Flying the Coop - Tor/Forge Blog



Inventing a Game for a Future Disunited States

Flying the Coop by Lucinda Roy“I didn’t want to write about why the caged bird sings; I wanted to write about how the caged bird flies.”  –Lucinda Roy, author of Flying the Coop

Lucinda Roy’s speculative dystopia Dreambird Chronicles trilogy that began with The Freedom Race and continues with Flying the Coop depicts a haunting vision of future America. Despite the horror, elements of Black history are woven into the world-building. Check out this essay from Lucinda Roy!

By Lucinda Roy

When I wrote The Freedom Race, the first volume in my Dreambird Chronicles speculative trilogy, I was faced with some burning questions I had to address. And now, with the publication of Flying the Coop, the second volume, it’s clear that these questions have shaped the series in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I first conceived of the story over a decade ago.

Among the questions I had to address were these. If, in the aftermath of a second Civil War, slavery returns to a large section of a trifurcated country, a place now known as the Disunited States, how would enslaved characters retain their humanity? What would inspire them and give them joy?

In Flying the Coop, set primarily in D.C., I depict a future Disunited States still reeling from the aftermath of a second civil war known as the Sequel. The U.S. has been blown apart by conflict, climate insecurity and pandemics. Its primary autonomous regions are the Eastern and Western SuperStates along the coasts; independent cities like D.C., Atlanta, and Chicago; and the Homestead Territories in parts of the South and Midwest, which adhere to a segregationist ideology modeled on the old plantation system. It is chilling to see how much closer we have moved toward a second civil war since I first envisioned the series all those years ago.

Although I knew I could never minimize the horrors of slavery, I didn’t want to write about suffering without also exploring the miracle at the heart of enslavement. The miracle is this: in the face of unspeakable suffering, the enslaved survived. I didn’t simply want to catalogue a litany of suffering, especially when slavery has been handled movingly by writers in the past; instead, I wanted to celebrate this miracle of survival in a way that could be embodied in something concrete. But how?

I hadn’t expected that one of the answers to these questions would be a game the enslaved invent to honor those who fought against racism and slavery. The game was absent in the first iterations of this story. After a while, it became peripheral. Then it was something played by a few of the male characters. Only later did the game take shape as a central force and touchstone in the novels.

The game, called simply Fly the Coop, serves as a refuge, an inspiration, a site of rebellion, and a deeply ironic commentary on the apartheid system, a system that reclassifies “imported laborers” from Africa, and other people of color who don’t have the documentation to claim indigenous status, as botanicals—or, more colloquially, as seeds. In one fell swoop, this heinous reclassification strips laborers of their rights and privileges under the law and consigns them to a life of servitude in the Homestead Territories. The botanical classification cages them and holds them captive. But there’s a catch: it also amplifies their yearning for Freedom, a concept the so-called seeds revere and therefore always capitalize. This quintessential conflict lies at the heart of Fly the Coop—a game of contradictory impulses suffused with the tension slavery produces. If characters can’t literally escape the cage, can they escape it figuratively? Can they fly the coop in plain sight of those who hold them captive?

Designing a game played in a future Disunited States wasn’t easy. It had to be exciting enough to entice spectators and meaningful enough to players that they would be willing to risk injury or even death to play it. Having taught many college athletes in the past, I was aware of the critical role competitive sports plays in the U.S., and how team sports are often hinged to notions of ownership. Even so, I didn’t want it to be only a game imposed by oppressors on victimized people. Though this kind of simplified, top-down approach to game design in speculative fiction has proven popular, it seemed more plausible that this game would grow organically out of the soil of the setting. The characters’ yearnings would design it. What I had to do as a writer, therefore, was listen to them.

I had a few lights to steer by. I knew, for example, that whatever game I invented would need to be dangerous and uplifting, based in reality but dependent on illusion, part satirical commentary and part go-for-broke spectacle, part battle and part beauty. One other thing I knew for certain: the game had to reflect the culture that produced it, which meant it had to pay tribute to the phenomenon of storytelling and the persistent power of dreams.

Fly the Coop draws from tropes prevalent in stories by those of us who trace our roots back to the African Diaspora. But it also draws upon feelings of confinement felt by women and by disadvantaged men throughout the centuries. Prohibited from elevating themselves in any meaningful way, seeds invent a game that not only permits elevation but which actually enables them to “fly.”

A cross between a flying circus, a gladiatorial Colosseum battle, and cage fighting, Fly the Coop embodies the famous Flying Africans myth—the idea that people rose up spontaneously to escape slavery and flew a way back home. Protagonist Jellybean “Ji-ji” Lottermule recalls what Uncle Dreg, revered by seeds as a Tribal wizard and prophet, told her about it:

Uncle Dreg used to tell Ji-ji that the coop was equally symbolic to seeds and steaders. To seeds it was a reminder that flight was possible; to steaders it emphasized the inescapable supremacy of the cage…. What mattered to Ji-ji was that the planting flying coop was the one place where her dreams were more powerful than her yearning.

The fly coop houses a multi-tiered, high-tech fly cage where battles are waged between pro teams. In these circus-like arenas, seeds and former seeds battle for supremacy, using weapons and daring athletic skill. Between battles, they vault from trampolines, fly on trapezes, and shimmy up hope-ropes, striving to seize a tactical advantage by climbing higher in the cage than their opponents.

The game is played inside an arena called a coop. Fly coops on plantings are modest in size—more like small circus tents. But the pro coops in the cities are massive, comparable in size to American football arenas. In Flying the Coop, the newly constructed Dream Coop in D.C. is an impressive feat of engineering, with a control booth and special effects teams, intricate projection systems, and a center ring that opens up like the mouth of a monster to reveal terrifying surprises which shock the tens of thousands of flyer fans in the arena and those watching at home.

As is the case in other pro coops around the country, much of the equipment inside D.C.’s Dream Coop honors Civil Righters, Middle Passengers, and other inspiring figures from history. There are King-spins and Harriet Stairs, Douglass Pipes and Rosa Parks Perches, ‘Bama’s Dramas (state-of-the-art trampolines), Ali Stingers, Baldwin Beams, DuBois’ Toys, Biles Trials, an enormous Ellison Wheel players can be invisible inside, and a smaller Wheatley Wheel flyers can leap onto to escape attack. The crowning glory in the coop is the Jim Crow Nest suspended from the dome, the largest nest of its kind and the exclamation point in the seeds’ satirical commentary on oppression.

The athletes who fly the coop select their own flyer names: Tiro the Pterodactyl, Angel Birdgirl, Laughing Tree, Marcus Aurelius (a.k.a. the Thinker), and X-Clamation, to name a few. Naming becomes a rite of passage for characters in these books, some of whom go by multiple names. Many decades ago, not long before he died, my Jamaican Maroon father selected another name for himself and his biracial offspring. Even though he had so little money (his paintings, sculptures and novels weren’t selling, and he’d been fired from his job at a Brillo factory for attempting to start a union), he paid to change his name legally. He told my mother he didn’t want to have a name that could be traced back to plantation owners. As a proud Black man, he wanted his name to be his creation alone. Names matter. They don’t simply tell us who we are, they can also reveal who we most want to be.

Fly the Coop’s arbiters are an acknowledgement of the brutal penal system in the Territories. The intimidating Jury of Judges awards points for victories in battle and for acrobatic skill on the coop equipment. The twelve black-robed judges often mete out justice arbitrarily, influenced by the sentiments of spectators and coop owners. The person who “conducts” the coop is known as the coopmaster. In D.C.’s famous Dream Coop, the maestro is also known as the Dream Master, a fitting title for a character named Amadeus “I’m-a-God” Nelson, who was once an outcast Serverseed and is now the most powerful Black Man in the city.

Not all of the enslaved are enamored with the fly coop. In The Freedom Race, protagonist Ji-ji Lottermule’s mother rails against it and against Tiro, the reckless fly-boy her daughter loves:

“Swinging around in that coop like some brainless bird! Those vulgar wings on his shirt! Using cheap tricks to fly! An illusion—is it not so? A game steaders play to pacify seeds—trick us into forgetting we can never fly from here. They’ve snatched our history like they snatched us!”

Yet most of the seeds find the coop inspiring, a sentiment Tiro describes as he sits inside the Dream Coop fly cage on a Rosa Parks Perch and speaks to his dead brother:

“We got an Ellison Wheel big as a building, largest wheel of its kind. It’s got these paddles function as landing platforms an’ springboards. With a touch of a button, Coopmaster Nelson can expand and contract it, spin it fast, or spin it slow. Can make the whole goddam wheel invisible, pretty much, if he wants.”

Though readers unfamiliar with figures in Black history may not recognize the allusion to Ralph Ellison’s famous novel Invisible Man, or know who is being referenced in the architecture and equipment in these fly coops, what is far more important is how the game houses the dreams of the characters. Played inside a gargantuan bird cage, where mystery and magic combine to thrill those who invest in a dream, the dangerous game of Fly the Coop reminds characters who suffer under the yoke of enslavement that liberty and justice—the most precious gifts a nation possesses—have never been easily won. For enslaved people, the yearning to fly the coop is eternal.

Novelist, poet, and memoirist Lucinda Roy is the author of the speculative novel The Freedom Race and three collections of poetry, including Fabric: Poems. Her early novels are Lady Moses, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, and The Hotel Alleluia. She also authored the memoir No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech. Her latest book Flying the Coop, is now on sale.

Order Flying the Coop Here:

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Excerpt: The Freedom Race by Lucinda Roy

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Place holder  of - 99The Freedom Race, Lucinda Roy’s explosive first foray into speculative fiction, is a poignant blend of subjugation, resistance, and hope.

In the aftermath of a cataclysmic civil war known as the Sequel, ideological divisions among the states have hardened. In the Homestead Territories, an alliance of plantation-inspired holdings, Black labor is imported from the Cradle, and Biracial “Muleseeds” are bred.

Raised in captivity on Planting 437, kitchen-seed Jellybean “Ji-ji” Lottermule knows there is only one way to escape. She must enter the annual Freedom Race as a runner.

Ji-ji and her friends must exhume a survival story rooted in the collective memory of a kidnapped people and conjure the voices of the dead to light their way home.

