Youngblood

Story by Aidan Moher // Illustration by Stefan Tosheff

It was market day at Beacon, so my everyday pack was full of the bone-and-bead jewelry I made for barter. It was a tight squeeze alongside the usual stuff — food bars, flashlight, swim goggles — but you never knew where life on the island would take you. Plus, after market day, I was headed to the foothills for a couple nights at my mom’s bunker to recharge and get away from humanity. Just me, Lady, and the jungle.

I put on my mom’s old canvas jacket with the peeling Dead Kennedys patch, shouldered the pack, and grabbed my sawtoothed spear.

Lady darted out through the door of the overturned shipping truck that doubled as my home, lithe and silent. She was small for a raptor, barely reaching to my mid-thigh. Joining her outside, I ran my fingers through her gleaming feathers, rich with sunset colours. They were taut with anxiety. We might be sisters in arms, but even so, she nipped at my fingers, warning me not to touch her.

“What’s gotten into you today?” I swatted back at her lightly but firmly. She moved out of reach and stood staring out at the ocean beyond the beach.

She’d been acting off all afternoon, and I was beginning to worry about bringing her into the busy market. Maybe I’d leave her with Wei-ting instead.

“Come on, girl.”

Market day began at sundown, and we were already running late. Lady joined me as I started climbing the steep hill that separated my makeshift home from Beacon.

Like a fallen giant, Beacon slumbered between the beach and the jungle. Established in the remains of a beached container ship, Beacon had been transformed over the years by its inhabitants. Steel girders and dinosaur bones, sheet metal and stretched hide.

Plumes of smoke reached for the sky like sickly black fingers. The bonfires burned 24/7. Save our souls. The acrid smell of burning palm fronds was impossible to avoid. It tickled the back of your throat and scratched at your eyes. During daylight hours, scouts stood along the edges of the outer deck with large mirrors. Morse code never went out of style for castaways. At sunrise, midday, and sunset, rhythmic drumming erupted for an uninterrupted hour. You got used to it.

It wasn’t the sound of drumming that made me stop at the top of the hill and look east over the ocean. It was lower, like something felt rather than heard.

Subtly at first and then with more insistence, the sound reminded me of one of my earliest and fondest memories: wrapped warmly in my mom’s lap, half-asleep, as she watched M*A*S*H, an old military serial dredged from the Nublar BioTech archives.

Each morning, Mom would look at me seriously and say something like “You know, I’m so sick of people today. I need some time with the creatures who truly understand me.” She’d wink, and head out the door to take care of the dinosaurs.

In the evening, she’d come home and say, “You know, kiddo, the dinos are friendly if you get past the teeth… But I sorta missed you.” And she’d scoop me up in her strong arms and carry me to the living room, where we’d eat microwave dinners and watch M*A*S*H.

On that show, the helicopters were bulbous and insect-like, but these ones looked more like Lady. Sleek. Agile. Dangerous.

Outsiders.

Emblazoned on their matte-black hulls was the stylized double helix of Nublar BioTech.

I dropped to the ground on wobbly knees, hands shaking.

It was so easy to forget that the outside world existed, that there was more to existence than the desperate human communities clinging to life among the dinosaurs and the Hunters. I was ten years old when the Grail appeared, just hours before the sirens started sounding, and bathed the islands with its golden light. Nublar BioTech abandoned us. I’d become separated from my mom that night because of my foolishness. She’d made it to the last evacuation ship. I hadn’t.

That was eleven years before.

So, I’d wished so often for Nublar BioTech to return that it had become as natural as my heartbeat. A piece of me that persisted and fought against annihilation and nothingness.

I whooped and startled Lady. The shakes were subsiding. I got to my feet and ran along the path towards Beacon. Loose and free, adrenaline coursing through me.

Beacon residents poured out of the sun-bleached sauropod ribs that formed the community’s main gate. Some of the choppers were landing nearby, others circling. Several black ships had appeared on the horizon.

