The sky roared above.
Alicia felt it in her bones—a sound out of nightmares, out of childhood memories. Her steps faltered and she shuddered at the image of a raging storm. Metal stairs trembled beneath her feet as the boys pounded past her.
“Hey, we’re almost there.”
Troy flashed his electric grin, and the corners of Alicia’s mouth rose reflexively in response. She forced her tongue to move. “I thought you said there weren’t going to be any storms?”
“It’s just the fireworks.” He slipped his arm around her waist. The boys’ flashlight beams bobbed along the walls of the concrete shaft that lead to the surface. “Lighten up. It’s cool—we do this every year.”
She exhaled and tried to melt into his body. He smelled of sweat and cologne; she smelled of mildew and cheap detergent. “Yeah.”
She’d been six when the Recovery had brought her to the warrens, and her recollections of the surface were vague and ephemeral things. A sky that was vast and blue, but disappeared at night. The sound of waves lapping against the shore. She’d played with her sister along the lakeside until the day her sister disappeared. And then the First Storm came and swallowed up everything else in her world.
“I hope there’s food,” one of the boys grumbled.
“I can smell it already,” Troy said, pulling away from Alicia and leaping up the steps to take the lead. He turned his charm on the boy, like the dazzling glare of a spotlight. Alicia felt smaller in its absence. “And let me tell you, pork roasted over a real fire is like nothing you’ve ever tasted down below.”
Alicia lifted her head. She couldn’t smell anything other than motor oil and the lingering scent of Troy’s cologne. But the boys whooped and started racing upward, taking the steps two at a time.
The metal rail thrummed beneath her hand. Thunder echoed around her again, but she followed Troy and the other boys anyway. It was too late to turn back now—there was no way she’d be back before curfew. She’d probably be stuck out all night. She should have listened to Tisa when they’d warned her not to go. The stairway twisted and her heart fluttered in her breast.
Troy caught her hand, his smooth fingers twining through her rough and calloused ones. “It’s like a dream,” he promised. “You’ll never want to go back.”
They rounded the final landing and looked out onto a street teeming with noise and light. Clouds of colored smoke rolled across the pavement, illuminated by flashing strobes and swooping spotlights. Euphoric music poured down from a ramshackle stage, where a woman sang amidst a constellation of lasers. Throngs of teenagers danced through it all, spinning and laughing.
“Is this even possible?” she asked
“Once a year,” he whispered into her ear. “But the magic only lasts one night, so let’s make the best of it.” His lips brushed her cheek as he pulled away, tugging her after him. They swept out into a plaza more vibrant than anything she’d seen since the Recovery had taken her in. Smoke whirled about their feet, painted in crimson and violet and viridian. A barrage of explosions sent her crashing into Troy’s side.
“They’re just firecrackers,” he laughed.
Dimly, she remembered watching neighbors setting them off at the lakeside, bright cascades of noise and color. But that was after her sister vanished, and she’d stopped believing in magic. She hated her parents for the way they’d gone on like nothing happened when Sara disappeared. For Alicia, half the joy had seeped out of the world, even before the First Storm came.
She let Troy draw her deeper into the festival, pulsing beats and whirling lights. The music surrounded them, and he turned to face her. His hand slid along her hip.
“It was worth all those stairs, yeah?”
She tried to smile, but another volley of firecrackers jolted her. “Yeah.”
“I’m glad you came.”
“Me too,” Alicia said. She looked up at the stage, watching the singer whirl around the microphone. Her voice soared above the crowd, bright and fearless. Alicia wished could capture that feeling inside of herself. “It’s amazing.”
Troy reeled her close. His lips pressed against hers, and he slid his hand along the small of her back. She tried to relax into the moment but pulled away instead.
“What’s wrong?” he asked
“Nothing.” She shook her head. “Nothing at all. But we came all the way up here. Let’s look around.” She planted a kiss on his jaw, a promise for later.
“Yeah.” He stepped back and tossed his hair with his hand. His grin snapped back into place. “No problem. Wanna try some ribs?” He pointed toward a booth where a tattooed woman stood over a flaming grill, flipping slabs of meat with a pair of tongs.
