Molly never gets used to the dark eyes staring at her from inside the enclosures.
She’s heard strange stories of a time not long ago when men had power and roamed free. Stories of women marrying those men and having their babies. Stories of a past Molly can’t even imagine.
But not here. Not in her world.
The furtive eyes of the males follow Molly as she and her friends pass by in a flurry, as if the captives have been lying awake all night in expectation of the wild, unruly pack of naked girls running past them in the dark hours of morning. Molly is unnerved by the males’ unbridled appetite and desire, by the volatility and vacancy in their faces.
Her instructors told her that males are naturally nocturnal and predatory creatures, so Molly is not surprised to see them waiting, though it does little to ease her discomfort. The girls shouldn’t be here, and she knows it.
One after another, she passes the enclosures. Each confined space is artificially designed to mimic the native habitat of the geographical area, and is closed in by walls of glass. A long time ago, the humans used the space to contain precious animals now long extinct. But now this land belongs to the Advocates. Now things are different.
Each of the many enclosures now house males captured from the surrounding areas, and though they are fed and clothed and kept safe from the perils of male endangeredness, Molly can feel their agitation and angst pressing through the glass.
While her friends laugh and taunt the shadowy male faces, Molly tries to ignore them, and instead urges her lungs to expand and suck in as much air as possible, trying to store extra oxygen in every cell of her body before she has to return to the life behind her.
But the eyes make it hard, as if the males are inhaling her as they watch her body move and breathe. The smothering pressure of their aggression and desire creeps into the underbelly of her skin, pushing against the backs of her eyes, and crawling like electric currents through the veins in her arms and legs. Like they’re sucking all of that precious oxygen out of her body. And maybe they are.
It’s not like she hasn’t been here a hundred times before, walking along the path observing the marvels of conservation at work and admiring the beauty of the captive specimens. But, to be fair, it’s always been during the day, as a student, with her instructors and classmates. And fully clothed.
Only yesterday, the girls were here in this very spot for their last Advocate History class of the school year. Their professor had them standing in the sun for what felt like hours as she droned on about the Advocates’ marvelous advances in male conservation.
Molly remembers how the male in the enclosure behind her professor kept pacing the perimeter of his cage. Back and forth he went, carving a well-worn path in the dirt along the walls. All the while, his dark, vacant eyes stared straight ahead, beyond the crowd of young girls standing before him. It gave Molly the creeps, and made her glad of the thick glass walls containing him.
The whole running naked thing was Harlow’s idea. Molly wonders how she ever let her best friend talk her into this. When Harlow knocked on her window an hour ago, this was not what Molly had in mind. But the sight of all of her closest friends waiting for her on her lawn, ready for an adventure, had her out of bed and joining them before Harlow even finished her sentence.
After running through the vacant city, the girls had shed their clothes at the top of the hill, before running full speed down the Observation Path into the gorge of the Preserve, knowing full well their route would be in direct sight of the captive males.
The city at night is a hollow, haunted place, and Molly is glad to be out of it, though their path still has its fair share of eerie sights.
Maybe it was Harlow’s characteristic charm and masterful persuasion that convinced Molly to plunge ahead in naked abandon, or the collective pressure of being surrounded by her friends. Maybe it was the time of day- the alluring moment between night and day, when the world is dangerously quiet and dark just before the sun rises.
Or maybe it was that it happens to be this day, of all days. When everyone in her city stops to mourn the day the Zarrists set their world on fire.
It’s still dark, and the path is lined with solar lights that are beginning to fade with the imminent rise of the sun. They emit a pale, hazy light that makes freakish shadows of the walls of foliage around her. Molly lets her body surrender to the rhythmic motion of her feet, falling into a controlled fall of a run as her arms fly loosely at her sides. She revels in the novel sensation of the humid air hitting her naked skin.
They hit the bottom of the gorge, and then press up the other side of the climb without pause. Molly runs harder, pushing against the steep incline. She ignores the protests of her quads and hamstrings as each foot slams into the pavement with a monkey grip propelling her forward.
