Cordelia Lynn Holmes
Pork stuffed dumplings. They sat in the center of the table, sizzling hot. Lynn couldn't have any.
Archie had ordered them. Lynn sat next to Keaton, who picked at her meal dutifully, and Natalie rattled on about how she’d only told the truth. The truth,
Lynn wanted to scoff, but knew not to start shit here, not when they’d just gotten in the clear for a few more precious hours. When Lynn moved her shoulder, pain rocketed down the joint, flaring up her entire shoulder blade. Lynn gasped with surprise.
“Aw, fuck,” she muttered, wincing and reaching with her good arm to massage it. How had she hurt it? She looked down at her arm, hanging limp and loose. The door,
Lynn thought. Archie threw me into the door, I caught Spoons in the air.
Lynn looked up, blinking. That wasn’t right. She still hadn’t been served yet, and the growling in her stomach grew louder and louder, like a prisoner rattling her ribcage like the bars of her cell. “Hey, how come - “
Archie was across from her. “"Shit, that sounds a lot like how dad used to be. Sorry you had to deal with that. At least the power was coolish, right?" Lynn zoned out for a moment, the gears in her head whirring as best they could with the pain of her arm, wretched and worthless, at her side. She’d heard all this before. She turned to Keaton, some kind of sinking feeling dragging down her starving stomach. “Keat,” she murmured, “I need you - I can’t figure out why - “
Archie had kept talking. “ - hope my incident on the first day isn't too much of a red mark. Worst I've had up until now on any kind of record was a detention in 10th grade." Lynn turned back and stared at him, ignoring Spoons and Denim alike. She could feel her hair, mousy auburn and not glowing at all, falling over her face in messy strands, disorganized as the thoughts in the head of the girl who had them. Why can’t anyone see my fucking arm?
one half of her mind thought. The other focused on Archie. I don’t know if a deadbeat father is better than a revolving door of replacement ones. Or...Christ, nothing on your record until tenth grade? I didn't make it to tenth grade.
Lynn could only think of her own record, a mountain of detention slips and elementary school write-ups before they’d transitioned to court orders and penitentiary forms. She bet Archie had good grades. Not as good as Denim, but okay
, and okay was better than Lynn’s, and he probably never got in fights, he brought people flowers, and he never - the glass bottle hot as a sun for a moment before it burst, a shard firmly lodged in the bridge of her nose, clothes burning // a house, burning, burning more than a bottle of kerosone and dish soap should’ve // the gun barrel red as her hair, someone shouting “ìMátenlos, mátenlos!” and - //
Lynn remembered. This wasn’t right, there was going to be something bad, the breakout, or at least something like that. Arianna. The blue woman. She was small and scared but that wasn't right, the shovel, the flash, the burn. “Archie shut the fuck up, there’s - there’s a guy outside, some skull motherfucker, he - “
Keaton kept eating, and Spoons kept talking about some Spoons shit, the silver collar on her necklace beeping every few moments. Archie looked over at her with that look, bored and utterly fascinated all at once.
“Archie she’s - she wants to - “ Lynn couldn’t bring herself to say it. Her mind went to Gary, and the brutal shock he’d been in for when he’d gotten creative ideas, but Archie wasn’t like that. This was her
. It had been the grace of God or the luck of the devil, whichever had felt more inclined to help Lynn that day, that had let her take out the lizard the first time. She
could do it with a hand tied behind her back. Feverishly, Lynn tried to massage feeling back into her arm but it wouldn’t move. “Archie, please! Both of you, two, we have to fucking go!”
Archie turned to Lynn and gave her his characteristic, goofy grin. “Why?” he said, lighthearted as always. “You wouldn’t stop if we were here or not.” He looked down at the dumplings and shook his head. “You hate me. You burnt
Archie’s chair was pulled backwards suddenly, and the legs of his seat were broken by a well-practiced axe kick, splintering the wood and causing the young man to fall onto his back as the seat fell apart. A hand, dark and glowing as magma fell against the table, and Lynn could- for the first time in her life- feel
the heat behind her. She felt breath against her left ear. The drinks at the table were hissing as the liquids boiled. “You can’t burn me, though.”
