Children of Odin

Once there was another Sun and another Moon; a different Sun and a different Moon from the ones we see now. Sol was the name of that Sun and Mani was the name of that Moon. But always behind Sol and Mani wolves went, a wolf behind each. The wolves caught on them at last and they devoured Sol and Mani. And then the world was in darkness and cold.

In those times the Gods lived, Odin and Thor, Hödur and Baldur, Tyr and Heimdall, Vidar and Vali, as well as Loki, the doer of good and the doer of evil. And the beautiful Goddesses were living then, Frigga, Freya, Nanna, Iduna, and Sif. But in the days when the Sun and Moon were destroyed the Gods were destroyed too—all the Gods except Baldur who had died before that time, Vidar and Vali, the sons of Odin, and Modi and Magni, the sons of Thor.

At that time, too, there were men and women in the world. But before the Sun and the Moon were devoured and before the Gods were destroyed, terrible things happened in the world. Snow fell on the four corners of the earth and kept on falling for three seasons. Winds came and blew everything away. And the people of the world who had lived on in spite of the snow and the cold and the winds fought each other, brother killing brother, until all the people were destroyed.

Also there was another earth at that time, an earth green and beautiful. But the terrible winds that blew leveled down forests and hills and dwellings. Then fire came and burnt the earth. There was darkness, for the Sun and the Moon were devoured. The Gods had met with their doom. And the time in which all these things happened was called Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods…

Note: This is just a placeholder story, as we open up submissions to get original, YA, science fiction and fantasy. Come back soon to see real Inscription Magazine stories! If you’re interested, though, you can read more of this story at Project Gutenberg.

The End

About Padraic Colum

1881-1972

The First Men in the Moon

As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows of vine-leaves under the blue sky of southern Italy, it comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident. It might have been any one. I fell into these things at a time when I thought myself removed from the slightest possibility of disturbing experiences. I had gone to Lympne because I had imagined it the most uneventful place in the world. “Here, at any rate,” said I, “I shall find peace and a chance to work!”

Note: This is just a placeholder story, as we open up submissions to get original, YA, science fiction and fantasy. Come back soon to see real Inscription Magazine stories! If you’re interested, though, you can read more of this story at Project Gutenberg.

The End

About H. G. Wells

1866-1946

Of All Possible Worlds

Note: This story is for a more mature audience than our previous stories, containing some relatively adult language and content.

Everybody called them the Coven.

With a name like that, you’d think they were goth, or emo, that they wore all black and wrote poetry. Harper was kind of a hipster, I guess. Her dark, stick-straight hair was cut asymmetrically, fade lines over one ear. But the rest of them were pretty normal. Alistair, tall and chubby and always dressed in a T-shirt and too-big jeans. Corinne and Josh, athletic and pretty and stuck together like magnets.

The four of them lived at the end of my hall in Matelson. They never left except for class and until that Thursday, no one ever saw the inside of their lounge. Most of us kept our doors open, passing from suite to suite and room to room like disembodied spirits. It wasn’t unusual to find a sexiled freshman on your extra-long twin bed late at night, but never Harper or Alistair. And though I knew that Corinne and Josh both smoked—I saw them once outside the Arts Building, sharing a single cigarette—you never found them with the rest of the smokers, huddled around the dorm’s entryway, littering the pavement with butts.

So I was kind of amazed when Harper appeared alone in my sophomore Anthropology class, first day of spring semester. Sure, the Coven had been in my comp class the year before, but they always worked together on group projects, and never spoke unless the TA called on them. But there she was, without her pack, a keffiyah knotted around her slender throat. As I moved down the aisle, I saw her lean forward over the desk, pressing her nylon-clad knees together. Her legs were thin beneath the pleats of her skirt. She didn’t notice me looking—only jotted frantic notes in purple pen. But when I threw my backpack down on the chair in front of her, I swear her charcoal-dark eyes flitted up to me. Then away again, gone.

I thought she wanted to be ignored, so I ignored her, or tried to. I spent class staring out the window at the graying dunes of snow. I tried to let my awareness of her fade away. But the compass of my attention would always swing back to her, to the sound of her pen on her pad of graph paper, to the sound of pages being flipped back.

#

Kenner announced the group project at the start of the third week of class. I jotted “fuck teamwork” in the margin of my notebook, and then searched the room for a student athlete who would let me carry the load alone. But as I rose from my chair, I felt a cold hand at my elbow. When I turned, her wet smile was coy.

“Be my group?”

And with that, she pulled her desk up beside mine.

Harper took the reins, jotting down a schedule, pulling out her textbook and reciting passages she thought relevant to our topic—the Venus of Willendorf and other fertility idols. We didn’t joke around like the other groups, didn’t let our conversation drift to what we’d done over winter break. We worked, avoiding one another’s eyes.

On Thursday, as we gathered our books and buttoned up our coats, she invited me to her suite to have dinner with her and then work on our poster after. Of course I assumed it was all business.

It’s not like I had other plans. Just my normal routine of going from party to party, standing in the corner with a warm beer, speaking to no one and watching couples coalesce and then divide again. And this was how I usually liked it: owing nothing to nobody, my heart a polished stone inside my chest. But this was Harper, inscrutable Harper, whose thin, painted lips always seemed to be keeping secrets. Who never invited anyone over. How could I not be curious?

“Sure,” I said.

#

My roommate Meg got ready, straightening her hair, shimmying into her straight-legged jeans. At the door, as an afterthought, she stopped and turned to look at me in the top bunk.

“Will I see you at Theo’s later?” she asked. Theo was this kid from South Jersey who always had the best weed. Meg and I inevitably found our way to his room by early Friday morning—though we took different paths to get there, of course.

“Maybe not,” I said, not looking up from my comic book. I was careful with my expression, kept it even, steady. “The Coven invited me over for dinner.”

“What?” Meg froze in the doorway, her lined eyes big.

“You heard me. Harper’s in my Anthro class. We’re working on this project together.”

“Oh my God. You’ll tell me if there’s dead bodies in there?”

“Oh my God,” I said. “Duh.”

#

Most suites had a wipe-off board, and notes, and a few photographs taped to the door. The only things on their door were the construction-paper snowflakes the RA had put up at the start of the semester. Corinne’s snowflake was torn, but otherwise they were all identical, cut the exact same way.

I gave the door a nervous rap.

It swung open. There was Alistair, grinning at me like I was an old friend. He took me in his thick arms and hugged me, pressing my face into the zipper of his hoodie.

“Aubrey! We’re so glad you came.” He examined me in a way that normally only my grandmother did. “Come in!”

The air smelled like Indian spices and fried things. Harper was at the gas stove, a floral apron tied around her narrow waist. I held up a jug of Boone’s.

“I brought drinks,” I said.

Harper blushed, but didn’t say a word. It was Alistair who took the heavy bottle from my hand.