Pleas enjoy this free excerpt of The Freedom Race by Lucinda Roy, on sale now, and check out book 2, Flying the Coop, on sale 7/5/22!

1: The Cradle

A convulsive wail catapulted Ji-ji awake. Oletto had woken to nurse. The wailing reached a crescendo. Each night her little brother woke at ten and two, guzzled from her mam’s teat like a drunkard, then fell back to sleep so rapidly it looked like he was faking it. Only he wasn’t—not according to Ji-ji’s mam, who welcomed the wailing, said it assured her that her lastborn was still with them. “Don’t ever leave a seedling to purple-wail like that, Ji-ji,” Silapu would warn. “Unanswered yearning can split you wide open, force you to spend the rest of your life searching for foolish ways to plug up the wound.”

Ji-ji rolled over to face the tattered curtain hanging over the doorway that separated her bedroom from the main room. For a few seconds, she tried to convince herself her name wasn’t Jellybean Lottermule. She was Ji-ji Jubilation, the j’s in her first name pronounced like the g in gee whiz. She’d chosen it because it sounded cute and sassy, neither of which she was. “Brown as dung” the steaders called her, nothing like her dark and pretty mam, or Charra, her light-skinned, pretty sister. Not that she gave a damn what dumbass steaders thought. The only name worse than Jellybean was Lottermule. Thinking about it made her want to gag.

Oletto’s wails turned to hiccuping whimpers. Sleep had deserted her, so Ji-ji took refuge in her pretend life. She was living Free! Free! Free! in Dream City . . . or up in the Eastern SuperState maybe, where rumor had it they’d rebuilt some of the iconic skyscrapers, locating them farther back from the coast this time cos SuperStaters didn’t blame floods on the wrath of God like steaders did. She pictured herself living in a penthouse—a term Father-Man Lotter used to describe the main offices of the Territorial Headquarters in the Father-City of Armistice, a.k.a. the City of Cages. (Don’t think about their disgusting capital. It’ll drive you crazy. Go back to where you can live Free. . . .) She found a place of refuge again.

She was a half-Toteppi princess living high on the hog with her mam and little brother in a penthouse hundreds of miles from the Territories. No man could ever touch her or beat her. Ji-ji Jubilation was her very own self on her very own terms. . . .

Her brother’s whimpers turned to shrieks. The truth gnawed like rats, severing the hope-rope she clung to. They weren’t living in a liberty SuperState or an Independent oasis; they were trapped at the butt end of the Old Commonwealth of Virginia on one of the hundreds of plantings homesteaders established following the Civil War Sequel. She was Jellybean Lottermule, chief kitchen-seed. . . . It would never be enough. . . .

Ji-ji grabbed her wristwatch from the small bookshelf Tiro had made for her fourteenth birthday. She’d won the watch in one of the planting races. She stared at the hands on the watch’s face. It was a child’s wind-up watch, which explained why the steaders had given it as a prize to the fastest female runner. A tiny, coal-black cartoon mouse pointed his white-gloved, chubby fingers at the numbers on the watch face. The mouse was grinning so hard it looked painful. He reminded Ji-ji of the black-faced minstrels who played at the barn dance during the Harvesting Festival. Two A.M. Only three more hours to go before her morning run. By six thirty, she’d be preparing Lotter’s breakfast at the father-house. He liked to eat early: poached eggs cooked just right—never hard-set but not undercooked either; coffee smooth not bitter—no milk, no sugar. Father-Man Lotter didn’t go in for diluting anything.

Oletto’s whimpers turned to screams. If she didn’t get an hour or more of sleep she’d be dragging all day. She tried to think of herself as lucky. At fourteen, she was one of the few postpubescent females still living in her mam’s cabin. She recited the words Zaini, Tiro’s mam, had taught her to raise her spirits: “Our mother, which art the Cradle, may we know our hallowed names.” She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly to calm herself, then stepped lightly out of bed. Yawning, she shuffled through the bedroom, careful to avoid the twelve dents in the floor made by the legs of her three lost siblings’ beds. The dents they’d left behind were pretty much all she had to remember them by. Stepping on them would have seemed like blasphemy.

Ji-ji entered the only other room in the cabin. Silapu must have been up for a while because a crackling fireplace warded off the winter chill. Apart from Oletto’s cradle and Lotter’s fancy rocking chair, all their other furniture was junk: a rickety table on a tired rug whose edges curled up like fried bacon; three wobbly wooden chairs, one with part of its back missing; and a sink with a working pump—admittedly a luxury few seed cabins possessed.

Ji-ji glanced over at the one object in the room—apart from her brother’s magnificent cradle, of course—that didn’t make her want to scream. Tiro’s mam Zaini had made the quilt as a grieving gift for Silapu after Luvlydoll died. It depicted blackbirds—three perched in a tree while a few dozen took off from the branches in a burst of something akin to fireworks on the Fourth of July. The quilt almost convinced you the seedmate cabin was home, almost made you forget that behind it was Lotter’s seeding bed. Not that her mam used it much. When Lotter wasn’t paying her a seeding call, Silapu didn’t sleep in the mating bed, opting instead for a makeshift bed on the floor. However hard she scrubbed, she claimed, it was impossible to wash Lotter’s mating stench from the sheets.

Having dragged a chair over from the table, Ji-ji sat down beside the cradle. Woven from twigs fashioned into impossible patterns, it had solid black walnut rockers decorated with intricate carvings of beasts and birds. Six months before, a few hours after her mam had given birth, Uncle Dreg had shown up out of the blue to present Silapu with the magnificent cradle. When Ji-ji had asked him how he’d known her mam had seedbirthed, he’d pointed to his Seeing Eye necklace and smiled the way you do when you want to keep someone guessing. “This cradle will keep your offspring safe,” the wizard had promised.

“Your brother is teething,” Silapu declared with unmistakable pride. “His front tooth is sprouting, see? It is a sharp one. He will start biting down hard when he nurses. You were a biter. . . .”

Ji-ji poked her index finger into Oletto’s mouth—not easy because he was snuffling around for the large dark nipple he craved—and found his wayward tooth. It had put down roots in the middle of his top gum.

“That center tooth is a sign,” Silapu stated. Her Toteppi accent made her sound wise. “My own father’s front tooth was in the center like this one. It is my father come to me again. ‘Same mouth, same words’—that is what we Toteppi say. When this one is a warrior grown, he will sound like my father. His voice will boom out across the bush.”

“We’re not in the bush,” Ji-ji reminded her. “We’re in the Homestead Territories.”

“Only when our eyes are open,” Silapu insisted.

Ji-ji smiled. It was good to hear her mam speak of her homeland, good to see her happy again. Tribalseed “imports” from the Cradle, shipped over to the Territories to address the severe labor shortage, sometimes wasted away or killed themselves soon after they arrived on transport planes or cargo ships. Silapu had been Ji-ji’s age when she’d been snatched from the Cradle by pickers. Her mam knew the old words and the old stories, though unlike Uncle Dreg, she never spoke them aloud. “You know what memories are, Jellybean?” she’d said once to Ji-ji, after Clay had been auctionmarted. “Memories are knives—slice, slice!” She’d slashed her arms through the air and banged her head against the wall until Ji-ji and Charra coaxed her quiet. But tonight, as Silapu looked at her lastborn, there was a deep contentment and a Toteppi pride in her eyes.

“Do you hear that, Bonbon?” Ji-ji asked, suddenly happy. “Mam says all you need to do is keep your eyes shut an’ you won’t even know you’re on a planting.”

Ji-ji loved to use the nickname she’d given her little brother. She’d had a bonbon once—a dark chocolate one. It had slipped down her throat as easy as spit. She wished her lost brother and sisters could have seen him; they would have loved him too. But after metaflu took Luvlydoll, and they shipped Clay off to the auctionmart, and Charra—god knows what happened to Charra—Ji-ji was the only one left. Charra, the last of the three to be lost, had disappeared some months ago. Silapu, who’d been barely holding things together before then, was inconsolable. She blamed herself for what happened, though she wouldn’t tell Ji-ji why. Crazy with grief, she’d drowned her sorrows in cheap whiskey from the planting store and pills she got from Lotter. She hadn’t known she was pregnant until roughly the fifth month. When Doc Riff diagnosed her condition, she swore she’d never touch a drop of booze or swallow another of Lotter’s pills—as long as her offspring was healthy and she was allowed to keep him. She sensed early that her lastborn was a boy, the seedling who would make her life bearable, she said. Silapu and Ji-ji had delivered Bonbon without a midwife or doctor in attendance. Ji-ji suspected her mam had somehow guessed her lastborn’s secret.

When Bonbon slipped out of the seed canal into her hands, Ji-ji had stared at the seedling in disbelief. Unlike Silapu’s other liveborns and deadborns, the infant was Midnight dark. Ji-ji had been “disappointingly dusky” herself, according to Lotter, her complexion aligning more closely with a typical Commonseed’s than a Mule’s. But Lotter reconciled himself to Jellybean’s “dun-colored cheeks and nappy head.” Bonbon’s case was much more extreme, which was why both Ji-ji and her mam were terror-struck when they saw him.

Among Tribalseeds and products of Commonseed matings, very dark complexions were not unusual. Biracial Muleseeds, on the other hand, especially those begat by father-men, were supposed to testify to the strength of the patriarchal seed. Bonbon’s complexion was on the Midnight arc of the official Color Wheel—a number 35 or 36. According to steader doctrine, Muleseeds on the duskiest arc (a.k.a. the cuckold arc) testified to the promiscuity of a seedmate.

Silapu and Ji-ji were thrown into a panic. They debated making a run for it. But how would they scale the electric fence without being fried? Even if they managed it somehow, the planting search hounds would hunt them down, or mutant beasts roaming The Margins would tear them to pieces. Silapu was terrified of the mutant big-cat and wolf species unleashed by the Territories to discourage trespass—an experiment gone hideously wrong. How would she protect her lastborn if they ran into a pride of snarlcats or a pack of stripers?