She looks over at her friends in their ridiculous nakedness and beauty. The girls still laugh and shove each other playfully, making little effort to stifle their noise. Molly supposes they look all grown up now, but she can’t help but think they look just like they did when she met them in grade school.
Harlow has always been beautiful, the kind of person who draws attention. As she watches Harlow run, Molly feels the familiar pang of envy for her dark beauty. Harlow is the bravest person Molly knows. Every crazy thing Molly has ever done has been because of her. It’s what Molly loves most about Harlow, her infectious thirst for adventure.
That, and the fact that Harlow is as strong as she is beautiful. Harlow speaks, and people listen. And she could probably kill a bear with her bare hands. If bears still existed, that is.
Mackenzie, her other best friend, is shorter than her, and wears glasses when she reads or does anything academic, which is pretty much all the time. She doesn’t wear them on adventures like these, which means she can never see as good as she needs to. But Mackenzie is the smartest person Molly knows, which often comes in handy when the girls are in a jam. Mackenzie is studying to be a scientist. Like her mother, who is a brilliant scientist herself, Mackenzie will be one of the many responsible for developing a cure for male endangeredness.
Behind Harlow and Mackenzie, Molly sees the bright faces of her other friends. Ashlynn, another dark-haired beauty with pale skin and an alarming knack for hand-to-hand combat. Mariah, a tall, willowy girl with flaming red hair, freckles everywhere, and a sweet smile that hides an encyclopedia of knowledge on all the different ways to skin a wild dog and survive in the wilderness. And a handful of other girls Molly has known all her life.
All of them are bright, beautiful, and amazingly talented in their own rite. And all of them look forward to a brilliant future using their gifts to save humanity.
Molly, on the other hand, still does not know or understand her own calling. Molly has always known she is supposed to be destined for leadership. She is the granddaughter of Vivica Sinclair, the Advocate leader and governor of the Western Provinces, and Molly has been groomed to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps.
It makes sense in theory, but there’s just one problem. Molly’s not a leader. She’s never felt like one. Even after that fateful day two years ago, just months after the Zarrist attack, when Molly acted and everything changed for her.
Just the thought of being like her grandmother makes her stomach churn with anxiety. She always thought Harlow was more of a natural leader, but Molly doesn’t see any way around it.
The girls reach the crest of the hill, revealing a view of the entire valley reaching out to the vast, glowing darkness of the ocean. The buildings of the city speckle the landscape below, surrounded by the massive wall that encircles and protects the city from the Deadlands beyond.
They finally stop running and Molly doubles over to catch her breath. To her surprise Harlow’s older sister, Addison, is waiting for them, along with a few of her friends, all girls older than Molly. A pile of slim, black backpacks lies at Addison’s feet. The sun is just rising, and there’s a soft orange glow hanging in the air. Her muscles ache and there’s a slick layer of perspiration on her body.
“So did you wake us up just for a morning jog?” Molly asks Harlow through panting breaths.
“The probability of that being the case is zero to none,” Mackenzie says.
“You know we shouldn’t be here,” Molly says.
“It’s going to be fine,” Harlow assures with her usual confidence. “We won’t get caught. But even if we do, lucky for you, you’re the governor’s granddaughter. And lucky for us, we’re your friends.”
Molly considers all of their adventures over the years, all of the times she and her friends stood in front of her grandmother, after getting caught doing something they shouldn’t, and she knows Harlow is right.
“Believe it or not, I have a good reason for bringing us up here. Besides, I thought you could use some fun after the beating Ashlynn gave you in training yesterday,” Harlow continues, nodding at Ashlynn as she wipes the sweat from her forehead.
“Hey, what was I was supposed to do? I can’t help it if I’m so talented,” Ashlynn teases, tossing her long, black hair over her shoulder. “But seriously, sorry Molly.”