“Oh, how thoughtful!” he said. He set it on the counter and unscrewed the cap. “Little Harpsichord, would you like some?”

“Surely, darling.” She gave a stiff curtsy. I watched Alistair take four metal tumblers from the cabinet and line them up beside the sink. Then he paused, staring at them, counting. And opened the cabinet again to take one more down from the shelf.

“My name’s not Shirley!” he said.

#

Dinner was some kind of vegetarian mash, hunks of fried tofu and brown rice with overcooked spinach poured over top. As we sat down to eat at the graffiti-carved dining table, Corinne and Josh appeared from behind one of the bedroom doors. She wore a tank top and a knee-length yoga pants rolled down so that her hips jutted out. Josh was barefoot, in a pair of boxers and a hooded sweatshirt. In the room behind them, the twin beds were pushed together, the bedposts tethered with a bunch of colorful scarves.

“We switched rooms,” Harper explained when she saw my expression. “Officially, me and Corinne live in there, and Josh and Alistair over there.” She gestured behind her, to where the other bedroom was, its open doorway veiled by a curtain of plastic beads. I leaned, looking, wondering which of the narrow beds was hers.

“Oh,” I said. I picked up my drink. Sipping, swallowing, I looked at Corinne and Josh as they went to the stove and filled their plates. “Do your parents know?”

Corinne sat down at the table. She gazed at Josh as he handed her a loaded plate. “We’ve been together since we were babies. They know it would be useless to try and stop us.”

Josh sat down, draping his bare leg over Corinne’s lap. He leaned forward, taking big bites, nodding confirmation. Silence stretched out between us, the only sound the thin music that trickled out of Harper’s laptop.

“I guess you could say,” Alistair said at last, answering a question I hadn’t asked, “that we’ve all been together since we were babies. We went to the same elementary school. Harper, Corinne, and I grew up on the same block. Josh joined our little Coven in fourth grade.”

“Coven?” I asked, scraping my plate clean. I hadn’t realized that they actually referred to themselves like that—I thought it was just a nickname other people used. “What are you, witches?”

“No. Think less fantasy,” Alistair said, “and more science fiction.”

“Alistair!” Harper chided, as if he’d just let slip some terrible secret. Something passed between them, unreadable. I shrugged.

“I’ve never been into that Star Trek stuff,” I said. “Reality’s weird enough for me. Have you ever read Heidegger?”

They all looked blankly at me. Arts majors, I guess. So I got up and offered my hand to Harper. “Want seconds?”

Her glower at Alistair dissolved. Instead, she gave me a small, sweet smile.

“Yes. Thank you,” she replied, passing me her plate and folding her narrow hands on the table before her.

#

By dessert—a homemade caramel apple pie courtesy of Alistair’s grandmother’s favorite recipe—I was pretty sloshed. Harper put a pot of coffee on the stove, but it hardly washed the sugar film from my teeth. I kept running my tongue over my incisors.

“Should we get to work on our poster?” I asked, turning to Harper.

In the flickering illumination from the Christmas lights that were strung overhead, she looked very pretty. Her high cheekbones glowed copper, then emerald, then a sort of alien blue. Her eyes were dark-lashed smudges, and they made no move to answer.

Instead she leaned forward, one hand pressed under her chin. In the shifting light, with her fine bone structure and with one small ear exposed, she looked elfin, otherworldly. I wondered suddenly, irrationally, if she had any tattoos, tattoos that I couldn’t yet see . . .

“Let’s not, yet.” She wrinkled the bridge of her nose. “Don’t you want to do something fun first? A drinking game or maybe . . .”

“A séance!” Alistair piped up. Then quickly added: “Or, we could hypnotize you.”

“Hypnotize me?” I let out a snort. “What are you, twelve?”

Alistair looked wounded, like someone had struck him square between the eyes.

“Yeah, whatever,” I said. “But I don’t think you could hypnotize me.”

Harper didn’t blink. But she licked her lower lip very slowly, leaving a sheen of saliva there. “Sure we can.”

So I dared her: “Try me.”

#

It was like they’d been waiting all night for it to happen. Plates were cleared, music silenced. Alistair fished a bunch of candles out from beneath the kitchen sink—contraband; we weren’t supposed to burn anything in the dorms—and Harper disappeared for a moment behind the beaded curtain and then returned with a quilt made out of old T-shirts. It was folded delicately over her arms as if it were some kind of sacred artifact. For a moment, she hesitated beside me. Then she shook her head, let out a small laugh, and spread it out over the plastic-cushioned dorm sofa.

“Lie down,” she said. Nervous, she kept casting her gaze aside to Alistair and Corinne.

I kicked off my shoes, swaying a bit. It was Josh who caught me by the elbow and steadied me.

“Are you okay?”

I frowned, wresting my arm from his grip. I usually held my liquor well. Had Alistair put something in my drink? I looked over at him as he fumbled with the safety latch on the lighter, struggling to get the candles lit. No, that couldn’t be right. He was harmless as a big clumsy Labrador.

“We’re waiting,” Corinne called. And they were, the three of them, all standing over the sofa and staring at me. Alistair gave up with one candle still unlit. He rushed over, mumbling apologies.

“So get on with it. Hypnotize me.” I tried to sound teasing, but it didn’t come out right. My throat felt very, very dry. I sprawled out on the couch. The springs of the sofa poked me right between my shoulder blades. The Coven knelt around me. Harper leaned over my head, her floral-scented hair falling in my face and every freckle visible over her high cheekbones.

“Okay,” she said, and took a breath. “Close your eyes.”

I didn’t. Instead, bracing myself, I watched her reach forward and extend her narrow fingers. But the moment she pressed those frigid hands to my temples, the whole world went black.

#

Something penetrated my flesh, tearing straight up through the center of my spine. Then it dug deeper. I was being examined, every cell overturned, inspected. Whatever it was, I knew instinctively what it was looking for—possibilities. Not who I was, but who I could conceivably grow into. And this is what it found:

Early May, the cherry blossoms budding. I walk into the advisement center, Harper trailing after. “I’d like to declare my major,” I say, and while I fill in the form, I feel her hand tangle into the hair at the nape of my neck, longer now; it’s been awhile since I cut it.

“I’ve never even taken a philosophy class,” I tell her later, sitting on the stone wall in the quad while the sky overhead blushes pink. “I never would have known if it weren’t for you.”

She smiles. Did I imagine it? Or is her smile wan, thin in the purpling light? “If it weren’t for us.”

And, later:

We pack our cars—Josh’s SUV, Harper’s ancient hatchback, Corinne’s sporty little jeep. With three cars, we’re able to move more furniture than we would otherwise. We joke about shooting oxen and repairing axels. Alistair, we say, will die of dysentery. Alistair does not look amused.

With my bicycle strapped to the roof rack, with our secret tucked into Josh’s wheel well, we depart for new worlds: graduate school, and beyond.

