The Air Formulas: 0-5

The Air Formulas by Britt Nunes

Prologue

Fulcrum

A hand, soft and unexpected, collided with my cheek the moment I opened the chest. Stems and flowers bombarded my face milliseconds after. I quickly seized the hand to restrain it, but it yielded to my grip effortlessly, lifelessly. My breath caught in my throat at the sight of a lopsided young lady strapped inside the copper confines. Gravity weighed on her body in reverse; her arms, legs, and hair hovered above her, dangling unresponsively. A panicked jolt shot through me, one I was careful not to be consumed by. She was from the planet Arcanum, the world that flanked Earth, the world to which travel was illegal for someone like me, and taking from it was strictly banned.

I saw opalescent orchids scattered and interweaved among her white hair, and the rest of the unfathomable sight filtered in with it. Neon green stems protruded from her spine, poking through her skin as if it were dirt. Stems? Orchids? An actual plant was growing out of her? She was every yes and every no to all my questions.

Was she human? Yes. No.

Was she a plant? Yes. No.

Should I run? Yes. No.

Did I want to touch her —I mean the plant? Yes. No. Yes. No.

I was always doing the wrong things, always in the wrong places, always saying the wrong words. No matter how hard I tried to live up to my parents’ expectations—their belief that there was something gentlemanly inside of me—I constantly ruined everything. As I stared down at the young lady, her skin so white that a silver sheen appeared to shimmer across it, I knew this was the biggest mistake I’d ever made, and it just might cost me everything.

 

I

Sparrow

I stretched my arms up, my fingertips trying to touch the lights of the other world. They swarmed in the sky above me, mimicking stars. New Urbanite, the last surviving city on Earth, was so close to us that it filled the entire sky above me. I felt the awe in the pit of my stomach, swelling, expanding. I didn’t understand why I was the only vessel with my eyes up, with my feet wandering about the gravel in the courtyard. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a steamer-rail. They moved so quickly they were mere flashes as their copper bodies zipped across the city.

I dreamed of going there, setting foot off this planet that spun in a synchronous orbit with Earth around the sun, but I would never say that out loud. I knew I was supposed to be content with what I had on the planet Arcanum; grateful I could be of so much help to people I’d never meet. My lessons of what Earth used to be and everything they were trying to gain back had always taught me that.

The other vessels huddled together, murmuring amongst themselves and playing hand games. I heard a group of girls giggling as they braided each other’s hair. They carefully plucked their white strands away from their orchids. All vessels were implanted. Bright stems grew out from the middle of our spines and sprouted all the way up to the base of our necks. Orchid X2B was the reason for our existence; it produced oxygen that was infused into the air after filtration.

Outdoor allotments were rare, so I was always filled with an extra dose of excitement when I got them. My eyes flicked over to the guards bordering the walls of the O2 Corps. The buildings were brick and mortar type structures, assembled in a rush centuries ago. The structure where we spent most of our time was octagon shaped and three stories high. There were precisely 24 towers, containing an undisclosed number of vessels. Each tower was responsible for monitoring, examining, and maintaining our orchids. The whole facility was connected through enclosed passageways, and at the center of the establishment stood the central tower. No one knew what went on in there. Whispers from the guards and scientists suggested anything from paperwork to experiments. The only concrete thing I knew about it was once you’re taken there, you are never heard from again. The whole facility was surrounded by an iron fence, buzzing loud with electricity. The metal barrier made the courtyard feel small, but they never could contain my imaginations.

I kept my focus on New Urbanite; it was always bustling with activity. The lights bounced off its giant, protruding skyscrapers, so numerously they glowed in a dreamy pointillistic way. I always thought that if I could see the actual sky, the night would be comparable to this, as magnificent as this. I spun on my tippy toes, seeing the colors melt into a kaleidoscope. They mixed and blended, and I felt just a centimeter closer. I moved my feet faster, holding out my arms to try to keep my balance. I laughed so loud I was sure the others were staring at me, but I didn’t care.

My feet slipped on the gravel, making me stumble. My legs tangled together and soon I was spinning sideways towards the ground. I thudded hard on my shoulder. My enthusiasm was stronger than the pain, so I kept laughing, kept my eyes towards the city. One of my iridescent blooms tapped my ear like it was jealous that I was more interested in Earth than the plant that was saving all the lives in it.

“You’re beautiful too,” I said to the flower, rolling my eyes at its attention seeking.

Being that the other vessels didn’t seem to like me much, I made acquaintances with objects around me. My orchids and I were on relatively friendly terms, my pillow not so much, but the bars in my quarters were always gracious. I knew that they couldn’t actually hear me, well, I’m almost positive they couldn’t. I fantasized so much though that sometimes the lines blurred. My mind-inventions carried me too far away.

My upper arm was seized, a gloved hand constricted around it as a guard yanked me off the ground. He shoved me towards the gateway. My insides groaned, but my feet instinctually moved. The others were already herding towards the brick archway, bottlenecking in their quick scurry to get away. They kept their eyes on the floor, their arms flat against their sides as they followed the lead guard towards our next task. As I passed through the arch, I imagined that the brick turned into teeth and I was being swallowed by a beast.

The passageways were kept dark; light enough to only see outlines and shapes. Guards stood in the thresholds, keeping the herd from straying. They were just a silhouette of a barrier, appearing rather menacing. The sunken parts of their faces were shrouded by shadows, and their copper armor morphed them into a monstrous figure in the gloom. But that’s probably what we were supposed to think. I tried to talk to one of them once, a long time ago. Even though our non-conversation ended with me in a chokehold, I thought I saw remorse in the guard’s eyes as the medics carried me away. I kept my distance after that, not for my orchids’ safety but the guards’. I didn’t like making someone feel awful. He was just doing his job after all.

I padded down the passageway, keeping my fingers against the wall to figure out which way we were headed. The O2 Corps used to feel like a labyrinth to me with endless corridors and chambers. The darkness didn’t help with trying to map the layout in my head, so I began to rely on my fingertips. I could usually figure out where we were going based on the abnormalities I felt in the walls. My fingers sunk into a new dimple. We were headed someplace different. Excitement swelled inside of me as I saw a green light spewing from an open door ahead of us.

My legs picked up in pace, weaving my way through the herd as we came up to the opening. A woman stood in the threshold. Her form was straight and strict with black heels that made her gigantically tall. She was dressed in the standard O2 Corps lab coat, pristine white with rows of buckles across her torso. Her flowy black dress billowed out from the bottom of her coat. Her hair was tucked into a top hat; vials of different colored liquids fastened inside a copper holster ran around it.

“I am Instructor Kudos,” she said.

