going to eat a screw. My Drill is set to be finished any day now. I should be working on it as we speak.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, was I supposed to feel secure leaving her unattended around power drills? I’ll pass. She’s not leaving my side.”

“I did offer to hold her,” Del said from across the room. She was toiling with a machine Morgan was connecting to Marcos’ skull.

“Absolutely not.”

“Uh, again, what’s going on here?” Nikki asked.

Morgan went back to work inside Marcos’ head. “I’m trying to find the chip the Líders implanted in him that gave them the ability to control his line of thinking. I wanna see what tech they used to make  it.”

“You’re extracting the chip so I don’t have it in my brain anymore,” Marcos corrected. “That’s what I asked you to do.”

“Yes, yes, one in the same. Now stop moving.”

Marcos grumbled but tried following instructions.

Nikki tried not looking inside his head’s compartment. It felt like she’d walked in on him undressing. This whole vibe was off and she wanted out. “I won’t take up much of your time, then. Marcos, do you know where Zantl is?”

“They were in the air-purifying station last time I saw them, though they might’ve run off by now. They’ve been trying to find a way out of this place since arriving.”

“I’m not letting them leave,” Morgan said as she worked. “Until I get all of this sorted, Zantl is not stepping foot outside this place. I still need to speak to them, once my guards nab them.”

“I’ll help you look for them,” Marcos offered, then grimaced—Morgan had hit another nerve, or whatever he had in his brain. “Once this is taken care of.”

Nikki left them be and went to find the air-purifying station herself. She remembered walking by it on her ventures. Upper right-hand corner of the map, next to the water filtration and backup generator room. Whoever had made this bunker made it abundantly clear that its inhabitants could live down here for years, perhaps generations, if maintenance had been upkept.

Guards were stationed around the filtration room door, but they weren’t protecting it so much as they were lounging near it. Legs sprawled out, a couple playing cards on the floor. They seemed without purpose now that the job titles had been burnt. Nikki walked Tokala around them and opened the suspicious door.

“No!”

The noise came from down the hall. A few guards lifted their tired heads, but most kept to themselves, uncaring.

“That was Zantl’s voice,” Tokala said.

Three guards were down the hall, talking down to someone half their height. Despite their size, Zantl held themselves up like a true Líder. Or a teenager used to getting things done their way.

“Stop ignoring me!” they shouted. “I need to leave!”

“It’s not safe,” a guard said. “You can’t return to the Asilo.”

“Who’d want to return to that sty? I want to get out of here! It smells like fish.”

“Morgan said—”

Zantl stomped their boots. “Let me out! I’ll blow this place apart, I swear I will!”

Tokala leaned in. She and Nikki were around the corner like undercover spies. “They’re lying,” she whispered. “I’ve seen what they can do. If they could leave, they would’ve done it by now.”

“They can’t get a hold of Unathi,” Nikki said, and remembered the last time she’d talked to Shào. Were all the Deities too far away to assist them? Were they being ignored?

Temporarily free of divine intervention, Nikki left the shadows. The guards still suffering from yesterday backed up. One ran away, too afraid to be near her.

When Zantl saw her, their ears flattened. They scanned the hall for a new escape route.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Nikki said.  “I just want to talk.”

“Like I’ll ever talk to you. I heard what you said to your parents. You let out all our baggage like it’s nothing.”

Our baggage? I don’t know what baggage we share.”

“Can you not keep her in the dark about this stuff?” Tokala asked. “What good is it to keep her out?”

Zantl’s upper lip curled in a growl. “Don’t talk to your Líder like that.”

Tokala snorted. She towered over the kid, yet their confidence was equally matched. Zantl took a step towards her, a fight bristling.

Someone behind them stumbled on their feet. Nikki didn’t want to break the gaze she had on the skittish wolf, but when Zantl got the look of death in their eyes, she caved.

Kevin was standing at the hallway corner, holding Viper’s hand. Viper, too afraid to look them in the eyes, hid behind Kevin‘s wing.

