Lost in the Stars

Jaz lives in a world split in two. The stunningly beautiful, wealthy and cunning Modified to one side and the lesser Unaltered—the people like her—to the other.

But after tragedy strikes, Jaz decides to take action. The crew of the infamous Stormer have taken an interest in her, and a trip through the stars with the notorious criminals could earn her enough cash to become Modified.

Getting on board is nowhere so easy as it seems, though, and her troubles don’t end after she’s secured her place in their ranks. Suddenly, the crew is faced with a terrifying supernatural force that makes Jaz question everything she’s ever been told about the Unaltered— and herself.

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Author's note

Hey! I’ve always had an interest in science-fiction, but I’ve sort of stared away from writing it for fear of failing when it comes to accuracy. I would greatly appreciate anyone who would like to point out any hideously innacurate details, or if someone could loan me some motivation to actually research what I’m writing about. XD

So yeah— just warning you, this probably won’t be all too realistic. But hey, what that I’ve written ever has been?
AA

2. Chapter 2

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

Rather than gather supplies as Vee suggested, I returned to the commons—once more sneaking past the man at the front desk—and slept. 

I didn’t dream. My head was blissfully empty, it’s corners coated with soft blackness. Time trudged by slowly, yet before I knew it, the commons once again filled with voices. They roused me slowly, sleep hugging my brain. When I finally managed to shake it off, I bolted upright, eyes darting to the clock. 

Not surprisingly, I was late. 

Dread coiled in my stomach, rising in my throat as a hard ball of nausea. I should never have agreed to this. Graffitiing the wall was beyond a simple, harmless prank. If we were caught, we’d be thrown in a prison without a second thought. 

If I’d been smart, I would have told Vee there was no way I’d help her with this. I’d risked my neck barely a day before stealing marigold from the garden department where I used to work, I couldn’t go back to take anything else, especially not enough to make several gallons of paint. If this was going to work, Vee needed to have pilfered the paint from either an upkeep worker or the necessities shop. 

In addition to computer rooms and the bureau to control the flow of traffic in and out of the City, the wall housed several other small shops where the people living outside of it could buy whatever they needed. On the opposite side of the City as the gateway, there was even a thriving community with several general outlets and factories. Here, this was the outskirts of the outskirts. We had nothing, unless one was willing to make the hours long trek to the other side. Most people who did, never bothered to return. 

I tucked my key into my pocket and took off, evading attention expertly as I tore out onto the pavement and to the meeting place Vee set up. 

I kept my eye out for the simply made hovel that had been designated at our place of rendezvous. It was constructed out of raw, unpainted metal sheets and stained with rust. For some reason, Vee has found the crude, underwhelming, bare structure a fitting irony. It was quiet the opposite of the imposing, magnificent wall which we were about to bring to life with colour. 

When I spotted the shack, Vee was nowhere to be scene. I waited long minutes, only thinking of how I could’ve been sleeping those few moments longer if I had known she’d be late. 

My gut was roiling. Dread ripped me apart each time my thoughts wandered to the night which lay ahead of me. Regret was coming early this time. It tightened around my chest, hissing in my ear that I shouldn’t have agreed to do this.

I knew, without a doubt, that this night would only end badly. 

Dusk fell, the sky turning to brilliant shades of cobalt and orange. Soon, darkness would paint the heavens and stars would fa,, into the place as if they were diamonds sprinkled there by a great, celestial giant. 

Somehow, I knew I couldn’t back out. Vee would never agree to quit now that she’d set her sights on creating something this magnificent, and I couldn’t let her do it alone. The only way out would be if she hadn’t managed to get paint, then we’d have to wait until she did—which hopefully, she never would. 

It was clear that wouldn’t be the case. Nothing ever went as I wanted it to, and there was no reason for this night to end any differently. We’d be chased away by Mechs, narrowly escape, filled the night with the sound of our thumping heartbeats and thunderous footsteps. Vee would be laughing so hard she would be wheezing, struggling for breath, while I would be filled to the brim with terror and adrenaline. 

All I had to do was think of it to send chills down my spine. I was panic-stricken, paralyzed by trepidation. We would ultimately fail. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. 

A cool breeze started to blow, a precursor to the cold weather to come. The air smelled of rain as well, I could only hope it would hold off until the mural was painted and I was tucked safely inside the commons, curled up and halfway to sleep. 

Heavy footsteps drew my attention. My gaze shot towards their source, a small smile tugging on my lips when I saw Vee, wrestling with two large buckets of paint. 

She dropped the heavy paint cans at her sides, raising a hand to wave. 

“I’ve got two more stashed in my tent!” She grunts as she hefts up the buckets once more, staggering forward, back hunched under the weight. “You’re going to need to watch these while I go back for the rest.” 

“How about I go grab the others and you can stay here and have a rest?” I offered, shooting her a concerned glance. 

“That would work too.” She grinned wryly, once more setting down her load. 

“Same place?” 

“Yup.”

With that, I was off. I didn’t run for fear of attracting too much attention, but kept a long, quick stride that carried me forward at a fast pace. 

Vee’s tent was nothing impressive. It was made from cheap, synthetic material that was so flimsy, a strong wind would rip it to shreds. The garish orange of the fabric made my eyes ache, so much so that I kept my gaze trained on the ground for the most part. 

