We Are Stardust

I.

If Lily could’ve strangled Susannah, she would’ve. Unfortunately people were watching.

“You were looking at my boobs,” said Susannah. They were standing in the locker room. Three shorter girls circled Susannah like wolves. Susannah was naked apart from her lace panties, and she had Lily cornered.

“I already told you, I wasn’t,” said Lily. Actually, she kind of was. They were ridiculously huge. Also, Susannah was standing right in front of Lily, so there was nowhere else to look.

“Oh my God, why are you lying?” said Susannah. “It’s natural to be curious about the human body.” Susannah was both cunning and vain, a mixture that had become toxic when she hit puberty. Her weapon of choice was sarcasm. Susannah never, ever meant what she said. “I mean, it must be hard for you. Everybody knows you’re delayed.” Susannah let her voice linger on that last word as she looked at Lily’s training bra. It wasn’t even half filled.

A crowd grew as the four girls closed in around Lily.

“We’ve all been there,” said one of them.

“Trust me,” said the other.

“If you have any questions, sweetie, just let us know, okay?” said the third.

Crimson circles scalded Lily’s cheeks. “Leave me alone,” said Lily.

Susannah dug a finger in Lily’s underpants to look and let it snap back. “Holy shit, she’s smooth like a Barbie!”

Susannah was lying. But it didn’t matter. Everyone laughed. The sound of it ricocheted off the lockers.

That’s when Lily punched Susannah. Hard.

Susannah reeled backward and the four girls crumpled into a pile of screams.

Lily grabbed her clothes from her locker and crammed her legs into her pants. It wasn’t like she was going to be able to explain why she’d punched Susannah to the principal, so there was no point in hanging around to see what kind of punishment they were going to dole out. Lily’s hair was still wet when she slung her backpack over her shoulder and left the school.

The weather outside was overcast and hot, no different than most winter days in her small Ohio town. Most of the kids took the magnet home to avoid the swelter, but Lily liked walking. After the Great Warming, January was pretty much the only time she could do it anymore. They’d already had to move north twice. If the heat continued to rise, they’d have to do it again. At least they were part of the lucky few who had the money to do it. As she turned down the avenue, Lily eyed the dark clouds gathering overhead, promising a sandstorm.

The worst thing about all of it was that Susannah was right. Lily was delayed. She was almost fifteen, but her body had hardly even started developing. There was something, though — she couldn’t tell what — that made Lily think things were just about to change. For three days she’d felt weird. Not nauseous, exactly; it was more like a heaviness had taken over her limbs, then worked its way inward, settling squarely between her hips.

Lily was still steaming about Susannah when she noticed sunlight echoing from the surfaces around her, illuminating the street with a piercing yellow. She paused to look up.

It had just been cloudy a second ago. Now the sky was perfectly blue. When she reached up to shield her eyes, she saw something stirring in the sunlight — it was a dust of some sort, filtering down from the sky. Its descent was slow, but it fell straight down, pattering around her like a gentle rain. Her body seemed to cool as she watched it.

Lily opened her hand, trying to catch some of the dust so she could have a better look, but most of it slipped away. When she finally held still, it settled on her palm. Each speck seemed to glow from the inside, shimmering and twinkling as if she’d caught a handful of stars. She reached out a finger to touch them. Constellations appeared, then whole galaxies — her own private cosmos.

Then she noticed: these stars were moving — squirming and expanding, a universe in motion. Suddenly they began to gather into small, worm-like shapes. They were still moving, only now they were a thousand glittering maggots fighting for space. Lily’s hand began to tingle, then burn. With a flash, the worm-like shapes burrowed into her skin and disappeared. Clouds instantly folded over the sky, and it was overcast again.

For one minute, three minutes, maybe a hundred minutes, Lily stood motionless, trying to process what had just happened. For a second she even wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing. That’s when she felt it: the slow wet breaking between her thighs, the dam loose. A blood-stain bloomed in her jeans. Her first.

After that, whenever Lily got her period, she thought about the Day of Enlightenment. It was the day everything changed.