I suppressed the giggle that had built inside of me, but not the smile. I enjoyed her name too much, an old-world term to give someone praise. Her piercing eyes darted to me, making my lips drop. When she had successfully quelled me, she turned sharply away. Her heels clacked loudly against the brick as she gripped the side of her gown, pacing gracefully in front of us. I wondered if the lab coat covered the elegant Victorian design that most everybody, except for us vessels, wore. I itched to ask the question, but I knew I shouldn’t speak. I clasped my hands against my dingy, muslin smock. My garment was so worn it frayed at the bottom. I kept my eyes on the little threads that brushed the tops of my feet, trying with all my might to smother what was bubbling inside me.

“Now that you are seventeen cycles,” Instructor Kudos proceeded, “you are old enough to understand the privilege you are about to receive. The O2 Corps doesn’t take your sacrifice lightly; they are grateful for your service as a vessel. From your lessons, you should understand by now that with vegetation on both worlds depleted, the air cycle has been broken for centuries. We are still in the middle of an air crisis. The precious orchid that has been implanted in you is more valuable than any of our lives. If it dies, we die. I am here to present you all with a gift, a broader view of what you are helping to save.”

The last time the O2 Corps gave us a present it was a patch of grass on one of our outdoor allotments. It was the most beautiful thing, my green monster. My heart started to pound rapidly inside my chest. I squeezed my fingers tighter on my dress, trying to keep my excitement contained.

“Follow,” Instructor Kudos said.

I kept my distance from the instructor, not needing another reprimand for my insolence. The guards drew closer, making the herd spill into the chamber. I let myself get sucked into the crowd, shuffling along with them. The humidity hit me first, so moist that my clothes felt wet. Then all the fantastical sights, making me feel like I was enveloped inside one of my mind-inventions.

“This is what was, what we are trying to bring back,” Instructor Kudos said.

She held out her hands, presenting this exotic jungle world we had stepped into. We were surrounded by a canopy of trees, real trees. My mouth dropped open, so many things I’d only seen in photographs during our lessons.

“This is a Tropical Rainforest Biome, one of the O2 Corps’ crowning jewels. This is the beginning of the future.”

Instructor Kudos began walking, and again the guards closed in to keep us following.

“This chamber is kept at a warm 28 degrees Celsius with 8,000 millimeters of water showered per cycle, making it an excellent replica of the tropical rainforests that used to reside on Earth. This was a giant undertaking, and still ongoing. Piecing together an entire biome is not easy, especially with limited data, but slowly it has been coming together.”

We stopped in front of a massive tree that was streaked with colors. Its thick trunk was painted in sapphire, jade, and rose – so extraordinary.

“Behold a rainbow eucalyptus tree, or another name we’ve discovered it was called is Mindanao gum. It is unclear which rainforest it was originally from, but hopefully, our researchers will find out some time soon.”

I felt something hit my back, and then little pinpricks started crawling up. One of the girls in the herd backed away from me. Her eyes turned round and wide. She knocked into a boy, who looked over at me and screamed. I felt whatever it was weave through my orchid, making my stems shake against my shoulder. I spun around, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it was. The others backpedaled, jumping away when I got too close.

“Calm down,” Instructor Kudos said.

The guards created a barricade with their bodies, preventing the others from running off out of fear. The instructor marched up to me and plucked off the thing that was creeping along my spine. In her hands was an odd-looking creature with strands of iridescent hairs shooting out of its head. As it moved along the instructor’s palm, I could see gears on the sides of its tiny legs – it was a device.

“This is a mechanical representation of a troll-haired insect,” Instructor Kudos said.

The creature’s metal had ruby lines and dots running across it. Its six legs had jagged tips and were bent away from its hair. I examined the tin insect closer, realizing that its head was actually on the opposite end of its hair. A little black eye was on either side of its face.

“From what we can gather, the tropical rainforest had the greatest biodiversity, approximately 50 percent of Earth’s variety of plants and animals. This was why the O2 Corps chose to start with this biome first. Although we don’t have actual animals and insects, just representations like this one, we are confident that one day we will. When that day comes, we will be one step closer to repairing Earth and all the other biomes that used to thrive on it.”

Instructor Kudos finished her speech with what almost looked like a smile, which would be a first for an instructor. Other than Instructor Ferris, all of the scientists seemed to detest their instructor duties, preferring their main profession more.

“You may look around, and see what it is you have contributed to,” Instructor Kudos said.

The others clumped together, unnerved by all these foreign things around them. I should be more like them, passive, submissive, and docile, but I was different ever since I met my sisters. England, four cycles older, was the one who introduced me to a question. Veil, two cycles older, was the one who introduced me to imagination. Mix both those traits you get curiosity, and that’s what always consumed me. Instructor Ferris warned me of my ‘tireless inquisitiveness,’ as she put it, that it could mark me as different and the O2 Corps didn’t like different. I couldn’t help it though.

I padded further into the biome. The guards hesitated but soon backed away. There was so much green everywhere, a wonderland of vegetation. I skid my fingers down a tree that had latched onto another trunk. Moss squished under my touch. I saw another mechanical device; it was larger than the insect with a sleek silver body. Black dots spotted down it with screws for teeth. It moved gracefully on the thick branches, reminding me of a jaguar.

“Dart frog!” Someone from the herd screamed.

I perked up hearing that, wanting to see that bright, blue poisonous creature. The crowd started to panic, backing away.

“They are not real,” Instructor Kudos said.

There was another scream, as a girl pointed at the jaguar.

“Calm down,” she demanded.

They started scrambling away, but the guards were quicker. They shot after the vessels, including me. A guard lunged at me, slamming their shoulder into my chest knocking me over. He caught me before I landed on my back and damaged my orchid. I was flipped over; my face pressed into the moist dirt. They had all the vessels pinned down in seconds. The guards started plucking each one off the ground, one at a time. It was systematic; the next wouldn’t move until the other had disappeared out the door.

A man dressed in a three-piece suit with button spats and pointed shoes marched into the room. He walked up to Instructor Kudos and started whispering something in her ear. I wanted to know what it was because her face appeared pleased.

I was yanked off the ground, mud still caked to my face. The guard pulled me out of the biome and down the dark passageway. I stumbled as my legs tried to keep up with his pace. In a few short seconds, I was tossed in an empty chamber, my quarters for the night. I scrambled to my cot, carefully wiping off the mud so I wouldn’t lose too much.

It was empty and quiet, but the bars gave me a perfect view of the sky that was New Urbanite. I laid down on my cot, placing the mud inside my pocket in hopes I wouldn’t lose it. I kept my eyes on the window, staring at the dawn peeking in until I couldn’t keep them open anymore.

II

Fulcrum

I jetted through the sky, a hazy brown that extended endlessly. My jetpack rumbled against my back shaking me right down into my bones as if it were working out all the tension in my muscles. The wind whistled against my antique, gold helmet and a pleasant chill started seeping into my limbs. I took a deep breath, smelling the pollution thicken the air with a putrid exhaust. It was a scent that took me a while to get used to, but after years of rocketeering outside New Urbanite, it barely registered anymore.