The inside of the tent was equally underwhelming as the outside. Faded, tattered blankets made up her bed, with clothes wadded up and pushed into the far corner. There was a small collection of glass tubes filled with phosphorescent liquid, which required being shook to activate. 

I ignore the overall chaos inside the tent, grabbing the paint cans and dragging them out, being sure to pull the zipper closed. 

My shoulders were wrenched out of socket before I had even begun to move. The paint cans were even larger than the ones Vee had been carrying, nearly twice the size. I struggle to lift them from the ground, mentally cursing Vee for not warning me how heavy they would be. 

By the time I’d managed to struggle forward five steps, my arms were throbbing with pain and my back was burning from the effort of standing upright. 

Somehow, I managed to struggle all the way back to where Vee was waiting. I could feel the minutes slowly creeping by, a veil of darkness descending until the sky was black as onyx. There were only a handful of stars visible this close to the City, but the moon hung high and full, shimmering with ethereal light. 

Once darkness was shrouding us, Vee and I headed straight for the wall, each struggling under the weight of our own loads. 

“I hadn’t really expected you to make paint, you know.” Vee chuckled drily. Despite her unwillingness to admit it, I knew she was almost as terrified as I was. “I think we’ve got plenty, anyways.” 

The walk towards the wall felt like a death march, dread building until it roared in my ears in a demeaning crescendo. It was telling me to turn back, to run as far and as fast as I could. Somehow, I managed to dig my heals in, grit my teeth and continue along in miserable silence. The cold air was nipping at my ears, my nose, my fingertips. Turning them red as maraschino cherries as they burned with the cold. 

A gentle breeze puffed, weaving in between my hair and tossing it in front of my eyes. I mentally chastised myself for not wearing a hat or tying it back, the white-gold strands shining in the moonlight. 

This wasn’t the same as our other nefarious midnight activities. It wasn’t lighthearted like setting off stink-bombs or other harmless pranks. This was vandalism as a direct insult to the Modified and their city. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to drive Vee to do something like this— and what had happened for me to help her. 

Whatever the reason, I was in too deep to quit now. 

“I almost got stabbed through the heart,” Vee admitted, her voice trembling. It was almost as if she could read my thoughts. “It made me realize that I’d been lucky, that my life could end sooner than I’d thought. So I needed to do something so that I would be remember. That my legacy wouldn’t be that of a no-good lowlife and a prankster. I want to do this so that I might ignite a spark which leads towards rebellion.” 

I didn’t bother to tell her that she would likely be tossed into prison before she started a rebellion against the Modified. Their was too few of us and too many of them. 

We climbed the moveable rigs the cleaners used to polish the glass. Though I usually ignored the City, I couldn’t help but stare. It was so beautiful at night. The buildings were lit up in shades of blue and violet, the colours bleeding out into the air and swirling together. The roads were dark yet still shimmered, made up of magnetized hematite. In the daylight, they would shine a red-tinted black, but at night they were dark as the sky above. I fondly recalled how it felt to glide along those roads, feet never quite touching. One time, the electronic magnets of my shoes had malfunctioned, and I’d become stuck to the roads instead of happily gliding above them. 

Now, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The buildings came in a diversity of widths, colours and heights. Some rose into the sky like thin, opalescent needles, while other were short and wide, glowing only dimly. 

I swallowed the yearning which rose up within me. Someday, I would have enough to become Modified, to have my flaws edited out, the scar on my face erased. I couldn’t let my desire be too evident, for Vee to see it. I could only imagine how betrayed she would feel. It emptied buckets full of guilt in my stomach, knowing I was hiding my true feelings from Vee. That even though I was drawn to her endless supply humour and goodwill, I didn’t share her views whatsoever. 

“I was thinking we could paint the buildings, only shabbier and falling apart, with the phrase ‘the order must be toppled’ across the top.” 

The stares ended abruptly at a narrow platform, barely wide enough across for one person, with high rails. It extended far enough to cover a good swath of the wall, enough to allow us to paint an impressive mural. 

The paint cans were nearly impossible to open. It took nearly an hour of prying and pulling to remove the aluminum lids. 

We had no paintbrushes, nothing to stir the paint with. So we stuck are hands in, swirled it around. Vee had chosen three different shades of violet, along with one can of white. We each had two hands, one for each colour. Vee chose white and the most pale shade, leaving my with the two darkest. 

The moment we smeared the first line of paint, fear pierced through my gut. This was it—this was really happening. I felt some of Vee’s fire sparking inside of me, but not enough to eclipse the fear. 

I was a realist, if not a pessimist. I knew this couldn’t end well. 

 We drew lines, whirls, sharp angles and soft corners. Using the buildings on the other side of the glass as our guide, we painted. 

The first shout drew our attention away from the mural. The Mech who’d been on patrol had spotted us, his hands cupped around his mouth to amplify his angry shouts. It was the first time I’d looked down, and suddenly my knees wobbled, threatening to give out. I hadn’t realized how far we’d climbed—high enough that the tents below were mere fiery splotches. 

I held my breath, worried his shouts would draw more Mechs, and we’d never be able to escape. It was dark, and we were far enough away that he shouldn’t be able to make out our faces or any distinguishing features, other than my pale hair. 

