“Everyone, out!” Nikki yelled. “Now!”
Nobody needed to hear it from her. The amount of smoke and fire filling the fallout shelter was enough to get people trampling. Once the smoke hit whatever sensor was built into this place, red lights started flashing. People who hadn’t run from the initial explosion were booking it now, preserving their livelihood in a place that should’ve protected them. The sprinkler system had come on, but it hadn’t been worked on in generations. The water stained the floor like ink from Maïmoú’s mouth.
Nikki, heart still racing from seeing Maïmoú so close to her family, began counting heads. Nobody had been taken. Nobody had died.
Vanna came over with a fire extinguisher. He fumbled with the hose and tank. His eyes were drenched in tears and sweat and something else Nikki didn’t know. His bony hands couldn’t stop shaking against the pin.
“Here.” Nikki offered to help.
“Let me,” said a voice. Marcos had come up with Zantl, who was watching the smoke fill up the space in dread. “I know how to use an extinguisher. Nicole, hold Alexi.”
“Uh, what?” she asked, but Marcos was already giving the baby to her. It smelled so weird. It weighed so much. She held it at arm’s length, unsure of what to do with it, as Marcos worked the extinguisher over the flames.
“Fuck this.” Zantl backed themselves out. “If Unathi isn’t coming, I’m leaving. I’m not dying in one of these places. Marcos, come.”
Marcos did not. After using up the fire extinguisher and not making a dent in the flames, he firmly planted himself between Nikki and Kevin, choosing his side without words.
Zantl’s ear flicked. “Marcos, I said come.”
“I’m staying with the people who value me. If you see me as nothing more than a tool to help you, I find that my efforts will better be served in cooperative groups.”
Zantl flinched back as if Marcos had hit them. “What?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m staying with them,” Marcos said. “If you want to leave, go. You are no longer forced to be around me.”
“What the fuck does that mean? Are you seriously angry at me? Did you not hear me back then? I said I didn’t want to involve you in this. Did you ever think that I never told you about my life because I was trying to protect you? Sabah wanted nothing to do with you specifically because she didn’t want to involve you in this life.”
They sniffled back emotion Nikki had yet to see in them. “I was trying to protect you,” they repeated, and ran off to find their own way.
Marcos watched them go, letting their master’s words repeat over and over again in his mind.
But they didn’t have time to reminisce over lost connections. “We need to evacuate,” Nikki said. The flames were doubling, tripling. “It’s gone on for too long. We need to leave.”
“By my moms—”
“We can handle it.” Del came over, struggling to pry Morgan’s attention away from the burning Drill. “You kids need to get out now.”
“But we can help,” Nikki pressed.
Their mother came over, covering her face with her wings. Their father was tying a bandana around his mouth to keep from suffocating.
“You need to get out of this,” their mother said.
“We should’ve never involved you kids in this,” Del continued. “It was too dangerous. I’m sorry for never telling you that. We’re sorry.”
Both their mother and father bowed their heads in shame.
Kevin walked up beside Nikki and Vanna, holding back his broken wings from embers. “I’m sorry, too. I should’ve told you everything about what happened at the Muralha.”
“Kev, you were traumatized, and you’re just a kid.”
Kevin frowned. “I’m twenty.”
Their mother kissed both him and Nikki on their foreheads before giving them a gentle shove on their chests. “Out, now.”
“Are you sure you’re good?” Nikki asked them but mostly Morgan. She’d never seen her aunt so destroyed. Years of work only to be blown up in her face by an invisible being.
Morgan bit her trembling lower lip. “I’ve lost one child tonight, I’m not losing another. Vanna, go. We’ll deal with this.”
Vanna gave each other his mothers a hug before running Nikki and their group towards the escape exit.
The main exit was packed. Hundreds of bodies trying to fit up a metal ladder. Nikki stepped back immediately, as she didn’t want her presence to get her special privilege up the ladder. There were too many children here.
“I can make a path for you,” Marcos said.
“No path-making. Everyone deserves a way out.”
