I always considered myself blessed to come from such a large family, especially since I never knew my parents. Growing up in dark and difficult years, my brothers and sisters and all my crazy cousins made me feel safe, loved, nurtured and accepted. Even now as I lay in the cool dirt alone, depleted and dying, I know I was part of something bigger than myself. We all were. Even those who weren’t lucky enough to make it as far as I did. We were part of a mission, but it was more than that. And yet, just a few weeks ago on that hot summer morning when we all emerged from the tunnel, I don’t think I fully understood what we meant to each other.
“Mateo, wake up!” my brother Filipe was yelling at me. “It’s time to go. Do you want to be the last one out?”
I had been looking forward to this day for years. All the training, discipline and deprivation had beat us all down at times, but we knew it would all be worth it when we stepped into the glorious sunshine, ready to begin the quest. In fact, over the last few months the anticipation had become excruciating, like sweat, juicy sap inching slowly toward my mouth. I was on my last raw nerve and Filipe was treading on it.
He didn’t realize I wasn’t sleeping. The dreamy look on my face was because I was savoring the memory of my last night in the bunker with beautiful Susanna. Just like me, seventeen years old and ready to take on the world. She was different from the other girls, and that was no small feat in an army that demanded uniformity. She was committed to the cause, but she wanted more than following orders and eventually settling down with a mate and having babies. She wanted to see as much of the world as she could, even if it meant taking risks. Susanna dared to dream. I promised to look her up when we got to the outside. I thought it might be fun to see the strange new world through her eyes.
“Chill out,” I implored Filipe. “The trip to the surface will take hours. Do you want to be waiting in line all morning?”
“Well, Enrique already left,” he said.
I whipped around to face Filipe. “What?”
“He said he wanted to be one of the first ones out.”
“First one to get killed,” I hissed, erasing all thoughts of Susanna from my mind. “Tell everyone to get ready. We’re leaving.”
My complaints about standing in line had been a ruse. My real reason for keeping my family back from the front line was to keep them safe. We’d all heard the stories. Outside the humdrum confines of our shelter lurked threats we couldn’t possibly imagine. Even though every precaution had been laid down generation after generation, there was no way of knowing exactly what lay in store on the outside. The first wave of soldiers out of the tunnel would be the first ones to find out.
Though my brother Enrique was older than me by a only a few minutes, I felt protective of him. He didn’t fill out as robustly as I or the rest of our brothers. That was obvious even though everyone was outfitted in the same exo-suit. To make matters worse, I often caught him going without provisions to make sure our sisters had enough to eat. Enrique had to be the hero, always overcompensating for his limitations.
I didn’t realize how warm it had become down below until we were pushing our way through the crowd toward the tunnel entrance. Normally the floors and walls of our bunker dorms were cool to the touch and the air oppressively dank. Now the space was alive with a pulsating heat, and it wasn’t just from the thousands of bodies moving through impossibly close quarters. It was hard not to feel a sense of panic as the ground itself seemed to melt with each step.
“I’m worried about Enrique,” my sister Derilda announced, adding to the mounting pressure inside my head. “What if I don’t recognize him out of his exo-suit and we end up having sex?”
“It might help if you find out the dude’s name before you have sex,” I snapped. I’d always heard there was no such thing as a stupid question, but Derilda consistently challenged that notion.
She whined on. “But what if he’s injured, and he gets amnesia and doesn’t recognize me?”
Filipe and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess that could happen,” I admitted. Actually, considering the stress we lived under and the painful odds of our survival, hooking up with siblings was probably more common that any of us wanted to admit. With or without amnesia.
I knew we were getting close to the surface when I felt air flowing against my face. Is this what they call, a breeze? I thought. And then I caught a sweet, refreshing aroma, and I knew I was breathing the outside world. How could anything that smelled so wondrous be so threatening? I wondered if Enrique was breathing that same air now on the surface, and if he was there waiting for us.
I never got a chance to look for him. Once out of the hole, we were whisked in droves across the land to the nearest way station. My eyes were consumed by two things. The sky above, so bright and crystal blue that I wanted to drink it, and body parts strewn along the ground. It was impossible not to step on them. Dismembered legs, heads, and torsos all still packed into their suits. My mind tried to wrap around what could have happened. Even dive bombers wouldn’t leave this kind of carnage.