Not everyone was passively watching, though. Loose-limbed scouts disappeared into the jungle, headed towards the other colonies. Armoured guards prowled the perimeter in their knuckled ankylosaur helmets, gripping spears. Several wardens were rounding up dinosaurs, coercing them towards the paddocks. An anxious group of ankylosaurs panicked and bowled into a crowd of onlookers. The sound of their rampage could be heard even over the helicopters. Chaos was blooming.

Lady circled back. She snarled and nipped at my ankles.

Soldiers spilled from the helicopters, shouting at the Islanders, guns drawn. Closer now, I could see that the logo on the side of the helicopters wasn’t Nublar BioTech’s — not exactly. Rather than the stylized double helix, it was two intertwined snakes eating their own tails. Beneath the logo was the name OUROBOROS.

This was wrong. Very wrong.


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Thoughts of selling my jewelry at market day melted under growing unease. Now, I had to get my mom’s bunker in the mountains. Even before the evacuation, life on the island under Nublar BioTech carried risks. From our earliest days among the dinos, Mom had drilled into me that if anything should happen, I needed to head for her bunker. Always the bunker. It was there I’d gone after the evacuation. I spent weeks there. Alone. Waiting for her to return.

But not without Wei-ting.

He was like my little brother. A toddler at the time of the evacuation, Wei-ting had lost both of his parents, been abandoned by the other evacuees, and grown up in Beacon’s guts. The island’s orphans take care of their own.

Instead of heading to the beach to join everyone else, I snuck around to Beacon’s jungle side. It was quiet, with nearly everyone drawn to the beach. Like a punch to the gut, I heard the pop-pop-pop of a semiautomatic. A cry rose from the spectators as more weapons fired.

Fear clawed at me, but I refused it purchase as I followed Lady into an air vent that led into Beacon. She knew where we were going. I squeezed and wriggled my way inside. This part of the ship was mostly abandoned, and the sounds of the conflict outside were muffled. I could almost ignore the gunfire. Almost.

The rank smell of humanity stalked the tight halls. Greasy engines, mildew, and the copper ghosts of old electrical fires. It had been years since the freighter had washed ashore, but the scent of its decay was still strong. As I neared Wei-ting’s cubby beneath a stairwell, the mustiness was masked by something more pleasant, sweet and spicy.

I banged on the makeshift door, and heard the clink and clatter of metal before the door opened. Wei-ting was silhouetted by a lantern’s light. Behind him, a can of curry bubbled over a Sterno flame. Soldiers were storming Beacon — and little Wei-ting was making lunch.

“Youngblood.” Wei-ting’s voice was still high and childish, but it was tempered with resilience. You couldn’t grow up in Beacon without learning to be steel-strong. Only ten years old, he was one of the island’s youngest inhabitants. Kids born after the evacuation were rare. Most didn’t survive infancy, and those that did were like Wei-ting.

“We have to go,” I said. “Nublar BioTech is back.”

“To save us?” Wei-ting shied away from the question. He stepped into the light, and I could see him clearly now. His pebbled chameleon skin was sandy-brown today.

“I… I don’t know. I don’t think so.” As if to accentuate my words, the sound of gunfire and shouting rattled down the halls.

Ouroboros had breached Beacon.

Wei-ting’s skin turned deep crimson striped with black — an instinctual defense mechanism used by the Hunters and many of the dinosaurs on the island. And by some of its youngest humans.

“Grab what you need,” I said. “You have one minute.”

Scrambling back into his cramped cubby, Wei-ting capped the Sterno and juggled the hot can of curry until he dropped it. Its sticky contents splattered everywhere. He stared morosely, until I snapped, “Thirty seconds.”

Lady nosed into Wei-ting’s cubby and started lapping up the hot curry.

“Where are we going? When are we coming back?”

“My mom’s bunker.” I shot a look over my shoulder. “I don’t know when we’re coming back. Probably never. Take only what you can carry.”