Arching my trajectory, I started rocketing towards a deserted city I hadn’t scavenged through yet. I shifted my cyborg eye into infrared vision, sweeping the ground to make sure I didn’t have to contend with anyone for loot. When I came up empty, I descended and landed on the rough dirt. I yanked off my helmet, gaining back my peripheral vision. It was quiet, silence sounding louder than the roar of my jetpack. As I trekked through the city, it looked rather bare, but there was an actual presence to the city at least. Skyscrapers half standing in the skyline, houses charred, vacant squatter nests, and pirate markings. That was more than I could say for most of Earth, usually the cities, suburbs, and any sort of resemblance of civilization was just rubble and decay. They were graveyards of war and the fallout, combat, and desperation.

I trekked inside a building that didn’t tilt as treacherously as the others. The whole bottom floor of windows was shattered. I was hoping if it was from looters, it happened during the Massive Relocation, I’d have a better chance of finding something of value. Back then, people were dying or moving too quickly to forage meticulously. As I entered, particleboard desks and chairs with wheels sat in clumps in the middle of the lobby. Dirt and dust lay thick from years ago. The corners of my lips lifted ever so slightly up, a pressed lipped smile that I inherited when I was a young boy revering my father. Who knew that would be the only thing of his I would be able to mirror well. The smile dissipated with the reality of what I have become. I refocused, not letting my mind stray.

I wandered through what appeared to be an office building. I scanned the floors and walls. The differences between the past and present bellowed at me. The walls were plain plaster and simple carpeting, unlike the offices in the center of New Urbanite where a Victorian elegance swirled around everything of wealth. Only the affluent, or those with connections, could acquire such a position inside an office. I pushed away the thoughts of the center, all of its fine wool for three-piece suits and cravats, intricate gadgets for cufflinks, and timeless monocles; ladies with bright parasols, cutoff lace gloves, and fine replicated silk gowns – pretenders. Canvas people and tapestry people, my mother’s voice echoed in my mind.

I focused myself again, my mind wandering abnormally. I started checking the handles of the doors that rested on the far side of the building, not bothering with the ones that opened with squealing ease. Then, I finally got to a handle that resisted my tug. Dropping to my knees, I dug out my makeshift, mini tool box from my leather satchel. I used to just barrel through the doors, especially ones as thin as this, but I realized my body hurt less when I used my brain.

It was a pin-and-tumbler lock – simple. I plucked the pick and tension wrench from the tin box. Inserting the wrench at the bottom of the keyhole, I rotated it from right to left to figure out the direction the lock would turn – clockwise. Keeping the tension, I added the pick inside and started working on the pins. I raked across them a few times and then began pressing them out of the cylinder hearing the faint clicks with each successful one until I was able to turn the cylinder completely by the wrench.

I pushed open the door, and my shoulders stooped with failure. United States currency laid everywhere, in every denomination imaginable: hundreds, fifties, twenties. I grabbed a handful of the bills, examining the ancient money. It sat in a dingy array of colors between my fingers. I tossed it away with anger; dollars were waste. A clean piece of paper was actually worth some nuggets, but dollars were ruined paper valuable only if you needed something to burn.

I pushed my hands into my aviator jacket and trekked up the stairs. My boots stomped hard against the cracked tile and exposed concrete. I checked each floor as I climbed higher, finding an antique watch that may be valuable if I can actually fix it. I pressed forward, finally reaching the top story of the building. I found a few knickknacks, a stuffed bear that looked slightly mangled, a novel with its cover ripped off, and a broken metal butterfly pendant. These were all signs that scavengers had already been here.

I roughly stowed the items in my satchel knowing they’re worthless but feeling like I needed to walk away with at least a small stash. I scavenged through the rest of the floor but came up empty. I felt the heat burning through my veins, the venom growing stronger as my anger bubbled. I took a few deep breaths, willing the poison to drain into the jar deep inside of me. I got good at containing the rage, determined not to be the monster I was always seen as.

I glanced at my robotic hand but kept my eyes from lingering too long on the silver metal. I pushed all the thoughts, images, and events away, numbing my emotions to stay strong. I knew cowards didn’t last long out here, especially ones that were too preoccupied that they let down their guard. If New Urbanite wasn’t safe to do that, then everything outside would mean death. Emotions were a luxury I couldn’t let myself feel, couldn’t let myself get carried away with.

Can you change the past? No. Life was one big yes or no question, and I always knew the answer.

I headed back down but stopped in my strides when my feet started to slide. The building groaned and began leaning more severely, making me stumble into the wall. I entered into the closest floor, thrusting on my helmet as I ran for an exit. The building was tilting faster making me plummet and crash through a glass wall. A table broke my fall, fracturing under my weight and smacking against my stomach. Adrenaline kept the pain at bay as I got to my feet and opened a door that was now on the floor. I gazed out and saw my exit, a broken window in a boardroom. I clutched the rocket switch tight in my hand, took a deep breath, and dropped through the door.

The descent was quick, open-air chaffed my bare hands and thrashed against my helmet. The building was being held up by the adjacent one as I fell under it. I didn’t have much time to compensate, adjusting my position enough, so I didn’t jet right back into the structure. When I was at the right angle, I started my thrusters shooting myself sideways. Using the rudder on my helmet, I was able to level out and make my way back to the sky.

 

III

Sparrow

 “Sparrow.”

A voice, grated and faint, weeded its way into my mind as a warm touch stroked my cheek.

“Spar-row.”

The sound of my name broke with the gruffness, but the voice, the touch, felt familiar. My cushion formed under me, consciousness pushing sleep away with a bitter ache I felt throughout my limbs. I cracked my eyes open, just a tiny fissure, enough to see snow dancing in front of me. Curiosity had me fighting to flick off the heavy pearls that were still welded to my lashes. Fingertips wrenched one of my eyelids the rest of the way open, and snow became hair. My sister was smiling her corkscrew grin, the one that twisted her lips in a beautifully awkward way.

“Veil?” I asked.

Her name sounded slurred coming from my lips. She gripped my shoulders and yanked my upper body off my pallet and into her inviting embrace. But this wasn’t right. Veil had been sent away after her body had rejected her orchid, and once that happened to someone, they were taken to the center fortress and never heard from again. My head started to spin with the lethargic idea that I could barely grasp. My muscles flexed with tension.

“Sparrow, I’ve missed you so much,” Veil cried into my hair.

“Veil?” I asked again.

I wasn’t able to wrap my head around this notion. This impossibility. This wonderful delight. I wanted to laugh, wanted to cry, wanted to fully wake up and not find out that this was one of my mind inventions gone awry.