“Every life is precious. However, given our circumstances—”
Before Marcos could finish, Nikki gave him back his baby and led them elsewhere. “Vanna, can you open the doors that lead us out to the river?”
“If…if the sprinkler system hasn’t messed up the tech.”
“Good, then we’ll take that route.”
“What about Viper and Tokala?” Kevin asked.
Nikki’s brain and heart battled her on what she needed to do. She needed her family to survive. She couldn’t live with herself if her desires led to their graves. But the same applied to Tokala now. It was a different part in her brain, but her heart told her that all of them held the same amount of value to her.
Giving in, she ran down the hall that held the special bathrooms. Only a few waterborne were left abandoned in the water—elderly and those unaware that anything was going on. She pulled up her pants to help each of them out, all the while searching for that head of white curls.
“Maybe they’re already outside,” Kevin said, picking his fingers to death.
“Or maybe they’re trapped,” Vanna said. “Maybe Pippa got out, but not the blind girl.”
“Vanna, hush.” Nikki helped the last of the waterborne out of the shallow end and led them towards the door. “We’ll keep looking.”
“We really need to leave,” Marcos reminded them. “I don’t need to breathe and can withstand temperatures up to 125 degrees, but you—”
“Then lead the way,” Nikki said. It was getting harder to see through the smoke. “Hurry.”
Slowing down to make sure he didn’t outrun them, Marcos led the way to that circular door. He helped even more when they found the door cemented shut. With the strength of four, he easily pushed the door open while holding baby Alexi.
They, excluding Marcos, gasped for fresh air only to intake more smoke. The Asilo a few streets down was still on fire. Heavy soot had colored the stormy sky even darker. A distant siren blared out a nameless emergency, the pitch haunting.
People both in and out of Morgan’s coup were out on the streets. Some were wandering, pointing up to the sky and cowering. Others were looting, using their masks to hide their identities. Without leadership, the world was left to chaos and self-governing. The city would be charred in days.
The waterborne who’d made it out of the fallout shelter hid in the empty canals, touching the stained walls and wondering where the water had gone. All of them were coughing, choking on what they lacked.
“What’s going on?” Nikki asked, trying to see what everyone else saw. Adults were pointing towards the north, but nothing was up there other than the Muralha.
Kevin scanned through the crowds. “Viper?” he called out. “Viper?”
People cried out over him. Crying mothers for their children, friends searching for other friends. The guards were arguing with one another and taking to their earpieces only to find out that their Líders had abandoned them in their moment of need.
“I need to find Viper,” Kevin said. “She couldn’t have gone far, not with Tokala. She probably went up the ladder and is now in the coffeehouse.”
“We should stick together,” Nikki said. “I’m not losing you again.”
“You’re not going to lose me, but I’m not losing her. I…I think I love her.”
Marcos gave him a weird look. “That’s a strong word for someone you just met.”
“Love can happen instantly,” Vanna reminded him. “You wouldn’t know it if it fell into your lap.”
“Enough,” Nikki said. “Kev, up this embankment. Marcos, help him. We’ll help find everyone’s lover before this’s over.”
Vanna, even though they were in this type of situation, smirked. “Everyone’s?” he asked.
“Oh, shove it,” she said, and smacked his butt to get him up the ladder quicker. “Kev, come on.”
Kevin stared down at the yellow grass, jaw slack, body rigid. He blinked slowly as his eyes unfocused on a ladybug sitting on a wilted flower.
His name was drowned out by a buzzing in Nikki’s ears. She tried popping her ears to make it go away, but it grew louder. Her hair stood on end. She couldn’t think.
She looked up, as did Kevin, as did Marcos and the child. The little one cried at something she did not understand.
Nikki snapped to attention. “Shào?”
Vanna looked behind him. “What’s going on down there?”
“I don’t know, but we need to—”
Nikki’s hand, which had just touched the ground to climb up the hill, slipped forwards, and she slammed her shoulder into the ground. Her vision doubled. Her brain split in two. A rumbling shook her core and she did her best to keep from throwing up. It threw Kevin and Vanna to their hands and knees, it freaked out the baby in Marcos’ arms. Marcos watched, staying upright but developing a twitch in his head like he, too, was malfunctioning.