Fear wrapped itself around my gut and started to squeeze, sinking it’s toxic claws in deep. This was it, we’d been caught, and we only had one chance to escape. 

Vee began to paint frantically. The mural was far from finished, but fear had hazed over all rationality. I dipped my own hands back into the paint and rushed to her aid. 

“Hey!” I tried my best to ignore the voices, but couldn’t help but sneak a second glance. 

A crowd of Mech guards had gathered, preparing to climb. 

“We have to finish it,” Vee was muttering. “I’m not leaving until we can stand back and admire what we’ve done.” 

I wanted to point out that no one would be admiring our work because we were far from artists, but held my tongue. Instead, I worked in silence, knowing that each stroke of paint sealed my fate. 

When the first gunshot went off, I jumped. 

Vee ignored it and kept painting. Between our two heads, a small crack was forming in the wall. It was quickly filled with paint, as more and more buildings took shape. 

“Get down and surrender yourselves!” A different voice cried, loud and scratchy. It rumbled through the air like a clap of thunder, turning my bones to lead. “You are hereby under arrest for vandalism and refusal to cooperate. The sooner you come down, the less your sentence will be.” 

I stiffened. His words suddenly made my future all too clear. 

I was going to prison. So was Vee. 

There was no other option. I had to get out of here, but I couldn’t leave Vee to fend for herself. Despair filled me. We weren’t going to get out of this unscathed. 

“Come on, Vee. We need to go.” She pushed her lips together and shook her head, scooping up more paint and smearing it on the wall with fiery vigour. The mural was only half-finished, but the message was clear. Crumbling buildings, destruction, the fall of an empire. 

I grabbed a handful of the darkest paint, a rich shade of aubergine. Then I painted the words topple the order. My printing was poor and it came out far from impressive, but it got the message across. On impulse, I grabbed another handful of paint and added make all of us Modified or none of us. 

Vee grunted, but I couldn’t tell wether it was in approval or not. I didn’t care, I was fully consumed by the instinct to flee and never look back. 

“We need to go. Now. If we can even begin to hope that we’ll make it out of this.” I took a deep breath, preparing myself. “They haven’t seen our face, so we need to stay up high. I think we can make it if we try and jump to the next platform.” 

No sooner than I’d finished speaking, a defeating gunshot went off and a bullet whizzed into the glass somewhere behind me. It only drove home how urgent our situation was. They might not be aiming for us yet, but the longer we stayed in one place the sooner they would. I opened my mouth to tell Vee so much, but there was no need. Another shot went off, leaving my ears ringing, and a dent in the thick glass merely inches from the top of my head. 

“If you do not turn yourselves over, we will shoot!” A woman’s shrill voice filled the night. I felt the ice in my veins melt slightly, warmed by a spark of anger. 

“You already have!” I called back. Then I eyed the nearest platform, backed up as far as I could, until the rail was digging its talons into my back. It was now or never. I wouldn’t get another chance. Vee was staring at me with wide eyes, as if only daring to realize what I was about to do. 

I took a deep breath. Held it. Let it out slowly. 

Then I ran. 

My fingers found the rail on the other side, hauling me up, my legs bunching beneath me and propelling me forward. The cold air billowed around me like a cape, the dull glow of the City welcoming me into its embrace. 

For a brief moment, I was flying. 

When my fingers, slippery with paint, wrapped around the rail on the other side, my body flung itself down and my shoulder shrieked with pain. I grit my teeth, swinging my legs, ignoring the hail of bullets falling behind me. Using every ounce of my strength, muscles burning, I swung myself up onto the platform. 

It was strange how in the moments after those of pure panic, you noticed the little details. Like how the platforms didn’t have a solid floor, but one punctured with hexagonal holes. The rails had these lips around the bottom, which distorted the shape of the shadows they cast. 

Bullets didn’t sound like thunder, they sounded like dread and fear and panic, blood rushing in my ears, my heart thudding in my chest. 

Vee was jumping, hurtling through the air, limbs flailing. Her arms were outstretched, reaching. She wasn’t going to make it. Without a second thought I extended my arm, attempting to grab her hand and pull her to safety. 

Her paint-slick fingertips grazed mine. I leaned forward, tightening my grip. My muscles were already throbbing, but adrenaline was screaming in my veins. I could do it, I had to. 

Gunshots. It amazed me how they could still reach us when we were so far up. No wonder guns had endured when the old world had collapsed, they were truly a fearsome and effective weapon. My fingers were secure around Vee’s wrist, time slowing down to a crawl. I was pulling her towards me, but she was hanging lifeless. 

Red. 

Blood dripped slowly down over the glass, a crimson richer than I’d ever imagined it could be. Vee wasn’t moving, her head lolling limply. 

I couldn’t pull her to safety, I couldn’t save her. She was already gone. The realization mingled with the horror ripping through me, turning my limbs to jelly. My strength drained away and my grip slackened. 

My eyes shut on their own accord. I couldn’t watch her fall, dropping like a stone. My ears, however, could not be closed. I still heard the thump and crunch of her body hitting the ground. 

