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art by Ron Sanders

Li's Last Chance

Sarah L. Byrne is a researcher and writer in London, UK. Her short speculative fiction and freelance science writing can be found at sarahbyrne.org..

Alyssa walked barefoot over the shards of broken glass in the road. She didn't feel a thing. Her spider-silk skin was strong as steel.
The breeze fluttered the strands of her long black hair and the skirt of her short summer dress as she approached the fenced-off dead-end street. The makeshift pen was crowded with her people, the latest group to be rounded up. Some cowered fearfully on the ground, others shouted defiance at their captors. It made no difference. They'd all die just the same.
Alyssa pushed between the ranks of soldiers guarding the prisoners, a slight figure amid the anonymous riot-armored bulk of them. Crazy woman, they likely thought. Let her go.
She didn't look back.
As she entered the alley, between the high enclosing walls, Alyssa could feel the eyes of the others on her: some blank, some wary--those who knew her, bewildered at her suicidal act.
"Don't do this. You don't have to."
I do, Alyssa replied silently.
She didn't, of course. She could have passed for a normal; her mutation was invisible. Not like the unlucky ones with the visible augmentations or defects: the scaled skin, the extra limbs, the duplicate sets of eyes. She looked around at them.
My people.
Then the gunfire started.
A bullet zipped past her arm, glancing off her elbow and striking the ground. Alyssa didn't flinch. She kept walking. She could have tried to save them, maybe, tried to shield some of them with her body. But it wouldn't have worked, not for long. That was not the way.
She watched them die. Watched grown women and men crawl on the ground and cry for their mothers, while red stains bloomed on the tarmac below them. She hadn't expected dying to be so slow. Hadn't expected it to smell so bad.
The next bullet hit her square between the shoulders, then the ground slammed into her. For a moment, she couldn't move, couldn't draw breath. The bullet couldn't have penetrated her spider-skin, but the impact... she wondered for a terrifying heartbeat if she was paralyzed, her spinal cord crushed. Or a snapped rib, stabbing into her lung...
No. I'm all right.
The shock started to wear off; she could breathe again, move her fingers and toes. She lay still, waiting for her body to recover. They'd take her for dead. Most of them would, anyway. All but him. And he was there, somewhere.
Alyssa was the Anglophone name she'd taken for herself when she'd moved here to study. She'd liked it: pretty, unambiguously feminine--and, as far as she could tell, entirely without meaning. But it hadn't always been her name. Li, her parents had called her. Strength.
No one else knew that. Not even him.
Alyssa could hear footsteps coming closer, could feel the vibrations of them as she lay with her ear against the concrete. Heading right for her. She knew it was him.
She'd told him what she was. It'd seemed right--wasn't that what you did when you were in love, gave your all to someone? He'd said it didn't matter, and they'd both believed that, for a while, despite the increasingly hostile political climate that turned friend against neighbor, normal against mutant. He'd always been fascinated by it, discomfited, inexplicably angered sometimes.
She remembered that time he'd run his fingertip down her spine, along the ridges of her vertebrae, as though he could unzip her skin and peel her right out of it. It hadn't worked, of course. He'd stopped just over the small of her back, jabbed his nail in painfully.
"Careful," she'd said, flinching. "I can still hurt."
That much was true. She could feel a sharp pain in the middle of her back, dull aching in her face and wrist where she'd hit the ground. It didn't matter. None of it mattered now. Only finishing this.
It was after she'd lost the pregnancy that things had turned bad between them. He'd blamed her. She could have forgiven him the things he said--mutant, freak, my baby, killed--they'd both said things to hurt each other. But there'd been no forgiving what came next. She'd disappeared into the underground movement, keeping a low profile, helping to get people out of the country where she could. He'd gone the other way, joined the military. And now here he was, serving in a cleanup squad. And here she was.
He stopped, stood over her. Alyssa stared at his boots, black and dusty. Slowly she twisted her head around to look up at him.
He had a laser-gun in his hand, the one thing that could harm her. His eyes were hard. She gathered her strength, her muscles tensing like a coiled spring. Even now, he had a choice. He could walk away, say he'd seen nothing, pretend he'd never known her.
"One last chance?" Alyssa asked.
The corner of his mouth twitched up in a contemptuous not-quite-smile.
"You stupid bitch," he said. "No."
Li uncoiled. Silk shot from her fingertip glands, liquid crystal spinning into fibers, ensnaring him. Her fangs sank into his neck, the poison flooding from them, bitter as sorrow.
"I didn't mean for me," she whispered in his ear. The laser weapon clattered to the ground. She held him close, silk-wrapped, swaddled, until his struggles stopped.
Then Li dropped her stiffening bundle. She jumped over the bodies on the ground with a tender carefulness, then ran straight up the wall of the tall building overhanging the alley, the sticky pads of her hands and feet clinging securely.
She crouched on the roof, watching, waiting. No more Alyssa. No more lurking underground.
It was time to fight back.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Author Comments

This little story was partly about the wonderfully bizarre possibilities of transgenic research, and partly about the potential humans seem to have for fearing and hating those we perceive as different, but most of all it was about throwing off the social and cultural identities others impose on us, when we finally realize we can. It was a lot of fun to write.

- Sarah L Byrne
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