“Don’t volunteer, Sparrow,” she muttered in a rush.

Her extremities were trembling, or at least it felt like they were. I shook my head, perfunctorily curling my toes in my attempt to concentrate. A wave of dizziness made me sway in Veil’s arms. My brain refused to work properly. This felt heavier than sleep, but I couldn’t figure out why.

“Do you hear me, Sparrow?” Veil heaved me upright, pulling my face to hers. “When you are pulled in for your evaluation, they will—”

“I already had mine.”

My lips felt clumsy as I forced words out.

“Please, tell me you didn’t volunteer,” Veil pleaded.

“I did.”

I didn’t know why volunteering for a new program was such a terrible thing, but the panic in my sister’s eyes made me think otherwise. In fact, the dread was bringing me closer to awareness, fear sprinkling a light rain of alertness in my mind. Veil set me down. My face greeted the warmed thin cushion as I struggled to press two fingers against the rough, brick floor. I crawled off my pallet and plopped onto the ground. The coolness slowed the woozy whirling of my vision. I tried to focus on Veil, zeroing in on her perched stance at an opened threshold.

Rosesandthorns, my door was open!

A dim glimmer of firelight filtered into my quarters. My door, thick oak wood, only unlocked when they called me for lessons with other youths, outdoor allotments, hygiene maintenance, or evaluations. Veil rushed back to me, stroking my hair in a preparatory manor I was used to her doing right before she did something she didn’t want to do—or something she shouldn’t.

“We’re going,” she said.

She snaked her arms around my shoulders and hauled me up. My head swung down lifeless. My neck was no sturdier than flimsy rubber. Veil patted my cheek harshly enough to make little jolts of pain flare out as pattering, hail-like noises rattled off my skin.

“Come on. Let’s have an adventure,” Veil tittered the same way she would when we used to all live in the same quarters with our older sister, England. We would ride on the backs of elephants, explore the deep caverns of caves, and sail the oceans with a treasure map that promised riches. Veil was always the architect of our many wild explorations, though she never took it as far as actually leaving our chamber.

“What? Where?”

I lifted my head, trying to make my muscles move to my commands. Veil titled her head with one white eyebrow stretching high, her it’s-for-me-to-know-and-you-to-find-out look. I knew that look well, missed that look so much it made my heart sore. Veil’s teasing face soon melted to one of urgency, yanking me to my feet. This is what a fawn must feel like after birth, I thought, stumbling on legs that felt like sprigs and knowing from a deer lesson that they walked almost immediately. It felt like such a cruel act in this moment.

Veil peeked out the opening and quickly towed me along behind her. A shiver rushed through me as I passed through the arched threshold, something I’d done a million times but always with permission. I didn’t know what Veil was up to, but I was too curious and too drowsy to stop her.

Footsteps echoed off the walls, and Veil tossed me under a built-in workbench, ducking in quickly after. I jerked myself into one of the supports, trying to make the rest of the pearls of sleep fall away. The nip of my stems pressed against my arm as the movement radiated down into my back, a comforting sensation that made me wander toward a tangent imagination. My brain drudged up old mind-inventions, frightening images where the roots of my orchid would break out of its protective lining, twist around my spinal column and imbed itself inside my spleen. Another quickly followed, as it usually did, where the stems would find their way into my CO2 tube and blossoms would sprout inside my lungs in the midst of stealing my carbon dioxide. I almost laughed out loud, because it didn’t scare me anymore; in fact, it did the opposite, which was probably why I’d volunteered for the new program. It was change.

The footsteps grew louder, turning into piercing clacks. The brutal noise silenced right next to us, but I couldn’t see any legs or any body part that verified what my ears were telling me. My curiosity coaxed me into taking a harmless peek, but I saw nothing. Not until Veil’s arm gripped my shoulders and jerked me back did my gaze shoot up.

A woman, whom I could only describe as refined, stood on the ceiling. She wore an indigo gown that cinched at her waist with intricate hand-stitching across her torso. Her elegance made me wish I could view the detailing closer, exactly what the buttons running up to her throat looked like, and precisely how her hair was folded to achieve such an elaborate style. I tilted ever so slightly past the bench and saw a matching parasol clutched tightly between her black lace gloves. My fascination stirred.

“Please hurry, Henry.” The woman’s voice was reedy and sharp. “You know I don’t like being over here on this”—she exhaled haughtily—“planet.”

A man marched toward her above our heads. He wore a three-piece suite with pointed shoes, button spats, and a pristine top hat. There was an extra tap to his step as he struck the ceiling with a cane. I wondered if it was real silk and wool, or the synthetic imitations most everything was made of nowadays. Speaking truths, I’d never seen such extravagant apparel as these two displayed.

“I was just checking to see if there were any transmissions from Joon Arrows in regards to the proposition,” the man said, his voice a deep, rumbling one.

“And?”

“No correspondence yet.”

“Hmm…” The woman snorted through her nose indignantly. “He should be so grateful.”

The woman thrust away layers of her frock from her feet, moving so easily on the ceiling, but then again the ceiling was their floor. I wondered what it felt like to have gravity such as theirs. The question bubbled in the back of my mouth, longing to be asked. I had only observed a small number from Earth before. A few times I stirred awake to see tops of heads on the ceiling of my quarters. I knew from an early lesson that workers would attach my H2O tube for my orchid while I slept. I’d always wondered if it was them or the other workers that were held down by the same gravity as me who did it. Not that it really mattered, but for some reason I wanted to know. I caught a glimpse of a monocle as the man adjusted his hat. My heart jumped into my throat, excitement from seeing something new making it leap, but then a healthy dose of fear instantly pummeled me with the weight of what Veil and I were doing. Rosesandthorns! I was disobeying regulations! My orchid was the property of O2 Corps, and so was my body!

After the woman wrung her hands around her parasol a few time, she spun on her heels and marched down the walkway. The man trudged silently behind. After we couldn’t hear them for several minutes, Veil tugged me out with her and headed down a passageway I’d never ventured through.

All of a sudden, alarms started screaming at us, loud and intrusive like my lesson on primates—howler monkeys to be precise. Because of an enlarged hyoid bone, their howls could be heard more than four kilometers away—if they still existed, that is. A mind-invention of the furry mammals hidden away in the facilities filled my brain. I scolded myself for fabricating impossible things at a time like this. I knew every species of animal had been extinct for countless cycles.

Panic welled inside of me, a feeling I’d only experienced twice before; now I could add a third time to my list. Turning a sharp corner, Veil tugged me down a gangway that had an odd slant. Gray brick met the corner of the adjacent wall in a triangle. Veil pulled out an iron key, something I’ve seen workers have in possession. I wondered how she had gotten ahold of one.