Tears scalded my eyes as they rose, scorching worse than the sun as they dripped. It was impossible to comprehend the agony that had lit me aflame. Different emotion gripped different areas. Fear whipped and snapped in my gut, a caged, venomous serpent. Grief constricted my lungs, while a poignant punch to the chest made my heart ache. 

When I heard the next explosion of a gun, all I could think of is how I had no hope of surviving to see the sunrise. 

I turned my anger—at the world, at the Mechs with their guns, at everything around me—towards the bullet. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there, racing towards me. My eyes had sealed themselves shut, but I could picture it clearly, whizzing through the air. 

When I didn’t feel it ripping through my flesh or hear it slamming into the wall, I opened my eyes. 

There it was, hanging in the air, right in front of my face. 

In my shock, I lost my balance. My feet went out from under me, then suddenly I was falling. I was plummeting towards the ground, the sound of the air tearing past me roaring on my ears. 

Then I stopped. 

I was hanging in midair, a vicious headache shredding my brain. The ground was only a few feet below me, close enough that I would survive the remaining fall. 

Unaware I’d been holding on to something, I let go. The ground rushed up to meet me, filling my body with pain. My skull cracked against something hard, presumably a rock, and then  suddenly all that existed was blackness. 

 

It was only minutes later that I came to. There was a throbbing in my skull, surrounded by a bone-deep weariness and a fiery ache. Voices floated around me, driving sharp nails into my already aching brain. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, only that they were arguing—loudly. 

If I could have, I would have made a sarcastic remark. There was only the small issue of my tongue feeling as if it had swelled beyond proportion and my temporary amnesia of what words were.   

“I know what I saw— she was floating,” a feminine voice argued, sounds slowly coming into sharper focus. It took my brain a while to understand what she was saying, and when I did my blood ran cold. I did that. They were talking about me, how I’d stopped myself from plummeting to certain death. 

“That’s what you think you saw,” a masculine voice said, harsh against my aching ears. “There’s no way to prove that she did, not to mention the very fact that it is impossible. Any genetic flaws that could possibly offer an explanation have been edited out for generations. I’m telling you, one-forty-six, that’s not what happened.” 

“Yeah. The girl’s dead.” A gruff voice agreed. One that I recognized. It was the same Mech who’d allowed me onto the elevator only a day before. 

I eased my eyes open, momentarily ignoring the argument playing out somewhere to my left. Instead, I allowed myself to be momentarily dazzled by the sunrise I’d never thought I would see. 

It was beautiful. The sky was alive with colour, reds and golds and rosy pinks. They bled out into a pale, lilac-blue sky, swirled with silver and gold clouds. 

“Don’t tell me you didn’t see it too, one-fifty.” The woman, who’d been called one-forty-six, sounded livid. I didn’t blame her, though I did feel a spark of indignation. They all thought I was dead, they had no right to be wasting time over petty squabbles. They should be bringing my body into the City, consoling Vee. 

The rest came back in pieces, until the night before fell into place and grief stabbed through my chest once more. 

The voices were coming closer. A sense of urgency crept over me, reviving my deadened limbs. Without thinking, I hopped up and bolted. My feet pounded over the ground, jarring my already aching bones. 

I headed straight for the glass forest, weaving through the shimmering trees. Shouts echoed behind me, spurring me on. For a moment, I could empty my head, give in to instinct and adrenaline. There was no guilt, no grief, no worries. I was caught up in the thrill of the chase, ignoring the mind-numbing fear, the panic. My lungs were burning by the time I was three steps in, but I didn’t stop until I couldn’t hear the sound of feet thundering over the ground anymore. 

I slowed to a stop. There was no denying it—I was lost. I had nowhere to go, nothing but the clothes I was wearing and the paint drying on my hands. 

“Great,” I couldn’t hold my filtration any longer. I balled my hands into fist as the first tears rose in my eyes, running down my cheeks in blazing-hot rivulets. I was undeniably lost, with dawn quickly breaking. Pretty soon I would be baking under the hot sun, starving, inching closer and closer to dehydration. I would be noticed missing from work—I hadn’t skipped a day yet—and it wouldn’t be long before people connected my disappearance to that of the mysterious vandal. 

I wondered how our mural would be received. Would it make people angry, or would it inspire them? I felt a strike of regret, realizing I might never get to see it. 

I couldn’t go back, but I couldn’t stay here. The glass forest was as barren as it was beautiful, with only the occasional spiny, inedible thistle or stubborn, half-dead dandelion. Only the most determined of plants dared to grow here. Very few of them would provide me with nourishment, even fewer would provide me with much-needed water. 

Desperately, I willed myself not to think of what would happen in the days to come. I had no hope for survival if I didn’t find a way out, but I was equally doomed if I did. The trees suddenly felt like they were closing in. I was trapped. The towering glass foliage was forming a cage around me, until I felt like I couldn’t move, with no way out. My breathing caught in my chest, terror plunging its talons into my chest. There were no options left. 

Everything was burning. With each breath, massive flaming hands tightened their grip on my lungs. 

I focused my eyes on the ground, hoping against hope another set of footsteps would magically appear, once more leading me to safety. Logically, I knew I wouldn’t have that much luck twice. My own footsteps had been erased by a feeble breeze. 