Lynn turned to grab Keaton, to tell her to go, but it wasn’t her anymore, it was Lucy in an oversized denim jacket, threadbare and worn, a stained shirt pulling at the seams across her protruded stomach. Spoons was gone too, a Hispanic girl about eleven years old in her place, pulling at the cold silver around her neck. Lynn had the dropping feeling, the right at the top of the roller coaster drop feeling, of knowing that the worst is not about to come, that it’s there, waiting. She let her eyes pass over Archie - who should have been Archie - but it was Che, sitting as casually as he always did, his dark eyes boring back into her own and making hers look away, making them cold and small. The hand on her shoulder burned, and she understood why Archie hated her, why they all looked at her how they did. Lynn shrieked, trying to shove back but her arm wouldn’t work. It did nothing. Even if it would have the woman was too strong. Lynn struggled to push herself up out of the booth but a thunderclap of pain burst open in her knee and she crumpled back down, her right leg suddenly as worthless as her arm. “No, no, that’s not right, it - “ she looked down at her leg. All that remained of her kneecap was a bloody ruin of cloth and bone and bullet. Lynn wanted to look up at Salamandra, to stare her down as she did it, but her head wouldn’t turn. She couldn't look at Salamandra and none of them would look at Lynn as she looked to each of them, begging for help.
“You want so badly to be like them.” the voice said, still hot against her ear. “You want your perverted sense of normal. But you’re not. You wanted my help.” A hand, hot as burning coals against Lynn’s skin, grabbed her by the hair and twisted her head until she was staring down eyes as angry and yellow as the sun. There was a crunch of wood below her and the chair collapsed, but she was held up by whatever had its ironclad grasp of her head. She lurched, and was thrown away from the table like a dog discarding its chew toy. Lynn his the ground in a mess of limbs, but she had full view of Salamandra- the woman made of fire, with her foot against Archie’s chest and a predatory look on her inhuman features. The twin suns shifted from the boy to her once again, and she grinned. “You wanted to be just like me.”
“Don’t,” Lynn said, her voice croaking as she suffocated on the smoke. Salamandra stomped down on him - but she couldn’t tell if it was Che or Archie, or if there was any difference anymore. Keaton sat, pregnant and tired-looking, doing nothing as it went on. Behind her, the back of the restaurant was full of Christmas trees, and Salamandra had lit them all ablaze before walking in. Or did I?
Lynn tried to remember. She burned a Christmas tree, one time. It had burned the house. It was Lucy's house. Her brain wasn’t working. Somewhere, deep down, she knew none of this was right - she should be healing, she shouldn’t be burned, she - Salamandra should be dead - but her brain was a small scrap of meat being pulled at by the mad dogs that were all the injuries on her body. Lynn struggled to pull herself up with one decent arm and leg and couldn’t, even with the wall behind her for support. She turned, grateful at least that it was her useless arm that had been scalded, and saw a dent in the restaurant’s wall, where someone had smashed something into it again, and again, and again. The linoleum floor below it was melted and hardened back over, an ugly scar of synthetic magma. Lynn looked back. “I didn’t…” she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. She was going to be sick. “Che,” Lynn said, feeble even to herself. He was under Salamandra’s foot, looking at her, bored and fascinated at once, and pulling the petals off flowers. He held them against the woman's skin one by one and they caught fire, ash dusting down over him. He didn’t see to mind. “I need your help with something, Lynn.” He'd said that before, too, she knew.
“Che, Che I’m gonna die, she’s gonna - “
“The warehouse. I need you to come down with me and take care of something.” His voice was the way it always was. His tone was completely urgent and completely relaxed. She didn’t have a choice, because you never did with Che, but why would you want one, because he knew what the right thing was, and he had kept them all together so far. You just had to trust him. Even if it seemed wrong, it was right. For a bewildering moment, Lynn’s dizzy eyes noticed the hint of pudginess on his features, and the quality of the clothes he wore. That’s not right, though,
Lynn thought. We had to steal just to get by, that’s why we all went hungry - he wouldn’t have...he didn’t have any more than we did.
He rolled a quarter over his hand, because he was always doing something like that, fidgeting or playing with one thing or the other. Lynn felt like he was always bored with life, even though she had seen him angry, so furious he put holes in walls, or so furious he didn’t even raise his voice, he just spoke in a tone so cold and neutral they all wanted to curl up inside themselves. They had to do that sometimes. Lynn taught Clarita and Megan. When you saw things you weren't supposed to. You just went somewhere else. But that didn’t matter, because - well, his voice was never sweet, but there were times it was something like that, and that evened it out. But this Che was more like Archie, she thought, and she didn’t get it. Che would’ve helped fight Salamandra. Would he?
Lynn thought, trying to remember. He didn’t at the end. Something at the end went wrong. None of them would help.
