Michael Zhang was twelve years old when he first discovered the secret passage out of the Dome.
The Dome wasn’t entirely sealed off, of course: there were the pipes which brought captured rainwater to the filtration plant, the hundreds and thousands of tiny holes which allowed air to pass in and out, and the terrible Exile Gate through which mutant babies and children and even the occasional long-undiscovered adult were thrust out, never to return. The boys and girls whispered that the white piles of baby bones rose so high on either side of the Exile Gate that a tall man couldn’t see over them.
They also whispered that there were other gates. Some said there were many gates, and all the adults knew of them and used them regularly, and getting a map and a key was part of the ritual of becoming an adult. Those stories said that Outside was beautiful, and would be a wonderful place to live if it wasn’t for all the mutants. Other stories told of ancient crumbling passages, long since walled up, that led straight to mutant-infested hell. Still yet other stories claimed that Outside was simply a barren desert, and there were no mutants in it because nothing could live there.
All the children told and listened to those stories of secret ways to get Outside, but Michael believed them. Michael was different, and everything that went with his difference - the heavy padded clothes and gloves he must always wear, the med-kit he always had to keep attached to his belt, the sports and games he wasn’t allowed to play, the crafts he wasn’t allowed to pursue – made it impossible for him to even pretend that he was like other boys.
But if he wasn’t like everybody else, maybe he could do things everybody else couldn’t or wouldn’t do. As he was exempt from much normal work and not allowed to do much normal play, and was a diligent, obedient student, he was not much supervised. He worked alone on his studies, reading faster than his tutors realized he could, and used the time he saved to snoop and hunt and search, poking through abandoned factories and crumbling laboratories, through ancient stands of livewood and faintly glowing paths of lichen. And eventually, after years of searching (for the Dome was huge) he found it.
The door was hidden behind a concealed panel in an underground room at the end of an abandoned tunnel, and Michael spent over a month twisting the dial into various combinations. But his illness had taught him patience. One day the dial clicked, and the door opened. Propping it open with a chunk of twisted steel, Michael crept Outside.
His dreams had been right. Outside was beautiful: green and lush, full of plants and animals he recognized from pictures on book and screen: bamboo, moss, butterflies, birds. He wandered, careful to keep the enormous opalescent bubble of the Dome in sight, until he came to a lot of water, but not in a tank. A lake. More water was falling into it from above, like a tap that never turned off. And above the splashing of the water rose a high, piercing sound, playing music like Michael had never heard.
He took a step forward, toward the music. It stopped. He exclaimed aloud in dismay. Then black ropes lashed out from the green shadows of the bamboo. Before he could react, the ropes wrapped around his body and jerked him forward, then on to his knees. A small figure walked out – a girl his age, dressed in raggedy, hairy scraps of cloth. The ropes were attached to her head. He clutched at them, and realized that they were her hair. She was a mutant.
The mutant girl jerked down his scarf, and her sharp nails touched his throat.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Don’t cut me! Even a tiny scratch can kill me!”
The girl pulled her hand away. “This better not be a trick.” Her voice was rough, as if she hadn’t spoken in days.
“It isn’t. Look how I’m dressed. See how everything’s padded, and there’s hardly any skin exposed. My blood doesn't clot. If I get cut, I have to use the med-kit sealer immediately, or I'll bleed to death.”
The ropes of hair unwound themselves, unraveled themselves, and shrunk, until the girl’s hair was a shining sheet of black hanging no longer than her ankles.
“That’s a terrible mutation,” she remarked, as if she thought he was very stupid for having it.
“It’s not a mutation!” snapped Michael, before he remembered that he was speaking to a mutant. “It’s a disease. There’s records of it existing from before the Crash – so it’s not a mutation. If it was, I’d have been thrown out of the Dome, and I’d live out here with you.” As he said it, that fate seemed both terrifying and enticing.
The girl snorted. “Terrible mutation,” she repeated. Then she eyed him speculatively. “Got any food?”
He fished around in his pockets, and produced a rather squashy bun. “Only this. It’s got taro inside. Want it?”
The girl snatched and devoured it, with a look of ecstasy on her face. “It’s sweet!” Once she’d finished it, and licked her lips several times, she scowled. “You gave me food. Now I owe you. Want me to dive for a nice, plump catfish?”
Michael hesitated. “If you have to catch it now, won’t it take a long time to cook? I can’t stay very long.”
“Cook?” echoed the girl blankly. “Oh, I remember that… I think… But I don’t have fire.”
“I don’t need a catfish. Maybe you could play some more music for me?”
Without a word, the girl scampered away. She returned, not with a music player, but with a wooden stick. She lifted it to her lips, and the haunting music returned.
When she laid it down, Michael realized that the light had grown darker. He had stayed out longer than he had realized. “I have to go. But I’ll come back. I’ll bring more food. Oh, I forgot. My name is Michael Zhang. What's yours?”
“I don’t have a name,” the girl said.