With great difficulty, I hauled myself to my feet, everything aching. Tears had dried into my cheeks, leaving bitter, salty trails. The trees slowly loosened their hold, the tightness within me loosening slightly as well. I was still dragging around the overwhelming weight of my grief. It was nearly impossible to manage. Every time I allowed my thoughts to wander too much, all I could think of was Vee. Her face, the way her eyes twinkled when she laughed. How she was always laughing, rarely without a smile on her face. 

My eye snagged on something unusual. Not quite a footprint, but a slight irregularity in the sandy soil. My feet veered towards it without having to be told, my eyes immediately searching for another, similar impression. It was better than wandering around aimlessly. 

I followed the small scuff marks, hoping the wind wouldn’t pick up and they wouldn’t disappear. 

Slowly, the marls began to resemble footprints more and more. It felt surreal, too good to be true. A sense of apprehension crept through me. Suddenly I was wary of where I would be led. The marks were undoubtedly made by a human, but that did not mean that person wouldn’t be dangerous. 

I walked for at least an hour, until my legs burned and my eyes watered from the harsh sunlight. Everything was aching, to the point I could barely move. Though the fall hadn’t been far—after I’d miraculously stopped myself in midair—it had still been hard enough to knock me unconscious and fill every movement with pain. I had to stop. Gently, I laid myself down on the ground, not worrying about covering my clothes in dirt. 

Minutes trickled by, until boredom overcame my physical suffering and I forced myself up off the ground. 

“What have I got to lose?” I muttered bitterly, even if there was no one around to hear me. 

I felt like crying again, but grabbed ahold on the last sliver of my pride, grit my teeth and refuse to break down, even if there was no one around to see me. The footsteps were leading me on a winding path, there was no knowing wether or not I would eventually catch up with their creator. 

Me feet were aching, pain swirling around within them and condensing down in my ankles. 

I counted my footsteps to pass the time. Several times I lost track and had to restart, until eventually I fell into the rhythm and distracted myself with the methodical, predictable path of numbers rather than the twisting, winding path of the footsteps I was following. 

For all I knew, these track were that of someone who’d been just as lost as I was and had met a gruesome face. They would only lead me deeper into the glass forest, until I too would perish, becoming one more nameless lost soul of the glass forest. 

Voices shook me out of my own head. Or rather, a single voice, exclaiming in displeasure. I stiffened, blood freezing in my veins. 

“Hello?” I forced the word out, but it came out thin, quiet and trembling. 

I hadn’t been expecting, not really, to cross paths with another person. Not a living one, at least. Disbelief eclipsed my fear for a moment, so I forced myself to continue to step forward, even the putting one foot in front of the other was a monumental effort. 

“Hello?” I called again, my voice stronger this time. 

The other voice immediately stopped. 

“Hullo?” The response was thickly accented, almost unrecognizable. “Yuh? Is someone there?” 

“Yes!” Excitement bubbled up within me. “Yes, I’m here!” 

A face appeared between trees. The words I’d been about to say hitches in my throat. The mysterious stranger was a young man, maybe a few years older than I was, early twenties. He was handsome, in a rugged, angular sort of way. His hair was the colour of night, stubble carpeting his chin and cheeks. 

“Uh? Who ur you?” 

I held up my wrist, paint dripping down and half covering my identification code. “Most people call me Jaz.” 

“Yuh, Jaz. I’m Rux Rèkzunger, pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand. I stared at it, unsure what he wanted me to do. “Apologies. It’s been awhile since I’ve interacted with one of you earthborn.” 

“W-what?” I stammered. His eyes were a transfixing shade of blue-grey, flecked through with dark, greyish-navy. He held up his wrist, showing he was neither Modified nor registered as Unaltered, which was nearly impossible. If I hadn’t been co fused already, I certainly would’ve been now. 

“You may know me from my ship, the Stormer. We’re a bit infamous, yuh.” He chuckled, a deep, breathy and hearty sound.  

“I— I think I might have heard something about it before.” The name sounded vaguely familiar, the name of some not-quite-legal ship with a rather tarnished reputation. I knew I should be leery of this stranger, but I wasn’t. Somehow, I knew he couldn’t hurt me. 

“You... I know you. I’ve seen you before. With your friend. Didn’t you see the footsteps I left to lead you out?”

“Uh, yeah I did. We got out.” 

“Then how come you’re back here, minus yur pal?” He drew his eyebrows down tight, studying me. 

“I’m—” I didn’t know how to answer. Instead, I decided to ask a question of my own, my curiosity much stronger than my ability to lie. Because there was no way I was telling him the truth of why I was back here. “How did you leave footsteps to lead us out without us seeing you?” 

Without warning, Rux disappeared. Where he once stood, there was nothing but empty air. Then he was back, an amused grin on his face. It took my far longer than I’d like to realize my mouth was hanging open, my eyes wide. 

“What? How?” 

“Yur confused, I see. I don’t blame you.” 

“Listen here,” I started. “I’ve had a pretty rough time last night and I do not have the patience for this. I’ve nearly died more times than I want to count already, which means I find your little disappearing act there a whole lot less impressive by the second.” 

“Really? You’re not impressed?” 

“If I can stop a bullet and halt my plummet from ten meters off the ground, then why can’t you spontaneously disappear?” Oops. I thought. I actually just said that.