And, later still:

We make a little boy, Harper and me, with Alistair’s help. A cousin for Maxine and Elske. Corinne is so happy to have someone share in motherhood.

Harper’s gone too much. Book tours. Speaking events. Alistair’s not happy and I’m not happy and Little Deacon is not happy and the device certainly isn’t happy. But when Harper comes home, she brings me flowers. Lilies. My favorite. She presses kisses into my jaw, my throat. And so I make my case: hasn’t she always been faithful? Hasn’t she always been good to us?

And, still later, my bones aching:

The ships arrive while the world sleeps. I wake up when Deacon wakes up when the walls start to shake. He cries as I tug his blue sweatshirt over his head. He cries as I hustle him down the front steps. He cries as we step briskly down the sidewalk, toward the distant, growing light.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him, as the ships settle in over our suburb. We’ve been waiting for this moment for such a long time. Me, Alistair . . . the device. “They won’t hurt us. We’re the faithful. We’re the ones who kept it safe.”

As I lift him into my arms, Harper’s shadow, lingering in the open doorway, catches my eye. I hold out my hand to her. “Come on,” I say. “You, too.”

#

When I woke, Josh and Corinne’s door was sealed. Alistair was nowhere to be found. The candles had burned down to nothing, but the string lights still stuttered overhead. I was sitting up, Harper pressed up beside me. The plastic cushions squeaked beneath me as I shifted; someone had put the quilt away.

“Are you okay?” she asked. I looked at her, laughed, but couldn’t find my voice. I was groping for a dream, for fragments, half-remembered.

She put her slender hand on my knee. Then she edged her fingers over the curve of my inner thigh. I looked at her again—her eyes were dark, unreadable. That’s when she leaned over and pressed a kiss into my lips.

I leaned into it. Then I leaned away.

“I don’t date girls,” I said, though her hand was still on my thigh and I didn’t move it. It was only technically true. I hadn’t dated anyone since Pete Saunderman in eighth grade.

“Oh,” she said, pressing her shoulder into mine. She was wearing a tank top. The skin over her bare arm was cool. “I think you will.”

And then I remembered a fractured snippet. Her neck, cast back, and how it led down to her bare breasts. How there were freckles between them. How I had kissed them, or someday would.

I scrambled to my feet, raking my fingers through my hair.

“Aubrey!” Harper stood. Her eyebrows were all knitted up, concerned. “Are you okay?”

“I need to go,” I said, shoving my feet into my shoes. “I need to go.”

And then I left, letting the heavy door slam shut behind me.

#

I spent the weekend working on the poster alone, complaining to Meg about how Harper had left it all to me. Using Meg’s markers, I scribbled into the poster board. It felt good to get my hands all inky, to let myself fill up with rage. But then, it was easy to be angry about homework. I didn’t know how to be angry about the rest of it. I didn’t even really understand what had happened on that dorm sofa, as Harper’s hands pressed into my skull.

#

We didn’t speak in class. I came in late and then, when class ended, when I saw the words hovering on her half-open lips, I turned and fled into the crowded hall.

#

Finally she found me. I wasn’t expecting it, not when my head was inside a dryer and I was squinting into the muggy heat that rose up off my clothes. But when I stood up, there she was, standing at the laundry room door.

“What do you want?”

It wasn’t really a question. I hefted my laundry basket up and let it fall with a metallic clatter on the washing machine. And then I started to fold.

“To apologize,” she said. She took small steps toward me, approaching as one would a wild animal. “You weren’t expecting that. We should have warned you.”

My hands still busy, I looked at her but didn’t respond.

“You get so used to it,” she said. “You forget what it’s like at first.”

I threw a ball of socks down into my basket. “You forget what what’s like? What was that?”

“The future,” she said, as if it should have been self-evident. And I suppose it was. “I forgot how weird it is to see the future at first. I’ve been doing it awhile.”

“Tell me,” I said, balling a pair of underpants up in my palm. “Tell me how you did it.”

She shook her head. There was a watery quality to her eyelashes. “I can’t, Aubrey. We don’t know that we can trust you. Not yet.”

I started to turn away, to lift my laundry basket and stomp off. But Harper wouldn’t let me. She put her cold, cold hands on top of mine.

“Aubrey, please,” she said. She rubbed little circles into my hands with her hands. “How about this: give me one week. For one week it’ll be just you and me. And then I’ll tell you everything.”

I saw another flash then. No, that’s not right. I smelled it. It was the way she smelled behind her ear, and the way her skin tasted there as her pulse beat through it. That old, familiar flavor. Harper.

I leaned over and kissed her, the laundry basket the only thing between us.

#

Harper’s bed was covered with what felt like a dozen blankets. It always seemed like my legs were trapped under them, and by morning I would cast them off so that I’d wake with one leg, or both, exposed. Beside me, Harper was buried.

Alistair slept under the T-shirt quilt on the sofa, but he didn’t seem to mind. Most mornings, he made us breakfast. Once he even brought us coffee while we were still in bed. I sat up, grousing, blinking the sleep back from my eyes while he held out a steaming mug and glowed at me. It was too much even for mid-afternoon.

In the dark of night, after we’d tumble away from one another, our limbs all slick with sweat, she’d talk about her writing. Apparently she wasn’t taking notes during Anthropology; she was working on her novel. She said it was about an unhappy family—an alcoholic mother, a father broken by the youngest child’s death, a daughter who slept with too many boys too easily. She said it was about her family, or a family that would have been hers if things had turned out different.

She wanted to be a novelist. She wanted to sign books—she practiced her signature on the post-its on her desk. Once she even wrote it on my arm.

She didn’t ask me about my future. Neither of us said it, but I think we both already knew what would happen to me.

#

Life with Harper was uncomplicated. I told her jokes that I knew would make her laugh, touched her in the ways I knew she liked best. And it worked. For once, there were no doubts. No questions. So I gave her a week, then a few days more. The truth was, I felt okay for once, walking with her at my side between classes, buried in our scarves and hats. She was always so unsteady on the ice—I’d get to hold my hand out, and keep her from falling down.

But one Tuesday, she remembered. She and Corinne were making dinner—pasta, the smell of garlic and sundried tomatoes on the air—while Josh and I sat in front of his TV playing Xbox. Finally she appeared at the door, her head tilted to one side, dark tendrils of hair falling against her collarbone.

“I forgot to show you the device,” she said. I looked at Josh. His blue eyes shone, encouraging me.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll pause it.”

I followed her into her room. Standing in the doorway, my arms crossed and tense over my chest, I watched as she went to the closet. Then she turned, breaking into a giddy grin.

Cradled in her hands was a flattened diamond made of black glass. At first I couldn’t figure out why they would call it the device—but then I saw the glow from inside, a steady blue pulse—and heard the hum in the air. The sound was undoubtedly mechanical.

“It’s not the first time you’re seeing it, not really. I hid it under the blanket the night . . . you know.” Her face tensed for just a moment, apologetic. I lifted an eyebrow.