She scanned the numbers on each door, all black and Courier New typeface. I only knew of the font because I had asked back when I’d had an instructor who actually answered my questions, but it had been a handful of cycles since I’d seen Instructor Ferris. I missed Instructor Ferris. She was friendly and encouraged my questions.

When Veil marched towards a specific door, finding the one she wanted. She inserted the key, giving it a twist, and it creaked open. She thrust me into a small room and quickly sealed us inside.

“What’s going on, Veil?” I asked.

I wasn’t sure if I should sprint back to my quarters just in case the howler-monkey-alarm wasn’t for us.

“Do you trust me?” she asked.

She dragged over a tin box that she used as a step stool to get to a window.

I gulped. “Yes.”

I curled my toes out of panic. I wasn’t sure if I liked the feeling of panic, because it made my skin feel tingly all over and my heart flutter like a butterfly given heaps of sugar.

“England’s breaking us out,” Veil said, producing a screwdriver from her pocket.

“What?” I squeaked.

I hadn’t heard any news since England disappeared many cycles ago.

“England’s on Earth,” she said.

She began working at the screws on the iron screen that blocked the window. Melancholy howls sank into my skin, an aggressive capuchin protecting its territory, rattling down into my orchid’s roots. As I watched Veil loosen the bolts, I began to feel as though ropes tethered with invisible figure-eight knots were pressing on my wrists. One yanked me toward the safety of my chamber, where I would be a vessel for oxygen production as I had been taught, and the other jerked me toward my sister to Earth. Veil finally popped off the screen and shattered the window with the handle of the tool. She reached out to me as I fidgeted closer to the maze of passageways.

“Are you coming, Sparrow?”

 

IV

Fulcrum

As soon as I stepped into Uncle Medwin’s Whatchamacallit shop, Webster came rushing to my feet. Webster sniffled wildly trying to smell things he couldn’t anymore and wanting what wasn’t his.  I probably should have felt some sort of attachment to this pit-bull cyborg. He was like me in a way, alive but not the same, standing but not whole. Maybe I should have felt some kind of camaraderie with the only other cyborg on both planets, but I didn’t. Webster gazed up at me with nothing but innocence and love pouring out of him. I glared at his half-metal and half-black pelt of a face. His unrestricted affection made the venom simmer inside of me. I couldn’t figure out why I detested this dog so much, but it didn’t matter so I really didn’t dwell on it.

I kicked off my boots, not wanting to deal with his shoe fetish at the moment. My face and ribs hurt too much for the dance Webster was going to make me do, the skyscraper already did a number on me. Webster snaked his body in a figure eight between my legs. He acted more feline than canine as he wagged his nub of a tail gleefully. Webster then gripped one of my boots by the toe with his teeth, happily trotting it over to the other shoes he had already neatly arranged in a line, heel to toe. Webster had a lot of quirks; which had to have been attributed to him being cyborg.

I continued my journey into the shop, old machines, and ancient books lined the shelves against the walls. Odd trinkets and knickknacks littered six tables stationed randomly around the room. And timeworn toys, broken tools, and more fraying books were stacked around the table legs, some actually lending support to the old-world wood.

Sharp jolts of pain bit at my heel, making me stumble. Antique metal jacks were strewn across the floor. I scowled at Webster, who was tapping his nose on top of each successful footwear treasure like he was counting his spoils. I coiled my human hand into a fist, letting my anger fill it with tension and then slowly released the muscles, drained the heat. For some reason this never worked with my cyborg hand. I couldn’t feel the heat drifting down my arm, filling up my palm, and pushing out my fingertips.

I shot my eyes to the winding staircase as my cousin, Info, trudged down it. Info dropped to his knees, greeting Webster with a giant hug. Webster nuzzled against him, giving his cheek a lick with his metal tongue. Info loved Webster and vice versa; which wasn’t a smart idea.

Is this dog really old? Yes.

Will this dog most likely keel over and die on Info? Yes.

I should have held open the shop doors long enough for Webster to liberate himself. Info would’ve gotten over it.

“Good morning, Webster,” Info chuckled.

Info scratched behind his furry ear making his nub wag more rapidly. He then clutched the dog on both sides of his face.

“What’s the definition of viscid?”

Webster barked in response.

“Thick, sticky, gooey; that’s right amigo,” Info cheered, using culture slang that would’ve made his mother cringe.

I could almost picture the way Dancy would shake her finger at Info as a spark of amusement ignited in her eyes.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

Info’s eyes shot to mine. They widened, shocked to see me standing in front of him.

“It doesn’t matter,” he laughed sarcastically, scratching Webster’s bottom. He was only person that would, probably why the mutt loved him so much. “Surprised you remembered where we live anymore.”

“It hasn’t been that long,” I said.

Info’s fourteen year old eyes held more age than I remembered, and his body sagged in a fatigued sort of way.

“How have you been doing?” I asked.

Zoo. How are you?”

Zoo – meaning ‘good’. Info was raise in the fringes. His speech was riddled with culture slang that Dancy had no hope of completely eradicating.

“Information,” I said more seriously.

“Yes, that is my name.”

He wore a fake grin as he shifted his eyes to my feet. His gaze lingered on my socks. His voice was laced with sarcasm; it made the tone sound wrong. I didn’t want to think Info had changed much since the last time I saw him, but doubt was starting to form in the back of my mind.

“So, you staying awhile?”

“You know why I do what I do. Why are you acting like this?” I said.

Info scowled at the ground, but then gazed back up at me. He wanted something I was never good at giving, the right words. I held Info’s stare, seeing pieces of Medwin and Dancy gazing back at me. Info was the perfect mix of his parents. Dancy was in the shade of his irises and his physique, a pale green hue and stringy limbs. He wore Medwin on his skin and in the color of his hair, fair with freckles coating every centimeter of him and reddish-brown strands. Even though Info and I were cousins, we looked nothing alike. I took after my father’s side – black hair, hazel eyes, and Korean attributes. Only, I had a good amount of muscle in a way my father didn’t, although my father never was a rocketeer.

“I want to go with you. Being a rocketeer is zoo heev,” Info said. He bobbed up and down on his heels with excitement. “I just want to be helpful for once.”

He looked at me with those eyes again. I tried to find words that would let him down gently. Medwin didn’t want him to rocketeer, flying outside safe air zones. My lungs had been replaced; machines and synthetic tissue now took up residence inside my ribcage. All of my cyborg mechanics, including most of my heart, was grafted into me to survive this toxic world.

“We’ll see,” I said.

“That’s a no. Xiè xie, Fulcrum,” Info huffed out, thanking me sarcastically in culture-slang. “I’m a year away from being an adult, stop treating me like a kid.”

Info tried to brush passed me, but I thrust out my arm making a barricade.

“Just go. Leave us like you always do,” Info barked.

