The odds favored both my brother and me manifesting symptoms of the twitch virus. Odds. Statistical probabilities. Since testing positive at puberty, it’s become my belief one makes one’s own odds, and I say ours are good.
Lying flat on my back in the perimeter garden, I coil my blue-black braid around my head like a snake. From this angle, the concave mesh of the shield dome above me appears as a solid surface. Hanging from it by a single screw, a faded sign commemorates New Teo’s millennium.
If I didn’t know what it said, I’d no longer be able to read it. New Teotihuacan’s twin cities, a thousand years of building a brighter future together. It’s hard to imagine cramming more irony into thirteen words.
A thousand years of the twitch virus and the telekinesis it unleashes, and this is the best we’ve done? Thinking in years, or even weeks, is a luxury I can no longer afford. Five more days as a citizen of New Teo’s Worker City, I recite to myself. Five days until registration for Masa Academy—me and my little brother’s only hope for a future, bright or not.
The earth tremors as the 7:36 security detail passes through the mind pits ten meters beneath me. I’m not privy to the official Masa call-sign for the mid-level assignment, but I recognize its timing. I know the rhythm and flow of masazin through the mind pits better than the coursing of blood through my own extremities.
“If you’re done figuring what the masazin had for breakfast today, could we get some?”
The ozone from the daily identification burn still lingers in the air, and my brother, Olin, has already mentioned breakfast twice. I lie perfectly still, anticipating the deep-level Masa car sliding north toward the heart of Worker City. There. The rumble registers in my gut. “Can’t you sit quietly for five minutes?” I breathe deeply through my nose, inviting the scent of flowering hibiscus to erase the tingling sensation of the ID burn.
“I once sat quietly for two straight weeks, or so I’ve been told.” Olin ensures a cold bite to his speech whenever he references his time spent in a coma. It irritates him that I haven’t spoken the whole truth surrounding the event that killed our parents, and put him under for two weeks.
Our parents had anticipated us being actively infected. Only around 40% of Worker City’s population remains passive carriers of the twitch. Unfortunately, none of their planning accounted for being killed in a telekinetic outburst from their own son.
“What do you have against the quiet?” I sit up. Peeling the cotton fabric of my tzotzomatli from my sticky back, I work it like a bellows in effort to expel the humidity. Midway through the rainy season, there is nowhere for the moisture to go.
Olin shivers in preparation for one of his melodramatic speeches. “I will share the ingesting of my meals. I will share their expelling. I will share everything within this gods-forsaken cage,” he gestures toward the shield dome less than twenty meters distant, his eyes like slits, “but quiet is one thing I will not share, and there simply isn’t enough in New Teo for a scraggly chadzitzin boy to have his own.”
I chew the inside of my cheek until I taste blood. “Enough.” Digging my fingers into the loose soil, I find a pinyon cone completely by accident. In a swift movement, I thunk it off my brother’s head.
“Xoxochueyi!” He barks the expletive and eyes me. Instantly, his look lingers somewhere between pouting and apology.
The violent outburst doesn’t solve anything, but it makes me feel better, briefly. Until I too am sorry. Olin is partially right. The copper and nickel mesh of the shield dome does not cut us off from the sounds and smells of the forest, or its gentle breeze. But in exchange for protection from the constant threat of telekinetic attack, the working class of New Teo surrender their autonomy.
Olin’s wrong about the rest—I will not let him die a hopeless chadzitzin, even if I have to force the academy to accept us. The two years since our parents’ death have been hard on him. I’ve been hard on him to make him stronger.
We both know he is the more telekinetically gifted, but if he can’t control it…I dismiss the thought. We’re too close to our goal to dwell on the negative. Wrapping my braid loosely around my neck, I contemplate how to apologize. When I make eye contact, I see by his watery eyes I’ve waited too long.
He starts into it before I can stop him. “Let’s spend the day outside the dome. We could hunt,” his words spill into each other. “Fresh peccary cooked over an open fire, just the two of us,” he’s pleading. “We’ve almost a full twenty-four hours until the next ID burn. We could just—”
I have been shaking my head since he spoke the first word. Finally, I cut him off. “Olin, we can’t. We’d miss the—”
“The busiest day of the market,” he slumps. “I know.” His gaze falls to his purple hands as he holds them in his lap.
