The first glimpse of sun may be her last. When Lilith Gray goes above ground for the first time, she hardly expects to stay there — much less be trapped on the surface with no way home. Lilith’s old carefree life has been reduced to one choice: Adapt. Or die trying.
The needle slid into her skin.
Lilith flinched at the pain and kept her eyes on the tiny screen before her. It was 12:18 pm. Twenty minutes to go until the theatre. Twenty minutes until her first sighting of an infected. Under the fluorescent lights of the vaccine booth, the moment had the tinge of the surreal.
The needle withdrew, the clamp around her upper arm unlocking as a government-standard hourglass spun slowly on the screen.
“Please wait,” the computer said. “System processing.”
The vaccine booth was an older model, a cubicle of reinforced aluminium with only just enough room fora stool and an arm rest. No windows, the starkness of the white walls broken by the computer screen. Tinny music dribbled out of the speakers as the system took its time to load. In the Lower Halls, these older models had been decommissioned years ago, replaced by state of the art booths, but in the Upper Halls, so close to the surface, they didn’t have the money for such luxuries.
The hourglass faded as her records appeared on screen. Lilith Gray, the screen said, then her birthday, gender, citizenchip number and vaccination history. The photo was awful, taken several years earlier when she’d still been in the awkward mid-teenage phase.
“System updated,” the computer said. “The vaccine expires in 72 hours. Please ensure to return underground prior to the expiration date.” Another pause, then the screen went dark. “Thank you for immunising with Precision Horizons.”
The door unlocked. Lilith pushed it open and joined the stream of people heading towards border control, scanning the crowd. She spotted Emma’s curly waves on one side of the passageway and hurried over to meet her.
“I was getting worried,” Emma said. “I’m not going out there alone.”
The passageway narrowed into a tunnel as they approached border control. There were notice boards every few meters—rules of conduct, factsheets about the virus, warnings about the infected. On the other side of the gates the tunnel sloped upwards, ending in
a circle of light. Not long to go. Lilith’s chest was tight with anticipation.
The computer at the gates scanned their irises and citizenchips. When the gates opened, Lilith hurried through, each step bristling with impatience.
Thirty metres to go. Now twenty. Now ten. The circle of light resolved into a square patch of blue. Then Lilith stepped out into the light, looked at the sky for the first time in her life and realised that none of her mother’s descriptions had ever done it justice.
She moved her head from side to side, shading her eyes from the light as she examined the emptiness above. The sun hung directly overhead, fiercely bright even through the glass walls of the temporary passageway connecting them to the theatre.
Lilith resisted the impulse to move towards the centre of the slow-moving queue. Whilst the other theatre-goers huddled together in fear of the unknown, she was daring herself to step even closer to the glass wall. But then Emma latched onto her arm and pulled her close.
“Can you believe it?” Emma’s voice was hushed, her head craned back as she stared at the sky. Many in the queue were equally awed, shuffling forward with eyes fixed on the sky as if it would disappear the moment they looked away. Even those feigning nonchalance like Lilith kept glancing upwards. “I don’t know how people live out here.”
“People don’t.” Lilith shrugged. “The infected do.”
“You may be more like them than you realise,” Emma retorted. “Just because they’re infected, doesn’t mean they aren’t people.”
“Yeah. Infected people.” She nudged Emma. “The vaccine only lasts what, seventy-two hours? After that, without a booster shot—”
“Can we not talk about becoming monsters?”
“We’re not even at the theatre yet,” Lilith protested, but she dropped the subject.
The theatre loomed ahead, a large grey building that was square and unfriendly, rather unlike the rounded architecture underground. It looked odd, rising out of the sandy ground to stand alone in the emptiness, as if someone had found a perfectly sized rock and carved the theatre out of it. But it had been built, not carved, brick placed upon brick, if rumour was to be believed.
When they finally reached the theatre doors, the cool darkness inside was a welcome relief. They stepped into a sparsely decorated but clean foyer, old-fashioned light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The walls were painted the rich, dark red of an expensive wine.