Molly rubs the bruises on her ribs that Ashlynn gave her during the sparring match yesterday. “It’s okay, I just wish I could take you with me into the enclosure tomorrow when I start Male Care duty,” she says, trying not to think about starting her next round of community service.
Though school is out for the summer, Community Service Duty is not, and for this next rotation, Molly and Harlow will be spending all summer working in the Preserve. She’d rather be working in the Animal Preservation Unit like Mackenzie, but she didn’t have a choice. At least she and Harlow will be together.
“Don’t worry, just remember, with males, a swift kick in the crotch always does the trick,” Harlow says.
Now that Molly has had a chance to catch her breath, she realizes that they are standing on the edge of an enormous cliff in the shade of one of the old observation towers, which stands another twenty feet above them. The structures aren’t used anymore, and the deck can only be reached by climbing a series of short, metal pegs sticking out of one of the support posts. Far below, she can see the web of transparent tubes that make up the Express transport system in and out of the city, connecting Willow Glenn to the other Advocate townships.
Without any explanation from Harlow or Addison, Molly takes in the size of the cliff and the backpacks at Addison’s feet, and knows exactly what’s going to happen. She looks down at the sheer drop below her, picturing her body flying through the air toward the bottom of the canyon, and her stomach catches in her throat with a momentary thrill.
“Alright ladies,” Addison begins, “as Mackenzie pointed out, we’re obviously not here for a morning jog- though it looks like you guys could use the exercise.”
Everyone laughs at this as one of Addison’s friends gives her a playful push on the shoulder. They’re all accustomed to Addison’s wry sense of humor.
Addison continues, “Besides the fact that I have a new invention that needs testing-” she gestures at the packs at her feet- “today is an important day. Two years ago, something bad happened in our city. A Zarrist terrorist decided to bomb one of our schools and kill a bunch of people. Good people.”
Addison swallows hard, and despite her tough exterior, Molly can see that she’s fighting back tears. “We’re here to honor the dead,” she says, pulling a silver flask out of her pocket. Raising it up into the air, she says one name, “Reece,” then takes a drink, crinkling her face as she swallows.
Molly knows the name. Addison’s and Harlow’s younger sister, who died in the attack.
She was eight.
Addison passes the flask to her right, and every girl takes her turn. Each one has a name to share. And each one fights back tears as she drinks.
When the flask reaches Molly, she feels the knot swelling in the back of her throat as she says the name.
“Alexandra.” My mother. Saying her mother’s name causes a rush of physical pain to wash over her. It’s been two years, but it feels like only yesterday, and the loss still aches like an open wounds. Molly takes a drink, and the liquid burns all the way down to her stomach, causing a welcome reprieve from the emotional weight of her grief. She longs for her mother’s presence more than she can bear, and the company of her friends brings her a welcome solace.
When everyone is done and the flask makes it back to Addison, she finishes by saying, “This morning we jump for them. And we refuse to live in fear.”
The girls pump their fists in the air and holler in response.
Addison looks at Molly, and then adds, “If it wasn’t for you, that terrorist bastard would still be running around killing people.”
Molly, as usual, feels hot with embarrassment at her friends’ praise, but she doesn’t protest.
“Let’s do this!” Addison says with excitement, then reaches down and picks up the packs, tossing on to each girl. Molly catches hers and opens it, with a good idea of what is inside.
Sure enough, she pulls out the silky bundle and shakes out the folds, revealing a brand new, silver fly suit.
“You’ve been busy,” Molly says to Addison with a wide grin, excitement already growing in her stomach.
Addison smiles back and responds, “You have no idea,” as she pulls on her suit.
The rest of the girls follow suit, and when they are all set, Addison leads them on a climb up the legs of the observation tower, onto the deck, then up the siding to the top.
Molly pulls herself over the side onto the roof, and stands as a stiff gust of wind catches her suit. She wobbles a little as Harlow catches her arm. The world spins below her as she feels the flood of anticipatory adrenaline coursing through her veins.