I look at my own hands, dyed a rich purple from a late night of working in a logwood dye bath. It’s our trademark—my blue-black hair, our purple fabrics. Over a practical pair of trousers, I’m wearing my favorite tzotzomatli made by alternating streaks of acidic-purple and basic-blue logwood dyes. The garment always draws plenty of attention to our booth.
It would draw more if I had larger breasts to fill it out. I work the best I can with what I have. I’m tall, and if I let the garment list slightly over a shoulder, I get favorable deals from most of the working-class men.
As the 7:41 Masa security detail rumbles beneath me, I remind myself our situation is not Olin’s fault. And we’re not as desperate as some. Despite our active infection with the twitch, our homelessness, our orphan status, and our phony license for dye trading, we technically lack the most important qualifiers for chadzitzin classification. Neither of us is yet sixteen, and we’ve never missed an ID burn. We’re still citizens.
With any luck, we will have the money for our academy uniforms, forged papers, and bribes by the closing of today’s market. In five days my brother and I will take our first step in defeating the odds by forcing our way into the academy.
The odds of surviving five years as masazin in order to become ometeotl, one of the immortal class, have been put at one in ten. That’s something I can work with. As chadzitzin, the odds of a nasty death from the twitch by age twenty-four are absolute.
I stand, cross the path to the bench where Olin is sitting, and plop down beside him. “Xoxo?” I use the shortened colloquialism for the word green, despite finding it base and lazy, in hopes of lifting his spirits.
He nods. “You throw like a girl.”
“You squeal like one.”
He shoves me in effort to conceal the smirk on his face. We sit in silence for nearly a minute, Olin’s way of hugging and making up. Finally, he rubs his stomach. “I know where we can get some roasted tapir.”
I’m about to remind him of our budget when I sense something is out of place. The forest canopy of the perimeter park has fallen quiet. It takes a full second for me to realize the 7:43 shift through the mind pits is at least five seconds late. It’s the worst discrepancy I’ve ever noted.
The constantly rotating shifts of telekinetic youth beneath the city provide the only means of stabilizing the mental charge of the shield dome against potential telekinetic attack from outside. I’m torn between the impulse to push my brother away from the perimeter and the need to put my ear to the ground.
Gripping Olin’s hand, I choose the former. “We should g—” before I finish, my words are incinerated along with the air overhead.
I tear at the skin on Olin’s wrists until we are ripped apart by the trunk of an ojé tree. I lose track of him as I crash into the underbrush and tumble to a stop face down. I lift my head in time to watch a second large section of shield dome sheer off and implode—crushed into a nugget of ore too small for me to see.
“Olin!” This can’t be happening, not today—not that any day would be a fitting one to disintegrate. Meters away, the ground explodes. A Masa defense car births from the crater. Cracked open like an egg, its five person crew is dead and gone instantly.
Gods, we’ve gotta get out of here. “Olin!” I scramble to the bench where we were sitting. The forest canopy that sheltered us moments earlier is gone. The remaining shield dome shimmers with telekinetic energy both coming and going. Tumbling off the bench, I roll clear as the expanding crater swallows it. Finally, I spot Olin half buried in leaves.
There hasn’t been an attack of this magnitude on Worker City during my lifetime. I’ve only heard stories. The most frightening ended with Masa withdrawing the telekinetic defenses from an entire district, leaving everyone inside to be killed. On hands and knees, I reach Olin.
Trembling and ashy white, his skin is clammy to the touch. “Xoxochueyi!” I slap him. “Not now, not again.” His eyes have gone empty, like when our parents died. I try to yank him up by the arm, but my feet slip as the ground beneath us disintegrates. I stop breathing as the air dissipates. My braid unfurls from around my neck and floats in the space between my brother and me, both of us also floating.
My little brother becomes light as air, and for a moment I feel that way too. I clutch him to my chest. Our troubles are over now, little Olintl. Don’t worry, wherever you go, this time I’ll go there with you.