An usher in a matching red uniform took their tickets and ripped off a corner. “Row G, box 8.” He pointed. “Through those double doors, keep walking until the end of the row.”
Emma took the lead, Lilith trailing behind. Once past the double doors the auditorium looked much like any other, with one difference: every set of seats was enclosed by a bullet-proof glass dome. In the Middle Ring, where they were, the number of seats per box ranged between two to six. The Top Ring boxes had only two.
The Bottom Ring, by contrast, had no box separations or even seats. Instead the whole area was enclosed in glass, one giant aquarium. Upper Hallers were entering the enclosure from two doors on either side. Many headed for the front, settling on the ground to wait.
“This is us,” Emma announced, pausing by the last box to open the door. There were only two seats inside. An ornate 8 was etched into the glass.
The door swung shut behind her as Lilith took her seat. There was an alarm button on the armrest with a notice that read: “in case of sickness.” The glass of the box was sparklingly clear, offering an unobstructed view of the curtained stage and the streams of attendees shuffling to their seats. The Bottom Ring was crowded, a mass of bodies pressed together.
The lights were already dimming. There was a faint crackling from the speakers on their chairs, and the soft murmurs of the last few attendees to be seated trickled in. When all the box doors were shut, the sound faded entirely.
A man stepped out in front of the curtains to instant applause. Lilith joined in, then realised it wasn’t the audience she was hearing; the clapping coming out of the speakers was a recording.
The man waited for the applause to die out, bowing several times. His face was rugged, his skin dark. The slight paunch of his belly indicated a life of leisure; trading with the infected was a lucrative business, given how few were tempted to take the risk.
The man threw his arms out to either side. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Affected Parade.” His voice came through the speakers as if he were standing right beside them. “Tonight, you will have the pleasure—and the privilege—to witness first hand the little known secrets of life above ground. You will witness creatures both magical and frightening in equal measures.”
He paused, looked around the audience. The spotlight on him brightened. “For the first act, your boxes will be locked. This is for your protection.” A faint click accompanied his words. He held up a small metal square. “I have here the button to release the locks, and will personally do so as soon as the act is over.”
A step back, towards the edge of the curtains. “Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves. The show begins.”
Then the screaming started.
The curtains drew open onto a darkened stage as a needle-sharp scream echoed through the speakers. Other screams joined the first, blending together until it was impossible to tell where one person’s agony began and another’s ended. The stage remained dark.
Then came the loud, sickening sound of snapping bones. The stage lights flickered, outlining creatures neither animal nor human, their postures contorted, arms raised beseechingly as their bodies shuddered with pain.
“Werekin,” Lilith breathed, watching with horrified fascination as the creatures on stage lost all traces of humanity, their bodies twisting into animal form. Emma had her head between her knees, her hands on her ears, but Lilith was unable to look away from the dim shapes moving in the shadows. Her heart was racing, her skin crawled as she shifted in her seat—for it was impossible to listen to those cries and remain unmoved.
The screams stopped abruptly as the stage was flooded with light. Four wild animals prowled the stage, baring their teeth at the audience. One of them was a black feline with golden eyes, tail whipping from side to side. To the left was a dog with a short, squat body, to the right a soft, grey wolf with a thin hairless scar across his chest. At the very back, pawing and tossing its head, was a heavily muscled brown horse.
That these animals could disguise themselves as humans seemed impossible. All of them moved with a frighteningly sinuous predatory grace, the movements of a hunter. Was that why the compere had locked the doors? Did these infected monsters attack humans?
As if it had heard her, the werecat leapt off of the stage and charged straight for the Bottom Ring enclosure. The people on the other side of the glass cowered, their mouths contorted as they screamed, but the sound remained trapped behind the pane of glass, the resulting silence all the more unnerving.
The other werekin prowled forward, advancing on the audience. But before they could join the werecat in the stands, five people burst onto the stage, moving quickly into the centre and forming a loose half-circle.