“I heard you from down the hall,” he said. “We were going to the showers. Is everything alright?”

Zantl went to move, but Tokala, trained with excellent hearing, blocked them from escaping.

Nikki counted each head. Too many chefs in the kitchen. They’d get nowhere like this. “Tokala, can you take Viper to the showers? Or Viper, you take her. Whichever’s easiest.” She grabbed Zantl’s sleeve. “Kev and I need to have a word with the new Líder.”

;;

Something about Kevin’s presence earned them some of Zantl’s cooperation. With just a simple ask, they followed Nikki and Kevin to the loft where Nikki had properly met Tokala. Zantl even sat down on the couch, tail tucked and arms folded.

Kevin sat next to Nikki, and the two awkwardly waited for the other to speak. Zantl clicked their tongue in wait.

“We don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it already is,” Nikki said. “We just want to know more about these circumstances with the Deities.”

“I’m not their messenger,” Zantl said.

Nikki gave Kevin a look saying, “How aren’t we their messengers?”

Giving the look back, Kevin asked Zantl, “First off, how’re you feeling? I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

They shrugged, indifferent to losing their home and parents in the same season.

“Do you feel uncomfortable talking to us?”

They fake-laughed. “Oh, yeah. The soulmates to Shào and Maïmoú corner me and ask if I’m comfortable. Don’t act coy. You know what your Deities can do. One whimper will bring them out of hiding and murder everyone in a five-mile radius. You’re ticking time bombs.”

“But Shào hasn’t spoken to me in almost a day,” Nikki said.

“And I haven’t seen Maïmoú since the Asilo collapsed.”

“Even worse.”

Nikki backtracked. “Which Deity are you connected to again?”

Zant slunk deeper into the couch. For a second, she thought they were going to give them the silent treatment for the rest of this conversation. Then, they mumbled, “Unathi.”

“That’s the life and death one, I think, the one in charge of the cycle,” Kevin said. “That’s what Maïmoú told me, anyway.”

“And how many are there again?” Nikki asked. “Sorry, Shào never told me any of this, and Lí’s memories are blurry.”

Kevin listed them. “Shào, Maïmoú, Unathi,” he said, motioning to Zantl, “then Tsvetan, he controls the earth—Sabah—I think she controls water, and then…” He subconsciously picked at his fingers. Nikki took his hand to help him stop.

“You’re making this more difficult than it actually is,” Zantl grumbled. “Ataleah and Fate, animal and destiny. Those’re the two you’re missing. But you don’t have to remember their names. They’ve been dormant for billions of years. Something about being too weak to stay visible, I don’t know. Unathi doesn’t talk about them, and I don’t pry into people’s business like other soulmates tend to do.”

“Does Unathi talk about these things often with you?” Kevin asked.

“They’ve told me everything.”

“I don’t know about any of this,” Nikki said. “So there’re one, two, three…seven Deities in control of the world?”

“I guess,” Zantl said.

“What do you mean you guess? Either you know or you don’t. Can you please stop playing with us?”

“We just want to get to know you better,” Kevin said. “We understand what you’re going through. It’s like we’re part of a secret club together.”

“Oh, God.” Zantl looked at a light fixture. “Unathi, please come out. I don’t want to be the one to talk to them about this. It’s weird.”

Nikki eyed where Zantl was looking. Nothing flickered. Nothing happened.

Zantl sighed and unfolded themselves, kicking out their boots and huffing. “Fuck me.”

“No one home?” Kevin asked.

“Piss off. You can pretend all you want that you’re some goody two shoes with a heart of gold, but Deities influence us, and I know everything about Maïmoú. I’m impartial like Unathi. You’re going around helping people when you only fuck things up more for us, that’s Maïmoú in a nutshell. And this rat, feeling inclined to put her nose into everyone’s business yet offering nothing in terms of actual help. Shào to a Fucking T.”

“Excuse me, I’m right here,” Nikki said.

“I know. And I know both of you can be confrontational, childish, and evil if you’re pushed to the edge, so I don’t wanna be anywhere near you two.”