“What is it?”

“We’re not really sure. We found it in the woods when we were in first grade. We played out there all the time. It was our magical kingdom. And one day we found this, our treasure, buried in a river bed.”

I was fighting the urge to reach out and touch it. But I’ll admit that my fingers twitched—there was something alluring about the look of its dark, flawless surface.

“It shows us the future,” she added, her smile faltering for just a moment. Then she said, showing teeth again: “In exchange, we keep it safe.”

“Safe from what?”

Harper shrugged. “From anything that might hurt it. It’s fragile, don’t you see?” She was holding it out, offering it to me. The surface was opalescent, shades of red and purple shimmering over it. The inside blossomed blue, like water lit by pool lights. I reached out and let my fingertips grace its cold surface for just a moment—

I fell to Earth. I told my people of the soil, the water, the air. Once I was safe beneath the river. Then the river dried and I was naked and alone. To be alone is to be endangered. Now I am alone no longer. Because of you. You keep me safe. You keep me safe until the ships come. The ships. The ships come. They gather mankind up inside them. And we go home.

—then drew away again. Harper’s dark eyes, too, glowed from within.

#

Now I heard it all the time—the steady drone. It was loudest at night, as I tossed and turned in Harper’s bed. But though the sound was faint, it followed me to other places, too. To class. To the CVS down the street. It even floated behind Harper and me as we walked through the snow-laden campus at night, sharing a joint.

The sound was there when we made snow angels on the quad. It was there when we stood outside the president’s mansion, watching the light inside, our breath fogging the air. It was there when Harper sat down on the side of the road and interlaced her gloved fingers with mine.

“It led me to you, you know,” she said. “I guess you could say I was getting lonely. So it showed me Anthro class. I was sitting behind this hot loner girl.”

I felt my cheeks grow warm despite the cold. “Oh yeah?” I asked. “Is that how Corinne got Josh, too?”

She laughed. “In Anthro class?” And then she grew serious again, tucking her crooked bangs up under the edge of her hat. “Yeah. It showed Corinne what way to walk home. He was there. Looking adorable, as always.”

The device thrummed. I winced. “Have you ever tried ignoring it? Not doing what it says?”

Harper stared out, her eyes dark in the dark night. “Sure,” she said. “It’s only the possible future. It’s not like we have to do what it tells us. Once, it told Corinne to go with her parents on this vacation to the Florida Keys. She didn’t want to. She stayed home with Josh instead.”

“What happened?”

Harper’s gaze seemed to collapse, turning inward. “I don’t know if I should say.”

“Tell me.”

“They got pregnant. She had to end it. Can you imagine what would have happened to all of us if she’d had a baby? Aubrey, it always shows you the best future. If you ignore it, you’re stuck always knowing what could have happened. And what you get by yourself is never as good. Sometimes it’s terrible.”

She wrapped her arm over my back. In the darkness, I saw her force a smile. “It told me about you. If I hadn’t listened, I’d be so lonely. And I’d know you were out there, maybe with someone else. It’d be horrible. It made the best choice for me. Just like it chose Josh for Corinne. Just like, someday, it’ll choose someone for Alistair.”

“No,” I said, and abruptly stood. The snow crunched under my boots. “It won’t choose anyone for Alistair.”

“No? I always figured . . .”

I looked over at her, narrowing my eyes. Her face was pink from the cold; her expression, perplexed. “Harper,” I said, speaking slowly, “Haven’t you seen? Hasn’t it showed you?”

She shook her head. “No. It only shows me bits and pieces. A few weeks ahead, maybe. If that. Why? What’d it show you?”

I winced again. The sound was loud inside me, reverberating through my bones. It wasn’t meant to be like this. I wasn’t meant to see it all so clearly. But I wasn’t like the rest of them. I wasn’t like the device. I was meant to be alone.

And so, in the flurry-scattered night, I saw what it had mapped out for us: an entire future together, the paths of our lives irrevocably entangled. Two couples, standing guard over the device. But no one for Alistair.

“It showed me that Alistair’s okay being single,” I lied, then offered her my hand. As she took it, I gave her a forgiving smile. “Come on. Let’s go home. I’m freezing.”

#

Spring break came too early. The paths were still covered with a gray muddle of half-melted snow. Harper wanted me to come home with her—she said her parents would be thrilled that she was dating anyone, girl or boy—but I’d made plans with my high school friends weeks before.

“I can’t,” I told her, as she clutched herself to my chest that night and cried into the sheets. “I promised them. We hang out every break. It’s kind of a thing.”

“But don’t you want to be with me?” she sniffled, then waved a hand at the world outside her bedroom. To the Coven, to where they slept. “With us?”

My answer was the wrong answer: “Don’t you ever do anything without them?”

Harper’s body seemed to harden beside me. Shivering, she turned away. In the closet, the device droned on.

#

Things felt different when I got back. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it no longer seemed charming to watch Corinne and Josh nuzzling over the breakfast table or to let Harper read me her short stories as I drifted off to sleep. One night, after my astronomy class got out late, I decided not to go to Harper’s room. I went to mine. Meg glanced up from her laptop, surprised.

“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with the Coven?” she asked. I shrugged.

“I just needed to get away.”

But within a half hour, the phone calls started. I hit ignore and hit ignore, but finally, Meg spun in her chair.

“I’m trying to work on a paper, you know.” Her mouth was tense. I could see that she wasn’t used to having me around anymore.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”

So I got up and walked down the hall.

#

“Where were you?”

Harper wasn’t mad so much as hurt. I could see it in the way she sat on her many blankets, shoulders sagging.

“I just wanted to be alone for a while,” I said. “Don’t you ever want to be alone?”

From the closet, I heard the device’s song, frantic. Harper lifted her hands to her wrinkled forehead. “I’ve been alone! For nineteen years, I’ve been alone!”

“No you haven’t,” I said, and I looked out the beaded curtain. Her expression changed, growing sharp.

“The Coven? Are you serious?! They’re my friends!”

“Yeah,” I said, gripping the top of her desk chair with one hand, bracing myself. “Your high school friends. And your middle school friends. And your elementary school friends.”

She stared at me. “So?”

“So don’t you ever wonder who you would have been if it didn’t keep you guys together? How you would have changed?”

“Why would we want to change? We’re happy! If you want to be miserable—”

I snorted.

“What?” she said. The buzz, steady, continued.

“Christ, you haven’t even realized it.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t show you your best future. It shows you the future that will best help it. Why do you think there’s no one for Alistair? Don’t you think he would give up on all this high school crap if he fell in love? It keeps you together because it needs you to stay together. To protect it!”

“Stop!” she said. “Stop stop stop!” She lifted her hands to her face, standing frozen and weeping in the middle of her room.

I had a flash then, small, but real. She brought me lilies. She pressed kisses into my throat. I went to her, and took her into my arms, and held her.

