Sarah Zellaby has always been in an interesting position. Adopted into the Price family at a young age, she's never been able to escape the biological reality of her origins: she's a cuckoo, a telepathic ambush predator closer akin to a parasitic wasp than a human being. Friend, cousin, mathematician; it's never been enough to dispel the fear that one day, nature will win out over nurture, and everything will change.
Maybe that time has finally come.
After spending the last several years recuperating in Ohio with her adoptive parents, Sarah is ready to return to the worldand most importantly, to her cousin Artie, with whom she has been head-over-heels in love since childhood. But there are cuckoos everywhere, and when the question of her own survival is weighed against the survival of her family, Sarah's choices all add up to one inescapable conclusion.
This is war. Cuckoo vs. Price, human vs. cryptid...and not all of them are going to walk away.
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"There's no such thing as 'normal.' Whoever came up with that idea was probably selling something nobody wanted to buy."
Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, outside security
You don't have to do this." Angela held me by the shoulders, keeping her eyes locked on mine, like she could somehow overcome her own inability to receive projected thoughts and understand exactly what I was thinking. "No one's going to think less of you if you need more time to heal. You know that."
"Mom, I'm fine." I put my left hand over hers, squeezing firmly, hoping the skin-on-skin connection would let her at least pick up some of my certainty. She might get my anxiety in the bargain, but she knew I was anxious. Everyone knew I was anxious. "I've had years. I need to do this. I can't hide in my room forever."
"You're still recovering. What happened to you-"
"Is part of why I need to get back out there. You don't know what happened to me. I don't know what happened to me. Evie has a better chance of helping me find a doctor who understands my situation than anyone we've got in Ohio."
Uncertainty rolled off her in a wave. I forced myself not to flinch.
Evie is my oldest sibling, adopted by Mom and Dad when she was just a baby. She's also my only human sibling, which sort of makes her the white sheep of the family. Mom and I are both Johrlac, colloquially known as cuckoos: telepathic ambush predators who ruin lives for fun. Dad's a Revenant, assembled from somewhere between four and six human corpses-we're honestly not sure. And my brother Drew is a bogeyman. Our family reunions are awesome.
Being the only human in a cryptid family got Evie interested in cryptid biology and medicine long before I entered the picture. She's not a doctor, more of a combat medic and herbalist, but it seems like she always knows a guy who knows a guy. None of her assorted guys had been able to help me when I got hurt. That didn't mean she might not be able to find someone who understood the theory, and who could help make sure it would never happen again.
Mom took her right hand off my shoulder, running her thumb across my cheek. "I wish you'd let me come with you to Oregon. Or at least let me tell Evie you're coming so she can meet you at the airport."
"Both of those things sort of go against the point of what I'm trying to do here." I mustered up a wavering smile. Mom's better at reading facial expressions than I am. She has to be. Without telepathy to lean on, she'd had no choice but to learn. "I promise that I will call you as soon as I touch down in Portland. I have to do this. If I can't, if I start to panic, I'll come right home."
"Try not to do it by diverting an entire plane, all right? People notice that sort of thing."
My smile strengthened. I took a step back, reaching up to adjust the strap of my backpack. "I promise that I won't bring an entire plane home with me."
"All right. All right." Impulsively, she reached out and placed her hands against the sides of my face, pulling me closer in order to kiss my forehead. "You are my beloved girl, and I am so proud of you. You know that, right?"
"You never let me forget." I hugged her, quick as I could, and turned away, heading for the security line. I could feel her watching me go, the sweet, familiar edge of her anxiety, of her hope for me. It used to be more bitter than it is now, tinged with the unwanted belief that I was never going to be anything but a cuckoo, never anything but a parasitic predator waiting for the chance to break free of all these silly morals and rules that she worked so hard to teach me. But I fought the world and my nature both, and I won, and now when she looks at me, it's only fear for me, never fear of me.