“Enrique!” I called, not wanting to believe he was here amongst the ruined corpses. I prayed he was already at the station. The river of bodies continued to flow as far as the eye could see. For every comrade that had fallen, hundreds were getting through.
“Don’t stop moving,” Filipe said. “Keep going, and whatever you do, don’t look back.”
Of course, as soon as he said that, I had to look. I wished I had listened to him.
There were two of them, beasts of unfathomable proportions. Black as the densest shadows with razor sharp fangs dripping with foam. They scooped us up in greedy mouthfuls, swallowed most and spit out the rest. I could hear the body armor crunching with each snap of their jaws. It didn’t matter if you were the first or the last out of the hole. Once the food parade at the tunnel opening was over, these monsters would be on our trail. Our only chance was to get to the way station and climb to an altitude the beasts couldn’t reach.
I did a quick head count and saw to my relief and astonishment that we were still intact, individually and as a group. I didn’t have time to grieve for the families who’d already experienced immeasurable loss. The next horror that awaited us was at the way station. No one could get in.
“What’s going on?” The buzz reverberated from the back of the crowd to the base of the station. Different versions of the situation made their way back to us. The gateway is damaged. Someone’s tampered with the loading dock. Can’t get our footing. A metallic shield is blocking the way. Abandon this location. Seek shelter now.
“Who would do such a thing?” I asked Filipe. “How did they even know we were coming?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “But we can’t stay here. If we don’t get out of these exo-suits soon, we’re going to die and the mission will be a failure.”
The mind-boggling tragedy is that hundreds did end up losing their battle right there at the base of the station. Either they died of exhaustion trying to overcome the blockade, got trampled on, or just gave up hope. It was a horrible waste, because eventually I did see the top of the station during a fly-by. Just over the barrier were ample room and supplies that would have sheltered thousands for days. Whoever blocked our access gained nothing from the piles of dead bodies littered at the station floor. Fortunately for us, there were many who had the presence of mind to keep moving. Eventually we found our safe haven, if not yet our brother Enrique.
You would think a group of girls used to being called nymphs wouldn’t have such modesty issues. But when it came time to shed our suits, my sisters and female cousins insisted we turn our backs. As I tried to wriggle out of the confines of my own well-worn skin, I have to admit I was happy to be doing it with a little privacy. My butt got stuck in the bottom half and I must have looked quite silly shaking my tail to get it off. Once I was finally out, I was shocked to look down and see the sickly pallor of my naked body. Seventeen years without light, natural or otherwise, it was no wonder. The kid desperately needed a tan.
Before too long, the color arrived in my cheeks. When I looked around, I saw that the entire family was looking good. From the tops of our glossy, jet black heads to our big bright eyes and ripped abs, we were ready to spread our wings and fly.
“It’s been a rough couple of days,” Filipe said to me. “Are you ready to drum up some action with the ladies?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “There’s just one thing I have to do first.”
“I know what’s in your heart, Mateo. But we have a mission.”
“You’re right,” I said. “We do.”
Over the next several hours I flitted from colony to colony scanning the crowds and calling his name. I knew he’d never hear me over the music already playing in some of the gatherings. But making discordant sound kept me focused and suppressed my inner urge to join the drumming rituals. The local nectar was equally seductive. I sampled just enough to sustain my strength and then moved on.
Enrique and Susanna, I hope you’re getting to see all of this, I thought, as I soared over plush fields of green and flower blossoms bursting with colors so beyond my experience I couldn’t give them a name. I spied a few creatures I suspected were would-be predators. A slow-moving armored vehicle with one passenger lurked on the ground below me. He was investigating discarded exo-suits and gobbling up the remains of poor souls who, like me, encountered difficulty removing their protection. But unlike me, their struggle had been too great and now they were part of nature’s banquet.
I also saw winged creatures perched on the upper ledges of several way stations. They had long beaks, sinewy sharp claws and black eyes. They were the dive bombers I’d been warned of throughout my childhood, but their threat was passed now. We had mastered the means of escape, and probably looked as scary to them as they did to us.
The hour was growing late and the urge to join the party was getting stronger. I passed a group of guys sitting on top of a bright yellow hilltop singing their hearts out. Thankfully I didn’t detect any females in the group. If the potential to mate had been imminent, all hope for finding Enrique would have been lost to my biological imperative.