Rux didn’t appear bothered in the least by my inadvertent admission, simply grunting in agreement. I was half expecting him to vanish before my eyes once again, but he didn’t. He simply stood there, head tilted, studying me like some exotic specimen. 

I couldn’t say I didn’t find him fascinating as well. From what I’d heard about the crew of the Stormer, none of its seven members had been born on earth. It was chilling, to think of the entirely different world that thrived in the sky and beyond. There was many space stations orbiting earth, most housing life. They’d been put there during the collapse, which meant no one up there was Modified. Last I’d heard, they were still refusing to accept any communication with earth. There was no way off this planet except for illegal shuttles. 

All my life, the world had been divided in two. The Modified and the Unaltered, with a clear line drawn between them. It was nearly beyond my comprehension to think of a world without that definitive divide, a galactic empire with their own laws, a culture completely different from ours.

“I believe a more formal introduction is in order,” Rux declared. He stood a little straighter, chin up, then continued. “I am Rux Rèkzunger, crewman of galactic ship five-four-nine, dubbed the Stormer. Quite literally a master of blending in. I voyage to earth to seek a new addition to our crew, but unfortunately I must first find a parcel hidden in this wretched maze of trees before I get down to the real fun. There, does that suffice for you?”

“You need to find a parcel? What’s in it?” 

“Yuh, you sure ask lots of questions.” He shook his head, laughing under his breath. “Nuh. No, no. First, you must tell me a bit about yourself.”

“Fine.” I mutter, glaring at his feet. “I am Jaz. I have no surname, just my rather bland identification number. I’ve sort of accidentally become a criminal, so I had the brilliant idea of running into the glass forest to avoid being caught by the Mechs that were after me.”

“Mechs, yuh?” He grunted. “What are these?” 

“Mech is short for Mechanism. They start out as human—Unaltered most often—then are turned into something almost... robotic. Like the Modified, only much worse. They’re like soldiers, guards and police officers all rolled into one.” 

“And what exactly are the Modified, huh?” 

I struggled not to roll my eyes. He really knew nothing of modern earth. I wondered if anyone who’s grandparents had chose to leave would know anything about the current state of the planet. 

“You and me, our genes are the exact same ones we were born with. That makes us Unaltered. The Modified, well, I guess you could say they’re tweaked. Their genomes are altered slightly, to ‘edit’ out their flaws. Most of them have metal implants, but not all.” I never knew what else I should’ve said. He’d obviously never scene one of the Modified before, or else he wouldn’t have been wearing the vacant, baffled expression that he was. 

“So, these Modified, they’re sort of like cyborgs?” 

“Depends. What’s a cyborg?” 

“We run across ‘em up there sometimes.” He gestured towards the sky. “They’re pretty nasty. Ugly looking things, swarmed with wires and metal and the likes.” 

“That sounds more like the Mechs.” I couldn’t stifle a laugh at his disgusted expression. It was refreshing, in a way, to speak with someone completely oblivious of earth culture. “The Modified are like a watered down version of that. They can still be pretty nasty, though.” 

“Yuh, they don’t sound like the most pleasant creatures.” 

“Now, can you tell me more about this parcel you need to collect?” I could sense his displeasure, but I didn’t have much more to do but satiate the whims of my curiosity. 

“No, I can’t. All I can say is that it’s very important to me and the rest of the crew.” His face went stony, expression hardening into an unreadable one. “And I’m running out of time to find it. All I know is that it’s somewhere here, in this field of artificial trees.” 

“The glass forest,” I supplied uselessly. “It was once used to remove carbon dioxide from the air in the way real trees used to.” 

“Yuh, but nothing could ever rival a real tree in beauty. Not even these elaborate, glittering sculptures.” For a moment, his eyes softened, allowing me to catch a glimpse of something raw and real. “Though you’ve probably never seen a real tree, if you have need for replacements. You wouldn’t understand. There’s nothing that can compare.” 

I pressed my lips together. I’d never really thought about what a real tree could look like, I always thought the glass forest was as beautiful as it could get. 

Rux was smirking at me. There was something he was about to say, his lips parted, eyes bright. He abruptly shut down, closing off, sealing his mouth firmly shut. I wanted to ask him what it was he’d wanted to say, but never got the chance. 

Frigid dread flooded through me. Voices fluttered on an early morning breeze, harsh and full of anger. Rux presses a finger to his lips, then vanished. 

I felt like swearing. Of course he would abandon me now. I snarled at the air where he vanished, fighting against the urge to spit out a biting remark. A chilling thought filled my mind— what if he’d never been there at all?

The sound of footsteps filled my ears, growing louder and louder, driving away all other worries. Unsure what options I had, I dove behind the nearest tree and plastered myself to the glass. Its cold bit into my hands, causing me to grunt in discomfort. 

The sound of chatter abruptly stopped. I held my breath, fearing I’d been spotted. 

“How did you get here?” an annoyed voice snapped, and I let out the lungful of air I’d been holding. It wasn’t me who they’d spotted. 

My relief quickly dissolved. If it wasn’t me, then it had to be Rux. 