No, not people, Lilith realised as the werekin turned to face the newcomers. Vampires, their mouths held partly open to accommodate protruding fangs. There were two females and three males, all dressed in black. They looked related: they all had the same pale, smooth skin and startlingly blue eyes.
One of them—the vampire with the darkest hair—stepped forward. He was the tallest male, his short hair slicked back. He had a strong, masculine face with a high forehead and an aquiline nose. He raised his head and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. His smile was slow and vicious.
The compere hurried out onstage. “Return to your room,” he said firmly to the vampires. “A new shipment of blood is on its way.”
The vampires ignored him. Emma was ashen-faced, her fingers digging into the arms of her chair, her lips moving soundlessly in what could only be a prayer. Lilith placed a hand on top of hers. “It’s part of the show. It’ll be over soon.”
The werekin shared none of Lilith’s conviction. They were backing towards the edge of the stage step by cautious step.
The leader of the vampires walked over to the compere, grasped his collar with one hand, and lifted the man, pulling their faces close together. “We don’t want your blood.” As he spoke, two of the vampires raced over to block the ground exits, circling the Bottom Ring enclosure.
The lead vampire smirked, and looked over the compere’s shoulder to the audience. “We want theirs.”
A hush followed the vampire’s pronouncement, breaths held, everyone waiting for the punch line. Everyone except the werekin, who continued retreating, their movements slow and deliberate, eyes fixed on the vampires as if they were vicious snakes on the verge of attack. All but the werehorse were off the stage now, but with the vampires guarding the Bottom Ring exits, there was nowhere to escape.
Emma was tense, shoulders drawn in to make herself smaller. “This is bad,” she muttered, chewing on her nails.
Lilith knocked her hand away, forcing a smile. “You coward.” But her smile faded as the lead vampire lifted the compere higher, till his feet barely touched the stage and his cheeks began to redden. The compere clawed at the iron hand around his neck, his mouth wide open, gasping. Through the speakers came the sounds of his struggle: little choked cries, the scratch-scratch of his toes against the floor…
“That’s it.” Emma stood, leaned over Lilith and tried the handle. The door didn’t open; the compere hadn’t released the locks. They were trapped.
“Relax,” Lilith said, trying to tug Emma down. “It’s part of the show.” The anxious racing of her heart betrayed her uncertainty. She refused to acknowledge the fear, not with Emma relying on her. “He’ll be fine.” Yet even the werehorse had leapt from the stage and was backing further into the stands.
Then the vampire sank his teeth into the compere’s neck. The compere struggled even more, lashing out with all his strength, but the vampire didn’t notice, too intent on the blood. The compere’s arms weakened, slowed, then stopped altogether, until he was limp in the vampire’s grasp and all that could be heard was the loud, wet, sucking as the vampire continued to feed. And with that sound came the great, terrible certainty of death.
Emma wasn’t the only one to scream, but she was the only one Lilith heard, trapped as they were in the soundproof box that would soon become their grave. Lilith pressed the alarm button with growing insistence, rattling the door handle. The door didn’t unlock.
There was a loud crash and screams filled the air, thin and strangled through the speakers but no less chilling. The vampires had broken through the glass enclosure of the Bottom Ring and were prowling towards the crowd, their extended fangs gleaming in the half-light. The audience surged backwards, scrambling, pushing, crushing each other in an attempt to escape, beating their arms against the glass on the opposite side with futile insistence.
Emma fell to her knees, head in her hands as she rocked back and forth. “We’re dead,” she muttered, and the words filled Lilith with a rage so strong that she slammed her fist against the glass.
“We’re not dead,” she said, running her hands along the door, testing the hinges. “Not yet.”
A dark blur raced past and Lilith shrank back, fearing the worst, but it was only the werecat heading for the Middle Ring exits. It must have climbed up to their tier. She punched the glass again, glaring after it. “Help us, dammit!” It didn’t hear—or chose not to hear, Lilith thought darkly—and soon slipped through the doors.
She faced the front to find another werekin who could help. What she saw stopped her cold.