The tear struggling from the corner of my eye evaporates. My heart shudders. My world goes dark, despite my eyes being open. I think about how the other kids and I were wrong when we were little. Telekinetic disintegration is actually a wonderful way to die.
Then my lungs spasm. A hot blast scours my face, whipping my braid out behind me as the void transforms into a ball of fire. I dig my nails into Olin’s back and hold on. I call his name, the sound of my voice consumed. For the first time in my life, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I’m scared—helpless and scared.
I’m screaming at the top of my voice when the firestorm disappears as suddenly as it began. Olin and I are falling. Together, we strike the soft, pulverized soil at the bottom of the crater and slide to a stop.
Only after I register that Olin has placed his hands over his ears do I realize I’m still screaming. Embarrassed, I stop. The faint hum of the restored shield dome is interrupted by a fluttering sound followed by a thud as the sign commemorating the millenniu lands beside us.
“Olin.” I brush the dirt from his face.
His closed eyes flicker at my touch. “Calli,” he whispers my name.
I hold back tears of joy.
“Why are you screaming?” he continues.
I start to laugh. Then it strikes me he’s not joking. He’s confused. He doesn’t realize he’s lost control of his telekinesis again. “Oh, no.” I shake him. “Oh, no. Olin, wake up.”
I lift his head and shoulders in an effort to drag him out of the crater, but we’re several meters down. It’s happening again, like last time. Now we’ve nowhere to go, no one to pay the medical expenses if he slips into another coma. And we’ve only five days. “Olin, stay awake, please. Something terrible has happened.” I drag him another meter. “We have to go.”
I shake him, on the verge of panic. “You have to help me!”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?”
I flinch at the voice coming from overhead before identifying it, “Neca.” Of all the people to be first on the scene. “It’s my brother, he needs help.”
“Xoxochueyi,” I swear. “Please, just—”
Olin begins to float. I clasp my hands around his stomach. Quickly, the two of us rise from the crater. Neca is smirking as usual, but at least it’s his concerned smirk. Using an illegal demonstration of telekinesis, he sets us down away from the crater. I gasp at the widespread totality of the destruction. The attack from outside the city couldn’t have possibly caused it all. Reluctantly, I admit Olin must have contributed.
“Calli, is that you?”
I turn toward my brother, “I’m right here.”
“You look different.”
His eyes are shut. I can’t see whatever it is he is seeing. I panic, remembering the backpack Olin had on earlier. “Your medicine.” I turn toward Neca. “He needs the medicine from his backpack, quickly.”
Neca shakes his head. “Honey, there’s no backpack. There’s barely a perimeter. And besides that, we’re missing a whole block.”
I scan for the bench where we had been sitting. Of course, he’s right.
“I can’t figure how the two of you weren’t turned to pink mist.”
His words spark an unfocused rage within me. I don’t know how we survived. Or maybe I do, and I can’t swallow the implications. “Well, here we are.” I growl. “Are you going to help us or not?”
He scowls. “I could throw you back in the hole if you’d like.”
“Just shut up. I need to think.” I’m being unfair. The whole situation is unfair. After people comb the rubble for survivors, their eyes will fall on us. I know what it will look like, but none of this is Olin’s fault. He isn’t responsible for the discrepancy in the mind pits that left Worker City vulnerable, and he hadn’t been the enemy who took advantage of the lapse.
“I’m getting dizzy.” Olin tugs my sleeve as he stumbles.
Neca catches him and stares at me. A few seconds later, the self-absorbed, dark-skinned, psychokinetic cage-fighting chadzitzin clears his throat.
I bare my teeth, even while nodding my head. Not knowing where to go is a poor excuse to stay put. Carrying Olin between us, Neca and I weave our way through the jumble of shattered adobe and sheared iron foam until we reach the shelter of a mostly intact building.
After Olin barely survived the last coma, the doctor said the next one would kill him. The medicine I made from my mother’s garden had been the only thing that helped. But the last of it had disintegrated with Olin’s backpack. I’ll need time to make more.
As if reading my mind, Neca interrupts, “Time is a luxury we don’t have, honey.”