“Shào,” Nikki said back. He was far away in her mind, but she still heard him.
“What is Maïmoú doing there?”
She turned to Kevin. “Kev, what’s happening?”
“I…don’t know,” he struggled to say. “She’s speaking to me, but it’s too distorted. It sounds like she’s dying.”
The sky cracked with newborn thunder. Bright, staticky electricity zapped through the sky and travelled horizontally across the swirling clouds. It crossed each other, creating X marks and slashing through the smoke to reveal pockets of darkened sky.
Nikki slammed her head on the embankment and kept climbing. “Come on,” she urged, either herself, her friends, the Deities above, or everyone on Earth. “Keep it together.”
They halfway jogged, halfway struggled down the streets back towards Morgan’s coffeehouse. Nikki’s eyes kept catching on every person they passed. The public was suffering the same internal pain they were. Those with stronger fortitudes had only doubled over as they staved off inner pain. The rest had collapsed, giving in to powers they didn’t understand.
Outside the coffeehouse were crowds of revolutionists looking for guidance between the pangs. Waterborne were on the ground, rocking and shaking in fear. She saw fish and sharks and snakes, but no spiky tail, no beautiful, pink, optimistic eyes telling her everything would be alright.
Nikki covered her mouth with her hoodie as she watched the sky turn black. What a terrible first impression of the world: a dark, humid city on fire.
Both Nikki and Kevin turned, Kevin’s wings unfurling, Nikki’s hurting heart racing. Running up to them, hands out for balance and safety, was Tokala. She had a bruise on her cheek as people carelessly pushed against her to find their own footings on land.
Nikki ran to her and cupped her cheek. “Hey.”
“You’re alright,” Kevin said.
“Of, thank fuck,” Tokala wheezed. “Where the fuck am I? Something’s up with my body and I lost Viper in the crowds. I was pushed up a ladder and then someone took my hand and led me out here. Why does the air taste so weird here? Where am I?”
“You’re outside, out in the open. The sky’s on fire and it’s about to rain. We need to get you out of here. Can we bring her upstairs to your room, Vanna?”
“I need to find Viper,” Kevin said, and called out her name. When nobody answered, he flapped his wings to see up ahead. His broken wing twisted and he let out a yelp.
“Careful,” Nikki said, but she was drowned out by another boom of thunder. It sounded like the storm was getting closer over the Muralha.
“Are we fucked?” Tokala asked. “Like, actually, are we fucked? Is the world ending?”
“The world’s not ending, and we’re not…We’re going to make it.”
“I’m calculating a very low probability of that occurring,” Marcos said.
“Marcos, not helping.”
“Calculate a brighter future,” Vanna said. “One where the world doesn’t catch fire.”
Marcos looked up to the sky as if actually calculating such improbable odds. Nikki wondered if his programming could predict scenarios like that, and if he was optimistic enough to follow through with the code.
A force larger than anything in the world cracked, thundering down every street. It knocked Nikki into Tokala, Tokala off her feet. An animalistic howl physically pushed the clouds back, revealing clear sky, and a clear view of the Muralha.
Large, angular chunks of the Muralha were gone, letting in tiny streams of yellow light through the cracks like crooked window blinds. She counted ten, twenty, a dozen more cracks to the north. She watched Muralha pieces the size of houses come crumbling down the wall and booming into the forests below.
“Above, Vanna cursed.
“What?” Tokala asked. “What’s going on?”
“Do you want those odds now?” Marcos asked, and Nikki almost strangled him if he was able to breathe.
Someone knocked into Nikki, pushing her into Tokala’s chest again. They grabbed her shoulders and shook them.
Zantl shook her violently. “What the fuck are your Deities doing? Tell them to stop! They’re ruining the world and they’re gonna kill us all!”
“You’re back,” Nikki said.