Ji-ji knew mutants and search hounds weren’t the only horrors they would encounter. Because Uncle Dreg served as an errander for Cropmaster Herring (one of only four seeds on the planting who had a Right to Roam) he’d seen the world outside the 437th and had told her and Tiro how brutal it was, revealing things about his travels that made her blood run cold. She’d also read An Abbreviated History of These Disunited States, a book Miss Zyla Clobershay had given her days before she was fired for teaching things not on the seed curriculum. Though the Sequel had ended decades before, and some parts of the nation were at last beginning to emerge from the chaos created by the Long Warming, the former United States could be hell on earth for seeds.

Fueled by armed militias and taking advantage of the turmoil caused by shifts in climate, all of the Deep South and great swaths of the country’s Midwest had seceded from the union to form the self-governing Homestead Territories. After the Sequel, the Eastern and Western SuperStates and the Homestead Territories had signed an uneasy truce, to the consternation of many urbanites in the Territories who were ready to die rather than submit to Territorial rule. Cities like Atlanta, Chicago, TriCity, Birmingham—and smaller places like Oxford, Mississippi, and Fayetteville, Arkansas—rebelled. In a coordinated effort that took the Territories by surprise, city mayors signed DUIs—Declarations of Urban Independence—broke ties with the Territories, and formed militias of their own. At first, flush with their own success, the Independents had welcomed refugees. But that soon changed when they understood the precariousness of their situation.

What Ji-ji learned from the history book she kept strapped to the underside of her bed refuted everything on the seed curriculum. The United States wasn’t “reformed and revitalized,” as the steaders liked to put it. It was a fractured, jittery nation teetering on the edge of total anarchy.

Ji-ji might have been afraid to tell Silapu the unvarnished truth, but Uncle Dreg had no such reservations. When he’d visited them to deliver the cradle a few hours after Silapu had given birth, he’d also delivered dire warnings about the dangers that awaited them should they try to run (though how he knew they’d been thinking about doing so, neither of them could figure out). He painted an alarming picture: the SuperStates and Independents were turning away hordes of asylum seekers; outbreaks of metaflu, cholera, and malaria had turned the squalid shantytowns that had sprung up around the Independents into death traps. If they made it to Dream City without entry papers, they would join the thousands of other refugees in the No Region. They would live in sight of a Dream they could never enter and a wall they could never climb.

The old wizard had taken Silapu’s hand tenderly in his own. “Place your trust in the Freedom Race,” he’d told her. “And in your courageous offspring. I have never seen another racer fly as fast as your thirdborn. When Ji-ji wins, she will petition for you and the infant.”

In a tone brimming with certainty, Uncle Dreg had told Silapu her lastborn had come to him as a grown Freeman during one of his journeys through future-time. “He stood tall in the Cradle, like your father. His voice echoed across the land. I have also seen Ji-ji in the Window-of-What’s-to-Come, wearing the Freedom Race logo and running like the wind. So you see, Sila. All will be well.”

After Dreg had left, Silapu—no slouch herself when it came to manipulation—said it was ironic that the old wizard had used Ji-ji’s gift as a runner to persuade them not to run. Then she’d said something else that still haunted Ji-ji: “Let us hope we do not regret placing so much faith in your abilities, Jellybean.” Ever since, Ji-ji had thrown herself even more aggressively into her training, often going on late-night runs in addition to predawn ones, running till her feet bled and her heart was a piston in her chest. She was their only hope now; she had to succeed.

Deciding not to make a run for it had meant facing Lotter. In hopes of avoiding him, Silapu hadn’t ventured out during the day, not even to the outhouse, for fear one of Lotter’s parrots would spot her and relay the fact that she’d seedbirthed. On the seventh night, however, without warning, Lotter had barged in like a man possessed. Before they could stop him, he’d snatched up Bonbon and examined him from head to toe, rubbing his thumb over his seedling’s back and shoulders like someone who could erase the blackness completely if he worked at it hard enough. After Lotter had finished rubbing, he’d done something they’d hardly ever seen him do before. He’d laughed—a full-throated guffaw. By this time Ji-ji was certain Lotter was drunk, high, or both. He’d wrapped his seedling carefully in the mushroom-colored seeding quilt Zaini had made and eased himself into his rocking chair. Still chuckling, he’d taken out his pipe and puffed contentedly while he rocked his dusky seed in his fairskin arms, as if Oletto were his Son-Proper instead of his Mule.

“Little bugger’s black as pitch, Mammy Tep,” he’d said, addressing his dumbstruck seedmate. “Black as an import. But pretty as the devil in spite of that. See those big black eyes round as moons? Damn! You ever seen a seedling prettier’n this one?”

Lotter assured his favorite seedmate she could keep her lastborn. Said he’d “figure out the rest later.” It was the first time Ji-ji could remember her mam looking at her father-man with something approaching affection. It had always been the other way around—Lotter needing her so much he’d try to beat the love out of himself by beating her. That’s what her mam said anyhow. Ji-ji wasn’t convinced a selfish bastard like Lotter was capable of loving anyone.

In the six months since Bonbon’s birth, every day had been a celebration. Whenever Bonbon grasped Ji-ji’s Chestnut finger in his Midnight ones, everything felt right.

Ji-ji and Silapu were laughing at Bonbon’s ecstatic gurgling when they heard footsteps outside the rough-hewn wooden door. They knew at once who it was: Lotter making one of his late-night seeding calls. He’d likely be high or drunk. Mean too.

Reluctantly, Silapu placed her sleeping offspring back in his cradle. In his dreams, Bonbon was sucking on an invisible nipple as though his life depended on it.

Ji-ji rose hurriedly. She stood next to the cradle in her flimsy cotton nightshift. Scared the light from the fire behind her would make it see-through, she covered herself with her hands.

Arundale Lotter thrust open the door and stood stock-still in the doorway. His thick blond hair was pulled back, his steader’s beard neatly combed.

Ji-ji was hurrying toward her bedroom when something made her stop dead.

Lotter took one step forward. Usually, when he entered one of his seedmate cabins, he swallowed everything whole; this time something was different. He was hesitant, if she could apply a word like that to a father-man like him. Behind him, the night was pitch-black: no moon, no stars. Lotter stood inside a headstone of gloom. A feeling of dread enveloped her. It’s only the night, she thought, tamping down her sense of foreboding. But the shadows writhing on the uneven walls looked sinister. More sinister still were the shadows licking the rocker Lotter had gone to enormous lengths to have custom-made because he wanted to sit in comfort when he made a seeding call. Neither Mam nor Ji-ji used Lotter’s rocker, unwilling to plant their asses where his had been. Silapu had eaten a late supper; her plate and fork were still on the table. He wouldn’t like that. He liked things clean and put away in their rightful places.

Lotter’s scent wafted toward Ji-ji on night breeze—a lavender-citrus, musky fragrance that preceded him like a warning shot. He had the man-scent shipped all the way from Armistice. It arrived in a brown velvet box whose color would fall squarely in the middle of the Burnt Sienna arc of the Color Wheel, exactly where her mam’s complexion did. In gold calligraphy on the inside of the box was the perfume’s fancy name: Dark Essenceial. Because she hadn’t known any better as a seedling, Ji-ji used to repeat that name to herself, swishing it around in her mouth like spring water on a hot day. Father-Man Lotter was the only one of the thirteen father-men on the 437th who wore scent. Not even Cropmaster Herring—who, like every cropmaster on every planting in the Territories, had the right to lord it over his disciples—indulged in that kind of vanity.

Without warning, two tall men stepped out of the shadows and took up positions on either side of Lotter. Ji-ji recognized them at once. The brute on Lotter’s right went by the name of Vanguard Casper. He was Lotter’s chief overseer—a man of immense height and girth who always, for some inexplicable reason, made Ji-ji think of shovels. Van Casper’s beard reached almost to his waist. The one on Lotter’s left was Matton Longsby, the blond guard only a few years older than Ji-ji, whose beard was more of a promise than a fact. Everyone commented on how much the guard looked like Lotter’s Son-Proper, if he’d had one, which he didn’t. (When drunk or high, Lotter complained to Silapu that his Wife-Proper in Armistice was as frigid as a glacier and as barren as a desert. No point in dragging the bitch down here to the boondocks, he’d say, if she can’t be put to good use.)

Seconds passed. Ji-ji felt panic rise inside her. Everything seemed to be scurrying for the exits—screams, even piss. . . . She held them in, knowing how disgusted Lotter would be if she didn’t.

It was when Lotter turned to give instructions to ’Seer Casper that Ji-ji and her mam saw it. Lotter’s long blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail with a fat black seizure ribbon!

NO!” Silapu cried. “I kill you if you do this thing!

To Ji-ji it seemed as though someone had fired a starting pistol. Everything took off running as Silapu leapt toward Lotter, screaming like something on fire. Lotter pushed her roughly to the side. Silapu recovered and flung herself toward the cradle. Casper grabbed her before she could snatch up her seedling.

Ji-ji rushed to help her mam but found herself hoisted off the floor by the blond guard as she kicked and screamed. It was useless. Matton Longsby’s grip was as strong as hope-rope.

Mad with terror, Silapu punched the overseer in the eye. ’Seer Casper reeled back in fury. He came at her again, cinching her so tight round the waist she gasped for breath. Silapu let out a mother’s agonized roar.

Casper yelled at her: “Shut the fuck up, bitch!”

Immediately, the overseer realized his mistake. Still trying to shield himself from Silapu’s crazed attack, he looked over at his boss and began to apologize.

Lotter interrupted him: “Overseer Casper, have eighty rebel dollars in an envelope on my desk by dawn.” No one doled out an eighty-dollar fine for cussing, but Casper knew how foolhardy it would be to argue with a man like Arundale Lotter. “And another thing. You hurt one hair on my seedmate’s head and I will kill you. Is that clear?”

Van Casper, his face a thunderstorm, nodded. The overseer gritted his teeth and held Silapu tight, wincing as her frenzied kicks made contact with his shins. Bonbon was screaming bloody murder. Every seed in Lotter’s quarters and beyond could hear his wails.

When Lotter yanked open the flap of his leather satchel and drew from it a white wooden wheel the size of a dinner plate, Silapu’s agonized cries echoed around the small cabin. Glued at regular intervals along the wheel’s rim were thirty-six color swatches made from small squares of cloth—paler swatches first, followed by light tans, deeper tans, browns, black-browns, and finally the darkest shades of all, on the Coal and Midnight arcs. Bending over the wizard’s beautiful cradle, Father-Man Lotter held the Wheel to the seedling’s face, beginning with the lightest swatches and rotating it until he reached the shade that matched his seedling’s skin color.