Kevin went to disagree, then closed his mouth in a tough line. “I saw you with your Deity once,” he said. “Can you tell us a little bit about them? I noticed you use they/them pronouns for them, same as you. What a lovely coincidence.”

Zantl disregarded the similarity that probably meant more to them than they led on. “What’s there to say? They keep the cycle going, like a placeholder to make sure nothing lives forever or nothing dies off unexpectedly. Not even they are immortal. One asteroid can kill them all.”

“When did you meet them?”

“When I was a baby. They found me almost immediately, same with how Maïmoú found you and Derek. The orphanage I was at knew about Unathi’s powers around me and brought it to the Líders’ attention. Idiots thought I was a Deity and took me without question. They have this rudimentary understanding of what Deities actually are based on what they found in their fallout shelters. Had,” they corrected, frowning slightly. “I tried keeping them in the dark, as everyone ought to be, but they kept digging, finding all the secret documents about the past.”

“Why do the fallout shelters have so much info on the Deities?” Nikki asked.

“It was secret info buried deep enough to survive the tests of time. Why do you think these fallout shelters were built in the first place?”

Nikki recalled the way Shào and Maïmoú had fought in Lí’s dream, how many buildings they toppled without care. “Because of them?”

“Duh. They’re licking their wounds now, but if they find a way out of their cages, we’re fucked.”

“Is that why your parents kept me in the Asilo?” Kevin asked. “Because they knew I was a soulmate?”

“God, you’re all so slow. Right when you said Maïmoú’s name, they knew. They wanted to experiment on you rather than execute you, find out how you and I were alike. I told them not to. I told them to keep away from you, your sister, everyone.”

“So you knew?” Nikki asked.

“Not until the First figured it out.”

“The First?”

Zantl sighed again. “The first Deities? Everyone other than Shào and Maïmoú? Sabah, Tsvetan, Unathi, and Ataleah and Fate. They were the adults that took care of the world first. For billions of years, it was just them. But then Ataleah died and Fate disappeared, and then beingkind were born.”

“Being—?”

“Us. Crossbreeds. And humans.”

Nikki’s tail went stiff.

Zantl caught it. “You should know about them from your memories. You should, too,” they said to Kevin. “Both of you were humans in your past lives.”

“Did you have a past life?” Kevin asked.

“Uh, most people have several.”

“Were you a human?”

Zantl sank back. “No.”

“Who were you?”

“Someone named Salem. Worked for the government on some special operation with the Moon.”

“Your past life worked with the Moon?” Nikki asked incredulously.

“I don’t know. I don’t know much about them. Unathi said it’s dangerous to tap into your past lives. They said it makes you go crazy, so I keep away.”

Nikki scratched her belly.

“What happened to the world after Shào and Maïmoú were introduced as Gods?” Kevin asked.

“They fucked it. The brats couldn’t handle the responsibilities. They fought each other constantly. They could never resolve any of their problems with each other. Their Domains grew out of hand, and their weak minds couldn’t catch up.”

“Maïmoú said that she and Shào were friends once,” Kevin said.

“Maybe for, like, a few centuries, but Maïmoú was a bastard and Shào was an asshole. Can you see them having a happy ending?”

“How do you know for sure?”

“Uh, because Unathi told me? They watched them grow up from the sidelines. Sabah and Tsvetan babied them more. Well, Tsvetan did, but he babies everyone, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Nikki said sarcastically.

“Okay,” Kevin said, “but Maïmoú said that the Other Deities didn’t treat either of them very nicely. She said they were like a broken family.”

“Well, if you lived with monsters as children, how would you handle them? You hit kids if they don’t behave.”

“No, you don’t,” Nikki said.

“For Gods, you do. Unathi and their friends did what they could, but Shào and Maïmoú were beasts cut from a different cloth.”

Kevin readjusted his broken wing over the couch. “So what happened to break the world? Maïmoú said she was trapped here.”

“And Shào’s trapped someplace else,” Nikki added. “The world used to look completely different in Lí’s memories.”