In the distance I hear the wind-up siren clearing the way for District Four’s Justice of the Peace. That means New Teo’s lead detective, a retired immortal general called Huatiani, has already arrived. “We’ve nowhere to go.”
A glimmer dances in Neca’s eye, as if he’d been waiting for those exact words. “There’s one place, but you’re not going to like it.”
In Neca-speak, this means I will hate it only slightly less than watching my brother die in holding while Huatiani grills me about the morning’s attack.
Off-balance, we lope downhill. Neca’s legs are longer than mine, despite my above-average height. His endurance is equally impressive. My lungs are on the verge of exploding when he ducks behind a three-story iron foam building I don’t recognize.
“Have we,” I spit the words out between gulps of air, “crossed into—”
“District Six.” Neca nods. “It’s the fastest way on foot.”
I’m pleased to note he seems winded, although not as severely as me.
After a few short breaths, he starts moving again.
“How about a lift?” He nods toward a cable platform.
I offer weak objection as we cross the walking thoroughfare between the two districts, “A cable? Do you think that’s safe?”
“We’ve gone far enough. Huatiani is too systematic to jump his search randomly about the city.”
I shiver at the mention of Huatiani’s name out loud. So few within Worker City refer openly to the legendary retired general of the Ometeotl Guard. Neca does so with a flourish, as if he knows every intimate detail about the immortal. I’m sure he intends it as part of his bad boy act, but it paints him in a self-conscious light. I imagine him, tucked under the covers at night, practicing the name quietly.
We reach the stairs without anyone taking special notice of us. Most people working outside the shield dome as farmers or beneath the city as miners leave within minutes of the ID burn, ensuring the longest amount of time until the next one. Just in case. No one talks about it, but missing a burn is the worst nightmare of everyone in Worker City. Except for those who’ve already given up.
Olin mumbles under his breath as we carry him up to the platform.
Gently, I slap his cheek. “Olintl, can you hear me?”
His eyes dart back and forth beneath his closed lids. “I’m not afraid of Huatiani just because he knows the truth.”
“The truth?” Neca looks at me with questioning eyes. “What truth?”
As we reach the top of the exposed platform, Olin is mumbling unintelligibly again. I glance upward before closing my eyes to the dizziness. Too many of the buildings in District Six are squat, adobe structures despite the dome being stories above us.
Neca reaches the activation pad first and straddles it. A mild electrical current transfers between his bare feet, indicating a rider is waiting. Awkwardly, I shift closer to his muscular frame until Olin is sandwiched between us.
On cue, the two halves of the bench sprout from beneath the platform and lock in place using powerful electromagnets. Squished together, I end up with Olin on my lap and Neca’s arm around my back. We ratchet upward until the wench drops us onto the cable itself. With the circuit completed, the chair rushes forward.
Whipping through the subtropical breeze, I realize I’ve soaked my tzotzomatli in sweat. Worse yet, the wind has plastered it against me. Subtly, I situate Olin’s head on my chest to avoid indecency. At least the dark purples and blues of my garment are more modest than white. And with the size of my chest, it’s not like Neca would notice. I grit my teeth, angry I even care what Neca does or doesn’t notice.
Then it hits me, like diving from a cliff into crystal clear water. I know where we’re going. “Oh, no.”
“You forget to turn off the stove?”
I try to wrench my arm to punch Neca, but I can’t. “This is not a joke.”
“No one’s saying it is.”
“Everything’s a joke to you. But this is my brother’s life.”
Neca nods thoughtfully. He looks me in the eyes.
I see something I’m unprepared for—sympathy. Suddenly, I’m unsure of how to refuse his assistance without hurting him. And yet, I’ve never thought of someone like Neca being vulnerable to pain—neither emotional nor physical. I’ve never thought of him as anything more than a chadzitzin psych-fighter. “Look, my brother and I, we’re not like you.”
“Really?” Neca interrupts. “Is it the black skin or the complete lack of moral fortitude?”
I chew the inside of my cheek and shake my head. “I’m not gonna let you turn this into some kind of personal attack. Deal with your insecurities on your own time.”
