The future is curious.
Today our bodies define us. We color our hair; tattoo our skin; pierce our ears, brows, noses. We lift weights, run miles, break records. We are flesh and blood and bone.
Tomorrow has different rules. The future is no longer about who we are—it’s about who we want to be. If you can dream it, you can be it. Science will make us smarter, healthier, flawless in every way. Our future is boundless.
This is a story that begins tomorrow. It’s a story about us. It’s a story about who comes after us. And it’s a story about perfection. Because perfection has a way of getting ugly.
Offering a twisted look into the future, Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is available December 4th from Delacorte Press.
They Fell From the Sky
Luck saw one of the sentries fall. Sometimes they swooped through the air intentionally in a way that made her breath catch in her throat. But always, in such cases, the sentries would extend their wings at the last instant, long feathers flaring to full wingspan, halting a dive that looked fatal. And then they would skim along low, above the treetops of the reservation, a hint of a smile on their faces, as if they knew Luck had been worried, as if they were toying with her—stupid Proto—and she’d fallen for it.
That was what usually happened when a sentry appeared to fall—it turned out to be a trick. But this time was entirely different. As Luck stood atop the Rocky Jut, the highest point in the Proto reservation, she watched one of the sentries climb up and up on an early-morning updraft, and then he faltered, his body contorting. The sun was rising and it lit him with a golden light, in which she could see pieces of… something falling away from him. Luck stopped breathing.
A familiar voice intruded on the moment. “What are you doing up here so early?”
“Look, Starlock!” she said, pointing urgently and unable to spare him a glance. “He’s breaking apart!”
The sentry could no longer hold himself up. In a swirling mass of feathers, he tumbled toward the Rez’s southern border. The two other sentries on patrol—a male and a female—were racing across the sky toward him, their wings pumping frantically.
“Look! Look!” said Starlock now, swept up with Luck in the drama unfolding in the dawn air. “It’s happening to her too!”
The female sentry, her feminine curves quite clear in the sun’s early rays, was now struggling as bits of something dropped from her wings—or was it bits of the wings themselves? A moment later, she too was falling. The third sentry dove to catch her, and all three plummeted out of sight.
Luck and Starlock turned to each other, and Luck saw her own astonishment mirrored on his face. The pink and orange sunrise gave the world the flavor of a dream, but this was no dream. The humans had really fallen.
“They could be tricking us,” Starlock said, gazing to the south, where the sentries had disappeared. “They could have been holding something and dropped pieces of it, so it only looked like parts of their wings.”
“Yeah,” Luck agreed, without much conviction, “that could be. But it looked…”
“Pretty real,” he said, finishing her thought.
Starlock was on morning lookout duty, so he pulled the walkie-talkie from its clip at his waist (the device was more than a hundred years old, but it worked well enough for communication on the Rez), but then he hesitated. “What if they want us to go looking for them so they can laugh at us and throw rocks?”
The sentries had done just that—pretended to be injured and then ridiculed the Protos who showed up to see what was wrong—a year or two ago, although that prank hadn’t been done in such a dramatic fashion. There was almost no chance they were really in trouble. And yet… who could say? An inappropriate proposition galloped into Luck’s mind and formed itself into words before she could rein it in.
“Should we check it out, then, before you report it?” she suggested, keeping her voice neutral. “Checking it out” would require a long walk together, perhaps all the way to the border of the Rez.
She avoided Starlock’s eyes but could feel the weight of his gaze, assessing the moment. A walk together was a bad idea—and yet no one could fault them for investigating after what they’d just seen.
When Starlock remained silent, she said, goading him, “You don’t want to go check? Even after they fell? Report it, then—and I’ll go look myself.”
Luck turned to go but had made it only two paces when Starlock caught her arm, surprising a gasp from her. She looked at his hand on the bare skin of her forearm, dark against light. They weren’t supposed to touch. Sometimes they came into contact fleetingly, a leg grazing against a leg at mealtimes, a hand bumping a hand in a crowd—moments they could both pretend hadn’t happened. But this, this deliberate contact, was different. Startling. He let go immediately.
“No, you’re right, Luck,” he said, avoiding her eyes in turn. The sound of her name on his lips stirred something in her that she knew was best left untouched. “We can get there as fast as anyone else. We should go look.”
* * *
They set out immediately, walking toward the Rez border in the direction the sentries had fallen. It was a long way, and as the sun pulled fully above the horizon and lit the distant Rocky Mountains, they passed through fields of wheat and millet and corn, by the hydroponic greenhouses and the fish hatchery buildings and the sheep pens, all the while keeping well apart from each other. But when they crossed out of the cultivated land and into the wilder area of brush and trees, where no other Proto was likely to see them, Luck noticed that Starlock moved closer, so that their hands almost touched from time to time, and each near miss caused a sensation like an electric current in her fingertips. She had gone to the Rocky Jut to watch the sunrise alone, but this was better.