Despite the fact that I hardly knew him, I felt obligated to protect him, if not slightly embarrassed that I’d been angry with him for vanishing. After all, he was only trying to save himself, and it hadn’t gotten him anywhere. 

My death grip on the tree loosened slightly. Rux’s melodic, slightly rough voice, with its peculiar accent, was distinctly recognizable. The other ones were not. I had no idea if these people were the Mechs who’d been after me or not. The thought rekindled some of my dying fear, inspiring me to lessen the space between me and the tree. 

I knew it was impractical to hide behind something transparent, but at least it put something large and solid between me and my potential attackers. 

There was a chorus of shouts followed by the sound of scuffling. Rux stumbled back into my range of sight, a Mech standing over him with a face painted in anger. There was blood on Rux’s face, trickling from his nose, but he held his chin high. 

Shame burned in my stomach. He’d gotten hurt because those volatile soldiers were after me, not him. 

The Mech raised a hand, sunlight glinting off the metal plates on his fingers. His arms were a mess of metal and wire. Revulsion rose within me, then quickly turned to fear as he slammed his massive fist into Rux, who was much thinner and far more spindly than his assailant. He went flying, arms flailing, then landed with a crunch. He didn’t pick himself up off the ground. 

Three more Mechs joined the first one. The stepped towards Rux’s still form, their posture pure menace. 

The leading man pulled out a gun, readied it, then pointed it at Rux’s forehead. 

I jumped out from behind the tree, thankful they’d been too occupied to notice me until now. Panic rendered me blind. I threw up my hands, trying desperately to call on whatever force I’d accidentally summoned yesterday, willing the gun to be wrenched out of the hands of the Mech. 

Nothing happened. I was desperate, willing to do anything to protect Rux, unwilling to watch someone else die. Saving Rux wouldn’t bring Vee back, give me a second chance, but it would help me redeem myself. 

The Mechs whirled on me. Two of them I recognized, if vaguely. I’d seen them around before, but I’d never had much interaction with them. Until last night. 

My eyes were glued onto the meticulously polished barrel of the gun. Whatever had come to my rescue before had deserted me now. I felt empty, bracing myself for the end, only able to imagine the agony I was about to experience. 

No. Resolve flooded me. I couldn’t give up, accept my fate. I took a deep breath, digging deep, trying to recapture what I’d been feeling less than twelve hours earlier. Exhaustion turned my brain to mush. I felt useless, empty. There was no way for me to get out of this, no way to protect Rux from whatever fate awaited him. 

Gunshots sounded a lot louder when they went off barely a meter away from you. 

I didn’t think, I just reacted. The bullet slammed to a stop barely a second after it was sent hurtling free, then dropped to the ground with a soft ping. 

The Mech exchanged confused glances, then charged forward. 

On instinct, I threw up my hands. 

As if hit by an invisible shockwave, all four Mech flew backwards. They slammed into trees, crashing to the ground in a flurry of angry shouts and the deafening clatter of shattering glass. 

I was trembling violent, a vicious headache ripping through my skull. The Mechs we’re slowly picking themselves back up. I knew my chances of escape were slim, but so were my chances of survival if I waited around. 

I sprung forward, pulling a dazed and dreary Rux to his feet. He slurred something intelligible, bearing very little resemblance to actual words. 

Knowing we were completely and utterly lost, I picked a direction at random and ran. Rux was barely lucid, stumbling along behind me, but he was aware enough to sense my urgency and force himself to move. 

We didn’t make it far before the sound of our ragged breathing was interrupted by thunderous footsteps and crashing glass. 

Rux blinked, shaking off whatever had been clinging to him. His eyes widen, gaze darting around. I wanted to ask him how much of the fight he’d seen, but there was no use worrying about protecting my secret. Thanks to make accidental slip earlier, he already knew about my newfound ability. 

The whole situation struck me as ridiculous. Here I was, acting like I could stop bullets and send people flying all my life, because if I thought about it too hard, I begun to freak out. Everything since yesterday at dusk was coated with a slippery layer of surreality, making it easy for the memories to slip out of my mind without me noticing. I hadn’t thought yet about wether I wanted to hold on them or not. 

“Where do we go?” Rux asked, jarring me from my frantic thoughts. I gaped at him. 

“What? Why are you asking me that? Haven’t you been wandering around here for several days.” 

“Yuh, I have. But it’s not like I’ve made a map or anything. All I know is that there’s a river here somewhere, because I accidentally fell in it and lost all my supplies.” He huffed, a faint flush of embarrassment staining his cheeks. “If I hadn’t been wearing waterproof clothes, I likely would have died of hypothermia that night.” 

For the first time, I noticed his unusual clothing. His shirt was thick, dull black and form-fitting. His pants were similar, slightly looser, with a distinctive sheen to them. 

I ripped my attention from how his skintight shirt showed off a defined, muscular chest and abdomen. Now was far from the time to be admiring his physique. Every second we wasted was precious. 

“We have to fight them off,” Rux declared. His expression was unreadable, once again amazing me with the speed at which he changed demeanours. 

“Are you kidding?” I laughed incredulously. “We don’t stand a chance. They’ve nearly shot me—more than once—and would’ve shot you if I hadn’t intervened. What in the world could make you want to face them when we could run?” 

“But where would we run to?” 