He started cramming tins of curry in his pack. “Don’t bother,” I said. “The bunker has enough for a week.”

My mom was the best.

She was a park warden and spent more of her life with dinos than the people on the island. She kept a tight ship at home but was fair, and we liked to relax together. At work, though, she had a reputation for sending a shiver down a stego’s plated spine just by looking at it. I only saw that side of her once. We were driving through the lowlands when a Quetzalcoatlus, big as a goddamn bus, landed on the roof of our armored truck and started cracking it open like we were sweet crab meat. Mom went outside without hesitation and handled her modified elephant tranquilizer gun like she was born to it. It became my life’s goal to be like my mom.

After that, the bunker always felt like a safe place for me. It was easy to run there after the evacuation, to sink into the aura of Mom’s strength and preparation. Survival on the island meant being close to the ocean and its fish, so eventually I moved back to Beacon, but that didn’t work out. The men in charge weren’t too fond of women like me and my mom. I found my truck. Close enough to the necessities provided by the community, but still on my own.

Gunfire rolled down the hallway. My hands started shaking again and black spots like spiders crawled through my vision. Wei-ting clutched his ears and cowered. Lady nearly hit the roof.

A pair of unarmed Beaconers careened around the corner, running towards Wei-ting’s cubby. Several Ouroboros soldiers followed. They had the same avian sleekness as the copters — bright HUD elements visible on the visors of their black helmets, assault rifles drawn, red laser sights darting about the darkened halls. Their heavy-booted footfalls and radio chatter were like the ghosts of our hopes and dreams.

The Beaconers turned down an intersecting tunnel, and the soldiers followed. Guns fired. The death cry of the Beaconers was concussive, heartrending. I hauled Wei-ting up and pushed him into the hall. His skin changed to a camouflaged pattern of dappled greys and browns. Dressed in black, he faded into the shadows.

A trailing Ouroboros soldier spotted us leaving.

“Captain!” He barked. “We’ve got runners. This one’s got the…weird skin, too.”

“Pursue them,” replied the captain from out of sight. Her voice was bloodless, razor-sharp.

Lady darted ahead as several bullets ricocheted nearby.

Despite the dim light and Wei-ting’s excellent night vision, we had trouble staying ahead of our pursuers. As they grew closer, their radios clicked off, and they stopped speaking. Their footfalls were inexorable.

The derelict halls of the ship eventually merged with a series of natural underground tunnels crisscrossing the outside hills. It was generally safe, as Beaconers had cleared out and claimed large portions of the tunnels, but there was a cenote down there that provided a shortcut to my mom’s bunker. But it was far enough out that when my mom and I used to go to for a swim, we’d take the long way around, to steer clear of the Hunters’ stalking grounds.

The petals of a plan began to unfurl before me.

I signaled Wei-ting towards a door just ahead. He scurried through, and I slowed — just enough to let the soldiers spot me. The captain barked an order, and the others fanned out behind her as much as the narrow hallway allowed. One soldier lowered his muzzle slightly when he saw me.

“They’re just kids, Velázquez.” he said, not taking his eyes off of me.

Captain Velázquez,” she snapped, otherwise ignoring him and pushing forward.

I flashed my biggest shit-eating grin and ducked through the door. Wei-ting waited around the corner, confused and obviously terrified.

“Down,” I snapped as I pushed him further along the tight corridor.

“There’s a Hunter down there,” he said. “It’ll kill us.”

“It might kill us,” I said. “Or it might kill those soldiers. Plus, we have you.”

It wasn’t the fear on Wei-ting’s face that startled me but the flash of curiosity and eagerness. His camouflaged skin flushed pink, and his lips threatened a smile.

“Go!”

Instead of heading the familiar route to the cenote, we soon found ourselves smack in the middle of Hunter territory. The sandstone walls were slick with moisture, and we were forced to slow down so we didn’t slip or trip in pooling water. Behind us, the soldiers’ tactical lights cut through the growing darkness. It took everything we had to stay ahead of them. I feared a Hunter at every corner.