“Oh, wow. So this is what a thank you sounds like coming from the great Calli Bluehair. Well, hey, don’t sweat it, honey.”
Olin’s head lolls. Reflexively, I clutch at my shirt, pulling it away from my chest.
Neca laughs at this, continuing before I recover. “No one is forcing you to accept my help. I was on my way home anyway. You wanna get off at the next platform, no harm. You won’t owe me a thing.”
“So you admit you’re helping me to get something in return?”
He rolls his eyes. “I’m saying I am not even helping you. Matter of fact, why don’t I get off at the next platform?”
I squeeze the bridge of my nose, focusing my anger. “Now what? I’m supposed to feel bad for you? Simply because you had nothing better to do than witness me and my brother nearly killed in a telekinetic attack that continues to threaten my brother’s life?”
“Sounds like you’ve got everyone figured out.” He clucks his tongue. “And you’re absolutely right. Your brother is the real victim here. Who am I to argue that his sister might not know what’s best for him in every aspect of his life?”
Olin moans, and I realize I’m clutching him tightly enough to bruise his pale skin. I’ve chewed my cheek so much, I’m guessing when I open my mouth I’ll spit blood. But I can’t formulate the words.
I’m too angry—and scared. The sudden realization humiliates me, so I bury my face in Olin’s hair.
“Wait, I didn’t mean that.” Neca backpedals, making me feel worse.
I shake my head without looking up. “No, you’re right. I’ve been a total cheche.”
The razor-sharp-witted Neca hesitates. Finally he emits one simple word, “Yeah.” He accompanies it with a slight squeeze of my shoulder, just enough to shoot sparks up my spine.
I’m too confused to respond. In the moment, I want comfort. I don’t know how to ask, and I don’t want to feel any weaker than I already do. So I shut it out. “I’m sorry.” I gaze into the distance where the government complex and Palace Tower, along with the ridge separating the immortal half of New Teo from the worker half, gradually grow closer. “I’ve no right to take my feelings out on you.”
He shoots me his trademark smirk, the one that makes me want to slap his face. “You’re welcome.” He winks, and I’m sure I’m going to lose it all over again. “Now we’ve gotta get your brother the help he needs.”
Before I can scream, the bench locks in place and ratchets downward toward the terminus platform. Tipping, the bench deposits us on our feet, splits in half and swooshes out of sight. With Olin suspended between us, Neca and I descend the steep stairs carefully. At the bottom, I realize how tired I am, because I genuinely wish I could accept the help Neca is offering.
“I’m grateful, really I am, but you’ve helped us enough.”
“Calli,” Neca glances first to one side and then the other, possibly checking to make sure General Huatiani hasn’t caught up to us, “he’s not who you think he is.”
I sigh and try to remain patient, try not to panic at the thought of my little brother falling asleep and never waking up. “Is he, or is he not, the most infamous criminal element of the underground, wanted for insurrection, among a dozen other less-nefarious charges?”
Neca grins. “Well, there’s that, but—”
“But nothing.” I collect my words before popping off. “I need a place to keep my brother safe while I brew up his medicine. I won’t save his life just to condemn him to death a few years down the road. In five days the both of us are registering for Masa Academy. I don’t plan on remaining a chadzitzin.” I reassert my grip on Olin and attempt to tug him away.
Neca refuses to let go. “And what chance does your brother have in five days if he’s dead or still in a coma? There is no future without a present.”
I start to wonder why he won’t leave us alone. Again, he glances over his shoulder, and my impatience shifts to paranoia. “Wait. Why were you there at the perimeter park? How did you get to us so quickly?” Maybe the underground wants my brother—my eyes flare at the thought—as a weapon or a fighter.
“What?” His brief confusion quickly morphs to anger. A spark bursts behind his eyes, startling me.
For the first time since the attack, I feel I’m in mortal danger.
“Xoxochueyi.” Swearing under his breath, he sloughs the full weight of my brother onto me. “Fine, have it your way, Calli Bluehair. You’re on your own.” He stomps off, mumbling as he goes. “Last thing I need is some—”
That’s all I can understand before he’s out of earshot. Wobbling under my brother’s dead weight, I scan the loose-knit crowd swimming around us. Their faces are simultaneously empty and menacing.