Some sobering thought came. They wouldn't help,
she remembered. They fucked me over. All of them fucked me over.
Lynn knew that had happened before too, they’d gone to a warehouse, it was the one the fight club was at, but she couldn’t remember what or why, or why Che wouldn’t help her. Salamandra was going to kill him, and she was going to do things to Archie, but he just kept pulling flowers, doing nothing. Amelia wasn’t even here. Eli was somewhere, and Lynn tried to figure out how she knew both that Eli existed and that she hadn’t met Eli yet. Lynn’s orange jumpsuit was singed and shredded, struggling to offer her any privacy, and she could see through the window a crowd was gathering, staring. Lynn turned back to Salamandra. “You were gonna kill me,” Lynn said, her voice wheezing. “You - when Gennedy put me away. You would’ve shivved me.” It sounded like a lie, even to her. She knew it was at least a little true. She knew because she would’ve done the same thing to her. “I…” Lynn’s voice trailed off, lost between the pain in her knee and her nose and her shoulder and all the burned skin on her neck and arm, the scarred marks where Salamandra had lain her fingers.
“I told you to leave.” Salamandra said to her. Archie, or Che, or whoever it had been was gone now. “But you didn’t. I didn’t kill you.”
There was an earth shattering roar from somewhere within the bowels of the restaurant, out of view. It was enough to make even the living flame before her uneasy. Salamandra shook her head and locked eyes with Lynn. “I didn’t kill you.”
She approached with purpose to every step until she was right on top of Lynn, six or seven feet over the girl on the floor. Lynn threw her good hand and the woman didn’t even attempt to block it, her hand hitting the woman’s calf and doing nothing. She had Lynn by her collar- somehow burning the skin against her knuckles but not the clothes she wore. With her off hand Salamandra forced her against the wall where the dent was. For a brief moment, Lynn was aware of how painfully tight the skin around the bridge of her nose was, of how opening her mouth to scream pulled the gash apart even further - but then the woman’s burning fingers were on her throat and smoke was in her mouth and she could not even scream. Salamandra had her by her hair, the slight sting of knotted tangles being ripped lost in the frenzy of everything else. Through Salamandra’s legs, she could see Archie on the floor, unharmed but for a hand that was completely burned off. Keaton and Natalie had just gone. The crowd outside lost interest, and the Christmas trees burned farther and farther away as Salamandra’s hands tightened. She saw shapes, but it was hard to make out where colors began and ended. Lynn couldn’t hear in the ear against the wall anymore, and was only vaguely aware of something running out of her ear and down her cheek before sizzling and scalding her skin.
“I didn’t kill you.”
Somewhere, Che was telling her she was a pussy, that she wasn’t even fighting any more, but Lynn’s fingers couldn’t find anywhere weak or exposed on the woman, everywhere she touched only burned.
She felt the pull of her hair again and a pain in her eyes as she realized they were boiling, and the world was dark and on fire before her skull dented the wall again, her throat tighter and tighter.
“I didn’t kill you.”
Again. Lynn didn’t feel the pain in her knee any longer, and she could remember the warehouse and the pistol blast for only a moment before it was gone too, and her weak arm wasn’t even her weak arm anymore, because the other one was burned useless from trying to pry the devil’s hands off her throat. She didn’t feel anything but her head, the way the skin on her lips peeled back and the blood thundered in the vessels around her skull.
“I didn’t kill you.”
Lynn felt her head go back against the wall one more time and blinked.
She was on the floor of her dorm room. Her clothes were burned off. She had not woken in a cold sweat, but her whole body was steaming, and there was the smell of burning synthetic fabric from where she’d scorched the mattress before falling over. The back of her head smarted from where she’d hit the floor, and Lynn pulled herself up against the base of the bed, knees to her chest, gasping. She’d disabled the fire alarm on her room on day one - one of the few security oversights the Promise had caught and fully decided to ignore - and Lynn was free to fumble at the pile of belongings next to her bed that had scattered when she fell. She grabbed a pack of cigarettes and got one into her mouth, the end lighting as soon as her fingers wrapped around it.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Lynn muttered, rocking back and forth. The Xan was right there. Right there. She just had to grab it and take one and she could go back to sleep.
Lynn grabbed the bottle and hurled it across the room. She’d probably ruined the fucking thing with the heat anyways. The cigarette was burned out about thirty seconds after Lynn put it to her lips, and she grabbed for another one, breathing deep. As she did, her skin and hair shimmered like coals, surging back to life with a blast of air and dying back down as it went away. Lynn idly ran her thumb, nail chewed to the cuticle, across the jagged scar on her kneecap.