Every Proto teenager knew the rules: Pairings were made by the humans, in accordance with the Legal Covenants of the Protohuman Gene Pool, and Pairings were based on how you looked, essentially. The humans expected Protos to keep all of their distinctive colorings, all of their “unaltered genetic variation,” so that humans might study and catalog that variation. It was the price of the Protos’ life here on the reservation, protected from whatever the world had become.
Starlock was seventeen, a year older than Luck was, his skin a deep, rich brown, as rich as the bark of the great oaks in the Rez forest, his eyes so dark they were almost the black of an obsidian stone, and his hair as dark as his eyes, its tight curls cut close to his scalp. And Luck was as light as Starlock was dark, her eyes the pale blue of a clear, early-morning sky, her skin the color of milk, her hair blond with hints of red when the sun shone upon it. There was no possible way that the two of them would ever be Paired—and this meant that they were no longer allowed even to touch.
When their eyes met for a moment too long, he looked away and asked, “What are you reading now?”
“Another Dickens book,” she said. “Dombey and Son.”
“It’s about love and hate and family and regrets,” she explained, “and hardly any parts of it are missing.”
For pleasure, Starlock preferred to read engineering textbooks, but in earlier days he’d been an eager audience for Luck’s descriptions of novels, and they fell easily into that old rapport—just as, Luck thought, they had fallen easily into this walk, on a flimsy excuse, after years of avoiding anything like it.
They discussed the book while the shimmering outline of the Rez fence grew steadily closer in the distance below. With each step, Luck became more convinced that the sentries had been tricking them. Of course it had been an elaborate prank, one clever enough to scare her and draw them in. She kept glancing over her shoulder to see if the humans were lurking somewhere nearby, in a tree maybe, watching the two stupid Protos who’d taken the bait.
When they were within a quarter of a mile of the Rez fence, they began to hear its hum. The nearly transparent fence, which appeared as a blurred distortion of the air, was forty feet tall, and it marked the limit of Luck’s world. The fence drew a line around the reservation, a line that Luck, years ago, had figured out was about sixty miles long, because the Rez formed an approximate circle of forest and river and farmland at least twenty miles wide, and math books were available at the town hall library. Protos were permitted to know geometry and even calculus, and the sciences up to a point, including enough biology to train the Rez medics. Even some history could be gleaned from the allowed novels, though of course any references to politics and war had been removed. (Or rather, one could assume the missing parts referred to politics and war, based on the context of the stories. Probably a host of other topics had been deleted as well.) But all of the books and all of the technology in the Rez library and school halted at the Age of Computers, at the time of the Great Shift, as the humans referred to it, when Protos had made way for the new dominant species.
Just inside the Rez fence was a ring of forest, an inner, concentric circle, which they reached after almost an hour of walking. Once they were inside this wooded strip, the vibration of the fence field filled the air, reminding Luck that the border would fry you in three seconds if you touched it (though it had been years since anyone had been stupid enough to do that). They would have to locate the sentries on the Rez side of the border, of course, or give up the search.
“Keep an eye out, in case they’re throwing rocks,” Starlock muttered as they made their way through the trees.
The illicit pleasure of their walk was forgotten now. Luck was on edge, expecting the rest of whatever trick the sentries had planned. But where the trees died out into tall grass, only yards from the Rez fence, they discovered there was no trick at all.
“Are you calling them?” came a voice, very close, and clearly in pain.
Starlock lifted an arm to stop Luck from walking beyond the trees. And now Luck saw it: in that tall grass between the trees and the fence, not ten feet away, was a sentry—and he was badly wounded.
“My goodness,” she whispered as Starlock raised a finger to his lips.
The sentry looked hardly older than Luck and Starlock. Somehow his wings had held out long enough to break his fall and keep him alive, but they were torn and lay around him in a ragged nest of enormous crimson and silver feathers. One of his wrists hung backward limply. His legs, sticking out at unnatural angles, were obviously broken, though his stretchy black suit of clothing was holding them together.
“They’re not answering!” came a different voice, this one frightened and desperate.
Starlock pointed and Luck followed his finger. Beyond the grass, on the other side of the smudged air of the border fence, were the two other sentries, a male and a female. The male was standing, his magnificent purple wings tucked close to his body but apparently intact. He was the one who had caught the female in midair, Luck realized, and he seemed to have landed with her outside the Rez border, while their comrade had fallen inside. The male was tapping at his chest—where the sentries kept their radios—without result. The girl was curled on the ground like an infant in her tight black suit, her wings missing entirely.
“Keep trying,” said the sentry in the grass, who could not properly see his companions because of the tall stalks around him. “Come on!”
“My radio’s not working at all now!” the sentry outside the fence called back, his voice rising with panic. “It’s gone completely dead.”
“Then fly over and get me,” the nearby boy begged.
“I can’t fly over!” the far sentry cried. “It happened to you and then Christine. What if it, like, happens to me while I’m in the air? And I fall—boom—and die?”
“Don’t leave me in here with the Protos, man! Could Christine do it? Is she—”
“She’s broken up like you. Wings and both ankles,” the far sentry said. “Why do you think it took me so long to find you? I had to carry her on foot. And her radio’s not working either!”