He read the official ruling in a tight, emotionless voice: “I, Arundale Lotter, First Father-Man on Planting 437, hereby decree the fifth seedling of botanical Silapu Lotterseedmate to be a number 35 on the Midnight arc of the Color Wheel. He fails to testify to the strength of the patriarchal seed, attesting instead to the hussification of his mam and the blatant disrespect she has shown to myself, her fathermate and benefactor. Accordingly, the seedling will be removed from Planting 437 and shipped to a server camp where he will be raised nameless to serve the Territories as a Cloth-35. May his mam understand the error of her ways. May all who witness her shame be mindful of the authority of the Color Wheel and the divine hierarchy of the Great Ladder.”

Lotter reached back and tore off his seizure ribbon. Set Free, his blond locks cascaded to his shoulders. He picked up Bonbon and draped the black worm of a ribbon round his seedling’s chubby neck. Lotter hadn’t looked at Silapu when he’d read the pronouncement, but he did so now. His handsome face was battered by the firelight; it looked like he was crying. Ji-ji didn’t give a shit if he was. Her mam would never survive this. Might as well put a gun to her head.

Ji-ji tried to utter Bonbon’s name, but she was choking back tears and struggling against the viselike grip of the bastard guard who held her.

Just then, Uncle Dreg arrived with his niece Zaini. Ji-ji knew why Lotter had ordered them to be there. Left to her own devices, Silapu would kill herself.

“Get her out of my sight, Dreg!” Lotter ordered. “Don’t make me whip her quiet.”

Lotter’s voice cracked when he said this. She looked over at Uncle Dreg. He and Zaini were trying and failing to calm Silapu. Using her eyes, Ji-ji pleaded with Uncle Dreg to intervene. Uncle Dreg was an Oziadhee, a Toteppi wizard from the Cradle, the person who’d told her magical stories and fooled her into believing anything was possible. “Please,” she whispered. “Please!” But he only shook his head and said something to her mam in Totepp—some worthless drivel about hope.

Zaini and Uncle Dreg dragged Silapu from the cabin as she called out to Bonbon and flung curses at Lotter, who ordered Casper to escort them safely back to Zaini’s cabin. “Not a hair on her head, Casper—understand?” Lotter warned again.

“Yessir,” Casper said, and followed them out. It took a long time for Silapu’s screams to fade into the night.

“Stay here, Longsby. I’ve sent over to Petrus’ quarters for . . .” Lotter paused. “What’s that Mule’s name? Lua? Sent for her mam too. They’ll be here soon.” He addressed Ji-ji. “Don’t do anything stupid, Jellybean. You’re your mam’s Last&Only now.”

Ji-ji spat at him. The arc of spittle fell short and landed at his feet. If Guard Longsby hadn’t spoken up at that moment, Ji-ji suspected her father-man would have beaten her bloody.

“Let me carry the Serverseed, sir,” Longsby suggested.

Although Lotter had given Bonbon that designation, he looked daggers at the young guard when he uttered the word Serverseed. Lotter, who never cussed in front of his men, said he’d carry his own damn seedling himself. Ji-ji snatched at straws. He’d used the possessive to refer to Bonbon.

Did that mean he wouldn’t issue a Public Condemnation against her mam for whoring? What did it matter either way when he’d already snatched the one person her mam needed to keep on breathing?

Lotter tucked an apoplectic Bonbon under one arm like a bag of cornmeal.

As he stepped into the headstone doorway, Ji-ji made one last plea: “Please, Father-Man! Let me kiss Bonbon goodbye!”

Lotter didn’t seem to know at first who Bonbon was. He glanced down at the screaming seedling as if he couldn’t imagine how he got there. “Oletto you mean? Her lastborn? You want to kiss him?”

Lotter seemed to think about it; then he shook his head. Without another word, he tore out into the gloom.

Her father-man had ripped her arm off. He’d torn open her chest and excised the last sliver of hope. Wrenching herself from the guard’s grip, she fell to her knees, gasping. She would never see her little brother again. Bonbon, the last of her four siblings, was gone.

Copyright © Lucinda Roy 2021

Buy The Freedom Race Here:

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Every Book Coming From Tor in Summer 2022

Ready to discover the hottest reads of summer? Get ready, because this year, our list is SMOKIN’. Check out everything coming from Tor Books in Summer 2022 here!

June 14

Poster Placeholder of - 38The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison

As a Witness for the Dead, Thara Celehar can speak to the recently departed: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty to use that ability to ascertain the intent of the dead and to find the killers of the murdered. Celehar’s time in the city of Amalo has brought him both friends and enemies—and no little notoriety. Now, when solving the murder of a marquise raises more questions than it answers, he finds himself exploring Amalo’s dark underside.

June 21

Image Place holder  of - 60In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out. Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire.

June 28

Image Placeholder of - 60Daughter of Redwinter by Ed McDonald

Raine can see—and speak—to the dead, a gift that comes with a death sentence. All her life she has hidden, lied, and run to save her skin, and she’s made some spectacularly bad choices along the way. But it is a rare act of kindness—rescuing an injured woman in the snow—that becomes the most dangerous decision Raine has ever made. Because the woman is fleeing from Redwinter, the fortress-monastery of the Draoihn, warrior magicians who answer to no king, and who will stop at nothing to reclaim what she’s stolen. A battle, a betrayal, and a horrific revelation force Raine to enter the citadel and live among the Draoihn. She soon finds that her secret ability could be the key to saving an entire nation.

Placeholder of  -92The Origin of Storms by Elizabeth Bear

The Lotus Kingdoms are at war, with four claimants to the sorcerous throne of the Alchemical Emperor fielding three armies between them. Alliances are made, and broken, many times over—but in the end, only one can sit on the throne. And that one must have not only the power, but the rightful claim.

Place holder  of - 7Sands of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

The world of Dune has shaped an entire generation of science fiction. From the sand blasted world of Arrakis, to the splendor of the imperial homeworld of Kaitain, readers have lived in a universe of treachery and wonder. Now, these stories expand on the Dune universe, telling of the lost years of Gurney Halleck as he works with smugglers on Arrakis in a deadly gambit for revenge; inside the ranks of the Sardaukar as the child of a betrayed nobleman becomes one of the Emperor’s most ruthless fighters; a young firebrand Fremen woman, a guerrilla fighter against the ruthless Harkonnens, who will one day become Shadout Mapes.

July 5

Flying the Coop by Lucinda Roy

In the disunited states, no person of color—especially not a girl whose body reimagines flight—is safe. A quest for Freedom has brought former Muleseed Jellybean “Ji-ji” Silapu to D.C., aka Dream City, the site of monuments and memorials—where, long ago, the most famous Dreamer of all time marched for the same cause. As Ji-ji struggles to come to terms with her shocking metamorphosis and her friends, Tiro and Afarra, battle formidable ghosts of their own, the former U.S. capital decides whose dreams it wants to invest in and whose dreams it will defer. The journeys the three friends take to liberate themselves and others will not simply defy the status quo, they will challenge the nature of reality itself.

The Albion Initiative by George Mann

Victorian England comes fully alive in true steampunk fashion, with dazzling inventions and airships flying over the city, while clockwork automatons race across the streets. But there’s a sinister side to all this new technological progress. George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes steampunk series concludes as our special agent heroes discover a plot of empire-changing proportions in The Albion Initiative. 

July 12

The Memory in the Blood by Ryan Van Loan

When her quest to destroy the Gods began, Buc was a child of the streets. Now she is a woman of steel, shaped by gaining and losing power, tempered by love and betrayal, and honed to a fine edge by grief and her desire for vengeance. A perilous, clandestine mission to a hidden library uncovers information that is key to destroying both the Dead Gods and their enemy, the Goddess Ciris. Ciris’s creation, Sin, who lives inside Buc, gives her superhuman abilities and tempts her with hints of even greater power. With that power, she could achieve almost anything—end the religious war tearing her world apart, remake society at a stroke—but the price would be the betrayal of everything she has fought for . . . and the man she loved would still be dead.

Cover of Mythago Wood by Robert HoldstockMythago Woods by Robert Holdstock

The mystery of Ryhope Wood, Britain’s last fragment of primeval forest, consumed George Huxley’s entire long life. Now, after his death, his sons have taken up his work. But what they discover is numinous and perilous beyond all expectation. For the Wood, larger inside than out, is a labyrinth full of myths come to life, “mythagos” that can change you forever. A labyrinth where love and beauty haunt your dreams…and may drive you insane.

July 19

Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

Coming home is hard enough for Vera, and to make things worse, she and her mother aren’t alone. A parasitic artist has moved into the guest house out back and is slowly stripping Vera’s childhood for spare parts. He insists that he isn’t the one leaving notes around the house in her father’s handwriting… but who else could it possibly be? There are secrets yet undiscovered in the foundations of the notorious Crowder House. Vera must face them and find out for herself just how deep the rot goes.

July 26

cover of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz MeadowsA Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from neighboring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he’s ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended’s brother instead. Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock. With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love—as both will learn—is quite another.

Three Miles Down by Harry Turtledove

It’s 1974, and Jerry Stieglitz is a grad student in marine biology at UCLA with a side gig selling short stories to science fiction magazines, just weeks away from marrying his longtime fiancée. Then his life is upended by grim-faced men from three-letter agencies who want him to join a top-secret “Project Azorian” in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean—and they really don’t take “no” for an answer. Further, they’re offering enough money to solve all of his immediate problems. Joining up and swearing to secrecy, what he first learns is that Project Azorian is secretly trying to raise a sunken Russian submarine, while pretending to be harvesting undersea manganese nodules.

The Eye of Scales by Tracy Hickman and Richard Garriott

Aren Bendis, former soldier in the Obsidian army, has managed to protect a rebel city from his former friends and now finds his fate bound to a weapon once wielded by the Avatars themselves. Now, he is being secreted away to the capital of the last alliance of free nations with the hopes that the Hero of Opalis will lead their army against his former masters. What Aren doesn’t know is that his former friend Evard Dirae, a Craft Master of the Obsidian Order, is seeking Aren out. Worried that Aren is being manipulated against his will by the magic of the Avatars, Evard seeks to find the sword and break its hold over Aren once and for all.

