Marina opened a door off the main foyer – a door May had assumed opened to a coat closet – to reveal an unlit set of stairs. She gestured for the girls to follow as she descended into the darkness. A chill chased its way up May’s body as the air grew cooler and she faltered when the light from upstairs was no longer bright enough to illuminate what was ahead of her. All she could see was a light sprinkling of tiny green, blue, and orange lights glowing like faint stars against the blackness.
“Lights, please,” Marina spoke from somewhere in the void. On command the room brightened – gradually like a time-lapsed sunrise – leaving May and Em wide-eyed and gaping.
The basement was home to a large and open-concept workshop. May marvelled at an assortment of half-finished projects surrounded by halos of tools and schematics, blank monitors that reflected her own astonished expression, and juxtaposing workbenches – one pristine and the other cluttered. Marina slumped into a worn office chair at the latter and sighed. Em motioned to a high stool, offering it to May while she leaned back against a massive tool cabinet and folded her arms across her chest.
“This place is cool,” May remarked, eyes still scanning the room and its many impressive details. “Is all this work yours?”
Marina nodded. “Some of the messes my own pet projects and research but I also work on contract commissions from clients.”
“What kind of work do you do exactly?” May eyed what looked to be a dismantled computer on a table to her left. Wires and circuitry spilled from the casing like the entrails of a slain prey animal.
“The specifics are private,” Marina explained, an air of routine to her answer. “But I create advanced security programs and surveillance systems for corporate clients. I also like to dabble in A.I. and robotics when I have spare time.”
May blinked. “That barely made sense to me.” Her eyes flicked to the row of well-read reference books lining a shelf behind Marina’s workstation, landing on a sizeable volume about advanced computer architecture. She pointed at it. “Do you mind?”
Marina swiveled to see what May was pointing at and looked back at her with a raised eyebrow and a laugh. “Uh, why?”
Em laughed too, giving May’s shoulder a squeeze. “The woman has an insatiable brain.”
At this, May flushed. “I’m just curious! Your work sounds really impressive – you must be brilliant.”
“Well, before you follow that train any further down the track, no: I’m not a Wish.”
Marina’s words – her completely unsolicited response to a question May had only just begun to entertain – took both women by surprise. They shared an uneasy glance.
Em cleared her throat. “Good to know.”
“This brilliance was earned the old fashioned way,” Marina said, waving a hand at the room around them. She reached up and slid the book from the shelf, handing it to May. “A spark of passion coupled with years of hard work and diligent study.”
She paused for a moment, taking May and Em in one at a time. “I’m also smart enough to know that if you two are tangled up with my brother and his friends, then you probably know a thing or two about the Wishes and the Loyals.”
May swallowed; her mouth was suddenly extremely dry. Em replied with a curt nod.
“That’s why I sent Marcus and Myles away,” Marina continued. “It’s also why I don’t speak to Connor very often. His cause is noble but I need to keep my family safe. The Loyals are capable of some pretty terrible things.” Her eyes dropped to her hands, which she had folded tightly in her lap.
“That’s fair,” Em agreed. “We appreciate what you’re doing for us.”
“I can’t imagine this is easy for you,” May said.
Marina turned her back to them. “You’re right.”
She stood on her toes and reached behind the row of books, rifling around for something on the shelf they sat on. When she pulled back, Marina held aloft a small, dusty photo album.
“I should really clean that shelf more often,” she muttered as she sat back down. She blew at the cobwebs and wiped the cover with the sleeve of her shirt before flipping through the album’s pages. With a faint smile, Marina paused on a family portrait and turned the book so the girls could see it clearly.
“That’s our family,” she said. “Connor isn’t even a year old in this picture.”
Connor, like his own son, was a big-eyed child brimming with delight. In the photo he sat perched in the protective arms of his big sister who grinned over his head at the camera. The two were cradled between a mother and father who could not have looked prouder.
“You all look so happy,” May said as she absentmindedly traced a finger around the border of the photo. But she knew all too well how deceptive pictures like these – the only surviving relics of a time before tragedy – could be. She too had posed happily with her adoptive family for portraits back before her scandal shook their foundations. Looking at those photos after the fact had always left an ache in May’s heart; pity for the smiling faces, frozen in time, completely unaware of the terrible things to come.
“I was ten years old when the wishing star fell.” Marina’s eyes were hazy with recollection. “My mom had just found out she was pregnant with Connor. They had been trying for years to have a second baby and we were over the moon it was finally happening. But then mom got sick and, when the doctors told my parents Connor wasn’t going to make it to term, my dad got desperate.”