“I could try some.” Her stomach roiled at the thought of food.
Troy squeezed her hip. “I’ll be right back.” He slid through the noise and the light as if he’d been born to them and not to the stillness and silence of the warrens below.
The smoke closed in his wake. Alicia turned in a slow circle, trying to etch the sight into her memory. The sky above hung low, reflecting the glare of the festival. Clouds boiled and churned, scarred with red and gold when a firework exploded. She wrapped her arms around her chest and shivered despite the warmth. Troy swore there wouldn’t be any storms, but the sky looked swollen and menacing to her. She still remembered the thunder that had shaken the bones of her house and the winds that had stripped the walls away. Scars laced her back where broken glass had pelted her like hail.
A laugh rang out between the drum beats, and she glanced across the plaza. Troy’s fingers lingered on the bare shoulder of the woman at the grill, his intentions reflected in her smile.
Alicia sighed. She’d known exactly what she’d signed up for with Troy, but somehow the thrill wasn’t what she’d expected. She didn’t blame him. Troy hadn’t lost his family; the surface didn’t hold the same memories for him. She left him to his flirting and wove deeper into the festival. Burning metal streaked the night, calcium orange and copper chloride blue. She wondered if anyone still made fireworks or if they scavenged them from the ruins above. The last time she’d seen them felt like a lifetime and a world away.
Alicia’s memories of her childhood were treasures she couldn’t bear to examine—a life she could never reclaim, no matter how she prayed at the dormitory chapel. Chasing after Sara in their backyard. Curling up in her parents’ bed and listening to her father’s rumbling voice as he read her favorite stories aloud. Those moments were gone now, but here in this impossible moment, she could pretend to have a life again. She could pretend to have a future. If only she could convince herself to believe in the lie.
Lightning crackled along the fringe of the sky, and dark shapes flitted through a gap in the clouds. Her heart leaped in her chest. “Troy?” She whirled, but she’d lost him in the haze that filled the plaza. The taste of promise soured in her mouth. Figures spun around her, oblivious to the storm on the horizon. “Troy!”
The music pummeled her senses, punctuated by the arrhythmic explosions of the fireworks. She tried to remember which doorway led to the stairs, but the strobing lights turned the plaza into a maze of whirling shadows. The sky churned overhead, lit up from within as fireworks exploded in blurs of amber, emerald, and crimson. White-hot bolts flickered unnoticed between them, dancing over the city and drawing closer.
Alicia took a few steps toward the shelter of the nearest building, then froze. A silhouette loped along the rooftops, lupine and predatory. She couldn’t make out its eyes, but she felt its gaze bore into her. Only another blinding flash broke its spell over her.
“Storm!” She tried to yell out above the pulsing music, but the cacophony swallowed her voice. “Storm! We have to get underground!”
Celebrants whirled and grinned, oblivious as the devouring tempest closed in. The vengeance of a betrayed and poisoned world. Alicia felt like a child again, powerless against a fury that erased whole cities. A fury that consumed her home and left her an orphan in the warrens. She stumbled backward until her back pressed against stone, but it was slender shelter against the horror bearing down on them.
Lightning split the sky again, too close this time, and others finally noticed it. The music pounded on relentlessly, but the vocalist’s descant cracked and faltered. Voices cried out, and then the screaming began. Thunder tore through the night. The pavement trembled beneath Alicia’s feet.
The festival broke into chaos. People ran in every direction, desperate to escape the furious sky. A woman pushed past her; a man stumbled and fell at her feet. Alicia reached down and grabbed his hand to pull him up.
“How do we get back down?” she shouted.
His eyes were wide; his pupils nearly obscured his irises. He stared at her blankly, then stumbled away. A moment later, he vanished in a cloud of blood. Bits and pieces of him rained down on the pavement, and the silhouette of a massive hound crouched over what remained.
Bile rose in Alicia’s throat, but she dared not move. The creature buried its maw in the man’s ruined pelvis and tore loose a mouthful of ragged gobbets, then bounded off into the smoke.