Lynn sat still for a few minutes, breathing. She grabbed for her phone and flipped it open, eyes watering from the bright light. ”Hey I know this is really weird but can I just come over and sleep on the floor or something I won’t make any noise I just -
Lynn stopped, watching the line flicker as she thought of the next letter. She deleted the message and shut it, putting the phone back down.
She climbed back into bed and stared up at the ceiling.
After an hour of that, she got her things and went to the gym.
in collaboration with JunkMail
The time in the hospital had been frustrating. The doctor patiently explained the concepts of healthy self-image and proper, balanced diets to Lynn, and marvelled at how quickly her appetite seemed to return. Lynn's stay was only two days, but she was able to have a bit of fun with it. Lynn, in a tearful display of thanks, palmed the doctor's wallet from his lab coat and ordered flowers to her own room. She left the wallet on the table next to some brochures ("I'm so forgetful!")
and went down to the front desk.
"He's not supposed to have visitors," they told her.
"Please," Lynn said. "I helped save him and I just want to be sure he's okay. I promise I won't get him sick. My temperature's too high."
The woman relented - Radvi had stabilized, after all - and permitted Lynn a short
"I think the docs here are as dumb as the cops," Lynn said, throwing the flowers down onto the bedside table and lounging in the chair next to Radvi. It seldom happened that Lynn was wrong - in her experience, she was right about nearly everything - but she had been wrong on this one. He had survived. His face was bandaged and gauzed so heavily you could barely see the eye that he had left, and he had all those Darth Vader machines hooked up to him. "You shitting in a bag and all, I guess?" Lynn asked, staring at him. No response.
"Well, I'm a woman of my word. Flowers. You can thank the pediatrician they have on staff. If I really wanted to do Arianna's job for her, I'd just get him assigned to take care of you." Lynn stared at the body and the machines that breathed it. "Jesus. You're fucked." Lynn leaned back in the chair, resting her feet on the hospital bed. "You know, I figure this is the safest place on the Promise right now. This room. Because I remember - " she almost said Keaton telling me
, but Cara was always, always listening. Her gloating had almost gotten her. "I remember someone telling me that after that little event at the mall, the cops had come after that robot. And yet you come running through the woods with him. And Gennedy tells me that robot's dead when he did his illegal shakedown, which you seem to be fine with." Lynn rocked back and forth, sipping on the weight gain shake she was required to drink every four hours. Admittedly, they did taste good, but Lynn was sure that was only because that doctor had nothing to do with their preparation. She brushed a glowing white strand of hair out of her face and kept talking. "So I think maybe all you uniforms aren't on the same page. I think maybe you found out some shit, which is why only you came out in the woods, what with those trackers and whatnot. So if I was Arianna, and I'm not, for whoever's listening - I'd try and make you look as crazy and dumb as possible. Which is pretty easy, given, you know." Lynn shrugged. Lynn chewed on her lip. It wasn't fun when he was asleep. In fact, she felt like a bit of a bitch.
Not enough to stop, but still. Lynn crushed her guilt, the way you were supposed to do. He's a part of it,
Lynn told herself. It doesn't matter Eli doesn't see it in him. He kills kids.
Then it felt sweet again.
"You know, I didn't get a good look at you in the station. Surprised I'm not already hauled back in. Probably guilty of keeping too much blood in your body or something. But you're older than I thought. I guess, you know - " Lynn shrugged. He would've gotten it if he was awake. "But still." Lynn leaned over and picked up his hand. Cold. "No ring. So - " she paused, looking. On the table was a necklace, which men shouldn't wear in Lynn's opinion unless they had giant clocks attached to them or were made of pure gold, on which a ring rested. A bracelet, too, not entirely unlike - Lynn shifted on her feet, letting Radvi's hand fall from hers. She hadn't pulled that bracelet out in...in a while. Lynn looked back at him, embarrassed for feeling embarrassed in front of a half-dead man. "...divorced, then?" Lynn asked. "Not surprising. Probably a revolving bedroom door back home when you're up here and she's down there. Shame about the kid though." Lynn stared down at him, feeling her blood literally boil. How do you be a part of this when you have a fucking kid, Radvi?
Lynn stood up. The nurses would come soon. She looked down at him. He looked weak and broken and pathetic. It scared her. That taser,
she thought. That taser is the only thing between you and him. Except they won't spend the money to keep you alive.
