Authors: Sara Wolf
Tags: #school, #young adult, #sci-fi, #aliens, #romance, #science fiction, #high school, #adventure, #action
“Ms. Gianca is one hell of a liar,” I say, awe tinging my voice as the second girl does a string of graceful backflips. Someone walks up to us out of the crowd. Taj, his face flushed and his curly hair askew, grins at me first, then Shadus.
“I underestimated how much he likes you,” Taj says. “Bringing her to a
? You really do trust this girl.”
“I trust no one,” Shadus snarls. “Least of all her. I merely wanted to expose her to the truth of our culture. That’s what this school is for, isn’t it?”
“Ouch,” I pretend to be hurt, but the sting is half-real. “And here I thought we were going to be best friends.”
Taj chuckles. “The day Shadus makes friends is the day we go back home.”
“Quiet,” Shadus snaps. I look to Taj.
“What brings you here, Buttercup? Thought you were all about rules, and sneaking out to have fist fights in the middle of the night is definitely not in the rules.”
He shrugs. “I recognize and value the importance of rules. But I also value my race’s traditions, and especially at a time like this. We’re displaced – far from the reservation, far from our parents, far from our home planet. What little niche we carved out using our own culture is thousands of miles away in Colorado.”
A look passes between Shadus and Taj. Shadus glowers. Taj shakes his head.
“What he isn’t saying,” Shadus interrupts. “Is that before us adolescent Gutters were sent here, our elders warned us to act as much like humans as possible. They encouraged us – no – threatened us to keep our secrets and our culture to ourselves.”
“But that’s – that’s the opposite of what this school was built to do, right? We’re supposed to cooperate. Share. Learn. Right?” I ask. Taj sighs.
“Shadus, that’s enough. I don’t think she –”
“We are being watched,” Shadus interrupts bluntly. “Not only by you humans, the government, and your paparazzi. We’re being watched by our own people. Every Gutter teacher has strict orders to make sure no Gutter acts impolite, or brings
to the Gutters.”
I knit my brows, confused.
“Shame. Dishonor.” Taj clarifies. Shadus continues.
“Melune very nearly got sent back to the reservation for her actions the first day. And being sent back would mean a deep
would fall on her family. She would never mate well. She and her family would be shunned socially and politically.”
“So you guys - you guys are forced to be nice? No, it’s more than that, isn’t it? You can’t be angry, or sad, or anything other than perfectly fine. At least not in front of the humans.”
Taj frowns and looks away, but Shadus glances at me, that faint smirk returning.
I burst out laughing. Some of the Gutters eye me warily, but quickly look to the fight again.
“It’s ‘bingo’, Creeps. Not ‘binga’.”
“I was close,” Shadus says, clearly miffed. The more I laugh, the quieter Taj becomes. I try to focus on the
. The girls undulate around each other, until suddenly the blows stop altogether. One girl bows to the other, and the circle of Gutters widens, people stepping back and humming. The humming becomes rapid, low chanting in Rahm, the same words over and over. It’s like an applause, almost, but more reverent and respectful. Melune and Gira step out of the circle, and take off their robes, putting them in a half-broken crate against the wall. I flush, realizing they’re only in their underwear, but they don’t seem to care at all. They quickly dress in their normal clothes. The circle of Gutters are now talking to each other, smiling and laughing like a regular social gathering had taken place, not a fight for honor.
“What happened?” I ask Shadus.
“You didn’t see it? Melune won. She touched Gira’s arm.”
“No, sorry, I don’t have crazy-good eagle eyes. Lizard eyes. Whatever.”
“Our eyesight is average in these bodies, and very poor in our original bodies,” Shadus corrects.
“Then how…how do you guys follow all those fast movements?”
“It’s hard to explain,” He muses. “But I can try to show you. If you’ll permit me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Invade your personal space. Again.”
My curiosity overwhelms me. “Sure, fine. Go ahead. Just don’t bite me or anything.”
He leans in, so close I can count his eyelashes. His body heat radiates from his sweater, even in the already-stifling basement. The world around me dims, the voices of the other Gutters fading to a buzz. I can only hear my own heart beating.
“It’s like this,” he says, voice low. He slowly rolls up the sleeve of my hoodie, and then he raises his hand, glancing his palm across my arm without touching it. I can feel the heat from his skin move along my skin. The hairs on my forearm tingle.