Bipedal, the Hunters were taller and more muscular than humans, and had many of the predatory powers of the dinosaurs. They appeared on the islands alongside the Grail, and we’d learned to live alongside them, mostly by staying out of their way. Still, stories of missing children and the blood-curdling results of crossing paths with a Hunter were spoken in whispers all across the islands.

I once watched from afar as three Hunters took down a nesting Parasaurolophus. They were ferocious but calculated, showing signs of an intelligence that marked them as more than the dinos they hunted.

A surprised cry from behind us. A burst of gunfire. Two voices shouted, each trying to command the other. The man’s voice ended in a wet gurgle, and the woman’s voice was drowned out by the rapid-fire shot of her assault rifle.

Cold silence.

Lady’s keen nose picked up the scent of a Hunter. She hissed, tense as a drawn arrow. At the same moment, Wei-ting stopped to stare behind us. His skin assumed the texture and blackness of the shadowed tunnels.

We had to hightail it.

The cenote’s natural light was seeping into the tunnels now, so it was my turn to lead. I took Wei-ting’s hand, and we scampered forward through damp caverns and tunnels. Lady scouted ahead and periodically circled back. We didn’t bother to hide the sound of our escape. The Hunter had ears as sharp as a raptor, so it was foolish to trade speed for silence. Best to move quickly and pray the soldiers provided a distraction.

The cenote was like a place out of time. Vines and moss draped the ceiling, reaching towards the shimmering pool below. The ceiling was pocked with holes, which thirstily drank the rain falling from the sky outside. The sunlight above was fading to dusk, dappling the water with light and shadows that rippled in the falling rain. Lady darted into the darkness behind us, back the way we had come.

“There’s a tunnel beneath the surface that goes outside,” I said, gesturing at the pool. “My mom’s bunker is beyond, but we’ll have to avoid the lowlands.” I dropped to my knees and started digging through my everyday bag. Bone jewelry spilled out as I grabbed a flashlight and some goggles. “It’s a breeding ground for the Parasaurolophus, and they don’t take kindly to squishy humans near their eggs.” I held the goggles out for Wei-ting.

“I can’t swim.” Wei-ting’s young voice choked on the words. His camouflage dropped, and his skin was speckled with red and orange warning rings.

I had no time to process Wei-ting’s disastrous response. Like a fireball, Lady burst forth. Her clawed feet made no noise as she scurried along the slick tunnel floor, but she hissed, and her phoenix-bright feathers were raised in warning.

“It’s here!” I shouted, and shoved Wei-ting behind me. Not that I stood a chance against a Hunter, but my plan was crumbling in front of my eyes, and I was desperate to keep Wei-ting safe.

He was tough, but he was still a kid. I needed to stay calm and lead us through this. My heart was a monster in my chest — its fury came out in my hoarse voice as I barked at Wei-ting to stay back. White-knuckled, I set my feet and readied my spear. You didn’t grow up on the islands without learning how to fight; but, damn if all that didn’t flee in the face of fear. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. I hoped it would be enough.

Shadows bled away from the Hunter as its camouflage dropped. It was humanoid, with pebbled skin covered in light downy feathers. Somehow, its layered stego-plate armor changed colour with its skin and feathers. The Hunter must weigh more than Wei-ting and me combined, but moved with grace and inexhaustible strength. Eyes like amber chips, glinting with an eons-old light.

The Hunter was considered in its approach — not at all aggressive or feral, as I’d expected.

Wei-ting let out a low whistle. I turned and saw a startling look of reverence and desire on his face. His skin changed colour to match the Hunter’s complex patterns.

I gripped my spear tighter, stepped backward and bumped into Wei-ting. His boots slid beneath the pool’s surface, and he slipped head over heels. His skull cracked on a slick rock, and his body fell limply at the pool’s edge.