I didn't realize how much it ached to have my mother-adoptive or not-living in fear of me until the day it stopped. The day when I realized I could do anything I wanted, because I didn't have to be afraid of myself.
I walked and Angela watched until I turned the corner and she was gone, leaving me surrounded by the press of bodies and the low, constant roar of the minds inside them. I took a deep breath and checked the straps of my backpack again. This was where the test began. This was where I would find out whether I was actually recovered, and not just in recovery.
My name is Sarah Zellaby, and my ancestors came from a different dimension.
It's the only way to explain my biology. Earth contains more complicated organisms and bionomies than most people realize. For everything we think we know, every rule of nature we think is unbreakable, there are a hundred things we don't understand yet, a hundred exceptions to that unbreakable rule. There are cold-blooded mammals and hot-blooded fish, butterflies that drink blood and tears and snakes that give birth to live young. And then there's me.
According to my Uncle Kevin, who finds my species endlessly fascinating, I'm more closely related to wasps than I am to primates, despite my internal skeletal system and mammary glands. I look externally human. I can move through a crowd without attracting any attention that a human woman wouldn't attract. Technically, I'm a mammal-I have three small bones in my inner ear, I have hair, and I have the potential to lactate. Not that I'm ever intending to have children. That would require spending time with a male of my own species, and I'd rather spend time with the wasps we apparently evolved from. Because see, that's how you get a Johrlac. You start with telepathic wasps-not a great plan-and then you put them through millennia of evolutionary pressures that somehow force them to become more and more like what people think of when they say the word "human." You give them internal skeletons and flat faces with squared-off teeth and the right jaw structure for vocal communication. You give them complex hands and the ability to feed their offspring from their own bodies. Century after century after century of if/then decisions that add up to something like me.
We are not of this Earth. We're not the only outsiders living here-the Madhura also came from outside, probably from a world a lot like the one where the cuckoos originated. The Apraxis wasps, too. Basically, any kind of insect that tells the square/cube law to go piss up a rope stands a decent chance of having come through a dimensional rift at one point or another. Sorry, Earth. Didn't mean to crash your party.
A man in TSA blue bumped into me. I took a step back as he whirled around, radiating both irritation and a smug, bullying sort of satisfaction. He liked the power of his job, the ability to make travelers scared of him and what he could do to their carefully laid plans. Unpleasant fellow. There are unpleasant fellows everywhere-unpleasant women, too-but there's a certain kind of bully who tends to be drawn to positions of authority. Security guards and police and, yes, TSA agents.
I looked at him pleadingly. His face went slack. I'm not good at reading human facial expressions, not even after a lifetime spent living among and beside them, but there are a few I've learned to reliably spot. This one was what Verity liked to call the "I put a spell on you" look, and the fact that he was wearing it meant things were working the way they were supposed to.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to get lost."
His entire psychic profile changed, bullying and irritation melting into solicitous relief. "You know Mom told me to watch out for you," he said, and took my arm in a proprietary way. There was nothing romantic or unsettling about it: everything about him was radiating "brother," and so I didn't fight. "Come on, Sarah. She'll kill me if you miss your plane."
"I still need to pick up my boarding pass," I bluffed.
"Leave that to me." He waved my concern away and whisked me forward, past the throng waiting in line for the security checkpoint, carrying me along with him without waiting to see whether I was willing to go.
This is the primary power, and the primary threat, of the adult cuckoo. Somewhere around puberty, we acquire control over the ability that takes us from being a nuisance and transforms us into apex predators. When we want you to, you know us. You love us. We're your friends and your family and your children. We are whatever the situation needs us to be, whatever we can take advantage of, and we fill the gaps in your life without so much as batting an eye. Did this man have a sister? I didn't know. I didn't want to know. Finding out would mean digging deeper into his nasty little mind, and right now that would be a strain.