“And now, close your eyes.”
My EVE organ contracts, shuddering against my ribcage at his request. I close my eyes. The world is nothing but black. He moves his palm closer, and closer. The heat becomes brighter, hotter. I can feel what he’s doing, his movements, without seeing them. It’s new, and strange, and every bit of me likes it. Wants more of it.
And then he pulls his hand away. I open my eyes, and he’s looking right at me.
“That’s how Gutters see without seeing.”
“Heat vision?” I ask. He nods.
“Surprisingly, human DNA takes to advanced heat gland modification much more readily than advanced scent gland modification. The Illuminator scientists believe it has something to do with your mammalian lineage.”
I feel flustered, like I can’t breathe properly. My face is on fire, and it’s not just from the heat in the basement.
“Whenever you’re done divulging all our secrets to a human girl, Shadus,” Taj drawls. While Shadus was demonstrating, Taj changed into a silver
robe. He looks even broader and more intimidating, like a silver wolf. “I’d like to have a word with you.”
“Just one?” Shadus cocks a brow. “Would that word be
“It’s long overdue,” Taj agrees coolly. “We haven’t tested our skills against each other since we were hatchlings.”
The Gutters have been surreptitiously shooting Taj and Shadus looks, listening in on their conversation. And now, the crowd falls quiet, murmurs circulating in bare whispers.
?” A girl hisses to a boy. “But that means –”
The girl shoots a look at me. I try to keep a blank face, so they don’t assume anything. But what are they assuming in the first place?
“There’s no way,” The boy sneers to the girl. “She’s a human.
wouldn’t look twice at her.”
“Then why would Taj issue a
?” The girl insists. “He could’ve asked for a
, or even a
would only mean –”
They stare at me, and I squirm uncomfortably. Shadus and Taj glare at each other, a tense quiet threading between them in place of their usual begrudging acquaintance. Finally, Shadus breaks it off and walks to the crate of silver robes. He pulls his sweater over his head in one graceful movement, then takes off his white shirt, leaving a full view of his sharp shoulder blades and long spine. Taj has far more bulk, but Shadus isn’t without muscle – his are just more lean and defined. The Gutter lack of shame is incredible. None of them look away like I do when Shadus unbuttons his jeans.
Taj puts a hand on my shoulder. “Not used to nudity?”
“It’s j-just…weird. It feels wrong, to be seeing this.”
He nods. “We have similar concepts. Being seen with your frill flared is the most private of things, and reserved for family or mates only.”
“Why did you ask for a
?” I inquire. “Seriously. Why does everyone look so confused? I thought
were pretty normal.”
Taj smiles. “Don’t worry about it. Just watch.”
I peek back, Shadus now fully dressed in the silver uniform. The circle of Gutters forms again, and he and Taj take their places within it. They bow to each other, then touch the concrete floor with two fingers on one hand, and then the other hand. Finally, they turn and bow to the crowd, who bows back. It’s surreal and ritualistic.
A Gutter from the crowd steps forward.
Asara son’e raszek
!” He shouts, the three words ringing. Son’e. I vaguely remember that from Ms. Gianca’s class. It means ‘listen’. Asara listens to blank. Shadus and Taj move slowly around each other, like two sharks circling in a tank. Taj lashes out first. Shadus slides cleanly out of the way. Taj does a handstand-walk over and in one fluid motion strikes for Shadus’ neck. Shadus ducks instantly. A murmur goes around the Gutter circle again.
are really on another level.”
“Of course. They train with the Black Sands.”
“Melune was good, but Shadus is much better.”
“Don’t be stupid. Taj was champion of the Rain Ceremony for three years. He will win.”
“Shadus is Executioner, though. Their life is fighting.”
The conversation is drowned out when the crowd cheers wildly. Shadus spiraled away from Taj, and he’s now hanging from the ceiling by one finger, smirking down at him. Taj’s frown deepens, and Shadus falls to the floor.
“Are you going to strike me at all, Shadus?” Taj asks as they circle each other. “Or am I fighting a shadow with no spine?”
“You wanted this fight. Not me,” Shadus retorts lazily, flicking his bangs. His mannerisms say he isn’t taking it seriously, but his hard, ruby eyes say otherwise.