August 2

cover of The Book Eaters by Sunyi DeanThe Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairy tales and cautionary stories. But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

Full House by George R. R. Martin

In hardcover for the first time, Full House brings together the Wild Cards stories that have been previously published on, including works from Daniel Abraham, Cherie Priest, David D. Levine, Walter Jon Williams, Paul Cornell, Carrie Vaughn, Caroline Spector, Stephen Leigh, Melinda M. Snodgrass, and more!

August 9

Councilor by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. 

Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers. Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths. This makes him dangerous. As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.

August 16

The First Binding by R.R. Virdi

The first book in this fast-paced, worldbuilding series, The First Binding, tells the story of Ari, an immortal wizard hiding as a storyteller. Ari’s buried villages, killed gods, stolen magic, and knows he is a monster for it. On the run and seeking obscurity in a remote tavern, he and his companion, a singer, soon find their pasts aren’t forgotten, and neither are their enemies.

Dance with the Devil by Kit Rocha

Tobias Richter, the fearsome VP of Security of the TechCorps is dead. The puppetmaster is gone and the organization is scrambling to maintain control by ruthlessly limiting Atlanta’s access to resources, hoping to quell rebellion. Our band of mercenary librarians have decided that the time for revolution has come. Maya uses her wealth of secrets to weaken the TechCorps from within. Dani strikes from the shadows, picking off the chain of command one ambush at a time. And Nina is organizing their community—not just to survive, but to fight back. When Maya needs to make contact with a sympathetic insider, Dani and Rafe are the only ones with the skill-set and experience to infiltrate the highest levels of the TechCorps.


Excerpt: Flying the Coop by Lucinda Roy

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Poster Placeholder of - 65Lucinda Roy continues the Dreambird Chronicles, her explosive first foray into speculative fiction, with Flying the Coop, the thought-provoking sequel to The Freedom Race

Dreams are promises your imagination makes to itself.

In the disunited states, no person of color—especially not a girl whose body reimagines flight—is safe. A quest for Freedom has brought former Muleseed Jellybean “Ji-ji” Silapu to D.C., aka Dream City, the site of monuments and memorials—where, long ago, the most famous Dreamer of all time marched for the same cause.

As Ji-ji struggles to come to terms with her shocking metamorphosis and her friends, Tiro and Afarra, battle formidable ghosts of their own, the former U.S. capital decides whose dreams it wants to invest in and whose dreams it will defer. The journeys the three friends take to liberate themselves and others will not simply defy the status quo, they will challenge the nature of reality itself.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Flying the Coop by Lucinda Roy, on sale 7/5/22.

Ji-ji woke to a serious, potentially insurmountable problem. After Afarra had gone to sleep in her own bed in her own room at 9:30 p.m., Ji-ji had lain down for a minute. Exhausted by her flying lesson that morning, when Coach Mackie had pushed her to the limit, she’d fallen into a deep sleep. Afarra must have snuck in while she slept, and now she was snuggled up against her.

Afarra had given many names to the wonders that had blossomed on her Elly’s back, including Shimmershines, Secret Hopefuls, Freedom Twins, and Purple Tears. In their retracted position—a position they’d adopted four days ago and refused to budge from—their massive size remained a secret. The ridges created by their intricate root system ran along either side of Ji-ji’s spine and arched around her shoulder blades. The two craterlike formations, like eye sockets on a giant’s skull, were where her wings, if she could even call them that, nested.

Ji-ji raised her wrist as noiselessly as she could and squinted to make out the mouse’s white-gloved hands in the dark. 10:45 p.m.! She’d never make it in time. A quarter mile from their hideout, so as not to be detected by the bodyguards the Friends of Freedom had assigned to protect them, Tiro was waiting in a van behind an old warehouse. Trouble was, when it came to monitoring Ji-ji’s movements, the bodyguards were a breeze compared to Afarra, and ever since they’d slept up in the Jim Crow nest a couple of weeks ago, Afarra had been having nightmares. Ji-ji cursed herself for agreeing to Afarra’s absurd request. Neither of them were fond of heights, but Afarra’s constant pleading had worn her down. Having experienced a terrifying visitation herself when Lua-Dim and Silas, her deadborn, paid her a visit in Father-Man Brine’s confessional on the planting, Ji-ji sympathized with Afarra. As the saying went, “Most ghosts only boast but Dimmers always simmer,” meaning a Dimmer’s thirst for vengeance far exceeded that of ordinary ghosts. Ji-ji still wasn’t sure if the visitation by Lua-Dim was a product of her fevered imagination. But she did know that a visitation by the tribe of Dimmer-dead, real or imagined, could put the fear of god into you.

None of this altered the fact that Ji-ji had to get out tonight. She didn’t know if her strange new body triggered the yearning she had to look up and see an unobstructed sky, but she did know that her desire to be in the open air was overwhelming. They’d been stuck inside for close to four months. Their first summer in the city was coming to a close and she’d seen nothing. Venturing out into D.C. in the dead of night when she was supposed to be dead herself was beyond reckless. But tonight—for her sake and for Tiro’s—it was a risk she had to take.

Slowly, she eased herself away from Afarra. The single bed with its lumpy mattress and squeaky frame threatened to betray her. Slowly . . . slowly. . . . She looked behind her. Afarra was still fast asleep. The painted eyes on the wizard’s wooden necklace might be permanently open, but they hadn’t seen a thing. Slowly, Ji-ji stood up.

Elly!” Afarra cried. “We see you wake!” The “we” referred to Afarra’s eyes and the wizard’s.

Damn! Ji-ji tried to persuade Afarra to go back to her room. Hopeless. She tried to bribe her with the last square of chocolate from Tiro’s latest gift box. That didn’t work either.

“You are wearing day clothes,” Afarra stated, in a prosecutorial tone. “I think you are being a cheater, a sneaking.” Her self-taught language could be confusing, but Ji-ji had no trouble understanding her tonight.

Ji-ji proceeded to make her case. She told Afarra that Tiro was waiting to take her to the Dream Coop so she could see him fly. He was in a van nearby. Knowing how attached Afarra was to her Shimmershines, she said her back was desperate. “They can’t stay all cooped up in here, Afarra. Just one night. One night of outside, then I can put up with the inside. Do you understand?”

Afarra relented. “Okay, Elly,” she said. “I understand.”

“You do? Great! I’ll be back before you know—”

“We go together. If not, I rat on you to Bodyguard Large.” She meant the large bodyguard Ji-ji had nicknamed Large Bodyguard-at-Large, LBL for short, one of the night-duty bodyguards.

Ji-ji knew Afarra wasn’t bluffing. She glanced at her wristwatch again. Almost eleven. “Okay, okay,” she said. “But you gotta do exactly what we say.”

Taking advantage of the extra pair of hands, Ji-ji asked Afarra to bind her up tight. Her appendages had been known to play up; the last thing she needed was for them to unfurl spontaneously tonight.

Thrilled at the prospect of going outside, Afarra leapt into action. Within two minutes they were ready. In another minute, they were running as quietly as they could, past the desalination plant the city stopped working on years ago, and past waterlogged warehouses. As usual, apart from a few stray cats and one or two street people, who paid them no mind, the flood zone was deserted.

They tore round a corner and there it was, exactly where Tiro had promised. A white van with its headlights off. It purred in readiness. Ji-ji rushed to the van, leapt in, and flung her arms around Tiro’s neck. Shocked, she pulled away from the man in the black skullcap.

Marcus, Tiro’s flying partner, had puckered up his lips in readiness. When she pulled away, he’d given his usual I-don’t-give-a-crap laugh. His mood underwent a tectonic shift, however, when Afarra climbed into the van and plopped herself down in the second row of seats. With an angry jab of his index finger, Marcus killed the engine. In that lazy-river voice of his, tinged with an irritation Ji-ji hadn’t heard from him before, he asked what the hell Afarra thought she was doing.

“I am being with Elly,” Afarra declared, defiantly.

“Tiro won’t like it,” Marcus warned. “The deal was I bring her to the Dream Coop, not you.”

He glared at Afarra in his rearview mirror; she glared right back and poked out her tongue. Normally, Marcus would have shrugged off the insult. Not this time. Tiro’s fly partner, who’d often boasted that the only thing he cared about was getting off Planting 437 with a tasty bag of prime weed, lost his temper. Said naïve idiots like the two of them—and Tiro too—went round with blinders on, trusting that the good Lord or a Tribal wizard would intercede to save their sorry asses.

“Listen up, kiddos,” he cautioned. “Seeds may call this place the City of Dreams, but D.C.’s a teeter-totterer. It can’t be trusted. Too many secessionist sympathizers itching to get their hands on seeds they can export back to the Territories.”

In the pause that followed, the best Ji-ji could come up with was “I thought Tiro was coming to pick me up.”

“If that fly-boy could drive worth a damn he would have.”

“He got his license,” Ji-ji asserted.

“So? Licenses are automatically issued to flyers. One of the perks. Don’t mean the fly-boy knows how to drive. Dreamfleeters get licenses as easy as we get pus—” The syllable hung in the van like a stone from a slingshot. The turn the conversation had taken seemed to embarrass him even more than it did her. “That shit don’t mean a thing,” he added. “You know that, Ji-ji, right?”

Marcus glanced in the rearview again and shook his head. Tapping his fingers to his collarbone to indicate the painted eye beads around Afarra’s neck, he said, “That freaky wizard necklace’ll spook the locals. His Death Day speech is being spouted from here to Kingdom Come. The Reverend Dreamer stepped clean out of his mountain when he heard it.”

In her excitement, Afarra nearly stood up. “The Dreamer can walk?” she exclaimed.

Marcus couldn’t help smiling. His voice softened and he played along. “Course he can walk. Knows Dreg’s Death Day speech by heart too. Recites it to the other monuments. Black, White, and Brown, all rising up together. Very kumbaya.”