“I’m sorry,” I lied, and kissed the part of her hair.

#

In the morning, Alistair brought us coffee. When he saw how pale I looked, how bleary-eyed and spent, he hesitated by the door.

“Lover’s quarrel?” he asked. I looked over at Harper. The covers were pulled up over her head.

“No,” I replied. I got up, took the mugs from him, and set them on the nightstand.

Twenty minutes later, the alarm went off. Harper hit snooze once, then finally peeled the covers back. She looked over at me.

“I have class,” she said. “I can’t skip it. I’ve missed too many.”

“So go,” I said, drinking my coffee slowly.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Positive.”

Harper gave me a thin smile. She got up and pulled on her jeans and a sweat shirt with the neck cut off. Her pale shoulders peeked out, veined with blue.

“I’m glad,” she said, lingering by the door for a moment, “that you came back last night.”

I nodded slowly, and forced a smile.

#

An hour passed. Yellow light flooded in through the vintage curtains, through the floral print. I finished my coffee, got dressed, and threw my coat over my shoulders. Then I looked around the room. I realized that this was all new. I hadn’t seen this before. I wondered if the device had, either.

I went to the closet.

I didn’t have to search long. I just followed the hum, the strange pulse of desire that ran through my fingers. It was buried in Harper’s sock drawer amid a tangle of knee-highs. It looked like an onyx egg in a nest of cotton. I reached out and touched it, gripping it in one hand.

Deacon leaves his Legos scattered all over the carpet. You step on them with bare feet.

I smashed it once, twice against the white concrete wall. For a moment, I stared down at dark shards that littered the floor. Then I bent over and picked one up and slipped it into my pocket. It was silent now—nothing but a souvenir.

I hustled out. Corinne was sitting in Josh’s lap at the table, reading a dog-eared novel. They glanced up at me.

“What was that?” Corinne asked. I only shook my head as I rushed down the hall and back to my room, locking the door behind me.

#

After that, Harper started skipping Anthro. Dr. Kenner asked me if I’d seen her, but I said no and watched as he jotted something down in his grade book. A few days before the semester ended, I heard from Meg that Corinne had been fucking Theo behind Josh’s back, but I just shrugged at that. What was I supposed to say?

It was two days before move-out that I last saw any of them. I was heading out of the Advisement Center, my transcripts all sealed into a manila envelope, when I spotted Alistair sitting at the picnic table in the quad. He lifted his hand and sort-of waved, so after a minute or two’s hesitation I headed over. I wasn’t sure what to expect, if he’d chew me out or take me to task for what I’d done.

Instead, he smiled shyly, and gestured to the slender, pale-haired boy beside him.

“Aubrey! This is Geoff.” There was a pause, long and significant. “My boyfriend.”

“Oh!” I said. The boy held out a delicate hand. I took it, shook. He had a sweet, crooked grin.

“Hello.”

Alistair told me they’d just signed a September lease for an off-campus apartment. Then he asked me where I’d be living come junior year, if I’d be staying in Matelson or else heading out to the new upperclassmen dorms like most of the residents on our floor.

“Neither, actually,” I said. “I’m transferring. Reed. Philosophy. I figured—”

“Figured you might as well grab whatever happiness is out there for you while you still can?”

“Exactly.”

We said goodbye under the cherry blossoms. I clutched the folder to my chest and started off down the path. But before I reached the place where it forked, Alistair called out to me.

“You know the ships are still coming, right?” he asked. Beside him, Geoff wore a question in his eyes. But I held my jaw firm, nodded.

“Of course.”

Geoff glanced between us. At last, he shrugged, laughed, and shook a cigarette out of a soft pack. As he lit it, he rolled his eyes.

“Whatever, you two,” he said.

But it didn’t matter what he thought. There was only one future coming for him. For me. For Alistair. For Harper. For all of us. Only one path, and whether I liked it or not, in the end, we were barreling down it together.

I walked off into the afternoon’s golden light.

About Phoebe North

Phoebe North lives in New York State with her husband, her daughter, and her cat. Her YA sci-fi novel, Starglass, is available from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. The sequel, Starbreak, will be available July 8th wherever books are sold. Follow her online at www.phoebenorth.com.

Anjali

he man from the Genex Corporation came by again. He skimmed over the cesspool our street has become, nose wrinkled like it wanted to be elsewhere. I leaned over the balcony of our third-floor kholi and watched him, wishing his scooter’s antigrav would fail and throw him into the floating trash.

The man looked up and caught sight of me staring at him. I ducked behind the sheets I’d been hanging out to dry but it was too late. Ma would kill me if she knew. She always forked her fingers when she saw him. Every time he came, some kid from our street disappeared.

When I raised my head from behind the sheets, the man was gone. Too bad he hadn’t fallen into the muck. I finished hanging up the rest of the clothes. It wasn’t raining today, for a change. But I’d have to take them down tonight or they’d be soaked by tomorrow. The monsoon in Mumbai and the drought in Punjab – both got worse every year, Ma said.

The sun came out and sweat trickled down my forehead. I caught sight of the government school float and ran inside, stopping to grab my bag and my sister before heading downstairs. Ma had already left for the garment workshop, my little brother Anshuman slung on her back.

“Quit pulling me, I’m coming!” Bela yanked herself out of my grasp and trotted to the raised platform outside the building. Water lapped at the edges. Old Uncle waved goodbye from his window. The other kids were already waiting, clustered near the edge.

“Did you do your homework?” I said. “Did you study? You have a chem test today.”

Bela rolled her eyes. “Don’t get all ‘big sister’ on me, Anjali. I’ll be first again, just you see.”

The school float neared the platform and everybody jumped in. Seven in the morning and it was already almost full. One more street and eight more kids to pick up, and then we’d start lessons. As we pushed away from the building, I caught sight of the man from Genex again. He hovered behind the float, watching. I forked my fingers like I’d seen Ma do.

#

That night, Ma made Bombil fry. We could hardly believe our luck. It wasn’t a wedding or a birthday or anything special. We stuffed ourselves with the spicy deep-fried fish, licking our fingers when it was gone.

Ma put Anshuman to sleep in the main room while we cleaned up the kitchen. When we were done, Ma came to the door and said, “I’ve lost my job.”

We stared at her, shocked.

“So why the celebration?” said Bela, her voice brittle.

Ma ignored her. Her face had gone all hard and closed, like the day our father left, taking our savings with him. “They gave us notice a month ago,” she continued. “I’ve been trying to look for something else but there’s nothing. All the workshops are closing. No one wants hand-made clothes any more. Why should they, when the printed stuff is so much cheaper and better?”

Bela and I exchanged a glance. Ma had worked twelve-hour days in that workshop for three years, ever since our father walked out on us. Without that income, what would we eat? How would we pay the bills?