“Shào and Maïmoú fought so hard that they almost extincted their Domains. To stop it, the First separated them from their Domains. Maïmoú and crossbreeds in Raeleen, Shào and humans on the other side of the world.”

“Across the world?” Kevin asked.

“So, what, they were put in timeout?” Nikki asked.

“Act like kids, get treated like kids. The First had planned for us to grow without their incessant fighting killing us off, but then their soulmates got born and they got awakened like farmers to a chicken’s call. Maïmoú’s now close to breaking the Barrier keeping all of us in. The First are trying to keep her subdued, but even at her weakest, she’s still insanely overpowered.”

“Maïmoú said the Muralha is breaking by itself,” Kevin said. “She’s been awake trying to keep it up.”

“It wouldn’t be falling if she hadn’t tried breaking it.”

“Well, she wants to get back to her humans.”

“The ones she nearly killed. The First know what they’re doing. They—most of them—survived loads of mass extinctions.”

Kevin fiddled with his scarred fingertips. “What’s your relationship with Unathi?” he asked suddenly. “You seem to be rather close.”

Zantl smirked, then held up their left hand. On their third finger was a beautiful ring made of onyx.

Nikki counted which finger they wore it on, then gasped.

“We’re lovers,” Zantl said, “matched forever under the stars, destined to be together forever.”

“Oh,” Kevin said. “I…didn’t expect that.”

“Of course you wouldn’t have. Your love for Maïmoú is familial, and Lí never loved Shào correctly.”

Nikki’s stomach twisted. “Shào was a child, and Lí was already with someone.”

“Whatever. It was still selfish to do that to a God. Unathi met me when I was just a baby, but I knew we were always meant to be together like this.”

Both Nikki and Kevin cast skeptical glances at each other.

“You were with them as a child?” Nikki clarified.

“Ew. Not like that. We waited until I was an adult to…do stuff.” An embarrassed blush crossed their cheeks. “They would never hurt me on purpose. They aren’t weird like that.”

But the whole thing felt too weird for Nikki to write off. If she had her political facts straight, Zantl had only turned eighteen that year. If Unathi had been with them since they were a baby, feeding them these biases and waiting for them to turn of age…

“Above,” Kevin said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Uh, for what? That I have an insanely hot and powerful Deity in my head? That I have the sanest God on my side?”

Someone creaked the ladder steps, and a tuft of blond hair came up.

Marcos climbed up the rest of the ladder to meet with them. He repositioned baby Alexi in his hands, making sure her fin didn’t clip his shirt. “That you were groomed,” he concluded. “You were groomed by a God.”

Zantl moved away from Marcos, then from Nikki and Kevin when they caught them staring. They sunk deeper down. “What is this, some kind of intervention? Don’t act like you suddenly get all this. You don’t get their world like I do.”

“You shouldn’t have gone through that with Unathi,” Kevin told them. “All that pressure on your shoulders must’ve been tremendous to carry alone.”

“If I’d known, I could’ve helped,” Marcos said. “I was always right outside your door, and you never told me about this.”

“I didn’t need help with anything. Unathi said it’s not wise to interfere. Bringing people in—”

“We’ve just learned about this, and it’s been hard to grasp,” Kevin said.

Nikki realized what both boys were trying to do and added fuel to this stoking fire. “It’s terrifying to be alone in this. I wish we could’ve helped you.”

“We could’ve been there for you.”

“Stop it.” Zantl held their head. “The First aren’t the bad ones here. Unathi isn’t a bad person.”

“I get where you’re coming from,” Kevin continued. “I’ve had this warped idea of Maïmoú from the start. I still want to defend her and love her. I couldn’t help it. I understand the threads that bond you to your God.”

“But what they did to you was wrong,” Nikki said.

“And you’re allowed to feel that way.”

“They’re the adult in this scenario,” Marcos told them. “They should’ve known better.”

“I am, too!” Zantl got up. “Unathi warned me about this. They said to never get close to other soulmates, that you’ll just infect me with lies spun by Shào and Maïmoú to get what you want.”