She folded over, vomiting against an abandoned storefront. The plaza spun around her as she staggered away. Hulking silhouettes loped through the crowd, broken bodies flapping lifeless in their jaws. Heavy droplets spattered the pavement around her, too thick to be rain. Alicia cried Troy’s name again, but he was gone, and there was no one to help her. Every face turned away, choked with fear and seeking a way out. She ran, whispering a prayer to a god she couldn’t believe in.
An aria of screams twisted through the pulsing beats, and the stage collapsed in a roar of thunder. A vast and shambling form crashed through the wreckage. Like the distant memory of the elephants Alicia had seen as a child, but not. A mass of rotting flesh and dangling electronics, with crackling bolts of hatred where its eyes should have gleamed.
Alicia froze. The elephant she remembered had been a sad and wounded thing, trapped behind steel bars. This creature was nothing like that. She could imagine no world that could cage it.
The wind howled around her, and the storm descended in full fury. The music vanished in a tear of static. She stared in horror as the dead thing lumbered toward her. It roared, and bits of fiber optic cable flared somewhere deep within its maw.
It was a judgment they’d called upon themselves, she realized. Celebrating on the ground they’d desecrated and forsaken. Launching fireworks to scorch the wounded sky. It was no less than the fate they deserved, but still, Alicia wanted to live. She’d always hated the claustrophobic walls of the warrens below, but now she longed for their shelter. Her heart fluttered within her breast, a frail and tiny thing.
“I’m sorry!” she cried out. “We didn’t know!”
The creature tilted its head and charged. Magnesium tusks flashed in the electric light. Hot breath washed over her, full of death and corrosion. Globs of putrified flesh spattered the pavement. She stumbled backward, but the immense creature filled half her world.
“Stop!” a voice rang out, thin but commanding. It rang like a bell inside Alicia’s memory.
The behemoth froze. The blaze of its incandescent eyes turned toward something beyond Alicia’s shoulder. She turned slowly.
The girl who’d spoken lowered her hand to the pommel of the blade at her hip. She sat astride a horse wrought from rebar and steel cables twisted like tendons around the frame of a broken bicycle. Oil streaked the beast’s iron legs, and a rainbow tassel dangled from the hollow beneath its bony cheek. The rider stared down at Alicia imperiously, her pale skin painted by the flashing light of the strobes.
She looked as she had a decade ago, like she hadn’t aged a day. Only the tattered fabric of her red dress betrayed the years that had passed. She twisted, revealing a jagged tear in the flesh of her right arm. Chrome and copper gleamed within.
“You still remember,” Sara said. Surprise echoed in her voice, but her face was impassive.
“I thought you died.”
Sara barked a laugh, and her ghastly steed stomped and shook its head. Sparks flared about its metal hooves. “Your parents threw me out,” she said. “I was their first child, but once they had you, I wasn’t worth the cost to repair.”
Everything snapped into place. The way Alicia’s only memories of Sara were of her as she was now. Their father’s words when Sara disappeared—You’re a big girl. You don’t need her anymore.
Alicia let the tears roll down her cheeks. “You were—”
“Yes. Just a toy for them.”
“No,” Alicia said. “You’ve always been my big sister.”
Sara gestured around at the empty plaza. Spotlights whirled madly, and the shadows of hounds gathered on the rooftops above. “And now the world has abandoned you, just as it has us.”
Alicia started to make excuses, then stopped herself. If Troy had escaped, he wasn’t coming back for her. He’d gone back to the wealth and comfort of his family’s enclave. She was just another faceless girl from the warrens. A moment’s diversion and nothing more. “Yes.”
The steed snarled, but Sara calmed it with a touch of her hand. Her cornsilk hair twisted around her in the wind. “We’re still sisters,” she said. “And the night is yet young.” Fire gleamed in her eyes. “Will you ride?”
The mammoth shambled at Alicia’s back, too vast and wild to comprehend. She felt its breath wrap around her, warm and full of promise. With destruction came rebirth. New growth born from decay. It brushed her shoulder with one gleaming tusk, edging her forward. The storm sang in an endless sky above her, an octave beyond what she ever imagined.
Alicia held out her hand and smiled.