Afarra muttered something Ji-ji didn’t catch. She looked real pretty sitting there in the second row of seats, her rich, dark skin glowing, her face filled with joy as she thought about the two dead Black men she trusted. Ji-ji scooted out of the passenger seat and clambered into the second row. She put her arm around Afarra, as if she could protect her from anything the world threw at her. The gesture seemed to touch Marcus, though he was still insistent about the necklace.

“Sorry, Afarra. If you’re tagging along, you gotta take that thing off an’ leave it in the van.”

“The Eyes is mineminemine!”

“Never takes ’em off,” Ji-ji explained. “Only when she showers so the soap doesn’t sting.”

A jacket lay on the floor in front of the passenger seat. Marcus grabbed hold of it and flung it behind him into Afarra’s lap. “Here. Wear this. An’ keep it zipped way up.”

Afarra began to argue: “It is too hot for—”

Marcus lost it again: “Think I give a crap? Patrollers are out in force tonight picking up undocumenteds. If they see you with that thing round your neck they’ll—”

Afarra pulled a folded paper from her pocket: “I am documented. I have the paper.”

“You think a piece of paper’ll protect you if a patroller’s got a mind to have some fun? Besides, outcasts don’t get the same privileges as—” Marcus caught sight of Ji-ji’s face. He sighed. “Just take the damn necklace off, or wear the jacket zipped all the way up. Shouldn’t be anyone at the Dream Coop when we get there, late as it is, but there’s no point risking it. An’ zip up your mouth too. Patrollers don’t take kindly to weird. If they pull us over you’ll get us all lynched.”

“They are not lynching people in the Dream,” Afarra told him.

“Is that right?” Marcus said, swiveling his head around to face her. “Try telling that to the twelve poor seeds got strung up in Montrose Park last month.”

Ji-ji hadn’t believed him at first. Zyla had never mentioned it. “You saying they hung botanicals? Who?” she asked, not knowing herself if she was referring to the victims or the perpetrators.

“It’s hanged not hung when you’re talking about people. Folks always get that shit wrong. . . . Listen to me. This is a Liberty Independent, but it’s not nearly as progressive as Atlanta or Austin or Chicago. Free’s not Free for ex-botanicals in D.C. Bastards make us pay for it. Zyla clue you in about that? Thought not. Your fairskin fairy godmother sanitizes the menu before she serves it up.”

His anger against Zyla Clobershay, Ji-ji’s mentor and friend, had come out of nowhere. Ji-ji was reminded of what Lucky Dyce had said about Zyla—how he blamed his father’s death on her recklessness. At least Lucky had a legitimate reason to be angry. Ji-ji rose to her teacher’s defense.

“What have you got against Zyla? She was nice to everyone at the legacy school.”

Yep, Jellybean, she was. Cute too. Guess I don’t believe in fairies . . . or God . . . or mothers, come to think of it. Put the jacket on, Afarra, or I throw you both out an’ drive back alone to the Dream Coop to a fly-boy with a broken heart.”

Afarra poked out her tongue at Marcus one more time for good measure. Then, with Ji-ji’s help, she slipped into the light jacket, at least five sizes too big. It reached past her knees. She had to bunch up the sleeves to see her hands.

Satisfied, Marcus went over the schedule. They’d drive around the Mall once only, then head to the Dream Revival District. “Yeah, I know. You gotta see the Dreamer’s statue. We’ll pass by the monument. Don’t blink else you’ll miss him.” Not far from the statue was their ultimate destination, the Dream Coop. “Where you kids’ll watch me an’ Tiro the Pterodactyl fly the Dream.”

Marcus pressed the ignition button again; the engine shunted to life. Excited by the novelty of riding in the van, the passengers fell quiet as it shuddered forward. Afarra could count the times she’d ridden in a vehicle on one hand. Ji-ji’s vehicular experience was limited too.

They exited the flood zone without incident. As soon as they reached the other side of the river, however, traffic picked up. The steady stream of pedestrians and bicyclists struck them first. Streets were often busy in the late evening when undocumented refugees surfaced to claim a sleeping spot on the Mall, but tonight it looked like the entire city had turned out.

Marcus smacked his hand on the steering wheel, then placed his forehead on his hands. “Oh crap,” he groaned, not looking up. “They must’ve rescheduled the fireworks.”

“How come you didn’t know that?” Ji-ji asked.

Her question sounded more accusatory than she’d intended, but he didn’t take offense.

“The owners censor notifications we get on fleet-issued callers. Don’t want their fly-boys out partying.” He took out his caller and scrolled through the messages. “Yeah. Here it is. An announcement about the Independence Day celebration. Sent this afternoon to the rest of D.C., but we get it thirty minutes ago. Well that’s just great. It’s eleven twenty-five now. Fireworks go off at midnight.”

Ji-ji remembered what Zyla had told them. After a storm ruined the Independence Day celebration, flooding the Mall and many of the low-lying areas, the mayor had rescheduled the fireworks for last week. He’d been thwarted again when more torrential rain flooded the area.

In a last-ditch effort to escape the hordes of pedestrians heading to the Mall, Marcus headed north, hoping he could bypass the congestion, circle round, and make it to the Dream Revival District. The street he took was blocked off. They turned back only to find the access road jammed with traffic. The van wasn’t going anywhere till the fireworks were over.

For Marcus, the plan was simple: wait in the van then head to the Dream Coop soon as the crowd thinned.

Ji-ji pleaded with him to let them get out and walk around the Mall: “We’re a stone’s throw from the museum. We can walk to the Steps of Abraham too. Stand where the Dreamer stood.” With no real hope it would work, Ji-ji made one last plea: “I gotta see the Mall, Marcus. Tonight especially. It’s like these things on my back can’t do what they need to do if we don’t go there. I know you’re mad at us, but please, I gotta see it.” She knew it was hopeless. Tiro would have bought into something as crazy-sounding as that, but Marcus, a skeptic, never would.

Afarra didn’t go for it either. “No walking!” she asserted. “Very stupid in the dark.”

“Out of the mouths of babes,” Marcus said, before swiveling around in the driver’s seat and looking at Ji-ji in a way she’d never seen him look at anything or anyone before, without irony or irritation, as though he was pondering something that troubled him deeply. His tone was wistful as he said, “Tiro’s never been right in the head after he saw those things on your back unfurl. Says they make men believe in God. Makes sense in a world as screwed up as this one they’d have needs too. If we assign each of those things a full vote, it’s three votes to two.”

“You mean . . . ?” Ji-ji asked, barely daring to believe him.

“Yep. You win. Let’s hope those miracles on your back are smarter’n the rest of us. Though I guess that wouldn’t be saying much after tonight’s fiasco. Stay close. I’m talking to you, Afarra.”

“Stupid, stupid!” Afarra muttered, furiously. “They are all the time weeping.” As proof, she held up the wizard’s necklace. Ji-ji stared at the wooden eye beads. Dry as a bone.

Marcus was speaking. Fast. “We head straight there and straight back. It’s dark so your—what does she call ’em?”

“I am saying Shimmershines and Secret Hopefuls, Freedom Twins and Purple Tears.”

“Very creative,” Marcus said, dryly. “Those Shimmershines’ll likely see as much as those eye beads of yours, so don’t get your hopes up. We’re not seeing Lincoln either. Free the slaves my ass.”

Ji-ji interrupted: “But he did Free the—”

“Yeah,” Marcus replied. “Thing is, a father-man’s a father-man. Sooner you realize that the better off you’ll be. We steer clear of the west end of the Mall. It’s rough down by the pool. We see the outside of the museum, that’s it. After our little field trip, it’s straight back to the van and on to the Dream Coop. If it’s too late, I take you back to the Aerie. Last thing we want is the Friends putting out an APB on you two. Ji-ji, keep your cape on. Afarra, if you take that jacket off I’ll stuff you back into it myself. An’ don’t say a word about Toteppi. They picked some up the other day. No one’s seen ’em since. I’ll let Tiro know we’ll be late.” Marcus took up his caller then looked back at Ji-ji. “Can’t believe I’m doing this! I’m crazier’n those crazyass eyes she’s wearing.”

“No you’re not,” Ji-ji told him. “You’re a good person.”

“I swear, kid, whatever angle you’ve got, I still haven’t figured out what it is.”

Having typed out a message saying they’d be late, Marcus reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a gun. Afarra didn’t see him do it but Ji-ji did. She gave him a look that said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Can’t be too careful,” Marcus told her, raising his dashiki and stuffing it into his belt. Afarra seemed occupied with the necklace. Marcus lowered his voice and leaned in to Ji-ji. “I hear tell you pack heat yourself. Petrus’ gun, right?” She didn’t like the way he said that.

“Yeah, I got his gun. I keep it nearby in case the steaders find us. But I don’t carry it around with me. Not that I go out . . . much . . .” She forced herself to stop blathering.

“Look,” Marcus said, “not all the folks in Dream City are as saintly as I am. Bet Zyla the Fairy Godmother forgot to mention that too. If I’m going down, it won’t be without a fight.” He handed each of them a face mask. “Keep these contagion masks on at all times. We go incognito.”

Afarra, who often found rhymes amusing, burst out laughing. Afarra’s laugh didn’t let you hold out for long. Ji-ji joined in next, followed by Marcus.

Sometimes a place takes root inside you before you’ve even seen it. That’s the way it was for Ji-ji when she stepped onto the Mall at last and felt D.C.’s contours bind with her own. The oddities on her back stirred in their sockets of bone. Energy rippled out in gentle circles from her spine, as if her back were a body of water and someone had lobbed a stone into its center.

Three things tempered Ji-ji’s enthusiasm: the fear she’d be spotted; the knowledge that she’d put Afarra and Marcus in danger by venturing out tonight; and the semiautomatic handgun Marcus had stuffed into the belt of his jeans under his colorful dashiki.

Yet even those concerns, stomach-churning though they were, couldn’t smother the excitement Ji-ji felt as she maneuvered through the crowd on the Mall. For the first time since she’d stepped through the walled city’s forty-foot gates as one of the winners of the Freedom Race, she was roaming Free. A friend on either side, her torso bound tight so no one who brushed up against her would be alarmed by her mutancy, she made her way toward the one place on the Mall she had to see. If anyone had asked her if she could actually hear the voices of the Passengers coming to her from the museum where their stories were enshrined she would have said no. It wasn’t a sound exactly. It was more a sense that something large was opening up inside her and refusing to close again. An affirmation of Things Lost, a pulsing elegy.