II.

Lily felt different.

It wasn’t anything wild or obvious. Mostly, she was just confused: she never had just one thought anymore; now, she always thought one thing and another thing at the same time. Sometimes the tug-of-war became so violent it felt like the ideas were somersaulting inside of her. She spent the better part of a year combing the information networks looking for guidance on her changing body. Almost all of the articles she found focused on what it meant to turn into a Duo. The only problem was that Lily couldn’t be sure which part of her transformation had to do with the Day of Enlightenment and which part had to do with sprouting boobs.

More distressing, every decision Lily made was now subject to a drawn-out internal debate. Should she eat soy cheese? She could turn that into a half-day argument. There were questions of nutrition and personal need, certainly. Did she require the extra calories? Would that extra food she consumed harm the environment? Was it fair for some people to have access to this particular delicacy, when others did not? She could parse anything for philosophical dispute.

That was the real problem: Lily was now thoroughly, undeniably rational. Her family could tell. Everyone could.

III.

Of course, her mother and brother were proud of their pure-blood status. They refused to use the term “Duos,” instead calling them “Infected” or “Compromised.” If you were infected, at least in the human-only section of the city where Lily and her family lived, it meant ostracism. Lily had to be careful, especially around her brother, Wes.

“I’m leaving,” said Wes. He bit off a piece of toast and watched Lily carefully as if he were evaluating her reaction.

Lily pushed her cereal around in her oat milk. She didn’t have to ask where he was going. She already knew. She flipped the page on her book and continued reading.

“Want to come with me?” said Wes.

“You know I don’t,” said Lily.

“I just thought maybe you’d come to your fucking senses,” he said.

“Don’t start,” she said.

“Or what? You’ll lecture me again about how fucked up humans are?” he said.

Lily rolled her eyes at him. That was exactly what she would do, if he’d listen for more than half a second. But he’d already made up his mind: he suspected that Lily had become a Duo, and he spent the better part of every day trying to get her to admit it.

“Quit reading for a second.” Wes snatched the book from Lily and held it over his head.

Lily eyed him. He was trying to get a rise out of her, to see how she’d respond. It was a test.

She made a grab for the book.

“What is this, anyway?” He scanned the cover. “‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I like it,” said Lily.

Wes stared at her hard. Lily could feel her pulse tugging at her collar. He knew. He had to.

He leaned forward and growled. “The world is not a better place with them here, Lily. They’ll turn on us, I promise.”

There were a few ways Lily could go. She could pretend to agree with him, but he’d know she was lying. She could point out the specific benefits of the Duo government, but sensible responses tended to aggravate him and confirm his worst suspicions about her. Or she could do something irrational to prove she was still human.

She tossed a piece of wet cereal at Wes. It hit him square between the eyes.

Wes dropped the book and flung an arm in her direction. Lily swerved before it connected. He lunged for her and caught her by the sleeve. Just before he put her in a half-nelson she let out a shout.

“He’s joining the rebellion, Mom,” she screeched.

“What?” said Sara. Their mother called out from the kitchen. She was in there boiling a pot of English breakfast tea.

“You’re such a dick. I’ll bet you’re one of them,” Wes hissed in her ear.

“Maybe I am. Want to report me to your little buddies?” Lily spat back.

Sara appeared in the doorway. She stood perfectly still, her eyes fixed on Wes. “You’re joining?” she said.

Wes was her mother’s favorite. They were like two heads of the same shark. Whenever they started talking, Lily could hear their circles of approval growing smaller and smaller, like a ripple moving inward: they approved of only pure-bloods, but really only pure-bloods with old-fashioned values, and actually only the two of them. Everyone else was held in self-righteous disregard.

Wes held up his arms like he was trying to soften the blow. “Mom. I know what you’re going to say,” he said.

Sara wound her arms around him. “You’re my boy.”

A smile grew on Sara’s face. A proud smile.

Wes held his stare on Lily.

IV.

The teacher handed Lily a white envelope. Lily’s heart knocked like it was trying to get out.