Addison steps to the edge as she cheers, “For Molly! And for the ones that bastard took from us. Never forget!”
Then she jumps off the edge into the abyss.
The girls queue up in Addison’s wake, each one jumping off in turn with a holler of joy.
When it’s her turn, Molly closes her eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. Then she sinks into a crouch before launching herself into the air, to the sound of her friends’ roaring applause. She opens her eyes, and for one second everything is still- no sound, no ground, no people, only sky and weightlessness. Then flying, and just what she is waiting for- the true rush of adrenaline. Flooding her body, pulsing through her.
She lets out a scream of pleasure as the adrenaline courses through her.
Alive. So very alive.
She holds out her arms and surrenders to the pleasure of weightlessness. Every last muscle contracts against the magnetic pressure of the wind against her suit. The tingling surges with each beat of her heart, and she allows the sensations to overtake her.
The anxious buzzing of her brain, the swarm of painful memories, and the fear of the future- it all fades away and condenses to the consciousness of this very moment. This moment when total bliss takes hold and the world suddenly makes perfect sense.
She takes in the view, the vast expanse of land all around her, reaching out to the sparkling azure of the ocean. From this vantage point, she sees it all. The patches of thriving city, the barren stretches of earth, and the black scorches of war. It all seems so small, so inconsequential, and her brain registers it with calm transcendence.
All is right. Everything is just as it should be.
The moment feels like an eternity, but in reality it only lasts a few seconds. She wants to enjoy it forever, but Addison has other plans in mind.
Ahead of her, she sees Addison in the front, angling her body down towards the Express tube. The line of girls behind her mimics the action, so that they resemble a flock of silver birds, flying on one long, straight line.
Molly knows where this is going, and feels a thrill of excitement as she presses into the wind, her body flying parallel a few inches above the tube. Through the clear glass below, she can see the body of the train zooming through the tube under her.
Up ahead, Molly sees the service opening in the top of the tube, and Addison’s body makes an impossible dive inside, with each of the girls following close behind. When Molly approaches the opening, she presses her body down hard, and feels herself absorbed into the slipstream behind the train.
The air inside the tunnel is stifling hot, and it echoes with the roar of the train and the girls’ uproarious laughter. Molly curves her body like a fish swimming in water, giving in to the fantastic, unbelievable sensation.
There is another service opening ahead, and Addison lifts up and out of the tube, making another impossible turn downward through the air. For a few seconds, the girls are all suspended in the air between the web of Express tubes, and Molly can see the rising sun cresting on the horizon, giving the world a blazing orange hue.
Molly sees the body of another Express train in the tube below, headed in the direction back to Willow Glenn. It is almost directly below them, and sure enough, Addison tilts her body into a dive, pulling up at just the right moment to disappear into the service opening behind the train.
For a few more minutes, the girls soar like birds in the heat of the slipstream once more.
Molly soaks it in as long as possible, letting the adrenaline course through her is delicious waves.
But the Express begins to slow as it reaches Willow Glenn. Addison reaches out and grabs hold of the back of the train capsule, and each girl follows suit, until it finally slows to a halt.
The girls hop out of the service opening in the station, then run the length of the tube past the station, jumping off into the concealment of the trees. They race each other through the gorge and back to the Observation Path where they stashed their clothes, doing a poor job of suppressing their excitement and glee.
They pull on their clothes, re-packing the suits and giving them back to Addison, who shakes all their hands, congratulatory.
“You outdid yourself, sis,” Harlow says to her sister with a clap on her back.
“Seriously, that was the best. Ever,” Ashlynn echoes.
The girls are so giddy they rock on their heals, unable to stand still, and swap stories of their experiences during the jump.
But Addison looks down at her watch, and dons a look of concern as she says, “Hey, don’t you guys have to be at the ceremony early this morning?”
“Yeah, why?” Harlow asks.
“Well, you’ve only got about twenty minutes.”
“Oh crap,” Molly says. “My grandmother is going to kill me.”