Behind her on her right, Tiro’s fly partner remained glued to her back. Every once in a while, he urged her forward. Marcus wasn’t the only one eager to get out of there. Whenever Ji-ji paused at one of the stalls or watched an acrobat or mime, Afarra half dragged her away.

The Mall was notoriously dangerous after dark, but tonight the usual residents—the so-called Maulers who slept under stalls, cardboard, sheet metal, or whatever else they could lay their hands on—had been replaced by Districters, who’d come to the Mall to do what Free people did in a Liberty Independent on the Fourth of July—to see the fireworks.

Only it wasn’t the Fourth of July. Ji-ji couldn’t believe her luck. It was like Independence Day had been postponed twice just for her. They’d be able to walk right up to the museum that paid tribute to the First Seeds and Civil Righters. She looked up ahead and a little to the east. On Capitol Hill, lit up like a birthday cake, lay the most famous white dome in the world. She wanted to see the mayor’s pride and joy—the gigantic moat that encircled the Capitol Building. Zyla had told her it was an extravagance the bankrupt city could ill afford, but Ji-ji still wished she could see the moat and walk around in the fountain garden that fronted it. She didn’t care that the sweltering humidity made this section of the Mall, lined with porta johns, more pungent than ever; she didn’t care that the mud churned up by storms and hardened into stiff waves by a merciless summer sun made walking treacherous. She was roaming around in the city that hadn’t slept since Mayor Yardley’s Grand Reconstruction had been initiated. As work on the new levees rumbled on in the background, the flood-ravaged city that refused to bend to nature celebrated its faith in its own independence, and the independent spirit of its forebears.

Earlier, when Marcus had handed contagion masks to Ji-ji and Afarra, he’d been adamant that they keep them on. Jellybean Lottermule was meant to be dead and buried, he’d said. In a way, Ji-ji thought, I am. Ji-ji Silapu bore little resemblance to Father-Man Lotter’s Muleseed on Planting 437. Yet staying hidden in the abandoned practice coop and the adjacent three-story building where she and Afarra shared an apartment had been a much harder trial than she’d expected. Christening the apartment the Aerie had been unwise. She hadn’t foreseen how often the name would mock her. Her confinement was for her protection, but protection without liberty is a form of torture for someone whose spirit is nourished by trees and grass and an unimpeded sky. What was the point of escaping the Homestead Territories if you wound up caged in an aerie?

A powdered-sugary line reeled her in: a stall where funnel cakes were made to order.

“Uh-uh,” Marcus said. “No stopping. We see the museum. It’ll be closed so we’ll see the doors. Those’ll be closed too. That’s it.”

As he steered her along by her right elbow and Afarra yanked on her left hand with the tenacity of the drowning, Ji-ji clutched a bag to her chest. Inside the small canvas bag with the image of the Capitol dome stamped on the front were her official residency papers, a flashlight, three painkillers in case her back played up, a bottle of water, and a small gift for Tiro.

At that moment, as if to mock her, the churned-up earth sent her flying. If Marcus hadn’t caught her she would have fallen flat on her face, brought low by the Mall’s undulating sea of crud.

“You are falling,” Afarra scolded, stating the obvious once again. “I am telling you the out-and-about is dangerous, Elly. They are saying you will regret.” Those beady eyes were getting on Ji-ji’s last nerve. Afarra pulled Ji-ji in closer and whispered, “They are saying you are a secret to keep.” Ji-ji loved Afarra, but there were times when she was as cheerful as a Doomsday prophet.

Ji-ji pulled away and turned instead to Marcus. She thanked him for saving her.

“Thank me when we’ve made it outta here,” he muttered, as if he doubted it would happen.

His concern fueled Ji-ji’s. In the dark, it was hard to read his expression, especially in a contagion mask, something many residents wore after metaflu pandemics wreaked havoc in the city. But his body told her how tense he was.

After a rocky start, Marcus Shadowbrookseed had lived a charmed life. Emmeline Shadowbrook, Planting 437’s diviner and the most powerful fairskin female on the planting, had imported Marcus to the 437th when he was eight, after his mother died and he’d been left to fend for himself on the streets of some city. Marcus had never fessed up about which city it was, not even to Tiro. “Only fools look back,” he liked to say. “I keep my eyes on the road ahead.” The good looks and sandy complexion that had given him advantages on the segregated, viciously hierarchical planting came into play in different ways in the city. Everything about him, from the snazzy way he dressed to the smooth way he spoke, told you he’d hitched his wagon to his own star, which was on a steep upward trajectory. No one was surprised when he was selected to be the planting’s flyer rep in the Freedom Race after Tiro was forced to run from the planting. His good fortune could have spoiled him. It hadn’t, though it had left him with something Ji-ji couldn’t put her finger on. An untouchableness, as if he stayed at a distance from everyone, including himself.

The throng of Districters gathered on the Mall to celebrate the end of tyranny was mostly made up of White residents, but Ji-ji also spotted a fair number of black and brown faces among them. She was relieved. With any luck, the three of them wouldn’t attract attention.

They’d approached the National Mall from Seventeenth Street. Moving through the crowd, they passed a fenced-in pit where the Washington Monument once stood. The Civil War Sequel, repeated secessionist incursions, and terrorist attacks hadn’t triumphed over Washington, but floodwater had. The obelisk, along with the Jefferson Memorial, had been moved to Founding Fathers Hill, a mile or two away in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood. Soon, when the mayor could find a way to pay for it, Lincoln would follow.

The Dreamer, along with the so-called Mother Lode (monuments to Harriet, Rosa, and Fannie Lou), had been moved to a constructed mound called Fourth Hill in the Dream Revival District. Ji-ji knew exactly where it was on the map in her head. They’d drive by that next. Amazing.

Enchanted by the stalls’ bobbing lanterns and makeshift electric lights hooked up to spewing generators, Ji-ji took everything in—the sweet aroma of grilled fish and jerk chicken, the Independence Day flags, the balloons. The stunning variety of food on the Mall made Planting 437’s Last Supper of the Spring seem like a modest family picnic. Marcus bought each of them a chocolate ice cream. Still mad at him for agreeing to let Ji-ji walk around, Afarra snatched it from his hand.

“She can be a little bitch when she wants to be,” Marcus said.

“She’s protective of me, that’s all,” Ji-ji told him.

Ji-ji looked over at the museum: a crown of upside-down flattened pyramids stacked against a midnight sky. The raucous hectoring of stallkeepers slid off her. She didn’t want to marvel at the live gator on a leash “declawed an’ tame as a puppy,” or taste the cicada shishkebabs “tastier’n beef,” or the snakes “sweet as eels” roasted on spits. No way did she want to listen to the bearded steader on a soapbox preaching about the secessionists’ Found Cause. The guns, ropes, and knives on a stall nearby only made her tired. . . . The thing that called to her was the white pavilion set up not far from there. Those with lucre to spare could enter the lit-up tent and dance the night away. She saw the silhouettes of the dancers flung up against the white canvas.

“See?” Afarra said as she looked over at the large white pavilion where shadows danced. “Dimmer ghosts is everywhere. Following. The Mall adventure is a bad idea.”

Ji-ji squeezed her friend’s hand. “It’s okay, Afarra,” she said. “We’re not gonna stay long.”

“We are if you two don’t get a move on,” Marcus said, propelling them forward.

Ji-ji imprinted the scene on her memory so she could return to it later. Who knows how long it would be before she’d be outside again? Weeks? Months? God, she hoped it wasn’t that long.

They kept moving forward, closer and closer to the museum. Gamblers sat at one of dozens of players’ booths, betting with ration cards and the fickle currencies of the Disunited States, District dollars mostly. A few well-dressed White Districters placed bets with the king of currencies, SuperStates, backed by central banks in the Eastern and Western SuperStates Alliance.

Ji-ji recalled Tiro’s repeated warnings that the city didn’t take seedchips, as if he suspected she kept a stash of the crude wooden chips as cherished souvenirs of planting life. Tiro stressed how risky it was to offer planting currency to anyone, especially currency from the 437th—what with Uncle Dreg’s reputation on the rise, and the coverage the three of them got as Wild Seed winners when they’d entered the city. As a fly-boy in the Dreamfleet, he figured he’d be safe, but Ji-ji and Afarra would be easy prey for secessionist sympathizers. Ji-ji had assured Tiro that though she and Afarra might look like dumbasses they were almost as smart as he was. Assured him they knew that planting stores in the Territories and currency exchanges along Dream Corridor were the only places you could trade seedchips. Stamped with the planting logo on one side and the face of the planting cropmaster on the other, the shoddily made seedchips could leave you with a crop of splinters in your fingers. Her father-man’s callously handsome profile would be stamped onto every one of the wooden “coins” from the 437th now he’d succeeded Herring as cropmaster. Arundale Duke Lotter would despise that type of recognition. He’d want his image stamped on silver. Or, better still, gold.

“How come no one’s betting with rebel dollars?” Ji-ji asked, when she spied another players’ booth.

“Rebels dollars’re known as yellers here,” Marcus told her. “Ain’t worth crap. Need a bucketful of yellers to place a bet.”

Without warning, a volley blasted into the night. All three of them jumped.

A glittering red shower cascaded over the Mall as all eyes turned upward. A waterfall of brilliant white came next. When loudspeakers blasted “The StarSpangled Banner” in time with the fireworks, Afarra screamed in delight. People oohed and aahed, clapped and shouted.

Marcus urged them to keep making their way through the crowd to the museum. “This is only a prelude,” he said. “The real show’s about to begin.”

Afarra pointed to a tent. “In there!” she cried.

“No stopping,” Marcus ordered. “We gotta beat the crowd an’ get out before the fireworks are over and the stampede starts. You itching to wind up in God’s Furrow?”

“No,” Ji-ji muttered. “She’s not itching to hear more patronizing rhetorical questions either.”

Marcus grunted out a laugh. “You better learn some manners, Lottermule, else you’ll rub some steader sympathizer the wrong way an’ find yourself shipped back to Lotterboy in a crate.”