The Hunter lunged, faster than breath, astonishingly quick. I stumbled back, spear held defensively before me. I suppose I hoped to impale it as I fell. Eye for an eye. I hit the ground hard as it charged, heard a sickening pop, and a burst of white-hot pain erupted in my left ankle. The Hunter leapt over me and scooped Wei-ting from the water with surprising gentleness.

Lady lunged. She tore at the Hunter with teeth and claws. Wei-ting slung over its shoulder, the Hunter danced backward out of Lady’s reach. The raptor was relentless in her assault.

“No!” I cried, terrified that Lady would hurt Wei-ting. The Hunter had the same idea, and placed Wei-ting’s ragdoll body on the ground. Lady seized her chance, claws raking through an opening in the Hunter’s armor. Its blood was a familiar crimson. Lady leapt onto the Hunter’s back, clawing and biting. The sounds of the fight were raw and merciless. As Lady’s element of surprise wore off, the Hunter gained the upper hand thanks to its size, and tossed the raptor off its back. Lady landed with a splash in the pool.

Instead of pursuing Lady, the Hunter darted back towards Wei-ting just as the first burst of gunfire announced the arrival of the Ouroboros soldiers. Shrapnel exploded around the Hunter as bullets ricocheted off stone. For just a moment — a brief, infinitesimal moment — I could have leapt for Wei-ting and reached him in time. But I hesitated. My body betrayed my heart, and I stood paralyzed, watching as the Hunter lunged towards my friend again. A memory from the night of the evacuation flashed red before my eyes.

The golden light of the Grail shining on the island for the first time. Chasing Lady into the jungle. My mother screaming at me from the boat to leave her. Watching the boat dwindle towardss the horizon. The evacuation sirens screaming.

The Hunter scooped up Wei-ting and held the boy protectively against its chest.

Velázquez led the Ouroboros soldiers into the cenote, finger trembling on the trigger of her assault rifle, eyes flitting between me and the Hunter.

“What the fuck?” said one of the soldiers. “What the fuck?”

Without looking back at them, Velázquez gestured orders for her remaining soldiers to flank the Hunter.

My ankle rolled as I scrambled away from the soldiers, and I plunged into the pool. Each kick back to the surface was agony. I reemerged, gasping. My spear floated nearby. I grabbed it. With my mother’s hoarse scream echoing through nine years of doubt, I took a deep breath and dove back beneath the surface. I left Wei-ting behind.

The underwater tunnel was limned with light from outside. I dove deeper, each kick a heated shock through my leg. Half-swimming, half-pulling myself along the rocky walls, I moved through the tunnel. It was only a few metres long but felt a kilometre. Panic and stale oxygen fought against instinct, threatening to burst free.

I emerged from the tunnel into a larger, deeper pool. With a surge of strength, I broke the surface, gasping, stars dancing before my eyes and above in the sky. I was at the far edge of a small lake, towering cliffs at my back.

I swam to shore and collapsed on the jungle floor, a pile of sobbing fear. Sadness welled within me. I choked back tears for my friend. I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve for my mother in the wake of the evacuation. I’d pushed off that sadness, just like I pushed off my anguish at leaving my friend. I took one deep breath, and then another. The tears stopped. I would survive this. And then I could cry.

Something splashed on the lake, and I looked up to see Lady bobbing near the mouth of the tunnel. She swam to shore. Nuzzling me, she began to lick at my sprained ankle. Her tongue had a comforting roughness. I used her strength to pull myself up off the ground and out of despair.

Using my spear as a crutch, I left the lake. The lowlands were out of the question — hell hath no fury like a breeding Parasaurolophus — so we took a route through the nearby foothills. Navigating the flat jungle floor was difficult, but ascending the trail with my busted ankle was torture. Its pain pulsed with the beat of my heart. Soon, my whole left side ached.