"I don't know your first name," Lynn said softly. "Don't really give a shit. But I'll level with you. If you hadn't come, there's a good chance Arianna kills me. I'm not saying I owe you one. Maybe so, maybe not. There's a lot more on that scoreboard to sort out. But when I see her, I'll get one in for you." Lynn put her hands in her pockets and turned to walk away.
"Because fuck knows you won't be able to shoot her."
The restaurant was busy, as always.
Lynn was scraping food off into the trash. How do people throw away this much? Shit doesn't grow on trees.
Well, she supposed some of it did. Not the chickens and cows or whatever thou-
"Ignacio," Lynn asked, eyes widening. "Where do they keep all that shit?"
Ignacio looked at her tentatively, not willing to give an answer that may incriminate him in a court of law.
"I mean, like - food."
"No, fucker, I mean, like - " she paused, mind racing. Of course. It's how D got on.
"Where - where does all this come from? Do they grow it here? Like is there a farm section with cows and stuff?"
He looked at her like she was insane. "They just ship it all up. I've got a friend who helps move all that stuff. Para. Strong guy. It's easy for him."
Lynn turned back to the plate, grinning. "Huh. Interesting. Where do they unload it?"
"I guess same place the kids come on, I don't know. You going to do your job or you gonna ask about how they keep the lights on next?"
"No problem," Lynn said, smiling.
Lynn knelt in the forest, rolling over a tape measure in her hands. The taser had been gone when she'd gone back. She'd scoured the area, but someone else had gotten it. Arianna.
She turned her mind to the question at hand.
"This is fucked up," she muttered to herself. "Alright, I guess a twelve year old's probably, like, I dunno. Four and a half feet?" Lynn looked at the tape measure. "Well, shit, I could've just laid down." She knelt, staring at the tiles, visualizing it. "And maybe, like, a foot deep?" she chewed on the back of her hand. "I'm not really a good frame of reference there. But would they...would it be in like a pod? Like some Matrix shit, or..." Lynn's mind wandered off. They'd need to move people in bulk. They got food in on the Promise once a month. Would they move in more people with the other students? That was probably too high-profile. Or was that exactly the point? To smuggle in the test subjects while everyone else was having fun?
Lynn drummed her fingers on her hands. Kids are gonna die because you're too dumb,
a voice told her. It had a vague South African accent.
Lynn stared back at the dirt. "So...I guess this doesn't matter if I don't know, like, the ship size." she closed her eyes and tried to remember the shuttle up. They'd fit about fifty kids in there, she thought, but maybe more or less. Surely they could fit more if they were all unconscious. "No, they have to be strapped like that, or they'll just get killed by the recoil when they hit space." Space recoil. That wasn't right. She needed to bounce this off Keaton. "So...are there secret shipments? I'd hide them in the other stuff, personally. So they must be paying off these dock workers." Yeah, that seemed right. "Even if, like, there's just two really strong motherfuckers carrying all these bodies, they gotta - " Lynn stopped, thinking. No, that wasn't right. If it was hidden as something else, maybe they really wouldn't.
She hadn't established much, least of all the volume of a twelve year old, but it was a start. While Lynn's spatial reasoning needed fine-tuning, she was confident she was on, if not the right trail, at least a trail that might at one point intersect with the right one. She'd need Keaton for the rest of this.
---"Be at the loading bay or be square!"
Lynn had looked at her phone. "Huh. So Cara was white."
Lynn leaned back against the wall of the Loading Bay. She felt safest with her back to a wall. "They really cleaned this motherfucker up, huh?" she muttered, looking around. She was waiting for the new arrivals, a tray of food from the cafteria in one hand, the other shoveling it into her face. Lynn did not turn down any opportunities to eat, particularly if it was out in public. I just need to shut that doctor and his emails up.
Lynn swallowed. She would rather have been around the more private areas of the loading bay, but they were tricky to get to, and security was too high since the breakout. Eyes were everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. This would have to do. She could pass something useful along to Keaton if nothing else. I'll count the number of kids,
Lynn thought. Maybe try and get back towards the shuttle if I can. I bet I could get one of them to claim he dropped something in the hallway back.
Lynn didn't like that. Too many things could go wrong. Still, Lynn was starting to bet against the Promise's security whenever she could.
She leaned back, chewing, the fork and knife on her plate unused and forgotten. There'd be something useful out of this.
If nothing else, she wanted to see the ones who came on in chains, in collars, who had as much hate across their faces at this pretty prison as she had.