When Lily opened the letter, she was actually relieved. The letter confirmed what she suspected: she was a Duo. Not only that, she’d tested abnormally high on the rationality scale. She’d spent her whole life feeling like the odd man out in her family, and here was the proof: she was different. Her score meant she was a prodigy, which meant she was special.

The teacher bent over Lily’s desk, her lips pinched into a disapproving frown. “Congratulations, Lily,” she said. Her voice was louder than it needed to be. “I’m sure we all wish you a safe journey to the Government Center.”

There was a sudden silence as everyone in the classroom turned to look at Lily. Their eyes burrowed into her like fish hooks.

It was like a dream — the one where she was naked in school on exam day without her homework and the semi-hot guy she’d had a crush on since kindergarten was laughing at her.

Lily put on her backpack and got up to leave the classroom. Their eyes held fast, casting after her as she left, lining up in the hallway silently to watch her go. She walked slowly, then quickly, and darted out the school doors.

She ran most of the way home. By the time she got home, she could feel the sweat dripping down her spine.

She banged through the door and started up the stairs to her bedroom.

“Lily,” a voice called out.

Lily stopped and turned. Her mother, Sara, appeared in the doorframe. She was holding a highball. Wes slid out from behind her. His face was tight and red.

“The school called,” said Sara.

Lily blinked back tears.

She knew it was irrational to wish she could’ve talked to her mother about becoming a Duo. It was even more irrational to wish she could’ve won her mother’s approval. Lily imagined her mother’s eyes, gentled with devotion, bent on Lily. Her girl, she’d say. She’d hold her in a warm embrace, sway back and forth. But Lily had to be honest with herself. There was never really a chance she would’ve won her mother’s approval, even if she were a pure-blood.

It was one thing to know she wasn’t close with her mother. It was another to know they would never be close.

“I fucking knew it,” hissed Wes.

“I think we all did,” said Sara.

The two-headed shark. Of course they felt the same way. Of course.

Lily nodded. “I’ll go upstairs and pack.”

“That’s probably wise.” Her mother swished her ice and left for a refill.

Lily went to her room and put a few things together, an extra set of clothes and a toothbrush, then came downstairs and left through the front door.

There was no point in turning around to wave goodbye. She already knew no one was standing at the window.

V.

Alejandro was the most beautiful human being Lily had ever seen. Well, partly human.

He had dark hair that fell forward in loose curls. Whenever he got nervous, he pushed his hair behind his ears, revealing dark eyes ringed in lashes that curled upward at the outer corners like a cat’s. He spoke softly and tucked his chin, which, together with his large eyes, made him seem shy and vulnerable.

He lived three doors down in the government center dorms. The kitchen staff was ridiculously experimental in their cooking, which was unpleasant for a picky eater like Lily, but she managed to squirrel away a little of the good stuff whenever it came around. She spent most of her time in the food line watching Alejandro absent-mindedly thumb his bottom lip. Her eyes would inch downward to the dimples of his hips and the tuft of hair sprouting above the zipper of his low-slung jeans. Every time he caught her eyes, she felt a thunderclap of terror and her skin heated to pink.

Lily had only kissed one boy before the Day of Enlightenment. He was a nice guy, but he had super parched lips and refused to wear chapstick. When he leaned in for the kiss, he grabbed the sides of her head to keep it still. He kept every muscle in his face tight, and he didn’t even try to slip her some tongue. The whole thing was rough and dry, like making out with a cantaloupe rind.

But Alejandro was a magical mix of hard and soft. His arms, for instance, were knotted with muscles, and yet they were covered by a downy hair so fine it floated like a spider web. Everything about him was like that: just totally and completely gorgeous. It took Lily six months to work up the courage not to look away when he caught her eyes, but one night, when the kitchen was serving some particularly repulsive fare that involved roasted ants, she invited Alejandro up to her room for cheese and nut-bread from her secret stash.