He shoved away my arm. He was never this ornery, this callous. I shifted in front of him, obstructing his path with my body. Info pressed his palms against my chest, but I gripped his wrist and held my stance against his weight. His arms trembled with his efforts to knock me over, but there was little power in his muscles, which worried me. He hadn’t grown very much either, still stood just shy of my shoulder. He was getting worse. Info gave up trying to move me instead, putting energy into ripping his wrists from my grasp.

“What’s wrong Info?” I asked.

“Let me go,” he yelled.

Somehow, it morphed into a wrestling match. Info’s furious jerks against my iron hold. Info was yanking, tugging, and pushing, trying to win some battle he felt like he was in. I may be a monster, but I was not his enemy. It was easy to keep my rage contained. Info was family and they were the only reason I kept going.

Suddenly, Info keeled forward. I caught him by his waist before he hit the ground, lowering him slowly onto the cracked concrete. Coughs jolted out of Info, making his body twitch and twist with each uncontrollable, expulsion of breath. Info steadied himself on all fours, fighting to hold back unsuccessfully. I pushed out the dread that was threating to grow in the back of my mind. Info had been having lung problems his entire life, and respiratory failure was just looming in his future. I made a promise a long time ago, a promise I intended on keeping no matter what.

Info curled into me, seeming more like a scared child than the man he tried so hard to be. His coughs thrust out of him longer and more forcefully than I’ve ever witnessed. I pulled him closer into my chest, letting Info use my arm as a support for his heaving chest; his tiny hands were sandwiched between the two. My heart was burning, feeling like I was losing this battle, unwillingly breaking off a piece of my promise.

Is giving into my rage going to help Info? No.

I shut my feelings off, trying to make myself solid and numb.

“I’m sorry,” Info croaked out.

He wiped saliva off the corner of his mouth with the end of his sleeve. I nodded understandingly, giving his shoulder a squeeze. I quickly checked Info’s air quality gauge, a device every citizen wore around their necks. The gauge measured how much healthy air that person had been exposed to as well as O2 intake. Info’s was all normal; his lungs were just damaged, probably needing more breathing treatments.

“Just these Monsieurs…,” Info trailed off shaking his head.

“Who?” I questioned.

The tears sprang so unexpectedly, like his coughing fit, I wasn’t prepared for them. Info clung to me, gripping my torso with his shaking, frail arms. He cried broken sobs, coughing in-between a few of them. I clutched him just as tightly back, as if I could somehow hold the pieces of him together. As if it could somehow repair his lungs.

“I’m going to be okay, right?” Info blubbered into my leather jacket.

“Yes,” I quickly said. “I promise.”

“Okay,” he sniffled. “Okay.”

Info pulled away, wiping his eyes quickly as if he could deny what just happened with the evidence erased.

“I’m going to make breakfast,” he muttered and headed upstairs.

I watched as his little frame zipped up the iron staircase, trying not to show his exhaustion with each step. My fist filled with hot tension and then I slowly released it out. I unclasped all the buckles on my jetpack and stored it behind the counter under the register. I then headed to the backroom to find the items in disarray. Dancy was marching between piles of what looked like junk, picking up an item just to toss it back down. When the floor groaned under me, she threw her hand against her chest. A hammer dropped from her fingertips.

“Fulcrum,” she exclaimed.

“Hello Aunt,” I greeted, giving her a small bow.

She curtsied back, a smile brushing her lips faintly. Dancy padded towards me, pressing her fingers against my cheek. Her eyes turned glassy. She pulled me into a hug, oddly showing an unrestrained amount of affection. Not that she was heartless or cold, but Dancy was always hesitant because she grew up without such displays. Her voice quivered, as if she were suppressing tears.

“I’m so happy to see you,” she said.

“And I you.”

She pulled away, trying to dry her eyes before I saw, but there were too many tears.

“Are you staying long?” She asked, hope in her clenched fingers.

I pulled off my satchel and started yanking out the few items I found.

“I brought some more things for you and Medwin to sell,” I said.

“You should stay awhile. Daisy would love to see you,” she said.

I cleared my throat, because I really didn’t know how long I was going to stay.

“It’s broken,” I said, pulling out the watch, “but I think I may be able to fix it.”

“Take all the time you need,” she said.

Her face lit up, making her smile grow. She walked across the room, grabbing the toolbox filled with the smaller tools. She settled it on a cleared spot at the bench, pulling over a stool for me.

“Where is Medwin? I asked.

Her fingers fumbled on the latch of the toolbox. She kept her eyes focused on her task.

“He’s out,” she said.

“Do you know when he’ll be back?” I asked.

I wanted to prepare myself, because my Uncle had a way of making me talk. He had a way of making me tell him things I’d rather keep buried deep down so I didn’t have to think about them.

“I’m not too sure,” she said.

Something wasn’t right. Medwin hardly ever left the shop, unless he was out with the family or scavenging with me.

“He’s not rocketeering is he?”

There was harshness to my tone I didn’t mean to place there, but I couldn’t keep the anger from tainting my words. Even with his gasmask, Medwin still developed a cough from the exposure to the pollution. He had stopped scavenging with me, mainly because I wouldn’t go out with him and he had grown too weak to do it alone. I try to bring back enough scavenged items so Medwin never has to put that jetpack on again, but sometimes I wondered.

“No. No,” she said fervently.

She shook her head, keeping her eyes on the workbench she started cleaning up.

“Where is he then?”

It was quiet between us. Dancy plucked away each item, moving gracefully as she placed the tools in their correct spots.

“At least say hello to Daisy,” she said.

“I should really get my boots back from Webster,” I said.

I headed towards the door. I didn’t want to think of Daisy. The thought of her twisted by heart more than anything.

“She misses you,” Dancy said.

The humid heat of the city just hit me right then, burning the back of my neck.

“Please, excuse me for a moment,” I said.

I marched out of the room, and back into the shop, pressing my fists into the front counter. Webster burrowed his face into my legs, wanting something from me.

“I gave you my boots, what more do you want from me,” I growled at the mutt.

Webster was tiny, his growth suspended ever since they did the surgery on him when he was a pup. Even with so much taken from him, he never acted vicious. My harsh words didn’t stop his pursuit. Webster nuzzled against my legs until the tension in them subsided ever so slightly. Then, as if comforted by my mere presence, his mechanics went to sleep mode. He slept without a care in the world

 

V

Sparrow

I trampled across the green haired creature; my bare feet tickled by its strands as I tried to keep pace with Veil. Grass was a pleasure, and now I couldn’t believe I was charging through it like it was meaningless, like it wasn’t a beautiful animal I always fanaticized it was. The alarms started blaring with new urgency that made them sound less primate and more robotic.