What if someone recognizes us from the perimeter park? What if they watched us rise out of the crater telekinetically? Why had we waited around so long afterwards? Bearing Olin’s entire weight, I realize I won’t make it fifty meters. Yet, I can’t just leave him. I cry out, unable to stop myself. “Wait!”
Neca stops in his tracks, but he doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t come back for us.
I wonder if he appreciates how completely this one decision jeopardizes everything for my brother and me. He’s right about one thing—if my brother doesn’t survive the night, there’s no point in tomorrow. I kiss the top of Olin’s head. He’s completely unresponsive. I doubt he can hear me, but that’s never stopped me before. “Come on, Olintl. We’re finally going to meet Centavo Huehue.”
Without a word, Neca drapes Olin over his back like a jacket and shoulders his entire weight. I can’t decide if the act is intended as a kindness or a final jab, pointing out the fact I need him. It doesn’t matter. I’m exhausted both physically and emotionally. So for now, Neca leads and I follow.
For several minutes we trudge through chadzitzin alleys I’ve made a point to avoid. We pass yoalzoah—girls exhausted from leasing themselves out in hopes of becoming pregnant, and thus more valuable in the eyes of society. On the surface, they don’t look any different from me.
We pass male occetahtli, both high class and low. Neca nods greeting to several of them, confirming my speculation he makes a living as more than a psych-fighter. But who am I to judge? If my parents hadn’t left us the garden? If I hadn’t found my mother’s notes and figured out how to make dyes? And besides, isn’t there more to me than a flat-chested, chadzitzin dye-trader?
Reputation is important. Priorities are critical. My father taught me that. Set your priorities, and do what it takes to keep them. That’s exactly what I plan on doing. I just hope Neca is right about there being more to Centavo than his reputation. Because every kindness in the underground comes with strings attached, and connections to a man like Centavo won’t make registering for the academy any easier.
We reach a haphazard complex of adobe apartments piled in the downhill corner of District Four as if a mudslide deposited them there. This is how building additions are made in Worker City—with little consideration for past or future.
“This is the place.”
I nod my head, ready to get my brother somewhere safe, whatever the cost.
“What, no quip about the architecture?”
“My bedroom is a public market during the day.”
He nods while appraising me anew.
The gesture starts my blood boiling, as if his approval means grease marks from banana peels. To avoid another confrontation, I scan the exterior of the building. “Where’s the front door?”
“This way.” Grinning, Neca leads the way toward a set of stairs leading down.
The existence of the basement reveals the building to be genuinely old. Underground construction in Worker City has been reserved for official Masa projects and city defense for over a hundred years.
Again, Neca responds as if reading my mind. “Don’t worry, he’s not that old. But he is the oldest person I’ve ever met. And grumpy too, so for the love of your brother, don’t say anything stupid.”
We enter a long hallway, dimly lit by a strand of electric lights running along the ceiling. Neca turns a sharp corner and descends more stairs before ascending others. I want to ask him if he’s intentionally leading us into a maze from which there is no escape. Instead, I carefully craft an alternative. “Are you sure you don’t need help with Olin? He must be getting heavy with all these stairs.”
“Light as a feather. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” Neca faces me. “Oh, and don’t act like you remember the way out, even if you do. He hates that.”
Slowly, I nod. “Is there some secret greeting I should know of?” I’m half joking.
Neca thinks it over. “Just don’t make any quick movements or try to touch him.”
I can tell he is smiling, but the light is too dim to determine if the smile is ironic or genuine. “Okay.”
Moments later, he stops at the twelfth unmarked door we’ve passed.
Before he can open it, I place a hand on his arm. “All I’m looking for is a safe place to hide Olin while I make more of his medicine.”
I chew the inside of my cheek, reopening the wound from earlier. “And maybe a place for both of us. Just until he’s well enough to leave.” I force myself to relax. “Four days at the very most.” Somewhere deep inside, I’m terrified Olin won’t come back to me; that four days won’t be enough; that I’m about to make a deal with the devil to dictate the rest of my desperate life.