The conversation started with tales of who they’d left behind and the people they’d been in the days before everything changed. Lily did her best to pretend she’d kissed a bunch of boys and was not in any way an extreme virgin, but she was pretty sure he figured out the truth when she couldn’t remember any of her so-called boyfriend’s names. They talked for hours, until talk gave way to uncomfortable pauses and sweaty palms.

“I think we both know what’s going to happen,” he said, leaning forward.

Alejandro put his hands on her face and drew her close. She could see the shadow of stubble across his jaw, the whiskers slightly raised over a single mole at the crook of his mouth, the soft fullness of his lips that pulled into a natural frown. Lily was suddenly dizzy and hot. He brought his lips to hers as they sank to the floor, fingers clutching at collars and hair, the room tilting, their hot breath interlaced in a kiss. They tugged at their clothes until they were moving as one. A burst of sweetness shook Lily’s body, then calmed to silence.

The silence chilled to awkwardness. Alejandro rolled away and put himself back together again. There were a few words about something he had to do, about seeing her tomorrow, then more silence.

The next day, she saw him in the courtyard. He sat down next to her on her reading blanket and took her hand in his.

“I really like you. You know that,” he said. “But everything in my life is complicated right now. It’s not rational to get involved with so much going on. I’ve got responsibilities here at the center. I have an obligation to keep my head clear.”

He sounded like a stupid B movie.

“I mean, maybe that doesn’t make sense to you. Maybe I’m further along in the hybridization process than you are. You know? I understand the urge to copulate. Obviously, I do. I’m still partly human. But we’re also so much more than that now. We don’t have to be tied down to hormones or whatever.”

‘Tied down’? She’d never really thought of herself as a rope before, but she did want to strangle him, a fat noose around his neck, so maybe there was something to it.

“I don’t want you to think it’s about you. It really isn’t. We’re only seventeen. Maybe in a few years, when we’re both ready to mate and reproduce, we can discuss this again.”

He got up and left.

Lily leaned back on her blanket and listened to her heart bang against the bars of her ribcage, the hollow sound of order.

VI.

Something had to be done about the rebels. Something drastic.

When the rebels bombed the magnet stations in New York and Boston, Lily had been called to sit on the daily meetings at headquarters. They’d picked her because it turned out, after a great deal more testing, that Lily had a gift for tactical strategy. So they made her an official member of the Countermeasures Committee. Their job was to end the conflict.

Rochelle sat at the head of the table. She wore a close-cropped afro and a unitard with a flowing red scarf. Next to her was her second-in-line, Feng. He was thin and gray-haired, with the sinewy muscles of a long-distance runner. At the other end of the table was Alejandro. By some unbelievable stroke of bad luck, he’d been assigned to the same committee as Lily.

Lily snuck a glance at him. She used to spend every meeting watching his every move, but in the last few weeks she’d felt her interest in him fading. In fact, she hardly cared about him at all. Maybe it was a sign she was moving along in the hybridization process. Maybe not. There was no way to know what part of her thoughts and emotions were human and what part Duo anymore. Either way, she was glad to be rid of the dull ache that had taken up residence in her chest after he’d said he wasn’t interested.

“Lily? Are you listening?” said Feng.

Lily blinked. She hadn’t noticed the meeting had started. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Rochelle smiled sweetly at Lily. Rochelle always smiled sweetly no matter what anyone said, which meant you could never tell when she was angry. “We were talking about infrastructure.”

Feng leaned forward. “Every time we rebuild, we’re diverting resources that could help the rest of us survive. It’s not a sustainable solution.”

“No one is suggesting we let it continue,” said Rochelle. “What happened with the Manitoba Resolution?”

“I tried to make sure they understood they’d have complete control of the territory, but they were so busy making threats, I don’t think they heard much of what I said,” said Feng.

“There’s got to be a way to get them back to the negotiating table,” said Alejandro.

Lily watched Alejandro’s mouth as he spoke. When she first started going to the committee meetings, she’d spent half her time imagining what it would feel like to run her tongue along the inside of his lip. Now she felt practically nothing.