The hot electric waves distort the air around the fence, like ripples in water drifting out from the horizontal metal rods. Veil’s strides didn’t slow making panic feel hot inside of me, as scorching as the electric barricade we were racing towards. But then, dropping down out of the sky, seeming to come out of nowhere, was a hulking spaceship. It was a large ship cobbled out of dozens of smaller ones, or at least that’s what it looked like. The ships towards the sides were sleek and streamlined, forming wings. Not that they needed wings in space, there was no resistance, but that’s what they appeared to be. The massive ship was patchy with color, and words in different languages were painted onto the little hulls. It flew over our heads, crashing into the barrier.

Metal hissed with a piercing shriek forcing me to cover my ears, as the rods attacked the ship with ridged scrapes along its underside. Sparks flared out, streaking up to reach the other world in white blazes. Veil and I backpedaled out of its path, jumping right to left to avoid the rods and flames. The hot electric fury reached my cheeks, but the flashes of fire fizzled out as quickly as they came. There was a massive hole in the fence, my once ridiculous dream of going to Earth turned into a tangible possibility – excitement grew inside of me.

Veil grabbed my hand, but this time I was the one towing her along with me. I wrenched her through the debris of metal, dirt, and grass, racing after the spaceship. As our feet sank into purple sand, the multi-colored spaceship collided with one of the watch-beasts, a copperplate machine that guarded the facility and those inside.

The watch-beasts had exposed gears, a massive, metal body where the head and torso are one, and long, thick appendages. They were like a deformed gorilla, fascinating to me. Although, I always found it curious that they seemed to always watch the vessels on the inside, not threats from the outside. We started climbing over the beast, its mechanical head jerking sideways in broken sputters. I wish I had time to inspect it more, figure out what exactly made it function. One of its arms was swinging wildly around. Veil yanked me back. I felt the wisp of air as the watch-beast’s arm just barely missed my shoulder.

The other watch-beasts were coming, their advances sounding like groaning dinosaurs as the ground shook under our feet. There were chaotic murmurs coming from behind, and when I glanced back I saw O2 workers sprinting towards us. Veil’s hand constricted mine. She began to rock back and forth, keeping time with the swings of the arm. This reminded me of when we were younger, Veil always counted to five. At the fifth motion I lurched forward and we were soon bolting past the metal arm. It nicked one of my calves, making me stumble but Veil helped keep me upright.

A crackling buzz spliced through the moaning dinosaurs and babbling panic. I knew what that meant; I’ve heard whispers about these machines from the workers as I traveled through the passageways. They were modeled after fireflies, their body brass and their abdomen appearing like a light bulb. I know I should be terrified of them, if the mechanical bug latched onto me it would inject me with a sedative, but with my overwhelming elation I only felt a small wave of fear.

Ancient extraterrestrial structures filled the horizon. Giant circular spheres made of some white alloy and translucent lavender windows littered the divots in the plum-colored dunes. I’ve always fantasized about the edifices. Wondered about its once inhabitants and what this worlds’ history really was from the other side of the fence. This planet was once occupied by aliens that had kept their existence a secret, the reason why it was given the name Arcanum. With their advance technology, they were able to mask their world from humans, but they all perished and there was no one left to maintain the device that made them invisible. After cycles of neglect, the strange planet was exposed to all Earthlings. I remembered the instructor emphasizing how it was our curiosity of this world that was the undoing of Earth. When humans started exploring Arcanum, they not only brought back relics of a dead species, but a foreign disease that infected the vegetation. The food chain deteriorated billions of animals and humans starved to death or were being hunted for food. Governments started to reach out and form alliances, factories for producing edible, inorganic foods were the primary focus. But with canopies of rain forests and wild jungles no longer in existence, the broken air cycle was an enemy that made countries revolt, alliances diminish, and governments crumble. Most of the population died from toxic air or the wars that spawned from it.

The purple sand started flying into my face, pulling me out of my reverie of the facts of before. Then, I saw the spaceship hovering above one of the smaller alien buildings. A ramp lowered and two figures jumped out of the ship, climbing down the side of the building as a tether slowed their descent. The ground quaked more violently, the watch-beasts gaining on us. As the buzzing grew louder I gazed over my shoulder. The O2 workers had stopped in their strides which I thought was odd, until I saw a cloud of buzzing mechanical bugs. The bugs closed the distance within seconds and just before one could strike me a lantern was tossed into the swarm averting their attention. My upper arm was snatched and I was being yanked forward by both Veil’s hand and a man’s.

“Keep moving,” an older man barked.

His grip tightened on my arm as he heaved me along with his pace.

“Don’t say it Jones,” a younger man who was running on the side of Veil shouted.

“What? That this was a kyoujin deal Diesel,” the older man, Jones, said.

“Get down!” the younger one, Diesel, shouted.

Jones jerked me into the sand and buzzing hurtled past our heads. The soft powder cushioned my body as I plummeted onto it. We began tumbling down the dune clumping into a human ball for a split second, flaying limbs struck my cheeks and chest before the momentum broke us apart. I skidded to a stop with my face. My mouth filling with sand and a dry nothing taste. I spat out the sand disappointedly. I always imagined it tasting like plums matching the color with the flavor for some reason. Maybe plums did taste like nothing?

“Over here,” Jones growled.

He pulled me up and tugged me behind a small aircraft, out of sight. More than half of the aged airplane was buried below the surface; its wing was so corroded I couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be. Diesel drug over Veil, tossing her next to me when they rounded the plane.

“The only reason you listened to the Mademoiselle in the first place was because she was pretty,” Jones guffawed.

“I think timeless beauty were my exact words,” Diesel said, turning to Jones he added, “Piękny heev.”

“Oh, that makes me feel so much better that we were lied to.”

I wanted to know who these people where and what strange words they were saying. They both wore black jodhpurs, white collared shirts, unbuttoned vests, brass gasmasks hanging from their necks, and leather belts each with an array of gadgets slung around their waists. The only one I recognized was a dingy grappling hook that dangled upside down off the younger one, Diesel’s, hip. The men were opposite in the fact that Jones was much older, his words were coated with pessimism, his hair a light brown, and his skin was fair and crinkled with stress creases. Whereas Diesel was younger, with a lighthearted way of speaking, a shaved head, and dark smooth skin; although he still appeared older than Veil.

“England doesn’t…,” Veil took in deep gulps of air, “doesn’t know I’m bringing her.”

Diesel and Jones both scowled at Veil.

“My sis…sister will…,” Veil gulped again, “pay you to take us both.”

“England?” Diesel said suspicion making his voice deep.

“I mean –,” Veil started to say.

“Now that’s two lies,” Jones interrupted her with a sneer.

Jones popped open one of the compartments on his belt and withdrew a clump of brass. He clutched it between his leather gloves and twisted the metal making a clicking noise. As he removed his hands the clump of brass started moving, the device detaching its gears and reassembling in a different order.