My pace slowed as my strength flagged. I stopped on a high outcrop overlooking Beacon. The bonfires burned around the perimeter, but their light was drowned out by enormous Ouroboros spotlights. Several ships were anchored offshore, and a constant stream of smaller ferries travelled between them and the beach, their lights like giant fireflies over the ocean. Dark-clad soldiers stood guard over dozens of sedated and caged dinosaurs. Each group of soldiers was accompanied by an unarmed scientist.

Here and there, the flash of gunfire burned back the darkness as the suppression of Beacon and the surrounding communities continued. Helicopters flitted about the island, their omnipresent sound mingling with the haunting cries of the dinosaurs. I wondered if they could see me and Lady standing on that cliff edge, watching the pillaging of our home.

I kept moving.

My mom’s bunker was an effortless extension of its surroundings. Built into a low hillock, it overlooked a trickling stream and had a clear view of the Grail’s golden light spilling down the island’s central mountain. Its small round door was obscured by camouflage netting and plucked palm fronds.

A wave of relief and exhaustion washed over me. I didn’t know what came next, but mom’s bunker meant safety.

Lady snarled and a single gunshot rang out — a warning shot, or I’d be dead. I crouched, wincing as my ankle screamed, and searched for the source.

Velázquez stalked forward, gripping a pistol. I raised my hands. She’d lost her helmet, and weeping blood plastered her close-trimmed hair to her skull. One of her eyes was swollen, her nose obviously broken. Her uniform was soaked. She’d escaped the cenote the same way I had, and tracked me through the jungle.

She shouted in Spanish. I couldn’t understand, but her intent was clear. Her eyes scanned the jungle, panicked and wild. Was the Hunter not dead?

Velázquez asked a question in Spanish. I dared to shrug.

“Where is your friend?” she repeated in English. There was hesitation in her eyes. “Where did you come from? The island was supposed to be deserted.”

Frustrated by my silence, she spoke into a radio on her shoulder. I couldn’t understand what she said, but a moment later there was a reply in English, confirming her coordinates.

Lady watched from behind her, a ghost in the foliage. I signaled for her to stay.

Velázquez stumbled suddenly, hit by an invisible force. Scrambling on top her, trying to wrench the gun out of her hands, was Wei-ting. You didn’t grow up on the islands without learning to fight dirty. He stayed close to Velázquez — gouging eyes, pulling hair, biting. There was nothing noble about it, nothing clean. A glint of moonlight on metal. Velázquez stubbornly trying to bring her pistol to bear. Wei-ting drew a jagged knife, which I’d never seen him carry before, and sliced at the soldier’s hand. Velázquez didn’t make a sound as the knife connected, but she dropped her gun. Despite the blow, Wei-ting was losing ground to Velázquez’s strength and training. His camouflage dropped and was replaced by fiery warning rings. They stumbled and fell to the ground. Velázquez pinned the boy, but her gun was just out of reach. Velázquez looked hesitantly between the boy and the gun.

That brief moment was all I needed.

I drove forward with my spear. I screamed with pain and rage. Lady’s guttural cry matched my own as she leapt at Velázquez. The soldier deflected my striking spear but opened herself to my knee, which connected with her neck. She slumped, gagging. I rolled to the side as Lady bowled into the struggling soldier and Wei-ting, sending them tumbling. She sprang on top of Velázquez. Wei-ting tumbled limply into the underbrush and disappeared almost instantly. I could briefly make out his crumpled clothing, but even that faded into the shadowed jungle.

Velázquez threw off the raptor and scrambled backwards on all fours. She stood, turning to flee into the jungle, but came up short as she faced down the Hunter. Camouflage gone, the Hunter glowed with a menacing light, its skin and armor patterned with red and orange rings. Its amber eyes flashed as an enormous spear sprouted from its outstretched hand, weaving together out of vines and razor-edged leaves. Velázquez reached for a gun that wasn’t there. It was too late. While she was distracted by the Hunter, Lady lunged again, teeth bared, and tore Velázquez’s throat from her neck. I fought the urge to vomit, and searched for something, anything, to turn my attention towardss.

The sound of an approaching helicopter was just audible over the voice of the jungle.