The Bottom Ring was a sea of movement, of bodies squirming and pushing as the vampires rippled through the crowds, tearing people apart. It was a task from which they derived great pleasure, and Lilith watched, horror struck, as one of the vampires lifted a man into the air and ripped off his arm, a spray of blood coating what remained of the glass enclosure.
They were going to die.
Lilith twisted her hands together and prayed for help with a fervour and devotion she’d never possessed before. If only someone could hear her. Anyone.
A shadow loomed at the door. It was one of the werekin, staring into their box, its head level with the top of the glass door. It was one of the canines. And somehow, amidst the bloodshed and the screams of pain emanating from the chair speakers, Lilith found herself thinking that this was the closest she had ever been to an infected.
But infected or not, the werekin was their only hope. So she clenched her fists, lifted her chin as commandingly as she could, and said: “Get us out of here!”
The werekin backed up several steps and lowered its head. Lilith pushed Emma against the far wall just in time: the creature charged headlong into the door, cracking the glass. It charged a second time, then a third, and the glass shattered.
I’m a friend, I’m a friend, Lilith chanted as the werekin pushed its head into the box. Animals could smell fear; she had to keep calm, keep her eyes on the ground, breaths soft and quiet, shoulders hunched to appear less threatening. But it was hard not to panic with the screams of the dying ringing in her ears.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered, eyes closed. She kept talking, willing it to understand. “I’m a friend, I’m in your pack, I’m your mate.” A slow exhale, then she added, “If there’s anything human left in you at all, then help me. Take me home.”
Loud snuffling was her only reply. Fear crept into Lilith’s heart. What if there was nothing human left in an infected? What if the werekin was no better than an animal? Despite the flush of adrenaline, a cool sweat beaded at her forehead and under the collar of her t-shirt. From outside came the sound of glass breaking and so many screams that her throat ached to hear them, but she couldn’t afford the distraction. She pushed aside the sympathy, focused her attention on keeping her eyes closed, on ignoring the heavy breathing in front of her.
There was a short, impatient huff, then something grabbed the hem of her hoodie and began to tug. Lilith’s eyes snapped open, travelling up a long, thin muzzle to a pair of grey eyes, huge and unblinking and intelligent, in a way Lilith had never thought an animal’s could be. She looked past its face, to the thin, hairless scar on its chest.
“Wolf?” she whispered.
It—no, he, for it could only be a male—didn’t answer, and tugged more insistently, backing out of the box and pulling her with him.
“No!” she cried, trying to wrestle her hoodie out of his jaws, hands dangerously close to the sharp teeth. “Wait! I can’t leave Emma!”
The werewolf growled low in his throat and tugged her through the broken door. Then, with a toss of his head, he swung Lilith onto his back. The wind was knocked out of her, and she had to dig her fingers into his thick fur to stop herself from sliding off.
In the Bottom Ring the carnage continued, the floor littered with bodies. All that remained of the compere were some shapeless, unrecognisable lumps and a red smear on the stage. If they didn’t reach the Middle Ring exits before the vampires vaulted onto the second floor, they were dead.
“Get Emma!” Lilith ordered, pointing.
The werewolf snarled and swerved to the right, nearly dislodging Lilith from his back as a vampire raced past, arms extended, his outstretched hand just missing Lilith’s leg.
Lilith crouched against the werewolf’s neck, calling, “Emma! Emma!” But Emma was still unconscious, crumpled amidst the glass, oblivious to her cries.
The vampire charged again, and the werewolf lunged, jaws snapping on empty air until the path to the exit was clear. Then he wheeled around and dashed for the doors in a blur of motion. The vampire didn’t follow, intent on easier prey. He was heading straight for Box 8, and for Emma.
Lilith screamed, a wordless cry torn from the depths of her throat as the werewolf ducked through the exit and the auditorium was left behind. They burst through the outside door seconds later, and the sun beat down on them, blindingly bright.
The werewolf kept running. Lilith closed her eyes and choked on a sob. Emma was dead. She buried her face into the werewolf’s fur, holding on as tightly as she could.