“We’re going in circles here. In the meanwhile, they’ve got an army amassing thirty miles away,” said Feng. “They don’t want peace. They want to kill every Duo on the planet. They actually told us that. These people are completely devoid of reason.”

A niggling thought entered Lily’s mind. She hadn’t heard from Wes since the day she left the house. She wondered if he’d been involved with rebel bombings. She pushed the idea away, and it slithered into the back of her mind like an earthworm.

“I agree with Feng,” said Lily. “We have to stop playing the pacifists.”

The faces at the table turned toward her.

Talking in front of groups used to mortify her. Every time she had to get up and her face would heat up to a shade of purple. But there was no rash of color in her cheeks now. She wasn’t nervous at all.

“What are you suggesting? We attack the rebels?” Alejandro snorted. “That’s against everything the Enlightenment stands for.”

“How do you know? It’s not like we got a list of instructions. Maybe we’re supposed to be reasonable enough to defend ourselves,” said Lily.

“Self-defense is not the same as an attack,” said Alejandro. His voice had a little whine to it.

Lily ignored him. “The rebels believe we won’t fight back. So, we prepare. Then, when the time is right, we provoke them.”

“‘Prepare’? You mean set a trap?” said Feng.

“It’s not entrapment. The rebels already know we outnumber them,” said Lily. “We put a team together and kidnap their leader. We bring him back here. The rational response would be for the rebels to sacrifice their leader for the greater good, but they won’t respond rationally. They’ll attack, and they’ll die. Once the armed faction is gone, we can move the women, children, and elderly to Manitoba. Pure-blood numbers will dwindle and the situation will resolve itself within a generation.”

Shock hung in the air for a moment.

Rochelle’s glance flicked from face to face, as if she were taking a visual poll.

Alejandro gaped at Lily. “You’re talking about genocide. That’s the definition of unethical.”

Lily turned her eyes to him. “The eradication of the rebel population would benefit the planet and its remaining inhabitants. How is that not an ethical aim?” The words fell from her mouth like stones.

Rochelle smiled sweetly. “I knew there was a reason we chose you.”

VII.

A door rattled behind Lily.

It had taken some time, but the Duo government had eventually been able to kidnap Stone, the rebel leader. The government center hadn’t been built to house a jail of any sort, since they were generally unnecessary these days, but they’d made do with a few bars on the windows and a series of high-powered locks. More difficult had been the acquisition and placement of automated weaponry on the perimeters of the government center. But it had been done. Lily had seen to it.

The door rattled again.

“Hello? I’d like some food in here. Unless you’re planning to starve me.” It was Stone’s voice. Lily had only really met him once, but she already knew she didn’t like him. He had a buzz cut and the body of a boxer. If you looked at him from the neck down, he seemed like an average beef cake. It was just his smirk that gave away his intelligence.

Lily gathered everything she needed on a tray. She had his lunch on one side. On the other, she had a video device. They needed proof that Stone was still alive if they were going to provoke the rebels into attacking the government center to save him.

Lily clicked open the locks and entered the room. It was bare apart from a toilet, a bed, and table. She put the tray down as Stone took a seat. He eyed the video device.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

“I have to get a video of you to send to your friends.” Lily sat across from him and began assembling the device. Part of it required a strap across his chest to take his vitals, so they could prove to the rebels that Stone was healthy and unharmed.

“They’ll come for me,” he said. He took a bite of his sandwich. “See, we humans have this thing where we care about each other. It’s called loyalty.”

“Yes, I know,” said Lily. In fact, her plan depended on it. “Can you remove your shirt?”

“You first.” He let out a laugh. “I’m not supposed to make jokes like that in front of ladies, right? Sorry, you probably want to be called a ‘woman.'”

Actually, Lily wasn’t used to people calling her a “woman.” It was only recently that she stopped thinking about herself as a “girl.” But now that her hips had widened and she could finally fill out her bra, she’d stopped looking so young.

Lily rolled her eyes at Stone. “Just take it off.”