“Maybe we can take a loan?” said Bela. “Perhaps Old Uncle…”

“He doesn’t have a rupee to spare,” interrupted Ma. “You know that. His pension is barely enough to survive on. No one here can afford to help us. And I already did take a loan.”

“From whom?” said Bela.

“A moneylender,” said Ma. “Last year when I fell sick and couldn’t work for six weeks. I’ve been paying the interest out of my wage ever since.”

So that’s why we hadn’t been able to afford new clothes this year. Usually when school started, Ma made us new clothes out of bits she’d scavenged from the workshop. This year, she must have sold everything she could lay her hands on.

“What are we going to do?” I said. I didn’t want to leave school. Two more years and I could get my high school certificate, perhaps find a better job than Ma’s.

Ma looked at me. Still that hardness on her face, as if she had removed herself from us, gone elsewhere. “He picked you because you’re thirteen, just the right age.”

I looked at her, confused. Bela began to cry.

“You’ll be able to study,” said Ma. “You’ll get good food, new clothes. You’ll stay in one of those places where rich people live, all dry and nice. He promised me that.”

“Who? What are you talking about, Ma?” I couldn’t stop the panic creeping into my voice.

Ma finally looked down at her hands. Worn, lined hands that had held me, soothed me, slapped me, fed me. “The Genex man. He’ll come for you tomorrow.”

A roaring filled my ears. She continued to talk but I didn’t hear anything else she said. I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling cold. After a while I realized that Bela had run out to the balcony, into the rain. Ma stood still as a statue, her eyes empty.

I got up and walked past her, my limbs feeling stiff and unnatural, like they weren’t mine. I pushed open the door and went down the stairs. Women stood at the doorways, laughing and gossiping, babies on their hips. Bits of plaster flaked off the damp ceiling and I brushed them off my face.

This was my home. This was where I was born, where I grew up. I wondered how much Ma had sold me for, what I was worth to her.

By the time I walked out on the platform, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. I remembered, too late, the clothes I had left hanging to dry on the balcony.

#

The man from Genex arrived at dawn, before anyone else was up. He didn’t come in, just beeped Ma on her cell. I dressed in the only salwar kurta I had that wasn’t falling apart. Ma tried to embrace me, but I pushed her away. Bela had vanished. She must have been scared the man would pick her instead. She looked as old as me, even though she was a year younger.

Ma and I went downstairs, not speaking. The man was waiting outside on the platform. Up close, he wasn’t frightening at all. Just a small, slight man with a thin mustache, dressed in a white shirt and dhoti.

At the last moment Ma hung on to me, clutching my arm so that I almost felt sorry for her. She slipped something small and hard into my palm. I sneaked a quick glance at it. It was just the black stone idol of Mumba Devi – the patron Goddess of Mumbai – that adorned the temple in our kitchen. I slipped it into the jute bag in which I had packed my few things: notebook, pencils, underclothes. Then I disengaged myself from her and walked toward the man, waiting with his scooter at the water’s edge.

“Take care, Anjali,” said Ma, her voice thin and uncertain. I didn’t trust myself to look at her or respond. I looked at the man instead.

“Nameste,” I said, pleased that my voice came out all strong and confident even though I was shivering inside. “Ma said I’m to go with you.”

The man smiled, showing a row of perfect teeth. “Good. You can call me Uncle Sunil.”

He stepped onto his scooter and I climbed up behind him. He jabbed a green switch and the scooter revved up and sped down the street. I clutched the handrail and tried to slow my galloping pulse.

I could feel the eyes watching us; I could imagine the forked fingers, the whispered conversations. Ma would never live this down. Other families had sold children to the Corporations, but never in our chawl.

Down another street, and then another. We climbed and the water receded. Overhead the SkyTrain roared on its way from Colaba in the south to Borivali in the north.

“How much did you pay my mother?” I blurted out at last.

“Enough,” he said. “She can return her loan and pay the rent for the next three years – if the chawl doesn’t collapse before that, of course. I don’t know why you people refuse to move.”

Because it was close to the beach. Because we could play cricket on the platform in dry weather. Because, apart from the occasional Environment Ministry official, we were left alone. Because, even though there were over three hundred people squeezed into forty kholis, we knew each other by name.

But none of this would have made any sense to him, so I kept quiet.

The traffic thinned. We passed the first corporation dome, a huge white structure that blotted out half the hazy sky. It began to rain again, sheets that pelted the scooter’s transparent hood. I didn’t realize we’d arrived at our destination until the scooter flew into a broad, light-filled tunnel.

It was eerie, so much empty space. All three hundred people from my chawl could easily have fit in there, and played cricket.

At the end of the tunnel was a platform, a row of scooters docked to one side. An elegant woman clad in a sari stood on the platform, waiting. As we glided to a stop beside her, she folded her palms and bowed.

“Welcome back, sir.” She glanced at me. “And this must be…?”

“Arya 14,” said Uncle Sunil, getting off the scooter. “She’s here for the procedure.” He turned to me. “This is my assistant Revati. She’ll help you get settled.”

He walked toward the wall and pressed his palm on it. A section of it slid open and I caught a glimpse of gleaming corridors. He turned and gave me a small wave before disappearing inside. I made to follow him but Revati stopped me.

“Not there. That’s the lab. You’ll go to the shower first. We have to get you clean.”

She walked to another section of the wall and pressed her palm on it like Uncle Sunil had. A door opened into an elevator. She turned around. “What are you waiting for? Come on.”

I followed her in. “What procedure was he talking about?” I said as the door closed and the elevator vibrated.

“Sunil Sir will explain it to you,” said Revati.

The door opened and we walked out into the biggest room I’d ever seen, all white walls and marble floors. A woman sat at a curving wooden desk to our left.

“Decontam?” she called, looking up from her screen.

“The usual,” replied Revati. She pointed to a row of doors. “Second stall from the right. Drop your clothes into the bin. That bag too.”

I remembered the statue of Mumba Devi and clutched my bag. “Please, can I keep it?”

“No,” said Revati. “Leave the bag in the bin. If you need something from it, I’ll give it to you later.”

I was sure I wouldn’t see it again. I stepped into the stall and removed my clothes. I took the idol out before dropping my bag in the bin. Next thing I knew, I was pelted with spray on all sides. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe.

After several minutes, the spray stopped. Revati pushed open the door and thrust a hospital gown at me. “Can’t I wear normal clothes?” I asked, but she shook her head.

I stepped out, trying to keep the flap of the gown closed with one hand and holding my Mumba Devi in the other.

“This way.” Revati led me down a corridor and propped open a door. I entered a bright room with a big bed and a table with a tray of food on it: a cheese and chutney sandwich surrounded by ripe yellow slices of mango. My stomach rumbled; I hadn’t eaten since the night before.

“Enjoy.” The door shut behind me with a click. I perched on the bed and wolfed the food down. Perhaps they mixed something in the chutney, because my head grew all heavy and stupid. I barely had time to slip the idol under my pillow before oblivion hit.