Gold meets crimson, and for a second, neither of them moves. Then Taj lunges, so quick I barely follow it. Shadus’ eyes widen and he ducks just in time to have Taj’s hand soaring over his head. Shadus backs up, putting space between them, and Taj snorts, cracking his neck. Sweat drips from his brow, and sweat trickles down Shadus’ collarbone.
“I call a
, and you aren’t willing to fight,” Taj sneers. “Despicable.”
“She isn’t Raine,” Shadus says. “You’re confusing everyone.”
“Let them be confused. I simply wanted to test your abilities.”
Shadus laughs. He actually throws his head back and
. His iron mask of seriousness is gone, shattered. He laughs until he runs out of breath, and then he looks down at Taj with a cruel glint in his eyes.
“You’re so transparent, Taj. You always have been. I guess this human-Gutter integration is working a little
well on you, isn’t it?”
Shadus looks at me, and Taj’s eyes flicker over to me too. But it only lasts a second, because Taj snarls and leaps for Shadus. Shadus keeps his wicked smile on. I must be seeing things. Shadus’ face is changing because it’s hot in here and I’m having a heatstroke, not because that’s reality. The way his pupils snap into vertical slivers like a cat’s instantly isn’t reality. The way his canines seem to grow a little longer past his lips isn’t reality. The shiny blue-black tinge that starts to grow around his neck and creeps to his forehead isn’t reality. The low growl-hiss reverberating in the room, like a giant snake’s, isn’t coming from him. It isn’t reality.
But I’m not seeing things, because the Gutters fall deathly quiet. They see it too.
Taj sees it too late. His gold eyes widen in shock – no,
- and he tries to pull back from his assault but momentum carries him forward, into Shadus’ waiting arms. Shadus raises his hand, now decorated with vicious looking, blackened nails. Talons.
He’s going to hurt Taj.
Fear courses through me, but under that is panic. The crowd of Gutters turns to the crowd of PFE protestors, their faces melding. The smell of the park, grass and hot cement, wafts from somewhere, the dull drone of the politician giving his speech on the stage rising in my ears. My vision blurs and Taj fades, Mom replacing him. Blonde hair. Red sweater. Terrified green eyes. Her body will hit the ground, and she’ll get trampled. Shadus will trample her. They’ll all trample her. She’ll die in front of me all over again.
The entire world slows. My body feels heavy, sluggish, like I’m wading through tar instead of air. I shove Gutters aside. I stumble into the fighting circle and thrust myself in the small space between Shadus and Taj, and grab Taj. The full weight of his gravity falls on me, but I throw my arm out to support us both. The bones in it scream as we crush into the cement.
I groan, my head aching as I try to sit up. Taj scrambles off me, face red.
,” he swears. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Nothing’s broken,” I wince. “I think.”
He offers me his hand up, and I take it. Shadus is hanging back, watching the both of us with an aloof, cold gaze. His face is normal again - olive skin, round pupils, no elongated teeth. The crowd’s shock wears off. I did something wrong. I did something very wrong, by the dark looks on their faces.
“The penalty is –”
“She’s a human, our laws don’t apply.”
“Human or not, she interrupted a
. The penalty is –”
“Death,” Shadus interrupts, then tilts his head. “What say you, Adjudicator?”
He looks to Taj, who starts as though someone poked him. He quickly clears his throat.
“It is death.”
“Look, I’m real sorry,” I blurt. “I’m sorry. I’m
. I’ll just go –”
The Gutter circle tightens, their faces set and serious. Fear rises in my throat like bile, strong and acidic, and the EVE organ gives a sharp pang in my side. I’m the only human here. They could kill me out here, and no one would be the wiser. They’d hide my body well, in pieces. Probably rip out my EVE organ and eat it right here, too.
“Thankfully for you, we’ve banned all death penalties from our traditions temporarily,” Shadus says lightly. My knees instantly feel weak. “We can’t be executing people when there are only a few of us left on the planet now, can we?”
“But there must be a punishment for her!” Someone calls. Taj glowers at them.
“Indeed,” Shadus agrees. “And I took responsibility for this human by bringing her here. What is a fitting punishment, Adjudicator?”