Ji-ji didn’t admit she’d hoped to get a peek of the infamous furrow, see if it was as big as people said. Zyla had told her how the park on the Mall had been bifurcated last year when a tornado had made landfall in the center of the city. The monster carved a deep trough down the center of the park before veering south and shearing off the side of the war-damaged Air and Space Museum. Capriciously, it turned back, only to wimp out three yards from the Capitol Moat. The mayor called it divine intervention. The Washington Monument had been relocated a month before, and nothing in or near the Capitol building had been damaged. Zyla, who detested Mayor Yardley, said the divine should have intervened earlier, before dozens of refugees got killed.

To discourage the homeless from camping on the Mall, the grassy area— already a swampy mess—had not been restored. The mayor’s critics swore that a large section of furrow they did opt to fill in immediately after the tornado hit was a mass grave. The gash became known as God’s Furrow after a scathing editorial in the D.C. Independent when editors claimed it looked as if God Himself had plowed it. Because it separated those on the north side from those on the south, and because circumventing it added miles to your journey, God’s Furrow soon took on another nickname: the Great Divide. Tonight, the three of them were on the north side of the furrow, too far away to see it—difficult to see it in the dark anyway. Perversely, thinking about the scar running down the middle of the Mall gave Ji-ji comfort. God’s Furrow told her there was a destructive force more powerful in the Disunited States than the one that oppressed botanicals in the Territories. A natural force that father-men and inquisitors, however ruthless they were, could never equal.

The sky lit up again. One firework after another turned the horizon in quick succession from showers of red, to white, to blue. Ji-ji had never seen anything like it. It looked as if the museum were a vase holding a spectacular fireworks bouquet to Freedom.

Ji-ji happened to notice that her left hand was empty. Her left hand was empty! She looked around wildly. “Where is she?” she cried over the explosions. “Where’s Afarra?”

“She was right here!” Marcus exclaimed. “Right here!”

The two rushed around calling out Afarra’s name. Pop-pop-pop all around. Boom, boom, boom! “Please, God,” Ji-ji whispered, “please don’t snatch her from me!” No one had explained to Afarra what rights that piece of paper gave her. Marcus would have disclosed it earlier, but Ji-ji had stopped him. As a former outcast, Afarra’s status was provisional and limited. Her residency could be challenged by any D.C. patroller eager to rid the city of another seed. The Friends were working furiously to get the law overturned, but for now, till the paper Afarra carried was officially ratified (a process that could take years for former outcasts), it was more of a liability than a guarantee. But how do you tell that to someone like Afarra, who’d been through hell as an outcast Serverseed? How do you let her know that outcasts don’t perch on the lowest rung of the ladder, they’re chained to it?

The rising tide of panic in Ji-ji’s chest made it hard for her to breathe. Her friend, her adopted little sister, had disappeared! She tried to remember when they’d relinquished their hold on each other’s hands and stopped so abruptly that Marcus trod on her foot.

“What? You spotted her?”

“No. But I think I know where she went. Follow me!”

Ji-ji tore off in the direction of the tent Afarra had pointed to. A lightningfast runner, she reached it in a few seconds. But before she could push back the flap and step inside, a man shoved himself in front of her. Clean-shaven, he wore a polka-dot bandana. His gun was visible on a holster slung around his hips and secured at his thigh. He carried what looked like an antique revolver. Ji-ji had seen guns like that before. Chances were good it was a convertible. Its owner could slip a mag up inside it to make the conversion. The weapon paid tribute to the old world but massacred like the new one.

Marcus joined them. “Evenin’, sir,” he said, shifting his voice into a different gear.

“Five Districts or two SuperStates, boy. Per person,” the man demanded. He held out his non-shooting hand. Ji-ji’s heart fell. Afarra didn’t have any money. She couldn’t have gotten inside.

Out of options, Ji-ji still had to try. “We’re searching for our friend. Can we poke our heads inside? See if she’s there?”

The man mimicked her: “‘Can we poke our heads inside?’ Yeah. I can arrange for you to do some head poking round my crotch if you want. How come you speak like a fuckin fairskin, dusky?”

Marcus eased Ji-ji to the side and stepped forward. Moving slowly so as not to trigger anything, he removed his mask. “She lost her sister is the thing. An’ her sister’s a bit . . . you know the way some of ’em are, sir. Damaged. Not all there in the head.”

The man took a step backward and slapped his thigh as recognition spread across his face.

Hey! You’re that rookie flyer! Philosopher Phil, right? I seen you on the billboards! Damn!

“Flying name’s Marcus Aurelius. Folks get that wrong.”

“Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher Phil, who gives a fuck when you fly the Dream? You an’ that partner of yours. That wizard’s boy. Got money on you both to take the Most Valuable Partners prize this season. MVP’s in the bag. My, but you’re cute as a button. Bet those flyer groupies is all over you.” The man looked over at Ji-ji: “Ugly ones too, looks like. What you messing around with a dungskin like her for when you got fairskin fillies chomping at the bit for some fly-boy action?”

Marcus chortled. The sound was hollow and full of revulsion, but the man didn’t notice. “Ain’t that the truth, man,” Marcus said. “So can we take a peek inside? I got five Districts for each of us.” Marcus attempted to hand him the cash but the man held up his hands like it was a holdup.

“Kipper Cantle’s not about to jinx himself by taking lucre from his golden goose! Bad karma. Swore to the missus soon as I saw you two fly in that Freedom Race battle with that mountain of a Tribal—that Tree Laugh fella—I swore you’d take the title. Go on in an’ take a look, Phil. On the house. Stay long as you want. Tent was packed ’fore all this fireworks crap started.” Kipper looked up at the fireworks. “Yardley’s gone overboard—sending our hard-earned taxes up in smoke. Won’t be no one else stopping by till this commotion’s done.” He leaned in and grasped Marcus’ forearm. “Trust me, this one’s a doozy. Fully functioning too. If you want, I can activate his functions for a small fee. I tell you, boy, a horse ain’t got nothin on—”

“Thanks, man,” Marcus said. “I’ll let you know.”

Just then, another staller called out to Kipper to get his ass over there and share a single malt on Independence Day. “It’s not Independence Day, you old fool!” Kipper shouted back, but he set out for the shot anyway. “Take all the time you want,” he sang over his shoulder as he picked his way over the crud to join his neighbor. “Best rookies I’ve ever seen. My money’s on you, boy!”

Marcus and Ji-ji stepped inside. The tent wasn’t very large but it was very dark. Kipper had dotted a few smoky kerosene lamps around. The place stank. At first, Ji-ji thought the tent was empty except for a tall cylindrical cage in the center. Then she spotted a figure swamped by a huge jacket. Afarra rested her forehead against the bars of a cage. Brimming with relief, Ji-ji would have called out, but Marcus put a hand on her arm and a finger to his lips. Ji-ji soon understood why.

Afarra was talking to the occupant of the cage. Most of her words were incomprehensible—a strange, Afarra-type mix of English and other languages. Ji-ji didn’t speak Totepp—neither did Afarra, as far as she knew—but she recognized a word or two from her mother’s tongue. She heard a few clicks and deep-throated clucks too. But it wasn’t the language that took them aback, it was something else. The hulking shadow on the stool in the center of the cage was riveted by what Afarra was saying.

“What is that thing?” Marcus whispered.

It was the only prompt Ji-ji needed. She rushed up to Afarra and pulled her away from the cage. “Afarra! It’s not safe!” Ji-ji flung her arms around her and hung on. “Why did you run off like that? I can’t lose another sister! Please don’t ever do that again. Scared us half to death!”

Marcus came up then. “How’d you get in here anyway? You buy a ticket?”

“No. The Eyes they hear him calling. I come in by the underneath. Under the flap.”

“Are you insane?” Marcus said. “Kipper out there wouldn’t think twice about handing you off to patrollers! Or pairing you up with this one for jollies. What is that thing anyway?”

Ji-ji looked into the cage. “Is that . . . Oh my god! Afarra, is that Drol?”

“No, Elly!” Afarra cried. “You are being very stupid tonight. This is another one. So I am the one telling him about Drol. I am saying he is not alone. He is very interested. See?”

It was hard to see much of anything when the shadow was sitting in shadow, but it seemed to Ji-ji that the extremely large, extremely furry figure on the stool bore an uncanny resemblance to the poor mutant they’d first run into in the Doom Dell on Uncle Dreg’s Death Day.

“Drol is with Man Cryday in Memoria near Dimmers Wood,” Afarra reminded her. “He is not being here with us cos he is there with her.”

“Cryday’s ant, you mean?” Marcus said. “That ape mutant Tiro told me about?”

Afarra was furious. “Drol is not a ape mutant! He is a man!

“Keep your voice down!” Marcus said. “Sure as hell looks like an ant to me. How tall is it anyway? Whoa!

The cage’s occupant had stood up. His head hit the top of the cage and the rusty contraption shuddered. At close to eight feet, the prisoner towered over the six-four fly-boy.

“He is very tall,” Afarra said, as if her friends were blind. “He is wanted to be Free. Like us. I am telling Muckmock we Free him in a flash tonight. With your gun you do it.”

Of course she saw his gun, Ji-ji said to herself. Since when has Afarra missed anything important?

“You’re telling him what?” Marcus said, incredulously.

Ji-ji attempted to reason with her: “We can’t Free him, Afarra. I wish we could, I really do. But we can’t. He’ll get killed if we try it. People are scared of big. Scared of mutants too.”

Afarra made a passionate plea: “No cages in the Dream! They are saying to be Free. All of us can live Free together like Uncle Dreg promised for the Rising. The Eyes are saying it to me. I promise already! I tell him you are like him. I swear on your wings to do it!”

“Okay, that’s it,” Marcus said. He looked back at the entrance. “All we need is for her to say some stupid shit like that in public an’ they’ll string us up. You’re coming with me, kid. Now.”

As he moved to grab her, the captive’s clawed, hairy arm shot out so fast that Marcus, in spite of his flyer’s reflexes, barely dodged injury.

Marcus swore, picked Afarra up, and slung her over his shoulder. He grabbed Ji-ji’s hand and pulled her from the tent. Behind them, Ji-ji heard sobs and howls coming from the cage. The sound of suffering, as tenacious as her own shadow, clung to her back and refused to let go.

Copyright © 2022 from Lucinda Roy

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