I woke to voices and people bending over me. Something sharp pricked my arm and I yelped.

Someone made a shushing noise. I looked up to see Uncle Sunil sitting by my bed. A couple of women I hadn’t seen before bustled about. I tried to move but my limbs wouldn’t listen to me.

“Time for the procedure,” said Uncle Sunil. “Aren’t you excited?”

I didn’t speak; I couldn’t.

“So many problems.” He waved his hands, encompassing the city, the country, the whole planet. “War, disease, hunger. Some think it’s Kaliyuga, the dark age that will bring an end to humanity.” He paused. “I think that’s superstition. Science can solve every problem our planet faces. You, Number 14, will be proof of that.” He got up. “Good luck.”

Number 14? What happened to the first thirteen? I tried to swallow but something stuck in my throat. My last thought before I went under was that whatever he’d given Ma, it wasn’t enough.

#

Darkness and pain. My throat raw from screaming. My body on fire. Scorpions bite my flesh. My mother stands in one corner, watching me writhe, a cold expression on her face. Help me, I cry, but she turns away, and the flames engulf me.

#

When I woke up I thought I’d died and gone to hell. I was in a dark, warm room. Shapes and shadows danced on the wall.

One of the shadows detached itself from the wall and came toward me. “Ah, you are awake. Took you three days to recover. How do you feel?”

The voice was familiar. From somewhere, I dredged up a name: Uncle Sunil.

“Shall I put her back under?” said a female voice.

“No. Take the tubes out and leave us.”

Lights blinked on. The bed moved up and my head was raised. I found a cup at my lips and drank, grateful.

After a while the cup was removed. I sank back, exhausted with the effort. I could remember being in pain, so much pain that I wanted to die.

“What did you do to me?” My voice sounded weak and distant.

He smiled, cat-like. “I have modified you. No, I have transformed you. You, Arya 14, are the world’s first posthuman reservoir.”

I must have looked bewildered, because a look of impatience crossed Uncle Sunil’s face. “You can go days without food or sleep. Repair yourself if you get hurt. You’re strong, self-healing and self-replicating.”

“Self-replicating?”

“The injections we used take months to create and billions of rupees to produce. Once you’ve recovered from the effects of the injection, the viruses will finish replicating inside of you. After that, we won’t need the injections any more. We’ll just need your blood. Don’t worry – the process will not hurt you. Nothing can hurt you, super Arya. You are an unmitigated success. You can fully expect to live at least twelve years.”

Twelve years? Some of the horror I felt must have shown on my face because Uncle Sunil frowned. “My first subject lived only for ten days. Do you not realize how privileged you are? You will never fall sick, feel hungry or grow old. Death, when it comes, will be quick and painless. What more could someone from a chawl ask for?”

I struggled up on the bed. My hands were locked into metal handcuffs on either side. “Let me go.”

Uncle Sunil leaned toward me, his face aglow with passion. “Think of what we can accomplish. Imagine a factory worker who never needs a break. Imagine a soldier on the frontline who can heal his own wounds. Imagine every poor child in Mumbai growing up healthy and productive!”

“And dead at twenty-five?” I spat at him.

Uncle Sunil spread his hands. “That figure might change as my research progresses. But what do you want – an uncertain, poverty-ridden life, or twelve glorious years free of sickness, pain and hunger?”

“I want to go home,” I said.

“What home? Your father abandoned you and your mother sold you. You mean nothing to them.”

The truth of his words ate through me like acid. Tears stung my eyes.

“Don’t cry, Arya,” said Uncle Sunil. “You may not mean anything to them, but you mean a lot to me. Everything that I have worked for, hoped for, has borne fruit in you.” He patted me on the head and got up. “Time to rest. Tomorrow, when you’re stronger, we’ll move you to our secure facility in Madh Island. We don’t want the media to get a whiff of this, or some petty politician with an eye on chawl votes will find a way to shut us down.”

I didn’t say anything and he left. I sank back on the pillow, tightness in my chest. I didn’t want to go anywhere with him. I didn’t want him to use me to do this to other kids.

But what choice did I have? He was right – I had no home, not any more. I cried then, for Ma and Bela and Anshuman, for the school certificate I’d never get, for the years I wouldn’t live.

When I was all cried out and empty, something else came to take the place of the hurt: something hard and dark and angry. I strained against the handcuffs and the metal bit into my skin, but I didn’t stop, not even when I felt my flesh tear and blood trickle down my wrist. The metal snapped and my ravaged hands were free. I kept them down, out of sight. If they were watching me, now would be when they came.

No one came. Perhaps they wanted to lull me, see what I would do next. I sat up and looked around. Dim recessed light, enough to show me that I was alone in a dorm-like space with empty beds on either side. Narrow tables with glass tubing, shelves stuffed with books and instruments, most of which I’d never seen before. A lab of some sort, rather better-equipped than the one in our school float.

I spied an open door at one end. An escape route? I got up and hobbled toward it, pretending to be in much more pain that I actually was. Slow and weak, face contorted, just in case someone was looking at me.

But the door just led to a bathroom. I leaned against the door and tried to think. I had to escape. But how? I caught sight of my hands and my heart jumped. The blood was dry, the skin sealed. He hadn’t lied. I looked back at the rows of shelves, the glass equipment, and a small ray of hope cut through the despair I felt.

I entered the bathroom and closed the door, like I needed to use it. Tiles and porcelain gleamed in the blue light. I peered into the cupboard below the sink. Cleaners, scrubs, rinses – normal stuff that you find in most bathrooms. I read the labels and picked the one that was closest to what I wanted. I slipped it in a flap of my robe and pushed open the door.

Back in bed, I hid the bottle under the blanket. I waited at least half an hour before making my second trip to the bathroom. On the way back, between the rows of tables, I stumbled like I was too weak to go on, one hand clutching a table top and sweeping several things off it. I groaned and crouched on the floor, grabbing the item I needed. Shards of glass slashed my newly-healed hands, but I didn’t care. I staggered back to bed, hiding my hands in my gown.

#

It was quite a crowd that came for me in the morning. Uncle Sunil, Revati carrying a glass of orange juice, a robot cleaner to sweep up the mess I’d made the previous night, and four uniformed men, dart guns strapped to their chests. I kept my hands out where they could be seen. Uncle Sunil glanced at them and grinned.

“See how strong you are?” he said, while I gulped the juice down. “Really, the best result we could have hoped for. Ready to go?”

I put the glass back on Revati’s tray. “Sure. Can I take my statue of Mumba Devi with me? It’s under my pillow.”

“Of course,” said Uncle Sunil. “We left it there especially for you. Something to remember your old home by, when you go to your new home.”

Perhaps it was the word ‘home’ and the prospect that such a place might yet exist for me, or perhaps it was the way he smiled at me so proudly, but I almost couldn’t go through with it. Then I remembered what he wanted to use me for, and movement returned to my limbs.