“Everyone has a name.”
“I don’t. Goodbye, Michael Zhang. Bring more sweet food next time.” She dashed off into the forest.
Michael hurried back into the Dome, closed the door, and went home. He was late, and his parents scolded him. But he was used to lying about where he had been, and told them that he had lost track of time in the library. “I was reading about mutations,” he said.
“Ugh!” exclaimed his mother. “Why would you do that?”
Hi father chuckled tolerantly as he arranged peonies in his prize possession, an ancient white vase. “Dear, you must have done the same thing when you were a little girl. Everyone goes through a phase where they’re fascinated by horrible things. What did you learn about them, Michael?”
Luckily, Michael had indeed gone through that phase. ”There’s lots of different kinds. Some mutants can fly or read people’s minds, and some just have extra body parts, like three eyes or six fingers. There were pictures. They were pretty disgusting.”
At dinner, every mouthful that he ate reminded him of the girl: would she like this? Did she often go hungry? What did raw catfish taste like?
The next day, he brought her three buns, one each of red bean, green bean, and lotus seed paste. She gobbled them down, and looked confused when he asked her which she liked best. “They’re all sweet!”
He began to visit her a few times a week, bringing varieties of sweet until she finally began to say, “I like the red bean best.” He brought her a lighter so that she could have fire, and they made some messy attempts at roasting catfish. It was months before she told him anything about herself – that she had been raised by wolves and didn’t remember much about the Dome, that she had once been kidnapped by a cult led by conjoined twins and forced to do things she refused to detail, and that she kept watch over the Exile Gate and handed over any babies or small children thrust through it to a nearby town of mutants.
"Why don't you live in that town?" Michael asked.
She made a face. "Too many people."
A year after they first met, he taught her to read and write. A year after that, she taught him to play her flute.
It became easier, not harder, for Michael to slip away: he was gaining a reputation as a loner, a shy boy, whose parents’ wealth couldn’t buy him health or friends. It hurt, but if he were to make friends with boys or flirt with girls, someone might notice how often he was gone and wonder why.
By the time he was sixteen, he knew that while there were a few more official ways to go in and out of the Dome, they were heavily regulated and guarded. If anyone ever found his secret door, he would be lucky if his parents’ status allowed him to evade execution by the Gene Keepers. Lucky – some kind of lucky, to live but never see the wolf-girl again. He became even quieter and shyer, declining all invitations and quickly fleeing all obligatory banquets and parties. But he knew that his loneliness was nothing compared to the wolf girl's, with his brief visits as her only human contact. But when he asked her if she ever considered moving to the mutant town, she scowled so fiercely that he dropped the subject.
When he was eighteen, his parents began talking about marriage.
“We can arrange it for you,” his mother said delicately. “Unless, of course, there’s someone you already prefer.”
There was someone, but how could he say that he preferred a nameless, feral mutant girl in the dreaded Outside? He stammered, professed shyness, and finally said he was too young. His parents let the topic drop, but with meaningful looks that said that they would bring it up again.
Later, his father caught Michael alone in his room, and tossed down a contraceptive injector on to the bed.
“I know you think you don’t need it,” he mumbled, blushing. “But take it anyway. The protection lasts a year, and sometimes even a quick trip to the dispensary seems like too much, in the heat of the moment.”
“How can I have sex?” Michael blurted out. “If I even got scratched by her nails…”
His father blushed even harder. “Ask her to wear gloves.”
After his father left, Michael sat turning the injector over in his hands, seething with embarrassment over having to discuss sex with his father, frustration with his flawed body that made everything so fraught with peril, and desire for the girl with no name. Finally, he injected himself. The mechanism drove the chemicals into his body without tearing his skin, but he still flinched at the sharp pain that he so rarely experienced. Then he lay back and dreamed of black hair.
A month later, the wolf girl asked Michael to give her a name. They were sitting by the banks of the lake; he had slipped out in the middle of the night so they could watch the stars together.
“I don’t know what would be good,” he said. “I can’t think of words to sum you up.”
She snorted. “Does your name sum you up? Just give me a name that…” She paused, uncharacteristically hesitant. “Give me a name that you like.”
He watched her for a moment. Her long black hair was coiling around itself, which he now knew meant that she was nervous. Her skin seemed to glow in the moonlight. He longed to stroke her skin, to trace her scars. They had never touched each other after that first meeting – she was too feral and skittish, and he had to wrap himself up like a gift.
“Lieqi. Cold for all your years without fire. Happiness for…” Now it was his turn for the words to stick in his throat. “For the happiness I want you to have.”
“Lieqi,” she repeated. “I like it.”
They sat still and in silence, and then she said, “Michael… Look at my nails.” She held up her hands. “I bit them down, and then I sanded them on a rock. If I touched you now, I couldn’t scratch your skin.”
The desire that he had been afraid to let himself feel burned through his body. “Touch me.” He could hear his own voice shaking.
She laid her hand on his cheek. He jumped, and she snatched it back.