I didn’t have an answer. “Still, it’s better than trying to fight them!” 

“I don’t think we have any options without a potentially disastrous ending. We should at least go down swinging, yuh?” 

“I’m not sure what that expression means,” I replied stonily. “But if it means we should stay and fight, then I do not agree.” I tried to ignore the disappointment on his face. 

“And here I was, taking you for a fighter. I almost thought you could be a valuable addition to the Stormer.” His words stung. Internally, I flinched. I hated letting people down, even if their opinion of me was incorrect and unfounded. At the same time, there was something appealing about leaving behind the planet that had went so quickly from the only world I’d ever known to an inescapable nightmare. 

“What makes you think I’d ever want to join your merry little band of intergalactic criminals?” I demanded, rather than plead with him to let me join him. Though I hadn’t realized it before, I was enraptured by the idea of a life utterly different from this one. 

Rux shrugged. “You strike me as someone with nowhere else to go,” he said. “Though we’re not all criminals. No more than you are, at least.” 

“You don’t even know what I did.” 

“You said you accidentally became a criminal, but I don’t think now’s exactly the best time to discuss this. We’re almost out of time, so you better make a decision, Jaz. Stay with me to fight, or run away?” 

His accent made my name sound exotic, foreign. It softened the ‘j’ and rounded the ‘ah’ sound. 

“Yuh, Jaz. What are you going to do?” 

I never had the chance to make up my mind. The four Mechs came stomping out from between two stress, wearing identical glowers. My gut clenched in fear. 

I took a deep breath, let it go slowly. It was starting to look like I’d be fighting after all. 

Rux disappeared, reappearing seconds later in front of the largest Mech, pulling the gun from his belt. He darted out of the way just in time to avoid being swatted away as if he were weightless. 

Two of the Mech were women. They moved differently from their male colleagues, with deadly grace. The men blundered around, swinging their massive fists wildly, while the two women moved with lethal elegance and precision. One pulled a long, wickedly curved sword from a sheathe at her hip, whirling it with ease, nearly slicing Rux’s head cleanly off. 

It froze in midair. Pain cleaved open my skull, fiery and sharp. I shoved it away, my eyes trained on the Mech’s sabre. The muscles in her arms bulged as she strained against whatever intangible force I was exerting, her face gleaming with sweat. 

The blade was wrenched from her hands and sent hurtling out of sight. I never got the time to celebrate the victory, however. A crushing weight slammed into me from the side, driving me to the ground. It was one of the male Mechs, his eyes trained on my, burning with ruthless anger. It was unusual, to be close enough to see their subtly human features—a slightly crooked nose, creases around his eyes, irises a mundane blue—set against their reputation of pure monstrosity. 

His fist connected with my cheek. Spire spilt across the entire left side of my face, tears pressing against the back of my eyes and a hard lump rising in my throat.

I was not cut out for this. 

“Get off me, you hideous oaf.” I turned my head so that my uninsured cheek was shielded. Unfortunately, he found no shame in hitting me twice on the same spot.

My headache amplified tenfold as I attempted to dislodge his hulking bulk, which had me pinned to ground. I couldn’t move and could hardly breathe. Panic was starting to set in, freezing my blood and stabbing billions of tiny needles into the walls of my gut. I searched desperately for this strange new ability I had uncovered, but it had deserted me. 

I was on my own. Rux was busy dealing with the other male Mech and one of the women, the second presumably off in search of her sword. I’d always thought I could take care of myself, but I’d never truly been in a situation that put me in a position to be saved. 

I would have to fight dirty. The only way I would best my adversary would be through cheating. Before he could strike me again, I drove my knees upwards with all the force I could muster, hoping fiercely that they would strike where I needed them to. I’d likely only get this one shot, which meant I needed to make it count. 

His face blanched, his grip slackening enough that I was able to worm my way out from under him. 

Everything happened in a blur from that point. Rux landed on the ground next to me, face streaked with blood. The other Mech, a shorter version of the one I’d been fighting, let out a nightly bellow and charged. I screamed and threw myself forward to meet him, surprising everyone but myself. 

I had to do this. 

My mind was devoid of thoughts, my body drained of emotion. I could ignore the aches, the pains, for just long enough to get us out of here. 

Whatever I’d been hoping to accomplish derailed miserably. I was once more tossed to the ground like I weighed nothing more than a feather, hard enough to rattle my bones. A pitiful, trembling whimper escaped through my lips. 

Frustration built, breaking like a wave. It wasn’t until I’d picked myself up off the ground that I saw the carnage I had caused. Trees were shattered, shards of glass tossed outwards in a terrifying field of deadly gems. The Mechs were on the ground, stunned and barely moving. I felt a pang of worry. If I didn’t learn to control this new ability, I could end up hurting someone. 

Rux picked himself up off the ground, pushing the dirt from his clothes. Whatever unusual material they were made of cleaned easily, a couple of swipes sufficing to dislodge all visible dirt. 

“Thank you,” he grunted. I could tell he was reluctant to admit I had likely saved his life— and more than once. 

“Anytime,” I muttered. The pain splitting open my skull was nearly unbearable, building until there was no room for anything else. Suddenly, everything pitched itself sideways, and I was tumbling, my legs no longer capable of supporting me.

 

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