Lady came to me and circled me like a guardian. I squatted and wrapped her in a hug. The Hunter regarded us, its alien eyes peeling me apart layer by layer. I lost the staring contest. It stepped over Velázquez’s corpse and went to Wei-ting.

“Wei-ting!” I had to shout to be heard over the sound of the helicopter now.

I leapt towards my friend, and the Hunter let me pass.

“Youngblood,” he said, struggling to sit up. There were stars in his eyes, but that couldn’t keep a resilient smile from his face.

“You’re alive!” I said through tears.

“The Hunter saved me,” he said. “Then we came through the lowlands. You should see her moving among the dinos, Youngblood. She’s… I have no words for what she is.”

I reached down, and squeezed his shoulders. The foliage was frantic in the hurricane winds of the helicopter.

“I’m staying here,” he said. I struggled to hear his words over the deafening sound. “With the Hunters. Where I belong. They’re from beyond the Grail, Youngblood. She’s going to take me — ”

Without warning, the Hunter picked up Wei-ting and bounded for the darkness beyond the bunker. Several Ouroboros soldiers emerged from the jungle and surrounded me and Lady. A sudden spotlight from the helicopter bathed the clearing around the bunker in unnatural light.

I released Lady, and raised my hands. “I’m just going to stand,” I said. They tightened the circle as I stood.

“Wait!” A woman’s voice rang out from behind the soldiers. “Guns down.”

She rushed forward, pushing through the soldiers, forcing them to lower their muzzles with the same easy authority she had brandished during my childhood. She was dressed in khaki, and a badge dangling from her jacket pocket identified her as an Ouroboros scientist.

By the time she reached me, tears streamed down my cheeks. Words escaped me as sobs.

“Zara!” With two handfuls of my jacket, she pulled me close.

“Mom,” I sobbed. I’d never known tears of joy. “How…”

“The jacket. Zara. Oh, my baby. I saw the patch on the jacket. You still have it. Oh, Zara.”

“You told me to come here. If anything happened. Come here.” I fell deeper into my mom’s arms, and, for that moment, I was a babe again, cradled in the safety of her embrace. For that moment, nothing was wrong.

“Velázquez said she was with a boy. One of the natives.” The barking voice broke our reverie.

Mom looked at me.

I remembered the cries of the dinosaurs on the beach and, for the first time, recognized myself in those primal voices. I knew then, as Wei-ting had always known, that for all their flaws, despite the danger, the islands were our home. But a home I must leave nonetheless.

I shook my head. “Just me.”

“It’s just her,” Mom replied. “This is my daughter, and she needs medical attention.”

She looked at me, and only me. “My daughter. My daughter. Oh, Zara.”

The Ouroboros soldiers were swift and orderly as they arranged our retreat. Lady was nowhere to be seen, until, as the last of the soldiers were loading into the helicopter, she slipped in unseen and curled up beneath my seat. My mom noticed but said nothing.

We were lifted on composite aluminum rotors, and in the space of a breath, the islands were no longer my present but my past. The safety of my mother, whose warmth pressed against my side, conflicted with a wash of cold fear and loss. For so long, I had wished to escape the islands, to return to a life of old television shows and home-cooked meals. Friends. Family. Beacon never felt like home to me until it was gone. As I looked around the helicopter at the grim-faced men and women in Ouroboros combat gear, guns held almost sensuously in their laps, I thought of Wei-ting and the Hunter, and the life I was leaving behind. I was surprised by the sadness of those thoughts.

My mother was chattering at me, but I did not hear her words. Her love was obvious. I rested my arm on her leg.

I faced backwards, so I had a clear view of the islands, helicopters swarming like locusts, as they receded to nothingness. It was near midnight. The horizon was brushed by the Grail’s golden kiss.

I closed my eyes, and reached down with my free hand to run my fingers through Lady’s feathers. She was already asleep.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed “Youngblood,” you can find more of Aidan Moher’s short fiction here:

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