A gargantuan, whose size far surpassed the twin beasts we encountered at the tunnel, seized the mound with a spear-like weapon. The spear had sharp needles fanning out at the bottom. The giant swept it over hilltop, hurdling bodies in all directions. I wasn’t sure, but based on the shrill, high pitched scream emanating from the giant’s gaping orifice, I believed it was a female.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The side of the hill opened wide and the giant slipped inside its dark hollow center. Then, just as quickly, the chasm closed and the hill began to move. I realized it wasn’t a hill at all, but another vehicle and the giant its passenger. A new possibility filled my mind with terror. What if she was fleeing from an even larger predator? Could such a thing exist?
I didn’t wait to find out. I fled as a far as my body would take me, until I finally came to rest by a shallow pool. After taking a long cool drink to calm my nerves, I looked around and saw that I was completely alone. Noting that the skies were darkening, I realized I wouldn’t be able to find my way back to the colonies until morning. There was no beacon to guide me. It seemed counterintuitive, but with our kind, love seldom happened at night, and neither did the song of love’s pursuit.
I must have dozed off, because I didn’t see the intruder until he was almost on top of me. Though I had yet to use my instrument to summon females, I was pleased to discover it was in perfect working order. I flexed its muscles to shout out a warning. Attackers beware, I will cut you! In truth, I didn’t have much to defend myself with. Luckily, I didn’t need to, because the intruder was Filipe.
“Come quickly,” he said. “I’ve found Enrique! It’s not good.”
The urgent look on his face told me to move now, ask questions later. As I followed Filipe, my heart was comforted to know that, like me, Filipe had momentarily placed the needs of a loved one before his own. It wasn’t a choice everyone could make. But we had a pretty good idea that the mission would be accomplished with or without our individual contribution. Of course I wanted to find a girl and live life to the fullest. I just wanted Enrique to have the same chance.
We arrived moments later on a landing pad, the surface of which I had never encountered. It was as hard as rock, yet perfectly smooth and flat. It wasn’t a natural formation. Some being had created and placed it here. What if the entire world ended up being covered with such a substance? I thought. We’d send our children below to their bunkers, believing they were spending their formative years in absolute safety, only to find upon reaching maturity there was no way to break through to the surface. For hundreds of thousands of years we’d stared down extinction and conquered it. Now here I stood with my feet planted on the means to genocide. Death by fabricated rock.
I soon learned there was an unnatural substance even more lethal than the hard surface of the landing pad. Enrique’s prison cell was made of it. I was so excited when I saw him, standing there without his exo-suit. Not heeding Filipe’s warnings to stop, I raced ahead to embrace Enrique and smacked my head into an invisible wall.
“What the hell?” I cried, bouncing backwards onto my haunches.
“Mateo, are you all right?” I heard Enrique’s muffled voice through the wall.
“It’s all around him,” Filipe explained, his eyes directing me to the top of the wall. “And above.”
I could see that the ceiling of Enrique’s cell was made of the same transparent material I crashed into, only there were several small puncture holes in the center. The room was filled with green leaves and ripe, juicy twigs, and puddles of drinking water in each of the four corners. Someone obviously wanted to keep Enrique alive, but to what end?
“Did you find Susanna?” Enrique asked me. “Have you made lots of babies?”
“No, you idiot,” I said, not realizing we didn’t have time to be cross with each other. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Why did you have to go and separate yourself from us?”
Before he could answer, I was blinded by a light as bright as the sun. I heard a thundering noise reminiscent of the giant’s cry I heard earlier. It wasn’t the same bleat of distress, but the sound was also feminine in nature. I was trying to clear the spots from my eyes when I felt my legs being swept from beneath me. I was lifted through the air on a soft, padded cushion, then dropped down into the transparent room next to Enrique. Seconds later, we were joined by Filipe.
The three of us nearly wet ourselves when the giant’s face appeared on the other side of the wall. It was definitely the same species as the giant I saw swallowed up by the yellow hillside, but this creature was smaller in stature with facial features unmarked and still forming. It’s a child, I realized, and my heart quaked with fear. I had been a child once myself. I knew what they were capable of.