Luck had never been so close to sentries before. Though their bodies—other than their beautiful wings—looked similar to Protos’ bodies, their skin, hair, and eye coloring were as lovely and strange a mix as Luck would have expected: golden hair, shining copper hair, jet-black hair, skin that was the perfect shade of bronze, or that graduated from light to dark beginning at the right hand and ending at the left, with a metallic sheen that glowed in the sun. Luck wondered if humans were permitted to mix with each other however they wished.
“But I heard you reach them on the radio when we first landed.” That was the girl beyond the Rez fence, speaking for the first time, in a voice dulled by pain.
“They told me to wait!” cried her companion beyond the fence.
“So—they’re coming, then?” the nearest sentry asked, lifting his head hopefully, but still unable to see over the grass. “Thank Tadd! My legs are killing me. ”
“No, they—they told me to wait before they could take my report,” the far sentry explained. Luck could hear his struggle to keep his voice steady. “It sounded like, like there was an emergency on base. They didn’t even let me finish explaining!”
“Should we do something?” whispered Luck. They had come to find the sentries, but she hadn’t expected to find them in need of help; it was unprecedented. The rules they would break by getting any closer gave her pause—being reported to the Proto Authority seldom turned out well for any Proto. And yet, if the sentries’ radios weren’t working, surely Protos would be expected to offer assistance, as they would to anyone in pain?
“It sounds like their radios were working a few minutes ago,” Starlock whispered. He looked just as uncertain as Luck felt. “Other humans must be on their way here to help them.”
But when the sentry in the grass muttered, “I’m so thirsty,” his misery made up the Protos’ minds for them. Luck and Starlock shared a look and then emerged from the trees.
“Hey!” the sentry on the other side of the fence called, spotting them immediately as they waded through the waist-high grass toward his fallen companion. “Stay away from him. He’s hurt!”
“We saw you fall,” Starlock said calmly, holding up his canteen. “I was going to give him water. Is that all right?”
“Oh, thank Tadd,” the near sentry said.
“Just—you know the rules!” the sentry beyond the fence said, and not kindly. “Keep your paws away from him!”
Luck bit back an angry retort—Protos did not argue with humans—and Starlock knelt and poured water into the injured boy’s mouth. The sentry drank and drank, but his eyes, an unusual gray that contrasted starkly with his bronze skin and golden hair, stared at them defensively all the while, as if they might bite him. (Gray eyes, Luck thought. Like her friend Skylark’s grandmother. And his skin had coloring like that of her friend Riverbend and her family. Up close, in this human at least, she could see the distant relationship between their two species.)
Where the sentry’s enormous wings had attached to his back, where his muscles for flight should have been… there was only a frothy sort of paste, like reddish whipping cream that had dried. Luck thought the paste might once have been his muscles—perhaps only an hour ago when he was flying—but now even the paste was breaking up, leaving gaping holes in his back and along his shoulders.
When he’d finished drinking, the sentry’s eyes fell halfway closed, and he began to moan.
“I have a radio,” Starlock said, holding up the walkie-talkie so the sentry on the other side of the fence could see it. “Can I call someone for you?”
“How far can that thing reach?” the sentry asked dubiously. “Forty feet? You might as well send a smoke sig—”
But he stopped speaking and started yelping as a large piece of his left wing fell off. It was followed by a cascade of flesh and feather from both wings, until, only moments later, his wings detached from his body entirely and landed on the ground with two heavy thumps.
“What’s—what’s—” the sentry cried, hysterical as his body fell apart. He cried out incoherently, and his lower jaw opened wider and wider… and then it fell off. When he tried to keep speaking, his tongue lolled freely, horribly long without the jaw to confine it.
“Oh, that’s bad,” whispered Luck, appalled. “It’s so bad.”
Starlock, with his usual focused alertness, cycled briskly through channels on the walkie-talkie, but Luck couldn’t wrest her eyes from the sentry. The boy—for he truly looked like a boy now, maimed and terrified—whimpered and grabbed up his fallen jaw. Like the wings, it appeared to be disintegrating, the white teeth becoming more and more prominent. And though he was clearly experiencing pain, Luck was fascinated to note that it was not as much pain as she would have expected. It was as though humans had evolved beyond agony.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” cried the girl on the ground. “Is my face going to fall off too?”
The sentry near Starlock and Luck croaked, “His face fell off? He had his jaw done… so he could taste things on the wind.”
“So our mods are failing?” the girl asked.
“Duh,” the near boy said. He had given up trying to see his companions and seemed to be curling in on himself.
“Help is coming,” Starlock told the wounded sentries as he clicked off the walkie-talkie.
All three looked at Starlock hopefully, which gave Luck a pang of unease. She had heard him reach the town hall, and it was the Rez medic who was coming, not a human doctor.
“But how will we get to those two?” Luck whispered, indicating the sentries outside the border of the Rez.
Studying the shimmering energy field, Starlock said matter-of-factly, “We have to turn off the fence.”
Excerpted from Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, copyright © 2018 by Arwen Elys Dayton