If I'd wanted to make him a target, to twist him around my fingers until he broke, I would have taken his hand. Skin contact makes things easier, and faster, and allows us to forge bonds that can't be easily broken. So I would have held his hand until the fragile barriers keeping his mind away from mine wore down, and then I would have plundered him for everything I needed to know. I could have replaced everything important in his life with me, only me, always me, and it would have been nothing. I could have destroyed him.
He led me to a checkpoint at the far end, gestured for me to shrug out of my backpack and toss it on the belt, and swiped his badge before waving me through the simple metal detector. It didn't alarm. No one was behind the scanner to check the contents of my pack. I picked it up on the other side, sliding it over my shoulders, feeling the familiar weight settle against the small of my back. One challenge down.
"Now you be careful out there; it's scary for a woman traveling alone." The TSA man pulled his wallet out, opened it, and offered me eighty dollars in wrinkled bills.
I let my fingertips brush against his as I took them, checking for any sign that he needed to be concerned about his finances. I didn't find anything. There was guilt that he was only giving me eighty dollars, since he had a lot more than that on him, and frustration that paying his little sister's way had "once again" fallen on his shoulders. It was a toxic mix, and I withdrew quickly. He wouldn't miss the money. That was the important part.
Cuckoos bend our environment to suit our own needs, like ticks burrowing into the skin of the world. What makes me different from most of my species-what I hope makes me different, pray makes me different, remind myself every day makes me different-is that I try to do as little harm as I possibly can. There's no such thing as doing absolutely no harm. Human, cuckoo, it doesn't matter. Everybody hurts and is hurt, in a grand cycle of being alive. But minimizing the damage . . . that matters.
Minimizing the damage will never make me human. It'll keep me worthy of walking among them.
"I'll be careful," I said, meeting his eyes. A flash of light reflected there, brief and bright and invisible to any of the cameras I knew were watching us. Bangs are old-fashioned, but they help me hide the way my eyes sometimes go white from top to bottom, reflecting a chemical response to my using my telepathic abilities. I shoved the compulsion to forget me actively against the structures of his mind, breaking through his defenses.
The man stopped moving, his thoughts shifting from ordinary human chaos into a sort of blanked-out static. I smiled again and patted his hand, careful to make skin contact as I said, "Thank you so much for helping me. Airports can be so confusing." Then I turned and walked away, losing myself in the crowd before he could shake off the shock.
I didn't look back-looking back attracts attention-but I knew if I did, I'd eventually see him stagger, looking profoundly confused, and scowl at everything around himself before he went back to whatever he'd been doing before he ran into me. He'd be annoyed at himself when he discovered the missing eighty dollars, but he'd assume he spent it and forgot. There wasn't going to be any lasting damage from this encounter.
To either of us. To my delight, my thoughts were still clear, and my head didn't hurt, not even a little bit. I proceeded to the food court, where I used some of the TSA man's eighty dollars to buy a burger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake before claiming a table with a clear view of the departures board. There were five flights to Portland leaving in the next two hours. I could have my pick of airlines. I settled back to mix ketchup into my milkshake and skim the minds around me, looking for opinions on my options.
I didn't have luggage, so it didn't matter that the people three tables over had strong opinions about one airline's tendency to lose their bags; the fact that they served hot chocolate chip cookies in first class did matter, since chocolate makes my throat itch. Another airline apparently had a reputation for poor customer service. They wouldn't be rude to me, of course, but I was selecting the people whose minds I'd be trapped in a metal tube with for between four and six hours. No, thank you.
I finished mixing ketchup into my milkshake and went to insert my straw, pausing when I saw a small child staring at me. Facial expressions are hard, but even I can tell when someone's eyes go wide, and the child was radiating confusion and curiosity. I pointed to my milkshake, trying to look quizzical. The child nodded. I took a sip.
The child's wave of awe was so vast that it felt like even the non-telepaths around me should have noticed. I grinned a little and went back to studying the departure board. The milkshake looked like strawberry now that it was properly blended; except for the kid, no one was going to realize there was anything odd about it. People in airports are allowed to be weird. They're liminal spaces. They don't count the way the real world does.