She paused, inhaling a slow and shaky breath. “My parents were the first to misuse the star when it was initially recovered. Dad actually led the search party that found it. They weren’t trying to start a war; they just wanted to save my brother.”
Shocked, May looked up at Em to find her frowning. There was confusion in her eyes that made May wonder if this was one of the memories from Audrey’s life Em had forgotten over time.
“I often wonder what things would be like if that fucking star hadn’t been stolen.” Marina’s voice shook with barely concealed anger. “The Loyals wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if that thing had just gone back to where it came from like it was supposed to.” She drew another uneven breath and gave her head a shake.
Gently Marina lifted the top corners of the photo and slid something out from behind it. Hidden beneath the family portrait was another photograph, which she flipped over and laid flat on the album page.
The snapshot was much newer and featured three laughing teenagers out in the summer sunshine. Two of the faces May recognized immediately, despite the years that had passed since the picture had been taken. Even so, she was slightly taken aback to see Connor and Jeremy looking so happy. Not once had she witnessed such genuine smiles from either of them.
May had never seen the third person before, but she didn’t need to ask to know who she was.
Glossy chestnut hair. Stunning golden eyes. Audrey was smaller than Em, her features differing ever so slightly. But if May focused she could imagine Em looking like her former self if only she were splashed with colour.
“This was taken before Myles was born,” Marina explained, tapping the photo with a finger. “Before the treaty. Have they told you about that?” May nodded and she continued. “This is the most recent photo I have of them.”
She moved her finger to the girl wrapped in Jeremy’s arms. “This is Audrey.”
“We’ve heard about her too,” Em said in a quiet voice, her eyes – pale and diamond-like now – glued to the visage of the person she used to be.
May struggled to remind herself that the person in the photo was not the woman she had fallen in love with, particularly given how obviously involved Jeremy and Audrey were in the photo. His arms were wrapped around Audrey’s waist, his chin resting on her shoulder. With one hand, Audrey cupped Jeremy’s cheek, pressing his face into hers. Her other hand rested atop his forearms.
Until this moment, May had never been able to imagine the two of them together.
Now she just felt small and out of place.
“What was she like?” May asked, tearing her eyes from the once-happy couple to focus on Marina, who shrugged at the question.
“I have complicated feelings about her,” Marina admitted, squirming with discomfort. “I will always love her for getting my brother away from our uncle. That was such a terrible situation. She was a good person – a brave person. Really adventurous and full of life, if not a bit too scrappy for my liking. But it was also her idea to form WIND and I know they mean well but…”
Marina trailed off, her eyes shining as they bored down into the photo of her teenage brother. “Things would be so different if they had just laid low instead of becoming some rogue group of vigilantes.”
Em tensed imperceptibly.
“How did she die, Marina?”
Tension flooded the room, leaving the hairs on the back of May’s neck standing on end. For a moment Marina shielded her eyes with a hand to her brow. Then she dropped the hand to her chest.
“Do you know about the-” Her voice cracked, so instead she tapped her palm lightly over her heart.
“The device implants?” May asked, trying to be helpful. “Because of the treaty.”
Marina nodded sadly. “Audrey and Jeremy ran away together. This was probably about a year or so after the treaty. They were trying to get the devices removed so the Loyals wouldn’t be able to find them. They wanted to start a new life.”
“But the Loyals found them.” Em surmised.
“They found out.” Fat, silent tears escaped from Marina’s lashes and traced down her cheeks. “But they wouldn’t even do their dirty work themselves. The Loyals had never told them that they had a failsafe built into the devices. Audrey’s was detonated remotely; a prolonged shock directly to her heart. They didn’t even give her a chance to redeem herself. They just made an example of her to scare the others into playing by their rules.”
While Marina wiped at her eyes, May looked to Em once more and found her stunned into silence.
May had always assumed Em hadn’t told her how Audrey died because it was too painful a memory. Only now was she realizing that it was because Em herself had never known the truth in the first place.
A cheerful chime sounded, making May jump and bursting the moment like a bubble. A screen above Marina’s workstation blinked to life showing, a live view from the front door. Four figures, limp with fatigue, huddled on the step.
It was WIND.
“It’s about damn time,” Marina said with a weak laugh. She hurried past the girls without so much as a backwards glance.
Before May even had a chance to rise from the stool, Em had already taken a few strides forward, following in Marina’s wake.
“Em.” May reached for her hand, just managing to catch her fingers as she swept by.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Em said without looking back. “Please, I’m not…”
May released her. “Okay. I’ll be here when you’re ready.”
Em nodded, shoulders trembling, and kept walking.
May hung back and cried alone.
[ Next ]