I slipped my hand under the pillow and grabbed the pipette gun. I whirled around and sprayed them with the drain cleaner I’d found in the bathroom. Revati screamed and stumbled back. Uncle Sunil sprang toward me and got a full blast on his face.

I leaped out of bed and ran for the open door through which they’d come. One of the uniformed men grabbed hold of me from behind, but I elbowed his face hard and he let go, grunting. A dart whizzed past my ear and another buried itself in my neck, but I was out of the door by then, ducking the darts with a speed I wouldn’t have believed possible. I threw the empty glass pipette at one of the men before I slammed the door in his face, bolting it from outside.

I turned and found myself in a long, empty corridor. My head swam. I reached behind my neck and pulled the dart out. I lurched forward, willing myself to stay conscious, clutching the stone idol I’d tied to my gown. Stay awake. Get out of here first.

An alarm began to sound, a wailing scream that cut through the fog in my head. I ran down the corridor to the fire exit. Stairs. Up or down? I raced up, guessing that we were underground. Adrenaline pumped through my body.

When I reached the exit door at the next level up, I hesitated. They’d be waiting for me. Perhaps they knew where I was. Maybe the entire facility was rigged with cameras. But I hadn’t seen any in the stairwell.

I just kept going, up and up. They would expect me to come out in or near the platform in the tunnel, and that’s what I wasn’t going to do.

By the time I reached the last flight up, my legs felt like rubber. But I still hadn’t seen any of my pursuers. I thought that was strange, until I pushed open the door and walked out on the roof of that dome, into the warm drizzle of a Mumbai monsoon.

There was nothing. No helipad, no convenient scooters, no elevator. Just the vast, curving glass and metal roof, edges blurred in the rain. Uncle Sunil must be laughing – if the acid hadn’t eaten his face, of course.

I walked as far to the edge as I could without slipping and peered down.

My stomach lurched. It was at least five or six stories. No way I could survive a jump that high, modified posthuman or not. No wonder they hadn’t bothered searching the upper floors. They knew I had to come down to escape.

But what if I slid down? The sides of the dome were convex – not enough to come down safely, but better than a vertical drop.

The door clattered open and I didn’t stop to think. I launched myself off the edge, the glass slick underneath my legs. Rain stung my face and my heart near leaped out of my mouth. I screamed – as much from fear as exhilaration.

I fell feet first on wet grass. The pain was so intense I blacked out. It must have been only for a few moments, because when I came to, they still hadn’t caught up with me. I struggled to my feet and bit back a cry. I’d broken something. Perhaps several somethings.

I hobbled away as fast as I could, though every step was agony. My only hope was to get on the road, into the traffic. They wouldn’t chase me in broad daylight, not with media helicopters always on the prowl, looking for a story.

But then I heard scooters, revving up on the other side of the dome. They were coming to get me. No. Not now. Not after everything.

I turned to face my pursuers. When they appeared around the sides of the dome, I held my hands up in the air, smiled and prayed they wouldn’t shoot any more of those darts.

They didn’t. They just hovered, waiting.

Then I realized who they were waiting for. The rain had stopped and I saw his half-burned face through the transparent hood of the scooter. One eye was bandaged, the other glazed with pain.

He stepped out of the scooter, followed by a couple of guards.

“I’m really sorry, Uncle Sunil,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He didn’t move what was left of his mouth, but I had no trouble hearing the words which came from the vocoder strapped to his forehead: “Arya, I hand you the world on a platter and this is how you repay me?”

I had expected him to shout, to abuse me, but he just sounded sad. I swallowed and said, “My name’s Anjali.”

“Is it?” He stepped closer, shaking his head. “Such an ordinary name for such a special girl. Arya means great, a noble and valuable person. That is how I think of you. Unlike the mother, who grudged you two meals a day and a pallet to sleep on. Which name do you prefer, chawl-girl?”

I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. My torment must have shown on my face, because Uncle Sunil gave a small smile, one side of his ruined mouth moving up. I know you, that smile said; I know what you will choose. And in that moment, I chose.

Uncle Sunil’s shoulders relaxed and he turned to the man behind him. That was when I leaped. I punched him on the side of his head, sending him sprawling against the nearest guard. The others raised their guns but I was too close, too fast. I jumped into the scooter and jabbed the green switch like I’d seen Uncle Sunil do. The scooter revved up. I kicked one guard off the side before I shot through the air, my heart racing faster than a hummingbird’s wings.

Darts bounced off the hood. They mustn’t want to kill me, or I’d already be dead. I risked a glance back. I was being followed, but if I could just get away from the dome, I had a chance to make it.

A helicopter whirred in the sky overhead like the answer to my prayers. I looked up and relief flooded me. Thank you, Goddess. I never thought I’d be so happy to see the logo of the Marathi Times.

The scooters behind me fell back one by one. They’d hunt for me later, but meanwhile I would put as many miles as I could between myself and that dome.

I pulled on a raincoat I found in the storage compartment just below the controls. Then I headed southwest, leaving the corporation domes way behind, letting the scooter weave through the traffic on autopilot.

I abandoned the scooter in one of the artificial market beaches of Bandra, and stole the clothes of a firang woman in a bikini who was arguing with a boy about the price of coconut water. She didn’t notice me sneaking off with the pile of clothes behind her deck chair.

I changed in a filthy public toilet at one end of the beach. The clothes were a little too big for me, but there was no help for it. I hitched up the skirt and walked away from there fast, head down. I threw the hospital gown and raincoat into a beach trash can and then I was free.

Free. I tasted the word. It had a bittersweet flavour. What next? There was no going back home. I couldn’t face Ma and I was no longer the Anjali everyone knew. Who was I?

I tried out various names in my head. Mumbai Girl? No, too plain. Miss India? Sounded like a beauty queen, which I definitely wasn’t. Super Anjali? Too silly. Arya? No, that one I had rejected already.

Perhaps I’d just stick with plain old Anjali. Anjali, which meant ‘divine offering’. My mother named me and then she sold me, so I should have hated her. But I didn’t, not any more. In giving me the statue of Mumba Devi, Ma had told me what she couldn’t say in words: she was offering me up to the Goddess, into her protection.

But the Goddess helps those who help themselves. I would have to be brave and cunning to stay alive in the city and out of Uncle Sunil’s grasp. I had twelve years left in the slowly ticking time bomb of my life. It would have to be enough. Enough to destroy Uncle Sunil, Genex, and everything their polluted ideology stood for.

My fingers closed over the idol I had slipped into the pocket of my skirt, and I smiled.

The End

About Rati Mehrotra

Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra currently makes her home in Toronto, Canada. When not working on her magnum opus – a series of fantasy novels based in a fictional version of Asia – she writes short fiction, and rather unreliably posts updates on her blog ratiwrites.com. Her short stories have been published or are upcoming at AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Apex Magazine, Abyss & Apex and Lakeside Circus. Follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra