My one defining trait: I knew what I was before anyone else told me. This unspoken power petrified me. We weren’t allowed to be afraid. Fear was supposed to have been drummed out of us by age seven. Had I been the only one terrified of being discovered?
My heart echoed in my ears before I was shaken from my cot and dumped onto the floor. The rocking motion of the ground and horrible growling couldn’t be another test from our teachers. I was frozen in place, unable to move. I knew I had to, but my body was immobilized on the floor. A sickening thud, thud, thud, beat outside of me.
Don’t be a scared girl. Dissect what’s happening, break it apart in your mind.
Was it a sea creature, or a prank from horrible housemates? It was still too dark to see. The booming was closer, underneath me, then stirring my insides. Buzzing through my skull before it stopped.
Must find Yelina. Now.
No, must wait to be calm. I’ll be punished if they see me like this.
Nearby groaning was drowned out by another boom, boom, whoomppbb.
No. Thunder you hear but don’t feel. Another blast ricocheted inside my chest, my heart speeding up, sweat pouring down my face. Bad to be alone.
Go, go go!
I clutched at Yelina, who usually slept beside me. She wasn’t there. Everything was crooked. Sideways. I reached around me but only felt the stiffness of blankets and bodies gone cold. So dark. The horrible booming thudded through me again and again, a beast tearing at me.
I pushed myself off the floor, adjusting to the darkness. Narrow slits of light flickered through cracks in the ceiling.
Find the others, I reminded myself. Keep going. Block the current of fear.
The ground shook as I walked. Wipe your face, I reminded myself. They will beat you if they see.
I trembled, stepping over debris scattered across the floor. Slabs of stone blocked me, so I crawled through the kitchen. Another boom knocked me to the ground, and I stayed until the shaking stopped. The moment of silence gave me a second to catch my breath, to listen for others through the thudding of my heartbeat in my ears. An acrid smell wafted in.
Drash. Yelina. Find them.
I pressed forward. Someone moaned and I crawled to them, over a body that made no sound when I landed on it. The rocking started again, the pain in my chest worse as the boom, boom, whommpp reverberated there.
I am just a toy in this stone box. Must get out.
A horrible dread twisted my stomach as I tried to identify the unknown sound. Bombs?
No, we don’t use bombs anymore.
I skirted the rubble, dust floating down from above. There were more shafts of light ahead. The noise was unceasing as everything trembled, all my insides in commotion and still no one to help me. Every step I was afraid I would fall again, my seven-year-old body struggling to stay upright.
A gritty hand grasped mine, holding firm. “We have to go.” Drash’s voice was husky, his face half lit from the cracks in the floor above us. At nine years old, he knew better than me what to do.
Yelina staggered behind him, a thin trickle of blood running down her temple. Her pale, yellow hair glowed in the dawn light.
“Oh, Yelina.” I clutched her hand and a low bass thumped through our bones. My training kicked in and I sang. Drash grasped my upper arm and held Yelina between the two of us. I took her hand, now slick with blood.
Yelina slumped against me, her voice a whimper. “Take us away from here, Gulnaz.”
“Sing with me.” I was shaking.
“They killed them already,” Yelina cried.
“Who?” I asked. The pressure of stiff bodies underfoot came back to me. Those had been my classmates I’d stepped over.
Yelina’s breath was ragged against my shoulder. Drash tugged on me, the look in his dark eyes sorrowful, the faint light forming tiny fractures in his irises. How was I the strong one?
I dragged them into the next room to see if we could save others. Our teachers were sprawled over the students. When I brought my bare foot near their bodies, they were already cold. Their blood stank in the summer heat. Smoke billowed into the room as the voices of the attackers sought us. I found a break in the collapsed stone walls.
“Get us out of here,” Drash begged. He never asked me for anything.
The voices of the attackers blew off the wall behind us. I held onto Drash and Yelina, singing with all of my might to raise our bodies off the ground and away from the soldiers. My muscles convulsed with the effort.
“If they see we are both Kardush and Yarat…” Drash’s face was stained with tears.
“...we’re dead,” Yelina whispered, her eyes wide with fear.
“Sing with me, I can’t. Do. It. Alone.” I sang again, the tune one of my earliest traveling songs.
Nazra tiyu mai
Tazra ziyu dai.
Over and over we repeated the same phrase, lifting off the ground tentatively, the heat from the fires scorching our bare feet. I had never done this before: traveling with more than myself. I’d been punished plenty of times for escaping. But I’d never ventured beyond the cluster of Thresil Islands we called home.
We rose through the crack in the stone walls, our shoulders knocking debris to the ground when we collided with the edges of our dilapidated home. Rising above the rubble, the smoke didn’t obscure the dead. Classmates who taunted me every day. Teachers who let them.
I still would have saved them, if I could have.
I needed them to be alive to tell us what to do next, while our bodies rose into the sky. Fighters dropped around us—their music ceasing in the air on their dying lips. Those still fighting in the distance could have been dancing if their music wasn’t so menacing. I aimed us toward the tall stretches of buildings reaching toward the clouds. We zipped away from Kardush troops singing fireballs into the opposing Yarat force below. Their voices clashed before more fire billowed around them and ignited the surrounding buildings.
The larger government and senate trade buildings were rounded spires reaching for the sky in tall, flaming hands. Troops with water surrounded to douse the flames before being picked off by an opposing fighting force in white uniforms. They had stood for centuries and in minutes it all burned as I took us away from the carnage.
The weight of carrying my friends was harder on the outskirts of our island, Thresil Mira, where residential buildings lined the shore. The rounded backs of these buildings seemed untouched by the conflict at the center of my island. I sang harder, trying to speed us up, but we merely floated in the air.
“Sing louder. Drash! Yelina!” I said.
Yelina hummed weakly in tune with me, Drash harmonizing an octave below. I picked up our pace as we passed over the soldiers below, some of who were even young teenagers. A poorly constructed chorii flew around us, knocking people out of the sky. We had to get away from them. I sped up our song to bring us closer to the clusters of shoreline buildings. More and more people fell from the sky, a dull thud when they smacked with the shore. I felt sick with the continual percussion of their bodies.
I held my friends closer, all of us still trembling, our faces wet as we strained to land atop one of the residential buildings. The rounded roof was singed, but we could all fit on its exposed crossbeams. The thin, mesh bio wall of the roofing had been stripped back and bodies were strewn about below. The early morning sky was so cloudy that neither of our suns was visible. I let go of Yelina’s hand, turning her head to make sure her bleeding had stopped. She held me close to her, still shaking. I breathed deeply at intervals to attempt to get my heart to stop racing. It wasn’t the same without the teacher counting in front of us. Telling us to be calm, or else.
“Can’t stay here,” Drash said, craning his neck below. His face turned green and he was sick over the side of the building. The bile wafted over on the breeze, and my stomach turned. I leaned over the opposite side, Yelina holding my hair back.
Once I could breathe again, Yelina took hold of my arm. She peered into the stretch of sea in front of us. “Where do we go?”
Behind us lay the two other Thresil islands, the bridges aflame. The building we stood on shook, shuddered, and then was still again. A loud crack reverberated through the structure, the explosions louder. We clutched each other to stay upright.
“You ready to go?” I asked.
Yelina nodded dully.
“Don’t go too far,” Drash said, taking my hand and squeezing it. His sleeve was stained with Yelina’s blood. I closed my eyes, calling the energy back into my body to sustain me. We’d escaped from our classmates enough times together. How hard would it be to travel away from our archipelago?
“We’ve never gone beyond the Thresils,” Drash warned.
I searched across the ocean to the nearest point I’d touched upon. We had to fly further than that. Heat pricked at our feet and I grabbed both of them. “I need you to sing. Harder than you ever have.”
“I’ll try…” Yelina’s lower lip trembled, a familiar look of shame from being punished for crying. Her grey eyes were bloodshot. “I’m not a binary traveller.”
“Pretend you are,” I said, and I embraced both of them. Fire singed our hair as we floated back into the air, our voices in perfect unison. We plummeted toward the fighting below, soldiers swirling around us, staring at our small bodies in confusion. A few rushed at our trio clinging to each other.
Yelina and Drash sang louder and we zipped away, the sound of the fighting slowly tapering off. Within minutes it was only us, the wind and the rushing of the pink ocean below. I took one last look back at the smoke billowing from my island. Once it had been beautiful.
“It’ll never look the same,” I said.
“Let them all burn,” Drash said, his brown hair blowing in the wind.
A flock of birds rushed past us. I picked up our song to match the tempo of their beating wings. We sang until there was only ocean beneath and thick grey sky above. We sang until nothing was familiar but pink ocean below and we became the only creatures in the sky. My heartbeat settled for the first time in hours and my friends’ eyes were wet with tears. We flew for so long my body was stiff, my voice garbled. If I went hoarse, we’d have to land in the ocean.
“Look!” Yelina called out.
I turned us in the air so they could see a shadow of a mound that stretched across the horizon. I had always been told that our planet, Hirana, was nothing but islands. The land ahead was so large that it couldn’t be an island. The suns peaked through the clouds to shine on a long stretch of grey sandbar. Steep hills rose beyond and the closer we came, the cooler the air was. Once land was underneath us, I slowed our song before my voice gave out completely. We dropped onto the wet sand, and I sprawled next to my friends. It felt like we were still moving even though I could feel the pressure of the ground against my spine. Voices called out in the distance, and I was too exhausted to run and hide in the sea grasses blowing above us.
A faint pressure tingled at the back of my neck. Within seconds, an adult woman with warm brown skin and long black hair knelt down next to me and the sensation ceased. Her eyes changed to a bright violet, like Kardush people gifted with multi-hued irises. Her eyes were like mine. That was something. Then, her eyes were yellow again within seconds. She reached out and drew us into the air with one gesture, her voice airy and light.
We landed softly on the dry sand, clinging to each other. Yelina’s mottled blood against her yellow hair made her look gruesome.