“Fine.” He took off his shirt. The smell of testosterone and sweat wafted at Lily. She shuddered with a jolt of memory. It reminded her of Alejandro, only it was more musky. There was something so deep about the smell, like the rumble in a man’s throat.

Stone watched her closely. Her eyes were tracing the outline of his chest.

“You all right over there?” he said.

Lily blinked, suddenly hot.

“Oh, my. Is that a blush? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Duo blush before.” His smirk widened to a grin.

Lily tried to shake it off. She hadn’t felt like that in forever. Or felt anything, really.

Stone kept his eyes on her. “You’re not like the rest of them, are you? I can tell.” He leaned forward. “Whatever they’re telling you to do, you don’t have to do it.”

“Nobody’s telling me to do anything,” said Lily.

He smiled at her. He was so close Lily could feel his warm breath. “I know there’s a plan. What is it?”

The blush drained from Lily’s face. “You really think I’m stupid enough to tell you?”

His voice was suddenly harsh. “Your brother Wes is out there with my men. He’s going to be with them when they attack.”

Stone was trying to put this on her — make it her fault. “If you’d just left us alone, neither one of us would be here.” She stood up, holding the vitals tracker.

“Come on,” he said. “They were always going to turn on us. You know it, and I know it.”

Lily wrapped her arms around his chest and snapped the strap into place. “You’re wrong. Every single one of our government initiatives worked. That’s called progress,” she said.

“Are you really trying to tell me I should chill out because the aliens are liberals?” he said.

“There’s no such thing as liberals or conservatives. That’s the whole point. It’s a unified government,” she said.

“They’re parasites,” he said. “You don’t get it. All living things battle for dominance. It’s a dog-eat-dog universe.”

“Do you know what parasites do? They keep their hosts alive. They take care of their environment,” said Lily.

“I just figured something out. You want to get rid of people like me because we see through your bullshit.” Stone sat forward. “Wake up. The aliens don’t want to ‘enlighten’ you. Their goal is to get rid of the humans they can’t infect. That, sweetheart, is called an alien invasion.”

Lily’s eyes moved back and forth, parsing what he’d said. As she moved through her internal arguments, she could feel her blood cooling. “We were already in the middle of the sixth extinction when they came down. We needed a global government to stop the Great Warming. The Duos have done that. The simple fact is humanity was going to end either way. At least this way there’s something of us left here.”

“So that’s it?” he said.

“No.” She flipped on the video device and pointed it at him. “Please look into the camera and state your name.”

VIII.

Thousands of guns were pointed in Lily’s direction.

She stood in a bullet-proof glass room. Below was a town square, and beyond was the government center’s fence. Sunlight bounced off the white granite tiles of the square. It was a clear day, so she could practically see the faces of the rebels gathered beyond the open gate.

Lily held binoculars up to her face and studied their expressions. Each one seemed so tense, so frightened. Most of them didn’t even look like real soldiers. More like a rag-tag group of men dressed up in uncomfortable costumes, weighted down with the tools of their anger. Was this really the fate of humans? She wondered if Wes were down there among them.

Maybe it wasn’t fair. Maybe what they were doing was entrapment. No, Lily reminded herself. They had chosen their own fate. It was a pity, but there was nothing that could be done about it. The conflict had to end. There was no other way.

Rebel eyes shifted toward the government center in unison, like a flock of birds. They rushed forward through the gate into the town square with an snarling howl, shooting their guns. Lily turned away as the center’s automated weapons system clicked on. The last thing she heard was the scream of thousands.

IX.

Lily was alone in her room.

Due to the success of the operation, the Countermeasures Committee had been disbanded. The government had moved her to a better room, one with a view of the town square, as a reward. The granite tiles had a pinkish hue now, but they still gleamed in the sunlight. She heard some time later that Stone had attacked a guard and grabbed his gun. He took out five Duos before he bought it.

Lily opened the refrigerator and took out a piece of soy cheese. Did she require the extra calories? Would that extra food she consumed harm the environment? She sat down on her sofa, ready for the philosophical dispute.

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