For two days, we subsisted within the steamy confines of the transparent room. The sun beat down through the roof, drying up our drinking water and the juice from the the leaves and twigs. Our captor appeared intermittently, sometimes shaking the room violently, other times opening the roof and picking us up for examination. Yes, we’re all boys, I wanted to tell her. Are you waiting to see if we’ll do it? Go beyond the pond to the moving yellow hill. There are thousands of us over there getting it on all over the place! I was torn between blocking such painful thoughts from my mind, and holding onto them for dear life.
Of the three of us, I thought Enrique would be the first to go, because he was the longest in captivity. But at night, when the temperatures cooled, Filipe scaled the brittle twigs and tried to wedge himself through the crack where the wall and ceiling met. I tried to convince him that our best shot was to wait for another food drop, restore our strength, and fly out. He said there was no guarantee that any more food was coming, and continued his futile efforts to gain traction against the slick invisible surface. By morning, he was lying on the floor of the chamber, dead from exhaustion.
I was too dehydrated to shed any tears, but Enrique could see the despair in my eyes. “It’s not fair,” I said. “He didn’t get to live a full life.”
“One way or another, we’re all going to be dead in a few weeks,” Enrique said with a gentle smile. “Filipe got to see a giant and pushed himself to his physical limits. How can a life get any fuller than that?”
“What about love?” I asked.
“What do you think we’ve been doing for the past seventeen years, Mateo? I’ve loved you since the minute you were hatched.”
“Then why did you leave us that morning? Why didn’t you wait so we could all leave the bunker together?”
“We did leave the bunker together. Several hundred thousand of us, remember? We’ve never been apart, and we never will.”
My older brother’s words were just starting to sink in when I saw the nymph giant lurking in the distance. “I have an idea,” I told Enrique. “Quick, lay down on your side and act like you’re dead.”
She was upon us in seconds, picking us up in the same reckless fashion and shaking the room until I feared my pretend demise might become real. Her horrid features contorted a look of frustration. Or maybe it was panic. Opening the roof of our cell, she bent down and poured us, along with the leaves and twigs, onto a hard smooth surface. I didn’t move a muscle, neither did Enrique. And Filipe, of course, did the best job of all.
Another sound erupted from her mouth. I have no idea what the nymph giant was trying to communicate, but it sounded like, “Mooooooooom!”
Abruptly she stood and ran away, leaving us there alone on the ground. A fresh, florid breeze revived me. I crawled over to Enrique and jostled his shoulder. “Are you okay to fly?” I asked. “We have to hurry before she comes back.”
But Enrique didn’t answer me. He continued to lay perfectly still, his eyes fixed and glazed. “Enrique!” I shouted. There was no one at home to hear me. Like Filipe, his weary body had expired. Yet I could hear both their voices inside me, urging me to get up and fly to freedom, fly for all of us, while there was still life in my wings.
I reached the first colony while the sky was still filled with morning light. Strangers embraced me like a long lost cousin, leading me to a juicy branch overflowing with fresh sap. Before I’d even had my fill, my belly wanted to dance. I found a great group of guys hanging at a shady way station and joined them in a rousing chorus of love songs. I figured I had enough left in me to make one lucky lady’s day, and I wasn’t going to be choosy.
Around noon time she came along, flapping her wings to show me she was interested. Without standing on ceremony we assumed the position. But before sealing the deal – – knowing I had been through a lot and perhaps not having complete control of my faculties – – I had to make sure. “Derilda?”
“Do I look like a Derilda to you?” she asked.
“No, I guess not,” I said. And then, with a tiny spark of hopefulness, I asked, “Susanna?”
“My name is Henrietta! Now do you want to do this or not? ‘Cause I literally have five hundred other guys calling my name.”
So Henrietta and I did it in the presence of forty to fifty of our closest new friends and family. And just like that, I was a dad and Enrique and Filipe were both uncles. I like to think the nymph giant was relieved when she returned to the invisible room and discovered me missing; that feeling happy for my escape, she took the bodies of my fallen brothers and buried them in soft ground, perhaps promising to herself that she would never treat living beings, no matter how small or strange, like that again.
Henrietta and I said our goodbyes and I wished her luck. Neither of us will be around when the kids are born, all four to six hundred of them. But in seventeen years, if you’re lucky, you might run into them. Please say hello for me. They’re family.