“No, please!” he begged. “I was only surprised.”
Lieqi unwrapped his scarf, and pulled off his gloves. They sat touching each other, gently, marveling at the texture and heat of each other’s skin. He wasn’t sure who was the first to lean in and kiss, but things got less gentle after that. He felt as if he would die if he couldn't touch more of her body, have her touch more of his, have it happen now. They pulled at each other’s clothes, impatiently thrusting their hands beneath the cloth and fur to find the heat and life below, until they stood naked, pressed together as if they were trying to force their bodies to merge.
Her hair coiled around his body, cool and silken, stroking him everywhere her hands couldn’t reach. When they finally lay down, it was their sheet and blanket both, shielding him from the earth and from the cold wind.
He didn’t mean to fall asleep – he had to be back in his own bed before morning – but he woke to a sun high in the sky.
Cursing, he scrambled back into his clothes. “I have to go. My parents will be wondering where I am.”
She too got dressed, and he took a moment to kiss her good-bye. It lasted a bit longer than he intended, but it was so hard to let her go.
“Freeze!” a male voice shouted.
They leaped apart. Two men carrying needle-guns stood at the edge of the clearing. Their double-helix badges glowed red against their gray plasteel armor. They had been caught by the worst possible people: the Gene Keepers, authorized to exile or execute mutants and mutant-hiders.
Lieqi’s hair began to writhe.
“Lieqi, don’t do anything!" Michael exclaimed. "They have needle-guns – they’ll kill us both.”
“Listen to the mutant-lover,” said one of the Gene Keepers.
“Exile me,” Michael said to them. “Seal the door. I promise never to come back.”
The other man laughed harshly. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well, lucky for you, you come from a prominent family. We will seal the door, but we won’t exile you. You’re coming back with us.”
“And Lieqi – my friend here?”
The Gene Keeper raised his gun. “Step aside.”
Michael shook his head.
“Step aside, if you don’t want your mutant girlfriend’s blood splattered all over you.”
As the Gene Keeper sighted his weapon, Michael leaped in front of Lieqi. The blow to his chest was surprisingly gentle, like a puff of air.
He was falling. Lieqi was screaming. He hit the ground, and that didn’t hurt either. He struggled to get up, to protect her in case the men fired again. But all he could seem to move was his head, to watch the scene. Before the Gene Keepers could react, Lieqi's hair jabbed out at them. Four black darts pierced the Gene Keepers through their unprotected eyes. They fell without a sound.
Lieqi dropped down beside him and tore his jacket open. His shirt was soaked in blood. He’d always known he’d bleed to death some day, but he hadn’t thought it would be from getting shot with a needle gun.
“I can’t breathe,” he whispered.
He started to cough. Blood poured out of his mouth. He wanted to tell Lieqi he loved her, but he couldn’t talk. He hoped she knew anyway.
When the coughing stopped, he no longer felt like he was drowning, but every breath sent pain tearing through his chest. Lieqi was holding him and sobbing.
“I love you,” he said, as soon as he had enough breath to speak. “I love you.”
The pain began to ease, and he could breathe more easily. "I love you," he said again.
"Shut up!" Lieqi snapped. "You'll die faster if you keep talking!"
"But I feel better, not worse," Michael said doubtfully. "Maybe talking helps?"
Lieqi stared at him, then tore open his blood-soaked shirt and wiped at the hundreds of narrow wounds in his chest. Slowly but surely, they were beginning to close and heal over.
"You're not going to die," she said. “You’re a mutant. Your body heals itself. And...” She seemed to struggle with herself, then looked down and mumbled, "And I love you."
Michael hauled himself into a sitting position, leaning back against Lieqi’s chest. He still felt dizzy and weak, but as if he was ill, not as if he was dying. “But… That’s impossible. I have a disease that makes me bleed, not a power that makes me heal.”
“What happened when you cut yourself before?” she asked. “Did you bleed and bleed? Or did you or your parents seal the wound instantly, before…”
“Before anyone could notice that it was healing by itself,” Michael said slowly. “Before even I could notice. My parents must have known I was a mutant, and came up with that whole story to try to protect me. My poor parents…"
"Poor you!" Lieqi said indignantly.
Michael shook his head. "I'd have been thrown out the Exile Gate. They probably thought I would have died. I wish there was some way to tell them I’m all right, but I can’t go back now. Maybe I can leave a note.”
“Do you wish you could go back?” Lieqi asked.
“No. I was going to ask you if you’d like me to stay with you. I was getting up the courage.”
“Stay,” she said. “We’ll go away from the Dome, so no one can come after us. We could live in the town, if you like. I didn't want to go before because it was too far for you to visit.”
Michael felt as if his entire life was opening up like a flower. He could be with Lieqi. He could explore the world. Now that he didn’t need to fear his own body, she could teach him to hunt, to fight, to swim.
“Is there a forest near the town?" he asked. "Does it have a lake?"