“Where did you come from?” The woman kept her hands where we could see them. When no answer came, she sighed. “I’m Danis.” She gestured toward students floating in the air in formations, a man yelling at them to stop when he spotted us. He soared through the air and alighted next to her. He was several inches shorter than Danis.
I stepped forward, bringing my friends with me. “I’m Gulnaz, this is Yelina and Drash.” I struggled to keep Yelina’s memories at bay when I touched her bare arm. The sea roared behind us, and I turned to look at it. I was afraid they’d send us back and tears pricked at my eyes. If I looked away they couldn’t punish my crying. In the long silence I ventured another look at the couple. The kids were now behind them, so much older than us.
“How’d you get here?” the man asked. The heat coming off his eyes was puzzling. Would he kill us like the Kardush on the Thresils? I tried to block out Yelina’s memory of the bodies hitting the ground with a sickening thud. I released myself from her grip. The memories stopped. Folding my arms across my body, I met his gaze. I had to die bravely. I owed the people whose memories I carried that much.
“How did you do it, girl?” he asked me gently.
“I sang us here,” I said.
“She’s a binary traveler,” Yelina said.
“She got in trouble for traveling. A lot,” Drash said.
He didn’t need to add that part. The man came closer and knelt by us, the students watching curiously. “I am Xibo. Welcome to Maer-lina training school.”
“We can’t trust them,” Drash whispered, squeezing my hand. “Kardush kill half Yarats like us.”
Danis kneeled close to Drash. “We do not kill anyone unless they attack us.” She kept a hold on his shoulder. “I’m the head healer here, and we need to check your wounds. Get you cleaned up. We’ll talk later about how you came.” She smiled at us, her now black eyes kind.
Xibo gestured for us to follow him, but it wasn’t until Danis took a step that I followed them up the smooth stone steps that led to a massive white building that reminded me of a whale turned on its side. Drash and Yelina’s hands were firmly in mine.
* * *
For seven years, little skirmishes broke out over the islands, leaving Maer-lina in relative peace until I turned fourteen. All of our training to become part of the chorii had become abruptly relevant. The Yarat troops had completely colonized the Thresils by then and stolen the ancient spaceships to rid Hirana of its original Kardush inhabitants. Our training school couldn’t avoid the conflict forever.
The heavy metal gleam of the noisy machines in the sky reminded me of the cacophony of that first day of war. I was ready to pounce on them. And I stood taller than anyone my age, including Drash, who was two years older. Still, a gnawing terror pricked at my heart. I waited for the Yarat chorii, joining the symphony of sounds, voices, and clanging metal before an explosion scattered my Kardush chorii group floating in formation above the ocean.
Yelina was my partner on that first big day on Maer-lina. We sped away from the cluster of chorii that had been blasted by the explosion. Drash joined us as we aimed our harps at the next cluster of ships. Smoke curled out of the busted engines we’d hit. The Yarat chorii swarmed out of their damaged ship. We dove lower to avoid the furnace of their voices hurling fireballs at us. Yelina got too close to the flames and one of the Yarat soldiers clipped her and spun her around, knocking her into me. Both of us plummeted into the icy ocean.
The frigid cold bit at my exposed skin, all the breath sucked out of me. A wave hit and tossed me under. I fought for the surface.
“Yelina!” I cried.
I searched underwater for her yellow hair that she refused to pin up for battle. I surfaced.
There was a clamor of sounds above, bodies hammering at each other with their voices before falling out of the sky. The noise blew out my eardrums. I floated on the ocean like useless carrion, the shuddering of my muscles and chattering of my teeth rattling my skull. Not a single person floating beside me moved. They looked strangely peaceful.
I treaded water, weaving through them to find Yelina, shaking each body I found. After minutes of swimming, my muscles cramped and shuddered from the cold. I had to get back in the air. Maybe then I’d find her.
Inhaling deeply, calling the salt back to my muscles, I restored my body’s energies, rose shakily into the air, my water-logged body heavy. Yelina floated below me on the waves, her pale, yellow hair streaming behind her. I dove down to collect her, to breathe some life into her, but her almond shaped eyes were open blankly to the skies. We were too far from the healers. I floated above the surface, yanking on her hand. It was too cold, already stiff. I didn’t know how to bring her back.
“Gulnaz, she’s gone…there’s nothing--” Xibo yelled at me.
“But…” I was still alive. I had to fight to stay that way, even if I didn’t want to.
She had been my first friend. I couldn’t look away from her blank, grey eyes.
She had convinced Drash I was like them. He wouldn’t have been my friend if it weren’t for her.
Now there were only two of us left.
The Yarats’ metal faces gleamed at me in their body armor and I sang, harnessing everything in me to blast them out of the sky. My voice ripped out of my chest and I brought their weapons to me, knocking them into the ocean they’d consigned my friend to. With each death I was that much closer to bringing Yelina back.
Every time I went into battle thereafter I saw Yelina beside me, holding my hand as we rose in the air. “We’ll make it to the next day,” she always said. But, if I looked down at the ocean, her voice faded away. Instead, I’d catch her lemon-yellow hair streaming behind her. Her pale body floating on the waves and never waking up.