“What about me?” Marcos said. “My Deity is Sabah, Unathi’s friend. What motives do I have in telling you that an adult sleeping with a child is wrong?”

“It’s not!” Zantl tripped moving away from the couch, from them. “Unathi loves me. They’ve never done anything to hurt me. They were there for me, they taught me everything I know.”

“And I didn’t?” Marcos asked. “I always tried to be there for you, but you shut me out. You shut your parents out.”

“They weren’t my parents! Unathi—” They faltered. “Unathi is my everything. They’re my whole world, they wouldn’t…” They caught their reflection in the metal plating of a fan unit. Unable to look at themselves, they tore themselves away. They shoved Marcos aside, took to the ladder, and fled from the truth.

“Hey!” Nikki chased after them. She couldn’t leave them alone like this. That way of thinking, the way they’d been bottle-fed one side of the story by their Deity, it wasn’t right. They needed the whole story.

Nikki ran hard not to lose Zantl. They pushed aside anyone who was in their way, stepping on toes and knocking over kids younger than them. Nikki zigzagged around them.

“Quit following me!” Zantl yelled.

“We just want to help!” Nikki said, hearing Marcos and Kevin keeping up behind her.

“You don’t get Divine love like I do,” Zantl said. “I couldn’t help it. Their love is too good not to reciprocate.”

“You shouldn’t have been forced to believe that,” Nikki said. “You should’ve been allowed to think for yourself. You were just a kid.”

Zantl covered their ears and slipped down a new hall. But they wouldn’t have been able to run forever. Soon, they’d have to face their reflection, the realization that something they’d been taught since birth wasn’t right.

Sound in the fallout shelter travelled. Between their back and forth, Nikki heard metal clangs, running generators, hammers, radio static. The additional anarchists and waterborne also built on the thrumming. It was never quiet down here.

All of it, the voices, people, and generators, disappeared, drowned out by a loud, dying scream that reverberated in Nikki’s brain.

Then she was thrown off her feet.

An explosion detonated somewhere behind her. The whole of the hall shook. People dropped to their knees, covering their face. The walls didn’t shake, they vibrated.

Nikki picked herself up, ears ringing and throwing her off-balance. Smoke was filling the hall from the west, where the Drill was, where her family usually worked.

She went for Kevin, but he was already up. He was mumbling something under his breath as he looked for Marcos, then their parents. Nikki, not wasting time, ran for the Drill “Mom!” she shouted. “Dad!”

People were scrambling, yelling out questions and fleeing the scene. Their mother and father had fallen while Del was holding back Morgan. She was crying out painfully for the Drill before her.

It was on fire, flames reaching the roof and spreading. Every piece of glass on it had been shattered. The tires had been slashed. Vanna worked between watching his mother weep and trying to break the glass to the emergency fire extinguisher.

With her blond hair twirling through the smoke, her hands stained black, was Maïmoú. She floated above it all. Specks of red flames danced across her dress like morbid confetti.

Nikki fell back into Marcos, who was also looking up at the young girl. His arms tightened around Alexi’s small body. Morgan pried herself out of Del’s arms only to fall into a workbench. All of her hard work, years of hard work she’d made to try to give them a better life…

“Maïmoú!” Kevin called out. “What’re you doing?”

She looked behind her. Her eyes were bleeding black. The darkness leaving her mouth muffled her words.

Kevin went for her, but Nikki kicked out his knees and pinned herself on top of him. Protecting him with her own body, she glared up at the Deity she feared.

Maïmoú wiped her lips. “I can’t…let you leave…this way.” Her voice was so hoarse. It was like a corpse trying to speak. “I don’t have time…for this.”

“What?”

“There’s no more…time to…”

Her broken, inaudible voice tried defending herself and her actions. To fix it, she punched herself in the stomach. It didn’t work. She tried scratching at her throat, which also failed. In a final attempt to communicate, she puked up five liters of blackness before disappearing wholly, leaving them in a world of flames.

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