Zantl stomped hard on Nikki’s foot. If she hadn’t been wearing steel-toe sneakers, it would’ve hurt. “Shut up! What’s Shào and Maïmoú planning? Ask them if they’re idiots, because if they think breaking Barriers is going to help anyone, they might as well start marking our graves early!”
“Are they the ones doing this?”
“Of course! Who else has the ability to do this?”
“I don’t want to die,” Vanna blubbered, and Nikki went to tell him that nobody was going to die with her around. She had a duty to be there for people, that was her purpose in life. In every life she’d become reincarnated in, that’s what drove her soul into taking action, into living.
She surveyed what was before her. Marcos was staring intently at Zantl like he had a book on their face. Kevin, muttering to a God under his breath and Vanna rubbing down his wrists, Tokala, sniffing the air for a sign of normalcy…
And another. Someone so out of place had broken into their small group.
“Excuse me, rat, are you listening to me?” Zantl asked, unaware of the person standing behind them.
Nikki strained her neck to take them in. They were a tall, breedless, genderless being with long, dark hair like Zantl but shaved on one side, standing, towering behind them. Their natural beauty and fashion sense actually caught Nikki off-guard, changing the composition in her heart. It was like seeing a model poised for the runway, complete with all their jewelry and makeup on.
Then the person looked at her with their bright yellow eyes, and the organs in Nikki’s stomach dropped. Slight apprehension with this one. The energy was off, unsettling.
Noticing Nikki’s reaction, Zantl turned to meet their God.
And took a step back. This was the unmistakable Unathi, so godly and strong in purpose, the god of life and death who was in love with Zantl. Flecks of memories came back to Nikki from Lí’s time. He knew of Unathi and was trying to forget.
Zantl talked with them. “Talked,” but they only used their hands. They flipped and rolled their wrists and pointed at specific places on their body. Raeleen didn’t have a word for this way of speech, but Lí had, in his time: sign language, for those who couldn’t hear, or speak, in Unathi’s case.
Unathi took Zantl’s tiny hands in theirs. They set them down, leaned forwards, and kissed their forehead, to which Zantl partly accepted with hesitant lips parted.
They tried stepping back. “No,” they said. “No, I don’t want to.”
But you couldn’t say no to a God. Taking Zantl in their arms, Unathi kidnapped the little heir without a motioned word.
“Zantl.” Marcos touched the underneath of his ear, clicking a dead button. “Where’d you go?”
“They just…disappeared,” Vanna said too late. “Was that a Deity? Was a Deity just here?”
Marcos went for the crowds in search of his master. Confused feelings aside, they had history together, and Marcos had a kinder heart than most. He couldn’t help himself when it came to an organ he didn’t physically have.
A new person joined the scene. She was an older woman with thin braids tied up in a messy bun. She looked strong, dressed like a general of all Gods.
Marcos faltered, cradling back his child. “Sabah?”
Sabah said nothing to him. With a complicated look of disgust, she grabbed Marcos by the shoulder and shoved him into her chest. Covering his eyes, she closed hers and disappeared him away.
The child fell. Nikki, taken by surprise by these unceremonious kidnappings, dove for her too late. She wouldn’t have made it, Vanna was too far away…
Two arms wrapped around the baby girl. The man appeared from nowhere. He was another older God with a frail physique and missing leg. Some earthly, moss-like substance grew over his skin and made him look sickly, but he was spry enough to catch the little girl in time.
Tsvetan cradled the baby to his chest. She hiccuped from crying and reached his stubble for comfort. Smiling affectionately at her, Tsvetan disappeared with her in tow.
Vanna, stunned beyond words, backed up. Tokala’s hand found Nikki’s and squeezed her hard.
Nikki stood frozen in place. All three of them, gone, just like that. She’d never seen it from the other side. She couldn’t speak—her throat was closing up.
But she needed to act. The rest of them were looking to her for help.
“Okay,” she said. “We need to…we need to find shelter, yeah? We need a new game plan. Kev, is Maïmoú talking to you?”
She waited for his answer. Shào had gone radio silent, but Maïmoú might’ve had a clearer station with him.
Kevin, too, had disappeared, leaving Nikki alone once again.