“How much time you need?” Diesel asked rolling up his sleeves.

“Thirty seconds?” Jones said.

He adjusted some of the components on the device until it looked like a duplicate of that lantern that had dropped into the swarm.

“You better hope I can trick them for that long,” Diesel laughed. He turned to Veil, his face shifting to a severe expression. “England better pay us.”

Diesel thrust up his sleeves as far as they would go; he was more muscle than anything else. He carefully peeked around the plane. Jones pulled on his gasmask, taking in deep breaths, soft moans slipping out with each breath.

“You’re clear, just the tickers. Go now!” Diesel yelled.

Jones waved for us to follow him, running faster than either of us could keep up. My lungs were burning and a sharp pain swelled in the side of my stomach, I’ve never done this much physical activity in my entire life. Instructor Ferris was the only person that said staying active was important, teaching us push-ups, jumping jacks, and other exercises we could do in our quarters. She also told us to run around when we received our outdoor allotments, saying that cardio was imperative but not elaborating why. As I agonizingly threw one leg in front of the other, I wished I put her words into practice more than I did. I always found too many wonderful mind-inventions and word-mosaics to fill my time with.

Veil clutched my hand and started hauling me with her, able to keep up better than me. This made me wonder what happened when we were separated, where had she been all this time. The other questions fell out of my brain because breathing was becoming a very difficult task. I didn’t realize it could burn so much to drawl in a breath. When I heard popping and fizzing sounds I glanced quickly over my shoulder. I didn’t get a good look, but it seemed like the mechanical bugs were falling away from Diesel’s skin in dozens of mini explosions. If everything didn’t burn so terribly and my footsteps didn’t keep wobbling, I would have studied that astonishing impossibility longer.

We ran up to the colossal sphere, three ropes were swaying back and forth against the sleek alloy. Jones grabbed Veil and wrapped a belt around her waist attaching her to the rope.

“You better hold on tight,” Jones growled at me, “we weren’t expecting you.”

Jones gripped the rope and tugged on it three times.

“Hope it doesn’t snap,” he added just as the line went taunt.

Veil quickly clutched my torso as I reached up to grip her neck.

“Is it ready now?” Diesel shouted, sprinting towards us with the swarm tailing him.

The rope started taking us airborne, Veil’s arms turned into a vise, locking me tightly to her.

“Isn’t this fun?” Veil whispered with a tight chuckle.

“Ten seconds,” Jones said attaching himself to a rope.

“We don’t have ten seconds,” Diesel said anchoring the rope to his belt too. “Just throw it!”

With an unconcerned huff, Jones tossed the lantern at the swarm. We were midway between the sphere and the ship as the bugs came darting straight for us. The buzzing grew loud, making them sound more like old radio-static. Just before we were completely surrounded, a bright white light lured their attention away.

“Sparrow?” Veil said.

Her arms suddenly dropped away from me, and I began sliding down her body. I caught myself on her hips, sinking my cheek into her belly with shaky arms. My heart pounded faster with the realization that Veil had been stung and we were still a handful of meters away from the ship.

“Grab the rope,” Jones shouted at me.

My muscles were too weak to move, I only hoped I had enough strength to hang. I dragged in ragged breaths, trying to enfold myself inside one of my imaginations where I was an alien with super strength. My hold on her waist faltered and I slid down just able to get ahold of her ankle. It jerked out of its socket with my weight. I gritted my teeth, apologizing repeatedly to Veil over and over in my head.

“Don’t do it,” Jones shouted, but I had no strength left to divert my focus away from keeping my hands around Veil’s ankle.

The underside of the spaceship drew closer and soon the ramp would have been in Veil’s reaching distance if she were conscious. Veil’s waist was sucked up onto the ramp, but with my weight her body jerked vertical, her ankle cracked unnaturally, making my hands slip off. I was free falling, swinging my arms to try to grip the ramp but I was still too far away.

Then Diesel plowed into me, grabbing my leg flipping me upside down. As I started to rise again I tried to take in all the sights, O2 workers were running again and the watch-beasts were at the base of the sphere. The edge of the ramp scraped the side of my body as Diesel helped heave me onto it.

“You psykopaatti,” Jones yelled. “You could have snapped your line Diesel!”

I ran over to Veil, wrapping her in my arms and examining her with my eyes. Other than her ankle, which was facing the wrong direction, she was breathing and seemed okay.

“All part of the job,” Diesel laughed, dropping onto his back.

“Not for a Captain it isn’t,” Jones snapped.

Nein, don’t say tha–,” Diesel’s voice abruptly stopped as his eyes shifted from Jones to me.

“Thank you,” I quickly said, thinking he must assume I’m ungrateful from the dark shift in his eyes.

I turned back to Veil, stroking her long hair as I slumped against her. My breaths were still ragged as my lungs burned with each inhale. The wind kept whipping her hair away from my fingertips and tossing my own into my face. Relief flooded through me, and with it questions and eagerness for this misadventure I’m on. I couldn’t wait to explore the spaceship, to find out how this gigantic machine came to be. Curiosity filled my body with excitement again. We were headed to Earth to see England. Rosesandthorns, I wish I had enough energy to jump up and down, because all the answers to my questions seemed so tantalizingly near.

Before I realized what was going on, my head was being held down against the ramp as the collar of my shirt was yanked away, exposing the back of my neck.

“Diesel what are you do…,” Jones started to shout, but as he got closer a small gasp whispered from his lips. “Is that a plant growing out of her?”

“It’s the iridescent orchid.”

I was trying to wriggle loose from his grip, not liking how rough his hands were on me. Diesel spun me around; both Jones and his face were coated in disbelief and delight.

“What are you?” Diesel asked sinking his gloved palms into my arms.

“I’m Sparrow,” I said, not understanding his question.

“Not who, what?” Diesel asked giving me a shake.

“Did the O2 Corps do this to you? Made this plant grow out of you?” Jones prompted.

“Yes,” I said, wondering why he had to be so forceful with me to answer his questions, “They implanted me, so I can produce oxygen to save people.”

“That’s how they’re doing it?” Jones said perplexed.

The question about who these people were grew heavier on my mind.

“Who are you people? What exactly is going on?” I asked.

“Why do they implant people?” Diesel asked, not even acknowledging my own question.

“The ground isn’t conducive for vegetation, especially Orchid X2B,” I said.

I wondered why he didn’t already know this. Diesel grabbed a handful of my hair and stems, drawling one of my shimmering blooms closer to his eyes.

“Change of plans,” Diesel said dropping my clump of hair, “The iridescent orchid is worth more to us than getting the rest of the payment for this job. Offload the other sister.”

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EMERGENCY BULLETIN: Don’t forget your JETPACK for this YA, urban sci-fi novel with a steampunk edge. This story is under construction.
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